How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Starlings, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 1, 2016

Summary: Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s working with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police to get to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than either of them originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Review: It’s an old idea: What if the Allies didn’t win World War II? But rather than have yet another story about how America gets taken over by Nazis and the valiant few resist, Tieryas takes a different approach and instead has America run by the Japanese instead. Geographically, this makes perfect sense. Politically, it would be easier for the Nazi government to leave North America (I assume Canada’s probably involved in this too, though to be honest, I can’t remember if it was mentioned in the story) to the Japanese when they themselves have Europe to contend with. Thus, the United States of Japan were born.

I expected to really enjoy this book. I like things involving Japanese culture, and even though I’ve been burned so many times in the past by inaccurate representation, I keep hoping and going back to Japanese-inspired fiction to see if this time, it gets better. And to be fair, Tieryas didn’t do a bad job in this regard. It helps that most of the Japanese aspects involved fervent nationalism, the sort that could come out of any imperial regime, only with a particular Japanese flavour to it. Portrayal of life in Japan or typical Japanese culture was absent, largely due to the fact that this book did not actually take place in Japan. It took place in the United States, heavily influenced by Japan but not Japan itself. It was actually a rather clever way of getting around most of the issues I typically have with fiction involving Japan, and for that, I have to give Tieryas credit.

But I didn’t end up enjoying the book as much as I expected, and partly due to those expectations, United States of Japan left me feeling more disappointed than anything.  The story is mostly a mystery surrounding the idea that society is threatened by a video game that presents the question: what if the Allies had won World War II? Rather, the Japanese regime is threatened by the idea that anti-Japanese and pro-American sentiments might by stirred up by such an popular underground video game, and they want it hunted down and wiped out, and Captain Ishimura is apparently the man for the job. He tracks and censors video games for a living, so who better to judge what should be censored in this forbidden game? Together with a ruthless secret agent, he works to uncover the dark truth behind the video game and its disturbing origins.

So what was it that I didn’t like about this book? So far everything I’ve mentioned sounds positive, even interesting. Partly, it was the characters themselves. While they felt distinct, distinguishable from each other in many ways, they also felt rather flat and largely lifeless, as though they were playing roles rather than being themselves through the whole story. I felt no connection to either of them, no particular interest in what they were doing or thinking. Not being able to connect enough to characters to find interest in their actions, which drive the entire story, can really spoil a book for readers.

Now, I’m aware that this was a personal experience and that many people probably won’t have the same reaction when reading United States of Japan. It might have been a disconnect between myself and the writing style, which I found a bit lifeless, or it might have been that the characters themselves just didn’t hold any particular appeal to me and wouldn’t have done so even if they were written by somebody else whose writing I typically enjoy. That happens sometimes, and it’s nobody’s fault so much as it’s just an accident of circumstance. I’m not blaming Tieryas for writing dull characters or for not having the writing chops to make his story interesting. On the whole, the concept behind the novel was a fascinating one, and one that was definitely worth exploring. It just didn’t connect with me.

I did, admittedly, find the level of technology in the book more than a little unbelievable. I know that was part of the point, to play on some stereotypical images of superior Japanese technology and turn them into an in-universe reality, but there’s only so far I can suspend my disbelief. I could probably accept advanced video game technology that rivals that of today’s tech, even though this novel takes place in the 1980s. It takes a bit of mind-twisting, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The giant mechs that are used for military purposes, though? They’re visually impressive, and they’re a classic of Japanese sci-fi, but they’re utterly unrealistic, and their presence in the story was actually a low point rather than a high point with lots of action.

Combine that with a lack of interest in the characters (leading to a lack of interest in plot progression, and in the end, no matter how good Tieryas’s ideas or writing were, I just didn’t feel engaged, or compelled to continue with any other books in the series. Shame, because Tieryas clearly has some creativity at play here, and the ability to think beyond the typical when it comes to thought experiments, but overall, I think I can safely say that this just wasn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

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Translator’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

Summary: Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

Review: I want to start this review by saying that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to get my hands on sci-fi like this. More and more I become aware that my own view of the world is a very limited one, narrow and specific, and the chance to broaden my horizons and be able to read great stories by people who have experienced life entirely differently than I did is something I appreciate a lot. The more I read things like this, the more I become aware of, if nothing else, the myriad ways growing up in the culture I did has influenced me; I wouldn’t be the same person had I grown up in another country, another culture, another time. And though it’s a selfish way to begin this review, I think it bears saying. Invisible Planets takes Western readers outside a comfort zone they may not have even realized they were in, dropping them into the middle of futures imagined by people whose lives were shaped in different ways than our own.

Invisible Planets contains stories and essays from a variety of Chinese SFF writers, and all of them are good (despite one being the kind of story that I couldn’t quite wrap my head fully around, I could still at least recognise the quality of it). Though even by the end of it I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of what makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese, I can at least say that the stories in Invisible Planets had a feel to them that I very rarely encounter in Western-based sci-fi, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it and say, “This. This is what Chinese sci-fi reads like.” But even if I can’t properly identify it, I still enjoy it, enjoy the cultural and perspective shift that comes with reading something so firmly rooted in a culture I didn’t experience and absorb; Invisible Planets has a lot of that.

It’s at this point that I wish I was better equipped to dissect the stories and their origins more deeply. I feel like there’s a lot that could be said — and indeed should be said about the collection I just devoured, but I’m no authority on it, and I think half the things I might say might be influenced not only by my experience with reading the stories but also with my own cultural blindspots when trying to interpret another culture. Translator Ken Liu pointed out a few times through his notes in the book that it would be so easy to interpret some stories in certain ways that play to North American ideas of what China is, was, and might be like, but that’s not always a good idea. In one of the essays at the end of the book, author Liu Cixin comments that a North American author once tried to clarify some differences between Chinese sci-fi and the sci-fi we’re more familiar with here in Canada and America, but missed some points and fell short of the mark.

That said, though, my experience with this book, as someone who is admittedly ignorant of much of Chinese history and culture, is probably closer to what most readers will experience than those with more familiar backgrounds. Most readers of this anthology aren’t going to be able to pick out a dozen and one subtle cultural aspects that influence and make up the inspiration behind the stories told here. They’re just going to appreciate them for the stories they are. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that, so long as readers at least go in with an open mind and don’t expect to find stories exactly like the ones an American would write, nor something so outside our sphere of experience that we can’t understand it.

As with any anthology, some stories stand out to me more than others, the ones that made their mark a little deeper and that I’ll probably go back and read again in the future. Chen Qiufan’s The Year of the Rat is the story of young men attempting to combat mutant rats who have gotten out of control, and in the end is a story about genocide and uncertainty. Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence is one of the most chilling possible futures I’ve ever read about; when the State controls everything, including what you can and can’t say, where do people turn to express their humanity, and how far does either side go in pursuit of their goals? Liu Cixin’s The Circle is similar to one of the scenes from The Three-Body Problem that has always stuck in my mind, the creation of a human computer, moving from simple binary commands to more complex reactionary coding, in order to compute the digits of pi. And Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing was a true gem in this collection, in which economic castes are separated from each other by time, and one man will go to great lengths to assure his daughter a decent place in the world.

Folding Beijing was one that struck me very deeply. There are pieces, in each section of the city that Lao Dao visits, where people talk about how much money they make. Throwaway lines, worked into dialogue naturally, but they make a good point. While visiting Second Space, Lao Dao talks to someone who makes about 100,000 yuan a month. Lao Dao thinks to himself that in Third Space, where he lives, he makes a standard 10,000 yuan a month. While in First Space, a woman offers him 100,000 yuan, and comments offhand that she earns that in about a week. It reminded me so much of a previous job I had, working contract for a section of a credit card company where my clients all possessed the 2nd most prestigious card the company offered, and sometimes when things didn’t go their way, they’d complain of being treated like second-class citizens and how it was outrageous that they were being charged so much. These people, just in order to have the card, had to earn as much in a month as I would make in an entire year at that job, and I was earning almost 50% above minimum wage at the time. So Folding Beijing flashed me back to that time, talking with people who thought little about spending as much on 2 nights at a hotel as I would spend on an entire month’s rent, and it really was like we were from completely separate worlds that never would really touch. I felt that connection to Lao Dao, because in such a situation, what can you really say, when someone says that something utterly beyond you is no big deal for them?

Invisible Planets is absolutely a sci-fi anthology that I recommend, and to pretty much everyone who reads SFF. The perspective shift is refreshing, the stories top-notch, and the essays enlightening. Ken Liu has done a fantastic job in translating them for English-speaking audiences, and the whole experience has made me hungry for more. Go and pick this book up as soon as you’re able; I guarantee you won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to dictionary.com, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Regeneration, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 3, 2016

Summary: The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment. Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

Detective Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.

Review: Since first being utterly blown away by Gemsigns, I’ve been a huge fan of this series. The way it explores what it means to be human, the way people fear and hate what they don’t understand, the injustices done to people who are often just trying to live their lives peacefully but who don’t fit societal standards of normalcy… All of it strikes chords and resonates deep within me. On the surface it may seem like just a story about genetically modified humans and the future of humanity after a catastrophe, but so much of the series has its ties in what’s happening today, and what has happened in the past. The story of humanity repeats itself a dozen times over.

Saulter took us through gems gaining independence and no longer being slaves to the companies that made them. She took us through the early days of that independence, and the ups and downs of having to hold their own in a hostile culture. And now she lets us jump ahead to a time when Gabriel is an adult (or near enough to), to a time when gems are moving forward and working on projects that make the best use of their unique abilities, and to a time when certain people will go to any lengths to stop gems from holding the ground they’ve fought for inch by inch.

Business as usual, then.

Most of Regeneration focuses on the development on Thames Tidal, a gillung-developed power plant that aims to use the power generated by the natural flow of water through the Thames river, storing it in quantum batteries and releasing it as needed. It’s new tech, advanced and poorly understood by most, and so unsurprisingly there’s some opposition. The fact that gems are heading the project ruffles no few feathers, either. But as the setbacks keep mounting, it becomes clear that somebody has taken it upon themselves to sabotage not just the project but to endanger all those associated with it. The bulk of the story is something of a corporate espionage mystery, something that normally I think I’d find little interest in, but I suppose this just goes to show that most things can be made interesting with the right tweaks. Show me a story with a modern-day setting where the story involves a corporate espionage plot between Picrosoft and Gapple, and meh, I doubt I’d be too interested. Set the story in a power plant from the future and have the cast be genetically modified humans trying to adapt to a culture that still doesn’t much like them? Sold!

The Thames Tidal plot isn’t the only one, of course, because where would a story be with no subplots to keep interest going? You see more of Gabriel now, grown up and employed, keeping a rein on his telepathic abilities and trying to unravel what’s behind a smear campaign. Zavcka Klist has been released from jail and is under house arrest, but that certain won’t stop her from doing what she thinks needs to be done to protect her investments and regain some traction for her own agenda. Eve, a precocious little girl with far too much arrogance, hides much from her parents and becomes the focus for a group attempting to uncover Klist’s secret of immortality. It all comes together quite wonderfully, since everybody’s really tied up in the main plot one way or another, and every character is one I could quite happily read an entire novel starring and I doubt I’d be bored for a moment.

It’s really the characters that make it all come alive for me, as it has been in the trilogy’s previous books. I love the themes of social justice, of adaptation, of fighting to be acknowledged as worthy of respect and rights that others take for granted. I love that these themes are so relatable and applicable to current events but aren’t put across in a heavy-handed way. (As I said previously, it’s just the story of humanity repeating itself once again, not just a thinly-veiled metaphor for only what’s happening nowadays.) But as great as these themes are to discuss and explore, some explorations just fall flat on their faces if they don’t have a great cast of characters to move the plot along. The world can be on the brink of great chance, and if you’re writing about people who just sit back and let it all happen, chances are you’re not going to engage many readers. But all of the characters Saulter writes about are active, engaged, and whether or not you agree with them, you can’t deny that they’re all part of that great force for change, for good or ill, and you know that every one of them is playing or will play a part in how the future in written. Gabriel was remarkable as a child for his telepathy, something that shouldn’t be able to occur even with genetic modification, but as an adult, he’s remarkable for his tenacity and ability to spot patterns and to do what needs to be done when it needs doing.

That’s what I find so very interesting about the characters in these books. They have abilities above and beyond what most humans can do, and while these things often come with severe drawbacks, they’re practically poised to be superheroes, to turn what was done to them into something that thrives on vigilante justice, clandestine meetings and thwarting great enemies at every turn. And yet, they don’t. They strive to live, not to become superheroes. They’re remarkable for their gem-related traits, but they’re amazing for all the things they go that have nothing to do with those enhanced abilities. That they overcome a boatload of opposition, both from social views and from carving out a place in a world that wasn’t built to accommodate them, adds to their stories, but it doesn’t define them, it doesn’t reduce them to caricatures or stereotypes.

Even Zavcka Klist, someone who I alternately feel pity for and then want to strangle because she embodies so many things that I hate about ruthless abusive people and companies, someone who could do easily just remain a token villain in Regeneration, shows far more development and compassion toward the end of the book that I expected, so much growth that really only shows when something she’s passionate about might be taken away. As the antagonist, she was interesting. As the human being we’re made to confront near the end, she’s somebody that prompts reexamination, conflicted emotions. She’s still very much herself, but who we see her as has changed to a degree. I really have to give Saulter some praise for pulling that scene off in a very realistic way that still left me going, “Wait, did I read that right?” Making me reconsider what I thought I knew about what a character might do is definitely worthy of note.

As always, I feel like I could go on at length with my praise. But Regeneration — the whole series, really — is something best explored for yourself. It’s the kind of future that makes you think twice about the things you thought you knew, changes how you look at the world around you, and does so in a way that’s phenomenally entertaining and brilliant. The characters are wonderful, the story is compelling, the pacing and development smooth and fascinating; it all comes together as a rich tapestry that draws you in and doesn’t let you easily. The ®Evolution series has left its mark, and its influence will be felt for years to come.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2016

Summary: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Review: Sleeping Giants is a book that seems to be getting a load of very positive reviews, especially considering that this is apparently the author’s debut novel. It’s a shame, then, that I won’t be another voice chiming in with that positivity. This is a time when my voice is going to go a bit counter to others, because I really just didn’t enjoy Sleeping Giants that much.

I’m going to start out on a positive note and say that I can’t deny the premise of the novel is a really interesting one. The hand of what looks like a giant statue is discovered purely by accident as a young girl falls into the hole that reveals it. With that starts something that spans decades, following the discovery of the rest of the statue’s pieces, putting them together, and learning just what it’s all for in the first place. It comes across as something very much inspired by mech anime, and for those who are fans of such, then I can see that Sleeping Giants would be very appealing. And really, even for people such as myself, for whom mech-heavy anime holds very little appeal, the story and the slow reveals were decently interesting, and I was curious about how it would come together in the end. The statue appears to be older than any human civilization that could have built it, is made to be controlled by people with different physiology than humans possess, and that’s even before you bring the fun ramifications of international politics into the mix, since the statue’s pieces were scattered all across the planet, requiring often-illegal trips into foreign territory to recover them.

But premise and story alone aren’t always enough to carry a novel. As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment, and this was one of those times for me. The story is unveiled not through typical narration but through a collection of reports with a couple of journal entries thrown in along the way. The reports are mostly interviews and briefings with the team members working on the statue, and the occasional politician. So nearly every single piece of this book is told, essentially, through dialogue. Which, on one hand, may set it up to be a fantastic audiobook experience, but I don’t think it worked very well as a written one. The dialogue felt clunky at times, more like how people write rather than how people speak, and rarely did it feel like I was actually reading what people said so much as I was reading a cleaned-up version transcribed by someone who got creative with editing. There were no “um”s and “er”s, no idiosyncrasies of real speech, except when reading the interviews with a character who stutters. So even the representation of speech was inconsistent.

(The stutter issue is one that comes up a lot in books, I find, where authors attempt to convey speech disorders through text only when it’s a chronic issue, and rarely doing the same thing when non-stuttering characters fumble words. It has the unfortunate effect of presenting things as normal vs abnormal, notable only in how it divides a character with a speech disorder from other characters who don’t, and I’ve noticed such portrayals talked about as sore spots with people who have trouble communicating verbally. Something to consider, I guess.)

It was, to be fair, a bold and unconventional way to convey the story. Breaking away from standards and expectations, and I do have to give Neuvel credit for taking an unusual approach and experimenting with presentation, but it really just didn’t work for me. The style felt too weird for me to properly get at a lot of the substance.

Add to that the fact that it was a slow-moving story to begin with, with a sense of time that’s hard to pin down because it spans years and the only way you can tell is because characters literally mention that it’s been so many months since something previously mentioned (none of the reports were dated), and you’ve got a novel that I think can appeal to a particular type of person, but not every type. Even the action sequences felt ponderous and unclear, because I knew I was only reading transcriptions of dialogue spoken during events and not really seeing the events themselves. You have to infer a lot, you never really get clear images of people or places, and it feels very sterile.

And for its part, that does work in context. To expect great emotion and detail with such a format would be like expecting to know a child’s feelings on school by reading their report card. It’s just unrealistic to expect the same kind of immersion and understanding; the format really just doesn’t allow for it. The journal entries written by characters do, but those are few and far between, and mostly only show up in the first half of the book, when the plot really hasn’t picked up pace yet.

So between the slow story and my disconnect with the style, I didn’t really end up enjoying Sleeping Giants. It dealt with some interesting concepts, and there’s enough left unsaid to provide plenty of material for future novels in the series, but that wasn’t enough to get me past the problems I had. Those who have an easier time looking past stylistic issues may well get more out of the book than I did, and as I mentioned earlier, I can see it having a great appeal to those who love stories and shows about giant robots. It has a fair bit going for it in terms of creativity, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Again, we have another book that I deem worthy of having me crawl out of the woodwork for!

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Over time I’ve come to understand that one sign of a great book is its ability to make you stop reading and ponder the implications of what you just read. To speculate and theorize in a way that’s too deep to do while still continuing to read on. Planetfall quickly became that kind of book for me, one where I needed to step back and start pondering the symbolism and implications of half of what was going on. I sank into that perfect brainspace that tells me yes, this book is one that provokes some interesting thoughts, and it’s definitely a keeper.

Planetfall starts out fairly innocuously, with the interesting idea of a smallish community on a non-Earth planet. The story is told in first-person viewpoint with Renata Ghali as the narrator, an engineer who lends her skills to the colony at the base of God’s city, where Lee Suh-Mi is said to be communing with God for the purpose of advancing the colony and doing God’s work The colonists left earth years ago, under Suh-Mi’s guidance, to find God and learn about humanity’s place in the universe. The colony runs fairly smoothly, at least on the surface.

Then a young man arrives, claiming to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, and his very presence threatens to unravel everything that the colonists have built.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly standard exploration of early human colonization of another planet, told from the perspective of a private person who was there when it all began. But it quickly becomes more than that. Newman starts the reader off partway through the story, telling necessary backstory in the form of seamless and brief flashbacks, revealing details piece by piece. I know that many people aren’t that fond of flashback storytelling, and I myself am rather torn on the matter (so often it can come across like a series of memory-infodumps, which gets irritating), but I find that Newman handled it well, making them relatively brief and with actual relevance to what was occurring in the plot. Ren having brief memories prompted by objects or places is perfectly natural, it happens to all of us, and so it wasn’t at all obtrusive, nor did it take me out of the story as a whole.

I love how very broken Ren is, and how slowly it all becomes clear to the reader. Little hints get dropped so subtly that by the time the big reveal hits, you’re left remembering all those small mentions that previous cropped up, putting all the pieces together until your heart just aches for her. Or at least mine did. Quite possibly because I can relate a bit to what she was going through, or at least some of the thought process behind it. Tension ran high once Ren’s secret is out in the open, too, and the colonists decide to force issues in unhealthy ways that leave her feeling trapped and threatened, and I felt my own anxiety surge when reading that particular scene. She was an interesting character even before that, of course, but the way her mental health comes into play added to my ability to relate to her, and I think it was all handled extremely well. Mental illness is a hard card to play in fiction, but Newman did it justice, I think.

One of the things that left me with an utter “Whoa!” moment was the parallel between this story and the Garden of Eden myth. To me this whole book was a twist on a creation myth, a sci-fi origin story. When you look into the flashbacks and realize that the journey from Earth and the discovery of a new planet with God’s city all started with a woman who ate a strange plant and then began to understand things far beyond what she’d understood before, the similarities become clear. However, that isn’t to say that Earth is meant to be Eden; part of the reason the initial colonists left with Suh-Mi was because the planet was devastated by overcrowding and pollution, and where they ended up had none of that. But when you see a story about how someone is influenced by forces they can’t understand, which leads them to gaining unprecedented knowledge and wisdom and leaving their home to search for God? Yeah, it’s pretty easy to draw the comparisons.

And I loved that! I love plays on myths, especially ones that draw from Judeo-Christian myths, because so many people see them as sacrosanct and unchangeable and yet they’re so familiar to Western culture that they’re often instantly recognizable when somebody does take that chance and play around with them. Newman tackled this all brilliantly, adding a wonderful new touch to an old story.

Long story short, Planetfall is definitely worthy of the high praise it has been receiving. It’s a compelling story of what people will do to maintain order, to keep up the status quo. It tackles mental illness, creation myths, and the questions of how much “for your own good” is actually still good. It’s more than just an early colonization story; it’s an exploration of humanity and its relation to the divine, to science, and to itself. It tells you that sometimes there are no explanations even when there are answers, and that there are times to leave well enough alone and time to delve deeper to gain a better understanding. Beautiful prose joins with fascinating subject matter, resulting in a profound book that has made its mark. Highly recommended for fans of social sci-fi, Planetfall does not disappoint.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)