Sunday, November 19, 2017

Read-Along: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey, Part 3


Welcome to week three of the read-along of James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, book six of The Expanse! This week we’re covering chapters 28-41, and discussion questions were provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow.  Feel free to check out our Goodreads page if you’d like to join this or future read-alongs!  And now, beware of the really serious spoilers below.

1. The side of good takes a hit with the sudden death of Fred Johnson, but it doesn't take long for some to start using it toward their own ends. Dawes, in particular, seems to have kingmaker aspirations that won't wait, despite his grief. What did you make of his actions in these chapters?

I think maybe I read him as much more sympathetic than this question implies.  He realized he made a mistake backing Marco, both because Marco was incompetent and because it was the wrong decision.  He understood Marco was a terrible at everything besides charisma, but he thought he could use him to unify the Belt.  

I think his guilt over betraying Fred, and his grief for his death, have pushed him to side with Holden.  It was interesting seeing him make a case for following Holden, even when he didn’t even like the guy himself.  I think he could be a really useful ally, since he is better at manipulating people than Holden will likely ever be.

2. Filip appears to be sliding further toward realising just where, precisely, he really stands with Marco. Do you think he'll slide the rest of the way there before it's too late to do anything? For that matter, given our general attitudes toward him so far, do you feel more sympathy for him now?

Whenever he feels sad about his father treating him poorly, at least he can warm his heart with the pride of knowing he killed over 15 billion people (note my sarcasm).  I don’t think it really matters at this point whether he turns on his father or not, because I don’t see how he has the ability or opportunity to do anything useful for the opposition. Seeing as he hasn’t really changed at all, my attitude towards him is similarly unchanged.  

3. With Avasarala's massive (and massively ambitious) attack upon the Free Navy underway, plans are already having to be altered - though Captain Pa is altering them because of her conscience, rather than (arguably) out of necessity. Did she do the right thing with the Solano, or do you think it will only come back to bite her?

I guess time will tell, but I think she probably did the right thing.  It’s nice that she considers other Belters human, though she isn’t really willing to extend that courtesy to Inners.  That puts her a notch above Marco.  So yeah, I appreciate that she is trying to do the right thing by the Belters. It will probably come back to bite her, but I hope she can handle it when it does.  

4. It's all on the line now, so I have to ask: Do you have any predictions? Desired outcomes? Possibly any POVs remaining you'd like to see before it's all over?

I hope that the Belters aren’t eradicated, and that Earth reaches some kind of stable equilibrium.  I hope that the “Free Navy” problem is more or less handled in this book, so Marco and company won’t be sticking around. I think we’ve been all over with POVs, so I can’t think of anyone in particular that I still want to see.   

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit, 2014
Series: Book 4 in The Expanse

The Book:

The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonise has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Illus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire. Independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey a new and alien world.

James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the heart of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail. And the whispers of a dead man remind him that the great galactic civilisation which once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed them.” ~WWEnd.com

I’ve gotten back into The Expanse, by participating in a months-long read-along of the series to date!  Right now, we’re in the middle of Babylon’s Ashes, and I’m finally starting to catch up with my overall reviews. Cibola Burn is discussed in spoiler-filled detail here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.  I don’t intend to give away any major plot points in this review, but do keep in mind that it is the fourth book of a series.  This is a series that needs to be read in order, so there are necessarily some plot spoilers of previous books.

My Thoughts:

At the end of book three, it seemed clear that the next novel would involve the many planets opened up to humanity through the gates.  Cibola Burn does not disappoint on that account, revolving as it does around colonization rights to a new planet known as Illus or New Terra by Belters and Inners, respectively. The planet itself is really interesting, and I like that this series has a bit more of a twist on the ancient, vanished alien civilization.  Illus has its own alien flora and fauna, while also bearing the marks of occupation by the gate makers.  There’s also the lurking threat of whatever destroyed the gate-maker civilization, and the fear that some remnant of it might remain.  Sparking things into action, Holden is bringing the protomolecule to the planet through the form of ghost-Miller.  Safe to say, the planet has a complicated history and biosphere, and it presents some interesting and dangerous challenges to the sudden human intruders.  This ‘alien’ side of the story kept me well and truly hooked.

The human side of the story was in some ways less compelling.  Holden arrives to mediate a dispute between a corporation that has mounted a scientific expedition, and colonists who have settled the planet with no authorization.  This might sound like a story about an evil corporation against plucky survivalists, but the corporation actually seems to intend to act in good faith all around.  The conflict that pulls Holden to the system is perpetrated by a very small subset of people on each side.  Unfortunately, one of those people is the violent, cardboard villain who holds control of the corporation’s security force.  His motivations seemed incredibly thin, so I didn’t ever fully understand why he was so dedicated to causing suffering. I appreciated the more complicated villains of Abaddon’s Gate, and this felt like a step back.  While there were plenty of legitimate reasons for friction between the two populations, having this plotline pushed primarily by a single evil person made the conflict feel forced.  I was much more interested in how the people would respond to the threats that arose from the alien planet itself.

For another thing, the viewpoint characters, aside from Holden, were also a bit bland. I didn’t really dislike any of them, but none of them really had the strength of character of Bobbie or Avasarala, for example.  Their perspectives are worthwhile--corporation scientist Elvi, angry colonist Basia, and corporation security member Havelock--but there seemed to be pretty long stretches of downtime in each of their stories.   Some of their subplots felt more like filler than necessary for the overall story.  It was nice to see the situation from each angle, but at the same time I just wished there was a bit more for them to do.  In a broad sense, though, the events of Cibola Burn have interesting implications for the future of the series.  Finishing this novel left me eager to move on to the next, because I am still invested in the overall story of this universe and the adventures of the crew of the Rocinante.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Cibola Burn is probably my least favorite of the series to date, but I am still on board for continuing the series.  The story features an alien planet with a complicated history, and I enjoyed watching our characters slowly unravel its story. On the other hand, the human conflict of the story was driven by cardboard villains and shown through the perspectives of some unremarkable viewpoint characters.  I felt like most of the non-Holden storylines had just too much filler and not enough of the main story.  It’s still an important volume in the continuing story of The Expanse, it just didn’t thrill me as much as some of the others have.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Read-Along: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey, Part 2


Welcome to week 2 of the read-along of James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, book 6 of The Expanse!  This week’s questions cover chapters 14-27, and are provided by The Illustrated Page. If you’re interested in joining in, check out our Goodreads page.  Beware of spoilers from here on out!
 
1. So far we've gotten POVs from Namono, Pa, Filip, Holden, Salis, Clarissa, Dawes, Avasarala, Prax, Alex, Naomi, Jakulski, Fred, and Bobbie. Do you have any favorites? Least favorites? Of the characters who's POVs we haven't gotten yet in Babylon's Ashes, who do you most want to see?

It’s kind of dizzying, seeing the story from so many different angles.  I guess my favorite so far would be Holden, mostly because he has multiple chapters that appear to be building to something.  I am enjoying his “People of the Belt” series, and it was great to see that others are starting to pick it up as well.  Pa and Filip also have recurring chapters, but I don’t really like them very much.  Their chapters sort of feel like they’re trying to make me have sympathy for people who are pro-genocide, and I just don’t.

Out of the one-off chapters, I really enjoyed seeing the world from Fred’s eyes.  He’s a character that I’ve really come to appreciate over the series, so it was neat to have a little insight into how he sees the universe.  My least favorite one-off chapters would be the people I don’t really know--Salis, Jakulski, Dawes.  I don’t have any emotional connection with the characters, positive or negative, and there isn’t really enough time in their chapters for me to try to build it.

As for who else I want to see, I would like to see Pastor Anna (or Namono again).  She was hurt very badly, and I’m worried their family is not going to make it.  It’s also a little odd we’ve had no Amos chapter yet, so I’d like to see what’s going on in his mind.  Finally, it would be neat to get some Earther refugee chapters, maybe Erich or one of Holden’s parents.  I’m trying to resist looking up who’s coming in the second half of the book, in order to preserve the surprise!    

2. Marco's left Ceres. Is this a smart move? Is he abandoning the people of the Belt? And what do you think has happened to Dawes?

I think this is a case of “whatever happens, I win”.  I think he realized he couldn’t hold the station, so he needed to come up with a way to retreat and still claim a victory.  He’s absolutely abandoning the people of the Belt, but I think any Belter who’s been paying attention must know that he doesn’t actually care about them by now. I have no idea what happened to Dawes.  Was he not with the Free Navy after Ceres?  Maybe I missed something while Pa was breaking off.  I wouldn’t put it past Marco to kill him, but that’s mostly because I wouldn’t put much of anything past Marco.   

3. Pa's got a temporary truce of sorts with the OPA. Do you think accepting her supplies is the moral thing to do, or is it condoning piracy? And who do you think fired on Pa when she was with the Rocinante?

I think they had to accept her supplies.  They’ve already been stolen, and there are people who need them.  I can’t think of any other solution that would have been more moral.  When this is all over, I expect Pa and her ships will have to answer for their piracy, but using the spoils to help people will count in their favor.  As for who fired, I expect Marco left some loyalists behind on Ceres as spies.  I would guess it was one of them, trying to prevent Pa from making a deal with Fred Johnson’s OPA.

4. Filip appears to be having some unusual feelings. Do you think he's any closer this week to edging towards redemption?

I guess?  He couldn’t have been much farther than he was before.  I’m going to be seriously upset with his character arc, though, if he turns on Marco for not being as competent as he believed.  Given everything he’s done, he needs to have a moral turning point if he’s going to have any chance of forgiveness from anyone.

5. Prax's home is unofficially being occupied by the Free Navy, and he went and sent potentially lifesaving information to Earth. Do you think this is going to come back to hurt him?

Oh, probably.  Things seem to be a fair bit tenser on Ganymede than he’s noticing.  I especially enjoyed his clueless conversation about “resistance” with his kid. His answer was a nice explanation, but I can see why she was confused!  I get the feeling he’s going to be forced to be more involved than he has been so far.  I just hope his family doesn’t get hurt.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Read-Along: Babylon's Ashes, Part 1


Welcome to the read-along of the sixth book of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, Babylon’s Ashes! We’re doing this read-along as a part of Sci-Fi Month, and you can see all the info at our Goodreads group.  This week’s questions cover the prologue to chapter 13, and I’m our host this week.  Beware of spoilers from here on out!

1. We have a very different approach for viewpoint characters in this book! Do you like the change to having many different perspectives? Is there any one that stood out to you in particular?

I think it’s an interesting choice, but I’m not sure how much I like it so far.  The benefit is that you can see the events from many different perspectives, but the drawback is that it can kind of make you feel like the story is grinding to a halt. I’ll wait and see how this works out as things progress.

So far, Holden’s chapters are the most memorable to me.  Naomi’s meeting his parents resolves a small subplot that’s been going on for I think a few books now.  I feel like we haven’t really seen much personal racism in these stories, so it was a bit of a shock.

2. We’re also beginning to see a bit more into the “Free Navy” ranks. What do you think of the people who have thrown their loyalty to Marco, and is his charisma is enough to keep the group from collapsing?

I really have very little sympathy for the people who’ve joined up with Marco.  They’re not helping the Belters, and they seem mostly engaged in piracy, extortion, and mass murder.  The moderate Belters must be starting to realize now that this new “navy” doesn’t have their best interests at heart.  Between that and the disillusionment of Marco’s subordinates, I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the “Free Navy” as a coherent group.  Marco’s charisma and grandiosity is effective for big gestures, but he doesn’t seem to be capable of governing something as complicated as he’s trying to build.

3. There’s still some discussion of the Rocinante crew. Do you agree with Holden’s perspective on Clarissa and Bobbie?

I’m pretty happy to see that the two of them are going to be on board the Rocinante! I see where Holden’s coming from, and I think it would have been a problem that came up even if the person in question were not Clarissa. I think they really need to figure out how they’re planning to treat any new crew members.  Michio Pa’s sections show an interesting example of how one could run a ship that has a core family and then also non-family employees.  I am curious if they’re going to try something like that approach in the end, and whether Holden will consider Clarissa family by then.

4. Two sections have featured the inner thoughts of two people responsible for many deaths—Filip and Clarissa. What do you think of them now, and do you believe they are redeemable?

At this point, I think Clarissa is a lot closer to it, because she wants to be redeemed.  It was not a good idea to put her in combat, both because of her inexperience and because she currently has some mental issues with violence.  I don’t think Amos is really capable of seeing what she’s going through, so I hope she finds someone else on the crew to confide in (maybe Naomi?).  I think she’s headed in the right direction, at least.

Filip, on the other hand, is so thoroughly indoctrinated by his father that even his fellow terrorists think he’s creepy and violent.  I don’t see any hope for him right now, because he doesn’t even seem aware that he has any kind of problem.  For Naomi’s sake, I hope that he eventually breaks free of Marco’s view of the world.  Still, after being proud of helping cause the deaths of over 15 billion people, I don’t know whether there will be much redemption on offer for him.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Short Fiction: July 2017

Today I want to point out a few of my favorite works of short fiction that were published in July 2017! As it happens, the stories in this round are themed for Halloween week, since each of them is pretty disturbing in its own way. I decided to put a content warning this time, since I think they’re a lot darker than the stories I usually recommend. Rich Larson and Mary Robinette Kowal I have featured in this series for more cheerful stories before(here and here), and G.V. Anderson is new to me. As usual, I have provided links for the works that are available online.

The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal (Novelette, Uncanny): This takes place in an interesting fantasy world, where brownies and human artisans work together to stitch magic into gloves for the well-to-do.  The hero and his sister are desperately poor, and his apprenticeship as a glove maker gives hope for their future.  His sister is severely epileptic, though, and he fears each day that she will be injured or die in an episode while he is away at work.  He is determined to acquire gloves to stop her seizures, no matter what the cost.  The writing in this one was evocative and the characters emotionally compelling, but I feel like have to give a warning about the sheer sadness of the story.
Content warning: violence, sadness

I Am Not I by G.V. Anderson (Novelette, Fantasy & Science Fiction, information): In a unusual and creative world, bug-like humans prey on ordinary humans, who they derogatively call “saps”.  The narrator, who was born a “sap”, has gone into the industry of buying and selling human parts as curiosities, in order to finance the operations that allow her to pass in society.  Her secret is only tenuously kept, and she has no illusions as to what will happen if her employer discovers it. This is a dark and disturbing story, and the narrator is certainly no hero.  It was really engrossing, and it would be neat to see what might happen next in this world.
Content warning: disturbing imagery, dehumanization

Travelers by Rich Larson (Short Story, Clarkesworld):  Were you disappointed by the romantic comedy slant of the movie Passengers, when the premise seemed a bit more like horror? “Travelers” approaches the same kind of situation from a very different angle.  Beware, there is not going to be a romantic ending to this tale of colony ship terror!
Content warning: violence, implied sexual violence

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds



I’ve joined Sci-fi month, which is hosted this year by Over the Effing Rainbow and There’s Always Room for One More!  This is my first post of the month, and I’m going to try to keep up a steady stream of sci-fi reviews for November.  This review of Terminal World kicks off the month, and the continuing read-along of The Expanse, with Babylon’s Ashes, will also be a weekly feature.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Published: Ace Books/Gollancz (2010)

The Book:

“The world has been broken for longer than human memory.  Many humans live in Spearpoint, a vertical city that is striated by zones that restrict the level of functioning technology.  People are limited by these boundaries, as well, and cannot survive in zones much different from their original homes.  Quillon is an exception.  He was an ‘angel’, an advanced human that could only exist in the highest reaches of the city.  An infiltration research project gone wrong has left him living as an ordinary human in a lower zone.  

It was inevitable that his former countrymen would one day find him, and on that day he must go on the run in earnest.  His journey out of Spearpoint and through the dying wastes of the planet will introduce him to both horrors and revelations, with unexpected friends along the way.  The key to his future, and the future of his world, may lie in its past.” ~Allie

I really enjoy Alastair Reynolds’s stories, and I listened to this one on audiobook.  The narrator, John Lee, was excellent. He gave a lot of life and individuality to the various characters.

My Thoughts:

Terminal World is a departure from the usual far-future space opera that I expect from Reynolds.  Instead, it is a dying-Earth adventure story, with something of a steampunk/Mad Max aesthetic. As in these types of stories, there is not a particularly strong throughline, and the protagonist wanders through a series of encounters with different creatures and communities.  I really liked the characters, particularly the protagonist Quillon.  As a doctor and a disguised angel, he was less physically capable and more compassionate than most heroes that grace these kinds of stories.  He was balanced by his guide, a tough, pragmatic, foul-mouthed woman named Meroka.  Along the way they meet a number of other interesting people, including airship pilots, scientists, and a ‘magic child’ that surprisingly did not annoy me.

The most notable communities Quillon encounters are his home of Spearpoint and a large airship community called Swarm.  I enjoyed seeing the differences in the character of these two groups.  For instance, Spearpoint is full of webs of organized crime, secrets and dark tunnels, while Swarm has a constant focus on movement and forward momentum.  It’s not surprising that Swarm is where we see one of my favorite things--rediscovering science in a fictional world.  One of the airship leaders, Ricasso, is intent on reviving science, both for progress and to understand the origins of their world.  It was fun reading discussions on these topics, and slowly seeing how the different clues scattered through the story fit together.  Ricasso and the others are working with very limited information, though, so there’s still plenty left to speculation. These were some of my favorite parts of the book.

As much as I liked the parts about studying the past and developing science, I also enjoyed all the action and excitement that seemed to constantly find Quillon. He fled from pursuing angels into a waste filled with violent “skull boys” and organic-mechanical “carnivorgs”.  His path  wanders from one crisis to another, with intense airship battles and betrayals along the way. I felt that ending came a bit abruptly, and it did not resolve everything in a way I expected.  There is enough resolution to allow you to speculate what the future holds for Quillon and the others, so I was pretty satisfied.  It is a rather open ending, though, and it doesn’t appear that Reynolds has any plans to write a sequel.  Overall, this was an interesting world, and I would be happy if he ever decided to return to it.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Terminal World is different from the kind of story I expect from Alastair Reynolds.  Rather than space opera, this one is a dying-Earth (though not literally set on Earth) adventure.  I found the cast to be varied and interesting, and I liked the atypical hero we follow in the doctor Quillon.  The story had plenty of excitement and action, and I especially enjoyed seeing the characters attempt to methodically understand the origins and prospects for their world.  The ending was rather abrupt, but sufficient to conclude the story.  After such an entertaining book, I’m even more eager to catch up with other books of Reynolds’s that I have missed!