god’s war review

I just finished writing this up for MITSFS's reviews site, and since it'll take a while to post there I thought I'd share it here with you. (Edit: It's up at the MITSFS review site now.)

Title: God's War

Author: Kameron Hurley
Year: 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Reviewer: Kevin Riggle

God's War is another book I first encountered when John Scalzi ran a Big Idea piece by its author on his blog Whatever. (If you don't follow the Big Idea pieces, you're missing out on one of the better tools that isn't "friends' recommendations" for discovering good new SF I've found. Less so lately, for some reason — an overabundance of urban fantasy? — but for a while I was adding every other book to my Amazon wishlist and buying every third. The comments to the entries are filled with people complaining in jest about the pain induced by the post series in their wallets.)

Anyhow, I read the post, thought "that sounds kind of cool," and promptly got distracted by being depressed about work and job-hunting. A couple months later, I was in MITSFS, bored and with nothing to do, and found it on the new book shelf and and got sucked into it. It's a very gritty SFnal world — none of the main characters are people who I'd want to meet in a dark alley. Everything, including 'bakkies' (real-life South African slang for pickup trucks, as Wikipedia informs me), is powered by bioengineered insects, which are controllable by certain people called magicians, like the character Rhys, through some (perhaps pheromonal?) process. Several characters have strange genetics which allows them to shift into animal form — Khos, another member of the team, has a dog form. And our main character, Nyx, is an ex-bel dame, a former member of an elite squad of assassins who hunt down deserters and other threats to the country, and who are a political force in their own right. The story has as its backdrop an interminable war between the two major powers of the planet, Nasheen and Chenja, in which Nyx fought for Nasheen and from which Rhys is a Chenjan draft-dodger. Now Nyx's team is assigned to bring in an off-worlder and potential gene pirate who's playing both sides, but who also might have the information to tip the balance of power once and for all. But the bel dames and a rival bounty hunter are also on the pirate's trail, and they have their own purposes.

It's a pretty brutal story, as befits its resource-poor desert setting (what TV Tropes would call a Crapsack World) and its bounty-hunter subject matter — lots of heads, fingers, ears being chopped off. The tech is advanced enough that most injuries up to death and having your head cut off can be repaired, for a price. The characters are all seriously flawed, concerned mostly with their own tenuous survival, but also capable of nobility. There's a lot of fictional politics and religion in the story, as you might imagine from the title — there are several countries' futures at stake in the book, and they all have different dominant religions (all apparently based on Islam) and social and cultural mores which have affected the characters' lives for better or worse. Nasheen, where much of the story takes place, sends its men and many of its women off to war, so many so that women run the country; Chenja is much more what we might imagine of a conservative Mustlim country; Ras Tieg is home to a large number of shifters which it is busily oppressing. The tensions between the countries are reflected in the tensions between the characters, and those relationships provided a lot of the interest of the book to me. For all that, the book never felt preachy to me — all of these societies were broken, in one way or another. (I don't know the author's background, but nothing I read in the book suggested that a Christian or atheist society written by her would be any less flawed; I would have thrown it across the room if it had. It is not a book to rag on Muslims.)

I wasn't bowled over by the bug-tech, though I found it competently executed, and there were a couple world-building details that didn't ring quite true to me. (The most notable is a couple references to using "sand-cats" — which I have no reason to believe are not large, carnivorous felids — being used as beasts of burden. While I convinced myself after a while that using meat-eaters as beasts of burden isn't a completely impossible idea, cf. wolves/dogs (though they're both omnivores and pack animals, not solitary obligate carnivores), I don't think they'd be my first choice of beast of burden in a desert environment, even if I had the story's ridiculously advanced bioengineering technology. I considered letting it throw me out of the story for a while and then decided that I was being ridiculous.)

So I liked the book. I'm not sure I'll pick up the second volume of a planned trilogy (due out in October), mostly due to a current lack of interest in the kind of brutality in evidence, but that's mostly me hunting other pleasures in my fiction and not the book's fault, and thankfully the first book stands well on its own. I've already leant my copy to a friend, and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy the works of authors like Joe Abercrombie and Richard K. Morgan.

(Amazon link)

(I'm struck, as I format this to fit your screen, how excellent a cover that is for the book and how much it tells you about those characters. Consider who's wearing the burnous. If you thought that the female character was dressed in fewer clothes on the cover merely to attract readers, you'd be wrong, and this is a plot point.)

apr/may 2011 asimovs

This being a review of the April/May 2011 double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. (If you’re wondering where March went, never fear — I am indeed posting these out of order, my March issue having disappeared, hopefully into the bookbag of a housemate to read on the T, but I have read it, and I’ll review it when it has returned to me.)

  • “The Day the Wires Came Down”, by Alexander Jablokov (novelette) — This story centers around a transport system using wires strung between high points in London, or rather as you might guess from the title the death of same. Jablokov attributes it to a dream he had, but I’d swear I’ve read somehwere, probably the excellent webcomic 2D Goggles, about Charles Babbage’s plans to build something similar for mail-carrying. (I can’t find the reference right now, but somebody else on the Internet also remembers this, so I’m not crazy, or at least no crazier than a random person on the Internet.) It’s an interesting idea, and the quality of the writing is good. Unfortunately that setting detail alone is kind of ho-hum, and the characters don’t do much to enliven it, so I got bored and punted partway through the story. The setting of course has a bit of a steampunk vibe, and this shows up the problem I have with a lot of steampunk stories — their setting is a lot of Rule of Cool, but there’s nothing underneath that, no problem to animate it — it is, to abuse the metaphor a bit, an automaton, flawless on the outside but only clockwork underneath.
  • “An Empty House With Many Doors”, by Michael Swanwick (short story) — A depressed widower meets a version of his wife from another universe. Well-executed and blessedly short.
  • “The Homecoming”, by Mike Resnick (short story) — The story begins, “I don’t know what bothers me more, my lumbago or my arthritis.” That told me everything I needed to know about it, and I bounced off. It may be a fine story, but I judge it to be more about the aches and pains of late middle age than anything I, with the narcissism of youth, find interesting.
  • “North Shore Friday”, by Nick Mamatas (short story) — Some Greek illegal aliens, some INS agents, and a federal telepathy machine. Well-characterized, and especially interesting for the way it uses typography to achieve a non-linear narrative.
  • “Clockworks” (novelette), by William Preston — A prequel story to his “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down” from the March 2010 Asimov’s. I like it as I liked the other, though I enjoyed the other’s careful treading of the boundary between science and the supernatural, and I am a bit disappointed to see here that the story makes it pretty evident that the supernatural exists in this world. (And I am getting bored of Cthulhu.)
  • “The Fnoor Hen”, by Rudy Rucker (short story) — I always find stories about future pop or startup culture to ring a little false (though this may be because the truth really is stranger than fiction). I was suspending disbelief in this story until the line “‘You’re always talking about morphons these days,’ said Vicky [the main female character], feeling cozy with the vague old word, which had something to do with chaos or math,” at which point I said to myself “why am I reading this garbage again” and punted it.
  • “Smoke City”, by Christopher Barzak (short story) — This story begins strong, so strong that rereading the first paragraph still causes my heart to catch in my throat, but after that it descends into a heavy-handed not-even-allegory about how terrible the early Industrial Age was and loses all of its phantom depth.
  • “A Response from EST17”, by Tom Purdom (novelette) — Oh look, another story about how risk-takers are necessary in any society. How trite. It does contain an interesting idea — what if we don’t see aliens in the sky because every new civilization that achieves contact is given a payload of information, like immortality and sustainability and all the rest, and it finds the ensuing thousand-year struggle to cope with this so traumatic that it hunkers down on its planet and doesn’t talk to anybody. Mostly this just makes me want to read more Culture books, however.
  • “The One that Got Away”, by Esther M. Friesner (short story) — The main character is a fish-woman prostitute, however her voice annoyed me, and I punted.
  • “The Flow and Dream”, by Jack Skillingstead (short story) — The last survivor on a dying generation ship is forced by the AI inhabiting that ship to start settlement of the planet. Yeah. Uh, meh?
  • “Becalmed”, by Kristine Katheryn Rusch (novelette) — Genocide survivor… or is it instigator… is repressing her memories and needs to draw them out. If she instigated the genocide, she’ll be executed. This was actually fairly good — the first Rusch piece I’ve liked. I think partly because it’s set in a great traveling Fleet — Starfleet if Starfleet never went home and traveled in a pack — which is an interesting setting, and I kept mapping the ship into the Galaxion universe and that made it even better. The story’s not novel, but it was well enough done that I didn’t notice too hard.
  • Another Norman Spinrad book review column, notable for its thankful avoidance of his previous topic but for one blessedly short paragraph, its inclusion of some items of actual interest, and its long rant about why Spinrad hates the New Weird, whatever that is (“it’s not scientific enough!”). Six of one…

I think I’m getting bored of Asimov’s — I’m less and less inclined to read it, and with my new job I spend less time on the T so I have less need of it. At the farthest end of winter when I’m sick of the cold and the gloom and the bland white food, what I crave above all else is bitter greens, and so now the characters, settings, plots provided by Asimov’s really aren’t providing whatever it is I’m craving in my literature. Would people be sad if I stopped running these reviews?

feb 2011 asimov’s

This being a review of the February 2011 Asimov's.

  • "Out of the Dream Closet", by David Ira Cleary (novelette) — If this isn't an anime, it needs to be. The themes and images remind me a lot of Haibane Renmei and the works of Hayao Miyazaki. The main character, who calls herself Little Girl, is ~60 years old, but her body has been frozen at about 12 by her father, who believes that that is the ideal age. Her father, whose physical body has become bloated and mutated, has decided to die by uploading himself into the literalized cloud-mind, whose moods make the weather of the world, and Little Girl has to deal with the fallout of that decision while trying to persuade her father to free her to grow up. Definitely the best story of the issue.
  • "Waster Mercy", by Sara Genge (short story) — A monk whose order exists to atone for the excesses of the modern age, looking for salvation, strands himself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside Paris and is saved by a local boy. Interesting, but I didn't like it as much as I've liked some of her other stories.
  • "Planet of the Sealies", by Jeff Carlson (short story) — Continuing the unstated "alien archaeology" theme of the issue, a group of clone families mine the landfills of post-apocalyptic California for genetic material to increase the diversity of their genomes. I found the world of the story fascinating, but I wished its resolution was less black-and-white.
  • "Shipbirth", by Aliette de Bodard (short story) — Set in the same Aztec-flavored universe as her other stories, a… transgendered necromancer…? attends the failed birth of a starship. Creepy (as you'd expect from the Aztecs) and good but lacking in some way I can't put my finger on.
  • "Brother Sleep", by Tim McDaniel (short story) — The main character is a wealthy student in a Thailand where he and all his peers have had a medical treatment such that they need to sleep only a few hours each night (shades of Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain). His roommate hasn't had the treatment, and the story deals with their interactions. It has some moments, and it's an interesting choice of setting, but it gets preachy in a Westerners-tell-non-Westerners-what's-wrong-with-them way towards the end. Tangentially, my envy of the non-sleepers knows no bounds.
  • "Eve of Beyond", by Barry Pronzini and Bill N. Malzberg (short story) — A clothing magnate is bought out by his ruthless and amoral competitors. This is science fiction? Mediocre at best.
  • "The Choice", by Paul McAuley (novella) — Unusual for me to read the novella, but the beginning (more alien archaeology) grabbed me. A post-global warming world where benevolent (or are they?) aliens showed up just in time to save us from ourselves. I really like the worldbuilding at the beginning, and a lingering fondness for sailing stories kept me engaged and enjoying the story while the main characters chased the crashed Big Dumb Object, until they found it and ended up taking something they shouldn't have, at which point predictable (and deathly dull) hilarity ensued.

lcrw 26

This being a review of the most recent issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, number 26. (I'm a bit behind on my reviewing and still catching up, I'm afraid; I finished this issue on the plane to San Francisco before Christmas but am only just now getting around to reviewing it.)

I find it harder to pass value judgments about these than the Asimov's stories, so I'm more descriptive, but unless noted otherwise I enjoyed them all. They are also, unless otherwise, all short stories.

  • "The Cruel Ship's Captain", by Harvey Welles and Philip Raines. Set in a trippy world where everyone has a ship which comes to them first in dreams and finally manifests in real life, aboard a sort of pirate vessel which captures people, takes their ships, and incorporates their substance into its own. Really well-done.
  • "Reasoning about the Body", by Ted Chiang. A nonfiction piece originally delivered as the Guest of Honor speech at the 2010 Congrès Boréal in Quebec, Chiang talks about "folk biology" and how it extends into science fiction tropes like thinking the mind is a computer. Fascinating reading.
  • "Elite Institute for the Study of Arc Welders' Flash Fever", by Patty Houston. A portrait of a pair of welders under study at the titular institute as they slowly go insane. Interesting.
  • "Thirst", by Lindsay Vella; "Two Poems by Lindsay Vella (The Way to the Sea/Spit Out the Seeds)" (poetry). I don't know what to say about the poetry in this issue which wouldn't be longer than it, so I'll just say that it's odd and good.
  • "Sleep", by Carlea Holl-Jensen. Takes "not dead, only sleeping" literally. Good.
  • "The Other Realms Were Built With Trash", by Rahul Kanakia. A more conventional SF story than I usually see in LCRW. Imagines a world where human trash goes, built entirely from our cast-offs, and then what happens when a cataclysm occurs in the human world and the trash stops coming. Not as good as the rest.
  • "Alice: a Fantasia", by Veronica Schanoes. What it says on the tin.
  • "Dueling Trilogies", by Darrel Schweitzer (poetry). Two limericks. At last! Formal structure!
  • "Absence of Water", by Sean Melican. An appropriately creepy story about the crew of the CSS H.L. Hunley.
  • "The Seamstress", by Lindsay Vella. ??? Short enough to be a poem.
  • "Three Hats", by Jenny Terpsichore Abeles. The story of a homeless man who, when he was young, lost his sister in a dream and went to find her. Particularly good.
  • "Death's Shed", by J.M. McDermott. A boy, his dead mother, the train set his father is obsessed with, and his twin neighbors.
  • "Dear Aunt Gwenda: Dangers of Hibernation Edition", by Aunt Gwenda. Continues to be the trippiest advice column in the multiverse.

link salad

Or, Five Things Make a Post.

The beginning of the year was fairly quiet, but things are starting to get busier again. Paradoxically, this may mean the frequency of posts here will increase, since I'm actually doing things so I have them to talk about. Or I might get hosed and disappear completely. We'll see.

I've been accumulating links I think other people might be interested in for a week or two. Here's what I've got:

Marian Churchland, who's apparently a comics artist of some note — and does demonstrably create excellent art — here describes The Crossing, an imaginary MMO she designed. It's a neat exercise in concept art, world-building and game design in six (seven?) short parts.

A sweet and beautiful three-page comic by one Emily Carroll which begins "The goddess Anu-Anulan was in love with the bright, silvery hair of Yir's daughter."

…which I found via someone else, but was then amused to discover linked off Robin Sloan's blog after finishing his novella Annabel Scheme, which I read in the Kindle edition on my phone on a couple long T rides, via a friend's recommendation. (You might remember Mr. Sloan as the author of "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store", which I highly recommend.) Scheme is what happens when you cross Snow Crash with The Dresden Files, and though I was hoping for something a bit closer to the former I was still happy with what I got.

And now for something completely different, my friend Ed has an interesting blog post up on checked exceptions and proof obligations. I can't count the number of times where I've written some Java code like:

try {
catch (PrimeNumberException e) {
  throw new RuntimeException("the number is hard-coded non-prime; this code should never be reached", e);

Passing the PrimeNumberException to my caller is stupid — my caller likely doesn't care about my implementation details — but the RuntimeException is only useful when I screw up and change the 4 to a 5, and it's all boilerplate code anyway. It would even be tempting to just drop the exception on the floor — not throw a RuntimeException at all — and thereby miss the case where I change the 4 to 5. There should be a better way to express this constraint. I'd love to see Ed propose a syntax for dependent exceptions in Java. (Or I could just go finally learn Haskell. Copious spare time, &c.)

I'll leave you with this other thing I just now saw linked off Robin Sloan's blog, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which Sloan's linked Snarkmarket blog post describes as

The Lost Books of the Odyssey manages a pretty impossible mix; somehow, it’s both mathematically precise and completely wacky. Like, you start reading it and, especially if you know its reputation (a combinatorial exploration/explosion of the classic myth, written by a computer scientist, etc.) you expect this cold, hard Borgesian puzzle-box. And the book does, in face, tickle your brain in that way, and with no word wasted in the process… but then it also surprises you with warmth, and real sadness, and a terrific storyteller’s voice all throughout. It’s one of my absolute favorites of the past few years.

I think I know what I'm reading next. 🙂