Book review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sing a happy song about imperialism… Oh, there aren’t any?

Breq is all that remains of the once-great warship Justice of Toren. Having been a ship for over a thousand years, she is somewhat annoyed at having been destroyed to keep a cold-war secret. In the 20 years since the destruction, she has travelled to find the tools needed to bring justice for the ship and crew to the Radch. With her new sidekick, Seivarden, she plans to turn the cold-war hot.

In the first few chapters of Ancillary Justice, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying the story. The usual checkboxes for sci-fi novels were being ticked, but that didn’t really feel like enough to push this into the enjoyment zone. Since this is an award-winning novel, I persisted. Now at the end of the novel, I’m left with the same feeling.

If I could summarise my feeling about Ancillary Justice, it would be that this is an okay novel. Want a sci-fi novel? Then this is certainly one of those.

Reading that summary back, I admit it sounds very scathing. So I want to make it clear that this isn’t a bad book. There is a lot to enjoy with it and is generally well-executed. And in the grand tradition of sci-fi, the satisfying ending still leaves plenty for the sequel. I guess I just didn’t bond with Leckie’s much-hyped novel as much as I expected.

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The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

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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Book review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s so unrealistic to have Disney gradually taking over the world.

Jules has moved in with his girlfriend Lil – someone 15% his age at ~20 – at Disney World. As members of the ad hoc who had taken over Disney with the rise of the post-scarcity, post-death, Bitchun Society, they were there to have fun and accumulate Whuffie. His old friend Dan reappears in his life and someone murders Jules. Then another ad hoc tries to take over Jules and Lil’s part of Disney. Where reputation is everything, they have to put theirs on the line to fight back.

I’d heard of Cory Doctorow long before I realised he was an author. Sure, he was at writers festivals and associated events, but he never seemed to be there promoting a book so much as talking about copyright or Amazon or what sort of barrel publishing houses used with authors. So it has taken me quite a while to pick up one of his books.

I’m not sure how to rate this book. It was a fun read. The world-building was done effortlessly and didn’t pad things out – refreshing after the last sci-fi novel I read and DNF’d. Cory has also added in some very interesting ideas and explorations, particularly around what would happen post-scarcity and post-death. He even manages to stick the satirical boot in.

But now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure there was anything particularly remarkable about it. Possibly my feelings on the matter are related to the somewhat bland ending. Possibly it is related to how the moral questions raised were answered with a shoulder shrug. Maybe it’s just that this was a good but not great novel that promised more.

An entertaining read that explores some interesting territory.

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Book Review: Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grave robbing is still cool in the future.

In the infirmary, Takeshi Kovacs is approached by a soldier who is sitting on the artefact discovery of several lifetimes. Kovacs, currently operating as an elite commando, takes his leeway to recruit the soldier, an archaeologist (archaeologue), a merry band of mercenaries, and a corporate bankroll. Together they are trying to uncover ancient alien technology in the middle of a warzone before any other interested parties, including the warring armies, come for them.

After reading Altered Carbon I threw caution to the wind and dived straight into Broken Angels. It is rare that I read instalments of a series back-to-back as I usually feel like I’ve had an adequate sufficiency of that character/world/theme for the time being. Wanting more is a sure sign that the author gave me some good stuff. Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

Broken Angels is quite different in thematic style from Altered Carbon. Where the latter was a hard-boiled cyberpunk mystery, the former is a noir Artefact-MacGuffin-Adventure* with a more languid pace than those sorts of novels tend to be. The change of pace and style didn’t extend to the themes. While there is less critique of elitist wealth hoarding, there is some delving into corporatism, warmongering, and capitalist drivers behind war that ties to Morgan’s social commentary. His comments on capitalism and war reminded me of Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket – Butler was a Major General of the Marine Corps who did not hold back in discussing what war was really about (hint: money).

Another enjoyable Kovacs adventure. The only thing that stopped me reading the third instalment straight away is that despite owning a copy I didn’t have it on my ereader.

I shook my head. “I don’t have the energy to hate the corporates, Hand. Where would I start? And like Quell says, Rip open the diseased heart of a corporation and what spills out?”
“People.”
“That’s right. People. It’s all people. People and their stupid fucking groups.”

* A term I use to describe the style of thriller churned out by authors like James Rollins, Steve Berry, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, etc.

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Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

genre respect
Source

Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

Book review: Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut (YouSpace, #1)Doughnut by Tom Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life is like a box of doughnuts. Mmmmmmm, doughnuts!

Theo Bernstein is on something of a losing streak. He lost his money, he lost his wife*, he lost his job, and he lost the visibility of one of his arms. Given how high profile the reason for losing his job was – who knew people would miss a mountain? – it’s a wonder he is able to find any work at all, first at an abattoir, then at a hotel. The hotel gig might be easier than hauling offal, but it’s a weird job, made weirder by the strange bottle left to him by his old professor, Pieter van Goyen. How can this bottle be the future of entertainment? And is there a doughnut shop nearby?

In the middle of last year, an author friend – Kaaron Warren** – recommended The Management Style of Supreme Beings to me. It was one of the nominees for an international award she was judging and she spoke glowingly of it. I’d previously enjoyed one of Tom’s books under his KJ Parker pseudonym, so I decided to track it down at the library. Obviously, I was unsuccessful, as instead, I ended up with Doughnut.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I had high expectations for this novel. In some ways, Doughnut managed to rise to those expectations. Holt is a very sharp and inventive author. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments and ideas in this book. But somehow I felt it was all a bit pointless and inane.

In some ways, this is a product of the very British bumbling protagonist used in this novel. It tends to influence the way the story is told, usually in a way that is deliberately frustrating but with the reward of large doses of humour. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this was quite funny enough for the narrative style.

So while this was quite entertaining, I had hoped for more, particularly in the humour department.

*Lost his wife in the sense that she decided to leave him, not the lost in the ‘we were just walking through the Xmas sales and she let go of my hand for a moment and now I can’t find her in this crowd’ kind of way.

** Read her books: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show…

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Book review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Future slavery gets around slavery laws by cleverly using a different word.

Jack reverse engineers pharmaceuticals so that poor people can afford life-saving drugs. She reverse engineered a new wonder work drug but finds out too late that a BigPharma company made it 100% addictive, and now people are dying. In this (dystopian) future, intellectual property and patents are protected by private armies with killer robots. One agent and his bot, Eliasz and Paladin, are hunting Jack down for her crimes as she is desperately trying to engineer a treatment for the addictive drug.

This book was difficult to review. As a novel, the writing, plotting, characters, and themes are all interesting and well done. On that basis, it is a solid 4-star book. But there was quite a bit about the premise and key plot devices/points that had me making squinty faces as my scepticism was triggered. And the more I think about those points and the premise, the more flaws I see with them.

For example, slavery is a theme discussed for humans and bots – giving rise to the title of the book. In the future companies and governments were so clever they were able to reintroduce* slavery by calling it “indentured”. This felt lazy and unrealistic. Especially since there was another part of this idea explored with franchising – parents paying to set their kids up with an education and ability to get a job – that extrapolates on the current situation for haves vs have-nots and draws upon the criticisms of capitalism. To my mind, the two ideas don’t sit together that well and meant the latter idea was wasted.

Others had some interesting things to say about the bot-human relationship. Suffice to say, it could have been done a bit better.

I suppose I was disappointed with this book. For a novel that was so well written and had clearly had a lot of thought put into it, Autonomous just couldn’t manage to drag itself away from lazy anti-corporate conspiracy ideas to the more interesting material it had on offer.

*It could be argued that slavery never stopped.

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Book review: Artemis by Andy Weir

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know you’ve been reading too much fantasy when a sci-fi book refers to their currency as Slugs and you just assume they use terrestrial gastropod molluscs as money.

Jazz Bashara is barely making ends meet in Artemis, the moon colony. After a series of bad life decisions, she is living poor and having to hustle to survive. Then Trond Landvik offers her a lot of money to do something shady, a crime that could change her fortunes. Of course it will go smoothly…

Before Artemis was released I tried to get my hands on an Advanced Review Copy. I loved The Martian, the first hard sci-fi novel I’ve enjoyed in decades, so I was really looking forward to Andy’s follow up. Unfortunately, I missed out and had to buy the paper edition when it arrived in stores. My fortunes didn’t improve. Everyone in my family decided they needed to read my copy of the book, so over 6 months later I decided I’d have to get another copy, this time the audiobook read by Rosaria Dawson. No one stole this copy. Yay.

This is obviously a very different novel to The Martian. The narrative format, the main character, and the antagonist are all far removed from the Mark Watney diary about a man vs nature adventure. Instead, Jazz is more akin to a likeable antihero, one who has to use her big brain to solve the continuingly mounting problems.

While this was never going to be comparable to The Martian, this was another very entertaining novel from Andy Weir.

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Book Review: Space Team by Barry J Hutchison

Space Team (Space Team, #1)Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a Space Review of a Space Book.

Cal Carver is all charm. That’s why as a low-level crook the warden decides he should spend the night in a cell with the most ruthless cannibal on the planet. This would have been a concern if he wasn’t accidentally recruited for a team whose goal is to stop a pathogenic outbreak that could start a war. In space! Cal is teamed up with a by-the-book rookie, a mechanoid whose abilities are dialled in, a humanoid wolf, and a Splurt. Together they are Space Team… when they aren’t trying to kill each other.

This was lots of fun. As Hutchinson notes in his author comments, this story was meant to be entertaining escapism. No deeper meanings, nothing serious, just fun. And it succeeds masterfully. The pacing is quick, the jokes come thick and fast, and the adventure keeps you entertained.

I’ll be reading more from Barry and this series for sure.

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Where’s my hoverboard?

Ever wanted a six-minute overview of American science fiction? Well, here is Lindsay Ellis doing just that.

The History of Science Fiction!

Stories, tales, and myths from all around the world posing speculative questions around technologies have existed long before Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert, from the time-traveling Japanese fairy tale “Urashima Tarō” to some of the speculative elements of 1001 Arabian Nights. But there are a few eras that begin to shape what we’ve come to know as science fiction today. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

Vote on your favorite book here: https://to.pbs.org/2Jes2X5

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favorite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE

Correction: At 1:49, we accidentally said that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1918, when it was published in 1818.

Also, recently I called Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a horror novel, whereas here it is called a science fiction novel. Technically it is both a science fiction and a horror novel. Moreover, it was written as a Gothic novel, a genre which is mostly known by its sub-genre of Gothic Horror. So while you could say Frankenstein is both science fiction and horror, you’d probably lean more toward horror if you had to pick between the two whilst ignoring the Gothic genre label.

Because accurate genre labels are very important. And novels are always composed of only one genre. Apparently.

Book Review: Burn by James Patrick Kelly

BurnBurn by James Patrick Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the Upside, no one will take your calls.

Prosper Gregory “Spur” Leung wakes up in a hospital. All he can remember is the fire and his skin burning. After the docbot patches him up he makes a few calls and heads home to his farm on the utopia of Walden – a planet being gradually terraformed to forest, orchards, and farms. Those few calls make the homecoming… interesting.

Every time I put this book down I made the same comment, ‘I don’t know what this book is about.’ Even now that I’ve finished I’m still at a loss as to what the point of it all was. In the background, there are some ideas. In the foreground, there is a naive protagonist you could use to explore those ideas, but I’m not sure the ground overlapped at any point.

That isn’t to say that this book isn’t well paced, exciting, and entertaining; it is. There are some interesting themes as well, like environmentalism and competing interests. I breezed through and enjoyed reading the book, but can’t help but feel that the story was missing something.

I received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Book review: Obscura by Joe Hart

ObscuraObscura by Joe Hart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In space, everyone goes a bit crazy.

Dr Gillian Ryan is frustrated. She is trying to develop a brain scanning technique in order to help her daughter to avoid the same fate as her late husband. Losian’s disease is thought to be caused by the rapidly increasing environmental destruction and affects memory and concentration. Then a team from NASA show up promising money and technology to help her work if she agrees to go to a space station to figure out what is wrong with their crew. Of course, NASA hasn’t been completely honest with her about where they are going and the risks involved, but that’s okay, she didn’t tell them about her painkiller addiction.

This novel was a lot of fun. Joe Hart has mixed together sci-fi, thriller, and suspense in good measures. The main character’s addiction and frustrations pour out on the page as you wonder if she is going mad or something more nefarious is happening. Added to that is the brisk pacing that doesn’t get bogged down like some novels with similar themes tend to. I don’t know what a hydro is, but after reading this novel I feel like I need one.

Well worth a read for sci-fi and thriller fans.

NB: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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When is the future?

I came across a very cool article about when the future is for science fiction. The question is interesting because we often think of THE FUTURE as being a long way away, but as the saying goes, some infinities are larger than others.

In response to a Tweet, iO9 and researchers Ben Vrignon and Gordon Jackson decided to look at the proportions of science fiction set in the near-future (0-50 years), mid-future (51-500 years) and far-future (+501 years). They took a random sample of 250 science fiction works (books, comics, movies, and TV) created between 1880 and 2010 that were available in the USA in English. Because only the USA matters. Eye rolls are appropriate here.

The results are interesting and broken into decades:

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As you can see, some periods of time emphasise some futures more than others, whilst other periods are more equally spread. The most notable of these is the shrinking of far-future science fiction from the 1970s until the late 1990s. It could be argued that the lack of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s could have been due to the rapid rise of technological change in society, such that everyone viewed the future as being just around the corner. Then after that time, we start to realise the technology just gave us cat memes and we still had a long way to go.

In the original article, they suggest that the changes were due to uncertainty about the future post-2001.

It’s possible that during periods of extreme uncertainty about the future, as the 00s were in the wake of massive economic upheavals and 9/11, creators and audiences turn their eyes to the far future as a balm.

Now it would be remiss of me to draw too many conclusions from this, nor try to offer explanations for any “trends”. We are talking about a dataset that only covers an average of 2 works per year. Two is hardly enough to be representative of any year, and 20 works is at best a smattering of any given decade. E.g. Futurama could be the only representative of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s yet Asimov’s Foundation Series was still going (he wrote his final novel for the series in 1993), the Xeelee Sequence had just started, as had the Hyperion series. Clearly, there were many works not being counted.

It would be interesting to see someone add more data to this analysis and do some breakdowns by media type. Make it so.

Supplemental Materials: More Detail on Middle Future Dates

One of the interesting discoveries we made was that the mid-future (51-500 years in the future) seems to be the most popular period for science fiction, across the last 130 years. So Stephanie created this chart breaking out our data on mid-future SF so you can get a sense of which periods are most popular — you can see that the 100-200 year future is common.

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