Review – The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky is the sequel to The Calculating Stars and is set four years later, so this review will have spoilers for that book. If you haven’t already, go and read it; it’s excellent and I’ve babbled quite happily about it.

Not only has Elma York made it to the moon, she now travels there regularly. She is content with this, she sees her husband, Nathaniel, on a regular basis, and they’re even beginning to talk about starting a family. Then, terrorists strike, budget cuts are threatened, and Elma is asked to, once again, put her publicity behind the Mars expedition. The story continues on from there.

One thing I enjoyed about both of the books is that Kowal puts marriage, not romance, front-and-center. Elma and Nathaniel are married before The Calculating Stars begins and they’re still married at the end of The Fated Sky. Their marriage is strong, good for both of them, sometimes romantic, sometimes sexy, but always committed. Kowal gives us a look at a marriage through not just the good times, not just the epically bad times, but through the gritty “eh” times that affect us all. Not only does Elma support Nathaniel when he’s doing important work while she’s consigned to volunteering, not only does Nathaniel support Elma’s drive to join the astronaut corps, when she forgets to pay the electric bill, he accepts that it was a mistake and supports her. It’s not that they never get angry, it’s not that they have a “perfect” marriage, but it’s that they have a good, solid marriage that can handle whatever life throws at them.

Another thing I liked about these books is that there no one is all good or all bad. There are heroes, and people we root for, and there are good and evil actions, but people are a mix of both, and Kowal shows this in her characters. Elma spends a lot of time reminding herself of Parker’s good qualities in The Calculating Stars, because he does such a good job of showing her mostly his bad ones. He despises her because she had the audacity to report him for harassing other female pilots, and getting him into trouble. (Because his actions were, of course, completely acceptable.) On the other hand, she has a tendency to pick at those things that she knows irritate him, without real cause.

Elma really demonstrates that she is far from perfect when she is initially accepted to the Mars mission. Because she has decided she wants to do it, she ignores what it will mean to the others who have already been training together for months. She also steps forward to support, and speak for, the people of color in the group–without talking it over with them first. Racial discrimination is a real issue throughout both of these books, and Elma hates it and wants to stop it, but she’s not always considerate of the feelings of those who have to live with the ways she tries to help.

And, then, of course, there’s the trip to Mars. Which is wonderful, with all the terrific hard science details that make this series such a delight. I recommend this book highly to anyone who likes a good story. This is one.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (August 21). 320 pages. 5 stars.

Review – The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The fact that The Calculating Stars is an alternate history has very little to do with why I love it, even though I enjoy alternate histories. It’s hard science fiction, the kind that I first fell in love with decades ago and the kind that doesn’t seem nearly as common these days. It’s not a dystopia, although the world could be ending, but it’s not a utopia either. And, since I’ve read Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Glass Universe in the last couple of years, and need to read Hidden Figures, the women computers at the center of the novel seems very timely.

What I loved about this book, and the other stories in this universe, is Elma York. She has a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics, was a WASP pilot during World War Two, is married to a rocket scientist, Nathaniel York, and works for NACA (her universe’s NASA) as a computer. She’s Southern, she’s Jewish, and she’s someone I wish I’d met when I was a girl, because I would have followed her.

The event that sets the novel in motion is a meteorite that strikes Earth in the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The effects it has destroys Washington, DC and causes destruction all along the eastern coast of the United States. Later calculations, largely done by Elma, indicate that the meteorite may be an extinction-level event. The result of this is an international drive to get mankind into space and start colonizing there.

Although Elma suffers from extreme anxiety when forced to speak before a group of people, she is otherwise a confident driven woman. Since she is a pilot, and was the first person to calculate the size of the meteorite and its long-term effects, she wants to be one of the first astronauts, and she’s willing to do the work to get there.

The book tells Elma’s story as she battles to become an astronaut and go to the moon. In addition to crippling anxiety, she has to battle discrimination because she’s a woman. While she’s fighting that, she has her nose rubbed in the fact that non-white people suffer from much greater discrimination than she does. When she realizes this, she does work to eliminate that as much as possible.

A traditional hard-science plot and a number of strong competent, intelligent women make this a book to enjoy. I talked it up so much that my spouse, who hasn’t had the time or energy to do much reading, even picked it up to read.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (July 3). 384 pages. 5 stars.

Review – Once There Was a Way by Bryce Zabel

What if the Beatles had stayed together? What would it have looked like, what would have remained the same? What would have changed? Once There Way a Way, as any good alternate history, give plausible answers to these questions.

I found this book through the Sidewise Awards, which it won for 2018. It’s written as a retrospective on the Beatles’ careers since a The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson interview that is the turning point between the novel’s history and our own. Although I’m not the true Beatles fan in my household–that honor belongs to my spouse–I know enough of the history of the band, the men, and the times to see the similarities, the differences, and to be able to judge the plausibility between the two.

Zabel takes events that happened in our history and changes them into ones that could have happened. He changes songs, creates albums, films, interviews, and historical events, and gives his world the rich details that make it come alive.

Finally, it’s lovely to think about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones getting into a friendly competition as to who can tour the longest. I enjoyed the book and wish we could listen to these wonderful albums.

Zabel, Bryce. Once There Was a Way: What If the Beatles Stayed Together? New York, NY: Diversion Books, 2017 (December 5). 308 pages. 4 stars.

Review – Rocket Fuel: Some of the Best from Tor.com edited by Bridget McGovern

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I assumed that when a site devoted to science fiction and fantasy published a book of non-fiction essays that they would be on a variety of scientific subjects. Instead, these essays are on the science fiction and fantasy fields themselves, with a disquieting detour through centaur digestion. This isn’t a complaint, just a surprise as I read through the book.

The thirty-four essays in this collection cover a lot of territory. The one “science” essay, of the kind I’d been expecting, was on centaur digestion, which isn’t for those with a weak stomach. Some of the essays cover reviews and rereads of specific books, others cover films and/or television shows, and others are more general meditations on a specific aspect of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or writing in general. Nearly all of them are interesting, although I’ll admit there was a couple of long essays on series I’m not interested in that I skimmed. There were several that I’ve bookmarked to review later for writing tips and inspiration.

All in all, I’m glad I picked this up and I enjoyed the reading. In addition, after reading these, I’ve subscribed to the Tor.com website to see the newer material as it’s posted. Just don’t expect science essays.

McGovern, Bridget. Rocket Fuel: Some of the Best from Tor.com Non-Fiction. New York, NY: Tor.com, 2018 (July 17). 291 pages. 4 stars.

Announcing the Hugo Awards of 2018

The Hugo Awards for 2018 were announced Sunday night! And history has been made!

The fiction awards are as follows:

Best Novel: The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin. This is the one that made history. N.K. Jemisin as won the Best Novel award three years in a row, for her The Broken Earth series. I will admit that this isn’t my favorite novel of the nominees, but it is the “weightiest” and the most significant. It’s a terrific win, and I’m pleased it did so.

Best Novella: All Systems Red by Martha Wells. This is my favorite of the novella nominees in a strong slate. A terrific main character in a terrific story; I keep telling everyone how great this story is.

Best Novelette: “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer. This was number two on my list, and I’m quite content that it won.

Best Short Story: “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse. Again, not my favorite, but a good selection from a good slate.

Finally, since I’ve spent all this time reading and reviewing the entries this year, I’ve bought a supporting membership for next year. (I’d love to go to Dublin, but I just don’t see that happening.)

Book Review – An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

This book started out as a series of posts on Tor.com call Revisiting the Hugos. It was the author’s, Jo Walton’s, look at the Hugos. She look at not just the winners, but the nominees, the books that didn’t make the short list, the other awards, and anything else she found interesting. When putting the book together, she included some of the most relevant of the comments; mostly those from fellow writers and editors.

That highlights the strength and weakness of this book. It’s put together by someone who isn’t only a science fiction/fantasy fan, but by a professional writer who has spent years not just reading but studying the works in the field. The comments that she uses are primarily from editors, who know the field as professionals, not as “simple” fans. The book covers not simply the works, but their place in historical and cultural context, how well they’ve aged, and how well they’re remembered.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read just a year or two at a time. I had to slog and really force my way through it, but I kept thinking that, at some point, I was going to want to go back and read this or that entry again, with more careful attention to it. I never paid a lot of attention to the politics, history, and culture of the science fiction community as a whole; I just read what I enjoyed that I could find.

The tone of the book is informal and chatty; it sounds very much like a conversation. My biggest issue with it is that she puts so much information into each year that it’s intimidating. She talks about books that she read once thirty years ago with actual memory of it; I struggle to do the same with some books I read last year, or last month.

She covers the Hugo Awards, mostly for the novels but the shorter works are discussed and all other awards are at least briefly mentioned, from 1953 to 2000. There’s a lot of material here and I look forward to reading it again…one chapter (year) at a time.

Walton, Jo. An Informal History of the Hugos. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon. August 7, 2018.

Politics – The Sheep and the Goats

I’ve mentioned that the above parable is one of my foundational beliefs, for politics, religion, and life. For me, here’s what that means.

If you don’t know the passage, it’s in Matthew 25:31-46. To paraphrase it, Jesus tells His disciples that, when He is on His throne of glory, He will gather the people and divide them based on how they have treated Him. He gives six conditions: hunger, thirst, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison. And when the people say, “We never did these things,” He tells them that as they have done to the least of His brothers, so they have done to Him. (Note: since every translation I have read of this uses “brothers” for both genders, I am doing so as well.)

In discussing this as political actions that a Christian should take, there are two basic arguments that people have used to state that this doesn’t apply to political actions, just personal ones.

The first argument is the one that I consider the more defensible one: Jesus is talking personal action, not government action. This is true. However, I vote as a Christian, and I believe in voting for policies that I believe are better for all of us, which means voting for policies that support the “least of our brothers”. The Jewish people of the time, the ones that Jesus was preaching to, had a long history that supporting those less fortunate than themselves was a moral and social good. The Romans, the people in charge of the government of the time, the government that we are supposed to read in the Bible as somewhere between callous and evil, on the other hand, viewed helping those less fortunate as generally a bad idea. To me, it makes more sense to those of us trying to follow Jesus’ teachings to support those less fortunate. In addition to being a more Christian thing to do, studies have shown that it costs less to give support up front than to have to deal with the consequences later on.

The second argument is one that I have a great deal of trouble with: that “of my brothers” doesn’t include all of humanity, which is my reading. They limit that group to their fellow Christians, or their fellow countrymen, or those who are part of some group that they belong to. I disagree. Throughout the four Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that we are all in this together, that “neighbor” is to be defined broadly, and that He speaks to everyone. To me, that means that we are to view everyone as our brothers, and to care for all of humanity. Anything else seems wrong to me.

As I stated earlier, in the passage, Jesus identifies six conditions in which He was in need that those who He considered His sheep provided for, and I intend on discussing them in later blog posts.

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is a book that I’ve seen a number of times that looked interesting but, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never picked it up. A good friend of mine recently recommended it, so I read it, and I’m so glad I did.

This is an historical novel, expanding the story of Dinah from Genesis 34. The author states that this isn’t an attempt at telling the “real” story, but a fictionalization from what is in the Bible and what is known about the peoples of that area of that time.

Briefly, the story of Genesis 34 states that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, went into the area to visit the women. Shalem, the son of Hamor, raped her, but then decided he was in love with her and asked his father to get her as his bride. Hamor went to talk with Jacob, asking for Dinah as his son’s wife and offering that Jacob could set her bride price. Jacob did so, but several days later, some of Dinah’s brothers went and killed all of the males of the city in revenge for their sister’s rape.

My interpretation of this story is that it’s telling the story of the transition away from “kidnapping the bride.” At the end of the story, Dinah is left as either a defiled maiden or a widow. We hear nothing more about her. As with many stories in the Bible about women, her sole purpose is to marry as a virgin and provide sons to her husband; anything else leaves her defiled and rejected.

Diamant takes this skeletal story and adds flesh to it. We see the world through Dinah’s eyes, and it is mostly a world of women. At that time, the world of men and the world of women were largely separate; Dinah knows her father and her brothers, but her deep relationships are with her mother and aunts. It is a world of polygamy; her aunts are also her father’s wives and many of her brothers are half-brothers. She follows the mother and mother-aunts she adores; learning their skills, and how to handle their strengths and weaknesses. She has less contact with her brothers and much less with her father. The image that the book continually comes back to is that of the “red tent”, or menstrual tent/hut, of the title.

A little over halfway through the book, Diamant tells the story from Genesis 34. What is stated in starkly simple words, with Dinah no more than a casus belli, takes pages of description. In the novel, unlike in Genesis, Dinah is not a victim. She is a willing and enthusiastic participant. Although she and Shalem are in part manipulated–his mother sees them as a good match, both personally and for their communities–their passion for one another is real and reciprocated. Dinah ignores the social stigma of what she is doing and allows Shalem to ask his father to send a royal bride price for her.

What happens between the Hamor, Jacob and Dinah’s brothers is part misunderstanding and part stiff-necked pride. Dinah’s wishes and interests aren’t taken into consideration; it is her father, her brothers, and their pride which are given priority. In the end, what happens is tragedy for Dinah; her husband and all of the males of his family are killed. She is brought back to her family still reeling from the carnage around her.

No longer willing to be a part of the men who destroyed the family she had joined, she curses her father and brothers and returns to her mother-in-law. They leave for her mother-in-law’s family, in Egypt. The last third of the story is set in Egypt, and tells the story of the rest of Dinah’s life.

This is a bare-bones description of a book that is rich in description, of the characters, the cultures, and the world in which the book is set. The author acknowledges in an interview included for this twentieth anniversary of the original publication that we don’t know if the culture truly works the way she wrote it. A good example is the menstrual tent: it is used in many cultures of the area in both space and time, but we don’t know if it was used in that part of Canaan.

The Red Tent is not an expansion of the historical events of Genesis 34. It is a fictional creation using those events as a starting point of a beautifully rich story of a young woman and the alien world in which she lived. I highly recommend it.

Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent. New York, NY: Picador, 1997. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Hugo Awards To Be Announced

On August 19, 2018, the Hugo Awards will be announced at Worldcon 76 in San Jose, California.  The finalists are listed below; the links go to my reviews of the work.  There’s some really good reading here; please enjoy!

Best Novel

Of the six novels, my favorite is Provenance, followed by New York 2140 and Six Wakes.  Judging by the last two years and the year’s Nebula awards, I suspect that The Stone Sky will be the winner.  Ultimately, they’re all good, solid reads.

For the next three categories, I reviewed all of the candidates for both the Hugo and Nebula finalists in one entry.  So, you can get even more reading if you so desire.

Best Novella

  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.
  • “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker.
  • Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor.
  • The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang.
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire.
  • River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey.

Again, some really good reading here.  MURDERBOT!  (Excuse me.)  My favorite is All Systems Red; in fact, I can’t wait until Rogue Protocol, the third in the series comes out next week.  After that, I recommend “And Then There Were (N-One)” and River of Teeth.  I’m really hoping I’ve picked the winner in this one; it’s delightful.

Best Novelette

  • “Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard.
  • “Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee.
  • “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer.
  • “A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
  • “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara.
  • “Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker.

My favorite of this group is “Wind Will Rove.”  I made my husband read it, which mostly I don’t bother with.  I also enjoyed “The Secret Life of Bots” and “A Series of Steaks”.  The other three didn’t appeal to me, but they’re well-written.

Best Short Story

  • Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim.
  • “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde.
  • “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
  • “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata.
  • “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon.
  • “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

My favorite of these is “Fandom for Robots,” with “The Martian Obelisk” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” following.

In short, there is a lot of good reading in the lead-up to the Hugo Awards this month.  While you’re at the beach, or wherever you go vacationing, take some with you.  And enjoy!

I’ll repeat this post the day before the awards and follow the day after with a list of the winners.

Review – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

This is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. The first book in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula award and the World Fantasy award, and was a fun read.

This book starts off planning the trip set up at the end of the first one, an expedition to visit Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Harker nee Murray, and to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing. And the adventure itself is fun, full of adventure, kidnappings, fights, romance, and lots of familiar names. The seven women from the first novel all have their parts to play in this one, with several new women in this, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. After the rescue, our heroines take off to stop a Royal Society-type organization that is creating more monsters.

I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one, and I think the reason is that, at 720 pages, it was too long. There are two stories, related, but I think it would have worked better if the stories had been separated. And, since the book was so long, the comments from the other women, which tend to be funny and add color and character, became distracting.

I’m hoping that the author gets advice to shorten her books so that the next entry in the series will be as entertaining as the first one.

Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York, NY: Saga Press, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon.