Review: Infomocracy by Malka Older

infomocracy

Do elections become more democratic when everyone has access to to the same infinite, universal information? Does ease of access to information and universal availability and ability to vote diminish voting disenfranchisement and lead to smarter, more thoughtful voting outcomes?

Maybe. Ideally. It’d be nice if that happened.

Malka Older’s cyberpunk election thriller Infomocracy posits a late twenty-first century future in which microdemocracy is the norm. Instead of traditional, old-fashioned nation-states, Earth (or rather its participating constituents, but that’s still most of Earth) is divided up into 100,000-people voting blocs called “centenals.” Rural areas may have only a couple of centenals spread out over hundreds of miles, while densely packed cities can have a couple hundred centenals within the space of several street blocks.

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Review: Rise by Mira Grant

rise

I have the world’s strangest relationship with the writing of Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire. I’ve read at least one book in every single series she’s published and had a “meh” response to all of them.

The exception is the Newsflesh trilogy, which I love with the force of a thousand suns. I’ve wanted to read all the short stories set in the Newsflesh universe for ages but haven’t been able to obtain many of them for several reasons. Having all of them here in one book is a joy—I was able to fully dive back into this universe and its characters that I love so much EVEN WHEN THEY DO THINGS THAT MAKE ME WANT TO BLOW THE UNIVERSE UP. (Hi, I have issues with the second half of Blackout. We don’t talk about that, save that it is 100 percent personal.)

Rise is the first book to collect all of Mira Grant’s previously published short fiction set in the Newsflesh universe—five novellas, one short story—as well as two brand-new pieces. And even with my baggage, reading Rise felt like coming home. A murderous home populated by zombies and mad scientists and even madder assassins and insane, scientifically-impossible bloggers and regular, everyday people pushed to their absolute limits on the brink of destruction—and all of them are what makes it home.

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Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

ninefox gambit

I feel like I’ve failed.

Every single review I’ve seen for this book, every article about it written by people whose tastes I share or opinions I trust have praised this book to the high heavens, some citing it as good as or even better than Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice. Sure, they all said the concepts could be fiendishly difficult and that this book definitely required work to read, but that the work would be rewarding and worth it.

I’ve read Ninefox Gambit. I liked the story and the ideas behind the world-building, I loved Cheris and Jedao, and I want to find out what happens next in the sequel.

I have no fucking clue how anything works or how plans got accomplished or foiled, and I’m frustrated and sorry to say this had a significant impact on my ability to love this book alongside everyone else.

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Review: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

central station

Central Station is unlike anything I can recall having read either recently or a while ago. Not a traditional novel, Central Station is a mosaic novel comprised of several older short stories previously published in different short fiction venues and two entirely new ones. Tying all these stories together is Central Station, a space station on the outskirts of Tel Aviv that has become a primary hub of space travel and an constantly oscillating area of cultural exchange. In this future, data is both the medium and the stuff of reality driving knowledge, understanding, and reality. Humans coexist (or not) with sentient machines, robots, cyborgs, data vampires, and Others, creatures made up of pure data itself.

Central Station features a cast of recurring characters such as Boris Chong, who’s just returned from Mars after several years away from Tel Aviv and is now picking up with his old flame Miriam while dealing with his elderly father, Vlad, who is trapped inside his own memory. Motl the robotnik, a metal machine with the brain of a formerly alive human man, and who was created to fight one of Israel’s long-ago wars and discarded when the technology became obsolete, is in love with Isabel, whose job it is to play a fully immersive MMO as the captain of a spaceship. Ibrahim is the rag-and-bone man, also known as the Lord of Discarded Things, who regularly provides the inhabitants of Central Station with ancient tech and treasures of times long ago. His son Ismail and Miriam’s son Kranki are two mysterious boys who may represent humanity’s next step in this digital age. These characters and many more drive this multifaceted novel of both a provincial land-bound community and a far-flung expansive world out amongst the stars.

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Review: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

the scorpion rules

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy The Scorpion Rules. Several of my favorite authors blurbed it and the premise is amazing and totally ripe for rich stories. I’m also in the awkward position of liking one or two specific elements that interest me enough to read the sequel, except for the fact that I didn’t care for anything else.

Oops.

The premise begins four hundred years earlier, sometime in the future when the environment has collapsed to the point that the entire world is at war each other. So a U.N.-created A.I. named Talis, who was programmed to prevent humanity from dying out, decided upon an unconventional plan of action, in the form of blowing up seven cities. After Talis got the humans’ attention, the following orders were issued: the leaders of every ruling country, nation, etc. have to provide Talis with an offspring child, who will serve as a hostage, or “Child of Peace,” until their eighteenth birthday. If any country declares war on another, the lives of both countries’ hostages are forfeit. In this way, Talis ensures a (mostly) peaceful existence among the nations of the world for the last several centuries.

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Review: Company Town by Madeline Ashby

company town

Go Jung-hwa is a rare bird in the oil-rig city of New Arcadia—she’s an “organic,” the only person with no genetic modification, digital implants, or bionic enhancements. An unplanned, unwanted, and scorned daughter, marked with a scarlet stain on half her body due to the congenital disorder Sturge-Weber, Hwa’s unedited appearance doubly marks her as an outsider on the rig, where everyone modifies their bodies, whether for beauty or health, and utilizes implanted tech to communicate, access information, interact with the city at large … or to murder

Hwa has made a name for herself as a top-notch fighter, and she has a solid job with the city’s union for sex workers as a bodyguard. Her name becomes even more valuable after the astronomically powerful Lynch family buys New Arcadia, whose oil rig determines that of the city’s. The head of the Lynch family hires Hwa to bodyguard his youngest son, who is also his heir. Because Hwa is an organic, she can’t be tracked or controlled through implants, and the stain on her face distorts facial recognition software. Hwa is charged with protecting Lynch’s heir from assassination by a killer who Lynch believes is threatening his son from the far future.

No sooner does she accept when a serial killer begins targeting residents of New Arcadia—former charges from Hwa’s old job. Hwa is now on a mission to track down those responsible for threatening the safety and future of New Arcadia and for daring to mess with the people Hwa swore to protect at all cost.

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Review: Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

parable of the talents

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.

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Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

lagoon

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.

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2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Short Stories

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.

2016 Nebula Nomination Thoughts: Novelettes

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.”