BooksOfTheMoon

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers, #4)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

I was in two minds about whether I wanted to read this as soon as I got it. On the one hand, I’ve adored every Wayfarers book so far, but on the other, this is the last book in the series and when I finish it, it’ll be over. But I’m really glad that I did, it’s a fine way to end a wonderful series.

Three disparate aliens all stop at an interstellar hub, between legs of their journey, and while they’re there, an accident traps them there for a while, and these three strangers, and their host, end up getting to know each other better than they had intended.

In the same way that the previous book in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was mostly a book about humans, this one is mostly a book about aliens. One human does have a cameo part, and Ashby (captain of the Wayfarer, of course) haunts the book through his partner, Pei Tam, who’s on her way to see him when she gets stuck. The other aliens are Roveg, an arthropod Quelin, and Speaker, a bird-like Akarak, with Ouloo, a Laru, as their host, along with her child, Tupo.

The others all start the book wary of Speaker, which confused me until I remembered that the pirates who attacked the Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet were Akaraks. We learn more about them in this book, and why they have a right to be as angry as they sometimes seem, although Speaker is adorable. I think the exiled Roveg is possibly my favourite character though. He designs virtual environments (sims), is jovial, and is a bit of an aesthete.

The themes are typical of the Wayfarers series: optimistic and humanistic (if that isn’t a chauvinistic term for a book about aliens). We know that the interstellar civilisation of the Galactic Commons isn’t perfect – their treatment of the Akaraks and the ongoing war between the Aeluons and the Rosk is proof of that, and it’s no spoiler to say that although Pei is a cargo captain, the cargo that she mostly carries is weapons. But on an individual level, people are people and most of them just want to do the right thing. This is summed up best by Ouloo, at the end of a tense scene between two of the others.

This is a slow-burn of a book, that builds its relationships slowly as the three visitors who start off regarding the others as aliens start to see them as people on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. It didn’t have the instant appeal of Small Angry Planet but it’s a lovely book and one that I will definitely return to. I’m sad that Chambers is wanting to leave the Wayfarers universe behind, but I’m excited to see what she creates next.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473647664
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2021

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

It took me an embarrassingly long time to really get into this book, but that’s my fault, not the book’s. I was reading it at the same time as Ted Chiang’s truly astonishing Exhalation and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. And the new Becky Chambers novel had just turned up as well, and I was itching to read that too. But I eventually put those out of my mind and focussed on this, and I’m really glad that I gave it the attention that it deserved.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent system to the mighty Teizcalaan empire. The problem is that nobody will admit that her predecessor was murdered and that she might be next. All this while keeping her own secrets and trying to protect her home from the ravenous jaws of the empire.

By the end, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not the story I was expecting, and it’s not one that I hear discussed very often. A major theme is the draw of the foreign, the empire next door. Teizcalaan is a cultural giant and all the young people from her station absorb its media and culture. Mahit especially so – it’s what makes her a good ambassador. This cultural imperialism and the seduction of the oh-so-civilised Teizcalaanli draw her like a moth to a flame.

This aspect of empire – the cultural imperialism that extends beyond the territorial borders – is a great thread, in amongst the intrigue and politics of palace life. There’s also a larger looming threat beyond the borders that threatens everyone, Teizcalaan and Lsel alike. That one is mostly kept to the background here, but I assume will come to the fore in the next book.

I really like Mahit as a character here. She’s a fish out of water, trying desperately to fit in while knowing that she can’t, but she’s not naive and when she’s given a chance to stop and think, which isn’t nearly as often as she’d like, she’s sharp as a tack. Her Teizcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass (the names within the empire are all like this, with a number and a random noun. I found it quite disconcerting to start with, but it just serves to be another reminder that the Teizcalaanli are alien) is also great. She’s clever, with a dry wit and is genuinely trying to help Mahit.

I’m struggling to place the influences on the Teizcalaan empire. The imperial bureaucracy and obsession with poetry and literature suggest a Chinese influence, but some of the names (“Teizcalaan”, for a start) suggest Aztec, as do some of the ceremonies, but that’s not a culture I know very much about.

Either way, there’s a compelling story here, that was a great read. A worthy Hugo-winner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001594
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2019

Lumberjanes: To the Max Edition, Vol. 6

By Shannon Watters

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth volume of the rather marvellous Lumberjanes starts with Molly feeling like she wants the summer to last longer. So much so that she makes a deal with a mysterious voice in a waterfall. Inevitably, it goes horribly wrong and the Roanoke girls end up in the thick of it, ably assisted by councillor Jen and the usual supporting cast. Although is nobody going to say anything about what happened when Rosie got magically aged up?

I feel really sorry for Molly, she seems so happy at camp, but her home life is obviously difficult. I expect we’ll be seeing more of that, as well as whatever seems to live in the waterfall and has it in for the Lumberjanes.

The second arc in the book consists of the Roanoke girls in a bit of a funk after their last adventure and Jen leading them on a search for the mythical jackalope. They encounter a traveller with her own set of fantastic beasts, and learn about her her history. Emmy seems like a fun character and I hope we meet her again. The final story in the volume is a single issue story of Zodiac cabin starting up a camp newsletter and the trouble caused by people reading their horoscopes. It’s a light, fun little story to round off the volume.

I think this is a well-balanced volume, with the quieter, more character-focused back half balancing out the action-heavy first arc. I love all the characters by now and I look forward to see where the story goes. At some point, I’m going to need to binge-read the story-so-far in order to remind myself of the wider goings-on though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684154944

Not So Stories

By David Thomas Moore

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read the Just So Stories all the way through, although I’ve probably encountered individual ones over the years, but I have read other Kipling, so am perfectly prepared to believe that the original stories had Issues. Moore uses this volume as a response to the Just So stories, stories that look at colonialism and racism from the other side of the lens.

As with any anthology, it’s a mixed bag, some really good stuff and some that didn’t work quite so well for me. I really enjoyed the opening story by Cassandra Khaw, How the Spider Got Her Legs, which mimicked the style of the Just So Stories to a tee, but taught a very different lesson, especially to the arrogant, thoughtless Man.

There are other stories that tell of the dangers of despotism and the vigilance always required by democracy, such as Stewart Hotston’s How the Ants Got Their Queen and How the Snake Lost Its Spine by Tauriq Moosa.

There were a couple that I felt didn’t work hugely well, like Serpent, Crocodile, Tiger by Zedeck Siew, which I had trouble following; and The Cat Who Walked By Herself, by Achala Upendran which felt bleak, and, in some ways, a bit simplistic to me.

On the other hand, I loved How the Simurgh Won Her Tail by Ali Nouraei, partly because it didn’t go where I expected and partly because of the heart-bursting framing story around it. This was my favourite story in the collection.

Speculative fiction, and literature in general, is always in conversation with itself. The Just So Stories have been important in the past, and many people grew up loving them, but they were written with a specific mindset and from a specific point of view. This response to them is long overdue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781086124
Publisher: Abaddon
Year of publication: 2018

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

By Graeme Simsion

Rating: 3 stars

Having decided he wants to get married, Professor Don Tillman creates a very detailed questionnaire that he intends to use to weed out the unsuitable from his dating pool (which is most people). And Rosie definitely doesn’t fit the bill. But inevitably, as they spend more time together, they’re drawn closer.

Even after a few days of thinking it over, I’m not really sure what to make of this romantic comedy about a neuroatypical man looking for love. While the author usually shows affection for his protagonist, I can’t help shake the feeling that just occasionally, he’s inviting us to laugh at Don, rather than at the absurd situations he finds himself in. And that makes me uncomfortable. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard boy-meets-girl story of the kind I usually actually quite enjoy. But the fact that the protagonist was on the Autism spectrum and that the author didn’t really deal with that bothered me.

I mean, I guess that could have been the point – just because someone is on the spectrum doesn’t mean they’re so different that they don’t want to find love, and that the ASD was beside the point, but I feel that it should have come up somewhere. There’s a sequence near the start where Don, a professor of genetics, researches and delivers a talk about Aspergers (covering for a friend) but he never seems to associate it with himself. This can only be a deliberate authorial choice, but I don’t understand the point he was making.

The other characters don’t get much in the way of characterisation. Love interest Rosie feels a bit like a manic pixie dream girl with daddy issues. There’s the philandering friend and the dean who’s more obsessed with keeping the money coming in than academic rigour. These characters do get a certain amount of re-evaluation by the end of the book but I still struggled to sympathise with anyone in it.

I feel I’ve been a bit negative in this review, but I did smile, and even laugh occasionally. As I say, the core trope that the book fits into is one that I like, but this implementation was flawed.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405912792
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

Far Horizons

By Robert Silverberg

Rating: 3 stars

This is an interesting idea for an anthology, in which Robert Silverberg asked a number of authors to contribute a novella that adds something to a series that they’ve written. And he gets some impressive contributors. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a number of the series’ in question and I found the quality varied, although, of course, YMMV.

We kick off the collection with one of the strongest stories, Old Music and the Slave Women set in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ekumen. This tells the story of Edsan, attached to the Ekumen embassy on a planet undergoing a full-scale uprising of its slave society against the masters. Le Guin’s characterisation is masterful and understated and her prose sharp and readable. A great opening story.

Next up is A Separate War by Joe Haldeman, set in his Forever War series, which tells the story of Marygay Potter after she was split up from William Mandella towards the end of the war, and her own adventures before they reunited. I don’t remember a huge about about The Forever War but this story is pretty self-contained and I got to like the character of Marygay quite well. I’m not the first to find the sexuality within the Forever War series very weird; the idea of heterosexuality being banned never entirely feels real. But other than that, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Orson Scott Card revisits his Ender universe with a fairly slight story called Investment Counselor which tells how Ender met the AI Jane, who is important from the second main book onwards. I don’t think this adds a huge amount to Ender’s story, but it’s fairly light and fun, as Ender comes of age and finds himself trying to untangle the set of trust fund investments set up on his behalf so that he can pay the appropriate amount of tax.

Next up, David Brin returns to his Uplift universe in Temptation, about a group of uplifted dolphins who had been left behind on a planet while their ship had to flee its pursuers. I have read the (first) Uplift trilogy but it was a very long time ago. I liked the idea that the uplifted dolphins are a very new sentient species though, and that under sustained stress, they’re liable to fall back to pre-sentient behaviours. Brin does a fairly good job of making these non-humans feel relatively alien, too.

Robert Silverberg then adds his own story in his Roma Eternal series, Getting to Know the Dragon, about an alternate history where Rome never fell. An historian living in the Renaissance gets his hands on the personal travel journal of an emperor from a few hundred years earlier, who was the first to circumnavigate the world. Looking back on that period nostalgically, he finds that the reality doesn’t match the rose-tinted glasses. This isn’t a series that I’ve read but it’s perfectly readable, although alt histories aren’t really my favourite genre.

Dan Simmons’ contribution to his Hyperion universe is Orphans of the Helix, which is a story that I’ve read before, in Simmons’ own collection Worlds Enough & Time. Set after the end of the main series, it’s a story that I enjoyed a lot.

Nancy Kress contributes Sleeping Dogs from her Sleepless series, another one that I’m not familiar with. The idea of genetic engineering to remove the need for sleep is interesting, but the idea that it would turn the recipients into immortal supermen seems a bit far-fetched. And this story, about the terrible consequences of doing the same alteration to dogs, left me sort of cold.

The next story is The Boy Who Would Live Forever by Fred Pohl, set in his Heechee series. I’ve only read the first in that series, but this seems to take place somewhere after that, possibly at the same time as a number of the other books, as we see events from the point of view of the eponymous boy as he makes his way to Gateway and has various adventures while bigger things seem to be going on around him. This was really the first story that felt incomplete, like it was a small part of a larger story.

A Hunger for the Infinite by Gregory Benford is a disturbing piece set in an endless war of humans and machines across the galactic core. One of the AIs has been taking “harvested” humans who fell in battle and mutilating them, while keeping them in a sort of horrible half-life, in an attempt to create art. But it’s frustrated because it feels that there should be more to it. It’s an odd story, that I’m not entirely sure I followed, but it was hard to get past the body horror of the Hall of Humans for me.

I skipped Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship That Returned as I’ve read it before in a different collection and didn’t like it.

And finally, we have Greg Bear’s The Way of All Ghosts, set in The Way. I loved Eon but failed to really get into this story. It felt sort of dream-like, and there was a degree of body horror which I don’t like and I still have really no idea what happened at the end.

There’s a number of strong and interesting stories here, but also a number that failed to grab me, whether that’s because I wasn’t familiar with the series they came from or something to do with the writing. A mixed bag, but the strong stories make it worth it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857239683
Year of publication: 1999

Blackwood

By Hannah Eaton

Rating: 3 stars

This is a story of everyday folk horror. While it obviously takes inspiration from the likes of The Wicker Man (a film I must confess that I’ve never seen), it never goes to such extreme lengths as that does. In fact, with its focus on village life and domestic affairs, it very much feels like the epitome of the banality of evil (I could believe that it’s the Mirror Universe’s version of Ambridge). In a rural England only slightly sideways from our own, there’s been a murder, one that closely parallels a similar murder from 65 years ago. But the villagers aren’t exactly keen to co-operate with the authorities.

Interleaving events in both timelines, it’s a compelling, if somewhat grim, read. While the overt racism of the historical timeline has been suppressed by the present one, it’s been turned into the genteel, very English kind, combined with NIMBY-ism and an inward-looking outlook that fears difference.

The scene of the village council (the “ealders”) meeting in a home living room is possibly one of the most chilling in the book, as they talk usual village council stuff and then casually mention (and joke) about evicting a tenant who’s behind on her rent.

There’s hope in the next generation, as we see the youngest members of our PoV family interested in the outside world and trying their best to effect change, but being hampered by age and powerlessness.

The author spends a lot of time with the police investigation in the past, focussing on their credulousness and willingness to believe the first explanation that comes to mind, so that they can get home to their tea. The modern investigation gets almost no screen time at all, and we don’t really spend any time with them.

The art is all pencil work, with no pens to sharpen it. It’s an odd style, one that I’ve not seen before in a professional work, but it does seem to fit the folk horror style.

Giving a score to a book like this is difficult. I can very much see the artistic merit in it, looking at bigotry in all its mundane forms. It’s got important things to say and is just as relevant in 2021 as it might have been in 1950. But, as a non-white, liberal city-dweller, it left me uncomfortable and depressed. Yes, it made me feel things, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781908434
Publisher: Myriad Editions
Year of publication: 2020

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Six

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth hardback collection of Fables collects three story arcs (maybe four, but the middle two are linked). The first takes us into the occupied Homelands, and tells the story of two of Geppetto’s wooden people who fall in love and petition him to make them flesh, and the price that is extracted from them. This is interesting as it’s the first time we’ve had a story from the point of view of the occupying forces of the Homelands. It’s nominally tangential to everything else that’s going on, but the end suggests that plans are being laid.

The second story sees Mowgli’s search for Bigby through Asia and North America, and his eventual return to Fabletown, where Prince Charming makes him an offer he can’t refuse. The third story starts out with Bigby’s mission (and the trip to the cloud kingdoms is really fun) and ends with him and Snow White finally getting their Happily Ever After.

The final story is a really fun adventure with Cinderella as she tries to sign a treaty with the cloud kingdoms to get their cooperation against the Adversary. It shows her in full badass mode, chewing gum and prodding buttock. I don’t think we’ve got to see much of Cinderella thus far, and showing her spy skills and getting to do cool action stuff is really good fun.

I enjoyed this volume a lot. With the Bigby/Snow White plot winding down, it feels like a good place to pause the series. Regular artist Mark Buckingham shares duties with guest artists for the first and last arcs. All the artists are excellent at their work and make reading the book a pleasure. Now, I just need a bit more of Flycatcher and Red Riding Hood…

Book details

ISBN: 9781401237240
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2013

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress