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Books To Look For
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, Tor.com, 2017, $14.99, tpb
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells, Tor.com, 2018, $16.99, hc
Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells, Tor.com, 2018, $16.99, hc
Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells, Tor.com, 2018, $16.99, hc
Humanizing AI/robots/androids has been a long-standing trope in sf. It's probably as prevalent as anthropomorphizing animals and inanimate objects is in children's stories. The trick to doing either well is humanizing them enough to make them relatable but still incorporating elements of their otherness—their unique physicality, abilities and perspective of the world. Otherwise you might just as well be writing about human beings in funny suits.
In All Systems Red, we meet Murderbot—a SecUnit (a security unit that's made up of machine and human parts). Murderbot isn't its designation. It's the name it came up with for itself since it's managed to hack the control unit that keeps it tied to the corporation that manufactured it. It's self-aware and gave itself the name after its last mission went terribly wrong and it supposedly killed all the humans it was hired to protect.
Now all it wants to do is be left alone to figure out who it is and to watch its serials (the future version of streaming TV). But to keep up the pretense of being a regular SecUnit, it has to go out on assignments when travelers hire it from the Company (a nice catch-all name that reminds us of every corporation).
So on a distant planet that's being prepared for terraforming, Murderbot accompanies a group of scientists conducting tests, and that's when everything goes pretty much sideways.
I'm not sure if people unfamiliar with sf (in book or film) will find it easy to get into this series. That's not because Martha Wells uses a lot of unfamiliar jargon. Rather she assumes that readers will know all the basics of spaceships, space stations, interstellar travel, etc., and doesn't bog down the story with explanations of how it all works unless they're unique to her story. And even then the extrapolation is woven seamlessly into the story as it unfolds. But if you know this space opera setting, you'll appreciate each book a little more than the next.
She was also clever in the creation of Murderbot's (evolving) personality. I think every genre reader has moments of social awkwardness and obsessions, or at least I know I do. So when Murderbot is checking out its face in security camera feeds to see if its expression looks normal, or obsesses about getting lost in fictional series, I totally get it and can empathize with it.
Its mix of geek, hardboiled PI and The Terminator ends up being both endearing and heroic.
I'm not going to delve too deeply into the plots of these books, mostly because while they are standalone, they do build on each other, and why should I spoil the surprise and delights of discovery for you when I got to enjoy them?
Let me just say that Wells ticks all the boxes you look for in a good book: delightful prose and characters, gripping storylines, perfect pacing. There's plenty of action but also wonderful contemplative elements when Murderbot is considering morality, its own place in the universe, and other weighty subjects. And while the series is set in the far future, Murderbot's observations on human foibles are as true today as they are in its time.
Simply put, I love this series. The mix of old-fashioned space opera with a very modern sensibility and prose style in these novellas makes the series an absolute winner. I went from book to book, happily engrossed until the sad moment came when I reached the last page of the last book.
But you know what? I'm just going to reread them all again in a couple of months.
An Easy Death, by Charlaine Harris, Saga Press, 2018, $28.99, hc
I sense we're on the cusp of yet another new sf subgenre. This time it's the post-apocalyptic western as seen from the perspective of a gunslinging young woman gifted with extra abilities. In the past few weeks I've had at least three titles sharing that thumbnail description show up for possible review.
In Charlaine Harris's An Easy Death, that character is Lisbeth Rose, a "gunnie" or gunslinger. She's part of a crew that hires itself out to guide travelers through the desolate wastelands of what's left of the American Southwest and protect them from outlaw attacks.
It's a plausible world in which Rose finds herself. After suffering bank crashes and crippling influenza outbreaks, the U.S. finds itself with a diminishing population that is unable to protect itself from having chunks of the country annexed by its neighbors, Canada to the north, Mexico to the south. The original thirteen colonies form a bond with England, the southern states join together as Dixie, the southwestern states become Texoma and the West Coast becomes the Holy Russian Empire ruled by Russian Christians, with an exiled Tsar and his wizards, the grigoris.
After a disastrous expedition that opens the book, Rose finds herself unemployed. That's when two of these grigoris come calling. They want to hire her as a guide and protector while they track down Oleg Karkarov, a low-level wizard who also happens to be a direct descendant of the Tsar. The Tsar is suffering from a disease that requires blood transfusions that can only come from those who share his genetic makeup. People such as Oleg. The reason for urgency is that he's one of the last of the Tsar's bloodline.
Rose doesn't care much for grigoris—she's the result of a one-night stand one of them had with her mother—so working for a pair of them is the last thing she's interested in doing. But since she has no other prospects in the offing and she needs money to live, she takes the job.
That's when the assassins start coming out of the woodwork: grigoris, gunslingers, shapechangers. Because there's a faction in the Holy Russian Empire that wants the Tsar dead and will stop at nothing to get the job done.
We end up with a story that's a little Mad Max and a little spaghetti western but with a lead character who, while tough as nails, also has a lot of heart. It's a great, fully realized setting filled with memorable characters.
Charlaine Harris has the resumé to make a story like this work. She's the talent behind the Sookie Stackhouse series, the Midnight Crossroad trilogy (which, if you're a TV viewer, appeared as True Blood and Midnight, Texas, respectively), and my favorite, the Harper Connelly mysteries. Harris is a perennial favorite among readers because she knows how to deliver a story that works on all levels, and An Easy Death is no exception.
There have been earlier books in this quixotic little subgenre, and I have the sense there'll be more, but I've no doubt that An Easy Death will remain one of the benchmarks for many years to come.
Worlds Seen in Passing: 10 Years of Tor.com Short Fiction, edited by Irene Gallo, Tor.com, 2018, $27.99, hc
I've always found the idea of Tor.com confusing. It sounds like the website for Tor Books, and many of the people working on it also work at Tor Books, but it's nevertheless its own entity. And its own imprint.
What isn't confusing is what a joyful site it is. If you're an aficionado of fantasy/sf/horror and like a sense of community, then this is pretty much the only place on the web you need to visit. Top quality fiction, art, news, essays, reviews—it's all there, and each post is followed by a lively commentary section. Sometimes the commentaries are more informative and/or entertaining than the actual post being commented upon.
I've read any number of wonderful stories on the site, so I'm happy to see a healthy collection of them put together into an old-school paper edition, giving them a new audience among those readers who aren't online so much, or who just don't like reading on a screen.
In her introduction, Irene Gallo proves to have as astute an editorial eye as she brings to her day job as creative director at Tor Books, although she prefers the term curate to edit, as she rightly points out that these stories were originally acquired and edited by the team that provides content for the site, which in this case includes the editorial acumen of folks like Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ellen Datlow, Ann VanderMeer, and others. (As an aside, I really like how the introduction to each story includes the name of the actual acquiring editor.)
She also points out that she found it heartbreaking to choose only forty stories from the hundreds published on the site, having to leave some favorites behind because of length or lack of context within the anthology as a whole. But the lovely thing is that all the stories are available for you to read online.
Still, if you prefer an analog approach to your reading, or just want a taste of what the site has to offer, World Seen in Passing is an absolute winner. Some stories you'll like more than others, some maybe not at all, but you won't be able to deny the quality of the prose and the storytelling.
I found it hard to pick favorites because my favorite kept changing, depending on my mood and what I read next. But here are a few of the many that stood out for me:
"About Fairies" by Pat Murphy, a meditation on fairies, big cities, death, Alzheimer's, and Peter Pan that's pure dark enchantment.
"The Best We Can" by Carrie Vaughn, in which the proof of extraterrestrial life gets bogged down in bureaucracy.
"Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders, a mesmerizing story about two people who see the future and know their relationship will only last as long as the story's title. What's fascinating is how each of them deal with the knowledge. I've read this one a few times now but it still grabs me with each new reading.
"The City Born Great" by N. K. Jemisin, a hardcore but tender, epic but small triumph of a city's birthing pains and the young man who serves as its midwife.
"The Hanging Game" by Helen Marshall. I don't know if this macabre kid's game is based on any sort of reality, but knowing rural communities, it's as possible as some I've seen and heard of. The matter-of-fact tone makes it all the more chilling.
"The Shape of My Name" by Nino Cipri deals with two of my favorite things: time travel, and characters figuring out who they really are. I particularly liked how each new timeline was introduced by the scents the viewpoint character either associated, or would come to associate, with it.
"The Cage" by A. M. Dellamonica is a werewolf story set in the East Vancouver lesbian community, and while it has any number of wonderful things going for it, what I most appreciated was the loyalty and genuine friendship within that community. Also, one of the most enchanting werewolves ever.
"Please Undo This Hurt" by Seth Dickinson offers up an explanation as to why compassion and kindness are on the wane in this world of ours. What if there was a way that you could exit the world, not by leaving hurt behind but by erasing the fact that you ever existed? I really felt for the viewpoint character.
"Brimstone and Marmalade" by Aaron Corwin is a story about a girl who wanted a pony for her birthday and got a little demon instead. It made me smile often and also gave me the feels.
"A Kiss with Teeth" by Max Gladstone relates how things work out for Vlad the Impaler trying to live as a human in contemporary New York City. Not as a high roller, part of the jet set, but as an ordinary joe, as a father and husband in a small tenement apartment. You can imagine how that works out. Delicious from start to finish.
I could go on and on. Pick up this book. It's easily one of the best anthologies I've read in a while, in which all the stories were worth my time, and how often does that happen?
Born with Wings by Bryan Fields, Beasthold Books, 2018, $14.95, tpb
The advice is often given to writers to start in the middle of the action, and boy, has Bryan Fields taken it to heart. Born with Wings opens with a chase and fight scene in souped-up vehicles set in a post-apocalyptic setting that only has one speed: pedal to the metal. I've read the three previous books in this series, but even I was having some trouble placing all the characters in context and trying to figure out what they're up to.
But I prefer being given a little to being given too much, and by the time the scene ended and the characters returned to our Earth, I was pretty much up to speed.
Except it turns out that opening salvo was more a reintroduction to the characters—like the pre-credits scene in a James Bond movie. After it, they return to Earth to find that magic has been unleashed and a third of the population has been transformed into beings from fantasy stories and myth—elves, dwarves, were-creatures, orcs—with all the chaos one expects would ensue from such an event. But what in other hands would be the story turns out to be only the backdrop against which a smaller, family drama unfolds.
Our main character David's best friend when growing up was Sharon, who married an Indian woman named Manya. So that they could have a child, David became the biological father of their daughter Aparna. Sharon died in an earlier book and Manya moved back to India with Aparna.
With the big change, Manya has become a humanoid tiger, while Aparna has sprouted wings and the ability to get what she wants. Because of her new shape, Manya's afraid of losing her daughter forever and calls David to ask him to assert his parental rights, which is a little complicated because he signed them away, plus these legalities need to be worked between the law systems of two different countries. Making things even more complicated is that Sharon's parents—right-wing, Bible-thumping, anti-gay, pretty much anti-anything David and Manya believe in—are also trying to gain custody.
In Sharon's memory, David is willing to give the grandparents the benefit of the doubt, believing that no matter what else, they do have their granddaughter's well-being in mind. He gains custody and allows them to take Aparna for a couple of weeks. But on the day he flies in to pick her up, he's set upon by militant members of a Christian Far Right church. Upon his recovery, he discovers that Aparna is now being kept inside their compound at the behest of her grandparents. Unfortunately, the compound is heavily guarded by both militants and magic.
David is rich, and he has a lot of powerful magical allies—his wife Rose is a dragon in human form, after all, as we saw in the first book of the series—but the wards on the compound have them all stymied. They can't buy, fight, or magic their way in. But there's no way David is leaving Aparna with them.
I liked a lot of things about this book. For one thing, I never knew where it was going to take me, which is always a plus. I've grown to really like the characters over the course of the series and I really appreciate that for this fourth outing Fields dialed back the threat level, showing that an imperiled few individuals can make for just as dramatic and gripping a story as when a whole world's in danger. For this reader, the former appeals to me even more.
I also appreciated that Fields didn't wash all the members of the church compound with the same brush, allowing room for genuine faith as well as intolerance and bigotry. Considering the strong Pagan leanings in his books, Fields offers up far more peace and understanding than I ever hear from the talking heads on TV and social media spouting hate in the name of family values.
The characters in Fields's books espouse values that I wish were more prevalent in these trying times. But if I can't live in a world like that, I can at least read about it.
Finding Baba Yaga, by Jane Yolen, Tor.com, 2018, $10.99, tpb
I love poetry, from a seventeen syllable haiku to long narrative poems like William Morris's The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs. So I'm an obvious audience for Jane Yolen's latest book, Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse, especially since its theme is a collision between broken homes, runaway kids, and old folklore.
As you'll guess from the title, the folklore here is based on old Russian stories, but Yolen's poem is set in the here-and-now, even if it strays a little into the dark woods of fairy tales. It's the story of a teen named Natasha who flees a horrible home to try and make it on her own before she eventually ends up at the door of a house with chicken legs. (Baba Yaga's home has got to be one of the most striking images in folklore, especially if you add in Baba Yaga herself flying above it in her magic mortar that she steers with a pestle.)
The novel is told in series of fairly short poems from Natasha's point of view, most of which can stand on their own at the same time as they drive the narrative forward. I loved Natasha's voice, sometimes practical, sometimes sardonic, often lyrical, never boring. And I love the weird and wonderful Baba Yaga, who is both whimsical (I mean, come on; that house, the flying mortar, the iron teeth) and more than a little terrifying.
Finding Baba Yaga isn't just a coming-of-age story. It's also a parable of how young women can find their place in the world, their worth and their voice, and how they can center themselves so that they are in control of their own destiny.
I've been saying variations on this for years: Jane Yolen is our Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm, our Aesop and Mother Goose, and should be revered as a national treasure. She has the gift of Story running through her blood, a spiritual fortitude and a heart big enough to embrace the whole of the world, though at the same time you'd be hard pressed to find another woman who's also as practical and down-to-earth as she is.
I've read Finding Baba Yaga five or six times now, and I know I'll be coming back for more. It's just that sort of a book.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth, by Catherine McIlwaine, Bodleian Library, 2018, $65, hc
I haven't reread Tolkien's The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings in ages. I did see a couple of the movies based on the books, but wasn't particularly enamored with them. They were certainly epic and beautifully filmed, but I was disappointed in how they focused so much on the war aspects of the books and forgot about the sense of wonder which captivated so many of us when reading Tolkien's prose.
I remember leaving a theatre after the first film and bemoaning to a friend that they'd cut out Tom Bombadill. Then I thought for a moment about the character, his whimsical manner and the songs, and realized, thank god they'd cut him out. I've no doubt that he'd have been twee and syrupy, played for laughs and with dreadful renditions of the songs.
But the great thing about movies based on books is that no matter how the movie turns out—good or bad—the books are still there.
I mentioned the sense of wonder in Tolkien's work as being a real draw, but the world building one discovered in their pages was almost better. This was long before the flood of books inspired by his work started to show up, too often derivative, each faithfully mimicking the map and the world building, and of course, coming out as a trilogy. (The amusing thing about that is Tolkien didn't write The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy. It was always supposed to be considered as one book, being broken up into three by one of his publishers, but once again I digress.) At the time, the wealth of detail was fresh, staggering, and utterly engrossing. I mean, he even created his own languages—and forgive me if this comes across as naive, but you must remember no one had done this before.
In the years since its publication, The Lord of the Rings has come under some criticism, especially for its lack of women characters, but regardless how one feels about such issues, the genius it took to create a world so immersive still brings in new readers. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is an in-depth study of how it came to be, released to coincide with a traveling exhibition beginning this summer and running through to the Spring of 2019.
It's an oversized, handsome volume, the sort that one would perhaps want to read on a desk because of its sheer weight. It includes hundreds of reproductions of manuscripts, letters, maps and drawings, rare photos, private papers, and sketches. A handful of essays delve into the themes of his work and there's fan mail from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Arthur Ransome, Iris Murdoch, and even the Princess of Denmark, but the bulk of the book reveals the story of Tolkien's life and creative process told through the various ephemera collected from all aspects of his life.
The best thing a book can do when talking about other books is to make you want to go back and reread the original, and that certainly happened to me, except this time I'd be doing it with what would basically be a massive collection of annotations at my side.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is a pure delight, one that I'll return to many times in the years to come. I only wish I could also take in one of the exhibitions at The Weston Library in Oxford or The Morgan Library in New York City. If you live close to either, I'd highly recommend you pay a visit.
The rest of us will have to make do with this book, but trust me, that's no hardship at all. I have many more books about Tolkien than I do ones he has written, and this is the best of those about him so far.
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