Archive for the Summer Reading Category


Winter Reading: Queer-Friendly Science Fiction

December 20th, 2017

I know I usually write about non-Yuri stuff on Sundays, but I’ve read a pile of great science fiction recently that I wanted to share with you before the holiday season slams down on all of us and I spend my days slaving over end-of-year lists.

To start things off, I highly recommend the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie. The Sad/Rabid Puppies hated this series with the burning of thousand fiery dyspeptic stomachs, which was good enough for me to give it a try. ^_^ I’ll do my best to no-spoiler synopsize the books, but no promises.

The series, which consists of three books –  Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy – follows an artificial intelligence that runs a troopship, Justice of Toren. The timeline of the first novel is split as Justice of Toren tells us of her experiences before and after a massively traumatic experience forces her to involve herself in the personal politics of the rule of the Imperium. The language of the Empire is non-gendered, and Justice of Toren is herself not really all that keyed into understanding gender, she she defaults to calling everyone “she.” (And for the moment, so will I.) This enraged the Puppies, as did some implied and actual homosexuality. It’s true that the different perspective on gendered language makes the book difficult for some folks, but of itself not enough to call the series good. That said, the story is not good – it’s brilliant. Characters, writing, world-building are all impeccably tight and extremely well-constructed. Leckie’s ability to create a society based around the principles of the Roman Empire that feel fresh and also very human, and her ability to create characters that are not at all human in stark contrast is astounding.

I have literally one complaint about this series and it has nothing to do with the series itself, but entirely is about my own needs as a reader. We – unfortunately, IMHO – do learn the sex of several of the main characters, when gendered language is used. I felt that to be a bit of a betrayal of the core concept. Other than that one thing, I found the entire series to be compelling reading. I’ve got Leckie’s next book, Provenance on my to-read list.

My next book of interest was Martha Wells’, All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries. This follows an artificial intelligence security bot, who refers to itself as “Murderbot” assigned to protect a scientific expedition. When it appears that they are being sabotaged, Murderbot teams up with it’s humans (despite it being generally uninterested and incapable of dealing with humans all that well) to find out what the heck is going on. 

Based on the size of this book and it’s font, I assumed it was an YA novel. I certainly could have read it easily in one sitting had I had the time. Even so it only took me two evenings to finish it. It was amusing, rather than compelling. I found myself fascinated by the behaviors of the protagonist who, despite calling itself Murderbot, seemed a peaceable enough being. There is also homosexuality in the story and gender and sexuality are topics that are covered within the story. Murderbot was, like Breq in the Imperial Radch series, not interested in sex for themselves, although it understood the concepts, and was, unlike Breq, not very good at relating to humans. More and more as the story unfolded I started developing an idea about AI behavior being patterned after or reflecting our understanding of neuroatypical thought. I can totally see the behaviors associated folks on the Asperger Spectrum reflected in these characters. I am not saying “ASD folks are like robots” or that they are inhuman. I am saying neuroatypical folks might see themselves reflected, as I did. These AIs were empathetic for me and they allowed me to see my own neuroatypicality reflected as I watched them process human relations. It seemed to me to a useful lens with which to understand my own processes.

I’m wrapping up a third book about an AI tonight (I’m still not sure if the trend here is with stuff that’s being published or just me, honestly). Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz is good, but I have some reservations about it. It follows a pharmaceutical drug pirate and biotech engineer, a woman who goes by the name Jack, as she seeks to stop an outbreak of a deadly adverse event in a reverse engineered drug she’s bootlegging. The powers that be have sent a human-AI team to track her down.

Sexuality and gender are part of the plot in this story. Jack is bisexual and that’s a non-issue, but the human detective Eliasz and his AI partner Paladin have a sexual relationship, as well. And this is where my reservations come in. Paladin is a military-grade bot, and is therefore gendered by humans as male. Eliasz has a very self-loathingly homophobic reaction to his own attraction to Paladin. When they commence an actual relationship, Eliasz ask Paladin whether he should refer to it as a he or a she. Paladin chooses “She.” I 100% support Paladin having a choice and the choice she makes, but, by making it, she allows Elisz to skip over his very serious issue with homophobia. And Paladin realizes this. So she appreciates the act of being able to consent and the fact that she is an active participant, not just a receptacle, but also thinks this is more complicated than Eliasz realizes. I agree. I’m not done with this book, should be wrapping it up tonight, so maybe I’ll feel differently in a few hours…but I don’t think so.

Also queued for me is Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, which I am told also deals with gender in an intelligent way. It’s worth noting that Tor is really reach out to find and publish interesting books on sexuality and gender (and by women,) and so are getting a lot of my money these days. ^_^

If you’ve read anything you think people ought to know about for their winter reading, throw it out in the comments! We can all always use a good book recommendation.

 

 

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Winter Reading: “Abyss” Novel Series by Emily Skrustkie

November 12th, 2017

 It’s kind of obvious to most people interested in and embedded in pop culture that we are going through a massive cultural cramp right now as previously silenced and controlled voices find that they don’t actually have to be quiet to protect other people’s fragile sensibilities.

The folks who have decided that gaming and perverting the awards systems to fuel their egos; Gamergate, the few people left arguing that Jane Foster as Thor or female Ghostbusters destroys their childhoods and the Sad and Rabid Puppies are, in a nutshell, pathetic. But they, and their political counterparts, have done the rest of us a service. They serve as a sign post to a miserable, regressive position on the future.  And by being those signposts, we can just as easily look in the opposite direction for inspiration.  And so, I have been spending my days reading science fiction and fantasy again as I had not in many years. I’m using the puppies’ “Do Not Want” lists as my to-read list, and it’s been great.I don’t think I’ve been this happy reading science fiction and fantasy in decades. It’s not suitable for Okazu, but I finished Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor last week. If you have a YA reader of any age who liked Harry Potter or who wished not all magic users were white or male, have them start with Akata Witch. Brilliant stuff. I’m also reading Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which I’ll be reviewing here. 

But today I want to talk about a different kind of monster than those who inhabits the Internets. Today we’re talking about giant monsters. Giant Sea Monsters.

Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us follows sea-beast trainer Cassandra Leung on her first day testing her skills in controlling the giant monster, the Reckoner, she has trained to fight pirates. Instead of taking down the pirates, Cassandra is captured and forced to train a Reckoner that will belong to the pirates themselves.  

The dialogue and plot are pretty-high tension, as befits both Cas’ character and the situation. There’s violence which is wholly appropriate to the story. And there’s a sexual tension and relationship that builds up between Cas and her captor Swift, who is one of four trainees’ being groomed by their strict, strong and openly manipulative captain, Santa Elena. Swift wants to be captain someday and she’s probably going to be.

The two best things about the series are the way that pirates are portrayed as pretty much terrible people and the Reckoners. There’s alliances, rather than friendships among the pirates…even within a crew. And Santa Elena plays the trainees off of one another, so none of them know enough to take over individually and they don’t know enough to gang up on her and take over together. Skrutskie takes the kind of manipulation and maneuvering we all know from school and work and lays it out as the actual standard operating procedure of the ship.  The beasts are portrayed as beasts. No warm fuzzy mammal-bonding here. These are giant sea-going creatures like squids and whales and turtles, trained to be ship-destroying machines. They are terrifying.

Edge of the Abyss begins a few weeks after Cas has been captured and has negotiated her place in the crew. It opens the world of the pirates up a little larger, and we can see the symbiosis between the pirates and the oceans and their prey, the ships from the land countries. The story swirls more tightly around Swift and Cas’ relationship and how it affects their work, the crew and the larger political relationship with the other pirates, and their relationship with the boats they attack.  But mostly, it’s about Cas and Swift. Their relationship is tempestuous, to say the least. 

The ending of Edge of the Abyss is abrupt, however, I felt it was the right choice to make. Stretching this book into a third story would have been forced and exhausting. By ending it the way she did, Skrutskie left room for a third book without needing cleanup of leftovers, and equally, she could leave this book where it is, wrapped up tightly without need for a sequel. 

Most importantly, Skrutskie has given us a more modern, more realistic, and yet still futuristic idea of pirates and piracy that fails to glorify the lifestyle, even as it is embedded within it. And it gives us an image of women and men as pirates on more or less equal footing without explanation or handwave. And, for us, it provides a same-sex young female couple without  coming of age or coming out clogging up the larger story.

Ratings:

Overall – 8

I found these two books to be enjoyable. Perfect for teen or older reader looking for a more realistic image of pirates and less historical fantasy. No Johnny Depps need apply, but Natalie Portman would make a damn fine Santa Elena. 

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Summer Reading: What Happened

October 1st, 2017

Well. That was cathartic.

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, won’t fix anything. It won’t change the weaponization of social media we saw used so effectively (even now) by Russia and mercenary allies. It won’t change or fix the crushing misogyny and racism that is choking us as a society. It won’t fix that America’s always-flawed system has been irretrievably and possibly irreversibly damaged by the election of the least competent person to run for President in a hundred years to the highest position in the land. It won’t and cannot fix any of those things. Nor does it attempt to do so.

But as a clear-minded and reasonably balanced look at the many factors that loomed large in the 2016 USA Presidential election, this is a book that will be mandatory reading for decades, possibly centuries, to come.

It begins with Clinton thanking and praising so many people; the village that helped her campaign. And it never stops thanking her friends, her supporters, the people she spoke with, who canvassed for her, the press who traveled with her, her peers and coworkers in the government, her friends, family and all the folks who helped her make history as the first-ever female major party candidate for President. That achievement has been wholly ignored by everyone, but it’s an achievement, nonetheless.

Clinton breaks down all the mistakes she made even, and especially, ones she thought she managed to do right that were turned against her. She holds the media and Former FBI director James Comey accountable for their behaviors that contributed, both directly and indirectly, to her loss. And she speaks plainly about the ongoing “active measures” Putin is taking in elections around the western world. We’re seeing it in drives to secession from the successful Kurds to Catalonia, from Brexit to the ridiculous California secession movement – anything to fragment and destablize the west. And of course, she recognizes the decades-long hate campaign against her, personally, from days when she was the Arkanasas’ governor’s wife, through her days as First Lady right through the campaign. But the person she blames the most is herself.

After the stress of election night, she talks about how she put herself back together, about her new activism and about her renewed desire to be and stay active for women and children. Clinton’s voice is so distinct, I don’t know how one could read this book and not hear it as she would speak it.

This was not an easy book for me to read. It hurt – it hurts again right now as I review it. Every round of golf, every racial baiting tweet, every day that incompetent is in the White House, it hurts. Which is why I had to read it. But it also has moments of laugh-out-loud humor. And it ends with love and kindness…and hope.

This is a chronicle of the day the west fell. We all should know what happened.

Ratings:

Overall – 10

The weaponization of social media Clinton speaks of is still in full-force. Before the book even was available, hundreds of 1-star ratings appeared on Amazon and thousands of nasty comments appeared on the 5-star ratings. It’s not just bots – it’s people manipulated by propaganda spread by bots and partisan politics. On my review I commented that I had cried and laughed reading the book. The angry angry person who commented told me that no, I hadn’t. So much anger because of 30 years of lies about a woman who worked so hard to serve her country. It’s terrifying. And we still have to live in it.

 

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Summer Reading: The Causal Angel (English)

September 10th, 2017

In May, I reviewed Hannu Rajienmi’s novel The Quantum Thief as a prelude to the rest of my summer reading. We meet and become involved with gentleman thief Jean Le Flambeur, whose escape from prison was a set-up by the woman who sent him there in the first place, his former lover and goddess, Founder Josephine Pellegrini. Set in a Solar System after the Earth has been destroyed, in which virtual and “real” existence are equivalent, wealth is measured in time, and the political forces arrayed against one another are complicated and multi-layered, this book was an absolutely fantastic read.

The second book of the series, The Fractal Prince, shifted the background to the foreground, as Jean becomes less of a focus and his partner-in-need, Mieli’s story starts to step up. Mieli, it turns out was working for The Pelligrini, and has been a double agent in Jeans’ camp since the moment she broke him out of jail. 

Now, as the summer comes to an end, I take a look at the the third book of the series, The Causal Angel. In this volume, all the various Zoku (temporary and permanent groups bonded by need or desire in the virtual realms) find themselves embroiled by Jean and Mieli (working together, but separately,) in a war amongst the technology-based Sobornost and the Founders, for the ability to shape reality itself. The book primarily follows Mieli, as she works her half of the plot developed by Jean to bring down the Founders themselves using the power of the Kaminari Jewel. Mieli navigates multiple virtual realms to gain the jewel but, in the end, won’t turn it over to Jean. When reality is remade, the wish that makes it is pure and unassailable and…most importantly…uncorruptable. Reality will always be corruptable, but that doesn’t mean it has to start that way.

This series was extremely well-written, if what you like is a barrage of new information cannoned at you faster than you can grok it. As it happens, that is exactly what I like. ^_^ Catching up with the story only meant that the story was about to wrap up, not that I was particularly fast on the uptake.

When I reviewed The Fractal Prince, I commented casually that Mieli needed a new girlfriend. Thumbs up, Hannu. Thumbs up.

Ratings:

Story – 10
Characters – 9 all the way around
Lesbian – 10

Overall – 10

If you’re looking for sci-fi that is not at all the usual stuff, with fully-developed characters – both male and female – vast and deep world-building that moves quickly and is compelling, I got your series right here. 

This was a great read and a stellar summer reading series. It would be hard to beat, so my next book is going to have to be something completely different. ^_^

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Summer Reading: The Fractal Prince (English)

July 9th, 2017

In May 2017, I  wrote a glowing, if mostly-incoherent review, of Hannu Rajienmi’s novel The Quantum Thief.  This brilliant, but lightspeed paced science fiction novel centered on gentleman thief Jean le Flambeur, who was simultaneously attempting to free himself from the prison of his own mind after the destruction of the Earth, escape from a detective convinced he had something to do with a murder, and convince an Oortian warrior and her ship to help him steal something – and in return for their help, do a favor for her goddess, the pellegrini, who may well be his former lover in god form. All wrapped up in multi-layered realities of virtual existence, the mechanical Sobornost, the various Zoku, and the Founders all carving up the various kinds of reality for themselves.

Maybe you can understand why I was a little incoherent. 

In Volume 2 of the series, The Fractal Prince, nothing is less complicated and into the various Japanese, Russian and Qabalistic references, we now add classic Arabian mythology in the form of the wildcode of the deserts and the Djinn who make deals and possess and the Aun who, as they move through and into people, who wish to consume. In the desert city of  Sirr, left on a destroyed Earth, surrounded by wildcode, we follow a young woman, Tawaddud, as she tries to save her family.  We meet the King of Mars and a economy based upon the time in a lifespan.

While Jean investigates his own mind palace, Mieli and her sentient ship, the Perhonen, find themselves once again entangled by her goddess, the pelligrini, who has indeed turned out to be Jean’s former lover Josephine. The pelligrini wants Mieli to help Jean, but she has a different agenda than the thief. Mieli spends time in her own past with her late lover Sydan, only to discover the truth about who destroyed the Earth.

Because Rajienmi favors throwing you into the story without any extraneous explanation (what Amy Goldschlager at The LA Review of Books called his strict adherence to “show, don’t tell”) there is a certain presumption of your willingness to be in the game without all the rules as you read. For my part, I am all in on this. I love this no-expository form of writing. It assumes the reader is as fast a thinker as the writer and to that, I say, bring it on, Hannu. ^_^

Where in the first book, Mieli and Perhonen are supporting cast to Jean, the story strips away from itself in this second book. The ship Perhonen becomes even more of a character, Jean becomes less of one and Tawaddud and Mieli each take up an equal share. The Fractal Prince is not a gentleman thief’s story anymore, it has become a ensemble cast adventure. And it’s worth every moment spent with it. For a competent, tragic, sensitive, strong lesbian female lead, you couldn’t do better than Mieli. Now all we need is to get her a new girlfriend. ^_^

Ratings:

Story – 10
Characters – 9 all the way around
Lesbian – 5 

Overall – 10

I’m currently reading the third of the series, The Causal Angel. I’ve slowed myself down to a chapter at a time, so I don’t slam through it too quickly because it’s so damn good.

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