May 22 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The two main characters of A Closed and Common Orbit are learning what it is to be human. That’s not quire correct in one case; maybe it would be more correct to say that each is learning what it is like to be a person, with a fairly wide definition of what “person” means. They come at it from different ends, different directions and eventually meet on common, well, maybe not common ground but perhaps the common orbit of the title.

The book is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I have not read. A paragraph prefacing Orbit says that the current timeline in the story begins during the final events of Planet. It is possible that this discussion will contain spoilers for that book. I was not lost reading Orbit, so it’s not necessary to have read the previous book to enjoy the current one.

Lovelace — called Sidra in most of the book — is a ship’s AI downloaded into a highly illegal body kit for reasons not explained in the current story. She doesn’t like it. “Twenty-nine minutes before, she’d been housed in a ship, as she was designed to be. She’d had cameras in every corner, voxes in every room. She’d exsited in a web, with eyes both within in outside. A solid sphere of unblinking perception.” She doesn’t like it in the least. “Her vision was a cone, a narrow cone fixed straight ahead, with nothing — actual nothing — beyond its edges. Gravity was no longer something that happened within her … nor did it exist in the space around her, a gentle ambient folding around the ship’s outer hull. Now it was myopic glue, something that stuck feet to the floor and legs to the seat above it.” (p. 5)

Faced with such disconcerting input, such disappointing constricting input, Lovelace comes to the logical conclusion that the kit must be malfunctioning. No, Pepper assures her, that’s what being singular in a body is like. A body kit that, if discovered, would lead to many years of imprisonment for the people who have helped her into it, and erasure for the AI housed therein.

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May 21 2017

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn

How does a Mormon missionary wind up facing charges of terrorism and conspiracy? In Canada, of all places?

William Shunn’s memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, starts with him at nineteen answering questions for a detective. It’s hard to tell if he’s more disconcerted by the charges he faces or the woman facing him in a short, short skirt. “I haven’t been alone so close to a woman in five months. With no table between us, our knees nearly touch. This is against mission rules in so many ways, I can’t even count.”

Even then, with the full force of the law about to descend on him, he is still worried about the missionary rules under which he was sent from Utah to Canada in 1986 to try to win converts. It’s a familiar feeling, that the rules of a foreign culture aren’t as real as one’s own. The all-encompassing nature of the Mormon culture from which Shunn came, its many rules, and its many means for enforcing them that have nothing to do with the larger cultures outside of Mormonism no doubt contributed to Shunn’s feelings. Nevertheless, Canada’s law enforcement has arrested this upstanding young man. “Elder Shunn, tell me,” says the detective. “Tell me how you ended up here.”

Shunn tells readers the story of how he wound up on the wrong side of the Mounties, weaving his own history together with the history of Mormonism, particularly its founder Joseph Smith. The history illuminates the current setup of Mormonism, how and why they send missionaries, how the culture of the church works and works on its members, and the personal relationships members build with the church’s founders. These relationships with the church’s founding stories in turn play roles in how members relate to authority, and how people with authority in the church use it on their charges.

The book is fast and fun to read. Shunn is a breezy raconteur, recounting his story and the Mormon story with equal deftness. Dipping back into the book to write this, it’s easy to get drawn back in, flipping through the pages and following young Shunn’s efforts to win souls, hang onto his girlfriend back home, and navigate the small-bore perils of missionary life. There’s plenty that’s funny, from the terminology — assistant to the president (a local Mormon functionary) are known to the missionaries as APs, or apes — to the pranks the missionaries play on each other, to just tales of people being people in all their random, weird glory.

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May 20 2017

“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief” by Urusla Vernon will have my first-place vote for this year’s Hugo award in the category of best novelette. It is a sideways return to the world of “Jackalope Wives,” which won the Nebula in 2014 for best short story, and is the only other story of hers that I have read.

Both are set in what feels like a mythologized version of the American Southwest. The timing is vague; this story features trains, and they have been around for a while. But people also mostly get around by foot or by animal transport. If this is the modern world, it is very distant for one reason or another.

It’s very tightly focused, mostly on Grandma Harken.

Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.

Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.

And of course on tomatoes.

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May 17 2017

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall

By the time Blair Tindall gets to the skills analysis that tells her she’s terrible at logic and analysis, I was so frustrated with this book that I said aloud, “You got that right.”

Other things she gets right in the book: the fly-on-the wall look at the life of a professional classical musician of the time, as well as her reporting on the history and business of classical music in America. But there are two huge flaws that make this book an incredibly annoying read. The first is her crappy attitude. Idk what combination of poor self-esteem and shallowness is at work here but I had a hard time empathizing with what should be a highly sympathetic portrait. I totally understand falling into a profession by accident, then finding oneself woefully unprepared for a life outside of it, and I very much admire her gumption in seeking balance and health so she could regain her enjoyment of playing the oboe. But she spends very little time talking about her gift in comparison with the vast amounts of time she spends bitching about the people around her and her own poor life choices. Her circumstances and experiences explain some of why she feels trapped, but I just spent so much time being baffled because she was admittedly not poor and had a loving family that she just never chose to rely on, aside from a Carnegie Hall debut recital that they happily finance. I was really glad when she started making good choices, but everything between the ages of 24 and 39 just felt like years and years of shooting herself in the foot, then looking at her reading audience with a bewildered “woe is me!” expression. Her explanations swing between a classic Idiot Story and “none of this is my fault!” Fucking boring.

Which leads to the other problem with the book: the muddled, and I hesitate to even use this word, “conclusions” she comes to at the end of it. There are things I can wholeheartedly support, like the value of a well-rounded education instead of the specialized, glorified trade school lessons that are the lot of most conservatory students. I absolutely agree that parents should have more of a supervisory role in their childrens’ educations, especially when private lessons can be open to abuse. And it is absurd for bureaucrats to pay themselves extravagant salaries while musicians earn a mere fraction of their incomes. But is Ms Tindall saying that musicians should be paid more, or not at all? Is she saying that the American music scene is not European enough, or too ready to ape Europe? Her arguments are so vague in every direction that I finished the book completely mystified as to what she was trying to get at. It was a lot like having a Facebook conversation with someone who’s bad at arguing but insists on doing it anyway.

Mozart In The Jungle was great for a gossipy look at the life of classical musicians in late 20th-century America (and it certainly made me listen to a bit more classical music, and raised my interest in watching the Amazon show, and reminded me how much I miss playing the cello) but as factual analysis and policy argument, it was bafflingly bad. I’m frankly surprised she has a writing career beyond sense impressions, where she excels, under the guidance of an editor who can give her direction in choosing subject matter.

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May 15 2017

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Reader, I devoured this book on my road trip to visit my in-laws over Mother’s Day weekend. It is, as the author admits, something of a ridiculous novel: a contemporary of Jane Eyre’s contemplates the similarities between their lives even as she herself, the titular Jane Steele, solves problems by means of murder, and finds herself involved in conspiracies involving the East India Company and expatriate Sikhs in England. But it is this sense of absurdity that carries the goings-on agilely forward, making for a deeply satisfying, entertaining novel.

Essentially: Jane Steele is a friendless orphan who is sent away to a dreadful boarding school from which she escapes with her best friend to brave the seamy underbelly of London. Upon separation from her dear friend, she ekes out a living till a notice of position for governess in her childhood home crosses her path. Compelled by curiosity and a sense of proprietorship, she applies, and finds herself welcomed and absorbed into a (curious for its era) household that is far more Punjabi than English. Oh, and she kills a bunch of people along the way.

But Jane isn’t a sociopath. In many respects — and I hope this isn’t too, too much of a spoiler — murder is the only option she has as a young woman in a society that grants little social and legal power, much less redress, to those of her sex. This novel is, essentially, a feminist, globalist, revisionist fantasy loosely based on Jane Eyre. There’s also a very solid murder mystery in it, and while I did have reservations as to the presentation of the identity of the killer I do think that, overall, Lyndsay Faye was respectful of the culture, history and religion of Sikhism. I certainly learned much more of it, and I already have Sikh friends.

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May 11 2017

Militärmusik by Wladimir Kaminer

The cover says that Militärmusik is a novel, but I suppose the main point of that designation is to relieve Wladimir Kaminer (why doesn’t he use the usual transliteration in English?) of any obligation even to pretend to be telling a true story. I mean, Militärmusik is told in the first person, the main character is named Wladimir Kaminer, and all of the main events are things that actually occurred to him, as far as I can tell. Still, early on he relates that he had both a habit and a talent for telling tales, and that got him into plenty of trouble in the later years of the Soviet Union when he was growing up. Best to call this book a novel rather than an autobiography, no need to worry about the details of what happened, lest they get in the way of a good story. Though that may not be entirely in his favor; reality is under no obligation to be as believable as a novel. It often wasn’t, especially in the Soviet Union.

Kaminer recounts his life from birth up to his early 20s, when he left Moscow for Berlin. He was born in 1967, so his childhood was marked by the stagnation of Soviet society under Brezhnev, and his teens and young adulthood by the ferment and upheaval of the Gorbachev era, when first Soviet certainties crumbled, and then the Union itself vanished in a round of signatures in the Belarusian woods. By that time, Kaminer has fled to the West, and Militärmusik has come to an end.

Kaminer’s Moscow is not the home of great thinkers, of depressives wrestling with the great questions of existence, or political firebrands trying to make the world anew. He and his friends — the stories in this slender volume are mostly of boys and young men — are sly dogs and slackers, trying to get by, trying to put one over on the system, trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Most of all it’s funny! Anyone who says the Soviet Union was nothing but gray and drab and horrible doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Especially by the Brezhnev years, the system had mellowed into shambling corruption, and the late-night knock on the door came for very few. Knuckleheads like Kaminer could bounce from a young sailors’ camp (they climbed the fence of the nearby Communist Youth League camp to meet girls) to theater school to low-level jobs where ensuring the actors’ sobriety was one of the greatest challenges. He says that he himself indulged very little, only enough to keep the actors company.

The closest that anyone comes to Communism is the free-floating camp deep in a Latvian forest that Kaminer and a friend hitchhike to one summer. It’s actually three camps: Idos (idealists, people who have found their one answer to life and want to persuade everyone else), Narcos (people who have found their drug and just want to indulge all summer) and Indos (from the Soviet idea of American Indians, but basically everyone else). They are all young, fit, and free, and everyone contributes one way or another. It’s the kind of anarchy that cropped up surprisingly often in the cracks of Soviet society.

His friends were also among the first to organize rock concerts. These usually took place in apartments, as they were not strictly legal. He talks about how they spotted the KGB ringers and made sure not to charge them admission, so as not to be charged with profiteering, which was still illegal at the time. His story of encountering other KGB agents when they took one of their acts to Kiev is emblematic of how in the 1980s repression was routinized, for better and for worse. Kaminer’s time in the Army also surely glosses over hardships and possible bad outcomes. Possibly the most important event for his future was his father’s successful effort to get him taken into a cushy unit, one that turns out to be home to sons of generals and ambassadors. Readers will only know how much that mattered if they know what other fates are possible for young recruits in the Soviet Army, even in peacetime. Kaminer does not dwell on this detail; his main purpose is to tell funny stories. But it is still there.

Kaminer writes briskly, one of the advantages of telling stories in his second language. He’s funny, he’s personable, he’s a good companion for tales that may or may not be true. As far as I can tell, Russian Disco (his first book) is the only one available in English. It’s a good starting point: stories of life as an immigrant in early-1990s Berlin, when both he and the city are still caught between East and West.

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May 10 2017

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is a very bleak book. It is riveting, engrossing, engaging, compelling, thought-provoking, and more, but it is also very, very bleak. When I was finished, I picked up a slim Soviet-German comedy (not an oxymoron!) by way of lightening the mood.

The Fifth Season begins with a mother still tending the body of her dead son. Soon, readers learn that the murderer was the child’s own father, and that the father has taken their daughter with him as he fled town before his act was discovered. Soon, readers learn that the father killed his son because of what the child was: someone who could perform earth magic, automatically, unconsciously, drawing on the power of life around the practitioner to fuel the magic, sometimes expending that life in the process. Not long after, readers learn that much of the town does not regard the killing as a crime so much as the removal of a danger to the community. Later, seeing what the orogenes, the magicians, can do, readers may feel that the people of the town are not entirely wrong in their estimation.

The Fifth Season begins with a powerful orogene just outside the greatest city on the continent known, with geological irony, as the Stillness. Though the city stands atop a great fault, it has been stable for twenty-seven centuries, and people there build more extravagantly than anywhere else on the very active continent. “He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him. Then he breaks it.” (p. 7) The magician not only destroys the city, he opens up a cut across the continent that will break it in two. The ash from this cataclysm will blot out the sun for years, spreading devastation across all of the lands. Eventually, things will return to normal. “Eventually meaning in this case in a few thousand years.” (p. 8)

The Fifth Season tells the stories of what happened after the first discovery, and what happened before that terrible catastrophe.

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May 08 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

One of the things I particularly liked about All the Birds in the Sky is how Charlie Jane Anders chose to break up the story. It’s a two-sided, save-the-world story, and all of the basics are there: interesting leads, good counterparts, quick pacing, fun dialog, and so forth. She’s strong enough on the essentials even in her debut novel that it’s more interesting to talk about the more advanced parts of telling the story that she has chosen.

The setup: Patricia is a witch; her childhood friend Laurence is a scientific genius. They are very close in middle school (the story is set in the US), but drift apart and are then dramatically separated. They meet again as young adults, advanced in their respective realms, as the world is starting to get badly out of joint. They are still drawn to one another, but find themselves on opposite sides of attempts to prevent catastrophe.

That bare summary does not do justice to the wry humor and the warmth with which Anders tells their stories. Part of it is where she chooses to put major breaks in the narrative. Book one introduces each of them and brings them together briefly, with chapters set when they are small children. Patricia discovers that she can talk to animals, and the birds take her to a Parliament of Birds that meets at a great Tree in the deepest part of the forest. Laurence builds a time machine that can jump two seconds ahead in the future, and runs away to MIT where there’s a rocket launch and he discovers a group of students who followed the same schematics he did to build their own two-second time machines.

Each of them has had a glimpse of their place in the world, but it is only a view. Patricia comes back from the woods and doesn’t hear from the animal world again for years, despite her best efforts. Laurence’s parents pick him up from MIT and drive him back home, all the while lecturing him on how life is all about responsibility not adventure. In the back seat, he doesn’t hear a word as he zips through a newly acquired copy of Have Spacesuit — Will Travel.

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May 07 2017

“The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin

The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin should win this year’s Hugo for short story. The conceit of the story is that great human cities have a life of their own. Maybe that life awakens quickly, maybe it takes centuries or millennia, but at some point the genius loci becomes a thing in itself. Birth is never easy, not every potential new life makes it into the world, and Jemisin’s story tells the tale of New York’s attempt from the point of view of its midwife. Who has no idea what he is doing. He mainly knows that some very strange things are happening, and maybe all is not as it seems and he is seeing a higher reality, “Or maybe my mama was right, and I ain’t never been right in the head.”

What makes this story great is the sheer exuberance with which it’s told. It’s fast, it’s furious, but it’s also tremendous fun. And sure, it’s a power fantasy, too, but if that gives readers sentences like “I backhand its ass with Hoboken, raining the drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros down on it like the hammer of God. Port Authority makes it honorary New York, motherfucker; you just got Jerseyed.” then let a thousand fantasies bloom. It’s a story about life, and living, and that’s what it’s most full of: the very stuff of life.

There’s more going on, too. Stories about cities as things in themselves have a long SF tradition, including James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels from the 1950s and 1960s or John Shirley’s punk approach in City Come A-Walkin’. Not for Jemisin the cool distance of Blish’s technocrats, or the dark decline of Shirley. Jemisin’s city overwhelms; it’s on all the time in Ultra HD saturated color 3-D overdrive.

But Paulo’s full of shit, too, like when he says I should consider meditation to better attune myself to the city’s needs. Like I’mma get through this on white-girl yoga.

“White-girl yoga,” Paulo says, nodding. “Indian man yoga. Stockbroker racquetball and schoolboy handball, ballet and merengue, union halls and SoHo galleries. You will embody a city of millions. You need not be them, but know that they are part of you.”

It’s also a story of the chosen one, because every city needs an avatar. And it could be a riff on Christian themes, because the one who is chosen is among the least of these: black, gay, homeless, teen, broke, thrown out of his churchgoing home, street artist, hustler, con man, uncertain, and scared. But also confident, brilliant, unabashed, and willing. He’s terrific.

“I sing the city,” writes Jemisin to start the story. Echoing Langston Hughes, without the qualifying “too.” Echoing Walt Whitman. Echoing Bradbury. Singing a new New York into the world.


The short stories were the fifth bit of Hugo-related reading I have done this year, and the second I have written about.

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May 02 2017

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych #1) by Catherynne M. Valente

There’s no denying that this is a beautifully written book. Catherynne M Valente takes Russian and Slavic folktales and melds them with Russian, particularly Leningrad, history of the early 20th century. Her descriptions of falling in love and of the secret languages and compromises of marriage make for compelling, wholly believable and empathetic reading.

And yet, and yet. When I find myself disliking a book but not actually able to elucidate why, I tend to turn to other reviewers to see if they felt similarly but had an easier time of describing their discomfort. In the case of this book, especially, that helped a lot. Many other reviewers, especially those of a Russian/Slavic heritage, brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. I can’t really speak to the authenticity of her work, to how Russian it really is (a bit more on that later) but I can tell you that when she talks about life and power, my entire being rebels at the ideas she’s presenting as, if not somehow good and aspirational, at least acceptable, even romantic.

I’m not even sure if the rest of this discussion counts as spoiler-y because Deathless is less a story than a whole lot of metaphors layered and strung together. Quite artistically, granted: there’s no doubt that Ms Valente writes beautifully. Essentially, a young woman — no. A girl in Leningrad falls in love with Koschei the Deathless, who here is presented as the Tsar of Life, a god/archetype who represents the long, grinding, materially rich but ultimately despairing fate of all mortals: to succumb to his brother, the Tsar of Death. Life is presented not as a gift but as a burden, not as a source of joy but a font of pain. It is made out to be grotesque. And yes, it is all these things, but it’s also so much more. Life is endless possibilities and hope and renewal, but that is rarely (if ever!) brought up in this book. To a certain extent, Deathless was very much like a long discussion with my depressive Bulgarian friend, Slav: he and I are not unfamiliar with the trope of the Eastern European as nihilist, one he occasionally propagandizes for all he’s worth. But his lived experience is not the only kind of Slavic experience, and that lack of diversity in a book that claims to retell the folklore of the region is, at best, disquieting.

That was my issue with her representation of Life. Now we get to the even more problematic representation of Power. Politically, I thought she did a good job, but when it came to the personal relationships, I was, once more, aghast. The creepiness of the romance between Marya and Koschei aside (honestly, it felt a lot like a better written, more explicitly fairy tale version of 50 Shades Of Grey,) I really, really hated the oft-bandied idea that the main concern in marriage is “Who rules?” I’ve been married for 7 years now, more or less successfully: my husband and I get along quite well, and we have three wonderful children we’re devoted to. We have never engaged in the insane power struggles that define the romantic relationship at the heart of this book. Our marriage recognizes each other as individuals, and we try to be good to one another while still honoring our own needs. We don’t make threats and ultimatums like Marya and Koschei (and later Ivan) do because that is all toxic bullshit. We’re not a perfect couple by any means, but we’re in a far, far healthier place than the self-destructive insanity of the main romances depicted in this book.

And it’s not like I think bad marriages shouldn’t be depicted in popular culture. I loved the dysfunctional marriage at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because it was never romanticized. Marriage can be a shitshow, but representations of such should be considered a cautionary tale, not a love for the ages. Which is why it was even more perplexing when Ms Valente would write so movingly about the compromises of matrimony. Any relationship involves a push and pull, but the healthy ones aren’t about controlling your partner: two vastly differing concepts that Ms Valente never reconciled in this book.

And then the book just sort of ended, and I was all “Ugh, I have to read another book to get an actual story out of this?” Maaaaaybe I will, eventually? There’s no denying that Ms Valente has some great ideas and a lovely style, but her endorsement of mentally unhealthy attitudes (wrapped up in a vaguely “oh but this is just how Russians are” veneer) really bothers me. I really wanted to like this book, but instead I’m kinda grossed out.

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