The Will to Battle

The Will to Battle (Tor, December 2017), the third volume in Ada Palmer’s complex and strange Terra Ignota series, is a murderously difficult book to review. Third books in a series generally are (a review can only speak to readers of the previous two volumes, and spoil those books for everyone else), but that goes double for this one, because, as I said, of how complex and strange the Terra Ignota series has been from the jump.

That series, which began in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning (which I review here) and continued last year with Seven Surrenders, introduced us to a 25th-century world organized into seven hives rather than nation-states, a world that professed itself a utopia but had long-repressed tensions running hot under the surface. A world where public discussion of religion is forbidden but bore witness to the miraculous child Bridger as well as the singular being J. E. D. D. Mason, a child of many parents who believes himself to be a god from another universe, the cynosure of a secret cult—and, at the end of Seven Surrenders, the beneficiary of a resurrection at the hands of the aforementioned Bridger after an assassination attempt aimed at preventing him from taking power.

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Autonomous

Autonomous (Tor, September 2017), the debut novel from io9 founder and tech editor Annalee Newitz, falls somewhere on the spectrum between the work of Madeline Ashby and the work of Cory Doctorow. It deals with drug patents, autonomy and free will and ownership of human beings and artificial intelligences alike. All at the same time, but there’s a common thread: they’re all about several kinds of property, specifically the intellectual and human kind, and the ways in which possession and ownership interact with freedom and selfhood.

Also, a good chunk of it is set in Canada, about which I have thoughts.

Autonomous is set in the mid-22nd century, but the world is, for all its additional technological enhancements, a familiar territory. A dystopia with recognizable characteristics. Big Pharma is still with us, and has metastasized into Big Brother, a drug-patent oligarchy enforced with brutality that sells productivity-enhancing drugs with some frightening side effects. The narrative alternates between Jack, a drug pirate who has reverse-engineered a productivity drug that is starting to kill people, and Paladin, a robot with a human brain (installed to facilitate facial recognition processing) that has been partnered with Eliasz, an agent assigned to deal with the threat Jack presents. Eliasz also has a thing for Paladin, which Paladin does their best to process. Jack also has a sidekick: Threezed, an indentured slave she inadvertently liberates during a botched assassination attempt against her.

The plot advances briskly, as Eliasz and Paladin move ruthlessly against Jack, wreaking carnage in the process; Jack, for her part, must simultaneously evade capture and find a cure for the drug that she helped disseminate. All the while, it’s via the plot arcs of both Threezed and Paladin that Autonomous explores and develops its eponymous theme, as each learns, via their respective partnerships, to gain (or regain) and assert a certain sense of self. That theme elevates Autonomous beyond mere technothriller; this is a book that is about something, and it’s thought about it. As first novels go, this is exceptionally good.

Most of the action takes place in Canada: in the far north, in Vancouver, and in Saskatchewan. It was oddly dissonant to see a future Canada rendered through a funhouse mirror: much was familiar (I’ve actually been to some of the locations mentioned), much unrecognizable. Partly that’s because it’s set in the future, but in a couple of cases I found myself bouncing off geographical errors, if you could call them that, that tried my ability to suspend disbelief. Little details of location or scale that suggested that the author didn’t get things quite right. Not significant, but the kind of thing that can throw a Canadian reader out of the book. (If anything it’s a reminder to my own self to be careful when writing about other people’s geographies.)

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Dragon Teeth

Sometimes trunk novels need to stay in the trunk. That was my takeaway from Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, May 2017), a novel published posthumously earlier this year. (Crichton died in 2008.) As a novel of the Bone Wars, the bitter feud between rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, it drew my attention: fictional representations of the Bone Wars are, shall we say, a professional interest of mine, as I’m working on one myself.1

Set in 1876, it follows the fictional William Johnson, a feckless Yale undergrad who, on a bet, signs up with Marsh’s expedition to the west. Johnson spends the rest of the novel bouncing between the paranoid Marsh and the tempermental Cope, surviving the west in the immediate aftermath of Little Big Horn, being left for dead and surviving the lawless town of Deadwood.

You’d think this would be interesting, but I struggled to give a damn, partly because Johnson is literally the least interesting character in the book, a blank onto which the reader can project himself.2 The prose is spare, the description light—I haven’t read any Crichton prior to this (there have been audiobooks) so I don’t know if this is an underwritten first draft or Crichton’s regular modus operandi. But one gets the impression of an author laying down the beats, setting up the basic tracks, before coming back to finish it, and never doing so.

But it’s also because I’ve read plenty of stories about the Bone Wars, about Cope and Marsh’s expeditions, about Marsh’s relationship with indigenous tribes—and they were all more interesting than this. The fact that National Geographic is adapting this into a TV series boggles my mind; it’s unnecessary. Read The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe (Crown, 2000) or The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), detailed, readable historical accounts that appeared after Crichton wrote Dragon Teeth. Or track down Charles Sternberg’s memoir, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909). Or see the “Dinosaur Wars” episode of The American Experience, which ran in January 2011. Dragon Teeth was a disappointment in that as fiction, it did not add measurably to the real-life story, which is already kind of amazing. Crichton’s book is superfluous.

Artemis

Artemis (US cover)When your first novel is The Martian, what do you do for an encore?

The Martian was a freak of publishing. Andy Weir self-published it electronically in 2011; when brisk online sales caught the attention of the publishing industry and Hollywood, it went on to be a hardcover bestseller in 2014, and spawned a 2015 movie that grossed more than $630 million. While the book was weak on characterization and prose, it was full of humour and dramatic tension while remaining unapologetically geeky. It was terrific fun to read. (See my review.)

That’s a hell of an act to have to follow up on. Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is out today—published by Crown in the United States and Del Rey in the United Kingdom. And I have to say that while Artemis is a diverting enough read, I don’t expect it to bottle the same lightning its predecessor did.

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Venera Dreams and the Art of the Mosaic Novel

Vermilion is an intense red pigment made from powdered cinnabar. It’s also extremely toxic—cinnabar is mercury sulfide—which is why vermilion has largely been replaced by cadmium-based pigments. But in Claude Lalumière’s new book, Venera Dreams (Guernica Editions, August 2017), vermilion is a hallucinogenic, mystical spice that is only found on the mysterious, hedonistic island-state of Venera, which few outsiders are permitted to visit.

Venera Dreams is a mosaic novel. I’m fond of mosaic novels, and last month at Can-Con I was, fortuitously and somewhat awkwardly in the context of writing this review, on a panel with Claude Lalumière discussing the mosaic novel form. Along with Jerome Stueart and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm we had a fascinating conversation, almost none of which I remember a month later. (This is a normal problem: I never remember what was said on panels I participate on, even what I said. I hope you were all taking notes.) Which is to say that Claude had an interesting and strictly limited definition of what constituted a mosaic novel that I had absolutely no argument with, and for the life of me I cannot recall what it was.

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Infinity Wars

With Infinity Wars (Solaris, September 2017), Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Project turns its attention to military science fiction. Each volume of Strahan’s Infinity Project anthologies—Infinity Wars is the sixth—has taken some aspect of hard sf and turned it on its head a bit, offering fresh takes on old themes, often from authors not normally known for writing hard sf. (I reviewed Engineering Infinity, the first book of the Infinity Project, in 2001; last year I reviewed the fifth book, Bridging Infinity. I’ve read them all.) Now it’s military sf’s turn, and if there’s a subgenre of science fiction that could use some shaking off of the shibboleths, this is it.

That’s because military sf has more than its share of detractors, a result of it being associated, rightly or wrongly, with a certain ultra-conservative, anti-government, paranoid brand of American politics, one whose bent has gotten more and more strident as its mantle passed from Heinlein to Pournelle to a younger generation: Disch traces the evolution of this strain in his 1998 study, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of.3 See also David Auerbach’s piece for The Daily Beast. These survivalist/soldier-of-fortune power fantasies aren’t the only kind of military sf out there, but there’s an awful lot of them (whereas, as Disch points out, masterpieces like The Forever War are singular), and it’s what people think of when they dismiss military sf.

If Infinity Wars seems like a breath of fresh air, it’s because what Crank! editor Bryan Cholfin once called “war pornography”4 is nowhere to be found. Yes, there are military operations; yes, there’s some awfully clever military hardware; and yes, there’s a mercenary or two (in Elizabeth Bear’s “Perfect Gun,” the eponymous weapon has more of a conscience than its mercenary owner). But the 15 stories in Infinity Wars, by and large, explore war—their remit was for them to imagine the future of warfare—without going so far as to celebrate it. The perspectives are diverse, and so are the authors (fewer than half are men); if there’s a common thread, it’s that most of these stories take place on the ground—at the front, in the trenches, at the supply depot—or after the war is over. The cost of conflict—on populations, on the soldiers themselves—is never ignored.

These stories see grunts and clerks dealing with the fog and confusion of war: a maintenance worker at a depot seconded to the war effort in Carrie Vaughan’s “The Evening of Their Span of Days”; a young and confused soldier sent to defend the aliens whose arrival disrupted the world’s economy in Nancy Kress’s “Dear Sarah.” They see veterans dealing with the aftermath: Eleanor Arnason’s restrained and powerful “Mines,” a story ostensibly about a minesweeper telepathically linked to a mine-detecting rodent that has things to say about PTSD, damage and survival.

These stories also reveal an up-to-date understanding of warfare. And by that I don’t mean tech. As Strahan writes in his introduction, “War seems to have evolved from an easy-to-spot state-vs.-state conflict to something muddier and harder to understand, where individual acts of terrorism contrast with hi-tech conflict conducted at arm’s length by soldier-bureaucrats with devastating affect [sic] for those on the ground.” That understanding shows up in many ways. Two of them, Rich Larson’s “Heavies” and Genevieve Valentine’s “Overburden,” offer takes on colonization and occupation, and the damage occupation does to occupier and occupied alike. Several stories explore disinformation and propaganda. In “The Last Broadcasts,” An Owomoyela tells the story about an information officer told to censor news about a colony world that cannot be rescued; Aliette de Bodard’s “In Everlasting Wisdom” implants “appeasers” with symbionts to enforce loyalty to the emperor; and E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl” weaponizes weather forecasts, with information on oncoming storms hidden or revealed as part of military strategy. In “The Oracle,” Dominica Phetteplace explores how predictive software can be turned to military purposes.

The anthology ends with a novelette from Peter Watts, “ZeroS,” that touches on a theme Watts returns to repeatedly: the nature of human consciousness. In this story, soldiers’ consciousnesses are suppressed so that they can fight using their non-conscious selves (intelligence without consciousness: something Watts posited in Blindsight). It’s a difficult circle to square, but one deeply relevant to the subject matter. There is a tension between war as dehumanization and war as a deeply, almost quintessentially human activity. What does it mean to have our humanity stripped away? Or more precisely: is what being stripped away here our humanity. Tor.com has reprinted the story, so you can read it online.

These are bracing stories, stories that ring true and feel relevant, in a way that stories about space navies thundering against each other can never be, because those stories are an anachronism: rules of war from the age of sail, transmogrified into an interstellar setting. The best stories about war are universal.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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The Delirium Brief

I don’t make a habit of reading series, especially if they go more than two or three books, mostly because I’m unwilling to make the kind of investment required to keep all the books’ moving parts front of mind. One series I have made an exception for is Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, a trope-busting mishmash of spy thriller, bureaucratic satire, deadpan humour and Lovecraftian horror in which demonology is a branch of higher mathematics and Chthuloid threats are dealt with by a government bureaucracy, with all that implies.

In The Delirium Brief (Orbit/Tor.com, July) the eighth book in this series, the threat is the British government itself. The story picks up in the immediate wake of The Nightmare Stacks (2016), in which an invasion of, well, elves from a parallel Earth has left the city of Leeds in ruins, thousands dead, and the British public suddenly very much aware of the existence of the Laundry, as the British secret agency dealing with occult threats is known.

Thrust into the spotlight to deal with the incipient PR nightmare is—oh, hello again—Bob Howard, back in the protagonist spotlight for the first time in three books. The Laundry, blamed for the slaughter in Leeds, is at real risk of being privatized by an austerity-minded British government, and a private sector group headed by the Rev. Raymond Schiller, back after being seemingly left for dead at the end of The Apocalypse Codex (2012), makes its play. Things spiral downward fast: the Laundry is disbanded without a succession plan, and Bob and his co-workers and allies, many of whom are coming back from earlier books, have to go to ground. Schiller has, of course, grander and more sinister plans than contracting for government services—the means to his ends are much squickier than they were last time around. To defeat him, what’s left of the Laundry are forced to make uneasy, lesser-evil alliances with other villains, also from earlier books, that we thought we’d seen the back of.

This is where Calvin says “His eye twitches involuntarily.”

To a certain extent The Delirium Brief justifies my ambivalence about long series, because I can’t see any way you can follow this book unless you’ve read every previous book in the series. (Hell, I’ve read all the books, and the short stories too, and I had a hard time keeping up, because: keeping track of moving parts, problems with; see above.) This is not an entry point. What The Delirium Brief is, is the payoff book, the one that brings together several previously developed narrative threads, with explosive effect. It is to the Laundry Files what The Avengers is to the MCU: the book in which the team, whose members we’ve seen in action before, gathers to form Voltron deal with the big boss threat.

A thing I appreciate about the Laundry series is that it’s about the approaching darkness but still manages to approach the darkness—it’s not a static situation fit for endless sequelizing. There’s an end point, and in the Laundry universe we’re getting there sooner than we’d like or are ready for. The Delirium Brief is, believe it or not, not that end point: CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is still to come. But it’s necessarily a darker and grimmer tome than previous iterations, but in Charlie’s hands it’s not depressingly dark or grim, or grimdark. Black humour has always been a hallmark of this series, and that’s no less the case here as the bodies pile up and the geopolitical situation implodes. The Delirium Brief ends on a messy note, but then so have the last few books. It’s only going to get worse from here.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Snakes of the Eastern United States

The short version of this review: remember Snakes of the Southeast, the field guide by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, the second edition of which I reviewed last year and thought so highly of? Well, now Gibbons has done the same thing, only covering the entire eastern United States, with (appropriately enough) Snakes of the Eastern United States (University of Georgia Press, April 2017). Go get it.

But maybe I should expand on that a bit.

What impressed me about Snakes of the Southeast is that it knew its intended audience: not scholars, not hobbyists, but the general public. And in pitching itself at that audience, it knew what questions needed answering. As I said in my review last year:

The core of the book, the species guide, is detailed but plain-spoken, and does not drown the reader in scholarly references. It’s beautifully laid-out, with full-colour range maps and photographs of the region’s snakes. Its identification guide eschews the detailed scale counts used by professional herpetologists in favour of emphasizing distinctive traits and other factors more easily recognized by amateurs. And with two additional chapters explaining basic snake biology and exploring the relationship between snakes and humans, Snakes of the Southeast becomes a one-book solution: the book that tries to cover all the bases and answer all the questions about snakes that someone in the region might reasonably have.

Snakes of the Eastern United States follows that prescription down the line, which is no surprise given that it shares an author and a publisher with the previous book. The many virtues of Snakes of the Southeast, above and beyond being a species guide, are now accessible to people from outside that region. I’ve got a book I can recommend to more people.

In terms of its function as a species guide, as well as on field guides in general, though, I have a few thoughts.

Once again, this book takes an extremely conservative position on snake taxonomy. Rat snakes, for example, are called Pantherophis instead of the old Elaphe, but the traditional subspecies are maintained “because in most cases ratsnakes from particular geographic regions are easily identifiable based on color and pattern” (p. 198). Neither does Gibbons separate out the Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) into separate species, nor adopt the more recent taxonomic changes to swamp, crayfish and milk snakes. One gets the impression he sees these changes as for change’s sake.

Regional field guides have interesting edge cases, especially when they’re defined by political boundaries (a country, state or province) that don’t necessarily line up with bioregions: there’s always something atypical living in the borderlands. Gibbons defines the eastern United States as every state east of the Mississippi, excluding Minnesota but including Louisiana. So in this case we get central and western species like the Western Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis), Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus), Great Plains Rat Snake (Pantherophis emoryi) and Lined Snake (Tropidoclonium lineatum) at the edges of Gibbons’s maps. Illinois is usually the culprit.

(Speaking of maps: the map for the Butler’s Garter Snake [Thamnophis butleri] doesn’t include its Wisconsin range—a surprising omission given its politically charged status in that state.)

Then there’s the question of how the species are organized. This is actually an important consideration when the guide covers a large area or a large number of species. Some guides, simply list them in alphabetical order after sorting them by family (e.g. boas, colubrids, pit vipers) or separating the nonvenomous from the venomous snakes: this is the approach taken in Ernst and Ernst’s Snakes of the United States and Canada, Rossi and Rossi’s Snakes of the United States and Canada (no relation), and Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes. Others, like Alan Tennant in his state and regional field guides, categorize them in some fashion, e.g., small snakes versus aquatic snakes versus large terrestrial snakes.

Gibbons takes the latter approach, which necessitates some odd judgment calls, like splitting the kingsnakes between the midsize and large terrestrial snakes categories, or putting the closely related (and not that different in size) Short-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis brachystoma) and Butler’s Garter Snake in the small and midsize categories, respectively. It’s the edge cases that’ll get you every time.

But these are quibbles, and there are always quibbles in books like these, which involve the compilation of a huge amount of field data, scientific knowledge, photography and text that must somehow come together in a whole that is not only coherent, but readable. This book achieves that end result far better than most.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The House of Binding Thorns

Sometimes the Law of Sequels does not apply. The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, is a better book than its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings (which I reviewed in 2015). It may simply be that book two can get down to business now that the introductions are out of the way, but the characters, setting, motivations — everything seems clearer and in sharper focus. De Bodard has found her groove.

While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.

The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.

The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.

Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.

The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.

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