Imperial Radch #2: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Read: 22 March, 2017

Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, now in command of her own ship, as she tries to protect the planet Athoek from the brewing civil war.

My mind was thoroughly blown after Ancillary Justice, so I had to stop reading. I knew it’s a trilogy, but it was just so good that I couldn’t imagine how the story could possibly move forward without being a huge disappointed. Since Justice‘s resolution is so satisfying as is, I was ready to stop right there. Yes, you read that correctly – I was ready to abandon the series because it was just too good.

But after a year, a review convinced me to give Sword a try and, peeps, it totally holds up.

In some ways, I even liked Sword a little better. For one thing, the main players and context are already established, so there isn’t that “new fictional universe” disorientation. It also does away with Justice‘s time hopping.

In other ways, I didn’t like it quite as much. More characters are shown to be single-faceted – baddies to be defeated. Raughd, in particular, was rather disappointing.It worked at first, to have this super charming, socially privileged, universally liked person putting people down in private and destroying their sense of self worth. There was a lot there to explore. But then Raughd started to play out more obviously, and became more of a caricature, and she became less interesting because of it.

But this is an extremely minor complaint. I still have one book to go, but I feel comfortable enough to recommend this book whole heartedly. It is mind blowing, thoughtful, well written, and absolutely fabulous.

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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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Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Read: 30 January, 2017

“It was a dark and stormy night.” 

I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Read: 13 January, 2017

After a very unusual night, Richard becomes re-acquainted with his college friend, Svlad Cjelli – or, as he is currently calling himself, Dirk Gently. There’s also a ghost involved. It gets weird.

I have my doubts that Adams knew what the solution to the mystery would be before he started writing. This was my impression with the Hitchhiker’s books as well – he seems to just sit down, write what’s funny, and then try to come up with something that’ll end the book.

And that’s fine. This is one mystery where the journey really is all that matters, and the journey is hilarious.

Now that I’ve finished reading the book, I can finally watch that show I keep hearing about!

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Old Man’s War #2: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Read: 7 November, 2016

Like Old Man’s War, this sequel has a strong flavour of Starship Troopers. But it’s all the good Troopers and none of the bad. It’s what I wish Troopers had been – a fun read, compelling characters, mind-blowing future tech, with just a dash of “makes you think” philosophy. You know, without a bunch of self-stroking moralizing about how crime rates are so bad these days because parents don’t beat their kids like they used to.

In this book, we leave John Perry behind and instead delve into the Ghost Brigade – a branch of the military comprised of the clones of people who signed up to join the Colonial Union, but died before they reached the correct age. These special forces soldiers begin their conscious lives as adults, they know no life outside of the Colonial Union.

Unlike the regular soldiers, the special forces are created to be soldiers, and are never given a choice. This provides some very fertile ground to explore the idea of free will and choice – particularly the difference between choices and meaningful choices.

Old Man’s War did a great job introducing the universe, and Ghost Brigades does an excellent job introducing the overarching plot. I see, now, how the story can be sustained over many more books, and I’m excited to read them.

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Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

Read: 27 October, 2016

Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read: 10 September, 2016

After Wang Miao is recruited by the Beijing police to infiltrate a secret cabal of scientists, he finds himself on the brink of madness.

The Three-Body Problem is a fascinating book. It’s a lot more “hard” scifi than I’m used to, and a lot less narrative. The characters spend a fair bit of their time simply sitting around a room explaining scientific concepts to each other.

Yet, somehow, the plot manages to seep through and it’s fantastic. It’s a personal story of grief and revenge, it’s a secret society conspiracy story, it’s an alien invasion story, all pulled off in a compelling way.

The writing style is quite unusual. Ken Liu, the translator, has done an amazing job of preserving “an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences” (his words, from the translator’s postscript).

The main character, Wang, is a little flat. He has details added – a wife, a child, a photography hobby – but these only come up when necessary to the plot. Most of the time, he’s reactive, following along as other characters take him on a journey. But those other characters are so expressive and memorable that Wang’s comparative blandness doesn’t detract. Rather, he serves as a fantastic reader insert as we get to meet all these different interesting people and try to solve the great mystery.

I did feel like the third act was on the weaker side. The climax itself was great, but the reveal at the end where all the remaining plot lines are tied together felt forced and rather info-dumpy. This style had been used before, primarily in the sections where Ye Wenjie’s history is revealed. The difference there, though, is that Ye is a very interesting character. Whereas in the final portion, we’re with the aliens – characters we haven’t gotten to know and are explicitly meant to feel alienated (see what I did there?) from. Each character therefore serves only as a role needed to expose the plot, and it doesn’t work anymore. I have to admit, the final 40 or so pages took me about two days to get through. That said, it’s only 40 pages out of an otherwise fantastic 400.

There are apparently two sequels available. But for those of you suffering from Serial Burnout, don’t worry. The Three-Body Problem has a very satisfying end. It’s open, but it’s not a cliff-hanger.

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Dune #6: Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

Read: 1 September, 2016

I’m done! This journey a decade in the making has finally come to an end! Freedom!

Some reviewers have said that there are really two series in Dune – the first involving Paul and his immediate family, and the second involving the Bene Gesserit. That certainly seems to hold true, as Heretics and Chapterhouse have a very different feel. They are less personal, less interested in individual characters. Characters themselves can die but live on in Other Memory, interacting with the characters that still live. This means that the stakes are very different, as we fear for the safety of humanity itself, with little care of any individual players.

In many ways, Chapterhouse is a continuation of Heretics, which had ended on something of a cliffhanger. While I’m given to understand that this is supposed to have been a trilogy, it ends well. Leto II’s plan seems to finally be understood, the Bene Gesserit leadership understands its role in relation to humanity, and Duncan Idaho begins a new Scattering. It’s open-ended, sure, but it’s open-ended with a sense of finality.

I grew to like Odrade in the last book, and I was glad to spend so much more time with her here. Murbella got quite a bit of the second half, and I was glad to get to know her as something more than just Duncan’s sexual conquest and Odrade’s pawn. Rather, she starts to show agency, and she makes some very important decisions. She also becomes interesting, as she comes to embody a kind of synthesis between the Honored Matres and the Bene Gesserit. In no small way, she reshaped both sisterhoods into her own image, just as Odrade had initially shaped Murbella.

Miles Teg, whom I had so enjoyed in Heretics, took a back seat here. He’s present, but he’s more of a function – he carries out the plans of other characters. Where he is interesting is where we don’t know quite where his loyalties lie between Odrade and Duncan – in other words, he is interesting because of the conflict between Odrade and Duncan.

It’s difficult to say too much about this instalment because it lacks so much of what we might call storytelling. Things happen, the story moves on, but it does so without structure. It’s almost more like a meditation on the conflict, rather than something that could be properly called a novel. Still, the writing style and the characters sustained me, and I enjoyed listening to it every evening as I fell asleep.

Before I close up, I wanted to point out a very interesting quote in light of a Trump presidential candidacy:

“Democracy is a stupid idea anyway!”

“We agree. It’s demagogue-prone.That’s a disease to which electoral systems are vulnerable. Yet demagogues are easy to identify. They gesture a lot and speak with pulpit rhythms, using words that ring of religious fervor and god-fearing sincerity.”

I don’t think there can be any question that, whatever flaws he may have had as a writer, Herbert was keenly observant.

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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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