“Bit late for misgivings now.” I put a hand on hers, wondering why it had fallen on me to comfort her, not the other way around. “You wanted adventure, Adrana. Don’t be too sorry when it happens.”
The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the first in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells.
“All right, who did you become?” Maria asked as her door closed behind her with a whooshzz. She faced her rooms. It was an odd, ghostly feeling, missing so many years. She saw signs of herself everywhere, but someone who was a different person than she was now. She found herself mourning the dead woman, the Maria who would be remembered by no one.
It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt why Mur Lafferty won the 2013 John W. Campbell award. This woman can write!
“Roxy feels the thing like pins and needles along her arms. Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers. She’s glittering, inside.”
“Margot waits to see Jos do something; hold her breath, or wrinkle her brow, or show exertion in the muscles of her arm, but there’s nothing. Only the pain.”
The Power by Naomi Alderman is one of those books that people are going to be talking about and analyzing decades from now. As I read, I was struck almost immediately by how clearly, how perfectly, The Power fit into a very short list of culturally relevant, beautifully written, “social criticism as dystopian fiction” works. This is this decade’s answer to The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, and carries as much meaning, as much depth of social awareness, as much horror, and as much lovingly created characters as Atwood’s and Ishiguro’s genre-defining works.
Barbary Station appeared on a lot of best-of lists, and rightfully so. But if you’d asked me what I thought about it in the first hundred (or so) pages, I would’ve had a very different take.
It took me until page 120 or so to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting into Barbary Station. By rights, this book is so up my alley I should have been able to walk right into its pages like I’d been born there. It wasn’t the setting, nor was it the characters, nor the premise. It wasn’t the author’s voice, the pacing, or anything like that. Still, somehow I just couldn’t catch the flow of Stearns’ book.
Finally, I put my finger on it: the central political conflict that motivates much of the incidental inter-character conflict was lost on me. It wasn’t complicated or anything, it’s just that the way Stearns presented it it went in one ear and out the other (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not her fault – I just missed it, and was left with that arresting moment of “wait, what?” every time a new interaction went south because of that conflict.
Thankfully, once I was able to put my finger on what was tripping me up I fared a lot better, and almost immediately got into the swing of this book. It didn’t hurt that, coincidentally, right as I recovered from my revelation the whole AI plot (totally what I’d showed up for in the first place) picked up in earnest. From then on, there was no hope for me. I was in love!
I can’t find anything on Stearns’ background in AI, but I just can’t believe she hasn’t got one. AI development is one of my passions, and most of my life (and my college career) has been spent plumbing its depths and keeping abreast of the latest theories and developments. Stearns’ view of how real artificial intelligence would be integrated into a future society blew me away. Her vision for the future is brilliant (and perfectly credible), and her handling of the moral implications of true AI is the perfect blend of approachable and cutting-edge; it’s truly inspiring without ever trending preachy or overly “science”y.
In addition, Stearns has presented literally the only version of the “person entering a virtual realization of the concept-space a computer operates within” trope that didn’t make me roll my eyes – since Tron. Since that sentence is a nightmare, let me explain as well as I can without spoilers. Adda, the computer engineer protagonist, has a specialized jack implant with which she “jacks in” to computers in order to interact with their AIs. When she does this, she enters a hallucinographic environment that abstracts computer data into (sometimes odd) real-world items for her to interact with. This trope has been used over and over again, since Tron and the Matrix, Hackers and Andromeda. And visually, it kind of works. But when it’s used in writing, it’s always fallen flat for me. Stearns, however, uses this technique in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, her narrative. Suffice it to say I’m very impressed.
To round it out, she writes amazing characters! The protagonist couple are wonderfully and stably in love, without going grossly “lovey”, and they’re each believably real as individual characters and as partners for each other. As a bonus for some of us readers, Stearns’ writing is body-inclusive and one of her main characters is a total introvert – and not just when it’s convenient to the story! Stearns displays a real knack for a very particular kind of humor, too, and I am HERE for it.
Which brings me to my last observation for this spoiler-free review: this book would make an AMAZING movie! So many of the plot-advancing reveals are visual, and while Stearns writes them exceedingly well they would be astounding on the large screen. Everything about this book would pop on screen – from the epic scenes, to the breathtaking action, to the nail-biting suspense, and beyond. I’ve never actually *wished* for a movie adaptation like this before. And with the reception it’s gotten since it was published, I think chances are good Barbary Station might just make it to a theater near you (and me).
As readers, I find that one of the experiences that unifies us as a group is a growing TBR list. I think it’s a thing to celebrate – that endless optimism and a yearning for more couple to create a magpie-like collection compulsion in us readers, who pile our books higher and higher, saying “someday I’ll read them all”.
Here is the remainder of my TBR list of books published in 2017. I loved reading so many books as they were published, and thoroughly enjoyed being part of the discussion as we readers experienced their stories fresh off the presses. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get to everything – but I will, someday!
Freddy glowered at the smoke bush. And it gets to start all over again tomorrow. She had worked so hard at seeming normal. She knew she was normal compared to Mel, who could have been in university by now if she’d wanted, and Roland, who was proud of the fact that he had been voted the School for the Deaf’s student most likely to drive accidentally off a cliff … Everyone knew she was nothing like either of them, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bits of them clung to her like secondhand smoke.
And there’s Mum, she thought. She immediately shoved the thought away. Mum wasn’t the problem. She was never around, anyway.
This book was given to me by my friend and review partner. Thanks, Byron, for this wonderful reading experience!
“The convoy’s gonna go to this star, see. … But for me, it will always be unknowable. It’s real, but unreachable. That doesn’t make it a literal noumenon, but it … it feels fitting to me. There are things I can never know, things humanity can never know — or, hell, maybe I’m wrong and nothing is unknowable, nothing unmeasurable. But that just means the noumenal world is fleeting, a vast frontier.”
She nodded to herself. “Noumenon. Okay, I think I like it.”
Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon presents a classic hard scifi narrative. In it, generations of scientists dedicate their lives to a cross-universe journey of scientific discovery. On Earth, Reggie Straifer discovers an anomalous star and proposes a grand mission to uncover its mysteries. When his proposal is accepted, it becomes one of twelve Planet United Missions – globally-funded scientific missions to the stars. In preparation for the trip, scientists from all over the world are tested and (if they measure up) cloned to preserve the “genetic talent of the original crew”. It is these clones, along with a unique artificial intelligence, that will staff the ships of Reggie’s mission, Noumenon, on its eons-long journey there and back again.
In a world with magic and superpowers, reality gets hard to pin down.
I would like to thank Macmillan-Tor and the good folks at NetGalley for giving me this free early copy of ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT and the opportunity to review it.
I knew I would like All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault the moment I came across it. Three lines into the synopsis and I was already hooked: “Monsters are real. But so are heroes. Sparks are champions of weird science.“ I didn’t need to know more about the story to know I was going to like where it was going. And once I looked into it further, I was even more sold! Talk about an author with science fiction chops … James A. Gardner has been writing inspiring and challenging science fiction since at least the ‘90s, and writes both science fiction and science fact – he’s even written a computer science textbook used throughout Canada.
Now that I’ve read All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, I can say without doubt or hesitation that this was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable books I’ve read all year. This book has everything: light and dark, magic and science, order and chaos, Canada and … other places in Canada. And it’s funny! Garner really has a way with comedy, and balances epic fights and mysterious investigations with jokes (of the dark and the dad variety in equal measure).
At its heart, this story is about “finding the hero within”, and understanding not just what strengths you have but also where your strengths make you vulnerable – and where they might make you fall.
Gardner isn’t precious about his prose. His voice is immediately approachable and serves at all times to help illuminate the character of our narrator, Kim. It is through Kim’s eyes we witness the story unfolding, and from Kim’s perspective that we interpret and come to understand the rules of bad guys and good guys, of magic and science. It really helps that Kim is so charming, so relatable, so witty.
In addition to Kim is a whole cast of characters, whose personalities are varied and very human. Kim’s core group of friends are each entertaining and illuminating in their own way, and Gardner has worked to give each their own personality and sense of humor, as well as confronting each with their own challenges to face. They make a great ensemble cast, and I can’t wait to see how each grows in the next book!
But the characters don’t exist on their own. They inhabit a world – and this is a world full of dark magic and superheroes (called Sparks), and a war they’re just beginning to wage the world over. When we enter the fray, conflict has been in full swing throughout the world for a while, but is just now encroaching on the sleepy college town of Waterloo. As Kim and the rest learn the rules of Sparks and the Dark (the dark magic baddies) we learn them, too. Gardner does an excellent job of using Kim’s voice as the narrator to anticipate questions we the readers might have and answers them – either through exposition, or Kim’s ruminations, or even bouts of metahumor – Kim is very aware that theirs is a superhero story.
As it turns out, the rules of magic and superhero powers Gardner has put together are one of this book’s hands-down triumphs. The universe he has created for this book is one of established rules for both magic and science, and each adheres internally to their rules. Where they clash, those rules are broken (and danger and hilarity ensue!) but they break in internally consistent ways. This allows us as readers to follow along, to anticipate danger, and to understand gentle foreshadowing in a universe that would otherwise be overwhelmingly foreign.
All-in-all, this book was a wonderful read and I heartily recommend it. It’s an excellent light read, perfect to relax with. So head to your nearest bookstore and grab a copy, then sit down with some snacks, kick your feet up, and settle in for one hilarious and superpowered romp!
Voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards is in full swing! Here is how we voted:
Byron: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s about a young couple that flees their unnamed war-torn nation through one of the magic doors that have been appearing all over the world. It’s the best book that I’ve read this year (so far), with every word of this fairly short novel being precisely correct and beautiful.
Byron: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Ghosts in a graveyard narrate and comment upon the unprecedented event of a living person, Abraham Lincoln, visiting his son’s grave and holding his son’s body. It recently won the Man Booker Prize and is on the Carnegie Medal shortlist. It is boldly experimental, with three main (ghost) narrators/characters and another 160 or so other characters who provide (usually brief) additional lines, descriptions, and commentary. At various points, it is thought-provoking, funny, sad, and beautiful. Completely original.
Byron: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. It’s book one of a fairy tale set in medieval Russia about a young girl who may be a witch. This beautiful story explores the roles available to women and the impact of Christianity on paganism. I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and this story reminded me a bit of their work.
Ardis: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This is such an amazing modern introduction of classic fairy tales, where sprites and spirits and gods large and small inhabit the world we mortals think of as our own. In a remote Russian winter home, a young girl (Vasya) struggles to balance the old traditions of home and hearth with the new intrusion of Christianity (and its believers who insist their ways must be followed). The Bear and the Nightingale is no sweet fairy tale, but a harrowing and otherworldly struggle that will ultimately determine the fate of not just Vasya but her entire family and their town.
Note: We both also voted for Katherine Arden and The Bear and the Nightingale in the “Debut Goodreads Author” category.
Ardis: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. This is the continuation of Palmer’s “Terra Ignota” series, set in Earth’s far future. Here, the movers and shakers of global politics, religion, finances, art, science, and society are brought together in the wake of events of the last book to ensure the continuation of a global peace that is threatening, at last, to give way. Palmer proves with “Terra Ignota” that she knows what it is to be human – to feel awe when standing at the foot of great works, to fear the onrushing storm of war, and to reach deep within yourself to find heroic strength. Seven Surrenders is made all the more miraculous as Palmer tells this truly epic global tale through a very personal human-sized narrative. Her poetry, her emotion, her philosophy make this possible.
Byron: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It is about a U.S. government agency that uses witches to time travel. It’s a fun book with witty main characters and breezy dialogue. The time travel mechanic is unique and clever, and the world building is intricate and consistent. Truth-be-told, I haven’t read very much sci-fi that came out in 2017. I just couldn’t get into most of the sci-fi novels that I did buy. The The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., though, was a joy to read.
Young Adult Fiction
Byron: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. I flat out adored this novel. I read it in one sitting. The love story, the nature of fandom, the sources of creativity and the pressures that can arise, the family dynamics, portrayal of mental illness….gah….I love this book.
Ardis: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Byron recommended this book to me and I am thoroughly grateful. I think I consumed it in a single day – it almost might be more fair to say it consumed me. Eliza tells the story of Eliza, a teen writer whose webcomic has made her famous, even as she’s managed to maintain her total anonymity as the author for the years her webcomic has been running. When we meet her, Eliza’s world is about to become a lot more troublesome, as a new boy, depression, meddling parents, and a wide world of adoring fans all come crashing together in ways she never would have anticipated.
Young Adult Fantasy
Ardis: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. This book is the personal story of a young boy, Lazlo Strange, orphaned and raised in a library, who dreams of a fictional lost city. His dreams become reality in this daring and surprisingly emotional story of adventure and understanding, as Strange joins a company of adventurers off on a fantastic mission. I loved this book from the first page, and have recommended it more than any other book this year. Taylor is known for her poetic and fluid language, which is key in this book, but what shines for me in Strange the Dreamer are the rich, complex, and deeply human characters (even the blue ones).
Byron: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. A young librarian dreams of visiting a lost city. I only recently finished reading it, and I am still processing it. One thing I do know is that it’s one of the best books of 2017.
“They needed something to inspire people,” Harry explained, “for the citizens to really behind and believe in. Something which could be the base for their whole idea of a fledgling nation. And Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea of forging a dream.”
Shout out to PageHabit’s new subscription box, specializing in new Science Fiction stories! Paradox Bound was featured in their first month’s box, and it was a great inclusion. Check out what they have to offer: www.pagehabit.com (They have not endorsed me in any way and this link is just a link.)
I recently finished reading a new novel from Peter Clines – Paradox Bound. If you’re a fan of classic cars, old diners, and traditional Americana, this book is for you! It has all these things and more, and will leave you thinking about the American Dream in ways I bet you’ve never thought before.