Monday, 29 August 2016

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

Image result for house of shattered wings

This book reads like nothing so much as someone trying to capture a Vampire LARP game on paper. Yes, I know it's angels instead of vampires. No, I've never actually played a Vampire LARP. I'm not a taking a dig at Vampire LARPS - I have friends who enjoy them quite a lot. What I am trying to say is that what works in a game space might not necessarily work if someone tries to translate it to the page, and that may not be what's happening here, but it feels like it.

The wheeling and dealing and everyone being slightly shady and on the make and probably ruthless for their own purposes, and jockeying for power with different houses - these are the things that make it feel like a vampire LARP. It's set in an alt-Paris, where there has been a supernatural war of some sort, and in the ruins of the city, people have to join gangs or houses for even a modicum of safety.

That's House with a capital H, I guess. They're run by Fallen Angels, for the most part, although not a single Fallen Angel can remember what they did to fall. They're not particularly nice people. But then, no one is, in this book.

And that's sort of my main problem. I don't demand a main character who is pure and noble and warm and fuzzy. I'm good with complex heroes that you nonetheless care about, characters who, even though you wouldn't necessarily like them in real life, a skillful author can nonetheless make you understand. Make you feel for them, even if you disagree with them. Create that connection between the reader and a main character who is difficult. 

I never really felt a connection to any of the central characters in this book. I never got close enough to any of them to care what happened. Philippe, the Vietnamese or Vietnamese-equivalent immortal sort-of sorcerer, Isabelle, the newly fallen angel, Madeline, the drug-addicted alchemist or Selene, head of one of the houses - they were all important to the book. But they steadfastly failed to be important to me. 

As a result, although the writing isn't bad, I never really captured a sense of enjoyment or even deep engagement with the book. I can't pinpoint exactly why I never connected with any of the characters. It's not a thing I usually have trouble with - my empathy is usually set to 11, and it is not hard to make me care about characters.

Instead, I got to hear all about how everyone here is corrupt and makes compromises, and never made that connection that would let me like them despite that. Instead, I just got a lot of fairly unlikeable people doing unlikeable things, and no one ever trying to do something different than jockeying for power and sacrificing people for their own self-interest. 

Thinking back to my husband's central question for roleplaying characters "what's the one thing you can't walk away from?" I guess two of the characters did have that - Selene her House, Philippe Isabelle, but I never connected closely enough with those drives. 

Something about this book just rubbed me the wrong way and kept me at a distance. It's a pity, since de Bodard can certainly write competently. It was just on an emotional level I couldn't connect. 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Image result for vN ashby

We are very close to letting computers/robots take over decision-making choices for us in very real ways, particularly when you think about self-driving cars. We know there will have to be an algorithm for how to avoid crashes, and if you can't, how to decide what happens. It's curious how little people are talking about Asimov's Three Rules for Robots, even as we see scare articles about cars being programmed to preferentially save the rich.

That being said, vN is the first book I've come along in a while that has taken a look at rules for robots, and she takes them into damned troubling places that push far beyond whatever Asimov ever imagined. Since sexual violence has been a theme recently, I should warn people thinking about this book that by the end, you'll discover that most of the robots have been sexually assaulted (we'll talk more about that in a minute), and there are lots of references to robots being used by pedophiles. We're in squicky territory, people.

You want to take that on, you'd better have a hell of a book to back it up. Is this that book? Well, it's not bad. It is, though, mostly an adventure story, where the theme about robot free will and programming is laid in subtly. It's not bad, but it did mean that much of the attention was on the action. That's not a terrible way to go, but if you have ideas that big and troubling, it sort of feels like leading your audience to them is a good start, but that it might need a little more. Perhaps she goes there in later books.

This one book did not grab me enough to put her on my list of authors I'll go out of my way to read. Wasn't bad, just didn't make me want to read everything else she's written. not yet, anyway. I certainly wouldn't avoid one if it popped up on one of my lists. It's just that the list of "My Authors" is getting damned long and an author has to be pretty impressive/tickle me just right to get on there.

So let's look at how she riffs upon Asimov's rules to take them to her own very dark place. And what she has to say about their autonomy as well.

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

In vN, robots are built with a failsafe that causes something like a fatal anaphylactic reaction, not only if they harm humans, but if they witness harm to humans in any way, probably including too vivid imagining of it happening. This tends to mean that when someone's hurt, even minorly, the robots have to turn their heads and look away and not get involved, so we've got the first part, but not necessarily the second.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Well, this is still sort of the case, but it really only comes into play when it comes to sex. I mean, some of the robots are built for specific purposes, like being a nurse (the main character, Amy, is descended from this model, and hence the chain of events that left her without a failsafe), or a forester. But mostly humans tend to use them for sex, even though they are technically autonomous and self-owned beings. 

The failsafe also makes the robots want to do whatever humans tell them, so they don't really get a choice about the sex, and enjoy it because their programming tells them to. I said it was squicky. It makes it impossible for robots not to consent, and makes all the sexual encounters that seem consensual a great deal more troubling. 

We don't really get into other kinds of orders - the robots generally seem okay with disobeying other things, so the troubling is really focused less on forced labour and more on forced sex. Although this is certainly the case in the book, and it's disturbing as hell, is it really given enough space? Beyond one robot with a failsafe deciding he wants to be with Amy, and away from humans who end up making him respond sexually, not really?

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This does not really seem to be part of Ashby's revised rules. The robots do sacrifice themselves, quite willingly, and not only to protect humans. In fact, the failsafe means that they really can't die to protect humans - they'd die long before they could do anything useful.

They do, however, procreate like crazy, which is triggered automatically by eating enough - and they're ravenously hungry all the time unless they're eating enough to trigger a procreation cycle. One would think that this would lead to issues with robot overpopulation, but we really don't get into it. 

We do get a lot into parenting, both good and bad, human and robot, and the ideas of passing down programming to the next generation, whether literally or metaphorically. Amy is a robot child when her grandmother attacks her parents, and in response, she eats her grandmother, who then sets up space in Amy's brain. (In addition to no failsafe, Amy is also special in that she can literally absorb programming from other robots through ingestion.) Her grandmother is quite mad, and uses her own lack of a failsafe to kill and maim, both humans and her own children when they don't live up to what she wants. 

We get an answer for what led to Amy's lack of failsafe, but not so much to the eating the brains of your enemies to gain their powers. I joke - it doesn't have to be the brain.)

At any rate, this is a tense story of Amy on the run, in a world that is rife with robots being sexually abused. It considers these issues some, but I would have liked more. Nothing wrong with letting your readers draw their own conclusions, but when you're playing in waters that muddy, it feels like it needs to be more than set dressing. Otherwise, we just get a lot of very uncomfortable sexual coercion and references to pedophilia. Maybe that's the point, to raise how disturbing this could be, if our society went that way. But I wanted something more that I wasn't getting. 

In other words, it's not bad, although people should definitely have the knowledge of the subject matter to decide whether or not it's where they want to spend their leisure time before diving in.  

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Last Colony by John Scalzi


You know what? It's hard to review later books in a series. All the terribly witty and/or interesting things you thought up to say have probably all been said, and you feel like you might just be repeating yourself. Of necessity, most series have many of the same characters and setting, so it's more a review of what the author is doing with them now than it is an entirely fresh slate on which to comment.

So, with that in mind, we come to The Last Colony, the last in the trilogy that started with Old Man's War, (although not, as it turned out, the last in the series/universe.) One of the things I vaguely remember mentioning in my reviews of the first or second book was how I hoped later books would go more into the politics of colonization, as it is touched upon and seems vastly interesting and complex, but is not really a developed theme.

This time, I got what I was looking for. This is all about human colonization policy, and how it conflicts with other alien races out there in the stars, as well as being about who's controlling the process and who's being kept in the dark. John Perry and his wife Jane are enlisted to lead a new human colony, and they take along their daughter Zoe. What they're not being told at first is that this is a deliberate provocation to an alien coalition that proposes to stop colonization utterly for races not in the coalition (or Conclave, as it's officially known), and within the coalition to allow coalition equally, and, it seems, to try to settle worlds with multiple species instead of doling them out one planet per species.

Humanity doesn't want to join, but the Conclave is getting powerful, and they see a chance to break it before it began. Of course that means the Perrys' Roanoke colony is a pawn in many games, and John and Jane have to keep everyone alive while trying to find a way out of this morass. (The name of the colony may foreshadow some things.)

This, of course, entails a lot of consideration of what human colonization policy is, and who is making the decisions, something John has never been particularly happy about, but now has a goad to explore further. We meet some of the Conclave, who are not necessarily what you'd expect, but neither are they easy to take at face value.

I was a bit perplexed at the werewolf subplot, as it was barely explored and then disappeared. Not long after landing on the planet, the new colonists become aware that there might be an intelligent species, even a hostile one, although the way things turn out it's hard to tell if they were attacking or defending. There's a showdown in the woods, and the barest of understanding of how they might migrate in time with their prey animals. (And they look like werewolves).

But then...nothing more happens. We never have any more firm contact with the werewolves. They don't play into the denouement at all. They just seem to be forgotten, even as it seems like they might be a threat to the colonists on a continuing basis, at least until the two groups come to some sort of agreement. And, of course, this would raise all sorts of questions about colonizing a world already inhabited by an intelligent species. It just doesn't pan out. It feels like a subplot that was mostly cut, but the part that's still present feels out of place because so little is done with it.

Other than that, however, this was a very fun read. I always know when I sit down with a Scalzi book, it's going to be at very least thoroughly entertaining. And in this one, I finally got the more in-depth look at colonization policy I wanted from the previous books in the series, told through the story of engaging characters. I wouldn't read this first, but it's a worthy sort-of conclusion to the trilogy, back when it was just a trilogy.

Booklinks:

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

Monday, 22 August 2016

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart


My goodness, this slim little book makes me feel curmudgeonly. Look at the cover, the praise showered on it for being true and real and a masterpiece, and really, all I felt was irritated. I wasn't convinced this was a great love story, any more than Wuthering Heights is. And at least with Wuthering Heights, I'm not convinced we're supposed to think it is romantic.

The comparison that kept coming to mind was with Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, which it is no secret I loved with a fiery passion neither rereading nor time has dimmed. This, on the other hand, feels like it treads some of the same ground, but without any of the things that so intoxicated me about Winterson's work. 

For one, the affair at the centre in By Grand Central etc. never seemed particularly real. Let's sidetrack into plot: young woman has affair with married man, gets pregnant, he doesn't leave his wife. I am absolutely delving into that nefarious practice of describing plot in such a way as to make it absurd, and I do try not to do that. I firmly hold to Roger Ebert's axiom about it not being what it's about, it's how it is about it. 

So if it's about an affair, why do I hate this book and love Written on the Body? It is because how it is about an affair is annoying as hell. For one, By Grand Central Station sounds very much like a young woman convinced her love affair means more than anything in the world, that all those horrible normal people out in the world know nothing of passion or depth of feeling, that she alone is privy to the depths of emotion. It's that specifically - not the emotion, but the sheer self-centeredness of asserting a sole claim to emotion and love and passion, that gets on my nerves.

In contrast, Winterson never needs to say that her character's passion is great - she shows it. It isn't established by denigrating others, it's through the intense tunnel vision brought to the novel, to the attention one pays to the other, and how it is returned. In other words, she's showing, not telling. 

(It really doesn't help that Smart's little bio on the inside back flap sounds exactly the same - that she's far too real for us Establishment types. Society never understood her, because she's too real.

More important, there are so few specifics. There is a lot of flowery prose, but it's all esoteric, describing feelings without ever rooting them in events, in sensations. It feels curiously disembodied, which, for a book about a love affair, seems a little odd. I can tell you that the man didn't leave his wife, but I can't tell you what happened when the narrator found that out. It's all very, flowery, but it would be so much more powerful if it were told through actual events, rather than vague descriptions. 

Specificity is your friend. Written on the Body is rife with actual events, rooted in what feel like real bodies, between two people who are specific, not generic. A Capital-L Love Story is not at its best when it feels like it's between every disenchanted young woman and her married lover. Even the references to his wife are extremely vague - the narrator apparently doesn't hate her, I guess, but we are given nothing that makes her a human being rather than a symbol. I might buy that someone writing about having had an affair might not want to grant humanity to the person who is being cheated upon - but when I can say the same thing about the lovers, Houston, we have a problem.

This is all flowery and so little substance, filled with self-importance and lacking in content. I don't buy it as a masterpiece. The writing isn't bad, but it's not enough to carry the book alone, without plot or characters or ideas.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


With this, I've finished the last of Marilynne Robinson's four novels, which is a strangely melancholy feeling. I can't think of another writer who has moved me so profoundly and consistently over the last few years. Like Alistair MacLeod, she's an author where you treasure the few novels she's put out so far, while bemoaning the fact that there aren't more. I guess I'll have to delve into her nonfiction next. 

In finishing, I'm also going back, as Housekeeping was published first by a long shot. I read her Gilead trilogy first, and then went back to the source, so to speak. As such, it's not surprising that a lot of my thoughts were about how Sylvie and Ruth were, in many ways, precursors to ideas I think she brought to even better fruition in Lila. (Which is not to diminish this book in any way - it may not have moved me to tears as each book in the Gilead trilogy did, but it was still strongly affecting.)

The book is very strongly about loss and leaving, both deliberate and accidental, although more and more of the losses are deliberate as the book goes on. Ruth and Lucille are the granddaughters of a family that lost the one man in their lives in a train accident many years ago, and grew up in a very silent but not unloving female household of one mother and her three daughters.

Ruth and Lucille were not alive for that loss, but they were for the next, when their mother left them on their grandmother's doorstep before committing suicide in the same lake that claimed her father. They do not know why, and it is not a mystery that gets revealed. They live with their grandmother for many years, but then she dies as they are becoming young women. After a brief stint with two great-aunts, their aunt Sylvie comes back to their town to take care of them.

But Sylvie does not seem like a safe bet for long-term security in one place, coming to them after years of being a transient, riding the rails and drifting from place to place. She comes to the house moving on a different rhythm from what they have known or what the town expects. Lucille chafes at the differences in housekeeping when Sylvie is there, comes to believe that there is safety in normalcy, and will pursue it, even if it means leaving behind her family and home.

Even as she leaves her family behind, what remains is picked at by people who cannot believe that Sylvie can do what is necessary in keeping a house together, or a family, or raise a teenaged niece. Ruth is more like her aunt than not, but feels powerless to fight actively against the forces pulling her recreated family apart.

At the same point, the book raises a theme of homes and houses not necessarily being women's natural domains. That it is learned, not given. Every time I try to tease out these themes, I feel like I'm being obvious and ham-handed in a way that the books are not. They are simply complex, not didactic, and reward thought and emotion. In that way, Housekeeping is gentle and powerful as it looks at women who are not at home in the world as it is, in the world as it has been made, and perhaps least at home of all in that space they are told should be uniquely theirs, their presumed natural habitat.

So there is leaving and then there is leaving, and the bonds of family that hurt each other as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk across the lines drawn between them. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz


I was a little uncertain about reading this book, even when it was sent to me by the publisher as an ARC. I mean, I read Horowitz's last book, Inside of a Dog, which I enjoyed even though I am not particularly a dog person. Particularly, it was helpful in letting me understand what is going on behind doggy eyes and noses a bit more. But from just the title, my question was whether or not this book was going to be very different. Are we just rehashing what I've already read? 

As it turns out, this book was varied enough that I avoided my worst worry of a retread. It's still not the sort of book I'd probably seek out on my own, but for nonfiction of the type, it's well-written and entertaining, with at least a few anecdotes I felt the need to tell my husband. Horowitz's voice is inobtrusive, and when I did notice it, it was to appreciate a bit of well-placed irreverence or cussing.

The book starts with how dogs smell, and comes back to the topic frequently, but is really about smelling more generally, and how dogs utilize smell differs from how humans do, and the strengths and weaknesses of human smell. At the end, she concludes that we still can't quite conceptualize how dogs smell, as so much of our own taste of smell is tied, she argues, to language. This is a convincing argument, made subtly over the length of the book. And so, with our ways of organizing and smelling conceptually, we're still not a lot closer to knowing how dogs experience smell. That they can, and that they excel, there's no question. But what it's like, that's quite different.

I think it's too harsh to call this book inoffensive. It's really quite a pleasant read, and made me pay more attention to what I was smelling, at least until I got struck down by a dreaded summer cold that has laid me up for the last several days. But it's not a ton more than that. It's very much in the genre that Mary Roach has staked out, although Horowitz' own science background contributes in interesting ways.

Like Roach, Horowitz has picked a subject and moved around it, examining from many different angles all passed on to the reader through as much personal experience as she can garner. It works as a way of writing science non-fiction, giving laypeople an entry into a world they might otherwise not see. Or smell, I suppose, in this case.

Smell, it is often said, most elegantly by Proust, is the key to memory. We can be brought back to childhood by smells that unlock memories. While I don't dispute this, I think the most interesting thing Horowitz does here is to make it clear how hard it is to smell smells detached from context. Memory itself seems to be tied intrinsically to locating a smell, or a smell a memory. But when you're just put in front of a box with a 1000 smells, as she was, without context, you're at sea. Memories don't always pop up, and the smell remains frustrating without language or a past. 

I'm not really sure what more to say. Being A Dog has a slightly misleading title, being only about half about dogs, and half about smelling in general. The two halves are mated thematically, if not compellingly. If this is a genre you like, this will serve you well on the subject of scent. I enjoyed reading it, although I'm not that sure how long the book will linger in my memory - there's nothing that grabbed me intensely, although much I had pleasure reading.

(An ARC of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review from Simon & Schuster Canada)

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

 With this, I think I finish the truly astonishing haul of Elizabeth Bear books I picked up at the local library sale last year. (I'm almost done everything I bought, and might actually finish the last couple non-Bear books before this year's sale in October.) That has meant that I've read the three parts of this trilogy closer together than I might otherwise have, and I'm glad, because they're so intricate and densely connected I might have had to struggle to remember what was going on, instead of drifting seamlessly from one into the next.

I was struck again that although these books are about struggles and wars to recapture kingdoms and empires for men, they are told through the women involved. For every Temur, there are three or four female characters who are as, if not more, important. And in particular, the first half of the book was largely about being refugees of various sorts, and again, we saw most of this through the eyes of the women involved, whether the dowager empress Yangchen ruling for her son and trying to hide her own complicity in the fall of her city, or of Tsering, magic-less magician, both trying to keep their groups as alive as they can in a world where the sky has changed and the earth is relentless.

And of course, we have Temur and the two women he loves, neither of whom he can marry. Samarkar, wizard and his lover, meets Edene, mother of his child and also his lover, and all three create a household, and this is neither easy nor particularly angsty. They live in a world where multiple marriages are common, in various ways, and negotiate this as best they can. The ring Edene wears that lets her command ghouls, and may be trying to control her, is of far more concern.

After the various groups have found each other, the question then becomes how to prepare to win a war against impossible odds. And as we go into the battle, Temur is not even present at its outset, and the rest of the characters must fight to hold their ground and take the battle to the sorcerer who is trying to resurrect a demon through the sacrifice of tens of thousands.

As before, these are all intricately knit stories, with many many characters that I finally can keep all straight. (It was a little hard in the first book, and even, to some extent, in the second.) The ways in which power is kept and defended, and what makes a leader worthy of being followed (and the ways in which toxic leadership sows its own demise) are delicately laid out, and come to fruition in very satisfying ways.

Bear is really excellent at capturing a number of different cultures that she's created, and then individuals who react within those cultures in varying ways. You need both of those things to write a trilogy like this and have it work - too many people would just say "this is the way it is in that culture." It takes it to the next level to consider how individual personalities and experiences adapt reactions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're looking for satisfyingly complex fantasy novels that have really great and interesting characters, these are books you should be checking out. These are the types of books that make me enjoy fantasy, as opposed to the "seven guys on a quest" model that I've seen way too many times.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Blindsight by Peter Watts


*Spoilers Below*

I really really tried with this book, but it was always a book that required that I slog through, trying to find snippets of enjoyment. Unfortunately, they were few and far between. I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did, but I ended up stubbing my toe on the distance between the author and his readers, the lack of exploration on the themes I did find interesting, and something that happened near the end that both baffled and upset me.

As far as science fiction goes, Watts is trying to pack a whole lot of changes in human society into a fairly small number of pages. That's cool, and I generally like it when authors are ambitious, but in this case, it means that he mentions what seem like really interesting ideas, enough for their own entire book, that are just thrown out there and left.

We get some of the digital nirvana that people are uploading their bodies to, which is not particularly new, but then Watts layers on terrorists who are attacking targets both virtual and actual, and that is not developed. It's pretty much too good of an idea to just throw out and then not develop. It could have been its own book.

But then, I wasn't particularly happy with what this book did with its main plot either. Alien somethings appear in space, and a crew is sent to meet them. Due to the exigencies of the project, most of them qualify as "barely human anymore," with perhaps the exception of the marine. (Who keeps being referred to as a pacifist, even though we see her fight all the time, and I...what? If there was any in-depth discussion of her "pacifism," I missed it.)

And this is a problem with a lot of the prose. I frequently ended up with utter "huh?" moments, when the text would assert something that I totally hadn't gotten from an earlier scene, and I'd either have to go back and search, baffled, or just give up and assume.

The others are a...god, I even forget their specialties already, which gives you a good idea that they aren't much in obvious use in the book. The...linguist? has partitioned her brain to create four personalities that time-share in an artificially-induced MPD. Interesting, but other than the assertion that one of the personalities is having an affair with another crew member, how that works is not really explored in depth. ("Is not really explored in depth" could be my catch phrase for why I found this book disappointing.)

Another, a...biologist? has been so cybernetically altered that everything he senses is through artificial senses, giving him a weird kind of synaesthesia. Okay, cool, but...so what? The captain is a vampire, resurrected from old samples and sent out as an apex predator in case those aliens need some preying upon. Which, putting him in charge shows a rather specific assumption of how we're going to handle first contact, doesn't it?

And then there's the narrator, who suffered from extreme epilepsy as a child, and the only way to cure it seems to have been to utterly sever his emotions from his mind. It's not that he doesn't have them, although sometimes it seems like he doesn't. He's there because apparently he can take in huge amounts of information and synthesize them, because you need someone who is outside being human to do so. I am also a little skeptical of this, and found the character really frustrating. As in, I think Watts got across what he wanted, but that doesn't make him a lot of fun to spend time with. Particularly his devout belief in evolutionary psychology, which just always makes me annoyed.

The big problem here is that there are, as you can see, all these nuggets of ideas, but they aren't fully addressed. And as for the main plot, it feels like an exercise in keep-away from the reader - it's all so oblique that I was baffled at the end when the main character says that by the time he reaches the planet, he might be the last human left alive. I have NO IDEA why he says that, and by then I was frustrated enough not to want to go back and reread the last three chapters multiple times to see if I'd missed the part where these aliens they've just blown up are going to eradicate the planet. In fact, I thought he'd argued the opposite at the time - what we were doing that was inadvertently attacking the aliens was about to cease, giving them no more cause.

Which brings me to the other thing I found really frustrating. I know I've been saying over and over how sick I am of running into rapes in something between a quarter and a third of all the books I read. Now that I've started to notice how frequent it is, it's impossible to stop. Imagine how sick I am of coming across it as a plot device. I read three books a week, on average, and this means I'm getting to read about a rape roughly once a week. Imagine how little fun that is.

So, when reading this, with all the obliqueness, I got that the vampire attacked the main character. Then, a few chapters later, it's referred to as a rape. So, either it's a bad analogy, or the attack was described so obliquely that I couldn't tell it was a rape, and then it was brought up later. Either way, I'm not happy. If it's a bad analogy, it's a bad analogy. If it's an actual rape, I just have to sigh and start banging my head against the wall again.

Particularly, if it was an actual rape, it would fall into that thankfully small number of rapes I've read in science fiction that try to argue that they were done altruistically. As you might guess, I reject altruistic rape out of hand and get very, very angry with authors who try that shit. Whether they are male or female. (If this was a rape, that would make one male author and one female author where I've run across this.)

So just...stop. Stop with the rapes. Stop with bringing them into my world once a fucking week. If you have one in your book, have a damned good reason for why you can't tell this story without it. Do not use it as a way to make sure I know that the bad guy is a bad guy, or as motivation for a male character, or to show why the women characters had to get tough, or just...just don't.

I'm not even someone who is particularly triggered by sexual violence, above and beyond being a woman in our society and not wanting it to intrude into my leisure reading quite so fucking often. Think about all the women in your audience (and hopefully some of the men too) who will find that this makes your book unpleasant to read. FIND SOMETHING LESS LAZY.

God. And this book might not even have contained a rape, but that's a symptom of a problem I had with the writing. I was not about to go back and spend half an hour of my time investigating.

Booklinks:

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

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

 

So, with the third entry into this series, we end up with the equivalent of a bottle episode on a TV show. And what a bottle episode it was! This was one of those books that made me honestly anxious while reading, but yet I couldn't stop myself from wanting to know what happened next. Pair that with a new character I really loved a whole lot, and a general consideration of how people make decisions from inadequate information, and I was thoroughly hooked.

In this one, what's being created out beyond the orbit of...Saturn?...one of the outer planets?...is a gate, as authorities discover when someone tries to thread it at high speed and both disappears and is squished like a bug against his own windshield-equivalent. Soon, an uneasy coalition of planetary navies is headed that way, as is, of course, James Holden, being lured by visions of Millerplums dancing in his head. (Or, you know, his dead comrade Miller.)

Once on the other side of the gate, everything tries to hit the fan at once, except that maximum speed is drastically reduced, and other things happen that trigger automatic defenses in the station built by the insanely powerful very old species who built the protomolecule and the gate, and these cause mass casualties.

One of the main themes of this book is people acting without asking for permission. When some people do that, like Holden, we at least know we probably agree with his intentions, if not his methods. Likewise new character Anna, a minister for the Methodists, is prone to doing the same thing, although she is better at gathering information and taking ego out of the equation when she makes decisions. (This is not the same as saying her decisions are ego-less.)

More dramatic, but still not beyond the pale are those choices made by Bull, sent by Fred of OPA to keep the ship running smoothly under a captain who quickly becomes not only a liability, but a proof of the temptations inherent in the term "frag." Bull spaces someone early on, establishing his belief that his own actions are, if not moral, at least justifiable.

That brings us to Melba, aka Clarissa Mao, daughter of the disgraced corporate overlord who was a large part of why a lot of people died while he was trying to weaponize the protomolecule. She takes this to the extreme, having imbibed the rich person version of Kool-Aid (Champagne-Aid?) so thoroughly that she wants to kill James Holden for having hurt her father. And doesn't care who else she has to kill along the way, including those she would otherwise regard as friends.

Melba/Clarissa is the same sort of detached from a reality check that I complained about in Garden Spells, but I like it here, because her single-minded insistence that what she has been told since she was a child was right. Her inability to even talk to someone who might bring in a dissenting viewpoint is shown to make her, not just irrational, but murderously insane. Not necessarily beyond redemption, or so hopes Anna, but for a good portion of the book, a clear and present danger to everyone who stands in her way, involved or not.

As hinted by the previous paragraph, we also get themes of forgiveness, and also again, of ego, of whether or not we can experience trauma without the need to make it intentional. When a catastrophe happens, one of the other religious leaders translates it as a very clear message (possibly from God) with an order that must be obeyed, conflating what fear is telling him with a Divine will. Anna mourns, but has a relationship with the idea of God that is better able to incorporate complexity and inadequate information. It's a fascinating little side trip into the ways people interact with fear, with the Divine, and the self, and the divisions or conflations between them.

I read at least one bit of someone reacting to this book not liking that so much of it took place in confined quarters, but I think that was what I enjoyed the most. By making it, more or less, a bottle episode, we got to see these characters interact, and I was thoroughly engaged, although often highly stressed. In a good way.