Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I'm so far behind in blogging about the amazing, awesome stuff I've been reading lately.  I'm just going to have to gush incoherently and in random order about a bunch of incredible books that I've finished in the past few weeks, because I can't bear not to talk about them.  But I'm hoping to catch up with the stuff I'm in the middle of soon.

Okay,  I'm big on fantasy and scifi, but I often find the blurbs surprisingly irritating.  The books with the most worldbuilding often tease you with it in ways that just sound stupid--"a time traveling robot, a socialist guinea pig, and a sassy French horn team up to fight crime!"  I'm supposed to be excited wondering how the author makes it work, but mostly I end up being doubtful.

So the problem comes when I'm trying to talk someone into reading a book with a plot that is so--complicated isn't the word, because it's very easy to understand.  But complex, with lots of moving parts, many of which make good poster blurbs for exciting movies.

You've got a teenage love story set against the backdrop of an interstellar corporate war.  Okay, that's a thing, sure.  And the girl's a gifted hacker and the guy turns out to be an amazing pilot and they've just broken up, but fate throws them together(ish).  And their planet is attacked, and they are evacuated, and the fleet is on the run from the attackers.  This is a reasonable scope for a story, and it's a really good story.

But then you have to add in the rogue (possibly insane) AI.  And the plague--don't forget the plague.  Which is kind of a zombie plague?  Not really zombies, but your standard psychotic rage plague.  We've all seen these movies, read these books.

But this one is SOOOOO much better!  Illuminae, by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, is insanely good.  It's incredibly ambitious--it's formatted as a story of found documents, chat transcripts, official records, etc.  This is always a risky proposition, because it's SO easy to fall out of voice, but this is just so well done.  There are a few places where I'd like to debate about the format--the AI logs, especially, seem very linear relative to what they're trying to do with the computer, but I'm not sure how else you would do it.  And the transcripts of the video logs are charmingly narrated--the "tech" who transcribed them was clearly an author who hadn't had a chance to be sassy in a while.

But I think the BEST thing about this was Kady.  She is tough as nails, and damn if I don't mean that.  She's not a softy underneath; she's shoe-leather to the spine, but that doesn't mean that she's dead inside or anything.  She's just hard and fast and passionate and on fire.  And brilliant.  And also 17 and stubborn, and powerfully resistant to authority. 

Honestly, when you're running a refugee camp and a fleet of spaceships on the run, authority isn't all bad.  A maverick can be dangerous.  But so can the powerful making narrow minded decisions.  And, you know, the plague.  Did I mention the plague?  Or the rogue AI? Anyway, Kady knows they're keeping secrets, and she's determined to dig them up.  With all the antagonists pulling the refugees in different directions, one random 17 year old might be the one to hold things together.

Kaufman and Kristoff coauthored the book, and the bio says that they're a combined 12 feet 5 inches tall.  I find that one of the most fascinating things to ponder.  Are they both over six feet?  Is one of them almost seven?

You absolutely should read this book.  And NOT on the Kindle--you need to have a physical copy.  There is some very complicated typography that is not going to translate well to different screen sizes.  Okay, yes, go now and read this.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Vacation Holding Pattern

Not the going somewhere type of vacation, but the days off work type.  Getting ready for it sucks up energy; being on it give me time (I hope!) to write the posts about all the really good reads I've had in the past couple of weeks. 

So, happy holiday prep and I'll be back this weekend!

(Photo via)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


So I'm putting down this book that I was pretty interested in reading: The Cage, by Audrey Schulman.  I even got the library to order it for me, but I'm not even 20% done and I think I have to put it down.  And that's feeling kind of fraught to me.

The Cage is about Beryl, a nature photographer who has mostly only taken photos near where she lives in New England, but who wins an opportunity to go on an Arctic expedition where she'll sit in a protective cage and take photos of polar bears from close up.  This is a huge deal; most photos of animals like bears are taken with telephoto lenses. So this is an enormous opportunity for Beryl, who got the job because she was pretty much the only applicant small enough to fit in the cage that they had already built.

This is a metaphor for how Beryl is a tiny, quiet woman who is full of fear in a world of big, loud men who barrel through life.  The world is full of threats--people who interrupt you at parties, men who walk behind you down a quiet path in the park and might have been meaning to assault you, other photographers who are loud and full of themselves.  Literally every man in this book is actively obnoxious.  Beryl's father is the least awful one, because he's mostly just overprotective and kind of distant, in a traditional dad of 30 years ago way.

There aren't many women in the book at all, except Beryl's mom, whose life is one long experience of anxiety, mostly about how you might get assaulted. 

Okay, so there is no sense here that anyone is just a flawed human being making their way through the world.  People range from thoughtlessly brutish to selfishly brutish.  But see, this is very much Beryl's point of view.  I mean, it has to be--it's so extreme that I can't believe it's the author blithely telling me that this is how she views the world. 

But even if it's Beryl's view of the world, I don't feel very sympathetic to her.  I feel put off.  When she meets the reporter, Butler, who will be writing the copy to go with her photos, before she even knows him, he's awful. Literally, the first moment: "He'd introduced himself only by his last name.  Beryl guessed that his frist  name must be something effeminate, like Ceciil or Francis.  He wore the practical outdoor clothes of someone who wished for a short and common name with hard consonants, like Nick or Ted."  She's judging a guy who wears rugged, outdoorsy clothes on an Arctic expedition as compensating for something?  Besides the cold? 

So yeah, I don't have a lot of respect for Beryl, and I don't think I can read a whole book on her point of view.  But this feels fraught, because I feel like I'm giving up on something that's trying to show me a certain lens of the world.  I mean, this is about how a small, shy, introverted woman gets kicked around for not being one of the guys.  That's a story worth telling, right?  And honestly, when I put it that way, yeah, that's a story that needs to be told--it's okay to be small and shy; the system will try to tell you that you don't matter, but you do. 

Except.  Except I don't admire Beryl, or like her, or sympathize with her.  I've developed a taste for unlikable characters who are more active, or who are just doing their own thing.  But Beryl isn't doing her own thing--or rather, when she is (photography), she's actually interesting and tolerable.  But as soon as she enters the world of people, she becomes completely inert, and seems to exist only as a lens through which to despise things.

I don't know.  I feel like there might be some important feminist point to the stuff I don't like about this story.  But I can't stomach it long enough to find out.  Which is a shame, because I was really curious to see what happened when she actually go into the cage.  Just not curious enough, I guess.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


I want to write this post in all caps.  I want to come through the computer and grab you, gentle reader, wherever you are, by the lapels and shake you and tell you that you do not have a choice, you have to and absolutely must read this book!  I mean series! All of it!  Ancillary Mercy for the win!

Okay, I know that I can't write the review that I want to write; this is one of those moments where I want to write a long and detailed review with elaborations on how the book worked on a technical level, and how I felt about the characters and plot, and the things it made me think about regarding society and humanity.  And I would not be able to do all those things--at least not coherently in the time I have available--so I would never get it written if I tried to write the whole thing.

So what you're going to get is the rough outlines of how wonderful this book is.  And then you will read it yourself (YOU WILL READ IT, YOU MUST) and then you will know how wonderful it is, forever and ever amen.

The first book in Ann Leckie's series is Ancillary Justice, which I read months ago for book club.  It was good--a bit on the hard-scifi side for me, and kind of hard to follow sometimes.  There's a lot going on, including two separate timelines ("present" and a 20-years-ago past), plus flashbacks to other periods and political background.  That, plus the gender thing (everyone is "she" in Radch language; they don't distinguish gender) can be a bit confusing.

Ancillary Sword was the second book; I didn't write a review, because I basically downed it and Ancillary Mercy in one big gulp. It's a lot more straightforward than the first book--the politics are all set up for you, everything happens in the present, and the gender thing is really not at all confusing when Breq isn't running into non-Radch people as often.

(I'm sure there's a whole post on gender in these books, but it's taking me forever to write this as it is. In the first book, I kept trying to guess people's sex because in our culture, that has a powerful effect on the nature of interpersonal interactions.  And since Breq was interacting with gendered societies in that book, that guessing served a purpose.  But once we got to hang out in the Radch, where gender just plain isn't a factor, it just went away.  Like, no confusion, no nothing.  There's one character whom, based on the description, I was picturing as Idris Elba and my friend who had just finished it was picturing as Queen Latifah.  But it doesn't matter, really, because gender has no meaning in their interactions.  It's AMAZING.)

Anyway, in Sword, Breq has a ship and a mission.  The first third or so of the book is her establishing herself with her new ship and crew, and us getting a real picture of how a crew functions.  The rest is her arriving in the region she's supposed to protect and dealing with local politics, kicking ass and taking names.

Mercy flows right out of Sword, impeccably.  I NEVER read a series of books in a row, because I hate the transition where we retreat from all the tension I'm invested in to the beginning of another book, where the tension is down and we're building a new set of tension.  I find that very off-putting.  No problem here--the worldbuilding carries you right through that, and she throws you a few little nuggets of "remember what's going on here" and then just keeps things rolling out.  It worked really well as a seamless read.

Sword is also very much a book about local politics, while Mercy comes back to the galactic stage, bringing the Anaander Mianaai problem to the front again.  And over the course of this, it examines SO MANY really huge issues through enormously satisfying fiction.

I feel like I'm going to jinx it, make it seem less awesome if I say this, but I will: Breq is a literal social justice warrior.  She has an objectivism that lets her say "there is no reason at all for anyone to be oppressed besides the greed of the oppressor," and she has no tolerance for that.  She dismantles these structures left and right.  You get sympathetic characters on both side, and people who believe what they believe, often without consideration.  Even the bad guys, almost all of them, are acting in good conscience, according to their understanding of the world.  The people who act worst are those who have thought least about how others might come to feel the way they do.

You've got colonialism, social status, capitalism, oppressed ethnic groups.  This is a detailed examination of every kind of privilege and what it looks like to fail at checking it.  Even when you're trying--there are characters who are actively trying to be more openminded, even being a bit smug about it, who fall down at that.  There are so many lovely illustrations of what it means to be truly considerate of other people.

There are so many ideas that I want to just think about and talk about here, so many nuggets that would make a whole book themselves but are just throwaway observations here.

It is possible for someone to have traits you respect and admire, but to believe in things that put those traits to the service of something abhorrent to you--and for them to do that in good faith.  Conversely, it is possible for someone horrible and unkind to have beliefs that are good and respectful, and to act on them in one circumstance, even when they would act cruelly in another.

The bad guy never thinks she's the bad guy.  She believes in her cause, and that what she is doing is right, in that it's more important than whatever is opposed to her.

Never confuse a system for the thing the system is meant to do.  (I find this one fascinating, and I feel like it's something I think about a lot when I watch superhero shows--vigilantism vs. faith in the justice system is a big question there.  But it's true; if you confuse, say, having a Department of Veteran's Affairs with taking care of veterans, you can too easily wind up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  The bureaucracy isn't the enemy, but it's supposed to be a tool; if it gets in the way of the task, it's not doing its job.)

What makes a person a person?  The whole question of the humanity of an AI is almost jumped over here, since our main character is an AI and is obviously a person.  But there's the bigger question of what makes a person herself?  Characters are "reeducated" and ancillaries are made over to be part of a different consciousness--what does it mean to be yourself?  Who are you if you are remade with other memories? Who are you if you are taken entirely out of your context?

See, the thing is that this is, for all of its huge social injustices, kind of a happy-feeling story.  It's about a character who is insanely competent in every way--Breq experiences growth, especially personally, but her ability to handle people and situations (interpersonal, political, physical) is already thousands of years perfected at the beginning of the story.  She handles everything perfectly.  A story built around a character like that can so easily be trite, because it's just about Captain Wonderful being Wonderful.

But when you're looking at the kind of huge, empire-spanning political situations involving oppression and justice, there's no simple answer, so Breq being able to do everything right doesn't  mean anything is easy.  I think the ancillary question is the best example of this.

Ancillaries are made out of people, who should have autonomy--there's no way that ancillaries are just, by any definition.  But ships are built so that parts of their bodies are made of ancillaries, and they're not really complete unless they have them.  How is it even possible to reconcile those two situations?

Not everything has an easy answer.  But that's okay, because in this book, everyone is truly, truly, doing the best they can, toward whatever their goal is.

Okay, you go read this book now.  I'll close with this: if someone told me that I had to get a tattoo, no choice, I honestly think that "What Would Breq Do?" is the closest I've ever come to something I might voluntarily want on my body permanently.

Read it.