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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

A loose federation of states, Gedda, is descending into fascism. Cyril DePaul, an intelligence agent, Aristide Makricosta, a smuggler, and Cordelia Lehane, a cabaret singer, compromise and sacrifice to save the ones they love. Their choices don’t always work out well.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is a badly needed shot of dieselpunk into the spec fiction literature. Her gorgeously-described world plays to dieselpunk’s strengths: politics and nation-building. Since Donnelly’s nation is made up, she can fiddle with all the levers. Gedda’s disastrous Spice War looks like a mashup of America’s wars in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. Their central religious figure reminds me of a Queen Solomon. The people practice polygamy, but it’s looked down on as too old-fashioned.

Most fascinating is that Geddan society doesn’t have a notion of race. They’ve got ethnicity. The people of the four member states, Amberlinians, Tatiens, Farbourgese, and Nuesklenders, see themselves as separate peoples, plus there are Lisoan immigrants and a Chuli minority group. But tell a light-skinned Amberlinian he has something in common with a light-skinned Tatien and you’d get a blank look. This is a great thought experiment of what light-skinned people might be like without whiteness.

The language is very, very polished, to the point of being slick. While Donnelly loves her Amberlough City and writes beautiful description about it, sometimes it gets a bit much. At one point Cyril stirs a lump of muscovado into his coffee. Not any old sugar, muscovado. Some of the details feel gratuitous, and some scenes I skimmed for the dialogue.

The plot requires the characters to make stupid decisions. Cyril’s boss puts him, a blown agent, back into the field. What if somebody recognizes him? When, lo, Cyril needs to flee the country, he can’t think of a better way to do this than strike a bargain with the One State Party. (I’m glad that Cordelia calls him out on this.) Cordelia, who should know better, wears stolen jewelry to the park.

The One State Party isn’t scary. For one thing, we don’t get to see much of its political platform. When the One State Party arrives in Amberlough City, it gets a 0% approval rating. Other people in Gedda are responsible for fascism, bad people. That’s a comforting way to think about fascism and a missed opportunity. The terror of fascism lies in the reasons normal people want it. A good hard look like Maus should make the reader want to secede from the human race.

Amberlough sags in the middle, struggling to set Aristide up for the next book and balance Cyril’s undoing with Cordelia’s making. However. The beginning is good and the ending is magnificent.

Here’s my favorite bit:

When she woke up it was dark and the storm was going full-tilt outside the kitchen window, pelting the glass with wind-driven rain. Lightning seared the room flashbulb-white, making the whole gory scene like something out of a moving picture.

Cordelia straightened, stiffly, and cased herself. Her body hurt worse than ever, but sleep had done her head and heart some good.

While she’d dozed and dreamed about revenge, something in her broken chest had changed. Not her ribs, not a muscle or an organ, but something deeper and more vital. It had turned hard and crooked, like a fracture healed up wrong.

The One State Party has created a monster.

Amberlough is a good book, and if Donnelly had gone for more depth, it could have been a classic. There are two more books coming, so there’s plenty of room for that depth yet. I’m eagerly awaiting them.

Star Wars Rogue One is a way better movie than I expected.

So I’ve been living under a rock. All I knew about Rogue One since its theatrical release was that it was a Star Wars spinoff movie. Imagine how it felt when I sat on the couch with Netflix expecting this:

and I got this:

Rogue One is the darkest movie in the Star Wars franchise, and it’s a better movie for it. Set during the height of the Empire’s power, it follows the adventures of Jyn Erso, whose mother is dead and whose father is a hostage. In the first scene we see of her adult life, she’s on the way to an Empire labor camp. Alliance fighters break her out and offer her a job.

I don’t want too reveal too much, but if you’ve ever wondered what idiot would build a Death Star that explodes on a single well-aimed photon torpedo, this movie answers that question.

It reminds me of what space opera is for. It isn’t science fiction. Space opera is politics, on the funnest canvas. If you live in a fascist society, what do you do? The human characters in this movie might have a comfortable life if they just gave up. The Empire echoes modern China a little. One of the battle scenes resembles Normandy – and war’s enormous price in lives.

The Empire’s military is made entirely of humans and its brass is entirely white humans. What kind of choice do the aliens have? What do you do when you run out of options? Give up everything?

We see a Rebel Alliance splintered into factions and military commanders disobeying orders all over the place. Is Alliance chaos better than Empire enforced unity? Do you keep fighting? Yes. The movie gives a resounding yes. To give up would be to be complicit in the evil thing Grand Moff Tarkin does on Scarif.

One of the functions of art is to show us what heroism looks like. Heroism when nobody is a Jedi and injuries hurt.

My problems with the movie are quibbles. The other characters treat Jyn like she’s the next Henry V but she’s not that good with words. Did the blind character have to have milky eyes? The CG Tarkin doesn’t look that bad … he just looks like he wandered in from the wrong movie.

The most moving part of Rogue One is the (spoileriffic) last half hour.

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They killed a main character. I thought pfft, the robot character, that’s going to be a Disney death if I’ve ever seen one. Then they killed another … and another … nobody was going to get out. In the last five minutes of the film, the Alliance is reduced to extras, and they are scrambling, and desperate, and mortal. I salute the nameless soldier who couldn’t get himself through a broken door but could get a data card through.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn by Octavia Butler isn’t for everybody. There is tentacle rape. Nobody has ever accused Butler’s work of being easy or light.

This review contains spoilers.

Lilith Iyapo, a Nigerian American, wakes up in an isolation room in an alien spaceship. The aliens – the Oankali – come to her and tell her that nuclear war has destroyed most of life on Earth. The Oankali will restore the planet and teach the survivors how to live on it. In exchange, the humans must mate with them.

Lilith doesn’t trust the Oankali, but she reasons that if she cooperates with them, she can get herself and a group of human beings onto Earth’s surface and then they can run away.

The Oankali seem quite reasonable at first. Jdahya, the first Oankali she meets, is gentle with her and lets her get used to his horrifying appearance at her own pace. The Oankali are pacifist plant-eaters. They have an egalitarian society.

The first sign something is wrong is that Lilith wakes up with a scar on her abdomen. The Oankali cured her cancer. While she was unconscious. Without asking her.

After that it gets so gradually and creepily worse that I often had to stop and ask myself did I really just read that? The worst things the Oankali do are written in such a matter-of-fact tone that they left me wondering whether the Oankali did something wrong. The entire novel is a case of gaslighting for artistic effect.

The Oankali rarely lie, but they are dishonest with Lilith. They tell her they arrived in the solar system just in time to save humanity from extinction by nuclear war. But does “just in time” mean right after, or right before, the bombs dropped? What are the chances that the sight of space aliens with worms for faces caused the U.S. and Soviet militaries to panic?

They show Lilith their families made out of one male, one female, and one third-gender ooloi. The ooloi don’t make sperm or egg but manipulate male and female DNA as part of sex. They tell Lilith they must mate with other intelligent species or go extinct. The ooloi are so good at manipulating DNA that the Oankali can no longer evolve on their own, and must plagiarize genes from other species.

The Oankali don’t tell Lilith what they do with their perverts. What about Oankali who want twosomes, or the same sex, or who don’t want to reproduce? Considering their genetic engineering skills, I suspect the ooloi “fix” them.

If male and female Oankali mated with each other, wouldn’t they be able to make DNA mistakes and evolve? Do they have to rape humanity, or are the ooloi blind to another way? The ooloi insist on ridding humanity of its warlike nature, but they don’t seem too worried about the problems with Oankali nature.

I spent too much of the book rooting for some sort of compromise. I figured even the tentacle rape was a casualty of first contact, eventually the Oanaki would realize that humanity does better when negotiated with than manipulated, and they would back off. The last straw comes after a man Lilith has grown to love dies. An ooloi impregnates her with his sperm and some alien DNA because it’s what she would have wanted. Without asking her. Lilith’s human clan is sent down to Earth without her because she is no longer human enough to live among them.

The Oankali were never interested in compromise. I should have realized that and turned against them many chapters before. The ending left me asking whether Lilith’s clan is a bunch of hairless apes who wouldn’t see reason, or whether Lilith has turned into a monster. Lilith is likely asking herself the same question.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib is the first Himba person ever to be accepted to Oomza University, the most prestigious university in the galaxy. She sneaks to the spaceport in the dead of night so her family won’t stop her, and struggles with the tension between her curiosity and her traditions (Himba people aren’t supposed to leave Earth). And then the ship that will take her to university gets attacked by space pirates…

Nnedi Okorafor has a delicious writing style, so Binti was an enjoyable, fast read. I like the idea that in the future, there will be different human cultures. Space opera writers seem to forget this. I also like that the aliens know something about humanity, but not everything. They’ve never seen such an exotic human female before.

I don’t like the coincidences. Binti does a great job fighting for her survival, but an old gadget she owns and her hair cream wind up saving her by accident. Binti, the pirates, and the university all forgive old wrongs too easily.

Binti is a novella, so I think Okorafor is rushing to put too much story into too small a word count limit. The space pirates part isn’t even the good part. Binti’s emotional journey towards being both Himba and a college student is. Binti should have focused on Binti or added more words to lay the groundwork for the bargain she reaches.

King Lear

I really want to see a modern dress production of this play.

Lear, an aging Briton king, wants to retire, so he gathers his three daughters and asks each of them how much they love him. Cordelia won’t play that game. Goneril and Regan kiss ass. Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan and banishes Cordelia. Goneril and Regan strip Lear of the rest of his power and cast Lear out on the moor. Cordelia, who has by this point become the Queen of France, comes roaring back with an army to put things right. Almost everybody dies.

I have a lot more sympathy for Regan and Goneril than I’m supposed to. A pair of women in the England of antinquity are suddenly given something they never expected: power in their own right. Their actions for the rest of the play are meant to cement that power. They may even believe in what they are doing, since the way Lear sliced his kingdom in half on a whim doesn’t suggest he was taking good care of it.

Lear is a political threat to the sisters as long as he remains alive. He’s nominally still king, senile, and already turned on Cordelia. They could be next. As a royal and a man, he probably did little to raise his daughters. So why should they hold tender feelings towards him? Catherine de Medici wouldn’t have blinked at the torture, poison and banishment that they resort to.

The tragedy here is that the young people prove no better at the helm than their elders. Regan and Goneril should have executed Lear swiftly, made peace with Cordelia (she is the Queen of France), and come to an agreement about their lovers. In the end they’re felled by squabbling.

This policy and reverence of our age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffered.

Was there ever a better expression of millennial rage?

King Lear is relevant in a way Shakespeare never intended because it’s about generational warfare. Lear is obsolete, pompous, and never had to suffer a day in his life. Regan and Goneril are inexperienced and petty. Sound familiar?

I want to see a production of this play where Lear watches CSI all day and his daughters have their faces in their phones, eating kale chips. I’m angry about politics; tragedy is cathartic. I want to see a play that does this to a kingdom:

Sphere by Michael Crichton

A black man, a white man, and a white woman all get the power to warp reality to their will. The black man and the white woman can’t handle the power and nearly get the group killed. The white man saves the day by being more emotionally stable than them.

ಠ_ಠ

I don’t think Michael Crichton meant Sphere to come out sounding that way, but his characters are so paper-thin there’s nothing left of them but their stereotypes.

Norman Johnson, professor of psychology, gets called in by the Navy to investigate a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. The downed plane turns out to be a spacecraft. Because of Norman’s previous work on group dynamics, the Navy has given him the job of keeping the crew from freaking out in the face of alien life. Norman and a team of scientists he hand-selected go to a deep-sea habitat to investigate the wreck.

Some of what happens next is spoileriffic. Suffice to say that whoever comes into contact with a certain sphere gets reality-warper powers. It involves time travel.

For the first few chapters, I found Crichton’s prose refreshingly sparse. After a while it gets wooden. Check this out:

Norman suddenly felt overwhelmed. He sat on his bunk, holding the notebook in his hands. Finally he looked at a couple of pages, filled with Ted’s large, enthusiastic scrawl. A photograph fell onto his lap. He turned it over. It was a photo of a red Corvette. And the feelings just overwhelmed him. Norman didn’t know if he was crying for Ted, or crying for himself, because it was clear to him that one by one, they were all dying down here. He was very sad, and very afraid.

Crichton doesn’t explore the implications of the magic sphere in nearly as much depth as he could have. Why aren’t characters inundated with pink elephants when they desperately try not to think about them? Why can’t characters imagine their way out of problems? The only thing the power seems to do is throw monsters at the habitat.

The plot runs on the characters’ terrible decisions. When the Navy learn that a typhoon is bearing down on the site of the wreck, which isn’t going anywhere, they hasten to send the characters to the underwater habitat just in time to trap them down there. When jellyfish of an unknown species swarm the habitat, one of the Navy officers decides it’s time to go for a swim. Somebody rigged the habitat with a deadman’s switch that takes away their only means of escape unless they press a button. On the outside of the habitat.

That’s not even what bugs me the most about this book – it’s the three main characters, Harry Adams, Beth Halperin, and Norman.

Harry isn’t that bad. He’s actually competent, and when his powers get the best of him, it’s because of normal human fears. And it’s gratifying to see him survive.

I like women villains. I know real women can be any one of sex-obsessed, power hungry, manipulative, hysterical (Crichton literally uses this word), incompetent, and bitter. But why is Beth all of these things? And she never misses a chance to mention she’s a woman?

Crichton’s description of her is disturbing:

Beth, with her lack of self-esteem, her deep core of self-hate, had gone inside the sphere, and now she was acting with the power of the sphere, but without stability to her thoughts. Beth saw herself as a victim who struggled against her fate, always unsuccessfully. Beth was victimized by men, victimized by the establishment, victimized by research, victimized by reality. In every case she failed to see how she had done it to herself.

I don’t know what message Crichton is trying to convey here, but I think he had a bone to pick with somebody.

Norman’s a schlub. The problems with the mission are largely his fault – it was his job to pick a team of scientists who would be unlikely to crack under stress. He picks a team of scientists with low stress tolerance who all hate each other. When consequences follow, he doesn’t feel remorse. He just rescues Harry and the hysterical Beth because he can handle the sphere-power better than them.

I think the problem here is that Crichton was trying to write a book about emotions … and he sucks at it. It’s telling that he equated emotions with space aliens in this book. He tried to get into his characters’ heads and instead knocked things over. I was rooting for the giant squid.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

I go for Terry Pratchett therapy when terrible things are happening in the news, so I eenie-meenie-miney-moed through Pratchett’s bibliography and pulled up Soul Music.

The events of Soul Music explain what makes Susan, Death’s granddaughter, into who she is by the time of The Hogfather. Susan is a student at a girl’s school and unaware of her powers at the start of the book. When Death abandons his post, Susan is forced to step in.

Meanwhile, Imp y Celyn arrives at Ankh-Morpork determined to make his name as a musician. He gets entwined with a supernatural guitar that is slowly killing him. Susan fights to change this.

Like many reviewers on Goodreads have said, this is a good read, but it’s not Terry Pratchett’s best work. It succeeds when Pratchett crams his ostensibly medieval world with rock & roll jokes. We get to see an early version of Hex, which is fun. And Pratchett manages to make the main antagonist the background radiation left over from the Big Bang, which almost makes sense.

Soul Music doesn’t work when it runs over plot holes. What did the Music want and what was it doing to Imp? What exactly did Susan and Death do about it at the end? This book left me wondering what it all added up to. It’s best read if you don’t concern yourself with the plot and enjoy Pratchett’s funny-as-ever one-off gags.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

I think I must have missed the joke somewhere.

I appreciate P. G. Wodehouse’s technical skill in Right Ho, Jeeves – the plotting is intricate, the who’s-on-first dialogue is witty, and Bertie Wooster’s point of view is a good case study in the unreliable narrator. But it just wasn’t my bag.

I think the problem was Bertie Wooster. He’s an upper-class twit with no reason to be alive. No job, no need of one, no family who needs him, not even any hobbies. His motive in Right Ho is to preserve the status quo. If Wooster doesn’t have any purpose in life, why should I care what happens to him?

Which leaves me baffled why Jeeves works for him. The man could get any position at MIT he wanted, so why does he work as a servant? If he’s gay, he has terrible taste. Is manipulating the British aristocracy his hobby? Damned waste of his talents. Is he a spy? My favorite explanation is that, like Steerpike, he’s planning the downfall of every aristocrat around him. That thought made Right Ho, Jeeves a much more enjoyable read.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Legend has it that a spectral hound terrorizes an old country estate in Devonshire and the bloodline that owns it. Our heroes Holmes and Watson are called onto the scene when the latest heir to Baskerville Hall dies just outside his home without a mark on him. Next to his body, there is the mark of a giant paw.

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it’s such a beach read. I expected a Dickens level of convolutedness, but this book is simple, clear, and short. In fact I’m a little disappointed because I wanted more depth. Doyle is good and spooky when he’s describing the moors, but the characters aren’t spooky and neither is the mystery. The book ends like an episode of Scooby Doo: (the ghost is just a cranky neighbor of theirs and a dog in glow-in-the-dark paint).

But like I said, beach read. The Hound of the Baskervilles is fun to read. It’s fun to read an entire mystery with the late Victorian attitude that science can fix everything. Doyle’s habit of describing every character in excruciating detail is also fun, and led to this knee-slapper of a line:

There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

6892870It was time to see what all the fuss was about. Although I accidentally started with the third book in the Millenium series, I don’t mind. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest gives a good explanation of what came before it and brings closure to the series.

Lisbeth Salander, a woman who’s wanted for three murders, shows up nearly dead of gunshot wounds in Gosseberga, Sweden. Her father, an ex spy, has an axe wound to the face. As Salander recuperates in the hospital, awaiting trial, shadowy forces try to make the whole situation disappear.

The book’s greatest strength is Salander herself. It’s fun to inhabit the mind of a genius computer hacker who’s uninhibited by the morality of mere mortals, though I wouldn’t want to meet her in person. Larsson writes with a crisp, dry style that even makes the infodumps interesting. I learned more about Sweden, the Swedish justice system, and the Swedish Intelligence Service than I ever thought I wanted to know.

The whole book was fun.

It has some problems. It’s heavy-handed: I get the point already that violence against women is bad, and breaking the Swedish constitution is bad. Computer hacking does not work the way that it is presented in the book. And it’s a pretty serious wish fulfillment fantasy for journalists. Not only does Mikael Blomquist have a full-time job at a financially solvent magazine, he gets to dash around protecting the vulnerable, exposing crooks, and earning the admiration of Swedish Intelligence agents. And for some reason everybody wants to have sex with him.

The book also has some worrying ethics. The protagonists of the book form a team effort to clear Salander’s name of the murders she didn’t commit. But Salander really is a criminal. She’s stolen billions, attempted murder twice, and in the epilogue, she’s an accessory to another murder. Her friends do a lot of breaking and entering and creepy-as-hell surveillance to help her. A doctor at the hospital intentionally misdiagnoses Salander to buy her time before she goes to prison. His actions echo those of the villain Teleborian, who misdiagnoses Salander to get her locked up in a mental institution. Why is this behavior okay when it’s done in the service of Salander?

I recommend the book. Though it’s odd, and Lisbeth Salander is terrifying, it’s a wonderful romp through Swedish society.