Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell

Review: A Study in Honor by Claire O’DellA Study in Honor (The Janet Watson Chronicles #1) by Claire O'Dell, Beth Bernobich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, mystery, science fiction
Series: Janet Watson Chronicles #1
Pages: 304
Published by Harper Voyager on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.

Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.

My Review:

This was a wow. Even better, it was a wow in ways that I wasn’t expecting, so excellent all the way around.

Admittedly, I bounced off A Study in Honor the first time I started it. I was expecting a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which it sorta/kinda is, but that’s not really apparent at the beginning. At the beginning, we’re following Dr. Janet Watson as she gets the shaft from the VA after losing her arm in combat.

Dr. Watson is a surgeon, and to go back to that job in civilian life, she needs two good hands. And the combat-damaged prosthetic that was supposed to be a temporary fix, well, it isn’t even good enough for much in civilian life – it certainly isn’t good enough for surgery.

But the war isn’t going well, is extremely unpopular, and the VA is sucking hind tit in the federal budget. Some things never change.

Other things do.

This war, unlike the perpetual war in Afghanistan that injured both the original Dr. John Watson and his 21st century incarnation in Sherlock, is a civil war. In what has become the not-so-United States.

The very frightening thing about this war is that it is so close we can see it from here. And entirely possible for all that. It’s a variation on the civil war in the darkly awesome book American War by Omar El Akkad, where the “reactionary” forces of the Old South have picked up the guns they are always afraid are going to be taken away from them and started a shooting war with what they see as the liberal-leftist North and Left-Coast West.

Unlike in American War, in this version, the so-called “Conservative” forces seem to be winning, if not all of the battles, at least the battle for hearts and minds in the North. It’s as though they made Robert E. Lee’s strategy work – just keep going long enough for the North to get too tired to fight.

This is also a scary close near future in that in 2016 Trump did get elected. Then after his administration overthrew as many of the civil rights of minorities as they could possibly manage, got replaced by the backlash of a progressive female Democratic president. After spending part of her first term turning back as much of the damage as possible, the folks who want their idealized 1950s back began the war in Oklahoma.

But this isn’t quite a dystopia, although it’s certainly getting there. Back home in Washington DC, away from the fronts in the states surrounding Oklahoma, the world seems to be going on as normal.

Unless you’re a wounded veteran trying to get the benefits you’re entitled to out of a VA that only cares about its bottom line.

Just as in the original stories, and in most of the remixes and pastiches, Watson is living off her military pension and needs a job. Holmes, in this case Sara Holmes, wants a roommate for the apartment she needs but claims to not be able to quite afford without said roommate.

But this Holmes is not what she seems. She’s every bit as brilliant (and enigmatic) as her original, but unlike the original Sherlock Holmes, Sara Holmes is not an independent agent.

As Janet Watson eventually discovers.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve written a lot about the setup of this story, because a lot of this book is setup. While this world unfortunately feels like a logical extension of current events, it is not current events and needs to get us fixed firmly into its vision of the future.

Which does not mean it isn’t a vision of the future that doesn’t include a whole lot of the present. Unfortunately for our protagonists, the parts of the present that carry over are quite frequently the worst bits. I said this isn’t a dystopia, but a better description would be that it isn’t a dystopia yet.

Those roots in the contemporary present form a good part of the terrible case that Janet unearths and that Sara helps her resolve. Part of what makes this book an A- rather than a A is that the case was fairly obvious. All too plausible, but also all too easy to figure out from the very first clue.

What makes this story, this version of Holmes and Watson, so fascinating are the characters of the two women. Instead of two white men in Victorian England (or 21st century England, for that matter), the Holmes and Watson in A Study in Honor are two black women at a time and place where the hope for true equality that shone during the Obama era has receded into the past and is dying under the lash of “conservative” dog-whistles that are pitched so any human can hear.

Which also means that in addition to the many indignities visited upon Janet Watson because she’s a wounded veteran, even more are heaped upon her because she’s black and because she dared to aspire to a profession that some people still believe should have been reserved for whites. And where the lesbianism of both of the protagonists just adds yet another layer of potential for prejudice.

A Study in Honor is a dark and gritty portrait of a world going to hell in a handcart, as seen from the perspective of someone who has visited that hell, and sometimes seems to have only left it in body but not in spirit. And investigates a mystery that plows right into the hell of that war and the dark heart of the people and governments that are waging it.

Watson and Holmes’ adventures continue in The Hound of Justice. I can’t wait.

Reviewer’s Note: Claire O’Dell is a pseudonym for author Beth Bernobich.

Review: Edge of Eon by Anna Hackett

Review: Edge of Eon by Anna HackettEdge of Eon (Eon Warriors #1) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction, science fiction romance, space opera
Series: Eon Warriors #1
Pages: 225
Published by Anna Hackett on December 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Framed for a crime she didn't commit, a wrongly-imprisoned space captain's only chance at freedom is to abduct a fearsome alien war commander.

Sub-Captain Eve Traynor knows a suicide mission when she sees one. With deadly insectoid aliens threatening to invade Earth, the planet’s only chance of survival is to get the attention of the fierce Eon Warriors. But the Eon want nothing to do with Earth, and Eve wants nothing to do with abducting War Commander Davion Thann-Eon off his warship. But when Earth’s Space Corps threaten her sisters, Eve will do anything to keep them safe, even if it means she might not make it back.

War Commander Davion Thann-Eon is taking his first vacation in years. Dedicated to keeping the Eon Empire safe, he’s been born and bred to protect. But when he’s attacked and snatched off his very own warship, he is shocked to find himself face-to-face with a bold, tough little Terran warrior. One who both infuriates and intrigues him.

When their shuttle is attacked by the ravenous insectoid Kantos, Eve and Davion crash land on the terrifying hunter planet known as Hunter7. A planet designed to test a warrior to his limits. Now, the pair must work together to survive, caught between the planet and its dangers, the Kantos hunting them down, and their own incendiary attraction.

My Review:

Edge of Eon is the first book in Anna Hackett’s new science fiction romance series, Eon Warriors. So if you’ve ever had a hankering to try SFR in general or this author in particular (and you should, she’s terrific!) this is a great place to start.

The Eon Warriors series is space opera type SFR, one of my particular favorites. Lots of ships, lots of planets,, LOTS of politics, and a big universe in which to tell both big and small stories. If you’re wondering exactly what “space opera” is, think of Star Trek. THAT’s space opera.

Star Wars is more space fantasy, but I digress. As usual.

Our heroine is coerced or blackmailed into what seems like a suicide mission. Sub-Captain Traynor is in the brig. Space Corps framed her to take the fall when her Captain – the son of a high-ranking admiral – completely screwed the pooch in a mission against the predatory, insectoid warrior-race, the Kratos.

The Kratos want to conquer Earth and crack it open like an egg – and they’re winning the fight. Earth just hasn’t been spacefaring long enough to be really good at space warfare – and it looks like they won’t have time to learn.

Unless they can get the highly developed and highly advanced Eons on their side. The Eons are humanoid, a close relative of the people from Earth. But their high advancement has included a whole lot of civilization that Earth humans haven’t mastered yet. Basically, when the Earth folks met the Eons, the Earthers exhibited all the worst flaws of human behavior at one go. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t smart, and the Eons closed their borders and told the Earthers to leave them alone.

Which leads us right back to Eve Traynor. Earth’s back is against the wall. They’re losing the war with the Kratos. If the Kratos win, Earth will be stripped and its people will be either dead or food. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

So Space Corps concocts the wild idea to kidnap one of the Eons’ leading ship commanders in order to get the Eons to help them fight off the Kratos. While this may seem like a bonehead play, when the people you are desperate to contact won’t take your calls it takes a big battering ram to get your foot in the door. Especially when you need to break down the door first!

Eve’s job is to kidnap Commander Davion Thann-Eon in order to somehow win the Eons’ cooperation, or at least get their attention. In return she gets out of the brig and more importantly has a chance of saving her planet and her people. Including her two younger sisters.

The kidnapping goes swimmingly, at least at first. But when the Kratos attack during the escape, it all goes pear-shaped really, really fast. Eve, Davion and the small skimmer she’s commandeered crash land on Hunter 7, a planet notorious for its rigorous testing of Eon warrior candidates. The Kratos are right on their tails while the planet attempts to kill them at every turn.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In the case of Eve and Davion, it makes them stronger together. And it still might kill them.

Escape Rating A: I have been waiting for this author to return to SFR, and Edge of Eon was definitely worth the wait. It hit that difficult balance between building a consistent science fictional world and telling a terrific love story.

It helps that the story reminds me of one of the absolutely classic SF romances, Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. And that’s epic company to be in. While Shards does not start with a kidnapping, the plot of two space commanders from not necessarily opposing sides but certainly not allies who have crashed on a dangerous planet with little hope of rescue and fall in love along the way is a classic for a reason. It’s a plot that works, forcing two reluctant allies to bond together in order to have a chance at survival.

The kidnapping is a nice twist – and reminds me a bit of Quantum, the second book in Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy series. That book also has the reluctant allies face a deadly planet scenario, with the protagonists each wondering if the other has betrayed them.

There are also a couple of classic SFR tropes built into Edge of Eon that are difficult to do well, but that are done quite well in this story.

The Eons have a population problem. Or rather, a procreation problem that leads to a population problem. The warriors are only fertile with their “fated mates”, and true matings have become very rare. Science has found a way around the problem through in vitro fertilization of scientifically selected genetic material, but it’s not an ideal solution for an entire species.

So the Eon Warriors need to increase their pool of potential partners in order to find their true mates. This is jokingly referred to as the “Mars needs women” trope. And when they do find them,  because of the way things are set up in this story, that’s the “fated mate” trope.

Of course, in our story, Eve and Davion turn out to be true mates. A fact which is going to sooner or later in the series lead to somebody figuring out that Earth is a potential source for mates for the Eons, giving the two species a reason to get together to fight the Kratos.

So far, this aspect is done subtly, but it’s definitely there. And it’s an aspect that has the potential to grow as the series progresses.

The fated mate trope can lead to insta-love, and if done poorly tends to feel a bit like an arranged marriage where the participants don’t really have a choice about who they mate with.

While Eve and Davion do fall for each other rather quickly, the circumstances that they have found themselves in do lead to fast bonding without the fated mate issue. That they don’t even guess that they might be true mates until after they have already fallen for each other keeps the fated mate situation from being too heavy handed.

But what really sells the story are the characters. We empathize with Eve and the rock and the hard place she’s caught between. Unfortunately it is also all too easy to see how a hide-bound bureaucracy turns into an “old soldier’s club” where children of the elite accrue favors they have not earned and people like Eve get the shaft. Or the cell.

That Davion falls for this tough, competent and dangerous woman makes sense. She’s someone who can meet him as an equal, and there are very few people who can do that, whether male or female. Forced to rely on each other, it’s not a surprise that they fall for each other, even if it does happen just a bit fast.

That the underhanded and desperate dealings of Eve’s Space Corps also set the scenarios for books 2 and 3 in this series makes perfect sense. I can’t wait for Touch of Eon in January to see how it all begins to play out.,

Review: Very Important Corpses by Simon R. Green

Review: Very Important Corpses by Simon R. GreenVery Important Corpses (Ishmael Jones, #3) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #3
Pages: 201
Published by Severn House Publishers on March 1, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Ishmael Jones travels to the Scottish Highlands on a mysterious dual mission in this intriguing, genre-blending mystery. The Organisation has despatched Ishmael and his partner Penny to Coronach House on the shores of Loch Ness where the secretive but highly influential Baphamet Group are holding their annual meeting. The Organisation believes an imposter has infiltrated the Group and they have instructed Ishmael to root him or her out. It s not Ishmael s only mission. The first agent sent by the Organisation has been found dead in her room, murdered in a horribly gruesome manner. Ishmael must also discover who killed his fellow agent, Jennifer Rifkin and why. Dismissive of rumours that the legendary Coronach Creature is behind Jennifer s death, Ishmael sets out to expose the human killer in their midst. But he must act fast before any more Very Important People are killed."

My Review:

Once upon a time, a tour guide told me that “sightings of the monster are directly related to consumption of the Highland beverage.” In other words, if you stand around Loch Ness and drink enough Scotch, you’ll definitely improve your odds of seeing Nessie. Or possibly two or three Nessies, depending on how many bottles you need to find the monster in the lake.

Alternatively, as Penny Belcourt discovers in this third book in the Ishmael Jones series, (after The Dark Side of the Road and Dead Man Walking) all she has to do is go with Ishmael to one of his assignments for the mysterious “Organization” and she’s bound to see A monster if not THE monster.

Whether that’s an actual monster, or just the monster that lurks inside entirely too many of the “people” that the Organization sends Ishmael to deal with, is generally a toss up. It certainly pays to be prepared for either eventuality – and every other they can think of. In their line of work, paranoia isn’t a psychological condition – it’s more of a survival trait.

And if there’s one thing Ishmael Jones is good at, it’s survival. He’s been successfully surviving, and hiding in not so plain sight, since his space ship crashed in 1963 and turned him into a reasonable facsimile of a human male in his mid-20s. Just with a few useful and additional skills as well as an unchanging face and body. Ishmael has been 25 or thereabouts for over 50 years now, and it’s getting harder to hide.

Hence his work for the Organization, which keeps his secrets in exchange for his cleaning up and keeping some of theirs.

That’s what brings Ishmael – and Penny – to Coronach House on the shore of Loch Ness. One of those super-secret cabals that conspiracy wonks love to foam at the mouth about is secretly meeting at this secure and remote house, and that security has been compromised. The first Organization agent sent to figure out what’s gone wrong is dead, and Ishmael is sent to solve the mystery, clean up the mess, and make sure that someone gets the message that messing with the Organization shortens the life expectancy.

But the Organization never sends Ishmael to any easy jobs. That’s certainly the case here – especially as the body count rises and the level of wanton destruction that accompanies each body ramps up from merely vicious to downright cataclysmic.

And as usual, the people that Ishmael is supposed to protect all think that they really don’t have to listen to him. And of course they do, at least if they want to live. Not that they all manage that, either.

There are puzzles within puzzles, and wheels within wheels, as the murderer, whoever or whatever they might be, does his, her or its level best to keep Ishmael so horrified and occupied that he doesn’t have time to put the clues together until it’s nearly too late.

Escape Rating B+: Like all of the books in this series so far, Very Important Corpses was a whole lot of creepy fun. It is very definitely horror-adjacent, which makes it just the right book to review for Halloween.

One of the things that I really like about this series is the way that the horror elements are used as set decoration and distraction – and that Ishmael generally knows that’s their purpose. He’s aware that the increasing level of creepy is designed to put him off his game, and he’s determined not to be sucked in by it.

There is a hidden world in this series, a hidden world that Ishmael is definitely a part of, but he knows what’s possible and what actually isn’t – even if his range of what’s possible veers into fairly weird waters. He believes in aliens because he is one. He believes in alien tech because he’s seen it.

He doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or ancestral monsters like the one that is supposed to haunt Coronach House. And in spite of being garden-variety human, AND seeming rather open-minded about these things, Penny doesn’t believe in them either. She just asks the questions about them that Ishmael refuses to ask.

One of the things I love about this author is that the snark-o-meter is always set to high, and this book was no exception. One of the things I’ve been wondering about was whether that trademark snark would also include this author’s usual throwaway references to the other worlds he has created. While those first two books didn’t, this one does. Not in a way that will keep anyone from getting into this book, but just enough to make a reader already familiar smile in recognition.

At the beginning this series reminded me a lot of Torchwood, with Ishmael as Captain Jack. This particular entry in the series reminded me of a very specific episode of Torchwood, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, where someone from Captain Jack’s past shows up and we get a glimpse of who and what he was before Torchwood. That same thing happens in Very Important Corpses, where someone from Ishmael’s past turns up, and we learn a bit more about what he’s been up to in those 50 plus years.

And just as it was in Torchwood, Ishmael’s old frenemy is not exactly what he appears to be. While I didn’t figure out exactly what he was, that he wasn’t exactly on the up and up was clear fairly early on.

But it didn’t stop my compulsive turning of the pages, not one little bit. As long as I kept the lights on.

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Review: The Consuming Fire by John ScalziThe Consuming Fire (The Interdependency #2) by John Scalzi
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #2
Pages: 320
Published by Tor Books on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


The Consuming Fire
--the second thrilling novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from the Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it--unless desperate measures can be taken.

Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth--or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.

My Review:

There is a description that claims that science fiction is a fantasy of political agency. That is certainly true of The Consuming Fire, and the entire Interdependency series so far. It could also be said that in this series, a significant part of the story is just which characters have fantasies that they in particular have political agency. Actually fantasies that they have considerably more political agency than they really have. Part of the story is watching at least some of those characters get disabused of that notion – and occasionally with extreme prejudice.

Another way of looking at this story is that it is all about power. There’s that old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it doesn’t quite apply here. No one really has absolute power. The person who seems on the surface to have the most, Emperox Grayland II, mostly seems to have the kind of power that the Queen of England has. That is, the power to advise, the power to encourage, and the power to warn. Her power isn’t quite that restricted, but it feels close to that – especially from her perspective.

However, the desire for absolute power does seem to corrupt absolutely. Or at least that’s the model that the Nohamapeton family seems to be following. The Countess Nohamapeton wants absolute power. She wants her family to control the throne. So far, she’s sacrificed two sons to that ambition and possibly her daughter as well. Not to mention all the other people she has arranged to have eliminated along the way. And she’s still plotting.

There’s that saying about diplomacy being war waged by other means. In this book there’s a corollary that applies – politics is civil war waged by other means. There are a lot of cutthroat politics in this one, sometimes with throats literally being cut – or shot – or wrecked.

This is also a story about inevitable change, and the many, varied and frequently counterproductive ways that people react in the face of that change. Interstellar commerce is founded on and dependent upon a poorly understood means of faster-than-light interstellar travel, called “the Flow”. The Flow has been more or less dependable for a millennium, and people have gotten very, very used to the idea that it will always be dependable.

But it isn’t. The Flow is collapsing – hence the title of the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire. Flow scientists barely understand the flow well enough to predict the collapse. They certainly don’t understand it well enough to prevent the collapse.

So all that anyone in the Interdependency can do is react to the eminent collapse.Often, but not always, badly.

Of course there are a few people, and at times it seems like very few, who are doing the best they can to save as much as possible, however they can. It’s a more difficult task than it might be, because the Interdependency doesn’t seem to have many planets that can support human life. Not many actually equals just one – and it’s a planet that has already been partially cut off from the Flow.

Everyone else lives on habitats that orbit planets that happen to have been conveniently located for the Flow streams. Which is going to literally turn to hell (not) on Earth as they each get cut off from the supplies and equipment they need to maintain those high-tech habitats.

The Emperox Grayland II is one of those people who are trying to save, if not the Interdependency itself, at least as many of the people in it as is possible. But she has very few allies, and plenty of people who want to skim the cream off the status quo for as long as possible.

At the end of the book – although certainly not the end of the story – Grayland’s enemies discover that SHE is the consuming fire – a fire that will turn their petty machinations to ash in pursuit of her goal to save everyone else – or at least as much of everyone else as is possible.

Escape Rating A-: The Interdependency, at least so far, is a very political space opera. This is a government that was deliberately created to have wheels within wheels. Keeping those wheels properly greased has been the millennia long job of the Wu family. After all, creating the Interdependency and getting themselves installed as the Imperial Family was all about their wheels getting greased. They made sure that the setup also greased all the wheels of anyone who could have stood in their way at the time.

The creation of the Interdependency was a very cynical act. Effective, but cynical. The current Emperox isn’t nearly as cynical as some of predecessors, but she has plenty of motivation to do her best. And plenty of even more cynical people to keep from killing her. If you like political SF, this series so far is a lot of fun. It’s not a situation that one would remotely want to be in, but the machinations are fascinating to watch.

All in all, I have to say that The Consuming Fire is typical Scalzi. If you like the author, as I certainly do, you will eat this one up with a spoon, and then moan and complain when you reach the bottom of the bowl.

(Admittedly, if you don’t already like Scalzi, this book will probably not change your mind. It’s very typical of all the things I read him FOR. Which, if they don’t work for you, this book won’t either.)

I started this on audio, and Wil Wheaton again did an awesome job reading the story. His normal just slightly snarky tone is perfect for this author, because there is always a lot of subtle and sometimes not so subtle, snark in his work. But I wanted to see how this installment ends – and I felt the need to finish the book before we see the author in person on Thursday, so I bought the ebook and finished in an hour.

It is also hilarious to hear someone reading all of Kiva Lagos’ dialog. Kiva may possibly be the most profane character I’ve ever run across. She clearly does not know how to construct a sentence without at least one f-bomb in it. Her lines are funny to read, but almost brutal – and appropriately so – when read.

The Consuming Fire is not the place to start this series. The setup of the Flow and the way that the Interdependency interdepends upon it is all set up in the first book, The Collapsing Empire. And that’s also where we get introduced to all of the characters that make this story so much fun.

This is also, thank goodness, not the place where this story ends. There will be at least one more book. Because things are always darkest just before they turn completely black – and they haven’t turned completely black yet.

I’ll be over here, waiting with the proverbial bated breath, until they do. Hopefully next year, in the very tentatively titled The Last Emperox.

Review: Putting the Science in Fiction by Dan Koboldt vs. The Science of Science Fiction by Mark Brake

Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres by by Dan Koboldt, Chuck Wendig , Gareth D. Jones, Bianca Nogrady, Kathleen S. Allen, Mike Hays, William Huggins, Abby Goldsmith, Benjamin Kinney, Danna Staaf, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, Judy L. Mohr, Anne M. Lipton, Jamie Krakover, Rebecca Enzor, Stephanie Sauvinet, Philip Kramer, Gwen C. Katz
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback
Genre: science, science fiction
Pages: 266
Published by Writer’s Digest Books on October 16th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Science and technology have starring roles in a wide range of genres–science fiction, fantasy, thriller, mystery, and more. Unfortunately, many depictions of technical subjects in literature, film, and television are pure fiction. A basic understanding of biology, physics, engineering, and medicine will help you create more realistic stories that satisfy discerning readers.

This book brings together scientists, physicians, engineers, and other experts to help you:
Understand the basic principles of science, technology, and medicine that are frequently featured in fiction.
Avoid common pitfalls and misconceptions to ensure technical accuracy.
Write realistic and compelling scientific elements that will captivate readers.
Brainstorm and develop new science- and technology-based story ideas.
Whether writing about mutant monsters, rogue viruses, giant spaceships, or even murders and espionage, Putting the Science in Fiction will have something to help every writer craft better fiction.

Putting the Science in Fiction collects articles from “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy,” Dan Koboldt’s popular blog series for authors and fans of speculative fiction (dankoboldt.com/science-in-scifi). Each article discusses an element of sci-fi or fantasy with an expert in that field. Scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and others share their insights in order to debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

 

The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times by Mark Brake
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genre: science fiction, history
Pages: 272
Published by Skyhorse Publishing on October 9th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository
Goodreads

We are the first generation to live in a science fiction world.

Media headlines declare this the age of automation. The TV talks about the coming revolution of the robot, tweets tell tales of jets that will ferry travelers to the edge of space, and social media reports that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. The science we do, the movies we watch, and the culture we consume is the stuff of fiction that became fact, the future imagined in our past–the future we now inhabit.

The Science of Science Fiction is the story of how science fiction shaped our world. No longer a subculture, science fiction has moved into the mainstream with the advent of the information age it helped realize. Explore how science fiction has driven science, with topics that include:

Guardians of the Galaxy Is Space Full of Extraterrestrials? Jacking In: Will the Future Be Like Ready Player One?
Mad Max Is Society Running down into Chaos? The Internet: Will Humans Tire of Mere Reality?
Blade Runner 2049 When Will We Engineer Human Lookalikes? And many more!
This book will open your eyes to the way science fiction helped us dream of things to come, forced us to explore the nature and limits of our own reality, and aided us in building the future we now inhabit.

My Review:

I have served on various book judging committees over the years. Recently I was part of a group picking the best science fiction for the year. I’m not going to say where or when, but it’s a list where the jury is still out.

But it made me think about what makes good science fiction – and conversely what doesn’t. Which led me to not one but two books in the virtually towering TBR pile, Putting the Science in Fiction and The Science of Science Fiction, both of which have been released this month.

It seemed like a golden opportunity to do a compare and contrast instead of a more traditional review.

I thought that these books would work together well. Putting the Science in Fiction was all about the inputs. It is exactly what I expected it to be. Much fiction, both written and filmed, includes some science in some form. Police dramas and mysteries deal with forensic science. Medical dramas – and not a few mysteries – deal with medical science. Science fiction, of course, is all about taking science out to the nth degree and then playing with it.

But lay people often get things wrong. There are lots of things about science that get shortchanged or simplified in order to make better drama. Anyone who is an expert in whatever has just gotten completely screwed up will cringe and just how far off-base the writer or director has just taken the science in their story.

We all do it for our own fields. And when it happens it throws the knowledgeable reader out of the story – no matter how good the rest of it might be.

Putting the Science in Fiction turns out to be a surprisingly readable collection of essays by science and engineering experts explaining the very, very basics of their fields to those of us whose expertise is somewhere else. It serves as a terrific guide for any writer who wants to follow the dictum of “write what you know” by learning more so they know more so they have more to write about.

On my other hand, The Science of Science Fiction is not what I expected it to be. I was kind of expecting it to be about SF that did well – not necessarily in the science aspect at the time so much as in the way that it captured the imagination – even to the point where the SF created the science it postulated.

There is a famous story about Star Trek: The Original Series and the invention of the cell phone that comes to mind.

But that’s not where this book went. Although that would be a great book and I hope someone writes it.

Instead, The Science of Science Fiction reads more like a history of SF written thematically rather than chronologically. It takes some of the basic tenets and tropes of SF and lays out where they began – sometimes surprisingly long ago – to where they are now.

It’s an interesting approach but it didn’t quite gel for this reader.

By way of comparison, both books talk about the science and the influences of Michael Crichton’s classic work of SF, Jurassic Park.

Putting the Science in Fiction does two things, and it does them really well. First, it conveys that “sensawunder” that SF does when it is at its best. The author of the essay is a microbiologist, who puts the science of the book in context – both the context of what was known at the time it was written (OMG 1990!) and what has been discovered since, and comes to the conclusion that he didn’t do too badly based on what was known at the time. Discoveries since have made his science fictional extrapolation less likely than it originally seemed. It’s hard to fault the author for that.

But what the author of the essay also does is to show how the book not only grabbed his interest and attention but continues to hold it to the present day, even though he knows the science isn’t remotely feasible. The book does a great job of taking just enough of the science in a direction that we want to believe is possible.

After all, who wouldn’t want to see a real live dinosaur? Under very controlled conditions. Much more controlled conditions than occur in the book, of course.

The Science of Science Fiction also discusses Jurassic Park. (A classic is a classic, after all) But instead of talking about the science of cloning the author goes into a couple of other directions. First he sets Jurassic Park within the context of other “lost world” works of science fiction. That’s a tradition that goes back to Jules Verne and even further. But it feels like the fit of Jurassic Park as part of that lost world tradition doesn’t quite fit.

The other part of this Jurassic Park discussion has to do with the way that scientists are portrayed in SF. Science makes the story possible. Scientists in fiction tend to work toward proving they can do something – in this particular case proving they can clone dinosaurs from preserved DNA. It takes a different kind of scientist, someone dealing in chaos theory, to posit that just because it CAN be done doesn’t mean it SHOULD be done. That’s a discussion I would love to see expanded. And I’d have liked this book more if it had been expanded here.

Reality Ratings: These two books struck me completely differently. Putting the Science in Fiction is both readable and does what it sets out to do – excellent points for a work designed to help writers do a more informed job of including science in their fiction. I therefore give Putting the Science in Fiction a B+.

Howsomever, The Science of Science Fiction doesn’t work nearly as well. It reads much more like a history of SF than it treats with the science of SF. That it breaks that history up into themes rather than treat it chronologically makes it jump around a bit. As SF history, it’s not nearly as readable as Astounding or An Informal History of the Hugos or What Makes This Book So Great?. While I will be tempted to dip back into Putting the Science in Fiction again when I need some explanatory material on a particular science in SF, I won’t be inclined to go back to The Science of Science Fiction. I give The Science of Science Fiction a C+

One final recommendation. Do not read the chapter in Putting the Science in Fiction about plausible methods for kicking off the Zombie Apocalypse at breakfast. Or any other meal!

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Review: Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, science fiction
Pages: 544
Published by Dey Street Books on October 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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“[Astounding] is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era. . . . A remarkable work of literary history." — Robert Silverberg

"Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century. . . . Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift."—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. 

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. 

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

My Review:

Vintage Astounding from 1937

They were the men who sold the moon – as well as the rest of the universe. Together they were the Golden Age of science fiction – in some ways both the quip that says that the golden age of SF is 12 and in the historical sense.

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of what became the premiere outlet for science fiction writing during its and his heyday, from 1937 through 1946. Back in the days before SF became mainstream, the pulps were all there were, and Campbell’s Astounding was the top of the pulps as far as SF was concerned.

That golden age was when he found, mentored, developed or at least published two writers who became synonymous with SF, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and the one who nearly broke it, L. Ron Hubbard.

While Astounding and Campbell both went on after 1946 – Astounding exists today as Analog – and all three writers’ careers flourished in their very different trajectories after that period, SF as we know it today was significantly influenced by them and/or their writing, and they, in turn, were significantly influenced by Campbell’s editorial direction. And in one significant case, vice-versa.

Together, they made the genre as we now know it. And the children who grew up reading science fiction, their particular brand of science fiction, changed the world.

Reality Rating A: First things first, this is surprisingly readable. There’s a lot of information packed in here, and it flows fairly smoothly from one page into the next. I was surprised at how completely I was drawn in and held over a very long flight. I expected to bounce in and out, and I just didn’t.

(That the book is only about ⅔ as long as it appears to be is probably a help. The final ⅓ consists of extensive notes. It is blissfully not necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the notes in order to get the story or the context. The author certainly did his homework, but it’s not required that one read it for the book to make sense.)

Campbell in 1965

While Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard have all been written about before, and in depth, Campbell really hasn’t. And certainly should have been. For the period when Astounding was at the top of the pulps, and for some time beyond, Campbell wasn’t just the editor of a magazine – he WAS science fiction in a way that just isn’t possible now that SF has gone mainstream. His role hasn’t been recognized, possibly because there is no real equivalent today.

This multi-biography attempts to set all four men in their time as well as their relationships to each other. And while on the one hand it feels both loving and respectful, on the other it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the darker side of all four – even though much of what we now consider that dark side generally passed social muster at the time it happened.

The book does a good job of giving context for why much of what we would consider bad behavior occurred, without ever minimizing it or apologizing for it. I’m thinking particularly of Asimov’s well-known propensity for pinching women’s bottoms and other places without their consent or even seeming to acknowledge that he needed their consent. That all the women in his various editors’ and publishers’ offices literally cleared the building whenever he had an appointment seems to be a message he just never got – and certainly should have.

All of them except Asimov seemed to have drunk to considerable excess. Towards the end of their lives both Campbell and Heinlein crossed the line from conservative to reactionary. None of them gave the credit to any of their wives that was certainly due.

Campbell’s racism undoubtedly affected his gatekeeping of the genre throughout his tenure at Astounding, and is in at least some part responsible for the whiteness of SF through his era and beyond. When some 21st century fans cry out for a “Campbellian Revolution” this is part and parcel of what they are looking back to and wanting to recreate.

And everyone was way more involved in the beginning of Scientology than seems to be widely known. Only Asimov steered clear, and even he got stuck arguing with Campbell about it on multiple occasions.

But we certainly see the hand of Campbell in the underpinnings of Hubbard’s Scientology – and we see a number of promising careers get sidetracked by it. Hubbard’s most of all.

These men were the giants upon whose shoulders the genre now stands, whether their influence was mostly positive, or in Hubbard’s case mostly negative. The author does a deft job of giving them their rightful place in SF history while showing that they all had feet of clay up to the knees. If not higher.

In the end, this is a fascinating study of a group of men who made this most popular genre what it became. And it’s a great read from beginning to end.

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah WolfeRobots vs. Fairies by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Annalee Newitz, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, Lavie Tidhar, Catherynne M. Valente, Alyssa Wong, Madeline Ashby, Lila Bowen, Jeffrey Ford, Sarah Gailey, Max Gladstone, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jim C. Hines, Kat Howard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, science fiction, short stories, urban fantasy
Pages: 373
Published by Saga Press on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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?

My Review:

Are you Team Robot or Team Fairy? After reading this collection, I’m definitely Team Fairy, but your mileage will definitely vary. And it may depend a bit on where you start from.

The introduction to the collection sets up the premise. Either robots or fairies are going to end up as our eventual overlords. So half of the stories in this collection are fairy stories, and half are robot stories. All of the introductions and afterwords to all of the stories play on the theme that half the writers will be vindicated and the other half were misguided.

Personally, I think that they are all misguided and cats will be our ultimate overlords – not that they aren’t already. But that’s an entirely different collection that I hope someone writes someday.

About this collection, half the stories, the fairy stories, fall into urban fantasy, more or less, and the other half, the robotic arm, so to speak, are science fiction.

Overall, it was the fairy stories that moved me the most. My taste for fairies in contemporary fiction was set long ago, by the magically wonderful War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and quite a few of the fairy stories in this collection fit into that vein, with fairies hidden in plain sight of our contemporary world.

The thing about robots is that they are only interesting, at least to this reader, if they reflect us in some way – where fairies already are OTHER. The one robot story in this collection I really enjoyed felt like space opera – which I definitely do love. The robot in this particular story was a prop and not the centerpiece.

That being said, the stories that I really liked in this collection were the fairy stories.

Build Me A Wonderland by Seanan McGuire surprised me in a good way. I’ve bounced off her work, both as McGuire and as Grant, multiple times, but this story was just lovely. It was also one of the few upbeat stories in the collection. The fairies are hiding in plain sight by being the miracle workers in a contemporary magic factory. In other words, they work for an amusement park. And the elves want in!

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt combined two things I love – fairies and libraries – into something super-awesome. This story is one that I would have loved to see expanded into a novel because this world is so interesting. It’s all about the magic in books, and both the power and the joy of being a “master” librarian.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey is a great story for Halloween, as is Just Another Love Song by Kat Howard. Both stories deal in the dark side of magic, with a heaping helping of revenge served at the appropriate temperature and evil getting the desserts it has so richly deserved. Read with the lights on.

The one robot story that I really enjoyed was Sound and Fury by Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked this one because it didn’t feel like a robot story at all. There’s a robot in it, and the robot does play a big part in the story, but the robot is not remotely self aware. It’s a tool. It’s technically a tool for one of the characters who is also a tool, but it becomes a tool in the hands of the spaceship crew and it’s really about them. In other words, this story felt like space opera.

And one robot story got me in the feels. That was Ironheart by Jonathan Maberry. But again, this doesn’t feel like a robot story. It feels like a very, very human story. A heartbreaking one.

A Fall Counts Anywhere by Catherynne M. Valente is the perfect ending for this collection. It takes the premise literally, with a robot and a fae commentating on a sports match up between the two sides in an epic free-for-all melee-style brawl. Their commentating is a laugh a minute – until it suddenly isn’t. They say that Mother Nature bats last – but who bats for Mother Nature?

Escape Rating B-: Like all short story collections, this one was a bit uneven. Overall I found the fairy stories more interesting and absorbing than the robot stories, with those two very notable exceptions. I’m sure that those on Team Robot think the exact opposite.

Review: Dead Man Walking by Simon R. Green

Review: Dead Man Walking by Simon R. GreenDead Man Walking (Ishmael Jones, #2) by Simon R. Green
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #2
Pages: 208
Published by Severn House Publishers on September 1, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones. I am the man in the shadows, that even the shadows are afraid of. The secret agent whose life is the greatest secret of all. And some of the cases I work are trickier than others. " A rogue agent has come in from the cold and wants to spill his secrets. The Organisation wants Ishmael to find out if Frank Parker is who he says he is, what he really knows, and why he has emerged from the shadows after all this time. Ishmael heads to Ringstone Lodge in Yorkshire where Parker is being held to find that an atmosphere of fear and suspicion prevails. As he and his fellow residents are menaced by a series of alarming and inexplicable incidents, Ishmael sets out to prove that it s human trickery rather than any supernatural being behind the seemingly ghostly goings-on. But matters take an unexpected turn when one of their number is brutally murdered, and once again Ishmael must turn detective in order to entrap a twisted killer before they strike again.

My Review:

This was originally going to be my Halloween book for this year, because the Ishmael Jones series, while not horror, is certainly more horror- adjacent than Simon R. Green’s usual books – although the Nightside comes almost as close – with a higher quotient of weird.

Dead Man Walking definitely has elements that would have made it a great Halloween story, because for much of the book it has all the feels of a classic ghost story. An ill-assorted group of people is locked up in an old house where strange things keep happening – including all the hallmarks of a ghostly haunting.

There are plenty of creaking stairs – not to mention hallways. Doors get knocked on and there’s no one there – but footsteps were definitely heard before the knock. People keep ending up dead with no evidence of an attacker – and then their bodies get whisked away when no one is looking – not even the security cameras.

Not that there aren’t PLENTY of those.

Because this particular country house party takes place at one of those secret houses where shady organizations “debrief” people who don’t want to be debriefed and who can’t be admitted to having been there in the first place – but where their enemies probably want to get to them – or at them – no matter what it takes.

One of those legendary shady agents has decided to finally come in from the cold after years of working for the opposition. Not that THAT isn’t a loose term, considering that the Organization that Ishmael Jones works for – and that the shady agent used to work for before he went to the dark side (for very loose definitions of both dark and side).

Frank Parker claims to have all the dirt on traitors within the Organization. But he’s had his face changed so many times that no one can have any possible clue whether he is who he says he is. And while you’d think DNA might be an option – first there has to be a sample to match with. And there isn’t. Not that Ishmael Jones has let the Organization have any bits of him to play with either.

Ishmael Jones has been “invited” by the Organization to come to their little “safe” house in the remote English countryside to assist the official interrogators with determining whether Frank Parker really is who he says he is and whether he really might know something worth protecting him for.

It’s all fun and spy games until Frank’s corpse is discovered inside his locked and secured cell. And those ubiquitous security cameras have no record of the door even being opened – let alone of anyone going inside. Of course they were mysteriously “off” for the duration of whatever happened.

Then Frank’s body is whisked away – and there’s no record of that, either.

And that’s when the fun really begins…

Escape Rating B+: Just as when I read the first book in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, a few months ago, this turned out to be the right book at the right time. I was in the mood for some serious snark – and this author always delivers.

Now that I’ve read the second book in the series (and I’m planning on reading the third, Very Important Corpses, for Halloween) I see them as science fictional urban fantasy. Think of Men in Black. OK, laugh a bit, then think about the premise.

The Men in Black series was about a secret organization that managed the presence of aliens among us. Aliens who usually, but not always, were able to masquerade as human. Ishmael Jones, the protagonist of this series, is both one of those Men in Black and one of the aliens among us.

Sort of on the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief.

He’s good at his job because he knows just how to hide more-or-less in plain sight – and because he needs the Organization to cover for the oddities he can’t hide. After all, he’s looked exactly the same since he crash-landed on Earth in 1963. He also has a few useful and unusual skills, but it’s his unchanging appearance that is the most difficult to completely conceal. In our world of increasing connectivity and documentation, looking 25 forever is hard to hide.

His partner, Penny Belcourt, the last survivor of the mess he encountered in The Dark Side of the Road, is there both to provide him with a link to humanity and to provide us the readers with a point of view character. She asks all the questions that we want to ask.

She’s also plenty badass in her own right.

Like that first book, Dead Man Walking is also a twist-writ-large on the classic country house mystery. Particularly Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – although Dead Man Walking ends up with a few more survivors. But it is every bit as twisty as possible.

Dead Man Walking is a mystery that turns into a ghost story that turns back into a mystery. And it’s loads of creepy fun every creaking step of the way.

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Joint Review: Exit Strategy by Martha WellsExit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4) by Martha Wells
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Murderbot Diaries #4
Pages: 172
Published by Tor.com on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Murderbot wasn't programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah — its former owner (protector? friend?) — submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who's going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it's caught?

Our Review:

Marlene: Kind of an ironic title, this. Murderbot really doesn’t have one. An exit strategy, that is. Not for the immediate problem, and not for the overall problem. It is fun and surprisingly heartbreaking watching it try. I say surprising because, after all, Murderbot itself would decry, loudly and often, the concept that it has a heart in anything other than the biological sense – if it actually has one of those. Come to think of it, I’m not completely sure. It does have organic parts, I’m just not sure if it has that part in particular.

Galen: One of the problems with those organic parts is that they sometimes get in the way of certain things that Murderbot would like to do… like fully delete memories it doesn’t wish to carry but nonetheless help to push Murderbot (and the plot) forward. It is fitting that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot finds itself reconstructing its memories… and ending up with, for the first time, a free choice.

Exit Strategy picks off right where Rogue Protocol left off, with Murderbot knowing exactly what GrayCris was up to. The problem? Dr. Mensah needs to be rescued… and GrayGris is gunning for Murderbot.

Marlene: Exit Strategy, along with Murderbot’s lack of an exit strategy, has an “out of the frying pan into the fire” aspect. Or perhaps that should be the “perils of Pauline” with Murderbot substituting for Pauline. It seems to be endlessly in trouble in this one – possibly as part of its own messed-up reactions. It feels a need to help Dr. Mensah, and it doesn’t want to, both at the same time.

Well, really, it does, but it is having endless difficulties admitting why it wants to. There’s certainly a sense that it feels the need to right the wrong that it has inadvertently caused through its actions in Rogue Protocol. It went to investigate GrayCris, at least in part because it wanted to help Dr. Mensah against them. What it didn’t count on was that GrayCris would interpret its self-willed mission as yet another attempt by Dr. Mensah to get to the bottom of whatever crap they seem to be pulling – and that GrayCris would react accordingly. Well, accordingly for an evil corporation at any rate.

Galen: What GrayCris didn’t count on is that Murderbot’s quest changed it. As much as Murderbot likes to talk about retreating to its bad space soap opera media, it spends the entire series of novellas learning and growing. Concretely, this means that by the end of Exit Strategy, Murderbot has taken down opponents that a stock SecUnit has no business even tangling with. While this means that the action in the novella is satisfyingly complicated, Murderbot’s increased capability as a SeUnit is secondary to its growth as an individual. To be clear, not in the Pinocchio-becoming-a-real-boy sense that many stories about artificial constructs and androids follow, as this passage demonstrates:

“I don’t want to be human.”
Dr. Mensah said, “That’s not an attitude a lot of humans are going to understand. We tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Rather, the sequence of four novellas chronicle’s Murderbot’s growth as a being able to make its own choices, including choosing who to associate with.

Marlene: In the end, that is what is so fascinating about Murderbot – not that its line of snark doesn’t have plenty of charms of its own. Throughout Exit Strategy, Murderbot keeps making choices – and those choices increase in complexity and, for lack of a better word, selfishness. Not that it does things that benefit itself – because the ultimate selfish act would be to freighter-hop while playing its melodramas for the rest of its existence. But its actions have become acts of selfhood and self-determination, even if that determination is to sacrifice itself so that the others can escape.

What it does not reckon on is that those others see it as a person in its own right, just as it sees them. And that its ability to grow, adapt, change, try, fail, succeed and ultimately hope is emblematic of its journey to selfhood. A selfhood that is explicitly not humanity. It is on its way to becoming a real person, but not, as Data once aspired to be, a real boy.

And in its confusion of what all that means, we empathize with it, even as it refuses to become one of us, but still manages to become one of itself.

While its growth is far from complete at the end of Exit Strategy, it has reached a point where it has grown enough to begun to acknowledge its own contradictions and confusions, just like the rest of us. And it wraps up the loose ends of this part of the story, the one that began in All Systems Red.

But I’ve just heard a rumor that Murderbot will have a full-length novel coming out in 2020. YAY! Hopefully it will come in time to read on the long plane ride to WorldCon in New Zealand.

Galen: Yay indeed! Which leads me to…

Galen’s Escape Rating A: This is a fitting conclusion to the sequence of four novellas; while it wraps up the central mysteries set up in All Systems Red, there is clearly a lot more we could learn about the setting that Wells has made… and I hope to learn that through Murderbot’s eyes.

Marlene’s Escape Rating A: This is indeed a fitting conclusion to this sequence, while still leaving plenty of open threads that can be picked up in that much anticipated full-length novel. The story as we have it is Murderbot’s journey, in the sense that this is its own story. As the story of a machine being rather than a flesh creature, it is fascinating to see the way that the author has given Murderbot selfhood without falling into any of the traps of either it wanting to be human or of it, heaven forbid, falling in love. Instead, it seems to be reaching for friendship and companionship, and most of all, acceptance. Learning to accept itself as it is will be its biggest challenge – one that it is more than up to.

I hope we get to find out how it manages.

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds (Legion, #1-3) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Legion #1-3
Pages: 400
Published by Tor Books on September 18, 2018
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Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

My Review:

I’ve already read (actually had read to me) the first two Legion books, Legion and Skin Deep. And I absolutely loved both of them. So…when this book popped up on Edelweiss, and it included the final Legion book, Lies of the Beholder, I just had to grab it.

Upon opening this one, I dove right into Lies of the Beholder. So if you are interested in my thoughts on the first two books, check out my reviews of Legion and Skin Deep here at Reading Reality.

I’m going to concentrate on Lies of the Beholder. But I can do that because I’ve already read the first two. The Legion series turns out to be one long story, just broken into three parts. You really need to read the whole thing to get the point at the end. Which, by the way, is marvelous and absolutely fitting.

Also just a bit of a mind screw, but then, so is the entire life of Stephen Leeds.

What makes Stephen Leeds so interesting is the way that his mind works. It’s a very busy, and well-populated, place.

He is definitely a genius. The question is whether or not he’s insane. It’s all because of his rather unique way of handling what would otherwise be an out-of-control genius. Leeds absorbs everything he hears, everything he sees.

I think there’s a metaphor for our current age of information glut in there someplace.

The problem for Leeds is processing and synthesis. There is just so much input, all the time, that he can’t control it all enough for it to make sense, or for him to function. Too often, it felt like he was experiencing hallucinations as every piece of data everywhere he went needed to get his attention.

A woman named Sandra taught him a way out the labyrinth. She taught him to take all the input and siphon it off into “aspects”. Those aspects function as independent identities within Leeds’ mind. He sees them as individual people, and to him they have personalities and life histories. They also contain all his knowledge in a particular area. The control the massive amounts of data flowing into his brain and he provides the synthesis.

But when he loses one, he loses all the knowledge that was packed into that aspect. A gaping hole opens in his mind, and he’s temporarily even more lost than normal.

As Lies of the Beholder opens, he’s losing his aspects. Some of them just leave, but some of them go insane and kill some of the others. It feels like he’s losing bits of himself – only because he is.

In the midst of his own chaos, Leeds receives a message from the long-missing Sandra. It’s a one word text message – HELP!

He can’t resist. Not only does he desperately want to help the only woman who has ever really understood him, the only one he’s ever loved, but he feels “beholden” to her – he owes her for providing him with the means to control his mind – even if that method is now breaking down.

In searching for Sandra, finding out what’s happened to her, Leeds is forced to rely on himself, and to find the beauty in his own breakdown. He’s offered what feels like a terrible choice, to either let go of everything that makes him who he is, or to try to forge a new way to live, and cope, alone.

This is one of those stories where both the journey and the destination are the point – and it’s a sharp one.

Escape Rating A-: This series is awesome. Also relatively short and entirely complete. As it is all told from Stephen Leeds first-person perspective, it also makes a great audiobook. I listened to the first two and read the final book because I just couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out.

As I said, this does turn out to be one story divided into three parts, so you do need to read it all. But it is so worth it. And I say that even though Leeds’ flails around a bit more than usual in this final entry.

A lot of what makes this series so fascinating is the character of Stephen Leeds. He thinks he’s sane, but that some of his aspects are the ones who are crazy. He claims that he is always aware that the aspects are just hallucinations, but that some of the aspects aren’t willing to admit that to themselves.

In other words, he’s a mass of contradictions.

As a reader, it is easy to get sucked into Leeds’ perspective. The aspects certainly all feel like separate individuals – and often quite interesting individuals in their own right. Many of them are very likeable (particularly Tobias, Ivy and J.C. – Leeds’ own favorites). It would be fun to read their individual backstories and see more from their perspectives. And yes, they do all have backstories and they certainly have individual perspectives on events – or so it seems.

But where the other two stories were both interesting cases that Leeds’ has to solve, they were also stories about him coping with the world in a way that was comfortable for him but didn’t make him grow. Looking back, in those stories he is so comfortable with the life that he has arranged for himself that he doesn’t need to grow or change. While he doesn’t completely love his life as it is, it has certainly become comfortable and easy for him.

This is a story about growth and change, because the structure breaks down and his support system gets kicked out from under him. He has to change, adapt and find a new way forward. Or stop altogether.

That he has the option of becoming, in effect, a lotus-eater and living completely in a dream world makes his choice all the more stark. Because he has been living somewhat in a dream world for years – just one of his own making. When the choice of absolutes is forced upon him, he has to kick out his own supports and live in the real world.

Or does he? His ultimate solution will blow the reader’s mind. It’s one of those endings that makes you rethink the whole story from the very beginning. And makes you want to start the series all over again.