Friday 29 January 2016

Review: Mothership Zeta, Issue 1

Mothership Zeta, Issue 1 Mothership Zeta, Issue 1 by Mothership Zeta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm professionally interested in SFF markets that pay pro rates, so I picked this up to see what this new market is selecting for publication. I enjoyed most of the stories, which is not by any means guaranteed for me in a pro magazine, so well done to the editors for that.

"Q&A: An AI Love Story" by Fade Manley takes the unusual form of the answers to a journalist's interview questions (we don't get to see the questions, so we can only infer them from the answers). It's an interesting narrative format, and the author makes it work well.

"Panic Twice, Spin" by Malon Edwards also deals with a kind of AI, in this case the android replica of a young girl who has died. It uses second person for the protagonist (though there is also a first-person character), again an unusual narrative choice, but again one that works for this story.

"Imma gonna finish you off" by Marina J. Lostetter is a post-immortality AI vampire detective story, and I'm beginning to see a theme developing. I felt the ending was a touch weak, but the journey was enjoyable.

"Sleeping with Spirits" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (apparently an unusual name helps in selling to Mothership Zeta) is the first fantasy story in the volume, though it's more magical realist than your standard contemporary urban fantasy. It deals, in frank but non-erotic terms, with sex and relationships through the bizarre premise of ghostlike memory-shadows of previous partners rising out of the "wet spot" after a couple has sex. (The couple's lack of surprise at this phenomenon is what leads me to call it magical realist.) Like the other stories, it attempts something extremely difficult and achieves it well.

"Bargain" by Sarah Gailey takes the hoary old trope of a deal with a demon and manages to find something new to do with it, again achieving the unlikely.

"Places" by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a well-written allegory-like story about limitations placed on women because they're women. It works as a story as well, which is key to such a project.

"Tales of a Fourth Grade Shoggoth" by Kevin Wetmore is H.P. Lovecraft as middle-grade fiction, something else that shouldn't work, but does, thanks to the author's excellent craftsmanship.

"The Insect Forest" by Paul DesCombaz is in a genre that I describe as "setting infodump delivered to camera," and it's one that is almost impossible to do well enough for me to enjoy it much. Unlike the other stories in this collection, this one didn't succeed in pulling off the almost impossible. The very minor implied story was obvious, and the setting itself not wonderful enough to make up for the limitations of the form.

I have to say that the nonfiction features didn't grab me nearly as much as the fiction, either, and I could happily have done without them and read more stories instead. They weren't bad, but they also weren't all that interesting to me, mostly being reviews of media properties that didn't sound like they would be to my taste.

Very much to my taste, though, were most of the stories, not least because each of them set out to do something completely new or unlikely and succeeded. The authors showed excellent craft, and apart from half a dozen minor slips the copy editing was also up to a good standard.

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Review: The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List

The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List by David Steffen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a breathtakingly good anthology, full of powerful stories that were definitely award-worthy.

"The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard is at the same time universal (the protagonist's concerns include family and personal risk) and particular. It raises the question of how our creations embody our own conflicts.

"When It Ends, He Catches Her" by Eugie Foster is that astonishing thing, a zombie story that I don't dislike, and it does something truly powerful and moving.

"Toad Words" by T. Kingfisher takes a fairytale trope and places it in a realistic context, to good effect.

"Makeisha in Time" by Rachael K. Jones addresses the suppression of women's stories via a girl who finds herself time travelling to other lives at random moments. Despite the detached present-tense narration and very little dialog, it manages to be moving.

"Covenant" by Elizabeth Bear is one of the best stories in an excellent volume, for me, with a serial killer who's had his brain repaired and his body changed to a female one confronting another serial killer, this time as the victim.

"The Truth About Owls" by Amal El-Mohtar is in a form I don't love, in which snippets of scientific fact are used to introduce each scene and have some tenuous connection to the fiction parts. It's otherwise well done.

"A Kiss With Teeth" by Max Gladstone I read in another anthology (The Best From, and it was so good I read it again in this one. Even knowing how it turns out, the suspense and creeping horror are powerful.

"The Vaporization Enthalpy of A Peculiar Pakistani Family" by Usman T. Malik didn't completely work for me somehow. It's another science-fact-intro-snippet story, and the fiction part was a bit of a miss for me. A couple of homonym errors ("steppes" for "steps" and "leeched" for "leached") didn't help.

"This Chance Planet" by Elizabeth Bear is another excellent story (damn, that woman can write). Completely different from the other Bear story in this collection, but with the same emotional depth and insight into toxic relationships.

"Goodnight Stars" by Annie Bellet is post-apocalyptic (or maybe peri-apocalyptic), a genre which is not to my taste, but the author does a good job with it, making the story personal rather than epic.

"We Are The Cloud" by Sam J. Miller has the kind of broken-down-hopeless-existence setting that I usually avoid, but is well depicted and well imagined. The premise is that the rich are using the poor as nodes in a living server farm. I didn't feel the ending was as well prepared for as it could have been.

"The Magician and Laplace's Demon" combines SF and fantasy seamlessly, in a deadly fight between magicians and an AI.

"Spring Festival" by Xia Jia is a series of small vignettes drawing on Chinese cultural practices. Because it wasn't a single coherent story, it lost some impact for me, but it was interesting. The translator, Ken Liu, made a few copy editing errors along the way, including a comma splice.

"The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado is a magical-realist story that, like many such stories, ultimately didn't make a lot of sense to me, though it's well-written.

"The Bonedrake's Penance" by Yoon Ha Lee is a tale of motherhood, independence, redemption and how difficult it is to create peace.

"The Devil in America" by Kai Ashante Wilson was another I'd read before in the collection. This one I didn't reread, because I found it too harrowing the first time. It's very good; I just didn't want to repeat the intensity of the experience.

"The Litany of Earth" by Ruthanna Emrys is another from, and this one I read again. It's always refreshing to see the Cthulhu Mythos treated in a way that doesn't require overwrought prose, and really this story uses the Mythos as a background to explore themes of oppression and collaboration.

"A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i" by Alaya Dawn Johnson is also about oppression and collaboration, but this time it's the vampire apocalypse. Pulls off the difficult feat of creating a sympathetic character who never actually does the right thing.

"A Year and a Day in Old Theradane" by Scott Lynch is his usual delightful combination of fantastical sword-and-sorcery with a clever heist. The setting is wonderfully strange.

"The Regular" by Ken Liu is a mystery story with spec-fic elements, the central one of which is highly unlikely if you think about it much (for reasons of data storage capacity). However, if you don't think too hard about that, the story is a good one.

"Grand Jete (The Great Leap)" by Rachel Swirsky is a beautifully rendered story of a dying young girl being translated into an android body, and all the conflicts that surround such a process, with an extra layer of immigrant Jewish culture for flavour. Like several of the other stories, it uses an art form (in this case dance) as a way to intensify the emotion of the narrative.

Overall, an encouraging collection, showing that SFF is far from finished exploring strange new worlds in innovative ways while telling powerful human stories.

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Saturday 16 January 2016

Review: Knight Moves

Knight Moves Knight Moves by Walter Jon Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every now and again, I'm in the mood for Walter Jon Williams' deeply thought-through novels of the postsingularity or posthuman condition, despite their tendency to occasional pessimism about love and the human ability to discover meaning.

This is such a novel, and it's a good one. Genetically engineered centaurs represent "wild" or pre-civilized humanity, noble savages speaking Ancient Greek and composing beautiful poetry. Several alien characters, and several human characters, demonstrate the risks of indefinite lifespan: the ennui, the potential solipsism and madness, continuing now-meaningless routines out of habit, and the hope represented by still finding challenges and fresh things to explore.

Even though the plot developments are enabled by not one, but two instances of what could be thought of as deus ex machina (or machinae ex alieni, to be more accurate), I didn't feel they suffered from that. It's the response of the protagonist as much as his struggle that's interesting, and because he has struggled the resolution still feels earned, even though it's supplied by someone else. Not all of the contradictions and dilemmas are neatly resolved, which is also good; if they were, it would raise the question of what would motivate him for the rest of his long life.

An odd issue with the Kindle edition is that quotation marks are frequently missing (usually opening ones). I'm not sure if that's a scanning problem, a typing problem attributable to the author, or what. Otherwise, there are few errors, and the language is smooth and competent.

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Thursday 14 January 2016

Review: Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint

Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd already heard much of the advice in this book, in part because Mary Robinette Kowal of the Writing Excuses podcast is a fan and refers to it often. It was still worth reading, as it takes the reader through a number of important considerations about characterisation and allied subjects: not only how to use the techniques, but when and why. I highlighted a great many useful and well-considered passages.

Card's basic view of writing is that in telling stories, we are influencing people to expand their understanding of the human condition; that by presenting fictional characters we can help our readers understand them more than they have ever understood a real person, and to understand themselves. This involves making the reader care about, believe in, and comprehend the story that you're telling and the characters in it. In order to do this effectively, we need to understand the techniques of characterisation.

Along the way, he considers the question of the epic hero versus the ordinary person; the comic character and the serious character; the hero and the villain; character change; voice; and viewpoint. Throughout, he explains the techniques in terms of the likely effect on the reader.

The Kindle edition has been scanned from a print copy, but competently, and there are only a few small errors (such as a missing blank line after the sentence "This is what a line break looks like").

All in all, worthy to stand alongside its series-mates Scene and Structure and Beginnings, Middles & Ends.

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Wednesday 6 January 2016

Review: Magonia

Magonia Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Come for the wonderful voice (and attitude) of Aza Ray, the teenage narrator. Stay for a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding.

This was one of those books that, while still partway through the sample, I knew I wanted to buy. It's difficult to create a truly original character voice, but this author pulls it off with Aza Ray. She even pulls it off again with Jason, Aza's best friend, though his voice is less distinctive (this shouldn't be taken as a criticism; most voices are less distinctive than Aza's).

There are all too few books that reflect the experience of chronic illness, what it's like not only for those who have it but for their friends and family. This book captures that experience wonderfully. Aza is by no means resigned to her fate, but she's realistic about it. She snarks entertainingly about her situation, but she's not in denial, or detached. Even if the plot had been less than it was, that alone would have got five stars from me. And Jason's devoted love for her, not hindered, but counterpointed, by his own issues, comes through beautifully.

On top of that, add a plot with skyships (invisible to our civilization, but raiding it under cover of storms), sung magic, bird people, bird familiars that nest in adepts' bodies, a corrupt flying city, proletarian rebellion, and a raid on the world seed repository in Spitzbergen. Most of those elements by themselves are not new or groundbreaking, but all together, and combined with the characters, they're wonderful.

Be it noted also: for the first time in my memory, I'm giving a HarperCollins book my "well-edited" tag. This is a tribute to the author, I'm sure, much as I'd like to think that that publisher has finally started taking copy editing seriously. I spotted only one typo, which is extremely rare (my average is a couple of dozen, across both trad-pub and indie books).

This is what YA should be like. In fact, this is what fiction should be like.

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Friday 1 January 2016

My Top 15 Books for 2015

Following on from my Top 14 Books for 2014, here's this year's post.

First, here's my Goodreads graphic. It's slightly incorrect, because I recorded one book on New Year's Day which I'd finished the previous day, and even though I changed the date the graphic won't update. So it should read 101 books, not 100. The extra book (John Varley's Persistence of Vision) got four stars.

Another good year, in which I read no fewer than 11 books that won five stars from me, out of my total of 101. Last year, only nine books out of 104 made it to five stars.

A five-star book is one that I enjoyed very much and which I also consider particularly well done. One or other of those things will get a book four stars, and this year I awarded four stars to 68 books (70 in 2014).

Three stars from me means that the book was either basically competent but only moderately entertaining for me, or basically entertaining despite not being all that competent, or somewhere in the range between the two. I had 19 three-star books this year, compared with 23 in 2014.

Thanks to continued good filtering, I again kept the number of two-star books down to two, the same as last year. Two stars means significant issues severely impacted my enjoyment of the book. I seldom finish a book like that. One was in a free box set I picked up, and lacked a middle; the other I bought, in part, based on an Amazon review that said there were few editing errors. (That reviewer was mistaken. There were at least 90.)

There's one book I didn't rate: In Memory, an anthology in honour of the late Sir Terry Pratchett and in aid of Alzheimer's research. That's because I was a contributor, and rating it would be against my policy. Other people have rated it, though, and done so very highly; it was the highest-rated book I read this year.

Let's go to the rankings. The top four four-star books first.

15. Ithaka Rising, L.J. Cohen. YA space opera with a brain and a heart. Sequel to Derelict, which took spot number 13 in last year's roundupFull review.

14. Orconomics, J. Zachary Pike. Combines satire on current economic and political issues with a sword-and-sorcery/D&D setting, and makes it work. Full review.

13. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison. Beautiful and intricate, the opposite of an action thriller, and filled with names that become confusing at times, but for me an enjoyable read. Full review.

12. Ten Thousand Devils, S.A. Hunt. The adjective "towering" might have been coined for Hunt's genre-mashing Outlaw King series, and this volume has all the virtues of the earlier ones. Full review.

Now the five-star books, starting with three nonfiction volumes I read in order to improve my own writing:

11. Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight. The wisdom of a long-time writer and writing instructor on the special strengths and requirements of the short form. Full review.

10. Beginnings, Middles and Ends, Nancy Kress. Clearly laid out, and full of insights into the process of writing both novels and short stories. Full review.

9. Scene and Structure, Jack M. Bickham. A classic of writing instruction, it takes the reader clearly and thoroughly through how to structure a novel that will make sense and keep up the tension right to the end. Full review.

8. A Sip of Fear, Brian Rush. Brian died in December, a sad loss to contemporary fantasy, as this book abundantly proves. Spirituality seamlessly combines with a compelling plot. Full review.

7. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie. Impeccably written, with masterfully drawn characters in a fascinating and thought-provoking setting, its only fault is a slight lack of clarity about the protagonist's goals. Full review.

6. The Martian, Andy Weir. A classic "clever engineer" SF story told with humour, verve and heart. Full review.

5. Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone. Commercial lawyer/adepts investigate the murder of a god through a DDOS attack. The sheer audacity of the ideas is fascinating, and the plot lives up to them. Full review.

4. Book of Iron, Elizabeth Bear. More audacious ideas, grand characters and tense adventures from a master wordcrafter; like Jirel of Joiry by way of Roger Zelazny. Full review.

3. Hot Lead, Cold Iron, Ari Marmell. A flawless blend of noir detective with urban fantasy. Full review.

2. The Alloy of Law, Brandon Sanderson. An exuberant mashup of supers and Western with a touch of steampunk, this is also a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy - itself a glorious reimagining of the epic fantasy, blended with postapocalyptic and (again) supers. Full review.

1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman. Nobody else writes quite as resonantly as Gaiman, turning childhood memories into the stuff of myth and legend. Full review.

Apparently I like genre mashups, and also books that refer to metallurgy in the title. Who knew?

More seriously, what I love is original, audacious, exuberant ideas, well executed in a gripping story with well-intentioned characters who I care about, and backed up by highly competent prose. If you can write like that, I don't care what your title is.

I look forward to reading many more such books in 2016.

Review: The Persistence of Vision

The Persistence of Vision The Persistence of Vision by John Varley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though the ebook version is somewhat marred by uncorrected errors in the scanning and digitising process, this collection of Varley stories from the 1970s effectively showcases the author's considerable writing skill and imagination. Most of the stories are set in the same milieu, first seen in his novel The Ophiuchi Hotline, in which aliens have depopulated Earth and humans only survive elsewhere in the solar system. This seems to be primarily an excuse to exclude Earth from the setting and keep everything on the Moon and other planets; in most of the stories, neither Earth nor the past apocalyptic event are even referred to.

The exception is the title novella, which I'd read before (I forget where; it was a long time ago). It's set in a rapidly unravelling USA, but again, the unravelling is largely an excuse to get the main character away from the cities and land him up at a commune in Taos, New Mexico, one founded by people who were born deaf and blind because of the 1964 rubella epidemic.

Fair warning: SF in the 1970s tended to be a bit obsessed with sex; I thought of this obsession as "Heinleinesque" until I considered it more carefully, and realised that Robert Silverberg and Theodore Sturgeon were just the same. Varley is another example, and we have a couple of stories in this collection where the main characters end up having sex with their own clones, and several in which sex partners either are, or look like, what we would consider minors. From today's perspective, this comes off as simultaneously creepy and naive, rather than progressive.

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