Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

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Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

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Barbie My Birthday Party – Too Serious

Somehow, we have managed to acquire a Barbie storybook which our daughter inexplicably enjoys. While I privately suspect that the interest level is driven purely by the immoderate amount of pink the book is composed of, she is still fascinated by having us read it to her at bedtime.

For those who aren’t aware, Barbie is a feminist icon early childhood reinforcement of patriarchal beauty standards much-beloved kids’ toy. It has expanded from a tool of societal indoctrination line of fashion toys into a multimedia empire of animated films, television shows, video games, music, and books; and I’m left with some very important questions.

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The eponymous protagonist’s story starts with her need to celebrate her birthday by buying lots of stuff and having her friends do the same. There are decorations, cake, sparkly jewellery, and dresses to buy. And lots of butterflies for some reason. I’m not sure if the butterflies are attracted to the inordinate amount of sparkly jewels Barbie and her friends adorn themselves in, or if they are a hallucination due to overconsumption of shrooms, or if the butterflies are actually Death’s Head moths and Barbie’s Fun House is in need of an FBI raid.

This brings me to my first question: how is Barbie funding this lavish lifestyle. I know that Barbie has had many jobs during her life but she never seems to hold them down for any length of time. A lot of those jobs weren’t particularly well paid, and given the number of technical and professional degrees she would have had to obtain, her student debt levels would have to be crippling.*

To my mind, there are three possible explanations for this lavish lifestyle. Barbie is either:

  1. A trust-fund baby living a life of vapid luxury;
  2. A white-collar drug dealer supplying her rich friends with cocaine and party drugs;
  3. Or she is a consumerist wracking up mountains of credit card debt to finance a lavish lifestyle to impress her equally facile friends.**

The drug dealer explanation would certainly explain her impossible body proportions; the amphetamines and cocaine keeping her thin, and with plastic surgery padding the other areas. But another career? That seems a bit far fetched. The credit card funding similarly doesn’t seem likely due to her 30-jobs-a-decade career habit.

The job-hopping would, however, fit with the trust-fund baby explanation. Bored rich kid decides to change careers for the third time this year: not a problem. It would also explain many of the other story inconsistencies. Which brings me to the next issue.

In the story, Barbie is throwing a party for herself. She could have been throwing a surprise party for her friends, or she could have been holding a fundraiser for impoverished people who can’t afford to eat let alone accessorise for their catered birthday party. Instead, we are treated to pages of exposition detailing her choice of dress, make-up, jewellery, hairstyle, and matching her shoes and handbag. Then to top it all off, we see her matching presents to the friends who gave them, as though she is judging the friendship upon the quality of the gifts received.

I’m concerned that in a world of growing inequality that Barbie’s message is one of vapid selfishness that seeks to teach young girls a nasty and mean lesson. This trust-fund image-obsessed wealth flaunter is not an ideal that young girls should be exposed to. The very least Barbie could have done is host a charity fundraiser, although even that is somewhat problematic. Has she learnt nothing from Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s examples?

Maybe I’m judging Barbie too harshly. This was, after all, a short Barbie story. It is quite possible that in further adventures many of my above concerns and questions will be addressed. I only hope that those stories have satisfactory explanations and answers.

* I’m also not convinced that she has actually had all of the jobs she has claimed. There is a sense that she is padding her resume for some unknown reason. I mean, how do you manage to be a paratrooper and the US President in the same year and then throw the towel in to become a Spanish teacher the next year?

** There is a fourth option that I don’t wish to include in the main list as I hope it is untrue. Pretty girls like Barbie can make good money escorting and that would certainly explain her expansive wardrobe; her sugar daddies making sure she is always looking pretty. This is a very poor message to send to young girls. Encouraging such a dual-exploitative career as a means to accrue meaningless objects of vanity normalises everything wrong with the sex-industry whilst marginalising its positive aspects.

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Book review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld, #3; Witches, #1)Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witches ride on brooms and wizards hold a staff in their hands. Nothing phallic about that.

Eskarina “Esk” Smith was born the eighth son of the eighth son and was bequeathed Drum Billet’s wizarding abilities and staff. Minor mixup. Esk is a girl. But too late for any take-backs, Esk’s magical talents have her training with Granny Weatherwax in witching. This isn’t enough for Esk as she is meant to be a wizard, she has the staff and everything, so she journeys to the Unseen University for training.

I’ve come at the Witches instalments of Discworld backward. The first one I read was The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last novel before his death, in which Granny Weatherwax dies.* So to come to the first was overdue. I was somewhat disappointed with The Shepherd’s Crown – probably because it was unfinished in terms of Pratchett’s usual revision process – but not so with Equal Rites. This was highly enjoyable and tackled some interesting tropes of fantasy, as well as plotting the rise of grrl power on the Disc.

*That isn’t a spoiler, it’s pretty much the first chapter.**
**Not that Sir Terry was a big fan of using chapters, but you take my meaning.

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