Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

I was looking to fill out a theme in my SF/F book club entitled "Even the Lands Have Changed," a mix of post-apocalyptic and climate change fiction. I needed one more book. I'd read the other four, knew they were good. I came up with a list of four more that sounded good, and let my group decide. The Stone Gods was on there, because I have loved Jeanette Winterson's books quite a lot, and seeing what she could do with dinosaurs and planned/unplanned extinction level events and science fiction sounded pretty exciting.

I was a little wary because of a review Ursula K. Le Guin had written of the book, but I put it forward anyway. It was the one we ended up picking, and I'm not sure how many people actually read it, but I have to say...yeah, I'm a little disappointed.  There are paragraphs as good any anything she's written, a handful of pages where her prose gathers itself and takes flight in visceral and challenging ways. But a few bits out of 200 pages is, frankly, not great. The stuff that's the strongest are the small sections about adoption, which she's explored with huge impact in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. It's obviously something that pushes Winterson's buttons, and so it pushes the readers, but the rest...there's not a lot of there, there.

I think Le Guin put her finger on it - Winterson falls prey to a trap that many literary writers fall into when they delve into science fiction - that of trying to reinvent the wheel. They're not commenting on science fiction as it has been written so far, they're commenting on what they think science fiction is. To someone who has read a lot of the genre, this book isn't cutting-edge and challenging. It's clunky. Building a new world from scratch and letting your audience in on it in ways that don't show is a talent, and there are a lot of others who have done it better.

I'm being harsher than I would be to an author I don't know, because I know Winterson is better than this, and so I am disappointed. I wanted her to take her writing style and themes and bring them to a genre I dearly love. Instead, I got science fiction on square wheels, and little of what makes Winterson so amazing.

First up is her dystopia. It's a clunky dystopia, full of a society that only reacts one way to the dystopia around them, instead of being full of nuance and complexity. (Yes, there are rebels who eat caviar and drink champagne and engage in same-sex activities, but they're not three-dimensional either.)  The explanation for how this world came to be what it is is cartoony, but the rest of the book doesn't camp it up as much as it would need to to make this work. This could work as a gonzo satire. Here, it is mired in commentary without much real insight.

I mean, media sexualizes young women, and some men seem to like it? Sure, easy target. All men? A little harder to sell. All women just go along with it? Even harder. Where's the queer subculture, for one?  I mean, Jeanette Winterson, of all people, where's the queer subculture? (The champagne swilling girls barely count here, but they are present.) Corporations run amok trying to run all aspects of life, again, easy target. You want a dystopia, go deeper, go harder, be daring, be more complex.

She's trying something here that is interesting but doesn't quite pan out, something almost David-Mitchell-esque, but without the sure hand for genre that he's got to bolster his hopping about. The book takes place in three different times, possibly on three different planets (maybe two?) There's a hint of everything repeating, ad nauseam, and that's where there is a glimmer of something more, but it's not quite developed enough. Intriguing, not fully explored.

There's also love, forbidden passion, this time between a woman and a robo sapiens (who is also a woman, if we can assign gender in quite that way, which maybe we can and maybe we can't but it wasn't explored). It repeats. It happens over.

Oh, I wanted to love this book. I did. But it's a disappointing entry in Winterson's works, and I was vastly underwhelmed.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

I picked up Witches of Lychford from a Tor.com promotion. I'm always happy to pick up a few things to read for free, as my meagre budget is about to be taken over by repaying student loans. This is a book that was unlikely to have passed my way otherwise, so I was happy to read it.

However, I can't say that this is one that I loved. It's not one I hated, either. It occupies that dread middle ground where I don't feel very strongly one way or another. It is perfectly competent, without being compelling. It's also very short, more a novella than anything else. And there's nothing wrong with novellas! But with less space, you kind of need a way in which the book packs a real punch.

This is the story of Lychford, a town in England that is apparently one of the linchpins keeping the world of humans and the world of supernatural beings, including the Fae, at bay. There are walls and protections that most people in the town have long forgotten about, except one old witch, Judith, who finds that most of her neighbours regard her as an amusing crank.  (And unfortunately, the one twist with her character was telegraphed a mile away. It's not a bad plot development for her character, but as with so many twists, I wish the author had introduced it sooner so we could explore what the implications are, instead of hinging it all on readers not guessing.)

Two younger women (probably in their thirties?), Amber and Lizzie, are now-feuding childhood friends. Lizzie is an Anglican minister struggling with a loss of faith after the death of her husband. Amber runs a new age shop, but tells herself that her own sojourn in Faerie was mental illness, nothing more.

Into this trio of women comes a large superstore, wanting to set up business in the town, which will probably wreck all local businesses, and will certainly break the remaining protections keeping worlds apart. This is deliberate, it turns out. The executive in charge may not be who he appears to be, and so not only is this a big evil corporation, it's a big evil corporation.

Judith is caught up in the campaign to stop the superstore, while Lizzie has to deal with a rather large wad of cash the executive left in her collection plate that just feels...wrong. Not many other supernatural things happen for a while - it's mostly about these women and their connection to others in the town. Then beglamoured red sigils start to show up on doors of those who oppose the store opening there, and we drive quickly towards a climax.

There's nothing at all wrong here, and if the description above sounds like something you'd like to read, you probably would. I felt like there was a bit too little meat to the story, but there was never a moment while I was reading it where I was irritated or bored. Which is something.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Planet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin

Planet of Exile is not an Ursula K. Le Guin book I'd heard of before. I came on to my radar through my NoveList project, where I take my top ten lists from previous years and look for "read-alikes" on the Novelist database, then read them and compare them to the books that apparently sparked the association.

This particular book is what the database spit out as a read-alike for The Fifth Season, which was without a doubt the best book I read last year. If you could give me another book about a world trembling on the end of existing, a society about to collapse, nature itself turning harsh and brutally hostile, I would be in. And that's what I got here, although the Seasons in Planet of Exile are not as erratic as those in The Fifth Season. They're merely very, very long. Like sixty earth-years long. I shudder at the idea of a sixty year winter.

We are not in the best-known section of Le Guin's oeuvre here, but that made it a little bit more delightful. I know most people won't have read this one, but although I don't think Planet of Exile is stunning, I would argue that it's well worth a read.

So, what is it about? The title refers to the plight of the "farborn," - humans, so far as we know, living on this planet with very very long seasons. Over six hundred earth-years ago, most of the farborn left during a war in their Galactic confederacy (I can't remember what word Le Guin uses precisely there, but that's close.)  In six hundred years, those who were left behind have had no contact with their former civilization. They don't know if it even exists, but they're pretty sure they're forgotten and will never be recovered. Over the six hundred years, they've lost some of their technologies, but not all of them, and are keenly aware of what they've lost.

Also on the planet are what the farborn call the hilfs, (Highly Intelligent Life Forms), and what the hilfs call people or humans. Vaguely humanoid, lighter-skinned than the farborn, although still not what present-day Western society would call "white." They're smaller, but generally physically compatible, although genetically, mixing has tended to lead to stillbirths.

And winter is coming, inexorably, and much faster than in George R.R. Martin. With the winter may come the Gaal, a ghostly white race who raids the edges of hilf society, causing inconvenience and localized trouble, but nothing organized. Until this winter. Under the rule of one unusual Gaal, they're stripping hilf cities and trying to occupy them, only to be driven out under the cruel grasp of winter as it descends, leaving nothing behind to sustain a society through sixty years of cold.

The farborn hear of this first, and they try to organize with the local hilfs to repel the invaders. The hilfs do not particularly trust the farborn, and even less when the farborn leader, after an incident wherein he was able to mindspeak a hilf woman, falls in love with her. (The farborn have some degree of telepathic communication, which they believe the hilf incapable of.)

This is a book about being far away from the culture in which you were raised, knowing you'll never get back to it. And the mistrust between those who have been there longer, although both have now been around for over half a millennium, our time. It's also about assumptions about capabilities, in both directions - what the farborn think the hilf can do, what the hilf presume about the farborn. And whether they can come together as the Gaal and winter come to try to survive for one more Season.

Again, it's not Le Guin's best. But I quite enjoyed this, and the suggestion of it as a read-alike to The Fifth Season was a good one. However, don't look for Jemisin's emotional gut-punch here - this is less intense.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Euphoria by Lily King

*Spoilers Below*

I get that this is a fictional account of Margaret Mead and her time doing anthropological work with her second, and the man who would become her third, husbands. Her name has been changed, as have theirs, as has the title of her book that so excited attention and brought her both fame and notoriety. I get that you take liberties to tell the story you want, as a novelist. I get that.

I just can't help being a little bit angry that the book decided to truncate her life, making her the memory of a lost love by the guy who would never get to be the third husband, because she dies. It does this instead of dealing with the messiness of the rest of her life, the ways in which she continued to be an interesting person. Taking her story away and making it someone's memories of her by killing her off decades earlier than she died in real life does not sit well with me. She was not just men's memories of her, obviously, and so the choice is irksome.

I didn't know much about Mead before reading this book, and only did a token bit of research afterwards, but still, it's a weird choice. In this book, her stand-in is Nell Stone, who is in Australia with her second husband doing anthropological research when they give up researching one indigenous tribe, and move on. They meet the narrator of the book, who in real life, married Mead later on, and we get a tempestuous stream of desire as he sets her and her second husband up with a new tribe, made to order for the type of research she wants to do - and of course, treating groups of people like they're trading cards is irksome as well, but the book does to some degree recognize that.

There, her husband is fixated on a relic from the last tribe they were with, which he sees as his own property, arguing that an elder in that tribe gave it to him, and never seeming to realize that maybe just reaching out and taking whatever you want is not really the best idea. Nell immerses herself in the life of their new tribe, coming up with a framework of divisions of gendered power and labour that offend her husband greatly, because they differ from what he expects to find - men in charge, women not. The new anthropologist on the scene sees the same things she does.

Of course, the history of anthropology is beset with problematic ideas, and Euphoria does not a terrible job of acknowledging this, but it is far more concerned with the European love triangle (which includes queer sexuality) than it is with the objects of Nell and Fen's interest. The indigenous tribe they stay with are mostly set dressing, and there to set the anthropologists in opposition, rather than this being anything like a story of those people.

As a whole, I just felt uncomfortable with the focus of the book, and that only grew after I did some research. I was troubled by the ways in which Nell's story is not her own, given that this is a book of mourning her, and of course, by the larger issues of how the story still uses indigenous Australian culture as a prop and backdrop rather than fully engaging with the difficulties and colonialism of anthropology as a field in the early 20th century.

The problem is, I think, that it felt like this kind of story, with these characters, could be told anywhere, or about completely fictional characters. When the author tried to intersect with historical actors, I felt the strain.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Company Town by Madeline Ashby

I have had trouble starting this review. I think it's because, in the main, I want to recommend this book. And I do! However, there is one chapter where I think the book falls apart a little bit, and although it picks itself up again quite nicely, it confused me so much that it does stand out as the low point, at a section of the plot that should really have been an apex.

Let's explore what I mean in more details - which means there will be some spoilers. If you don't want spoilers, let me say that this is very good Canadian cyberpunk, set on a rig off the coast of Newfoundland, where many of the characters are unionized sex workers, and many of the others new corporate lackeys.

This does, however, mean that we fall into difficult territory of a string of murders of dead prostitutes, which is dangerous and tricky territory. It is, though, as Ebert always said, not what it is about, but how it is about it. So, I want to think about that. These are not faceless women - they are the friends of the main character, who at the start of the book, worked as security for the sex worker's union, protecting the women who are being killed. In what might be splitting hairs, while these deaths are bad ones, they are not sexualized.  It's closer to the main character in the Maltese Falcon trying to avenge his partner than anything else.

I'm still a little on the fence about this, but nothing felt egregiously wrong, if that makes sense. It's just hard territory to get right, and I'm not really sure what right would look like.

What is the plot, do you ask? Hwa is a young woman with a genetic condition that covers her face with a red blotch - incidentally, this messes up facial recognition software, and makes her particularly useful in doing security, which she does for the sex workers union, after having dropped out of school. She lives and works (and never leaves, few people ever leave) on an oil rig/city out on the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, and you can hear the Newfoundland slang in the characters' voices.

Near the start of the book, though, she gets hired by the new company in town, the one that has bought the whole place, lock, stock, and all the property in between. The youngest son of this family business has been receiving death threats, and she is hired to go back to high school with him and keep him safe. Her handler is Daniel Siofra, a man whose past is a mystery - even to himself. Her charge, Joel, is an earnest and likeable young man - far too likeable to be the next likely successor to a multi-national.

Attacks do come, some by someone invisible. Meanwhile, some of the women Hwa used to guard, her friends, are killed. She keeps the corporate job because it gives her computer access to investigate what happened to the women who died. Oh, and there might be interference in what's going on from the future. There's a lot going on.

I generally really liked this book. However, there is one chapter where the pacing broke down. I seriously thought that section was a dream - the character thinks that idly, and in a short number of pages, we were jumping locations and events in what felt like a dream-like fashion, and so I wasn't bothered that too many huge plot twists were happening in a single chapter. I was sure that they were Hwa putting pieces together unconsciously and that the events hadn't actually happened.

I was wrong. They did all happen. And although Hwa had a seizure at the end of the chapter, and the previous pages could be her altered state of mind leading up to the seizure, we never got to be with her as she sorted out what happened and what didn't and why. So then I was playing catch-up, trying to move events out of the spot where my brain had sorted them as dream-stuff, not real-stuff.

It's just the one chapter. Either the pacing is bad, or it's a good effort to try to capture her state of mind in the middle of an insanely stressful situation, but lacks the follow-up to bring that home. It's unfortunate. Outside of that, though, this is very sold cyberpunk, rooted solidly in class and gender disparities.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer

I will read all the Hugo nominees. I really will. At this point, I'm just under half-way done, and for the very first time, I've bought a membership so I can vote on the awards. Hopefully that'll mean I'll read last year's books this year, and not two or three years hence, which has pretty much been the way it's gone for the last little while. When you mostly get books out from the library, you're either on a ton of wait lists, or you're content being a little bit behind.

So as I continued my trek through the Hugo Best Novel nominees, I came to that run of Robert J. Sawyer nominations. He had a very fervent fanbase there for a while, and so, rarely a year went by without a nomination. I am not the biggest Sawyer fan, although I don't mind his stuff. It's straight-forward commercial fiction, and the twists are often fairly good, although his women are mostly identified by the largeness of their boobs.

(That's not really better in this book - at one point, the main character thinks about the woman he wants to cheat on his wife with with the massively unflattering description that she was so attractive he often didn't notice how intelligent she was. Dudes, if you didn't already know, this is not a compliment any woman wants to hear.  I do not, and I keep saying this, mind romances or attractions that are also physical. It's when they're nothing BUT physical, and the brain attached is an extreme afterthought, that I get annoyed.)

There is a lot going on in this book, and then there's the subplot where the main character reaches middle age, and, according to the bullshit evolutionary psychology in this book, inevitably wants to have an affair, to prove his manhood. I mean, how else will you deal with hair falling out? He loves his wife and their marriage is good, but you know, he's attracted to this other woman, and what are you going to do?

You know what I like about being an adult? (I talked this one over extensively with my husband, and he was less forgiving of Sawyer than I was prepared to be.) I like that eventually you learn that while you may know people to whom you are attracted when you're an adult and in a happy, monogamous relationship (as the characters in the book are), attraction does not equal action. Eventually, you learn that you can experience attraction and do absolutely freaking nothing about it. It's totally a possibility. I assume my husband will not only be attracted to me for his entire life. I know damn well I'll sometimes find other people attractive. But you know what? I always find him attractive too, and he does me. What I have is far too awesome to ditch any time I experience pantsfeelings. (Thank you Captain Awkward for the terminology!)

I mean, people can do whatever they want with their lives, as long as everyone's aware and on board. If multiple partners are important to you, sort out your life so that's part of it, with everyone's willing consent. But this notion that that if you want to boink someone half your age, you just have to, because you're middle-aged is nonsense.

So I didn't like that subplot very much.

The rest of the book was fine. Humanity is one of four races on Starplex, a giant ship exploring the wormholes riddling the galaxy, and looking for first contact. They find more than they expected when suns, literal, huge, active suns, start coming through the wormholes, followed by dark matter creatures with whom humans, dolphins, and two alien species have very little in common.

Throw in a little time travel, some intergalactic wormholes, and a sudden attack from an ally, and there's a lot going on. I can't say any of it rocked my socks off, but it was solid SF. If only we could get to a point where not only can we imagine dark matter beings, time travel, and wormholes, we could also make the ultimate leap to seeing women as more than their boobs.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

*Spoilers Below*

I wanted to be charmed by this book. At times I was, mostly by the clockwork octopus, Katsu. But then every once in a while the author would make a choice and I would sit and shake my head. Or something would be revealed and I would be irritated that it had waited until now. I know this all sounds very vague, but that's pretty much because I have a sense of light dissatisfaction that is not really dislike, more like disappointment. It feels like this is two-thirds of the way to being a very good book indeed, but some of the authorial choices were not for me.

Mostly this is around the queer content. I am very happy there is queer content. I'm not as happy that it's so subtle that I didn't notice it until we were at about the 3/4 mark of the book. This is perhaps more irksome because that makes this the second book I've read that is supposed to be about gay male desire in Victorian London (the other was a vampire novel) and really dropped the ball because the author made it so little of the story. I mean, it's fine if characters are gay, and that's who they are and it's not a huge part of the story, but when the story ends up hinging on one man's feelings for another, and I didn't even notice they were brewing, well, either I was being terminally dense while reading this book, or it wasn't given enough weight before it all came out in the open.

I suppose I should go back to the plot, to put this in context. Thaniel (short for Nathaniel, and I've never heard that short-form before, and I've transcribed god-only-knows how many names on membership lists of clubs in the late 19th century) works for the government in England, eventually for the Foreign Office. A bomb set off by Fenians nearly kills him, except that he was warned by an alarm on a pocketwatch that turned up in his home previously. This leads him to the watch's maker, Mori, a Japanese man who can see all the possibilities of the future, and chooses to sometimes nudge them to more palatable ends.

And even though Thaniel moves in with him, it took me forever to figure out that they had feelings for each other. I don't need swooning, but it's okay if gay desire has a physical component, you know? It doesn't need to be all refined all the time - the Victorians, trust me, had sex. They felt desire. The prose here does not need to be overwrought, but it would be nice if it were present.

Thaniel decides to get married to a science-minded woman who needs a husband in order to claim an inheritance. They like each other well enough, but they certainly aren't in love. And while Grace is an interesting character, I didn't love the decision to make her into the villain. She decides that if Thaniel is with or near Mori, he'll become nothing more than Mori's puppet, and so she decides to cause an explosion to discredit Mori. This is after previously destroying the gift Mori sent for a housewarming, for no particular reason other than to be petty and to want to own Thaniel.

This would make more sense if she was more intensely in love with him, or maybe if she'd been developed more strongly as seeing people as little more than objects to acquire. It's not that anything here is wrong, exactly, but she's really the only developed female character, and so to make her the embodiment of female jealousy over a man she doesn't love, hurting and potentially killing people to get what she wants...I don't love it as a choice. If there were more female characters, I'd have less of an issue.

So...this is okay. There were bits I liked quite a lot, but the book seemed afraid of its subject matter, and instead of character traits being skilfully laid in, they were more jammed in when it became dramatically necessary. It's unfortunate, because there is a lot here to like.