A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Out on the edge of civilized space, Lsel Station, the largest of the Stationer settlements, is home to some thirty thousand humans, a gateway to a few further systems, and the holder of some remarkable neurotechnology. The center to which Lsel is peripheral is the Teixcalaanli Empire, a star-spanning empire in the grand tradition with starfaring legions, a capital world that is almost entirely city, and a succession crisis in which minor characters wind up playing a major role. Communication between star systems is only as fast as the fastest jump ship, echoing the state of terrestrial empires prior to the invention of the telegraph.

Lsel has received an urgent message requesting that a replacement for the station’s ambassador to the empire be sent as quickly as possible. Further details are not forthcoming, but the implication is clearly that the ambassador has died at his post. That’s more than unfortunate for the station for several reasons.

The neurotechnology that plays an important role in Lsel’s culture is called “imago,” and it is a full recording of a person’s knowledge and memories at a particular point in time. After that person’s death, an imago recording is implanted in the brain of someone with a compatible personality, giving the recipient full access to the lifelong experiences of the deceased. Done repeatedly, this creates an imago line of massive knowledge. Some of Lsel’s lines of spaceship pilots stretch back fourteen generations. The imago is also considered a crucial secret, and knowledge of its existence is not passed to outsiders.

The sudden and presumably permanent indisposition of the Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan is unfortunate because he had not been back to the station in fifteen years. Without his body, the recording of all of those years is lost to the imago makers on the station. His successor Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of A Memory Called Empire, will take her position missing vast amounts of knowledge that she would otherwise expect to have. Further, the previous ambassador’s mission was to deflect, or delay as long as possible, Teixcalaan’s intention to annex Lsel and its allied stations. The empire is vast and could easily bring Lsel into its fold, but the empire also has myriad interests and problems, and a deft ambassador could work to see that imperial attention turns elsewhere, maybe even for a generation or more.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/29/a-memory-called-empire-by-arkady-martine/

Marty by Rachel Noble & Zoey Abbott

I got really emotional finishing up this affecting picture book, in a way that my kids understandably didn’t. As an open borders absolutist, many of this book’s gentle lessons were old hat to me, but they were presented in such a manner as to remind me of the constant tension between truth and assimilation, that people should be valued and not forced to shun the spotlight in order to “belong”, and that we’re all the poorer for it when we’re forced to hide our beneficial talents and joys.

Ofc, these lessons were communicated in far fewer words by Marty, a picture book about a Martian who comes to Earth and wears various disguises in order to fit in. It charts his highs and lows as he hides his alien-ness; works and is sociable, and enjoys costume parades but feels sad when it’s all over and everyone else gets to go home and be a “normal” person. Being a kids’ book, this title has a happy ending that my kids appreciated, tho definitely in more of a general “we should be kind to people even if they’re different” sort of way. Which, ofc, is still a great lesson for kids to learn.

As an adult, I definitely had a more sophisticated perspective. While my heart ached with longing at the fuss-free conflict resolution, I was also deeply impressed by the tone: if we just learn to open our hearts and accept the validity of other people, give them a chance to contribute to society instead of automatically labeling and judging based solely on that label instead of the more important issue of character, we’d be a much stronger, happier people. I understandably viewed this from an immigrant’s perspective, but the lesson applies to anyone who would be viewed as different and thus lesser than for being superficially outside of what’s considered mainstream.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/27/marty-by-rachel-noble-zoey-abbott/

The Loud House #13: Lucy Rolls the Dice by The Loud House Creative Team

Ha, how fitting that I should read this right as I’m running my kids through their very first tabletop roleplaying game campaign!

In the thirteenth volume of The Loud House series, based on the hit Nickelodeon show, whole families get involved in playing Orks, Horks, Wizards, And Pork (or OHWP, for short) after Lynn Loud Sr gets banned from his weekly game. Needing his roleplaying fix, he introduces the rest of his family to OHWP. Hijinks ensue! Soon, not only are the Louds playing but also their friends the McBrides and the extended Casagrande clan (and also goth Lucy Loud’s pals from the Morticians Club.) In a series of loosely connected vignettes, each Loud family member reacts to OHWP pretty much as you think they might. Games are played and won*, and lots of laughs are to be had all around.

OHWP shenanigans take up the first three-fifths or so of the book, which then goes on to tell three other short tales of a) being resourcefully fashionable, or fashionably resourceful, depending on your point of view; b) how rumors and gossip can grow out of control, and c) the importance of family. A lot is packed into this 60+ page volume with, thankfully, a very useful character guide at the beginning to help you sort out who’s who. This is especially essential given that there are ten girls in the Loud family itself, even before taking into account the many other colorful types who show up in the rest of the book!

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/24/the-loud-house-13-lucy-rolls-the-dice-by-the-loud-house-creative-team/

Hero Kids by Justin Halliday

After a decade of seeming indifference to my role-playing hobby, my eldest child suddenly asked me one day if we could play “Magick And Monsters.” This was probably prompted by his recent re-read of Book Two of the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series, Rodrick Rules. Plus he’s been watching me game master one of my Dungeons & Dragons groups’ sessions via Discord lately — I recently volunteered to give our main GM a break by taking over the reins of a Waterdeep-based campaign that was paused on a cliffhanger after our other GM moved back to Atlanta — and I do my best to keep a lively table.

Ofc, I was very excited to start my kid on a lifelong love of RP. Trouble is, just from looking at available character sheets, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that D&D might be a little too advanced for him as a ten year-old (and perish the thought of introing all that to my seven year-old twins!) So I took a weekend to research alternatives, looking for the closest match to the character sheets he was most drawn to, as well as the little item cards he was drawing while we were discussing what we’d like to see in a game.

And lo and behold, there was Hero Kids, a dead ringer for the simplified concepts Jms was eager to use in a tabletop RPG. After shopping around, I went ahead and got the entire Fantasy bundle at a steep discount, because this mom is quite frankly too tired to come up with her own campaign adventures. I emailed Jms a copy of the core book, and we went over the rules and pre-made heroes. Jms very much wanted to be a Hunter, and since I wanted him to have a full-size character sheet that didn’t also murder my printer toner, I resized the corresponding hero card from the printer-friendly pdf and printed that out for him. Joseph wanted to be a Storm-mage, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, my semi-feral youngest picked Wolfchild for his character (which I subsequently called Wildchild throughout the first adventure, because I definitely read way too many Image comics in the 90s.)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/23/hero-kids-by-justin-halliday/

Red Notice by Bill Browder

“How do you rebel against a family of Communists?” asks Bill Browder in the title of the second chapter of Red Notice. Browder’s grandfather, Earl Browder, had started as a labor organizer in Kansas and rose to be the American Communist Party’s presidential candidate in 1936 and 1940. Prior to those campaigns, he spent some time in Moscow, married a Russian woman, and had a son — Felix, Bill’s father — who was born in the Soviet capital in 1927. A second son, also born in Moscow, followed in 1931 and a third was born in New York in 1934. (Bill chooses not to comment on what it meant to stay a Communist between 1936 and 1940, years that included the show trials of old Bolsheviks, the height of Stalin’s purges that meant death and the gulag for millions, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 that gave the Nazi war machine a free hand in Poland — and the Soviets the eastern half of interwar Poland.) By contrast, his “grandmother was a Russian Jewish intellectual and had no desire for any of her sons to go into the dirty business of politics. For her, the highest calling was academia, specifically in science or mathematics.” (p. 13)

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Felix sped through MIT and Princeton and had a PhD in math by age 20. Bill’s other two uncles likewise became mathematicians, with his uncle William serving a term as president of the American Mathematical Society. Bill saw himself as a misfit in “this strange, academic, left-wing family.” (p. 15) It probably didn’t help that his older brother Thomas went to the University of Chicago at 15 and then started a physics PhD program at 19. In his telling, Bill was an indifferent student and barely scraped into the University of Colorado. Before that, he figured out how to rebel: “I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss my family off more than that.” (p. 17)

Easier said than done, though, especially with a fast start majoring in partying at a major party school. When a frat brother goes to federal prison for trying to rob a bank to fund a cocaine habit, “I realized that if I kept it up, then the only person who would suffer from this particular form of rebellion would be me.” (p. 18) From there, it turns out that Bill is a Browder after all. He excels at his studies, transfers to the University of Chicago and lands a plum pre-MBA job with Bain & Company. Later, when Browder is working in finance, he casually mentions the kind of mental math he would be doing during high-pressure meetings; the family knack for the subject had clearly not deserted him. A Stanford MBA (“the normal academic competition was replaced with something that none of us expected: an air of cooperation, camaraderie, and friendship” pp. 20–21) leads to a series of depressing job interviews and a search for connection with the family history he had been working so assiduously to escape. Turned down by the steelworkers’ union, Browder starts to consider Eastern Europe. He has an offer from Boston Consulting, and the company is probably happy to have a newly minted Stanford MBA. Happy enough that when Browder says he wants to work in Eastern Europe, the Chicago office passes him along to the London office, where the sole specialist for that region works.

Browder moved to London in August of 1989. It was an auspicious time to be interested in Eastern Europe. In June, the partly-free election in Poland had seen the non-communist opposition win all the available seats in the lower house and all but one in the upper. Also in June, communist Hungary opened its border with Austria. I crossed that border in July shortly after Bastille Day. Just how auspicious would not be clear until a few months later as country after country pushed out its communist rulers and charted a course toward pluralist democracy and a market economy. Browder saw the opportunity. “My grandfather had been the biggest communist in America, and as I watched these events unfold, I decided that I wanted to become the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe.” (p. 27)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/22/red-notice-by-bill-browder/

No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

No Time to Spare collects and arranges pieces that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote for her blog from late 2010 until 2015 or so. She was initially unimpressed (not to say sniffy) about the form but one of her favorite authors from the later part of her life caused to change her mind. “I’ve been inspired by José Saramago’s extraordinary blogs, which he posted when he was eighty-five and eighty-six years old. They were published [in 2010] in English as The Notebooks. I read them with amazement and delight. … But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation. Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?” (pp. xix–xx). And she does.

No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

She divides the collection into four parts, with interludes concerning a cat, Pard, that she chooses as a companion for her and her husband’s old age, latest and perhaps last in a long line of cats she has had in her life. The first part, “Going Over Eighty” addresses aging directly and indirectly provides the book’s title. “The Lit Biz” covers what the title says, with some special emphasis on ambition, standing, and community. The third part, “Trying to Make Sense of It,” is the most directly political section, and to my mind also the weakest. She closes with “Rewards,” and these brief essays are very rewarding indeed: personal, closely observed, sometimes hilarious, full of unique life.

Le Guin begins by exercising her drollery on a suitable target: Harvard University and “the lofty eminence where it can consider all sorts of things beneath its notice.” (p. 3) She received a questionnaire from the university for the sixtieth reunion of the class of 1951. “Of course my college was Radcliffe, which at that time was affiliated with but wasn’t considered to be Harvard, due to a difference in gender.” (p. 3) That change in status, and everything bound up with its former existence and making the change happen is one of the things that the institution as represented by its questionnaire loftily ignores. Harvard asks about how, given respondents’ expectations, their grandchildren have done in life. Le Guin: “The youngest of my grandchildren just turned four. How has he done in life? Well, very well, on the whole. I wonder what kind of expectations you should have for a four-year-old. That he’ll go on being a nice little boy and learn pretty soon to read and write is all that comes to my mind. I suppose I’m supposed to expect him to go to Harvard, or at least to Columbia like his father and great-grandfather. But being nice and learning to read and write seem quite enough for now.” (p. 4)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/21/no-time-to-spare-by-ursula-k-le-guin/

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

Exceptionally moving novel that spotlights the harms of a practice that most people don’t even like to think about. I can seriously say that in all my years of reading, I’ve encountered maybe one entire other work of fiction that’s addressed this issue with honesty and compassion, Ovidia Yu’s terrific Meddling And Murder. That said, both MaM and Songbirds are superlative novels about modern slavery under the guise of domestic work, and both deserve to be widely read and lauded.

Whereas MaM was a much more lighthearted take on the subject, however, Songbirds goes straight for the jugular, telling the tale of domestic servant Nisha Jayakody from the perspectives of both her employer Petra and her lover Theo. When Nisha abruptly disappears one Sunday night, neither Petra nor Theo knows what to think. Nine years earlier, a recently widowed and heavily pregnant Petra hired Nisha via a domestic agency. Since then, Nisha has looked after Petra and raised Petra’s daughter Aliki while virtually raising her own daughter Kumari back in Sri Lanka via Internet. Petra, though a Cypriot, is fairly typical of the kind of woman world-wide who hires domestic help from the poorer countries of Asia. She doesn’t really think about Nisha as a person, merely as a tool; she at least has the crushing grief of losing her husband right before the birth of their daughter as an excuse.

Theo is a much less conventional character. A former banker who lost his career, savings and wife in the last economic collapse, he now rents the apartment over Petra’s house and works as a forager, ostensibly, to pay the bills. What he actually does is poach migratory songbirds, an illegal if lucrative enterprise. He and Nisha have been together for almost two years, with her sneaking away to meet him upstairs while Petra and Aliki sleep. Theo wants to marry Nisha, but when she reacts badly to discovering his secret life as a poacher, he fears he may have lost her, even before she vanishes.

At first, Petra feels inconvenienced and annoyed by Nisha’s absence, but as the days go by and Aliki shows her that Nisha’s most valued items are still in their house, she begins to worry for real. The cops laugh at her when she tries to report Nisha as a missing person however, claiming that maids run away all the time and she should just find a replacement. Indignant at their callousness towards someone she’d never really thought about as an individual herself before, she’s further thrown when Theo breaks down and comes asking after Nisha. Maids aren’t supposed to have romantic relationships, and Petra recognizes that if she’d known about the two of them, she’d have automatically dismissed her servant, never mind how integral Nisha’s been to her household this past decade. To Petra’s credit, she understands that this is a shitty reaction, so she and Theo join forces to find the missing woman, even as they come up against all of society’s ugliest attitudes to the indentured.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/19/songbirds-by-christy-lefteri/

Redemptor (Raybearer #2) by Jordan Ifueko

So much story, so little book! It seems churlish to demand more from what’s already a terrific novel, but I really do feel that the tale of Empress Redemptor Tarisai and the land of Aritsar would have been better served by more chapters and more details. 300+ pages simply wasn’t enough, and so much felt elided in Tarisai’s struggle to make the realm’s rulers love her in the process of saving Aritsar and the neighboring nation of Songland from the demons of the underworld.

And, y’know, given the demands of YA publishing, I don’t fault Jordan Ifueko at all for what feels less like a novel than a concise, if still lively, history. Besides the historical milestones, Ms Ifueko keeps in all the most important parts: Tarisai’s guilt and anxiety, and how that contrasts with the methods of others, particularly Zuri, in seeking redemption, with an ending that is straight up brilliant. The writing packs so much information and adventure and emotion into so little space. But while I can admire the literary equivalent of a beautifully composed planter’s box, I can’t help being baffled by what feels like an artificial constraint, particularly when there’s so much metaphorical space around for it to expand. And, again, I don’t think this is Ms Ifueko’s fault at all: if anything, she should be applauded for writing something so brilliant in so few pages and so little time (it’s only been a year since its excellent predecessor Raybearer came out, after all!) Nevertheless, this feels like an accomplishment that denies its potential in favor of encapsulation instead.

Anyway, this book picks up from Raybearer as Tarisai must scramble to complete the pact she’s just made with the denizens of the Underworld, anointing the rulers of the realms as her council while trying to figure out how exactly she’s going to survive her own descent as the final Redemptor. While she’s trying to figure all this out, she’s haunted by visitations? hallucinations? of past children sacrificed to maintain Aritsar’s prosperity and peace. The guilt threatens to drive her mad, and throws her anxiety into overdrive, especially as she sees how no one else seems to care about the sins of the past as much as she does. It’s all heady, weighty stuff — with easy-to-discern and, more importantly, relevant real-world analogs — and Ms Ifueko competently addresses everything, often movingly. I cried at least twice.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/17/redemptor-raybearer-2-by-jordan-ifueko/

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

One of Orhan Pamuk‘s great virtues as a storyteller is his ability to create situations in which several different versions of reality are all possible within the narrative that he has established, and it is — at least for a time — left to the reader to decide which one is the truth of the tale, or whether more than one option might in fact be happening simultaneously. In Snow, as I recall, there is a period when a revolution might be happening in an Anatolian city, or it might be that a theater troupe is staging an event meant to look like a revolution but is really just a play, or it might be that the troupe’s play spontaneously kicks off an actual revolution. There may have been more possibilities; I have not read the book in a long time. (It’s a very science-fictional mode for a mundane novelist, which may be one reason I like many of his books so much.)

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk

In The Red-Haired Woman, he’s up to something different. Revelations later in the book will cause readers to look at earlier events in a different light. It’s not so much that there are several possibilities open about the events of the book — although there are — it’s that looking back, a reader sees what Pamuk has previously described may have a very different meaning, if indeed it happened that way at all. Pamuk has been wrestling with this sort of thing for his whole career — a different aspect shows up in The Black Book — and in The Red-Haired Woman he executes it exceptionally well.

He begins: “I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events that I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.” (p. 3) It’s a fair warning, one that I completely ignored.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/14/the-red-haired-woman-by-orhan-pamuk/

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Humans didn’t generally turn up dead on Preservation Station. It was a low-violence society where most people’s needs were well met. As the SecUnit mostly formerly known as Murderbot puts it, “This junction, and Preservation Station in general, were also weird places for humans to get killed; the threat assessment for both transients and station residents was low anyway, and mostly involved accidents and cases of intoxication-related stupidity/aggression in the port area. In this specific junction, the threat assessment for accidental death was even lower, close to null.” (p. 2)

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

And yet, incontrovertibly, there is a dead human in that very junction. One who has been dead for approximately four hours when the body is found. Worse, the body does not carry any of the items (“subcutaneous marker or chip or anything else with ID”) that the Station Security or SecUnit could use to identify the body. Interestingly, the entire first chapter of Fugitive Telemetry passes without a physical description of the body: apparent gender, size, coloration and so forth all remain hidden from the reader. Skipping those details is one way that Wells uses SecUnit’s first-person narration and perspective to show how it perceives and understands the universe. It switches immediately from recognizing the fact of a corpse to analyzing the situation without any of the intervening horror or sympathy that a human investigator would feel. “I’ve seen a lot of dead humans (I mean, a lot) so I did an initial scan and compared the results to data sets…” (p. 1)

Preservation’s leadership reacts by, among other things, closing the station to all incoming and outgoing traffic. Fugitive Telemetry is a mystery novella, and the mounting costs of isolating the station put pressure on everyone involved to solve the crime as quickly as possible. The closure also means that suspects should be findable, if SecUnit and the humans of Station Security can figure out who they are looking for.

It’s more than just detection. There are people, and worse, companies, out in the Corporation Rim who want to kill SecUnit and some key humans on Preservation. Is this murder part of a larger attack by GrayCris? Is the security that SecUnit works to provide good enough? “But the fact was, looking for anomalous activity is how you detect security breaches. A murder in a very non-murdery station like Preservation was definitely anomalous.” (p. 33) Are more murders likely?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/08/13/fugitive-telemetry-by-martha-wells/