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Books To Look For
Network Effect, by Martha Wells, Tor.com, 2020, $26.99, hc
I won't lie. This is one of the books I was most looking forward to for 2020 and I cracked it open as soon as I got home from the post office. My only complaint is that—even at 350 pages—it still seemed to be over much more quickly than I wanted it to be.
The main character, Murderbot, was introduced to us in a series of novellas that began with All Systems Red. When I reviewed the series in a previous column, I described Murderbot as "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 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," as I wrote in that previous column, "all it wants to do is be left alone to figure out who it is and watch its serials (the future version of serialized entertainment stories). 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)."
When Network Effect opens, Murderbot is no longer associated with any corporation. Instead it has free will and involves itself with research projects, protecting its humans from everything they're too stupid to protect themselves from. The opening chapter is a great example of Murderbot's capabilities to do just that. Unfortunately, it and its clients are soon captured by a spaceship and transported to the far reaches of the galaxy, with danger on every side.
More confusingly for Murderbot, the ship that captured them is run by a powerful AI that Murderbot calls ART (Asshole Research Transport). At one point Murderbot would have considered ART a friend, or at least an ally. But now, with ART putting Murderbot's clients in danger, the two AIs engage in a bickering relationship, acting like an old married couple as they try to save their respective clients and crews.
Here's the thing with this series—wait: Before I tell you that, I should tell you that Network Effect is a standalone novel, so you can jump right in without having read the previous novellas. Though if that's the case, as soon as you finish this book you'll be grabbing copies of the earlier ones, because the way Wells writes makes for highly addictive reading.
But I digress. What I wanted to say is that even without Murderbot as our viewpoint character, this is a terrific space opera, a classic space adventure but with a very modern sensibility. Bringing Murderbot into the mix—especially with its interactions with ART—takes everything up a half-dozen levels. Murderbot, with its on-point observations and addictive interior monologues, is easily one of my favorite characters in sf since I was first introduced to it in All Systems Red.
I don't doubt that in the years to come, The Murderbot Diaries will be a series that we'll want to go back and reread over and over again. I know that looking some things up while writing this review, I found I had to stop myself from rereading the whole book right on the spot. I feel I should at least wait a couple of weeks before doing so.
Meanwhile I enjoyed this little prequel to the series that appeared in Wired Magazine's January 2018 issue. The story, called "The Future of Work: Compulsory," was available on their website when I checked recently.
I don't know the lifespan of material published on their website, but hopefully it will still be available by the time this column sees print.
Providence, by Max Barry, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2020, $27 hc
Copywriters work hard to summarize plots, and since I couldn't do a better job of it myself, let me quote from the press release:
"Seven years after the world watched aliens slaughter a team of research scientists in deep space Providence Five launches. It is an enormous and deadly warship, built to protect humanity from its greatest ever threat. On board is a crew of just four—tasked with monitoring the ship and reporting the war's progress to a mesmerized global audience by way of social media.
"But while pursuing the enemy across space, Gilly, Talia, Anders, and Jackson confront the unthinkable: their communications are cut, their ship decreasingly trustworthy and effective. To survive, they must win a fight that is suddenly and terrifyingly real."
All of the crew get some point-of-view time, but most of the chapters are told by Gilly, the hardware maintenance engineer, and Talia, the morale officer. Whereas in the above-mentioned Network Effect, for all the dangers encountered by the characters, the overall feel of the story is exuberant and hopeful, in Providence, things are deadly serious.
For one thing, the aliens are awful. They have hives that drift about in space, and each hive contains millions upon millions of them. They can maneuver in the vacuum of space and spit material that burns through metal and human flesh.
The crew of the Providence are two years into their mission. Since the ship handles all the enemy encounters—it handles everything, actually—they are left kicking their heels, with ennui soon settling in. When things begin to go wrong, they are woefully unprepared to deal with crisis upon crisis.
Max Barry writes with assurance, and he's able to bring the emotional lives of his characters to life as readily as he describes the tech and enemy encounters, making the latter plausible and easy to follow without much jargon. And because of how he's set up the story, he's able to make some telling commentary on our present day, from the influence of corporations to the pervasive presence of social media.
I was gripped from start to finish, but I have to admit that by the time I was finished I found it hard to get rid of the taste of the omnipresent cynicism that pervades every element of the story. So where I'll happily return to the Murderbot books, I can't imagine I'll ever reread Providence, excellent though it is.
Mind you, I should add that I don't regret having read it. The book left me with a lot to think about by the time it was done.
Finna, Nino Cipri, Tor.com, 2020, $14.99, tpb
We could do worse than to start with the accompanying ad copy for Nino Cipri's debut:
"Finna tracks the adventures of Ava and Jules, two retail workers at LitenVärld who are forced to rescue a customer who slips through a portal to parallel worlds on their shift. Adventuring across unknown dimensions to fulfill customer service requirements (without getting paid overtime) is bad enough, but the two have also recently broken up."
And if that doesn't make you want to read Finna, I don't know what will.
Cipri seems to have written this book just for me, because I loved everything about it. It's funny, but with an edge, tackling corporate absurdity and gender politics in a manner that makes one smile at the same time as they bring their points home. And they obviously love their characters, which makes us love them as well, complete with all their snarky observations, insecurities and big hearts.
We meet Ava on the first page, and her third-person viewpoint feels like a first-person narrative as we follow her travails on a particularly bad day. She's coming in to work on her day off because another employee called in sick and she has to fill in for him. Having recently broken up with Jules, who also works at LitenVärld, she's carefully worked out her schedule so that they don't have the same shifts. Naturally they're the first person she runs into when she arrives.
If you've ever been to an IKEA store, you know what LitenVärld is like, for all that the latter is much exaggerated. LitenVärld is a microcosm of every bad corporate chain that anyone might have had the misfortune of working in. And for all the exaggeration, this fictional workplace is not so far off the mark. Minus the wormholes. I think.
I was recently talking to a cashier at a local grocery store chain who told me that all the employees had to sign an NDA to be able to work there. It's not the kind of place that might legitimately have a high security risk. It's a grocery store chain. But we all know why this policy is in place: Rather than have a healthy work environment and pay a decent wage, the corporation just stops employees from being able to complain about working conditions. The customer comes first.
It's that kind of mentality that pervades at LitenVärld. And it's why Ava and Jules are assigned to bring back an elderly customer when she inadvertently wanders into a wormhole and disappears from our reality.
Until that moment, neither Ava nor Jules even realized that this kind of a situation might ever be a possibility. But before they know it, they're forced to watch some instructional videos (yes, LitenVärld is that anal), given a FINNA (which is described as "a patented piece of equipment that can locate lost people using quantum entanglement"), and sent on their way.
What follows is a wonderfully strange and original adventure filled with drama and humor and so much heart. I loved every moment of it and I can't wait to see what Cipri writes next.
A Time Traveler's Theory of Relativity, by Nicole Valentine, Carolrhoda Books, 2019, $17.99, hc
You might be forgiven for thinking this is a YA or even a middle-grade book, particularly because it's marketed for younger readers. But for all that it has a protagonist in his early teens, the storytelling, pace, and sensibility is more like an adult novel that just happens to have a young teen as its main character.
Finnegan Firth begins his day as he always does: rushing out to the mailbox before his father gets up to see if there's a card or letter from his mother, who abruptly disappeared weeks ago. There never is. Finn's a bit of a loner already. Since his twin sister died years ago, his mother's disappearance solidifies the sense that people will always abandon him. His only lifeline is his best friend Gabi, who plays Mulder to his Scully.
While Gabi loves fantasy stories and embraces the potential for wonder in the world around her, the logic of science is the bedrock of Finn's worldview. So when his grandmother tells him that the women in his family are Travelers, able to move through time, the loss of that worldview leaves him completely adrift.
At first he can't believe it because it makes no logical sense. But then he realizes something about his grandmother when she's telling him this. She seems younger than she was when she went to bed. Coming to the realization that the grandmother he saw retire last night is dead—she died hours before he had the conversation with the younger version of herself—he has no choice but to believe.
His grandmother also tells him that his mother is lost in time and that it's up to him find her through a portal that she set up especially for him. This is important, not just for Finn to get his mother back, but because there's also someone else moving through time, changing things as they go along. Finn's mother is the strongest living Traveler and likely the only one who'll be able to stop this mysterious person from breaking the timeline completely.
Things go sideways pretty quickly after Finn and Gabi head up the mountain trail behind his grandmother's house to look for the portal. There's danger, not only from the mysterious Traveler who's changing time, but also from locals who have their own agenda, and the plot has all the twists and turns you might expect from a time travel story, though happily Valentine doesn't leave her readers confused.
In fact, if there's any flaw to A Time Traveler's Theory of Relativity it's that both Finn and Gabi think, act, and have the physical stamina of kids much older. Which isn't much of a flaw from my point of view, because if the characters acted their actual age, we wouldn't have nearly as interesting a book.
From time to time Valentine also throws in short chapters from the point of view of an anonymous character that both illuminate elements of the story and muddy the waters. I thought I'd figured out who it was, but I was wrong.
All in all, A Time Traveler's Theory of Relativity is a strong debut, and on the strength of it I'll be watching for Valentine's next book.
The Oracle Code, by Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano, DC Comics, 2020, $16.99, tpb
For as long as I can remember, both Marvel and DC Comics have had a habit of repurposing their characters, which means they gave us endless versions of, say, the origins of Superman or Spider-Man. In the case of those two characters, sometimes it was to update their stories for new generations of readers, but sometimes it was to tell entirely different stories using those same characters rather than coming up with new ones.
I never really understood the practice.
Let me rephrase that. I understand the commercial reasons (name recognition means that the comic will sell better when repurposing a character). What I don't understand is the creative reasoning.
Repurposing is what's happening here. The Barbara "Babs" Gordon we meet in The Oracle Code is the daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon, long-time ally of the Batman in Gotham City. If I remember correctly, she was the original Batgirl, was shot by the Joker, which put her in a wheelchair, and eventually became Oracle (a computer hacker) in the pages of Birds of Prey.
The only resemblance to any of that is that the Babs here gets shot (though by a regular criminal) and ends up in that wheelchair. Her father (still Commissioner Gordon) is worried about how she's coping with her current physical challenges, so he enrolls her in a rehabilitation program in an institution called The Arkham Center for Independence.
The night she was shot, Babs was out with her best friend Benjamin, but ever since the event that saw her lose the use of her legs, he's been ghosting her. By the time she enters the institution, she's angry, frustrated, and depressed, and unwilling to respond to any friendly overtures by other patients, even when they're as welcoming as two in particular, Yeong and Issy. The only comfort she gets is from a patient named Jena, who comes to her at night when she's having nightmares and calms her down with stories.
The therapists work at teaching those things the girls will need to reintegrate with "normal" society, but Yeong and Issy try to teach Babs something more important: to find ways that she can still feel fulfilled and useful and maybe even have some fun, just as she is. It's a hard sell with Babs.
When you're suffering from depression, it's hard not to push away the very people whose support you need.
I don't want to get too much into the plot or the speculative elements of the story. Trust that they're solid and are enough to keep you turning pages to find out what happens next. What interested me far more were the character arcs and the relationships between the young women.
There was something special about watching them investigate a growing mystery of missing children, utilizing their brains and spunk, and not allowing their physical limitations to get in the way of what they need to do.
The idea of inclusivity gets thrown around a lot these days, the idea of minority groups being able to see themselves on the page or on the screen. I think it's a positive thing, and what's also important is that it allows people without the same challenges or perspectives to see through another's eyes where they can gain a whole new understanding.
That's the beauty of fiction. It allows us into the viewpoints of all sorts of people, and when we gain empathy for another, we also become their defendants, and that's something that can be hard to acquire otherwise.
It's not the only reason that we need to hear from diverse voices, but when you combine it with a good story and characters we love, what's not to like?
A couple of last things. Marieke Nijkamp provides the words and story but artist Manuel Preitano does a fantastic job with his illustrations. I like his panel flow, his perspectives, and his expressive linework. It's also fun that he shows the stories Jena tells Babs in an entirely different style—simple and childlike—which adds to their impact.
The other thing I want to mention is that one could take out all the DC Comics connections and you'd still have a terrific, fun, and moving story. Does the repurposing help? This reader found it a bit of a distraction, because, except for Police Commissioner Gordon, everything else is fresh and different from the DC canon, and I'd rather not have had to consider it.
And frankly, the story's the better for how little connection it has.
Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey, Tor.com, 2020, $20.99, hc
I've always loved Westerns, but it never occurred to me before how much better they would be if you were to add in feisty, gunslinging librarians. Really, I should have known, since in my experience everything goes better with librarians.
Upright Women Wanted is set in the future after things have fallen apart, or perhaps it's a parallel world. The setting is definitely a version of the American Southwest, which is under the thumb of fascist enclaves that rule most of the former United States. Their sole purpose appears to be to survive and keep alive their twisted ideal of the American way of life.
The Librarians are itinerant. Traveling about as they do, they're making sure that everyone has up-to-date Approved Materials to read and watch and listen to. But their wanderings also make them perfect for clandestine missions, moving contraband and even people. They appear to be the most American of people, but are, in fact, the least, if American is taken to mean the curtailing of all personal freedoms.
Esther Augustus believes in the myth of the Librarian and stows away in their wagon when it leaves her town in hopes that they will teach her how to expel the deviant behavior that's rooted deep inside her and show her how to be an upright woman such as they are. Her lover Beatriz died because of her deviance, and she needs to make sure that what she is can never poison anyone else.
When she gets caught in her hiding place and explains this to the Head Librarian Bet…
Leda put her palm over Bet's and their fingers laced together.
"Well, Esther," Bet said, that irrepressible laugh trying hard to shake her voice, her thumb tracing the back of Leda's. "Well. I've got good news for you, and I've got bad news."
Upright Women Wanted is a fabulous book. It's part-coming-of-age, or perhaps more properly, learning how to be comfortable in one's own skin; part Western; part rebellion against an oppressive regime.
Sarah Gailey writes like a gift from the writer gods. Their characters are warm and fully realized, their setting so well defined that you can feel the dust in your throat as you're reading. I loved every moment spent in the company of these upright women, from start to finish. And while Upright Women Wanted is complete as it is, and I'm not a big series reader, I would love to know more about this world and the characters that inhabit it.
Though that's the mark of a great book, isn't it? You get to the end and you miss the characters and want more.
But after a quick look at Gailey's bio I see that they have at least two other books available, so I'm off to track them down and will no doubt be very pleased with the pair of them.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide