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.)

The Flowers of Vashnoi by Bujold

flowersofvashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2018

Yay! When I first heard that Lois McMaster Bujold had decided to retire, I was horrified, but now I’m kind of delighted because apparently she’s spending her retirement writing short stories instead of novels. And they’re coming out relatively quickly.

I’ve previously reviewed her Penric & Desdemona stories that I absolutely love and am desperately awaiting more of, but apparently she was feeling inspired recently to return to her Vorkosigan universe and wrote a short story about Ekaterin.

I am so deeply familiar with this series that I’m not actually sure how much that familiarity is necessary to understanding this story, but I believe it’s intended to be readable as a stand-alone.

“The Flowers of Vashnoi” strikes me very much as Bujold revisiting her previous short story, “The Mountains of Mourning” a generation later. Both stories deal with the fall-out of social progress and the heart-breaking necessity of hard decisions with no good solutions.

I loved the story, but I think I loved it most for being another peak into the world of these characters that I love. It was good to see what Ekaterin has been doing and how life on Barrayar continues.

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

allrightsreservedAll Rights Reserved
by Gregory Scott Katsoulis
2017

This book is terrifying. It’s good and I recommend it, but like many such YA novels, it’s set in a dystopian future and it’s a particular dystopian future that I am deeply concerned with.

For some background:

US copyright law was first established in 1790, allowing authors to register their books for a seven-year monopoly on publication, to allow the authors that long to make as much profit as they could before they had to shift their focus to a new creation.

Ever since then, the copyright protections have been creeping to allow creators longer monopolies and pushing back any content going into the public domain to help and assist other creators or just be available to the public for free.

The Copyright Term Extension Act (colloquially known as the “Mickey Mouse protection act” because Disney was so scared of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain) was made law in 1998, and that degrees that all content is automatically copyrighted (no registration or even intent required) and content remains under copyright for 70 years after the original author has died. Great grandchildren can now hold monopolies of their ancestors’ creations… no need to make new content at all.

Meanwhile, what exactly copyright covers has also been expanding: originally it literally just covered the text itself. Translations were not infringing copyright because they were literally changing the language. Characters and settings were free to use. Now sequels and spinoffs are all infringements. Organization for Transformative Works is currently battling just to allow people to freely write fanfiction for purely recreational purposes.

The “fair use” exception was added to copyright law allowing some leeway for people to use excerpts except that one of the ramifications is that it shifts the burden of proof. Historically, a copyright holder had to show that someone had been infringing on their copyright, or they couldn’t sue: innocent until proven guilty. Now, the copyright holder can sue based on any use at all, and the person using it has to prove that their use fits the exception: guilty until proven innocent.

I know less about Patent and Trademark law (the other two main branches of law concerning intellectual property) than I do about Copyright law, but I expect they’ve gone through similar slow transformations.

And I’ve certainly become increasingly aware of how often my purchases aren’t actual purchases, but are legally “lease agreements”. You don’t buy Kindle books or iTunes songs or Microsoft software anymore: you lease the use of them, with restrictions in place. There are definitely rights reserved on those things.

Back to the book:

So in this novel, we’re presented by an America™ that has continued to change intellectual property laws to such a point that words and phrases and gestures are each individually copyrighted and royalties are due for any use of them.

Everyone is tracked and their words and actions monitored to ensure they are paid for. Going into debt means being taken away to work short lives as field labor or indentured indefinitely to anyone interested in buying that debt. Everyone makes some money by being sponsored by various companies to advertise for them. (Rich and/or pretty people get better sponsors.)

Our main character Speth Jime (her first name is a discount name that doesn’t cost too much to say, her last name was probably originally Jimenez except it was too expensive and shortened generations back) turns 15 at the beginning of the book, the last day on which she can speak freely. After that, when a friend commits suicide, she can’t even afford to scream. Rather than make her first speech as an adult (full of product advertisements) she goes completely silent.

The narration shows Speth’s thoughts, but she has no way to communicate with those around her, even as they talk to and at her.

Plot-wise, it feels a bit like The Hunger Games, really, as people try to either ally with her or take her down and giver her suggestions that she has to figure out whether or not to follow. There’s a happy ending (with more than enough loose ends to warrant a sequel), but it’s a nerve-wracking and heart-breaking trip. The cast of characters are interesting and well-developed and diverse in a variety of ways, and Speth is amazingly relatable in the way she’s just become this icon of rebellion that she never intended as anything other than a reaction to personal trauma. The book wouldn’t have held together without the characters being so relatable, but where the book truly shines is the world building. The dystopian world is terrifying as it shows how difficult systematic oppression is to fight, and how easily rights can be worn away and the lack of those rights then normalized.

So very good, and packs a serious punch.

It will definitely make you think the next time you mindlessly click “agree” on a terms of service contract.

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.