Archive for July, 2023

Review: Autonomous

Sunday, July 30th, 2023

I’ve been on a run of reading SF that I really like. The latest is Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. This is a book I could comfortably call a thriller, but it shifts its shape and focus throughout. I could also say its using a imaginary technology to examine ideas of consciousness and intelligence and how those are manipulated, or that it’s a using a dystopian near future world to comment on freedom and duty. It’s all of those at once, and Newitz does a remarkable job keeping all those balls in the air.

Some authors use genre fiction to sugar-coat disruptive ideas in a way that some readers see them and some don’t. Newitz isn’t doing that. The book keeps all its themes in focus throughout, but each of them gets their time at the forefront. If you want to read a thriller about drug pirates vs enforcement agents and not think about the nature of corporate capitalism and personal freedom, you’re going to wind up wanting to skip some chapters.

But, see, here’s the problem with that plan. The thriller is still going on and the characters are still living. When the more philosophical ideas are and front and center they’re not alone, just the most well-lit. You can’t skip the chapter where implications about how incentives and addiction blur in academia and corporate life are front and center because it’s also moving the thriller plot and the character development forward as an integrated whole. Not a lot is happening in the side channel, but what is happening there is crucial.

There’s an argument that Autonomous is about multitasking and is telling by showing. But there’s no shortage of takes on about what this book is about. It covers a lot of thematic ground with elan. If that weren’t enough it’s got a jaw-dropping rate of tossing out provocative ideas both central and tangential to the plot. And the world.

In addition to being so structurally sound, their prose is phenomenal. There are many turns of phrase I’ll be keeping. Newitz consistently lights a fuse in one place that bursts into a laugh-out-loud joke or emotional chord a hundred pages later.

A must.

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Saturday, July 15th, 2023

I think is one of the best novellas I’ve read, but I also think it’s got a long fuse. I enjoyed reading it and I’ve continued to marvel at how revolutionary and well written it is. If one doesn’t think deeply about it, I can imagine this being a neat, quick SF read. Kind of like what I thought of The Plot – and I liked The Plot. I definitely think it’s worth the time to chew on this book. Becky Chambers doesn’t need my kudos, what with the Hugo and all, but I was quite blown away as the fuse went off.

If you want the joy of discovering the book yourself, stop reading here. I don’t have any plot spoilers in here, but I am going to talk about other aspects of the work that I think might be more fun to discover unprompted.

As I say, when I first read this it felt enjoyable and low stakes. The setting and characters were charming, there was a quest to go on, a sudden unexpected first contact between civilizations separated for an age (the sentient robots humans built and the humans). The sort of SF tropes you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic SF novella. But, like I say, low stakes: personal rather than galactic. Engaging. Fun.

But the cover mentioned a Hugo. And I had this nagging feeling that something was going on that I was missing. So I ruminated. And then the penny dropped.

This is a post-apocalyptic SF novella in which the concept of violence between sentients is completely absent. It’s not just that there is no fighting. The concept of violence never occurs to the protagonist nor is there any indication it occurs to the robot they encounter. No threats. Not even a violent metaphor or joshing punch on the arm. If these societies know that sentients can be violent with one another, I’m guessing it would be the kind of taboo that would excite fundamental revulsion. And at this point I have to guess.

Once I realized that, I thought about how fundamental violence or the threat thereof is to SF and other genre fiction. I cannot think of another SF story in which the idea of violence is completely absent. Just to make that point more strongly, it took me quite some time to characterize the revulsion in the previous paragraph in some way that captured its scope without using a violent word, and I’m not writing genre fiction.

SF invites writers and readers to consider a world fundamentally different than our own and see what that says about ours. This is a big swing at world building.

Before I read this, I would have assumed that you couldn’t write an engaging work without reference to violence committed by sentients. But, I read this and didn’t notice the absence until I ruminated. It is a huge challenge to set for yourself as a writer. That Chambers succeeded gobsmacks me.

The more I’ve thought about it – and I can’t stop thinking about it – the more fundamental ideas are woven in here. Those ideas are all slipped in quietly. But once I see a fuse, I know they light firecracker strings as well as single bombs.

There is more to come in this series (OK, it’s out but I’m slow) and I’m all in. But just chewing on this is well worth it.

A must.

Review: Our Missing Hearts

Tuesday, July 11th, 2023

I have not been able to put Our Missing Hearts in a category. Every time I pick it up and turn it around in my mind, I see a different facet that makes me think of it in a new way that leaves the other interpretations valid. Celeste Ng has crafted a work that holds multitudes and feels tight.

The blurb for the book that I’d roll out to get someone to read it is “In a dystopian near-future a tween receives a cryptic message from his mother who he hasn’t seen in years that spurs him to dangerous action.” Pretty much every word in that sentence has a page of explanation by the end of the book, though.

The dystopian aspects are real, but the people in it are equally real. Lots of dystopian fiction is pollyanna-ish in offering solutions or pedantic in sealing society’s doom. Out Missing Hearts strikes a remarkable balance of showing how people create and resist oppressive states. Understanding how everyone is motivated here doesn’t lighten the load of the dystopia entirely, but it also underscores how decency and compassion are equally inevitable.

Hearts is also very concerned with stories and lore. The stories we tell one another or ourselves. The stories that the powerful tell the ruled. How those stories pass through time. It’s no surprise that librarians are big players.

Ng also walks the walk of storytelling. Her writing is perfectly tuned to what I think she’s trying to do. I often collect memorable passages when I read, but I found the writing here all cohered into a whole. There were lots of excellent phrases and passages, but all of them were part and parcel of the story in ways that removing them diminished their power.

She also seems to take delight in changing the tone and content of story she is telling. If a parent were to pick up Hearts and read the first 50 pages or so, they could easily mistake this for a YA novel. It is not. But I also like the idea that a child could read their first adult novel because a parent failed to get the whole story.

Front to back an excellent novel with significant depth.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Plot

Saturday, July 1st, 2023

A friend recommended this mystery to me out of admiration for its premise and execution. I’m the sort of person who rarely reads a mystery for the mystery, but I gave it a look.

Overall, I did like it, but more because I enjoyed watching the clockwork run than that I was swept away. That said, I don’t think I was the intended audience. It’s very much a book about best selling writers. I recognize names on the shelves at the airport, but I don’t follow that world. As a result, I think some of the Easter eggs that were designed to distract readers for whom that’s their bread and butter went by me.

I guess I also don’t buy the McGuffin of the book, either. It’s kind of a riff on Deathtrap. A plot so good that it’s a guaranteed best-seller. Is I mentioned, plot isn’t always what draws me to a book, so the idea that there was one that great didn’t resonate with me. That said, McGuffins are McGuffins for a reason: to get the plot moving. And it does that.

I don’t want to undersell the quality of the plot or the writing. It is a solid mystery, with twists and turns and blind alleys. The writing makes it all whir and chime pleasantly. And I admire that Korelitz doesn’t chicken out at the end and go for the Hollywood ending. It all makes for a fun read.