I don’t even know how to write this review. If I were doing this properly, it would be a research paper, complete with citations, and filled with arguments and analyses far more illuminating than what I have here. But I’m writing a review for a book review blog. And I’ve just about left behind academia for good, so I’m not obligated to produce anything resembling a research paper anymore. Instead I will humbly attempt to hone in on what makes Parable of the Talents such a stunning, smart, beautiful novel. I feel incredibly fortunate that I chose to read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents to “officially” delve into Octavia Butler’s oeuvre. I can only hope this review does the book justice.
Parable of the Talents is the story of Lauren Olamina four years after the founding of Acorn, the first Earthseed community. She’s proud of the work that’s been done and eager to spread Earthseed to even more people. No matter the odds, Lauren wants Earthseed to culminate in what she has named the Destiny—in which humanity leaves Earth and ascend to the stars.
Anthony laughed. “You bring in what you put out. Lagos …” He patted Agu and Adaora on the shoulders and dropped into Pidgin English. “‘Lasgidi’ you dey call am, right? Eko? Isn’t that what you people call Lagos? Place of belle-sweet, gidi gidi, kata kata, isu, and wahala. Lagos is energy. It never stops.
Lagoon is Nnedi Okorafor’s first science fiction novel, written in an entirely Nnedi Okorafor-esque way—it’s a first contact story of aliens landing on Earth, written in the context of collision of modernity and change with tradition, folklore, and mythology.
In the middle of the night, an alien ship lands in the lagoon outside the city of Lagos. These aliens don’t just bring with them the promise of change—they are change. Thousands of Lagosians witness or are a part of this change, from the people on the street, to the members of the church, to the military, to regular creatures, to strange creatures, to the gods of old. The city explodes as a result of this change. Nothing will ever be the same. And leading the way is Adaora, a marine biologist; Agu; a soldier; and Anthony Dey Craze, a famous Ghanaian rapper, the first three people to witness the aliens’ arrival and the first to be changed by it.
I reviewed A Spy in the House last October, and almost seven months later I’m here with a review of the sequel The Body at the Tower.
It’s been almost a year since the events of A Spy in the House, and Mary Quinn has been hard at work training to be a fully-fledged spy for the all-female detective agency operating under the premises of the boarding school Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Mary has accepted an unusual assignment, far outside the Agency’s purview: rather than taking the guise of a maid or a governess or a ladies’ companion, Mary goes undercover as a twelve-year-old boy working at construction site next to the House of Parliament. There she is charged with investigating the possible murder of one John Wick, found dead at the foot of the clock tower, off of which all evidence points he was pushed from. This job brings up many difficulties for Mary, both anticipated—the memories of her past when she used to lived on the street and her carefully-guarded secret of her Chinese, mixed-race heritage—and unanticipated, in the form of her flame, Mr. James Easton.
YES, I finished reading all the short fiction nominees in time!
More so than the other Nebula short fiction categories, there’s a common theme shared by many of the stories of connecting (or failing to connect) with other humans on an internal, mental level. Three of these stories are from the perspective of artificial intelligence bonding to, caring for, and/or looking after humans’ welfare. Two of these stories take place heavily inside the protagonist’s mind as the result of taking certain drugs.
I’m curious as to the reason behind the selection for this section of the ballot, and a small part of me wonders to what extent the seeming growing interest, or possibly rise, in fiction featuring A.I. protagonists and the boundaries between them and humanity is the result of the popular and critical acclaim of Ann Leckie’s books, The Imperial Radch trilogy. (David D. Levine’s in particular seems to be playing in a similar sandbox.) Regardless, I very much enjoyed reading almost all the stories on the ballot, and even the ones I wasn’t 100% a fan of were still very good.
“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
A short, bittersweet story about loss, mourning the past, and finding a new future, in which a young woman named Madeleine is experiencing strange, incredibly detailed episodes in which she relives her childhood memories of her mother before she died of Alzheimer’s, only she keeps seeing the same unknown figure appearing in her memories. The visual rendering of the memories is evocative and poetic (as per usual with Amal El-Mohtar’s writing), and the description and metaphors surrounding death and grief were equally eloquent.
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
The Internet just wants to help you. After all, it already knows everything about you, and it has the power to improve your life and make you happier. Isn’t the Internet causing harm through its own inaction by letting humans suffer? So you should really take notice of and click on those ads that keep showing up on your screen about new houses, new jobs, affordable therapists in your area. Listen to the Internet, and all your problems will be fixed. All it wants in return are cat pictures.
It’s more a conceit than a fully-fledged story, but it’s a really fun conceit. And I loved the Internet’s voice: eager to help, smug at knowing exactly what all humans should be doing, and huffy that humans are incapable of taking it’s help when everything could be perfect if they just did what it says.
“Damage” by David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
The story I referenced in the Intro, “Damage” is a story told by a fighter vessel nicknamed “Scraps” who’s made up of parts of two different vessels and whose memories of their violent deaths it still has, causing it to grapple with it’s ability to feel emotions and programmed love for its captain withs its programming to carry out inexcusable actions in war. The experience of reading this story is what I imagine it would feel like to be the Vipers that the pilots flew in BSG. It’s an action-packed, emotional story about a ship reconciling who it used to be and who it was programmed to be with who it is.
“When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
A trippy, horrifying journey into the mind of a middle-aged evangelical Christian wife and mother who takes psychotropic drugs that connect her via “webbing” to the minds of other people on the same drug dose in order to search for her missing son (in more ways than one). It’s an uncomfortable story to read, but that aspect ends up becoming a sign of how well it works as the reader explores the layers of truth and untruth and hidden or suppressed knowledge and feelings of the housewife and mother. There’s an incredibly astute paragraph at the story’s climax about the double-edged nature of empathy as experienced through spiderwebbing that I want to print out and tape to my wall. On the downside, the progression of the story is somewhat convoluted, and it’s also a bit message-y at the end.
“Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
The second Nebula short story nominee to take on the subject of memory and grief, this time prior to actual death. “Paul” is a medical android programmed to build modules of various figures in order to emulate whichever family member or associate the elderly, Alzheimer-afflicted Mildred believes is currently there with her. The more the android emulates these various peoples, the more a nascent identity of the android’s own emerges as he balances fulfilling it’s hospice-care programming and maintaining the psychology of the emanations interacting with Mildred.
It’s an intriguing piece regarding identity-formation through emotions and relationships, the idea of needing to be a certain kind of person, or a certain person when the other person is in pain. Similar to the A.I. in “Cat Pictures, Please,” the android observes and learns and stores away information regarding human behavior and strives to please certain humans—the meaningful difference is that this android reacts to Mildred’s moods and flickering memory rather than trying to steer her. It’s interesting actually that this android is the only A.I. in all these stories that fulfills its protocols and doesn’t do anything outside its boundaries, yet also has its own internal story arc about identity of how—or who—to be the person, or android, someone needs in times of trouble.
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)
Mmmm, what a succulent story. And now having wrote that sentence I am officially afraid of myself. Written for the “Queers Destroy Horror” edition of the online magazine Nightmare, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (which is a fantastic title, and everyone should say it out loud at least once) tells the story of a young woman named Jenny who is a monster—she feeds on the harmful, violent, and evil thoughts (obtained through dates on Tindr) in order to survive, but also in order to keep herself from eating the woman she loves. After eating the thoughts of a murderer, she’s famished, unable to find any thoughts as deliciously filling as his until she meets a woman—another monster—who promises her the most potent, pleasurable meals she’s ever tasted.
This is the first of Alyssa Wong’s stories I’ve read after seeing her work praised to the skies all last year, and dear god if this story is anything to go by, her writing deserves so much praise. Chilling, compelling, so good at the visual manifestations of all these fat, glistening, creepy-crawly thoughts, and causing my heart to break with emotions for Jenny and Aiko.
My vote: This one is so hard, and I’d honestly be thrilled if any were to win (with the possible exception of “When Your Child Strays from God.”) From a writing perspective, all of them are exceedingly good. So going off of pure enjoyment, I’d go with either “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” or “Damage,” with “Cat Pictures Please,” following just behind.
Smiler’s Fair is slightly outside my wheelhouse—not only is it an epic fantasy written in a more grimdark, GRRM-esque style (which I’ve been sort-of-but-not-really trying to avoid), but it’s a UK novel that’s currently unavailable in the United States. (I was able to procure a copy thanks to ILL.)
So why did I decide to read it? Curiosity, mainly. I’d read the book’s synopsis and a review on tor.com and was intrigued by the story’s premise and the promise of a band of raggledy-taggledy characters.
And we’re back with my thoughts on the novelettes nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.
Novelettes are tricky things for me, and I tend to like fewer of them on average compared to novellas or short stories. I suspect it’s something to do with the word count—either too few words or too many. As such, I don’t have quite the same amount of love for the stories I read in this batch. Which isn’t to say they aren’t any good, but there weren’t any I especially loved.
“Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
The allegorical story of the bunch, “Rattlesnakes and Men” is the story of Wylene, her husband, and their daughter moving to a small town in southern Georgia where everyone is legally required to own rattlesnakes genetically modified to sense and attack intruders. These snakes are a cornerstone of the town’s economy and identity, and men men walk around with snakes at work, in schools, and even hospitals. When Wylene and the town’s doctor engage in activism for tighter restrictions on rattlesnake ownership and usage after several kids are bitten, these men, part of a larger organization of rattlesnake proponents, grow ugly and violent.
As it turns out, this story was written in response to Georgia’s passing a law further legalizing open-carry. It’s transparent about being a political piece on American gun culture (many of the names are thinly-veiled references to Georgia politicians and other individuals.) As an allegory, it’s an effective piece of fiction. As a science fiction story, it’s less so, as the bioengineered rattlesnakes are incidental to the larger issue of the snake owners.
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
A Kameron Hurley-esque story if ever there was one—Rhye is a battle-hardened, foul-mouthed cyborg on a job with her partner Rack, a cyborg hacker, when he gets caught inside his own security system. Even though she’s far more comfortable in the physical world killing things than in the virtual world, Rhye will have to go in after him if she has any chance of bringing him back to life.This novelette reads like a combination action movie script/sordid cyberpunk story. It’s brutal and messy and I don’t even know how many swear words and rude metaphors are in it, but they are deployed with a kind of poetry. It’s the kind of writing that actually works really well for a piece of short fiction (there’s no way this could be sustained for an entire novel) and is physically exciting experience to read.
“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
Technically a traditional secondary world fantasy, except not actually all that traditional in terms of characters or world-building. This novelette is part of Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse universe, of which I’ve only read this one story, which unfortunately negatively impacted my reading experience to a certain extent—I felt like I was missing some important context about the various groups of people and the magic system that I got the sense had been introduced or explored in previous stories.
It’s the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Aviya, and with it comes acceptance of her own lack of magical abilities, her autistic sibling Kimriel, and her transgender grandparent, the latter of whom is also coming into acceptance of himself after many years of repression for the sake of his family. This description makes the story sound dry—really it’s a colorful, visually intriguing tale of desert peoples with different magical traditions and different uses of words and language, especially when it comes to gender and personhood.
“The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
Henry Lien writes strange fiction. I don’t mean that in a bad way, or even in a New Weird or surrealist way—it’s just strange. The last story I read of his was about wayward girls in a reform school engaging in mandatory roller-blading competitions. This particular novelette is a ginormous parody of nineteenth-century socialite politics, complete with purple language and ridiculously dramatic escapades, in the form of two women viciously competing to have the best themed garden to impress the richest, most influential wife in town, only to have their efforts descend into environmental catastrophe. This story is so grandiose and unabashed of itself that it actually works. I also feel like I’m incapable of judging it’s worthiness of being awarded a Nebula.
“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF, 7-8/15)
Free version unavailable.
“Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)
And this is where my ambivalence towards the novelette format shows its face—the story of a middle-aged woman named Luce touring with her band across the United States and struggling to make ends meet due to the popularity of holographic technology that broadcasts concert performances and makes obsolete the need to attend actual concerts, this felt like the intro to or an excerpt of a larger story. The ending begged the question of what happens next in a way that didn’t feel satisfactory or like the novelette length was adequate to tell this particular story. I did enjoy Luce’s tough, world-weary demeanor, her dedication to her music, and her love for her van, Daisy.
My vote: There’s no particular story I especially want to win here. So I’m going to base this on enjoyment factor and cast my vote for Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.”
Parable of the Sower is the second novel of Octavia Butler’s that I’ve read, but in some ways it feels like my first. Six years ago, I didn’t understand why Octavia Butler is venerated as one of the best science fiction authors of the twentieth century. Now that I have a bit more practice at reading critically, I can better engage with her exceptionally strong writing and storytelling, and the many thought-provoking themes and ideas she infuses into every page.