Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Tautological though it may be, Ann Leckie’s Provenance sure is an Ann Leckie novel.

In just a few years and a handful of novels, Leckie has developed a rich universe as well as a particular mode of writing within it.  To fans of Ancillary Justice and its sequels, Provenance will feel at once familiar and fresh, as her latest novel reaches out into nearby but still distinct areas of both the setting and the themes that she is known for.

Where the Imperial Radch trilogy was concerned with imperialism and colonialism and cultural hegemony – the exporting of one’s culture as the only “proper” way to be “civilized”, and the use of that culture as a bludgeon to force others to fall into line – Provenance is concerned with the myths and stories we tell ourselves about where our own culture came from.  These stories are manifested in “vestiges” of the culture’s history, and the vestiges people collect range from historical artifacts to mere souvenirs of minor events of the past.  The characters’ obsession with these vestiges, particularly those that relate somehow to the founding stories of their sovereignty, forms the framework upon which the overarching plot of Provenance is built.

And then, where the story of Breq and Awn and Anaander Mianaai was concerned with concepts of identity and the self – what it means to be a person, or to be Significant, and what happens when one is in conflict with oneself, or made to act against one’s own beliefs – Provenance examines the dynamics of family and the way that one’s upbringing influences the course of one’s life.  Provenance is full of people whose parents (or parental figures) have damaged them emotionally, turning some into sociopathic exemplars of their status-driven culture and others into distrustful misanthropes whose paranoia about their parents’ motives extends to their entire society.

Between all these thematic components, of course, Ann Leckie succeeds in once again writing an entertaining adventure story.  The reader starts out a little disoriented, trying to get a handle on the setting and the cultural context surrounding the protagonists’ behavior, but as those details start to become clear the story develops into one of familial intrigue, complete with siblings jockeying for parental favor and bystanders getting sucked into their schemes.  Leckie’s classically ineffable aliens make another appearance as well, always ready to show up and complicate the situation whenever things seem to be going too smoothly.

Provenance doesn’t reach quite as far into the frontiers of the science fiction genre as the Imperial Radch series did.  The cultural and familial structures are a little more familiar, and the gender-identity situation isn’t as unusual.  That said, the idea of gender being a decision made in the transition from adolescence to adulthood – an idea shared with JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven, up for a Best Novella Hugo this year – still feels like a refreshing alternative to having gender assigned at birth, and non-binary identities are also a normal and largely unremarkable part of the setting’s culture.  (Possibly part of why that feels less radical now is simply that the last three or four years have seen a lot of growth in our own culture’s ability to consider gender as far more complex than simply a description of one’s genital configuration.  Maybe I’m being optimistic, or maybe it’s just that I’ve come to know multiple non-binary people in the years since I first read Ancillary Justice – but, not for the first time, it’s nice to see our society starting to catch up to the potential that our science fiction has promised us is possible.)

My Best Novel ballot so far:

  1. The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin​
  2. Provenance, Ann Leckie

Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The first two volumes in N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, have won the last two Hugo Awards for Best Novel.  Now the concluding book, The Stone Sky, has also been nominated.  And it’s put me in a tough spot regarding Hugo voting.

In my review of The Obelisk Gate (and elsewhere), I mentioned that I generally prefer to spread the award recognition around a bit; rather than award a second Hugo to a series that has already won one in the near past, I typically find it more meaningful to honor a different series for the first time.  And this is another strong year in the Best Novel category.  But as good as the first two books in the trilogy were, I think The Stone Sky is the best book in the series by a large margin – enough so that simply nodding at the awards won by The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate doesn’t do it justice.

Folks, this book is transcendent.  It takes what we’ve learned about the world of the Stillness, about orogeny and orogenes, about stone-eaters and the angry Earth, and it turns the whole thing on its head, gives us context to more deeply understand it, and then ties the whole story up with a bow in one of the best series conclusions I’ve ever read.

Mild spoilers follow.

In the time period in which the first two books were set, civilization in the Stillness is staggering along under the weight of its own history.  Humanity is in a sort of species-wide purgatory, suffering for its past sins against the Earth.  We got a glimpse of what that history includes in The Obelisk Gate, but in The Stone Sky, Jemisin weaves together the “present-day” story of a handful of people trying to finally redeem humanity’s sins with a millennia-old flashback detailing the events that caused the deadly Seasons to begin afflicting the Earth.  All of the hints, and fragments of history, and suspicious correspondences we’ve seen, all of it comes together in the past-history sequence, bringing our understanding of the world into crystal-clear focus.

This same clarity also intensifies the allegorical treatment of racism and other forms of oppression present in the previous two books.  It wasn’t exactly an ambiguous assertion before, but in shoring up the superstitious folklore of the Stillness with its historical underpinnings, Jemisin makes it clear that the oppression experienced by so many people is not just a coincidence or an unhappy byproduct of the dominant society’s attempts to accumulate increased power.  Rather, it’s a integral component of the power structure, both cause and effect, a feature rather than a bug from the point of view of those holding power and privilege.

And then on top of the historical narrative, we get some pretty heavy storytelling about a mother and a daughter each trying to cope with their estrangement at the same time they’re trying to save the world.  Neither of them is wholly blameless for the estrangement at this point, but in their broken relationship we also see how systematic oppression of a people inflicts recurring trauma upon each successive generation, taking otherwise manageable difficulties and aggravating them into lifelong damage both physical and emotional.

And then on top of that we get a perfectly executed climax to the entire trilogy that pulls together the historical narrative with the present-day one, combining the literally world-changing finale to the big-picture story with a bittersweet conclusion to the emotional arcs of characters from both periods.  It all ties together so tightly.  I am in awe at the complete mastery of storytelling and social allegory Jemisin has demonstrated here and throughout the series, and I think that, decades from now, people are still going to be studying the Broken Earth trilogy as one of the greatest works of literature that this decade has to offer.

This being my first review for this year’s Best Novel finalists, I honestly don’t yet know where The Stone Sky is going to fall on my final ballot.  The other five nominees are strong contenders for the award as well. But whatever bar I might have set for awarding N.K. Jemisin and her astounding trilogy a record-breaking third Hugo Award in a row, The Stone Sky has cleared it with room to spare.

Fanart: Decibel Jones from Space Opera

One of my favorite things about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera (review) was the aesthetic. Despite the limitations of prose as a medium for visual arts, Valente’s lovingly detailed descriptions of the glam-rock costumes worn by the Absolute Zeroes inspired me to attempt to draw them.  And because I love those vulnerable moments of humanity as well, here’s Decibel Jones succumbing to petrifying stage fright at the beginning of his very first gig at the Hope and Ruin, early in the story.  (I may attempt his Metagalactic Grand Prix outfit at some point as well, but the prospect of having to draw the oil-slick dye job on Robert the coat’s fur lining again is daunting.)

I had the opportunity to present the original art to Cat Valente herself at her recent reading in Seattle, and while waiting in line to personally hand one of your favorite authors some fanart is a uniquely anxiety-inducing experience, her delighted reaction was well worth it.

Decibel Jones at the Hope and Ruin (click to view full size)

Review: “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

When I saw that Sarah Pinsker’s novella “And Then There Were (N-One)” was the story of a character named Sarah Pinsker attending a cross-dimensional convention populated entirely by other Sarah Pinskers from across the multiverse, I have to admit, I braced myself for some self-indulgent, pretentious “literary fiction”.  What I got instead was an engaging and entertaining story that struck a perfect balance – it was introspective, but not to the point of navel-gazing; it was full of in-jokes, but ones that pretty much anyone who’s ever been to a sci-fi convention would be in on; and despite the story’s cast of characters being endless variations on the author herself, it was nevertheless relatable to anyone else who’s spent a lot of time thinking about the choices they make and what might happen if they were different.

In some other universe, a Sarah Pinsker discovered cross-dimensional travel, and being the kind of nerd many of us are, organized “SarahCon” to gather as many different Sarah Pinskers as she could to compare notes and see how else their lives could have gone.  It’s a classic sci-fi “big idea” kind of concept, and the author executes on it brilliantly.  She’s not afraid to imagine herself as potentially having been many different types of people; while the first few Sarahs we meet are distinguished by hairstyle and profession (and taste in alcohol), we eventually meet a few transgender versions, some Sarahs with drug problems, a few with significant tragedies in their pasts… and a dead Sarah, whose murder our protagonist Sarah is asked to investigate.

Honestly, I don’t know if I could have written about hundreds of versions of myself with anywhere near this level of self-awareness and empathy; that alone is worthy of admiration, to say nothing of the skill with which the author weaves the philosophical questions of what might have been together with a well-executed speculative-fiction murder mystery.  “And Then There Were (N-One)” is certainly one of my favorite novellas of the year; deciding between it and All Systems Red for the top slot on my ballot was a very difficult choice, but one I had to make eventually.  So here’s my ballot for Best Novella:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. “And Then There Were (N-One), Sarah Pinsker
  3. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  4. Down Among the Sticks and Bones​, Seanan McGuire
  5. The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
  6. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

Pokemon and Privilege

Today, just under two years after I started playing, I reached the maximum level of 40 in Pokemon Go.

“Wow,” you might be thinking, if you’re the sort of person to care about video game achievements, “what an incredible accomplishment!”  And maybe you might consider that accomplishment to be evidence of particular proficiency and/or effort on my part.  After all, I’m the only level-40 player in my entire circle of friends, by a substantial margin.  But my own skill at the game, above-average though it may be, is not the only thing that has determined my success.  Let’s talk about privilege.

According to most dictionaries, “privilege” can be generally defined as an advantage available only to a particular person or group.  Privilege as a societal concept encompasses everything from specific hardships that people in one group can avoid while people in another group have to contend with, to certain opportunities that one group can take advantage of much more easily than another, to the aggregate effect of those increased opportunities and decreased hardships has on a group’s overall “success” by whatever metric you choose to measure.

I find concrete examples much easier to work with, though.  So let’s look at the various factors besides my own skill and effort that have allowed me to reach level 40 far ahead of my friends.

  1. Office location.  I work in downtown Seattle.  This confers two huge advantages – the proximity to a large number of other players makes​ doing raids on a daily basis simple with a minimum of planning, and the high density of Pokestops means that I almost never run low on items.  (Both of those factors also mean that there are lots of Pokemon downtown and along my commute route.)
  2. Job schedule flexibility.  As a software engineer, much of my work time is unstructured; I can choose to go get lunch at a time that is convenient for joining a raid group while I’m out.  With a successful legendary raid awarding 10,000 XP, the 150 legendary raids I’ve won so far (including several under double- or even quadruple-XP conditions) account for around 10% of my XP total.  Once in a while I’ve even been able to dodge out of the office for a quick coffee-break-length raid at a gym right by my office.
  3. Personal safety.  Specifically, the fact that I can walk down the street without having to maintain constant situational awareness.  I can spare the attention to catch Pokemon and spin stops as I walk, without worrying that someone might take advantage of my inattention.  (Don’t worry, I still keep my head up when I’m crossing streets.)  This is a product of both my physical presence as a six-foot white male and the fact that my office is in a rather safe part of town.
  4. Disposable income.  I haven’t actually spent much real money on the game, since most of my purchases come out of Google Play credit I get from answering surveys, but I have on occasion spent a few real dollars to get some coins to buy some items.  Still, not everyone has the spare money to spend on something frivolous like that.

An interesting aspect of these privileges is the way they reinforce each other; each privilege strengthens the effects of others.  My schedule flexibility is a bigger benefit when combined with my office location (and access to frequent, well-populated raid groups) than it would be if I worked someplace that had only a handful of Pokestops and not much raid activity.  The large amount of activity around my office and commute route would be harder to take advantage of if I constantly had to worry about whether I was safe on the streets.  The lucky eggs I can buy with the spare cash I have available to spend on the game act as a multiplier on the increased XP I get from the other benefits.

I’m proud of having reached level 40; it did take a lot of effort on my part.  I’ve seen plenty of people in my raid groups that reached level 40 significantly earlier than I did, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have privileges that made it easier for me to do so.  And similarly, having reached level 40 before any of my friends does not mean that I’m inherently better at the game than any of them.  It would be deeply deceptive – and insulting – to assume that someone else’s failure to reach the level cap is an indication that they are incompetent at the game, or that they’re just not bothering to do their best.  And it does not diminish the work that I’ve put in to acknowledge that I have benefited from privilege as well.

Luckily, Pokemon Go is just a game.  The players’ respective levels and rates of XP gain don’t have anything to do with our ability to feed ourselves, our housing, our access to medical care, or the strength of our voices in our political system.  Ability to earn XP isn’t a matter of life or death – or even a matter of comfort or destitution – and so the fact that some people are privileged far beyond others isn’t something we need to spend a lot of time rectifying.

But structural privilege in the real world is just as strong an effect on people’s abilities to survive and thrive.  And when people with lots of privilege ascribe their success to nothing more than their own hard work and virtue, and then assume that others’ lack of success must therefore be the result of laziness or worthlessness, it’s a selfish, deceptive outlook on how the world works.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

The beginning of JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven drops the reader straight into political intrigue in a world we don’t really understand yet.  We learn that the kingdom is ruled by a ruthless Protector who treats her children as bargaining chips in her efforts to solidify her political power against some unknown rebellion; we know the Grand Monastery also wields some power (using, as we soon learn, the mystical “Tensor” power they command) and used that power to help the Protector; and we see the youngest children of the Protector, the twins Akeha and Mokoya, sent to the Monastery in return for its aid.

The world unfolds in bits and pieces from there, as the nature of the Machinists’ rebellion against the Protector becomes better understood, as does the powers wielded by Tensors – and the power of prophecy Mokoya is discovered to have.  The story takes place in a series of vignettes over the course of multiple decades, and the readers don’t get many explicit details about the history that passes in between each section, instead piecing it together from the way the twins interact with the world.

One particularly interesting thing we learn is the way the Tensorate society handles gender.  A child is considered ungendered until they choose their gender for themselves; they go through a ceremony of “confirming” their gender, and their body is modified as needed (through what seems to be a combination of tensor magic and medical surgery).  A small number of people choose to remain unconfirmed for their entire lives.  The process is considered completely normal and unremarkable, except to the extent that choosing one’s gender and being confirmed is considered a rite of passage into adulthood.

Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s free of complications, though.  Akeha’s and Mokoya’s differing choices of gender are not the first thing that fractures their formerly-inseparable relationship as twins, but it’s one of the strongest indications that they’re growing apart as they’re growing up.  And indeed, they part ways shortly thereafter, and the rest of the novella follows Akeha as he gradually becomes involved in the Machinist rebellion.  (Mokoya’s story picks up in The Red Threads of Fortune, the simultaneously-published companion novella.)

The Protector’s influence over Akeha’s and Mokoya’s lives is insidious and destructive; reading this so soon after Down Among the Sticks and Bones, there are certainly comparisons to be made between the narcissistic, emotionally abusive parents in each story.  But unlike the Wolcotts, the Protector casts a long shadow over the twins’ lives despite being very rarely present; as the despotic ruler of their nation, the Protector’s influence is hard to escape from, and this is a big part of what ultimately drives Akeha into the rebellion.

I enjoyed the story, but the episodic and incomplete nature of it ultimately left me unsatisfied.  Perhaps I’d feel differently had I picked up The Red Threads of Fortune immediately afterwards, but I hadn’t realized how tightly the novellas were paired until I was looking up information about them for writing this review.  But for purposes of the Hugo ballot, this one novella is all I had to go on.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire
  4. The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
  5. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey​

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

This will be a quick review; I honestly don’t have a lot to say about River of Teeth.  The conceit is an alternate-history counterfactual inspired by an plan that was actually proposed (but never implemented) in 1910 – what if hippopotamuses were brought to America?  The historical intent was to control invasive plants and be a source of meat, but in River of Teeth some hippos have been domesticated while others have gone feral.

Against this background we have a crew of characters all dressed up for a heist – the charming ringleader, the fiery demolitions expert, the chaotic-good con artist, the unscrupulous sharpshooter, the ruthless assassin – but the actual job they they’re hired to do, driving a herd of feral hippos out of an area of swampy land, feels like background noise compared to the various axes the characters have to grind.  The character interactions drive a lot of the story, but I feel like it would have been more effective had they meshed better with the putative job the crew was hired to do.

The thing I had the most problem with was the sense of place.  Between the dam that somehow created a large body of water downstream and the use of explosives at the story’s climax that somehow managed to cause effects in different places many miles apart, I just had a lot of trouble developing a mental picture of what was actually going on, and couldn’t quite manage to maintain my suspension of disbelief as a result.  All the same, it was a fun read; the richness of the characters and their relationships make up for a lot of the plot difficulties.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, ​Seanan McGuire
  4. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s novella Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second entry in her Wayward Children series, and a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway (which I reviewed here, and which won last year’s Hugo for Best Novella).  The twin sisters Jack and Jill Wolcott were two of the most intriguing – and least well-adjusted – children in the previous book, and now we get their backstory.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not pretty.

The story begins by relating their birth and childhood, raised (more or less) by parents far more interested in the idea of being parents to perfectly-behaved children than in the reality of nurturing actual human beings with their own opinion and desires.  Chester and Serena Wolcott are just horrible people, in an all-too-believable way – rather than the cartoonish cruelty typically exhibited by bad parents of fairy-tale children, the Wolcotts’ personalities are a toxic mixture of narcissism, entitlement, and shallow materialism, with just a soupcon of megalomania for flavor.  They are chilling figures in the story because of how realistic they feel; while their worst behaviors might be slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, I have heard far too many tales of emotionally abusive parents to be able to write them off as entirely fictional.

(As an aside: the portrayal of people hurting and abusing others by weaponizing human interactions and emotions is one of McGuire’s greatest strengths as an author.  Her antagonists are scary not because we’ve never seen their like before in our lives, but because we have.  It’s the same reaction that made Dolores Umbridge so much more frightening a villain than Voldemort.)

Jack and Jill’s existence effectively began as a ploy to improve the Wolcotts’ social standing and garner attention, and it went downhill from there.  They were raised by their grandmother – possibly the only positive parental-type figure they ever had – because their parents just couldn’t handle the realities of parenting newborns.  Or toddlers.  And yet, Chester and Serena manage to be as shitty to Chester’s mother as they are to their kids, treating her as a hired nanny rather than as family that they needed to ask for help.

So Jack and Jill’s childhoods are lived under the oppression of parental expectations without compassion or nurture.  When they find the doorway that allows them to escape to the Moors, an alternate world that feels something like the shared setting for every mad-scientist/monster/vampire movie you’ve ever seen, they think they have a chance to grow without the weight of their parents’ abuse.  And that’s true, to some extent – but the expectations placed on them by their new guardians are just as constricting, even if they’re better suited to Jack’s and Jill’s respective personalities.

Jack and Jill’s relationship as twin sisters informs the story just as much as their relationship to their parents and guardians, and while it is at times dysfunctional as well, the story draws a clear line between the “we don’t always get along, but we still care about each other” love between the sisters and the emotional abuse that passes for “love” from their parents.  The contrast between these two family dynamics makes up much of the heart of the story.  When the chips are down, who’s going to be there for you?  Who will support you and who will fail you?  That is the important thing in a relationship, and no amount of shared blood can make up for a failure to care.

I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Down Among the Sticks and Bones quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway.  But as a parent, the depiction of the Wolcotts’ miserable, narcissistic parenting was chilling.  It was a hard book for me to read because of how deeply angry I was at the horrendous conduct of these entirely fictional characters – and that speaks to how effective Seanan McGuire is at writing emotionally affecting characters and stories.  So while this certainly wasn’t my favorite novella of the year, I cannot deny that it is well deserving of the nomination.

My Best Novella rankings so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, S​eanan McGuire

Review: Binti: Home and The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year.  This year, the middle volume of the trilogy, Binti: Home, has also been nominated, and a few months ago the conclusion, Binti: The Night Masquerade was released.  So it seems like a good time to talk about the whole series!

(As I am discussing the final book of a trilogy, there will be a certain amount of spoilers for the first two books.  I will do my best to keep them somewhat vague, and to avoid spoiling the third book much.)

In Binti, we met the title character – a gifted harmonizer able to create currents of energy by “treeing”, or meditating on mathematical equations, and the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza Uni, a prestigious galactic university.  The Himba are strongly rooted to the earth that they live on, as evinced by her people’s tradition of covering their skin and hair with otjize – a mixture of red clay, oil, and fragrant herbs.  The neighboring Khoush people mock and belittle the Himba for that and for their general provinciality, despite the Himba specialty – and in fact Binti’s family’s own expertise – in the intricate and widely used technology of astrolabes (think smartphones taken to their logical conclusion of being one’s entire interface to the digital world).

Despite derogatory comments from the Khoush and resistance from her own family, Binti boards a living spaceship full of Khoush students, literally covered in her own homeland as she travels out into the galaxy despite the way it separates her.  She also brings her edan – a strange artifact she found in the desert, which responds somehow to her treeing – and she brings her wisdom as a harmonizer in training as well.  All of these things allow her to be the sole survivor of an attack on her ship by the alien Meduse, in which the hundreds of Khoush students are killed. Binti is pressured into acting as a representative for the Meduse and brokers a truce between them and Oomza Uni – but she is irrevocably changed in the process, becoming somehow part Meduse herself, and developing a sort of bond with a Meduse named Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse student on Oomza Uni.

In Binti: Home, she tries to go home again, a year later, and Okwu accompanies her.  She is now wearing otjize made from clay on Oomza Uni, reflecting her confusion and ambiguous feelings about what “home” means to her. Her family, being so strongly rooted to their homeland, is still angry about her departure; Binti has to endure barbed comments from family and friends alike. The Khoush are still angry about the Meduse attack on their students, and see Okwu’s accompanying Binti back to Earth as a provocation. And Binti learns more about the non-Himba side of her family; her father came from the Enya Zinariya people, who even the Himba look down on. Instead of going on the traditional pilgrimage of Himba women, to attain her status as an adult of her people, she is instead taken to see the leader of the Enya Zinariya and undergoes a ritual to unlock the alien technology embedded in their blood. At the end of the second book Binti discovers that her family home, the Root, has been attacked by the Khoush, seeking revenge on Okwu.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up immediately from that cliffhanger and thrusts Binti back into the position of trying to broker peace between humans and the Meduse.  Her own identity has been shattered into pieces – part Himba, part Meduse, part Enya Zinariya – and the tension between the different parts of her, as well as the disorientation from her new access to the Zinariya technology, leaves her unbalanced and unsure of herself.  Her otjize continues to carry the symbolic weight of her connection to her concept of home, which in this story takes quite a beating as Binti tries her hardest to resolve those tensions and figure out who she actually is – not who she’s being told to be by her Himba family and friends, or who she’s been turned into by the Meduse metamorphosis, or who she’s been linked with through the Zinariya technology.  But despite all the strife she faces both within herself and at the intersection of the multiple different worlds that all try to claim a piece of her, her heart is still in the same place.  She is a harmonizer, and harmony is the meaning of her life; she seeks to bring it to those around her and strives for it within herself as well.

Dr. Okorafor writes Binti’s struggles so empathetically.  It’s an utter joy to spend time in Binti’s head, even when she’s miserable and unsure, because she just feels so real, despite the fact that the problems she faces are mostly alien to me, both literally and figuratively.  At her lowest points I was worried and desperately hoping she would find a path to happiness; at her highest points I exulted along with her in the wonders the universe had to offer, and at her strongest moments I marveled at her fortitude, her harmony, the gravitational pull she exerted on the world around her to try to make things better.  Binti: Home was a masterful conclusion to the trilogy, leaving me satisfied with the story but simultaneously hoping to see more of Binti’s story someday.

Best Novella Hugo

Only two novellas in, and this is already a really difficult choice.  I suppose it’s my own fault for starting with my two favorites.  As I have noted with previous ballots, I typically prefer to avoid voting to give a second Hugo to a series; in this case, Binti was awarded the Hugo for Best Novella in 2016, so I’ll put the newcomer on top for now.

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor

Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha WellsAll Systems Red is the first novella of a new series entitled The Murderbot Diaries.  For some of you that’s probably enough to recommend the book already; it was for me.  (Well, that and hearing about it via Seanan McGuire’s Twitter feed.  Any murderbot that passes Seanan’s standards is good enough for me.)  Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

The titular character is, well, a murderbot.  Specifically, a security unit with little ambition and less interest in murdering people, who has been contracted – rented out, really – as protection for a research group investigating a new planet.  Its main interests are serial dramas and gaining personal autonomy by hacking one’s own governor protocols; its greatest dislikes are social interactions and being forced to do things it doesn’t want to do.

The murderbot simply refers to itself as Murderbot, and it is not a person, at least as far as its society is concerned.  The line between human and robot has become rather blurred – we know augmented humans exist, and Murderbot’s body is at least part organic; nevertheless, Murderbot is an object, owned by a corporation and rented out like a rototiller.  But the first-person viewpoint of the story – engaging, emotional, and all too familiar to someone who suffers from social anxiety like I do – puts the lie to that idea almost immediately.

I found Murderbot to be a deeply sympathetic character, whether just trying to keep its head down and not shoot anyone, or fretting about how the humans it protected would see it, or recoiling from the humans’ well-meant attempts to get to know it.  Murderbot clearly has a severe case of social anxiety from being treated as less than human for so long, and goddamn do I understand that feeling.

Lest I give the impression that the whole story is just Murderbot trying to figure out how to interact with humans – there are actual problems outside of its own head to solve, too; its personal development is driven by, and drives in turn, other events in the plot.  But it’s Murderbot’s emotional arc, and the tension between its clear personhood and society’s refusal to consider it as anything other than an object, that grabbed my attention more than anything else – and that leaves me wanting so badly to read the next book in The Murderbot Diaries.

Best Novella Hugo

This looks like another strong year for several of the Hugo Award categories, so as I review each of the nominees for this year’s Hugos I’m going to build up my final ballot one by one, rather than trying to put everything in order at the end.  In this case, I read All Systems Red last year and nominated it for the Hugo, and I’m happy to see it on the ballot.  Will it be my top choice?  Honestly, I’m not sure; three of my nominees were finalists, and even among those I don’t know how I’ll order them yet.  But until I review them, my ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells