Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Past Is Red - Catherynne M. Valente


The Past Is Red is a new novel from Catherynne M. Valente, who has a penchant for producing clever, thoughtful stories, with strong messages, human characters, and the sort of prose that makes you sit up and take notice. I’m happy to report that this tendency continues here. The Past Is Red is a rather good book, and a damn fine story.

Before I delve into it any more though, it’s worth noting that a portion of it has turned up as a novella before, in Strahan’s Drowned Worlds collection, and more recently, as the standalone The Future is Blue.  So if you get an odd sense of deja-vu for the first section of the book, don’t worry, you’re not alone. That said, even as a re-read, the first section is an enjoyable and incisive commentary on climate change, on humanity, and the choices that we make on a personal and systemic level – and it pairs beautifully with the rest of the text, making something new, and greater than when read on its own.

This is a quiet story, and a story that speaks truth. It’s the story of a young woman, who lives on an island made of garbage. That’s humanity now. Scattered enclaves on a blue marble, living in the detritus of a civilisation which has literally sunk without trace. Every scattered, broken doll, every pill bottle, every broken CD player has its place, as a means of exchange, as a trinket, as a totem, as a home. It’s a world built on the ruins of what we have built, and a world built on the traceless remains of what we destroyed. Modernity is known simply as “The Fuckwits”, and if the people of the garbage heap are sometimes violent, sometimes cruel, they are still a people of love and generosity as well. And a people of betrayal, and old hatreds, yes. People. And this is the future, on a soundless ball of blue, scrabbling in what’s left.

And of course, some of them hate it. Some of them look at what was and what they live within, and live a dream of hope, of something else, of difference. Of land. And then there’s Tetley, our protagonist. Tetley knows that what there is, is all there is. She knows that the people of garbage island are there to stay. She knows that this is all there is. And she loves it, and is fierce in her affection, and passionate acceptance that this is all there is.  Tetley is passionate and fierce and young. Tetley is kind and generous and in love. And Tetley is true to herself. As a character, she is pitch perfect. A person shaped by pressures that we cannot know, in an environment we can barely comprehend, but recognisably a person, doing their fragile best in an often hostile world. You can see Tetley, feel her conviction and her tracery of pain and the sheer joy that burns through her. She’s strange and wonderful and human.

As are those around her, those guttering flames of humanity standing in a world surrounded by lapping waves. They’re everything we are, shaped by what we do. They are our grandchildren and our future, and the indictment cast back upon us by all of them, from  the most sympathetic to the least, is searing. There is power in these words, in what they say and the quiet spaces in between. Tetley is the future, and the past is us, the past is red.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, though I will note that the second part occurs some time after the first. Tetley the girl is replaced by someone more weary, more contained perhaps, but with that humanity, that potential to reach for anything and also to be satisfied with who and what she is, that makes this such a wonderful character piece. Because that’s what we have here, a woman traversing her world, and making choices that leave her true to herself. And sometimes those choices may change the world, for her, or for everyone else.

In any case, this is a beautifully crafted story, and one which sat with me for days afterward, as I mulled on Tetley and her rights and wrongs. It’s a warning and a truth and a call to humanity to be people. It’s a good book, and a damn fine story, and you should read it.



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Psalm for the Wild-Built - Becky Chambers

Psalm for the Wild-Built is the start of something new from Becky Chambers. Chambers Wayfarers series is one I’ve evangelised about here before, so I was very excited to see what she was doing next. And you know what, it really is something different. There’s still that undercurrent of warmth and charm and a hint of steel wrapped around the core of the story, but this isn’t a Wayfarers story. It’s something of its own, which, under the circumstances, is how it should be. 

On a less lyrical note, more logistical note, it’s novella length, and currently listed as Monk and Robot #1, so presumably the start of a new series. Either of those things may feel like a dealbreaker to you. I urge you not to give in to that feeling. Because Psalm is a story which I was left thinking about for days afterward. Because Psalm is a thoughtful, compelling examination of humanity, and things other than humanity. Because Psalm is a funny, warm, human story, and the non-human bits may be the most human of all of it. Because Psalm is a sci-fi story without space rockets and rayguns, but with lingering questions, with doubts, with happiness and some passion to guide your narrative way. It’s 150 pages, but those pages have so much packed in, that like a gourmet meal, you won’t notice until you reach the end. And then, much like a gourmet meal, you’ll be desperate to have some more. The story, incidentally, works as a standalone, though I for one will be looking for sequels. 

So now that I’ve rhapsodized about the flavour of the story, and the way that it made me feel, I suppose I should talk a little about what it is. It’s the story of a person, and a robot. And while that’s almost as much as I can’s the core of the thing. Sibling Dex is the person. They decide to get away from their life. To become a monk, of gods clearly well known, though alluded to mostly in passing. To do something good, to be something better than they are. 

They’re looking for something. For passion, for purpose, for life. I think we all feel a bit like Sibling Dex sometimes. Someone who steps off the edge of a cliff because they might learn to fly on the way down. Someone with enough courage in their convictions to go that little further out on a limb. Someone stubborn enough to press on when something is a bad idea, and stubborn enough to see it through to becoming a good one.

 I like Dex. They’re smart, with a voice that has an edge of youth to it, but with a robust central core. A person deciding who they want to be and what they want to do. Sometimes making foolish decision whole they do it, but walking the path nonetheless. Actually, maybe we all need a little more Sibling Dex in our makeup.

And Dex walks their path in a world that is our own but not. Where fractured memories of what once was lurk at the corners of the mind. This is a slower world, a world that has not forgotten factories and luxuries and mass production, but a world more careful in what it applies and where. A world where people have survived seeming catastrophe, and now stand on the other side, trying to be something better. It’s a world of dark forests with roots breaking through concrete ruins, and a world filled with life and love and laughter. Dex’s restless energy doesn’t quite fit here, and neither, it must be said, do robots. But both are part of the world anyway

I am biting my tongue not to say any more. Because Sibling Dex will find herself in discussion with a robot, a person made of metal and parts. And that relationship is a multifaceted gem. Both people involved, in their discussion of who and what they are, what they want and need, and why - both of them are learning, and we’re learning with them. Both are, I think, trying to define themselves more. And while Dex may not be a leader or a politician, they are a person, filled with the struggles of humanity, its vices and virtues, its stubbornness and kindness. They are people, and the robot is looking for people. 

And the perspective of the robot is another thing. It isn’t entirely alien, but this is a wonderful portrayal of something which is almost but not quite human. Sentient, but other. It tries to learn and understand and grow and decide what to do and then do it. But it challenges Dex’s assumptions, and ours too, at every turn, tweaking her understanding of the underpinnings of her world. Though to be fair, on that front, Dex gives as good as they get. 

This is the story of a robot and a human. A story of two people, walking to an uncertain destination, for uncertain reasons, but doing it together. This is a clever story, a smart story, a story which quietly touches on big questions, while keeping us enthralled in the gentle, genuine drama on the page. 

In essence, what I mean is, Becky Chambers has done it again. You’ll want to read this one all at once, under the covers at night with a flashlight. This, this right here is the good stuff. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Into The Drowning Deep - Mira Grant


Into The Drowning Deep is the first in Mira Grant’s “Rolling in the Deep” series. It’s a blend of cryptozoology, slow-burn tension, and sudden, brutal, bloody violence. Because in the deep, you see, there are monsters. 

The monsters make their presence known early, when a ship filming a reality-show-slash-documentary for a B-list horror channel is found floating in the middle of nowhere. Video footage shows monsters crawling up the hull, and devouring the crew.The footage is by turns ignored, dismissed as a hoax, or believed, by cranks and zealots. Whatever left the crew of the ship a bloody ruin, dubbed “mermaids”, occupies a liminal space between belief and indifference. People, as a whole, have other problems. 

And decades later, people, in the specific, are ready to go hunting monsters. They’re a motley crew, hired on by the same entertainment firm that funded the first, disastrous expedition. They include a cryptozoologist, sister to one of the murdered film crew, a zealot scientist, proselytising that whatever lives in the deep is both real and hungry, her husband, a corporate stooge with a past (and an agenda), and an entertainment presenter trying to actually do some decent work. They’re surrounded by a larger crew, who range from seasoned professionals to a couple driven by the lust of the hunt, and the promise of monsters on their wall. It’s a diverse band, and though only the central few get enough time on the page to truly breathe, still, the remainder are far more than ciphers, given enough of a splash to make them memorable.  And the core cast range from endearing to icy, through inscrutable and back again. They’re alive, people dealing with loss and pain and friendship and love, and..occasionally, seeing people get eaten.

The book does a great job of making you care about these people. After the initial shock, it settles into the simmering burn of tension, building them up, showing you each as a living, breathing individual. And ito shows you the small and large mistakes, the hubris, the need for closure, the humanity that leads toward something happening again.  As scientists work on a cruise that feels like a holiday, laying out equipment to study climate change, with no expectation of finding legends and myth, we know that a splash of carmine on the deck is only pages away. As the protective measures that should keep them safe are left idle, as the security team are shown to be more actor than brute squad, again and again we see the best and worst of humanity. And the rising sense of dread, of the unseen creeping ever closer, of the scaled hand cresting the rail beneath unknowing eyes - it turns the screw on the reader.

And when it comes to it, the tension is worth it. There’s a sense of the fragility and truth of humanity. That people are what we are, beneath our foibles. The good and the bad is on display, between the lethal conflict, the scrambles through the dark, through the forbidding deep. What comes as it all boils over into madness is believable, and in its way, beautiful. It speaks for the people, and the monsters, even as it approaches their reality unflinching. 

Now saying that, the end suggests there’s more to come, and i look forward to it;the gaps o the denouement feel ready to be plugged, though right now they seem like a slow leak.But that’s a chary complaint, for a story which caught me up like a fishhook and pulled me through its pages like a riptide. It’s a lot of fun, this story, and I think, if you’re in the mood for monsters, for darkness and hubris and horror, you’ll enjoy this.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Artifact Space - Miles Cameron

I’m going to be straight up on this one: I loved Artifact Space, Miles Cameron’s first foray into space opera. It has all the things I want in a book like that, including: cool technologies, a heroine we can empathise with, cheer on and feel for, and a complex universe filled with strange technologies and even stranger cultures.It also has a soupcon of the naval novel about it: stern chases, broadsides, underdogs rising through the ranks, dashing heroics, that sort of thing. Above all, it’s a fun book. It’s got a story that keeps you turning the pages, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, and characters who make you care about the story, because they’re living it.

I’ll start as I mean to go on: this is a thoroughly entertaining space adventure, and one which left me eagerly awaiting its next instalment.

Part of the reason for that, is the universe. A universe where interstellar travel is real, and where long distance travel necessitates a larger ship Where a handful of arks, humanity’s trade fleet, sail the deep black, their crews together for years at a time, families under a tight naval tradition. It’s a universe of the mercantile, where one versatile, but alien, product, drives the engine of the economy. Where bones of dead cultures litter the graveyards of humanity’s resurgence, stepping over the shoulders of deceased alien giants. This is a universe with old, hidden grudges, where humanity is taking its place upon a broader stage, not yet unblinkered enough from its own expansion to see the dangers lurking around the edges of their still pool.

In many ways, it’s a neo-feudal world, too. Great families, with concessions based on alien technology, revel in untrammelled wealth and near-unbridled power. They buy, or expect, or influence their way onto the great ships that travel the gulf between populated stars, and in that work they learn, trade, make connections, and get very, very rich. Perhaps the common person crews the ships, but the families whose wealth shapes stellar politics, they practically own the ships. Still, there’s a sense of dependence and decay about it too, of wealth flowing in too quickly to be spent, but of a lack of innovation, a lack of need to do something different. The human polity may not be stagnant, but it may be constrained.

In any case, from the carmine-spotted floors of a service orphanage, to the simulated mind of a ship AI, to the darkness between the stars, to the ruins of alien worlds, and the rising of humanity around them, this is a universe of breathtaking scope. It’s detailed, vividly imagined, and beautifully crafted.

Marca Nbaro is the orphaned scion of one of the great families, now somewhat down on her luck. She’s a woman desparate to serve on one of the Greatships, to fall into the quiet family of the service, to do something better than slaving away in an orphanage - and never look back.

Marca is great. She’s fiery, wary of friendship and intimacy, careful with her trust - and at the same time, keen to be surprised. She believes everyone is basically awful, but wants to know otherwise. And watching her slowly come around to her crew, her bunkmates, her superiors and otherwise - well, it’s quite a journey, and a compellingly human one. Marca also serves as an excellent lens for the reader: she’s read about the Greatships, but never been on one, so her stumbling efforts to fit in, to be worth something, to understand, mirror the reader’s own steps in the world. It helps that Marca is genuine, forthright, and accepting of her own flaws; in a world that needs a heroine, she’s doing pretty well. Smart, competent, and driven, Marca is a fantastic protagonist, whose rich emotional life (often filled with expletives and concern about doing something wrong, and sometimes rather more positive) is an absolute joy on the page. Marca is someone I’m not going to forget in a hurry - and her friends, enemies, and something-in-between’s, are similar. Each has enough layers and complexity that we know them as a person, we invest in them, we care. Cameron has always written multifaceted, compelling characters, and that’s definitely the case here. I hope you love Marca as much as I did - she kicks arse.

The story I shan’t spoil, but it’s one part coming of age, one part conspiracy, one part space naval adventure, and absolutely all awesome. There’s aliens and space battles and ancient mysteries and secret cabals. There’s new worlds and romance and space fighters. There’s broadsides and submarine-sneaks, and double-crosses and power politics. There’s a larger picture that slowly comes into focus, and intimate, human moments that make you gask with their emotional intensity.

Overall...yeah, go pick this one up.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Catalyst Gate - Megan O'Keefe

So, let's talk about Catalyst Gate. It’s the conclusion of Megan O’Keefe’s absolutely cracking Protectorate space opera series. I’ve had a great time in the universe of the Protectorate, with its twists and turns, deep secrets and complex characterisation. And this book, this book raises the already very high bar.

If you’re one for worldbuilding, you’ve come to the right place. O’Keefe expands her intricate, intriguing space, filled with mysteries and old atrocities. What was once a universe defined by the gates one uses to get from place to place the lines of travel, is blown open, in terms of both geography and history. The space we see here is something new, unexplored, in both the physical and temporal case.And each piece of the universe is part of the puzzle, each interlocking part helping to reveal a greater whole, while revelling in its own details of wonder and terror. O’Keefe gives us a humanity which has reached out to the stars. But a humanity whose old wounds and old grudges are part of what defines them. And that’s true too, of the force we see moving against them. Rainier, the creature-that-was-an-AI, is also a fish swimming in a sea of missing gods. Because this is a universe which was not always ours. And even those parts that were, the world we came from, the cradle of us all, hides its own secrets. This is a universe filled with deep secrets, deep magic, wonder, and hidden blades. It’s a universe which has space for something other than us in it, and one where the fire of humanity can both gutter and inspire. I won’t spoil it (and that’s going to be a theme of this review), but there’s revelations about the setting which turn everything up to now on its head (again), and make you rethink everything you’ve read. And it’s still a vivid, beautiful, bloody, unknowable universe.

The people share a depth and emotion with the world. They have a resonance, a humanity which you can feel in your bones. And Rainier, the not-exactly-AI, is something else. A broken horror in borrowed clothes, straining against a leash. Both the people and the Other are whole, and real. Not always nice, no not at all. Not always charming, no, not at all. But filled with passionate intensity and love and comfort, and revenge and horror and everything that makes us feel that we’re something other than vehicles for our impulses. These characters, two books in, you can feel their moods. You can understand what you think their goals to be. You can try to understand the rest, to see the cloaked motives of masked truths. But, to be a bit less poetic about it, you’ll do it because the people on the page will grab hold of you, take you by the hand and make you care about them - from the wounded, vicious AI to the troubled survivor of a planetary slum, and from there to the family of fathers and siblings, deep in their affection and unflinching in their duty. They’re people. And because they’re people, you’ll care about them. Live with them, die with them, cry and laugh and love and live alongside them, as this chapter of their life, as this series, draws to a close. And they’re characters that capture the intimacy and beauty of humanity, as well as our stupidity and cruelty, and the alien and the unknowable that shifts outside our experience is drawn onto the page with skill and wonder in equal measure.

I don’t want to be this vague, I don’t, but this book. This book is willing to turn on a dime and smash your expectations, of people, places and events. I dare not plumb the depths in case I give something away. Because the plot is a thing of joy. A precision work of narrative. It works. It compels your attention, it refuses to let you stop reading. Each word in a sentence in a page in a chapter carries meaning and truth and moments where you just want to express your surprise, loudly. I, personally, used expletives. You’re probably reading this coming off the revelations from the first two books in the series. I can promise you that they are easily overshadowed by things here. And on a narrative level, the story is compelling, intriguing and perfectly paced; a page turner which will keep you reading long, long into the night. And, if you’re wondering: yes. The ending is a wonder. It’s cathartic and smart and warm and, well, exactly what the series needed. This book is the series ending we deserve, the ending we needed, and it’s brilliant. Go pick it up, right now.