Friday, 22 September 2017

By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear

When I first read All the Windwracked Stars, I liked it quite a lot, but I never felt quite like I entirely understood the world or what was going on. In that book, Elizabeth Bear throws you in at the deep end, and I was always working to try to put together how the world had gotten to the place it was, and what the intense backstory of the characters was.

Reading By the Mountain Bound first would have helped a lot. I know it was written later, but I feel like I have a much stronger footing in the basic assumptions underlying this world, and would be able to see how it had changed between this time and the much later All the Windwracked Stars.

In this much earlier story, the new world created after what was probably our world fell in Ragnarok, humans live brief flickers of lives while the waelcyrge and einherjar live longer ones, avenging wrongful deaths and creating a society in their own holds, mostly apart from the humans around them. They are led by Strifbjorn, an unmarried einherjar who knows he should wed to help maintain the numbers of his people, but has secrets holding him back.

Then a woman washes up on shore, seemingly human, but also more. Not one of them, but perhaps a manifestation of the Lady they were waiting for to lead them. Definitely with some powers at her disposal, different from the arts of the waelcyrge and einherjar. She prepares them for a coming war, and in the process, starts to change who they are and what is permitted them. Some embrace the new license, others are repulsed.

This story is told through three characters, two of them in first person, one in third. Strifbjorn's sections are told in third person, so we get to know him, but not too close, nowhere near as close as we get to the smallest waelcyrge, Muire, a historian and smith, in love with Strifbjorn, but not blindly so. Or to Mingan, the chained wolf, the Suneater, Strifbjorn's lover and love, who is not quite anything entirely, apart and hurting, causing hurt and taking it in.

The smaller scale emotional upheavals take place as these people try to find or maintain their honour, their places, their homes, and their sense of self in a world that increasingly is upending any stable ground under their feet. These three and the waelcyrge and einherjar who surround them fight, plot, collaborate, are suspicious or jubilant, unleashed or are grimly sure they need to keep their powers under control.

The relationship of these mythological figures to humans comes in to the story as well, as the waelcyrge and einherjar live apart from the human settlements, but venture in, as figures of legend, of vengeance, and, once Heythe, the ostensible Lady enters the scene, of fear. When is it permissible to take a life? What is vengeance and what is revenge? When one is hurt, how much hurt can one impose on others? Is it somehow better if it is done dispassionately, or from a lust for power?

Bear is going for as complicated and deep hurting issues as ever, which is one of the main reasons I love her books (although Karen Memory, of late, was a delightful diversion into lighter territory, and I am fond of both modes). Few authors go this deep, think this hard, and create characters to whom these issues are not abstract concerns, but the pressing matter of their lives.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

Episode 5: "Forking Paths"

Don't drink the frog juice! Or do, I'm not your mother.
Yes, I missed Episode 4. I tried to sit down and write it, but it was a hell of a summer, and by the time I sat down to take a crack, I'd forgotten half of the session. Highlights: Gerald was erased from most people's memories, and took a trip to Libertalia, met an older Peter-turned-pirate, and drank some golden frog juice that took him on a trip to alternate timelines. And when threatened with "recalibration" by TimeWatch, Jack and Peter said "fuck no" and took off, pursued by Millie.

(Below is likely all out of order, as we kept skipping from story to story, and I know I've combined some scenes.)

The episode opened with Walter walking through Greenwich Village in the middle of the day, and, apparently on a whim, entering a gay bar. It was quiet, but when he approached the bartender, the man told him that the person he was meeting was already over in one of the booths. This surprised Walter, as he had never been in this bar before.

Waiting for him in the booth was Robert Heinlein, with two glasses of whatever Walter had been about to order sitting in front of him. Heinlein observed that when he'd joined up, a place like this would have been seen as a security risk. But now it was the safest place to meet up. Heinlein disclosed some doubts about what the Admonitories overseeing TimeWatch from the future wanted.

Walter tried to pump Heinlein for information about his parents and what had happened to his father, Heinrich. Heinlein admitted that he'd been the one who reported Heinrich, and pulled out a few photos of Walter meeting with Heinrich in 1943. Couldn't Walter have at least cut his hair when he went back to meet with his father? At the time, Heinlein had only seen a man with bushy hair and long sideburns, and assumed he was a Communist agent, and that Heinrich had been compromised.

Heinlein also dropped some hints that might seem to suggest that Heinrich was hard at work on Project Rainbow around the time Walter was supposed to have been conceived, and Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard were around his mother an awful lot more....

Heinlein and his wife recalibrating something, I figure
In the meantime, they needed to discuss the fact that TimeWatch wanted to recalibrate Walter, and we got a little more detail as to what that means. When paradox mounted up too far, TimeWatch would go back to a version of Walter from this time period, and use that to replace the present Walter. The question was whether or not the deletion of the present Walter was incidental, due to changing the timeline, or active. Like, murder.

(I am sort of terrified by how much this would not bother Millie. Doesn't say good things for her emotional state, if having her present self and part of her memories deleted doesn't sound like the worst idea in the world.)

At any rate, Heinlein proposed that they could either pretend to have recalibrated Walter, or actually create the alternate Walter and have two Walters running around time. Walter seemed to prefer the first option, and they continued planning. Heinlein thought he could send Walter to the Royal timeline, to track down this Gerald person that Heinlein had no memory of.

Meanwhile, we moved to where Jack, Peter, and Millie had jumped. It was Chiba City, 2052, and the world around the three looked like a cross between Neuromancer and Blade Runner. Small stalls, people cooking their own circuit boards, bad smells, and a giant billboard with L. Ron Hubbard/The Comte de St. Germain on it advertising emigration via "Clear."  Just about the first thing Jack noticed was a RazorGirl on a motorcycle. And just about that time, the RazorGirl noticed him, too.

Jack dashed through the stalls, trying to get away, only to find another RazorGirl waiting for him. As he looked for a way out, a small bubble car pulled up beside him, and a man leaned out and told Jack to jump in. Jack took the driver's side, and found that the controls were similar to an NES. The man urged him to drive them away, pronto. Jack realized that the man was an older version of himself, dressed pretty much exactly the same.

Meanwhile, the first RazorGirl came right at Peter and Millie with her motorbike. Peter managed to catch her in the stomach with his fist, while Millie grabbed a piece of metal and stuck it in the spokes of the front wheel, sending the woman and her bike flying. Jack finally got the basic hang of the car, and backed it up to where Millie and Peter were, urging them to get in. There really wasn't enough room, but they all got very snug.

However, Jack didn't manage to find the forward button, and they continued to rocket backwards through the market, mowing down stalls as they went. Eventually, he got control, found forward, and off they went.

We then jumped to where Gerald was, in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx. A huge zeppelin with the Union Jack on its side darkened the sky above him. This all looked remarkably like his own lost timeline (codename: Royal). He stumbled into the city, finding a hotel and entering. A dog ran up to him, ecstatic. It was his old dog, Balthazar. Suddenly, he remembered this day. It was the day he'd met his older self, and his older self had stolen his time machine and his dog!

And at that moment, his younger self came around the corner, and the dog went back and forth in an ecstasy of delight and confusion. After recognizing what was happening, the older Gerald began to exhort the younger Gerald to give up time travel altogether, saying it was far too dangerous. The younger Gerald agreed, saying that it needed to be kept in the strict control of the British Empire, and that he'd already started an organization of trustworthy blokes to control it: TimeWatch.

Gerald shouted at his younger self not to be a fool. He had no idea the lizard people he was risking letting lose on the world! His younger self stared at him, evidently convinced his older self had lost it. That was not helped as Gerald tried to tell younger self about his golden frog juice experiences.

Younger Gerald suggested that Gerald make the timeline-hopping changes to his time machine, then go home to Britain for a long rest cure, leaving the multiverse in the capable hands of good, solid Brits. Gerald was furious at the obtuseness of his younger self, and abruptly knocked himself out. He called Balthazar and headed for the time machine.

Meanwhile, back in Chiba City, the group had pulled up to a houseboat in the harbour. The air was rank and the water sullied by cadmium slicks. Jack went down into the houseboat with his younger self, while Millie and Peter stayed abovedecks. Downstairs, older Jack tried to talk to Jack about the choices he was going to make, and that he remembered this meeting.

Abovedecks, Millie wanted to know what Peter was going to do now, her hand hovering near her lasergun. He said that he didn't know, but he wasn't up for "recalibration," whatever that was. Millie asked him why not, wondering why he didn't trust TimeWatch. Why would he?, Peter retorted. No one knew why they were doing what they were doing. Making history a better place, Millie asserted.

Peter tried to shake Millie's blind (and somewhat unreasonable) faith in TimeWatch, but she dug in her heels. He said that TimeWatch must have promised her something pretty good, to get this kind of loyalty. Or to her brother. Millie was struck speechless as the memory of the first time she'd lost Miles in a murder-suicide hit her again, and the knowledge that she had found a new version of Miles, but couldn't risk talking to him. When she found her voice, she said that she hadn't gotten anything from TimeWatch. That was why she trusted them - they hadn't promised her anything good, or given her any false promises. They'd asked her to do things that hurt, and not sugarcoated them.

She accused Peter of only looking out for himself, and Peter seemed nonplussed that she thought there was another way that made any sense. He wasn't out to hurt people, but you had to look out for yourself at the end of the day. Millie disagreed. Peter promised not to mention her brother to anyone, and Millie hesitated before demanding Peter's autochron. He could do whatever he wanted to himself in 2052, but she wasn't going to let him run amok through history. He gave it to her without hesitation (but the audience could see that he gave her a fake and kept the real one.)

Just then, an expensive yacht pulled up through the nasty waters of the harbour, another older Jack on the prow, dressed much more slickly and surrounded by armed RazorGirls. He shouted for Jack and Jack to come out. Downstairs, older grubby Jack pulled out a gun and said that he'd intended to shoot younger Jack, but he remembered this meeting, and wasn't able to make himself do it. Younger Jack went above decks, and a couple of the RazorGirls hauled older grubby Jack away. Older slick Jack greeted his younger self, saying this was the world they'd built, and that it was all Peter's plan, the long con. Older Jack pointed at the poster of L. Ron Hubbard/Comte de St. Germain, saying it was all about power.

Younger Jack talked to his older slick self, and older slick Jack kept showing off his lifestyle, inviting younger Jack to join him. Jack demurred, and that's when older slick Jack also pulled out a gun and said that he didn't remember this meeting, so he was free to kill younger Jack without affecting this timeline they'd created.

Millie, having been stewing about her argument with Peter and her own need to believe she was doing the right thing, grabbed Peter's arm, saying that if he didn't believe TimeWatch was doing everything for a reason, she'd show him. They'd go to the far future and see what the future the Admonitories was building was. She invited Jack to come along, and he agreed quickly, not really wanting to get shot. They jumped away....

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Howard Who? by Howard Waldrop

I find writing reviews for books of short stories really hard. I read quickly, so I tend to burn through a story before it's had time to seep into my long-term memory. This means that I'm not doing the kind of memory reinforcement that happens when I read a novel over several days - each new day helps consolidate things about a book in my head. With short stories, that second crack at it never comes, and I'm not really interested in reading each story twice just to combat this.

In other words, short stories aren't really my favourite fiction conveyance. I do like some short stories, but they have to be really boffo to stick in my head. And when you read a whole bunch of them, and then sit down to write a review - particularly when you read another book of short stories just a few days before, and find they're blurring together in your mind...I'm just saying, it's not the easiest of tasks.

Of course, no one is making me write this review, or even making me read this book - both are things I freely and willingly chose. So let's get down to brass tacks and try to figure out what I thought of Howard Who?

Let's start this off by saying that I didn't have the same trouble with his female characters that I did with Mike Resnick's. Most of the stories are focused on men, but when the women appear, they are more interesting and varied, less caricatures. In fact, most of his characters have more to them than caricatures, given the space restraints inherent in short story writing.

Still, there were a couple of stories that I found troubling - not troubling as in "this makes me worried about the author and his viewpoints," but more "stories that made me uncomfortable and stuck with me." That's compounded a bit since both of those stories were about Jewishness - one is about a vampire attack in Germany that Hitler and his cronies use as an excuse to start the horrors of the Holocaust, and another about a Jewish elite time travel team that have a terrible, cruel plan they are carrying out in order to put their leaders in the present in the best possible position. I am not entirely sure what I think of either story, and I'm not entirely sure that what I got from them was worth the distress of reading them, but...I just don't know what I think yet, and will need quite a bit more time to mull it over.

But let's talk about the rest of the stories! They are mostly very fun! The first one in the book is about The Ugly Chicken, which is apparently his most famous story, and was a whole barrel of fun. It is about a...dammit, the word for scientist who studies birds is escaping me...bird scientist who runs into an older woman on a bus who identifies the dodo in the book he as looking at as one of those "ugly chickens" her neighbour used to have. This sends the scientist on a goose chase through Appalachia, trying to find out if the dodos really do still exist. The kicker to this story is delightful, if a little depressing. It does feel quite right.

There's also a lovely story about 19th century inventors who discover that one of the crackpot inventions that didn't work in our timeline does in theirs, with terrifying results. And one about a post-apocalyptic society where tractor pulls settle serious disputes, another with alt-history where Eisenhower was the musician and Elvis Presley the politician, and yet another where sumo wrestlers fight telekinetically, and the last, sad and yet hilarious story where Goofy, Donald, and Mickey go searching for a time capsule to tell them where all the humans went.

Most of these stories are humorous, but with an underlying elegiac, even mournful, undertone. Outside of the two stories that unsettled me, the rest were quite delightful.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

It feels like I've been reading a lot about fairy tales recently.My themed SF/F book club is in the middle of five months of reading books with fairy tales for the themes, although when I was choosing books for that, I tried to steer clear of books that were about fae coming into our world. (I made one exception.) I did so because I felt like there were enough of those that it could be its own theme, so this collection was fairy tales in fairy tale worlds. I wasn't dogmatic about it, but it was one of my guiding principles.

This book definitely belongs in the fae-coming-into-our-world category. It happens in a small town called Fairfold, where the fae never went entirely away. Those who live there all their lives all know those who trespassed into Fairy and never returned. Tourists come, and sometimes disappear. A changeling is left with a local family, and when the human mother figures it out and when she gets her own child back, she refuses to give up the changeling either. There is an equilibrium.

In this world, Hazel used to think of herself as a knight, wielding a sword she found by a lake as a child. With her brother as troubadour by her side, making magic music, she fought the fae who tried to prey in more malicious ways on the people of her town. But then she made a deal with the fairy king for her brother's sake, and nothing has quite gone right since. They're both in high school, and Hazel doesn't know how to be who she is anymore, and has her own reasons for keeping her heart far away from anyone. She doesn't know when her debt (seven years of her life) will come due.

One of the notable features of her town is a Sleeping Beauty - but a guy Sleeping Beauty, under glass like Snow White in the Disney film. Generations of teens have partied on his magical glass coffin, but he hasn't woken up. Then, one morning, the case is broken and the boy is gone. Both Hazel and Ben, her brother, are attached to what they'd made of the boy in their heads.

And then kids in the town start being found asleep and not waking up. With the help of Ben and Ben's best friend, Jack (Jack was the changeling who was kept), Hazel has to figure out who let the boy out, who is threatening her town, and what happens at night when she's not conscious to see it.

This is definitely YA, but it's good YA. The characters are strong and interesting, and the writing pulled me along eagerly, wanting to know what happened next. Things are messy and difficult, but none of the conflict feels forced or out of character.

However, I think the strongest part of this are the relationships. Borderline neglected by loving but careless parents, Hazel and Ben have one of the most interesting sibling relationships I've read in a while, and Hazel and Ben's relationships with their parents, with Jack, with the boy under glass, all are interesting and avoid simplistic answers.

I don't know if I'd call this my favourite of the numerous stories that are out there about the fae entering a version of our world, but it's very solid, and certainly up there.

Friday, 15 September 2017

First Person Peculiar by Mike Resnick

I picked up this collection of Mike Resnick short stories in a Humble Bundle a while ago - I'm not sure which one, but I'm guessing the Nebula bundle, as I believe at least one and perhaps more of these stories were nominated for and/or won that award. Weirdly, I read this in close proximity to another book of short stories by another author that came in the same bundle, and the two started to blend together in my head.

So, not having read any Resnick before, what's the verdict? The first thing that strikes me is that a lot of these stories are genuinely funny. Resnick tends to have a humorous touch, even when the stories themselves get a little dark. They're often about incorporating elements of other genres - hardboiled detectives, heists, Casablanca, romantic comedies - into a science fiction (and less often, a fantasy) world. A lot of these I really enjoyed.

That's the good side, and we'll get back to it when I talk about a few of the stories I really enjoyed. The not so great side is that, well, his female characters are not great. I mean, most of the characters in these stories are kind of caricatures, so I'm not looking for deep understanding, but after we got through the second Jewish mother, the Jewish American princess and the fourth or fifth dead hooker...well, it felt like even for caricatures, the women were getting absurdly short shrift. Particularly the dead hooker aspect. (Three of those turn up in a story about Jack the Ripper, but it was only shortly after a spooky little story where violent criminals have their minds wiped and are supposed to be unable to regain memories, but one guy does, and starts his new killing spree guessed it.)

It's unfortunate, because otherwise, I would have thoroughly enjoyed myself. A lot of these aren't deep (although a few are), and I can definitely be sucked into enjoyable little short stories. If, you know, the humour included fewer dead prostitutes and parodies of Jewish women.

If you can put that aside, (and I mostly can but not entirely,) I did enjoy the rest of the stories. They sometimes play with religious ideas, such as Resnick's take on the Wandering Jew of legend, and his actual enjoyment of an incredibly long life, or the later story where the Creator turns out to be a not-very-bright student in a galaxy creation class.

And many of his stories exist in interaction with popular culture, like the one where Rick Blaine is hoping to finally get the girl THIS TIME the movie comes around on the eternal reel. Or the one where a guy winning a lot of money gets mobbed by a host of gold-diggers (sigh), each with their own magician to help them turn the odds in their favour. Or the one where a hard-boiled detective is sent off with a beautiful dame in search of the sheet music for Leibowitz's Canticle, except the dame has plans of her own. And the last story, where John Carter shows up in an aging man's backyard, searching for the way back to Mars, and the narrator, having lost his own wife, beings to hope maybe she's out there with Dejah Thoris somewhere.

But I think my favourite story is a fairly short one where a travel agent robot is programmed with enthusiasm, and then gets up and walks away from his desk one day. It's short, and powerful, and the ending a bit depressing. It's one of the strongest stories in the book.

On the overall topic of recommending the book or not, though...I don't know. If you have a lot of time and love short stories, and can hold judgement on gender stereotypes in abeyance, maybe. Otherwise, there are a lot of great short stories out there. There are some really good ones here, but also some stuff that made it less thoroughly enjoyable than I'd have liked it to be. (AKA write about fewer tortured and murdered prostitutes in your funny stories, thank you!)

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Planetfall by Emma Newman

I picked up Planetfall more or less randomly, not knowing what to expect. I had the feeling that it was young adult, but the story within didn't seem YA at all - older characters for one, but also deep dives into mental illness and trauma that I had not been expecting. Best of all, this all felt done well, and urgently, and the story pressing. Honestly, it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Emma Newman knows how to write, guys. Reading this was an intense experience, as she took us inside the main character Ren, in the grips of PTSD and hoarding, and didn't let go the whole way through. Those mental issues aren't all of who Ren is, but she's been struggling so long that one more stressor is about all it would take to break her. She's strong, but fraying, and the way the readaer is taken along on that journey with her is powerful and internal. And stressful.

So, the story. A small settlement of people live on a planet in the shadow of a huge building/growth/shrine/monolith called God's City. They followed a woman from Earth to this place, when she believed she was on a divine mission, led to these coordinates. She is said to live within the monolith, and sends out yearly  messages to the people still living in the village below.

Right near the beginning, though, we learn two things from Ren, short for Renata. Suh, the prophet and her friend and perhaps lover, isn't alive in there or isn't quite alive - we know something happened to her, but not what. She's definitely not sending those yearly messages. Another occupant of the village is, and he and Renata are also in some way implicated in an accident that killed a bunch of the seekers.

We get this through Ren's eyes, so burdened with guilt and stress over these long-ago events, she can barely look at them head-on. Life goes on in a holding pattern in this village, supported by matter printers, which Ren maintains - and raids the discards for bits she can salvage and fix, driven to try to make things better. Even if she never gets around to it. It's an impulse without a good outlet, because she can't even think about the things that need the most fixing.

Then a strange human comes, on a planet that should have no other humans. He's a survivor of the pod lost or purposefully destroyed, alone. The society tries to find a place for him, while writing meaning over his arrival. He is the first to realize that Ren's introversion is hiding deeper problems and strives to bring them to light.

Meanwhile, Ren ventures into God's City on illicit investigations, and finally, after many years, starts to gain some insight into what the city might be and what brought them there.

I don't want to give more away, because a great deal of the pleasure of this book was in the journey. It's interesting - you know you're in the mind of an unstable narrator, and it's stressful to be there. Even as people reached out to help her, the prose was such that I felt her anxiety and understood it from the inside, rather that just seeing it from a distance. That's a huge thing to be able to do, to take a reader into the mind of someone who is acting in ways that seem irrational, and make them understandable. To make me want to protect her.

There are points at which each of us would break, and I've always thought that that adage about God never giving anyone more than they could handle was bullshit, and I think I would think so even if I were Christian. It's perfectly possible to have more happen than can be borne, for anyone, and sometimes it does. What do you do in the aftermath? And when you live in the shadow of the unknown?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Half The World by Joe Abercrombie

I came back to Joe Abercrombie's books ready to find them too nihilistic and grim, and give them up again. (To be fair, I found the the first book in The First Law series fine, but by the end of the second book, the unrelenting bleakness had gotten to me. It wasn't that I disliked his writing or even the books, but I found the mood too much to take on willingly.)  I had hoped that his series written for a slightly younger audience might let up on the darkness, just a little bit? I wasn't expecting sunshine and puppies, that's for damned sure.

Which is good, because I found neither, although my fears about tone didn't come to fruition either. It's still dark, but not as relentlessly dark. I'm intrigued enough that I'll read the third in the series eventually. I'm not sold to the point of adding Abercrombie to my personal list of authors to follow enthusiastically, but he's back on the list of those I certainly don't mind reading more of if his books cross my path. Although that might be restricted to the vaguely Young Adult-type ones.

In this second book of the trilogy, Yarvi, the main character of the first book, is back, now installed as a Minister to his uncle and new step-father, the King. Yeah, the same person - his mother married his uncle, her first husband's brother, at the end of the last book, to cement his claim to the throne. Their kingdom is threatened by the overreaching hand of the Emperor and his ministers, and Yarvi is given the task of creating a coalition to stand against the largest power in the region. (I'm very fuzzy on geography and thinking visually, so where all these bits of the world are in relation to each other is more than a little opaque to me.)

In amassing a crew, he picks up a motley crew of sailors, then extends himself to take with him two who otherwise would be left to moulder, in various ways. Thorn, a young woman who had been training to become a soldier, despite the disdain and cruelty of her teachers, accidentally kills one of the other trainees when three of them are set on her at once by her trainer. She is in prison, likely to be executed, but Yarvi intervenes to pull her out and take her with him, putting her under the tutelage of one of the characters from the previous book, a fearsome woman warrior.

When Thorn killed, there was only one who spoke in her defence, another trainee named Brand. He was ostracized for his efforts to do the right thing, but Father Yarvi noticed, and takes him with the ship as well. Much of the book is spent on the voyage, with Thorn training, and various feats of heroism done as hostile lands are crossed.

Repeatedly, Brand and/or Thorn are called upon by circumstances to display their valour and skill/strength. Thorn, in particular, becomes the object of stories, particularly when she meets the young new Queen of the place to which they were travelling. This story meanders, much as the trip that the characters undertake does, but also manages to pull the reader along, feeling that there's an underlying purpose.

Yarvi's eventual purpose, or rather, one circumstance he was ready to deal with, is revealed at the end, in a very Macbeth/Eowyn type of ending, when Thorn seems to stand ready to thwart a prophecy. However, since it was Abercrombie, and I wasn't sure how dark this book was going, I wasn't sure how it would turn out. In that, I was surprised, and that was interesting. So, I'm intrigued enough to keep on and finish.