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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

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novella

While I have written at length about the novels this year, I find myself running a little low on time before the voting deadline, so I’m going to have to abbreviate myself a bit.  So here’s my rundown of the Best Novella nominees, in order of my preference.  This was in some ways a harder decision to make than the novel voting; I changed the order of these multiple times as I wrote this post.

1. A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey is a followup to Wilson’s debut novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps; while it isn’t a direct sequel, it takes place in the same world, a pre-industrial analogue of Africa in which the gods live among, or at least adjacent to, humanity.  Olorum is a prosperous city-state ruled by a royal family that carries some of the blood of gods; the protagonist Aqib is a distant cousin of the family, son of the Master of Beasts and possessed of a talent of talking to animals.  The story with Aqib embarking on a whirlwind romance with Lucrio, a soldier accompanying a visiting delegation from Daluça (which is something of an analogue to Rome).  Olorum, and Aqib’s family, are not nearly as accepting of same-sex relationships as Daluçan society is, and the twin pressures of that disapproval and Lucrio’s impending departure lend additional intensity to their trysts.

Interleaved with the ten days of their relationship are vignettes from Aqib’s decades-long marriage to a princess of the royal family, begun shortly after Lucrio’s departure.  The Blessèd Remysade is a mathematical genius who often prioritizes her work over her family, and her daughter by Aqib manifests the divinity of their blood more strongly than either of her parents.  While Aqib remains faithful to Remysade, and is an excellent father to Lucretia, he never quite stops feeling like he could have had something else with his life instead; Lucrio had, after all, asked Aqib to come away with him.

Weaved into an elemental story of love, loss, and regret were several different aspects that I adored in different ways.  The magic of the gods, integrated with Remysade’s advanced mathematics, is something of a Clarke-style sufficiently-advanced-technology.  Where a conversation in a “pure fantasy” story might have used magic incantantions and words of power, Wilson instead writes densely scientific dialogue; while the reader can at least understand enough of it to perceive it as science, Aqib as viewpoint character is utterly lost and must simply think of it as magic beyond his ken.  Aqib’s life as a father is also something that resonated with my heart, and the scenes with an infant or a young child instinctively using magic while their parents reacted helplessly gave me sympathetic shudders as I imagined my own children suddenly defying the laws of conventional physics for their own amusement.

And then there’s the end.  I nearly cried.  As much as I enjoyed the rest of the story, the ending made it a perfect gem of a story that reminded me of another of my favorite science fiction stories.  I won’t say which one, as even identifying it would be a significant spoiler, but it gave me the same feeling of simultaneously stimulating my brain and engaging my heart, and being glad for the experience as it ended.

2. The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle

One of two Lovecraft pastiches on this year’s ballot, The Ballad of Black Tom tells the story of Tommy Tester, a black man living in Harlem in 1924.  He’s a small-time con man who mostly gets by doing odd jobs that skirt the law, but when he is hired to deliver a book full of arcane symbols to an address in Brooklyn, he knows nothing good can come of knowing the full contents of the book, and he tears a page out and hides it.  After that brush with the occult world he is never quite able to escape it.  As Tommy grows aware of the cosmic horror just beneath the surface of our reality, it is juxtaposed with the everyday horror of being black in America, as the story describes unflinchingly the many insults and injuries Tommy suffers, mostly at the hands of the police, for no reason beyond the color of his skin.

Which is more horrifying to contemplate?  An old god sleeping fitfully until he wakes and wipes humanity off the surface of the earth, or a police force empowered to murder you for no reason beyond momentary hatred?  The idea of the universe being not only uncaring but actively hostile towards the existence of humans, or the reality of American society being actively hostile towards people of color?  Compared to the fact that Tommy could be killed at any moment at the whim of an authority both powerful and impulsive, the idea of Cthulhu rising to devour us all at least has the benefit of being free of the prejudices pervading our society.

Victor LaValle uses Lovecraftian story elements to create a complex and multilayered criticism of Lovecraft’s racism, his stories, and American society.  He shows that black Americans face everyday the kinds of existential horror that Lovecraft’s white protagonists only saw once they went looking for it – and that they regretted seeing once they found it.  With that comparison LaValle not only demonstrates the ignorance and pointlessness of Lovecraft’s racism, but also goes on to challenge his readers – particularly his white readers – to face the horrors that Lovecraft and his characters feared.  And by portraying in 1924 police brutality that isn’t qualitatively different from what was still happening in 2016, LaValle reminds us that we haven’t made nearly as much progress in addressing racial injustice as some of us would like to think.

3. Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric is a young sorcerer, whose powers come by way of a demon, Desdemona, who inhabits his body and mind (as she has those of twelve others before him).  He’s also a priest of the Bastard, one of the Five Gods of the story’s world.  In Penric and the Shaman, he is sent to track down a missing spirit, and along with Oswyl, a priest-investigator, he must chase down Inglis, a shaman who is dealing with a theological crisis of his own.

Penric and the Shaman is a warm, empathetic story.  We get viewpoints from both Penric and Inglis, and occasionally from Oswyl as well. While the characters’ aims are originally opposed, Penric’s compassion and spiritual duty means that he approaches the situation looking to help instead of to prevail, and the climax of the story is a reconciliation rather than a victory for one character and a defeat for another.  Both that overall arc and the theme of interdependence between humans and nature put me in mind of some of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies as I read.  The dialogue and narration, on the other hand, is pure Bujold; she writes with the same gentle yet piercing wit that I loved in her Vorkosigan books.

This was a joy to read, and while it was the first one of her fantasy stories that I’d read, it certainly won’t be the last.

4. Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire

What happens to the children from portal fantasies once they return to the “real world”?  How do they handle their lives when they realize they may never be able to go back?  In Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire contemplates the fact that such children will not be able to adjust easily to their old lives.  Some of them eventually end up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where they can live among others that understand what it is to have seen a world where you belonged, and then lost it again.  Nancy Whitman is sent to the institution after returning from the underworld, and the thing she wants more than anything is to return to the side of the Lord of the Dead.

The plot of the story – a murder mystery, well suited to the talents Nancy brought back with her from the underworld – is primarily an engine to drive the emotional arc of Nancy coping with the world she’s lost, and learning about the other children and the worlds they’ve lost too.  McGuire effectively uses the portal experience as an allegory for the many and varied ways in which children feel like they do not fit into their own lives.  The trips they’ve taken to other worlds have changed them, or shown them the inadequacies of the real world, or simply given them something wonderful and then taken it away again.  All of them want to return to their worlds; most of them feel like they could if they only figure out the trick to getting back, or the thing that they should be doing that they aren’t, or some lesson they need to learn…

Portal fantasies so often use the other world as a metaphor for adolescence, an experience that must be endured in order to grow into the person you’re supposed to be.  But growing up isn’t that simple, and McGuire’s home full of adolescents damaged by that process puts the lie to the notion of childhood as something one can simply and painlessly grow out of.

5. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson

This is the other Lovecraft pastiche this year, and I enjoyed it despite not having read “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, the work it was originally based on.  Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the world of dreams, and one of her students – the daughter of one of the college’s deans, and a granddaughter of one of the dream world’s terrible gods – has run away with a dreamer, a man from the waking world.  Vellitt was a far-traveler in her younger days; now a middle-aged woman, she nevertheless argues to the faculty that she is best suited to go retrieve the missing student.

Where The Ballad of Black Tom uses Lovecraftian elements in a more-or-less direct way to refute Lovecraft’s own attitudes, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe takes a different approach and inverts basically every aspect of Lovecraft’s storytelling to create a mirror image of his work.  Vellitt Boe is quite at home in the dream world; until her student goes missing, her greatest concern is academic politics, rather than the dreaming gods that inhabit the world.  As her quest proceeds, those gods become aware of her, rather than the usual Lovecraftian arc of a character slowly becoming aware of them.  She handles most of the challenges she faces through negotiation and diplomacy – and, at least once, through the timely repayment of an earlier kindness – rather than the Malthusian conflict typical of Lovecraft’s work.  And in the end, it is the unusual environment of our own world she has to contend with, rather than an earthly sleeper contending with the strange world of dreams.

It is a gentler response to Lovecraft than Black Tom, but still a refutation nevertheless; where Lovecraft’s work spoke of the nihilistic hopelessness of the world, Johnson promises us that there are good people (and creatures) to be found wherever we go, and that there is more to heroism than the swashbuckling of young men.  And it’s quite a good adventure story, besides.

6. This Census-Taker, China Mieville

Frankly, I bounced off of this one.  20% of the way through, while we’d gotten little bits and hints of the existence of a plot – and a confusing, brief shift to a very different setting, later in the narrator’s life – it seemed like very little had happened, and I found that I simply didn’t care anymore.  A novella is a very short form compared to the dense novels that Mieville is most famous for, and while that slow-burn approach to introducing the world might work for the first thirty pages of an 800-page book, in a novella it just felt meandering.

Returning, Eventually

So I disappeared for a while there.  Life was pretty busy already, and the torrent of garbage from the Trump regime was wearing me down, but when my infant son got diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at the beginning of the year, something had to give.

His surgery was on Tuesday.  It went perfectly.  He’s already recovering faster than the doctors expected.  Hopefully things will calm down a bit and I can get back to writing about books and politics and charity again soon.  In addition to returning to the Dragaera series, I’ve been reading the Hugo nominees, and my choice for Best Novel is going to be a difficult one…

Sleeping after the surgery...

Sleeping after the surgery…

The thoracotomy incision, easily visible as he insisted on pulling himself up to standing less than a day after the surgery.

The thoracotomy incision, easily visible as he insisted on pulling himself up to standing less than a day after the surgery.

Weekly Charity Match #010: CAIR, continued

Multiple court orders later, Trump’s attempt to ban many Muslims from entering the United States appears to have largely failed.  However, Islamophobia continues to play a large role in the new president’s conception of foreign affairs.

Last Week: ACLU

Thanks to donors Jessica, Lorna Q., Kelly D., Christine H., Eric A., Lara H., Maria E., and an anonymous donor, we raised $2,815 for the ACLU.  Wow.  It was a big week for the ACLU overall, receiving nearly $30 million in donations, and I’m glad we could be a part of that.

Also, congratulations to Christine H., winner of January’s art giveaway!  A new month means a new giveaway; donations from February 1st through the 28th are eligible for February’s prize of a hand-drawn and colored portrait of anyone you want.

This Week: CAIR

With the outpouring of support for the ACLU, I feel like I kind of short-changed the Council on American-Islamic Relations by including them in the same matching week; I didn’t come close to meeting my matching limit.  They’re doing important work, not just filing lawsuits on behalf of American Muslims but also fighting the broader trends of Islamophobia.  They’re going to be pretty busy during this presidency.  Donate to CAIR here, and forward your donation receipt to matching@pyrlogos.com – I will continue matching donations up to the $500 limit I set last week.  (Donations to one of their regional chapters – like CAIR Seattle – will also count!)

Call to Action

After multiple delays and a lot of bad publicity, the Senate is voting on Betsy DeVos’s nomination as Secretary of Education today (February 6th).  We are so close to successfully defeating this nominee – one of the worst prospective members of one of the worst Cabinets the country has ever seen.  If you see this before the final vote happens, call your senator and request that they vote against confirming Ms. DeVos.  After that vote happens, keep on your senators to oppose the other odious nominations – and push back against the appointment of Steve Bannon to the National Security Council as well.

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest novel of the Vorkosigan Saga, and it is one of my recent favorites from the series.  It is also practically impossible to talk about without discussing plot details from earlier in the series – this is perhaps the least stand-alone Vorkosigan book yet, steeped as it is in the history of its characters.  So, stop reading now if you haven’t at least finished Cryoburn, the end of which I will be spoiling shortly.

I’ll also be discussing Gentleman Jole’s plot in more detail a little later, but I’ll warn you before I get into anything that isn’t apparent within the first chapter or two of the book.  Ready?  Here we go.

Cryoburn was one of my least favorite books in the series, but its ending makes it hugely important: its themes of handling mortality and death are capped off by Miles learning of the death of his father, Aral Vorkosigan, who has stood astride Barrayaran history like a colossus for the last forty years.  Aral served as Admiral, Regent, and Prime Minister of Barrayar, as well as Count Vorkosigan, and Miles’s entire life had been lived under that shadow.  But naturally, Miles is far from the only one to be affected by Aral’s death.  Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen examines the echoes of Aral’s life and the shape of the hole he left in his passing by returning to the viewpoint character that started off the entire series, and perhaps the only person who grokked Aral in fullness: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Aral’s widow and the Vicereine of Sergyar.

Cordelia isn’t the only protagonist, though.  The narrative flows relatively fluidly between her and the other main character of the story, Admiral Oliver Jole.  (Jole was first introduced in The Vor Game, though I had honestly forgotten about his existence until this book.)  And as not only an old friend of the Vorkosigans but also the senior Barrayaran military officer in Sergyar space, the former Viceroy’s passing left a hole both personal and professional in Jole’s life as well.  Aral has been dead for three years by now, but his ghost is essentially the third main character of the book.

(And here is where the spoilers for the latest book begin.  You have been warned.)

In fact, Jole’s relationship with the Vorkosigans is much more profound than we had been able to see from Miles’ point of view in The Vor GameGentleman Jole opens with Jole in his role as Admiral greeting Vicereine Cordelia upon her return to Sergyar space, and they arrange for a more unofficial reunion – whereupon the reader learns that Jole was, for many years, effectively the third person in the Vorkosigans’ marriage.  And Cordelia has a proposal for him: she is going to use some frozen gametes to have some more daughters, and offers her former co-spouse the use of her “eggshells” (i.e. enucleated ova) and Aral’s X-chromosome-bearing gametes so that Jole could have sons by Aral.

Cordelia’s return to Jole’s life, her offer, and the emotions redeveloping between them naturally turn his life upside down (in a way that only entanglements with Vorkosigans can), and the bulk of the novel is the two of them navigating the new opportunities that they see in front of them and the memories they have behind them.  The story is, at heart, a romance; it is clear well before the midpoint that Cordelia and Jole will rekindle their relationship, but the questions of how and for how long remain open.

The structure and setting of this book – a romance between Cordelia and a Barrayaran admiral taking place on and above the planet Sergyar – mirror that of Shards of Honor, the very first book of the series, and in that way I see Gentleman Jole as a bookend to the series, wrapping up the story of Cordelia and Aral with a bow and a happily-ever-after (at least to the extent that Aral can get such an ending posthumously).

Which leads me to the question: is this the end of the Vorkosigan Saga?  It very well could be.  If so, I found it an extremely satisfying one, both structurally for the series and as a story in its own right.  Cordelia Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters – not only in this series, but across all of science fiction – and she deserves all the happiness that this ending gives her.

My 2015 Hugo Nominations

See also my 2015 reading list for all the fiction I chose from.  Nominations are in no particular order (though mostly in the order in which I read them).

Best Novel

  • The Flux, Ferrett Steinmetz
  • Apex, Ramez Naam
  • Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
  • Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
  • The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

Best Novella

  • Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
  • Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Last Witness, K. J. Parker
  • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, Usman T. Malik
  • Envy of Angels, Matt Wallace

Best Novelette

  • “Fabulous Beasts”, Priya Sharma

Best Short Story

  • “Variations on an Apple”, Yoon Ha Lee
  • “Some Gods of El Paso”, Maria Dahvana Headley
  • “Damage”, David D. Levine
  • “Oral Argument”, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • “Schrödinger’s Gun”, Ray Wood

Best Related Work

  • Writing Excuses, Season 10, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells
  • The Wheel of Time Companion, Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk, Maria Simons

Best Graphic Story

  • Schlock Mercenary: Delegates and Delegation, Howard Tayler
  • Gunnerkrigg Court, Tom Siddell
  • Erfworld, Rob Balder, Xin Ye, Laura Ahonen
  • Order of the Stick, Rich Burlew

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

  • Inside Out
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Best Editor (Long Form)

  • Marco Palmieri
  • Beth Meacham
  • Lee Harris
  • Joe Monti
  • Harriet McDougal

Best Professional Editor (Short Form)

  • Ellen Datlow
  • Ann VanderMeer
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Beth Meacham
  • Carl Engle-Laird

Best Professional Artist

Best Semiprozine

Best Fanzine

Best Fancast

Best Fan Writer

Best Fan Artist

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Andy Weir (for The Martian)

Remaining categories to be filled in soon!


I’ve decided to start doing some long-form blogging, and I’m going to repurpose Pyrlogos to do so.  The comics won’t be going away, but the Comicpress theme will, and I’ll be editing the posts to include image links to comics (or whatever I need to do to make them appear reasonably in the archives).

Just so you know.  Changes inbound.  See you on the proverbial flipside…

I’ve been putting this off.

It’s been hard to figure out how to approach the subject; I’m still not quite sure just how “done” I am with Pyrlogos I am right now.  The world still interests me; the story still interests me; the characters still won’t get out of my head.  But I’ve been pretty deeply unsatisfied with the way I’ve written the story so far, and trying to figure out how to address that has been one of the things I was hoping for a few months to resolve so I could move on with the comic.  But it’s not happening, and my immediate priorities have moved on to other things, and it’s time I admit that Pyrlogos is essentially dead at this point.

I’m not done with Pyrlogos, as a whole – but I’m not really convinced I’m capable of telling the story as a serial comic at this point.  I hope to pick up the project again some day, in some incarnation or another, and when I do I’ll be posting about it here.  But for now, well, I don’t have any plans to continue it in its current state.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for leaving things like this.

Life continues to get in the way…

Page 029 is mostly done, but between sleeping issues and trying to rework my schedule to accomodate the curling season starting, I haven’t quite been able to finish it.  It should be up by Wednesday at the latest.

In related news, Pyrlogos updates are going to be about this spotty for another few weeks, until I can get things to settle down again.  If you don’t want to have to check the site and see no new updates, we do have an RSS feed you can use…

No comic this week

I had a pretty rough week last week, for a few different reasons.  Long story short, page 029 will go up Monday, October 12th.  See you then!