The Monday Check-In ~ 9/17/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: Definitely a favorite for 2018! Read my love-fest of a review, here.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo: My book group read for September. My review is here.

Vox by Christina Dalcher: A look at a US society in which women’s voice have literally been silenced. My review is here.

In audiobooks:

Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce: Book #3 in The Immortals series. Excellent addition to the world of Tortall!

Pop culture goodness:

Has anyone else watched Forever on Amazon yet? It’s weird and funny and totally surprising. Maya Rudolph is just as good as you’d expect. I’ve watched half of the available episodes, and recommend checking it out! (It’s pretty low commitment for a binge-watch, just eight half-hour episodes).

Fresh Catch:

I added even more Kindle books to my never-ending TBR list, thanks to various price drops that popped up this week. Here’s a peek at my newest acquisitions:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: After some heavier reads, a little light-and-fluffy romance might really hit the spot.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Realms of the Gods (The Immortals, #4) by Tamora Pierce: Finishing up the Immortals quartet!

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. Slow but steady!
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. Continuing our group read of the Lord John works, it’s lovely to revisit The Scottish Prisoner, which stars Lord John Grey and everyone’s favorite Scottish laird, Jamie Fraser. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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Drop everything and read this book!!! (A review): The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.

One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.

Once again, I find myself in the position of wanting my entire review to simply say:

This book is amazing.

Read it.

Not enough? Okay, I’ll elaborate.

What do you get when you throw 90s asteroid films Deep Impact and Armageddon into a blender with Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff, and Interstellar? Probably something good, but maybe not as thrilling and inspiring as Mary Robinette Kowal’s first of two Lady Astronaut books, The Calculating Stars.

(Yes, this review is going to be one big gushy love fest. Buckle up.)

The Calculating Stars starts with disaster. The year is 1952. Newlyweds Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a romantic getaway in an isolated cabin in the Pocono mountains, when there’s a flash that lights up the sky. Atomic bomb? Nope.  Elma and Nathaniel are both scientists, and they can rule out a bomb pretty quickly. But the flash is followed by an earthquake that brings the cabin down around them, and they figure out what it must be: a meteorite strike, someplace near enough for them to feel the aftershocks, and they brace for the airblast that they know must follow.

It’s an unimaginable catastrophe. The meteorite has struck Earth just off the eastern seaboard. Washington DC has been obliterated, as have most of the coastal areas of the United States. But this is only the beginning of the disaster. Elma has advanced degrees in both physics and mathematics, and is able to calculate before anyone else that this isn’t just a rough period that society will eventually overcome. The cataclysm and its impact on the world environment will, inevitably, over a period of years, lead to extinction. The Earth will become uninhabitable within their lifetimes.

There’s only one solution: Space. The world’s scientific communities must come together to accelerate research into space travel, with the aim of establishing colonies on the moon and on Mars.

Nathaniel becomes lead engineer for the international space agency, and Elma works in mission control as a computer, one of the brilliant mathematicians who calculate trajectories and all the complicated equations that enable rockets to leave earth and enter orbit. But Elma, a WASP pilot during World War II, has even bigger ambitions. She wants to fly… and she’s determined to become an astronaut.

Those little girls thought I could do anything. They thought that women could go to the moon. And because of that, they thought that they could go to the moon, too. They were why I needed to continue, because when I was their age, I needed someone like me. A woman like me.

This story is just so damned amazing. The author clearly draws heavily from history, and provides a guide to historical events and references and a bibliography. Her depiction of the space race, moved up a decade to the 1950s, feels real and exciting. By placing events in the 1950s, she also captures the social inequities and injustices of the time. The story takes place pre-Civil Rights, pre-feminism and  women’s liberation. Women may be able to apply for the astronaut training program, but they’d better be damned sure to put on lipstick first. Their press conferences feature inane questions about what they might cook in space, and the women are forced into skimpy swimsuits for their underwater tests – not the flightsuits the male candidates wore.

The (male) speaker, at a briefing for the first batch of female trainees:

“Good morning. I wish all conference rooms looked this lovely when I walked in.”

Women of color don’t even make it through the door, excluded from the application process entirely, even those with advanced degrees and unbeatable hours as pilots. You might think that in the desperation to save a species, these types of discrimination might fall by the wayside for the greater good of preserving humanity… but people in control tend to want to stay in control. It’s just as infuriating to read about in The Calculating Stars as in any non-fiction account of the era – and because we come to know these women and understand just how amazingly smart and talented they are, it’s all the more frustrating and painful.

Elma is a magnificent lead character, brave and brilliant, but by no means perfect. She has hidden weaknesses to overcome, and battles her own inner demons every step of the way. Elma’s husband Nathaniel is almost too good to be true – a scientist who’s incredibly gifted and dedicated, and yet also a man who adores his wife and supports her in her quest to become an astronaut. Their bedroom banter is adorable in its sexy dorkiness:

He shifted so he could reach between us. His fingers found the bright bundle of delight between my legs and… sparked my ignition sequence. Everything else could wait.

“Oh… oh God. We are Go for launch.”

I think you get the picture. If you’ve stuck with me this far, you can probably tell just how very much I loved this book. My inclination is to move straight on with book #2, The Fated Sky… but I think I want to savor this moment for a bit before continuing (and reaching the end of the story).

The Calculating Stars is a brilliant read, combining a story of people we come to care tremendously about with a world-ending disaster and the human spirit of ingenuity that’s so key to the early days of space exploration. This book is by turns heart-breaking and inspiring, and I loved every moment.

READ THIS BOOK!

 

Note: In 2012, the author published a short story called The Lady Astronaut of Mars. You could consider The Calculating Stars as a prequel of sorts, as it’s set in the same world and features certain of the same characters. I was charmed and moved by the story when I first read it, and read it again after finishing The Calculating Stars — and was even more moved than I was originally. If you’re interested in the flavor of this world, you can find the story here… but I recommend starting with the novels for the full, rich experience.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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The Monday Check-In ~ 9/10/2018

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Wishing all who celebrate a sweet and happy new year! I’m traveling for a few days, visiting family for the holidays, so this post (and all others) may be a bit choppier than usual. But, as always when I have lots of hours on airplanes, I’ve been reading my head off!

What did I read during the last week?

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch: Creepy sci-fi with lots of timey-wimey twists. Confusing, sometimes horrifying, pretty great read.

Promised Land by Martin  Fletcher: Powerful historical fiction. My review is here.

Wolf-Speaker by Tamora Pierce: Book #2 in The Immortals series. This series gets better and better!

Fresh Catch:

No new books this week. Well, no new physical books. I’m incapable of resisting when I see a good Kindle price drop.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: A little bit Hidden Figures, a little bit Deep Impact (remember that movie?), even a little bit Interstellar — a whole lot of awesome. Loving this book.

Now playing via audiobook:

Emperor Mage (The Immortals, #3) by Tamora Pierce: I really love these characters. Totally enjoying the audiobook! I should be wrapping up by mid-week, and want to continue straight on with #4.

Ongoing reads:

Book group reads:

  • Classic read: My book group’s current classic read is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  We’re reading and discussing two chapters per week. Slow but steady!
  • The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. Continuing our group read of the Lord John works, it’s lovely to revisit The Scottish Prisoner, which stars Lord John Grey and everyone’s favorite Scottish laird, Jamie Fraser. Want to join in? Ask me how!

So many books, so little time…

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Murderbot is back! Rogue Protocol – book #3

Murderbot returns for a 3rd adventure!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Rogue Protocol!

The Murderbot Diaries
Book #3 – Rogue Protocol

(160 pages, published August 7, 2018 by Tor)

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

My thoughts:

What’s not to love about a cantankerous SecUnit who’d really rather just be left alone? Too bad for Murderbot that those darn softy, squishy humans keep getting in its way and requiring its protection. So what’s an exasperated AI to do? In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot once again sneaks its way onto a transport filled with humans on a secret mission, this time looking for evidence against the nefarious GrayCris Corporation. But of course, nothing goes as planned, since the humans involved end up needing looking after, even though they’re not technically Murderbot’s to worry about.

I’ll be honest and say that the action feels a little opaque to me. Lots of hatches and corridors and whatnot… lots of energy blasters and armor and drones… It’s all quite energetic and high-speed, but the technical mumbo-jumbo tends to make my eyes glaze over.

Still, what redeems these novellas for me is the fabulous voice of Murderbot itself, who is just as fed up as always. Why can’t the poor AI just enjoy its media feeds in peace?

I’ll leave you with a few choice snippets of Murderbot ruminations:

This was going to be even more annoying than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a pretty high level of annoyance, maybe as high as 85 percent. Now I was looking at 90 percent, possibly 95 percent.

Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas.

(Yes, that was sarcasm.)

Right, so the only smart way out of this was to kill all of them. I was going to have to take the dumb way out of this.

If you’re a sci-fi fan and haven’t yet experienced Murderbot, definitely give these novellas a try! Now is a great time to jump in — the 4th (and final?) book is due out in October.

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Book Review: Robots vs Fairies – edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe

 

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

This awesome story collection has a premise spelled out in the introduction by the editors:

“I, for one, welcome our __________ overlords.”

Assuming the mechanical and/or magical revolution has already taken place by the time you read this, we, the editors, always knew you would come out on top. Yes, you.

We knew this day would come. We tried to warn the others. It was obvious either the sharp rate of our technological advancement would lead to the robot singularity claiming lordship over all, or that the fairies would finally grow tired of our reckless destruction of the natural world and take it back from us.

And so, we have prepared a guide to assist our fellow humans in embracing their inevitable overlords. (If you are reading this and you are human, we are so pleased you found this book in time to ready yourself for the impending/current robot/fairy apocalypse. You are quite welcome.)

Robots vs Fairies is an anthology of stories by an impressive assortment of sci-fi and fantasy writers, each focusing on either robots or fairies (or in a few cases, both). There are eighteen stories in all, ranging from silly to darkly serious. In each case, right after the story, the author declares him/herself “team robot” or “team fairy”, and explains why — and these little pieces are just as entertaining as the stories themselves, in my humble opinion.

As I’ve said in many a review, I’m really not a short story reader, so the fact that I made it all the way through this book is somewhat of an achievement. I did end up skipping 2 or 3 stories that just didn’t call to me, but otherwise read them all, even the ones that left me puzzled or disengaged or with a mighty shoulder shrug.

Still, the stories that I enjoyed, I really, really enjoyed. Best of the batch for me were:

Build Me a Wonderland by Seanan McGuire: Well, of course I loved the Seanan McGuire story! I’m been on a roll with Seanan McGuire books all year, so there’s really zero chance that I wouldn’t love what she wrote. In this story, we see behind the scenes at a theme park with really magical magical effects. Hint: They’re not CGI. The story is clever and intricate and very much fun.

Quality Time by Ken Liu: Ooh, a disturbing robot story! All about a young tech worker looking for the next big breakthrough, whose inventions have unintended consequences.

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt: About a human librarian given responsibility for fairy archives. Creative and magical and just a wee bit threatening — and hey, it’s about a library! What’s not to love?

The Blue Fairy’s Manifesto by Annalee Newitz: Not a fairy story! It’s a robotic version of Pinocchio, and asks all sorts of great questions about what it is to be real, and what it means to have choices.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey: I loved Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo novellas, so was really excited to see her included in this collection. Bread and Milk and Salt is probably the creepiest story of the bunch, about a fairy captured by a sadistic human and how she turns things around. Dark and disturbing and delicious.

And perhaps my favorite, because I love John Scalzi and his humor, and this story left me rolling on the floor:

Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Era of Humans For the First Time: Oh my. This story is exactly what the title says it is — a dialogue between robots trying to figure out the purpose and functionality of human objects such as a ball, a sandwich, and a cat. Just amazing. And in case you’re wondering about our future overlords, it would seem clear that it’s cats for the win.

There are plenty more stories, some I found captivating, some weird, all original and entertaining and often perplexing too. It’s really a strong collection, and I could see enjoying it either as a book to read straight through, or as a collection to leave on the nightstand and pick up from time to time to read just one story here or or there, whenever the mood strikes.

As a side note, I had purchased an earlier collection from these editors, featuring some of the same authors plus several others whose works I love. The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales was published in 2016, and I have yet to open it. Maybe it’s time for it to come down off the shelf and sit on my nightstand, close at hand for when I need a story or two.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Robots vs Fairies
Authors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 373 pages
Genre: Science fiction/fantasy anthology
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files, #3)

 

 

In her childhood, Rose Franklin accidentally discovered a giant metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. As an adult, Dr. Rose Franklin led the team that uncovered the rest of the body parts which together form Themis: a powerful robot of mysterious alien origin. She, along with linguist Vincent, pilot Kara, and the unnamed Interviewer, protected the Earth from geopolitical conflict and alien invasion alike. Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find her old alliances forfeit and the planet in shambles. And she must pick up the pieces of the Earth Defense Corps as her own friends turn against each other.

I have loved The Themis Files books since day one, so it’s probably no surprise that I really and truly loved this concluding volume as well. In the first two Themis Files books, we see the discovery of a giant robot, which is in truth an alien artifact, leading to an alien invasion that threatens the survival of all humankind. Here, in Only Human, we find out how it all works out.

The previous book, Waking Gods, ends on a cliffhanger. With the immediate threat removed, Vincent, Rose, and Eva are celebrating their victory, when they suddenly realize they’re not on Earth any longer. As Only Human opens, we learn that our Earthlings have been transported to the alien home planet, which finally gets a name – Esat Ekt. And there they stay, learning the Ekt language, culture, and sense of morality, with no means of going home.

The Ekt’s principal code of morality is non-interference. They will not allow themselves to alter the course of any other species’ progress, development, or evolution. If a species is meant to go extinct, the Ekt will not interfere. And if a species, such as the human race, develops in a way that they should not have because of Ekt interference in the past, then all signs of that interference must be eliminated. Of course, the Ekt didn’t mean to commit mass murder, as they did in book #2, and here in book #3, the people of Esat Ekt are deeply embroiled in a reexamination of their non-interference policy after realizing their responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions on Earth.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, in the years following the great battle which concluded in the previous book, human interactions have changed dramatically. One of the giant robots ended up left behind, then seized as property of the United States, which then used it to rewrite the geopolitical lines of the planet. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return almost a decade later aboard Themis, the Russians want the robot — badly — and will do just about anything to get it and its pilots under their control, in an effort to reshape the world’s balance of power.

As with the earlier books, Only Human is told via interview transcripts and journal entries, with the entries from the humans on Esat Ekt interwoven with the entries from Earth upon the gang’s arrival back on their home planet all those years later. Through these entries, we learn about life on Esat Ekt — the politics, the participatory democracy, the casual bigotry, and the way a free society can have hidden biases and injustices. Meanwhile, we see the ongoing complicated dynamics between the main characters. The highlight is the relationship between Vincent and his daughter Eva. Only 10  years old when they were whisked off to an alien planet, by the start of the action in this book Eva is a 19-year-old young woman who is strong-willed and ready to jump into action to pursue justice, never mind her own safety. Naturally, she and Vincent are on a collision course, and when their conflict finally comes to a head, it’s spectucular.

There are so many memorable characters in these books. An old favorite, Mr. Burns, returns in Only Human, and I also was really fascinated by the American-raised Russian agent Katherine, whose Americanisms and snark hide a truly terrifying ruthless streak.

The audiobook version is amazing, performed by a full cast. In fact, while I had the e-book ARC for some time before the official release date, I chose to wait until the Audible edition became available because I really wanted to experience the story in that way, as I did with the first two books. The voice actors are terrific. I love Vincent, with his French-Canadian accent and excitable nature; Rose’s calm demeanor, Mr. Burns’s humor, and — big treat here — the Ekt characters as well, speaking both a mangled sort of English as well as their own native language. My only complaint is that Eva’s accent has completely changed from the previous book, and it was weird and distracting at first. Oh well. I got over it. As a whole, the audiobook experience is a delight.

Let’s pause here to admire author Sylvain Neuvel’s fantastic use of his linguistics background to create a language for the Ekt that’s weird and alien and sounds just awesome to listen to. I loved the words and phrases, and very much enjoyed learning a yokits swear word in Ekt.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the Themis Files series. If you enjoy audiobooks, absolutely listen to these! The production is top-notch and really added to my enjoyment. But even without the audio, it’s an incredible story, so well written, full of sci-fi adventure and surprises — but even more so, full of human emotion and heart, which are what truly makes this story work.

I really do hope that the author will choose to write more in the Themis-verse… but if not, I’ll still want to read whatever he writes next.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Only Human (The Themis Files, #3)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Narrator: Full cast production
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audiobook): 8 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Murderbot! Books 1 & 2 of Martha Wells’s amazing sci-fi adventure series.

For sci-fi lovers looking for something fresh, new, and quick, the Murderbot Diaries novellas are sure to rock your world!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Artificial Condition!

Book #1 – All Systems Red
(144 pages, published May 17, 2017 by Tor)

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

My thoughts:

This novella is fast, fun, and engaging, with plenty of action and lots of humor to go with it. First of all, what makes this a great read is the first-person narration by Murderbot itself (or SecUnit, as the rest of the team refer to it). Murderbot, having hacked the module that forces it to blindly follow orders, really just wants to be left to its own devices — mainly so it can focus on watching all the serialized entertainment feeds that it’s downloaded.

As Murderbot and the crew of the expedition find themselves in unexpected danger from an unknown enemy, Murderbot — uncomfortably and unwillingly — ends up caring much more than it intends to about its group of humans. Its attempts to protect the humans earns it their trust and friendship, and that’s almost too weird for it to be able to deal with.

I really love the Murderbot character and the many funny moments focused on its reactions to social settings and interactions. While some of the action is a bit hard to follow, it doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s a good, well-drawn, fast-paced adventure, with ups and downs and high drama. The ending makes clear that there’s much more to come and much more to know about Murderbot, which leads us to…

Book #2 – Artificial Condition
(159 pages, published May 8, 2018 by Tor)

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”.

But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

My thoughts:

Artificial Condition picks up where All Systems Red leaves off, and it’s just as awesome this time around to accompany Murderbot on its quest for the truth about its own past. Murderbot’s partnership with ART starts off with annoyance, but before long they’re watching the serials together on their feeds and doing some truly masterful hacking of pretty much every security system they find.

Murderbot gets the answers it’s looking for, and meanwhile gets involved with yet another group of vulnerable humans who desperately need its protection. Of course, it can’t help feeling responsible for them, and takes care of them and resolves their crisis in the most Murderbot-ish way possible.

I absolutely adore being in Murderbot’s head. I will never get tired of how it thinks, especially how it thinks about humans.

Part of my job as a SecUnit was to give clients advice when they asked for it, as I was theoretically the one with all the information on security. Not that a lot of them had asked for it, or had listened to me. Not that I’m bitter about that, or anything.

I felt this would be the point where a human would sigh, so I sighed.

“Tlacey bought us passage on a public shuttle,” Rami told me. “That could be a good sign, right?”

“Sure,” I said. It was a terrible sign.

A self-aware, self-determining robot with a sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for watching TV will never get old for me. The Murderbot books are a blast. Can’t wait for #3, coming in August.

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Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi

 

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

 

I loved Lock In (review), John Scalzi’s novel that introduced us to the world of Hadens and threeps as experienced through the eyes of new FBI agent Chris Shane. And when I heard that there would be another story set in the same world… well, excited isn’t even the word for it.

Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the premise. Some 25 years in the past, a new strain of flu ravaged the globe, killing millions, and leaving a percentage of survivors “locked in” — fully aware, yet unable to carry out any voluntary bodily functions. Those in this locked-in state became known as Hadens, in honor of the syndrome’s most famous early patient, the wife of then-President Haden. As Haden’s Syndrome ravaged populations world-wide, enormous funds and resources were devoted to treatment, and the most significant innovations were the development of neural nets — basically, networking implanted in the brains of Hadens — and threeps — personal transport devices into which Hadens transport their consciousness, allowing them to move, interact, have jobs, and live in the world, all while their actual bodies are safely at home supported by life-support systems and caregivers.

Agent Shane is a Haden, who at one point was incredibly famous by virtue of his basketball star father’s enormous influence, popularity, and wealth. Now, Shane just wants a life of his own, out of the spotlight, pursuing a meaningful career and being a contributing member of society.

Okay, those are the basics of this sci-fi world.

As for Head On, I can safely say that this book lives up to the thrill-level of Lock In, presenting a whole new facet of Haden existence one year after the events of that book. In Head On, the narrative kicks off with a death on a sports field. But this isn’t football — this is the brave new world of professional Hilketa leagues, played by Hadens in threeps in a game that feels like a mash-up of rugby and gladiator combat. And just think about the weirdness of it all: While the players are superstar athletes with multi-million dollar endorsements, they’re also physically in their immobilized bodies at the same time they’re experiencing glory on the field. Hilketa players feel pain (league rules require them to keep their pain settings at a minimal level), but the physical damage — like having limbs or even heads ripped off — happens only to the threep itself.

The description of the game is both ridiculous and captivating — kind of like reading about Quidditch for the first time!

When a player dies after sustaining damage on the field, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on then just an unfortunate sports-related death. The FBI is responsible for investigating Haden-related crimes, so it’s Agents Shane and Vann on the job once again. The agents’ chemistry is just as entertaining as in the first book, full of quips and banter, as well as an astonishingly effective good cop, bad copy routine that never gets old.

The mystery of the death and the implied scandal and corruption within the Hilketa league are intriguing. The clues and schemes are pretty mind-boggling, and I’ll admit that by the time the story starts unraveling financial misconduct and corporate fraud, I did get a bit lost in some of the details. No matter. The important connections are built up piece by piece, so that by the end, it all fits together in a way that makes sense and gives us the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Despite the murders and mayhem, there’s plenty of fun along the way, especially when it comes to seeing Shane with his Hadens roommates and all their goofy dynamics. Oh, and did I mention the cat? There’s a cat. And the cat becomes a crucial bit of evidence in a way that’s cute and clever and made me laugh.

A word about gender:

You may have noticed that I refer to Agent Shane as “he”… and that’s just not entirely accurate. Both Lock In and Head On are written in the first person, with Chris Shane as narrator.

And, I’m ashamed to say, it absolutely never occurred to me that the author never actually specifies Chris’s gender. I suppose I assumed that Chris was short for Christopher, back when I first started Lock In, and I pictured Chris as a male throughout my read of the first book. It wasn’t until I encountered this article prior to the publication of Head On that I even realized that I’d jumped to conclusions.

Again, John Scalzi NEVER SAYS whether Chris is male or female. Both are possible. And what’s really cool is that two versions of the audiobook are available, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson. I downloaded the Wil Wheaton version back when I got Lock In, and wasn’t aware that there was any other version.

So now, as I was reading Head On, I couldn’t help hearing Wheaton’s voice in my head and consequently continued picturing of Chris as a male — but at least now, I stopped to think and reconsider certain scenes. Would the dynamic of Shane and Vann’s banter come across differently if it was between two females agents, rather than male and female? Is there an element of sexual politics implicit in the male/female working partnership that would have struck me differently if the gender differential was removed?

I can only imagine that the tone of certain parts of the story would feel very different to me if I’d been picturing a female lead character all along. So I’ve decided to put it to the test. Not right now, but sometime soon, I plan to revisit Head On by listening to the audiobook, and this time around, I’ll choose the Amber Benson version. Should be fascinating! And if I find that it’s a really different experience of the same story, I’ll be sure to report back.

Enough of my rambles…

Back to the review: I can definitely recommend Head On for anyone who enjoys science fiction with a touch of humor. While Head On doesn’t feel quite as revelatory as Lock In, in which the author had to build a whole new reality, it’s still quite an enjoyable, attention-grabbing read. John Scalzi is an amazing writer, and I hope he’ll continue to explore this world in future books.

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The details:

Title: Head On
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 17, 2018
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Future Home of the Living God

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Thirty-two-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.

Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.

There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.

A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.

My Thoughts:

While often disturbing, this book doesn’t flesh out its dystopian vision well enough to make a true impact. The concept of evolution running backwards isn’t really explored or explained. True, the story is told through the eyes of its main character, Cedar, and she can only tell what she herself knows — but that narrow viewpoint limits the reader’s ability to grasp the outside events and understand how the world could change so dramatically in so short a time. Within mere months, pregnant women are hunted, tracked, and imprisoned, forced into reproductive centers with no choice but to bear and then lose children.

Meanwhile, Cedar’s exploration of family, roots, and faith meander and lack coherence. The book is at its best during its most harrowing sections, when Cedar is on the run or in the midst of an elaborate escape plot. Her inner monologues and writings on religion take away from the building tension.

It’s a shame, because the big-picture concept could be intriguing if we had more information on why it’s happening, or really, a better view of what actually is happening. Instead, it’s a little bit Handmaid’s Tale but without the urgency or connection of that classic. Overall, I walked away disappointed by a book I’d been so eager to read.

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The details:

Title: Future Home of the Living God
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: November 14, 2017
Length: 267 pages
Genre: Speculative/science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

 

I suppose I should acknowledge up front that it was practically impossible that Andy Weir’s second novel would measure up to his hugely successful first novel, The Martian. I mean, The Martian was amazing, plain and simple. It was fresh, it was new, it was smart, and it was highly entertaining.

So how does an author follow up such a tremendous hit?

Well, in this case, with a book that’s fun and light, but feels a little too familiar to really leave much of a mark.

In Artemis, Jazz (short for Jasmine) is a criminal-lite — she smuggles contraband while working as a porter, plans to become a wealthy EVA (extravehicular activity) tour guide, and meanwhile works odd jobs that are not quite legit in order to pay for her coffin-like bed chamber. (Calling it an apartment would be way overselling it.) Jazz seems to be well-connected, and while avoiding getting on the bad side of what passes for the law in Artemis, she drinks, avoids her observant Muslim father, and is something of a wise-ass.

When a mega-rich tycoon offers her a million slugs (moon currency) to carry out a dangerous, shady bit of sabotage, she sees a way to finally pay off some long-standing debts and improve her standard of living, but of course, nothing goes as planned. And when that escapade turns into a fiasco, she’s pulled into a worsening situation that involves murder, organized crime, and even more dangerous missions. If Jazz is caught, she’ll face deportation back to Earth, which would absolutely suck for her, since she’s lived on the moon since age six and wouldn’t be able to handle Earth’s gravity.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Jazz is a survivor, and she manages to get on people’s bad sides constantly, and yet charms them into helping her anyway. She comes up with some clever plans, but naturally what ever can go wrong, does go wrong.

The book reads like a moon-based heist caper, like Ocean’s Eleven in a space bubble. We’ve got a scrappy gang applying their various skills to pull off one big job, making millions, disrupting a bunch of bad guys, and making sure that their little world ends up better than it started. Sure, there’s science and space involved — instead of robbing a casino, for example, here they’re trying to blow up a smelting plant, but it’s the same basic idea.

It all feels familiar somehow. As a science fiction reader, I’ve read other books about life on other planets with humans living in biospheres. I’ve seen plenty of caper flicks. So yes, putting those elements together is fun, and Artemis is definitely entertaining, but it doesn’t have that outrageous spark that powered The Martian.

Jazz herself is a bit problematic, verging on tokenism. Kudos for putting a Muslim woman in the main character role, and certainly her relationship with her father and the conflict between his beliefs and her approach to life are interesting — but she seems very cookie cutter to me. I didn’t get a feel for who she is beneath the surface facts — independent, mid-twenties, rebellious, daring… but when, for example, she ends up kissing one of the male characters toward the end of the book, it was completely out of the blue. I had no idea she had any interest in him, but it’s just that kind of story where you know the main character has to have a love interest, and the only question is which of the available characters will be it.

I enjoyed the time spent reading Artemis, but at the same time, it’s not a book that will stick with me now that I’m done. Still, I like Andy Weir’s writing and use of science to tell a story, and look forward to seeing what he does next.

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The details:

Title: Artemis
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: October 3, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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