Almost Human by HC Denham (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5
A cautionary tale of a future where AI based humanoid robots may be slowly taking over the planet while the human population they are intended to serve remains blissfully unaware. All but one — the utterly competent, perfectly empathic, friendly humanoid robots just give Stella Mayfield the creeps.

While the plot had potential, I really didn’t enjoy this book. The characters were extremely stereotyped (and really, although Stella was a Biologist with a PhD, she behaved like the stereotypical neurotic woman while the men behaved like stereotypical men — completely out of touch with their feelings blah blah blah. The techie robot engineer was the biggest stereotype of all (and spoke some weird dialect that didn’t match anything I’m familiar with and I live and work in Silicon Valley!). There is very little science and very little plot — instead it includes lots of filler encompassing a lot of clichéd relationship stuff that had little to do with the plot. Writing is decent enough that I finished the book, but nothing special, and the end was completely predictable. Could have made a decent short story with better characters and more philosophic depth.

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?

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (YA / African Futurism)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A coming-of-age story set in a future Northern Ghana. Sankofa is only five when her favorite tree pushes up a strange seed after a meteor shower brought sparkling bits of green to the Earth. Before she has any clue as to what is happening, she has been “gifted” with a terrible power which continues to bring tragedy even as she struggles to control it.

A combination of myth, juju, and technology populate this picture of future Ghana. The “bad guy” is LifeGen — a “big American corporation that’s probably going to eventually destroy the world.” But Sankofa is a child, and we watch as she absorbs information and tries to understand what has happened to her, why, and what she can possibly do with it. This is not your typical, action-oriented, one man against a giant, evil machine.

Okarafor labels her work a combination of “African Futurism” and “African Jujuism” — terms she coined — to reflect its African-centricity. I like her definition: “I am an African futurist and an African jujuist. African futurism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.”

I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the imagery of a blended future — but I did find the plot a little weak.

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 January 19th, 2021.

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.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow (speculative fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Harrow is a fantastic storyteller! I very much enjoyed her The Ten Thousand Doors of January and this second novel is every bit as good if not better. Hooray!

The action takes place in New Salem in the 1890s. It’s a kind of alternate history where the women’s suffrage movement becomes entwined with a movement to bring back witching —benevolent witching being another route to to recover lost power for women in an era rife with female oppression. The three Eastwood sisters — bookish Beatrice Belladona, strong Agnes Amaranth, and wild James Juniper — are at the heart of the story as they work together with a growing sisterhood to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon.

It’s a book focused on women, with a smattering of male characters playing both utterly good and utterly evil men — a male version of the madonna / whore dichotomy. I love it! I also loved the way the embedded fairy tales — written by Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang — bore little resemblance to the fairy tales with wicked witches I’ve grown up with. A not so subtle reminder that history is written by the victor!

Lots of action but not the kind that bores me, plenty of interesting characters, and some fantastic malevolence captured in an evil creature of some inner complexity. She even manages to weave in lesbians and a trans person in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Lush prose suffused with magical realism and gripping from start to finish.

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman, Diane Setterfield, and Deborah Harkness.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 13th, 2020.

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Jared is a bot. Engineered from human DNA, he lives a productive life as a dentist in Ypsilanti, Michigan and is deeply programmed to serve humans. Until one day … he starts to have feelings. Thus begin his simultaneously hilarious and yet poignant adventures as he heads to Hollywood to write a screenplay daring to portray bots as beings deserving humane treatment and not the “killer bots” that comprise the bulk of modern cinema.

The social commentary is priceless as Jared struggles to make rational sense of human behavior. Jared’s “voice” as a developing character is so appealing — his way of expressing surprise, disbelief, and acceptance is incomparable. He refers to himself as a “toaster with a heart.” Bots are the new underclass in this world because after all — they aren’t even human. While the journey is comic (laugh out loud funny much of the time), there are plenty of deep things to think about: What makes us human? What should our relationship with other beings be? What kind of “programming” do we humans have of which we are not explicitly aware?

In some ways this reminded me of Vonnegut — the speculative and humorous extrapolation of today’s social mores — but with a little more depth in terms of human (or bot) experience and how we treat others. As fun additions, there are some great descriptions of classic movies (without titles) that are fun to see through Jared’s eyes (and try to make the identification), some fun screen-writing tips, and all the details of a futuristic road trip adventure.

I won’t give away the ending but I loved the way the author embedded an intricately layered set of foreshadowing and self-referential plot twists.

Thank you to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 1st, 2020.

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (Fiction / Speculative Fiction)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 14th, 2020.

Writing: 3.5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4/5

A gritty, detailed and yet expansive, story about the evolution of a top (fictional) pop band (Utopia Avenue) in late sixties London. From obscurity to fame — raw talent discovered, initial deals, touring, and the bribery / flirtation / whatever-it-takes approach to getting the music played. The four main band members come from different backgrounds and blend different musical strengths: Dean — an “angry young bassist” specializing in R&B; Elf — a “folk-scene doyenne”; Jasper — a half Dutch “stratocaster demi-god”; and Griff — a Yorkshire jazz drummer.

A lot of dialog and description is devoted to describing the music itself and the music business. For me personally that was less interesting — I love listening to music but don’t translate writing about music to music itself well — but for those who do enjoy discussing and thinking about those topics there is plenty available.

He did a good job of bringing that musical time to life. Many famous musicians pass through these pages with mini appearances that appear true to recorded history: David Bowie, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa all make realistic cameo appearances. We spend time with the band at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. All the aspects of their world comes out — family issues, possible mental illness, drug use, the “offsprings” of philandering, and philosophies.

Mitchell’s books are sometimes hard to read. They all develop slowly and the writing style is a little more stream of consciousness than I like, but somehow I’m drawn in, and by the end I’m completely in the grip and continue to think about the emerging holistic picture afterwards. As an aside — and it’s a weird aside — one thread of this novel ties in with characters (beings?) that are elements of at least two of his previous works. It’s really just a thread here but this book fits squarely within the Mitchell universe which is not completely founded on the reality most of us share.

Girl Gone Viral by Arvind Ahmadi (YA / speculative fiction)

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

An engaging, fun, speculative fiction read blending mystery, politics, and technology in the slightly future Palo Alto, CA.

A Facebook++ VR entertainment platform called WAVE. A father who “disappeared” seven years earlier while working on a stealth startup. A shocking win by a Luddite presidential candidate. It is within this setting that high-school tech wunderkind Opal Hopper (an homage to Grace Hopper?) and her friends start a VR show that goes viral — all based on how people lie — even to themselves.

While the teens get caught up in their instant success and the avid interest of the company that invented WAVE, they are also stressing about college admissions, romances, and a world gone haywire with the election (sound familiar?). Some reasonable discussions about the pros and cons of technology — job losses, fears of a robot president, tracking and privacy loss on the one side and going back to the stone age on the other. At the individual level, there are some good messages about self-awareness as Opal explores her own motivations for doing things that feel wrong in some ways and right in others.

A big theme in the book is “it’s complicated” — and it is! I liked the way the characters kept coming to this conclusion. Nothing is ever as simple and straightforward as the extremists make it sound, and it’s important to face the compromises that must be consciously made.

A well-written look at a future Silicon Valley, America, and world.

Quotes:

“When we make eye contact, he ducks like a whack-a-mole.”

“You look down on people like me,” Matthew finally spits. “People who read and write and appreciate art. Who enjoy irrationality and inefficiency. Who don’t live optimized lives.”

“Anyway. I know how the game is played. Comment sections are less playground, more kiddy pool of pee, and maybe deep down, that’s why I never check them any more.”

“One day, while we were working on a problem set in class, Moyo looked around the room of white and Asian boys, sighed, and turned to me.” You know it’s on us to flip the scripts,” he said. That’s when we promised ourselves that someday, we would build an empire together.”

“It reminded me of how I act around people like Kara — people in your world with power, whose attention you’re almost ashamed of wanting to win.”

“Now, the Luds want to take us back to that old place — where people like us, the coders and the dreamers, are relegated to the loser table.”

“What you tech types need to understand is that humans are the dominant species. We’re storytellers. We don’t just want to listen to perfect stories. We want to create them out of our imperfect lives.” … “So I’ll continue writing my own novels, thank you very much, even if robots might do a better job someday.”

“Smartphones ruined our attention spans. Self-driving cars took away our freedom And now, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will take us the rest of the way in rendering humans obsolete. It will make us ignorant. Weak. This technology you’re building will corrupt us further with narcissism and greed, alienate us further from our best selves.”

“He’s the nerdiest of our nerdtastic unit, an honor we liken to being the tallest giraffe.”

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (SF)

World building: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: good but too long for me…

Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia. A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done. A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas; Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave!

The best part for me was the many discussions about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences, etc.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance to use) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was way too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development, but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action. Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did. I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 35% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 20% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action! Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that 🙂

Great for fans of The Martian!

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing? Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally. And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice. Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff. Slavery for everybody else. Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.