Friday, 23 June 2017

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I've been wanting to read the book of Hyperbole and a Half for a while. I'd read some of what appears between these pages on her blog, and have always enjoyed them. So I knew that eventually I'd get around to a collection of the old favourites and probably some that I've never seen before, but wasn't sure when. Then my sister pulled it off her shelf and told me to borrow it, in the days immediately after our mother's death. She figured it might be a good diversion.

It took me a while to sit down with this book, for no particular reason, but I finally did. It was, of course, a quick read - I tend to buzz through books with pictures, as much as I think that I should slow down and linger over the illustrations - although with Brosh's drawings, there's not a lot of intricate background detail I'm missing.

Indeed, the roughness is part of the appeal - as she herself appears in her drawings, she's more a child's abstract human than a real one, and yet capable of conveying great amounts of emotions. It's fascinating.

My favourite one (other than the iconic "Clean All The Things!") is the Cake series. I laughed myself silly the first time I read it - the look of absolute determination to die of sugar overload. The vindictiveness when she did get the cake. The way she captures in words and images those moment when a child decides an adult is the enemy.  It just kills me. It perhaps didn't make me laugh as hard as the first time I read it, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

There were others I already knew and liked, including the pair of stories about depression that were difficult and powerful explorations of that experience. (Or at least, they seemed that way to me, who has only ever experienced it from the outside.)

And then there were new ones, about the helper dogs, and how both her dogs think (or fail to do so) or letters to herself at various ages, or her mother taking them out for a walk in the woods and trying to hide that they were very, very lost. Brosh as a child misunderstanding what her parents wanted and needed and thus tormenting them more or less accidentally is a common theme.

So is self-judgement, with a couple of stories about how her mind works and resenting the world when it doesn't behave in the manner she unconsciously assumed it should, as well about wanting to be a good person when she has thoughts of doing things that are not so good, and how fear of social judgement is pretty much the only thing that keeps her from doing them. It feels like she's a little hard on herself for having thoughts at all in these sections, but it also feels quite vivid and real, the battle between wanting, thinking, and doing.

As I fully expected, this book was entertaining, and it was not a surprise that I'd probably read between a third and a half of it before on the internet. I certainly don't begrudge her that! Most particularly, it was a welcome break from the general difficulty of the world right now.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

Companion novels are a tricky business. If you want to write a second book that goes over most of the same terrain as a previous book, you really need something new you're trying to say, some way in which reading the second book will irrevocably change your experience of the first. Otherwise, it's an exercise, it might even be fun, but it's not necessarily going to stand up to the weight being placed upon it.

Unfortunately, that's about how I feel about Zoe's Tale. It was fun to read - I think John Scalzi's pretty much incapable of writing something that isn't enjoyable. It slipped by quite unobjectionably, and there's nothing specifically wrong with it, but that is damning with faint praise. It's not really very different from the first book that covers the same territory, The Last Colony. It covers the same time period, but more importantly, it doesn't really reframe very much from the previous book.

When I read The Last Colony, it was long after it had been published, and I knew that Zoe's Tale was out there as a companion novel. Given the events that happened in the first book, I expected the vast majority of this to take place during that time period where Zoe's off-world and the narrative stays with her parents. So I waited for that to come. And waited. And waited. And sure enough, it's there, but it's really such a thin segment of the book overall that I was let down. Interesting things happen, yes, but I was expecting and hoping the bulk of the book would take place in that time we hadn't seen.

And yes, we get more of an explanation for what the other creatures living on Roanoke are, and why they suddenly disappear from the narrative, but even with more of an explanation as to why, I'm not a lot happier than I was the first time. I get what happened - but wouldn't it be more interesting if we kept exploring that difficult relationship that started in death? Rather than having it fade into the background? Why they go away is not the more interesting answer.

Other than that, the book is entertainingly about life on the colony from the teenage perspective, and there's nothing really wrong here, just not really enough right. It's fun to read. It's not taxing. We see how the teenagers discover that the planet is not the one they thought they were going to, and dealing with the loss of electronics that ensues. Zoe's an entertaining precociously smart teenager, and she falls in love, and she rebels against being just what she is, as the living embodiment of the aspirations of an entire other alien species, who made a treaty with Earth to have representatives with her more or less constantly.

That's all good stuff, and I can't help but think that if it happened around new events that weren't quite so familiar, accompanied by Zoe figuring out both who she is and the limits and possibilities of what she is, this would be stronger. As it is, it's fun, it fills in some blanks, but it doesn't make me reframe how I see the original book, which I think is the greatest weakness. Zoe and her parents are just too close, have too good a relationship, to really allow for vastly different interpretations of what went down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

World of Trouble by Ben Winters

This is an extraordinarily hard review to try to write, as mostly I want to talk about my feelings toward the overall plot and the ending of that plot over the course of reading three books. More specifically, I want to write about what started to worry me when reading this book, and whether or not those worries bore fruit. There are going to be a lot of spoilers, people, and they are definitely the kind that would change your reading experience, so if you don't want to know more than that, read no further. These were really good books, and the third wrapped everything up in a manner than I found intensely satisfying and emotional.

*Spoilers! So many spoilers!*
Still with me? Okay. That means you've either read these books, or you're like me most of the time, not really convinced spoilers ruin the books. And I'm not sure these would be ruined, but it would change how you read the last book. Because all three of these books have been set against a backdrop of an impending end to the world by asteroid strike, and the main character's attempts to solve mysteries while that date approaches.

By the time we get to the third book, though, the story happens over the week before the asteroid is due to arrive. Winters finally tackles the story behind Hank's sister, Nico, who thinks that there's a way to stop the asteroid that the government is just hiding from the populace - out of, presumably, sheer malice, or greed (although I'm not sure how greed works in a decimated world) or shortsightedness.

And she's found others who believe too, and are trying to mount an operation to find the scientist who has the information they need to launch a nuclear strike on the asteroid and shatter it in such a way that it won't be an Earthkiller. They even have a helicopter! That helicopter weighs on Hank, as indeed it started to weigh on me.

I started to really worry that we were going to get a deus ex machina, a way at the end that saved the earth and gave rise to cheers and the rebuilding of society. And it's certainly not that I like bleak books, or have any desire to see the world wiped out. It's just that these books have been so good and thoughtful at taking this concept seriously, at exploring what living in that world would be like, through the lens of a man who can't stop looking for justice, even though there's a limited amount of time in which justice could mean anything. I wanted the last book to have the courage to follow through on an amazing lead-up. I started to worry that it wouldn't.

So, bravo, Ben Winters. You had me suckered there for a bit too, worried that maybe Nico did have the answer after all, and all those who were trying, quite soberly or insanely, to get ready for the last days on the planet, had been doing all that preparation in vain, and then we'd go into a book about how you deal with the removal of such an existential threat. (And yes, that could be interesting too.)

But that's not where we went. The books have promised an asteroid, and there was absolutely no wimping out. And as we get closer and closer, six days, five days, three days, two days, less than a day, Hank takes on a new case - who murdered his sister - with less than a week before individual deaths will come to mean nothing at all. I'm not going to talk about how that case comes out - I'll leave Winters some secrets for those readers who have plunged into this review despite warnings.

But Hank's pursuit of justice, as laudable as it seemed in a world disintegrating in the first book, does come to seem somewhat of a mania this close to the end, although you understand the importance of this particular victim to him. We see the last tatters of a grip on meaning when meaning slips away.

At the end, he has answers, and an underground bunker with more than enough food to get him through the first six months of the ash cloud that will envelop the planet. Some may survive that long, and then starve. Some very few may even survive that, but they are, at the moment of the strike, not individuals. We don't know who will survive to live on - some may, indeed, but it won't be many. It's not those individuals that we're concerned with. It's those who see the end coming, quite literally, and choose to be present.

The last scene just about did me in, with its understated moment, with what feels like hard-won knowledge of these characters and their choices, and the moment when choices come to mean nothing at all.

I liked the first book, and that affection has only grown with each one - and that by the end, there was the conviction to stick the answer and refuse easy ways out - World of Troubles will linger with me for a long time.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

The first Charles Stross book I ever read was Singularity Sky, the first book in this series. I was in a different city, and I'm not quite sure what made it jump off the shelf of the used bookstore as something to read while I went to one of my first academic conferences. I was, however, baffled by the book itself. I thought I liked it, but I wasn't positive, because I finished the book and still didn't understand the underlying principles underneath that particular science fiction universe.

I proceeded to struggle with his books, through Accelerando, which I found similarly opaque, and The Hidden Family, which was a little weak. Finally, though, I came to some books of his that I really liked a whole hell of a lot - Glasshouse and Neptune's Brood spring to mind, among others. But I was a little hesitant to come back to Iron Sunrise. In general, I've found Stross' later books far more accessible than his early ones, as he gained more control of his craft.

So when I picked this one up, I wasn't sure which Stross I was going to get. Both have great ideas, one tends to be not as great at allowing readers into the inner sanctum. I get letting readers figure out some things for themselves - but if I end the book just as baffled as I was picking it up, then there might be a problem.

This is all to say, I expected this to be a bit of a slog. I was up to try it, don't get me wrong, and even when I'm baffled, I can tell there are ideas that make Stross' books worth reading. I just didn't know how at sea I would be.  Strangely enough, for all that trepidation, I was very surprised to make my way through and feel like I understood everything that had happened! Either the leap of Stross as a writer happened earlier, or I've read enough of his books to make sliding into the older ones easier.

Like, I get a lot better who Rachel is and why she does what she does, and Stross sets that up with an early set piece of her going in to defuse a terrorist with a dirty bomb who is also a performance artist with syphilis and a hate-on for the world. With that made clear, the rest didn't take that long to fall into place, and while there were some aspects that took a while to click, thankfully they all eventually did. Although I do sort of feel that there are strong hints (and at least one point where it was said straight out) that the bad guys were the pawns of a larger power pulling their strings, possibly something to rival the Eschaton, that didn't entirely play out before the end of the book.

But hey, I finally understand what the Eschaton is, which I was never quite sure I entirely grasped more than the basics of in Singularity Sky. This is what the emergent AIs called themselves when they achieved the Singularity, and as a result, decided to scatter humans across the galaxy (beyond the galaxy?) on different planets, with extreme warnings not to monkey with time travel or time travel-related technology, on pain of planets blowing up.

Of course, Iron Sunrise starts with a planet blowing up, taking with it millions of people, and dooming the homes of many others who happen to live in the radius of the shockwave while it's still concentrated enough to be very deadly. One of these space stations is home to a bunch of now abandoned denizens of New Moscow, the planet that blew up, being evacuated from the second home they've lost. Among them is a rebellious young woman named Wednesday who stays behind at near the last minute of the evacuation because she's been nudged to find a body and some diplomatic papers that will turn out to be very important indeed.

And from there, were on a chase, as people are trying to track down Wednesday, even while others (including Rachel) are trying to protect the remaining New Moscow diplomats from death, so that they can send a recall code on their dead-man's switch weapons, even now bearing down on the planet presumed to be the aggressor in the war of planets blowing up.

Also, there are Space Nazis. (AKA the Remastered.)

I'm not going to go more into detail from there, but suffice it to say that I did not find this as perplexing as I did Singularity Sky, and while I wouldn't say this was my favourite Stross book, or even in the top five, it was quite a lot of fun. And fun is what I need right now.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Healer's War by Elizabeth Scarborough

The Healer's War was the last book in the first theme for my in-person SF/F book club (reading the same books as my online version, but a couple of months ahead.) We wrapped up Post-War Science Fiction (and Fantasy) with the only book written by a woman, and were supposed to discuss it last night. Of course, the scheduling demons intervened, and four people cancelled out separately because things came up at the last minute, so it was just my husband and I at the pub talking about it. Which was okay, but I hope the start of the next theme next month shows a bit of a renaissance, because I've been very much enjoying this project, and lord, do I ever need things going on that I enjoy.

Still, we spent most of our beer-drinking time talking about the book, so I'll count it as a win. And one thing that kept coming up for both my husband and I was that this really wasn't a fantasy. Yes, there's an amulet in the book with a few magic powers, but it's in some ways such a minor part of a straight-forward Vietnam novel. The most magical power it seems to have (other than, you know, healing) is as a plot pass to get a white woman in among the Vietnamese people and then the Viet Cong without long-term injury.

The main character is, as Elizabeth Scarborough also was, a combat nurse in Vietnam. Kitty starts out being as insulated from the war as you can be when you have to hide under your bed several times a week during mortar fire - working at a hospital that mostly takes care of injured GIs, but also a few Vietnamese patients.

This part of the book lingers in great detail on her days, in ways that are really very compelling - and unfortunately, tend to mean that when the rushed epilogue happens, it's even more obvious that we're not going to spend time exploring this, not because she can't write those type of scenes, but because she's chosen not to. Maybe the publisher forced her to put the epilogue in, I don't know. But we linger here and we rush there, and a lot of that rushing is through landmined territory that maybe we should pick through and try to understand.

Back to the plot! When a new doctor starts who despises the Vietnamese patients, Kitty decides to try to take one young boy to another hospital in a larger city, run by her former charge nurse. She's toting a magic amulet that she doesn't really understand yet, although she's learning it lets her see auras. (And it will help her heal people, yes.) But the helicopter she is in gets shots down, and she and Ahn are lost in the jungle, where they encounter a fairly deranged American GI, a Vietnamese village that will come to trust her after she kills a giant snake, then heals some of the victims, then captured by the Viet Cong, forced to witness atrocities, found by Americans, forced to almost be subject to atrocities by the Americans, and finally go home to where no one understands what she's been through.

Those aspects that seem closest to Scarborough's own experiences are by far the strongest, and there's a lot there, and she's obviously trying very hard not to pick a "side" in the war. But as I mentioned, it speeds up in an annoying way that shuts her readers out of her main character's difficulties in post-Vietnam America, when it feels like there's so much to explore!

And yeah, not really a fantasy novel. But still worth reading, and sparked some good conversation in comparison to our other books. This was the only one of this set of books I hadn't previously read, so I was always taking a leap of faith on this one, and it certainly gave rise to interesting conversation.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

*Spoilers Below*

I am trying to get back to writing reviews a day or at most two after I finished a book, so I'm sitting down to write with the experience still vivid. With Parable of the Talents, though, I just couldn't. I had to sit with the book for at least three or four days after I was done, and it's only today I feel like I can finally maybe take a crack at summarizing why I felt what I felt. What I felt was strong and immediate, but there's so much here to unpack that I had to let the emotions subside a bit before I could think about it.

So. Let's start with the emotional and then some thoughts about what and why. I loved this book. I mean, just adored it, responded to it so strongly, as I often do to Butler's works. Damn, this woman could write, and more than that, it's always so complex and tricky and often troubling that I feel wrung out and it takes me a while to figure out why.

I was also so, so angry at one of the characters by the end of the book - I wanted to wring her neck, I was so upset. That's the part I had to sit and think about - why I felt that way, why Butler wrote her that way, why that part is included at all - how that discomfort and anger changed and really enriched this experience of reading in delicate and powerful ways.

So, what's the book about? It's a sequel to Parable of the Sower, which was the first book by Octavia Butler I ever read, and also knocked my socks right off. If Lauren Olamina has the idea for Earthseed in the first book, the second is about the early days through to its eventual success. We get into the story in a different way, this time. We're given snippets from a journal Lauren kept during these times, interspersed with a book her husband wrote, one her brother wrote, and a lot of editorial comment from her daughter, Larkin. Or Asha Vere. There's some question about her name, and that's the core of the book.

Reading the more dystopic parts of the book were chilling and far too timely, now perhaps more than ever, with a radical Presidential candidate who promises, I shit you not, to "make American great again." Now, this fictional President is doing it through a radical Christian fundamentalist lens, but in a world where people are hurting and scared and want a strong man to tell them they will be safe, and who makes it okay to lash out at those who appear different and tells them it's justice...well, you see the resonances.

We see the community she founds, Acorn, and how it is destroyed by men who the rest of the "Christian America" movement will disavow, even while including them and fostering them and teaching that what they are doing is rooted in sound theology. Her baby is ripped away from her, and adopted by a Christian American family. She finds and frees her brother from slavery before her community is broken, and he leaves in anger because he can't convert her people to his version of Christianity, and finds a home within Christian America.

And what he does then, over years and years, makes me want to scratch his goddamn eyes out. Worse is when her stolen-away daughter discovers what he has done, and sides with him. It is so frustrating, and so much deeper than just the old saw that a prophet is without honour in his own country.

To tell the truth, I read this book not long after my mother died, and I have a deep response to Earthseed, and to the larger notion of reacting to change and pain with openness and movement, not curling in and lashing out.

So the framing device is the daughter, and we know from the beginning that she holds a grudge against her mother for loving Earthseed more than she loved her, but we don't know why. You start reading the book, waiting to find out what probably very human thing Lauren does that hurts her daughter and turns her against the movement.

Then you realize, bit by bit, that Larkin/Asha condemns Lauren Olamina not for having done anything, but for not having found her. Not not having tried to find her, because there's plenty of evidence that she looked for decades, that she put herself in danger over and over and never stopped looking for her daughter. The attempt doesn't matter to Larkin. The result does.

And interestingly, this is where we get into the very knotty part of the book, the part where I struggled with anger at this daughter who embraces the man who hid her from her mother for decades, lied to her mother's face for decades that he had no idea where she was, and did everything to keep his niece as his family, not hers. It's such an unforgivable act, and Lauren never does forgive her brother, but Larkin never blames him.

And the question becomes, why? Butler's doing something deliberate here, and I had to sit with it and figure it out, and what I've come up with is this: Larkin/Asha, although she doesn't consider herself part of Christian America anymore, is so permeated with their worldview, which includes seeing her mother's vision of extraterrestrial settlement as a cult, that she can't get beyond it. And particularly, when it comes to the one family member she has had a positive relationship with, she can't even begin to let herself think that he did wrong, even when it's fairly fucking obvious that he did.

She'd rather vilify her mother for trying and failing, than her uncle for deliberately hiding the truth from both her and her mother. And in a way, this is a microcosm of the clash of worldviews - there will be people that are so wrapped up in division and need to see themselves as right or righteous, that others will be held up to impossible standards, and differences becomes proofs of inadequacy. That abundance itself can seem threatening, and open-handedness an abomination.

And the thing she seems to have blamed her mother for most of all was not hiding her talents, not having given up her dream of Earthseed in favour of safety that Lauren clearly identifies as not that safe anyway.

Whether what Lauren founds is a cult or a philosophy, it has a specific and achievable goal, and she does achieve it. But she loses her daughter along the way, and there will never stop being a younger woman who blames her for not hiding away and being proper.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Timing is everything. Not long ago, I posted a book review about Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, and was talking about 1970s-era consideration of what human beings are, and here we have Man Plus as a handy juxtaposition. And it comes to quite a different conclusion, thus ending my attempt to put too neat a chronological classification on this debate. Look at the two broad categories would be an interesting topic for discussion, and I may make a note of it in my list of themes for future science fiction/fantasy bookclub meetings.

Still, there is an undeniable timebound element to this book, even if it's not a particular theme on the evolution of humanity. Published in the 1970s, this particular book shares with others the same basic pessimism that the world may eventually, even is hugely likely to, destroy itself in war between capitalist countries and communist ones. (Or, as it virtually always happens, between the U.S., where these books are almost inevitably set, and either Russia or China. Here, it's China.)

Despite any best efforts, the human race may indeed be doomed, except for one way out - computer simulations show that putting humans on Mars would give a chance of not dissolving the world in nuclear fire. Except creating a self-sustaining colony with normal human bodies seems more than a little difficult - so Pohl's characters come up with the idea that they'll create a human being perfectly suited to living on Mars, able to adapt to the gravity, low atmosphere, lack of oxygen and regular supplies of food. They'll create what is honestly a cyborg, except I think the book rejects that term midway through - the man they create is a man, despite his many machine parts.

(And I realize I said human being initially, but it would be as accurate to say "man," as there wasn't any doubt they'd be picking from NASA astronauts, even though there are multiple women who are scientists and doctors peopling the secondary characters. Despite the fact that the guy who gets sent's wife falls very much in the mold of wife who married for the wrong reasons and is fooling around on the side. Although it also seems that monogamy might not have been the norm for most of their marriage, but it becomes a bigger deal when Roger loses his penis in the midst of being turned into a Mars-dwelling part-machine with a backpack computer that mediates all his sensory impressions, because to do otherwise would blow out his brain.)

I am just going to marvel at that sentence for a while.

So, Pohl gets, let's say, a B+ for female characters given the time period, because there are more than three named female characters, and Dorrie the wife aside, they're pretty interesting.

This book is mostly about the lead-up to the mission to Mars, although we do get to see some time there as well. But there's another level that I've not even really hinted it, which Pohl sprinkles lightly through the book - the question of who is really pulling the strings. The obvious answer was the answer it ended up being, but then he throws in a neat little question to complicate it, and that alone probably makes me like this book more than I would otherwise. This is all about the questions, and if it assumes that humans are humans even without most of their meat, that's an interesting answer, and one I'd love to delve into further.

(Yes, I'm a little obsessed with my themed reading in my SF/F book clubs. But it's great fun to take an in-depth look at a topic!)

Man Plus shows its age, but it was entertaining. I can't say I loved it as much as I did Gateway, but I certainly liked it more than that dreadful piece of dreck Pohl wrote with Arthur C. Clarke that I reviewed in the last year.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This was touted as the "new Gone Girl" when it came out a couple of years ago. It seemed to have the same kind of popularity as a thriller that hit the mainstream hard, twisty and yet able to appeal to many readers, not just the hardcore mystery lovers. I read Gone Girl a couple of years ago, and liked it well enough, without ever falling in love with it. So then I sat down to read A Girl on the Train, and the verdict is...yeah. It's very, very much like Gone Girl.

It's a mystery/thriller with unreliable narrators and enough twists and turns to satisfy most readers. That is to say, I didn't like it more than Gone Girl, but neither did I like it any less. It's a very competent thriller. The unstable narrative voices add a nice bit of complexity, and the characters are written well enough to hang this plot on.

It's not a complaint to say that there isn't really anything more to it than that - this is written to be a mainstream best seller, and a mainstream best seller it is. It does not transcend the genre, but it is a good example of it, and I can't imagine anyone who wants to read something like this being disappointed by what they find. (I heard that the movie wasn't that good, but that's neither here nor there.)

If you read this book while it was at its peak, unlike me, a plot synopsis is probably unnecessary, but here goes anyway: Rachel is an alcoholic, despondent after the breakdown of her marriage, fired from her job, who hides this from her roommate by riding the train into London and back every day. As she passes by the house she used to live, where her former husband and his new wife still live, she concocts a fairy tale for another couple a few houses down, giving them the imaginary life she always wanted.

She also at least once gets off at her old stop, in a drunken array of intentions, and gets back on a few hours later with a wound across her forehead and a large blank spot where her memory should be, but it's not the first time she's drunk to blackout and next-day loss of memory. That also ends up being the evening when the woman she's been creating a fantasy good life for disappears.  Rachel is sure there are things she saw that are relevant, but she can't remember them all.

Then a good portion of the book is her trying to do the right thing, but cocking it all up, partially through drink, partially through trying to hide her issues from the police and suspects alike. We get to follow along as she makes assumptions about what has happened and who has done what, and I, for one, winced at a number of them, even as they made perfect sense for that character in that moment.

Of course, it turns out she does know more than she realizes, even if it's not the things she thinks she knows. Did that sentence make any sense? We whirl around this small street, through sordid affairs and bleak pasts and worrisome futures, and at the end, there are twists upon twists and the tale rockets to a conclusion.

The Girl on the Train does what it says on the back of the box. It's a very competent thriller, an easy read, a book that would be excellent for summer reading when you're looking for something you can breeze through quickly. That it does not have any great insights deeper than that is not necessarily a problem, although it will likely not last as a book of great merit.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

Episode 3: "Nulla Mundo Fides" 

The evening opened with a flashback to Peter playing hooky from school as a 12-year-old on Coney Island. On a beautiful September day, he watched a grifter play three-card monte, then stepped up to try his luck, finding the red queen twice in a row. The conman invited him to play again, but Peter said he could keep the money if he showed his moves. Thus started a wonderful day (from Peter's perspective) of learning to con people, being shown different ways of drawing in a mark, and separating them from their money.

At the end of the day, the grifter told Peter that when the young man got home, he was going to get some bad news. But his dad would be okay for a while - just long enough to rack up hospital bills. And that Peter should remember, when his father died, and his mother had to sell the house to deal with the debt, that that was what happened when you played by the rules. Peter was shocked, and then realized that the man never had paid him the money he'd said he was going to.

Back in 1976, it was the day of the bicentennial, a hot and hazy July 4th. Millie asked Peter to help her find someone in the Bronx, and after some hilarity about phone books, which Peter described as a kind of computer, which led her to asking Jack for help with the phone book, and also having some problem with two-dimensional maps, they came up with an address.

The Count - also the grifter from the flashback
Meanwhile, Gerald, Jack, and Walter were questioning the Comte de St. Germain, whom they found not in a cell but in a hot tub, surrounded by other giggling TimeWatch employees. After dropping some hints that he'd known Jesus, the Comte also said that his enemies in the Black Chamber were after him, and that this meeting would probably ever happen - when you had time travel, you always had to assume the other side had already won, because what had been could always be erased.

Jack scribbled some math on the back of an envelope that had weirded Millie out a bit, and the Comte seemed to get some of it, but did not offer a lot of insight into what it meant about strange attractors, and pieces of history that recurred despite all the changes. (It had weirded Millie out because it suggested her brother/lover Miles that she was trying to find was such a strange attractor - there was no way he should have been born again.)

New York proper was hot and very hazy, and while Peter and Millie caught some side-eye for their extreme whiteness while walking through the Bronx, they made it to the address without incident. Behind the apartment building was a vacant lot, bounded on the far side by empty buildings. One of them had a mural on it that took Millie's breath away - it looked exactly like the world she had come from, the world she had amputated, the world in which Miles had died in an unprecedented murder-suicide. It was signed "Nommo."

They went inside and found the apartment that Miles lived in with his mother and younger siblings. (I sort of feel like Millie should find the idea of siblings with a variety of ages strange.) He wasn't home, but by giving some bafflegab about Miles having won a scholarship, they managed to get a picture. Miles in the picture was just as Millie remembered him from that point in their lives (he'd be 8 years younger than she was now), except with a large Afro. She emotionally said that perhaps they should go.

But as they left the apartment, she came face to face with this timeline's version of her brother. (It seems weird to keep typing brother/lover every time, so can we just take it for granted that when Millie says brother she uses the word in a way that includes sex and romantic love with her non-biologically related crechemates?) He was skeptical about the idea of having won a scholarship, but played along, then took them into his bedroom to ask what the hell was going on. The walls were filled with Afrofuturist posters. Peter left the two of them alone, and Millie asked about the mural, which Miles said had been inspired by an album cover, which it was, but still startlingly and exactly like their former timeline. (Miles showed absolutely no sign of recognizing Millie.) Millie asked what Nommo meant, and Miles told her about an alternate timeline where Black people were in charge, that had been altered by white people with time travel.

Millie asked where he'd travel if he were a time traveller, and he said back to that place where the change had happened. (Internally, this was to some degree her trying to ask without being able to ask what had driven the alternate him to murder.) She couldn't answer his questions about why she was there, but told him to keep the "scholarship" money Peter had given him, and that she hoped that he was happy.

After that, she met Peter's girlfriend Fran, a tall Black punk woman, and rode with them back to Manhattan, before leaving to go back to Montauk. In the meantime, the Comte had almost convinced Gerald to give him a time machine, possibly Gerald's old prototype or maybe an Autochron. Just then, Millie entered the room, saying she wanted to speak to the Comte alone. Gerald, cued by the Comte's insistence that someone would likely try to kill him, immediately accused her of assassination. (Which very likely may have been true, but we don't know when this Millie was from or why she was there.)

She went off to call Commander Heinlein, intent on following if the others took the Comte to his own time machine, or possibly ducking further back in time and assassinating him before they'd met. Heinlein told her to stop the Comte leaving by any means necessary, including killing him if needed. She came back into the room just as Gerald was reaching for his own Autochron, but she pulled a laser, and light-speed wins every time. However, her aim was a little off, and she winged Gerald instead of hitting the Comte, as she'd been intending. The Comte grabbed for the Autochron, and she took another shot. Both Gerald and the Comte disappeared in time.

We cut from then to Millie arriving back at Montauk and meeting Einstein, the female Admonitory who she'd known in her own timeline. The woman warned her that she shouldn't have done what she'd just done. Millie tried to come up with a lie, but failed utterly, saying miserably that she'd just wanted to see him. The Admonitory told her that she'd put Miles in danger, but that there was something she could do.....

And there we ended.

Character Thoughts

Playing all the bits with finding Miles' address was funny, but also gave the opportunity to explore what were the base assumptions she shared with the others, and which she didn't, leading to one moment where someone talked about family, and she jumped on that, but then a few minutes later had to fake that yes, she'd totally had a mother. Of course.

This gave a chance to get some of the chipper on the table, which is her default mode, and that was a lot of fun. And then we went right into the tense character drama that was Millie coming face to face with someone she'd lost - and someone she'd lost even before she made her choice to sacrifice everyone she loved to save them greater pain later. Knowing that there were answers she needed that she couldn't get, but also that love and attraction and connection that was there and not there with this younger version of her brother.

But the biggest thing I discovered is how very shit Millie is at lying. I've played a lot of glib, smooth characters, and I think Millie can lie okay when it's something she doesn't care about, but bring emotion into it, and she just falls to pieces, more likely to stand there with her mouth opening trying to find words than anything else. She can't do it, and really, really can't hide it.

Of course, now she's maybe trying to kill the Comte, but I'm sure she thinks she's doing it for good reason - because she always thinks she's doing things for good reasons. Or more precisely, she's been told very persuasively why what she's doing is going to be the right thing, and she believes that, because she needs to.

That's what I'm finding most interesting about this character - it's fascinating to play someone who I think is a good person, but who is so blinded by belief that she is doing bad things. And doing them believing they are right. It's not a religious ideology, but it's pernicious and dangerous nonetheless. Having her judgment blurred by grief and loss got her into this mess, but she still doesn't realize it. Yet.

Monday, 5 June 2017

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

I have missed a whole lot of books in the middle of this series. I will have to go back at some point and pick them up. I read The Atrocity Archives, enjoyed it, but hadn't gotten around to reading the book after it. Then I went to my city's library booksale in the fall, and The Apocalypse Codex was there on the table for $2 in hardcover, so what's a woman to do?  Besides, I figured these were probably okay to read out of order?

For the most part, yes. A bunch of things had clearly happened, but none of them seemed to be the sort that would interfere with me going back to read others, knowing what was to come, nor did I feel particularly at sea. We're still in the middle of bureaucracy trying to deal with Lovecraftian evils just beyond the realms we dwell in. Interestingly, this book seems to mark a shift out of the bureaucracy somewhat, and into a different gear. I'll be interested to see where the books go from here.

Bob Howard is still our main character, the computer engineer who accidentally used his tech savvy to summon something and thus attracted the attention of The Laundry, which then employed him to help make sure others didn't do the same thing. His expertise has been growing, and it sounds like he's been at a bunch more evil cultist show-downs in the intervening books.

This one, though, is run by an evil cult with its roots in Christian fundamentalism, including some extra pages in the Bible that lean a lot towards waking something that some might think is Jesus, but Bob is pretty sure is an eldritch horror from beyond waiting to munch on human beings like popcorn. But he's not alone on this trip, and in fact, he's not even the primary operative. He's sent with two deniable outside contractors - Penelope, an exceptionally well-preserved woman who is damned good at magic and espionage, and Johnny, her physically capable partner, who has his own roots in a cult that is a little too similar to the one he's investigating.

Interestingly, both books about the Laundry that I've read have had long swathes happen outside the U.K. - and this one starts in England, but quickly shifts to the U.S., and more specifically, Denver, after a new megachurch and its star pastor were getting uncomfortably close to the British Prime Minister. Hence the Laundry investigating - and the U.S. version of the Laundry, which seems a even more sketchy than the one we've gotten to know, is not impressed.

So, there are monsters that replace your tongue, truly horrific revelations regarding pregnancy, a church that makes true believers in rather unorthodox ways, and Bob, who is trying to be a decent human as well as a good operative, delaying the inevitable doom of the world. And that's an interesting point - Bob's far past the point where he thinks he can save the world. He seems to know it's doomed - but there's no reason to hasten the end, and a lot of reason to try to put it off.

This was an entertaining delve back into this world, and I quite enjoyed it. And I also didn't feel particularly handicapped by not having read the intervening books.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

What is the next step in human evolution? Where will we go from here? How will we fundamentally change, as technology continues to emerge. It feels like this is an obsession of a particular time and place. While science fiction has continued to examine how a changing world will alter humans, at their core they seem to remain fundamentally human.

But I can think of several books from the 1970s and early 1980s that are seriously positing futures in which the very meaning of humanness has changed as the species evolves into something new. (I mean, in one way, this is the core of all the X-Men mutant worries, but in SF books, it’s meant something quite different.) I’m thinking of Alfred Bester, of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardancer books, and now of Sturgeon’s More Than Human. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, as I know Sturgeon is one of Spider’s most loved writers. I think that perhaps I’ve read one Sturgeon short story before, but really nothing more, which is strange given how large Spider Robinson looms in my own personal universe of authors I love.

I think the possibly hair-splitting distinction I’m trying to make is that more often these days, humans carry forward all the foibles of being human into technological advance.

More Than Human, though, is about a fundamental shift. It’s about a bunch of characters, each of whom has a certain psionic power. Far from being a super team, this is about the coalescence of five people into a single organism, not literally, but definitely with real and material effects. Five people, all of them outcasts in certain ways, come together and harness their powers to be, fundamentally, different.

These include a young girl who can move things with her mind, two younger Black girls who can teleport, a baby with Down’s syndrome who can’t talk but can solve almost any problem with his mind, instantaneously, and the two people who in turn serve as the “head” of this new gestalt - the first a man typed as an idiot by society, in the way that that word denotes a specific level of mental disability, and later, a young man who was an orphan before he was made part of this whole. I want to type before he became part of this family, but it doesn’t quite capture it.

Where this goes, and specifically, the eventual focus on what morality such a group creature could need or follow, is the heart of the book. It’s a thoughtful book, and while it’s not pulse-pounding or even mostly urgent, I quite enjoyed the journey I took through it.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Week In Stories: No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation

You know that moment when you've got your character created, and you know the basics of how they fit in with the other characters (at least at the beginning of the game), and there's juicy stuff to start playing right out of the gate? I'm there, and now I have to wait another couple of weeks before we can actually sit down and play. I can do it, but I'm very eager to get going.

On Friday, we sat down and finalized our character sheets for Bill's haunted house game, No One Gets Out Alive. By which I mean we finished talking to each other about connections and how to summarize them - the sheet draws heavily on DramaSystem, including what our stories are, our dramatic poles, what we want from each other, and why the other person can't give it.

I'm trying something difficult with this character, I think, and I'll be interested to see if I can pull it off. I'm fairly in touch with my emotions, so making a deliberate choice to play a character with low emotional intelligence, and low level of awareness of what she's feeling and how that might be affecting her actions, is going to be difficult. But I think rewarding.

We're none of us playing really nice characters, but I also don't think any of them are irredeemable. We're all keeping secrets, we're all policing boundaries of who belongs to this family, and who doesn't.

The story will be set on a private island in the 1000 Islands, on which all of our characters spent a lot of summers as teenagers, but haven't been there in years and years. (We're all in our 40s as the game begins.) The family matriarch, Miss Maudie, has recently died, and we have to decide whether or not to sell the island and large house on it, and negotiate the terms of the will, which wrote in someone no one was expecting.

My character, Jo, "played" by Robin Wright
My character is an in-law - married to the oldest son, the "good son," for a long time. A marriage that used to be good, but isn't any longer. It's cracking under too many stressors and not enough connection, not to mention the things we're hiding from each other. For my character, there are two teenage kids, an incredibly busy career as a surgeon, and her husband's mother in failing health to take care of. He's got the kids and the mother to take care of, as well as the knowledge that the family business is in way more trouble than anyone realizes. Plus, Jo has recently started an affair, and is using this time at the cottage to make a decision whether to continue with it, or recommit to her marriage.

This is complicated enough, but then gets even more complicated when you add back in the groundskeeper's daughter, now revealed in the will as the recently deceased matriarch's illegitimate grandchild. The groundskeeper's daughter and the good son almost had something going back as teenagers, when they didn't realize they were first cousins. Until Jo, urged on by Miss Maudie, framed her for theft and got her sent away.

So, how does the character sheet look? If I'm remembering what I wrote, the dramatic poles were: Bulling Through vs. The Easy Way, since I think this is a character who never ever takes the easy way...except maybe just recently, in starting the affair. And I think that was seductive in ways that have nothing to do with the relationship - the lure of just tossing things aside and starting again. Set up against her long history with the family, the fact that she and her husband used to have a good marriage, and her kids. Which will she choose?

What she wants from the others? She wants her husband to keep the house, no matter what. (And without realizing it, she's really asking for him to fight through difficulties to keep something, as a symbol for believing that he'd fight for their marriage.) He can't, because the financial difficulties really are too deep.

She wants the ex-friend to admit that Jo was right in setting her up as a thief. Which is obviously something the other woman isn't going to be able to do, even though now everyone knows that that couple were actually first cousins.

I'm excited. We've consciously committed to a drama-heavy game, and with three players plus GM, intensity should not be far away.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

This may be my first truly passionate book crush of the year. There have been other books I’ve liked a lot, granted, but this is as close as I’ve been to swooning this year, and definitely the book so far that has inspired me to start button-holing people and telling them that there’s this book they just have to read.

This is a little baffling, in a way, because there are ways in which I’m not quite sure what to make of the book as a whole. Part of why I want other people to read it is so that we can sit down and discuss and I can hash out all these theories. But I do know that, fully understanding it or not, I love it quite a lot.

I have never read any Joyce Carol Oates before, but this will most definitely not be the last. I was just delighted and intrigued by the whole book. By the end, strangely, it had come to remind me just a little of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, only vastly less confusing and much, much more readable. Where they are similar is in their amassing, in a large book, a truly staggering range of Americana of the time period each was discussing, from the very weird to the horrifyingly mundane, to the most out-sized characters of history.

Whereas Pynchon was looking at very early Americana, Oates roots her story in the early 20th century, in 1905 and 1906 in Princeton, New Jersey. Woodrow Wilson is a character, as is Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and even Sherlock Holmes, as well as a whole raft of wealthy socialites and philanthropists who live in town. (This is why I need to talk about it - it’s not that I don’t get it, it’s that there’s so much that even with what I’ve grasped, I’m very sure there are things I’m missing.)

It’s also a gothic novel, through and through, and the supernatural is strangely mixed into the history. There are suggestions of vampires or demons preying on these wealthy white people, starting with Annabel Slade running away during her wedding ceremony with a mysterious Eastern European man and then disappearing. There are also plagues of snakes, statues of humans, stories of horrible orgies in an underworld, and all of these are laid in so subtly that at times it’s hard to tell if they’re supposed to be real within this fiction, or just the output of unstable minds.

But here is where it is genius. Beside all these manifestations of The Curse, the actual every day curses of early 20th century society exist, and Oates keeps drawing attention to them so deftly that it never feels overdone, but often feels more horrific than the horror. From racism to class warfare to domestic abuse and further, these curses are laid alongside the manifestations that the rich white upper class is willing to define as evil - that is to say, those aspects that affect them in ways they would have scarcely imagined possible.

The book meanders, sometimes, due to the huge scope, but I was pretty much always enthralled, and the final confession that haunts the last pages (the version of the book I have ends on page 667, which feels delightfully cheeky) pulls both types of horrors together, and roots one firmly in the other.

Oates is trying something so audacious here, and she sticks the landing. This is strong candidate for one of my top 10 books of the year.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart A Doorway is short, but there is really quite a lot packed into the shorter form novella here. It's a murder mystery, in addition to being a meditation on what happens to those children who go through doors to magical lands, and an examination of the hierarchies of outsiderdom. That this book doesn't feel like it's giving short shrift to any of those is really quite remarkable, and I'd strongly recommend this to anyone - it's not going to take you long to read, and there is some treasure here.

For the plot, Nancy has recently returned to the “real” world from her particular world of mystery and magic - in her case, an underworld that placed great value on stillness and silence. Her parents worry about her, and she is packed off to a boarding school to recover, a place where they’re assured she’ll find herself after whatever trauma she had experienced.

It’s actually a boarding school run by Eleanor, an older woman whose door is still open, but which she can’t go through, for a number of reasons. It’s there to both reacclimatize children and young people like Nancy to the world while not asking them to deny or abjure their experiences.

Once there, we get into a catechism of other worlds, along axes of Good and Evil and Nonsense and Logic. There are more minor variations, but these categorizations are supposed to help the returned work through their experiences.

Notable, however, this mostly comes into play as we discover that even though everyone at the school has been through a similar experience (and most are desperately looking for or waiting for their door to reopen so they can go home), that does not mean that they all support each other. There is every bit of teenage hierarchy that you’d expect, as those from candy cloud Nonsense lands find those from dark and dangerous Logic Lands to be suspect. And vice versa.

The suspicion grows when Nancy’s first roommate at the school turns up dead, missing her hands. Despite common experience, most people at the school are looking for differences, for ways to prove that they alone are the ones who are worthy of a return to their lands, while the others are obviously defective. There are some subtle things worked in here about division and contempt between those who should find common ground.

There are also varieties of gender identity and sexual orientation that I haven’t seen a lot of in fantasy, and better yet, while important to the characters, these are not the only or even necessarily defining features of their personalities. Nancy is asexual, and Kade, the boy who becomes her closest friend at the school, is transgender. I’d be hesitant to say it’s well done, as I’m not part of either group represented, but from my limited perspective, it feels well done, integral without being the only thing you know about that character.

As corpses mount, we end up with only a couple of possible suspects, but at least my first guess was wrong, and the answer, when it comes, is satisfying. This is a melancholy yet joyful book, and while I may have trouble explaining exactly why I’d say that, it’s true nonetheless.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Bread We Eat in Dreams by Catherynne Valente

When I started to read this book, just a few weeks ago, I had a mother. By the time I finished it, I didn’t have a mother anymore. I’d been orphaned at age 39 just as surely as any of the children in any of the fairy tales that Valente is riffing on, often brilliantly, in this book.

And yet this book will remain forever entangled with the last few weeks in my memory. I started reading it on the train to be there for my Mother’s surgery, surgery that didn’t have precisely the outcome we wanted, but which still was an answer that gave us a lot of hope and years.

I read about Coyote in a small-town America high school, about a detective who finds which story you belong in, and many other stories as I sat in the hospital room in between fetching warm blankets to keep my mother warm and take care of her, while my sister tucked her in and washed her face. I read about a demon expelled from Hell to New England and the struggle for the Bride of the World as we started to think about chemo and radiation, how we would be there for her and her new partner through difficult times.

And although this review is going to be largely about what I’ve gone through, let me say that these stories were the perfect damned accompaniment, entertaining and thought-provoking.

I returned home to my husband reading a brilliant Handmaid’s Talesque take on a Nuclear America with McCarthy as president, and a world above the clouds where words were not the words they meant. Another place where wolves stalked the streets of Brooklyn

Then I didn’t read it for about a week, sinking back into my life and getting used to the idea that things had changed and there were new things we had to deal with. And those themes resonated with these stories.

Then, a week and a half ago, my sister called with the news that my mother had just had a major stroke, and for a couple of reasons, the stroke unit could do none of the near-miraculous things they can do for strokes these days. To get there as soon as we could. I got there just as she was sliding into unconsciousness - I think she saw me, but I’ll never know for sure. We were told that in 48 hours, her brain would “declare itself” and we’d find out if she was going to ever regain any function, or if we were going down the path of palliative care. We were gently reminded the latter was more likely.

I read more of these stories while sitting in vigil with my husband in her room, trading off every five or six hours with my sister and my mother’s significant other. The world took on a strange unreality that comes from being detached from the passage of time or usual sleeping or eating patterns as I read about the Bronte siblings’ inner life made manifest. I read while we were waiting, after we’d started to make plans, if palliative care was the way we were going, to take her home for her last days. I was numb.

I had just started reading “Silently and Very Fast,” a story I’d always wanted to read, something that is a little bit Pinocchio and a whole lot unique, about an emerging AI, when her breathing changed and I called for a nurse, and the nurse asked if my sister was on her way yet, and when I asked if I should call her, she said yes, and I did, and at the end, we never made it to palliative care. The vigil didn’t last until my other sister had made her way back from New Zealand. In the space of the story when I put it down, while one sister was in the air, and the other sister was driving herself and my mother’s partner to the hospital as fast as she could, my mother died.

I’ve been witness to both my parents dying, now, and other than the part of me that wants to scream at the sky for the unfairness of it all, I am struck, again, by how nebulous that moment is. It’s not like in the movies or literature, where the moment of death is obvious. It's not that there’s a switch turning off. Both times, it’s been a little unclear and indistinct. You can put your finger on the minute or couple of minutes, but not on the second. I’d like to see that truth, someday, in something I read.

I finished this book after my mother’s life was suddenly, and so unfairly, over, still sleep deprived and in pain, with that melancholy story of the boundaries between self and other, between machine and human, easing my own passage into the land of grief, where I’ll be for a while. The answers in "Silently and Very Fast" were unexpected and so right, just as I was going through something so wrong. Weirdly, that fit.

There are not many books that would have been good companions for this voyage that I never ever wanted to take. Most would have sat wrongly, or hurt. But not this one. Between her language, and her stories, Catherynne Valente’s voice was with me in stress and in pain and in quiet moments of waiting and hurting, and it was the right voice for that moment.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Lisa

I was reading this book in the kind of circumstances that, perhaps, did a disservice to the book itself. I was distracted and upset, and read in short bursts. I wish I'd had the time and the opportunity to sit down and let long sections of A God in Ruins seep through me. As it was, I did really enjoy it, but I also felt like I might have loved it had the circumstances been a bit different. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm looking forward to rereading it, and the first time was enough to definitely warrant a second read.

The second thing that comes to mind is to contrast this book to the ones we've been reading the last few months in my science fiction and fantasy bookclub, all of which have centered around books written by people with direct experience of war. It's been interesting to think about similarities and differences between these authors, and differences that exist between them and authors who write about war but haven't experienced it.

It's funny, though, because Kate Atkinson's book doesn't feel as far afield as do some of the other books we could think of that valorized war and gave a feeling of purpose or story to battle. Through the sections of the book where Teddy is flying his fighting missions in the air to Germany, whether he lives or dies seems very arbitrary. He is lucky, but little else.

So, what's the book about? I'm thinking about how much to say, because this is a book where the discovery is part of the journey. It's the story of Teddy's life, is a safe way to start. Both his life during the war, and his life after, when he settles down, marries, and eventually has a grown-up daughter who is remarkably selfish, and two grandchildren who love him. As we dance back and forth in time, we get to see why some of those things occur, but I have to say that even when we find out the root of Viola's issue with her father, she is still a character that I just want to throttle a good portion of the time. Although I think maybe that's the point.

It's a life lived quietly, after the war, with huge domestic disruptions, but largely unaffected by interactions with the politics of the greater world. There are ways in which it reminded me of Jo Walton's My Real Children, and I hope I'm not giving too much away by making that comparison. The characters all felt so real, even when they were (or particularly when they were) ones I wanted to strangle.

At the end of his life, is Teddy the god in ruins? You'll have to read and see, but the title itself led me down many paths while I was reading, comparing it to this idea and the other, but I really don't want to say much more. This book is much less overtly the sort of something else that the companion novel, Life After Life, was. And yet it's there, and when it became apparent I was moved, but not as moved as I was by the relationships Teddy had with others in his life.

I do want to go back to the book when I'm bringing a better me to the experience. Some day.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

It feels like it has been a long time since I've sunk down so deep into a book that when I come back up, I am dazed and the real world feels a little less tangible than the fictional one I've just been in. Partly, it's because a lot of my reading has been interrupted quite a bit, but that full immersion has been a bit elusive.

But then I picked up Lagoon. And even though I read it on lunch hours, and once, on a relatively short bus ride to meet my husband for dinner, this was the first book in a while that pulled me in so hard it was a physical wrench to take my attention from the page back to the world around me. I realized it on that bus ride, when my husband asked if I was okay, because I was unusually quiet, and I realized it was because I wasn't entirely back in the world yet.

It's both disconcerting and wonderful, to find a book that sucks me in so deeply, and so I feel fairly confident in recommending this book to everyone who wants an interesting and challenging look at first contact, and the difficulties it would bring to a very human world, and very specifically to daily life and culture in Nigeria.

We start in the ocean, where the aliens have just landed, and start to extend certain overtures to the creatures they find there. Those creatures may or may not be hospitable to the humans who have polluted their waters. From there, we emerge onto land, to the three main characters: a marine biologist struggling with having a husband who has recently converted to a form of what feels like Pentecostal Christianity and newly started to try to subjugate her will to his; a soldier beaten up from trying to stop a rape by members of his unit; and a rapper just finished a large show in Lagos.

The three are swept into the sea and eventually returned to shore with a fourth, an alien that has taken on a women's appearance, named Ayodele by the marine biologist. She needs to talk to the president of Nigeria, but the city is in relative chaos from the weird sonic booms and tidal waves. The book is comprised of several treks across the city, along with confrontations surrounding the alien woman, with some trying to kidnap her for commercial gain, others to find visibility in a changing world, and for others to find out how Christian these aliens are.

Much of the book is about the different ways people would react to alien encounters, and the specific ways in which culture mediates that, particular in assumptions about gender. It feels like too often when we have alien contact in science fiction, it takes place in an Any Culture, which actually means American culture, just assumed to be near universal. Not only moving the locus of contact to Nigeria, but also strongly engaging with how reactions might be affected by both individual personalities and larger social trends, means this is very strong, and sometimes uncomfortable.

And then it takes an interesting turn, one that seems to be present in the other of Okorafor's books I've read so far, when what is science fiction also starts to incorporate some elements of fantasy. These two genres are not easily extricable in her work, and the resulting melange is really neat. Because while the aliens have been altering things under the waves, there are things under the surface of the land that are older and in at least one case, more hungry. I don't want to spoil more than that.

Readjusting to the world around me after pulling myself out with an almost physical wrench was a difficult thing to do every time. This book sucked me in deep, and I hope it does the same for you.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Week in Stories: Strange Attractors - April 28

In Search Of...The Amber Room

By jeanyfan - Own work, Public Domain,

All Strange Attractors Recaps 

 After opening with a scene that was about my character's backstory, we moved on to the main mission. (I'll discuss that scene in more depth at the end, because it works nicely into my character musings.)  The Admonitories, those behind TimeWatch from the far future, gave the group the mission of rescuing the Amber Room on the night it was likely consumed by fire during aerial bombing of the Nazis in Konigsberg.

We popped into the Amber Room itself just as the bombing started, which seemed safest, rather than trying to infiltrate the castle in more conventional ways. Of course, that sounded like a good idea until we got there and the reverberations inside the room drove our resident audio expert to his knees in a rush of sadness and despair. Two others of the group were similarly affected, while Millie and Peter hung on (Millie by repeated one of her affirmations to herself over and over - more about that later.)

They were able to set up the equipment they needed to steal the room and get the hell out of there with the Amber Room to 1976, but once there, TimeWatch was in upheaval, because the removed Amber Room was leaking temporal energy all over the place, polluting the timeline. The Admonitories recommended amputating this timeline to prevent contamination, but ranking officer of the present, Heinlein, said that the team would make one attempt first to go back and figure out what had corrupted the fabric of the Amber Room and caused the weird and destructive harmonics. 

Out of several options of when to go, the team opted for just before the first time the Amber Room was connected to violence, which means we ended up passing up a nifty opportunity for Walter to share trade secrets with Theremin. We also missed meeting Rasputin, in favour of visiting the court of Catherine the Great, around the time the Comte de St.-Germain was helping her perfect the Amber Room. If the Room was still resonating bad time energy then, we could probably recalibrate it to mute it in the future.

We gained entry to the court when Peter used his conman skills to establish himself as the Comte de St.-Germain, and Walter set to work on the Room. The negative energy was there but much fainter, and he was able to trace the source of the energy, not to the war and the Nazis, but to 2024. It seems that the energy had been radiating backwards (maybe forwards too) through time, and might have contributed to some of the worst aspects of Russian history over the previous couple hundred of years.

Just then, the real Comte de St.-Germain arrived. Peter blustered off to expose him as a con, and discovered that the "real" Comte was another time traveller - and not only that, a man who had schooled him in the rudiments of being a conman in his own timeline. They fenced verbally for a while, then Peter signalled to Gerald to take the "Comte" away on his mark, making him disappear as if Peter's Comte had performed magic.

Once Gerald had the Comte on his way to TimeWatch jail, the "real" Comte warned Gerald against letting the TimeWatch have the Amber Room, telling him that he was there to defang it himself to make sure TimeWatch couldn't corrupt it. Gerald was already ready to believe the worst of TimeWatch, which is going to get interesting when that comes up against Millie's True Believerness.

Back in Catherine the Great's court, they fixed the room, discovering as they did that putting it out of tune conformed to the "real" Comte's plans - he'd been telling at least part of the truth after all, or so it seemed.

At the very end, we flashed forward to 2024, where Vladimir Putin was trying to activate the room (it hadn't been destroyed apparently, just hidden until it was unveiled as the "new" version.) The alterations having worked, the room did nothing. Putin was furious - and it seemed that our young compatriot Jack, there and many years older, was disappointed as well.

Character Thoughts

The episode opened up with a little glimpse of a pivotal moment in Millie's life, the moment where she acted to help end her timeline (using, as it turned out, a nifty bit of Nikola Tesla lore) after one of her siblings had committed a murder-suicide, a term that was so foreign to her timeline it didn't exist anymore. He'd worked for their version of TimeWatch, and the rest of their siblings were starting to worry that Millie was beginning to sound as erratic as him.

Millie, in her World of Tomorrow-type timeline, lived with her six creche/podmates - none of them were biologically related, but these were the people who were both her siblings and lovers, without any clear distinction between the two categories. We saw the bed she was leaving with her five other siblings all tangled up, with a soft computer voice waking them up by telling them each that they were loved and today was going to be a great day.

This was a fantastic moment of the GM building on something I'd written down during character creation, and then me being able to build on top of that in return. I'd mentioned something about how she started her days after having helped destroy her own timeline by saying affirmations to herself in the mirror before going out the door, fully convinced (or so she thinks) of the goodness of TimeWatch and the necessity of what she did. Rob built on that to root those affirmations back in the timeline she'd come from, and gave me specific words that she'd heard.

And then, although I don't know if this would have been apparent, when we were rolling to see if we'd crumple under the crushing sadness of the Amber Room, and I succeeded in fighting it off, I kept mouthing "today is going to be another great day" to myself to keep her fighting and relatively upbeat.

I think she does say these things to herself every morning. But I wonder if she can ever bear to add one of the other lines: "You are loved."