Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Published: Saga Press, 2016
Series: Book 2 of the Dandelion Dynasty

The Book:

“Kuni Garu has conquered Dara, but now he must rule.  As Emperor Ragin, he finds that it is not easy to realize his vision of what a society should be. Politics is a tricky game that can make enemies out of allies, and his young Empire will soon enough be facing the “wall of storms”, the transfer of power to his selected heir.

There is a literal wall of storms around Dara as well, and an unexpected threat--an invasion force from another Empire--passes through it at a very delicate time.  Kuni, his family, his friends, and his growing children will face this threat with the abilities that they have to offer. Prince Timu offers his morality, Prince Phyro his strength, and Princess Thera her agile mind.” ~Allie  

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel since I finished the first of the series, and was excited to come across it at my local library!

My Thoughts:

When I was reading the first novel of the series, it took me a while to warm up to all the mortal characters and to get a sense of the pantheon of Dara.  This time, my prior knowledge of the world made it much easier to jump right into the story, and familiar characters served as an emotional bridge to the next generation. Some recurring characters changed in unexpected ways. For instance, the casual Kuni Garu accepted the need for formality and ceremony in establishing an enduring Empire, and his wife Jia really took her role as a politician to heart.  Of the new characters, my favorites by far were Zomi and Thera.  Zomi is a young disabled woman from a rural, poverty-stricken home, and her rise as a brilliant scholar begins with an apprenticeship to Luan Zya.  Princess Thera’s life is one of privilege and luxury, but also of dissatisfaction with the path she assumes is intended for her. Her intelligence and determination ensure her life will be anything but boring.  

There is so much going on in The Wall of Storms, and so many ideas (social, political, scientific, cultural) that could be discussed at length. Today, I’m going to restrict my comments to a few topics that fascinated me the most, nation-building and the advancement of science.  By the end of The Grace of Kings, I was pretty sure that Kuni Garu was the best and most just of available options for leading a new Empire.  Now, it’s clear that building a good Empire, for all its people, is a lot more complicated than just having a decent person at the top.  Kuni is stuck between the past and the future, with some of his key positions held by commoners and others held by traditional aristocrats.  His fragile power is held together by a combination of personal loyalties and the sense of a new status quo that he is attempting to establish.  In a similar way, his effort to develop a merit-based “national exam” suffers from the unconscious biases of traditional scholars, and it seems like everything he does to balance the playing field brings new problems.  It was interesting to read about the intersection of Kuni’s ideals and the realities of governing.

As for science, I absolutely adore stories featuring intelligent people working out fundamental physical principles in fictional societies.  I think that might be my favorite thing in fiction books, period, and it doesn’t seem to come up in all that many of them.  Kuni’s government is one that values research and innovation, and progress becomes crucial when they face a powerful invading force.  I loved watching the scientists of Dara slowly uncover electromagnetism, which they called “silkmotic” power.  There’s also some particularly entertaining biological investigation of unusual fantastical creatures, which one might call dragons.  In addition to the process of discovery, I enjoyed seeing how they would harness their knowledge for practical use.  Given the circumstances, most efforts were for scientific advances that could be used in the military defense of Dara.  Creative military strategy looks like it is going to be a constant in this trilogy, but I feel like The Wall of Storms really raised the bar in that area. I am both excited and desperately impatient to see what Liu has in store for the conclusion!
My Rating: 5/5
While I enjoyed The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms is the book that has won me over as a fan of the Dandelion Dynasty series.  The first book in the series was about winning the Empire, and this one is about governing and protecting it. Tradition and history can get in the way of trying to push a society towards progress, and uncomfortable compromises might sometimes be the cost of stability.  With political threats from within and invasion from without, there was plenty of tension and action. I also loved the parts of the book about scientific advancement, and seeing how new technology is implemented strategically in the battlefield.  There’s so much more I could say about how the novel portrays different approaches to politics, managing dissent and rebellion, and the way cultures grow and change.  In short, it was an amazing book, and I am eager to see how things will turn out in the final volume!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hugo 2017: Dramatic Presentations

This final post about the Hugo fiction categories is intended to review short and long dramatic presentations from 2016 that I think were particularly impressive.  There has been a ton of science fiction and fantasy television in recent years, and a decent number of films as well.  I can’t possibly watch everything, but here’s my favorites out of the films and shows that I have seen.

Dramatic Presentation: Long Form

For science fiction movies, I think my clear winner would be Arrival. It’s both an interesting original story about first contact with an alien species, and a deeply touching story about love and time.  There are also a few franchise films that, while they had some flaws, I thought were pretty good entertainment: Star Trek Beyond and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This category can also include seasons of television shows, and the one I think would particularly fit this bill for 2016 is the 80s-style sci-fi thriller Stranger Things. In true Netflix style, the season fit together nicely into a compulsively watchable story about a missing kid, a mysterious young girl, and a creepy government experiment.

I usually default to science fiction first in these categories, but there were some notable fantasy films as well.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by J.K. Rowling, introduced us to the adorable Newt Scamander and the wizarding world of the United States.  Also, Moana was a touching adventure/coming-of-age story with truly amazing music.  On the television side, season one of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was a highly original show that works well when considered as a full season arc.

Dramatic Presentation: Short Form

In some ways, this is a more difficult category.  Each television show has so many episodes, and it is hard to narrow seasons down to the episodes that are the most dramatic and effective. These are a few of my favorites:

12 Monkeys, “Lullaby”: This was a relatively self-contained episode, which involved using time travel in a desperate attempt to destroy the origin of time travel.  It ends up as a kind of Groundhog-Day-like story about the day the inventor of time travel’s daughter died.

Orphan Black, “The Scandal of Altriusm”:  There were a number of episodes that were really good in this season, but this one stood out above the rest.  As part of a desperate plan to save themselves, Sarah and Cosima attempt to make a deal with the enemy.  This goes even more terribly than I expected.

The Expanse, “Leviathan Wakes”: This is another show that has a number of award-worthy episodes.  I chose the finale, which brings the story of season one to a climax.

The Magicians, “Thirty-Nine Graves”:  The Magicians is another new Syfy show which had a killer first season.  This episode stood out, because it marks a major shift in various storylines, including the reveal of what exactly Jane Chatwin was up to, Julia and Quentin’s reunion, and the journey to Fillory.

3%, “Button”: This episode is the finale of a Brazilian Netflix dystopian series.  It showed that the series has more story to tell outside the testing of the process, and brings all of the surviving young adults a better understanding of themselves, their society, and the philosophy of the offshore community.

Killjoys, “Johnny Be Good”: This was the standout episode of season two, for a show that is getting more and more interesting as it goes.  This episode involved a city penned in by government walls, and the horrifying resolution of a particular character’s arc.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hugo 2017: Short Fiction

I’ve dedicated a lot of time to reading short fiction in this past year, and have posted my favorites out of the stories I’ve read each month (though usually on a bit of a delay).  You can find my per-month lists just by selecting posts with the “short fiction” tag.  

Today, while considering my final Hugo nominations,  I have put together a list of my top favorites of each category. My weak point this year was novellas, of which I read very few.  I’m hoping to find a way to fit more of these in my reading for the future, but we’ll see how that works out. Whether you’re planning to nominate short fiction for the Hugo awards or not, I would highly recommend checking these stories out. I’ve provided a link for where each story can be purchased or read for free online.

Short Stories



Friday, March 10, 2017

Short Fiction: December 2016

This is my last post for my favorite short fiction from 2016. I’ll be starting up the 2017 posts very soon.  Both of my favorites from this month are available for free online, so I’ve linked them below for others who are interested!

Every Day is the Full Moon by Carlie St. George (Short Story, Lightspeed): This story takes place in a world where people commonly become some sort of supernatural creature as they grow up. That sounds like a lighthearted premise, but it's a surprisingly heavy story. I would say it is about learning what the power of love can do, and what it can’t do.

Straight Lines by Naru Sundar (Short Story, Mothership Zeta): This story focuses on the rehabilitation of a ship AI that has developed OCD.  I thought it was really neat that it focused on an AI “going berserk”, but not in a necessarily sinister way.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Hugo 2017: Best Novel Thoughts

This year, I’ve made a solid effort to read as much eligible work as possible for the Hugo nominations period. I read short fiction on a monthly basis, and you can see all the stories I most enjoyed by clicking “short fiction” in my word cloud.  Novels, I started reading feverishly at the beginning of 2017, guiding my reading by my own interests and by which novels seem to be recommended most commonly on best-of-2016 lists.  

I’m going to put up a few posts this month, to point out some work that I think deserves consideration in the fiction and dramatic presentation categories.  Today, I will talk about novels.  Out of the 2016 novels I have read, there are a number that I would consider award-worthy.  There are also certainly many award-worthy novels that I haven’t had time to read. The following is not a slate, but just a reminder of some excellent novels from 2016.

Favorite 2016 novels that I have read (but not yet reviewed here)

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year with the first book of this series, and the second is really just as amazing.  I think this is a strong contender for the award, and may be hurt only by the fact that it is the second in a series.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu: This is also the second book in a series, following The Grace of Kings.  I liked the first novel, but the series seems to be getting even better as it goes along.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: This one is a debut novel, and an excellent one.  The story follows the friendship between a witch and a scientist, as the world falls apart around them.

Good books I’m still reading now  

I’m currently reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Mishell Baker’s Borderline.  Both are entertaining so far, and Lee’s novel in particular is impressively weird.  So far, I would recommend these, but I haven’t quite finished them yet.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata
Published: Mythic Island Press (2013), Saga Press (2015)
Series: Book 1 of The Red
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Campbell Awards

The Book:

“There always needs to be a war going on somewhere--or at least that is the opinion of extremely wealthy defense contractors who manufacture them for profit.  The situation looks quite different on the ground, where Lieutenant James Shelley desperately attempts to keep himself and his team alive.

Shelley never intended to be a soldier, but one unlucky choice in anti-war activism led to him being forced into the role.  He chooses not to cope with his depression and guilt through heavy use of a piece of standardized gear that regulates his emotions.  However, it looks like that may not be all it does.  Shelley’s team has nicknamed him “King David”, because it sometimes seems like God is whispering into his mind to keep him from danger.  But if his hunches are not from God, then who are they really from?  They may be protecting him for now, but what is their true goal?” ~Allie

I’m not usually into military science fiction, but I decided to try The Red: First Light after I enjoyed reading a short story by Linda Nagata.  I really liked her writing style.

My Thoughts:

Though I’m not very well read in the military science fiction subgenre, The Red: First Light delivered what I would have expected.  The protagonist and most other characters are soldiers, and they use high tech weaponry and armor that is carefully described. A fair amount of the plot takes place in military training and various combat operations, which sometimes felt a bit like being in a co-op video game. However, I appreciated that the combat was generally not about heroics, and the characters didn’t seem to lose sight of the fact that the people on both sides of the engagement were human beings.  Nagata’s skill at portraying authentic-seeming characters made me feel more connected to Shelley and his comrades, and it also made the violence feel more immediate and stressful.  This is not the kind of novel where all of your favorite characters will make it to the final curtain call.

In addition to having a lot of action, the story covers some very interesting social and technological ideas.  The social and political side is very relevant for current affairs.  I think most people would agree that war for profit and governmental corruption are wrong, though no one seems to be able to do anything about either.  On the social side, we have a world moving toward perpetual connectivity and questions that arise about rights to privacy.  In this world, civilians have privacy rights, but as a soldier and a man convicted of a crime, Shelley does not.  He no longer even owns his experience of his own life, since 24/7 footage taken by his embedded computer system is provided to his superiors.  He might not feel the burden while at war, but it takes a toll when he has to consider who is watching him interact with his sort-of-ex-girlfriend or his civilian activist friend.  And, of course, he has no power over what others will choose to do with the recording of his life.  As we move into a future with more and more surveillance, we will have to consider how much of a right to privacy people can or should expect.  

On the technological side, the main points of interest for me are prosthetics and AIs.  Even today, prosthetics have advanced to the point where soldiers who have lost limbs can sometimes return to active duty. The advanced prosthetics in The Red: First Light are a prototype designed to enhance Shelley’s effectiveness in combat beyond what he could have done with his natural limbs.  All the same, the prosthetic limbs are certainly not a magic fix (or anything one would want to sacrifice limbs to acquire), and I was interested to see the details and difficulties of incorporating this kind of technology into one’s life. Ideas about the development of AI are kind of in the background, though they do drive much of the plot.  I don’t want to give this part of the story away, but it was a very original take on the origin of an artificial intelligence and its relationship with humanity.

My Rating:4/5

Altogether, The Red: First Light is an action-packed military SF story that raises a lot of questions about society and where we’re going next.  What can we do about a world perpetually at war and governments that are blatantly corrupt?  Under what conditions should a person lose their right to privacy? In addition, the novel’s ideas about enhanced military prosthetics and the possible development of artificial intelligence extrapolates from current technologies in an interesting direction. I am really curious to see how this will develop in the rest of the trilogy.