Friday, 17 November 2017
This book, uh...this book falls into the latter category. Not in terms of the characters or what's going on between them; I was able to figure out the general social structure of the universe as it exists in this book. It's the physics I don't freaking understand. That may not be essential, but I don't. I was halfway through the book when I was talking about it with a friend, and he was enthusiastic about this being a book where being in different parts of the galaxies meant that the speed of light was different.
I paused, because that wasn't how I understood what was going on at all. He may indeed be right! But I'd seen the inability to go the speed of light, or several times it, as what was changing, not the speed itself. And if it is different, what does that mean? I'm so lost.
Practically, what this means is that there are parts of the universe where technology is insanely advanced and AIs are very, very smart and sometimes galaxy-spanning and dangerous, but then there are parts in the "Slowness" where they just...aren't. They can't. The ships can't. I don't get why. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but it was oblique enough that I didn't fully understand why the basic rules of the universe differed based on physical location. I got that they did, but it never felt like Vinge let me in on the reasons.
So, in this universe I don't understand, there are a ton of races, most of them not even remotely humanoid. Civilizations rise and fall quickly out where technology works really really well, and the remnants of a past one are discovered by a human colony excavating old ruins. Old ruins are really fucking dangerous here. They unleash an old Power that has killed civilizations before, and starts to do it again, attacking information nexii in search of the humans who got out with something that could stop it.
People die, stations perish, and one ship makes its way into the Slowness in search of the weapon to use against the Power. The weapon, along with that refugee human ship, had crashlanded on a planet where the dominant species are packs of dogs. Not dogs, individually, and not, of course, quite dogs, but groups of "dogs" acting telepathically in concert. As singletons, they don't have enough brain power to sustain a thought, but as packs, they can think, and their identities can change as pack members die and new ones are added. This means that they're smart, but all their geniuses work in isolation, so progress has been slow.
Recently, a couple of powerful packs have been heavily engaging in eugenics as it would apply to such a society, often in extraordinarily cruel ways. The two children who survive the first attack of the packs on the ship end up with different sides, unaware of each other's continued existence.
Meanwhile, on the ship coming after them, we have a human, a sort-of human partially occupied by another Power, and two skrodes, which are plant-like ocean creatures on...skateboards? Kind of? The skateboards are their external memories?
It's all intrigue and exploring pack dynamics, and it's all very interesting, but there's a little part of my brain that argues that it doesn't hang together as a story all that well. That there are pacing issues, and unexplained assumptions about the world that I didn't get.
It's...okay. It's interesting. There are really good bits. And yet.
Thursday, 16 November 2017
We're...not quite halfway through Round One. It's a long one, to give every book I've read this year a chance.
This is too easy. I didn't really like The Dog Stars. I really liked Planetfall, and I continue to think about the portrayal of trauma and grief that is portrayed there, as well as the effects of living in a society based on some fundamental lies that have become articles of faith.
I found Garth Greenwell's first novel okay, but far too full of semi-colons that kept intruding onto my thoughts; Nnedi Okorafor's book was haunting and difficult and if there was a semi-colon, I didn't notice it.
Winner: Who Fears Death
It's funny that my elaborate seeding scheme ended up putting two Okorafor books back to back in this competition, although not yet against each other. The randomness has been a little weird, but I think in a good way? This is all a digression, because again, this isn't a hard choice. The Girl on the Train was fine, Lagoon was really damned good, about aliens landing just off the coast of Lagos.
Bye # 6: Halting State by Charles Stross
Huh. This is actually a harder choice than it would appear. But as much as I've loved Billy Collins in the past, this year I'm less in the mood for melancholy exploration of theoretical mortality than I am for a deep painful dive into loss. Hypothetical doesn't cut it at the fucking moment. (They're still good poems.) Morgan's book is fun corporate state/Mad Max fun, but it's not deep. So, which do I pick?
Winner: Aimless Love
I will admit that The Diviners snuck up on me. I liked it more than I should have, despite glaring flaws. It's not going to win, though, because it still doesn't measure up to the second Southern Reach book, with its dive into spy novel environmental SF.
Wednesday, 15 November 2017
A week or two after the meeting, it finally was available again, so I snatched it up and sat down to read the last bit so I could finally write a review.
The Mothers is a book about two young women with absent mothers and their own tenuous connections to motherhood. It's also told through a Greek chorus of old women who go to the church that these young women go to.They are titularly called The Mothers, and act as a window to how the community regards the small dramas of these young people and their parents, gossiping and making assumptions, warranted and unwarranted, about them. I found them to be unreliable narrators, and thought that made the book more interesting, although at least one person in my book club thought that they were to be more trusted than I did. I thought they were a commentary on how communities understand the outside but not necessarily the why or how of what goes on around them. They aren't close to any of the main players, but they see themselves as experts nonetheless.
Nadia, one of the young women, lost her mother to suicide just a short while before the book starts. She doesn't know why her mother took her own life, or if it was her fault for even being born. Would her mother's life have been different if she'd had the opportunity to have an abortion instead of getting married? This is less than academic to Nadia, as when she gets knocked up, she definitely and quickly chooses her own future academic career instead of getting married to the pastor's son, Luke.
That doesn't mean she never thinks about it again, and Luke ruminates on the abortion even more. Nadia's best friend, Aubrey, who Nadia befriends after her abortion, eventually hears that there was one, but not the details. Aubrey has fled from a mother who didn't protect her from her stepfather, going to live with her sister and sister's girlfriend instead, finding the church as a haven of normalcy, where she can pretend life is simple and solvable.
The book follows these characters through many years, as Nadia leaves for school and returns home to take care of her father. Their relationships intertwine, and although they rarely talk about their shared history, it has an impact, for good and ill, on everything they do, and the further ways they hurt each other.
This is an interesting look at living in a tight-knit community, and what spaces still exist there. I can't say I loved it, but I did enjoy the book. It didn't, though, feel like it touched me on any level connected with the absence of my own mother, which I guess sort of feels like a strike against the story? I understood where the women in this book were coming from, but it didn't hit me where I've been dwelling in grief. (Unlike reading Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie after the death of my father, which had me positively sobbing with shared pain.)
But being motherless stays with you. Now I know being an orphan stays with you, and isn't limited to those who were young when you they were orphaned. This story was very particular in a way that was not congruent with my experience. Nevertheless, it was worth a read. I like reading stories different from my own.
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Round One Continues!
The Healer's War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough vs. number9dream by David Mitchell
There were moments in both of these books where I why they were unfolding as they did. But while Mitchell always makes me glad to be along for the strange and genre-hopping ride, I never did parse out why The Healer's War is a fantasy novel, other than that it's a genre Scarborough had previously published in, or at least an adjacent one. It's not bad, but even older David Mitchell is more likely to please me. That's not to talk down The Healer's War - I'm very glad I included it in my "Post-War Science Fiction" book club theme, and it gave us interesting things to talk about. It just doesn't go any further in this tournament.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid vs. The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
Well, there's really no contest here, is there? I hated I'm Thinking of Ending Things for a lot of reasons I go into in the review, so almost anything could have knocked it out. It's just chance that it's up against the first book in a trilogy I read all of and enjoyed thoroughly last year. There's really no question what the result is going to be. Bye-bye, I'm Thinking....
Winner: The Last Policeman
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater vs. They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson
I think I enjoyed The Dream Thieves most of the three Ravencycle books I've read so far - with Ronan at the centre, the narrative had a real drive that I haven't necessarily felt otherwise. So that gives this book a fairly easy win over Plum Johnson's memoir of her family, which is interesting, but doesn't do quite enough to justify its own existence, other than the natural and understandable desire to commemorate family.
Winner: The Dream Thieves
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst vs. The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent
Of all the first-round matches so far, this is one that is giving me pause - neither are books that I loved, both are books that I respected. So do I go with sexuality and hypocrisy in Thatcher's Britain, or a gender-segregated future? I think the writing style gives this one to Hollinghurst.
Winner: The Line of Beauty
The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Coming Home by Jack McDevitt
I feel like I'm getting spoiled by the new seeding, even though I know full well that I'll pay for it when all the books I liked most come up against each other in a round or two. But for the moment, I'll remain happy that it's easy to knock out the Futuristic-Clive-Cussler Coming Home in favour of Stross' Laundry series. We're in the U.S. with this one, with evangelical Cthulhu cults trying some fairly nasty business.
Winner: The Apocalypse Codex
Monday, 13 November 2017
There are a bunch of different stories, but they're all stories about an absence. Not only that, they're stories about how we tell stories, about how we try to impose narrative sense on an inherently chaotic life, about how the movies structure thought, about how the gaze is directed, and getting back to the first point, about how stories can give the illusion of presence.
This is particularly striking because the main character, Severin, is never present during the book. I mean, she's frequently there, but in a news story, one of her father's movies, in the scripts he and his collaborator keep trying to write to make sense of her disappearance, and even in her own documentaries, but she's never actually there. This is a story that's being told because she is gone, and no one knows where, or whether she's alive or dead, or really whether or not that's a question that makes sense. What is a callowhale, anyway?
Let's take a step back. This is a book that is so entirely itself, exists so completely in a fully-developed world that is not our own, but has certain resonances with it. It means that when Valente lets us peek behind the curtain (behind the camera?), we have to open our minds and try to catch up. The sense of familiar alienness is not one that was exclusionary. Sometimes I find authors who develop their worlds so perfectly in their heads don't want to let readers in easily, or don't realize that they need to explain things that are so clear to them. That was not what I encountered here.
This is not our solar system, but we're brought into it gently enough that even when we don't know everything, we aren't entirely adrift - or at least, not any more adrift than the characters who were born there. They aren't entirely sure what the callowhales are either, even though they drink their milk in many forms, needing it to survive in interplanetary space.
The callowhales live on Venus (or do they?), floating in the seas there, either animal or vegetable or possibly island? (There almost feels like there's some distant kinship to C.S. Lewis' Venus.) They give off something that is called milk, like many things in the solar system have been named after very different but sort of similar Earth analogues. Something in it makes life on other planets and in the vast spaces between the planets possible, and humankind has spread.
The movie business has taken over the moon, in this strange Art Deco-punk world, where something in the soil turns everyone blue, but everyone paints their skin so as not to show up strangely on screen on the other planets where they are not blue. There's this basic artifice at the movies before the first word is written or the first camera run.
Severin grew up in front of the camera, left on her famous director father's doorstep one stormy night, and the arrival was promptly restaged for his favourite camera, Clara. She turned away from his silent dramas to her own talkie documentaries, but Radiance makes the point that there are still choices in documentaries as to what is filmed and what is shared. We don't get to know Severin, we get to know the version of herself she chose for the world to see, the version that her audiences would never get to interact with. And we get the stories of her fated last documentary expedition, from those who loved her and possibly those who loved and hated her at the same time, as well as the young boy in the deserted town she found on Venus. We get all the lead-up to her disappearance, and we get her father's scripts trying to fit her story into a noir mystery, a fairy tale, a historical drama, and back to a mystery, one where all is revealed in one drawing-room scene.
But his answer to what happened to her, and indeed, to the secrets of the solar system, the callowhales, and the universe(s) aren't any more definitive than any of the movie transcripts, interviews, gossip columns or other accounts of which book is made up. This book is all about the gaze, but the person everyone is gazing at is gone, and as after every death, there are hanging threads and stories that are unfinished, there are questions unanswered. There is absence in the presence of all the material world they left behind. We turn our gaze on what's left behind, trying to make it make sense.
And the callowhales swim(?) on.
Friday, 10 November 2017
McEwan is very interested in obsession, in small events that mean little to one person, but everything to someone else. (Also in narratives told by people trying to make sense out of a situation by reconstructing what they think might have or could have happened, but that isn't as applicable here.) In this case, the moment that spurs obsession is important to both people involved, but one is able to walk away and the other follows, with repercussions that are troubling in their mundanity and lack of poetry.
In the Children Act, Fiona is a judge in family court in the U.K. She mostly oversees divorce cases, custody agreements, separation and alimony. A few of her cases reach the level of national news, as she is a judge at the highest level of this court.
Her home life is a mess - after a protracted period of sexlessness, her husband proposes that they stay together but open their marriage up. AKA, he wants to have sex with someone, and if she's not interested, he has a someone in mind. Fiona does not take this well, with an anger and betrayal that is both understandable and frustrating when she refuses to consider any valid points he might be making as well. It is an anger that only admits of one side, unlike her work, where she tries to balance competing interests and come up with answers that leave both feeling like they didn't quite get what they wanted. She won't go anywhere near that as a solution here though - it's all or nothing, and no in-between is possible.
As she's reeling from this, she's faced with a new case - a young Jehovah's witness, only three months under the age of majority and full control over his own medical decisions, has leukemia, and is refusing treatment. The hospital is suing to gain temporary custody, to force treatment that includes blood transfusions.
I'm not going to talk about the eventual ruling she comes to too much, but it does feel like this is very different in British law than Canadian. Because I've played a Jehovah's Witness for medical students many times, I know that there isn't a clearcut age at which people get to make their own medical decisions - there are guidelines, but a great deal of it rests on the ability of the person to recognize both the dangers and possible outcomes, and to make a decision that could be accepted as reasonably adult. It's a sliding scale, and assessments like Fiona does here (I keep wanting to call her Ruth for some reason - why is that?) would be part of the process, absolutely. But the letter of the law wouldn't be that much help. (And honest to goodness, being three months too young to make your own medical decisions would be extraordinarily likely to be deemed competent.)
It is the letter of the law Fiona relies on here, when she decides that those three months make all the difference. The boy, Adam, lives, and when he realizes his parents are happy he did so, loses his faith. He pushes them away, but as much as he might see it as a freeing of himself, he's trying to exchange one authority for another. That's where the obsession comes in. He starts to see Fiona as wise beyond just the parameters of her decision - someone who could teach him how to live, if she'd just let him come and live with her and learn from her.
While the decision was important to Fiona, Adam's life isn't important to her own in the same way, and she, with a few missteps, does not incorporate him into her life. Adam, who really is very young, sees that as another authority rejecting her, and what he does next proceeds from there, and from being at sea in a world drastically different than the one he thought he was living in. Wanting certainty, he doesn't get it in the judge who made the decision that changed his life.
It's an interesting book, with tension and things not said, expectations not expressed, running all the way through it. Probably firmly on the liked but didn't love scale.
Tuesday, 7 November 2017
Round One Continues!
Bye #3 - The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
I am a huge Octavia Butler fan, and like to talk about the five books of hers that I've read as often as I can gracefully haul them into conversation (or ungracefully, I'm not really a subtle person). So I was delighted to pick up this collection of two previously unpublished short stories. The second shorter one is the real gem, but there is no doubt that this is going to win out over Waistcoats and Weaponry. I liked this Gail Carriger more than I did her -less series, but it's fluff. Nothing wrong with fluff, but that can't come anywhere near Butler's chops.
Winner: Unexpected Stories
This is an oddly difficult choice. I think I gave Elizabeth Moon's book four stars when I initially rated it on Goodreads, and definitely my review was more favourable than my one for First Person Peculiar, which I found distressing in a few ways. But as I've sat with The Speed of Dark, my discomfort has grown, and so this is one of those cases where the space between reading and considering it in this competition hasn't cemented a book in my favour. Still, there are a whole lot fewer (read: none) dead prostitutes in The Speed of Dark. But don't count on it sticking around in the competition for long.
Winner: The Speed of Dark
In very general terms, I like Charles Stross a lot, and I think he's had at least one book on my top ten list in the last few years. That being said, this is not my favourite series of his - it's very early and his writing skills are not as developed as they will be. And in this battle, it's up against Kate Atkinson, whose Life After Life (a related book to this one) just destroyed me. I might not have been quite as intensely affected by A God in Ruins, but it's so good, and so difficult.
Winner: A God In Ruins
Bye #4 - The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Oof, this is one of those cases where I barely remember one of the books. I think I remember a few of the specifics of the plot of Cereus Blooms at Night, but since I read it earlier this year, it has left barely a ripple on my consciousness. In contrast, Holly Black's book wasn't high literature, but it was solid YA with a fairy tale tinge, which everyone knows is one of my favourite subgenres.
Winner: The Darkest Part of the Forest
I have, in general, enjoyed the Poul Anderson books I've read to date. This is very, very early Anderson, and it shows. It's...not great. Really not. In the other corner, we have a book that I enjoyed a great deal more than I expected to. I liked the integration of roleplaying into the story, and was comforted by the warmth running through the whole book. This is a great one for kids and almost-young-adults.
Winner: Greenglass House