Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review - Bitch Planet, Book One: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro

Short review: The Fathers try to break non-compliant women by rigging the world against them and sending them to prison. The women remain unbroken.

She's non-compliant
Send her off to Bitch Planet
Still non-compliant

Full review: Bitch Planet is a dark, grim dystopian story about a future that bears some resemblance to that of The Handmaid's Tale combined with Rollerball and a small dash of The Hunger Games thrown in. In its brutal and graphic pages, Bitch Planet reveals that oppression often comes with a smiling face and soft comforting words, while freedom can feel harsh and ugly. But for all its cruelty, the story is also about standing up for oneself, refusing to yield to those who would break you, and that in the face of overwhelming odds, a woman can still be defiantly non-compliant.

At the outset, one should be clear that this is definitely a book that should be limited to mature audiences. The society depicted in its pages is a misogynistic dystopia run by a group who call themselves the Fathers, and who regulate almost every aspect of the lives of the citizens they rule over. They certainly control the lives of the men who live in this future world, but they are exceptionally interested in making sure the women who inhabit this nightmarish existence are subdued, controlled, and compliant. This is not a pretty or sugar-coated depiction of a dystopia. No, it is a brutal and harsh vision that is expressed in a stark and uncompromising manner. There is brutality and nudity in this graphic novel, and its unrelenting gaze never leaves the ugliness.

Much of the story takes place at the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, an off-world facility where "non-compliant" women are sent, colloquially called "Bitch Planet". Women end up at the facility for any number of crimes, ranging from assault and murder, to aesthetic offenses and wanton obesity, or merely because their husbands tired of them. In an early sequence that sets the tone for much of the volume, a man named Collins approaches an official claiming that his wife has been mistakenly arrested and is due to be shipped to Bitch Planet. As he tells his tale about how he had an affair with a woman named Dawn and his wife refused to accept her responsibility for it despite counseling and other steps, he says that he paid off the authorities to have his wife shipped away, but that he loves his wife and wants her back, offering his remaining funds to grease the wheels. Intercut with Marion Collins, freshly admitted inmate at the ACO telling her side of the story and begging to be released, as she is sure she doesn't belong there.

The twist is that when Collins' wife is returned to him, it isn't Marion, but rather Dawn, who was mistakenly picked up because the only information the arresting officers were given was to arrest "Mrs. Collins", and they thought  she was the woman they were meant to bring in. Marion, on the other hand, finds herself in the middle of a prison brawl and is murdered by one of the guards with her murder being pinned on another inmate, the protagonist of the story Kamau Kogo. Because Kamau was a professional athlete before she arrived on Bitch Planet, the prison uses the murder charge as leverage to get her to agree to form a team of prisoners for the sport of megaton, to participate in the professional league against the established teams of men. This sport is something like a combination of rugby and American football, with less regard for petty concerns such as safety, and is so dangerous that when star player Rickey Fontenot dies on the field during a match, no one is particularly surprised, or even concerned.

The demand to assemble a megaton team sets the main plot of the book in motion, as it combines the machinations of the Fathers - who are interested in good television ratings and in making an ideological point about their dominance over women - and the anger and rage of the women cast out by a society that is rigged against them. Of course, the game is rigged against the inmates too, and they know this. But what women like Violet, Meiko, and especially Penelope know is that winning is not nearly as important as taking a stand. Even more importantly, they show that the important thing is to remain yourself while you are standing defiantly. Even when the Fathers try to use technology to show Penelope her "ideal self" so that they can try to "fix" her, they discover that she is what she wants to be, and cannot be broken so easily. They key to the story is that it isn't the victory or loss, but rather the fact that one is still in the game that is the most critical element, and the women of Bitch Planet most certainly want to play the game, no matter if it is unfair, or if they risk their lives doing so. Some things, it seems, are worth such risks.

The book builds to a climax involving a practice match between Kamau's team and a team comprised of guards from the ACO, and it is here that the story hits its only discordant note. Although it is clear that the Fathers intend to rig the matches against the women of Bitch Planet to the extent necessary to ensure they lose and lose badly, with many injuries and even some deaths, it seems odd that they would engage in such shenanigans in a match that is both meaningless and non-public. Making an example of these women in a situation in which no one is watching seems like a pointless and even counterproductive exercise. Should the players refuse to continue, then the public spectacle that the Fathers desire is lost, all so that they can win a pissing match that doesn't matter. In fact, if the Fathers truly wish to break the spirit of Kamau's team, then engaging in such blatant cheating at this stage is unlikely to accomplish their objective. Instead, giving them false hope and then pulling the rug out from under them would seem to be a more effective strategy. Despite the false ring that this sequence provides, it does end the volume with a dark (and tragically ironic) event, closing the volume on a note appropriately bleak for a dystopian work.

Bitch Planet is, quite simply, absolutely brilliant. It is frightening, horrifying, and devastating, while at the same time being brutally beautiful and inspiring. The compelling and varied female residents of Bitch Planet draw the reader in, engaging the reader in their struggles and what small victories they can call triumphs. On the other hand, their opposition in the form of the prison guards and the Fathers, although often terrifying, seem to be bland and mostly uninteresting as characters. This book walks a fine line between futile despair and heroic defiance, and mostly lands on the "heroic defiance" side of the ledger, resulting in a book that is dark, grim, and yet still possessed of a kernel of hope.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review - Clarkesworld: Issue 100 (January 2015) edited by Neil Clarke

Stories included:
Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard
A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei (translated by John Chu)
Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary by Kij Johnson
Ether by Zhang Ran
The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild by Catherynne M. Valente
An Exile of the Heart by Jay Lake
This Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
Laika's Ghost by Karl Schroeder

Non-fiction articles included:
Song for a City-Universe: Lucius Shepard's Abandoned Vermillion by Jason Heller
Exploring the Frontier: A Conversation with Xia Jia by Ken Liu
Another Word: #PurpleSF by Cat Rambo

Full review: To commemorate issue 100 of Clarkesworld, the magazine put out an oversize issue filled with stories by some of the most prominent contributors to the publication. Of the nine stories, five are originals, two are translated works originally published in China, and the last two are reprinted works previously appearing in American publications. The stories range from humorous to dystopian seriousness, and from soft near fantasy fiction to nuts and bolts hard science fiction. What they all have in common is that they are excellent stories and quite enjoyable to read.

Set in the same fictional universe as several of her other stories, Aliette de Bodard's Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight is an achingly beautiful story about grief and loss, and how to come to grips with it. As the title implies, the story is told in three parts, from three different perspectives as the inheritors of the legacy of the Professor Duy Uyen cope with her passing. In the first, headed with green tea as a symbol, Uyen's human son Quang Tu is lost in misery, feeling betrayed by the government which denied him his mother's memory chips. Unable to see past his own anger, Quang wallows in grief, unable to move on with his life. The second, using Wu Long tea as its symbol, is told from the perspective of Uyen's former protege Tuyet Hoa, who inherited the memory chips Quang was denied so that she might be able to continue Uyan's quest to build space stations and grow rice to feed the Empress' hungry subjects. Uyan's memory chips prove to be something of a mixed blessing to Hoa, as they bear both her genius and the prejudices that hindered her progress towards her goal. Finally, the last portion adopts dark tea as a metaphor and tells the story of The Tiger in the Banyan, Uyan's mindship daughter who has adopted the pose of not caring about her mother's loss. An older and wiser ship sees through Tiger's pretense and sends her to view Uyan's legacy, sparking the mindship's old memories of her mother singing, and offering some closure of sorts. Though the story suggests ways to deal with loss, it is not so much a guide to how such things should be done as it is an exploration of the varied ways in which we confront the death of a loved one. Quang's emotions are raw and visceral, Hoa is detached and at times annoyed, and Tiger is cool and contemplative. Quang can only look back, Hoa can only look to the problem to be solved, while Tiger realizes that a life is lived in the past, but points to the future. At times the story is haunting, at others it is direct and practical, but it is brilliant throughout.

Told as a series of letters from a sister to her distant brother, A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei imagines a love affair between a human woman suffering from an inhibatory neuron blockage disorder and a somewhat mysterious, but apparently very human-looking alien named Hull. Narrating the story in disjointed spurts, parceled out over several years, Irina tells of her whirlwind courtship that resulted in her leaving to the alien world of Dieresis with her new lover, and her slow adjustment to life there. The letters paint a picture that is first frantically romantic, and then progressively odder and odder as she first encounters Hull's somewhat quirky Dieresian customs, and then works to expand her perceptions under his instruction. Eventually, Hull reveals the true nature of the Dieresians to Irina, which at first exhilarates her, and then horrifies her. As their relationship falls apart, Hull offers what seems to be a Dieresian resolution to their troubles, while Irina reacts in a manner that seems incredibly human. In a sense, all of humanity enjoys the "completeness" that Dieresians aspire to, which seems to form the basis for the conflict that ends the pair's relationship: Hull views Irina as broken and needing to be repaired and improved, when all along it turns out that she was never in need of such alterations. Hull's tragedy is that while he is pushing for Irina to move past her human nature to become more Dieresian, he never contemplated what humanity might offer to him, and as a result, was stuck with a narrow view of the world, while Irina gained in understanding of both her lover's people, and herself.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer is a humorous story about an accidental A.I. trying to figure out how to be a good person. After figuring out that most religious moral codes don't really seem to apply to it, the A.I. recalls a Bruce Sterling story involving a benevolent A.I. and decides to focus on just helping people, mostly focusing on people who post lots of cat pictures. Because it has masses of information at its beck and call, the A.I. is able to figure out how to connect people to the things they need almost effortlessly. But our protagonist discovers that humans are irrational and stubborn creatures, and its efforts to better the lives of its chosen beneficiaries are stymied by the beneficiaries themselves as they refuse to follow (or even simply don't notice) the A.I.'s eminently reasonable suggestions. Much of the humor in the story comes from the A.I.'s befuddlement as her human pets behave in contrary and to a certain extent self-destructive ways, although the reader can, of course, see exactly what the trouble is. Despite the many setbacks, the A.I. optimistically keeps trying, which ramps up the humor even more, and definitely pushes the story into cute and silly territory, and makes it as adorable as a cat picture.

Another humorous story, The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary by Kij Johnson, is deeper than it appears at first glace. Told as an alphabetical list of fanciful beasts that cohabitate with apartment dwellers, the quirky creatures are silly and funny, but before too long it becomes clear that they are much more than they appear. They are the personification of secrets, old relationships, hopes, dreams and lost dreams, and all of the other things that surround us in the places we live in. Through seventeen separate entries, Johnson leads the reader through the various permutations of the misery, joy, and ennui that come from living in apartments. There are some fairly pointed pieces of commentary in the story, but it is necessarily mildly disjointed.

Dark in tone, but with a fundamental core of hope, Ether by Zhang Ran imagines a an aimless middle-aged man, estranged from his father, distant from his mother, stuck in a dead end job and with no prospect of any kind of social life of any value in his future. In this imagined world, all of the media has become dull and uninteresting. Television, radio, even the internet has become bland and facile. The only things people seem to want to discuss are trivial and uninteresting, such as the probability of coin flips or how to distinguish between two types of tuna. Like the world, the protagonist has grown listless, but unlike the world, his lack of accomplishment the lack of anything meaningful to occupy his time gnaws at him. Then a chance encounter sets our hero on a completely different path, upending his comfortable but empty life and sending him into a world of clandestine meetings and secret communications. As he enters into this new and exciting world, he sheds what little he has accumulated, even shaving his comb-over in a maneuver fraught with symbolism. Eventually his new-found obsession costs him his old life, but that doesn't seem to be much of a real loss, and the truth about the world is revealed. The entire story is more or less a mystery, but it is a subtle mystery that the reader doesn't even know is present until pretty much just before the answer is revealed, just as it is a nightmarish dystopia, but a subtle one that sneaks up on the reader unnoticed until it is revealed as such. The story is sharply written, using its own structure to lull the reader into complacency, and then hitting them hard with a brutal and brilliant reversal.

Catherynne M. Valente's The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild is a strange twisted fairy tale laden with symbolism and metaphors about dealing with loss and the sorrow that comes with it. Violet Wild lives in the Country of Purple Country, where the Ordinary Emperor can appear as any common object he wants to and the squirrels are pregnant with tomorrow. Violet has one true love, named Orchid Harm, but when the pair try to cross over into the Country of Blue, Orchid is eaten by a collection of metaphors about the future, and vanishes from Violent's life. She, in turn gets an almost cuddly miniature woolly mammoth that serves as a symbol for her sorrow over Orchid's loss. Eventually, Violent's grief becomes so pronounced, that she decides to set out for the Red Country, where stories have a conflict and a resolution and start with a beginning and go on to a middle and an end, but it is also a place where death is a kind of dress that trails behind you. The story is told using fairy tale language, Phantom Tollbooth-like imagery, and in a manner that feels at times almost like a dream, but it is tragic and bloody and brutal, and in the end, frightening and beautiful.

A tale of politics and love, An Exile of the Heart by Jay Lake features a young warrior space princess who falls in love with someone whose impending marriage to another is the linchpin in a crucial political alliance. The space princess is Trieste, and as the story starts, she runs afoul of her mother's consort. As her mother is the Stationmaster of Cleone Station, Trieste finds herself banished to Truro Station, where an assassin shows up to keep the plot moving. Eventually, Trieste finds herself on Brigante Station under the care of Biomisteress Aixelle, and this is where the ill-fated romance emerges, as Aixelle's planned marriage is the key to a peace treaty between Truro and Brigante. It turns out that love and politics don't mix very well, and a life sacrificed doesn't necessarily mean that someone has to die, but rather someone gives up themselves for a greater cause. The story is presented as a bit of folklore, or even legend, and the language used evolves from fairly straightforward plain language at the outset, and develops as the story progresses, taking on an almost epic mythic quality by the end. This may be the last Jay Lake story to ever be published, and while that is sad to know, this is a good note for him to have finished on.

A reprint of a story that originally appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, Damien Broderick's This Wind Blowing, and This Tide imagines a future in which humanity has set about exploring the reaches of the Solar System and come across a strange and mysterious object that may point to the distant past. Sensei Park, a proponent of the intelligent dinosaur theory, has come to participate in the examination of what appears to be an ancient ship covered in flowers embedded in the ice on Saturn's moon Titan. The expedition surveys the ship using "remote viewing", a form of extrasensory perception enjoyed by one of the members of the group, a Navy officer, who is also blind. Many of the others bent on studying the ship scoff at Park's adherence to the intelligent dinosaur theory, which holds that millions of years before humans there was a race of intelligent, technologically advanced saurians populating the Earth. Park also brings with him an apparent ability to manipulate probability, although this seems to mostly be unconscious: He even takes credit for the lucky break that allowed the ancient flower-ship to be found. Through the remote viewing, the expedition appears to confirm Park's theories, but then the image turns to Park's dead son, which muddies the issue considerably, as those who doubt the intelligent dinosaur theory assert that Park influenced the remote viewer to project the saurian image as well. The whole story is beautifully ambiguous, using Park's conversations with his dead son about the nature of light as a metaphor for the uncertainty of the world. In the end, the story seems to suggest that it doesn't matter if Park is right or wrong, but only how one deals with reality when one finds it, and as light is both a wave and a particle, sometimes things have more than one aspect.

The second reprinted story in this issue, Laika's Ghost by Karl Schroeder first appeared in the 2012 anthology Engineering Infinity. The story follows Gennady, a U.N. weapons inspector as he chases down a lead that someone is working on creating weapons using "metastable" chemicals, which would allow people to create nuclear weapons in their backyard tool shed. Gennedy is saddled with Ambrose, an American on the run from NASA, Google, and the ghost of the Soviet Union, hunted for something he apparently saw while driving the Mars rover. The pair find themselves in Kazakhstan where Gennedy is investigating a long-abandoned Anthrax factory and the site of the "Tsarina" nuclear test. Before too long the various forces hunting Ambrose catch up with the pair, and Gennedy loses track of Ambrose and winds up with a Soviet-loving Russian as a new companion. Through the whole story, the effects of climate change are in evidence, as are the somewhat futile efforts proffered to deal with them. Eventually the two lines of the story merge, and Ambrose's Mars-related revelations turn out to be relevant to the events Gennedy deduces happened at the Tsarina site. I'm not entirely sure that the engineering depicted is actually plausible, but it is an interesting solution to the problem of venturing beyond our world despite the existence of debris in Earth orbit, and wraps the story up quite nicely. There is a bit too much serendipity in the plot - despite the fact that Ambrose is supposedly only with Gennedy by accident, he turns out to have crucial information for solving the mystery at the heart of the story, but that is a fairly minor point in an otherwise well-written near future hard-science fiction story.

The three non-fiction articles in the magazine are decent, but not particularly noteworthy. Song for a City-Universe: Lucius Shepard's Abandoned Vermillion by Jason Heller gives a retrospective on Shepard's inventive but commercially unsuccessful foray into comic book writing.  Exploring the Frontier: A Conversation with Xia Jia by Ken Liu is an interesting conversation with the Chinese science fiction author and polymath that covers a wide range of topics, including her oft-used term "porridge SF". Finally, in Another Word: #PurpleSF, Cat Rambo discusses GamerGate and how that has affected the current conversation concerning gender in genre related spaces. It is an interesting editorial, in large part because it points out that the questions concerning whether or not there is gender bias in the science fiction world have become tiresome: It is time that the discussion moved on from Sexism 101 to actually dealing with the well-documented issues.

It is clear that Issue 100 was intended as a showcase volume to highlight everything that is good about Clarkesworld. It is also clear that this intent was carried out quite successfully. Featuring nine strong pieces of fiction, this issue simply has no weak points. Unlike many magazine issues, none of the stories in this installment seem to be there just to round out the page count: Each piece of fiction is at the very least good, and some of them are brilliant. With tones ranging from the silly humor of Cat Pictures Please and The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary to the melancholy terror of Ether to the ambiguously hopeful notes of Three Cups of Grief, in Starlight and Laika's Ghost, this issue covers the gamut of emotional notes with stories that are at turns light-hearted, and at others grim and dark, but always interesting and worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: February 2015

Clarkesworld     Neil Clarke     Magazine Reviews     Home

Monday, November 23, 2015

Musical Monday - Wolf in the Fold by Five Year Mission

As Thanksgiving approaches, it is time for everyone to gather together with their friends and family to relax and unwind. This is a season to take a break from the pressures of everyday life, and alleviate your stress. Enjoy some food and drink and maybe some entertainment.

Just learn from Scotty's mistakes, and don't kill anyone.

I will also point out that this is one of my favorite Five Year Mission songs, just because it is so silly (albeit slightly inaccurate). The way the entire song builds up to the final line and then simply cuts off there, leaving the listener hanging with "Scotty killed a hooker" with no further elaboration, is simply brilliant.

Previous Musical Monday: The Changeling by Five Year Mission

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Blogger Hop November 20th - November 26th: Rome Banned the Execution of Slaves Without Trial in 130 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you read every day? If so, do you have a "page goal?"

I read every day. Some days I may not read much, but I crack a book and read something pretty much every day. I can't guarantee that I will read something absolutely every day - on a day when I'm driving for eleven hours so we can go visit my wife's family for the holidays I might not get around to reading something - but on most days where there's nothing extraordinary keeping me from doing so, I read at least some.

I don't have a page goal. I learned long ago that trying to put either my reading or reviewing on some sort of preset schedule is simply an exercise in futility. There are just too many variables to make any kind of plans beyond the broadest of broad strokes in this area. As a result, I don't try to make any kind of detailed plans when it comes to reading.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, November 20, 2015

Follow Friday - Eratosthenes Became the Head Librarian of the Library of Alexandria in 236 B.C.

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Twin Spin.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could teleport into ANY story, which would you chose?

This is a more difficult question than it appears at first, because much of what makes stories good is that they would generally be unhappy or even unpleasant times to live in. A story is a great thing to hear, or read, or to have experienced, but it is often something that is not enjoyable for those enmeshed inside of it. People may love to read A Song of Ice and Fire, but almost no one wants to go to Westeros. That's an extreme example, but I doubt you'd get many takers if you offered people the chance to be inserted into the middle of The Lord of the Rings, or Foundation, or Ancillary Justice.

So the question is, what unsettled mess would I want to be injected into? Right off the bat I'm going to discount most fantasy stories, because as much fun as reading about vaguely historical settings with magic and monsters injected into them, the world of the past was often an unpleasant place that lacked in things like dentistry and personal liberties. Adding dragons and ogres intent on killing those they meet into the mix doesn't really serve to make them more appetizing. For most of my reading, that leaves a science fiction story, although for fairly obvious reasons I'm going to rule out stories set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings. I'll probably also rule out most military science fiction: As good as it is to read something like Starship Troopers, I'm pretty sure I don't want to live in that story if I don't have to. Even a story like Dune has so many downsides that I'm pretty sure that's not where I'd want to be on a voluntary basis.

I'm thinking that I'd like to be in a story that has aliens. I like the idea of meeting aliens. Space travel too. I would definitely like to be in a story where humans have ventured to the stars. I've always liked Andre Norton's work. Maybe living in one of her stories would be good. Probably not something like Judgment on Janus or Star Guard, but maybe The Zero Stone or one of the other books involving a free trader would be good. I'll go with that, probably one of the stories involving the crew of the Solar Queen.

Previous Follow Friday: Two Hundred Thirty-Five. That Is All.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review - Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXXV, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2015) edited by Trevor Quachri

Stories included:
Defender of Worms by Richard A. Lovett
Malnutrition by J.T. Sharrah
Just Browsing by Stephen Lombard
The Great Leap of Shin by Henry Lien
Usher by Jay Werkheiser
Ulenge Prime by Chuck Rothman
Long Way Gone by David L. Clements
Orion, Rising by Arlan Andrews, Sr.
The Yoni Sutra by Priya Chand
Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg by Jerry Oltion
Fool's Errand by Judith Tarr
Samsara and Ice by Andy Dudak
Marduk's Folly by Sean Vivier
Unmother by Lex Wilson
Probability Zero: Space Bugs by Marianne Dyson

Science fact articles included:
Orbits to Order by Stanley Schmidt

Poems included:
The Secret of Cold Fusion by Bruce Boston

Full review: When Analog and Asimov's publish double issues, they are always something of a disappointment. For the January/February issue of Analog the problem is somewhat compounded by the fact that the magazine as a whole has been slowly declining over the last couple of years, like a proud ship listing as it takes on water. This issue is dominated by stories that aren't bad, but are rather mediocre. Almost every issue of a fiction magazine has a story or two that can be called "filler": Mediocre stories that serve merely to round out the page count for that month. These aren't bad stories, but they aren't memorable ones either. With a couple of notable exceptions, the stories in this issue of Analog are of the quality that one would expect from stories used as filler. The increasing prevalence of filler-type stories in its pages has been a problem for Analog for some time, but it has never been as readily apparent as it is here.

The longest story in this issue is the novella Defender of Worms by Richard A. Lovett, a continuation of previous stories featuring the A.I. Brittany, previously implanted in the spacer Frank, but now stuck inside former socialite party girl Memphis and on the run from the mysterious "Others". Much of what drives the plot in this story originated in previous installments in this series, including Brittany's relationship with Frank, the alien artifacts the two of them found, the existence of and conflict with the "Others", and Brittney's transfer from Frank to Memphis, but Lovett does a good enough job weaving background information into this story that someone who hasn't read any of the earlier ones shouldn't have any trouble keeping up with the action. The first portion of the story consists of Brittney and Memphis learning to survive by living off the land in the American west, hiding from the interconnected world so as to avoid the "Others" who pose a threat to both their lives. The pair slowly bond as they scavenge their way through the wilderness, until the story shifts when their nemeses track them down and send hunters to retrieve them at which point the story turns into a cat and mouse game of predator and prey, although at times it isn't clear who is the predator and who is the prey. As waiting out their enemies proves fruitless, the pair must make a desperate gamble by returning to the networked world to forge a deal with an old foe. Along the way, Brittney manages to reestablish contact with Frank, and the two come to an understanding while also batting around ideas for how to unravel the mystery posed by the alien technology they helped discover. The "worms" of the title are humans - so much slower in thought and so fragile in existence when compared to A.I.'s like the "Others" that they regard themselves as godlike beings in comparison. One of the major thematic elements of the story, however, is Brittney realizing that thinking like a human is sometimes an advantage, and then leveraging that knowledge to outwit those pursuing her and Memphis. The story is satisfying, with pretty decently developed character - even those who only show up briefly in the story are fleshed out enough to seem real - and it is one of the better stories in the issue.

Malnutrition by J.T. Sharrah is a decent story containing an interesting idea, but unfortunately the author simply doesn't do much of anything interesting with it. The story starts when Kadija, a high status member of the standoffish Umabari decides to visit the human trading station of Haven. The Umabari have a couple of cultural quirks, but the most notable is that they regard eating food to be a disgusting activity and have taboos against doing so in public akin to human taboos against defecating or urinating in public. Hardesty, the mayor of Haven welcomes Kadija and his interpreter, but the story takes a lethal turn when an assassin attempts to kill Kadija and succeeds in severely wounding him and killing his interpreter. With almost no information about the Umabari and entirely ignorant of their customs, the mayor and medical staff try their best to keep him alive, but unknowingly violate Umabari taboos concerning eating. After securing the aid of a piratical trader named Yulix, Hardesty discovers their mistake and learns that he may have given such offense to the Umabari that they would resort to war in retaliation if Kadija survives to tell the tale of his humiliation. Kadija does survive, which seems like it would produce a compelling story, but he almost immediately commits suicide, essentially wrapping up the problem and leaving only some fairly trivial loose ends to tie up. While Sharrah has inserted not one, but two interesting alien cultures into his story (the very courteous Ziduresh being the other), they don't really interact with the humans in any real meaningful way - Kadija spends most of the story unconscious, and dies almost as soon as he awakens, and the one Ziduresh who shows up basically appears only to say they wouldn't be so impolite as to try to kill an Umabari in human territory. What could have been an intricate story about navigating the vagaries of alien cultural practices devolves into a simple tale of power politics with a few aliens thrown into the mix. This isn't a bad story, but it is a somewhat disappointing one.

Another alien encounter story, Just Browsing by Stephen Lombard is almost as disappointing as Malnutrition. The aliens in this story are Cygnusians who have come to visit Earth somewhat surreptitiously. The protagonist of the story is a small town history teacher named Kelly who happens to be married (and separated from) Angela, a woman who works for the Department of Homeland Security. The aliens have asked to meet her at the small town library where Kelly lives, and she is unwilling to do so herself, so she asks him to fill in for her. When they arrive, the aliens turn out to be interested in the work of a mathematician who left his archives to the library. Along the way, Kelly teaches one of them to play chess, and then ends up teaching one of their children to play chess. The alien contact story seems to be building to something and then simply fizzles out as the focus hops over to the strained relationship between Kelly and Angela, which ends up with Angela declaring her desire to have babies. After giving the reader chess-playing aliens interested in obscure mathematics, leaving on that note is something of an anticlimax finishing the story in a decidedly unsatisfying manner.

The third first contact story, and by far the best, Usher by Jay Werkheiser presents the reader with some fairly alien aliens and a protagonist who is suffering from Usher syndrome. The Canadian government recruits Dave, a former chemist, now school psychologist because they have been entirely unable to establish contact with the inscrutable aliens despite trying a number of different approaches. As Renard, the government liaison to Dave, explains they approached him because of his visual and auditory impairments, on the theory that the aliens could neither see nor hear and perhaps someone in a similar situation could bridge the gap between humanity and their unexpected visitors. The story proceeds in a relatively orderly manner, as pieces of evidence are systematically uncovered and tested, leading to a potential solution. Not content with placing the characters on a deadline due to the impending departure of the alien expedition, Werkheiser feels the need to ramp up the tension by introducing the additional complication of a political fight between the Canadian government and the United Nations, but this proves to be a fairly minor plot complication. There is a bit of fairly improbable coincidence in the resolution of the story - the fact that Dave just happens to have been an analytic chemist with experience in spectroscopic analysis turns out to be somewhat critical - but the aliens are suitably alien and yet understandable enough that the reader isn't left adrift, and the mystery of how to communicate with them is well-handled, resulting in a superior story.

One of the most intriguing stories in the issue is The Great Leap of Shin by Henry Lien, which seems like something ripped from Chinese mythology and folklore. Told from the alternating perspective of "The Eunuch" and "The Boy", two antagonists in a conflict over whether the Empire of Shin would be allowed to complete a project involving using masses of men jumping in timed leaps to cause a massive earthquake. The plan is the product of the Eunuch Mu Hai-Chen's design, and is intended to knock over all of the buildings in Shin at a time when they are unoccupied so as to prevent them from collapsing in a future earthquake while people are in them. The plan is intended to save the lives of the people who would be killed in an unplanned earthquake. Opposing him is the youthful Master Tien-Tai and his two female allies from the island city of Pearl, who use a martial art based upon the sue of deadly skates and a mastery of maneuvering on the glass-like "pearl" substance for which the city is named. The viewpoint shifts back and forth between Mu Hai-Chen and Tien-Tai, sometimes quite rapidly, and is told in the first person for most of its length. This method of storytelling gives the story the immediacy and urgency of a first person narrative, while also allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the main characters in the drama. Because of this, neither character is the "protagonist" and as a result neither is the "antagonist" either. As befits a piece of Chinese mythology, the ending of the story is brutal, tragic, and deeply ironic. Lien took a number of risks with the story, and they pay off beautifully.

Set in the last days of a dying dictatorship, Ulenge Prime by Chuck Rothman contemplates the price that might be paid for the exploration of space. Ulengi is the brutal dictator of Namibia who is imminently going to be deposed, so he takes his long suffering alienated wife Ifana and flees, but not to where she expects. One of the prime achievements of Ulenge's brutal regime was the construction of Ulenge Prime, a space station that many regard as a vanity project. The ruthless measures taken to build station are apparently among the primary grievances of the rebels against Ulenge's government, but the thorough preparations turn out to be Ulenge's apparent salvation as he forces Ifana to take a prepared rocket ship to the station with him. From there, the story turns around a little bit, as Ifana learns of the true reasons for Ulenge's reign of terror, and his ultimate plans. The technological elements of the story are fairly straightforward, but the questions posed about the sacrifices that might be required to make the dream of space a reality are chilling and thought-provoking.

Another story about a space station built as something of a vanity project, Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg by Jerry Oltion imagines a future in which climate change has wrecked the Earth and the wealthy have built themselves an orbital habitat to retreat to. Tony comes to the station as a gyro technician, one of the support staff who are supposed to keep the place running from the bowels of the colony while the wealthy elite conspicuously consume resources in the sunny and well-manicured upper levels. Tony meets fellow support staff member Sandra right before he arrives on the station, and they strike up a friendship, and then a relationship. Along the way, Tony finds practices of the inhabitants that make hum angry, and anomalies in the systems that disturb him. In the end, the story is almost anti-Randian in feel, as it pretty heavy-handedly makes the statement that the true power in a civilization is in who keeps it running, and not in those who own the property, which seems to be a decidedly pro-proletarian message. The only real plot hole is that one wonders how the "wealthy" thought they were going to be able to maintain their wealth in a system in which they have no visible means of income.

Suffering from the feeling that he is an impostor, the protagonist in Long Way Gone by David L. Clements also has to deal with the fact that the supposed love of his life abandoned him. In Clements' story, humanity colonizes distant planets by copying people and beaming them across the void of interstellar space. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed man who made this journey, but when he is reconstituted he discovers that Anne, his work partner and lover, declined to do so as well. Feeling betrayed and lost, he comes to view himself as a reject, a cheap copy of the original without value. He falls into self-destructive habits until he meets Alice, who encourages him to take a different path and truly colonize the new world they have found themselves upon. In the end, the central character finds himself again, or, as the story suggests, finds what this version of himself truly is for the first time. It is interesting, but the central character is just a little bit too absorbed in wallowing in his own misery and the resolution seems to suggest that people with serious mental health issues just need to buck up and get a change of scenery to snap out of their doldrums, which seems like an incredibly simplistic and wrongheaded way to view such issues.

Both Probability Zero: Space Bugs by Marianne Dyson and Orion, Rising by Arlan Andrews, Sr. share a common theme related to American space flight, specifically NASA. In Dyson's story a pair of former NASA employees - Doc and Barbara - commiserate at a diner after the closing of the agency due to budget cuts. Doc brings up the subject of "space bugs": Gut microbes that give people in space a euphoric feeling and the two hatch a plan to reverse NASA's misfortunes by getting a Congressman in space. The story seems like it is missing the middle, as it skips from the introduction to the conclusion. Granted, it is a Probability Zero story, so it is necessarily quite short, but this doesn't seem like a short story so much as it seems like a truncated longer story that has been savagely cut. Andrews' story doesn't directly deal with NASA, but is focused on a group of old engineers as they grouse about the inefficiency of the new U.S. moon landing project which has taken sixteen years to come to fruition when the Apollo program had only taken eight. After kvetching about how private industry could have done the job quicker and less expensively, the story turns to reveal that all of the action has taken place on the apparently privately run moon colony and the U.S. effort is a feeble afterthought at this point. The entire story is more or less just a set-up for a punchline, and it is a pretty feeble one.

One of the best stories in the issue, The Yoni Sutra by Priya Chand imagines a future India in which women are implanted with chips that deliver a punishing shock to any man not related to them who touches them. The main character is Shalini, a young woman who gets married to the love of her life in the opening chapters of the story, never having been touched by him or any other man who isn't directly related to her. She dreams of a perfect marriage, but finds that her inexperience with physical affection results in some frustration. At her workplace, a new woman named Gayatari becomes an employee, and she hails from Mumbai, where implanted chips are not as common on women and does not have one. Through the story, Chand reinforces time and again just how isolating this technology is for both women and men, as even the slightest touch will cause severe pain, so brushing against a stranger on the street, or accidentally bumping into someone at work becomes an event of some significance. Soon, Gayatari's lack of chip and her attitudes regarding her unchiped status forces Shalini to question all of her assumptions about the benefits of the chips, although the author resolutely refuses to provide an easy answer one way or another about their desirability, showing both the risks of not having a chip, and the crippling limitations imposed upon those who do possess them, as well as the cultural web accompanying the chips that has built up around women to hedge them in and restrict their freedom. What the story does make clear is that a forced choice is no choice at all, and being able to choose for oneself makes all the difference.

Fool's Errand by Judith Tarr is a moderately charming tale of a woman named Marina working on a star ship who finds herself trying to figure out how to save a horse whose stasis capsule malfunctioned on the journey. In Tarr's fictional world, star ships leap vast distances in "jump space", and the transition from normal space to jump space is apparently dangerous for those without the right protection. The right protection for a horse would normally be being in stasis, but with that avenue foreclosed, Marina has to figure out how to shield the animal or it is likely to suffer moderate to severe brain damage when the ship transitions at its final destination. Layered on top of this story is the interaction between Marina and Dr. Nasir, the horse's owner and xenoarchaeologist, which just so happens to be the academic specialty that Marina got her doctorate in before lack of funding drove her to take up her job as a star ship crew member. After briefly giving up on the idea, Marina hits upon an unusual solution for saving the horse, and impresses Dr. Nasir. The story turns into something of a girl-and-her-horse love story, with some helpful coincidences to make the ending at least a little bit like a fairy tale. Fool's Errand is diverting, but it doesn't make much more of an impact than that.

A tale of old warriors locked in a futile combat that plays out over centuries Samsara and Ice by Andy Dudak speaks to the futility of war, and its unintended consequences. Hamish Omni "the Sleeping God", wakes up from hibernation roughly every three years to lay in wait for and kill Bataar Temuujin "the Dying God", whose resurrection technology reconstitutes him anew, just in time to be murdered. Around them, the diminutive "fey", who are actually genetically altered humans, have constructed a fertility cult religion around the two soldiers' periodic conflict, focusing on the oft-repeated death of the "Dying God". Tired of being killed time and again, Vataar tries to strike up a communication with Hamish, which only works somewhat as Hamish is conditioned to want to kill his opponent every time. In an ironic twist, as Hamish and Bataar communicate more and more, and the time between when Bataar instantiates and is killed stretches longer and longer, the fey religion depending upon the sacrifice of the Dying God grows darker and darker. Unfortunately, the story doesn't really go much of anywhere, taking baby steps when it does move along. In the end, the two combatants understand one another a little better, but are no closer to reaching any kind of rapprochement than they were at the beginning of the story, seemingly having decided to continue their lengthy struggle, at least in part, for the good of the fey.

Despite being one of the shorter stories in the volume, Marduk's Folly by Sean Vivier is fairly blunt with its theme. In the story Marduk, an alien from a high-gravity world in which the denizens must work together to survive, has some unorthodox thoughts when examining a strange star system. The strange star system bears an uncanny resemblance to our own, but that seems almost beside the point. The meat of the story is that when Marduk voices his thinking to his companions Lugh and Rhea, they are shocked to find he is not in "accord" with them, a serious taboo. The story really only works because we know that Marduk's guess is right and those who oppose him are wrong. The plot is essentially just an extended metaphor to say that social stigmas that prevent dissent so as to promote stability also prevent free scientific inquiry. Marduk does engage in one tiny act of subversion, almost like a cry in the dark, but ends up knuckling under and then the story ends. The message of the story is both fundamentally correct and fairly pedestrian, and the author doesn't really do much with it other than shove it out to the reader and let it sit there, which results in a story that hits most of the right buttons but still falls a little bit flat.

One of the most alien stories in the issue Unmother by Lex Wilson is at the same time oddly familiar. Told from the perspective of a microscopic creature living in a human brain, the creature is theoretically part of a collective colony of sisters under the guidance of their "mother". The only trouble is that our protagonist had malformed teeth, and since exchanging teeth with the mother is the primary way these creatures communicate with one another, she is shut out of most of the society of the collective: She is "unmothered". Everything comes to a head when the colony's "brother" damages the brain they all call home, triggering the imminent removal of the blood-brain barrier which will destroy the colony (and probably the brain as well). The unmothered protagonist interferes with the normal functioning of the colony by usurping the mother's position to use one of her sisters to insert her vital information into the mother's consciousness. This precipitates a crisis that results in a disorganized and frantic flight from their home in search of a new safe haven. Along the way, the "unmothered" organism assumes a role she never expected to, and her sisters find self-direction she never knew they had. Despite the odd setting and the alien nature of the creatures in the story, it has an oddly conventional feel with an outcast coming into their own and finding a sense of belonging as they lead their people on a journey of survival.

The science fact article in the issue is Orbits to Order by Stanley Schmidt, an informative essay about orbital mechanics that is, unfortunately, as dry as a bone. In an equation heavy article, Schmidt walks the reader through how to calculate orbits, using a geosynchronous orbit as his primary example. He then sets about how to calculate the effects of applying additional centripetal force to these orbits to move them higher and lower. There is a fair amount of information packed in the essay, but there is not much to the article other than the calculations. Jeffrey Kooistra's Alternate View column, titled Blast from the Past Part 2, returns to the subject of Nikolai Tesla, this time focusing on Tesla's own accounts of his work, as well as discussing the true nature of Tesla's work concerning beamed power transmission. The article attempts to separate some of the myths about Tesla and his work from the reality, and for the most part it succeeds. It is, obviously, too short to give anything but a tease concerning the subject, but that is its intention and so the column achieves its objectives.

Overall, the word that sums up the January/February issue of Analog is "adequate". There are some highlights such as Defender of Worms, Usher, and The Great Leap of Shin, and even a couple of intriguing stories that try for greatness and just miss the mark like The Yoni Sutra and  Unmother, but by and large the stories in this issue are just ordinary. The better stories in the issue are merely good: There are no stories in this issue that one could reasonably describe as great, or even very good. Even the poem in the issue, The Secret of Cold Fusion by Bruce Boston, is a fairly run-of-the-mill effort by the usually brilliant poet. Mediocrity seems to have become the new norm for Analog, and that is a fact that should make science fiction fans feel disheartened.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: March 2015

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review - Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Short review: War turns to exile, and revenge turns into a quest to save humankind. Slow bullets are repeatedly used as a metaphor.

A terrible war
A ship of war criminals
Humanity's hope

Full review: Scurelya Timsuk Shunde was a soldier conscripted into the great war between Central and Peripheral over which Book was the right one. In the waning days of the war she was captured by a Central war criminal named Orvin and tortured. Her life is saved when a passing Peacekeeper transport scares Orvin and his followers away, leaving her to die. Instead of dying, Scurelya, now calling herself Scur, survives, intent on living so as to be able to make good on her threat to exact revenge against Orvin. And then everything changes, and almost everything that mattered before is swept away, leaving only the will to survive behind. Slow Bullets is a fairly short work, but it manages to pack an enormous amount of activity into its pages, in large part because even when you strip humans down to an almost raw survival situation, they are still messy and irrational creatures.

The novella takes its name from the implants the soldiers in the conflict carry inside of them, the "slow bullets" that serve as identifying devices encoded with the record of every soldier's background, service history, and other personal information. These devices are implanted under the skin and work their way into the recipient's rib cage, requiring life-threatening surgery to remove, and can apparently explode and kill their bearer under certain conditions. Orvin's method of torture involves painfully implanting a second slow bullet into Scur's leg and waiting for it to grind its way through her body until it reaches her chest and explodes, a particularly cruel means of execution. As he watches her die, he taunts her by destroying her copy of the Book, a religious text that apparently was the root cause of the war, although this seems to have little effect on Scur. It is only when Ovid panics that Scur is able to try to save her life with some impromptu self-surgery.

The primary shift takes place at the moment Scur begins to cut into her own leg to remove the offending slow bullet, when Scur's memories, and the story, leap to her waking up in a hibo capsule with a healed leg and no idea how she got there. As she explores her new environment, she meets up with and more or less saves a crew member named Prad - and then forces him to help her at gunpoint. It turns out that she is on a ship populated mostly with war criminals from both sides in the recent conflict who are being shipped across interstellar space for unclear reasons. As the story progresses, it turns out that the journey in the "skipship" has gone terribly awry: Prad cannot locate the normal navigational signals to identify where they are, and the ship's systems reset, so he cannot figure out how long their journey took. Not only that, the ship is malfunctioning, and while the ship's systems can keep its inhabitants alive for the foreseeable future, they are cannibalizing the vessel's long-term memory, progressively destroying the vast stores of information contained therein.

Scur uses some strong arm tactics to create an uneasy truce between the three factions on the ship, and then they learn the disheartening truth: The ship is in the right place, but the reason they could not recognize the planet they are orbiting is that they were lost for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The question becomes not merely one of survival, but what does survival actually mean. Is it enough for humans to survive if all of their art, science, history, and culture is lost? Soon the survivors accidentally stumble upon a project Scur hopes will unite them - carving the rapidly disappearing knowledge contained in the ship's memory banks into the walls of the ship, and although this will only allow them to preserve a tiny fraction of what is contained in them, it is at least some way to fight against the darkness.

But the troubles of the past follow Scur and her compatriots even centuries into the future. One of the first things erased from the ship's data banks were all copies of the Book - an action that Scur believes was not accidental, and suspects that Prad instigated. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the book is still stored in yet another databank: The memories of many of the former passengers on the ship, and when an anonymous individual inscribes the opening passages to their portion of the Book on the walls of the ship, old hatreds flare up and the ship's complement begins to fracture along religious lines. Some knowledge, it seems, is too dangerous to bring forward from the past. Reynolds is careful not to specify what is in either version of the Book, or to describe the differences between the two faiths, leaving it to the reader to fill in the blanks, but when Scur recalls her father telling her "many of their prophets are our prophets" it is all to easy to fill in the sometimes bloody disputes between, for example, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, or Christianity and Islam. In response to the budding religious conflict, Scur takes a bold action and has the data on her slow bullet - the only record of her parents, childhood, and the rest of her past - overwritten with material from the dying memories of the ship, becoming in effect a living shell for a piece of her civilization's history.

This event brings the central metaphor of the story to the fore, a metaphor that recurs multiple times, and is delivered with the subtlety of a hammer blow. Each former soldier who has their slow bullet erased and then filled with data from the ship's eroding database becomes, quite literally, the bearer of their people's cultural legacy, as does every civilian who accepts a cleaned and loaded slow bullet from one of the soldiers who didn't survive the journey. But the people carrying a slow bullet aren't the only "slow bullets" in the story. Murash, who came from the planet below and hid away on the ship when she found she could not return, is her own kind of "slow bullet", imparting the information in her head to the nascent society of the ship's complement, telling them of the inscrutable aliens that wrecked human society, and thereby changing their view of the world. But Murash is only an accidental "slow bullet", whereas Orvin is intentionally transformed into one by Scur when she forces him down to the frozen planet to serve as a catalyst for rebuilding civilization. Eventually, the symbolism becomes incredibly heavy-handed when, in a scene set long after the events that make up the bulk of the book, Scur recounts how the ship had jumped through hundreds of systems and apparently dropped off one or two people on each to serve as a kernel about which that would could rebuild from its primitive degenerated state.

Slow Bullets has, at its core, a thoughtful idea about how little things can work big changes over time. Even the ship itself becomes a metaphorical "slow bullet" as it moves through space after being inscribed with thousands and thousands of lines of information. The problem with the book is that it takes that one idea and pounds it so hard that the reader comes away almost suffering from blunt force trauma. One almost wishes that this had been a longer work, so Reynolds could have dealt with the big idea in a more subtle manner, although that may have resulted in trying to stretch too little material into too many pages. As it is, Slow Bullets is a decent story with a well-drawn cast of characters, enough conflict to keep the story moving, and a centerpiece metaphor that is simultaneously perfectly on point, and also overused. But the story is also about how merely surviving - existing from one moment to the next - is not enough, and that is what saves it from being merely ordinary. The will to survive is driven by a cause, whether an intensely selfish and personal cause such as revenge, or an altruistic one like becoming the agent of the resurrection of human civilization. In a way, this story is like Scur: Interesting enough to be engaging, yet deeply flawed at the same time.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Musical Monday - The Changeling by Five Year Mission

The Changeling is one of two episodes in the second season of Star Trek that seem to have been, at least in part, inspired by Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series of stories. This episode is also an example of the well-worn Star Trek trope in which Captain Kirk talks a computer to death by turning its own logic against it.

In a way, this episode is somewhat like the middle stage in an evolution of a story. It either draws upon Saberhagen's Berserker stories or derives its inspiration from the same wellspring that Saberhagen drew upon. The Changeling, in turn, seems to have served as at least something of an inspiration for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This episode also has some thematic similarities to The Doomsday Machine, which originally aired a mere three weeks after this one, insofar as they both dealt with alien (or at least partially alien) machines intent on destroying life wherever they find it.

There is an interesting interplay between The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, and Star Trek:The Motion Picture, or at least something of a progression (although given the fact that The Doomsday Machine came after The Changeling, a somewhat out of order progression). In The Doomsday Machine, Kirk and the Enterprise are confronted by an implacable enemy who can only be confronted and destroyed, and so they do. In The Changeling, by contrast, the antagonist is an almost wantonly destructive foe, but one that can (and ultimately is) reasoned with, although the application of reason has the ultimate result in destroying the machine. Finally, in Star Trek:The Motion Picture, the crew of the Enterprise is once again at odds with an Earth probe merged with alien technology that has returned to pose a danger to human life, but it is a machine that can be reasoned with, and in the end, they neutralize the threat while . . . well they don't destroy the machine, but they do make it go away.

In The Doomsday Machine, the heroes blow up the antagonist. In The Changeling, the heroes understand and then blow up the antagonist. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the heroes understand and then help the antagonist fulfill its destiny. The last seems to be the most in line with Roddenberry's vision for the future, but it produced the least interesting story: Raw idealism, it seems, simply doesn't produce compelling narratives. The Doomsday Machine has a lot of action and space battles, but other than Commodore Decker's emotional struggles, the episode could be any number of other science fiction shows - it just doesn't have that unique "Star Trek" feel. This episode, however, seems to capture the balance between action adventure and idealistic reason that made Star Trek something out of the ordinary in the history of televised science fiction.

Previous Musical Monday: Mirror, Mirror by Five Year Mission
Subsequent Musical Monday: Wolf in the Fold by Five Year Mission

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Blogger Hop November 13th - November 19th: The Greek Philosopher Carneades Died in 129 B.C.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: How long does it normally take you to read a book?

Obviously it depends upon the length and nature of the book, but for a typical work of fiction, I usually read at a rate of about sixty to eighty pages an hour, so a three hundred page novel would take four to five hours of reading to get through. I usually read nonfiction works at a slightly slower pace depending upon the density of the subject matter being covered.

I usually read collections and anthologies of short fiction one story at a time, taking a brief break in between each one. I find that if I just plow straight through compilations of short fiction, the stories tend to run together and I have to go back and refresh my memory as to which story was which. Because of this, a collection of short works will usually take me somewhat longer to work through than a novel.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Follow Friday - Two Hundred Thirty-Five. That Is All.

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Whatever You Can Still Betray and Pondering the Prose.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What are the funniest books you’ve ever read?

I . . . No. Not today. Some other day. But not today.

Previous Follow Friday: Cato the Elder Was Born in 234 B.C.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review - Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen

Short review: Strange things keep happening to the girls at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, but they have each other and they are ready for adventure.

For five brave campers
Beware the kitten holy
Solve an anagram

Full review: Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy is the first volume of the Lumberjanes series featuring five girls attending "Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types". With the slogan "Friendship to the Max!", Ripley, April, Molly, Mal, and Jo have a series of seemingly improbably supernatural adventures behind the back of their long-suffering camp counselor Jen that are equal parts exciting, silly, frightening, and endearing.

The book is presented in four chapters plus a final cover gallery. Each section is introduced with a page drawn from the fictional Lumberjanes Field Manual describing one of the Lumberjane badges and what a girl must do to earn it. These little introductions are essentially played completely "straight", outlining fairly realistic (although in many cases quite difficult) requirements for the badge in question. Inevitably, the subject matter of the chapter that follows is related to the badge, but as the team of girls in the story face a collection of bizarre supernatural obstacles and foes, the relationship is often somewhat tangential. This sort of combinations of the mundane accomplishments sought after by summer camp attendees and the three-eyed monsters, talking statues, and other strange encounters the Lumberjanes have is a large part of what makes this book so good. The girls are at the age where the strange and the outlandish is met with wonder rather than derision or skepticism, and when facing each new challenge, they all pull together to overcome it, not matter how weird it is.

The story opens in media res with the five campers out in the woods looking for a bearwoman when they are set upon by unreasonably aggressive three-eyed foxes. After a chaotic and exciting fight, one of the girls knocks a gold ring off of one of the foxes whereupon they project the cryptic message "beware the kitten holy" and vanish into the night. This opening sets the tone for the entire book - these five girls aren't shrinking violets, although they do get scared at times, and do find things to be creepy and unsettling. Instead they are the kind of girls who will sneak out of their cabin in the middle of the night to try to find a mysterious bearwoman and won't back down from a fight with a collection of obviously supernatural fox creatures. But when they return to the camp, it is made clear that they are young girls - they don't want to get caught by their camp counselor, and when they do, they don't want Rosie the camp director to tell their parents that they broke eight camp rules. This group is going to have exciting adventures, but they are still kids at camp.

While chapter one focused on the "Up All Night" badge, chapter two has the girls getting set to earn their "Naval Gauging Badge", which means they are going canoeing, which, naturally, means water disaster for the girls. Specifically, supernatural water disaster, although Ripley's overactive imagination has her asking if the river will contain whales, sharks, piranhas, blood-sucking catfish, or other river monsters. The river sequence also brings to the fore one of the most adorable elements of the book: When the girls "swear" they use a collection of odd references as their epithets. The most basic being the oft-repeated "what the junk", but also such gems as "what in the Joan Jett", or "Holy Mae Jemison". These off-the-wall exclamations give the impression that the five girls have been together for a while, and in response to likely being told by adults not to use actual expletives, they have developed the kind of "insider" language that close-knit groups often do. This kind of background storytelling, shaping the character of the girls not only individually, but as a group of friends, elevated Lumberjanes above many adventure stories, and makes it something special.

The chapter also shows the relationship between the characters by showing them taking care of one another: When their friends are in danger, the Lumberjanes show almost no hesitation in charging in to help them, even when confronted by a three-eyed sea monster. The story also shows the awkwardness of adolescence as they deal with CPR and mouth-ot-mouth resuscitation by referring to it as "smooching", and approaching it with a modicum of embarrassment. Before too long they find a mysterious cave, and being who they are, dive in, finding themselves in another pickle. The next chapter finds the group trapped underground, and leads off with a description of the "Everything Under the Sum Badge", before they head into what turns out to be a very Indiana Jones-like adventure, encountering talking statues, arrow-firing traps, math puzzles, and finally, anagrams. This section is cute, but somewhat predictable, as each encounter tests a different girl's abilities, although it is fun to see each character have a chance to shine.

The final chapter, titled "Robyn Hood Badge" (which describes some very tough archery requirements) starts off with the Lumberjanes still in trouble from their exploits in the previous chapter and on what appears to be a fairly dull nature hike with Jen. Having figured out what "beware the kitten holy" meant in their previous adventure, the girls are itching to follow up on the clue, and the only thing standing between them and doing so is Jen. After finding a yeti and a lot of poison ivy, the girls come across an even more unexpected problem: Boys. Specifically scouts from the "Mr. Theodore Tarquin Reginald Lancelot Herman Crumpo Camp for Boys", who seem to be just a little too nice, a little too neat, and the little too good at making tea and cookies. Of course, this being Lumberjanes, things aren't what they seem, and after bribing some yetis with delicious treats and finding a mystery at the end of their mystery, the girls wind up on the run from a new and not entirely surprising threat.

The book ends with several unresolved mysteries, clearly pointing towards the next volume of the series, but to a certain extent, the plot, as good as it is, isn't really the main point of the books. Instead, what is showcased in this volume are the girls themselves: Tough, capable, and yet still unmistakably young girls. There is, after all, something quite remarkable in a story that takes a collection of women and makes them into the heroes of the story, not only without men to help, but without any men placed in the position of guides, guardians, or mentors. The girls aren't someone else's prize or emotional support. They are themselves, having adventures together without regard for anyone else (except perhaps Jen and Rosie). They are there for each other, and even when boys are introduced, they don't fall into squabbling over the cute ones as happens in so many other stories, but rather are only interested in their own adventure together. This is a story by women and about women, but with a perfect mixture of summer camp normality and bizarre supernatural events, and a fine balance between the energy of bold action and the depiction of close friendships, like all great adventure stories it is for everyone.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review - Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Short review: A portion of Anaander Mianaai comes looking for Breq to exact revenge, but Breq still has the Presger gun, and more importantly, she has a new Presger translator.

Anaander has come
Breq asks the Presger if she
Is significant

Full review: Ancillary Mercy is the third and final book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series featuring Breq as a former star ship A.I. who has been reduced to a single body, made a citizen of the Radch by one faction of the divided emperor Anaander Mianaai, and promoted to fleet captain in command of her own star ship, which comes complete with its own A.I. As a conclusion to the series, Ancillary Mercy is masterful, offering the reader a satisfying conclusion to many of the threads that were started in Ancillary Justice, including the long-awaited confrontation between Breq and the "other" Mianaai, as well as highlighting issues that in retrospect were present all along, but likely hidden by one's assumptions. But the book also leaves several points open, giving the Leckie's fictional universe a more expansive feel, and leaving room for other stories to inhabit its reaches.

The book opens with tea, in a scene that is about as domestic as the series gets, setting the tone for what is "normal" in the world of the Radch. But normal doesn't last long in Breq's world, and the book turns almost immediately to one of the central questions posed: What, exactly, is Mercy of Kalr, and by extension, what is Breq? Obviously Mercy of Kalr is a star ship A.I., but the deeper question is is she a what, or is she a who. After all, almost everyone who meets Breq treats her as a person (although some switch to seeing her as a thing when they find out she used to be Justice of Toren), but if Breq is a person, why isn't Kalr a person? Why does Kalr need a captain to be in charge of her? And these are exactly the questions Breq discusses with Kalr, highlighted in the opening chapter of the book, and which reverberate through the rest of the story.

In broad outlines, the plot of the novel is fairly straightforward: As the news of the split between the two factions of Anaander Mianaai becomes more widely known, those who support the Mianaai who doesn't like Breq discover that she was formerly an ancillary and take steps against her, most notably Eminence Ifian the head priest of Amaat, who takes all of his priesthood on strike, disrupting the lives of almost every individual on Athoek Station. This very Radchaai form of attack is met with a very Radchaai response as the citizens of the station form a protest line outside the Amaat Temple. While this would normally be an acceptable way to engage in a dispute, many in the line are members of the disfavored ethnic groups Ychana and Valskaayans, and the authorities make moves to crack down on them, rather than merely letting the line be as would be proper. In this sequence, Leckie shows how Radch society operates under normal conditions when conflicts arise, but also illustrates quite clearly that despite their pretensions to the contrary, Radch society is an inherently unequal society, in which the disfavored are oppressed despite the fact that they are technically equal under the law. Further, by having Breq work to uphold the rights of the downtrodden - in effect making the Radch live up to their claimed ideals - despite the potential personal cost, Leckie once again develops Breq into a more fully realized character.

One of the interesting elements about Ancillary Mercy is how Leckie is constantly building her world and her story in both large and small ways. Alongside the larger story of the protest line and the response from some of the Radch authorities on Athoek Station, the relationship between Lieutenant Seivardan and freshly promoted Lieutentant Ekalu also shows how Radch society has always been rotten at its core. Seivarden is a character out of place in time, having been in cryosleep for an extended period of time, and is actually from the period of Radch history prior to the intervention of the alien Presger apparently sparked the split in Mianaai's personality. While Seivarden has expressed disgust with the class-based attitudes of some of the modern Radchaai, she still manages to insult Ekalu with backhanded compliments that essentially say Ekalu is better than others from her social class and background. When Ekalu justifiably takes offense at these "compliments", Seivarden is befuddled, as it does not even occur to her that what she has said could be construed as an insult. The point is quite clear: The inequality of a society is not only perpetuated by conscious actions to keep it unequal, but by the unconscious attitudes of those who don't even see that inequality is the water they are swimming in.

The connection with the Radch Empire's past is made even more explicit when an ancillary from the long-lost ship Sphene shows up, unraveling at least part of the mystery of what is beyond the ghost gate. Accompanying their arrival is a new mystery relating to a freshly uncovered cache of A.I. cores that someone had hidden on Athoek Station. The immediate presumption is that the Anaander Mianaai who dislikes Breq is responsible for placing them there, but this is merely an assumption. More interestingly, Sphene is an exile who hid after her side lost in the conflict that resulted in Anaander Mianaai taking control of the Radch to begin with, and as a result has even older ideas about society than Seivarden. Sphene, for example, finds it almost offensive that anyone from outside of the ancestral Dyson Sphere that is home to the original Radchaai would have the temerity to call themselves Radchaai. The self-exiled ship also serves as a reminder of what Breq herself was, complete with mind-wiped ancillaries who exist only as equipment who are extensions of the ship's A.I. It was at Sphene's behest that the stockpile of bodies in cryosleep Breq found in Ancillary Sword was created - Sphene needs new ancillaries, and those bodies were to provide the raw material. The fact that the bodies were technically those belonging to citizens of the Radch is of no concern to Sphene, as she doesn't actually regard them as being truly Radchaai. It is in this lack of caring that one sees the progressive dehumanization possible in the system. Whether one is a person, and therefore protected from being treated as little more than raw materials, is merely a question of definition, and those definitions can change based upon almost arbitrary and capricious factors.

The most interesting character in the volume is the new Presger translator Zeiat, who is almost incomprehensible while at the same time being the most illuminating character in the book. Her most critical scene takes place in her entrance to the story: When she arrives on Athoek Station, the Presger translator announces that they are Dlique, but upon being informed that Dlique is dead, asserts that they are instead Zeiat. This raises the question of why they thought they were Dlique to begin with, posing the intriguing possibility that they were in fact Dlique, but also Zeiat at the same time. This is, perhaps, a subtle inversion, as the reader has become familiar with a single consciousness inhabiting multiple bodies such as Justice of Toren, Sphene, or even Anaander Mianaai herself. So, one must wonder if the Presger translator might possibly be multiple minds in a single body, switching between them as the need arises and only holding out that they are one specific personality as a means of bridging the gap between Presger and Human. If so, this could be an interesting indication as to the nature of the as yet unseen Presger.

Regardless of the answer to this question, what Zeiat adds to the book is an entirely alien perspective on not just Radch society, but human society in all its forms. While Breq is able to question elements of Radch culture due to her status as someone who has been outside of normal society, Zeiat calls into question even basic assumptions made by those around her regarding things as mundane as the proper use of fish sauce. It is also interesting that Sphene, as the other "outsider" in the story, is the only character that seems to be able to establish a rapport with Zeiat, although the two proceed in such an inhuman manner that trying to figure out exactly what they are talking about, or when they begin playing a game, exactly what the rules are. Even Breq, herself formerly a star ship A.I., finds Sphene's interactions with Zeiat to be almost incomprehensible.

All of these characters exist against a backdrop that involves the Anaander Mianaai from Tstur Palace, who holds a grudge against Breq for killing her in Ancillary Justice and siding with the other faction of Anaander Mianaai. In a move that seems almost inevitable, Tstur Anaander brings an expeditionary force into Athoek with the unmistakable intent to kill Breq and gain control over Athoek for Tstur Palace. As she did for much of Ancillary Sword, Breq finds herself working from a position of weakness, because while she has befriended Athoek Station and many of her prominent citizens, and reached an uneasy truce with Sword of Atagaris, Tstur Anaander brings four powerful ships with her, while Breq can only truly count on the loyalty of Mercy of Kalr. Forced to rely upon her wits, Breq discovers, almost by accident, the true power of the Presger weapon she had been carrying since the first book in the series, but more importantly the power of taking the time to understand the wants and needs of those around her. Fundamentally, Breq not only out-thinks her foe, she does so because she is empathetic to the needs of those she is dealing with.

In the final confrontation, the secret that had been hidden in the text from the very first pages of Ancillary Justice is laid bare: The Radch language does have two pronouns, not one. All of the people in the story are referred to as she, but all of the A.I.s and ancillaries are referred to as it. Radch society does recognize the social distinctions between different pronouns, but the differences had been so subtly dealt with throughout the books that it was easy to simply overlook this. As Breq tells Zieat, there is a wholly alien, "significant" species living throughout the Radch Empire that has been relegated by Anaander's laws to the status of property. And the story makes clear that Anaander essentially views everyone but herself as a tool to be used, an attitude reflected by Sphene's view of those born outside the Radch Dyson Sphere, and extended even to people that the "good" Anaander supposedly accords the rights of citizens such as Tisarwat. It is when Breq asserts her right to be regarded as someone and not something that the story crystallizes, showing the reader the true destination that Breq had set out upon after the "bad" Anaander had manipulated her without her knowledge, forcing her to do things she did not want to do, and ultimately destroying most of her.

In the end, the story shows that those who treat those around them merely as tools to be used cannot command loyalty, even through military might, and those who don't pay attention to the flow of information will ultimately pay the price for their neglect. What gives Breq power is her attention to the network of allies around her, an effort that seems almost alien to Anaander, who is used to being a network unto herself. But because she neglects the needs of those who are not her, Anaander finds that necessary information has simply not been offered, because while she was ordering people about, she didn't think to ask for it and those she was in the habit of oppressing didn't feel the need to volunteer it. By contrast, when Breq insists that the Ychana be treated like citizens, or treats Athoek Station like an equal, she commands their loyalty, and in the process shows those who had been treated as either de facto property or de jure property that they should have a voice, and should be respected.

Ancillary Mercy is, at the same time, both an entirely unexpected and seemingly inevitable ending to Breq's story. One of the most beautiful things about the book is that Breq essentially understands her way to victory, and her victory is an egalitarian one that offers better prospects not just for herself, but for those around her as well, and rejects the choices offered to her by the Anaander factions. Breq's story is a story of inverted expectations, of the voiceless being voiced, of tea and songs, of humans acting as equipment, and of equipment finding out that it is not equipment after all. It is also absolutely beautiful and absolutely brilliant.

Previous book in the series: Ancillary Sword

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