Monday, 30 March 2015

All Clear by Connie Willis

It was perhaps a mistake to wait for so long between Blackout and All Clear. I almost always leave gaps between reading books by the same authors, and it was no different in this case. I knew that this was pretty much one book divided into two parts, but still, I followed the same pattern. This ended up making the start of All Clear more difficult than it might otherwise have been, as the characters and plot were not fresh and recent in my memory.

And the book makes no allowances for that - it's clearly expected you're going to go straight from one into the other. So for the first few chapters, it took me a while to get my feet about who these people were again, and why they were doing what they were doing, exactly.

That meant that the book and I got off on the wrong foot, and it wasn't helped by long swathes of the book in which people just seem to be there to be as irritating and obstructive to the plot as possible, not telling each other information that they and we clearly need to know. At times, it dragged.

This was frustrating, because at other times it was really good, and really clear, and the emotional drive was strong, and things were happening. It's uneven, but there are parts that are as good as anything Willis has ever written.  So I can't say that about the book as a whole is a disappointment.

While I've raved in the past about the way she makes the past feel real (whether or not it would pass muster with a historian), about how she personalizes large traumatic events with characters you genuinely care about, there are some issues with it. To be precise, it's starting to feel like she's gone to the same well too often, and since I know that's something she does on occasion, I'm wary. (Read Lincoln's Dreams and Passage and tell me that the core idea isn't something she's rewriting.)

In this case, though, with the exception of the rapscallion Hodbins, the people in the traumatic event (in this case, the Blitz) that we care about, that are in danger, are the historians themselves. Their drops aren't opening, and they become increasingly sure that they're damaging the timeline by their mere presence, which they think is causing their exile in a very dangerous past.

(It's more complicated than that, thankfully.) It's an excuse to give us a tour of parts of the Blitz and England during the Second World War that would have been too dangerous for these time traveling historians to visit under any other circumstances. It also brings home the fragility of the victory.

But oh, Eileen kept irritating the hell out of me. And the way Polly kept keeping stuff from Eileen so as not to upset her. Sometimes I liked these characters, but often, I wanted to shake them. Hard.

So, in the end, I think this is a solid Connie Willis book, but not one of her best. There are wonderful moments, but also ones that are just plain draggy.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Sentimentalists by Joanna Skibsrud

I feel like I owe a pre-emptive apology to my book club. This was the book I picked for the next round of reads, as it was coming up on my list, and it was CanLit, and I figured, why not? I felt like Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, which I got out of the library at the same time, might be too much to ask. It's not coming around as a read until July, I think, and so, far in advance, I'd like to say "I'm so sorry." And also that we can change it if people want.

I tried, boys and girls, really I did. I valiantly read the whole damn thing. I waded through sentences with so many subordinate clauses that I couldn't remember what the author was trying to say. I read sentences out loud to my husband, he of the M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing and asked if it was just me, or if that was truly a terrible sentence. He always looked at me like I had rocks in my head and said "Megan, that's really bad." He was able to nail down why the prose was so plodding, something to do with the cadence that I don't entirely get, but certainly could intuitively feel.

How, oh how did this win the Giller? It isn't that the subject matter's bad, but the prose that it's told in is so incredibly dull, so incredibly maudlin, so incredibly unintelligible that I have to wonder if people couldn't follow the sentences either and figured this was a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. That they weren't getting it and so it must be brilliant. I have no idea.

This is a case where, just because it's about a "worthy" topic, that does not mean it's a good book.

Again, book club people. I am so sorry.

The main character's father fought in Vietnam, and was pretty much destroyed by it. I guess. I mean, he drinks a lot, and his wife left him, taking their daughters, but other indications of trauma...fine, maybe the alcoholism is enough. I remember one of my father's best friends, though, who was more or less destroyed by his time in Vietnam, and this seems pretty mild to me.

(Is this where I confess that I read this less than a week ago, and I can't remember the main character's name? Or any of the characters' names, except maybe Owen and Henry?)

Her father is American, but ends up living in Ontario with the father of a man he served with in Vietnam, and there...he used to build a boat? He does crossword puzzles? This is a book that mistakes mundanity for profundity. Believe me, I think you can write in such a way that shows the mundane to be more than it seems, but this is not that book.

Is it really that easy to live in another country off the books? Particularly when you have to go back and forth over the border a couple times in one day during a medical emergency?

You know what? I don't care. I don't care about this book, for all it tries to whap us over the head with atrocities in Vietnam in the last twenty pages. Problem is, the rest of the book is so flat they fall flat too. I do not understand how this book won anything. And it's mostly because the prose is virtually unreadable.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

"Asteroid of Fear" by Raymond Zinke Gallun

 Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Planet Stories, March 1951

I had a whee of a time reading this story. I'm nearing the end of my dissertation on temperance and masculinity, you see, and so I've spent years and years reading temperance stories and thinking about what they say about manliness and society. So when I found this story, which is not technically a temperance story, it had enough similarities that I almost rubbed my hands together in glee.

Plus, it had the wonderful epithet "hydroponic pun'kinheads." Which I plan to now use on everyone, ever. You have been warned.

Pretty much the only way in which this isn't a temperance tale is that John, the main character, isn't fatally doomed by his addiction to drink, and can, in the end, save himself by proving himself more manly than the others, rather than having to be saved from his terminal lack of will by a child, or a temperance advocate. (Rarely, if ever, a wife.)

John has gotten himself into trouble while drinking on earth, even spending time locked up in jail. While there, of course, it was too much for his long-suffering but always supportive wife Rose to run the farm by herself, and they lost it. (This trope of wife is always long-suffering but unfailingly loving.) So he's signed up the whole family to farm on an asteroid. They're the first settlers on Vesta since the destruction of the alien civilization there eons ago, although there is a mining camp on the other side of the asteroid.

He's trying to stay off the sauce, and so the miners think he's uppity, which quickly swells into anti-farmer homicidal rage. It's so over the top. One, how do they have the time or energy after a long mining shift to spend their sleeping time traversing to the other side of the asteroid and trying to kill John and his family? And why do they hate farmers? Food is kind of at a premium. Whatever, they're the personified forces of degenerated masculinity, out to kill and destroy, and even threaten rape of John's wife and daughter.

John must defend his homestead all by himself. (It's always strange to me - I'm pretty sure Rose could keep a watch too, and if the man must be the one to have the gun, she could wake him up.) The miners come and try to wreck the supplies he needs to live in the airless vacuum of space. (The suits in this story have, it seems, unlimited air.) He knows they'll be back, until his wife emasculates him by calling the cops.

So John gets to get his first crop in, and takes it to the mining camp to sell. Or at least, he would, if he doesn't decide that he needs a drink before he gets any money. This starts a fight, and the most homicidal of the miners tries to kill him, and he knocks him out and drags him back to his dome, where he proves his superior masculinity by...making him eat a whole bushel of tomatoes? This proves his superior control, and breaks the power of the other guy in the eyes of the other miners, as he's shown to be weak.

This story has it all, if you're looking for masculinity - drink, murder, and manly self-control. Of course, a long-suffering wife to set it off. And those miners. Man. They sure are jerks. But at least they aren't hydroponic pun'kinheads.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Telempath by Spider Robinson


  

While we're on the topic of race on the covers of science fiction.... The one on the left is the cover my first copy of this book had, with young Black man Isham Stone facing down Wendell Carlson in the ruins of Columbia University. The one on the right is the reissue cover, and I suppose that could be Wendell Carlson eating a sandwich, but there is a notable lack of Isham Stone. I like the rest of it - the leopard, the skeleton in the park, it's just kind of weird that in the intervening 20 years, Baen books decided that the main character shouldn't be on the cover.

At any rate. Science fiction covers continue to be something I'm interested in. 

But back to this book, which is a very early one by my favourite author of all time, Spider Robinson. As such, it has yet to develop many of the themes that will run so strongly through all of his books, but the seeds of them are there.

The premise is this: 20 years ago, a young idealist decided that cities were what was killing us, that and our removal from the natural world. So he created the Hyperosmic Virus, which swept the world in 48 hours, increasing everyone's sense of smell a hundredfold or more. This emptied the cities, but it also created a lot of people who were unable to cope with the overwhelming sensory input, and became more or less catatonic. Far more people than he had intended to kill, died. And that was before the War started, between people and the airborne creatures known as the Muskies, which were now identifiable by smell, and suddenly, distinctly homicidal. 

Young Isham Stone was brought up by his father to be the Hand of Man, to hunt and execute Wendell Carlson, who created the virus. To do so, he ventured into the largest stink of them all - New York City, long deserted. In the process, this book looks at the stickiness of vengeance, and the tension that might exist between those who long to have civilization back, and those who see in the greatest collective trauma in human history a warning of what not to do. 

Spider strikes a chord here between a blanket assumption that everything would be hunky-dory in the new hippie utopia, and the idea that what we need to do to fix things is to reindustrialize with better noseplugs. 

This isn't his best, but I always find that it holds up remarkably well. When my husband read it, he thought that at least one part of the ending was trying too hard to be optimistic, and I can see what he means, but I like it nonetheless. We see early threads of Spider's interest in telepathy, but more than that, his ideas on what we would need for a truly sane society. I am always persuaded. Particularly since it still includes ice cream.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Week In Stories - March 24

Well, gaming got cancelled once, and for one of the shows I regularly watch, I was busy making baklava instead of Ollie running around Starling City. (The baklava turned out extremely well, so I regret nothing!) But this might be a shorter entry than usual.

TV

The Flash - "Out of Time"

Ho-ly shit. That's all I have to say. So many things happened, and although the end of the episode seems to say it might be reversible, there were still big bold moves! A main character was killed, and it was heartbreaking! (Although my husband has a comics-based argument for why what appeared to be getting killed might actually manifest his superpowers.) Joe was kidnapped and beaten up. The police chief is in a coma and has brain damage. (And we finally got to meet his fiance, who was mentioned way back at the start of the season.) Barry came clean about his secret identity to Iris.

Now I guess we have to see how much they let of what happened stand as Barry loops himself in time. I hope they let some of it stay, although I really don't want to lose the character who got killed. But eep! This show keeps making bold moves, and not leaving any of its story on the table. I applaud that.

Agents of SHIELD - "One of Us"

Kyle MacLachlan gets another chance to do batshit crazy, and it is certainly entertaining. He's determined to show his daughter that he's the stable one who loves her, and does a really terrible job of it, what with threatening to kill an entire town in the process. Also, Blair Underwood has not aged in, it appears, decades. I hope he's a recurring character, because his psychologist was remarkably free of the crazy.

The reveal at the end was small, but pretty damn creepy. Good job.

Roleplaying

Paper Dolls

The only roleplaying game in the last couple of weeks, as two of my Shakespeare, VA games got cancelled - one due to me being sick, and one due to a player not being up to it. So everything's been focused on our weird multiple universes game, which appears to be drawing to a close, and we've finally figured out an endgame.

This is one where almost all the drama is interpersonal, but we needed some sort of threat at the end, and it occurred to me at last week that perhaps the scientists who split the three worlds apart 20 years ago might be trying to figure out how to smoosh them back together again. Which raises interesting questions about what would happen to our characters, of whom there are three versions apiece, or to all the children born in the last 20 years? We've had to think about which of our characters would fight on each side.

I have one who is just broken and full of self-loathing enough that she might want to destroy herself and the world she lives in. I think almost everyone else will fight to preserve the split, because even though it caused a great deal of emotional and physical trauma, that's not exactly a good reason to cause a second trauma. Plus, one of my characters has a baby, who she'll fight to save, and the other has a ton of nieces and nephews she adores.

We'll probably wrap it up within a session or two, but it's been an interesting experiment!

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

New York in the 19th century, the slums, and prostitution. That is the milieu McKay is trying to invoke in this book, and, well, it's not bad. I was never eager to get back to reading this book, but I never minded picking it up, either. If it feels a bit superficial, it also is stronger when it comes to villains than McKay's earlier work.

My main complaint about The Birth House was that while the good characters were likeable, the bad characters were beyond caricatures. She's gotten better at that. At the same time, there's still just something lacking here. It's not terrible, but this feels like it's a book written to be a bestseller, if that makes any sense. But for all that, it's good at what it does.

The main character is a girl named Moth (strangely, that's the same name we gave to our street urchin (male) character in a story-by-email two friends and I have been writing.) She's sold by her mother to be a ladies maid, but finds her new employer to be rather sadistic and obsessed with wrecking Moth's good looks so that her husband can't pay attention to them.

Moth escapes and runs back to her old home, to find it empty, and in the process of trying to survive on New York's mean streets, ends up in the house of a woman of moderately ill repute, who specializes in high-end whores, well-off clientele, and specifically, in selling the virginity of her charges for a hefty fee. Moth is pampered and taken care of and paraded in this place, while the female doctor who sees the prostitutes tries to convince Moth to escape before that day can come.

So I guess, in as much as there are themes, it's about relations between women, help and sabotage both, but I never really felt like there was anything deep there to say. Moth is an interesting character, and her intense need to survive and thrive are well done. There's a digression into a high-class freakshow that is interesting as well, but are we trying to say that independent women are themselves the freakshow at the time? Sometimes it seems to be the case.

I don't know. I feel bad that I don't have anything deeper to say about the book. There are books that I read that spark a million ideas a minute, that make me sit my husband down and prattle on to him about books he's never even read and probably never will. They provoke thought. This book does not. It's an enjoyable read, despite the fact that it's about fairly horrible practices. But it's all surface.

For surface, it's good, and if you want to read a book that doesn't make you think more deeply about this than to say "wow, poverty in the past was horrible, and these people did horrible things", then this is the book for you. It's not a book, though, that will provoke you to think about how that might compare to poverty in the present, or sex work and its exigencies, or the persistence of practices, or really, anything.

I'm being hard on Ami McKay for having written a book that I think is probably a crowd-pleaser. It's because it's good at what it does that I want to to be better. I want it to make me think, instead of trying to fill me up all by itself.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Spark by Kristine Barnett

I really expected to hate this book. Or at least, to be fairly unmoved by it. The first few chapters did nothing to disabuse me of that notion, as they felt like too rounded a tale. All the edges seemed to have been filed off, making a story that was palatable for what people wanted to hear about autism, or about life with a child with a disability, or just, quite frankly, feel-good, glad-it's-not-me pablum.

It is to the book's credit that I ended up liking it more than I was expecting. It didn't set my world on fire, I'm not telling everyone to run out and read it, but honestly, it slowly won me over to being at least bearable, with a couple of sections that rang very true to me, even though my own interactions with people with autism have been limited to knowing the men my father worked with.

On the other hand, this is one of those books where you look in disbelief at the author, wondering where she gets the energy. I for one, do not have it. Would not have it. And like a certain amount of time for contemplation and relaxation. Maybe it would be different if I was under the immense kinds of pressure you find in this book, but having been under my own versions of those, I think I'd be more likely to head for a nervous breakdown.

So yeah, it's one of those books that makes you feel inadequate in your own life. But I've come to terms with that, and would indeed fight for a reassessment of how much pressure we put on ourselves. If there are things you have to do, absolutely. It's the optional things you can have some control over, and "doing nothing" is a good option every once in a while.

That aside, this is the story of a mom with a child with autism who came up with her own methods for getting him reintegrated into normal classrooms, where, it turns out, he's a super-genius and started college at age 11. But she isn't saying that will be the result in all or even the majority of cases, but it does make a nice hook to write a bestseller on, doesn't it?

At any rate, her ideas have some core values that I ended up agreeing with far more than I thought I would - the necessity for play, even in the middle of intensive work. And strengths-based learning, which is something I think as a society we're very bad at, but apparently very bad at in particular when it comes to kids with autism, where much of the emphasis is on what they can't do.

There are sections here where I wanted my Dad back, and I always want that, but I specifically wanted him back so we could have some more conversations about the education system, and how he thought it was designed to kill a genuine love of learning, instead of fostering it. I don't necessarily disagree. I thrived on it, because it's would be impossible to kill my love of learning with a weedwhacker, but the older I get, the more I see what he was saying. And how hard it would be, how many more great, energetic teachers it would take to do that kind of intensive, directed teaching. It sucks, and I don't see an answer, but I like to dream about it, because I'm not sure we're doing it well now.

I thought Barnett had interesting things to say about that, and the ways in which focusing on areas of strength, and making time for them, also helped in all other areas as well. The other was the importance of the tactile, of doing things consciously that are sense-based, rooting ourselves. This didn't even come mostly in the context of kids with autism, but in a story she relates about a man overwhelmed by supporting his family through his wife's cancer. It hit home in a big way. I spend so much time in my head, and it's good to have the reminder to take the time to be in my body as well.

I don't know what parents of kids with autism would make of this, and while I certainly am not touting it as the answer to all life's problems, or even a great book, I did find enough small bits of wisdom that I stopped resenting it and started enjoying it.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

"The Mightiest Man" by Patrick Fahy

 Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From Worlds of If, November 1961

I can't find anything out about the author on a very cursory wikipedia-and-google search. Which is too bad, as this is the only story by this author on Project Gutenberg, and it's a doozy! It's short, but packs a hell of a wallop. One of those ones that all circles down to the final lines, and then is entirely chilling.

Because it's so short, there is not a lot of detail, even about the eponymous "Mightiest Man." All we know is that, as a human, he helped alien invaders takes over the earth, and, when they were fought off by "fungoid" defenses (shades of The War of the Worlds and the common cold), they left him with formidable defensive and offensive powers.

We don't know why he betrayed humanity. When he's put on trial, he isn't that helpful, choosing instead to control and kill the people around him, seemingly with his mind. He's more or less invincible, quite homicidal, and if he was quite willing to sell out his entire species to alien invaders, he's now quite happy to kill them all himself as a final action.

It's hard to know what else to say. I certainly don't want to give away the ending, as the prosecuting attorney tries to figure out how to a) stay alive and b) actually punish this guy. What do you do with a truly insane omnipotent being who can kill you with his brain, or just provoke intense agony?

There are no women, and presumably no people of colour, but honestly, that doesn't bother me as much in this story as it has in others, perhaps because this is such a pared down story anyway. No one is explored, even down to the motivations of the traitor.

If you're interested, try going here and check it out for yourself. This is a genuinely chilling little story. It's all an arrow aimed at the last line.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

I've been having a lot of trouble sitting down to review this book. That isn't helped by the fact that I've been quite sick this week, with the overall stamina of a very weak kitten. Reviews written and stockpiled have been going up, while the notion of sitting down at a keyboard and writing something just...didn't work.

This was perhaps exacerbated because I'm uneasy with this book, and I'm uneasy with this book because I liked it more than I expected, and there's a part of me wondering if I missed something that should have bothered me. As it is, there is, but it's not to do with the book itself, it's with the publishing industry. So I've been going around in circles, trying to refrain from looking up other critical response to see whether or not I'm "right." I will probably do so after I've written this, but I do try to write reviews without being unduly influenced by others, so here goes.

It is, of course, and should be, troubling that the book that gets published, the book that hits the bestseller list, the book that spawns a TV series that everyone tells me I really should see, is written by an middle (or upper middle) class white woman. That her experiences in jail are somehow more notable because she's white, because she's middle class, because she "doesn't belong," which carries the weird insinuation that all the Black, Latina, poor women who are in jail do belong there. It's a fault, that these are the stories that the publishing industry thinks will sell, and that they're right, where there is not a similar audience for the voices of others within the penal system. Other women would have a harder time getting published, and certainly a harder time becoming the kind of sensation that this did.

But is that Piper Kerman's fault? It's a fault of the industry, it's a fault of book readers who go for the easy and don't seek out stories further afield, but is her story less legitimate because she was able to get it heard? Yes and no. Yes, absolutely she benefited from a world that was far more ready to hear her story than it would be if she had been poor and Black, or Latina. Or just about anything but what she is.

On the other hand, it can't help but be a little bit gratifying that this story did get told. And I ended up liking it quite a lot. Kerman seems cognizant of these issues, and she doesn't think it's fair. This isn't a story about how she was different from the women in there, or even a story of how she learned that we're all sisters under the skin. It is enough better than that that it stuck with me.

It is a story of the inhumanity of the penal system, even at the "minimum security" places people like to think of as country clubs. Of gross power imbalances and arbitrary rules. Of institutionalization and racism and grinding monotony. Of brief moments of relief, of the ability to cope under insane circumstances. Of how overt violence isn't necessary to change people.

I am glad she has called attention to it. Anyone who thinks any kind of incarceration is a lark should have a swift kick up the side of the head, and anyone who thinks we're doing an adequate job of reforming or rehabilitating anyone should read the chapter on the "re-entry" classes that were more about how to find a good roofer than how to find a basic apartment with a felony conviction. Kerman is also scathing on the impact of long-term imprisonment for non-violent offenses.

Getting tough on crime is an easy appeal for votes. Hell, the government in my country is running on that, despite the overall drop in the crime rate and no need for the huge new prisons they've been building. So often, these seem to come out of a lack of knowledge, and stubborn refusal to do first-hand research. People in prison make them uncomfortable. So they must deserve everything they get. This is unacceptable.

In the end, I liked this book. Kerman is sensitive to the issues I'd want her to be sensitive too. Now is the time for other voices telling their stories from less of an "outsider" perspective. And it's my responsibility, and yours, to seek them out.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A Week in Stories - March 17

I was very sick all last week, so both of my extra blog posts, this one and the old SF one, fell by the wayside. I already had reviews written to get me through the week, although now I'm scrambling to catch up on writing reviews for the books I plowed through while I didn't have anything else to do. So we'll try to pack two weeks into one.

TV

Agents of SHIELD, "Shadows" and "Heavy is the Head"

I have complained quite a lot about how Trip's death at the mid-season break was not a good one, dramatically, as he didn't really matter enough to anyone on the show to make it have dramatic impact. They tried to fix that by having everyone mourn, and that was well done, but it doesn't fix the underlying problem.

Gemma's reaction to what's going on is pretty overblown and not very scientific - by the time Raina had been on the run for several hours and there weren't any cases of contagious superpower diseases, that would pretty much blow the epidemiological explanation out of the water, and she's too smart for that. I like the tack of making her more afraid and willing to do more to compensate. Just don't make her a bad scientist.

On the other hand, the Fitz stuff was wonderful, and the actor really stuck it all. Love Fitz. Love what they've been doing with him, and that they haven't backed away from trying to incorporate a character with the kind of damage he has into the show.

For the rest? I'm impressed they didn't drag out the reveal about Skye, I loved the reappearance of Lady Sif, and I'm happy with the resolution - that Skye is dangerous, but less dangerous when she's around people she cares about than she would be rotting off in some Asgardian prison somewhere. And it's poignant that it was her mother who used to help people like her learn to control her powers, and she's gone.

Movies

Five Card Stud

Not a big movie week. Just this Western, starring Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. With, of course, lounge theme song. A man is lynched after cheating at poker. The poker players start to turn up dead. Who is behind it? (The answer will really not surprise anyone.) Meh. It was okay.

Roleplaying Games

Seven Stars of Atlantis

We're getting near the end of our pulp game - two more sittings, I think. With a brief detour for dinosaurs in Antarctica, because dinosaurs.  Let's see. This was almost a week and a half ago, so what is there to say.

Oh, hey! My character Margot got engaged! Teddy finally popped the question, and she said yes pretty much before he'd finished talking. Later on, I wondered if I should have spent some time being more suspicious and asking Teddy to prove that he loved Margot, but in the moment, it didn't feel right. She wanted a perfect romantic moment, and she got it. Now, they just have to survive imminent danger before they can get married.

Right. There was one more thing I wanted to think about, and that's my process for playing scenes. I get my fun out of roleplaying by getting into character and reacting from that perspective. I think of it a lot like my acting process - I think about things a lot ahead of time, trace possibilities, but when I get into a scene, I do my best to forget all that on a conscious level and just trust myself that it's there in the subconscious. I try not to think through what I'm going to say or what I'm going to do - I just do them. For the most part, I'm successful.

Rex and Margot were trying to patch up their differences, and they made a start, but it'll be a long slow process. Getting past that kind of mistrust and anger is not going to be taken care of in one conversation (or one lesson on how to shoot, as the case may be.) I think that frustrated the other player, as he wanted to get past it more quickly than I felt worked for me, and I was a bit taken aback when he asked if I always needed to have a snappy answer for everything. Because I'm not thinking things through ahead of time, the answer is: yes, if one occurs to me, and it feels right for the character.

Bill has pointed out that I tend to play strong-willed, opinionated characters. I told him that that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Still, Margot and Rex have made baby steps towards an eventual peace, and for me, that feels exactly right.

Paper Dolls

This was the night before I got sick, but still, it was a good evening! For my three different versions of the main character, one (Trix) was largely on the sidelines, and now I think that maybe I should have made a little scene out of that - she's used to being in the thick of whatever's going on, and giving up that control and being powerless to help was difficult for her, but we didn't get to see any of that at the table.

Of the other two, the alcoholic one who stole the baby of the third character, found out she really didn't enjoy taking care of a squalling baby, and was more than happy to let one of Colin's characters rescue the child. She's the only one of my three characters I don't see a redemption for. But I have been surprised before!

My third, poor Bee, came back to the two people she'd run away from (again), and is trying very hard to face the music, and it's interesting. I'm enjoying playing through the scenes from the perspective of someone who is trying very hard to be mature and give other people space and let them decide if they can trust me again, while at the same time, wanting to push things, and be wrapped up in their arms, and hear that she's forgiven. It's an intriguing balancing act.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

*Spoilers Below, for multiple McEwan books*

I am conflicted about writing this review, because I am conflicted about the book. I am conflicted about the book, because I am conflicted about what I know of the author's other books, and how this fits in to his oeuvre. (I think I've read four other Ian McEwan book? Atonement, Saturday, The Cement Garden, and Enduring Love. Yup, four. No, wait. On Chesil Beach. Five.)

Let's go through the book, and see if I can explain why. But I can foreshadow with this. It's because, at the end, there's a literary trick. Which are not always my favourite thing, but in the case of one of his other books, I think really worked, because it touched an emotional core. The question here is, is the reason I don't like the trick in this case because it's a trick? Or because it's too similar to a literary trick he's used in the past? It's the kind of thing I think an author can get away with once. Going back to that well really bothers me, for reasons I can't quite articulate.

This book takes place in the early 1970s, in the small world of MI-5. Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is hired as one of their early flights of women, delegated mostly to secretarial tasks. She's hired, in part, because of her affair with a professor, who was himself connected to the intelligence world.

Serena's idealism tends towards the conservative, as she railed against Communism in a student newspaper, but it exists in tension with the world, in which her sister explores the counterculture, and her parents live the comfortable lives of an Anglican bishop and his wife.

Once in, Serena's taste for fiction is tapped by a small project trying to cultivate conservative literary voices, without appearing to do so publicly. Serena is a voracious but indiscriminate reader, and the sections describing how she read I enjoyed quite a lot. They tap a young author, and have her, through a foundation, offer him a comfortable yearly stipend so he can just write, no interference intended. (Although they hope that he will continue to write works that are skeptical of Communism and pro-capitalist West.)

Serena and the author, Thomas Haley, almost immediately embark on an affair, and Serena struggles with wanting to tell him the truth. There are secrets within secrets, and within MI-5, betrayals within betrayals. But most of the betrayals are tinged with the personal, even though they are supposed to be impersonal.

I enjoyed Sweet Tooth quite a lot, right up until the end. And even for that, it wasn't so much that there was a twist, it was that it was so similar to the twist at the end of Atonement. This is not the sort of literary trick you want to be known for, and if it worked in Atonement because there was a real emotional urgency towards wanting to give someone the ending they deserved, in this case, the emotional core is weaker, and I'm not sure it adds anything to the book to have it be revealed that it was actually "written" by one of the characters. It feels like knowledge that might have been best shared at the start of the book, instead of at the end, where it could flavour the whole thing, rather than be a "gotcha!" moment. Unfortunately, it feels more like the latter.

I am conflicted. Is it a good trick or isn't it? In this case, I'm falling closer to the latter. Unfortunately, that has somewhat soured Sweet Tooth, which was an enjoyable read. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This is a very literary zombie novel. Very artistic. It isn't so much about the zombies, although they are there, as about a world that is in the process of ending, and in denial about that end. As such, it's a bit of a grey, down book to read, but it was also interesting. If I didn't love it, it certainly went up there as a book that I liked. If you like zombie novels, and you like literary dystopias, or if, say, you liked The Road, you'll probably like this. (I didn't like The Road, and I did like this, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.)

The zombies came. Most people died. Some didn't. There are pockets of places all over the world where governments are trying to reform themselves. In the United States, at least on the East Coast, there is a provisional government in Buffalo, and camps to keep the zombies (called skels, but who are we kidding) at bay. As part of a sign that the American Phoenix is rising from the ashes, the government decides to clear part of Manhattan. Or all of Manhattan. My New York City geography is a little shaky.

The army went through and cleared out the streets, the subways, and the large buildings. Now civilians are going through smaller building, killing the few skels they find, as well as Whitehead's innovation here, the few stragglers. The stragglers are people who were bitten, but instead of going all eating-of-the-brains, they returned to a familiar spot and took up a familiar pose, and just...stayed. Little snapshots of the city as it was. No one knows why. No one knows how. But there they are.

So this book is about three of the civilian volunteers, or rather, about one of them, and his two teammates. It's also about a society that, such as it is, is collectively suffering from mass trauma. Of course, in this resurgent U.S., it has an acronym - PASD, or Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder. People display signs in lesser or greater ways.

The main character was never anyone special in his day-to-day life, neither champion or loser. Until he comes home from a trip to Atlantic City and stumbles upon his parents in a horrible parody of the way you never want to walk in on your parents. Then he's on the run, and we are parcelled out bits of his experiences, as he becomes comfortable enough with us to tell us more.

Although it's about him, and New York, it's even more about habitat collapse. The ways in which it might be recoverable, and how that optimism might be its own form of traumatic denial. It's also about the ghost of a huge city, and the dangers that might be lurking, and the ways people lull themselves into survival.

It's a quiet book. There aren't big action bits here, except maybe at the end. But even that is less pulse-pounding than it is sad. If you're looking for moody atmospheric zombie fiction, try this one.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

In The Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne Valente

The stories continue in this second volume of The Orphan's Tales, and I am so ambivalent about what I'm about to say. I love Catherynne Valente as a writer, I do so very much, and yet. There is beautiful prose in this book, intoxicating stories, brilliant twists, interesting characters. And yet. The stories flow and interweave, and usually I love this kind of meandering and intertwining. And yet.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

It's not that they're not lovely. It's just that, plain and simple, there are too many. I can't keep them all in my head, I keep losing track where I am, and when references to earlier stories come up, I remember enough to go "I bet that's a reference to an earlier story!" but not enough to actually remember who those people are and why they were important.

As an experience, it's lovely and yet frustrating, because my memory (and I'd like to think I have a good memory) wasn't up to to the task. For a while, I thought that was the point, that the stories were about how everyone, everyone everywhere, has a story, and you drift by them without even realizing it. I would, I think, have been happier with that, because it's somehow okay to both recognize that everyone has a story, yet also not take upon yourself all the details of remembering every single one.

Then, at the end, it becomes clear that these two books of stories, most lasting no longer than 10-20 pages broken up into two or three chunks, are all circling around one overall story, and when I realized that, I self-flagellated even more, because by now I couldn't remember the stories from the book, and why they were important to the overarching story, let alone the stories from the first book!

The net result was, rather than letting her beautiful prose sweep me away, and relaxing into the stories, I was anxious most of the time, trying to stay on top of a tidal wave that kept dragging me under. It was a stressful experience instead of an overall pleasant one.

However. Inside that, there are stories that are delightful, ideas that made me laugh out loud with delight. The idea of maidens as the larval stage of dragons, for instance, and all those stories of maidens being stolen away by dragons simply tales of misguided adoption.

Or the man made of mice, who were truly terrifying. I don't think I've ever found mice more terrifying.

If I didn't feel the obligation to keep track of the stories and realize how they wove together, I probably would have enjoyed this more. The writing is beautiful, as always. Valente knows how to weave fairy tales that are fresh and yet archetypal. But I couldn't keep the thread.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Turing and Burroughs by Rudy Rucker

*Some Spoilers Below*

I was not a fan of this one. It's an interesting experiment, sure, but it didn't add up to a whole hell of a lot. (On the other hand, I've never read any Burroughs, so I don't know how well the sections that were supposed to be written by him stacked up to what he actually wrote, but they felt strained, like someone trying too hard to be hip.)

In this one, Alan Turing never committed suicide - instead he was the recipient of an assassination attempt, which killed his lover. He then used the theories of biocomputation he was working on (I did look it up, and yes, okay, fine), to make himself a replica of his lover's face, and a replica of his face to paste onto his dead lover, and headed for Tangiers.

While there, the replica of his lover's face starts to rot, and to make a backup, Turing accidentally creates a parasitical intelligence that he calls "skugs" - something slugs, and it may tell you something that I can't remember where the k comes from. He has a skug, he infests Burroughs with a skug, the skugs start to take over Tangiers, it moves to the States, and a secret army facility where they're trying to make an anti-skug bomb, and this is all very strange.

But I like strange. Where this falls down is that it just skirts the edge of strange. And worse, gives us such inconsistent characters. I have absolutely no trouble buying William S. Burroughs as an erratic character. I do have problems when everyone else in the book is just as erratic as Burroughs is. And I mean everyone. People change personalities between paragraphs, contradicting things they've just said, claiming things that are demonstrably untrue. Turing veers wildly between encouraging everyone to have all the sex, gay or otherwise, to being insanely jealous when someone looks at someone else sideways.

It's not that you can't have complexity, but this is not complexity. It feels like the author forgot who each character was between each page. You would need to explore it for it to be complexity. As it is, it's just characters shrieking wildly divergent viewpoints and it's not interesting.

More than that, it squanders an excellent SF question - what if there were a parasitical intelligence? Should we embrace it? Should we try to exterminate it?  How would you try to come to terms with the thing living in your body?

This doesn't happen. Instead, we get characters who one paragraph love their skugs, and the next paragraph hate their skugs, and there's no deeper examination of the issues raised.

Also, I have a huge nitpick with the skug vaccine. Somehow, 48 hours after the skugs arrive in America, the U.S. government has a vaccine. How, exactly? I mean, honestly, how? What is it? How does it work? This is never said. The very idea that you could take a new lifeform, which is not a bacteria and come up with a workable "vaccine" with no side effects in 48 hours beggars belief. It would beggar belief today. It particularly beggars belief in the 1950s. But this is just thrown off as something that happened, not explained.

And that's the problem with much of the book. It dances with interesting ideas, but doesn't engage with them. The characters are all so erratic that William S. Burroughs looks entirely rational. It takes less time to build a "V Bomb" (anti-skug) than it did the A-Bomb. Less than two weeks, I think. It would take two weeks just to get a base together to start studying the project.

It's too bad. I like experiments. I just don't think this one works.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Melissa has gotten the hang of getting me to read books she wants me to read - putting the first book in the series right into my hands, followed shortly by the second book. This is the way to do it. Otherwise, it goes on a list and languishes there for a long while. Not that I won't get to it eventually, but I have so many lists. (More than fifteen at last count.)

So I get further into this series painlessly, and I'm still very much enjoying it. That being said, it took me longer to really get into this book. With the first one, I hooked into what Grossman was trying to say from nearly the first page, and the whole book built on that with what seemed like effortless grace, but probably came from a whole lot of damned hard work.

This time, I read it, but I wasn't really grabbed until we were halfway through. I think Quentin's ennui for the first half of the book infected me, and while he was halfheartedly looking for a quest and a purpose, the book meandered. I don't know if it's just that, though - it's not like the first book didn't meander too. I just wasn't as into it, although I still enjoyed it.

But then the midpoint comes, and Quentin and Julia are somewhere they don't want to be and trying desperately to return to their thrones. Half the chapters are short looks at Julia's journey, and it took me a while to figure out what I thought about those. I ended up liking them a lot - it was a slow burn towards a heartbreaking payoff. We know something has gone terribly wrong, but not what. At one point, everything started to seem to go well for her, and that just raised the tension - what could have wrecked the new family she'd found?

That, and the tension being turned up on the main characters, drew me in again after the half-way point, and started to be accompanied more with the ideas about growing up and what it means, the world and purpose and how to find one.

When we find out what happened to Julia, it's upsetting, but not gratuitous. It made me uncomfortable, made me wonder if it was a good move, but the more I thought, the more I ended up appreciating it. We see the aftermath for so long, without seeing what it's the aftermath from, which allows us to see her without the lens that knowing would have brought. But knowing brings it into perspective, the way she's stuck between who she was and who she will be, not knowing how to get to either.

Interesting. I am rarely struck by quotes, but it does happen. There was one in this book, but when I go looking on Goodreads, it's not one that was pulled out by anyone else as notable. Well, luckily I haven't given the book back yet....

It's from near the end, when the Lady appears, and it is:

"Everything will be all right, She seemed to say, and whatever is not, we will mourn."

That's what I needed to hear, right now, right when even my family motto of "Things Will Work Out" seemed to not quite offer the comfort it has in the past. I needed that addition, the recognition that sometimes, things won't be all right. But even then, there is mourning, there is letting go, there is something after.

The ending is so strong, about being a hero. Howe being a hero often means, not getting the glory, but getting shafted. And doing it anyway. I may not have been grabbed by the beginning, but man, does this end strong.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

"Doctor Diablo Goes Through The Motions" by Saladin Ahmed

I'm breaking from my Thursday posts reviewing science fiction I found on Project Gutenberg, mostly short stories. I'll get back to it next week. But in the meantime, I read a science fiction short story this week that is only a few years old, but I liked it a lot.

I feel bad that I haven't read any Saladin Ahmed yet. Or hadn't, until this story crossed my plate. I follow him on twitter, I've heard good things about his book. The problem is, if you took the list of "things I would like to read," it would easily stretch for several blocks, and so, saying I'd like to read a book is about as useful as saying I'd like to go to the Moon. I would, but it's not going to happen any time soon.

(If you add in books and other media other people think I should read and continually bother me about whether or not I've gotten to them yet, the list gets even longer. That's why I created the recommended by friends list, so people who want me to read something can both know that I will eventually, and that it might take a while.)

I knew his novel would come up on my read of the Hugo nominees, eventually, and didn't do much more about it. But while I was continuing my tour of a friend's Kindle this week, I came across this short story packaged in a Hugo bundle from 2010. (Looks like that's one of the years Ahmed was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award.)

It's very short, and I enjoyed it a whole ton. It feels like there have been a lot of "life from the viewpoint of the supervillains" recently, or seriously, maybe that's just my life. There's Doctor Horrible, of course. On a more personal note, though, there's the long-running PrimeTime Adventures my friend Rob ran for us a few years ago, in which we were not very villainous supervillains, fighting the superhero pawns of a big evil corporation. Then there's the short teaser script my husband wrote for fun, with a Goodfellas take on the supervillain blue collar neighbourhood.

What I'm saying is, the idea about supervillains who are more regular joes than you might think has been rattling around in my brain for a while, and so that made this even more fun to read. It's well written, it's entertaining, but it's also razor sharp when it comes to race and gender and crime, and how the actions of real-life superheroes might do more to feed the prison-industrial complex than anything else.

We have the roles, and we play the parts, but Doctor Diablo sees a glimpse of making a real difference, in ways that are big and flashy and fighting. Except that the big flash fight scene always steals the day.

This one's online at Strange Horizons. Check it out. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

That Night by Alice McDermott

I think this is now the fourth Alice McDermott book I've read. I question why, since they aren't ones I have loved. Then again, it may be because I first read some of her more recent works, that I quite enjoyed, while what's crossed my reading list lately are her first two books, and I definitely don't like them as much. This is an author that's gotten better as she's matured, particularly once she started to focus on telling less universal stories that come across as detailless. Her later books seem to be about Irish-American families, and they sparkle in ways that her earlier books do not. I was not a fan of The Bigamist's Daughter. As for That Night, it's okay, but not great.

In it, she tries to capture late 1950s suburbia, and it's okay, just a little lifeless. There are misunderstood greaser boys. There are girls who tease their hair and court badness. There are wives who are getting more than a little bored. There are men who don't really feel like the suburbs are their homes, just places they visit on the weekends and sleep overnight. No one's happy. Everyone's waiting.

And then one girl gets pregnant, and her mother makes her leave town, and cuts off contact with her boyfriend, and he doesn't know this, and shows up at her place with other greasers in tow, and a fight ensues between the teenagers and all the men of the neighbourhood. That's the That Night of the title.

My main problem, though, the one thing that kept niggling at me, was the inconsistency of the narrator. We're supposed to have a consistent narrator, the 12-year-old neighbour of the knocked-up girl. We're supposed to see this through her eyes. But then, without rhyme or reason, the story spins out to know far more about the home life of the young Romeo, or the internal monologue of his Juliet when she's several states away, and there is no way, absolutely no way, for the narrator to know any of this. And there's no explanation! Just a reminder every once in a while that we have a young girl as narrator.

It drove me crazy. I kept staring at the page, trying to figure out how, given how it's set up, she could possibly know any of this. There's no sign she tracked down everyone in the story in later life, let alone anything to explain all she seems to know about the futures of all the bored housewives around her neighbourhood. It could work as an omniscient narrator. Or it could work as how someone too young to really get it understood what was going on. You just kind of can't have both, while pretending you only have one. It's sloppy, and it kept bringing me out of the story.

Beyond that, it's not as deep as it seems to think it is, and all the details of suburbia are of a universal suburbia, not a specific one with specific people. It's all vague archetypes, and that's a weakness, not selling point. I know McDermott gets better than this. Thankfully.

That said, it's not terrible. It's not kind of...not that much.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Week in Stories - March 3

TV

 Agent Carter - "Valediction"

I am very much hoping for a second season of Agent Carter, but if this is all we ever get, I will also be satisfied. They didn't leave anything hanging, wrapping things up in satisfactory, if not mind-blowing fashion. It's interesting. The big fight at the end was between two women, which is often a way of shoving a female character to the side. In this case, however, these were two women who we repeatedly saw, not only beat, but destroy every man they fought during the entire series, and so, instead of a sideshow, this was a well-deserved clash of the titans.  It's a nice twist on an oh-so-tired trope.

I read one review that wished the fight had been longer. I was satisfied with how long it was. They had more important things to pack into that hour! Like Sousa's plan in the warehouse. I was so pleased with that. And that he asked Peggy out at the end. I might have a slight crush on Enver Gjokaj, so you can all be quiet out there in the peanut gallery.

And, of course, it's no mistake that the end mirrored very nicely the ending of the first Captain America movie, but with a different outcome. Good job.

Arrow - "Nanda Parbat"

Well, I did not see that coming. And I have no idea what it will mean from now on. This season seems to be about Oliver and his crew growing apart, with them assuming their own roles, and more specifically, some concerns about the choices he's been making. Justifiable concerns, most of the time. This was a big, bold move, and if you haven't seen this episode, I am not going to tell you. I will be very, very interested to see.

Also, Felicity and the Atom, huh? I doubt it will last, but still, it was fun.

Roleplaying Games

Shakespeare, VA

I ran the second session of "Shakespeare, VA," and for the most part, that went very well. The supernatural creepy stuff I'm planting through with a light hand seems to be grabbing people, and I'm enjoying the hell out of the theatre stuff.

One of my players is worried, though, about not being able to keep up with the theatre references, so I'm trying to figure out how to help him find entry into that world without throwing that stuff out the window. Any ideas?

I can't talk about it very much quite yet, but I managed to make an NPC one character thought she would hate decidedly likeable, which was my master plan. Her spotlight episode is coming up in only two more sessions, so then it will be time to test that.

Also, my husband is really awesome at reading Shakespeare and I find that very sexy.  Good acting, whew!

Paper Dolls

We didn't officially play this week, and yet, we really have. It was an off week for this weird three-characters-each, three-alternate-worlds game, and yet, we've been filling in some gaps by writing scenes by email. One of my characters, Bee, whom I'm feeling very protective of these days - she's so broken - has really screwed up her relationship with her husband, Kyle. But we've never seen what that relationship was like when it was good. 

So, the player who has been playing Kyle for me (and he's barely an NPC anymore, he's a fully-realized character) and I wrote three scenes covering their first meeting, first date, and when they found out she was pregnant, only three months into the relationship. They aren't full of drama, but they're so incredibly sweet. It's given me a much clearer idea of what their relationship was like before her anxiety and post-partum issues made her freak out and run for the hills. And also a stronger reason to try to fight to save it.

Then that player also wrote a scene between Kyle and one of her own characters, as we'd never be able to do that at the table unless someone took on a character that is very much hers. That was pretty devastating.

And I'd decided that Bee, while she was separated from her 4-month-old daughter and being held captive, was going to have a mystical experience. That may sound weird, but it makes total sense in context to me - particularly since she's always had trouble with religion, and her husband is a priest, so it's been something that they've never shared. Initially, I thought I was going to play it out during out next session, but then I realized that a) the utter despair that precedes it I couldn't play without alarming Melissa's neighbours, and b) the mystical experience itself would be so internal that there's no way I get it across effectively to the other players.

So I wrote three pages yesterday about how that happened for the other two players to read, and I'm very happy with them.

These two other people and I have been playing a roleplaying game through prose for the better part of a year, and it is far over 300 pages long at this point. So we've taken what we learned there, and are using it to supplement a game that mostly, we play in person, in a living room, acting out the scenes. The supplementary material, though, has been there to support the main action, and has really enriched it. I can't wait for next Monday when we can see what happens from here.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

*Some Major Spoilers Below*

This was a hard book to track down. My local library did not have it, nor any of the other branches. Used bookstores turned up nothing. At last, I checked the campus library catalogue, and they had it, but in off-site storage. However, I ordered it in, and at long last, have gotten to read this only a few months behind my online book club.

My overall impression is that this in an interesting book, but I really want it to be the first in a series. The reason for that is because there are so many issues that are alluded to but not really explored. If there's a later book in which these aspects are more fully developed, then, cool, I liked this a lot. If not, well, then, there's a lot of promise that is just left to wither out on the blasted nuclear desert of this future Earth. (I presume Earth - it's suggested, but I suppose not explicitly said.)

So, here I go, off to wikipedia, to see if there was every any follow-up...and, no. So, knowing that, I feel like this is an okay science fiction book, but needed more development, because some of the ideas are fascinating, but only briefly alluded to and then discarded.

We get that there was nuclear war, and there are survivors. There are people from off-world, though, and perhaps the barest suggestion that they are humans who have been so long out among the stars they aren't quite human any more. However, we never meet them, so we can't find out anything about who they are and how they work. Nor do we find out why they will only deal with the people of one City, and never anyone else.

Nor do we find out why the people of that City seem to hate genetic engineering, nor whether or not they truly do depend on inbreeding to stay alive, and if that is the case, we also don't find out how long that's been going on, or what it has done to their society. We don't know why they might have done so. We don't actually even know if they have done so.

Most of the book is like this, unfortunately, full of promise that doesn't really go anywhere.

The book itself is about a Healer who has managed to be the first in many generations to clone dreamsnakes, a small creature that gives pain relief to those in need, and eases the passage of those who are dying. She also has two terrestrial snakes, engineered to create vaccines, anti-toxins and cures for cancer in their venom. On her first trip out, one of her snakes is killed, and she becomes convinced that she will be cast out if she returns. Of course, when we do meet the people from her village, this seems utterly nonsensical, but it's one more thing that isn't explained.

At the end, she makes a major breakthrough about how dreamsnakes procreate, that challenges everything she knew. She discovers that the dreamsnakes mate in threes, at very cold temperatures. Coming from a diploid race, she'd never thought of three parents.

Which is curious, because it seems that most people on earth have settled down into triads. Virtually everyone we meet in settled relationships are in threes, either two women and one man, or two men and one woman. Given what we come to know about the dreamsnakes, the question is why and how human culture shifted to embrace this. It's fascinating. I want to know more.

But you guessed it! It's never explored.

In my book club, much was made of one triad in which one member is never gendered. Because I'd been forewarned, I was on the lookout for it, although it takes up much less of the book than I'd been expecting. People seemed to make their assumptions both on what they thought of the name, and the characteristics of that character, with people arguing that this or that was a male or female characteristic. (Personally, I've only known female Merediths, so my unconscious assumption was female, but it doesn't really matter. The uncertainty is the point, not the outcome.) It's interesting, and it's certainly something you could entirely not notice, so I'm glad I knew to look for it.

In the long run, this is interesting, and it's promising, and it's so frustrating that it strews these ideas over the ground, and then cultivates them not at all.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees