In the Shadow of Humanity by N. John Williams (literary science fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Overall Enjoyment: 5/5

What it means to be human is the theme driving this story of two brothers — one alive and one long dead (but faithfully rendered as an AI in the metaverse and allowed to age) — who each long for the other’s existence. One longs for the immortality and eternal healthy youth while the other longs for the rights and respect kept from him by dint of not being fully human despite his ability to think, feel, create, and perceive pain.

This is technology driven science fiction — my favorite kind, reminiscent of the “old days.” It made me realize how much better this kind of SF is when written by an author with actual experience in the technical areas s/he is extrapolating from. In this case, the author is well versed in Computer Science, Linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence, and it shows in his fully fleshed out cultures evolving from a thoroughly described metaverse (the metaverse is the blending of physical and virtual worlds, not to be confused with the multiverse which is the theoretical existence of multiple physical universes). There are power struggles (the Administration powered by Technologists; transhumanist activists; and an evolving superintelligence) with equal word count given to the abundant (and to me more interesting) ethical / political issues.

I’ve thought about the ending for some time — I’m not sure I like the conclusion but I do think I understand it, and it was quite thought provoking (a top criterion for me). One of the better SF books I’ve read in the past few years.

Thank you to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2022.

The Sisters Sputnik by Terri Favro (Science Fiction — Audio book)

Broad, sweeping story that spans all 2058(!) worlds in the multiverse (and some time shifts to boot) — starring Sputnik Chick: A Girl With No Past. Debbie Reynolds Biondi is Sputnik Chick — and the comic book artist and storyteller bringing her to life for others. What I loved about this book — and I really did love listening to it — was the way the author brought every one of the various worlds to life with each fully developed (and different) culture resulting from differences in the world’s timeline. Synthetic humanoids, AIs brought to life, mutations, language deterioration, and Cozy World — where pandemics have converted the populace into retiring hermits terrified of human interaction. I’ve been reading science fiction since I was five (really) and this book constantly surprised me with both new ideas and many old ideas morphed and molded into unrecognizable emerging customs and habits. There is plenty of action and adventure — which I can find boring — but it was all enveloped in such interesting philosophy, reflection, and world building that I never had to skim.

Highly recommended for those interested in a more human-centric, creative type of science fiction.

Thank you to ECW Press Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this audiobook in exchange for my honest review. The audiobook will be released on June 30th, 2022 (the printed book was released on May 17th)

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi (SF)

Laugh out loud funny and full of action (which normally bores me to tears but Scalzi always manages to pull it off), this latest standalone novel from one of my favorite SF authors is a breath of fresh air.

Jamie Gray — a recently fired, PhD drop out (her dissertation was going to be on utopian and dystopian literature), is making an unhappy living as a deliverator when a chance customer offers her a job with an animal rights organization. Only as it turns out, the “animals” are more ecosystem than animal, are absolutely humongous (and scary), and don’t exactly live on this particular version of Earth. Armed with her sci-fi mindset and a talent for lifting things (think heavy, not theft), Jamie manages to save the day … quite often. Added bonuses: Godzilla origin story explained and Snow Crash properly revered.

For Scalzi newbies, a few writing extracts:

“It’s more like we have a workable service relationship with a tenuous personal history.”

“It was stupidly perfect how all my problems were suddenly solved with the strategic application of money.”

“I’m officially skeptical about this Godzilla origin story.”

“That thing looks like H.P. Lovecraft’s panic attack.”

“It’s not the trees, you dense argumentative spoon.”

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

The Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore (Audio Book — Science Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 World building: 5/5
A wild ride blending linguistics, gaming, technology development, and yes — saving not just the planet or the universe, but reality itself from the “Thunderstorm” which simply unravels reality as it progresses. This reminded me strongly of the feeling I got from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — one of my old favorites — plenty of action and a recognizable world which has developed in unexpected and pretty cool ways through technology. A main difference — this story is propelled by girl power — most of the very strong, very capable, and very imaginative characters in this book are women. Plenty of men, too, and the hero(ine) / evil nemesis extremes are liberally distributed among both sexes so it doesn’t set off my wild stereotype alarm. Warning: There is glitter.

There is plenty of snark which the audio book reader pulled off almost too well. Very interesting and convoluted world building in terms of blending linguistic concepts with symbiotic alien lifeforms, influences on the way we think, and embedding power in language. Lots of blurring between “game” life and real life, supported by the ability to move the action (with real implications) between the two. Although I listened to this — and so was unable to highlight great lines — the writing was very good with an impressive vocabulary and well structured thoughts. Way above the quality of your typical SF fare (I say this as a long time SF fan). Some over the top disdain for rich white guys and distrust of big government (which is beginning to bore me) but honestly very little and not the main point.

Original.

Thank you to RB Media and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on January 11th, 2022.

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu (Science fiction audiobook)

The Wandering Earth contains ten, marvelously imaginative stories about humanity’s future, with China at the center (unusual for us Westerners to read and it definitely has an impact on the story lines).

The premise of each story is intriguing, and I never know where it will lead. I’m usually hooked by the first sentence which is very unusual — Cixin Liu is a tremendous writer, combining hard science fiction with individual reflection and massive socio-cultural settings and impact. Stories ranged from the rescue of the Earth from a dying sun to a simple malware virus turned into a death warrant for humanity to the results of capitalism run rampant (definitely a Chinese view on this one). One story embedded the author and a friend into a key point of the story with hysterical (and simultaneously sobering) results.

This is definitely a science fiction book written from a man’s perspective. The main characters (the ones written with such depth) are all men, and the few female characters fit stereotypes from the 50s — a little dumb, easily led, not a priority, and occasionally vindictive. It didn’t bother me — plenty of books written by women have only two dimensional depictions of stereotyped men — but it’s worth mentioning.

Liu’s political beliefs appear to align with those of the Chinese government which provides an interesting lens through which to read his stories. I believe this is the only Chinese science fiction translated into English that I’ve ever read. Ken Liu translated the Three Body Problem and did a beautiful job. For some reason I can’t seem to find out who translated this one but they, too, did a fantastic job.

The narrator(s) were a tad robotic at times, but that actually fits the stories well, and the reading speed was fast enough for me.

Thank you to MacMillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 12th, 2022.

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (SF / Multi-cultural)

AO Oju has remade herself, literally, using cybernetics and AI augmentation, but in this Africanfuturism blend of technology with deep cultural roots, she is kept an outsider by people whose constant refrain is “what kind of woman are you?” On the run from a particularly disturbing engagement in the marketplace, she meets Fulani hersdman Dangote Nuhu Adamu (DNA), and together they set off into the desert, getting closer and loser to the abomination known as the Red Eye.

Written in Okorafor’s trademark mythical language, rich with pulsing sentiment, the story is an intriguing combination of the cultural and the technical. There is plenty of injustice and unfairness and big, bad corporations at the root of it all, balanced with wonderfully inventive technical solutions. I didn’t buy the science really, but as Arthur C Clarke famously said, “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” so …

An engaging read. Works for the YA and Adult SF market.

Thank you to DAW and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

The Peculiarities by David Liss (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

In the Age of Peculiarities, women give birth to rabbits, well-dressed ghouls roam the streets of London, individuals start sprouting leaves, and terrible luck to those who break contracts — though these oddities mostly impact the very poorest, so who cares? It’s 1899 and Thomas Thresher — the younger, largely ignored, son of the Thresher banking family — turns to the occult to find out why the bank seems so very involved in the pervasive disasters. He seeks to save the bank and return it to its original charter — to serve those with nowhere else to go.

Portals to astral realms, a magical society, and Aleister Crowley himself are at the center of this wild-ride style adventure. Plenty of surprises, wry asides, and a strong sense of duty — but what I really love is that the ability to see and manipulate the patterns within mathematics is the powerful magic that is able to do what the best stylings of the Crowley gang cannot.

A real page-turner — well-written, humorous, exciting, and with a wide array of interesting, non-stereotypical, characters.

Good for fans of Alix E. Harrow and Susannah Clark.

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 7th, 2021.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3/5

A hardware malfunction causes a cascade of crashing comm satellites over the Five-Hop One-Stop space station causing the quarantine of all beings present. In a story long on socio-cultural world building and short on plot, individuals from four different species are forced to spend time together while each desperately needs to get back to the life that was abruptly brought to a halt. A quarantine story for our time…

Chambers excels at building intricate and engaging cultures which makes the relatively absent plot easy to overlook. She manages to include all of the current “hot topics” camouflaged in non-humanoid skins. Roveg is the insectoid Quelin who takes in information through smells and has a completely non-emotive space; Pei the Aeluon cargo captain who loves a human against the interspecies mating taboo of her kind; Speaker is the perpetually space-suited Akarak as the only planet that could support her methane-breathing life was rendered useless in a previous war; and Ouloo and not-yet-gendered offspring Tupo are the furry Laru who host the station. Throughout their enforced stay, the four learn about each other’s cultures, opinions, and preferences in a pretty interesting set of expositions on modes of communication, mating rituals, taboos, etc.

It’s nice to read a speculative fiction story that isn’t fully dystopian. We’re not embedded in Ewoks here — there are plenty of problems and even a history of downright atrocities — but the characters are able move forward in a more positive way after their experience in a model that suggests how this might be done for any of us. A harmless and relatively uplifting book.

While this is #4 in the series, the books just share a common universe. Not necessary to read the prior novels though I confess I found the earlier books a little more interesting.

Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis (Sci Fi)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Wonderful piece of sci-fi history that I somehow missed completely. First published in 1938 by C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame), this is a beautifully written novel of early space exploration with a deeply philosophical bent. Ransom, a Cambridge professor of philology (language), is kidnapped and taken to another planet in a mistaken desire to offer him as a sacrifice to the alien beings in residence. Instead, Ransom escapes on the planet and explores the landscape, the language, and the multiple rational species who manage to coexist peacefully. The book explores our place in the universe — with wildly competing views. His kidnapper — Weston — represents those who believe that Mankind holds a destiny as the Master Race in the Universe — destined to destroy anything in its way. Ransom, and those he meets on the planet, hold a starkly different view — one that is more theologically based (a common theme in Lewis books).

The writing is excellent — the world building includes descriptions of the physical world as well as ways of life for the various beings encountered. I was quite taken with Ransom’s evolution of perception and cognition as he continues his efforts to understand a completely different world. The consistent observation of his internal mental and emotional state made it much more interesting to me — initial fears based on childhood stories of “other,” timid approaches to strange beings, and his awareness that he represented all of Mankind and had to give beings with superior power an honest assessment of the faults of the race.

It was also fun to see the influences — he and Tolkien were friends, and you can see similarities; he references HG Wells and also borrows from an old favorite of mine, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. I even found small bits that were later borrowed by Madeleine L’Engle in my very favorite children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time.

This is the first of a trilogy — I plan to read the other two. I also learned a new word: consistory — a court presided over by a bishop, for the administration of ecclesiastical law in a diocese. Who knew?

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Soloman (Speculative Fiction)

World building: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Writing: 4/5

This is a decently written speculative fiction novel that “explores structural racism and generation ships.” Aster is a brilliant neuro-divergent female living on the lower decks of the spaceship Matilda — three centuries into a voyage away from a dying planet. The ship is run by a ruthless sovereign and populated with cruel guards who keep the lower levels of the deck system (a mirror of racial lines) in order. While suffering constant persecution, Aster manages to untangle the secrets of her dead mother’s coded journals to discover a massive secret that impacts the lives of everyone on board.

The story was engaging but overall unsatisfying. The tropes of oppression and persecution are well expressed but quite two-dimensional. There was a lot of action, but very few surprises, and the end lacked clarity. I did find the main characters to be an interesting collection of stereotypes: Aster — the brilliant scientist who insistently pursues her goals despite beatings and directed torment; Giselle — the angry black woman who finds herself so enraged she is destructive towards everyone, including those she loves most; Melusine — the caretaker figure who favors stability and caution over outright rebellion; and Theo — the privileged and talented mixed race man who is driven by guilt and a strong desire to do the right thing and yet cannot bring himself to the violence necessitated by the situation.

The story and characters are a real mishmash of “unheard voices.” Plenty of gender noncomformity, intense class and race clashes, and religion-based oppression. Lots of things didn’t quite make sense — a generation ship capable of traveling for centuries would have a large population and yet the same people seem to consistently run into each other, and the sovereign has a particular hatred for a low-born slave. The scientific explanations for plot points were also weak and understated.

Overall, a decent adventure story but an unsatisfying exploration of her themes of oppression because everything was so heavy-handed.