Humans Wanted, ed. by Vivian Caethe

humanswantedHumans Wanted
edited by Vivian Caethe
authors: Jody Lynn Nye, A. Merc Rustard, Alex Acks, Marie DesJardin, Eneasz Brodski, J.A. Campbell, Sydney Seay, Richard A. Becker, Gwendolynn Thomas, Mariah Southworth, Alex Pearl, & Amelia Kibbie
2017

I was very excited to discover this book existed and bought it for my kindle as soon as I realized it was a thing. Sadly, I think I went in to it with my expectations a bit too high. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that these stories read like classic silver age scifi stories. I can certainly enjoy classic science fiction, but the premise of the book is that it was inspired by a tumblr post that I’d actually run across before this book was ever published.

And that tumblr post is hilarious. It’s also just one part of a whole tumblr conversation / meme that is also hilarious and joyful, asking the questions: what if humans are the weird ones? Like just not the galactic norm at all in really weird ways? what if we’re space orcs? What if we’re the hold-my-beer species? What if our weirdness is that we form bonds with everything (family, friends, aliens, space ships, weapons, etc.)?

There’s just a spirit of joyful insanity in the online discussion that didn’t come through in the stories in this book which tend more towards the nostalgic melancholy. These stories are definitely doing interesting things and well-worth the read, but are missing a lot of the millennial-era absurdist humor that I’d expected given the premise.

So instead of the professionally written, edited, and formatted stories in this book, I recommend reading some of the amateur-written, spontaneously collaborative, mini stories that you can find posted online, of which I have included a handful of links below:

Unnamed ficlet(s) about the human desire to bond

The Gentlemen of Fortune club stories 

Story 215: Cultural Exchange

Unnamed ficlet(s) about terraforming (but keeping the fun bits of the location)

Thee absurd scenarios

The Story of Drake McDougal

Altruism Defines Us

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

wakeWWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer
2009

This was a really interesting book that gave me lots of thoughts. I was impressed with how well thought out the scenario was as the author presents the hows and whys of this artificial intelligence coming into being and develops from there. That was really cool.

There was also a diverse and interesting cast of characters in this interesting scenario.

All the positive features of this book just made it all the more disappointing that the writing felt really flat. I should have liked this book a lot more than I did.

I was half-way to blaming it on being a YA novel and me aging out of the genre… but it’s not that kind of problem. There are plenty of YA books that manage to be extremely lively and engaging and, frankly, there are also plenty of adult books that suffer from the same flat sort of presentation as this one.  There was just something about the writing that kept me from getting into it. This is particularly disappointing because this is the first book in a series of three: WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder.

The scenario is interesting enough that I wish I liked the book and I might still get myself to read WWW: Watch and WWW: Wonder just to see what else the author thinks would or could happen with an AI in existence. I am startled to find myself in the extremely rare situation of wishing that those thoughts were written as a nonfiction essay rather embedded in a story.

I don’t think the writing is necessarily bad, it just really doesn’t reach me. Hopefully there are other readers out there who appreciate this book and series more.

The Fifth Wave

A podcast that I was listening to recently (Extra Hot Great, which I mentioned in my post) was dividing post-apocalyptic/end-of-world stories into two categories: those that focus on what it’s like as the world is falling apart and those that focus on how people live after things have fallen apart. I had never quite thought of it this way before, but it is a great way to describe the differences and it helped me figure out why I love some end-of-the-world novels and find others way too stressful. Apparently, I like reading about post-disaster life and how people keep going–Station Eleven and The Hunger Games are examples, where most of the story is about people living in the “new normal” of a world after life as we know it has ended. I guess these books feel far enough removed from my own life that I can maintain some emotional distance? But I am an anxious enough person that I find stories that show the process of civilization breaking down to be almost unbearable–when the author’s goal is to show you how close we are to this new post-apocalyptic word, that’s too close for me! I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but there was one section of it that so powerfully described a world in which the Internet had gone down and international borders were closed . . . I don’t even like to think about it too much.

All of this to say that The Fifth Wave is one of those as-the-world-is-falling apart books that I found really anxiety-inducing, but may be right up your alley! This is the first in a YA trilogy in which aliens have come to earth and are in the process of exterminating humans/cleaning up the planet. The story follows a couple of different teenagers who are trying to survive on their own in a world where virtually all other humans are dead. There’s a teeny bit of teen romance that I found somewhat unrealistic (I think all these kids would have too much PTSD to do much other than huddle in a ball on the floor, but whatever) but most of the book is about them fighting, running, and trying to figure out the right next step in a world where everything seems doomed. The main story is set a few weeks/months after the aliens have arrived, but there are lots of flashbacks to them arriving and starting the whole “no humans” process, so you really see the whole process play out. It’s a plot-intense book–the action moves fast and I was frantically turning pages to find out what happens. And while this is definitely not my preferred type of end-of-the-world story, it was compelling enough that requested the next book in series from the library.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Immediate post-apocalyptic adventure

You might also like:
 Any of the books I mentioned above, or the movie Children of Men, if you feel the need for a little cry about the state of the world. But we’ve all seen enough depressing things–go read something funny! Some of my laugh-out-loud books include Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella, and I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

61ku6qro0cl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2016

Bujold is one of the few authors who I absolutely trust. I enjoy every single thing she has ever written. Some more than others, of course, but everything is good. One of the amazing things about her is that she clearly refuses to let herself or her writing stagnate. She’s constantly exploring new styles and genres.

This is particularly obvious in her Vorkosigan series, which is currently at sixteen books (of which this is the most recent) plus a number of short stories and novellas. They’re all in the same science fiction universe and to a large extent about the same characters and yet they are often written as wildly different genres: light science fiction, hard core science fiction, murder mystery, psychological exploration, comedy of manners…. Bujold has tried it all and succeeded at it all.

Most of the books follow Miles Naismith Vorkosigan in his various adventures around the universe, getting himself into and then out of a variety of troubles. The first two books that I read, however, are about his mother, Cordelia Naismith, before and immediately after having Miles. This book returns to Cordelia, giving an interesting perspective on what has gone on before that Miles just never noticed, but focusing on where she is going now.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Memory, the eleventh book in the series, in which Miles, age 30, must confront a drastic change in his life and decide how to deal with it (while investigating shenanigans in the capital city!). Except that this time, it’s Cordelia at 76 who is looking at changing her life while in the center of small town life. Admiral Jole, who has previously been an extremely minor character, is also brought into focus as he is confronted with a crossroads of his own as he is swept up in the changes she is making.

One of the really amazing things about this book is that it reads more as character-driven non-genre literature than science fiction. While it’s set in this science fiction universe, it’s also set in what is essentially a backwater boomtown. There are a large number of moderately eccentric but utterly relatable characters. Our two main characters are both mature adults with successful careers. This isn’t high adventure, it’s living your life and making choices and dealing with other people.

It’s beautiful and I loved it.

Fanfiction: Star Wars edition

It has been a while since I’ve posted, mostly because I’ve either been reading books already recommended on this site (wow, was Bone Gap awesome!) or mainlining a whole bunch of fanfiction. Thus, it’s time for another fanfiction post, this time all in the Star Wars fandom.

One of the things I really enjoy about fanfiction is that there are a lot of common plot ideas that different authors will try their hand at writing. So you wind up with these sets of stories that are variations on a theme.

One recent theme that came out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is to look at how Finn’s escape from the First Order effected those Stormtroopers left behind. These are all amazing and in many ways deal with variations on stories themselves, since the Stormtroopers hear about Finn through rumor and word-of-mouth.

Cautionary tale by Aviss:
summary:
After the Starkiller, Finn becomes a cautionary tale among the troopers.
This doesn’t always work in the First Order’s favour.

Tomorrow (there’ll be more of us) by dimircharmer:
summary:
“FN-2187 was real, right?” She sounds very young again. “Please tell me he was real.”
“I’m real,” said Finn, who was on his first patrol since his back healed. “And my name’s Finn now.”
Her eyes widened. “You have a name?
*
Or: The resistance is starting to get stormtrooper defectors. Finn helps them out.

The Story of Finn by LullabyKnell
summary:
The story they hear is that of FN-2187.
He’s a defector – a traitor to the First Order. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last, and the First Order expects to retrieve him and end him quickly.
But that’s not what happens.
The only thing Stormtroopers own are stories.

have you heard by peradi
summary:
“I heard FN-2187 was a Stormtrooper.”
Finn Sparks a revolution

 

Explorations of how Stormtroopers react to the events of the movie is both awesome and very closely tied to canon. There’s no reason to believe that those stories couldn’t happen. And I really want have you heard to be the plot for the next movie because it is just that perfect.

In contrast, sometimes the themes that gain multiple writers trying it out are a lot more random: such as the idea that maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi could travel back in time and ensure the tragic events of the past-now-future don’t happen. It’s such a wonderful idea that really speaks to the foundation of fanfiction: let us fix this thing so the world is a better place.

Negotiator by Esama
summary: Obi-Wan dies, wakes up and decides to live a whole different life

Waking Dream by flamethrower
summary: A simple injury during what should have been a routine mission brings shocking changes to the lives of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and may alter the future of the Jedi Order.
note: this is awesome, but also nearly 50K words long and the first in a series that runs 550K words long. Still worth reading!

this is unexpected by marbleglove
summary: a self-indulgent response to the many, wonderful time-travel Star Wars stories that send a more experienced and more knowledgeable Obi-Wan Kenobi back in time to change the many tragedies to come
note: this is quite short (little more than 1K words) and more playful than plot-ful.

As much as I love the variations on a theme that sometimes happen (and I really, really do love them!), I am also incredibly impressed with the authors who find a perspective or concept I haven’t seen before. Thus I am incredibly impressed with Fialleril who wrote a series of gorgeous short fic delving into the slave culture of Tatooine, into which Anakin was born and near which Luke was raised.

The Tatooine Cycle by Fialleril

Chosen: When Shmi Skywalker was thirty seven years old, she went out into the desert.
Seductio: He learns that he must be free of attachment.
Patriarchy: Fathers always desire the destruction of their children
Children of the Desert: They were the children of the desert, born for squalor and mystery
Amakurra: Tatooine wasn’t home for her in the way it was for Luke. But for Leia, who would never go home again, Tatooine – at least, this part of Tatooine – was strangely comforting.

The Man in the High Castle Book vs. Movie Showdown

It often feels like people set up book readers and movie watchers as adversaries, especially when it comes to adaptations of written works to movies (or TV). “Are you mad that they’re turning this into a movie?”  “How bad will the movie be?” “If you didn’t read the book, you’re not really a fan! You can possibly appreciate the story!” And as a self-proclaimed reader who loves books, people seem to think that my loyalty will lie with books and I will be offended by any adaptation. But I actually love watching movies or TV versions of books and short stories! I find it fascinating to see how something from one medium is changed to another. What characters have to be cut or combined to make something work on screen? How does a plot need to be condensed or modified to work visually? Rather than take the changes personally, I find the adaptation process to be like watching someone work out a logic problem and I like seeing the solutions people come up with. For example, when I heard they were making a movie of the Cheryl Strayed book Wild, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to turn that very introspective story into a movie. But the movie did a fabulous job of weaving in flashbacks while using silence to communicate Strayed’s loneliness and solitude on her hike. After I saw the movie Brokeback Mountain I went and read the source material–in that case, the movie was based on a short story, so the screenwriter had to create new material to fill out the story. If I had read the story first, I would not have believed it could be successfully expanded to a two-hour movie, but that movie is beautiful and, I think, very true to the original story. Adaptations don’t always work, of course–Little Women  is one of my very favorite books of all time, and pretty much every movie version has serious problems with casting (Winona Ryder as Jo, really?) and issues with the (admittedly) serial plot. But I also once saw a stage production of Little Women that was a failure in almost every way, EXCEPT they totally fixed Professor Bhaer by making him the same age as Jo and writing him as an absent-minded young man. He instantly went from creepy to cute. My point here is, I like comparing different media versions of the same material and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t always feel like I have to rule that one is better than another.

Having said all that, let’s talk about The Man in the High Castle. In late 2015 Amazon released a ten-episode season of an original drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel. I had never read the book, so I went into the show knowing only that it was an alternate history about a world where the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. was now divided into a West Coast occupied by the Japanese, an East Coast occupied by the Nazis, and an independent, lawless Rocky Mountain region. It’s now the early 1960s and the story follows, among other characters, members of a resistance group that are working to smuggle newsreels that seem to show the Axis losing the war to a mystery “man in the high castle” who provides them anti-Axis intel in return. The show definitely has some issues. The most primary characters–young people caught up in both the resistance and a love triangle–are the dullest on the show. Things move slowly at times, and it is dark. Really dark. Like, there were several times when I thought, “Well, surely they won’t go that far.” But, they’re Nazis! Of course they will go that far! But I really enjoyed the show overall. The world building is excellent–the scenes in San Francisco show all sorts of subtle ways that Japanese culture has been woven into the American city–and Rufus Sewell is chilling as a New York-based Nazi leader. And the newsreels that seem to show the U.S. winning the war raise all sorts of interesting questions that introduce a sci-fi element to the story (Are these fake newsreels? Are they showing our world? Is some sort of time travel happening?). By episode 10, the plot was moving along at a good pace and it ended on a cliffhanger than makes me very eager to check out (the yet-to-be-announced) Season 2.

As I was watching I heard, either online or on podcasts, that the plot of the show branched off from the book very quickly, and that in the book the newsreels were actually books themselves. This kind of change–changing a book to a film so it plays better in a visual medium–is exactly the sort of thing that fascinates me, so I decided to read The Man in the High Castle and see how the book compares. WELL. Look, I know that Philip K. Dick is a highly-regarded giant of science fiction, and I’m sure there are people out there railing about how the TV show completely ruined the book. But as far as I am concerned? DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

First of all, the plots of the two versions are wildly different, and the characters just barely even line up. The Rufus Sewell character (probably the most compelling on the show) isn’t in the book at all, and most of the other characters bear little resemblance to their TV versions. The plot does involve a mysterious book and a resistance movement, but that’s about it–it feels as if the TV writers took the basic premise of an occupied U.S. and the character names, and then went off and did their own thing. And for the most part, that new thing is more complex, with more moving parts and more people, than the book. The TV show did drop a few things that could have been interesting–in the book the Nazis are in the process of colonizing Mars–but that were presumably too complicated for TV. But overall I found the multiple plot threads of the TV show more twisty and fun. However, none of that is why I am telling you not to read this book. My issue is that the book was horribly, terribly, sexist and racist. Every female character is both stupid and mean, and Dick makes a disturbing number of “dumb, like all women” comments. And there are plenty of cases where the book will use a racial slur, and it’s obviously because that is what a particular Nazi character would say or how a white man living under Japanese occupation would feel. But there were also lots of times where it seemed pretty clear that Dick was using a slur because he himself did not realize it was a slur. It all made me feel icky and I almost gave up on the book entirely because it was so gross.

So, although I generally don’t feel the need to decide whether the book or the movie (or TV show) wins, or to tell people that one version is definitive, in this case I am clear: the TV show is better. The move down the scale of racism and sexism would be all that I needed to make that call, but I actually also thought that the TV show’s expansion of the plot and characters and the visual world building were significantly more interesting than in the book. So, as long as you have a high tolerance for darkness, I would say watch the show, and don’t feel a single bit of guilt about ignoring the book altogether.

 

 

The Book of Strange New Things

By Michel Faber

The_Book_of_StrangeWhew, this book. I’ve been reading The Book of Strange New Things off and on now for the past two months. The very basic, ridiculous-sounding premise is that a minister is sent to a newly established human colony on Mars in order to bring Christianity to the native martians. I had thought that this interesting combination of science fiction and religion might be a good Christmas present for my dad, who is interested in both, but I also thought that I better read it myself first since I’ve had bad luck in the past giving unread books to people.

I went back and forth several times on whether to save this as a gift. One the one hand, it really is an interesting look at the role religion plays in people and their relationships and how that translates to a literally alien setting. (For instance, how do you explain both The Good Shepherd and The Lamb of God to beings that have no concept of sheep, or even any grazing animal?) On the other hand:

  • Women in general don’t come off great, though that is something that almost every reader of science fiction has to build a tolerance for. (By the end, though, the men weren’t coming off all that great, either, and I was struggling to find a sympathetic character at all.)
  • There were multiple descriptions of non-Christians and people of color that made me uncomfortable, while not being overtly racist.
  • In the end, there were just way too many random and gratuitous mentions of male genitalia than I felt comfortable giving to my dad. (Clearly, he is an adult and would be fine reading it, but maybe just not coming from me.)

After trying to weigh the balance between a really thoughtful overarching premise and problematic details, I finally just decided that any book that takes me two months (with frequent breaks) to get through is not a strong recommendation.

—Anna