Friday, July 26, 2013

Saga: A Review

(X-posted at delagar)

In my favorite bit, Alana, the guard, falls in love mostly because of a book she has been reading, which convinces her that the enemy is human too -- and that love is the best response to an enemy.

It's a trope about the power of literature to alter our worldview, to change our lives; it goes as far back as Chaucer (in Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyde is convinced by a song Antigone sings that love is a worthwhile enterprise); it is a major function of literature and art; and yet we don't often see it used in literature itself.

The characters too are excellent -- my favorite might be the Lying Cat, which is a giant cat, partner to a mercenary named The Will, who can tell when anyone is lying.  Lying Cat prowls around and says, when you are lying, "LYING."  If you aren't lying, Lying Cat just says, "Mpf."  In a kind of disgruntled way.

The Will is also great.

And our heroes, Marco and Alana, have a baby, from whose POV the story is being told -- and this baby has a ghost babysitter, a child who has been killed in the endless war.  Well.  Half a ghost.  Because she was blown up in a landmine.

When this ghost kid showed up was one of the first best plot twists in a novel which is (apparently) going to be filled with great plot twists.

And the art is also great.  The kid, who as you know does art, expostulated on it at length, explaining to me exactly what was great about it.  She says it was done digitally (I think that's what she said) and also something about the lines, which I can't remember.  But she's very impressed, I remember that.

In conclusion: I highly recommend, and can't wait for the next one.

Update: io9 on Saga.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ender's Game v. Cyteen: Writing Gifted Children

(X-Posted at delagar)

Recently, as I may have mentioned, my kid read Ender's Game as part of her home-schooling curriculum. This meant I had to read it, too, since I'm her literature teacher.

One aspect of the book which both the kid and I noticed was how unrealistic Card's portrayal of the child characters was. I know other readers have liked his child characters, but especially in this book, when Ender is supposed to be six at its start, and Peter and Valentine only a few years older, his writing of these characters is just wildly unrealistic.

"I don't write children," Card claims. "I write humans."

Well, this is a problem.  Not because children aren't human, but because Card seems to think here, and when he writes as well, that only one sort of human exists.  Having decided that, he writes every human the same, no matter what age they are, or where they are from, or what gender they are, for that matter, mostly.

So his six year old Ender talks exactly like his forty year old Hyrum Graff, who talks exactly like Mazar Rackam, who talks exactly like six year old Bean.

(Oh. Wait. Occasionally the students talk "slang." And say fart.  And call each other by racist nicknames.  But you know.  Other than that.)

I understand why readers of SF novels want to believe little kids talk like this.  They remember being smart kids, and they remember being treated like objects by the adults around them -- as though their ideas and their desires and their opinions did not matter -- and to see Card writing children as if they are the equal of adult humans, in intellect and vocabulary and wit and forethought, that soothes the wounds that still sting inside us all.

And yet.

No, even the smartest among us was did not have a fully-developed intellect at six.  Or ten, for that matter (or however old Ender is when he smites the buggers).  Being brilliant and having a fully realized intellect are not at all the same thing.

Which brings me to Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh, which by happenstance I re-read about a week after I read Ender's Game.

If you want a book which presents a realistic portrait of gifted children, here is your book.

Cherryh is ten times the writer Card is, so she's got an advantage over him to begin with.  And probably at least twice as smart as he is.  Also, her characters and the situation she is writing about is inherently more interesting.  So, all that.

But let me focus on her gifted children.  She writes about several, but the three main ones in Cyteen are Ariane Emory, Catlin, and Florian.

Ariane is the center of the book -- a genius ( a special, as the book has it) who has been cloned and is being recreated (psychogenesis) so that she can take over the running of her predecessor's company, Cyteen.

Florian and Catlin are her two bodyguards: also clones, also recreations, but azis, which is to say, slaves, more or less. (It's complicated, because Cherryh is always complicated, which is why she's so interesting.) Florian and Catlin are also alphas.

Azis come in different categories, a la in Brave New World: alphas, betas, gammas, and so on.  Alphas are the smartest, geniuses, but tend to instability if not socialized and given to the control of a qualified supervisor. (Supervisor of course translates from the Latin as overseer.  I do love Cherryh.)

I could talk about this book forever, as it is one of my favorites, but the point is -- and I do have one -- about half the book concerns the cloned Ariane and the cloned Florian and Catlin growing up, first separately and then together.

We get lots of scenes, inside their heads, of them reacting and thinking and talking and handling situations, from the time they are all about six and onwards.  And Cherryh clearly actually understands how brilliant children act.

That is to say, Ariane knows well enough from the time she's very young that something is up: that she is being betrayed by someone. (She doesn't know who for a very long time.) She knows she is surrounded by dangers, that her world is a risky and scary place.  She doesn't have the language or the worldview to handle everything she suspects or understands; she resorts to the sort of language gifted children will use.

She kept getting this upset feeling, no matter how hard she tried to be cheerful. It was not a Mad, either. She tried to figure out what it was...
Hell with Them, maman would say. Meaning Them that messed things up.

Catlin and Florian also have this half-invented, private language: Olders can be real dangerous, they tell Ari when she wants to find out who is betraying her.  You have to be careful, because they know so much more. Though, as Catlin adds, "If he's not expecting it, anyone can be Got."

Here, Ariane explains human behavior to Florian and Catlin, who, being Azi and raised in the barracks, don't really understand it:

"CITs have connections," she said.  She felt uneasy telling them.  It was like telling them how to Work someone. She explained, making a hook out of two fingers to hook together. "To each other, like you to Catlin, and Catlin to you, and both of you to me. Sometimes not so strong.  Sometimes real, real strong. And CITs do things for each other, sometimes because it feels good, sometimes because they're Working each other, sometimes to Get each other. A lot of times it's to protect themselves."

Wide, attentive stares. Anxious stares.  Even from Catlin.

"So you can Work someone to make them do something if you tell him you'll hurt him or hurt somebody he's connected to. Like if somebody was to hurt me, you'd react."  While she was saying this, she thought, So it's maman they want something out of, because maman is important.

It couldn't be the other way around.  They haven't told me they'd hurt maman.

But they're Olders, like Florian says. They always know more and they don't always tell you everything you need.

This is how smart, gifted kids talk and think.  These are actual kids, not 25 year olds in tiny little bodies.  And as Ariane and her tiny bodyguards grow up, their thinking, language, and worldview grows with them -- that is also something Cherryh does well.  (Whereas Ender Wiggins at 45 sounds exactly like Ender Wiggins at six, frankly.)

I guess I don't have to say that I highly recommend Cyteen if you're looking for a good book about not just smart kids, but smart ideas. No easy answers, though.  That's something Cherryh never does supply.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chris Moriarty: Spin State, Spin Control: Review

(X-Posted at delagar)

I can't remember when I first read Chris Moriarty's Spin State, the first book in her three book series which is finished by this year's Ghost Spin; I do know that the minute I finished the book I turned over heaven and earth to get the sequel, Spin Control (since we were living in Fuck Smith by then, this meant driving up the hill to a real bookstore, and then -- thwarted -- ordering it from Amazon).

Now Ghost Spin is finally out.  I'm only 40 pages into it and I can tell already I'm going to love this one as deeply as I loved the other two and that -- like the other two -- it will be an entirely new experience.

Queering SFF Ghost Spin Chris Moriarty

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers here, while giving you a review nonetheless.

First, these are cyberpunk the way cyberpunk should be done; and SF the way SF should be done.  By which I mean to say Moriarty uses the technology and the science to power the story, rather than to just say Look at Me, I Know Science. The science feels coherent and real, and as if this science has, in fact, changed the future in these coherent ways.

All these changes seem believable, too.  One of my favorite bits in Spin Control come when our main character, Arkady, who's a biologist, is being interrogated (by someone who is not a scientist) and gets asked about the terraforming mission they were on.

"Synthetic biospheres are tricky," [Arkady says.] "If something killed off the original colonists, there's always the chance it could still be around to kill you."

"What do you mean, killed off?" Moshe interrupted.  "Like...predators?"

""  Was that a joke?"  "More like mold."

All through Moriarty's novel's, we get little shocky bits of realism like that -- bits that, frankly, show the "realism" of the grimdark up for sham it is.

Second, changes in technology are reflected, in Moriarty's novels, in changed cultures.  On Earth itself, the world has changed markedly; it has changed very markedly out in the colonies. (Here, I see Moriarty in a dialogue with C. J. Cherryh: Arkady and the other clones of Moriarty's colonies are a response, and an interesting one, to Cherry's Azis.)

Cohen and Catherine Li are Moriarty's most interesting characters, though I do have a soft spot for Arkady.  (Who could help it?  He's adorable!)

Cohen is an Emergent AI.  This means he's an artificial intelligence composed of about 30 other artificial intelligences who have grouped together (like a school of fish, I think?) to make a single intelligence that calls itself Cohen, which is dominated by a controlling entity who used to be a human intelligence named Hy Cohen.

I think I have that right.  And other intelligences add and leave the group from time to time, but the AI Cohen is still Cohen.  It's been alive for about four centuries and it's a political and economic powerhouse, with ties to Mossad.  Also, its original programming (written by Hy Cohen-the-human) make it loyal to certain humans, known as inscribed players.  (Shades of Asimov's Laws of Robotics here, except the rules make sense.)

Catherine Li is a soldier -- was a soldier -- who fought in the Syndicate Wars.  (Arkady comes from the Syndicates.)  She fought on the wrong side.  It's (probably) not her fault.  She's the Butcher of Gilead -- she thinks -- and when we meet her she's being controlled by (probably) some bad people, including her boss, Helen Nguyen.  Though she's not sure she's right about this, because in the future the wrong people can fuck with your brain.  And do.  She's also a construct, which has to do with genetic engineering. (Arkady too is genetically engineered.)  Li and Cohen end up -- well, spoilers.

All of these books also deal with sexuality in various interesting ways.  Cohen, being an AI, puts on and takes off human bodies (shunts) of various genders at will.  Li is bisexual.  Arkady comes from a culture which has a taboo against heterosexuality. In future Earth, sterility is used as a weapon.  And so on.

And -- which you have probably noticed by now -- this is not a future in which everyone is a nice white American from Iowa, or a future in which we all travel to the stars and build Iowa farms there. Though Ghost Spin does start on a planet named after an American city, these books are (1) nicely cosmopolitan and (2) have women in them.  And not just one woman.  Lots of women.  Women who are people, who have functions, who act, who aren't one-dimensional, who matter to the plot.  Moriarty gives us worlds, in other words, like the real world -- it's half women.

That's nice.

Also, she writes like a demon.

Just saying.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 7, 2013

This Week in Reading

I am on a slow slog through my TBR (to be read) pile and <silent squee!> I have finally made it halfway! Not only have I finished M, but because I didn't have any N or O authors, I'm all the way up to P!

Shall we dish?

I really liked Moira J. Moore's first book (Resenting the Hero), but I can't seem to get into the others in the series. I wasn't greatly fond of Devon Monk's first book (Magic to the Bone) but book 2 (Magic in the Blood) was also in the pile and I really liked that one. I've made a deal with myself not to order any more books until I've made it through the whole alphabet, so book 3 will have to wait. Just a little bit longer.

The books that really make me regret that deal, however, are in the P's. I am really enjoying T.A. Pratt's Marla Mason series. Don't ask me how -- as often my TBR piles come from garage sales and have big gaping holes in them, series-wise -- but the first four were all in my pile and I want so badly to go buy the next one. Interestingly, this is also where the author seems to have gone from being Bantam published to Merry Blacksmith Press, where buying a digital copy is easier than buying paper, so once I make it through my paper TBR piles, I might be able to add the rest to my digital collection before I start over there!

I've also discovered Grave Witch and Grave Dance by Kalayna Price and will be remembering to put her name on my buy-it-later list for book 3.

Happily, I only have two books left in P's (An Edgar Allan Poe collection and The Touch of Twilight by Vicki Petterson) before I get to move on to Julia Quinn. She's my only Q, but as I've read her sporadically over the last decade I have a lot of hers and no idea which ones I've read and which ones I haven't. And she's almost always funny!


Are there any authors M-Q that I should have read? That you love and can't believe I missed? That I should add to my buy-it-later list now while I'm thinking about it?

I'd love to hear your opinions on it!

In the Tried, But Not Amazed set were Rosemary and Rue (Seanan McGuire), Melusine (Sarah Monette), Of Tangible Ghosts (L.E. Modesitt, Jr.), Thorn Queen (Richelle Mead), The Eye of the Hunter (Dennis McKiernean), Perdido Street Station (China Mieville), Trance (Kelly Meding), Cauldron (Jack McDevitt), Tainted Night, Tainted Blood (E.S. Moore), The Cygnet and the Firebird (Patricia A. McKillip), and The Mirror Prince (Violette Malan).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek: Another Movie

So, in the beginning there was Star Trek the television show. I tried watching it again from the beginning the other day and in the first episode Kirk says something along the lines of, I'll never get used to having a woman on the bridge. I considered strangling people until Husband comes in and reminds me that this is not agreeing with the sentiment, but confronting sexism head-on during the time it was made.

I haven't gotten back to watching it from the beginning yet, but I was sad to see that the new movie does the exact opposite of that. Sure, Uhura does stuff. She doesn't dress super-sexy and chat up the computer, but everything she does fails. Everything the other prominent female does fails - even though she's a prominent scientist. They are smacked down, put in their place, and saved by the men every time they dare to step forward and be active.

Husband came out of the theater excited about the nice action movie, I came out sad. He says that it was not noticeable. I said that before we had a daughter neither were the phrases, 'hit like a girl', 'run like a girl,' or 'cry like a girl' noticeable to him. But I noticed.

Maybe because, for me, there have been so many times men rush in to save the day and for him it doesn't happen. He won't even see it because when he's around, people expect him to save the day for me then. And usually when a man comes over to lift something heavy for me, I just let them. It's not something worth arguing about on an individual basis and it's too nice an idea to snap at them for. I offer to lift things sometimes for people who seem weaker than I am, who seem to be struggling. I just wish my gender didn't automatically make me look weak, because usually when help is offered it isn't because I've failed. Usually, I've yet to attempt.

He won't ever believe it's due to things like this movie, this unnoticed failure rate amongst the female crew, but I theorize that it's specifically due this sort of thing. That being background, it becomes truth, it is truth, and it always was truth. No matter how true it isn't.

But that's why I didn't like the movie as much as he did. If you are not a woman, or you can look past the women not succeeding at anything they do (other than possibly manipulating the men - though that might have been in the first of the movie reboots since we watched that the same afternoon), you'll probably love it. If you can turn off that part of your brain and just watch an action movie without seeing sub-text, you'll probably love it.

I came away a little dispirited.

But I did laugh.

And Benedict Cumberbatch was as excellent as ever.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Next Big Thing: Martin's War

(X-Posted at delagar)

I was tagged for this by Shay Darrach, my co-editor on Menial: Skillled Labor in SF.

I'm tagging Polenth Blake, over at Polenth's Nothing.

The deal is, I answer ten questions about a work in progress.  I'm going to talk about Triple Junction, which   is the first book proper in the series Martin's War.  Those of you who have read Broken Slate know that's a prequel to this series.

1.What is the working title of your next book?

Triple Junction – it’s a geological term, traditionally meaning a place where three divergent boundaries meet (like an ocean, a ridge, and a continental plate); but more loosely now means any three boundaries. Generally they’re unstable and lead to change. Here – obviously – I’m being all metaphorical.

2.Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve been working on this idea awhile. It’s my successful slave revolt/successful revolution story.  The main impetus was C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, which details (wonderfully) the Haitian revolution. I’m writing a five-book far-future SF series, which follows the events of a successful rebellion and revolution about the contract labor on the planet Julian.

3.What genre does your book fall under?

Definitely space opera. 

4.What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m terrible at this.  Not only do I watch almost no TV and very few movies, but I can’t remember faces or names. Someone talented, I guess.  And since my main characters are mostly POC, I’d want them not to be white-washed.

5.What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

On a far-future settlement planet, Martin Eduardo battles an abusive contract labor system as he works toward revolution.

6.Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I'm working on this as we speak.

7.How long did/will it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft, about two months.  I write the first draft fast (always) and then I revise extensively.

8.What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a tough one.  I’m heavily influenced by Cherryh, and Tepper, by Eleanor Arnason, by Joanna Russ, by Suzy McKee Charnas, by Kage Baker, by Octavia Butler, by Cecelia Holland; but I wouldn’t say this book is exactly like any of theirs.  I certainly owe all of them plenty.

9.Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I said above, reading C. L. R. James, and then about fifty other books I read because I had read that one – about slavery, and about other sorts of forced labor.  Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name was also a big influence.  It’s why I have contract labor and not slaves on Julian.

10.What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

Well, I’m also interested in cultures.  I started out as an anthropologist, not an English professor, and one of the reasons I write SF is so that I can write about different cultures. I was interested in writing about the revolution on Julian, but I was also interested in creating a workable, believable far-future culture, one that is not 1970s suburban America culture (as so many SF cultures, it seems to me, are).  I’m having a lot of fun with that.