Daily Reads: Monday 17/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning everyone! I’m online early-ish today (for some parts of the world, anyway), with SA author Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s debut novel Betrayal’s Shadow on my desk, ready to review. Before I get started on that, here are today’s Daily Reads:

- Jared from Pornokitsch has been sick in bed reading duchess porn, and came up with a list of five things epic fantasy can learn from historical romance. I particularly like the points about sex, gender equality (yep, even historical romance is waaay more progressive) and a sense of humour. And now I kind of want to read duchess porn…

- The Little Red Reviewer interviews one of my favourite authors – Ken Liu! He chats about his themes, translating Chinese sf, and gives the best answer for reading translated sf – not because it’s ‘good’ for you, but because it’s fun to try new things.

- Lynn’s Book Blog hosts author S.L. Eaves for a guest review of the home-invasion horror movie You’re Next! (2011). And it sounds pretty good! I like horror, but I do find that the genre tends to generate a lot of crap, so I’m always glad to hear about something worth watching.

Have a great week guys :)

 

Daily Reads is my new little feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments :)

New Feature: Daily Reads

Daily ReadsLately I’ve wanted to get a bit more organised about my online reading, partly for interest’s sake, and partly to improve my reviews and my blog by maintaining a good general perspective of relevant topics. My goals are to:

1. Pay more attention to the blogs I follow.

2. Keep up with the latest news in sff and the literary scene in general.

3. Learn new things and get fresh perspectives from essays and opinion pieces.

 

With so much content online, it can be fiendishly difficult to stay focused, so I have a few strategies:

- Make a list of blogs I follow, visit each of them at least once a month, and leave a comment if there’s an article that interests me.

- Set aside an hour each day for online reading (while trying not to get distracted by email, Twitter, fb).

- Start a new blogging feature as a way of encouraging myself to stick to the plan.

 

The new feature will be Daily Reads, and it will consist of 3 or 4 links to the day’s best online reading – reviews, short stories, essays/articles, news, etc. It’ll be short enough that I should be able to keep up with the blogging schedule (I’m aiming for about three posts a week) and you’ll be able to read through the whole list in an hour if you want to. And if you know of any sff-related pieces that you think are worth checking out, feel free to let me know in the comments, either here or in any of the feature posts, which will kick off on Monday.

Hope you enjoy it!

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body ProblemTitle: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Translation: Ken Liu
Series: Three Body #1
Published: 14 October 2014 (originally published in China in 2008)
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

In 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death for teaching the ideologically unacceptable theory of relativity. It’s a time of catastrophic anti-intelluctualism, when any academic considered too bourgeois and reactionary (ie. most academics) is persecuted and killed. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist herself, but is forced to abandon her studies. Because of her father she is considered ideologically suspect, and when she is betrayed by a cowardly rebel, she ends up in jail awaiting death. She is saved only be a second form of imprisonment – the opportunity to work at project Red Coast, a top secret scientific facility conducting SETI type research. Ye’s work in astrophysics caught their attention, and her skills have become particularly useful since China started systematically executing its brightest minds. Ye expects nothing but a quiet life and death at Red Coast, but instead she finds something to change the world – communication from an alien race.

In the present day, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao notices a disturbing phenomenon on the photos he takes – each of them has a sequence of numbers, counting down. Soon he starts to see it imprinted on his vision, and no matter what he tries he cannot figure out how this could be possible. His investigations lead him to an organisation called The Frontiers of Science and a game called Three Body. In the game, an alien world is besieged by unpredictable cataclysms and apocalypses. Various characters in the game – always leaders, philosophers and scientists from Chinese and European history – try to come up with theories for predicting the next cataclysm or apocalypse, but these always fail. To beat the game, the player needs to solve the Three-Body problem, which Wang eventually realises is a mathematical problem.

All this is connected to the strange phenomena he experienced, the mysterious deaths of scientists, and the way scientific research has been losing credibility in the world at large. And it all comes back to Ye Wenjie, and her actions at Red Coast.

The Three-Body Problem was a particularly challenging novel for me to read and review. Firstly, it’s hard sf, which I seldom read because the science just goes way over my head. Secondly, the novel is partly set during the Cultural Revolution in China, which holds great importance for the story as a whole. And… yeah, I don’t know much about that either. Add to this multiple plotlines, some of which are non-linear and one of which takes place in the surreal world of a complex computer game, and what you’ve got is a book best read at a desk in the morning with a few cups of coffee, not relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Three-Body Problem. I requested a review copy because I was curious, and although it was tough, it was worthwhile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the science in the novel, but I found Liu’s depiction of the intellectual milieu of the Cultural Revolution unforgettable. China is described as a place where “any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” The Revolution is both wildly ambitious and severely limiting and destructive. It’s hard to fathom how absurdly restrictive life under that regime must have been. One of the scenes I found most memorable is when Ye Wenjie asks her supervisor to authorise an experiment that involves firing a radio beam at the sun. Her supervisor immediately rejects her request – the sun is a political symbol, and firing a beam at it could be interpreted in a negative way that would create a political disaster for everyone involved. Absurd as everyone knows this to be, it’s become such a fundamental part of their lives that Ye isn’t even shocked or angry at her supervisor’s decision; instead, she can’t believe she didn’t think of the symbolism herself.

This sociopolitical landscape is crucial to the story because the Cultural Revolution leaves many characters feeling disgusted with humanity. Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, works for a company that chopping down beautiful, ancient forests for lumber, is betrayed by a friend, her sister and her mother, is jailed, nearly killed and eventually forced to work at Red Coast, all in service of the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences define her perspective of humanity:

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.… It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

This, in turn, drives the plot. There are many people that feel the way Ye does, and what they want is for a superior alien race to take over and force change up on the world. Exactly what action they think the aliens should take is a divisive topic of debate.

It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices. But I’m not al that optimistic about humanity myself, and in reading the novel, it’s easy to understand how people have come to feel that way. Also, the novel doesn’t push that perspective as the truth – it’s a meditation on morality and human nature, constantly grappling with the questions it raises. As a novel about science and philosophy, The Three-Body Problem is an exceptional piece of fiction. Liu does a really amazing job of tying all the elements of the novel together – the Cultural Revolution, the game Three Body, mathematics, physics, first contact, environmental destruction, etc.

The novel does have its shortcomings however, and its weakest point is its characters. Most of them feel flat, moving mechanically through the story with little to bring them to life. It makes sense in a few cases – some characters are just simulations in the Three Body game, and there’s a fairly long section that doesn’t use any named characters at all, like a fable, focusing only on plot. But some readers might struggle in the absence of strong characters to connect with, and  it really doesn’t help that Wang Miao, one of the protagonists, is terribly bland and forgettable.

There’s not much to say about him except that he works in nanomaterials and gets caught up in the story because of his scientific education and mindset. At the start, we’re told that he’s an avid amateur photographer, but this is just a plot device that gets discarded after serving its purpose. The same goes for his family, except that seem completely pointless. He has a wife and son who both express alarm at Wang’s strange behaviour when he starts freaking out about the countdown, but then they disappear from the plot and Wang doesn’t give them a second thought. It’s particularly odd given that he’s always doing things that would affect his family – he buys a virtual reality suit and spends hours playing Three Body; he skips work; he stays out late investigating the mysteries he encounters; he gets tangled up in a global conspiracy; he finds himself in real danger; he travels to another continent. All this, and not a word about his wife and son. Why write them only to drop them completely?

It’s no surprise, then, that Wang’s part of the story tends to be pretty boring, and the novel as a whole takes a long time to get its main story going with Ye Wenjie. Ye at least is a more exciting, memorable character, given that her experiences are far more dire and her ideas and actions set the story in motion (while Wang just runs around gathering info). Still, she comes across as cold, perhaps because she’s a scientist. In fact most of the characters are scientists or mathematicians, and it’s worth noting that the only other character I found memorable was a police detective – a big, boisterous man named Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi (Big Shi).

So yeah, not an easy read – the content can be complex, the pace slow, and the characters hard to connect with. The one advantage of this is that when the plot eventually gets to its most dramatic moments, it’s incredible to read – bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking stuff. Although there were times during this book that I thought I’d made a huge mistake requesting a review copy, by the end I was very curious about how things are going to turn out for the human race in the second and third books. I don’t know if I’ll keep reviewing the series (feeling a bit out of my depth here), but I would like to keep reading.

GUEST POST: The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors by Scott Gray Meintjes

Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Risingan action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!

The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors

As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.

My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of  technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.

The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.

But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.

Steel Wind RisingLiterature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?

There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as  being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.

But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.

One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.

The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.

So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.

Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.

__________________________

Scott MeintjesScott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.

Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.

Nyctophobia by Christopher Fowler

NyctophobiaTitle: Nyctophobia
Author: Christopher Fowler
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Solaris Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, gothic
Rating: 7/10

Callie, an unemployed London architect, has just escaped her troubled life and infuriatingly critical mother by marrying a charming, wealthy Spaniard. With no reason to want to stay in London, she’s happy to Andalusian Spain as he has longed to do, and is even more excited when she finds Hyperion House. It’s a fascinating, unique piece of architecture – built into a cliff, most of the house is designed to be flooded with sunlight, while the smaller section within the cliff is left in total darkness.

The house is isolated from the nearest village but comes with a gardener and housekeeper who have worked there for their entire lives. With no job and no obligations except looking after her husband’s young daughter, Bobbie, Callie decides to investigate the mysteries of the house and write a book about it. However, the dark rooms at the back awaken her nyctophobia – fear of the dark – and exploring them fills her with dread. Her fear might not be unfounded – there seem to be ghostly people living in the back of the house, caged in the darkness. At first Callie only catches glimpses of these ghosts, but they become increasingly malevolent, and she’s convinced that what they want is to escape and take over the happy lives of the people living in the light.

When it comes to horror, the stories I find most disturbing are the ones that cut closest to the bone. Zombies might be interesting, but I don’t seriously expect to see one. Bizarre science experiments can offer great ideas, but it’s a bit remote for someone who doesn’t work in that field. But the fear of an unseen presence, in the darkness, at home, is something primal that just comes to me naturally (I’m sure everyone thinks about it at some point), so a story about ghosts in mysterious locked rooms is pretty likely to keep me up at night.

And this is one of the things that I thought the novel did well. It moves very slowly and takes a while to build up any kind of tension or intrigue, but when Callie finally starts exploring those dark rooms, it’s incredibly creepy.

The house itself is interesting, and I particularly like the way the author entwines setting, plot and character. Hyperion House is not just a well-lit house with big windows. It’s designed so that the bright side captures and reflects all the available sunlight, from dawn until the very last moment of the sunset. It’s filled with clocks, so that the housekeeper knows exactly when to start turning on the lights, and the occupants never have to be in dark or even dim light before they go to sleep. Such a marvel is perfectly suited to the hot, sunny Spanish climate. As someone who tends to move around to the warmest, brightest parts of the house, I thought this sounded absolutely wonderful. Nevertheless, it’s clear that it can be disconcerting. Callie notes that the shadows don’t move, which is faintly disturbing. She finds it increasingly difficult to be in the dark, and develops some health problems from the constant exposure to light.

Eventually, Callie figures out that the architect designed the house to protect his wife from her own nyctophobia, the same fear that is being reawakened in Callie. But this raises a critical question – if the architect’s wife suffered from a fear of the dark, and the house was designed so she could avoid darkness, why build perpetually dark rooms at the back?

There’s also something suspicious about the way the construction of the house is based on doubles. It’s a classic horror trope that normally refers to people but works well in architecture too:

The house appeared to have been constructed according to strict principles based on pairs, twins, opposites and doubles. For every statue there was a matching one, every chair was one of two, every ornament had its mate, every tile and section of cornicing had its opposite number. This determined symmetry had a curiously calming effect, as if it was impossible to find anything alone and out of place.

In addition, the rooms at the back are mirror versions of the main house, except that they’re much smaller and decorated with cheap, shabby furniture and ornaments.

The construction of the house mirrors Callie’s personal problems. Like the architect’s wife, she has nyctophobia. There are also parallels with her slightly problematic marriage. She loves Mateo and they seem very happy, but she can’t deny that marrying him has saved her from some of her biggest problems – unemployment and living with her mother. She has a deeply troubled past that she keeps secret for fear of driving him away. Like the house, Callie tries to emphasise the light while keeping the darkness locked away.

Her psychological issues and the threat of ghosts are skilfully echoed in larger social problems, which are frequently mentioned as as an integral part of the Spanish setting. One of the reasons Mateo was able to buy the house is that it become cheaper because of the economic downturn, which “hangs over everything like a spectre”. Spain – and the quiet Andalusian countryside in particular – is described as being full of ghosts because people cling to memories of the Civil War, unable to move on. The little town of Gaucia is described as being old-fashioned and superstitious, no matter how modern they try to be. That struggle between past and present continues throughout the novel – the characters may use iPads, call each other on Skype or listen to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, but everything around them seems like it has barely changed in a century. It’s like the past is a weight dragging the present down into the darkness, and Spain, like Callie, can’t or won’t deal with the problems that the past represents.

All this serves to make Nyctophobia a fairly sophisticated, thoughtful horror novel. And it keeps a firm grip on those themes until the very end, rather than unraveling in a chaotic scare-fest, as some horror novels tend to.

That said, Nyctophobia fails to be a great novel. It’s marred by flaws that bug me too much to be overlooked. Firstly, it lacks a pervasive sense of horror until fairly late in the book. In some ways the narrative is constructed like the house, so that the creepy bits are confined to the dark rooms. I might have been on edge when Callie went into the darkness, but I seldom felt any tension when she was out in the light, especially since the plot moves quite slowly. Perhaps this was intentional, but I would have liked a bit more of the uncanny.

Then, a major problem with Nyctophobia is one common to horror stories – information is withheld for the sake of the story, in a way that can be frustrating or seem contrived. Characters who know exactly what’s going on refuse to explain anything, offering no more than a few cryptic clues until the big reveal at the end. The protagonist, in turn, asks the wrong questions or avoids talking about what scares him or her for fear of  being assumed to be insane (this is understandable, but still annoying).

In this case, Callie avoids telling Mateo about her fears, even when it seems perfectly reasonable to do so, like asking him to accompany her while she explores the dark rooms. Mateo, she keeps telling us, is very old-fashioned, and she doesn’t want to risk driving him away with all this unpleasantness. If she starts going on about ghosts, Mateo’s going to see her as a stereotypically irrational woman. Mateo actually knows a few significant details about the house, but he opts to be a patronising twat and keeps silent while Callie puzzles through it herself, so that she has something to keep her occupied. Callie could get help from the housekeeper Rosita, who obviously knows everything, but Rosita is playing a mysterious, cranky old lady and isn’t going offer anything but cryptic clues until Callie has figured it all out for herself (one of those “you wouldn’t have understood” scenarios). Later, after Callie digs up some info from a variety of old documents, we learn that it was mostly common knowledge to the townspeople, but they either did not want to tell her or were prevented from communicating with her.

The only advantage to this is the sense that Callie is being deceived and manipulated, which adds a teeny bit of intrigue. And Callie, with her many insecurities, starts to wonder if people are deliberately toying with her. But mostly it just feels like the author is clumsily regulating the flow of information to suit his story, and I find that irritating.

But despite its shortcomings, Nyctophobia is a decent read. I think it would appeal to fans of gothic fiction, with its measured pace punctuated by intense, otherworldly scares. Personally, I liked it for the intimacy of its horror (at home, in the dark, so it’s going to resonate with me the moment I go to bed), and the way the author entwined this so neatly with social and psychological ‘ghosts’.

War Stories edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War StoriesTitle: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
Editors: Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Apex Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: military science fiction short stories
Rating: 8/10

Military sf is one of the sf subgenres I’m least likely to read, but admittedly I haven’t read very much of it, so I thought it was worth giving this anthology a shot. From what I have read my assumptions are that it tends to be by men and about men, focusing on combat and toying with ideas for badass military tech – big guns, heavy high-tech armour, tanks, spaceships, drones etc. I like action, but it’s usually not enough to carry a story for me and is usually better on a big screen than in a book.

This anthology from Apex Publications was very quick to show me how narrow-minded those assumptions were. Divided into four sections – Wartime Systems, Combat, Amored Force and Aftermath – it shows that this military sf is not just soldiers dealing death with their super tech. Instead, these stories focus on people, soldiers battling with their roles as professional killers, the difficulties that their families and partners go through, the people designing military technology, the people forced to live with war tech even if they’re not fighting, veterans struggling to live in the mundane world. War, as is argued in the introduction, happens in our minds and bodies as well as on battlefields.

This isn’t a male-dominated anthology either. In the acknowledgements, editor Jaym Gates mentions that it focuses on the perspectives of female and LGBTQ characters. So there are plenty of female authors, and most of the stories have major female characters. In fact, when I encountered a story without a major female character, it stood out as distinctly odd and old-fashioned. In addition, there are loads of LGBTQ characters and relationships, most of which are treated as perfectly natural rather than being spotlighted as something radical. I love seeing this in sff, and we could use more of it – LGBTQ relationships and good male/female gender balances that can just exist without having to be justified, as if we need to explain why we’re not sticking to the tired old straight-white-male tradition.

So a major drawcard was that War Stories seemed fresh and progressive to me (apologies to military sf fans who already knew the genre was so much more than I assumed it to be). There are some stories that are more conventional than others and as with any anthology I didn’t like everything, but most stories offered something memorable. I’ll go through my favourites and the ones that stood out.

Wartime Systems

This was a great section to start with and I enjoyed it the most. It starts off very strong with “In the Loop” by Ken Liu, my favourite story in the anthology (I’m just a sucker for Ken Liu). Kyra’s father is a drone operator who becomes increasingly traumatised by having to make thousands of cold, calm decisions about whether or not to kill someone by drone strike. When Kyra grows up, she designs a programme to replace the humans controlling the drones, so that no one ever has to bear the responsibility for killing. In designing the programme, Kyra gets right down to the cold reality of war – that it’s about preferring the lives of one group over the lives of another, that different lives have different values. In this case, Americans are assigned the highest value, anyone ‘ethnic’ falls below that, and the lives of the poor and desperate are worth the very least. Kyra doesn’t agree with the ethics of this, but she has to admit that she thinks in similar terms – the life of her father meant far more to her than the thousands of people he killed. As usual, Ken Liu is brilliant at capturing the nuances of these psychological conundrums.

Most of the other stories in this section look very closely at the way tech affects personal lives. In “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, an albino child who would normally have been kidnapped by human traffickers for muti, is protected by a drone left over from a war. In “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow, a cyborg struggles with issues of purpose and identity after the war ends and her side abandons her on the planet as if she were nothing more than a piece of dead tech. “Non-Standard Deviation” by  Richard Dansky also explores the idea of the tech itself as sentient beings affected by war, although in a very different way.

Then “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen shifts the focus from fighters to civilians. In a post-war Syria, Western powers have enforced peace by assigning wasp drones to monitor every adult. The wasp can kill the person it observes, which is exactly what happens to a seventeen-year-old boy at the start of the story. It’s written from the POV of his mother, who was a social media activist during the war. I like this story partly because it depicts a more nuanced Islamic society than you typically see (no one is obsessed with religious propriety) and because it addresses issues of perspective and understanding in war. The Wasp Keepers are considered miraculous because they ended the war and kept the peace, but all the information they gather fails to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make.

Combat
This, of course, conforms more to the idea of what I thought military sf was, but I was still impressed with what I found.

“All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is a bit vague about exactly what conflict is being fought and how the characters fit into that, but I enjoyed it for “the girl and the gun” – the depiction of the relationship between a girl (an assassin) and her sentient sniper rifle. The story has a kind of quiet, assured tone that sticks with me and makes me want to go back and read it again.

“One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer also features a brilliant assassin – a Muslim woman who shoots people through the left breast partly because her culture made it difficult for her to look men in the eye, and partly because her mother – a famous actress – died of breast cancer. That alone is the kind of thing to pique my interest, but this story is also notable for how much worldbuilding, conflict (cultural, military, personal) and character is woven into a few words.

“Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata is a bit heavy on the combat for me, but I do like the tech ideas she explores in this story. Soldiers wear skullcaps that enable monitoring and communication but also alter their mental states, suppressing difficult thoughts and emotions, keeping them calm and focused even when they’re tired and traumatised. Most soldiers find it easier to wear skullcaps all the time, but one woman puts it on only when she absolutely has to, despite the harrowing psychological effects of taking it off.

Armored Force
Like the Combat section, this is another aspect of military sf that I expected to see a lot of, but wasn’t particularly excited about. However, Yoon Ha Lee immediately blew me away with her contribution. Her surreal stories tend to be so bizarre that I often have to read them at least twice to make sense of them, but her weirdly beautiful imagery and incredible ideas are worth the effort. “Warhosts” is by far the most imaginative story in this collection. In a distant future, mankind has developed sentient nanotech that later took control over them (whether this happened planet-wide or only in a small region is unknown and unimportant). Now the nanotech fight their own small-scale wars – or perhaps just war games – using humans as armoured mechs. I don’t mean that the humans wear armour – the nanotech invades their bodies’ systems and forces them to grow terrible plating and protrusions. Their bodies are covered in sores that the tech use as entry and exit points. The humans are in constant pain, but kept alive and fit enough to fight each other. This military horror sf is told from the POV of a nanotech ‘scout’ whose job it is to understand the personalities and culture of the humans in order to improve their fighting abilities.

“Suits” by James L. Sutter is the story without a significant female character, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s told from the POV of a mech technician – a specially cloned midget who is never allowed off the army base and does little more than work on the mechs. He’s knows virtually nothing about the war he’s helping to fight until one traumatic day when his officer takes him out to work on a malfunctioning suit.

Like the Linda Nagata story in the Combat section, “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr shows soldiers who have come to use their military tech as a crutch. Mechs enable people with battered, stitched-together bodies to be brutally functional in the field, and most soldiers prefer to spend all their time in the suits rather use their own faltering bodies. The plot of this story wasn’t particularly memorable, but I liked the idea about the suits.

Aftermath
Naturally the pace slows here. The high-action conflict has been left behind and the protagonists are back home fighting mostly psychological battles that are sometimes harder than facing guns and bombs.

In “War Dog” by Michael Barretta, the genetically engineered weapons of war persist even though the war has ended. This is a huge problem in the case of a deadly, infectious fungus that causes zombie-like behaviour (reminds me of the game The Last of Us). There are also human-dog hybrids who don’t pose a danger but are supposed to be wiped out simply because society considers them abominations. You could compare them to veterans who struggle the most in normal society – no matter how hard they fought or how much they sacrificed, they are ostracised from the societies they protected. In this story, a retired officer tries to protect one of the ‘war dogs’, and begins an intimate relationship with her.

“Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman takes place during a space war fought by the African Federation and it’s worth mentioning for that alone – the battles are in the background, but for once Africa isn’t portrayed as a continent of sad, dusty victims fighting desperately with inferior tech. Sadly, but not implausibly, South Africa’s class and racial politics have not evolved at all (and may even have regressed), as is painfully clear in the protagonist’s personal relationships and experiences when she returns from the war to her family’s struggling farm.

In “Enemy State”, Karin Lowachee tells a story from the POV of a man struggling to have a relationship with a soldier who can’t handle normal life and keeps going back to war. He describes their relationship like a war – putting up defences, trying to break through barriers, treating his heart like fort.

So, overall, an excellent, eye-opening read that goes far beyond what I expected of this genre. War Stories will be published on 7 October and costs $5, but is worth a lot more :)

Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.