Look, ever since I realized that “dressing up as fascists” was perfect for this fandom, I’ve wanted this vid, and LithiumDoll does it great justice. The internal motion and even internal lighting changes are perfect for the disorientation and cruelty of the song. And there’s so many canonical references that are perfect—all the things they do that hurt others, and each other, by meaning to or by meaning to be good or both. The nuclear bomb and the beautiful, horrible wormhole equations that represent both art and death.
A very good bad review of a Netflix animated sff series, Love, Death and Robots.
Casey McQuiston, Red, White & Royal Blue: He’s the son of the first female president of the US; he’s a prince of England, fourth in line to the throne. They hate each other, until it turns out that they’re actually super hot for each other. But can they keep this big of a secret during a presidential reelection campaign? This has the rivals-to-lovers trope I like, and they are both smart and eloquent. But it turned out that I couldn’t help but compare the novel’s world to our own and find it more distressing than wish-fulfilling to imagine a world just enough better that these guys could get a happily ever after despite Wikileaks and homophobes in charge of the Republican party—it was the uncanny valley of romance for me. I can easily see how it would work better for others.
KJ Charles, Proper English: Pat is an English gentlewoman who loves to shoot and doesn’t really want to marry but needs to find a new household as her brother is about to marry; she attends a friend’s shooting party and meets Fen, her brother’s best friend’s fiancee, and sparks fly. Unfortunately, there’s also a blackmailer and a murder, and Pat and Fen must solve the mystery lest important family secrets come out in the investigation. I prefer Charles’ fantasy, but it was pleasant enough.
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire: Mahit is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire from her small station, which is facing down the Empire’s hunger for territory. The old ambassador died, probably murdered, and Mahit is supposed to have the help of his imago (his preserved memories, using technology the Empire considers taboo) but all she has is an outdated version, and there are some problems even with that. Also, Mahit loves all things Imperial and kind of hates herself for wanting to be an Imperial citizen. When she arrives, she finds herself immersed in palace intrigue and no one is quite sure how much she resembles her predecessor. It’s engaging, especially if you like people speaking in indirection and having to infer what’s going on from statements pregnant with multiple meanings, which isn’t exactly my jam but I could roll with it.
Seanan McGuire, Middlegame: Roger and Dodger were created by monsters to try to control the fundamental laws of power. Together they may be the living embodiment of a basic universal force—which is why those who made them try to control how they interact, leading to bloody death. But Dodger can reset time and try again, when Roger tells her to. It’s a good standalone using elements recognizably McGuire’s—Jack Daws and the Page of Cups and drowned girls and themes about storytelling and archetypes—but without too much of the repetition that curdles easily into cutesy for me.
Laurie Marks, Earth Logic: A generation ago, the Sainnites (refugees from their own land) invaded Shaftal. Now they’re trying to raise a new generation of soldiers, but they have to be taken (or gotten voluntarily) from Shaftali families. Meanwhile, the super-powerful potential leader of Shaftal is trying very hard not to do anything, because doing things might end with a bunch of dead people. Marks is trying to do something interesting about how peace can be harder and more rewarding than war, and how welcoming people in can be more powerful than fighting them. I don’t think it’s for me, in part because I don’t much like ideas like “fire blood people have certain emotional as well as magical traits, and earth blood people are different,” even when they're not super race-associated--I'm much more about fundamental attribution error--but it is definitely a different kind of fantasy.
John Birmingham, The Cruel Stars: In previous works, Birmingham has delivered cracking sf battle scenes and some truly ugly stereotypes about non-Westerners. This book, set in a far future that’s supposed to have completely different cultures after the diaspora from Earth, provides mostly the former. Based on his past work, I side-eyed casual references to specific Earth cultures that various of his characters seemed to think provided good stock (Japanese, nonracially specified South African) but that wasn’t a big enough part of the book to say anything definitive. Instead, it’s a far future in which a chunk of humanity has embraced various kinds of genetic/phenotypic modification, as well as pervasive computer implants to allow instant “loading” of various skills and quick communication. This future remains unequally distributed, however; people who can’t afford modifications eke out a living, or don’t, without them, and one of the POV characters is a woman whose father sold himself into debt slavery to fund her education and implants, allowing her to serve in the Royal Armadalen Navy. (Yes, corporate kingdoms are very much a thing.) Then the Sturm return—the fragment of humanity that rejects all forms of modification and holds that all modified people must be exterminated. So it’s a battle of genocidaires against standard corrupt, unfair hierarchies, with the occasional upright hero like our Navy girl; even when the genocidaires rescue the woman’s father from slavery, their appearance as liberators reads as ominous rather than as truly morally complicated. I thought a bit about the Battle of Britain from the perspective of an Indian nationalist, though there isn’t any very similar character in the book—instead the POVs are from the Navy woman; a young princess who rises to the occasion; a space pirate; a washed-up general who might not be as washed-up as he first seems; and the leader of the Sturm invasion. If you like space battles and references to firing on a position as “servicing” a target, with enough difference in the warring cultures that you don’t have to make any analogies if you don’t want to, then this book might be for you.
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades: In this sequel, General Mulagesh is ripped from retirement to investigate some goings-on in the Continent, at the heart of the dead god Voortya’s former power. Though Voortya seems to be well and truly dead, there are some other disturbing signs, and conflicts among the Saypuri military, the local tribes, and the engineers trying to turn the rivermouth into a real harbor. Magic and sacrifice ensue; it’s a story about the lingering consequences of violence and the choices that soldiers must make, whether to serve or to rule.
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Miracles: It’s thirteen years after the last book, and the now-former Prime Minister Shara Komayd has been assassinated. Sigrud comes out of hiding to avenge her and discovers that a new Divine threat is emerging, even as the Continent has gone full steampunk Industrial Revolution in his absence. (There’s a set piece on a giant cable car system that is quite something.) The big question: Can bloody cycles be broken, or at least mitigated?
Seanan McGuire, In an Absent Dream: As a child, Lundy wanders into the Goblin Market, where you can’t ask for things without risking unruly debts, and where fair value must always be paid, lest you be transformed into a bird. She finds a friend, Moon, and a mentor, the Archivists (no true names is another rule), and when she goes back to 1960s America, the constraints she finds often send her right back. But she’s going to have to choose before she turns eighteen, and this is not a happy tale. An interesting entry into McGuire’s Wayward Children series, though not my favorite.
Ted Chiang, Exhalation: Chiang writes the most amazing short sf stories. They’re about the nature of consciousness, free will, and moral duty/desert, whether they’re about nonhuman intelligences in the form of parrots, AI, God, or otherwise. My favorite here was The Lifecycle of Software Objects, in which “digients”—intelligent, childlike artificial entities—start out as commercial products, then become obsolete and still beloved by a few, who struggle with how to treat them (as children, pets, corporate entities with their own decisionmaking capability, something else) and how to deal with technical obsolescence. When a chance to port the digients to a more modern environment arrives, but only if the company at issue can make some of the digients into sexual companions, the ethical challenges get even more severe. Can a digient consent to having its reward pathways changed so that it “genuinely wants” to have virtual sex with a human being? If that’s the only way to get the money to give the digients access to the rest of the virtual world, is that ok? How different is that from one of the humans involved, who is considering taking a designer drug that will make her love her employment so that she can get a chance to convince her employer to port the digients without the sexual aspect? Chiang’s characters are serious people trying to do well, but they aren’t perfect, just thoughtful. Another great story imagines being a scientist in a world with clear evidence of recent creation: tree cores that have a uniform radius five thousand years back; mummies with no navels; ancient deer bones with no growth marks because they were created as adults. But what happens to faith when science shows that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe and, crucially, that some other planet is? See also his almost-story op-ed in the NYT, It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/opinion/ted-chiang-future-genetic-engineering.html.
Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts: Maggie is back, now known somewhat misleadingly as the Godslayer. When her not-quite-boyfriend Kai disappears, she has to go find him and the White Locust, a cult leader with some disturbing plans. The book provides a larger view of the post-apocalyptic landscape, including some bad folks (mentions of rape, vivisection and slavery), and leaves Maggie with some different allies. A very enjoyable entry into the series.
Theodore Sturgeon, Microcosmic God, vol. 2 of the complete stories:Includes a fascinating introductory essay by Samuel R. Delaney about Sturgeon’s influence. Sturgeon once published a revised version of a story, which was shocking, Delaney argues, because sf had managed to survive as “not good for you” literature by pretending that it was written easily. But if the authors sweated over every word, that makes them more serious miscreants against right thinking. Sturgeon’s revision thus helped the field recognize its own claims to literary status. Relatedly, in an aside that makes me think of Francesca Coppa, “the conceptual space of science fiction is finally far closer in organization to the performance space of the circus (with its extraordinary vertical as well as horizontal organization recalling science fiction’s spaceships and alien worlds; with its audience surround and its oddly fuzzy distinction between backstage and performance area recalling SF writers’ relation to their vociferous and ever-presnet fans; and the circus was the first art to insist openly that more must go on in the performance space than can possibly be seen at once) than it is to the staid divisions of the theater (backstage, stage, and audience)….” The stories themselves often reminded me that misanthropy in a misogynist world is often misogyny. Which is to say, though most of the characters don’t come off well, women come off especially badly. Part of the insult misogyny adds to injury is that it makes good thinkers into bad ones: Sturgeon’s vicious inventiveness turns stale and boring whenever women enter the picture, as when an all-powerful alien adopts a human form (after first thinking that the “drab” ones must be the women, figuring out his error (because gender is a universal, of course) and choosing a male form) and achieves the great insight that women can only love men who abuse them. Or when a man who lusts after a woman who doesn’t take him seriously decides “I’m going to shake her off her high horse, by all that’s unholy, if I have to kill her to do it” and sets out to terrify her into being weak so he can be strong (and it works because misogyny).
Jessica Khoury, The Forbidden Wish: A retelling of Aladdin from the perspective of the jinn, trapped in her bottle for hundreds of years after she was forced to betray her dear human friend by the ruler of the jinn. Now, she has one last opportunity for freedom, but only if she rescues a trapped jinn from the humans; to do so, she helps Aladdin pretend to be a prince and seek the favor of the princess. But there’s palace intrigue aplenty on the human side, and she and Aladdin are having some inconvenient feelings… Nicely done YA fantasy/romance.