BooksOfTheMoon

How Long ’til Black Future Month?

By N.K. Jemisin

Rating: 4 stars

I approach every NK Jemisin story I read with trepidation that is mostly undeserved. The reputation of the Broken Earth books casts a long shadow, and to me, the author has the kind of reputation that meeting her would lead to me cowering, in the submission position, while backing away as politely as possible. This reputation, if it exists outwith my head, is undeserved, if this collection is anything to go by. Yes, it has the (deserved) anger of a black woman who has finally found a voice, but there’s joy and playfulness in there too. Stories such as L’Achimista, about a chef given a chance to prove her greatness, after a fall from grace; and The City Born Great, telling of the birth of the soul of the city of New York are beautiful and joyful.

There’s conversation within the genre, with responses to Heinlein and Le Guin and there’s dread, pain, death (and other anthropomorphic personifications) and, of course, hope.

I wish that Jemisin had provided a few words on each of the stories. I always enjoy hearing the context in a which a story was written, to help foster a deeper appreciation, but although it’s something Asimov did a lot, and did well, I’m not sure how common it is these days.

I’ve encountered a few stories before in other forms (often in audio form on Escape Pod and its siblings), but there was only one story which I skipped entirely because it was difficult enough first time round (Walking Awake, where alien Masters possess human bodies like puppets, if you’re wondering). And despite my memory, Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a fantastic story and a great way to round off the collection. Oh, and this story also has the most memorable metaphor in the whole book: “blue sky hard a cop’s eyes”. Ouch.

So 4.5 stars, rounded down. A fantastic collection, with just one or two stories that just didn’t gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356512549
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2018

Asimov’s Mysteries

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4 stars

This book is science fiction of the old school: where characters are there purely to drive the plot, but the plot hinges on some extrapolation of actual science. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really started to appreciate more sociological and character-driven SF, but this is the stuff I grew up on, with all its strengths and flaws.

Asimov presents thirteen of his science fiction short stories, all with a mystery theme to them. Several of them feature Wendell Urth, an “extraterrologist” with extreme agoraphobia, who has never travelled further than he can walk. And yet, he has a detailed knowledge of the worlds outside of Earth and uses this to help the police solve crimes from around the solar system. Some of the stories are funny (a two page shaggy dog story that was there purely to set up a pun had me cackling), some are serious. There’s a spy story that seems like it’s inspired by James Bond, except that the author says he wrote it before he’d heard of Bond. And the final story in the collection: The Billiard Ball is the only whodunnit I’ve read in which the key to the mystery involves general relativity!

As ever, Asimov’s own words on his stories are part of the fun. He provides fore- and/or afterwords on each story, with a bit of history or context, and his authorial voice is charming. I do wish I could have met the man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, but, as ever with SF of this era, YMMV. There are almost no women to speak of and there’s not much in the way of depth of characterisation. But if you want a set of solid whodunnits, in an SF context, you can’t go far wrong with this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586029299
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1969

Battle Angel Alita Deluxe Edition 3

By Yukito Kishiro

Rating: 4 stars

At the start of this volume of Alita’s story, she’s given up the motorball arena and is enjoying having family and friends, as she continues her hunter-warrior work. But the hunter Zapan can’t forgive past slights, and returns to wipe out everything she holds dear. The second arc sees Alita being given a new life as an agent of Zalem and on a private mission to search out her lost father-figure, Ido.

I think there’s a quite intelligent story questioning what it means to be human at the core of Battle Angel Alita. This was mostly buried under sport and angst in the last volume, but it’s closer to the surface here (although the huge amounts of violence do distract from it). In the first arc, Alita has earned a family, and this is torn away from her, while she struggles to retain her humanity. At her weakest point, she’s offered a deal with the devil and gives in to it, leading to the second arc, where she tries to abandoned all thought and revel in killing. But this isn’t her either, as her encounter with Figure Four shows. The larger story is also foregrounded more here, especially in the second arc, as Zalem starts to play more of a part in the affairs of the surface.

The art style is pretty consistent with what has come before, with all that that implies, including the fact that fight scenes aren’t always easy to follow.

So an enjoyable story in and of itself, and also expanding the world for the future as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781632366009

The Psychology of Time Travel

By Kate Mascarenhas

Rating: 3 stars

In the 1960s, four women invent a time machine, but one of them, Barbara (Bee), has a nervous breakdown live on TV and is banished from the group. In the late 2010s, an inquest for an unexplained death brings Bee and her granddaughter Ruby back into the orbit of time travel.

For a lot of this book, I thought it was more thriller than psychology. It’s got that format: short chapters with terse writing that drives the plot forward; but I did eventually realise that the state of mind of the women involved (and the vast majority of the characters are women) was vital to that plot. The chapters jump around to different perspectives and times as it tells the story and the states in particular of Bee, Ruby and Odette, the woman who found the body and who feels a compulsion to identify her, are all vital. Not to mention Margaret. One of the original four scientists, who takes charge of what becomes the Time Travel Conclave and runs it with an iron fist, and moulds (some would say perverts) it to her will.

I probably found the Conclave more interesting than I was supposed to. I can’t help being distracted by questions of procedure: why is the Conclave allowed to exist as this independent entity; why isn’t the government and military all over it (especially if, as is mentioned early on, other nations won’t catch up with the technology for decades); what exactly do time travellers actually do?

As for the whole idea of the Conclave running its own system of “justice” which involves secret courts, trials by ordeal and the possibility of execution, for an organisation that is supposed to be created out of the mid to late 20th century Britain, it seems positively archaic. I can sort of see that that comes out of the psychology/neurosis of Margaret and how she runs the Conclave, but the idea of time travel being so addictive that almost nobody is willing to give it up voluntarily so they go along with her doesn’t really work for me.

Spoiler
Also, I don’t understand why Ruby was tried for Margaret’s murder. She played Candybox Roulette. The bullets went into the machine, but she didn’t force Margaret to stand in the way of it. It was Angharad who had the device reconstructed and put back in Margaret’s way. I don’t understand why Ruby both felt responsible, and was tried for it.

But despite all this, the plot is engaging, the characters interesting and the time travel even, mostly, makes sense.

Book details

ISBN: 9781788540124

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

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, nor do I think it’s a good idea to be reading a book about the end of civilisation caused by a global flu pandemic, just when we may be seeing the start of a global flu pandemic. And yet. I very much enjoyed this book: it’s beautifully written, compelling and, above all, perhaps, hopeful. I was talking with a friend when I was mulling over the book in a bookshop and the phrase that tipped me into buying it was that many (most?) post-apocalyptic stories focus on the worst of humanity; this one focuses on the best.

And it mostly does. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that awful things will happen during the collapse of civilisation and that people will use it for their own purposes, whether that’s just their own selfish desires, or a twisted ideology that rationalises their own position at the top. But our PoV character after the collapse is Kirsten, an actress in a travelling company whose motto is “Survival is insufficient” (incidentally nicked from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager), making clear to both their fellow survivors and to the audience that civilisation is about more than just warm bodies. It’s our art, our stories, our history, our desire to come together and form things greater than the sum of their parts.

The portions of the story pre-apocalypse were interesting for a different reason: they mostly followed the actor Arthur Leander, and it’s striking how everyday they are. Arthur falls in and out of love; deals with his work; and tries to manage friendships (some more successfully than others). All while unaware that his death and the end of the world are coming.

There is a conversation near the end of the book about whether it is unkind to teach children born into the new world about the old one, about all the things that there used to be, but which they will never see. I think it is extremely necessary; as a reminder of what we can be and to never stop striving. One of the characters maintains a “museum of civilisation” for, I feel, much the same sort of reason. And with the note of hope at the end, remembering the past in order to make a better future is more important than ever.

Definitely recommended (but do wash your hands first, and remember to sneeze into a tissue).

Book details

ISBN: 9781447268970
Publisher: Picador
Year of publication: 2015

City

By Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of eight short stories in the same setting, connected with a framing story that describes the stories themselves as legends that Dogs have passed down throughout the years about the decline and fall of the mythical species known as Man.

Simak sees a future where first humanity abandons the cities in favour of small, rural communities and later flees Earth for new forms on Jupiter, leaving only a small remnant behind, that is too intimidated by their forebears to create anything new, content to pass on their legacy to the Dogs.

There is continuity in the stories through the Webster family that recurs at pivotal moments, and of the robot Jenkins who serves the Websters. It’s a melancholic sort of book, dealing as it does with the end of humanity, but one with hope that our successors, the Dogs that a Webster uplifted, will be better than us.

The idea of the rugged individual or small community rather than the close living of cities feel decidedly American to me, especially the America of the middle of the 20th century. Having read other of Simak’s works, this love of country life above that of the city is a hallmark of his work. Personally, I really enjoy city life, which made the premise of the first story (which sees the end of the cities) difficult to accept, but once I got past that, the decline of humanity was easier to accept.

The stories are very Golden Age SF, with hardly a woman in sight and, apart from one that was set on Jupiter, all very much rooted on Earth. Simak contrasts Man’s desire to look outward and reliance on technology with Dog’s more introspective intelligence and finds us wanting.

A quietly retrospective book, tinged with melancholy, whose ideas will linger in mind after you put the book down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575105232
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2011

Noumenon Infinity

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

This follow up to Noumenon follows two different plot streams: on the one hand, it follows the fortunes of convoy seven (Noumenon) back to the Web and onwards after its completion; and on the other, it follows the smallest of the convoys, convoy twelve, which was never even supposed to leave the solar system, but a malfunctioning SD drive in an experiment sends it far from home.

This book covers a lot of ideas, and a lot of time. From multiple alien megastructures to a new religion amongst the convey seven crew. Even with a generous page count of over 500 pages, there’s a lot to pack in, with our time being split between the two conveys. The time jumps when we’re following Noumenon also become huge, although we don’t see the major sociological disruptions that we saw in the first book. The changes here are more driven by outside events.

In the first book, I wasn’t convinced by the treatment of genetics as being the overriding factor in personality. This book doesn’t really change that, but doesn’t lean into much either (other than through the new religion, but that’s religion so it gets a free pass in not needing to make sense).

The chapters following convoy twelve occur on a much shorter timespan (months and years, rather than centuries) and start off with an intriguing mystery surrounding Dr Vahni Kapoor, who has a bad habit of disappearing and reappearing sometime later, always near a sundial that contains her AI assistant C.

There are a lot of mysteries that surround both convoys and eventually draw them together, in unexpected ways. One thing that I found disappointing was the lack of resolution on the alien megastructures that both seven and twelve encounter. There’s a throwaway comment/explanation towards the end of the book, but it doesn’t feel appropriate for Big Dumb Objects as impressive as these.

The old-fashioned SF “sensawunda” is here in spades. If you’ve been wanting very large scale space opera, covering huge swathes of time, including Dyson spheres, clones, mysterious missing aliens, mysterious present aliens and more, this is your series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223403

Dogs of War

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

Rex just wants to be a good dog. He wants to please his Master. If that involves using his seven-foot frame, razor-sharp teeth and attached machine guns to intimidate, maim and kill then that’s what he’ll do, leading his multi-form squad of Dragon (lizard), Honey (bear) and Bees (er, bees) in battle. Unfortunately, it turns out that Master is a war-criminal. What happens when Rex and his squad slip their leash and escape?

This book packs a huge number of ideas into a relatively small size. From the culpability of the enhanced animals, to slavery, to artificial and distributed intelligence, Tchaikovsky keeps the pace going, the ideas coming and the characters sympathetic. Not Master (aka Jonas Murry). He’s possibly the fictional character I’ve most wanted to see dead within a page of meeting. But Rex and his colleagues are just wonderful creations. Honey is over-engineered and gains far more intelligence that she was expected to. Rex comes to rely upon and trust her. The distributed intelligence that is Bees is a fascinating idea. And as for Rex himself, he’s absolutely adorable. All he ever wants to be is a Good Dog. Even when you realise that he’s killing civilians at the orders of Master, he retains your sympathy.

And a definite tip of the hat to Tchaikovsky here, as much of the book is first person from Rex’s perspective, and seeing Rex’s voice evolve over the course of the book is fantastic. When we first meet him, he’s got little vocabulary and limited cognitive capacity, which is reflected in his writing style. As the book goes on, and Rex is forced into more leadership decisions and has to evolve his thinking, his narrative and vocabulary become correspondingly more complex as well. It’s very well written.

Spoiler
I think the idea towards the end of the book of humans getting hierarchy chips was not entirely unexpected, but the horror for came in those who were arguing that they weren’t a bad idea; in effect arguing for the return of slavery. And the idea of the top of the hierarchy being the corporation, and not a single individual was inspired (and terrifying).

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, Rex, you are the best boy!

Book details

ISBN: 9781786693907

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Picking up pretty much directly from where Ancilliary Sword left off, the conclusion to Breq’s trilogy again changes the direction of the series a bit, with things that have been rumbling a little in the background coming more to the fore. Breq is now publicly known as the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren and she must move quickly to protect Athoek system from the inevitable attack by Anaander Mianaai.

There’s a lot to love in this book and I pretty much want to just pick up the first book again and read the whole trilogy in one go, although I think I’m going to resist doing that until I make more of a dent in my to-read pile.

I think this book brings Breq’s involvement in the wider story of the Radch to an end. There’s lots more that she could do, of course, but I suspect that she’ll be quite tied up in the aftermath of what happened in Atheok, and its fallout, to take any further part in wider events. And I can’t imagine that there won’t be further events. The story of the Radch and its ruler at war with herself is rich pickings for further storytelling and I look forward to reading it.

As for this one, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Not just Breq, but those around her got decent character development and all got a chance to do something cool.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502427
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2015

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