Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Read: May 6, 2018

This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

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Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

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The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Read: 22 June, 2017

In a post-apocalyptic world, civilization has reformed around a a collection of rules – strict regulations govern mining, weapons, technology… and citizenship. Those who develop special abilities are suppressed and imprisoned in detention centres, unless they can escape.

Ashala is written in the standard first person YA voice. It’s done well, but the voice isn’t a particularly strong one.

The plot is your average “main character is the leader of an underclass group that is rebelling against the status quo” format, and the main character is your standard “her strength is that she is just such a good leader, but she struggles with her desire for revenge” character.

It’s all fairly bog-standard, but it’s well executed. The twists are somewhat predictable, but the reveals are fun. I would have liked some more time with a few of the side characters, but I suppose that’s what sequels are for.

All in all, this book follows the YA template fairly faithfully, which fans of the genre will appreciate and haters will dislike. But while Ashala isn’t bringing much new to the table, the execution is solid. If you want to read YA, this is an excellent choice.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Read: 23 April, 2017

Dick is an ideas person. Like Electric SheepHigh Castle is full of ideas, all tossed in and scrambled fairly willy-nilly. A dozen great books or movies could be teased from the setting he creates.

Unfortunately, Dick is not an execution person.

There’s very little that might resemble a plot. The alternative ’60s are described in detail, but it’s an empty world. The characters are soulless automatons who putz around for a bit and then we reach the last page and it’s over. Dick starts three distinct plots: One is a political thriller/spy story that ends fatalistically (the immediate mission complete, but with the realisation that it will help nothing), one is a bootstraps story about the conflict between the antique industry (forgeries included) and the attempt to generate new culture, and the third is a sort of semi-lucid road trip that ends up being a sort of spy story of its own.

These stories sort of connect at points (someone from Story A knows someone from Story B, someone from Story B used to be married to someone from Story C), but that’s about it. These stories, and the characters that make them up, are just there as vehicles for the world development.

And that world development is… meh. The transatlantic rockets are the kind of thing I’d expect from the Fallout franchise’s tongue-in-cheek futuretech. The Nazis being awful, but also hopelessly inept and disorganised once push comes to shove because, ultimately, you can’t run a society on hate is sad and scary in this era of the Alt-Right controlling the government, but ultimately unimaginative.

Then there’s the dialogue. I’m guessing that Dick was trying to “Japanify” people’s speech patterns? Frankly, that came off more Mickey Rooney than linguistically insightful. It was overplayed and overdone for my tastes.

I did like the recurring theme of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a fictional book within a book of fiction, about an alternative world in which the Nazis did not win the war. That was funny.

I also liked the discussions of colonial identity, from both perspectives. How do the Japanese react to colonising the pacific US, and how does the pacific US react to being colonise? How does the US break? That’s all an interesting background theme that just didn’t get the plot or setting it deserved.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Read: 12 February, 2017

There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu (illustrated by Sana Takeda)

Read: 27 December, 2016

The summary describes the setting as “an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia.” Which… is better than any description I could come up with. Very little gets explained in this first volume.

Which is my main issue. While it could be argued that the storytelling dives right in without wasting a bunch of time on exposition, this left me with very little to latch on to. Things happened, characters acted, but I was just left feeling somewhat confused. I didn’t quite know what to make of them or what I was supposed to be feeling. I don’t need an infodump, but a little more context would have been nice. By the time I finally started feeling like I had a grasp on the world, the volume was over.

A lot of that is, I’m sure, in the nature of the serial storytelling common with comics. This is where I like graphic novels so much more – the story I pick up is complete, it has its arc, I don’t have to keep going through issues on blind faith that I will, at some point, figure out what the heck is going on.

But this is genre convention, so I supposed it isn’t really fair to judge Monstress for adhering to it. People who are more comfortable with serial comics will be fine, whereas people coming from a prose background, like myself, will likely struggle. Be warned.

The plot itself didn’t have much room to develop in such a short volume. It’s a fairly standard “ancient ones vs humans and oh yes the in between people”, with the twist that people can absorb an element from the ancient ones (and their mixed offspring) to gain power. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The matriarchy angle is interesting. There’s a particular joy to reading a comic where nearly all the characters are female, except for a handful of background characters who have very little dialogue. After so much media being the opposite, it was refreshing.

But it felt like it just wasn’t going quite far enough. It’s a matriarchy, but soldiers wear armour that accentuates their sexy at the expense of protection (boob armour! boob armour everywhere!). And while there are a few larger bodies, they are in the background. All the central adult characters are super models. It would have been nice to have a little more variety.

That said, the main character is an amputee, and that is just wonderful to see.

Where the series really sells itself is in the artwork. It’s sort of art nouveau inspired, and it is so gorgeous. Every single panel is rich with detail. From what I can judge of the first volume, it’s the artwork where this series is distinguishing itself. It’s the artwork that’s going to make people giving volume 2 a chance.

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I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

Read: 15 October, 2016

I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Read: 20 August, 2016

Sometime in the future, women are once again refused legal adulthood, are functionally the property of men, and are denied explicit participation in their society. In this environment, beliefs about women’s supposed low intelligence provides the perfect cover for a quiet revolution.

At this moment, I am sitting at my desk, poised to write my review, with two full pages of notes before me (double-sided). I know my reviews are always a little scattered, but this book really has me going, and I just don’t know how I could possibly impose even the slightest pretence of order onto my thoughts. So, consider this a warning – this review will be both long and meandering.

My first impression of the novel is that the writing style reminded me a bit of Isaac Asimov, in that the characters take a backseat to the story. Nazareth, the woman who has the greatest claim to being the main character, is discussed in the first chapter, seen in the second, and then disappears until chapter nine, 80 pages later.

Yet, at the same time, I found that most of the named characters have a very strong presence, making them memorable and feel like they occupy much more narrative time than they actually do. Any time the story was with Michaela, I really felt like I was reading about Michaela, not about Plot Device #35.

Even in groups, I found the characters to be very well fleshed out. Groups hate each other believably, and there’s a lot of dark humour as the narrator switches sides. In every case, Elgin shows us that there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotypes groups have of each other, but also a lot of projection.

The book is unquestionably stemming from some-wave feminism, but I’m somewhat saddened by many of the reviews I’m seeing. In particular, I keep seeing the claim that this book is “man-hating,” or that all the female characters are good while all the male characters are bad. These same complaints are brought up, and I can only conclude that these reviewers aren’t engaging with the plot, and are burdened with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. It’s a fairly well-studied phenomenon that, as women approach equatable talking time, they are perceived to be dominating the conversation. I think a similar dynamic is in evidence here – when a story centres on women’s experiences, it is perceived as being at the expense of men’s experiences.

In this case, it’s far from true. Nazareth is, perhaps, the only innocent. She is abused, she is isolated, she is oppressed, and she perseveres with an almost saintly serenity. But Michaela, far from being a “goodie,” is in fact a terrible person beaten down by her guilt who seeks redemption in the end by using her sins to serve the purposes of her fellow-women. That’s a complex character, one who is unquestionably bad, yet who also perhaps has a shot to redeem herself a little (only a little, though, because she is never allowed to join the group of women she kills to protect). Beyond Michaela, we have Aquina, who is consistently shown to be rash and overzealous and whose actions hurt and essentially kill other women. Even the other women of the Barren House behave abominably toward Nazareth – believing it to be out of necessity, sure, but they still make the conscious choice not to provide comfort to a young girl who desperately needs it.

As for all the men being bad characters, that’s equally absurd. Where I imagine these reviewers are tripping up is that the “good” men (like Showard, who hates killing babies in the names of economics/science, and who consistently expresses his moral objections) are just as much a product of their environment as the women. They may feel that their society is wrong, but they can’t put that feeling into words and, even if they could, they lack the drive to do so because they, too, benefit from the very structures of oppression that discomfit them. Just as was the case through the very long period of European history where women were – as in the book – not considered legal adults and forbidden from direct economic participation. These good men may treat their own wives well, they may encourage their daughters, they may make half-hearted arguments to other men, but they so rarely press any further. If accurately portraying a very real social arrangement, one that was the standard in the western world for centuries, is “reverse sexism,” we have problems.

We have problems because what we are seeing is men so coddled by literature, so accustomed to being presented with Gary Stu characters who transcend their cultures to be perfectly enlightened in the most unchallenging ways, that they can’t handle an accurate portrayal of socialisation and internalised power structures.

Given how little of the social aspects of the novel are without historical precedent, it really does seem disingenuous to demand that we spend our precious narrative real estate on unrealistic men who magically shed their culture’s mores to go around saving the women from sexism. I can only conclude that, for some readers, anything that isn’t specifically about men must be against men. Because the best way to prove that Aaron Adiness is an ugly caricature is to pantomime him in GoodReads reviews.

Before I leave the subject of sexism, I was wowed by Elgin’s depiction of emotional labour. It’s a concept that I’ve only recently started to encounter, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it highlighted (and certainly not to this extent!) in fiction. The idea is that there’s this To Do list of chores that women are expected to do, and expected to do quietly so as never to attract notice to the doing of it, in order to regulate the emotions and egos of men. We first see this with Michaela, who is prized for the way she listens quietly to her husband as he talks through his problems – essentially acting as his sounding board / therapist. Again and again, Michaela’s ability to make men feel like they are heard when they have problems is remarked upon, and yet never is there any sense that she may also need to feel heard. There’s no sense of reciprocity, no awareness that her gift is anything but men’s due. (SPOILERS: In the climax of the book, women stop performing this emotional labour. They will sit still while men talk because they are compelled to do so, but they stop listening. Only in its absence is emotional labour finally noticed, by which time it’s too late. Suddenly, men are left with the choice of either simply going unfulfilled, or of learning how to perform emotional labour for each other, with reciprocity.)

I have a few complaints about the book, of course. One is the use of “perceive this.” According to one of the characters, phrases like ‘see here’ are “biased manner(s) of expression” (p.13). The idea being, of course, that these dynastic linguists opt for more precise turns of phrase. Except that, on the whole, they don’t seem to. Sure, they will frequently say “perceive this,” but they seem to just use it in place of the old timey phrase “now see here” – rather than specifically when they want someone to actually perceive something. Other than that, the linguists’ speech is indistinguishable from the non-linguists’ speech, using plenty of colloquialisms and other “loose” language. Because of this, it made the phrase “perceive this” feel very gimmicky, used just to remind the reader that it exists. I found it either very annoying or absolutely hilarious, depending on whether Elgin intended it as an in-group / out-group affiliation identifier.

There are essentially two plots in the novel. In the first, we see the women of linguist families developing their own special ‘women’s language’ (called Laadan). The other plot is the government quest to bypass the linguists by developing the technology to communicate with non-humanoid aliens. They only really intersect once (through Michaela’s subplot), though there are some character cross-overs. Both plots are compelling, but they just don’t mesh well. Ultimately, the Government Work plotline feels like filler to beef out the page count.

The plots also relied on certain assumptions that I didn’t feel were properly communicated. For example, if the point is to end the government’s dependency on the linguist families, then why focus exclusively on communication with non-humanoid aliens? They know how the linguists do what they do, so why not simply raise their own crop of linguists, who can speak with the humanoid aliens, and start with that? One of the linguists hints at one point that they plan a union strike if the government were to ever do such a thing, but it seems that the government could easily build up a fairly large army of translators in secret and then unleash them all at once. Sure, they’d lose some coverage, but wouldn’t it be worthwhile if it meant no longer being dependent on the linguists?

Much is made in the story of “interfacing,” though it isn’t really explained until about halfway through. Basically, the idea is that a human baby is placed in close proximity to an alien for several hours a day, until it absorb’s the alien’s language as its own native tongue (“roll credits”). But until that point, I was under the impression that it was something far more tech-y, like a laser brain imprinting or something. Because interfacing, as it actually stands, doesn’t make sense. In the book, interfacing with a non-humanoid alien causes a baby to turn itself inside-out – the explanation is that human brains aren’t equipped to perceive the world in a non-humanoid way, causing the human body exposed to non-humanoid worldviews to explode.

Well, I gotta tell you, I have a cat that my son has been in very close quarters with since he came home from the hospital, and he has yet to explode. In my experience, it’s absolutely true that humans have these experiential walls beyond which they cannot peak. But when babies (or young children, or adults) hit these walls, they merely ignore whatever is beyond them. They filter it out. A baby trapped in a glass box with a non-humanoid alien wouldn’t explode, it would simply be developmentally delayed from the lack of human interaction.

I never understood why the women’s language, Laadan, was taken so seriously by the men, how it was supposed to “change reality.” I understand that they have words to express a more nuanced emotional landscape, sure, but why would the men ever find that threatening? They didn’t take Langlish seriously, so why would they take Laadan seriously – even if it’s a better constructed language? I understand the exploration of the theory that language helps to shape culture, but the whole point of the sexism in the novel is that the men just don’t take the women seriously – so why would they take a women’s culture any more seriously they did the Encoding Project? How does Elgin account for the long history of other women’s languages/scripts, such as Nüshu? Worse, when a character voices my questions, the only explanation offered is: “Never mind why, Michaela. It’s complicated. It’s way beyond you” (p.281). I would have enjoyed the ending more if the men just continued in their assumption that women’s personal lives were below notice, while the women developed a hidden-in-plain-sight culture of their own. It seems like that would have been more plausible, and more interesting.

My last complaint is with the preface, which really bothered me. It establishes the novel to follow as fiction within its own fictional universe, and what the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks was the point of that? All it did was collapse the novel’s meaning, because we know that any impact that the plot might have within its world is a fiction within a fiction. It’s not even meaningful within the realm of suspension of disbelief. And it’s wholly unnecessary. The novel would have been much stronger as a first level fiction, without the silly framing device – particularly as it raised so many unnecessary questions. Did Laadan exist in the real fictional universe? Did the women ever achieve the things they achieve in the end, or was that only in the novel’s fiction? Why even raise the spectre of such questions?

I’m complaining a lot, as usual, but I did love this novel. It had strong characters, a very interesting perspective, a really cool take on the science fiction genre (linguistics!), and it was so so funny, too. It was a very black humour, certainly, but it was wonderful. I found the novel to be very cynical, but also very incisive and perceptive. And while I certainly disagreed with Elgin on a number of points, it was so refreshing just to see her perspective. I’ve just read so many unabashedly misogynistic science fiction and fantasy novels that it was a breath of fresh air to read something that just turned around and confronted those ideas head on.

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