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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Aug 20 2019

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Oh gosh, this was one of those deeply affecting cautionary tales that you finish and need to put down and just sort of sit and recover from for a while. Set in a near-future where the trajectory of global (but especially American) capitalism has come to its merciless inevitability, the largest employer in the country is Cloud, an Amazon on steroids which has conquered the market in pretty much everything. Cloud has set up gigantic complexes called MotherClouds that are essentially cities where their employees live and work, and this story is told through the viewpoints of three people drawn to a MotherCloud for vastly differing reasons.

The first, and my favorite, is Zinnia, a corporate spy hired to find out how Cloud could possibly be fulfilling its mandate to use clean energy to power its complexes. Tho she tried to get hired as a tech person (in a work society stratified by the different colored shirts you wear,) she finds herself working as a warehouse picker, constantly running to fulfill on-line orders. The second is Paxton, the former CEO of a company that was essentially driven out of business by Cloud. Fueled by an unformed urge to stick it to Cloud while also getting back on his feet, he accepts a job in security, and is probably the most psychologically affected of the three by the events of this book. The final person is the founder of Cloud himself, Gibson, who is dying and going on a farewell tour of his corporate facilities. His viewpoint chapters are primarily in the form of folksy blog posts that serve as a chillingly seductive form of propaganda, in large part because he’s not always wrong.

And that’s the genius of this book, in the fact that it is riddled with the same sort of moral ambiguity that even the average person, the average good person, finds themselves dealing with on a day to day basis. Whether resisting the blandishments of politicians/business people who present their own self-interest as the public interest, or dealing with the fact that cheap goods inevitably mean depressed labor costs, this is a highly moral tale that hearkens back to the very stories it cites, and is fully worthy of joining their hallowed ranks. I especially admired Rob Hart’s self-restraint, which lends a greater believability to this book. A lot of dystopian fiction occasionally borders on the hysterical — a not incorrect response to the totalitarian rule their settings labor under — but given that Mr Hart’s target is late-stage capitalism hidden in the guise of benevolent paternalism, this books feels more prescient than unlikely, and that’s really hard to digest.

But what to do when you don’t want to give up the convenience of Amazon Prime? Default to no-rush shipping, for a start, and support legislation that allows, if not outright encourages, both unionization of labor and anti-monopolistic business practices. And it’s not just one company that’s being scrutinized here, despite the fact that Cloud is clearly based on Amazon (with a meta joke in the text about how much better the fictional company is than its “former” rival,) it’s all capitalist labor practices as well as 21st century consumer culture. The ultimate goal of The Warehouse is to remind us readers that labor is not disposable, that these are real people who deserve respect and proper compensation for their work, that these people could be us. And it does so in a wildly entertaining, ultimately bittersweet manner.

I really hope Zinnia is okay.

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Aug 17 2019

Barry Hughart, 1934–2019

Bridge of Birds

“I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world

“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.”

So begins Bridge of Birds, the first of his three wonderful novels set in “an ancient China that never was.” I wish there were more, oh so many more.

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Aug 17 2019

Hate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts #1) by Alisha Rai

What a delightfully fast read! Great romance novel featuring a pair of childhood sweethearts forced apart by their family circumstances, who manage to find their way back to each other. The twist, or hook, is that they’ve spent the last decade seeing each other for only one night a year, meeting at whichever coordinates she sends him for a night of wild, no-strings-attached sex. Except, of course, there are always strings attached.

Anyway, there isn’t anything really groundbreaking in the romance part of the novel, but I thought it was a big deal that Alisha Rai chose to say a lot about healthy relationships, both with a loved one and with yourself, in this book. Everyone needs an Aunt Maile for straight talk, IMO (and I’m hoping that Aunt Maile finds herself some romance in the next few books, too!) It was also a very realistic look at feeling damaged because of your depression, and the way that secrets can damage any relationship. I felt that the number of unnecessary misunderstandings was kept to a minimum, and overall, I just very much enjoyed how almost everyone was working at processing their emotions in a healthy manner. The sex scenes were also pretty great, and I didn’t have to cringe at any inappropriate interludes. Also, hurray for the commitment to diversity, and for the plot hooks compelling the reader towards the next book in the series!

I laughed, I cried, I got hot and bothered: I highly recommend this novel for anyone wanting a little more romance in their lives.

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Aug 14 2019

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin

So on the one hand, this is some gorgeously written, truly imaginative sci-fi set in a world where the science seems like magic, so much so that the book reads like a terrific fantasy novel. It’s also a sharply drawn parable of slavery and gilded cages, based on inherent powers owned by people dubbed orogenes for their ability to draw kinetic and thermal energy out of their immediate surroundings, primarily to protect themselves but also to quell the constant tremors of a disquieted Earth. The orogenes, derogatorily called roggas, are taught self-control in the Fulcrums of empire, and are watched over by Guardians, who keep the orogenes’ powers in check. Non-Fulcrum orogenes are feared and often lynched by the citizens of the Sanzed empire, so Fulcrum orogenes have every incentive to stay in line.

This book begins with a non-Fulcrum orogene named Essun as she discovers that her youngest child was beaten to death by his father after he was discovered to be an orogene like she is, like she never told her husband Jija that she is. She goes in pursuit of the fleeing Jija and their daughter, Nassun, uncaring of the great calamity that has just befallen the empire. Essun’s chapters are interspersed with chapters from the point of view of a girl named Damaya, whose orogene powers have just been discovered, and a young woman named Syenite, whose ambition to rise among the ranks of fellow Fulcrum orogenes has her engaging in activities she would much prefer not to. How their paths draw together makes up the bulk of this cleverly constructed book.

So that’s one hand. On the other, I wasn’t terribly surprised by most of the plot twists, particularly regarding our three female leads. I’d also been expecting the last sentence from about halfway through the book, when N. K. Jemisin meditates on people not missing what they never knew (which I’m guessing is also what “Earth’s only begotten son” is in reference to.) And, except for his one line near the end about never being able to forgive Syenite, I hated everything about Alabaster and about how we were supposed to find him, if not outright heroic, at least noble and misunderstood. He’s a manipulative asshole who constantly undermines and belittles Syenite but it’s okay because he’s more enlightened than she is about the Fulcrum? Whereas Syenite is just a brainwashed slave to Empire who should be grateful for his friendship, no matter how he mistreats her? Fuck aaaaaaalllll that noise. I understand that hurt people hurt people but that doesn’t make them any more likeable, much less heroic. It was absolutely maddening to read how he’d fuck with her for being polite a/o deferential to him, then have him ask “Why do you hate me so much?” just a few pages later. Like, because you can’t act like an internally consistent human being? I get that he’s not “normal,” that he’s been damaged, but that’s not an excuse to be mean to people who aren’t responsible for your pain, much less pull the victim card when you sense they’re not reacting the way you want them to. So when you find out what he did, it’s just an “ugh, this asshole, of course he did.” Literally the only time I could sympathize with him was when he talked to Syenite about Corundum at the end.

I did appreciate, however, Ms Jemisin’s commitment to diversity, particularly when it came to sexuality and gender. And I’m very much looking forward to the next book, and the surprises that lie in store with the Stone Eaters. This is a truly original setting, with a lot of excellent craft shown in the telling of Essun’s story (tho, minor quibble, I thought her grief lacked the guilt that should have been tacked on after we find out what she’d done a decade earlier, or at least the self-examination of how the two events were emotionally related.) I’m hoping there’s a lot less of whiny, self-pitying Alabaster, or at least that we won’t have to treat him like a hero in the next book. There’s tragic hero flawed, like Essun, and then there’s bitchy douchebag flawed, and he’s definitely more the latter than the former.

Also, also, and I almost hate to say this because it’s hugely spoiler-tastic, I did appreciate the callback to classic African-American literature. I admit to not being overly fond of the crux of the original novel, but found it, to paraphrase what Alabaster would say, far more understandable here (even if I thought Syenite should have maybe tried the thing with her powers first and am confused as to why Corundum did not use his own powers at that juncture, tho maybe he did and it just got lost in the chaos.)

You can read Doug’s thoughts here. He’s far less nit-picky than I am about it, but he also liked the book considerably less.

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Aug 11 2019

Hexarchate Stories by Yoon Ha Lee

My review of Revenant Gun, the third in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, ended “In short, I would greatly enjoy reading more stories set within Lee’s hexarchate, or indeed either the heptarchate that preceded it or the successor states that are trying to succeed it… And no more Jedao for a while, please. He has earned his rest.” Less than a year later, Lee has published Hexarchate Stories, a collection of 21 stories, of which eighteen were previously published — twelve on the author’s blog – and three that are new to this collection.

Hexarchate Stories

There is a lot more Shuos Jedao, but contrary to my previous expectation, I didn’t mind very much. Jedao began his career in Lee’s universe as a Shuos, the faction that is closest to an intelligence service and features a predilection for games of all sorts. He then served with the military faction, the Kel, for many years, ending as their most successful general ever but also one with a penchant for unacceptable extremes. He’s one of the two most prominent characters in all three of Lee’s previous novels. By the end of the third, though, my interest in him had waned. I didn’t mind seeing him again in Hexarchate Stories for two reasons: first, most of the stories cover times when Jedao was more human and less legend, and thus more interesting; second, many of them are short short stories, and it’s easy to be charmed by something that’s little more than a single anecdote.

Lee’s good at flash fiction, and he knows it, and it shows. He seems to feel freer to play around with many different aspects of stories, and the lightness of his touch in many of them — even when the subject matter is serious — makes the hexarchate fresh even after three novels that have delved into its very heart. The variety of the stories points out one of the strengths of his overarching setting: it’s vast, and if he will let himself, he can tell many different stories, many different kinds of stories in the hexarchate’s interstellar realm. If he wishes, he can also range up and down the timeline, going back to when the polity was a heptarchate, or forward to a time after the changes set in motion by Kel Cheris back in Ninefox Gambit. Though the flash fictions are short, they are by no means slight. When they’re about Jedao, they show previously unknown aspects of his tale, and they tend toward humanizing him. When they are not about Jedao, they illuminate something new about the hexarchate, or are there for the sheer joy of playing around with words and ideas. They don’t have to bear much weight; consequently, they lift up the reader.

In his author’s notes, Lee mentions that several of the short shorts that appeared on his blog were commissioned works. That’s an interesting point about the business of writing in the twenty-first century. One of an author’s revenue streams can be money that comes directly from fans. There need not be intermediaries between writers and their audiences. On the other hand, it also points toward the precariousness of writing for a living, where 6¢ to 9¢ per word is considered a professional rate. By contrast, when I was a commissioning editor more than ten years ago, New York PR writers tried to get $2 per word from me. Six to nine cents per word is a hobby, not a profession. I’m glad that Lee has found more ways to support his writing, and even more glad that the stories from his blog have been collected into a book that’s available for purchase in a brick and mortar bookstore.

Hexarchate Stories was a welcome set of glimpses into other tales within Lee’s star-spanning setting. It reminded me how much I like a well-crafted science fiction anthology, and it left me looking forward to still more stories from the hexarchate. (But I also mean it about less late-period Jedao. He breaks the setting, and I don’t find him all that interesting.)

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Aug 10 2019

An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

I remember enjoying these assessments of the Hugo Awards when they first appeared as columns on Tor.com, and I am glad to see them collected in book form with the addition of selected comments that appeared in the discussion that followed each column. The subtitle of this collection — A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953–2000 — relates the book’s remit about as succinctly as possible. The book is in some sense the obverse of her collection of reviews, What Makes This Book So Great. That volume started with individual books and sometimes veered into reflections on where they fit within an author’s career, within the history of larger movements in literature, or in trends that were popular at the time. This volume starts with each year and considers works within it, only occasionally delving deeply into an individual publication. Though the Hugo Awards have embraced many different categories over the years, Walton concentrates on written fiction; indeed, she thinks that in many years the Hugos would have been better off without the Dramatic Presentation category (or, later, categories) at all.

An Informal History of the Hugos

For each year from 1953 to 2000, she concentrates on the Best Novel category and considers the winners and nominees (once those started becoming known after the award had been running for several years), whether they have had a lasting effect on the field, whether they were in fact the best novels of their respective years, and what books the voters and nominators might have overlooked. As the years went on, more science fiction and fantasy awards were given, and Walton also looks at their nominees and winners as ways of gauging the field as a whole, and whether the Hugo voters were in step with other readers, juries, and voters. To those considerations of the years, she has added slightly more than two dozen essays that examine individual works. Finally, the original posts on Tor.com drew comments, and Walton reproduces a number of them after each annual summary. Two of the commenters who appear the most are Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois, themselves significant figures within the field (Dozois, for example, edited Asimov’s for 20 years and won 15 Hugos for editing over that span, and also won two Nebulas for his short fiction). The comments are also reminders that science fiction and fantasy are not large fields, and that editorial titans are just as human as their readers:

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Aug 10 2019

Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon

Conversations on Writing grew from three sets of discussions between Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon for the Oregon radio station KBOO. She completed her introduction to this volume less than four months before her death in January 2018; Naimon wrote his not quite two weeks after her passing, it’s a touching valediction. “I look again at Ursula’s [edits]—her enthusiastic yes!, her matter-of-fact I disagree. In these gestures I see how fully present she is, how completely she attends to the task at hand, and I realize that nothing is too small to contain the whole world, to bring forth Ursula’s powerful, opinionated, captivating self.” (pp. vi–vii)

Conversations on Writing

Over the course of her storied career, Le Guin had many interviews, and her introduction is about how one learns quickly to tell the enjoyable from the excruciating, with a quick segue to how enlightening her talks with Naimon were. “A couple of sessions with Bill Moyers set my permanent standard of The Good Interview. It’s the one you wish could go on. It’s a conversation between people who have thought about what they’re talking about, and are thinking about it now in the light of what the other person is saying. This leads each of them to say things that they may be just discovering. They may not agree, may even have quite fundamental disagreements, but such differences, spoken and answered without belligerence, can take the conversation to a high level of intensity and honesty.” (p. 4) Long ago when I was a bookseller, I had the pleasure of a lunch with Moyers, and I can only agree and add that he had a remarkable recollection of the people he had talked with. I brought up a group of plumbers who he had mentioned in his introduction to The World of Ideas 2, and he was off and running about this group who had stumbled onto the first set of talks that formed The World of Ideas. It was exactly how Le Guin describes an interview that is going well, “The good interview is like a good badminton rally: you know right away that the two of you can keep that birdie in the air, and all you have to do is watch it fly.” (p. 5)

With Naimon, she adds one more key feature: “And every now and then I meet one who realizes that what I really like to do is talk shop. David likes talking shop too. So that’s what we did.” (p. 6)

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Aug 09 2019

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

For the epigraph to Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Robson riffs on the old saying about the past being a foreign country. Instead of “they do things differently there” she has “we want to colonize it.” That’s the first indication that her novella will eventually be a time-travel story. The next is the abrupt shift between a three-paragraph opening scene that features a mythical tone, with a monster that “looked like an old grandmother from the waist up, but it had six long octopus legs,” followed by scenes in a semi-distant future Calgary with “plague babies” who have worked together for more than 60 years, and “fakes” that are something like computer-generated avatars with a generous helping of AI. No wait, the second clue that this is going to be a time-travel story is that after the monster recoils and hisses when the king appears to do battle, it says Oh-shit-shit-shit-shit.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

It doesn’t take readers long to learn that Minh, Robson’s main point of view character for the future scenes, has the same number of limbs as the monster that the king Shulgi is battling in those initial three paragraphs. How will their worlds collide? (Presuming, of course, that the number of appendages is not a coincidence.) That’s one of the main throughlines of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. Minh’s future world is a bleak one, though from Robson’s descriptions, not as bleak as its recent past. In Minh’s world’s history, total ecological collapse drove humanity to live underground for generations; most people live there still. Minh is one of a relatively small number of people who live in “habs,” attempting to recolonize the surface of the Earth.

In the interim, humanity has developed serious biological modification technology, of which Minh’s extra legs are the story’s most prominent example. During the course of the tale, one of the characters undergoes radical transformation to prove a point; that illustrates how routine this technology has become. And of course there’s time travel, whose workings have been kept hush-hush by the CERN-like agency that developed it. (The agency is even called TERN.) That keeps the traveling sufficiently vague for modern sensibilities but not impossible, because otherwise it would be very difficult indeed to write a time-travel story. I don’t quite buy Robson’s setting — the desertification that she has her characters trying to mitigate would, I think, be impossible to recover from, and ecological catastrophe bad enough to drive the human species underground would also suffice to kill it — but I am willing to roll with it for the sake of the story.

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