Review: Sooner or Later Everything Falls Down to the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

Reviewing a collection of short stories has been a hard thing to wrap my head around. Do I review each individual story? Do I just review the collection as a whole? Or do I do something in between? To those who know me, it won’t be surprising that my answer falls in the last group: something in between.

To begin with, this is a lovely collection to read through. I needed to take a bit of a break in the middle of it, but I enjoyed reading all of the stories. There are thirteen of them, including one that is published here for the first time, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. There are several themes that she comes back to again and again, but I suspect from her biography that they are also the themes of her life. Music, both the writing and performing of it and traveling are two of the main ones, but the most important theme through her stories is that of the choices we make, the roads we have, and haven’t taken, and how to reconcile ourselves with all of those roads.

As for the stories themselves, I discovered that the two I enjoyed most were ones I’d already read: “Wind Will Rove,” and “And Then There Were (N-One).” This wasn’t a disappointment, since they were placed toward the end of the collection, so I read through the others first. In addition, both of her award-winning stories are present as well.

And so, the stories that made the most impression on me.

I enjoyed “Talking with Dead People,” mostly because I want to hear the What You Missed in History Class podcast about the concept, or about specific houses, or what have you. I was fascinated by the Nutshell Studies houses, which Pinsker references. In both cases, what stands out to me is the craft involved in making the houses, rather than the unsolved events.

Pinsker won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2014 for “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind.” It’s my third favorite in the book, and a lovely story of a long-time marriage. Here again, the story of an architect with his buildings and the magnificent treehouse he built with and for his children appeals to my crafty side. Also the way the craft and the art fit together with their marriage is a lovely image that I can see in my own.

I read “Wind Will Rove” when I was reading all of the nominees for the 2018 Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is my favorite of her stories, that I’ve read to date, and I was delighted to read it again. This one is about the choices artists make when they create art in all of its forms, the choices we make when we experience art, and the choices we make when we curate art. The conjunction of folk music, especially fiddle music, with a generation space ship, is one that speaks to my heart, and I can hear the wind calling me.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” won the Nebula Award for the Best Novelette in 2016. It’s gritty and grungy and true, even if the main character did leave me frustrated. But I’m not punk.

“The Narwhal” is published first in this collection and it was the main supporting character that I was frustrated with in this one. (For Heaven’s sake, Dahlia, everyone will be better off if you take time to stop, smell the roses, and let Lynette collect a couple of souvenirs.) The odd stop along the way, and what you learn about history, evokes a chill or two along the spine.

“And Then There Were (N-One)” is a story of a woman who has been invited to a convention all about her. Another her, from another universe (or timeline) has discovered how to travel between them and, as a proof of concept, set up this convention, this exploration into different choices, not necessarily her choices, and what happens later. The narrator is an insurance investigator, but there are scientists, musicians, writers, horse trainers, men, women, and other choices available. All to set up a lovely murder mystery with a Heinleinian feel.

All in all, I enjoyed this collection and I will be keeping an eye out for Pinsker’s subsequent works. Pick up this collection and enjoy.

Pinsker, Sarah. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. Easthampton, Massachusetts: Small Beer Press, 2019 (March 19). 288 pages. 4 stars. Buy here.

Review: Fragment by Craig Russell

This is the first, and so far only, book that I’ve been given to review. It is both the best and the worst book I could have been given to review.

It is the best, or the best type, of book for me to review because I genuinely enjoyed reading it. It’s an engaging story, with realistic characters, and a theme I thoroughly agree with. I’d go to 4.5 stars, but none of the rating systems I use allow me to use half stars. And I give very few 5 stars; 4 stars is for a book I enjoy, would reread, and would recommend.

It is the worst, or the worst type, of book for me to review because I have no idea how to describe it. To say that it heralds environmental disaster, brought about by climate change, no matter how that climate change came about, is to shortchange it. But how else to do so.

I would say that this book has three major themes. The first is the obvious one, that comes from reading the back cover. It is, as I said above, a book about environmental disaster, about what might happen if several Antarctic glaciers avalanched and pushed off a piece of the ice shelf that was much larger and more massive than any group of icebergs in recorded history. Russell succeeds at this story well. I don’t have the scientific background to discuss the scientific accuracy of what happens in the book, but from what I do know, it seems possible, even likely. I also find myself paying close attention whenever the news talks about a major ice breakoff from either of the poles. My tag for these news stories is “Fragment”.

The second theme is the human side of the story. If something like this were to happen, how would we react? Unfortunately, I believe that Russell hits the nail on the head again. Few people believe that anything will happen in the magnitude that it will and does, and politicians use the bits and pieces that they allow the public to hear about against their political rivals. The characters’ motives range from idealistic to self-serving and hit everywhere in between, much like our own. The scientists who have the most thorough, clear-eyed understanding of the dangers have the least power to affect anything; the people in power mostly aren’t listening. The news media follow the story because it will advance their careers and their egos. It isn’t that no one tries to do the right thing, or even that they don’t sacrifice their own personal good for their society. Just like in real life, doing the right thing isn’t only costly; it can be difficult to do.

The characters are sharply drawn, but there are a lot of them, and this is a comparatively short book at 214 pages. I’d say there are too many characters for the length of the book, but it’s hard to know who to remove without hurting the story. This is a plot-driven book, rather than a character-driven book, but the characters aren’t cardboard. We just don’t get time to get to know them very well.

Which brings us to the third theme and, if you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph. This theme isn’t hinted at in the advertising. The final theme has to do with the other creatures with which we share our world, and what they think about what’s happening. The one character that stands out, that we really do get to know, is the one that is the most alien to us: the blue whale Ring. He and his pod are there when the Fragment breaks off; he stays to warn other ocean life about the disaster that is coming their way. It is by discovering how to talk with him (in perhaps the weakest scientific point in the novel) that the novel truly comes alive. In the end, the book is about how we interact with the world around us: whether it is intelligent or not.

I’ve enjoyed both reading and rereading this book. The plot carried me on and I turned the pages to see what happens next. Although I wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece, it is a book with a lot to say about humanity and how we treat the world around us. Go, read it, and have a good long think after.

Russell, Craig.  Fragment.  Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Thistlepress, Ltd., 2016 (October 1).  214 pages.  4 stars.

Review – Vox by Christina Dalcher

I was looking forward to reading this book. The idea of a book actually showing how frequently women’s voices are silenced or unheard was one I was looking forward to reading. Unfortunately, the book I was looking forward to isn’t the one that Dalcher wrote, so that will color my review. You may disagree.

Vox is set in the near future, in a world in which a Pure Movement has gained control of the U.S. government through their relationship with the U.S. President. Their agenda is that of complete separation between men and women, and men will have complete control over the women in their lives. In addition to all women being fired from their jobs, each woman is given a counter to wear around their wrist. Each day, at midnight, that counter is reset to 100. That is the number of words a woman, or girl, is allowed to use throughout the day.

The main character of the story, Jean McClellan, is a cognitive linguist. She has been working with a team working on a treatment for Wernicke’s aphasia. Her husband, Patrick, is a physician, and she has four children, three sons and Sonia, her six-year-old daughter. Dalcher tells the story of how the Pure Movement, and the counters, have come to be. Jean’s oldest son, Steven, is indoctrinated into the philosophy in school and has become a believer in the Pure Movement. Her husband advises her to go along with what’s happening, that something will be worked out.

The beginning is interesting, but the remainder of the book doesn’t really live up to its promise. Instead, it becomes a “fix the problem” book. Due to a skiing accident, the President’s brother has suffered from brain damage that is causing aphasia. It is the same type of aphasia for which Jean had been working on a treatment, so his people have come to her for assistance. And, from there, Jean’s efforts to find the treatment, and then find a way to quiet those who have put this movement in place, continues.

We see some of the effects of the policy throughout the rest of the novel, but I would have preferred a more in-depth look, rather than the “thriller” Dalcher has written. It’s a great idea, but the execution doesn’t do it justice.

Dalcher, Christina. Vox. New York, NY: Berkley, 2018 (August 21). 336 pages. 3 stars.

Review – The Million by Karl Schroeder

As long as science fiction novels have been written, there have been explorations of different ways of protecting the Earth from humanity. The Million is a somewhat different take on this trope than I’ve seen before. Limiting the population to a specific population, the “million” from the title, is hardly a unique idea, but cryogenically storing the rest of Earth’s population, about ten billion people, who are waiting to

Every thirty years, there is a Jubilee. The ten billion are unfrozen and set loose on Earth and the Million mostly hide for that month. At the same time, it is the time when the reports are given and the grand political trends are set until the next Jubilee. It is also when visitors, people from the ten billion, hide outside for their own purposes. The auditors are those who police the Earth, ensuring that all the agreements are kept to; they are also the ones who do the reporting.

Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee is a member of a family of the Million, but he’s actually a visitor. After an incident at a party that his father and brother give, Gavin finds himself stepping into the shoes of a young man who was trying to become an auditor. Through his training, he slowly becomes aware of the undercurrents in his society that indicate that things aren’t quite what they seem.

It’s an interesting enough book and a quick read, but I found it a slight, forgettable book.

Schroeder, Karl. The Million. New York, NY: Tor.com Books, 2018 (September 1). 160 pages. 3 stars.

 

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.

Review – Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

The description of Space Opera looked entertaining: the fate of humanity hanging on how we do in a Eurovision-type performance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book living up to the promise of its description.  Then again, I’m middle-age, have never seen a Eurovision competition, and don’t enjoy absurdity or surrealism.  Finally, the writing style sounds too much like Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and even Adams can grate on my nerves after a while.

The novel consists of two stories that weave together into the third main story.  First, it is an exploration of the history of and behind the Metagalactic Grand Prix,  and all of the different races that have participated in it.  Valente shows that she is comfortable in the science fiction genre, there are multiple races, all of them wildly different, all of them extraordinarily strange, and none of them predisposed to like, or hate, Earth and humanity.  It’s a strange, strange universe that Valente gives us.

The second story is that of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, three musicians who had one hit many years ago.  The band has broken up: Dess tries to continue as a solo artist, Mira dies, and Oort goes “straight”.  The stories of their lives could come straight out of the gossip magazines.  But when, through the standard absurdity, the band is called to represent Earth, they rise, or try to rise, to the challenge.

The main question of the book is, as Valente asks, “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony?  …  Do you have soul?”

Without giving away how Dess and Oort, and the aliens who try to help and hinder them do, and while admitting that I didn’t much care for the book, won’t be rereading it, and only finished it to write this review, I will tell you this.  Valente does have soul, a lot of it.

 

Valente, Catherynne M.  Space Opera.  New York, MY:  Saga Press, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – D.A. by Connie Willis

When the recruiter from the International Space Academy comes to Winfrey High to solicit applications from the students there, Theodora Baumgarten is one of the few students who has no interest in applying.  As she tells the recruiter, “There’s no air, you’re squashed into a ship the size of a juice can, and it takes years to get anywhere interesting. If you get there and aren’t killed first by a meteor or a solar flare or a systems malfunction.”  So, it’s something of a surprise when she finds out that her (nonexistent) application has been accepted.  And, since everyone would be thrilled and honored to be accepted, no one but her best friend, Kimkim, believes her.

This is the setup for Connie Willis’s novella D.A.  The meaning of those initials, and why Theodora was “accepted” as a cadet, are too good to spoil, and getting there is much of the fun.  Especially good is the name of the Academy space station, the Robert A. Heinlein.

For those of us who loved traditional science fiction since childhood, but are now far too aware of what can go wrong, D.A. is a delightful treat.

Willis, Connie.  D.A.  Burton, MI:  Subterranean Press, 2007.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes is a science fiction mystery, and it’s a good one.  It’s a locked room mystery, set on the starship Dormire, in which everyone was cloned and then killed, so no one knows who did it.  Including the murderer or the victim.

Much of the novel happens in flashback, as we see how each of the characters winds up a convicted criminal on the ship, and why they might want to kill the other five characters.  Adding, or creating, the suspense is the fact that if any of them are killed again, the deaths will be final, since they don’t have the necessary supplies to reclone themselves.  Unsurprisingly, while trying to solve the murder mystery, other surprises are found, include the reason all of these people are on the ship in the first place.

I enjoyed Six Wakes, it was an interesting mystery with a satisfying explanation, engaging characters.  Well worth the time.

Lafferty, Mur.  Six Wakes.  New York:  Orbit Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I can’t point to anything specific that would explain why Raven Stratagem, and the book before it in the Machinieries of Empire series, Ninefox Gambit, grates on me.  But they do, enough that the only reason I finished the first and picked up the second at all, was because I wanted to have read, and be able to have an opinion on, all of the Hugo finalists this year.

It isn’t the writing or the world-building.  Both are good, and the world-building is actually fascinating.  The world of the Hexarchate is filled with fascinating people, communities and concepts.  The characters are interesting and diverse, and there are several that I am becoming invested in.

It may be the “calendric orthodoxy/heresy” that gets on my nerves.  Although this is primarily a science fiction space opera, there is an element of fantasy/magic in the orthodoxy that allows “exotics”, like faster-than-light travel, to exist and be used.  The concept does annoy me.

Otherwise, Lee does a terrific job with the hard science fiction tropes he uses.

Lee, Yoon Ha.  Raven Stratagem.  Oxford, England: Solaris Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Provenance by Ann Leckie

Judging by how much I enjoyed this novel, I must have been in a terrible mood when I tried and rejected Ancillary Justice, the first novel in this universe.  I’m looking forward to reading it now.

Provenance is one of the Hugo Award finalists for the Best Novel of 2017.  It’s the story of a young woman who sees herself as unexceptional, is trying to get her mother’s approval and attention, and to show up her foster brother.  She decides on an audacious, expensive plan.  The novel follows her through the plan, its consequences, and its ramifications.

I enjoyed this novel for two main reasons.  First, the world in which the story is set is rich and complex, set in a universe with multiple planets, races, and cultures.  Fortunately, the story is understandable and enjoyable without the previous books set in the same universe.

The other reason I enjoyed the novel is that the characters are complex and unpredictable.  While reading through the setup, I expected certain things to happen.  Some of them did, some of them didn’t, and what the expected events didn’t necessarily happen for the reason that I expected.

Provenance was a delightful novel that I recommend to anyone looking for a good science fiction story.  Leckie’s prior books are now going on my list of books to read.

Leckie, Ann.  Provenance.  New York: Orbit Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.