Pretty Deadly Vol. 2 – Deconnick, Rios, Bellaire and Cowles

71igzcrwk6lI am definitely not trying to bump my stats in my reading challenge by reading a graphic novel next, especially as I’m behind my target. That’s not a thing I would do.

And I mean, I’m not really. I would have read this in any case because the first volume was so beautiful and excellent. Spoilers: so is this one. It might even be more beautiful. I’ve only not got around to it sooner because I don’t read graphic novels at work or on the tube (size to reading time ratio not optimal for travelling). But I was always going to get there when I had a moment.

Surprising precisely no one, it was so worth it. It made me want to go back and read the first one again to compare, because I genuinely think the art in this one is better. It’s more fluid, more unreal, and I feel like it did more of the full page spreads, especially the kind drifting toward the abstract. And I was 100% there for that. Sure, the art was in service to telling a story, but I was very much enjoying the art on its own merits too, because it is entirely worthwhile. The colour palette too really helps with this. Like the previous volume, there’s a purple-and-brown-ness to everything, and it really helps cement the atmosphere (and makes anything that doesn’t closely conform to it really stand out).

And, much like the art, the plot remains sort of drifting and unreal too. There are the interludes that frame the narrative as a story between Butterfly and Bunny (yes, I still enjoy skeletal Bunny), which do give some scaffolding, but on the whole, the story we follow feels like it’s given a bit of a rude gesture to sticking to a quick pace and a firm narrative. And I like it? Things definitely happen, but they happen in their own sweet time and possibly with a detour over here and a mildly incomprehensible full page spread, which, while undeniably gorgeous, isn’t actually really pushing the narrative on in any meaningful way. And I’m ok with that too.

Much like Ody-CPretty Deadly achieves what some comics don’t and forces me to still still, calm the fuck down, and actually take the time to appreciate the art for its own sake. In less… dramatically stylised comics – Rat QueensPaper GirlsLucifer – I read them like I read books, powering on through as quickly as I can because I want all of the story and I want it now. And this ends up with my main problem with graphic novels – the cost to enjoyment time ratio just doesn’t work for me. I read very very quickly, and they are quick reading, and they’re quite expensive. But when I get to ones where I just have to sit myself down and actually look, well, then it all works out. Because if I powered through Ody-C, I would miss so much of what was happening and what they were doing. And Pretty Deadly is the same. It’s too pretty, too multi-layered (visually) for you to skim it. And that’s probably the best thing about it, because it means it really is achieving something a normal book medium couldn’t.

And that’s really all I have to say about it? It remains great as a series, and I will continue to follow it. As a related point to my last, I kind of don’t have much to say, because they don’t pack a lot of plot in – too busy being pretty as fuck – but it means that there isn’t much ground to cover when discussing what’s actually happened. So it’s fine for reading, but a bit rubbish for ‘blogging.

Next up – I am still reading The Vorrh, but I keep doing things like going to the theatre or Paris (woo!) so I’m not being great at actually getting much reading done. Will hopefully power through once I get back to the UK and get back into the habit of reading properly again.

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Borderline – Mishell Baker

25692886And the last of the Nebulas, admittedly somewhat late. Especially given that I now know who won. I got somewhat bogged down in reading The Dark Forest, and so managed to get about a month behind. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Borderline pretty much since the beginning of the whole award nominee reading thing, so it was fantastic to finally get to it, however late.

And, I’m glad to say, I enjoyed it.

In many ways, it’s a good book. It does things I think need doing, and it does them with a decent pace and real characters, in an urban fantasy setting that isn’t London. Which, I mean, come on. That being said, it’s not an amazing book, and the writing can’t quite keep up with the ideas. It’s not bad enough that it stopped me enjoying it in any way, but it wasn’t quite good enough that I’d have wanted it as a contender for the top spot. It sort of occupies the same zone as Uprooted did last year, in that I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s an enjoyment of something that’s fun and easy-reading… not trash, because it’s still actually pretty good, but not quite “I want this to win all the awards”.

But hey, it didn’t win. And I still enjoyed it, so I’m going to focus on that.

The story is about fairies in LA, told from the viewpoint of an ex-director with BPD and some physical disabilities, and fully acknowledging the difficulties that arise from those, and weaving them into the story and how she interacts with the magical world she soon discovers.

If we left out the BPD and physical disabilities, it would still be a cool book. I like fairies, I like fairies-but-with-the-real-world-and-also-modern, and it does that pretty damn well. It’s not quite Mike Shevdon, but we’re getting there. But then you add in the other stuff, and it becomes a much more special thing. Especially because the author also suffers from BPD, so we get not just the inside-the-head view of the character on all of this, but knowing that we can fully trust the author to represent it faithfully. And that was fantastic. It’s rare to see mental health (or physical) represented in SFF, and rarer like this, so sympathetically. Yes, it affects how she functions. Yes, sometimes things go badly. But it’s part of her and we see how she thinks about it and how she works with and around it, and it’s brilliant.

Less nicely, but just as valuably, we see how others treat her, and how unreasonable the world’s expectations of her can be under her circumstances, and the balance she has to strike between her (entirely reasonable) anger and the responses that she needs to give to get by. Other characters in the book don’t accommodate her wheelchair, they don’t accept that she needs pain medication, they don’t allow that some issues are difficult to discuss… and her navigation of this, always honest, sometimes painful, sometimes vindicating, is something I think we really need to see more of in fiction.

Whether or not the rest of the writing is fantastic, the thing that Baker really excels at here is her writing of a sympathetic, plausible character inside whose head we can live. Millie feels very very real, and the way she almost tries to cast herself as an unreliable narrator (even as we double down on trusting her) is a wonderful bit of self-deprecation. No, she doesn’t believe in herself. She has so many doubts. And they’re real doubts, grounded in real problems, and a thorough sense of self-awareness. It’s not the sort of airy doubts one often has in the young aspiring hero, where… well, they make sense, because it’s a story, but it’s a doubt of “can I really save the world?” not “is it really possible that I won’t fuck up these work relationships?”.

I suppose that’s what urban fantasy does that other genres don’t. It adds realism not just to the setting, but the way people think and behave. They’re not as credulous, not as confident, not as stereotyped, clichéd and grand. They have real, trivial problems and don’t always shower when they should. And that’s charming, in its way. It’s why I like the genre, certainly. Yes, I am the sort of person who goes “but what if they needed to go to the loo?” in long, dramatic scenes in traditional fantasy. And urban fantasy caters to that particular shade of pedantry. And then this book goes one step further, and it’s brilliant.

Because, minor spoilers, one of the major points in the book is that the protagonist has a lot of steel inside her, after reconstructive surgery. And because iron/steel + fairy magic = uh oh… well, it turns out quite interestingly.

So Baker is taking what urban fantasy does – remembering the bits of reality that seem to slip outside of the rest of fantasy – and committing to it, and then combining that with a wonderful viewpoint character, who is definitely flawed and who nonetheless gets our complete sympathy pretty damn quickly, and hangs onto it even when she messes up.

It’s a story where lots goes wrong, and there isn’t a happy ending, but it’s a story that’s full of reality sitting comfortably alongside magic, and combining in odd but fully satisfying ways. And it’s a story that makes you want to keep reading, not put the book down until you finish, and then pick up the next one. Which I will be buying ASAP. It got 4 stars on Goodreads without a pause for thought, and it was a beautiful antidote to the crappy SF of the Hugos.

And this is me done with the award season this year!

Final Nebula table:

1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
2. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
3. Borderline – Mishell Baker
3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl
4. The Obelisk Gate N. K. Jemisin

As it happens, All the Birds in the Sky won, so I feel quite smug about this. And very pleased, because it totally deserved that win.

All in all, I’m still glad I’ve been doing the award reading, but by god the Hugos were a chore. The Nebulas were much more fun, and I think if I ever cut down to one award, I’ll be sticking with panel-judged over public-voted (possibly considering the British Fantasy Awards).

But this does mean I can go back to reading whatever the heck I like, so it’s The Vorrh by Brian Catling next. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Death’s End – Cixin Liu

25451264Finally, we finish The Three-Body Problem series. And thank fuck for that. Because for all this was better than the rampant horrendousness of The Dark ForestDeath’s End is still a shitty, awful, horrible book. There’s misogyny (and gender essentialism) and some really not ok stuff about ASD people. And for some reason, in the distant space future, everyone is heterosexual. And, to be honest, even if you leave aside the ways in which I think this book is actually objectionable, it’s also just… not very good.

So, to keep it brief, we deal with a lot of the same issues as in the previous two books. The sexism et al. is a bit toned down compared to The Dark Forest, but worse than in The Three-Body Problem. It’s still awkward, still stilted, and some of that is probably still because it’s been translated (even though it’s better than TDF, and clearly benefitting from Ken Liu’s input). None of the people read like real people. No one talks like a human. Humanity still behaves as one predictable mass, and never deviates from that, even across huge spans of history. It still makes terrible assumptions about things that aren’t science, and still treats “romance” in a way that I would find creepy at best and downright problematic and unacceptable at worst. Men are still in charge and best at everything. Everything can still be generalised. Everything is still stretched out of way too long a time period and loses any cohesion it might have had…

I could go on, but if you read my post on The Dark Forest, you’ll get the gist.

The things I want to talk about now are just the following: the weird-ass obsession with maternal instinct, why the future is heterosexual, why men are still basically in charge of everything and how the series fits together as a whole.

So, point one, and my chief source of anger throughout the book, is the maternal instinct bollocks. Our main character is a woman, and gets put into a position of power… and somehow, by the magic of holding a baby, she finds the strength to do it because she puts herself into the position of the world’s mother. She does what she does through LOVE. And she keeps getting cast into this role throughout the book, for no… real reason that I can see. It doesn’t fit with what little characterisation she otherwise gets. It just seems to be “oh, a woman has to protect the world but it’s hard… MUST BE MATERNAL SHIT”. And it’s meant to be the future… surely in times ahead we can drag ourselves awa-… no? Apparently not.

Because apparently everyone in the future is also heterosexual. And men are in charge of everything too.

What I’m basically saying is that for all the logistical and scientific changes the author writes about, he in no way accepts that society might change too. That things may be different for people. I don’t know what China is like for gender stereotypes and LGTB+ acceptance right now, so I don’t know if his future represents their past or their present, but it does not tally even with our Western present right now, and that seems weird to me. Most of the books I read these days at least accept that in our distant space future, maybe women will be awesome and in charge too. Maybe we’ll even have women *gasp* in the military. Gosh. Wouldn’t that be remarkable? But this has just thrown it out of the window and gone “eh, whatever”. And I’m sorry, but you can’t write distant space future without any sort of acceptance that people and people as a mass change, as well as technology. It just doesn’t bear out. If you’re going to be a misogynist prick, at least come up with a justification for it. But no.

Now, the series as a whole. Frankly, I think it gets worse as we go on. TDF is the low point, in many ways, but I think that’s because Ken Liu has done a lot of work as translator to get things to a place where a Western reader can get on with it. If I try to account for that, I do think DE is the worst book of the lot. We get progressively shitter morally, socially and story-wise, and by the end of the book it all just falls apart. You don’t get decent resolution, or an ending that fits emotionally to good or bad. I struggled to connect with it to begin with, and that only got harder as I carried on reading. It’s not even story at the service of science. It’s science clinging to a vague idea that story is a thing, then giving up and not even engaging that deeply with the science.

As such, I think this goes to the bottom of my pile for the Hugos, leaving the table thus:

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer
Death’s End – Cixin Liu

For all that I found Too Like the Lightning deeply objectionable in many ways, it at least had the decency to try to have an interesting setting. The world building wasn’t enough to save it as a book, but there’s something there worth having. Whereas, honestly, I don’t think I can find anything worthwhile here at all. There is nothing that he’s doing that I think is of any value. Which is a shame, because at least The Three-Body Problem managed to be a bit interesting.

But that’s me done on the Hugos! FREEDOM. I’ll be happy if either of my first two win, and I’ll sigh but accept if the next two do. Be prepared for ranting otherwise.

Just one more Nebula nominee left – Borderline by Mishell Baker – and I’ve already started reading. It’s definitely more enjoyable than this.

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Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb

51nz5doud2l-_sx313_bo1204203200_So. Robin Hobb. We meet again.

I have something of a history with Robin Hobb. If you’d asked me who my least favourite author was at any point between the age of 14 and the age of… 24, say, I’d have probably said Hobb. Some of this was perhaps because I’d made it a thing that I disliked her work, and was playing up to it*, but some of it was very much that I just really disliked her. I mean, come on, the Live Ship Traders books. No.

I first read some of her books at about the right age, given that this is your typical YA coming-of-age thing… probably thirteen or so. I read this series, another I forget, and the  Liveship Traders. Of the three, I probably hated this the least, but it’s a low bar, given that the Liveship Traders books are irredeemable trash. But I hated them all at thirteen. I hated Fitz, I didn’t care about anything that happened to him, and I couldn’t connect to any of the other characters. I hated that he never really did anything. And I hated his relationship with Molly (more throughout the series than in this book specifically). And this was a thing that was known about me by many people. So, about the age of 24, 25, a different friend, knowing my dislike of Hobb, bought me Assassin’s Apprentice for my birthday, knowing that I would then feel obliged to read it. Because all my friends are lovely people. I figured maybe I’d have changed my mind as I got older, so I should give it a go and re-evaluate. Turns out, still not a fan.

And then this got voted in as this month’s book club book. Had I not reread it a couple of years ago, I’d have been interested to reread it and see how my views had changed. But I knew I’d still hate it. So that was fun**. Luckily I enjoy book club enough that it was worth powering through.

But yeah, my views haven’t really changed.

I suppose the major thing that comes across to me now, and I probably wouldn’t have articulated as firmly as a teenager, is that the entire book feels completely devoid of substance. A lot of this is a function of having characters with no sense of humanity to them at all. I can’t connect emotionally to them because there’s nothing there to connect to. Cynical me suggests this is because Fitz at least is meant to be a blank slate so that teenagers can self-insert without any worry of personality-clash, but that feels slightly mean. And also possibly credits Hobb with more talent than I think she possesses. Because, if I’m honest, it comes off more as bland incompetence than a deliberate choice – she just can’t write a character worth a damn. It’s a glorious extravaganza of telling rather than showing. And… well, not even enough of that. I don’t think I could tell you right now what sort of person Fitz, as the main character, whose head you inhabit, is meant to be, because there’s nothing in the book to latch onto to give you any clues. He… likes dogs I guess? That’s about it. He makes no real choices, demonstrates no real passions or desires, he just rattles from encounter to encounter, with the world happening at him. He doesn’t think, he doesn’t feel, he just is.

And that’s just fucking boring.

And it’s not like any of the supporting characters are any better. There’s Burrich… who likes animals/is good with animals, and exists to be gruff at things. There’s Chade who… has no discernible personality beyond “so, duty”. There’s Molly, the love interest, who is probably meant to be “girls as the mysterious entities they seem to teenage boys” but just comes across distracted and disinterested. And the list goes on. There’s no… personality anywhere. And I whinge about this so often, but you need characters to make your book. Even just one you can latch onto would be enough. But no.

And then there’s the plot. Which is, primarily, generic fantasy trash. She’s not done anything new or interesting, and what she’s done isn’t done well. It’s a coming of age story with an attempt at older voice writing it as history. YAWN. And then the pacing is so wildly off, you probably fall asleep in the first half. Just nothing happens, for ages. And then a couple of things happen, then the last chapter is a lot of things happening and then-… no, that’s it. Just ending, and with no fuss or even build up. It’s just done.

And then… and then… there’s the writing. I made notes as I was reading it, and the first one I have is “p1, oh god the melodrama”, and that doesn’t really go away. She vacillates between “dull and workmanlike” and “this person has no concept of the era upon which she’s based her pseudo-medieval fantasy land”, and the latter grates horribly. Because if you’re going to write something historically-ish, I think you either need to commit fully or not bother… any sort of halfway house is going to feel nasty. And the halfway house of just writing a bit fancy in a way that looks a bit archaic in the right light if you squint… no. It’s awkward and clunky and just horrible to read.

But ultimately, my major issue with Hobb, and why she was downgraded from least favourite author to just “meh” a few years ago, is the same as my issue with N. K. Jemisin – I can’t see what people see in them. They both strike me as generic, lacking both innovation and skill, and so fulfilling no criterion in my “is it good?” stakes. If I read both without any context of their popularity, they’d be a two or a three on Goodreads, falling into the amnesiac hole of blandness, because there’s just nothing special about them. What elevates them to dislike, for me, is my complete inability to fathom why anyone thinks they’re other than bland, tropey, mediocre nothings. There are hundreds of unknown books out there doing the same bland shit. Why these ones? And that bugs me more than it really should. I mean, to an extent, it bugs me more with Jemisin because she won a Hugo off the back of it, but the principle is the same. I just don’t get it.

So I remain very much not a fan of Hobb. To my mind, she does not deserve any more credit than the hordes of interchangeable YA fantasy trash writers, because that’s all she’s doing. And I hope to god I never have to read her again, because three times is far, far too many for a book you knew you hated after the first. And I can’t really envision a situation where I’d have to (I wanted not to do it this time, but past me didn’t have the sense to ‘blog about rereading this book, so I had not post to use as crib notes, alas). I don’t begrudge the no doubt enormous amount of teenagers who enjoy it, because, well, it’s a YA coming of age novel and that’s what they’re there for. But it’s nothing more than that, and not an exciting example of that even so.

Next up, I am back on the nominee list, ploughing through Death’s End in order to get to Borderline, and the end of the award reading.

 

*So, back when I was the librarian of my university science fiction society, the members could get membership in exchange for donating books to the library, the amount of membership at the librarian’s discretion. I specified an amount I would bestow based on number of books donated, but added that I would deduct some for any Robin Hobb. A then-friend (now boyfriend, in fact), who sometimes appears to exist merely to try me, donated a massive pile of books which included a sizeable collection of Hobb. Perhaps he doubted that I would stick to my guns. Obviously I stuck to my guns. He received negative membership for the Hobb, and I am not sorry. It’s safe to say that I made my dislike of Hobb into a Thing.
**On the other hand, hey, I’m in a run of reading stuff I hate (and knew I would) so what’s one more for the pile? I’M LESS THAN A BOOK FROM DONE WITH THAT RUN NOW OH MY GOD I AM SO PLEASED. But Death’s End is huge, so come back in a month maybe…

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The Bad Quarto – Jill Paton Walsh

19834469It’s strange how something about murder can be so comforting and cosy, but mysteries are often some of the most relaxing books I can read. And this was no different.

I’ve been solidly enjoying the entire series, and fought my desire to binge them, instead stringing them out a little to savour them, but alas, the time has come, and now I’ve read them all. I think they’re going to go down as some of my favourite detective books. They’ll never beat Holmes, because nothing will, but they’re up there with the Sidney Chambers books for sure. The whole thing is exactly the right combination of predictable and solveable, but challenging and interesting, with just the right amount of nostalgia and comfort thrown in. Imogen is a fantastic lead, and a lovely personality, as well as a plausible detective who doesn’t have to be crowbarred into situations (much like Sidney Chambers, she has an excuse to be prying into the goings on of the college and the students). Everything makes sense, and generally the two halves of the story, or rather the two stories going on side by side, fit together neatly and soon enough that the reader doesn’t get exasperated.

Obviously I went into this knowing it was the last one, which did cast a bit of a pall over thing, but on the whole, I think it’s probably the second best of the series. It’s definitely better than the third, which is the weakest, but I’m not sure where I’d rank it with the first and second. It’s not an ending, per se, though there are some ending threads in it, and I’m sort of glad about that? It doesn’t feel like it needs to wrap everything up with a happy ending, which the third book rather made me feel might happen, what with mostly being an endeavour in trying to solve Imogen’s romantic life. But The Bad Quarto pushes that back to the side (though still keeping it as an important part of Imogen’s life and personality), and focuses back more on the mysteries and the little bit of life in her college, which is what you want.

What was also rather more noticeable in this book, well, two things. One, that Paton Walsh acknowledges her debt to/links with Dorothy L. Sayers, referencing Gaudy Night more than once, and explicitly, as well as mentioning Sayers by name. And two, that she’s an English graduate. I double checked, but one definitely gets the sense of it in the text.

The title and main thread of the novel follow the death of a Shakespearean scholar and the production of an unusual version of Hamlet – the so-called “Bad Quarto”, a different edition to the usual version, often assumed to be the work of an actor writing from memory, or an audience member likewise – by a group of players and their somewhat mysterious benefactor. What this means, aside from the intricacies of the plot, is that Paton Walsh is expounding on the matter of Shakespearean scholarship and opposing critical views for the reader, and it becomes very clear very quickly that she is well acquainted with the in-fighting and back-biting of the academic world, as well as the substance of the critique itself. Particularly, the disdain for academic Marxists rings rather true, and is joyfully familiar in its tone. She’s clearly someone with a very affectionate, very knowing exasperation for the whole thing, and it’s just lovely. She also presents a variety of people in the scholarship – undergraduates, graduates, players and fellows or ex-fellows – with various views and takes on the issues, and doesn’t fall into any proselytising. She lets the reader sit with Imogen and not take sides, only take notes and wonder how everything fits together.

And it’s that comforting familiarity – of Paton Walsh for her subject and location and of this particular reader for the same – that really sells the book for me. The academic arguments feel real, the college feels real, the people feel real. I find myself with St. Agatha’s looking like a mashup between Newnham Cambridge and (strangely) Oriel Oxford, though the majority the former (rather unsurprisingly). I cast her story onto the familiar landscape, and it fits. Because she is very good at evoking a place, without constraining the reader with too many details. It’s about the feeling and the atmosphere, more than anything.

I haven’t really a lot to say about this book divorced from the rest of the series. She continues to do well what she’s done well in the others, and I continue to love them because of course I do. She writes a wonderful, capable, grounded but thoughtful female detective, in a setting I find familiar and with characters I find easy to understand. You always feel like you could have solved the mystery, even if you didn’t, and you get that growing sense of being close to a solution as the story reaches its climax. Everything eventually makes sense, and you can look back and see the details you missed and realise she gave you all the pieces you need.

In short, brilliant, comfortable detective fiction, and a shame there’s so few in the series. I will almost certainly buy them for myself at some point to reread.

A minor schedule change – I forgot to say in my last post I’d be reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (ugh) next, as it’s our book club book this month. I was rather hoping I’d have blogged about it before, when a very… kind friend bought it for me as a birthday present, knowing I hate Hobb, but I think that post got caught in the great Sabriel pile-up, so I shall have to read it for the third time. My views may have changed in the last three years, but I somewhat doubt it. Then we’ll be back onto Hugos and Nebulas, and then onto tackling the shame and horror that is my somewhat creakily unstable reading pile.

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A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

29475447For all that, at any other time, I may not have been particularly keen on this book, right this second, it is frankly blessed relief. It is the total opposite of The Dark Forest, and that was exactly what I needed. Primarily, it was easy to read. And I really really needed to take a break from the heaviness. So there’s going to be a little bit of dissonance in my post, between the things I know I’d have felt at any other time, and the things I felt now.

In short, all the failing of tDF were reversed here. Misogyny? Lol no. Complete lack of any characterisation? They’re the whole point of the book. Dragging prose? Pffff. BUT. But. This is still doing a lot of the things I found annoying in its predecessor, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planetthey’re just problems in the opposite direction to the problems of tDF, and so right now, they were the kind of problems I would be happy to deal with.

Mainly, my criticism of this book, much like its predecessor, is it’s painfully light and low on substance. There’s some stuff going on about AI personhood, but it never gets explored in all that much depth. It’s a bit emotional for the lead but then… that’s kind of it? It doesn’t get the time or thought that I’ve seen it get in other books. But then that’s kind of just how these books go. They’re deliberately light and fluffy. And I don’t think you can be fluffy /and/ do a thorough investigation of the rights to personhood of an AI in a civilisation that does not acknowledge them. It’s… too much. So it restricts itself to some emotional stuff and getting one person to see an AI differently. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not enough for me.

I guess, and this is harder to put my finger on, it felt kind of… all surface and no depth in some other ways too. Much like the previous book, it seemed like she liked the idea of something, but didn’t have the time or page space to really get to grips with it, so it stayed sort of… off to the side and that was it. One of the characters in this book, Pepper, was born on a planet where a lot of clones are enslaved as child labour. Which is presented as a plausible yet horrifying reality of the world. And she escapes. But that’s… it? We don’t know if this was illegal or not, if this is even culturally acceptable or not, if this is common or rare, if she ever tried to do anything about it (or if anyone else ever has). It’s just… a thing that happened. Because Chambers is just very focussed on the small scale, the now and the feelings of the now, without all that much connection to past foundation or future consequence. It’s a series of things that happen, and nothing more. Which, yeah, fuzzy, light reading that was a great relief right now, but most of the time it’s too empty for me.

She does at least make some lovely, believable characters. They do feel like actual people (Cixin Liu, take note) who have their own personalities and ways of speaking. Whenever someone does something, it feels entirely in keeping with what we’ve  seen of them so far. I guess in that it has the quality of a soap opera. Not a great deal is happening, but it’s happening to people who feel like people, and who are different people to you, and as such is escapism. Which I get. I can see the appeal.

There’s also just the nice idea that, on the whole, overall, with some caveats, it’s an optimistic space future where people muddle along together. It’s not the glorious space utopia of Star Trek, but it’s a gentle and nice one for the most part, where lots of different species live together and get along just fine, accommodating one another’s foibles. And I do quite like that.

Likewise, the fact that it’s so light makes it very very easy to get into, and easy not to want to put down. Again, good.

But… it’s not good enough for a Hugo. If you draw a line between “enjoyable” and “good” (which I do), then it falls heavily into the former category. It’s sweet and happy and predictable and very very readable, but it’s not good literature. I won’t remember it a year from now, let alone five. Give me two weeks and I’ll probably have forgotten such plot as there is. It’s not special, and I think at the point you’re winning a Hugo, you probably ought to be a bit special. One of the ways I think about books when I’ve finished them and am trying to decide about what to write about them here, is there are two camps you can be aiming for: you either want to be new, or you want to be good. If you achieve one of those, you’re probably a decent book (at least for some people), but if you achieve both, you’re probably on to a winner. So for instance, The Three-Body Problem fulfills the first, but not the second, while The Name of the Wind manages the latter but not the former. And then you have something like Ancillary Justice, which manages both, and as such becomes something of a favourite. If you achieve well in either on its own, it can easily be good enough to win someone over. But A Closed and Common Orbit feels like it’s gunning a little for both, but half-arsing it all, and so you get something a bit meh overall, which is… unsatisfying.

It’s a better book than her first, but she’s not moved away from a lot of the things I found iffy there, and so I may have to go back a little on my prediction that her problems were things time and editing could fix. To an extent, I feel like the substance-less-ness is a feature, not a bug, for Chambers… which is a bit of a shame. She’s definitely not a terrible writer, and I can see ways in which she could move on to writing genuinely interesting stuff, because the ideas are there. I just wish she’d develop, well, any of the heavier, more interesting themes she hints at and actually gives us something a little more. Some depth, some substance… and it’d be enough for me to like the book, probably.

Overall, I gave it a three on Goodreads, and it definitely won’t be the worst on my Hugo nominee list (I’m guessing that spot will be reserved for Death’s End, though maybe Too Like the Lightning will nab it, if the change back in translator makes a massive difference). Current standings run thus:

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

Unknown: Death’s End – Cixin Liu.

There’s a definite gap between Chambers and Palmer there, with Jemisin and Chambers being in the “Zone of Meh”, where my objections are mostly not understanding why people think they’re anything other than rampantly mediocre, but Too Like the Lightning being actually both bad and objectionable. The main interest now is whether Death’s End is going to come out better or worse than TLtL, as tDF was definitely more objectionable, but I’m told DE is a bit better. It’s all to play for for last place in my rankings.

Next up, a quick break to read something I’ll definitely enjoy – The Bad Quarto, the last Imogen Quy mystery – then back to the Hugos for Death’s End, and finishing off the Nebulas with Borderline, by Mishell Baker.

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The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

55ea1e9fa15d1-imageIt has been nearly a month since my last post. And do you know why that is? Because this book was a SLOG. It was a CHORE. I HATED it.

And I still have to* read the sequel for the Hugothon… *facedesk*.

I’m going to say this right now, I’m not keeping this post spoiler free. I have a lot of ground to cover in “why this is objectionable and also shit” and it’s going to require drawing direct explanation from the book. If you want the tl;dr and no more, stop after the bullet points.

So there are a few things which will piss me right off if they crop up in my SFF, regardless of context or execution. They’re just things I don’t think can ever be done well or with sufficient artistry/ingenuity/value for me to get over the innate “ugh no” that I experience with them. A few of these include:

  • Misogyny clearly sitting with the author/tone/authorial voice, not as a viewpoint of a character.
  • Humans following a few simple rules and thus being completely predictable by someone with sufficient Science!TM.
  • An extension of which, humanities/social sciences being suddenly magically simple because they’re being done by a sciencey scientist.
  • Humans being special because they can love.
  • Love saving the day/being the magic special thing that solves the problem.
  • Lagrange points**.

And guess what? Yep, this book does all of them. GOODY.

So the misogyny thing was the one that overwhelmed me for the majority of the first part of the book. The viewpoint character is a somewhat jaded astronomer, whose lovelife at present is casual flings whose names he can’t even remember when he wakes up. He then reveals (when one of them gets killed, spurring on some of the action, kinda) that he has only truly been in love once. An old girlfriend asked him to try to write a story for her, and in learning how to write a believable fictional character, he fell in love with his own creation, leading to a break up with his irl girlfriend and a long-lasting obsession. Things then happen, and he gains a mandate from the UN that gives him a lot of power with very little answerability as a “Wallfacer”, and he uses this to get his police/security liaison to find him a woman who perfectly fits his idea of this woman he invented. Ew.

Then we find out what she’s like: beautiful, delicate-looking, young, naive, educated but not too much so it doesn’t make her jaded, simpler than all the fussy women of her age, an artist who likes the Renaissance, who passionately cares about finding beauty, gentle… you get where I’m going with this. It’s horrible. He has her brought to work for him doing his unsupervised thing in his perfect house he’s used his power to get, then uses his power to take her on a nighttime tour of the Louvre, where they fall in love as they develop the language where people communicate only with their eyes. Cue some horrendously florid description of people falling in love.

And I’m gonna quote it for you:

The Mona Lisa was deforming. The walls were deforming, melting like ice as the Louvre collapsed, its stones turning to red-hot magma as they fell. When the magma passed over their bodies, it felt cool as a clear spring. They fell with the Louvre, passing through a melted Europe toward the center of the Earth, and when they reached it, the world around them exploded in a shower of gorgeous cosmic fireworks. Then the sparks extinguished, and in the twinkling of an eye, space became crystal clear. The stars wove crystal beams into a giant silver blanket, and the planets vibrated, emitting beautiful music. The starfield grew dense, like a surging tide. The universe contracted and collapsed, until at last everything was annihilated in the creative light of love.

Dear. God. I’ll be the first to admit I have no poetry in my soul, but this is taking the piss, it really is.

But it gets better. So they fall in love, and five years pass. They have a daughter. Then the UN gets wise to the fact that he’s not doing his important job, and instead pootling about being in happy happy love. So they decide to make him get on with it. And the best way to do this? Take the woman he loves and the child he adores, get them away in the middle of the night, and put them in cryogenic hibernation until he gets shit done.

Yep, literally fridged.

And this is frankly leaving aside that she explicitly asks him if her being with him is part of his super plan to save humanity, and he lies to her to tell her that it is, because he knows it’s the only thing that’ll keep her happy living with him. Fucking creepy.

We also have another Wallfacer (they’re all men, by the way), whose enemy trying to undermine him (Wallbreaker) turns out to be his wife. Now, this could have been really cool and important and a lot could have been done with it. But do you know what the last we hear of her is? A throwaway line by the Wallfacer that, oh yeah, she committed seppuku some time ago. No emotion. Just, oh yeah and she died.

And the whole book is like this. Women are constantly relegated to the sidelines, ignored or simply forgotten. The last third of the book is less misogynist, simply because it drops any pretence of having women in the story at all. They’re props, and the only time they’re useful is when we need someone to feel a little bit of sorrow, then we shove them back in the box. It’s horrendous. If everything else about the book was good, this would be enough for me to hate it.

But nope, there had to be more.

Love is magic, for instance. Possibly my least favourite trope of all. As I say, no poetry in my soul, and not an ounce of romance, so I am for sure not the target audience for this crap, but my god is it trite bullshit. Especially when you try to claim that humans are special because of it. There is something so contemptibly smug about this and I just can’t stand it. I suppose it fits in with my whole “can we just have some books without romance in? No?” thing and then elevates it to an art form. I’m not saying love isn’t nice and all, and the warm fuzzies are great, but it’s not… *waves hands awkwardly around face to make a point*… everything. If I had to explain why I thought humanity was so awesome… god, it wouldn’t even make the top ten. Civilisation, people, everything is so much more than this and it would make me so happy to read more stuff that just got over it. And this is a book that’s trying to be about philosophical ideals, and the deep understanding of what humanity truly is.

Which brings me neatly to my next issue: humanity boiled down to simple axioms.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be why I dislike the Foundation books until today, but I think it is. I really can’t get on with the idea that people can be boiled down to a few rules and then flawlessly predicted, either on an individual or a massed basis. And yet, part of the entire notion of this book is that not just humanity but the whole of galactic “sociology” can be encompassed and then built upon two axioms.

Fellow people what did an arts or humanities degree, you know that feeling when someone in STEM tries to “solve” your subject for you? Them feels.

But it’s something that runs through the whole book, and makes it feel so implausible. Leaving aside galactic “sociology” for a moment, there’s a bit where several space ships are flying away from earth and realise they can never go back. Between them, we have a crew of thousands. And yet, somehow, they all come not only to the same conclusion about their situation, their feelings on their situation and what they should do about it in roughly the same amount of time, but they all couch it in the same metaphor. People just… aren’t that samey.

And likewise, people on earth are treated as a homogenous mass that’ll all behave the same (or when we’re really lucky at one point, in one of two) ways when when faced with whatever crises. And that’s just not how people work. And once you’ve got that undercutting everything, nothing has even the whiff of realism about it, which I think the book is heavily relying on. Because for all hard SF can sometimes be a bit cold on the emotional front, it mostly manages to treat people in a way that makes them feel plausible and individual, not a bunch of automata programmed to respond the same way to stimuli. This has pushed further into that, and it feels horribly reductivist and just… yeah, unreal. It’s not a question of suspending my disbelief, it’s about creating a world that even remotely facilitates that. Because if you have to force it, if you have to keep finding issues and deliberately dismissing them time and again in order to force your immersion in the world the author is creating? That’s a real problem.

Now, I had a lot of issues with the first book, some of which I wasn’t sure if they were because of the translator, inherent to the story or a bit of both. I have to say I suspect it’s the latter, as this one has a different translator, and while some of the issues are definitely worse, they’re the same issues. The story feels incredibly dry, like the worst hard sci-fi often is, and none of the characters has any sort of human depth to them. I kept mixing up who was whom because they all sound exactly the same, they’re just mouthpieces for the author. And as such they’re all horribly didactic. You know how in not-very-good books there’s that one character that clearly exists only to give exposition? They’re all that character. And some of the stiltedness surely does come from the divide between the language of writing and the English translation, sure. But some of it must come from the story itself, I can’t blame it all on translation. Despite the mush and the floridly described love, there’s no human warmth to it at all. It’s just a list of events, sometimes described through the medium of speech, and it’s so bloody dreary. I had to push myself so hard to get through it.

And again in my review of the first book, we came upon the issue of whether there’s a fundamental difference in how Chinese literature tells stories, compared to what I’m used to. Now, further input from various sources since then has emphasised the theme of the inevitability of things, and the sense of people not being actors but merely dragged along by the inexorable current of fate. It does seem to be a Thing***. And it’s definitely present and obvious in this book. So to some extent, I’m going to have to claim that a lot of my issues with it come from a position outside the cultural context in which it is written. I’m not the target audience because on some level I just do not Get what it’s trying to do. Which is fine. But I can’t give it an entirely free pass either; I’m going to honestly critique the novel in English that I read, just with an understanding that it’s not a novel written in English, and it comes from somewhere where it is very much aiming for a thing that I’m not looking for. So instead, let’s say I’m critiquing it in its position as a Hugo nominee. And for that, I can only go in on what I enjoy, and what I can Get, and what I think is worthwhile. And I frankly don’t think this is it. There are things which bother me and which are the familiar – the misogyny, the triteness – that I can connect with and dislike, and to some extent that’s why I’ve been focussing on them rather than the language.

But the language was something that I struggled with throughout too. It’s not so much that you can tell it’s translated, just that it doesn’t flow like good English prose might. The conglomerate entity of author and translator do not have a way with words, and even go as far as rendering things in a way that was often downright clunky. It clearly tries to be poetic, and I don’t know if it achieves that in Chinese, but it’s not achieving it for me. And it lacks nuance. Part of what makes the characters feel like identical automata is the fact that none of them have any of the individuality of voice you find in real people or in most story characters. And more than that, they don’t speak like people at all. Everything is perfectly laid out, like a planned speech, with explanatory notes, in every conversation. Nothing seems spontaneous or ill-thought-out or unfinished or natural. Everything is perfect and precise. And it doesn’t read as human.

I should probably comment on the actual story at this point.

In a word, ridiculous. So many of the notions in the book – the Wallfacers, the Battle of Darkness – are just completely implausible. The idea that a near future world would decide that the best defence against an alien invasion was to give four men, one of whom basically a random pick, unquestioned power to do pretty much whatever they want to save humanity? It just… no. And then of course everything is clunkily named (though I’m guessing this is an artefact of translation). SF is supposed to be about a realistic view of the distant, the implausible and the unknowable. This just isn’t that.

But it does get better. About two thirds of the way through, we get onto just pure space battles and fate of the world stuff. We stop really paying much attention to any actual people doing things, and the story becomes a whole lot better. Which is a pretty damning indictment.

Liu can write a pleasingly horrifying unknowable enemy, and some solid space-battle imagery. Which is pretty much the only praise I have, at this point.

Thus far, I will put this down as my worst book of 2017. It was hard to read, harder to care about, and in many ways fundamentally objectionable. There’s little I can find that I would consider to redeem it, and it fails to pass a lot of my basic tests for “is this a decent novel?”. It is vastly worse than its predecessor, and for all that it gets better in the last third, that’s only because it abandons all pretense at really dealing with humans much at all. When the author just talks about his space axioms and space battles, he does ok… I think in part because it feels like this is the only thing he ever really wanted to talk about in the first place. Ok, no, that’s a lie. He clearly wants to talk about his didactic philosophising too, but that’s just obnoxious.

In short, I hated it, and the fact that I have to read the sequel is really getting up my nose.

Up next, A Closed and Common Orbit, sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, followed by The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and the third installment in this series, Death’s End. However, in contrast to what is mounting into a daunting and unremitting pile of NOPE, I do have the last in my Nebula Nominees to read, Borderline, by Mishell Baker, which looks genuinely fascinating, and to which I am looking forward immensely. It’s pulling me through.

 

*Any comments reminding me I don’t “have to” read it will be ignored. I committed to a thing, which includes the shitty parts of the thing. To complete the thing, I have to read the sequel. It’s “have to” vs my stupid pride and my stupid pride wins.
**I may be being sarcastic on this one. Maybe.
***Correction or elaboration on this point much appreciated by those in the know.

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