BooksOfTheMoon

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

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, #2)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

Murderbot got its clients away from the really quite nasty GreyCris corporation on the survey world it had been guarding them on, and after its client bought it, just walked away. Now it decides that it needs to know about its past, about the event that caused it to give itself that name. Aided by a research transport vessel, it ends up taking on a small group of clients as a security consultant and finds that despite what it wants, it cares about them too much to skip out on them.

Murderbot is, despite, you know, the whole murder thing, a delightful protagonist. It’s fun and sarky and, despite its best intentions, isn’t nearly as misanthropic as it wants to be. It just wants to be left alone to watch space-Netflix all day, but instead keeps getting involved with humans it can’t bear to leave to die horribly.

While I’m still not convinced about any society that creates sentient cyborgs and then enslaves them, I think that Wells has given us enough hints that a) she doesn’t consider this to be a place anyone would want to live and b) not the whole of human space is like the bit that built Murderbot.

The research transport that Murderbot sort of befriends (ART) is a lot of fun, and you can’t help wanting to protect its clients/cover story, as they’re young, innocent and just adorable.

Final thought: Murderbot is horrified at the idea of being hugged. I would do some murdering of my own for a hug right now (stupid coronavirus).

Book details

Binti: The Complete Trilogy

By Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: 3 stars

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It had such a positive vibe on social media, and won a number of awards, that I was excited to get this omnibus for Christmas. Unfortunately, it just didn’t grab me that much, and I can’t really figure out why. I quite enjoyed the first novella, which had a sort of almost dreamlike feel to it. The killing of everyone on the ship and Binti’s survival feel like they’re being seen from a distance or through water. This means they don’t create as much of an emotional impact as they should.

The short story (Sacred Fire) and the second novella (Home) probably left me the most cold. In the former, it’s clearer that Binti has a sort of PTSD (not unexpected, frankly) and goes out into the desert to try and deal with it. We also see some of her classmates and some friends that she makes. In the latter, Binti decides to return home to Earth to complete a ritual to achieve womanhood, and brings her friend Okwa (the Medusa who had helped kill everyone on her ship) with her, to try and cement the peace treaty between them and the Khoush, the human tribe (country? Empire? It’s never made clear) that they had been at war with. But more importantly, she has to deal with her own family and the rest of her people.

This I had real trouble with: these people are so mired in tradition and desire for home that they viewed any attempt to leave as a betrayal, and a selfish move on Binti’s part, and one that meant that no man would want to marry her. I snorted out loud at that one. I understand a love of home, but to deny someone their desire to learn seems almost perverted to me, and left me feeling very cold towards them.

The last story, Night Masquerade had the most plot to it and was probably the one I enjoyed the most. Having just discovered that she has alien DNA in her (well, more alien DNA than she thought) Binti has to use her utmost skills as a master harmoniser to bring peace between the Medusae and the Khoush before her people are trampled underfoot by their war. And also discover the secrets of her edan.

I think one of the things that irritated me about the book was that Binti was too special. She was, by the end of the first story, a genius mathematician; a master harmoniser; a Medusae ambassador; wielder of the edan. And then by the end of the whole series she’s more than that again. It just felt a little too much. And I thought the reveal of the edan while being funny was a bit of an anticlimax.

Book details

ISBN: 9780756415181
Publisher: Daw Books
Year of publication: 2019

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of Monstress is just as lushly illustrated as the first. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of art. It can also be incredibly violent and grotesque at times as well, so beware, if you have problems with that.

Maika Halfwolf, the fox cub that she rescued in volume one and the cat, Master Ren, have travelled to the pirate city of Thyria in search of answers about Maika’s past and her mother, as well as of the mask fragment that she carries and the monster living inside her. Their search takes them to the Isle of Bones and yet more questions.

I find Maika both inspiringly strong-willed and frustratingly stubborn. She makes poor decisions and fails to make sure of those around her who might offer her aid. And yet, we still feel for her. We learn more about the creature inside her in this volume and we get more of Kippa, who is the innocent caught in the centre of all this. The way things are going, I fear for her, before the series is over. There’s machinations between different political factions and war grows ever closer.

For all its unyielding hardness and its violence, the core story here is intriguing, and the world-building remains excellent. Combined with Sana Takeda’s incredible art, I look forward to the next volume.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534300415
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2017

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

By Martha Wells

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this little novella quite a lot. A friend has raved about the Murderbot books for quite a while and after finally acquiring an ebook reader, I picked this up. Our protagonist is a SecUnit, a cyborg, with a piece of software designed to keep it under control at all times. Murderbot, as it refers to itself, hacked its ‘governor’ but rather than going on a killing spree, it prefers to download and watch serials and other entertainment, while putting minimal effort into its actual job as a security detail, at the moment for a survey team on a planet that may be available for colonisation.

Murderbot is cynical, misanthropic and gets very uncomfortable talking about its feelings. (So it’s British then.) But under that shield of armour and bravado there’s a kind being that wants to protect its humans. And there’s a lot of scope for world-building and in the idea of the ‘Units’, which appear to be sentient, and could be regarded as slaves.

I really like Murderbot as a character and would like to read more about it. Unfortunately, the novella format works against this, as they’re short (easily read in a couple of hours), but priced equivalent to a full length novel (other than the first one, which, I assume, has a lower price to act as a hook). I hope that an omnibus edition appears at some point, as I really want to see what Murderbot does next.

Book details

Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2017

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #1)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

The idea of the Canterbury Tales in space always sounded like a good one, and it’s been well executed here. Seven pilgrims are making a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion and as they travel, they tell each other their tales of their previous connection to Hyperion and what they’re looking for. This acts as a framing narrative around a number of other stories and it works really well. It wasn’t until about the third tale that I realised that as well as being different genres, each of them had their own voice that was completely distinct from the ones around it. It takes real skill to achieve that, and still form a cohesive whole around it.

The tales themselves are all engaging, some more emotionally hard-hitting than the others with the Scholar’s tale being the stand-out. In some ways it feels of its time, in its descriptions of women being very physical, all breasts and curves, which feels a little off, reading it in the 21st century but that can be overlooked in favour of the solid and very intriguing story being told. Each tale sheds light on the ones that came before it, and provides groundwork for the ones to come, so that by the end, your understanding of the Hegemony, the “angel of pain”, the Shrike, and the threat faced has radically changed.

So a great book, and I’m definitely going to have to pick up the sequel, to find out how the story ends – this isn’t a complete narrative in its own right: it ends as the pilgrims reach their destination, with doom hanging in the air. And after a serious and portentous book, I loved the incongruous closing paragraphs where the pilgrims join arms and make their way to the Time Tombs all singing the theme tune to The Wizard of Oz. It’s so bizarre yet it works – it lightens the mood without dispelling the atmosphere that Simmons has so carefully built up. Genius.

Book details

ISBN: 9781407234663
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1989

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