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Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of John Scalzi’s new Interdependency trilogy.  The titular Interdependency is another space monarchy in the tradition of Barrayar and Manticore, an empire of factions held together by political bonds and mutually assured disadvantage.  The Interdependency is a particularly mercantile empire, in which trading guilds wield most of the power, and humanity’s prosperity is possible thanks to the Flow, the unidirectional hyperspace/wormhole phenomenon that serves to enable faster-than-light travel in this particular universe, and allows the various human settlements to trade their various life-sustaining goods with each other.

The problem, discovered by a physicist who was also a friend of the recently deceased Emperox of the Interdependency, is that the Flow is about to start shifting and falling apart, marooning each of humanity’s settlements in turn and eventually leaving every habitation on its own for survival.  The newly crowned Emperox, Cardenia, is already having trouble consolidating her power, and also grappling with the ethical uses of that power.  The physicist’s protege needs to reach Cardenia to present the evidence of the imminent end of the Interdependency, but since travel through the Flow by its nature makes direct point-to-point travel difficult, they have to deal with multiple petty fiefdoms of various types in the process of getting there.

The Collapsing Empire was an entertaining read, and I’m definitely looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy; it has that Scalzi nature of being light, easily-digestible reading that nevertheless gives you a lot to think about if you’re willing to spend the time.  It’s not a challenging work, nor is it meant to be.  But it’s a worthy entry in the tradition of space-opera page-turners.

My Best Novel ballot so far:

  1. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty
  2. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  3. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  4. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  5. The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty’s novel Six Wakes opens with one of the main characters waking up in the cloning bay of a spaceship, surrounded by corpses – including her own, which appears to have aged multiple decades since her most recent memory.

(I feel like that hook, plus the assurance that the author successfully delivers on the premise, is really all I need to say to recommend the book.  It certainly grabbed my attention from the beginning.  But I will continue on anyway…)

The other five crew members wake up shortly thereafter, and they soon come to realize that they need to solve their own murders in order to feel confident that they’re not about to be killed again.  This is complicated by multiple factors, of course.  The rest of the crew is also missing decades of memories, so none of them remember each other, or have any reason to trust each other, either.  The AI piloting the ship has been disabled, and the ship is off course.  And, as the crew members start to compare notes, they start to realize commonalities and overlaps in their lives prior to the voyage.

The narrative aboard the ship is interspersed with flashbacks providing some details about each of the crew’s histories, as well as background about the social and political ramifications of cloning.  It would be an understatement to say that humanity as a whole did not handle the emergence of that particular technology very well, and the resulting upheaval is a crucial part of the story’s background.  The reader gets to piece together the complete history of the crew, and of human society as a whole, from the bits and pieces we get from each character’s flashback, and I found it to be a rewarding and entertaining experience.

Six Wakes is a wonderful example of the kind of storytelling that science fiction as a genre is capable of.  Mur Lafferty skillfully imagines the social strife around the development of cloning, and its microcosmic strife among the crew, and while the technological aspects of her imagined future are fascinating, it is the human reaction to it that makes a great idea into a fantastic story.

My Hugo ballot so far:

  1. Six Wakes, Mur ​Lafferty
  2. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin
  3. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  4. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson

Review: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

You know that bit in Hamilton where the characters take a moment to exult in the unique glory of New York City as both an exemplar and a template for urban life?  That same Big Apple swagger can be applied to speculations of future history just as easily as reinterpretations of past history.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is a classic near-future science-fiction novel, postulating humanity’s failure to adequately respond to the threat of global climate change and the resultant chaos and upheaval that ensue when all of Earth’s coastal cities are flooded by rising sea levels.  The story of that upheaval would be interesting, of course, but Robinson sets the story multiple decades after the latest major change, instead looking at what the “new normal” might be in a New York City where most of what we currently consider to be prime Manhattan real estate has become an intertidal zone.

Robinson looks at this new world through multiple lenses via multiple viewpoint characters.  Our cast of characters includes multiple people from different segments of the financial industry, an NYPD inspector, a pair of treasure-seeking street urchins, an airship-piloting nature-adventurer YouTube star, a building superintendent, and an unnamed “citizen” whose function falls somewhere between expository historian and opinionated rambler.  The picture the author paints of the 22nd century is, accordingly, well thought out from multiple angles; while parts of the story are more or less a paean to the glories of New York City, others are completely unflinching in their analysis of how our present social and political systems have failed us.  As he did in his Mars trilogy, Robinson brings together a dizzying array of disciplines in imagining the world of 2140 – economics and finance, geology and hydrology, engineering and architecture, history and cartography, political science and sociology – and the result is a well-rounded, convincingly speculative narrative of where the next century-plus is going to take us if we don’t get our metaphorical shit together.  The conclusion is a little more optimistic than I felt was warranted based on the rest of the story, and Robinson’s usual extrapolation of complex situations seemed to be eliding a few factors in order to bring the story to a satisfying end, but it’s also possible optimism just feels a little naive to me lately.  Nevertheless, like all good science fiction, New York 2140 offers a lot of insight into the present day.

My Hugo ballot so far:

  1. The Stone Sky, N.K. Jemisin​
  2. Provenance, Ann Leckie
  3. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson

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

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