Reviews: 2016

  1. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
  2. Adventures in Academic Cartography by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  3. My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt
  4. China at the Center edited by Natasha Reichle (The Map Room)
  5. Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas
  6. Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (AE)
  7. The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
  8. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  9. Company Town by Madeline Ashby (AE)
  10. Necessity by Jo Walton (AE)
  11. Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
  12. Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick
  13. Atlas Obscura by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton (The Map Room)
  14. Shoot the Moon by Nicolas Dupont-Bloch
  15. Invisible Planets edited by Ken Liu
  16. Bridging Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan
  17. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling
  18. Treasures from the Map Room edited by Debbie Hall (The Map Room)
  19. The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

radianceWhen reading a novel by Catherynne M. Valente, it’s important to pay close attention to what she’s doing — and then to take an even closer look. Her novels are like vínarterta: dense, many-layered, and can take a while to digest. Last week as I read Radiance (Tor, October 2015), her first novel for adults since Deathless (2011), I realized that this was not just a book that would reward rereading; it practically demands it.

In Radiance Valente does several things at once, all of which I approve of. It’s set in an alternative-retro solar system that would have seemed like the future to someone at the end of the nineteenth century: the planets are all habitable and colonized by the various Great Powers; space travel is undertaken by means of cannons of the sort Jules Verne described in From the Earth to the Moon. Filmmaking is king, but takes place on the Moon rather than Hollywood; for patent reasons the silent era persists for decades (talking pictures exist, but are seen as vulgar or good only for documentaries).

On top of all that, Radiance is told in indirect and documentary fashion: an interview from the 1960s here, a fragment of screenplay there, a memoir here and a piece of footage there. Slowly the story emerges: the disappearance and presumed death of Severin Unck, under mysterious circumstances, while filming a documentary on Venus called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, of which only a handful of scenes remain.

It’s a little bit Dos Passos, or at least a bit Waldrop, but the effect is the opposite: unrealism rather than realism. Radiance deliberately blurs the line between artifice and genuine, between fiction and documentary. At one point in the novel, the filmmaker Percival Unck — Severin’s father — is given cause to say, “The lens, my good man, does not discriminate between the real and the unreal.” It’s as close to a thesis statement as this astonishing novel is likely to arrive at.

Radiance is an expansion of her 2009 short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” a story pregnant with unanswered mysteries that begged for a more in-depth retelling. With Radiance we have that retelling, but Valente has wisely left many of the mysteries unanswered. The result is a work of surprising depth that belies its fanciful setting and not-entirely-serious tone.

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January 14, 2016


My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt

Andrew J. Offutt was a well-known figure in the science fiction and fantasy field. Though he never quite levelled up to the top tier of writers, his stories and novels were well-regarded, he was a frequent presence at sf conventions, and he served two terms as SFWA president. Less widely known was the fact that most of his writing was pornographic novels for men — a genre that more or less disappeared with the advent of home video in the mid-1980s. Offutt published hundreds of them, under a variety of pen names, using a system that enabled him to write them in a few days.

my-father-pornographerWhen Offutt died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria). Going through those papers has resulted in the younger Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, out this week from Atria Books.

The portrait of Andrew Offutt that emerges from My Father, the Pornographer is not a flattering one. A difficult crank by the most charitable definition, the elder Offutt built a world around himself where he could be in control, like a big fish building a small pond around itself: his work, his family, his convention appearances. Many families will find something familiar about the Offutt household, where other family members twisted themselves in knots to accommodate his demands. The catalyst was when Offutt quit to work full-time: he basically disappeared into his work, and his office, where he could channel his private demons into his writing.

To be sure, the daddy issues are strong in this one, but while unflinchingly honest, Chris Offutt is unfailingly empathetic: more than capable of expressing compassion for a man who was not himself always kind or generous or (for that matter) present, a frankly tormented individual who found in words a means of escape. (Chris is considerably less kind with sf fans, no doubt a result of having been dragged to conventions as a child and then left to fend for himself while his parents were off having fun.)

My Father, the Pornographer is mainly a family history; if you’re primarily interested in the writing side of things, much of what’s in the book can be found in Chris Offutt’s piece for The New York Times Magazine, which came out last year. But the book, in its portrayal of Andrew Offutt the person, is far more haunting.

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

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February 11, 2016


Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters. They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

snakes-southeastOne of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region. More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

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.

Part of a series of field guides published by the University of Georgia Press (similar guides to lizards, turtles, frogs and toads and salamanders are also available), Snakes of the Southeast first came out in 2005. Its first edition sold some 25,000 copies (one of them to me). A revised second edition, which came out in October 2015, provides some minor updates but leaves most of the book unchanged.

The second edition has some new (and better) photos (the Yellow Rat Snake on the cover of the first edition has been replaced by a Florida Kingsnake), but for the most part the photography is the same. The taxonomy of several species has been updated (or at least referred to in the species descriptions), though the authors retain the classic subspecies of the rat snake because the public can, you know, actually identify them. Snake names are more often one word than two (“garter snake” is now “gartersnake” and so on), which I don’t agree with (but I’ll never win that argument).

Otherwise the text is little changed; of the species descriptions, that of the important and threatened Eastern Indigo Snake has been revised the most. There’s also a new entry for the Kirtland’s Snake, owing to a single sighting in northern Tennessee in 2012. But the biggest change since the first edition is the expansion of the chapter on introduced species, which now has full entries for the Brahminy Blind Snake, Burmese Python, Boa Constrictor and African Rock Python (the first edition had a paragraph on each of the first two snakes only).

On the one hand this means that people who already own the first edition really don’t need to spring for the second. It’s not that dated yet. On the other hand, the willingness of Gibbons, Dorcas and the University of Georgia Press to keep the book up to date is a very good sign. Field guides can fall out of date if not maintained (see, for example, Audubon’s: my wife’s copy was printed in 2000 but uses 1970s-era taxonomy); I’m glad to see that this one stands a chance of keeping up.

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

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March 9, 2016


The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

winged-historiesSofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer, 2013), won the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. Her second novel, The Winged Histories (Small Beer, March 2016) does not function as a sequel to that earlier book, though it too is set in the Olondrian Empire during the same time period, and there is some overlap in characters. The density and richness of Samatar’s world is profoundly intoxicating, to say nothing of her prose, and fans of the first book will welcome a return to it. A prior familiarity is not strictly required (a good thing for me: A Stranger in Olondria was 115 books ago and my memory of it was poor).

Instead of the first book’s Bildungsroman we have a book that very much lives up to the noun in its title (the adjective is more subtle): these are histories — chronicles told by four women who play key roles in a many-layered civil war that splits along familial, regional, ethnic, religious and even interspecific lines. These are tales about the margins of empire, and colonial relationships, and things that are hidden and not spoken of. Each of them ends much too soon, leaving the reader hungry.

The reader will stay hungry, too: news that this book marks the conclusion of Samatar’s Olondria project (which she “always envisioned as a two-book adventure”) will no doubt be disappointing, though mad props for the integrity of her decision (other authors would have written their secondary worlds into the ground, with all-too-familiar results).

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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April 6, 2016


Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

At the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.

too-like-the-lightningOur wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.

We don’t talk enough about authorial voice in our field. New and emerging authors are under certain pressures to conform: to achieve publishability, to get it right. It’s a process that risks filing off all the interesting bumps and edges found in an author’s writing and results in a certain sameness of tone and theme. Clarion grads with English degrees workshop the distinctiveness out of one another. One libertarian space jockey sounds more or less like any other. Epic fantasies blur together. In other words: they play it safe.

So it’s awfully exciting when an author comes along who sounds so thoroughly unlike anyone else. It’s as though she’s coming from another planet. Or, in Palmer’s case, the history department of the University of Chicago: she’s an intellectual historian of early modern Europe, which no doubt influenced her choice of style. The opening paragraph, which Patrick read back in October 2013:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

This is the memoir of Palmer’s protagonist, Mycroft Canner, who despite his anachronistic writing style is writing to a future living in a world shaped by the monumental changes that he is about to recount. His tale is strongly narrated, addressing (and even arguing with) the imagined reader; when the POV shifts, it’s with the conceit that the other narrator is relating the events for inclusion in Canner’s chronicle.

The juxtaposition of future and past is jarring but it works: it emphasizes a future that is alien and different, a future further away from us than we are from the eighteenth century, but with affectations, quirks and anachronistic social customs that feel appropriate and ring true.

Canner is a servicer, a criminal sentenced to perform tasks for anyone who demands them of him, though the full horror of the crime he committed emerges only slowly — Palmer believes in incluing, but there are are infodumps too, as you’d expect in a narrative informed by eighteenth-century style. Canner’s world is a future utopia, of sorts, where religion is fairly outlawed (priests have been replaced by “sensayers”), families have been reconceptualized into extended bash’es, and nation-states replaced by seven Hives that transcend territory and ancestry, whose leaders are fairly interconnected and incestuous — a fair parallel to the aristocracy of early modern Europe.

Into that mix add some deeply strange wild cards in the persons of Bridger, a small child seemingly capable of miracles who Canner has pledged to hide from the outside world, and J.E.D.D. Mason, an enigmatic son of an emperor who may be the cynosure of a religious cult. This is a future with flying cars, but the narrative focuses on the cultural, philosophical and political axes: the world is at a tipping point, on the verge of a spiritual crisis while the political system teeters. It’s an ostensible utopia paid for in coin that is sometimes terrible and secret.

Maddeningly, it’s at the point where we begin to understand that cost that the book comes to an abrupt end. I do so hate it when a story can’t be told between one set of covers, but the story and world and cast of characters are simply too large. (Now I have some idea of what readers must have felt when they finished Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, knowing that three books were still to come.) We’ll have to wait until December next February, when the second volume, Seven Surrenders, comes out, for the rest of Canner’s narrative; then we’ll know if Palmer has stuck the landing. (At this point I don’t know what books three and four of her series, Terra Ignota, will be about.)

But as for what we have right now, Too Like the Lightning is, for a first novel, a work of startling virtuosity: Ada Palmer has emerged, like Pallas Athene, full-grown and fully armed. One cannot help but be in awe.

Read chapters one and two, three, and four at Tor.com.

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

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April 26, 2016


Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

ghost-talkersFirst, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016), her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.

Ghost Talkers is powered by a clever premise. Spiritualism, the craze that swept the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is real and has been put to use by the British Army on the front lines of the Great War. Their soldiers are conditioned so that when they die, their ghosts report in to teams of mediums, providing valuable intelligence from the front lines. (One imagines suicide missions for intelligence reasons becoming increasingly acceptable.) Ghost Talkers’ protagonist is Ginger Stuyvesant, an American medium working for the British Army’s Spirit Corps, a secret wing of the army’s intelligence services. Her work, and those of the other mediums, is overwhelming: the toll of the dead is relentless, and Ginger, like other mediums, runs the risk of having her soul separated from her body.

Evidence begins to appear that the Germans are aware of the Spirit Corps and are trying to sabotage their work — by blinding wounded soldiers to limit their intelligence-gathering abilities, by overwhelming the Corps with sheer numbers of casualties, and, we soon read, by other measures. After a British officer is murdered, Ginger suspects that a spy is at work. Then her fiancé, Capt. Benjamin Harford, is also murdered, and haunts her until the mystery of his death — and, relatedly, the threat to the Spirit Corps — is solved.

Ginger’s grief and loss is personal, individual; the cataclysm that went on to scar an entire continent fades into the background. It’s at this point that Ghost Talkers trades the sublimity of war literature for a perfectly entertaining story full of romance, suspense and adventure, conscious of gender and racial bias, with empowered and passionate characters who have great chemistry with one another — everything that fans of Kowal’s work have come to expect. But it’s also where my experience of the book became increasingly dissonant, and where I bounced off it a bit.

A reader approaches a book with certain expectations. As a historian of modern Europe I am well acquainted with the poetry, literature and visual art of the Great War, which had a transformative impact on European culture and society (for an introduction, read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell). Because of my background, I found Ghost Talkers … tonally jarring, despite my best efforts. To be fair, if Ghost Talkers fails to scale the lofty heights of the war poets or delve deeply enough into the grief of life in the trenches, that is to a certain extent beside the point. This is a book of a different sort, with a different purpose — yes, written in the shadow of Graves, Remarque, Sassoon and so many others, which problematizes books that are about the War, set during the War but not necessarily of the War.

The problem I had with Ghost Talkers was not that it had insufficient gravitas; the book was, if anything, too heroic — too patriotic — where the literature and poetry of the War was decidedly neither. The real-world experience in the trenches was simply too ghastly for any ghost story. But, a century after the Somme, with all the remaining survivors now gone, the Great War may have finally shed its sacerdotal nature.

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

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August 29, 2016


Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

not-so-muchIt’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his — I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection — far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.

Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection — in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).

Collections like these inevitably have stronger stories and weaker stories, the latter more or less serving to pad out the collection. Here’s the thing: there are no weak stories in Not So Much, Said the Cat. They’re all great. Every last one of them. (I checked this assessment with Jennifer, no small Swanwick fan herself, and she agrees with me.) These 17 stories are all of a very high standard, each infused with emotional insight, clear intelligence, meticulous craft, and the cunning and clever mischief that are Swanwickian hallmarks.

The subject matter ranges from the mundane to the metaphysical, and from the fantastic to the hardest of hard science. In stories like “The Man in Grey” and “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” the nature of time and reality are unravelled; in “Passage of Earth” and “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” we encounter thoroughly well-realized aliens; in “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” a daughter travels to the underworld to save her father. The rogues Darger and Surplus make a welcome re-appearance in “Tawny Petticoats”; this time they meet their match while visiting New Orleans (which suffers the usual fate). “The Dala Horse” takes a Swedish folk object and turns it into a post-utopian tale. Russia features twice, in “Pushkin the American,” a sly secret history, and “Libertarian Russia,” a parable that is both timely and timeless. Finally, we have “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” a Gene Wolfe tribute that flipped the details of his classic novella, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” Only a few of these stories appeared online (I have linked to them above); most appeared in either the traditional magazines (six in Asimov’s, two in F&SF) or in original anthologies, so it’s likely there’s more than a few stories you haven’t seen before.

The quality of this collection is mind-boggling and has forced me to recalibrate my expectations: I almost have to go back and take one star off my reviews of other short story collections. With Not So Much, Said the Cat Swanwick is at the top of his game, the height of his powers, the insert-whatever cliché-seems-appropriate-here. It’s all the more striking when you consider that at the same point in Isaac Asimov’s career — 36 years after first publication — Asimov published Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (Doubleday, 1975), a collection of feghoots, shaggy dogs and other minor Asimoviana whose prime virtue was that they had not yet been published between boards. But Asimov had largely been phoning it in on the fiction front since the late 1950s. Swanwick has done no such thing: this collection is proof positive of that. Indeed, it is proof that Swanwick, who has spent considerable time talking about the important figures of the science fiction and fantasy field, is one such figure himself — and almost certainly one of our greatest living writers.

If that sounds like fangoobering, so be it.

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

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September 9, 2016


Shoot the Moon by Nicolas Dupont-Bloch

As hobbies go, astrophotography has murderously high barriers to entry in terms of equipment costs and skill, and the money and time required to acquire each. Fortunately there’s an exception. Taking pictures of the Moon requires neither specialized equipment or skill: my first photo of the Moon was taken with an entry-level digital SLR and a telephoto zoom lens, and people have used smartphones to take decent photos of the Moon through the eyepiece of a telescope.

From that first shot I graduated to prime focus lunar photography, using adapters to connect my SLR to a telescope, making that telescope essentially a gigantic telephoto lens. Here’s an album of those prime focus photos.

shoot-the-moonBut those aren’t the only ways to shoot the Moon, as Nicolas Dupont-Bloch demonstrates in his magisterial new book out this week from Cambridge University Press, which is coincidentally called Shoot the Moon: A Complete Guide to Lunar Imaging.

Let me say at the outset that beginners should stay as far away from this book as possible (they should start with the advice in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide). This is a comprehensive reference that covers every available way for amateurs to capture lunar imagery with their own equipment, and it does so in a systematic fashion. In method it’s not at all dissimilar from Michael Covington’s Digital SLR Astrophotography (from the same publisher), but for some reason I found the Covington easier to follow than the Dupont-Bloch.

That reason, I suspect, is Dupont-Bloch’s insistence on being thorough. You can shoot the Moon with a lot of different cameras besides digital SLRs, for one thing, and Dupont-Bloch covers not only every piece of astronomical equipment that might be used in lunar photography, from telescopes to tripods to cameras, but also the arcana of getting all that equipment working together and optimized for lunar work. Only by the halfway point does he start discuss taking those lunar images, with chapters on wide-field and high-resolution lunar imaging. Then it’s on to image processing, which if you want to advance beyond, say, the level I’m at, is quite important: getting high-resolution lunar images requires stacking multiple images to compensate for atmospheric turbulence, and assembling mosaics of multiple images. A single shot of the Moon is fairly straightforward; levelling up is something else.

But Shoot the Moon’s mania for thoroughness is as much weakness as strength. In attempting to cover everything, it does not always cover everything well. Many things are covered briefly rather than explained. I could follow the text, but that’s largely because much of it was a refresher for me. And its thoroughness can get it lost in the weeds. Emblematic of Shoot the Moon’s approach are subsections on flocking or baffling the tube of a reflector telescope: useful for advanced telescope use (it’s to prevent internal light reflections), but not strictly a lunar photography issue. And Dupont-Bloch’s chapter on image management, replete with discussions of file naming protocols and storage options, is both idiosyncratic and unnecessary. In the end, Shoot the Moon, while full of useful and informative technical content, could have used some curation of that material: some of it cut, some of it more fulsomely explained.

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

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September 28, 2016