Friday, 23 June 2017

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I've been wanting to read the book of Hyperbole and a Half for a while. I'd read some of what appears between these pages on her blog, and have always enjoyed them. So I knew that eventually I'd get around to a collection of the old favourites and probably some that I've never seen before, but wasn't sure when. Then my sister pulled it off her shelf and told me to borrow it, in the days immediately after our mother's death. She figured it might be a good diversion.

It took me a while to sit down with this book, for no particular reason, but I finally did. It was, of course, a quick read - I tend to buzz through books with pictures, as much as I think that I should slow down and linger over the illustrations - although with Brosh's drawings, there's not a lot of intricate background detail I'm missing.

Indeed, the roughness is part of the appeal - as she herself appears in her drawings, she's more a child's abstract human than a real one, and yet capable of conveying great amounts of emotions. It's fascinating.

My favourite one (other than the iconic "Clean All The Things!") is the Cake series. I laughed myself silly the first time I read it - the look of absolute determination to die of sugar overload. The vindictiveness when she did get the cake. The way she captures in words and images those moment when a child decides an adult is the enemy.  It just kills me. It perhaps didn't make me laugh as hard as the first time I read it, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

There were others I already knew and liked, including the pair of stories about depression that were difficult and powerful explorations of that experience. (Or at least, they seemed that way to me, who has only ever experienced it from the outside.)

And then there were new ones, about the helper dogs, and how both her dogs think (or fail to do so) or letters to herself at various ages, or her mother taking them out for a walk in the woods and trying to hide that they were very, very lost. Brosh as a child misunderstanding what her parents wanted and needed and thus tormenting them more or less accidentally is a common theme.

So is self-judgement, with a couple of stories about how her mind works and resenting the world when it doesn't behave in the manner she unconsciously assumed it should, as well about wanting to be a good person when she has thoughts of doing things that are not so good, and how fear of social judgement is pretty much the only thing that keeps her from doing them. It feels like she's a little hard on herself for having thoughts at all in these sections, but it also feels quite vivid and real, the battle between wanting, thinking, and doing.

As I fully expected, this book was entertaining, and it was not a surprise that I'd probably read between a third and a half of it before on the internet. I certainly don't begrudge her that! Most particularly, it was a welcome break from the general difficulty of the world right now.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

Companion novels are a tricky business. If you want to write a second book that goes over most of the same terrain as a previous book, you really need something new you're trying to say, some way in which reading the second book will irrevocably change your experience of the first. Otherwise, it's an exercise, it might even be fun, but it's not necessarily going to stand up to the weight being placed upon it.

Unfortunately, that's about how I feel about Zoe's Tale. It was fun to read - I think John Scalzi's pretty much incapable of writing something that isn't enjoyable. It slipped by quite unobjectionably, and there's nothing specifically wrong with it, but that is damning with faint praise. It's not really very different from the first book that covers the same territory, The Last Colony. It covers the same time period, but more importantly, it doesn't really reframe very much from the previous book.

When I read The Last Colony, it was long after it had been published, and I knew that Zoe's Tale was out there as a companion novel. Given the events that happened in the first book, I expected the vast majority of this to take place during that time period where Zoe's off-world and the narrative stays with her parents. So I waited for that to come. And waited. And waited. And sure enough, it's there, but it's really such a thin segment of the book overall that I was let down. Interesting things happen, yes, but I was expecting and hoping the bulk of the book would take place in that time we hadn't seen.

And yes, we get more of an explanation for what the other creatures living on Roanoke are, and why they suddenly disappear from the narrative, but even with more of an explanation as to why, I'm not a lot happier than I was the first time. I get what happened - but wouldn't it be more interesting if we kept exploring that difficult relationship that started in death? Rather than having it fade into the background? Why they go away is not the more interesting answer.

Other than that, the book is entertainingly about life on the colony from the teenage perspective, and there's nothing really wrong here, just not really enough right. It's fun to read. It's not taxing. We see how the teenagers discover that the planet is not the one they thought they were going to, and dealing with the loss of electronics that ensues. Zoe's an entertaining precociously smart teenager, and she falls in love, and she rebels against being just what she is, as the living embodiment of the aspirations of an entire other alien species, who made a treaty with Earth to have representatives with her more or less constantly.

That's all good stuff, and I can't help but think that if it happened around new events that weren't quite so familiar, accompanied by Zoe figuring out both who she is and the limits and possibilities of what she is, this would be stronger. As it is, it's fun, it fills in some blanks, but it doesn't make me reframe how I see the original book, which I think is the greatest weakness. Zoe and her parents are just too close, have too good a relationship, to really allow for vastly different interpretations of what went down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

World of Trouble by Ben Winters

This is an extraordinarily hard review to try to write, as mostly I want to talk about my feelings toward the overall plot and the ending of that plot over the course of reading three books. More specifically, I want to write about what started to worry me when reading this book, and whether or not those worries bore fruit. There are going to be a lot of spoilers, people, and they are definitely the kind that would change your reading experience, so if you don't want to know more than that, read no further. These were really good books, and the third wrapped everything up in a manner than I found intensely satisfying and emotional.

*Spoilers! So many spoilers!*
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Still with me? Okay. That means you've either read these books, or you're like me most of the time, not really convinced spoilers ruin the books. And I'm not sure these would be ruined, but it would change how you read the last book. Because all three of these books have been set against a backdrop of an impending end to the world by asteroid strike, and the main character's attempts to solve mysteries while that date approaches.


By the time we get to the third book, though, the story happens over the week before the asteroid is due to arrive. Winters finally tackles the story behind Hank's sister, Nico, who thinks that there's a way to stop the asteroid that the government is just hiding from the populace - out of, presumably, sheer malice, or greed (although I'm not sure how greed works in a decimated world) or shortsightedness.

And she's found others who believe too, and are trying to mount an operation to find the scientist who has the information they need to launch a nuclear strike on the asteroid and shatter it in such a way that it won't be an Earthkiller. They even have a helicopter! That helicopter weighs on Hank, as indeed it started to weigh on me.

I started to really worry that we were going to get a deus ex machina, a way at the end that saved the earth and gave rise to cheers and the rebuilding of society. And it's certainly not that I like bleak books, or have any desire to see the world wiped out. It's just that these books have been so good and thoughtful at taking this concept seriously, at exploring what living in that world would be like, through the lens of a man who can't stop looking for justice, even though there's a limited amount of time in which justice could mean anything. I wanted the last book to have the courage to follow through on an amazing lead-up. I started to worry that it wouldn't.

So, bravo, Ben Winters. You had me suckered there for a bit too, worried that maybe Nico did have the answer after all, and all those who were trying, quite soberly or insanely, to get ready for the last days on the planet, had been doing all that preparation in vain, and then we'd go into a book about how you deal with the removal of such an existential threat. (And yes, that could be interesting too.)

But that's not where we went. The books have promised an asteroid, and there was absolutely no wimping out. And as we get closer and closer, six days, five days, three days, two days, less than a day, Hank takes on a new case - who murdered his sister - with less than a week before individual deaths will come to mean nothing at all. I'm not going to talk about how that case comes out - I'll leave Winters some secrets for those readers who have plunged into this review despite warnings.

But Hank's pursuit of justice, as laudable as it seemed in a world disintegrating in the first book, does come to seem somewhat of a mania this close to the end, although you understand the importance of this particular victim to him. We see the last tatters of a grip on meaning when meaning slips away.

At the end, he has answers, and an underground bunker with more than enough food to get him through the first six months of the ash cloud that will envelop the planet. Some may survive that long, and then starve. Some very few may even survive that, but they are, at the moment of the strike, not individuals. We don't know who will survive to live on - some may, indeed, but it won't be many. It's not those individuals that we're concerned with. It's those who see the end coming, quite literally, and choose to be present.

The last scene just about did me in, with its understated moment, with what feels like hard-won knowledge of these characters and their choices, and the moment when choices come to mean nothing at all.

I liked the first book, and that affection has only grown with each one - and that by the end, there was the conviction to stick the answer and refuse easy ways out - World of Troubles will linger with me for a long time.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

The first Charles Stross book I ever read was Singularity Sky, the first book in this series. I was in a different city, and I'm not quite sure what made it jump off the shelf of the used bookstore as something to read while I went to one of my first academic conferences. I was, however, baffled by the book itself. I thought I liked it, but I wasn't positive, because I finished the book and still didn't understand the underlying principles underneath that particular science fiction universe.

I proceeded to struggle with his books, through Accelerando, which I found similarly opaque, and The Hidden Family, which was a little weak. Finally, though, I came to some books of his that I really liked a whole hell of a lot - Glasshouse and Neptune's Brood spring to mind, among others. But I was a little hesitant to come back to Iron Sunrise. In general, I've found Stross' later books far more accessible than his early ones, as he gained more control of his craft.

So when I picked this one up, I wasn't sure which Stross I was going to get. Both have great ideas, one tends to be not as great at allowing readers into the inner sanctum. I get letting readers figure out some things for themselves - but if I end the book just as baffled as I was picking it up, then there might be a problem.

This is all to say, I expected this to be a bit of a slog. I was up to try it, don't get me wrong, and even when I'm baffled, I can tell there are ideas that make Stross' books worth reading. I just didn't know how at sea I would be.  Strangely enough, for all that trepidation, I was very surprised to make my way through and feel like I understood everything that had happened! Either the leap of Stross as a writer happened earlier, or I've read enough of his books to make sliding into the older ones easier.

Like, I get a lot better who Rachel is and why she does what she does, and Stross sets that up with an early set piece of her going in to defuse a terrorist with a dirty bomb who is also a performance artist with syphilis and a hate-on for the world. With that made clear, the rest didn't take that long to fall into place, and while there were some aspects that took a while to click, thankfully they all eventually did. Although I do sort of feel that there are strong hints (and at least one point where it was said straight out) that the bad guys were the pawns of a larger power pulling their strings, possibly something to rival the Eschaton, that didn't entirely play out before the end of the book.

But hey, I finally understand what the Eschaton is, which I was never quite sure I entirely grasped more than the basics of in Singularity Sky. This is what the emergent AIs called themselves when they achieved the Singularity, and as a result, decided to scatter humans across the galaxy (beyond the galaxy?) on different planets, with extreme warnings not to monkey with time travel or time travel-related technology, on pain of planets blowing up.

Of course, Iron Sunrise starts with a planet blowing up, taking with it millions of people, and dooming the homes of many others who happen to live in the radius of the shockwave while it's still concentrated enough to be very deadly. One of these space stations is home to a bunch of now abandoned denizens of New Moscow, the planet that blew up, being evacuated from the second home they've lost. Among them is a rebellious young woman named Wednesday who stays behind at near the last minute of the evacuation because she's been nudged to find a body and some diplomatic papers that will turn out to be very important indeed.

And from there, were on a chase, as people are trying to track down Wednesday, even while others (including Rachel) are trying to protect the remaining New Moscow diplomats from death, so that they can send a recall code on their dead-man's switch weapons, even now bearing down on the planet presumed to be the aggressor in the war of planets blowing up.

Also, there are Space Nazis. (AKA the Remastered.)

I'm not going to go more into detail from there, but suffice it to say that I did not find this as perplexing as I did Singularity Sky, and while I wouldn't say this was my favourite Stross book, or even in the top five, it was quite a lot of fun. And fun is what I need right now.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Healer's War by Elizabeth Scarborough

The Healer's War was the last book in the first theme for my in-person SF/F book club (reading the same books as my online version, but a couple of months ahead.) We wrapped up Post-War Science Fiction (and Fantasy) with the only book written by a woman, and were supposed to discuss it last night. Of course, the scheduling demons intervened, and four people cancelled out separately because things came up at the last minute, so it was just my husband and I at the pub talking about it. Which was okay, but I hope the start of the next theme next month shows a bit of a renaissance, because I've been very much enjoying this project, and lord, do I ever need things going on that I enjoy.

Still, we spent most of our beer-drinking time talking about the book, so I'll count it as a win. And one thing that kept coming up for both my husband and I was that this really wasn't a fantasy. Yes, there's an amulet in the book with a few magic powers, but it's in some ways such a minor part of a straight-forward Vietnam novel. The most magical power it seems to have (other than, you know, healing) is as a plot pass to get a white woman in among the Vietnamese people and then the Viet Cong without long-term injury.

The main character is, as Elizabeth Scarborough also was, a combat nurse in Vietnam. Kitty starts out being as insulated from the war as you can be when you have to hide under your bed several times a week during mortar fire - working at a hospital that mostly takes care of injured GIs, but also a few Vietnamese patients.

This part of the book lingers in great detail on her days, in ways that are really very compelling - and unfortunately, tend to mean that when the rushed epilogue happens, it's even more obvious that we're not going to spend time exploring this, not because she can't write those type of scenes, but because she's chosen not to. Maybe the publisher forced her to put the epilogue in, I don't know. But we linger here and we rush there, and a lot of that rushing is through landmined territory that maybe we should pick through and try to understand.

Back to the plot! When a new doctor starts who despises the Vietnamese patients, Kitty decides to try to take one young boy to another hospital in a larger city, run by her former charge nurse. She's toting a magic amulet that she doesn't really understand yet, although she's learning it lets her see auras. (And it will help her heal people, yes.) But the helicopter she is in gets shots down, and she and Ahn are lost in the jungle, where they encounter a fairly deranged American GI, a Vietnamese village that will come to trust her after she kills a giant snake, then heals some of the victims, then captured by the Viet Cong, forced to witness atrocities, found by Americans, forced to almost be subject to atrocities by the Americans, and finally go home to where no one understands what she's been through.

Those aspects that seem closest to Scarborough's own experiences are by far the strongest, and there's a lot there, and she's obviously trying very hard not to pick a "side" in the war. But as I mentioned, it speeds up in an annoying way that shuts her readers out of her main character's difficulties in post-Vietnam America, when it feels like there's so much to explore!

And yeah, not really a fantasy novel. But still worth reading, and sparked some good conversation in comparison to our other books. This was the only one of this set of books I hadn't previously read, so I was always taking a leap of faith on this one, and it certainly gave rise to interesting conversation.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

*Spoilers Below*

I am trying to get back to writing reviews a day or at most two after I finished a book, so I'm sitting down to write with the experience still vivid. With Parable of the Talents, though, I just couldn't. I had to sit with the book for at least three or four days after I was done, and it's only today I feel like I can finally maybe take a crack at summarizing why I felt what I felt. What I felt was strong and immediate, but there's so much here to unpack that I had to let the emotions subside a bit before I could think about it.

So. Let's start with the emotional and then some thoughts about what and why. I loved this book. I mean, just adored it, responded to it so strongly, as I often do to Butler's works. Damn, this woman could write, and more than that, it's always so complex and tricky and often troubling that I feel wrung out and it takes me a while to figure out why.

I was also so, so angry at one of the characters by the end of the book - I wanted to wring her neck, I was so upset. That's the part I had to sit and think about - why I felt that way, why Butler wrote her that way, why that part is included at all - how that discomfort and anger changed and really enriched this experience of reading in delicate and powerful ways.

So, what's the book about? It's a sequel to Parable of the Sower, which was the first book by Octavia Butler I ever read, and also knocked my socks right off. If Lauren Olamina has the idea for Earthseed in the first book, the second is about the early days through to its eventual success. We get into the story in a different way, this time. We're given snippets from a journal Lauren kept during these times, interspersed with a book her husband wrote, one her brother wrote, and a lot of editorial comment from her daughter, Larkin. Or Asha Vere. There's some question about her name, and that's the core of the book.

Reading the more dystopic parts of the book were chilling and far too timely, now perhaps more than ever, with a radical Presidential candidate who promises, I shit you not, to "make American great again." Now, this fictional President is doing it through a radical Christian fundamentalist lens, but in a world where people are hurting and scared and want a strong man to tell them they will be safe, and who makes it okay to lash out at those who appear different and tells them it's justice...well, you see the resonances.

We see the community she founds, Acorn, and how it is destroyed by men who the rest of the "Christian America" movement will disavow, even while including them and fostering them and teaching that what they are doing is rooted in sound theology. Her baby is ripped away from her, and adopted by a Christian American family. She finds and frees her brother from slavery before her community is broken, and he leaves in anger because he can't convert her people to his version of Christianity, and finds a home within Christian America.

And what he does then, over years and years, makes me want to scratch his goddamn eyes out. Worse is when her stolen-away daughter discovers what he has done, and sides with him. It is so frustrating, and so much deeper than just the old saw that a prophet is without honour in his own country.

To tell the truth, I read this book not long after my mother died, and I have a deep response to Earthseed, and to the larger notion of reacting to change and pain with openness and movement, not curling in and lashing out.

So the framing device is the daughter, and we know from the beginning that she holds a grudge against her mother for loving Earthseed more than she loved her, but we don't know why. You start reading the book, waiting to find out what probably very human thing Lauren does that hurts her daughter and turns her against the movement.

Then you realize, bit by bit, that Larkin/Asha condemns Lauren Olamina not for having done anything, but for not having found her. Not not having tried to find her, because there's plenty of evidence that she looked for decades, that she put herself in danger over and over and never stopped looking for her daughter. The attempt doesn't matter to Larkin. The result does.

And interestingly, this is where we get into the very knotty part of the book, the part where I struggled with anger at this daughter who embraces the man who hid her from her mother for decades, lied to her mother's face for decades that he had no idea where she was, and did everything to keep his niece as his family, not hers. It's such an unforgivable act, and Lauren never does forgive her brother, but Larkin never blames him.

And the question becomes, why? Butler's doing something deliberate here, and I had to sit with it and figure it out, and what I've come up with is this: Larkin/Asha, although she doesn't consider herself part of Christian America anymore, is so permeated with their worldview, which includes seeing her mother's vision of extraterrestrial settlement as a cult, that she can't get beyond it. And particularly, when it comes to the one family member she has had a positive relationship with, she can't even begin to let herself think that he did wrong, even when it's fairly fucking obvious that he did.

She'd rather vilify her mother for trying and failing, than her uncle for deliberately hiding the truth from both her and her mother. And in a way, this is a microcosm of the clash of worldviews - there will be people that are so wrapped up in division and need to see themselves as right or righteous, that others will be held up to impossible standards, and differences becomes proofs of inadequacy. That abundance itself can seem threatening, and open-handedness an abomination.

And the thing she seems to have blamed her mother for most of all was not hiding her talents, not having given up her dream of Earthseed in favour of safety that Lauren clearly identifies as not that safe anyway.

Whether what Lauren founds is a cult or a philosophy, it has a specific and achievable goal, and she does achieve it. But she loses her daughter along the way, and there will never stop being a younger woman who blames her for not hiding away and being proper.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Timing is everything. Not long ago, I posted a book review about Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, and was talking about 1970s-era consideration of what human beings are, and here we have Man Plus as a handy juxtaposition. And it comes to quite a different conclusion, thus ending my attempt to put too neat a chronological classification on this debate. Look at the two broad categories would be an interesting topic for discussion, and I may make a note of it in my list of themes for future science fiction/fantasy bookclub meetings.

Still, there is an undeniable timebound element to this book, even if it's not a particular theme on the evolution of humanity. Published in the 1970s, this particular book shares with others the same basic pessimism that the world may eventually, even is hugely likely to, destroy itself in war between capitalist countries and communist ones. (Or, as it virtually always happens, between the U.S., where these books are almost inevitably set, and either Russia or China. Here, it's China.)

Despite any best efforts, the human race may indeed be doomed, except for one way out - computer simulations show that putting humans on Mars would give a chance of not dissolving the world in nuclear fire. Except creating a self-sustaining colony with normal human bodies seems more than a little difficult - so Pohl's characters come up with the idea that they'll create a human being perfectly suited to living on Mars, able to adapt to the gravity, low atmosphere, lack of oxygen and regular supplies of food. They'll create what is honestly a cyborg, except I think the book rejects that term midway through - the man they create is a man, despite his many machine parts.

(And I realize I said human being initially, but it would be as accurate to say "man," as there wasn't any doubt they'd be picking from NASA astronauts, even though there are multiple women who are scientists and doctors peopling the secondary characters. Despite the fact that the guy who gets sent's wife falls very much in the mold of wife who married for the wrong reasons and is fooling around on the side. Although it also seems that monogamy might not have been the norm for most of their marriage, but it becomes a bigger deal when Roger loses his penis in the midst of being turned into a Mars-dwelling part-machine with a backpack computer that mediates all his sensory impressions, because to do otherwise would blow out his brain.)

I am just going to marvel at that sentence for a while.

So, Pohl gets, let's say, a B+ for female characters given the time period, because there are more than three named female characters, and Dorrie the wife aside, they're pretty interesting.

This book is mostly about the lead-up to the mission to Mars, although we do get to see some time there as well. But there's another level that I've not even really hinted it, which Pohl sprinkles lightly through the book - the question of who is really pulling the strings. The obvious answer was the answer it ended up being, but then he throws in a neat little question to complicate it, and that alone probably makes me like this book more than I would otherwise. This is all about the questions, and if it assumes that humans are humans even without most of their meat, that's an interesting answer, and one I'd love to delve into further.

(Yes, I'm a little obsessed with my themed reading in my SF/F book clubs. But it's great fun to take an in-depth look at a topic!)

Man Plus shows its age, but it was entertaining. I can't say I loved it as much as I did Gateway, but I certainly liked it more than that dreadful piece of dreck Pohl wrote with Arthur C. Clarke that I reviewed in the last year.