Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published: Tor (2016)
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Locus Fantasy Awards
Awards Won: Nebula Award

The Book:

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together -- to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.”

I checked this one out of the library after seeing all the positive buzz online.  Since then, it has garnered several award nominations!  

My Thoughts:

The prose of All The Birds in the Sky is very light, easy to read, and often humorous.  It was easy for me to feel drawn into the story, even when I could only read in short bursts (life is busy).  The plot moved very quickly, and so often it felt like details were glossed over.  The story features Patricia and Laurence as teens and, later, as young adults, but skips over several crucial years of development. We only learn a little about Patricia’s time at Eltisley Maze through flashbacks, and there isn’t much information about Laurence’s growth from genius kid to start-up scientist. I would have liked to see more of this in-between time, even though I admit that the push of the story is more in tying the seeds sown in their childhood to the environmental catastrophe of their adulthood. Even without these years, there was so much going on in both of their lives that it was easy to just let myself get swept along in the current.

While Patricia and Laurence face environmental issues that will be familiar to people today, they clearly live in a more magical version of our world.  Theirs is a world of 2-second time machines, easily-made artificial intelligences, and talking animals.  It was hard to read this as a story about the balance of science and magic, since the science was essentially just another kind of magic.  Instead, it felt to me more like a story about the clash or balance of two different perspectives. Laurence’s science valued humanity and progress over even the continued existence of the Earth.  Patricia’s magic valued non-human life and nature over the continued existence of humanity. Both sides could go to harmful extremes, and it was difficult for those on either side of the line to understand one another.  Laurence and Patricia’s relationship gave them an opportunity to find a balance between the two.

In this way, Laurence and Patricia’s bond becomes a reflection of the larger conflict in their lives.  I enjoyed reading about them, with all their earnestness and flaws.  I appreciated the awkwardness of their early friendship, where shared ostracization pushed them together despite their differences. I liked how their shared history made them more willing than others to bridge the gap between their experiences and beliefs.  The two of them really were the center of the book--there were a number of minor characters that wandered in and out of the story, but few of them were especially memorable.  The final conclusion of the story felt a little anticlimactic, but it also made sense in terms of all that came before.  
My Rating: 4/5  
All the Birds in the Sky is an entertaining story about the clash between science- and nature-focused worldviews in a magical world similar to our own.  It was engaging and easy to read, with a fast-moving plot that always kept my attention.  The story focuses on Laurence, a scientist, and Patricia, a witch.  The two of them meet as teens, and then reunite as adults to cope with a world in environmental decline.  Their developing relationship and understanding of one another may help them preserve the world and the human race.  It was a very fun novel to read, and I am curious to see what Anders will write next!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Short Fiction: February 2017

It’s time to discuss my favorites from another month’s worth of excellent short fiction!  My favorites from February are all available to read online, and linked below.  This month features a new Wild Cards mutant story, a twist on a familiar tale, and a story set after humans have destroyed the environment.

The Atonement Tango by Stephen Leigh (Novelette, This is the second story from the Wild Cards universe that has made it into my favorites.  I don’t think prior reading is required to understand it, but I got the impression that the protagonist, a mutant ‘joker’ who is a living drumset, might be a recurring character.  In this story, most of his band is killed in a terrorist attack, and he begins to quietly search for the perpetrator on his own.  I was drawn into the emotional arc of the main character, and I felt the final scene was especially moving.

Out of the Woods by Marissa Lingen (Short Story, Beneath Ceasless Skies): This story is an interesting take on a kind of Robin Hood tale. The good king died in a war, and is not coming back.  The band of outlaws now realize that no pardon is ever coming, and that there is no hope of the ‘rightful’ king reclaiming his throne.  Is it time to surrender or to change tactics? I thought it was a really effective representation of the difference between opposing a person and opposing a system.

How Bees Fly by Simone Heller (Novelette, Clarkesworld): This one takes place after an environmental collapse, in a world that is mostly occupied by a new sentient race.  They view the few remaining humans as monsters, and use leftover human technology by rote and with superstition.  One of these newer sentient beings is trapped with a pregnant human couple during a storm. The story left a lot of questions to be answered, but I appreciated the core about confronting one’s own prejudices and being willing to understand new things.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published: Orbit, 2015
Awards Nominated: Campbell & Locus SF Awards

The Book:

“Many years ago, a generation ship set out with the purpose of spreading humankind to the stars.  Their goal was the planet Aurora, which was expected to be both devoid of life and suitable for human habitation.  The original travellers are long gone, but their descendants--who were given no choice in the matter--now struggle to maintain the delicate balance of their ship’s ecosystem long enough to reach their destination.

The humans are aided by the ship’s AI, a sophisticated computer whose interactions with the brilliant engineer Devi have set it on a path toward self-awareness. Freya, the mildly developmentally-impaired daughter of Devi, will be in the generation that must attempt to colonize Aurora and handle whatever comes after.” ~Allie  

I like generation ship stories, and I have been a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson for years. Thus, Aurora was an obvious book for me to pick up.  I bought the audio version (narrated by Ali Ahn), and my husband and I listened to it while driving across Provence and then the eastern US.

My Thoughts:

Aurora is what I would consider characteristic of a Robinson novel, a story constructed with careful attention to scientific detail in its treatment of the future of the human race.  It can be dense sometimes, and there are occasional digressions on topics of interest. The story is told by the ship’s AI, who has been tasked with building a meaningful narrative account of the voyage, so it’s understandable that the narration sometimes focuses on technical aspects.  The development of the AI’s character was one part of the story I particularly enjoyed. She learns about the nature of self and life both through her attempt to create meaning out of events and through her connections to members of the crew.  I also appreciated her understated sense of humor.  The narrator of the audiobook did a pretty fantastic job with the voice and intonation of the AI.

I am a big fan of stories about building societies, so it must be no surprise that this aspect of a generation ship is one that appeals to me.  A lot of Aurora involves exploring how people can structure the ship to survive, both physically and socially.  Not only do the colonists need to deal with the very delicate balance of materials needed to support life, they also have to make sure the people stay happy and under control.  It was interesting to see the social forces that come into play, and to see the decisions people make about priorities.  The ship is large enough to have habitats with different biomes and cultures, and I enjoyed seeing how the various groups of people came to terms with their situation.  

The story takes a darker turn once they arrive at Aurora, and it was interesting to see what the stress from the crisis they face there would do to their fragile community.  There is so much that happens after their arrival that it seems like it could easily have been a series.  The novel has several notable narrative shifts, and by the end it felt a little like there was just too much packed in.  It also makes it a little difficult to talk about in review, since I try to avoid major spoilers. The story wraps up nicely in the end, but the final segment runs a little longer than I would have liked. As a planetary colonization story, the conclusion is pretty pessimistic regarding humanity’s prospects, but I think there is value in stressing that we shouldn’t be cavalier with the health of the one planet that we know will support human life.

My Rating: 4/5

Aurora is yet another novel by Kim Stanley Robinson that I have greatly enjoyed. It is a compelling and thoroughly-researched take on the idea of a generation ship. I loved seeing how people might manage to make their circumstances work generations down the line.  The AI made for an unusual narrator, and I appreciated her digressions about language, humanity and self. The story takes several unexpected turns, and it has a rather dim view of our chances of successful colonization.  After seeing all the difficulties the colonists encounter, I hope that our current planet remains viable for human life for many years to come.