Book review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are LegionThe Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gender reveal parties would be more interesting if you heard, “I’m pregnant with a cogwheel.”

The two most powerful civilisations in the Legion, the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas, are fighting for possession of the Mokshi world-ship. In the Legion, only the Mokshi is capable of escaping the decay infecting the world-ships. Zan is revived once more in the hopes of leading a force to capture the Mokshi. With little memory of any previous attempts, Jayd and Sabita hint at a larger plan they have in play. A plan that would see Zan and Jayd take on the Lords of the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas.

Last year I picked up Hurley’s collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Since I enjoyed that book, I decided to read one of her novels. After leaving this review for several days, I’m still not exactly sure what to say about The Stars Are Legion.

The obvious place to start with is the world-building, what with how much of the novel is dedicated to it. Hurley manages to use Zan’s journey to world-build very effectively. It would be easy to point at the amnesia and epic journey tropes and shake your head admonishingly, but I felt that it worked well. The characters are similarly complex and develop in interesting ways, even if they are all damaged and murderous.* And there is never a dull moment where the characters aren’t in mortal danger.

I think the reason I’m not sure how I feel about The Stars Are Legion is that several factors scratched away at me as I was reading. Damaged characters can be hard to connect with. The fact that I’m calling the hero’s journey the world-building shows that I wasn’t quite invested in the journey/action. And I also found I knew several “reveals” before they happened.** These issues made me more along for the ride rather than strapped in and engaged.

That said, this was a refreshingly different kind of sci-fi novel for me. There is a lot to enjoy for those who like darker stories and characters.

* And they are all female. Every character. Which was a pretty cool idea that was a neatly integrated part of the world-building. Gotta be honest, this was satisfyingly unique.
** In fairness, this could just be that these “reveals” were established well rather than cynically concealed within a barrel of red herrings or subverted in a way that throws the plot out the window.

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We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow by 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Cli-Fi: Can These Books Save The Planet?

Climate Fiction or cli-fi – get it, it’s like sci-fi except with climate… – may trace its origins to early science fiction works, but it has become a (sub) genre of its own in recent years. Who’d have thought that active disinformation and denial campaigns leading to delayed action on such an important issue would lead to a cultural response expressing concern at the lack of action?

This video from the PBS Digital Studios channel Hot Mess offers a great explainer on cli-fi. It also features Lindsay Ellis.

I think many of us would have read or watched cli-fi without really acknowledging it. Sometimes climate change is just a theme or motif because it is a reality writers/creators have absorbed. Other times it is more deliberate with the intention of discussing the issue.

While this can help create a wider acknowledgement and acceptance of climate change, I’m not sure it can help save the planet. I think there was an analogy about a horse and water and beatings or something that works here.

One thing I am hopeful of is that cli-fi will be like the nuclear holocaust fiction, emblematic of the fears of our time, but those fears will prove misplaced due to actions to prevent disaster. Or at least a great resource in the future for the evolved sentient cockroaches looking to understand what happened to our race and the planet.

See also: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/climate-fiction-margaret-atwood-literature/400112/

Climate Fiction comes in all sorts of forms, there’s your Mad Maxes, your Games of Thrones, your Parables of the Sowers, and your WALL-Es. But are all these Cli-Fi books, movies, and TV shows just capitalizing on a hot topic, or do they actually change people’s perceptions of climate change? Lindsay Ellis, of It’s Lit, and Amy Brady, the editor-in-chief of The Chicago Review of Books, help us find out.

Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vp6lDmU3vT-NvMTRzCkLW97JfX7FQ4ZLhX0qvTGg-_I/edit

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: Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those feels when you have to take time off from murdering religious zealots to overthrow the establishment.

Kovacs is a one-man army stalking a series of religious zealots on his home planet of Harlan’s World. In the aftermath of one assassination, he runs afoul of the Yakuza and befriends a mercenary. The merc, Sylvie, invites him to join her team decommissioning sentient military hardware in the un-settlement zone. During this operation, Sylvie collapses and appears to take on a new personality, the long-dead revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Together they are being hunted by the ruling elite, a revived younger Kovacs, and the Yakuza. Their only hope is to restart the Quellist rebellion.

I’ve read all three Takeshi Kovacs novels over the last two months and have enjoyed them all. There is the entertaining surface level to the stories: a hard-boiled noir detective story, military adventure, and in this instalment a more standard thriller. Then underneath that, there is an interesting socio-political discussion that has culminated in the plot of this final novel in the series. In some respects, Woken Furies is the most in-depth look at the socio-political world Morgan has created, as well as having the most social criticism. For some, this could be a bit offputting, but I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the series.

The only problem I had with Woken Furies was that it felt as though it was padded out a bit too much. It is significantly longer than the previous novels (probably 40% longer at a guess) and I’d have preferred it at roughly the same length as those other two. It’s a little churlish to complain about a book you’re enjoying giving you hours more entertainment, but in many ways, I’m a petty man.

A good conclusion to an enjoyable series.

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Book review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling when you call someone a young whippersnapper and realise it’s your reflection in the mirror.

Widower John Perry has reached his seventy-fifth birthday and enlisted. The Colonial Defense Force are waging war across the universe and need old feeble bodies to join their fighting forces. After some upgrades and basic training, Perry and his new comrades are sent off to meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as possible.

When I finished reading I knew exactly what I was going to say about Old Man’s War. My entire review could be summarised as: It was fine. Just fine.

I decided to read Old Man’s War after my mixed feelings from reading Redshirts. To assuage those mixed feelings, I picked up Scalzi’s highest-rated book. And in many respects, it delivered. The “fresh” take on classic sci-fi novels from the likes of Heinlein was entertaining. But unlike those classics, I found myself nitpicking at various ideas and premises rather than being filled with wonder.

One of the premises I found hard to swallow was that in the infinite reaches of space, habitable planets are hotly contested property. Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Even Scalzi’s handwaving explanation in the book feels like someone fully cognizant of just how much hand flapping he’s doing.* Given that this is the central conceit for the novel, it felt like there either needed to be better groundwork or less attention drawn to how close that premise circles the plot hole.

In my review of Redshirts, I noted two things that apply to Old Man’s War as well. He said. He said. The first is that this novel is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. It’s only upon reflection that I realised that many of the scenes were meant to be funny. Not the ideal time to notice the jokes. The second was the dialogue tags that often felt redundant and only there to remind you that the dialogue that could have been said by anyone had been said by a specific anyone.

This was an okay novel. Old Man’s War was entertaining enough to read but after two novels I’m not sure Scalzi entertains me enough for a third.

* And related to that particular scene was a scene that justified war and implied diplomacy didn’t have a place in this world. I’m not sure if that scene was meant to be ridiculously heavy-handed or if it was meant to be funny. Bit of a fail whichever way it was meant to fall.

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