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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

An excellent annual

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

Strahan impresses again, having gathered a fine collection of stories first published in 2016. You can see somewhat detailed thoughts on most of the individual stories in previous posts of mine, and I will finish that series in the first part of this post:


Foxfire, Foxfire, by Yoon Ha Lee. 4 stars. This is a fun-to-read sci-fi-fantasy mixup involving war mechs and little gods of stone and fire, not to mention a shapeshifting fox-person as the protagonist. Lee's stories often focus on the psychology of warriors, and this is no exception -- the main draw, I think, is Lee's fine understanding of that psychology, combined with the interesting world-building of this story.


Elves of Antarctica, by Paul McAuley. 5 stars. A beautifully-told story of the climate-changed future of Antarctica, this is a neat meditation on human interaction with landscape.


The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight, by E. Lily Yu. 4 stars. Here's yet another fairy-tale-like story. What makes this one stand out against the others is its intensely pointed prose, almost poetic in its epigrammatic power. 


Seven Birthdays, by Ken Liu. 5 stars. This is one of my favorites of the anthology -- the structure is mathematically precise, encompassing a gripping story of personal and human evolution. Overcome by a sensation of awe, I could do nothing for a while after reading it. That doesn't happen with just any story.


The Visitor from Taured, by Ian R. MacLeod. 5 stars. Same thing here. Another truly excellent story with an overwhelming sense of wonder. It also makes the reader ponder his or her own position as reader in relation to the fictional constructs of the story. Powerful stuff.


Fable, by Charles Yu. 4 stars. This one, the final story of the volume, also examines the author-reader relationship, but from a different angle. Rather than having stories as real artefacts of the human experience (as in "Seven Birthdays" and "The Visitor from Taured"), the stories in this story are metaphors and indeed starting points for one's personal experience. I prefer stories as artefacts, but this is at least an interesting and emotionally involving read.



All in all, 2016 was fertile ground for great stories. As usual, there were a handful that didn't do much for me in this volume, but the concentration of really good stories is particularly high this year. Strahan's preface noted that there were upwards of 10,000 sci-fi or fantasy stories published in 2016, too many for any human to read. Of the ones he read, there were still a great many of excellent quality. 


The ones I liked the most often had little to do with each other, which is a sign that Strahan is able to find good quality along a broad spectrum of the genre. I loved Mika Model, about a near-future sex bot; Spinning Silver, a Rumpelstiltskin re-telling; Number Nine Moon, a hard sci-fi survival story; Things With Beards, a Lovecraftian sci-fi horror; Whisper Road, an unconventional travel story involving weird lights in the sky; Red as Blood and White as Bone, a fairy tale productive of new fairy tales; Seven Birthdays, an intimate exploration of Stapledonian scale; and The Visitor from Taured, a poetic mingling of literature and physics.


UP NEXT: I'll decide later today. It will either be the three novellas that Strahan recommended but didn't have room for in the anthology, or it will be the November/December 2017 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.


Reading that I Myself Have Completed This Last Week

First, let me record a notable comic book that I have read this week. I usually don't comment on these at Booklikes, simply because I read them in single-issue format and don't have the time to review the piles of comics that I read. Here is the most notable one I read this week: 

Violent Love, now at almost 10 issues long, is a comic-book masterpiece in the making, and will be one if such quality continues. It's a crime/romance story (as the covers advertise) about a young woman who, through faults both her own and others', becomes involved in an intricate web of love and crime. What makes the story great is not only the engaging qualities of the characters and dialogue, but the combination of these things with the artist's mastery of paneling (i.e., the placement of figures and speech bubbles on the page, together with the arrangement of the panels, all in service of directing the reader's attention). It's been my opinion for quite a while now that, whatever its other virtues, a good comic book must possess some notable quality of paneling in order for it to be considered a fine example of its medium.


Here are the stories I read in Strahan's Best... anthology this week:


Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9), by Caitlin R. Kiernan -- 5 stars. Another stunning Murder Ballad from Kiernan, this one magically ties a strange UFO into a woman's building impulse to murder.


Red Dirt Witch, by N.K. Jemisin -- 4 stars. A period piece: a black family faces white oppression in the Jim Crow South, but the neat fantasy element is the oppression manifests itself in the form of a fae witch whose powers must be countered by the earthier witchcraft of the young girl of the family.


Red as Blood and White as Bone, by Theodora Goss -- 5 stars. Another excellent fairy tale re-telling. On the eve of World War One, in the decadence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a scullery maid in the service of a local baron encounters a mysterious foreign woman who is in many ways the incarnation of the maid's interest in fairy tales. The story skips easily along in an engaging narrative while suggesting incalculable depth. Finely balanced.


Terminal, by Lavie Tidhar -- 4 stars. In a sometimes muddled tale, several protagonists float along in space pods toward a "terminal" station on Mars. The story is interesting mainly because of its play on the word "terminal", but the slipperiness of the narrative almost makes it crumble into meaninglessness. It's a tricky thing to accomplish, but for me, Tidhar just did make it make sense.

Trip down nostalgia road...

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September-October 2017 - Tract Canfield, Eldar Zakirov, Edward M. Lerner, Jerry Oltion

It's been a while since I read an issue of Analog. In fact, I visited my old home this weekend where I store old things such as the last Analog I read. There I found that the last one was the January/February 2010 issue. Having read the latest, I now recall why I liked it, but not enough to subscribe or purchase regularly from the bookstore.


I liked the more thoughtful hard-science stories, and I didn't like the Probability Zero story (a kind of fluff story meant to be ridiculous), with the science articles not really doing much for me, as they are a midge too technical for me.


There are quite a few stories in this issue, so I'll just hit the highlights:


My favorite stories both had something to do with alternate or parallel dimensions. Edward M. Lerner's "My Fifth and Most Exotic Voyage" is a delightful piece concerning the transportation of Jonathan Swift from his England to our Chicago (or at least, the Chicago of 2025). The whole thing is written in faux-Swiftian prose, and the point of view gives opportunity not only for Lerner to satirize our society (a thing Swift himself did in Gulliver's Travels) but also to present the scientific oddities surrounding time travel and parallel universes. The other parallel-universe story, "Ghostmail" by Eric del Carlo, is a superb tale of military romance across universes -- when a man's wife is presumed dead at the front lines of a war in distant parts of space, he gets "ghostmail" messages from her. The result is a poignant reflection on loss and replacement.


Analog is famous for its hard science fiction, and the hardest of the hard comes in Craig DeLancey's "Orphans", which follows a crew of scientists investigating the mysterious demise of automated space probes on an alien planet. They discover a strange biological pattern there, which serves as the scientific mystery around which the story revolves. This is the kind of hard sci-fi I often miss when I read Best Of anthologies.


I'm not sure whether I like Tom Jolly's "The Mathematician", but at least it challenged my brain. It's hard to imagine how the aliens described in this short story look, sound, and feel, but one can only say that they really are alien. An interesting thought experiment, at least.


Three stories written in an old-fashioned style of sci-fi adventure were a joy to read, despite their lack of innovation. Innovation doesn't make a story good, it only makes it new (neither a virtue nor a vice). Jerry Oltion, an Analog regular, tosses off a libertarian dystopia in "A Tinker's Damnation"; Rich Larson takes you to the swamp in "The Old Man"; and Christopher L. Bennett romps with an alien through an X-phile's sanctum in "Abductive Reasoning". 


And speaking of old, Norman Spinrad has a new story: "The Sword of Damocles", a far-future speculation on the place of mankind in the universe. I'm a sucker for the sense of wonder evoked by stories told on a Stapledonian scale... and this one comes close to that kind of scale.


The rest of the issue had a few good stories ("Climbing Olympus" by Simon Kewin; "I Know My Own and My Own Know Me" by Tracy Canfield; and "Invaders" by Stanley Schmidt), but I didn't care for the rest. The novella ("Heaven's Covenant" by Bud Sparhawk) had a great opening paragraph but quickly lost me with a plot that seemed to go a lot of places but lack direction. It was the only story I actually gave up on.


All in all, a number of the stories were satisfying, but in terms of page count, I was satisfied with about 50% of the issue. Not bad, I guess, but not good enough to make me come back on a regular basis.


NEXT: I'll finish Strahan's Best of anthology, then probably try the November/December 2017 Asimov's Science Fiction if it's available at my local bookstores.

Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours - David Mack

The first Star Trek: Discovery novel is a mixed bag. The good bits include interaction between the Shenzhou (the starship in the pilot episode of Discovery) and the Enterprise (commanded by Captain Pike), interaction between Michael Burnham (star of the new show) and Spock, and an intriguing alien mystery. The bad bits include a very much by-the-numbers separatist-colony subplot and the underdevelopment of the alien-mystery plot.


The major motivator of the plot is Michael Burnham's candidacy for First Officer of the Shenzhou. The author, David Mack, does a good job (most of the time) of keeping our eyes on this target, and the resolution of it is satisfying. It also works as a focus for character interactions, because the dynamics between Burnham, her nemesis Saru, and Captain Georgiou get some space to play here. Although the book was written before the show premiered and by now we've only seen a little bit of how Burnham interacts with others, there's been enough established that at least this one novel can play out some of these threads.


It's unfortunate that this novel suffers from the all-too-common Trek malady known as the Subplot. Now, I do not hold the Subplot per se in disfavor. But I recognize that it is not a thing to be taken lightly and that it is difficult to make satisfactory. There is a subplot in this novel involving a separatist colony. Why exactly they want to separate was a mystery at the beginning of the novel, and the causes and potential effects of separation are almost completely abandoned by the end of the book. In a word, this subplot was pointless. As far as I'm concerned, the only good that came of it is that it gave an excuse for the chief medical officers of the Shenzhou and Enterprise to meet and exchange banter for about one and a half pages.


That said, I was usually entertained by the story. Many elements of it are time-honored Star Trek story elements, and the sense of discovery is palpable... at least if you can remember to be excited by the alien mystery amid the fiery distractions of numerous firefights.


One more thing I enjoyed about Desperate Hours is that the oldest Star Trek (Pike's Enterprise) meets the newest. At this point, I think it's always going to be a challenge for Trekkies to reconcile these iterations produced 50 years apart from one another and yet supposedly occupying the same canonical space. But I applaud David Mack for giving it a genuine effort. On the page, at least (where visual effects are... less visible), it's fun to throw them together.


UP NEXT: Well, I was going to continue Strahan's Year's Best vol. 11, but while I was at the bookstore, I picked up the Sept/Oct issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, just on a whim. It's been years since I've read a sci-fi magazine and the urge overcame me. So, I think I'll read that next, then jump back into Strahan's anthology.

Reading progress update: I've read 384 out of 507 pages.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

Here we go again -- one day I'll finish this thing!


Successor, Usurper, Replacement, by Alice Sola Kim. 4 stars. A group of twenty-something writers gather for a party in a vaguely apocalyptic setting. When a mysterious stranger enters their company, their worlds really do end. The author's style is evocative of the twenty-something anxieties, and the storytelling of the writers is interesting and relevant for the thematic development of the story. I felt a bit remote from it, though, so I can't quite rate it a 5.


Laws of Night and Silk, by Seth Dickinson. 4 stars. This was the opposite of remote; in fact, it's emotionally exhausting. Dickinson's prose never lets it up -- it's provocative and dense with meaning. The setting is a brilliantly rendered high-fantasy war, but the perspective is as personal as it can get. I really enjoyed this, even though it wore me out just to read 20 pages.


Touring With the Alien, by Carolyn Ives Gilman. 5 stars. Gilman is a veteran author, and it shows here. She tells a story that feels entirely natural, and it moves forward at an unhurried pace. The patient reader will find here a depth not dizzying or overwhelming but humane. As the main character drives an alien and his human "handler" across the country in an RV, she learns a lot about humanity, and I think I learned a bit too.


The Great Detective, by Delia Sherman. 4 stars. A well-written Sherlock-Holmes mystery in a steampunk London, this is a fun read but pretty predictable and without any real insights or challenges. The impressively deployed faux Victorian style saved this one from being a 3.


Everyone From Themis Sends Letters Home, by Genevieve Valentine. 3 stars. I wanted to like this one, especially because of the way that its world opened up. However, I felt that its epistolary structure was awkwardly used. This made it sometimes annoying to read. It gets points for an interesting concept, though.


Those Shadows Laugh, by Geoff Ryman. 4 stars. Maybe 5. The story started out only mildly interesting to me. A business traveler goes to a kind of paradise island made up only of women who seem to be perfect in every way. She befriends one of them and falls in love with their utopian society. I suddenly became more interested when I realized that this story makes the reader reflect on utopian literature and his/her own desires when confronted with impossible utopias. That's when I felt that this story had something important to say about science fiction and fantasy.


Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar. 5 stars. An utterly beguiling fairy tale, this story of two female fairy-tale prototypes never stops being interesting. The two collide in the middle of this very carefully constructed tale and have an awakening about their social status as prototypes... then they figure a way out. It's a thought-provoking subversion of male-perspective storytelling, both in the realm of fairy tales and even in the realm of classic problem-solver stories.


[edit] It may take even longer than I'd thought to finish this book because, being the Trekkie that I am, I'm going to buy the new Star Trek: Discovery novel and read it ASAP, come Wednesday. [/edit]

Reading progress update: I've read 208 out of 507 pages.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

Slow, as usual, because I have work and I'm too tired to read for long at night. But here's what I've read this week in this book (I do read a great deal of comic books and graphic novels too, by the way, but I find it too cumbersome to review them...):


You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong. 4 stars. This is an engrossing dark-fantasy western about a kid discovering a lot of disturbing and thrilling things about his parentage and personal powers. Great job exploiting the mythic potential of the ideas swirling around this story.


A Salvaging of Ghosts, by Aliette de Bodard. 4 stars. This is one of her Ship stories, about as good as they usually are. Also, as usual, it's got a neat sci-fi concept around which the story revolves (so, it meets that classic definition of science fiction), which is simultaneously fascinating and revolting. I really need to read her Aztec altnerate history / fantasy trilogy, because I'm sure it's going to be just as thrilling and disturbing as these Ship stories.


Even the Crumbs Were Delicious, by Daryl Gregory. 3 stars. I still can't really enjoy stories about drug addicts, even when I can see good things in them. I had that problem with a couple of great Philip K. Dick novels and can't seem to get over it. The concept is interesting, namely that, in the near future, you can use "chemjet" printers to "print" edible drugs (a couple of characters get ridiculously high by eating the wallpaper of a druggie's house!). But, as happens in druggie stories, the happenings are too absurd for my liking.


Number Nine Moon, by Alex Irvine. 5 stars. 10 stars, even. My god, this story was good. The whole thing, in plot and character, is solidly traditional, and it's even a problem-solver sci-fi story! So Golden Age. But that's not what makes it so good (there's plenty of trash in the "Golden Age", believe it or not). Irvine uses highly traditional devices to carefully, nay, meticulously, lay out his themes and expand a close (even claustrophobic) story into something that applies universally -- all without preaching or even for a moment taking his narrative eyes off the little picture. Astounding.


Things With Beards, by Sam J. Miller. 5 stars. Not quite so traditional, but the callback to the '30s is strong. In particular, see Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Miller tells a story about gay men in the '80s when AIDS was just coming into the public consciousness and was entirely misunderstood. A couple of these men had worked for scientists in Antarctica and come back with a mysterious monster inside of them. When they come back to America, they find that the monsters inside them aren't the only internal monsters... Miller's story will make you feel your own monster slithering about.


Reading progress update: I've read 116 out of 507 pages.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven - Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan

I'm loving this anthology so far (which is what I expected, given that I find Jonathan Strahan's taste similar to my own). The first few stories exhibit the kind of variety and quality that one ought to expect from a Year's Best anthology. Here's what I think of these individual pieces: 


The Future Is Blue, by Catherynne M. Valente -- 3 stars (out of 5). Well, this one I did not like as much. That's a surprise, because I have never encountered a CMV story I didn't like. This wasn't bad, it was just kind of a chore to finish. The ending packs quite a punch, no less strong than the usual from this wonderful author. If anything, the water-world bizarreness of life in this thoroughly imagined story makes you realize that, even if climate change doesn't completely drown the Earth, life may well become a challenge to recognize.


Mika Model, by Paolo Bacigalupi -- 5 stars! A police detective finds himself in a situation where he must find a defense lawyer for a sexbot... but what legal rights does a sexbot have? Is the sexbot truly sentient? To what degree? Tough questions with no good answers in the near future. This one is fascinating, not just for the moral questions, but also for its ingenious structure and its finely tuned writing. The really neat thing about this story is that all these Big Questions are wrapped up in a fiction-package made poignant by the author's mastery of perspective. That kind of combination makes you think more deeply.


Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik -- 5 stars again! This compelling tale is a riff on Rumpelstiltskin. The daughter of a failed moneylender (failed because he is too kind), who is himself the son of a successful moneylender, makes herself into an even more successful moneylender. But such success comes with a price... 


Two's Company, by Joe Abercrombie -- 4 stars. I think this one is set in the "Blade Itself" universe (though I haven't read anything from that milieu...). It's a clever tale pitting two boastful warriors against each other in comic fashion, complete with witty repartee and amusing reversals. It didn't come across as half so witty as the author thought it might (or so it seems to me), but it's still pretty amusing, and the writing is impressively smooth, with something approaching the perfect economy of description.


You Make Pattaya, by Rich Larson. 5 stars! There's really nothing revelatory about this sexy con caper, but it's constructed so perfectly that it was a pure joy to read. Taken together with "Mika Model" (and even "Two's Company", to a small extent), it's a refreshing challenge to the status quo of sexual mores as well as a reminder that such mores are ever in flux.

William Langland's Piers Plowman

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

Of all the selections in this anthology, Piers Plowman has been the most difficult for me because I struggled to keep my attention on it. It's an account of a dream had by the author about a whole lot of things, from the point of view of a man called Piers, who is a plowman. The whole thing is allegorical, and there were many allegories I didn't quite get, despite the scholarly notes included with this edition. Generally, I'm not a fan of allegories, anyway, so I guess I was predisposed against this text from the start. The most interesting thing was the scholarly introductions, especially on the social and literary context of medieval estates satire, as well as the evolution of some major new interpretations of the Christian faith that were taking shape in the 14th century. For example, while Christ was predominantly a conquering hero in a lot of earlier literature, he is now, in the 14th Century, very often a figure of love and mercy. There is a little bit of both Christs in "Piers Plowman", which makes it at least an interesting reflection of a changing intellectual atmosphere.


Next up: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eleven (28 stories selected by Jonathan Strahan -- it's bound to be good!)

Justice from the Bardo

The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is distinctly Robinsonian, mostly in good (nay, excellent) ways. Much like his Mars trilogy, this novel traces the development of a civilization over the course of centuries. So, there is an epic sweep to it, but the focus is not the traditional kings & wars narrative of epic fantasies. As in the Mars trilogy, the focus is an inter-generational development of social systems, especially with regards to figuring out and socially constructing man's relationship with fellow man and man's relationship with nature.


This time, the milieu is that of an Earth in which the Black Death killed off even more people, so much so that Western civilization utterly collapsed. In the wake of this catastrophe, the world evolves into one dominated by three major civilizations: Dar al-Islam (the various polities derived from the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages), India, and China. The historian in me thrilled not only at the possibilities that such an event could have, but also at Robinson's handling of the consequences all the way from the 14th century up to the 21st century. The scope is breathtaking, and the sum of all the minutiae spinning out of this super-Black Death makes one appreciate the sheer fundamentality of Western systems of thought in the modern world. Almost every time I went to bed after having read a few chapters of this novel, my head was swimming.


Now, you might be wondering whether such a novel can have any traditional kinds of character development, given its centuries-long scope. Well, no -- not traditional, anyway. Both Buddhism and Sufism (a sect of Islam) have well-defined ideas about reincarnation. The Years of Rice and Salt follows the path of a soul trying to find enlightenment across the centuries. He starts out as a Mongol "warrior" encountering an empty Europe in the late 14th century, and he (sometimes she) inhabits different bodies in different places and times. There is much about reincarnation that I am not familiar with (having come from a decidedly Protestant Christian tradition myself), but the theology of it underpins the narrative of the novel and heavily influences the historical traditions that it situates itself in. There are even scenes in the bardo (a kind of limbo where souls are judged and assigned their next incarnation), and I feel that these are crucial for an understanding of the novel, although I don't feel competent to explain them. They are spaces in which the soul reflects on its progress toward enlightenment (and sometimes its failure to progress).


These bardo scenes also serve as spiritual responses to the material "progress" of human civilization. Just as in our world, this novel's human civilization advances in technology and engages in all the wonders and horrors that human beings are capable of, just not in exactly the same order or at exactly the same time. As is Robinson's wont, our point-of-view characters are thoughtful, and many of them philosophize at length on historical processes and intellectual trends in history. There was a lot of this in the Mars trilogy, and it's here too in just about the same proportion (which is to say, there are historical/religious/philosophical expositions/speculations that go on for pages at a time, interspersed at about one per 50 pages or so, on average). This will not be to everyone's taste, and moreover, Robinson is unashamedly political -- he always comes down on the side of social justice, egalitarian government, and environmental accommodation. So, I suspect that right-wing readers (with the possible exception of libertarians) will want to avoid KSR's work as a whole if they don't want to read outside their ideology; and even right-of-center readers may have bones to pick. That said, I think that any reader interested in history, anthropology, and/or science will find this novel fascinating just for the alt-historical possibilities. And if you're even a bit left-of-center, you're going to find a few things to cheer for.


Next up: selections from Piers Plowman, from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Star Trek. Titan. Synthesis - James Swallow

This is the second James Swallow Trek novel I've read, as well as the second Titan novel I've read. Like the other Swallow novel, the pacing is measured almost to perfection, the characters are easily distinguished and easily likeable, and there's a crazy big dumb object out there that's going to ruin everything unless our heroes put a stop to it. Like the other Titan novel, this one feels much like classic Star Trek in the sense that the whole plot more or less revolves around a big moral question. 


So, Synthesis has a lot going for it, and I think it will satisfy most Trek readers. There were a couple of things about it that I thought were particularly outstanding. First: I felt like the Titan crewmembers that this story focused on were easy to get to know and care about. That's not so easy when the majority of these characters are ones that were not ones known from the TV shows and movies. These were new characters, and establishing equity between them and the ones already established on TV (like Tuvok, Troi, and Riker) must be one of the special challenges of writing media tie-in fiction. Swallow strikes a comfortable balance and maintains it throughout. The other thing I really *really* liked was the "Minuet" character. She's featured on the cover of the novel, and she appears in the holodeck in chapter 1, so that part is not much of a spoiler... I can't say much more, though, without making it spoiler. Suffice it to say that she becomes much, much more than the Minuet we encountered in season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And she becomes incredibly interesting. Not only that, but Swallow deftly weaves her story in with that of Riker/Troi and Choblik (the half-cybernetic engineer from an uplifted species). It's too bad what happened to her at the end -- I can only say I'm disappointed, given the great potential that her existence gives to the future of the Titan series. This last point, I feel, is grave enough that I can subtract a star from the rating, because "Minuet" could have offered so many interesting directions for Titan to take in the future... but the conclusion of this story prevents that. 


Despite what I thought about the conclusion of the "Minuet" storyline, Synthesis is a great read for any Trek fan, especially one who's read a Titan book before (or even just the Destiny trilogy). The character work, all around, is outstanding.

Being Lazy

I've been a bit lazy about book reviews this month, mostly because I've been on vacation. But then that vacation ended a week ago, and I'm just now posting updates on BookLikes. Clearly, a vacation extends laziness to some degree.


Since I waited too long, I've forgotten some of what I thought about what I read, especially due to the fact that I've moved on to other books and sundry entertainments. I actually finished Mary Beard's S.P.Q.R. shortly before going on vacation. It's a history of ancient Rome from its foundation to 212 AD (the date when the emperor Caracalla made all inhabitants of the empire Roman citizens). So, perhaps the biggest theme of the book is what it means to be Roman, citizenship included. It's an interesting history book, organized in a mix between chronological and thematic, and written in a snappy style that happens to be engaging. I myself have a degree in Classical Studies, so most of the information was not new to me, but I enjoyed reading Professor Beard's writing, and the perspectives she brings are refreshing. 


During my vacation I read and finished Solaris Rising, a sci-fi anthology edited by Ian Whates. I would rank it as "middling" when compared to other fiction anthologies I've read (and, since I went through an intense short-story phase for many years, I have read a number of short-fiction anthologies and magazines!). There is an interesting running theme of "story", whether it's the stories we write about fictional characters or the stories we write about ourselves. There are a couple of stories about science-fiction authors (yes, they are "meta"), and there is a rather striking story by Alastair Reynolds ("For the Ages") about writing the story of the universe (no exaggeration). Another stand-out story, by Lavie Tidhar, pieces together newspaper and magazine items (whether fictional or not, I never did find out) alongside some traditional prose fiction, to write a secret history (never-before-told story!) about Che Guevara. Other stories that stick in my memory for being good: "The Incredible Exploding Man" by Dave Hutchinson; "A Smart, Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead" by Ian McDonald; and "Sweet Spots" by Paul DiFilippo. The others were mostly unremarkable, although some were good reads. 


Next up: Well, I'm in the middle of a Star Trek: Titan book, Synthesis, by James Swallow. It's really good so far, just like Swallow's other Trek book that I've read (The Latter Fire). On the non-fiction history side of things, I'm reading Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals, by Dominic Lieven -- a well-considered enquiry into the various historical ideas about Empire.

Reading progress update: I've read 331 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

The next item in this anthology is an excerpt from John Gower's Confessio Amantis ("The Lover's Confession"), a late 14th century moral satire in which Amans ("Lover") receives life lessons from one he calls "Father". Many of these lessons involve stories from ancient mythology (mostly culled from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a fine source for ancient myths!). The one chosen here by the editors is the tale of Philomene and Tereus (we would know Philomene as Philomela... small distinction). In brief, this is the myth where Philomene is raped by her sister's husband Tereus (the sister is called Progne in this story, Procne in Ovid's version). Tereus cuts her tongue out and then locks her up, but Progne helps Philomene escape, and together the sisters plot vengeance. Progne is so overcome with rage that she decides to kill the infant son she's had with Tereus, then chop him up and serve him in a stew to Tereus. He eats it right up, then is informed by his wife (Progne) that he's just eaten his son! A fight between Progne & Philomene on the one side and Tereus on the other is about to erupt when suddenly Venus turns them all into birds. The type of bird each becomes depends on the person's character: Philomene becomes a nightingale to broadcast her suffering, Progne a swallow to advertise Tereus's evil nature, and Tereus a lapwing, "the falsest bird of them all" (it has a crest to make it seem noble like a knight, as Tereus is ironically described, but is really just a fool).


I've read this story before in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but the direct and visceral quality of it is still shocking, to say the least. Gower does not try to gloss over the horror of rape or murder, and in fact he seems sensitive to the human desire to be treated fairly and with respect. The action in the story is certainly what we would consider "over the top", but it serves to illustrate the moral in a way that's more emotional than veristic (indeed, I think the modern cultural preference for "realism" in entertainment is a bit tiresome, but that is a rant for another day). Despite the mildly sickening violence, I came away with a feeling for Gower's humane spirit, which I did not necessarily expect from a medieval writer in a story that contains no references at all to Christianity. That's refreshing in any age. 



(almost forgot this part!)

I'm going to read an anthology called Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates. I love reading literary anthologies, especially ones put together by editors who like to suggest running themes by the artful arrangement of their stories. We'll see if Whates can give me what I want.

My first Titan novel!

Over a Torrent Sea - Christopher L. Bennett

I had to think long and hard, in both waking and dreaming hours, about whether to rate this book three stars or three and a half. On the one hand, while I like some good hard sci-fi, the science talk in this book sometimes got overwhelming; and that just sucks the ballast out of what could have been more engaging discussions. The book doesn't sink too low under the weight of science, though, because scientific curiosity is one of the main themes of the book. In fact, it appears to be the main focus of the whole Titan series. What keeps the "info dumps" bearable is that you know they'll be relevant at some point... or at least most of them will be relevant (one hopes).


The U.S.S. Titan is Will Riker's ship after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. I skipped the first few in the series because I jumped back into ST novels with the Destiny trilogy (which chronicles the Borg invasion to end all Borg invasions). So, I don't know the characters well, except for the captain (Riker!), the counselor (Troi, now his wife!), and the head of security (Tuvok!!), also Melora Pazlar (the low-gravity lady from that episode of Deep Space Nine, one of my all-time favorite guest characters). I think the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of this volume was that I didn't know the characters as well as a seasoned Titan reader would. Still, Bennett kept them relatable enough. I say "job well done" especially to his rendition of Commander Christine Vale, acting captain when both Riker and Troi are off on various missions. She's a rookie at command, and Bennett strikes the perfect balance between self-doubt and determination.


Titan gets a repair and an upgrade and goes out exploring strange new worlds again. The world it finds in Under a Torrent Sea is quite strange, and there is a lot of science-talk among the officers about just how strange it is -- an ocean world, with hot ice surrounding the core, no land whatsoever, a bunch of asteroids nearby with heavy minerals, and none of it quite adding up according to the laws of physics. It's evident that the author (Christopher L. Bennett) has done his research, seeing that he cites a bunch of science journal articles on the Acknowledgement pages (yes, the acknowledgements take up two full pages). That's pretty cool, and I like more-or-less rigorous science backing up hard sci-fi novels; that also usually jives well with Star Trek (where one sees less of hokey religions and ancient weapons...). This ocean planet also has a very interesting aquatic civilization, way cooler and more out-there than, say, the Gungans (who have cool special effects but aren't really that alien). 


So, the setting is good. The plot, however, advances only in fits and starts. As I said above, the science-talk adds a good deal of unnecessary bulk. Some of the inner dialogue and psycho-analysis contributes to the problem as well. This seems to be an endemic problem for Star Trek novels. Does anyone know if this is specifically a Trek problem, or is it a problem with media tie-in novels in general? I'd like to know... Anyway, the science-problem isn't as bad as it could have been because most of it is relevant to the plot. The inner-dialogue problem also could have been worse because, again, it's mostly relevant to the plot. Running alongside the theme of scientific exploration as one of the highest pursuits of civilization (a central theme to Star Trek as a whole), there is also the theme of recovering from loss. Destiny dealt a huge blow to the Federation, with the loss of several worlds and almost all of the main characters having lost a loved one during the Borg invasion. The novel begins on a sad note with all these characters dwelling on their losses (especially Tuvok). But by the end of the story, our heroes have come to an understanding with their grief because of the connections they have forged with each other. More impressively, they discover as a result of their exploration that, with so much wonder and mystery in the universe, there is no reason to dwell on one's losses.


Ultimately, the novel does come together, with the integration of the themes and the plot. It should have been about 50 pages shorter and could have been a sharper read with some trimming, but it's still not a bad entry in the Star Trek literary canon.



I'll dip into my medieval English literature anthology book for a bit. Next up is a medieval re-telling of the ancient mythological story of Philomena and Tereus... should be pretty gruesome!

WOOL -- interesting concept, mixed execution

Wool - Hugh Howey

I can see why Hugh Howey’s Wool is ripe for bestseller status: the hook is gripping, the characters are relatable, the sci-fi concept is intriguing, and Howey’s prose conveys the action with urgency and clarity. It doesn’t end up quite so satisfying to me, though. There is that one missing thing: depth of ideas. In my mind, this last thing is important (nay, essential) for any good fiction.


With science fiction in particular, the story needs the scientific idea as its core, with the scaffolding of plot and character imbuing that idea with life. What Wool has is an interesting idea, that there is a whole community of human being living in a great underground “silo”, the origin and purpose of which are unknown at the beginning of the story (and, as it happens, only dimly foreshadowed in this volume… apparently, one must read the next volume to get the origin story). The concept is interesting and has a lot of potential, and with the name “silo”, one must imagine a great apocalyptic event (nuclear or not) having necessitated its existence. As the plot unfolds, we learn a bit more about why things happen as they do in this silo society. These developments are indeed quite interesting, and I think that the story of Wool would have been more cohesive if the author had integrated the silo’s origin and purpose into this story.


The plot moves along, for the most part, at an engaging clip, although the original format of the story (a series of novellas) hasn’t quite been successfully massaged into what used to be called a “fix-up” novel. At the beginning the sheriff of this silo has gotten his hands on some forbidden knowledge, and he’s got to go… outside. This means being exiled to the toxic environment beyond the airlock, which, despite the protection of an environmental suit, means that death comes within ten or fifteen minutes at most. What has the sheriff discovered? Why is it so dangerous to social order? These are intriguing questions. Answering these questions leads to the great unraveling of the mystery of the silo… unfortunately, this unraveling remains incomplete within the page of Wool, and the plot turns increasingly towards the misdeeds of a rather one-dimensional villain and the heroic escapes of an incredibly competent engineer figure (a familiar type from Golden-Age sci-fi, the only real difference here being that the hero is female). These central characters could have used a great deal more depth, their status as hero and villain never being in question, the result being that they never achieve plausible Personalities but remain mere Characters for the duration of the story.


These deficits are all the more lamentable because the concept really is interesting and Howey’s prose displays some capacity for thoughtfulness despite its apparent transparency. That said, I did enjoy what unraveling there was; I even found the action scenes (which got in the way of what I really wanted) almost unbearably intense. I don’t mean the third-act battles (which are somewhat by-the-numbers) but rather the impossible threats to survival that the heroine must navigate. While I considered them distractions, they were amazingly effective distractions. It’s no wonder that Wool has been optioned by none other than Ridley Scott.


Final word: read it for action, read it on the beach, but don’t expect the promising world of Wool to reach its full potential. I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I’ve got; I won’t be moving ahead to the sequels.

Reading progress update: I've read 318 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

The next section in this anthology consists of selections from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, plus a few bits of his other poetry. I remember reading some of the Tales way back in my freshman year of college, but not much of it stuck. It was a delight to read these again. The famous Knight's Tale is not in this anthology, but the Miller's Tale is, and what a delight! Even though the Middle English takes a lot of getting used to and some of the conventions of medieval poetry are not exactly fitted to modern tastes, the Miller's Tale is indisputably one of the most entertaining pieces of fiction ever to grace our language. Also included are the Pardoner's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Tale, alongside the Nun's Priest's Tale. The Wife of Bath is a most intriguing character, a strong personality who's gone through husbands with varying degrees of callousness. She grates but she is also entirely relatable, a character that is good to think about. Her tale takes quite a while to get going, but once it does, it's hard to take a break. The Pardoner is a disgustingly corrupt clergyman but fun to read about, and his sermon is an impressive sophistry. 


The other poetry doesn't really stand out to me, but the poem written to Henry IV soon after usurping the throne from Chaucer's previous paymaster, is interesting in the way it flatters the new king but also reminds His Majesty that payment is due!


Next up, I'll read a modern sci-fi novel...

Entertaining follow-up

The Face of the Unknown (Star Trek: The Original Series) - Christopher L. Bennett

The Face of the Unknown is a follow-up to the classic Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver", indisputably one of the greatest episodes in the franchise's 50-year history. Its successful combination of mystery, deceit, and delight make that episode particularly rewarding. 


In this novel, set not long after the close of The Original Series' final episode (but just before the beginning of The Animated Series), in the latter half of the Enterprise's five-year mission, Kirk and crew receive a distress call that eventually leads them back to the infamous orb-ship of Balok from "The Corbomite Maneuver". Balok, however, is missing, and the First Federation (his home) is under threat from an ancient menace. What follows is a highly entertaining combination of mystery and deceit, making this book a delightful read.


The author, Christopher L. Bennett, is clearly a master of Star Trek lore, as the references to canon are knowledgeable, well-timed, and apropos. He is also deft at employing language to convey the familiar voices of our interstellar heroes, and that same linguistic adroitness lets him immerse the reader both in the expansive, awe-inspiring vistas of strange new worlds and in the vicissitudes of thrilling escapades.


If you're a fan of Trek, this is a very fine stand-alone novel -- highly recommended!