Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Murderbot of My Heart

Everyone was all excited about All Systems Red before it came out, but I'd never read any Martha Wells before, so I couldn't figure out what it was by a pretty straighforward-looking "cyborg soldier protects people" story that had all my bloggers quivering with anticipation. But hey, I put it on reserve and waited and waited and waited and the reviews kept coming and finally I gave up on the waiting and bought the darned thing and read it and OH MY LORD was it good.

(Note for the record: me buying a book and reading it in the same month is, like, unheard of.)

Our surveying party is investigating a new planet to investigate whether it's worth it to buy the rights to its natural resources.  They've been outfitted for the mission by the Company, which does such things--habitats, scientific equipment, life support, transportation, and a SecUnit, a security bot, who is our narrator.  It calls itself murderbot; it doesn't have a name.

The SecUnit isn't typical; its governor drive, which is supposed to control its behavior and prevent anything unauthorized, has been hacked.  Murderbot hacked the drive itself, but mostly nothing's changed--it goes on missions, takes care of its people, and just wants to be left alone to watch the entertainment that it's downloaded--mostly serial dramas.

But something's gone wrong with the other outpost on the planet, and it looks like someone might have it in for our team.  Murderbot's gotten kind of fond of this team (OH MY GOD SO HAVE I) and they have to work together to figure out what's going on.

Okay, so this is kind of perfect.  The thing that's so great is our protagonist's voice, which is kind of sardonic and kind of wistful and incredibly natural.  It's observant and smart and competent, but also laid back and funny and reserved.  This is what everyone's been talking about, and no doubt, it made the story.

But what doesn't get enough credit is the story itself, which serves as a setting for the character to unfold.  The book is a novella, which means it's pretty short, and pacing can be tricky here--you can't have too many twists and turns.  But the fact is, the "what's going on on this planet?" mystery is, well, not a MacGuffin, because we are very concerned with how it will turn out and it is definitely life or death.  But it's the perfectly paced and structured opportunity for these characters to unfold.  Any slower, lingering on the characters, and it would get sentimental.  Any faster and it would be Dan Brownish.  Instead, you get the perfect balance.

We get to watch Murderbot spend more time reluctantly with the crew, and to meet the crew themselves.  We get to know Mensah, who is just a model of great leadership (and to learn why), and Ratthi, who is sweet and maybe sometimes spacey, and Pin-Lee, who is more competent than a robot in a lot of ways, and just all of them.  They are likeable.  And then you have Murderbot, who basically has severe social anxiety, but who's still fond of these people.  As things get darker and more real, the bonds they're forging get stronger, in spite of all the differences.

Honestly, as an extrovert surrounded by introverts, watching the crew interact with Murderbot was just so poignant.  They try, and then they try to try the right way, but it doesn't feel right, and they slip, and it's just so damned sweet and funny and I loved every minute of it.

Lianna, I'm sorry, I know your list is full. But you have no choice; you have to read this one.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Emma In The Night

I never thought of myself as a reader of thrillers, but lately I've been picking them up more and more often, and weirdly they've been working out for me. I think I requested Emma in the Night, by Wendy Walker, from Netgalley because I liked the title, and maybe the cover.  And it was one of those many "girl comes back from her mysterious disappearance, but where has she been?" stories that seems so popular lately.

The funny thing is, the only way to make a story like that work is for there to be a decent amount of characters hiding information from the reader, which frequently drives me up the wall (see my opinions on Jodi Picoult).  Secrets may be kept for a reason from other characters, but if you're inside a character's head and they're thinking about The Truth but not telling you what that truth is, well, that's cheap dramatics.

So it's a fine line to walk for me, this kind of psychological thriller where we're finding out what happened, rather than watching it happen.  Emma in the Night, I'm pleased to say, walked that tightrope and kept me reading to the point where I finished it in a day, which is not a thing that I am known for.

Cass and Emma are sisters in a messed up family, and three years ago they disappeared on the same night.  Now Cass is back home and begging her parents and the police and anyone who will listen to find Emma.

Abby Winters is the forensic psychologist who worked on the missing person's case three years ago, and she's never been able to shake it.  She recognized that this family had some ugly secrets, but she was never able to dig them all out or convince her superiors that they were relevant to the disappearance.  With Cass's return and the hunt for Emma, she can finally find out the truth.

What unfolds is told from two points of view.  Cass's parts are in first person, and her careful, deliberate personality--the product of a lifetime spent jumping through the many hoops required in her family--means that we know full well that we're not being told everything.  Every thought that Cass has is deliberate and specific, and we will follow the investigation with her, but the past will unfold when she's ready to tell it.

With Abby, though, we can follow the investigation and see how Cass's clues play out in the real world.  I think the biggest flaw in the book, actually, was how Abby's psychological expertise was treated by those around her--the rest of law enforcement was very dismissive of her theories about the family, which seems like the opposite of my understanding of how any criminal investigation works; aren't the family the first set of suspects?  Don't you bring in a forensic psychologist to listen to their opinions on the psychology of the parties involved?

I suspect that some of the psychology behind this is also a little loosey-goosey, but I don't expect much from a thriller.  And I have barely put the book down all day, which is what you ask from this book, so in that respect, it's incredibly successful at what it's trying to do.  Highly readable.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

DOOM on Mt. Ararat: A Review.

I've been meaning to read something by Christopher Golden for ages.  He cowrote books, movies, and a bunch of other stuff in the Ghosts of Albion world with Amber Benson, who is one of the top ten Most Adorable People. He wrote Joe Golem and the Drowning City, a novel that was illustrated by Mike Mignola, who is one of my absolute favorite illustrators.

So when I saw on Netgalley that he had a new book coming out--and that it was a horror novel set on a remote and snowbound mountain peak--I scooped up a copy of Ararat.  So exciting! Biblical! Snowy! Horror! And finally, Christopher Golden!

Guys, I might not like Christopher Golden so much--at least I don't care much for this book.  And it's so sad, because the premise is just right.  I've practically seen this movie before and I loved it (though I can't quite pin down its name).  Ararat is the mythical resting place of Noah's Ark, and when an earthquake uncovers ruins, there's a race for the site.

The winners are Meryam and Adam, partners and adventurers who write books and make movies about their world travels.  They assemble their team in a cave on the side of a ridiculously high mountain shrouded in snow as a blizzard sets in.  It's your classic enclosed space horror story--you've got your observers from the Turkish government, several guides involved in a family feud with various loyalties, a Catholic priest, a UN observer, a guy from the "National Science Foundation" with a shady past, archaeologists and grad students and a doctor...you get the picture.

Honestly, I'm ready for this to be turned into an episode of Doctor Who; I think it could make a good episode, if it was rewritten a little bit. A lot of the problems are ground-level problems; it can be confusing to figure out what's going on, who's in which room.  I never got a clear idea of how this ark fit into the mountain--whether the walls and floor were all wood, or part stone and part wood that had rotted away (both are mentioned), how most of the ark related to the mouth of the cave (the wind is basically in every corner, so it seems pretty open?), or how the different "rooms" were split up.  There's a lot of running through spaces separated by plastic sheeting and I was pretty confused.

There was similar confusion with the motivations and characters.  The same person would one minute say they should create a rock slide and bury the mountain and the next minute freak out because he couldn't convince them NOT to destroy things.  Are things romantic between those two people?  Wait, I was under the impression that she was old enough to be his mother.  And is this guy you keep calling Ben occasionally the same guy you call Walker in every other place?  I literally had to flip back twice to confirm that Ben and Walker were the same person.

So you've got a big ol' jumble.  Then there's the meat of the horror, in which a demon was entombed on the ruins of Noah's Ark, and the overeager investigators released it to now haunt them all.  From the very first, everyone feels gross and tainted when they enter.  At many turns, plot points are driven by characters "just feeling" how awful something is, or almost vomiting, or whatever horrible creeping sensation.  But it didn't do a great job of showing things as creepy--we went straight to being told how their bodies felt creeped out.

There's a demon, a creature with horns, a skeleton in a tomb.  It doesn't really have any motive that we can tell--it's just evil and hey, now there are people here to terrorize.  There's no sense of a purpose or goal, either to the good guys or the bad guys.

The other great opportunity that was missed here is an "atheists in foxholes" story.  You've got a bunch of  rationality-loving scientists, a few people with radically different ideas of faith, people who have been searching for the ark forever, people who are looking for something to believe in. And this came up as a topic, but I never felt it as in any way pivotal to what was going on, either to the conflict or to my understanding of the evil.  Nobody even had a crisis of faith!  Where's the drunk priest from Stephen King's Salem's Lot? There is an exorcism that is pretty much as unspiritual as you can get.

Okay, I'm going to stop ranting now.  I'm sorry to rip into the book so hard, but I had such high hopes.  And the plot is pretty great--I actually think this would make a really good movie, with actors to give some thought to the emotional journeys of specific characters.  There's even a built-in documentary crew.  But the book? It just kind of sat there.  Big ol' nope.

*Oh, but my favorite bit--I don't know if this was actually what the author meant to imply, but he pretty much said that in his world, the National Science Foundation doesn't exist.  It's a smokescreen, see, for DARPA.  I mean, maybe what he meant is just that DARPA uses the actual, legit NSF (which sponsors some great shows on PBS, BTW) as a smokescreen, but he actually says pretty baldfacedly that NSF is "just" a smokescreen.  I'm offended by the book on behalf of the NSF, so there.
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Correction: I just realized that I did NOT get this book from Netgalley.  I saw it on Netgalley, but wasn't able to get a copy; I eventually got it from the library.  Which is embarrassing because I absolutely would have quit reading it in the middle if I'd realized that.  But hey, at least you know my review copy opinions are honest!

Monday, June 05, 2017

After Afterparty

Daryl Gregory's Afterparty is getting another post, which feels excessive, except that I wrote the last one before I finished it and a) shouted out loud several times during the last 60 pages, and b) did not mention Ollie ONCE in the last post. This is a sad failure on my part, and by god I'm going to rectify it.

See, Ollie is amazing. There is a standard role in an action story where the hero has a sidekick who has all the skills, and the hero just rides along on their coattails. Right? Like Hermione in Harry Potter, and any spy's computer geeky sidekick. It's not even that whenever Lyda needs to get something done Ollie is there; she's just there, getting things done before Lyda even knows they need doing or are possible.

Mental illness is a big theme in the book--issues of belief and how religious faith affects your thoughts and actions, how some kinds of faith can look like mental illness, and what it's like to live and function in the world while mentally ill all converge here.  It's a pretty irreverent book, but on the whole I found its treatment of mental illness very respectful.

See, Lyda and Ollie met at a psychiatric facility--specifically a neuropsych facility.  Lyda sees and hears an angel because she overdosed on Numinous.  Ollie is an ex-CIA agent who overdosed on alertness drugs.  On her medication, she's a brilliant, rational person with agnosia--she's not blind, but she can't tell what she's looking at.  All visual stimuli are the same to her--she can't tell a person from a couch from a wall.  Off her meds, she is highly perceptive and can see patterns in any and everything--and she's extremely paranoid.  Unmedicated Ollie is incredibly effective and dangerous to herself and others.

And this book treats her so well.  She's a damned genius, on or off her meds, and she is fiercely loyal and bold and fragile and invincible.  Lyda and Ollie's relationship is so poignant--Lyda's emotional fragility is balanced by Ollie's bold vulnerability, and watching them transform as a couple is incredible.  Romantic isn't quite the right word, though it's a romance--it's about how they find strength in each other in spite of themselves that I love.

Damn fine book, this.


Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

I can't believe I waited so long to read this book.  I've checked it out of the library several times, but even after I read the author's One Hundred Nights of Hero and loved it, I didn't think I could get into The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, by Isabel Greenberg.

After I pushed through the first part, and fell in love with the book, and read it through in an afternoon, I went back to try to figure out why the first few pages turned me off.  I think there were two related factors--one is that it reads, in many ways, like a creation myth, or a fairy tale.

The framing story is of a boy and a girl who meet and fall for each other, but for some reason can never touch each other.  Some force keeps them apart.  This has the simplicity of a story out of myth--and I am not a big fan of myths or fairy tales, actually.  I am too interested in character, and in cause and effect, which are often pretty nonlinear in stories like this.

The related problem is that the boy and girl fall in love in the first three pages, pretty much upon meeting each other. Within two panels of meeting, they are soulmates and getting married, which is a big turnoff to me. The story appears to revolve around the problem of solving their non-touching problem.

But it's not.  It's so much more than that.  Since they can't touch, they tell stories, and from the first story, the book unfolds into a delightful travelogue of a storyteller from the far North and his journey through all the lands of the world.

First, though, we begin with a story that also reads like a myth, but without the distance that troubles me about that kind of story.  Three sisters find a baby and ask the shaman to split him into three babies so they can each have one.  This is the beginning of a chain of events that leads to distant lands and, eventually, to the South Pole, and the marriage of two people who can never touch.

I love these stories.  Three sisters with different personalities could be summed up in a Brothers-Grimm-like sentence, but they're not--they're smart and human and they love each other and annoy each other and make mistakes and realize they're mistakes and try to fix them.  People screw up in this book, and they can be friendly to one person and cruel to another.  This book is full of such incredibly human characters that the fairy-tale elements of the story spring into three-dimensional life.  Even the gods here make sense in ways that they just don't when I read mythology.

I'm so glad I persevered here, and I want to thank Aarti so much for recommending this, and for loving it so hard that I couldn't help coming back, even when I had doubts.  I am won over, and I'm so glad I persevered!