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

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

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

The Folk Tales of Scotland: The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories

By Norah Montgomerie, William Montgomerie

Rating: 3 stars

This was an interesting collection of folk- and fairy-tales from across Scotland. Most of them are very short, only a few pages each, which hardly leaves any space for characterisation or plot development. There’s a lot of repetition within stories as well – the power of three crops up again and again where the hero must do things three times to get the effect. I imagine this works better in the oral tradition than written down. There are also variations on well-known stories (including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin) and lots of very traditional roles (princess offered in marriage as a prize for the hero recurs often).

But it’s interesting to read older versions of some of these traditional stories to see how they’ve evolved over time and where there are seeds for other stories. It’s also nice (if somewhat surprising) to see several stories featuring Finn McCool, who’s more closely associated with Irish mythology.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841586946
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 1956

Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction

By Bill Campbell

Rating: 4 stars

This is a pretty huge collection, and the range of stories is impressive as well. There’s no real theme to the collection, but it’s a set of well-told tales. The opening is as strong as you would expect from someone with the reputation of N. K. Jemisin, being a dystopia where the alien Masters control the earth, and the very bodies of its people. The tone of the stories varies up and down, but seems to get darker towards the end of the collection. That particular beat isn’t to my taste, but there’s enough else here to enjoy, and no story really outstays its welcome (the only story that I mostly skipped was Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing as I just found it impenetrable).

Some highlights for me include Sarah Pinsker’s A Song Transmuted about the power of music; Real Boys by Clara Kumagai, telling the story of one of the boys turned into donkeys in Pinocchio (that scene in the Disney film terrified me as a kid); Madeleine by Amal El-Mohtar, about a woman who may or may not be going mad; How to Piss Off a Failed Super Soldier by John Chu, about a super-powered person who needs help to learn how to live. I perhaps shouldn’t have read Hal Duncan’s A Pinch of Salt — tale of sex and blasphemy — while I was eating, but then knowing what I do about Duncan, that was my own fault.

So a strong collection, with a lot of variety, and contributions from all over the world. It’s nice to see an editor willing to pull contributions from beyond the usual anglophone sphere.

Book details

ISBN: 9780998705972
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Year of publication: 2018

Strength Of Stones

By Greg Bear

Rating: 2 stars

I found it difficult to engage with this book at all, I’m afraid. I loved the idea of mobile cities (long before Mortal Engines), who had kicked out their inhabitants, and yet yearned for citizens to fill their streets and be lived in. I found the characters not hugely engaging, but most of all I found the end unsatisfying.

With the final of the three linked novellas pulling together threads and characters from the previous stories, and the appearance of (a simulacrum of) the architect Robert Khan, who had created the cities, I felt like there would be change. Instead, we’re left with stasis. Nothing changes at the end; entropy wins. The living cities all die, religious zealotry prevents the improvement of the lot of the people of God-Does-Battle, and the city part Jeshua is left completely alone on Earth.

I didn’t entirely understand the whole thing with the multiple versions of Khan, but it seemed like his plan was to create matter transportation bridges to move the entire population (along with possibly the rest of the human race?) to a giant sphere, where they’ll exist in energy form. Or something? But the fanatic Matthew decided that God had decreed that everyone had to stay where they were, so he destroyed two of the cities that were to take part. And what was up with Thule? I still don’t understand that at all. Is the moral that gnosticism is bad…?

So some good ideas, but a muddy and disappointing (not to mention pretty bleak) ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780441790692
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 1981

The October Man (Rivers of London, #7.5)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

This novella is a bit more substantial than The Furthest Station and is the first mainstream work that moves away from the PoV of Peter Grant. Looking at the GR series for the Rivers of London I did notice the name of Tobias Winter though, so it turns out that this wasn’t his appearance in the series, even if the previous one was a flash fiction piece on Aaronovitch’s blog summarising the lead up to Tobias becoming a practitioner.

In this novella, Tobias is well on that journey, and is sent to investigate the potentially magical death of a man in the city of Trier. His local liaison is Vanessa Sommer (and more than one person cracks a joke at the expense of Winter and Sommer) who turns out to be competent, enthusiastic and ambitious.

Although we’re not in London any more, the local river goddess does make an appearance and Tobias is a decent enough Peter Grant substitute. I do miss the familiar crowd though. I liked both Tobias and Vanessa, but the former doesn’t really have a distinct narrative voice for me, and it did feel like Aaronovitch spent a long time covering basics that readers would really be familiar with by now, after seven novels, six graphic novels and a handful of short stories. Although, to be fair, it is interesting to see the German perspective on things that we think we’re familiar with.

That’s really the most interesting thing about this story, really: seeing familiar things from a different perspective and seeing how another culture deals with magic. Towards the end of The Hanging Tree Peter Grant muses on establishing communications with other national magical police forces. It’s clear from Tobias that this hasn’t happened yet (although Tobias keeps tabs on Peter, he doesn’t think that Peter knows about him) and that would make for an interesting story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228665
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2019

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this collection up after reading the Athena Club books by the same author, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This collection has a very different feel to it. While the Athena Club is set in Victorian London, these are retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, bringing the women in them to the fore.

Some worked better than others for me, and there were some that I enjoyed, but don’t know the underlying story. Goss is originally from Hungary, and I think several Eastern European tales or variants made their way in to the collection (for example, there were several stories referring to the bear’s wife, but my google-fu failed me on that one).

I often have trouble with poetry, but I’m pleased that the poetry presented here isn’t as dense as some and was often quite prose-like, so I was able to read it almost like a prose story. Of the stories, I think I enjoyed Blanchefleur the best. Again, I’m not sure I recognise the specific story that it came from, but it had the structure and feel of a fairy tale. And it was a love story, which I’m always a sucker for. The Other Thea is a lovely story about wholeness and belonging; while A Country Called Winter about a refugee who makes startling discoveries about her family and her home.

I enjoyed this collection a lot and will certainly look out for more of Goss’s short fiction (as well, of course, as the next ‘Athena Club’ book!)

Book details

Publisher: Mythic Delirium Books
Year of publication: 2017

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

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