Sunday, March 22, 2020

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
Published: Tor, 2018
Series: Book 2 of the Interdependency

The Book:

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it -- unless desperate measures can be taken.
Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth -- or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.
While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.”
It’s been a while since my last review. In January, I was under a lot of stress at work.  After that, well, you know. International health crises also don’t make for low stress environments.  Things are still getting worse, but I feel like I’m in a stable enough position to start this up again.  I hope these book reviews at least are fun to read for some people who are similarly holed up in their houses, waiting for safety to return.
Now, relevant to the actual topic for today’s post, I reviewed the first book of the Interdependency series here.  My general conclusion there was that it was entertaining enough, but I felt like not much happened. I continued on to the second book of the trilogy, and I can say that I do not have the same complaint this time around.
My Thoughts:
An interesting aspect of this series is it’s exploration of the inability of humanity to cope with gradual catastrophes.  Climate change is a good example: scientists agree on what is likely to happen, and that action is needed. However, many of those in power resist addressing the crisis until the impacts become blindingly obvious, at which point it’s too late.  The crisis here is the breakdown of the Flow, which will eventually isolate each of humanity’s non-self-sufficient star systems. It’s expected that the societies in these systems will collapse, and then the people will die. It was both very believable and very frustrating to see people spending precious time ignoring the crisis, opting to scheme about their profits and political ambitions instead. Perhaps ten years ago, I might have claimed they were cardboard villains.  Today, I lament that so many humans seem to be made of cardboard.
Among the viewpoint characters, I most liked Cardenia and Marce. Cardenia is pretty good at political maneuvering, which is something neither her antagonists nor I really expected. She might not have been trained to be an Emperox, but she’s risen to the occasion remarkably well. I also appreciated seeing her consideration of how a power imbalance affects the ethics of her relationships. Regarding Marce, I appreciated his non-biased approach to his work, and his ego-free willingness to change his conclusions in the face of conflicting evidence. I think this is really the ideal stance to take as a scientist--the truth is more important than any one person’s authorial pride. Nadashe and Kiva were frustrating viewpoint characters in different ways. Nadashe is a petty villain, so I think my reaction to her was as intended. Regarding Kiva, I liked her personality, but it bothered me that she didn’t seem very competent at her job.  She comes through when it matters, but her approach to her work just seems, well, sloppy.
Finally, to address my complaint from the first book, there’s a lot of plot progress in The Consuming Fire. For one thing, the collapse is really happening now.  For all that some people want to ignore it, the impacts are already beginning to be felt. The political situation is also very volatile, and it’s beginning to seem likely that there will never be a return to the status quo. Last of all, an unexpected but really fun curveball adds another dimension to the story, complete with interesting new characters and societal implications. This storyline was my favorite part of the book, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for other readers.  I expect to talk about this more in my eventual review of The Last Emperox (coming in April)
My Rating: 4/5 
The Consuming Fire continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire, and I feel like it noticeably picked up the pace.  The collapse is happening, people are fighting amongst themselves instead of addressing it, and some newly uncovered information sheds a whole new light on the entire situation.  I especially liked reading about Marce and Cardenia, a good scientist and a smart, well-intentioned leader, respectively. Marce is responsible for discovering the imminent collapse, Cardenia must somehow organize humanity to survive it.  The future is not entirely without hope, with them at the helm, and I am looking forward to seeing how the story will be resolved in The Last Emperox.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: Tor, 2018
Series: Book 1 of the Lady Astronaut series
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.

One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.”
I decided to read this one because it won a Hugo Award (among other awards), but also because I’ve enjoyed Kowal’s work in the past.  Back when I was reviewing short fiction (which I will totally do again someday, just not for a while yet), I featured some of her work on this blog that was set in this universe.  In my opinion, she and Marie Brennan have a similar style, so I’d expect fans of one would like the other.
My Thoughts:

The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that imagines a very different Space Race in the 1950s.  Instead of competing for political capital, the countries of the world are pushed into space research by a climate disaster that may make the Earth uninhabitable.  The desire to colonize other planets or moons, rather than to simply plant flags, provides the motivation for men in power to seriously consider a women’s astronaut training program.  After all, a colony with no women can’t sustain itself independently of Earth. The story begins with an intense first-hand experience of the meteorite strike, and continues through the development and progress of the fledgling space program.  The latter part of the story involves much more political and social maneuvering than action. 

The person doing most of this maneuvering is the heroine, Elma York.  With the character of Elma, Kowal has embraced the familiar “you have to be twice as good to be thought half as able” adage, by which I mean to say that Elma is amazing.  She’s a brilliant mathematician, cool under pressure, and a highly skilled jet pilot. The difficulties she faces are primarily external, with the exception of a debilitating anxiety associated with public speaking.  Her anxiety makes the necessary public performances required for changing hearts and minds challenging for her, even though it doesn’t impact her capability as a scientist or astronaut. I appreciated how this part of the story showed the stigma associated with asking for help, as well as the fact that taking medication for a mental health condition does not make a person any less than they were.  Overall, I liked Elma, and I wanted for her to make her dreams come true.

In addition, I enjoyed seeing Elma’s relationships with others.  She’s a scientist and a pilot, but she is also happily married. She and her husband are a very affectionate couple, and this doesn’t impact either of them being taken seriously as a scientist. I liked seeing that their marriage is a source of strength for both of them, and not a source of stress.  Stable and supportive relationships don’t seem to be very common in fiction, so this was a nice change. Elma also counts many female pilots from diverse backgrounds among her friends, and we see through them the additional barriers that are often faced by women of color. I appreciated the way Elma’s solidarity with others demonstrated that she was part of a larger movement, and that her push to make “Lady Astronauts” a reality was not going to end with her.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Calculating Stars is an interesting alternate history that imagines a different Space Race spurred into action by a meteorite-related climate disaster.  Within the frame of this story, we follow the exceptionally skilled and intelligent Elma York, who is determined to become an astronaut.  Elma has to fight against the conventions of the day, but her intense anxiety associated with public speaking makes this a challenge. I appreciated that Elma was able to be a scientist, a pilot, and a loving wife, and that she cultivated many friendships with other highly skilled women.  With the conclusion of this book, I feel confident that she is blazing a trail for many and not just for herself. The second half of this duology, The Fated Sky, is already out, and it is definitely on my list of books to read.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

Attentive readers of Lady Trent's earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world's premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.
Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.
The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell... where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.”
Here continues my review of the Memoirs of Lady Trent!  I haven’t read the third book yet, but I definitely intend to finish out the series. My reading time is limited lately, so I can’t promise a when, but it will happen. Beware of allusions to a *major spoiler* from Book 1 below!
My Thoughts:
Each book in Isabella’s memoirs tells a complete story, but I would strongly advise against reading them out of order.  They occur chronologically, and I think you really need to know what the returning characters have been through. In Isabella’s case, she has now established herself in her field, and her new position affords her more social flexibility to pursue her interests than she had as a young woman or a wife.  It also gives her the freedom to take a like-minded young woman under her wing, and to give her the opportunities that Isabella didn’t have in her youth. All in all, then, while Isabella’s homeland is not less sexist in this book, the sexism is less relevant to her life. Outside of Scirland, when she is on expedition, sexism that she encounters is treated more as an annoyance than as a serious threat to her career.
The one complication of her new role in society is that she is also a mother of a very young son.  I feel like the way she engages with this responsibility is somewhat similar to what you would expect from a Victorian man whose wife died in childbirth.  She doesn’t not love her son, but she also finds his similarity to his father a source of pain rather than comfort.  There’s a lack of maternal instinct and a distance that I have rarely seen in the depiction of mother characters.  I don’t think motherhood comes naturally to everyone, so it was nice to see this in Isabella. I would say that she is not a bad mother, but the way she balances her career goals with providing for his care is definitely not the norm for women in her culture.  (As a side note, the toddler in question is in no physical danger during this part of the memoir.)
I’ve talked a lot about societal issues, so let’s get to the dragons! I don’t want to say too much, because dragon biology is one of the major sources of mystery in these books. I can say that Isabella has not learned all there is to know about all dragons from her time in Vystrana, and there are some interesting biological quirks to discover about the dragon species in Eriga.  The political machinations are a sideshow to her expedition, but they serve as one major source of tension. To get permission to enter the Green Hell, she has to make a deal that she soon realizes might not be looked kindly upon by the jungle’s inhabitants (on whom she depends for survival). Within the jungle, I enjoyed seeing Isabella’s curiosity, intelligence, and practical (but reckless) problem-solving skills come to the foreground.  I am eager to see where she will go next and what she will discover!  
My Rating: 4 /5
I liked the first book of this series, and in my opinion The Tropic of Serpents is even better. There’s still a fair amount of sexism for Isabella to deal with, but it feels like less of a major obstacle to her goals than it did in the first book.  Isabella’s difficulty with performing motherhood is another arc in the book, and I found it refreshing to read about someone to whom the role did not come naturally. On the supernatural side, the dragons remain as interesting as ever, and the Green Hell is an exciting and dangerous setting for her journey. Isabella’s curiosity and resourcefulness make her a very compelling heroine, and I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the rest of her life will hold!