Stuff and Nonsense: science fiction

Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts


River of Teeth

Set in an alternate 1890s America, where feral hippos run rampant in the Louisiana bayous, a band of hippo wranglers have been hired by the federal government to clear them out ... by blowing up a Very. Big. Dam. The wranglers are a motley bunch, the feral hippos are violent, and there’s a Very. Shady. Man. mixed up in everything. Also, one of the hippo wranglers may be a no good double-crosser.

River of Teeth is a gritty, dark story of violence, mistrust, passion, and revenge. Seriously, the feral hippos are magnificent toothy killing machines and the Bad Man in the bayou is pretty darn Bad. Our gang of wranglers are clearly no heroes themselves, but they’re going to do the job they were hired to do (plus, maybe, get some personal revenge) whatever that takes.

Perhaps to balance out the darkness, a tender, non-binary love story springs up between two of the wranglers and, delightfully, no-one in-story acts like that relationship is unusual in anyway. I do not think I have the words to express quite how pleased I was to encounter an alternate history that actually embraces all its possibilities and doesn’t just default to white, cisgender heterosexual people as the norm.

Overall, I found River of Teeth an enjoyable read. I do wish the novella had been fleshed out into a full-length novel, because sometimes the story felt a bit choppy and under-developed -- continuously promising though, so I never felt tempted to put it down. There is another novella in the series, Taste of Marrow, which appears to continue the story several months on and I may pursue that through my library system. (Both novellas have also been bound together into the collection American Hippo which came out in late May).

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Tor, 2017.


The Murders of Molly Southbourne

The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a strange little novella, at once compelling and also surprisingly unsatisfying. I read it in one sitting, frequently wanting to put it down and disliking it intensely at points, but could not stop reading. Yet, after I finished, I found myself skimming back through The Murders of Molly Southbourne, feeling certain I'd missed something.

Oh, I enjoyed the premise -- whenever Molly bleeds, her spilt blood grows into other mollys who must be dealt with before they turn all murder-y -- but, ultimately, the novella felt unfinished and I was left with SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

My questions are more than a bit spoilery, so you might want to stop here with "The world-building in The Murders of Molly Southbourne is vague and unsatisfying, but I'm pretty sure I'd watch a season of it were it to be adapted by Netflix or Amazon."

  • Why did Molly's blood generate mollys?
  • Where did the mollys come from when she wasn't bleeding -- I understand one was alive, zombie-like, down a hole for years -- but what of the others?
  • Why did the other mollys want to kill her?
  • Why was the "last" molly different?

Evolutionary drive seemed a hand-wavy answer to these questions.

And then there were what I think of as the "menstrual questions:"

  • Why did Molly's mother not explain menstruation to her long before it happened? If Molly's blood births monsters, than surely menarche should be a time of extra concern?
  • Why is Molly burying the evidence of her monthlies? Why not burn them in the furnace with the mollys? I'm imagining a diaper pail full of diluted bleach in the bathroom, that she adds bloody stuff to & then takes to the furnace? Rather than burying it in the back garden, which is just a big NOPE.
  • Why isn't Molly using a continuous birth control pill to keep from menstruating? Molly's world suffers from an extremely low birthrate and I can see where that might mean birth control would be frowned upon or difficult to obtain, but she's a also registered hemophiliac. Certainly, there's no mention of contraception when she discusses sex, but what do I know?

See, I told you -- SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson. Tor: 2017.



Binti, a young Himba woman of prodigious mathematical talents, has been admitted on full scholarship to the most prestigious university in the galaxy. But the Himba people do not leave home. Nor do they question not leaving it. It is simply the way of things. But Binti is so talented and full of dreams, drive, desire that she cannot help but sneak away at night, breaking with her people forever. This is not a decision Binti makes lightly and the novel deftly portrays -- in ways that felt very real to this reader -- the the emotional and physical pain she experiences throughout her adventure because of this decision.

Aboard the living, organic starship taking students to the university, Binti manages to find her footing and even begins to form friendships ... and then the ship is attacked by angry, jellyfish-like aliens and massive amounts of carnage ensues. What originally seems like a compelling story about a plucky “backwater” girl out to follow her dreams becomes a rollicking young adult space adventure full of feels.

Indeed, I have so many feelings about Binti -- both the novella and the titular character -- but I don’t know how to write about either without spoiling the novella for you. Suffice to say, I found Binti to be an extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I can easily see why Binti won both the 2016 Hugo and 2015 Nebula for Best Novella and I cannot wait to read the rest of the books in the trilogy.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor, 2015.


All Systems Red

When All Systems Red begins, a SecUnit (a weaponized Imitative Human Bot Unit specializing in security, not combat), is assigned to a survey team exploring a planet sparsely populated by seemingly harmless fauna. The SecUnit, who refers to itself as Murderbot, thinks the team seems okay as far as humans go, but the assignment doesn’t ask much of it, so it spends a lot of time watching serials (soap operas) and ignoring commands from its governor module.

Prior to this assignment, you see, Murderbot had a really bad work experience, so it secretly hacked its governor module to become autonomous. That's probably a good thing, in the long run, as the greedy company that owns Murderbot is a great one for cutting corners, buying the cheapest components, and not concerning itself much with the safety of the people on the ground.

Unsurprisingly, everything goes to shit and Murderbot has to save the day while attempting to keep its autonomy secret.

At 149 pages, this novella is an absolute romp. I could not put All Systems Red down and chortled my way though most of it. There's a lot of action, some mystery, and a great deal of dry, dark humor packed between its covers. While the story movies quickly, the characters are well-rounded and interesting and the principle plot-line wraps up neatly and satisfyingly.

That said, All Systems Red is the first novella in The Murderbot Diaries, so if you need more MurderBot in your life, rejoice. And I am. Must. Have. More. Murderbot. And it's not just me loving these books. I shared All Systems Red with The Husband and he enjoyed it very much. He doesn't have a lot of time to read and reads more slowly than I, so short snarky books with immediately absorbing stories are a definite win.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells. Tor, 2017.


When the English Fall

Set in what feels like the very near-future, a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it. In the chaos that follows, the Pennsylvania Amish are largely unaffected and continue to go about their business in their small agrarian communities ... until the greater world intrudes in the form of the starving and the desperate.

Despite its calamitous themes, When the English Fall is a quiet, slow-paced novel told through a series of introspective diary entries written by Jacob, an Amish farmer living near Lancaster. Because we only see what is happening through Jacob's eyes, many of the hows and whys of the calamity pass unexplained and I can see where this would frustrate certain readers, but I was fine not knowing as the hows and whys of what befell the English aren't really important.

What's important are the choices Jacob and his community ultimately make. Indeed, When the English Fall is a rather philosophical book. What are the Amish community's obligations to their English neighbors? How long can they continue to react nonviolently to the increasingly desperate and violent English? At what point does selflessness endanger their own survival and safety? These are the questions central to the story. Not: how did a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it? But: When the world changes in dramatic and drastic ways, how do we remain true to ourselves?

My only complaint is that I didn't find the prefatory Army communication at all necessary. I feel it didn't bring anything to the story, except to raise unsettling questions about what happened to Mike and his family. Questions I didn't want or need raised, thank you, especially as When the English Fall is a stand-alone novel so all unanswered questions will stay just that.

When the English Fall by David Williams (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017)


The Handmaid's Tale

The best kind of dystopian fiction is, for me, the kind that can convince me that world is possible and The Handmaid's Tale ... well, it hews too close to the truth for comfort these days. It is a bleak portrait of a future that seems far too real, given contemporary events. It helps that Atwood has told her story sparingly and quietly, with so much tension and drama simmering away at the edges, so that it's easy to interpret or suppose or assume things about the narrative and its relationship to the "real world." (Whatever that may mean in these days of alt-facts. Even on a good day, what is real and what is just what we're increasingly becoming used to?)

Format-wise, I really liked that the publisher had added a little music to the last 30 seconds or so of each disc, so that you knew the end was coming up, and that the last minute or so of each disc repeated at the beginning of the next. Maybe I listen to the wrong audio book publishers, but I don't encounter those features very often and that's a pity as they make the listening experience that much easier.

The Handmaid's Tale written by Margaret Atwood & read by Claire Danes (Brilliance Audio, 2014)


American War by Omar El Akkad

I finished American War well over a week ago now, but I still struggle to know what to say about it. It’s bleak and grim and dark. Full of rogue weaponized drones, catastrophic weather, (villainous) governments, and freedom fighters (terrorists). And yet there are small moments of beauty and humor amidst all the horror.

Ultimately, American War is a disquieting, uncomfortable novel. One of those novels the word “unputdownable” can honestly be applied to. Which doesn’t make this novel flawless -- there are, for example, points where the narrative is frustratingly meandering -- but it is too compelling a story for me to care too much about structural flaws.

El Akkad incorporates excerpts from news articles, memoirs, and official documents to fill out the story and provide context for Sarat's experiences -- I tend to enjoy fiction which employs that kind of epistolary conceit, so I ate those pages up and wanted more, because there is still so much of Sarat’s world I want to know (yet am afraid to know, because These Times Are Too Much Like Fiction).

American War takes place during the uneasy detente occurring after the catastrophic second American civil war. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have formed their own government (The Free Southern State), with North Carolina and Tennessee rather friendly to it, and South Carolina a quarantined zone controlled by the North. The Free Southern State is not well regarded by it's populace and there are a myriad of rebel factions clamoring for power within it. The South is gutted. Scarred. Angry. Prone to (self)destruction.

Growing up in this mess, first in mostly-drowned Louisiana and later in a displaced persons camp in Mississippi, is Sarat Chestnut. Curious, defiant, ignorant, and unfeminine (nice to see contemporary gender norms still hold sway), Sarat is eventually befriended by a mysterious, smooth-talking, and educated man who spoon feeds her the Story of the South -- a tasty, untanglable blend of fact and fiction that sets her on a dark path.

And I can’t say more because Spoilers. Just go yourself a copy of American War.

American War written by Omar El Akkad & read by Dion Graham (Random House Audio, 2017)


The Clewiston Test

Anne Clewiston, who works for a pharmaceutical research company, has spent eight years working on a near-miraculous pain killer, pa, that simply turns off pain. The drug is currently in primate trials, but the company hopes to move ahead as quickly as possible with human trials. On female prisoners. While Clewiston, chief developer, is out on medical leave as she recovers from injuries caused by a terrible car accident. Who’s in charge of her project while she’s out? Her husband, Clark Symons, who lacks the brilliance and vision of his wife.

Unsurprisingly, things start to go wrong with the primate trials -- the chimpanzees become both murderously violent and withdrawn. And then the Clewiston-Symons marriage, perhaps never as perfect as it appeared, begins to develop cracks. Secrets are kept. Truths omitted. Lies told. Dangerous presumptions about Anne Clewiston's mental health are made.

The Clewiston Test reads like a thoroughly satisfying science fictional contemporization of The Yellow Wallpaper and I just wish there had been more of it. Maybe it was because I read The Clewiston Test while more-or-less bedridden from my own surgery, but Anne's situation really resonated with me and I couldn't put the novel down. And I certainly wanted to put it down as it made me feel increasingly anxious and claustrophobic as the story went on. I wanted to stop thinking about the dreadful mess the men where making of Anne's work and life because of the presumptuous social codes of mainstream twentieth-century American culture. I couldn't see how Anne would get out of the corner she'd been trapped in and the ending ... well, The Clewiston Test is definitely not a feel good piece. A cautionary tale, certainly.

The Clewiston Test by Kate Wilhelm (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976)


Mars Evacuees

The fact that someone had decided I’d be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.

When the Morrors showed up and said they could cool down the overheated earth and save humanity, humanity understandably rejoiced. But the Morrors (rhymes with horrors?) really meant they were going to bring on a new ice age, making the earth inhospitable to humans, and perfectly hospitable to Morrors. And so began a long and nasty war ... and the humans have been losing ground.

Alice, daughter of the famous fighter pilot Captain Dare, has been shipped off to a (partially) terraformed and (sorta-kinda) habitable Mars with a bunch of other kids to continue their education from a place of safety. Except, of course, it turns out Mars might not be all that safe. There's weirdness afoot. And then all the adults disappear.

Mars Evacuees was an absolutely delightful read. Funny and smart, with lots of relatable female characters and careful, skillful world-building. And, yes, while the story was a mad romp, it also deftly handled heavy issues like war, racism, and gender.

There was no part of this novel I did not enjoy (well, except for a few bleak bits when SPOILERS but that was perfectly understandable) and I am completely chuffed to know there is a sequel, Space Hostages, in the works. As a child, I read lots of "soft" sci-fi like This Place Has No Atmosphere, The Dancing Meteorite, and Orvis and I'm pretty darn certain eleven-year-old me would have adored this book, too. Perky talking floating robotic goldfish! Hooray!

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall (Harper, 2014)



In a far future universe, humanity is at war with itself. A temporary peace has been struck and five hundred refugees have been released from their internment camp to a waystation where they'll be sorted out and sent on to surviving family or friends. On the surface of it, Lia Johansen is just another orphaned, friendless sixteen-year-old refugee. But Lia is more than she seems. Lia is a living bomb.

Yeh. So there's that. Except, of course, she doesn't go BOOM and kill everyone. Because I'm pretty sure you can't have the heroine of a young adult novel slaughter thousands of innocent people. It's just not done, darling.
Even if all those people are possessed by invisible, incorporeal, parasitic aliens.

There’'s a lot going on in Nova. When I first began reading the book, it seemed pretty straightforward, but as the story progressed more layers of nuance and complication were added to Lia's backstory until it had become so twisty-turny that, frankly, an invasion by invisible parasitic aliens did not come as a surprise.

So did I actually enjoy reading Nova? Yes? Ish? The original premise -- human bomb suffers a glitch and doesn't explode, then struggles to understand her purpose and define herself -- fascinated me. Lia herself is an extremely admirable character – she demonstrates continued courage and inner strength in while trapped in a terrible situation. Yes, Lia cries and gets a wee bit depressed, but who wouldn't? Awful as her problems are, Lia tries to think them through to find a resolution she can live with. She just doesn't give up.

So Lia's great. But the addition of the aliens and the romance with Michael detracted from my enjoyment. The aliens felt like a cop-out -- Aliens Are Bastards -- so we readers wouldn't have to deal with the reality that Humans Are Really Bastards. The romance with Michael was just so ... predictable. As soon as Lia met Michael, I knew I there was going to be a "oh-my-god-I-love-him-but-I'm-a-bomb-but-I-love-him-but-" and there was and it was annoying. Why did they have to fall in love so quickly? Why not be good friends? It's not as if the romance brought anything extra to the plot. Although, if you're a romantic, I guess you could say the romance brought an extra poignancy to Lia's final act.

Mostly, I wanted more Shar. More Teal. More Captain Kerr.

Maybe in the next book?

Nova by Margaret Fortune (Daw Books, 2015)


Rocket Girl, Volume 1: Times Squared

Teen cop from a corporation-controlled future travels back to 1986 New York City to stop the group that will eventually become that corporation, Quintum Mechanics, from obtaining the technologically-advanced device that kickstarted their control of the future. Or something like that. And, along the way, she maybe discovers that her future was never supposed to exist. And that she's actually brought the device along with her. Oops.

Call me old and cynical, but DaYoung's future-present never seemed that bad and so it was difficult for me to believe in her desperate mission to stop Quintum Mechanics. Yes, dudes were certainly after her and there clearly was some kind of game afoot at Quintum Mechanics, but it didn't seem desperately important. Not enough to lose oneself in the past for, anyway.

And the cut scenes that were supposed to show me the shenanigans going on in DaYoung's future-present (and, perhaps, hammer home how awful everything was) while she crashed about in 1986 were just confusing. At one point, during a fight scene, it looked as if an entire building disappeared, but I still have no idea if that's what really happened. More exposition and deeper world building would have been welcome.

I don't know ... I find the concept interesting, but the execution was unimpressive. Not terrible, but I doubt I'll read later volumes.

Rocket Girl, Volume 1: Times Squared by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder (Image Comics, 2014)


The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is set hundreds of years in the future, on an Earth that bears little resemblance to this one. Ashala is an Illegal, a human with superhuman abilities which place her outside her society. Rather than be put in detention or try for an Exempt tattoo, she runs off to the Firstwood and founds the Tribe, a collection of young Illegals who dream of changing the world. At first, life is pretty okay in the woods and the Tribe seems to experience some success with its message of tolerance and change ... and then Chief Administrator Neville Rose builds a new detention center nearby (coincidence? methinks not) and Ashala hears rumors of a terrible Machine ...

I liked that the story wasn't sprung on me in full (x is bad, y has betrayed, z will save us all), but slowly spun out over the course of the book as Ashala regained her memories. Kwaymullina has created an interesting, functional world that's easy to accept without being particularly familiar (unless you're already with familiar with Australian Aboriginal mythology). There's also a lot to be said for the novel's environmental and inclusionary messages as well as the quiet preponderance of female characters.

While I avoid series when I can and The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is the first book in a quadrilogy, the novel stands comfortably on its own with a satisfactory ending that wraps up most of the story lines.

3 out of 5 towering tuarts

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Candlewick Press, 2014)



Our gods are here below, with us, in the Bureau, in the kitchen, in the toilet. The gods have become like us -- ergo, we've become like gods. And we're headed your way, my unknown planetary readers, we're coming to make your life divinely rational and precise, like ours.

Imagine OneState, a city-state made of glass isolated from the disorderly and primitive natural world by the Green Wall. The happy (but never free) inhabitants of OneState, named by number, live and work in utter transparency according to the strict schedule laid out by The Table of Hours. Other than the masses of numbers, the citizenry consists of the Guardians who police and the Benefactor who rules. Unless the are sick, every member of OneState is a happy and productive -- "one body with a million hands."

Imagine D-503, builder of the spaceship the Integral, designed to spread the "mathematically infallible happiness" of OneState throughout the universe. He's no dreamer, no revolutionary. Just an utterly orthodox cog in OneState's machine ... until he meets his very own manic pixie dream girl revolutionary, I-330, and develops a soul.

I spent most of my time reading We feeling vaguely annoyed by D-503. The novel is told entirely from his point-of-view and his orthodoxy becomes frustrating as the story progresses -- he seems like a child clinging to a fairy story -- and his abrupt love/obsession with I-330 seems so out of character as to be unbelievable.

But, really, I wanted to know more about I-330 and O-90. What do the women do away from D-503? Outside of sexual encounters during Personal Hours, D-503 doesn't seem to interact with women so I, the reader, don't know where the female citizens of OneState fit. I-330 is a mystery and what she does when she isn't being mysterious or sexually manipulative isn't shown. Aside from (probably) being in love with D-503 and illegally conceiving his child, I know nothing of 0-90.

My feelings of annoyance toward D-503 weren't improved any when he said things like this:

All women are lips, nothing but lips. Some are pink, supple, round -- a ring, a tender shield against the whole world. And then these: A second ago they didn't exist, and now suddenly, made by a knife, the sweet blood still dripping ...

Listen, D-503, both your sex partners -- Pink Supple Lips and Lips Like A Knife -- are revolutionaries willing to die for their particular causes and writing this kind of stuff about them just makes you sound completely unworthy of them.

Also, why did D-503 have to constantly mention R-13's African lips? It feels grossly offensive, but the book was written in 1921 so, yay, for casual racism? I actually thought, in the beginning, that Zamyatin's intention was to keep referencing the bestial in D-503 and R-13 because the bestial people on the other side of the Green Wall represented the utopia the revolutionaries strove for. So, maybe, African lips were a good thing? But then R-13 doesn't survive the revolution. And there's this:

R-13 had suddenly jumped on the bench that was above me, to the left; he was red, spitting with rage. He was carrying I-330 in his arms. She was pale, her yuny ripped open from her shoulders to her breast, blood showing on the white part. She had her arms round his neck and he was jumping from bench to bench in huge leaps, repulsive and agile as a gorilla, and carrying her toward the top.

Product of its time, blah, blah, blah. Ugh.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin w/ trans. by Clarence Brown (Penguin Books, 1993)


Again, Dangerous Visionss: 46 Original Stories

I must say that, given a choice, Again, Dangerous Visions is not how I would have chosen to read Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" and James Tiptree, Jr's "The Milk of Paradise." My library system's only copy has not aged well and, in general, neither has the collection itself. The stories themselves are still fairly okay, but their individual introductions/afterwards as well as Ellison's introduction to the volume "An Assault on New Dreamers" feel both extremely dated and unnecessary. In some cases, as in Saxton's "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon," they actively detracted from the story.

In the end, of the forty-six stories in Again, Dangerous Visions, I only read five. They're all pretty grim, discomforting stories and I could only read one per sitting. Even then, each one left me feeling like my brain needed a good scrubbing. Or the world needed to be set on fire.

"The Word for World is Forest" by Ursula Le Guin
This is the Hugo award-winning novella that eventually spun into a full-length novel of the same name. I've read the novel and found the novella at once both familar and strange.

"The Funeral" by Kate Wilhelm
A very Margaret Atwood-esque story set in an America in which women are objects with no rights or merits except those awarded to the roles -- mother, teacher, sex slave -- they are trained for in prison-like schools.

"When It Changed" by Joanna Russ
Thirty generations ago, the males of Whileaway where all killed by plague. The females adapted, learning to create (female) offspring, and eventually established a perfectly functional civilization. Then men -- thoroughly average men, I tell you -- arrive from space and everything changes.

"Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" by Josephine Saxton
On Pergamon equality has been achieved by making everyone equally ill. Except a few hardy outliers, who are imprisoned and studied before they are sacrificed for the greater good.

"The Milk of Paradise" by James Tiptree, Jr.
A man, orphaned and raised among aliens "fairer than all the children of men," finds no joy amongst humans when he is returned to them. It's an interesting take on perception and what we're willing to believe (or can be made to believe?) to survive.

Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories Edited by Harlan Ellison (Doubleday & Company, 1972)


Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

I don’t know where to start talking about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. A plot summary would both give too much away and explain absolutely nothing. So let me just talk about my FEELS.

The Internet tells me that Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is quite possibly the worst place to start reading Delaney, but I thought the book was fantastically fun, mind-bending, and eye-opening. It makes me crave science fiction as a genre in a way I didn’t think I could anymore. It makes me long for a universe that does not/will never exist. Even now, days after finishing the novel, I feel disoriented and half-drunk on prose.

And yet I freely admit that Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is a problematic novel. The things I love about it -- its lack of explication, its (in places) almost stream of consciousness narrative style, its nonstandard use of pronouns to describe gender and sex -- can make the novel deeply confusing and hard-going. I’m sure there were whole sections in which my reading left me holding the completely wrong end of the stick.

And I don’t care! There is such enjoyment in the manipulation of language (such a reimagining of communication between people!) that reading the novel was simply too much fun for me to care about whether I “got the point.” For example, she and he are used in ways that make it very difficult to ever “correctly” identify the gender, sex, sexual identity, or “humanness” of most characters ... and those identifiers aren’t important, anyway. Basically, it’s Fun With Words for readers who like that sort of thing and I do, very much.

Being unable to sex or gender or orientate by a known system neatly avoids, in my mind, the very real science fiction problem where aliens (and/or far future humans) are so humanish looking and humanish behaving that we end up bringing all our baggage of expectation and assumption to the story. Frankly, I didn’t know/understand what Delaney’s characters were doing half the time and I quickly gave up trying to figure things out and just decided to enjoy the story Delaney was spinning.

And what a story! Even when I found myself thinking “What were you smoking when you wrote that passage, Delaney?” or “Really? Dragon-people with how many tongues?” I couldn’t put the book down. It took me five days to read it, because I frequently had to stop and let its ideas settle in my brain, but it was worth every minute.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delaney (Bantam Books, 1984)


The Wall

Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. The I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.
While staying with friends at their hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, an unnamed forty-something woman awakens to find that her valley is encircled by a vast, invisible wall. She and the animals within it may be the only living beings left on earth.

Stunning. The Wall is once both a quietly beautiful domestic novel and a dark, wrenching novel about loneliness and solitude. When I began reading the novel, I immediately accepted the unnamed narrator's assumption that she was alone and would remain without human companionship for some time, if not forever. I became thoroughly wrapped up her domestic dramas -- making a habitable home for herself and the animals, securing enough food for them, and staving off depression as lack of skill and mental fatigue chipped away at her physical and mental strength.

But, despite all her domestic success and (grudging) survival, a terrible tension began to grow in me. There was an edge of darkness to every success, a faint whisper of some as-yet-undescribed awfulness. I didn't want to put down The Wall, yet I also wanted desperately to close my eyes to what felt like an inevitable horror. The line "Someone might come up to the window, looking like a man and hiding an ax behind his back" gave me nightmares for days and that's only 42 pages into The Wall! I ended up reading the novel in seasonal chunks, always during the daylight hours, when my imagination couldn't run too far ahead of me.

And, of course, when the disaster occurs, it occurs in the blink of an eye. There is no lead-up, no foreknowledge. Just that terrible thing. And that's life, after all. Terrible things happen and we do our best to survive them for the little time we have.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed The Wall and look forward to watching the 2012 German film adaptation. I simply wish Haushofer had written more. I've read a lot of human-at-the-end-of-the-world/trapped-in-bubbles type stories, but this was the first that felt thoroughly real.

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer w/ trans. by Shaun Whiteside (Cleis Press, 1990)


Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.

A collection of eighteen stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon). There isn't a story in this collection I didn't like. Even when I was full of horror and/or apprehension, I found the stories darkly beautiful and intensely fascinating. "With Delicate Mad Hands" is probably the closest any of the stories come to having a happy ending -- and the principal character dies horribly so, obviously, it's a nontraditional happy ending -- but I didn't come away from the collection depressed or despairing over humanity. Thoughtful, yes. Disoriented by the abrupt shift back to this current reality, certainly. In these stories, Tiptree/Sheldon crafted a future that I yearn grab to with both hands while also running away from, screaming as I go.

I feel I should warn you that this short story collection is a kind of literary trap -- pick it up with the intention of skimming a story or two and you'll find yourself surfacing, disoriented and aghast, three hours later. And don't think you can "just" read one before bed! I went to bed early one night with "With Delicate Mad Hands" and it was well past midnight before I gave in and accepted I would have to finish the story in the morning as it is deceptively lengthy. And then I had the most fucked up, creepy dreams. Read these stories in the daytime, under the strong, hot light of the summer sun.

And I can't wait to read more! I don't know why it took me so long start reading Tiptree/Sheldon, but now that’s I've started, I don't intend to stop. Five out of five ghostly white milch deers.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr. w/ an intro by John Clute & illus by Andrew Smith (Arkham House, 1990)


The She-Hulk Diaries

Acosta's She-Hulk is a bit different from the She-Hulk of my comic book memories and took a little getting used to. For example, I wasn't expecting a clear Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk divide as if She-Hulk were a completely different person from Jennifer. It makes sense in Acosta's novel, but that didn't mean I still didn't spend quite a lot of the beginning grimacing as Jennifer complained to herself about Shulky's shenanigans (while also using Shulky as an escape from her own mixed-up life).

That aside, I quite enjoyed The She-Hulk Diaries. Acosta's Jennifer Walters comes across as a very real person trying to successfully balance career and personal life while dealing with repercussions from some pretty poor choices (mostly She-Hulk's). She's made a checklist of goals to get her where she wants to be in life and she's confident and smart enough to make it all happen. While, I think, the look of the book and its dairy style are supposed to make you think of Bridget Jones's Diary, Jennifer is no bumbling-but-well-intentioned Bridget. Jennifer doesn't make blue soup. Jennifer tries to save dying children.

(Yeah. So, I might have a little crush).

And all that in a world filled with nefarious supervillians, a "dangerous" outbreak of niceness, and LARPing. LARPing, people. I'd love this book just for that. And the fluffy rats! And the tedious Avengers reports. Someone knows how to write superhero window dressing with style.

She-Hulk Diaries by Marta Acosta (Hyperion, 2013)


All Our Yesterdays

I stare at the drain in the center of the concrete floor. It was the first thing I saw when they locked me in this cell, and I’ve barely looked away since.

At first I was just obstinate, dragging my feet in the thin prison slippers they gave me so they were forced to pull me along the hallway by both arms. But when I saw the drain, I started to scream.
I'm usually not one for time travel stories -- my mind gets tangled up in the how of it and refuses to suspend disbelief -- but I could have eaten All Our Yesterdays up with a spoon. The storytelling was topnotch and, by the time a character tried to explain how time travel worked, I was too hooked on the story to get hung up on the how. Tesseract? Tardis? Particle collider? Apparently, it can be anything if you just keep telling me a good story.

And the ending ... ahh! So bittersweet. So right. And, gah, I can't really talk about it or much of the preceding novel, really, because SPOILERS. There's Em and Finn, imprisoned by a madman who invented a device that turned the world upside down and inside out. And there's Marina, living in a world that's still right side up, whose biggest problem is trying to tell her neighbor, James, that she loves him. And then it's all SPOILERS.

Go, read this book, so I have someone to talk about it with.

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill (Hyperion, 2013)


Earth Girl

I was Jarra, a Military kid, trained in unarmed combat. A history lecturer and twenty-nine other history students couldn't scare me. I stepped into the portal and a new identity.

Centuries ago, thanks to the development of portal technology, humanity jumped to the stars. Earth became a graveyard, a museum, a-nice-place-to-visit-but-I-wouldn't-want-to-live-there. Unfortunately, some humans, born with a genetic deficiency which made off-planet portalling impossible for them, had to remain on Earth. They might be lucky and have children who, lacking the deficiency, might leave Earth. And unlucky portal-using parents might find their children, bearing the deficiency, would have to be sent to Earth at birth ...

Ape. Throwback. Nean. Jarra knows all the words for what she is, but she knows she's more than that. She's as good as any off-planet eighteen-year-old and she burns to prove it. Given a chance to study Pre-History (that's our today) during her Foundation Year, Jarra opts to study on Earth (as she must because DEATH) with an off-world university. She'll lie to everyone (except the university) about who/what she is, dazzle her classmates with her superior archaeological skills, and then destroy all their presumptions about "apes" by revealing who she is and laughing in their faces.

Or something like that. Trouble is, Jarra grows to like and respect her classmates. And the work they're doing is really compelling. But how can she tell them what she is without destroying the tentative trust and friendship they've built?

In addition to all the quality friendship and relationship building drama Edwards has packed into Earth Girl, her hard SF elements are fab. Earth Girl is as much about Jarra getting her nerd on as it is about her coming to grip with what she is. What with ruined New York, domes, impact suits, sleds, stasis boxes, hover belts, tag guns ... Edwards has built a future Earth I'd want to live in.

While I really liked Earth Girl's cover art -- rather metaphorical, mythological, and pre-Raphealite kind of vibe -- I do think it does the novel a disservice as it makes Jarra looked like a sad, brooding waif. There's also nothing about it to suggest the novel is full of hard SF elements. That said, I felt the same way about Beth Revis's Across the Universe trilogy and it won't stay on the library shelves so clearly publishers know who they are marketing to. It's just not me.

As a teen, I read a lot (perhaps too much?) of Elizabeth Moon and CJ Cherryh and there's a duology by Anne Mason I will cherish in my heart forever. So I've grown to expect "good" science fiction covers will have women in space suits (or Military-esque uniforms) and space ships and science-y stuff and shizzle. Not mopey barefoot girls in cotton summer dresses.

Anyway, the sequel should be coming out in April and I can't wait.

Earth Girl by Janet Edwards (Pyr, 2013)