Review | Arkwright by Allen Steele

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There’s a lot to love about Allen Steele’s Arkwright. I’m a little in love with it myself.

The story follows Nathan Arkwright and his family. Arkwright is a fictional contemporary of Heinlein, Clarke, and the golden age authors in SF. He’s best known for his Galaxy Patrol stories, a pulpy SF series that would, in his universe, help inspire young readers to go into the sciences, become astronauts, and generally love fiction and reading. When Arkwright dies, estranged from his family, he leaves his estate to the newly established Arkwright Foundation. The Arkwright Foundation, led by his granddaughter, is committed to taking humanity into space and interstellar travel.

The book is broken up into three parts: Nathan Arkwright’s history, the development of the Arkwright Foundation and its mission execution, and the results of the interstellar travel.

As a result, I want to talk about the book in parts.

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Nathan Arkwright’s history is easily my favorite part of the book. It composes the first third and is an homage to the golden age of SF. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. If all you read is the first third of this book,  it will have been well worth your time.

Nathan Arkwright’s history recounts the Futurian movement in SF, a push to use SF as a means of talking about social and scientific change as opposed to simply a means of entertainment. The Futurian movement in SF caused an actual break in the SF world at a New York convention in 1937. Arkwright is caught up in the split, but doesn’t feel at home with either side of the movement. As a result, he observes the dynamic and interacts with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and Robert Heinlein. It’s basically the coolest alt history/fanfic ever.

Note: If you want to read more about the actual Futurian split in SF, you can read The Futurians by Damon Knight and it’s mentioned in Arthur C. Clarke’s autobiography.

Nat Arkwright and his friends are fun and likeable. They’re energetic and representative of the enthusiasm for SF and the industry that makes being a part of SF great. The tone matches the time and the characters undergo changes in their lives (WWII, family dynamics, friendships and relationships) and eventually go through the cycle of enthusiast, jaded, and renewed. There’s so much to love here.

The Arkwright Foundation comes about after Nat’s death and is led by his granddaughter Kate. A significant part of this section is about the generations that it takes to make interstellar travel actually possible. It’s not overly technical, but is probably a fair description of the time and efforts it would take to make a starship actually work. One of Nat’s descendants describes the family commitment as cult-like.

While I could appreciate this part, and many folks have compared it to a generation ship in so far as it takes multiple generations to make the mission happen. There’s definitely a point here.

While each of the characters are likeable and I can understand and appreciate the role this section plays, the story feels a bit like the kind of story you write as a kid. You know the one. There’s a mommy and a daddy who fall in love and have a baby. That baby grows up to fall in love and becomes a mommy/daddy and has a baby, so on and so forth into eternity. Each character has a role to play in the mission’s success, but it wasn’t as engaging as I’d like and felt a bit formulaic.

Once the ship lands, the story picks up again. The interstellar ship, the Galactique, successfully lands and begins to disseminate new plant and animal life to make their new home habitable. Because of the expense of sending actual adults, the mission collected zygotes to send into space and fertilize upon arrival. Those become the descendants of Nat Arkwright and his allies in space.

This section of the book really interested me. It poses the question: if we do send children into space to be born and grow and develop on their own, who do they become? And equally as interesting, are we still human if we change ourselves to adapt to a new world. Evolution and a nature v. nurture are all wrapped up in one here and I thought the results are fascinating. The characters and new social norms are captivating. The development of government and religion– or rather the exploration of what may come to pass– is so interesting. It’s the kind of question I actually spend a lot of time thinking about.

To make it better, the new humans have distinct features physically and linguistically. They walk on both all fours and bipedally. Their language is all computer abbreviations, min for minutes and secs for seconds without knowing the full word. It’s really an interesting line of thinking.

I really liked this novel, though I would say it’s U-shaped. Exciting and the beginning and end with a bit of a dull middle. Regardless, you can tell Steele spent a lot of time thinking about the way he uses SF and what there really is to love about it: the future and the changes the future brings.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review

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Review | The Vegetarian by Han King

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Han King’s The Vegetarian has been awarded the Man Booker Prize and while I can see the appeal, it left me wanting, not in a good way.

The story revolves around a family in which the daughter becomes a vegetarian after a nightmare. She’s compulsive about it, not eating anything that came from animals and getting to the point where instead of avoiding touching meat, she avoids touching people as well. The smell of sweat bothers her.

The story is short, with three different perspectives: the woman’s husband, her sister, and her brother-in-law.

To be honest, it’s pretty manic pixie dream girl. There’s some hand waving at magical realism, but it doesn’t follow through and the story’s structure feels stunted. The characters are mysoginists and flat. The pacing is meandering, and I didn’t find the story compelling. If it had followed through on some of its more magical and dream-related elements I would have found it more interesting.

Overall, it wasn’t for me. Maybe my tastes just aren’t literary enough.

 

I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Fellside by M. R. Carey

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The Girl with All the Gifts was M. R. Carey’s most recent novel and the first to cross my path, though he’d been writing comics for years beforehand and has a hearty backlist. The hype was pretty high when I read it, but after enjoying it, I kept my eye out for Carey’s works. Fellside, Carey’s new book, was released April 5th by Orbit books.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into with this one. The cover features The Girl with All the Gifts and the set up sounded fairly similar– woman stuck in an institution with surprising supernatural occurrences. I couldn’t tell if it would be too similar to TGWATG or if it would be connected somehow.

Fellside features a woman named Jess who has been sent to prison for the murder of a young boy in her apartment building. Jess was high at the time, was horribly burned in the resulting fire, and, most importantly, doesn’t remember anything that happened after shooting up. Now, in Fellside prison for a life sentence, the ghost of the young boy she killed is haunting her.

The take away from this book was by and large that Carey can write a solid story.

The book does what many stories about prison do: a dash of crime plot, mix in some character background, add in a touch of prison violence, sprinkle some drugs on top and voila!

The story plot and character constructions, though again solidly done, left something to be desired. In a lot of ways, it was very predictable, despite multiple attempts at twists. The characters were rarely fleshed out beyond the typical, particularly for the inmates, and their internal life outside of Jess doesn’t get too much consideration. Again, the construction itself is done solidly, it just lacked much in the way of pushing the limits.

The draw for this is the paranormal aspect. The ghost that haunts Jess in prison adds an element of fantasy and Carey draws on that for the book’s distinction. The paranormal aspect is twined together with Jess’ childhood fantasies and some fairly terrifying events. Carey uses these elements in a way that’s fairly well integrated with the plot and its creation and descriptions were satisfying. Jess’ supernatural history could have been expanded upon and people who knew about it could have questioned more, but overall it was pretty well done.

Fellside won’t make my best of list, but it’s an entertaining read and worth picking up if you are looking for something reliable for the time and money you’ll spend.

A thanks to Orbit books which sent me a copy of Fellside for free in exchange for an honest review.

 

Woof.

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Image result for Bored dogs

 

 

I haven’t been overly concerned with the Sad Puppies this year. I’ve talked about this before, but the general level of vehemence and craze among the more moderate puppy group had seemed to die down a lot with the turn of a new Hugos cycle.

 

A few tweets went up regarding the Puppies list. I more or less ignored it. Lists happen, particularly with awards. It was a few days later that I noticed what was actually happening.

The Sad Puppies list was up.

Twitter basically exploded, albeit quietly compared to last time.

The Sad Puppies list this year is considerably different from their past years’ lists, including in some cases more recommendations that nominating slots on a ballot. Note that though the original intent claim was to post ten works per category this didn’t happen, with more or less believability depending on category. It includes the usual suspects (Jeffro Johnson, the expected over-representation of Baen and Castillia House), but also includes Okorafor, Leckie, and Scalzi. If the Scalzi thing doesn’t raise your eyebrows, you haven’t been paying attention.

In truth, the Sad Puppies list includes some authors really worthy of awards and beloved genre-wide.

Unsurprisingly, authors have been requesting removal and posting objections to association with the Puppy Slate, including Alastair Reynolds, Cat Valente, and Peter Newman.

Should the authors have been asked if they would like to be included?

This  is an interesting question. Normally, I would say no.

But, the Sad Puppies aren’t just any old blog. Affiliated with the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, and GamerGate, and the epicenter of last year’s fiasco, I think they should have.

The Puppies’ lists and base are rooted in controversy. They know that. Last year’s slate led to withdrawal of nominees from the Hugo Awards ballot for the first time in decades. The desire to avoid affiliation with the Puppies runs strong and not without reason. While the Sad Puppies calmed their rhetoric a bit, it’s clear that the self-positioning as interlopers to SFF being kept out by “SJW” cliques is being maintained.

Frankly, a good faith effort should have been made to contact every author listed on the SP recommendation list, regardless of past affiliation, leanings, or talk. There’s too much controversy for that not to be a minimum consideration.

What was the response to those who asked to be removed?

Generally sarcasm and overreaction.

I understand that the admins are frustrated. I understand that there was some genuine effort to back off the rhetoric and open up the Puppies to more varied selection. And, some of the anti-Puppy folks can compete with Vox Day for vitriolic anger. But, you don’t become the Puppy ringleader without knowing that people don’t like what you’re doing or who you’re affiliated with.

So, let’s not pretend that people requesting to be removed from the list are the “special snowflakes” and “delusional” types that Sarah Hoyt has called them on her blog. Hoyt is one of the Sad Puppy 4 coordinators\admins. She’s compared anti-Puppy folks to the Third Reich.

The objectors have been noted with asterisk (leading to some laughter about revenge for the asterisk awards at the previous ceremony)

Frankly, she would have been MUCH better served by putting an editors note that there’s a list of people who have been removed, posting the raw data from the forums, and then highlighting those who have been removed on the raw data file.

Let’s have a quick caveat

I do think she has made a good, significantly more insightful point that people are giving her credit for. It’s hard to get past the anger and resentment in her post-reaction blog to see it, but she makes it clear: who’s really keeping women and minorities out of SFF? Publishers.

It’s true. If everyone who spent the energy to tweet Sarah, Vox, or the other vehement sector of the Puppies on Twitter had spent the time to tweet Harper Collins, St. Martin’s Press, or Simon and Schuster about the lack of diversity in SFF, we may eventually see a more substantive change in the genre.

By and large, the puppy ship is sinking. Maybe it’s time to focus on the people who control the genre more directly.

 

Post-Script Note: I’m not discussing the Rabid Puppy slate today. Mostly because it lacks a sense of taste and appropriateness.

Additional Note: The original post pointed to Nnedi Okorafor for having tweeted about the list. I was in error. My sincerest apologies.

 

 

Review | The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

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I was excited to hear Sofia Samatar was writing a new novel set in the same world as A Stranger in Olondria. I had listened to the book on audio a few months before and was interested to see what else she would do for the world.

The Winged Histories expands upon the world in A Stranger in Olondria, providing a background into the political/religious setting of the world. It’s set contemporaneously to A Stranger in Olondria and follows four women caught up in the upheaval.

The thought Samatar puts into the world and the religious development is fantastic. She features a number of well thought-out political and religious overlaps and how those interact.

One of the things I noticed right away was the consistency in Samatar’s writing style. The similarity in the first character’s voice and the narrator’s in Olondria was striking. Samatar’s sentence construction and description styles for the two felt very similar. In a way, I both liked and disliked this. I liked the consistency and the distinctiveness of Samatar’s writing, but worried that the book would be atonal, especially considering that there were three other characters whose points of view were about to be presented.

The stories’ characters were definitely distinct. They ran the gambit from funny and loving to dark and brooding. I would argue that the story is family based. The initial character is a young woman in line for the throne. Her family has worked hard to position themselves to take control. After a semi-scandal involving her sister and cousin, she is the last hope to marry well and secure the family’s position, but she runs away to join the army, to become a shieldmaiden.

From that point forward, she becomes the catalyst for revolution, eventually involving her lover, sister, and political rival’s daughter.

The story is fantastical and brings back some interesting characters like Tailon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone. The overall connections between the characters shows the depth of the story’s construction. Each character influences the others, eventually contributing to the political upheaval that takes place.

I really enjoyed the addition to the world Samatar built in A Stranger in Olondria. That being said, I wasn’t always sure that the story would have stood well on its own without my previously having read Samatar’s work.

The story feels very much like a series of intertwined novellas. Each new perspective pushes the story forward without always answering the questions left behind by the other stories. Some of the lore of Avalei is pretty important to the story overall, but doesn’t receive the same in-depth treatment that was needed in Olondria. In a way this makes sense, the distinction between the theology of the stone and Avalei is less important, but I imagine that reading The Winged Histories first may leave you a little lost.

At the same time, I can see the potential for the story to be a great introduction and context to its predecessor.

Overall, the story is very enjoyable. It’s beautifully written with some varied character voices, but I’d definitely suggest reading Samatar’s earlier works beforehand.

If you’ve read The Winged Histories, and especially if you read The Winged Histories before reading A Stranger in Olondria, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. Please comment below!

Thanks to Small Beer Press who provided me with a copy of The Winged Histories for review.

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Review + GIVEAWAY | The Witch Who Came in from the Cold

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When I found out the premise and model of storytelling that Serial Box is doing, I knew I wanted it; when I found out who was participating and the quality of the work, I knew I needed it. Read the rest of this entry »