Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.

The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss

alligatorsAn experimental Civil War epic.

We begin in the dust of the valleys, in the long days and the sounds of your generations, digging and constructing and fighting, the hollow slapping of their fists against the meat of the men they beat into the dust. The stray dogs that lapped their spilled blood, while flies hummed and flickered along their mangy skins, their bulged ribs.

This book is about an aesthetic. A scent. Sounds. Blood and embalming fluid and the yellow depths of alligator eyes. Verbs are generally bombastic words with accompanying sounds.The child-hero’s father puts his gasoline soaked hand over the boy’s mouth to keep him quiet and the smothering scent and sensation I can feel still.

It’s biblical in language and scope, Abraham Lincoln as father, God as father, and most importantly — your father as Father (it is written in the second person). The War is apocalyptic. There are plagues. Of gulls and alligators and militiamen. Endless imagery of furs and skins, mud and leather. Mountains of corpses. The prose is unique and dizzying and if it reminds me of anyone, it would be William Vollman.

When it’s not portraying an aesthetic (or sometimes when it is), it is allegory. The freed slaves are only ever called ‘the unpaid’; the whites are ‘the paid’, with the poor whites being ‘the lowly paid’. Eponymous Abe is alternately hated as an unpaid sympathizer, described as an unpaid himself*, then as time passes stories are told of how he was a great hater of the unpaid — ‘The Great Emaciator’. This demonstrates changing public opinions of major historical figures and events over relatively brief periods of time. If the reader finds themselves feeling dismayed and superior about the masses at this point, Kloss cleverly levels his ardor at the reader themself — by mixing real historical fact with insidious nonsense, the chaotic result makes it impossible to tell fact from fiction for anyone but a scholar of American history. Which I am not. Was Lincoln’s guard missing when he was assassinated? Was there really suspicion of Mary Todd being involved in the plot?

Like all books where the protagonists are all terrible people, the book can get a little dicey and uncomfortable when it comes to race and gender. Perhaps more so when the oedipal tyrant hero is ‘you’. Kloss seemed aware of what he was doing, but that is definitely up to personal interpretation. Oh, it’s also ultra violent if that it’s a deterrent.

*This book was published in 2012 and the Obama tie in is so blatant it’s almost distracting.

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

commonprayerJoan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain:

  • A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged.
  • Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but they exude at least the appearance of control.
  • A lost child.
  • A stomach churning body horror scene, probably relating to the above bullet point, involving a botched abortion or miscarriage or horrifying birth.
  • Actually it doesn’t have to be tied to birth. Vaginal blood, arriving in one way or another, and being integral to at least one crucial scene and maybe one shock scene. Maybe they’re the same scene. In A Book of Common Prayer, a bomb goes off outside a birth control clinic and a doctor jumps in fright while inserting an IUD and punctures his patient’s uterus. Meanwhile, the protagonist (who is working at the clinic) is on her period and this is important.
  • A disorienting disconnect between how much money the characters are spending and how much money they can possibly have/make; it’s not merely like those sorts of books where seemingly everyone is rich. In A Book of Common Prayer, the protagonist has left her husband and has no job, and is somehow jumping from airport to airport with ease.
  • Sex is scary and bizarre, but also understated. When it happens, it is mentioned casually or in a scene much later than when it actually happened. It’s generally inexplicable why the heroine is having sex with whomever she is having sex with.
  • Depression and depravity are omnipresent. Everyone is sad or an asshole, but probably both. Hope or escape is generally represented in the (lost) child.
  • Physical and spiritual despoilment in fictional third world countries, mirroring the protagonist’s own fall/state of mind/ennui.
  • A cold, detached narrator who is not so cold and detached as her self image had her believe before the plight of the subject/protagonist came to pass before her very eyes.
  • Just enough hope or possible freedom to make the utter dashing of said hope/freedom sting (but you knew it was coming anyway).

Yet. The writing is so good, so biting and sharp and uniquely Joan Didion that I keep on reading, even as the books become indistinguishable. Plus, they’re really short and move at breakneck speed, so there’s not enough time to get bored.

(Also while looking for the cover image online, I discovered this book, written in 1977, is suddenly going to have a movie adaptation starring Christina Hendricks come out this year???)

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinIt has been entirely too long since I read a great fantasy novel.

Premise: The Emperor, and all of his heirs save one, die in a fiery zeppelin crash. His estranged halfbreed son, relegated to a secluded lodge and shackled with an abusive overseer, is suddenly thrust on to the throne. This all happens in the first three pages — you’re not left with your hands in your pockets wondering when the blurb on the back of the book will actually come to pass.

Emperor Edrahasivar VII (known as Maia to his buddies / readers) struggles with the questionable legacy of his father, ancient political and territorial disputes, attempts at his life and the building of literal and figurative bridges. He’s unprepared, timid, and plagued by stress headaches. But he is determined to do right by his people.

Sci-fi and fantasy are so often reflections of the times we live in. We live in cynical times. Naturally, our fantasy has taken a turn for the grim(dark). This is hardly secluded to fantasy of course. From The Wire to Breaking Bad to American Hustle, our dramas are obsessed with the abyss. Thus it seems almost radical to read a story surrounding a politician-hero who is honestly good, does not become privy to corruption, nor made an example of by a contemptuous phantom narrator who demands retribution for goodworks and cannot abide that a good person making good decisions could maintain control.

(don’t get me wrong, I like tragic, difficult stories too)

The Goblin Emperor is suffused in a fantasy world with accompanying lingo and vague technology-magic. it succeeds where many of its type fail, however, in that it does not get bogged down in itself. It uses familiar genre arcana as touchstones rather than subjects for lengthy elucidation. There’s steampunk elements — an airship for example — but not steampunk porn. We, the reader, know what an airship is. We don’t need the painstaking minutiae of why it stays aloft. Similarly, all the main characters are elves and goblins, but they don’t need to be described to conjure the correct imagery. Nor do we need to know why there is racial strife between them. It’s a staple[1].

Potential cons: Some of the jargon works better than others. The changing dialect and fluctuations between singular and plural, formal and casual may seem daunting when summarized here but they flow naturally. The honorifics and suffixes and affixes do become a bit much though, especially since most of the cast have generic fantasy names. They can be very hard to keep track of. But it’s a minor complaint. A bit worse is the pacing — it’s not a typically paced novel and it occasionally drags. It has maybe thirty pages too many.

But that should not detract. It’s an excellent book.

1. And it’s a staple for a reason. Obvious real-world reasons that can’t be any more apparent when we have a half-black, half-white president. Modern social issues abound in this book. Another strike against the notion that stories need to be violent and shocking to be relevant. Back

The Wii U Experience Part II — Pickup and setup

Upon picking up my Wii U at Best Buy, I was informed they did not have a bag that fit it (it’s not that big!). So I took it under my arm and climbed into the same crowded, lurching hellbeast/bus I read most of the books I review here on. A pair of Mandarin-speaking boys laughed at me and kept saying ‘GG!’. Nearby passengers repeatedly affected shock and annoyance when the bus shifted and a corner of the box found some soft, fleshy spot to poke.

I made it home, triumphant, clothes and Wii slippery with sweat (only some of it mine). Unpacked and set up, eager to dive into Mario Kart, we were instead greeted by a mandatory update. It spent about twenty five minutes getting halfway, then an hour or more for the remaining half. There was apparently an uproar over this when the Wii U first launched but so few people bought it that it didn’t reach the fever pitch required to catch my attention. What the hell, Nintendo? This couldn’t be installed in the factory?

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While waiting for the update, I decided to log into their website to redeem the free game that comes with Mario Kart — a significant factor in me buying the bundle in the first place — only to find everyone else thought to do the same thing.

sorry!

It wasn’t until the day after, dealing with intolerably slow speeds, false starts and dead ends, that I was able to get my code for Pikmin 3. I checked today (now +2 days from MK launch) and the site is still a disaster.

All that aside, the system is pretty fun. The tablet controller is much larger than I thought it would be.

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It feels a little ‘light’ and isn’t quite as responsive as I would have liked, but it is pretty cool. Nothing I’ve tried so far utilizes it beyond a status and information panel, but it is nice to see which asshole (insert: Mario, Peach, Baby Luigi, Bowser, whatever) stole first place from me at the last second of a race so I can calculate if I can still get the gold medal or not. And it works as a TV remote! My actual remote is long since lost in one cross country move or another.

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The system itself is sleek and unobtrusive. A welcome change from the Xbox 360 and PS3 I am used to but it is a bit longer than the original Wii. The Mii-verse is one of those potentially interesting things I am utterly disinterested in and I have yet to explore beyond making my basic Mii. The e-shop is sparse compared to the 360 and is still absent much anything newer than the SNES era, but as someone who for the most part missed out on the Wii’s lifespan, it’s nice being able to download Super Mario World and its like.

All in all, at 29, the magic of a new system has indeed dissipated. But I am having fun and do not regret it, painful setup experience aside. Mario Kart and Pikmin reviews to come.