Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2023-01-27: Review: The Library of the Dead

Review: The Library of the Dead, by T.L. Huchu

Series Edinburgh Nights #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright 2021
Printing 2022
ISBN 1-250-76777-6
Format Kindle
Pages 329

The Library of the Dead is the first book in a post-apocalyptic (sort of) urban fantasy series set in Edinburgh, written by Zimbabwean author (and current Scotland resident) T.L. Huchu.

Ropa is a ghosttalker. This means she can see people who have died but are still lingering because they have unfinished business. She can stabilize them and understand what they're saying with the help of her mbira. At the age of fourteen, she's the sole source of income for her small family. She lives with her grandmother and younger sister in a caravan (people in the US call it an RV), paying rent to an enterprising farmer turned landlord.

Ropa's Edinburgh is much worse off than ours. Everything is poorer, more run-down, and more tenuous, but other than a few hints about global warming, we never learn the history. It reminded me a bit of the world in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower in the feel of civilization crumbling without a specific cause. Unlike that series, The Library of the Dead is not about the collapse or responses to it. The partial ruin of the city is the mostly unremarked backdrop of Ropa's life.

Much of the book follows Ropa's daily life carrying messages for ghosts and taking care of her family. She does discover the titular library when a wealthier friend who got a job there shows it off to her, but it has no significant role in the plot. (That was disappointing.) The core plot, once Ropa is convinced by her grandmother to focus on it, is the missing son of a dead woman, who turns out to not be the only missing child.

This is urban fantasy with the standard first-person perspective, so Ropa is the narrator. This style of book needs a memorable protagonist, and Ropa is certainly that. She's a talker who takes obvious delight in narrating her own story alongside a constant patter of opinions, observations, and Scottish dialect. Ropa is also poor.

That last may not sound that notable; a lot of urban fantasy protagonists are not well-off. But most of them feel culturally middle-class in a way that Ropa does not. Money may be a story constraint in other books, but it rarely feels like a life constraint and experience the way it does here. It's hard to describe the difference in tone succinctly, since it's a lot of small things: the constant presence of money concerns, the frustration of possessions that are stolen or missing and can't be replaced, the tedious chores one has to do when there's no money, even the language and vulgarity Ropa uses. This is rare in fantasy and excellent characterization work.

Given that, I am still frustrated with myself over how much I struggled with Ropa as a narrator. She's happy to talk about what is happening to her and what she's learning about (she listens voraciously to non-fiction while running messages), but she deflects, minimizes, or rushes past any mention of what she's feeling. If you don't like the angst that's common from urban fantasy protagonists, this may be the book for you. I have complained about that angst before, and therefore feel like this should have been the book for me, but apparently I need a minimum level of emotional processing and introspection from the narrator. Ropa is utterly unwilling to do any of that. It's possible to piece together what she's feeling and worrying about, but the reader has to rely on hints and oblique comments that she passes over quickly.

It didn't help that Ropa is not interested in the same things in her world that I was interested in. She's not an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense; she doesn't lie to the reader or intentionally hide information. And yet, the experience of reading this book was, for me, similar to reading a book with an unreliable narrator. Ropa consistently refused to look at what I wanted her to look at or think about what I wanted her to think about.

For example, when she has an opportunity to learn magic through books from the titular library, her initial enthusiasm is infectious. Huchu does a great job showing the excitement of someone who likes new ideas and likes telling other people about the neat things she just learned. But when things don't work the way she expected from the books, she doesn't follow up, experiment, or try to understand why. When her grandmother tries to explain something to her from a different angle, she blows her off and refuses to pay attention. And when she does get magic to work, she never tries to connect that to her previous understanding. I kept waiting for Ropa to try to build her own mental model of magic, but she would only toy with an idea for a few pages and then put it down and never mention it again.

This is not a fault in the book, just a mismatch between the book and what I wanted to read. All of this is consistent with Ropa's defensive strategies, emotional resiliency, and approach to understanding the world. (I strongly suspect Huchu was giving Ropa some ADHD characteristics, and if so, I think he got it spot on.) Given that, I tried to pivot to appreciating the characterization and the world, but that ran into another mismatch I had with this book, and the reason why I passed on it when it initially came out.

I tend to avoid fantasy novels about ghosts. This is not because I mind ghosts themselves, but I've learned from experience that authors who write about ghosts usually also write about other things that I don't want to read about. That unfortunately was the case here; The Library of the Dead was too far into horror for me. There's child abuse, drugs, body horror, and similar nastiness here, more than I wanted in my head. Ropa's full-speed-ahead attitude and refusal to dwell on anything made it a bit easier to read, but it was still too much for me.

Ropa is a great character who is refreshingly different than the typical urban fantasy protagonist, and the few hints of the magical library and world background we get were intriguing. This book was not for me, but I can see why other people will love it.

Followed by Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2023-01-17: Review: Forward

Review: Forward, by Blake Crouch (ed.)

Publisher Amazon Original Stories
Copyright September 2019
ISBN 1-5420-9206-X
ISBN 1-5420-4363-8
ISBN 1-5420-9357-0
ISBN 1-5420-0434-9
ISBN 1-5420-4363-8
ISBN 1-5420-4425-1
Format Kindle
Pages 300

This is another Amazon collection of short fiction, this time mostly at novelette length. (The longer ones might creep into novella.) As before, each one is available separately for purchase or Amazon Prime "borrowing," with separate ISBNs. The sidebar cover is for the first in the sequence. (At some point I need to update my page templates so that I can add multiple covers.)

N.K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, so I wanted to read and review it, but it would be too short for a standalone review. I therefore decided to read the whole collection and review it as an anthology.

This was a mistake. Learn from my mistake.

The overall theme of the collection is technological advance, rapid change, and the ethical and social question of whether we should slow technology because of social risk. Some of the stories stick to that theme more closely than others. Jemisin's story mostly ignores it, which was probably the right decision.

"Ark" by Veronica Roth: A planet-killing asteroid has been on its inexorable way towards Earth for decades. Most of the planet has been evacuated. A small group has stayed behind, cataloging samples and filling two remaining ships with as much biodiversity as they can find with the intent to leave at the last minute. Against that backdrop, two of that team bond over orchids.

If you were going "wait, what?" about the successful evacuation of Earth, yeah, me too. No hint is offered as to how this was accomplished. Also, the entirety of humanity abandoned mutual hostility and national borders to cooperate in the face of the incoming disaster, which is, uh, bizarrely optimistic for an otherwise gloomy story.

I should be careful about how negative I am about this story because I am sure it will be someone's favorite. I can even write part of the positive review: an elegiac look at loss, choices, and the meaning of a life, a moving look at how people cope with despair. The writing is fine, the story structure works; it's not a bad story. I just found it monumentally depressing, and was not engrossed by the emotionally abused protagonist's unresolved father issues. I can imagine a story around the same facts and plot that I would have liked much better, but all of these people need therapy and better coping mechanisms.

I'm also not sure what this had to do with the theme, given that the incoming asteroid is random chance and has nothing to do with technological development. (4)

"Summer Frost" by Blake Crouch: The best part of this story is the introductory sequence before the reader knows what's going on, which is full of evocative descriptions. I'm about to spoil what is going on, so if you want to enjoy that untainted by the stupidity of the rest of the plot, skip the rest of this story review.

We're going to have a glut of stories about the weird and obsessive form of AI risk invented by the fevered imaginations of the "rationalist" community, aren't we. I don't know why I didn't predict that. It's going to be just as annoying as the glut of cyberpunk novels written by people who don't understand computers.

Crouch lost me as soon as the setup is revealed. Even if I believed that a game company would use a deep learning AI still in learning mode to run an NPC (I don't; see Microsoft's Tay for an obvious reason why not), or that such an NPC would spontaneously start testing the boundaries of the game world (this is not how deep learning works), Crouch asks the reader to believe that this AI started as a fully scripted NPC in the prologue with a fixed storyline. In other words, the foundation of the story is that this game company used an AI model capable of becoming a general intelligence for barely more than a cut scene.

This is not how anything works.

The rest of the story is yet another variation on a science fiction plot so old and threadbare that Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics to avoid telling more versions of it. Crouch's contribution is to dress it up in the terminology of the excessively online. (The middle of the story features a detailed discussion of Roko's basilisk; if you recognize that, you know what you're in for.) Asimov would not have had a lesbian protagonist, so points for progress I guess, but the AI becomes more interesting to the protagonist than her wife and kid because of course it does. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but the destination is the bog-standard hard-takeoff general intelligence scenario.

One more pet peeve: Authors, stop trying to illustrate the growth of your AI by having it move from broken to fluent English. English grammar is so much easier than self-awareness or the Turing test that we had programs that could critique your grammar decades before we had believable chatbots. It's going to get grammar right long before the content of the words makes any sense. Also, your AI doesn't sound dumber, your AI sounds like someone whose native language doesn't use pronouns and helper verbs the way that English does, and your decision to use that as a marker for intelligence is, uh, maybe something you should think about. (3)

"Emergency Skin" by N.K. Jemisin: The protagonist is a heavily-augmented cyborg from a colony of Earth's diaspora. The founders of that colony fled Earth when it became obvious to them that the planet was dying. They have survived in another star system, but they need a specific piece of technology from the dead remnants of Earth. The protagonist has been sent to retrieve it.

The twist is that this story is told in the second-person perspective by the protagonist's ride-along AI, created from a consensus model of the rulers of the colony. We never see directly what the protagonist is doing or thinking, only the AI reaction to it. This is exactly the sort of gimmick that works much better in short fiction than at novel length. Jemisin uses it to create tension between the reader and the narrator, and I thoroughly enjoyed the effect. (As shown in the Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is one of the few writers who can use second-person effectively.)

I won't spoil the revelation, but it's barbed and biting and vicious and I loved it. Jemisin does deliver the point with a sledgehammer, so be aware of that if you want subtlety in your short fiction, but I prefer the bluntness. (This is part of why I usually don't get along with literary short stories.) The reader of course can't change the direction of the story, but the second-person perspective still provides a hit of vicarious satisfaction. I can see why this won the Hugo; it's worth seeking out. (8)

"You Have Arrived at Your Destination" by Amor Towles: Sam and his wife are having a child, and they've decided to provide him with an early boost in life. Vitek is a fertility lab, but more than that, it can do some gene tweaking and adjustment to push a child more towards one personality or another. Sam and his wife have spent hours filling out profiles, and his wife spent hours weeding possible choices down to three. Now, Sam has come to Vitek to pick from the remaining options.

Speaking of literary short stories, Towles is the non-SFF writer of this bunch, and it's immediately obvious. The story requires the SFnal premise, but after that this is a character piece. Vitek is an elite, expensive company with a condescending and overly-reductive attitude towards humanity, which is entirely intentional on the author's part. This is the sort of story that gets resolved in an unexpected conversation in a roadside bar, and where most of the conflict happens inside the protagonist's head.

I was initially going to complain that Towles does the standard literary thing of leaving off the denouement on the grounds that the reader can figure it out, but when I did a bit of re-reading for this review, I found more of the bones than I had noticed the first time. There's enough subtlety that I had to think for a bit and re-read a passage, but not too much. It's also the most thoughtful treatment of the theme of the collection, the only one that I thought truly wrestled with the weird interactions between technological capability and human foresight. Next to "Emergency Skin," this was the best story of the collection. (7)

"The Last Conversation" by Paul Tremblay: A man wakes up in a dark room, in considerable pain, not remembering anything about his life. His only contact with the world at first is a voice: a woman who is helping him recover his strength and his memory. The numbers that head the chapters have significant gaps, representing days left out of the story, as he pieces together what has happened alongside the reader.

Tremblay is the horror writer of the collection, so predictably this is the story whose craft I can admire without really liking it. In this case, the horror comes mostly from the pacing of revelation, created by the choice of point of view. (This would be a much different story from the perspective of the woman.) It's well-done, but it has the tendency I've noticed in other horror stories of being a tightly closed system. I see where the connection to the theme is, but it's entirely in the setting, not in the shape of the story.

Not my thing, but I can see why it might be someone else's. (5)

"Randomize" by Andy Weir: Gah, this was so bad.

First, and somewhat expectedly, it's a clunky throwback to a 1950s-style hard SF puzzle story. The writing is atrocious: wooden, awkward, cliched, and full of gratuitous infodumping. The characterization is almost entirely through broad stereotypes; the lone exception is the female character, who at least adds an interesting twist despite being forced to act like an idiot because of the plot. It's a very old-school type of single-twist story, but the ending is completely implausible and falls apart if you breathe on it too hard.

Weir is something of a throwback to an earlier era of scientific puzzle stories, though, so maybe one is inclined to give him a break on the writing quality. (I am not; one of the ways in which science fiction has improved is that you can get good scientific puzzles and good writing these days.) But the science is also so bad that I was literally facepalming while reading it.

The premise of this story is that quantum computers are commercially available. That will cause a serious problem for Las Vegas casinos, because the generator for keno numbers is vulnerable to quantum algorithms. The solution proposed by the IT person for the casino? A quantum random number generator. (The words "fight quantum with quantum" appear literally in the text if you're wondering how bad the writing is.)

You could convince me that an ancient keno system is using a pseudorandom number generator that might be vulnerable to some quantum algorithm and doesn't get reseeded often enough. Fine. And yes, quantum computers can be used to generate high-quality sources of random numbers. But this solution to the problem makes no sense whatsoever. It's like swatting a house fly with a nuclear weapon.

Weir says explicitly in the story that all the keno system needs is an external source of high-quality random numbers. The next step is to go to Amazon and buy a hardware random number generator. If you want to splurge, it might cost you $250. Problem solved. Yes, hardware random number generators have various limitations that may cause you problems if you need millions of bits or you need them very quickly, but not for something as dead-simple and with such low entropy requirements as keno numbers! You need a trivial number of bits for each round; even the slowest and most conservative hardware random number generator would be fine. Hell, measure the noise levels on the casino floor. Point a camera at a lava lamp. Or just buy one of the physical ball machines they use for the lottery. This problem is heavily researched, by casinos in particular, and is not significantly changed by the availability of quantum computers, at least for applications such as keno where the generator can be reseeded before each generation.

You could maybe argue that this is an excuse for the IT guy to get his hands on a quantum computer, which fits the stereotypes, but that still breaks the story for reasons that would be spoilers. As soon as any other casino thought about this, they'd laugh in the face of the characters.

I don't want to make too much of this, since anyone can write one bad story, but this story was dire at every level. I still owe Weir a proper chance at novel length, but I can't say this added to my enthusiasm. (2)

Rating: 4 out of 10

2023-01-16: Review: Night and Silence

Review: Night and Silence, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #12
Publisher DAW Books
Copyright 2018
ISBN 0-698-18353-3
Format Kindle
Pages 353

Night and Silence is the 12th book in Seanan McGuire's long-running October Daye Celtic-inspired urban fantasy series. This is a "read the books in order" sort of series; you definitely do not want to start here.

Gillian, Toby's estranged daughter, has been kidnapped. Her ex-husband and his new wife turn to her in desperation (although Miranda suspects Toby is the one who kidnapped her). Toby of course drops everything to find her, which she would have done regardless, but the obvious fear is that Gillian may have been kidnapped specifically to get at Toby. Meanwhile, the consequences of The Brightest Fell have put a severe strain on one of Toby's most important relationships, at the worst possible time.

Once again, this is when I say that McGuire's writing has a lot of obvious flaws, and then say that this book kept me up way past my bedtime for two nights in a row because it was nearly impossible to put down.

The primary quality flaw in these books, at least for me, is that Toby's thought processes have some deeply-worn grooves that she falls into time and time again. Since she's the first-person narrator of the series, that produces some repetitive writing. She feels incredibly lucky for her chosen family, she worries about her friends, she prizes loyalty very highly, she throws herself headlong into danger, and she thinks about these things in a background hum through every book. By this point, the reader knows all of this, so there's a lot of "yes, yes, we know" muttering that tends to happen.

McGuire also understands the importance of plot and character recaps at the start of each book for those of us who have forgotten what was happening (thank you!) but awkwardly writes them into the beginning of each book. That doesn't help with the sense of repetitiveness. If only authors would write stand-alone synopses of previous books in a series, or hire someone to do that if they can't stand to, the world would be a much better place. But now I'm repeating myself.

Once I get into a book, though, this doesn't matter at all. When Toby starts down a familiar emotional rut, I just read faster until I get to the next bit. Something about these books is incredibly grabby to me; once I get started on one, I devour it, and usually want to read the next one as soon as possible. Some of this is the cast, which at this point in the series is varied, entertaining, and full of the sort of casual banter that only people who have known each other for a long time can do. A lot of it is that Toby constantly moves forward. She ruminates and angsts and worries, but she never sits around and mopes. She does her thinking on the move. No matter how preoccupied she is with some emotional thread, something's going to happen on the next page.

Some of it is intangible, or at least beyond my ability to put a finger on. Some authors are good at writing grabby books, and at least for me McGuire is one of those authors.

Describing the plot in any detail without spoilers is hopeless this far into the series, but this is one of the big revelation books, and I suspect it's also going to be a significant tipping point in Toby's life. We finally find out what broke faerie, which has rather more to do with Toby and her family than one might have expected, explains some things about Amandine, and also (although this hasn't been spelled out yet) seems likely to explain some things about the Luidaeg's involvement in Toby's adventures. And there is another significant realignment of one of Toby's relationships that isn't fully developed here, but that I hope will be explored in future books.

There's also a lot about Tybalt that to be honest I found tedious and kind of frustrating (although not half as frustrating as Toby found it). I appreciate what McGuire was doing; some problems are tedious, frustrating, and repetitive because that's how one gets through them. The problem that Toby and Tybalt are wrestling with is realistic and underdiscussed in fiction of this type, so I respect the effort, and I'm not sure there was way to write through this that would have been more engrossing (and a bit less cliched). But, still, not my favorite part of this book. Thankfully, it was a mostly-ignorable side thread.

This was a substantial improvement over The Brightest Fell, which was both infuriating and on rails. Toby has much more agency here, the investigation was more interesting, and the lore and character fallout has me eager to read the next book. It's fun to see McGuire's world-building come together over this long of a series, and so far it has not disappointed.

Followed by The Unkindest Tide.

As has become usual, the book ends with a novella telling a story from a different perspective.

"Suffer a Sea-Change": The main novel was good. This was great.

"Suffer a Sea-Change" retells a critical part of the novel from Gillian's perspective, and then follows that thread of story past the end of the novel. I loved absolutely everything about this. Gillian is a great protagonist, similar to Toby but different enough to be a fresh voice. There is a ton of the Luidaeg, and through different eyes than Toby's which is fun. There's some great world-building and a few very memorable scenes. And there's also the beginning, the very small beginning, of the healing of a great injustice that's been haunting this series since the very beginning, and I am very much here for that. Great stuff. (9)

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-01-15: Review: The Truth

Review: The Truth, by Terry Pratchett

Series Discworld #25
Publisher Harper
Copyright November 2000
Printing August 2014
ISBN 0-06-230736-3
Format Mass market
Pages 435

The Truth is the 25th Discworld novel. Some reading order guides group it loosely into an "industrial revolution" sequence following Moving Pictures, but while there are thematic similarities I'll talk about in a moment, there's no real plot continuity. You could arguably start reading Discworld here, although you'd be spoiled for some character developments in the early Watch novels.

William de Worde is paid to write a newsletter. That's not precisely what he calls it, and it's not clear whether his patrons know that he publishes it that way. He's paid to report on news of Ankh-Morpork that may be of interest of various rich or influential people who are not in Ankh-Morpork, and he discovered the best way to optimize this was to write a template of the newsletter, bring it to an engraver to make a plate of it, and run off copies for each of his customers, with some minor hand-written customization. It's a comfortable living for the estranged younger son of a wealthy noble. As the story opens, William is dutifully recording the rumor that dwarfs have discovered how to turn lead into gold.

The rumor is true, although not in the way that one might initially assume.

The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. This is a fact well known even to Corporal Nobbs. It's also wrong. There's a fifth element, and generally it's called Surprise.

For example, the dwarfs found out how to turn lead into gold by doing it the hard way. The difference between that and the easy way is that the hard way works.

The dwarfs used the lead to make a movable type printing press, which is about to turn William de Worde's small-scale, hand-crafted newsletter into a newspaper.

The movable type printing press is not unknown technology. It's banned technology, because the powers that be in Ankh-Morpork know enough to be deeply suspicious of it. The religious establishment doesn't like it because words are too important and powerful to automate. The nobles and the Watch don't like it because cheap words cause problems. And the engraver's guild doesn't like it for obvious reasons. However, Lord Vetinari knows that one cannot apply brakes to a volcano, and commerce with the dwarfs is very important to the city. The dwarfs can continue. At least for now.

As in Moving Pictures, most of The Truth is an idiosyncratic speedrun of the social effects of a new technology, this time newspapers. William has no grand plan; he's just an observant man who likes to write, cares a lot about the truth, and accidentally stumbles into editing a newspaper. (This, plus being an estranged son of a rich family, feels very on-point for journalism.) His naive belief is that people want to read true things, since that's what his original patrons wanted. Truth, however, may not be in the top five things people want from a newspaper.

This setup requires some narrative force to push it along, which is provided by a plot to depose Vetinari by framing him for murder. The most interesting part of that story is Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, the people hired to do the framing and then dispose of the evidence. They're a classic villain type: the brains and the brawn, dangerous, terrifying, and willing to do horrible things to people. But one thing Pratchett excels at is taking a standard character type, turning it a bit sideways, and stuffing in things that one wouldn't think would belong. In this case, that's Mr. Tulip's deep appreciation for, and genius grasp of, fine art. It should not work to have the looming, awful person with anger issues be able to identify the exact heritage of every sculpture and fine piece of goldsmithing, and yet somehow it does.

Also as in Moving Pictures (and, in a different way, Soul Music), Pratchett tends to anthropomorphize technology, giving it a life and motivations of its own. In this case, that's William's growing perception of the press as an insatiable maw into which one has to feed words. I'm usually dubious of shifting agency from humans to things when doing social analysis (and there's a lot of social analysis here), but I have to concede that Pratchett captures something deeply true about the experience of feedback loops with an audience. A lot of what Pratchett puts into this book about the problematic relationship between a popular press and the truth is obvious and familiar, but he also makes some subtle points about the way the medium shapes what people expect from it and how people produce content for it that are worthy of Marshall McLuhan.

The interactions between William and the Watch were less satisfying. In our world, the US press is, with only rare exceptions, a thoughtless PR organ for police propaganda and the exonerative tense. Pratchett tackles that here... sort of. William vaguely grasps that his job as a reporter may be contrary to the job of the Watch to maintain order, and Vimes's ambivalent feelings towards "solving crimes" push the story in that direction. But this is also Vimes, who is clearly established as one of the good sort and therefore is a bad vehicle for talking about how the police corrupt the press. Pratchett has Vimes and Vetinari tacitly encourage William, which works within the story but takes the pressure off the conflict and leaves William well short of understanding the underlying politics. There's a lot more that could be said about the tension between the press and the authorities, but I think the Discworld setup isn't suitable for it.

This is the sort of book that benefits from twenty-four volumes of backstory and practice. Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork cast ticks along like a well-oiled machine, which frees up space that would otherwise have to be spent on establishing secondary characters. The result is a lot of plot and social analysis shoved into a standard-length Discworld novel, and a story that's hard to put down. The balance between humor and plot is just about perfect, the references and allusions aren't overwhelming, and the supporting characters, both new and old, are excellent. We even get a good Death sequence. This is solid, consistent stuff: Discworld as a mature, well-developed setting with plenty of stories left to tell.

Followed by Thief of Time in publication order, and later by Monstrous Regiment in the vaguely-connected industrial revolution sequence.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-01-08: Review: Black Stars

Review: Black Stars, by Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson (ed.)

Publisher Amazon Original Stories
Copyright August 2021
ISBN 1-5420-3272-5
ISBN 1-5420-3270-9
ISBN 1-5420-3271-7
ISBN 1-5420-3273-3
ISBN 1-5420-3268-7
ISBN 1-5420-3269-5
Format Kindle
Pages 168

This is a bit of an odd duck from a metadata standpoint. Black Stars is a series of short stories (maybe one creeps into novelette range) published by Amazon for Kindle and audiobook. Each one can be purchased separately (or "borrowed" with Amazon Prime), and they have separate ISBNs, so my normal practice would be to give each its own review. They're much too short for that, though, so I'm reviewing the whole group as an anthology.

The cover in the sidebar is for the first story of the series. The other covers have similar designs. I think the one for "We Travel the Spaceways" was my favorite.

Each story is by a Black author and most of them are science fiction. ("The Black Pages" is fantasy.) I would classify them as afrofuturism, although I don't have a firm grasp on its definition.

This anthology included several authors I've been meaning to read and was conveniently available, so I gave it a try, even though I'm not much of a short fiction reader. That will be apparent in the forthcoming grumbling.

"The Visit" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This is a me problem rather than a story problem, and I suspect it's partly because the story is not for me, but I am very done with gender-swapped sexism. I get the point of telling stories of our own society with enough alienation to force the reader to approach them from a fresh angle, but the problem with a story where women are sexist and condescending to men is that you're still reading a story of condescending sexism. That's particularly true when the analogies to our world are more obvious than the internal logic of the story world, as they are here.

"The Visit" tells the story of a reunion between two college friends, one of whom is now a stay-at-home husband and the other of whom has stayed single. There's not much story beyond that, just obvious political metaphor (the Male Masturbatory Act to ensure no potential child is wasted, blatant harrassment of the two men by female cops) and depressing character studies. Everyone in this story is an ass except maybe Obinna's single friend Eze, which means there's nothing to focus on except the sexism. The writing is competent and effective, but I didn't care in the slightest about any of these people or anything that was happening in their awful, dreary world. (4)

"The Black Pages" by Nnedi Okorafor: Issaka has been living in Chicago, but the story opens with him returning to Timbouctou where he grew up. His parents know he's coming for a visit, but he's a week early as a surprise. Unfortunately, he's arriving at the same time as an al-Qaeda attack on the library. They set it on fire, but most of the books they were trying to destroy were already saved by his father and are now in Issaka's childhood bedroom.

Unbeknownst to al-Qaeda, one of the books they did burn was imprisoning a djinn. A djinn who is now free and resident in Issaka's iPad.

This was a great first chapter of a novel. The combination of a modern setting and a djinn trapped in books with an instant affinity with technology was great. Issaka is an interesting character who is well-placed to introduce the reader to the setting, and I was fully invested in Issaka and Faro negotiating their relationship. Then the story just stopped. I didn't understand the ending, which was probably me being dim, but the real problem was that I was not at all ready for an ending. I would read the novel this was setting up, though. (6)

"2043... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" by Nisi Shawl: This is another story that felt like the setup for a novel, although not as good of a novel. The premise is that the United States has developed biological engineering that allows humans to live underwater for extended periods (although they still have to surface occasionally for air, like whales). The use to which that technology is being put is a rerun of Liberia with less colonialism: Blacks are given the option to be modified into merpeople and live under the sea off the US coast as a solution. White supremacists are not happy, of course, and try to stop them from claiming their patch of ocean floor.

This was fine, as far as it went, but I wasn't fond of the lead character and there wasn't much plot. There was some sort of semi-secret plan that the protagonist stumbles across and that never made much sense to me. The best parts of the story were the underwater setting and the semi-realistic details about the merman transformation. (6)

"These Alien Skies" by C.T. Rwizi: In the far future, humans are expanding across the galaxy via automatically-constructed wormhole gates. Msizi's job is to be the first ship through a new wormhole to survey the system previously reached only by the AI construction ship. The wormhole is not supposed to explode shortly after he goes through, leaving him stranded in an alien system with only his companion Tariro, who is not who she seems to be.

This was a classic SF plot, but I still hadn't guessed where it was going, or the relevance of some undiscussed bits of Tariro's past. Once the plot happens, it's a bit predictable, but I enjoyed it despite the depressed protagonist. (6)

"Clap Back" by Nalo Hopkinson: Apart from "The Visit," this was the most directly political of the stories. It opens with Wenda, a protest artist, whose final class project uses nanotech to put racist tchotchkes to an unexpected use. This is intercut with news clippings about a (white and much richer) designer who has found a way to embed memories into clothing and is using this to spread quotes of rather pointed "forgiveness" from a Malawi quilt.

This was one of the few entries in this anthology that fit the short story shape for me. Wenda's project and Burri's clothing interact fifty years later in a surprising way. This was the second-best story of the group. (7)

"We Travel the Spaceways" by Victor LaValle: Grimace (so named because he wears a huge purple coat) is a homeless man in New York who talks to cans. Most of his life is about finding food, but the cans occasionally give him missions and provide minor assistance. Apart from his cans, he's very much alone, but when he comforts a woman in McDonalds (after getting caught thinking about stealing her cheeseburger), he hopes he may have found a partner. If, that is, she still likes him when she discovers the nature of the cans' missions.

This was the best-written story of the six. Grimace is the first-person narrator, and LaValle's handling of characterization and voice is excellent. Grimace makes perfect sense from inside his head, but the reader can also see how unsettling he is to those around him. This could have been a disturbing, realistic story about a schitzophrenic man. As one may have guessed from the theme of the anthology, that's not what it is.

I admired the craft of this story, but I found Grimace's missions too horrific to truly like it. There is an in-story justification for them; suffice it to say that I didn't find it believable. An expansion with considerably more detail and history might have bridged that gap, but alas, short fiction. (6)

Rating: 6 out of 10

2023-01-07: Review: Postwar

Review: Postwar, by Tony Judt

Publisher Penguin Books
Copyright 2005
ISBN 1-4406-2476-3
Format Kindle
Pages 835

Tony Judt (1948–2010) was a British-American historian and Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University. Postwar is his magnum opus, a history of Europe from 1945 to 2005.

A book described as a history of Europe could be anything from a textbook to a political analysis, so the first useful question to ask is what sort of history. That's a somewhat difficult question to answer. Postwar mentions a great deal of conventional history, including important political movements and changes of government, but despite a stated topic that would suit a survey textbook, it doesn't provide that sort of list of facts and dates. Judt expects the reader to already be familiar with the broad outlines of modern European history. However, Postwar is also not a specialty history and avoids diving too deep into any one area. Trends in art, philosophy, and economics are all mentioned to set a broader context, but still only at the level of a general survey.

My best description is that Postwar is a comprehensive social and political history that attempts to focus less on specific events and more on larger trends of thought. Judt grounds his narrative in concrete, factual events, but the emphasis is on how those living in Europe, at each point in history, thought of their society, their politics, and their place in both. Most of the space goes to exploring those nuances of thought and day-to-day life.

In the US university context, I'd place this book as an intermediate-level course in modern European history, after the survey course that provides students with a basic framework but before graduate-level specializations in specific topics. If you have not had a solid basic education in European history (and my guess is that most people from the US have not), Judt will provide the necessary signposts, but you should expect to need to look up the signposts you don't recognize. I, as the dubious beneficiary of a US high school history education now many decades in the past, frequently resorted to Wikipedia for additional background.

Postwar uses a simple chronological structure in four parts: the immediate post-war years and the beginning of the Cold War (1945–1953), the era of rapidly growing western European prosperity (1953–1971), the years of recession and increased turmoil leading up to the collapse of communism (1971–1989), and the aftermath of the collapse of communism and the rise of the European Union (1989–2005). Each part is divided into four to eight long chapters that trace a particular theme. Judt usually starts with the overview of a theme and then follows the local manifestations of it on a spiral through European countries in whatever order seems appropriate. For the bulk of the book that covers the era of the Cold War, when experiences were drastically different inside or outside the Soviet bloc, he usually separates western and eastern Europe into alternating chapters.

Reviewing this sort of book is tricky because so much will depend on how well you already know the topic. My interest in history is strictly amateur and I tend to avoid modern history (usually I find it too depressing), so for me this book was remedial, filling in large knowledge gaps that I ideally shouldn't have had. Postwar was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I think I'm safe saying you won't go far wrong reading it, but here's the necessary disclaimer that the rest of my reactions may not be useful if you're better versed in modern European history than I was. (This would not be difficult.)

That said, I found Postwar invaluable because of its big-picture focus. The events and dates are easy enough to find on the Internet; what was missing for me in understanding Europe was the intent and social structures created by and causing those events. For example, from early in the book:

On one thing, however, all were agreed — resisters and politicians alike: "planning". The disasters of the inter-war decades — the missed opportunities after 1918, the great depression that followed the stock-market crash of 1929, the waste of unemployment, the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism that had led so many into authoritarian temptation, the brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class — all seemed to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better. If democracy was to work, if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned.

It's one thing to be familiar with the basic economic and political arguments between degrees of free market and planned economies. It's quite another to understand how the appeal of one approach or the discredit of another stems from recent historical experience, and that's what a good history can provide.

Judt does not hesitate to draw these sorts of conclusions, and I'm sure some of them are controversial. But while he's opinionated, he's rarely ideological, and he offers no grand explanations. His discussion of the Yugoslav Wars stands out as an example: he mentions various theories of blame (a fraught local ethnic history, the decision by others to not intervene until the situation was truly dire), but largely discards them. Judt's offered explanation is that local politicians saw an opportunity to gain power by inflaming ethnic animosity, and a large portion of the population participated in this process, either passively or eagerly. Other explanations are both unnecessarily complex and too willing to deprive Yugoslavs of agency. I found this refreshingly blunt. When is more complex analysis a way to diffuse responsibility and cling to an ideological fantasy that the right foreign policy would have resolved a problem?

A few personal grumblings do creep in, particularly in the chapters on the 1970s (and I think it's not a coincidence that this matches Judt's own young adulthood, a time when one is prone to forming a lot of opinions). There is a brief but stinging criticism of postmodernism in scholarship, which I thought was justified but probably incomplete, and a decidedly grumpy dismissal of punk music, which I thought was less fair. But these are brief asides that don't detract from the overall work. Indeed, they, along with the occasional wry asides ("respecting long-established European practice, no one asked the Poles for their views [on Poland's new frontiers]") add a lot of character.

Insofar as this book has a thesis, it's in the implications of the title: Europe only exited the postwar period at the end of the 20th century. Political stability through exhaustion, the overwhelming urgency of economic recovery, and the degree to which the Iron Curtain and the Cold War froze eastern Europe in amber meant that full European recovery from World War II was drawn out and at times suspended. It's only after 1989 and its subsequent upheavals that European politics were able to move beyond postwar concerns. Some of that movement was a reemergence of earlier European politics of nations and ethnic conflict. But, new on the scene, was a sense of identity as Europeans, one that western Europe circled warily and eastern Europe saw as the only realistic path forward.

What binds Europeans together, even when they are deeply critical of some aspect or other of its practical workings, is what it has become conventional to call — in disjunctive but revealing contrast with "the American way of life" — the "European model of society".

Judt also gave me a new appreciation of how traumatic people find the assignment of fault, and how difficult it is to wrestle with guilt without providing open invitations to political backlash. People will go to great lengths to not feel guilty, and pressing the point runs a substantial risk of creating popular support for ideological movements that are willing to lie to their followers. The book's most memorable treatment of this observation is in the epilogue, which traces popular European attitudes towards the history of the Holocaust through the whole time period.

The largest problem with this book is that it is dense and very long. I'm a fairly fast reader, but this was the only book I read through most of my holiday vacation and it still took a full week into the new year to finish it. By the end, I admit I was somewhat exhausted and ready to be finished with European history for a while (although the epilogue is very much worth waiting for). If you, unlike me, can read a book slowly among other things, that may be a good tactic.

But despite feeling like this was a slog at times, I'm very glad that I read it. I'm not sure if someone with a firmer grounding in European history would have gotten as much out of it, but I, at least, needed something this comprehensive to wrap my mind around the timeline and fill in some embarrassing gaps. Judt is not the most entertaining writer (although he has his moments), and this is not the sort of popular history that goes out of its way to draw you in, but I found it approachable and clear. If you're looking for a solid survey of modern European history with this type of high-level focus, recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2023-01-01: 2022 Book Reading in Review

In 2022, much to my surprise, I finished and reviewed 51 books, a substantial increase over last year and once again the best year for reading since 2012. (I read 60 books that year, so it's a hard mark to equal.) Reading throughout the year was a bit uneven; I avoided the summer slump this year, but still slowed down in early spring and September. As always, the tail end of the year was prime reading time.

The best book of the year was the third and concluding book of Naomi Novik's Scholomance series, The Golden Enclaves. I thought she nailed the ending of an already excellent series, propelling it to the top ranks of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I'm a primarily character-driven reader, and El's first-person perspective was my favorite narrative voice in a very long time. The supporting characters are also wonderful (Liesel!). Highly recommended.

Fiction highlights of the year were plentiful. It started off strong with Natalie Zina Walschots's cynical and biting superhero novel Hench and continued in a much different vein with Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky, which has a bit less plot focus than some of his other fantasies but makes up for it in memorable character relationships. Ryka Aoki's Light from Uncommon Stars is a moving story of what it means to truly support someone else and should have won the best novel Hugo. And, finally, Miles Cameron's Artifact Space was a delight; one of the best military SF novels I've read in a long time.

There was no true stand-out non-fiction book this year, but the first book I finished in 2022, Adam Tooze's Crashed, is now my favorite story of the 2008 financial collapse, in large part because he extends the story to the subsequent European financial crisis. Jo Walton's collection of book discussion columns, What Makes This Book So Great, also deserves a mention and is guaranteed to add to your reading backlog.

My large review project of the year was finally making substantial inroads into Terry Pratchett's long Discworld series. That accounted for eight of the books I read this year, and is likely to account for a similar number next year since I'm following the Tor.com Discworld re-read. I think my favorite of that bunch was Maskerade, but I also enjoyed all of the Watch novels in the group (Feet of Clay, Jingo, and The Fifth Elephant).

My other hope for the year was to mix in older books from my reading backlog and not just focus on new (to me) acquisitions. A little bit of that happened, but not as much as I had been hoping for. This continues to be a goal in 2023.

The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

2022-12-29: Last 2022 haul

It's been a while since I posted a haul, and I've been reading primarily recent purchases, so I've already read and reviewed a bunch of these.

Ilona Andrews — Sweep of the Heart (sff)
Becky Chambers — A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (sff)
Lauren Groff — Matrix (mainstream)
Tendai Huchu — The Library of the Dead (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — The World We Make (sff)
Courtney Milan — The Governess Affair (romance)
Tamsyn Muir — Nona the Ninth (sff)
Naomi Novik — The Golden Enclaves (sff)
Rebecca Solnit — Orwell's Roses (non-fiction)
T. Kingfisher — Illuminations (sff)

I've been trying to slow down on new acquisitions until I finish more of the recent books I bought (with some success!).

2022-12-28: Review: Sweep of the Heart

Review: Sweep of the Heart, by Ilona Andrews

Series Innkeeper Chronicles #6
Publisher NYLA Publishing
Copyright 2022
ISBN 1-64197-239-4
Format Kindle
Pages 440

Sweep of the Heart is the sixth book of the sci-fi urban fantasy, kitchen-sink-worldbuilding Innkeeper series by husband and wife writing pair Ilona Andrews, assuming one counts the novella Sweep with Me as a full entry (which I do). It's a direct sequel to One Fell Sweep, but also references the events of Sweep of the Blade and Sweep with Me enough to spoil them. Needless to say, don't start here.

As always with this series, the book was originally published as a serial on Ilona Andrews's blog. I prefer to read my novels as novels, so I wait until the entries are collected and published, but you can read it on-line for free if you want.

Sean and Dina's old friend Wilmos has been kidnapped by an enemy who looks familiar from One Fell Sweep. To get him back, they need to get to a world that is notoriously inaccessible. One player in galactic politics may be able to offer a portal, but it will come as a price.

That price? Host a reality TV show. Specifically, a sci-fi version of The Bachelor, with aliens. And the bachelor is the ruler of a galactic empire, whose personal safety is now Dina's responsibility.

There is a hand-waving explanation for why the Seven Star Dominion does spouse selection for their rulers this way, but let's be honest: it's a fairly transparent excuse to write a season of The Bachelor with strange aliens, political intrigue, inn-generated special effects and wallpaper-worthy backdrops, ulterior motives, and attempted murder. Oh, and competence porn, as Dina once again demonstrates just how good she's become at being an innkeeper.

I'm not much of a reality TV fan, have never watched The Bachelor, and still thoroughly enjoyed this. It helps that the story is more about political intrigue than it is about superficial attraction or personal infighting, and the emperor at the center of the drama is calm, thoughtful, and juggling a large number of tricky problems (which Dina, somewhat improbably, becomes privy to). The contestants range from careful diplomats with hidden political goals to eye candy with the subtlety of a two by four, the latter sponsored by sentient murderous trees, so there's a delightful variety of tone and a ton of narrative momentum. A few of the twists and turns were obvious, but some of the cliches are less cliched than they initially look.

This series always leans towards "play with every toy in the toy box at once!" rather than subtle and realistic. This entry is no exception, but the mish-mash of science fiction tropes with nigh-unlimited fantasy power is, as usual, done with so much verve and sheer creative joy that I can't help but love it.

We do finally learn Caldenia's past, and... I kind of wish we hadn't? Or at least that her past had been a bit more complicated. I will avoid spoiling it by saying too much, but I thought it was an oddly flat and overdone trope that made Caldenia substantially less interesting than she was before this revelation.

That was one mild disappointment. The other is that the opening of Sweep of the Heart teases some development of the overall series plot, but that remains mostly a tease. Wilmos's kidnapping and any relevance to deeper innkeeper problems is, at least in this entry, merely a framing story for the reality TV show that constitutes the bulk of the novel. There are a few small revelations in the conclusion, but only the type that raise more questions. Hopefully we'll get more series plot development in the next book, but even if we don't, I'm happily along for the ride.

If you like this series, this is more of the thing you already like. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it (start with Clean Sweep). It's not great literature, and most of the trappings will be familiar from a dozen other novels and TV shows, but it's unabashed fun with loads of competence porn and a wild internal logic that grows on you over time. Also, it has one of the most emotionally satisfying sentient buildings in SF.

There will, presumably, be more entries in the series, but they have not yet been announced.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2022-12-25: podlators 5.01

podlators is the Perl distribution providing Pod::Man and Pod::Text, along with related modules and supporting scripts.

The primary change in this release is the addition of configurable guesswork for Pod::Text, paralleling Pod::Man. I had forgotten that Pod::Text also had complex heuristics for whether to quote C<> text that have the same Perl-specific properties as Pod::Man. This is now configurable via a guesswork option, the same as in Pod::Man, although the only type of guesswork supported is quoting. I also updated the default regexes, which include some fixes from Pod::Man.

Thanks to discussion with G. Branden Robinson, I now understand quoting in roff considerably better, which let me fix a few obscure bugs with strange page titles or configured quote characters. Pod::Man now avoids quoting macro arguments when the quoting is unnecessary, which should hopefully produce slightly more readable output.

Finally, I had started using a Pod::Simple feature introduced in 3.26 in Pod::Text but forgot to update the dependency, resulting in test failures on some old versions of Perl. (The same tests didn't fail in GitHub CI, which is probably related to how I install dependencies.) That's been fixed in this release.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the podlators distribution page.

2022-12-25: rra-c-util 10.3

This is a minor feature and bug fix release of my collection of utilities and tests intended for copying into other packages I maintain.

The new feature is an additional Perl test using Test::Kwalitee to check a few more things about the Perl packaging, and a MANIFEST.SKIP file that is suitable for copying as-is into most Perl packages.

On the bug fix side, the portable/getnameinfo test now skips some tests rather than failing on systems that are strange enough that someone has put 0.0.0.0 into DNS, and some small fixes for M4 macros. All the bug fixes are thanks to Julien ÉLIE.

You can get the latest release from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2022-12-20: Review: Shutdown

Review: Shutdown, by Adam Tooze

Publisher Viking
Copyright September 2021
ISBN 0-593-29756-3
Format Kindle
Pages 305

Shutdown is a history of the world macroeconomic response to COVID-19, covering 2020 and the very beginning of 2021.

But wait, you might be saying. It's only the end of 2022 right now, and this book was published in September of 2021. That's not history, that's journalism. And yes, I think that's a valid critique. Shutdown is doing something rather odd, and I'm not certain it was a good idea, but I do think it has a (somewhat narrow) audience.

Descriptions first. After an awkward introduction (more on that later), Tooze launches into an essentially chronological history in four parts: the initial viral spread and early political and public health response, the economic hard stop and macroeconomic response, the summer fallout and political complications, and the more-organized aftershocks of the fall. The early chapters are closer to a history, with a clear timeline and the tracery of cause and effect. The closer the narrative comes to the time Tooze was writing it, the more that clarity drops away. The last few chapters feel like a collection of simultaneous events that may or may not be related or have long-term significance.

Everyone reading this lived through those events, and if you're at all like me, consumed far more news coverage of them than was healthy. The obvious question, then, is why read a book that rehashes all of that? For me, there are two answers: Tooze pays attention to more of the world than makes it into the local headlines and tries to synthesize a larger picture, and the focus of this book is the macroeconomic facilities used in the response. I remember the fights over school closures in the US. I didn't know about the impact of unprecedented Federal Reserve action on the bond market for emerging market government debt.

If you're the sort of person who reads The Economist religiously (which I am not), you may not learn anything new here. If you're not, and you have a general interest in international finance, there were probably some wrinkles you missed. Even if you stay up-to-date on the more technical news, Shutdown provides an intermediate consolidation and restructuring. It's not ready to be a history in the traditional sense, but it's a first pass at putting events in order and tracing the implications for the global financial system.

Read in that sense, Shutdown felt like a continuation of Tooze's Crashed, following the same themes of a hegemonic but unstable dollar system and a Federal Reserve that has increasingly taken on the role of backstop to the entire world (and how the only tools it has available tend to increase wealth inequality). If you've not read Crashed, read it first. I think it's the stronger and more thorough book (not the least because it had more time and data to construct a coherent history), and it's the best introduction to the international macroeconomic risks that Tooze traces in Shutdown. This book was, for me, an update of the Tooze's thinking in Crashed for the COVID era.

Tooze is very good at clearly describing macroeconomic shocks. I recently read Lev Menand's The Fed Unbound, which is in part about the same intervention during the COVID shock that Tooze describes here, and yet it wasn't until I read Shutdown that I grasped that the Treasury purchases by the Fed had arguably crossed the political red line of monetizing government debt, even though the Fed probably had no choice and few people noticed in the middle of the crisis. This is where Tooze's background as a historian is helpful. Most people writing on this topic are either economists, who seem to take inferences like that for granted and dive into the technical debate, or journalists, who rarely understand the nuance and often jump to facile conclusions. Tooze is a historian with an extensive economics background; he can explain the mechanics while still focusing on the limitations of politics, which is the sort of analysis that I want to read.

The problem with this book as a history is that it necessarily raises more questions than it answers. In the conclusion, Tooze writes:

A severe tightening in U.S. monetary policy or even a full-fledged taper tantrum would put global resilience to a stern test. So too would a violent escalation of geopolitical tension in one of the major regions of the world economy.

Both of those events have subsequently happened, which throws any tentative conclusions Tooze can offer into question.

For another example, when Tooze wrote Shutdown, China's zero COVID policy was widely celebrated inside China and had enabled a fast economic recovery while the rest of the world was still in serious difficulty. Before Omicron, it was conceivable (if extremely risky) that China could continue to avoid a major COVID surge. In December of 2022, it's obvious they only managed to delay, and while delay meant vaccination and the price in deaths may well be smaller than was paid for the route taken by most of the rest of the world, the trade-offs are now even harder to analyze.

There are, of course, other examples, the most obvious of which is the rise of global inflation simultaneous with a strengthening dollar. A history written from a distance of several decades would have included that aftermath. A snap history with a distance of only a few months cannot.

The other problem with this book is that it's not as polished. Viking did an amazing job turning publication around in roughly six months, dramatically faster than publishing normally works, but there are parts that could have used more editing. The introduction, in particular, reads more like a blog post than an edited book, and while I'm a happy reader of Tooze's Chartbook, the recap of COVID's impact was a bit trite and Tooze's abstract musings on polycrisis could have used tightening and clarity. The meat of the book is better, but there is a messy stream-of-consciousness feel that is inherent in a book written to this tight of a timeline.

I think the audience of this book is, narrowly, people who have read Crashed and want to follow that line of reasoning into the COVID era. Crashed is one of the better books on macroeconomic history that I've read, and I did indeed want to follow that train of thought, so I am part of that audience. This is not the sort of book that I would widely recommend, however. If you want to read it, you probably know that already; if you are new to Tooze's analysis, Crashed is the place to start.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-12-19: Review: Tess of the Road

Review: Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

Series Tess of the Road #1
Publisher Random House
Copyright 2018
Printing 2022
ISBN 1-101-93130-2
Format Kindle
Pages 536

Tess of the Road is the first book of a YA fantasy duology set in the same universe as Seraphina and Shadow Scale.

It's hard to decide what to say about reading order (and I now appreciate the ambiguous answers I got). Tess of the Road is a sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale in the sense that there are numerous references to the previous duology, but it has a different protagonist and different concerns. You don't need to read the other duology first, but Tess of the Road will significantly spoil the resolution of the romance plot in Seraphina, and it will be obvious that you've skipped over background material. That said, Shadow Scale is not a very good book, and this is a much better book.

I guess the summary is this: if you're going to read the first duology, read it first, but don't feel obligated to do so.

Tess was always a curious, adventurous, and some would say unmanageable girl, nothing like her twin. Jeanne is modest, obedient, virtuous, and practically perfect in every way. Tess is not; after a teenage love affair resulting in an out-of-wedlock child and a boy who disappeared rather than marry her, their mother sees no alternative but to lie about which of the twins is older. If Jeanne can get a good match among the nobility, the family finances may be salvaged. Tess's only remaining use is to help her sister find a match, and then she can be shuffled off to a convent.

Tess throws herself into court politics and does exactly what she's supposed to. She engineers not only a match, but someone Jeanne sincerely likes. Tess has never lacked competence. But this changes nothing about her mother's view of her, and Tess is depressed, worn, and desperately miserable in Jeanne's moment of triumph. Jeanne wants Tess to stay and become the governess of her eventual children, retaining their twin bond of the two of them against the world. Their older sister Seraphina, more perceptively, tries to help her join an explorer's expedition. Tess, in a drunken spiral of misery, insults everyone and runs away, with only a new pair of boots and a pack of food.

This is going to be one of those reviews where the things I didn't like are exactly the things other readers liked. I see why people loved this book, and I wish I had loved it too. Instead, I liked parts of it a great deal and found other parts frustrating or a bit too off-putting. Mostly this is a preference problem rather than a book problem.

My most objective complaint is the pacing, which was also my primary complaint about Shadow Scale. It was not hard to see where Hartman was going with the story, I like that story, I was on board with going there, but getting there took for-EV-er. This is a 536 page book that I would have edited to less than 300 pages. It takes nearly a hundred pages to get Tess on the road, and while some of that setup is necessary, I did not want to wallow in Tess's misery and appalling home life for quite that long.

A closely related problem is that Hartman continues to love flashbacks. Even after Tess has made her escape, we get the entire history of her awful teenage years slowly dribbled out over most of the book. Sometimes this is revelatory; mostly it's depressing. I had guessed the outlines of what had happened early in the book (it's not hard), and that was more than enough motivation for me, but Hartman was determined to make the reader watch every crisis and awful moment in detail. This is exactly what some readers want, and sometimes it's even what I want, but not here. I found the middle of the book, where the story is mostly flashbacks and flailing, to be an emotional slog.

Part of the problem is that Tess has an abusive mother and goes through the standard abuse victim process of being sure that she's the one who's wrong and that her mother is justified in her criticism. This is certainly realistic, and it eventually lead to some satisfying catharsis as Tess lets go of her negative self-image. But Tess's mother is a narcissistic religious fanatic with a persecution complex and not a single redeeming quality whatsoever, and I loathed reading about her, let alone reading Tess tiptoeing around making excuses for her. The point of this in the story is for Tess to rebuild her self-image, and I get it, and I'm sure this will work for some readers, but I wanted Tess's mother (and the rest of her family except her sisters) to be eaten by dragons. I do not like the emotional experience of hating a character in a book this much.

Where Tess of the Road is on firmer ground is when Tess has an opportunity to show her best qualities, such as befriending a quigutl in childhood and, in the sort of impulsive decision that shows her at her best, learning their language. (For those who haven't read the previous books, quigutls are a dog-sized subspecies of dragon that everyone usually treats like intelligent animals, although they're clearly more than that.) Her childhood quigutl friend Pathka becomes her companion on the road, which both gives her wanderings some direction and adds some useful character interaction.

Pathka comes with a plot that is another one of those elements that I think will work for some readers but didn't work for me. He's in search of a Great Serpent, a part of quigutl mythology that neither humans or dragons pay attention to. That becomes the major plot of the novel apart from Tess's emotional growth. Pathka also has a fraught relationship with his own family, which I think was supposed to parallel Tess's relationships but never clicked for me. I liked Tess's side of this relationship, but Pathka is weirdly incomprehensible and apparently fickle in ways that I found unsatisfying. I think Hartman was going for an alien tone that didn't quite work for me.

This is a book that gets considerably better as it goes along, and the last third of the book was great. I didn't like being dragged through the setup, but I loved the character Tess became. Once she reaches the road crew, this was a book full of things that I love reading about. The contrast between her at the start of the book and the end is satisfying and rewarding. Tess's relationship with her twin Jeanne deserves special mention; their interaction late in the book is note-perfect and much better than I had expected.

Unfortunately, Tess of the Road doesn't have a real resolution. It's only the first half of Tess's story, which comes back to that pacing problem. Ah well.

I enjoyed this but I didn't love it. The destination was mostly worth the journey, but I thought the journey was much too long and I had to spend too much time in the company of people I hated far more intensely than was comfortable. I also thought the middle of the book sagged, a problem I have now had with two out of three of Hartman's books. But I can see why other readers with slightly different preferences loved it. I'm probably invested enough to read the sequel, although I'm a bit grumbly that the sequel is necessary.

Followed by In the Serpent's Wake.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2022-12-18: Review: Artifact Space

Review: Artifact Space, by Miles Cameron

Series Arcana Imperii #1
Publisher Gollancz
Copyright June 2021
ISBN 1-4732-3262-7
Format Kindle
Pages 483

Artifact Space is a military (mostly) science fiction novel, the first of an expected trilogy. Christian Cameron is a prolific author of historical fiction under that name, thrillers under the name Gordon Kent, and historical fantasy under the name Miles Cameron. This is his first science fiction novel.

Marca Nbaro is descended from one of the great spacefaring mercantile families, but it's not doing her much good. She is a ward of the Orphanage, the boarding school for orphaned children of the DHC, generous in theory and a hellhole in practice. Her dream to serve on one of the Greatships, the enormous interstellar vessels that form the backbone of the human trading network, has been blocked by the school authorities, a consequence of the low-grade war she's been fighting with them throughout her teenage years. But Marca is not a person to take no for an answer. Pawning her family crest gets her just enough money to hire a hacker to doctor her school records, adding the graduation she was denied and getting her aboard the Greatship Athens as a new Midshipper.

I don't read a lot of military science fiction, but there is one type of story that I love that military SF is uniquely well-suited to tell. It's not the combat or the tactics or the often-trite politics. It's the experience of the military as a system, a collective human endeavor.

One ideal of the military is that people come to it from all sorts of backgrounds, races, and social classes, and the military incorporates them all into a system built for a purpose. It doesn't matter who you are or what you did before: if you follow the rules, do your job, and become part of a collaboration larger than yourself, you have a place and people to watch your back whether or not they know you or like you. Obviously, like any ideal, many militaries don't live up to this, and there are many stories about those failures. But the story of that ideal, told well, is a genre I like a great deal and is hard to find elsewhere.

This sort of military story shares some features with found family, and it's not a coincidence that I also like found family stories. But found family still assumes that these people love you, or at least like you. For some protagonists, that's a tricky barrier both to cross and to believe one has crossed. The (admittedly idealized) military doesn't assume anyone likes you. It doesn't expect that you or anyone around you have the right feelings. It just expects you to do your job and work with other people who are doing their job. The requirements are more concrete, and thus in a way easier to believe in.

Artifact Space is one of those military science fiction stories. I was entirely unsurprised to see that the author is a former US Navy career officer.

The Greatships here are, technically, more of a merchant marine than a full-blown military. (The author noted in an interview that he based them on the merchant ships of Venice.) The weapons are used primarily for defense; the purpose of the Greatships is trade, and every crew member has a storage allotment in the immense cargo area that they're encouraged to use. The setting is in the far future, after a partial collapse and reconstruction of human society, in which humans have spread through interstellar space, settled habitable planets, and built immense orbital cities. The Athens is trading between multiple human settlements, but its true destination is far into the deep black: Tradepoint, where it can trade with the mysterious alien Starfish for xenoglas, a material that humans have tried and failed to reproduce and on which much of human construction now depends.

This is, to warn, one of those stories where the scrappy underdog of noble birth makes friends with everyone and is far more competent than anyone expects. The story shape is not going to surprise you, and you have to have considerable tolerance for it to enjoy this book. Marca is ridiculously, absurdly central to the plot for a new Middie. Sometimes this makes sense given her history; other times, she is in the middle of improbable accidents that felt forced by the author. Cameron doesn't entirely break normal career progression, but Marca is very special in a way that you only get to be as the protagonist of a novel.

That said, Cameron does some things with that story shape that I liked. Marca's hard-won survival skills are not weirdly well-suited for her new life aboard ship. To the contrary, she has to unlearn a lot of bad habits and let go of a lot of anxiety. I particularly liked her relationship with her more-privileged cabin mate, which at first seemed to only be a contrast between Thea's privilege and Marca's background, but turned into both of them learning from each other. There's a great mix of supporting characters, with a wide variety of interactions with Marca and a solid sense that all of the characters have their own lives and their own concerns that don't revolve around her.

There is, of course, a plot to go with this. I haven't talked about it much because I think the summaries of this book are a bit of a spoiler, but there are several layers of political intrigue, threats to the ship, an interesting AI, and a good hook in the alien xenoglas trade. Cameron does a deft job balancing the plot with Marca's training and her slow-developing sense of place in the ship (and fear about discovery of her background and hacking). The pacing is excellent, showing all the skill I'd expect from someone with a thriller background and over forty prior novels under his belt. Cameron portrays the tedious work of learning a role on a ship without boring the reader, which is a tricky balancing act.

I also like the setting: a richly multicultural future that felt like it included people from all of Earth, not just the white western parts. That includes a normalized androgyne third gender, which is the sort of thing you rarely see in military SF. Faster-than-light travel involves typical physics hand-waving, but the shape of the hand-waving is one I've not seen before and is a great excuse for copying the well-known property of oceangoing navies that longer ships can go faster.

(One tech grumble, though: while Cameron does eventually say that this is a known tactic and Marca didn't come up with anything novel, deploying spread sensors for greater resolution is sufficiently obvious it should be standard procedure, and shouldn't have warranted the character reactions it got.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Artifact Space is the best military SF that I've read in quite a while, at least back to John G. Hemry's JAG in space novels and probably better than those. It's going to strike some readers, with justification, as cliched, but the cliches are handled so well that I had only minor grumbling at a few absurd coincidences. Marca is a great character who is easy to care about. The plot was tense and satisfying, and the feeling of military structure, tradition, jargon, and ship pride was handled well. I had a very hard time putting this down and was sad when it ended.

If you're in the mood for that class of "learning how to be part of a collaborative structure" style of military SF, recommended.

Artifact Space reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but leaves major plot elements unresolved. Followed by Deep Black, which doesn't have a release date at the time of this writing.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2022-12-13: Review: Contact

Review: Contact, by Carl Sagan

Publisher Pocket Books
Copyright 1985
Printing October 1986
ISBN 0-671-43422-5
Format Mass market
Pages 434

Contact is a standalone first-contact science fiction novel. Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was best known as a non-fiction writer, astronomer, and narrator of the PBS non-fiction program Cosmos. This is his first and only novel.

Ellie Arroway is the director of Project Argus, a radio telescope array in the New Mexico desert whose primary mission is SETI: the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence by scanning the skies for unexpected radio signals. Its assignment to SETI is controversial; there are radio astronomy projects waiting, and although 25% of the telescope time is assigned to non-SETI projects, some astronomers think the SETI mission should be scrapped and Argus fully diverted to more useful research. That changes overnight when Argus picks up a signal from Vega, binary pulses representing the sequence of prime numbers.

The signal of course doesn't stop when the Earth rotates, so Ellie and her team quickly notify every radio observatory they can get hold of to follow the signal as it passes out of their line of sight. Before long, nearly every country with a radio telescope is involved, and Russian help is particularly vital since they have ship-mounted equipment. The US military and intelligence establishment isn't happy about this and make a few attempts to shove the genie back into the bottle and keep any further discoveries secret, without a lot of success. (Sagan did not anticipate the end of the Cold War, and yet ironically relations with the Russians in his version of the 1990s are warmer by far than they are today. Not that this makes the military types any happier.) For better or worse, making sense of the alien signal becomes a global project.

You may be familiar with this book through its 1997 movie adaptation starring Jodie Foster. What I didn't know before reading this book is that it started life as a movie treatment, co-written with Ann Druyan, in 1979. When the movie stalled, Sagan expanded it into a novel. (Given the thanks to Druyan in the author's note, it may not be far wrong to name her as a co-author.) If you've seen the movie, you will have a good idea of what will happen, but the book gives the project a more realistic international scope. Ellie has colleagues carefully selected from all over the world, including for the climactic moment of the story.

The biggest problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan is a non-fiction writer who didn't really know how to write a novel. The long, detailed descriptions of the science and the astronomical equipment fit a certain type of SF story, but the descriptions of the characters, even Ellie, are equally detailed and yet use the same style. The book starts with an account of Ellie's childhood and path into science written like a biography or a magazine profile, not like a novel in which she's the protagonist. The same is true of the other characters: we get characterization of a sort, but the tone ranges from Wikipedia article to long-form essay and never quite feels like a story.

Ellie is the most interesting character in the book, partly because the way Sagan writes her is both distant but oddly compelling. Sagan (or perhaps Druyan?) tries hard to show what life is like for a woman born in the middle of the 20th century who is interested in science and I think mostly succeeds, although Ellie's reactions to sexism felt weirdly emotionless. The descriptions of her relationships are even odder and the parts where this book felt the least like a novel, but Sagan does sell some of that tone as reflective of Ellie's personality. She's a scientist, the work is the center of her life, and everything else, even when important, is secondary. It doesn't entirely make the writing style work, but it helps.

Sagan does attempt to give Ellie a personal development arc related to her childhood and her relationships with her father and step-father. I thought the conclusion to that was neither believable nor anywhere near as important as Sagan thought it was, which was off-putting. Better were her ongoing arguments with evangelical Christians, one of whom is a close-minded ass and the other of which is a far more interesting character. They felt wedged into this book, and I'm dubious a realistic version of Ellie would have been the person to have those debates, but it's a subject Sagan clearly has deep personal interest in and that shows in how they're written.

The other problem with Contact as a novel is that Sagan does not take science fiction seriously as a genre, instead treating it as a way to explore a thought experiment. To a science fiction reader, or at least to this science fiction reader, the interesting bits of this story involve the aliens. Those are not the bits Sagan is interested in. His attention is on how this sort of contact, and project, would affect humanity and human politics. We do get some more traditional science fiction near the end of the book, but Sagan then immediately backs away from it, minimizes that part of the story, and focuses exclusively on the emotional and philosophical implications for humans of his thought experiment. Since I found his philosophical musings about agnosticism and wonder and discovery less interesting than the actual science fiction bits, I found this somewhat annoying. The ending felt a bit more like a cheap trick than a satisfying conclusion.

Interestingly, this entire novel is set in an alternate universe, for reasons entirely unexplained (at least that I noticed) in the book. It's set in the late 1990s but was written in 1985, so of course this is an alternate future, but the 1985 of this world still isn't ours. Yuri Gagarin was the first man to set foot on the moon, and the space program and the Cold War developed in subtly different ways. I'm not sure why Sagan made that choice, but it felt to me like he was separating his thought experiment farther from our world to give the ending more plausible deniability.

There are, at the time of the novel, permanent orbital colonies for (mostly) rich people, because living in space turns out to greatly extend human lifespans. That gives Sagan an opportunity to wax poetic about the life-altering effects of seeing Earth from space, which in his alternate timeline rapidly sped up nuclear disarmament and made the rich more protective of the planet. This is an old bit of space boosterism that isn't as common these days, mostly because it's become abundantly clear that human psychology doesn't work this way. Sadly, rich sociopaths remain sociopaths even when you send them into space. I was a bit torn between finding Sagan's predictions charmingly hopeful and annoyingly daft.

I don't think this novel is very successful as a novel. It's much longer than it needs to be and long parts of it drag. But it's still oddly readable; even knowing the rough shape of the ending in advance, I found it hard to put down once the plot properly kicks into gear about two-thirds of the way through. There's a lot in here that I'd argue with Sagan about, but he's thoughtful and makes a serious attempt to work out the political and scientific ramifications of such a discovery in detail. Despite the dry tone, he does a surprisingly good job capturing the anticipation and excitement of a very expensive and risky scientific experiment.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone, but I'm also the person who found Gregory Benford's Timescape to be boring and tedious, despite its rave reviews as a science fiction novel about the practice of science. If that sort of book is more your jam, you may like Contact better than I did.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Last spun 2023-01-28 from thread modified 2008-08-13