Sep 17 2019

Wonderland: An Anthology edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane

First of all, Titan Books just has the best speculative fiction short story anthologies. Between this and the recent Wastelands 3: The New Apocalypse alone, I feel entirely spoiled with exposure to some of the best minds working in fantastic fiction today. Wonderland collects 20 brand new short works (18 stories, plus two poems from Jane Yolen) inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classics, that run the gamut from luminous to terrifying, with every shade of wonder in between. Whether looking at Wonderland from a historical perspective or diving into its text as presented by Mr Carroll himself or re-setting the proceedings in different times and places, these 20 inventive gems carve out new space in our collective psyches for Wonderland to inhabit.

Personal disclosure time: my first starring role as an actress was in my primary school’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland. I was cast as the White Rabbit but wound up having that supporting role enlarged — given more lines, given more time on-stage, given more motivations and things to do — to reflect my talent, which happened a lot during my too-brief stage career. It was a bit like how Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter became so much more important in the Tim Burton film than in any other adaptation, tho I likely got better reviews for my performance than he did (seriously, a national paper said I stole every scene I was in. I’m still not sure what they were doing at my school play, but I imagine it was a slow week in the human interest pages.) Anyway, this formative experience goes a long way towards explaining why I’m so fond of this setting and of any adaptations thereof.

That said, it’s perhaps surprising that my favorites of the collection were probably the least traditional, going all out with a sci-fi bent, as M. R. Carey’s There Were No Birds To Fly and Cavan Scott’s Dream Girl did. The period pieces definitely gave them a run for their money, tho. I loved Genevieve Cogman’s The White Queen’s Pawn, as well as Juliet Marillier’s Good Dog, Alice!, both set in a post-Victorian Britain somewhat askew from the one we inhabited. I also adored the more far-flung adaptations, particularly Angela Slatter’s Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em and L. L. McKinney’s What Makes A Monster, the latter so much so that I’ve requested her full-length novel, A Blade So Black (set in the same universe as the short story,) from my local library. The hallmark of a good short story collection, after all, isn’t just to satisfy, but also to whet the readers’ appetite for more of the writers’ works.

Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane have done an amazing job curating this anthology. We at the Frumious have been given the chance to interview them about it, so look out for that in the coming weeks! In the meantime, feel free to hop over to any of the other sites featured on the Wonderland book tour, beautifully illustrated in the graphic at right.

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Sep 14 2019

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

On the second page of his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson offers a thumbnail sketch of his subject: “He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, dimplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clear-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.” The rest of the book, just shy of 500 pages, fills in the details of this set of characterizations. Some of Isaacson’s assertions are debatable — that homespun humor or philosophical pragmatism are unique to America, for example — but his characterization of Franklin is accurate, and carries through the narrative of his life.

Benjamin Franklin

But wait, there’s more! as Franklin himself might say. “But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America’s first great publicist, he was, in his life and writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In this process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.” (p. 2) Throughout the book, Isaacson gives examples of how shrewdly Franklin cultivated other people’s perceptions of himself and his work and ideas. “As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In between, he created an image of himself as a simple yet aspiring tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues—diligence, frugality, honesty—of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.” (pp. 2–3)

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Sep 12 2019

How To by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, asks how to do various things — jump really high, throw things, build a lava moat, and a couple dozen more — and considers approaches that are both sound and absurd. Hilarity ensues. The book begins with an earnest disclaimer, a plea not to take the title as a guide. “Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind.”

How To

If that did not drive the point home, the first sentence of the introduction reads, “This is a book of bad ideas.” He then undercuts himself by saying that although “smearing mold on an infected wound sounds like a terrible idea,” that is basically what penicillin is. The underlying matter of the book, then, is not just how to tell good ideas from bad, but how exploring even cockamamie ideas can lead to interesting insights and, occasionally, solutions to apparently intractable problems. You might not think that lowering a heavy rover on a tether from a hovering spacecraft is the best way to get the rover to the surface of Mars. In fact, at first glance it would appear either impossible or overly complicated, but that is in fact how Curiosity touched down, for reasons that Munroe explains.

He adds, “This book explores unusual approaches to common tasks, and looks at what would happen to you if you tried them. Figuring out why they would or wouldn’t work can be fun and informative and sometimes leads you to surprising places. Maybe an idea is bad, but figuring out exactly why it’s a bad idea can teach you a lot—and might help you think of a better approach.”

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Sep 10 2019

Planet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin

Winter is coming. The orbit of the planet Werel gives it winters that last five thousand nights, give or take. Sound familiar? Well, Planet of Exile was published in 1966, four years before George R.R. Martin sold his first professional story.

Planet of Exile

As in Le Guin’s other Hainish stories, humans have been on Werel a very long time and have adapted to local conditions. The indigenous people, the Tevarans, have a low level of technology but have devised various strategies for coping with the winter. Nomadic, or semi-nomadic during the temperate seasons, they build up stores for the coming winter and construct mostly-underground dwellings where they can stay warmer and wait out the long cold season. Another group of indigenous people, the Gaal, relocate from the latitudes depicted in Planet of Exile to warmer climes where, presumably, they can survive without the elaborate preparations undertaken by the Tevarans. The Gaal are known as raiders. They pass through the Tevaran territory, taking what they can, but mostly they are in a hurry to move south, so it is not too difficult to fend them off.

A third group of people on Werel are the farborn, as the Tevarans call them, descendants of colonists who arrived on slower-than-light interstellar ships many generations ago. Operating under something like the Prime Directive, the settlers made minimal use of technology so as not to disturb the local societies any more than necessary. The colonists expected to assist the indigenous people as they acquired increasing levels of technology. The colonists also expected to be in periodic contact with the starfaring civilization that sent them forth. Unfortunately, neither of these happened, and they have gradually lost the technology that they came with; knowledge of the stars has largely retreated into legend by the time Planet of Exile begins. Nor can they interbreed with the local populace, and their numbers are dwindling slowly but steadily.

Planet of Exile tells of the season when all of those verities failed to hold. The Gaal have changed their tactics. Instead of raiding a bit as they pass through, they are moving more slowly but systematically razing or taking everything in their path. Traditional Tevaran methods will never hold them off. Rolery of Wold’s Kin, a young Tevaran woman out of place in her society, is rescued from certain death by Jakob Agat Alterra, a young farborn man, and a leader among them. Their first contact breaks taboos on both sides; the bond they forge will break more but prove crucial if their two peoples are to survive the conflict that is coming.

The book is only 100 pages, it might even count as a novella in today’s market, and yet it puts forward a coherent world, two and a half richly imagined human societies, and complex relationships among the people it introduces. Like many science fiction stories of its time, Planet of Exile posits telepathy as something that exists and could be developed in various forms, given the proper combination of talent and practice.

Le Guin’s background with anthropology is clearly visible: the Gaal and the impending winter provide the danger, but the real conflicts in the story arise from the clash of the worldviews of the farborn and the Tevarans. Their worldviews have allowed them to survive, but not they may very precisely stand in the way of survival. Like people everywhere, both groups are loathe to change fundamental ways of dealing with the world, even in the face of shattering evidence and opportunity to do things differently. Because Planet of Exile is not a tragedy or a dystopia, they do find partial means of reaching beyond what they have known, but not without substantial cost. In just her second novel, Le Guin is already reaching deeply into societies and people, without losing and of the narrative verve that lets her finish her tale in the time that a twenty-first century author might still just be warming up.

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Sep 08 2019

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

Romans and cowboys! A demon-powered steamboat! Saloon fights! Distressing damsels! Samuel Clemens! Now this is how you embrace the pulpy side of things and stay the heck out of the uncanny valley. Not least because very unfriendly immortals are likely to sweep down from the uncanny heights and leave you scalped or kilt ded.

The Incorruptibles

Fisk and Shoestring are tough hombres of the Hardscrabble Territories, and as The Incorruptibles opens they’ve been hired by the patrician Cornelius to ride scout and keep an eye on things as the patrician’s steamboat Cornelian makes its way up the Big Rill with an intended destination of Passasuego. Fisk and Shoestring don’t really know why the boat is headed up the river, and frankly they’re not the kind of men who care. If the money is good, they’ll do the job. They’d prefer it if the Rumans would listen to their hard-won wisdom about life on the plains but if they don’t and get themselves killed, it’s pretty much all the same. Should have stayed in Rume with Emperor Tamburlaine.

The steamboat not only has a demon in its firebox, it has its own Ruman intrigues in the patron’s family. The patrician himself is, as one character observes, “a devil for the hunt.” No local guides are going to tell him what’s imprudent. The first son has several of Cornelius’ vices, most notably including heedlessness, plus a few more of his own and few noticeable virtues. Other than being the first son, of course. The second son tries to be a moderating influence, and he even shows signs of believing that Fisk and Shoestring might know a thing or two about the wild lands, what with having ridden their length and breadth, and having survived there for quite a few years. Of course, who listens to second sons? One sister is a decadent viper, the other sister has a Past and maybe some witchery too. Add an impulsive ranking Ruman whose connections have put him on the expedition well before experience should have, a couple of passengers about whom more should have been said to Fisk and Shoestring, plus a Plains winter in the not too distant future, and the scout job quickly turns into far more than they bargained for. Which is the fun that the book promised, isn’t it?

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Aug 30 2019

Little White Lies (Debutantes Book 1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Oh, gosh darn it, if I’d known that the next book in this series was coming out in November, I’d have held off on reading this for a while! I mean, I’m glad I did read it — Jennifer Lynn Barnes consistently writes amazing stuff — but these next few months are going to feel interminable!

Anyway, Little White Lies follows a scrappy young woman named Sawyer Taft who’s lived a fairly hardscrabble life with her flighty single mom. When her grandmother Lillian shows up and offers Sawyer half a million dollars for college and expenses in exchange for Sawyer undertaking a debutante season and coming out to southern society, Sawyer agrees, primarily because moving in with her grandmother will make it much easier for her to finally figure out who her biological father is. Sawyer’s many unusual interests make her a talented sleuth, and her natural resilience and bluntness allow her to adapt to what’s essentially a foreign culture without losing her own identity, but even she is blindsided by her rapid and unwitting involvement in kidnapping and theft, among other felonies and lesser misdemeanors.

A large part of the charm of this novel lies in Sawyer’s navigation of and cultural clash with the moneyed, genteel world her mother ran away from, and the humor that comes from such dissonance. That’s to be expected: perhaps less obligatory is the display of the strong bonds of friendship that grow between the four young women at the heart of this book. The way they connect and fray apart and come together once again, in pursuit of the truth and justice — even if only within the confines of their insular society — makes for some truly entertaining and ultimately heart-warming storytelling. I do wish there’d been a little more diversity in this book, and am definitely hoping for it in the next. Even so, I can’t wait to read more, tho ugh November feels so far away!

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Aug 28 2019

Son of Heaven by David Wingrove

I remember seeing David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo books back in the 1980s and 1990s. They looked like a big, pulpish series set in a future dominated by China. A little while back, I picked up Son of Heaven, which says it’s Chung Kuo #1, thinking I would look in on this series and maybe set to reading the whole thing. I had a quick look at the publishing history of the series, in part to check buying options, and I found out that history is more complicated than I would have expected.

Son of Heaven

In its first incarnation, Chung Kuo was published as eight volumes (although Wikipedia maintains that Wingrove planned a ninth to make the whole a trilogy of trilogies, and his publisher pressured him to wrap it up in the eighth) between 1988 and 1999. A “re-casting” of the epic began in 2011, with Wingrove planning an expansion to 20 volumes. The Middle Kingdom, which had originally been the first book, became the third, with Son of Heaven appearing as the first. This is the edition that I bought and read. This publication set also ended after eight volumes. The final book in the 2011–15 set was The White Mountain, which was the title of the third in the original series. Since 2017, Wingrove has been self-publishing the series and reached the eleventh volume, Upon a Wheel of Fire, in July 2019. The twelfth, Beneath the Tree of Heaven, shares a title with the fifth book in the original published set.

I bring all of this up to note that Wingrove is working on a large scale. About a third of Son of Heaven is set in the 2040s, with some characters recalling events from the present (which of course was a bit in the future when Wingrove was writing this novel), while the latest book in the series is set in the early 2200s. His plans encompass more than doubling the original eight-volume set, and it seems very likely that the economics of self-publishing, in contrast to those (and various other vagaries, no doubt) of trade publishing, will allow him to complete his epic. I bring it up also to note that Son of Heaven, along with the next book in the set, Daylight on Iron Mountain, are both prequels to where Wingrove originally started the main action of Chung Kuo.

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Aug 25 2019

The Oracle Queen (Three Dark Crowns #0.1) by Kendare Blake

Wait, that’s it?! No fair!

So this is the prequel novella to the Three Dark Crowns series, explaining why all oracle queens are now drowned at birth. Exquisitely written, as always, it also does a mean thing to us readers: it sets up a terrific protagonist then has everything go terribly wrong not only for her but for all the royal oracle babies who come in her wake. I really, really hope Kendare Blake means to redress this injustice in the main series, tho given her commitment to political realism, poor Queen Elsabet will remain forever wronged.

And I kinda wanted Elsabet to just fucking lean in to her “madness.” I mean, if they think she’s crazy anyway, why not just stab one of her many deserving visitors or plot actual treachery? It’s not like they could have her executed! But I get that she’s a good person etc. etc. and it’s realistic but oh, my heart hurts for her.

I should just go ahead and borrow The Young Queens now even tho I’m mad and sad for Elsabet. Ms Blake just writes so well that I want to keep reading despite my feeeeeelings!

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Aug 24 2019

The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston

Distinguishing a warning that should be heeded from a host of false positives is a famously hard problem. The foreign community in Peking, as it was then generally called in the West, failed that test in the summer of 1900, costing many hundreds of lives. The Boxer Rebellion concentrates on the defense of the Legation Quarter in Peking from June 20 through August 14 of that year, as the representatives of the foreign powers that had been rivals in squeezing concessions from Manchu China set aside their differences to defend their lives when an uprising took killing all foreigners as its main goal, and the Imperial Chinese authorities were either unwilling or unable to assert their power and bring order to the capital.

Boxer Rebellion

Preston sets the stage in the heyday of European imperialism. Queen Victoria reigned over an empire upon which the sun never set; French-ruled territories spanned Africa and reached across significant parts of southeast Asia. Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland were among the other powers who sought territorial or trade concessions within weakly governed China. Japan had emerged from self-imposed isolation in the second half of the nineteenth century and had defeated China in war five years previous. (It would do the same to Russia five years hence.) The Japanese were well represented in the Legation Quarter and the fighting that would take place there, as well as among the international troops that eventually came to the relief of the besieged foreigners. Russia had the longest frontier with Imperial China, and in their long-running rivalry in northeastern Asia Russia had gained much of northern Manchuria from China in 1860.

One of the rights that foreigners gained in China in the late 1800s was the right to send missionaries and to convert Chinese people to Christianity. (The stories of Christians in lands ruled by Chinese emperors are longer and more complex, of course, but the quantitative change in the 1800s was enough to constitute a qualitative change.) Preston cites figures of more than 700,000 Catholic converts and about 85,000 Protestants by the end of the 1800s. (p. 27) Railroads and telegraph lines were visible signs not only of technological progress but also of foreign know-how and dominance. Change brought dislocation and, for some, hardship. “The steamboats and steam launches, plying busily up China’s rivers and canals, had put thousands of bargemen out of work, just as, in other provinces of northern China, railways were destroying the livelihood of camel-men, mule-drivers, chair bearers, and innkeepers.” (p. 24)

Against this background, there arose “an obscure peasant movement spreading across northern China like wildfire. Its members shared the same potent and explosive creed—they were virulently anti-Christian, antimissionary, and antiforeign. Westerners called them simply ‘Boxers’ because of the physical exercises they practiced en masse. But their origins were as complex as their rituals.” (p. 22) Preston traces the rise of the Boxers to two earlier groups in the northern province of Shantung: the Big Sword Society and the Spirit Boxers. Both had links to vigilantism in the countryside, both practiced martial arts, and both believed that their exercises and rituals conveyed invulnerability to harm, particularly to the bullets that European weapons dispersed with such alarming speed. Boxer spectacles were closely aligned with Chinese popular culture. The Boxers also gave people an external focus for their ire: foreigners.

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Aug 21 2019

Yikes

Sometimes speculative fiction is just a little too on the nose:

The Republicans, coming to power …, wanted to do away with free trade. In a frenzy of nationalist rhetoric, they sought to replace globalization with protectionist tariffs. They wanted to pull up the economic drawbridge, just as their predecessors had after the Wall Street Crash of the 1920s. “Buy American” was their slogan. …
China’s response [to American demands] had been blunt, and memorable. Their delegate had stood and, in perfect English, told the American delegate: “Go fuck yourself!”
What had followed was six months of tit-for-tat legislation, each of the two great superpowers vying to outdo the other in sheer pettiness. By Christmas 2019, any pretence of being trading partners was gone. As, effectively, was globalization. The days of free trade were over. Protectionism was now the key. The world economy began its slow slide.
Son of Heaven (Chung Kuo #1) by David Wingrove, pp. 167–68, written in 2011

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