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.

Review – New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Of all of the Hugo and Nebula award finalists for 2018, New York 2140 is the longest.  However, it is a comparatively quick read, so don’t let that stop you.  It’s an entertaining read, with only one, although large, problem, and it definitely belongs on this list.

The novel is set in New York City in the year 2140 and the action takes place over the next 3 years.  Most of the action, there are a couple of scenes that do take place outside of New York.  In this future, several events happened that caused ice melting and the sea to rise fifty feet.  That leaves a good portion of New York City, including all of Downton, underwater.  Since many of the buildings are skyscrapers, or at least taller than the sea rise, people still live there.  New York City is still the place to live.

There is a group of characters who live in one of the buildings in Madison Square, including the building manager, a police detective, a social worker, a couple of people in the finance industry, a cloud star who’s clothes are likely to disappear, and a couple of boys who don’t, technically, live there, in addition to several others.

Before I go into what I liked about the book, my major complaint is that there are multiple chapters which is just the author explaining the economics of the situation and why it’s a bad thing.  I found this especially annoying because his characters also explain the economic situation (economics and finance are very important to the story), and I don’t need the author jumping in a giving me a lecture.  In fact, they spend enough time giving info-dumps on both the economics (with many examples including the 2008 disaster) that I resented the author jumping in and doing it again.  The length of this book could have been cut by quite a bit, without damaging or confusing the story, just by cutting out these chapters.

That said, I did enjoy the novel.  I’ve been a fan of science fiction for decades, and enjoy a good “hard” science fiction novel.  This one falls into that category, although that does depend on whether or not you believe the scientists on climate change.  I would expect there to have been more change than there is but, otherwise, it’s a very believable future.

New York City is as much a character as any of the human characters in the novel.  Several of the characters discuss snippets of its history, especially about the Revolutionary War and the HMS Hussar, which I looked up and is a real thing.  These discussions are usually brief, or necessary to the plot, or both.

That New York City is set as the location is appropriate since it is currently the center of the financial world (in the future, not so much, but it still has much influence), plus its geographical features (it is described as an archipelago in an estuary debouching into a bight, featuring a lot of very tall buildings) make it an appropriate location.

All of this makes the novel sound grim, but it’s not.  Although there are some tense moments, a lot of less than happy ones, and not a lot of humor, there is some light-heartedness through the story.  The one financial guy’s response to being asked to look after the two boys and the cloud (internet) star and her frequent ditziness are two examples.  Frankly, the novel is a good cross-section of people that way: some dour, some cheerful, some honest but not always, some sleezy but not always.  There are no purely good people, there are no purely evil people, there are just people doing the best they can.  Which is a pretty good way of expressing one of the themes of the book:  people doing the best they can, as a community because we are social animals.

I recommend this book as a good read whether you’re looking for the next Hugo winner or not.  It’s good science fiction and a good story.

 

Robinson, Kim Stanley.  New York 2140.  New York: Orbit Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

 

 

Review – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Since the word “empire” is in the title, it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Collapsing Empire reminds me more than a bit of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  Not in a plagiarized way, just that both series are telling a story about an empire that is about to collapse.

In this first novel of a planned series, the setup occurs.  The emperox, a gender-neutral term for emperor/empress, has just changed.  Regular space pilots are starting to notice that there are problems with the Flow, the method used to travel “faster-than-light”.  Without the Flow, each system will be isolated and, with the exception of End, none of the human population lives on planets.  Earth was isolated from the rest of the human population centuries ago, when the Flow moved.  The Nohamapetan family is being more ruthless than usual.  And only three scientists know why.

I usually enjoy Scalzi’s standalone novels, but the ones he writes as series I find less enjoyable.  Lock In and its sequel Head On are the exception.  I’m not sure why that’s so.  The plot moved along well, I didn’t get bogged down in it, but I never really found myself caring for the characters or for what was going to happen.  The world-building isn’t especially exciting; it’s a far-flung space empire that’s lost track of Earth.  That said, the science either agrees with science as it’s currently known or is at least plausible.

All in all, it’s a perfectly acceptable science fiction novel; I’m just not sure why it was nominated for a Hugo.

Scalzi, John.  The Collapsing Empire.  New York: Tor Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.