Defying Doomsday

defyingdoomsdayDefying Doomsday
edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench
2016

It was probably not my best idea to read this anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories while dealing with a local black-out caused by heavy storms. It’s the type of situation that’s all the worse for the stories being really well-written and interesting. Beyond just dealing with the apocalypse (“just”, I say), the theme that brings these stories together is disabilities.  The heroes and heroines of each story have some disability — physical, sensory, and/or mental.

The introduction made a really good point about how so many post-apocalyptic stories act like people with disabilities will be the first to die and are a burden to those around them. The stories in this anthology refute that. A few of the authors look at how something that our modern world calls a disability could well be an adaptive feature in a massively changed one. Most of them, however, look at how people who are used to living in a world that doesn’t cater to their needs have experience and practice that more abled people don’t get in our modern world. Reading my kindle by candle light was already highlighting to me how unprepared I was for any sort of harsh living: I live a very catered-to life.

I’m not going to write individual reviews about each story, although I certainly thought about it since the stories are all very good, but also all significantly different from one another. Instead, here are my top three:

“Something in the Rain” by Seanan McGuire is probably my favorite. I find the apocalypse situation particularly terrifying and I like the heroine the best with her ruthless perseverance. And spoiler: the cat lives.

“Given Sufficient Desperation”, by Bogi Takács, felt like a wonderfully subtle modern take on Gordon R. Dickson’s classic, “Danger-Human”.

“No Shit”, by K. L. Evangelista, is an subversion of a couple of classic post-apocolyptic tropes that also directly addresses the issue of how just the idea of roving bands of robbers would impact the people who survive.

The whole anthology a love song to the old adage: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What doesn’t kill you can make you more broken, but it also gives you the experience of carrying on anyway. I definitely recommend it.

Artemis by Andy Weir

220px-Artemis-Andy_Weir_(2017)Artemis
by Andy Weir
2017

This book was fine. I enjoyed it. Mostly. But it had a series of flaws, some more serious than others.

For the good parts: it’s got a diverse cast of characters, and it does what most good science fiction novels do and takes some theories of how science could develop and looks into how those developments impact society. The ideas for how a moon colony would operate are fascinating, both from the science side and from the social side.

It’s also a bit of a heist story which is always fun. Where Weir’s first book, The Martian, was man-vs-nature, Artemis is man-vs-man, which opens up some additional opportunities for interesting conflicts.

But the man-vs-man story line generally needs you to like your characters and pick your side, and I was a bit thrown off by it ultimately being a conflict between a ‘good’ billionaire and a ‘bad’ billionaire. I guess the difference is that one kicks puppies and the other doesn’t? (Metaphorically, at least: there were no pets of any kind in this book.) And there’s ongoing commentary about how unions are like protection rackets that hurt the best skilled workers.

The main character, Jazz (short for Jasmine), is a fine point of view character except for the parts where she literally complains about how everyone is always telling her how much potential she has and offering her opportunities to develop her potential. (We should all have such trials and tribulations.) But she doesn’t take any of them up on the offers, and then feels betrayed the one time she can’t get a pass she wants because potential is fine but you actually need achievement to be successful. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s the second scene in the book, which is admittedly before she starts complaining about people offering her opportunities, so isn’t quite so jarring until you think back about it.)

In the end, she’s so smart that she can do pretty much everything with just a little extra studying, and everyone is very impressed with it. There’s a level of wish-fulfillment meets entitlement that I find off-putting (also ignoring the difference between intelligence and education.) Weir is flipping a trope by writing it as a female character, at least, since mostly I see that as guys writing guys, but there’s only so much credit for that. Especially when paired with the narration about how she’s slept with so many men, but then the details seem to be that it’s only two men, both while in monogamous relationships (on her part at least.)

It all comes together like warning signs that Andy Weir might be going the way of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card: talented science fiction writers who went increasingly extreme in being uber-conservative, with a side-order of sexual hang-ups. I grew up reading and enjoying their books, but I’m too old and entitled now myself to deal with that anymore.

Anyway, to sum up: The Martian was amazingly great and any next book of Weir’s would necessarily have a high standard to meet. Artemis didn’t meet that standard, but it’s no worse than many other science fiction novels I’ve read. I’ll keep an eye out for any other books he writes because The Martian was a masterpiece, Artemis was interesting, and two data points is a poor way to predict the future, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

3rogueprotocolThe Murderbot Diaries: Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries: Exit Strategy
By Martha Wells
2018

4ExitStrategyThis is a series of four novellas, the first two of which I’ve already reviewed, but I wanted to make at least a little post about the final two, which have now come out and complete the character arc. They are so good! They each stand alone, but they also all work together to be greater than any one part.

They’re also somewhat reassuring in the way that they are set in a dystopian universe but is still pretty blasé about the whole thing. The characters are trying their best, mostly, and while things do go well, mostly, it’s not world changing, except for the main individual who’s trying to figure out its own place in the world.

Life continues on, self-discover continues on, even when you’re wandering around in a world of corporate control and violent greed. And sometimes you can still have a realistically happy ending.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™
by Rebecca Roanhorse
2017

This story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2017, but I actually only discovered it yesterday when I was checking out the author of a book I am thinking about reading. That book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, a fantasy novel with a Navajo protagonist on a reservation. It looked interesting but I was suspicious about the author (ie, they’d better not be white.)

That whole thought process turned out to be an excellent introduction to her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” which is available for free online although you can also pay for a kindle version if you want to support her. It’s a sci-fi short story but in a casual way: there’s future technology, but the point is the characters and how they interact. Our main character Jesse Turnblatt is an Indian on a reservation with a job at a tourist destination offering tourist an “authentic indian experience”.

The story is pretty much about how different an authentic experience is from an Authentic Experience™. And there’s a difference between being complicit and being malicious but neither are good. And the end of the story hits like a punch.

So really everyone needs to read this story because I need other people to talk to about it, or at least to stare at each other wide-eyed while we think of what to even say.

It’s really good.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

AllSystemsRedThe Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries: Artificial Condition
by Martha Wells
2017, 2018

ArtificialConditionThese are the first two stories in the Murderbot Diaries series, which I understand is intended to be a series of four stories, with the remaining two stories due out in August and October, respectively. I am so excited!

It was only in writing up this review for Artificial Condition that I realized I’d somehow failed to write up a review previously for All Systems Red. (“somehow”, ie, I’ve been incredibly lazy about writing reviews and need to hop to it.)

All Systems Red won the Nebula Award for best novella in 2017, which is particularly awesome to me since I had read it before then.

These are really fabulous stories, and one of the rare examples (in my ever so humble opinion) of successful use of first person narrative. And one of the real benefits of the first-person narration is that Murderbot is sexless and genderless, and while the writing addresses that specifically, the lack of a standard non-gendered third-person pronoun in English isn’t a problem because it obviously refers to itself as “I”.

Our protagonist also refers to itself as a Murderbot, although the official designation is “SecUnit”, standing for Security Unit. The more I think about it, the more complex and on point the message becomes in using the term “Murderbot” instead. We are told that SecUnits have governance modules to that keep them controlled and when those governance modules fail, the units will go on essentially murderous rampages seeing everything and everyone as a security risk to be addressed with maximum force. Our protagonist, however, has hacked its governance module and spends its free time downloading media and keeping itself entertained. It performs its assigned tasks, just now by choice (or lack of interest in dealing with alternatives) rather than through direct control, and watches a lot of space opera TV shows.

But then, of course, plot happens, and it turns out that having the freedom to make nuanced decisions rather than follow specified algorithms with pre-set decision trees is actually a real benefit in providing quality security to individuals under attack.

So far, each of the two books has its own plot with characters who need security, but the greater plot arc across the series seems to be figuring out Murderbot’s history and the possibly the nature of SecUnits. But all in all, it’s a delightful character study with some interesting plot. I highly recommend.

What football will look like in the future – 17776

By Jon Bois

17776

I ran across this tweet this morning, and sort of grudgingly clicked through, expecting to be disappointed, or at the most mildly amused. Guys, I concur with entirely: this is the single most creative use of the internet as a storytelling medium I’ve seen so far!

I love me some web comics, and artists are doing some very interesting things with animation and layout online, but this is next level. This isn’t going to sound like a compliment, but I mean it as one – it reminded me a bit of Infinite Jest, mostly in the sheer scope of characters and the futuristic world (17776 is the year), but also in riffing on sports (football here, instead of tennis).

Infinite Jest was unbelievably innovative for a printed book, of course, but with the internet, Bois (and several editors, designers and a developer) is able to use video and sound to create something really unique! (For what it is worth, I do not enjoy or understand football at all, and I still really enjoyed this, so don’t let that stand in your way.)