SF Book Review: Part 26

Just recapping some recent Science Fiction reads… Some Hugo nomination phase fodder here, but mostly just catching up on older SF.

  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – The Wayfarer is a hyperspace tunneling ship that’s seen better days. We join the crew through Rosemary Harper who has the exciting job of… clerk. But she’s trying to escape a checkered past and the boring and relatively peaceful work of a hyperspace tunneling job hits the mark. Things are livened by a diverse and alien-filled crew. So this was sorta billed as Firefly meets Ursula Le Guin, which is a comparison that doesn’t really do this book any favors. It’s not that this is a bad book or anything, just that expectations were probably set too high. To be sure, what we really get is character-driven and episodic in nature (not too far off the mark there), but it doesn’t quite cohere into more than the sum of its parts. Each character is well drawn and most experience some sort of conflict, it’s just that many of these episodic elements just sort of fizzle away. The crew does exhibit a refreshing lack of gritty cynicism and angst, and it’s very nice to see a group of people be supportive and nice to one another, even if the close quarters and cross-cultural differences can cause some friction. Even though I felt the stakes of most conflicts were underwhelming, I was having a pretty good time hanging out with characters I genuinely liked. The ending setpiece is the best in the book and actually does manage to generate some stakes and tension (where most of the preceding do not); this strong finish does help a bit too. Ultimately, this is a very enjoyable read that bucks a lot of negative trends in the SF genre, but it never quite reached the dramatic heights I was looking for. A nice introduction to the universe though, and I was curious enough to revisit the series with the most recent entry:
  • A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers – This novel tangentially picks up where The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet leaves off, focusing in on one character (and a former side character) instead of following the crew of the Wayfarer. Spoilers for the previous book! But this could also be a standalone! Lovelace was the AI of the Wayfarer, but got some circuits fried during a particularly dangerous mission. While her core functions were saved by a total system shutdown and reboot, her memories have all been lost. As a result, relationships with her crew have degraded, particularly with the Engineer Jenks, who was in love with her. Not wanting to cause such disharmony, Lovelace is loaded into a new body (unusual for an AI meant to live as a ship) and takes off with her new friend Pepper, a specialist in this sort of thing. Lovelace needs to adjust to her newfound mobility and independence while finding her place in the universe. Meanwhile, Pepper is struggling with her own conflicts, and the Lovelace sections are crosscut with her backstory, detailing her difficult childhood and affinity for AIs. Chambers manages the same optimistic, positive, and supportive character-driven tone for this novel, but the focus on two characters with dovetailing themes really benefits the story. The stakes still aren’t sky-high and I miss some of the characters from the previous book, but the story is overall more cohesive and entertaining too. Not exactly diamond-hard SF, but it’s still a pleasure to read and an improvement over the meandering of the previous book. I liked this enough to throw it a Hugo nomination, though I think there’s probably only a low to middling chance that it’ll become a finalist…
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp – American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting 1938 Rome during a peculiar thunderstorm. So peculiar that when it’s over, he finds himself in 535 AD. As an archaeologist, Padway is intrigued by living through history, but quickly accepts his fate. As he does not want to spend the remainder of his life watching the Dark Ages fall upon Italy (as happened in our timeline), Padway adopts an ambitious course of technological improvement. Starting small with copper stills and distilling brandy, he eventually works his way all the way up to printing presses and even telegrams. Of course, Padway’s mysterious inventions and enlightened attitudes eventually necessitate political wranglings… It would be another millennium before Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but it turns out that politics of this era can be just as cutthroat at this time. While not the first Alternate History story, this appears to be among the most influential. John Campbell is famous for his work editing Astounding Science Fiction magazine, but he also edited Unknown, a magazine for more fantastical flights of SF and Fantasy. This is where Lest Darkness Falls was originally published, what with it’s simple time travel premise. That being said, once that premise is established, de Camp does a remarkable job keeping things grounded. Yes, Padway is able to accomplish a lot in very little time, but he’s beset by complications at nearly every turn. He doesn’t just invent the printing press. He does so and then realizes that no one makes ink that will work for it. Then he uses up all of Rome’s paper supply to print his first newspaper, so he has to invent better paper production facilities. And so on… Comparison with Mark Twain’s 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is inevitable, but despite the similarities of their premise, the books are quite divergent. Twain was more interested in satire and social commentary of his own time, while de Camp was more interested in getting the history and technology right. Both stories will make you think, but de Camp’s will obviously appeal more to the hard SF mindset. It’s a short and entertaining read that holds up well and might make a good introduction to SF for younger readers. The book I bought featured several additional stories inspired by de Camp’s work, by authors like Frederik Pohl, David Drake, and S. M. Stirling, but these are somewhat less successful in my mind. Still worth the purchase for the original story though!
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – The story of Offred (literally Of-Fred), a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic dictatorship established in what used to be the United States. In this society, human rights are curtailed and women’s rights are even more restricted. Handmaids are a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and assigned to various bigwigs who want children. She is currently assigned to a man named Fred, referred to as “The Commander”, and she tells this story in first person. She describes the world as it is now, occasionally remembering what it used to be like before the revolution, her failed escape with her husband, and so on. These sorts of dystopian visions rarely strike a chord with me, and while that’s also the case here, it does have some interesting speculations. Atwood claims that the grand majority of the book is based in reality, whether it be from history or from current theocracies in the world. I’m always wary of the criticism of “that couldn’t happen here”, but at the same time, while Atwood has created a chilling society, she doesn’t do the greatest job describing how that society was created or maintained. It is mentioned offhand that an attack on the government, killing the President and most of Congress, led to a theological revolution that immediately suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order, but it feels pretty flimsy. There are a couple other mechanisms discussed, but we don’t really get much about how power is maintained in this theocracy, instead focusing on personal relationships within the household. This is well done, of course, but then, there’s not a ton of plot going on here either. This does call to mind Orwell’s 1984, which this book is clearly indebted to (right down to the structure, with the epilogue establishing that the story we just read took place in the past, and that we’ve moved on from that dystopia, though Orwell’s epilogue is less direct in that notion). I suspect both books are seeing an uptick in sales due to our new orange-skinned overlord. While neither book really explains what’s going on today (we live with stranger problems), it’s still worth a look. Personally, I prefer 1984, but you could do worse.
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm – In the wake of environmental disaster (global cooling you guys!) and global infertility, a large family sets up an isolated community in an attempt to survive the coming apocalypse. To combat the infertility, they resort to cloning with the thought that after a couple generations, the clones will regain the ability to have children the old-fashioned way. The only problem is that the clones don’t really see it that way, rejecting the plan and researching ways to keep the cloning viable indefinitely. Soon, it emerges that the clones have an abnormally strong emotional and mental connection with each other, such that they lose a certain sense of individuality. This makes travel and separation exceedingly difficult, and the realities of post-apocalypse society begin to impinge on the clones’ plans. They find themselves losing creativity and unable to maintain much of the equipment they use to survive, and so on. Enter Mark, a child of sexual reproduction and individual to the core who threatens the clones’ way of life. I don’t know why I went through this period of reading dystopias and post-apocalyptic novels, but hey, I actually really enjoyed this one. It helps that there’s some actual science in this fiction, coupled with an actual plot. It’s not the most page-turning narrative, but it’s got a lot of interesting ideas that kept me reading. This novel won the Hugo in 1977, so it has that going for it as well.
  • Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer – Ah, now this is more like it. Space opera comfort food. Humanity has made it to the stars with the help of a giant network of “short cuts” (basically wormholes), made contact with two other races (and a third that wants nothing to do with anyone else, called the Slammers), and set up a cross-species exploration vessel called Starplex. After mysterious green stars begin floating through the shortcuts, the crew of Starplex is about to encounter revelations about the shortcuts and who set them up, along with a host of other challenges. So this is basically throwback Golden Age SF adventure, and it’s a lot of fun. There’s not a ton of character development, and what there is kinda misses the mark (notably Keith Lansing’s midlife crisis and desire to cheat on his wife or something – fortunately, this resolves itself and winds up not being as much of a drag as I initially thought), but the ideas are great and they just keep coming. The alien races are well drawn and thought out (and indeed, their relationships are a lot more interesting than the human ones). You could argue that the story goes a bit too far and makes everything work out a little too pat, but after having steeped myself in misery and disaster with the last two books, this one was a real breath of fresh air. It captures that sense of wonder that makes SF so exciting and it’s got quite a few well-executed setpieces and action sequences. Well worth checking out, and I’m most certainly going to read more Sawyer when I can…

I have a few others in progress right now, but we’re also heading into Hugo season, so I’ll probably start in on the fiction categories shortly after they’re announced in April…

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