Sunday, February 18, 2018

Some Interesting Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2017

Some of the books discussed here!

Last year I wrote a post called "Most Interesting SF/F Novels of 2016" instead of a traditional "Best of" or "Favorites" list like I did for 2015.  As I explained with my post on TV of 2017, there's something a bit presumptuous about a "Best of" list considering that there's a lot of great stuff I haven't personally experienced.  Nobody can get to everything, after all.

So this year I thought I'd entirely forego the traditionally bombastic claims and settle for a post on some books published in 2017 that I felt were interesting.  I'm not ranking these, since each is interesting for different reasons, although careful readers will be able to discern my favorites.  This list is also focused on my reading in science fiction and fantasy.  I do read other stuff (especially philosophy books), and you can find see what I've been reading on my Goodreads profile.  While you're there, please feel free to add me as a friend!

You may also notice that I'm not posting this until mid-February of 2018.  I got a bit behind on my reading schedule (one book on this list is responsible for most of it!), and then I got a bit behind on my blogging.  Alas, I also have a job and other non-blog things going on.  But here I am at at last!  So without further ado, some interesting science fiction and fantasy books of 2017!

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

On a scale of sheer interestingness, this book has to rank pretty high.  Even if you didn't like it.  But I did like it. A lot.  From my Goodreads review.

This is a weird, weird book.  And I love it.  I can't claim to understand everything, but maybe that's the point.  The world building is the star of the show, but there are also some deeper thoughts on love, personal identity, self-and-world, freedom, and imaging different ways of being.  This is a book that will stick with me for awhile (and not just because of all the sticky goo described in detail).
Zan wakes up with amnesia ...  She soon gets caught up in some sort of intrigue with a character named Jayd that revolves around ruling families of living-world-ships that orbit an artificial star.  This whole system is called the Legion.  I personally would have liked less political intrigue and more of this crazy world.  ...  Honestly I wasn't entirely enthused about the book until the middle, longest section got going.  Hence, my advice: don't give up too early!
Zan ends up alone in the lower level of an onion-layered world needing to find her way back to the surface.  She embarks upon a wandering journey through each layer, meeting interesting quirky people, mutants, and other things along the way.  This was my favorite part of the book.  It's somewhat like Iain M. Banks's Matter, but of course the strange journey motif can be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Ramayana, and quite a bit of Golden Age science fiction.  Part of Hurley's genius is that this adventure contains only women.  This is never explained, but it doesn't have to be.  For millennia we've been reading adventure stories consisting almost entirely of men.  Perhaps a corrective is refreshingly necessary.
The world is a weird, weird, weird place.  Since the main character, Zan, has amnesia, the reader learns about the world as Zan does.  There's little distinction between the characters and their worlds.  It's something of an ambivalent version of the Gaia hypothesis.  All this non-dualism between self and world isn't necessarily a good thing: characters can become randomly pregnant ... and they don't always give birth to human babies, sometimes it will be what the world needs.  The technology is all organic, which is really cool, although it can be messy (fluids ooze, mucus sticks, blood flows).  There are mutants.  There are multi-armed "witches."  There are organic mechanical components.
For authors in the so-called "new weird" genre (like China Miéville), sometimes the weirdness feels gratuitous, but Hurley's weirdness somehow makes sense.  It adds to rather than detracts from what she's trying to do, and I never lost the basic thread of the story.  Or maybe I've been watching too much Twin Peaks lately.
The end wraps up some of the threads and raises one of the deep issues: are we stuck with the world as we know it, or could we imagine different, better ways of being?
Personal identity (the philosophical issue of what makes us the same person over time) is a big issue.  Do Zan's memories make her the same person, as the psychological criterion of John Locke would have it?  Is she ultimately a different person as Buddhist philosophers would say?  Is she the same person she was before she lost her memories because she has the same body, soul, or something else?  A natural reading of the novel is that she chooses who she is in line with metaphysical libertarianism (NOT the political sense): she conjures a new person out of nothing.  I have philosophical quibbles with this view (how can the concept of an uncaused cause make any sense?), but I think the book is compatible with compatibilism (the view that freedom and determinism are compatible).  After all, her post-amnesia experiences have a lot to do with who she becomes, too.  Hurley isn't writing a philosophical treatise, however, so I think it's sufficient to say that the idea of choosing a better, less exploitative world is worth pursuing whatever one's beliefs about the metaphysics of human freedom may be.

See my full review on Goodreads.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

I make no secret of the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my all time favorite science fiction authors.  I have to admit, however, that New York 2140 isn't my favorite Kim Stanley Robinson book.  That might be his 2015 book Aurora or maybe his magisterial Mars Trilogy.  But honestly, even a mediocre Kim Stanley Robinson book is still a pretty good book.

From my review...
... it may be surprising to hear that I couldn't get too excited about New York 2140.  It doesn't take place in space or on another planet, for one thing.  Also, New York City is an interesting place, but c'mon, the city gets more than enough attention in, you know, all media on planet Earth.  Although many New Yorkers don't seem to believe this, there are other interesting places.  While the climate change aspect sounded interesting (if depressing), much of the rest of this 600+ page novel is about... finance? Really?
I'm happy I put aside my worries and plunged in, anyway, because I really did enjoy the book. 
... the idea of lower Manhattan flooded into a "SuperVenice" is pretty cool.  I always enjoy KSR's little humorous touches, like the trouble-making Twain-esque boys Stefan and Roberto and the frequent dissing of Denver (as a stand-in for people who moved away from drowned coastal cities).  His quirky characters are always fun.  I really loved Amelia, the blimp pilot with a nature show on the web, Vlade, the cranky superintendent of the Met Life building, Charlotte, the lawyer with big plans, and of course "the Citizen," a mysterious character who directly addresses the reader and gives KSR a chance to info-dump with jokes ...
... For all the dismal effects of climate change and economic disparity, you might think this is a dystopia.  But it's not.  Nor it is exactly a utopia.  Maybe plain old topia?  The people of 2140 are getting along alright, maybe not quite as well as middle class people of 2018, but it's not exactly Mad Max, either.  ...
... Climate change is going to suck for our descendants.  A lot.  Human-made economic disasters seem almost as inevitable.  But through it all, humans will continue to love, laugh, form bonds with one another, and maybe even engage in a little treasure hunting (did I mention the treasure hunting?).  While the world KSR paints here isn't as rosy as some, it's not completely terrible, either.  Imagining a future like this inclines me to feel something almost like hope: it might take us another 120 years, but humanity might begin to plot a course for something better eventually.
See the full review here. 

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

This final installment in Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy had some big shoes to fill given the fact that both of its predecessors won the Hugo for Best Novel for 2015 and 2016 respectively.  So how does the third volume compare?

From my review...
... This third volume does more with the world building than I was expecting, including quite a bit of back story of how the world got to be the way it is.  ... We even find out what the deal is with the Stone Eaters (sort of) as well as the Moon.  ...
... Philosophically, there's a lot one could say about a trilogy this complex.  Would a volatile world like this change human nature?  Is a Stone Eater a person?  What is the line between science and magic? ...
... a theme from the book ...  didn't crystalize for me until I encountered some interviews with Jemisin (this one from NPR's Science Friday is an example).  She points out a basic problem of believability in the kind of dystopian scenarios that have become all the rage recently:  In these stories it is often the rogue loner who is willing to do anything, who sheds the oppressive tenets of morality, that survives.  But if you look at human history, we have always survived in groups through cooperation.  We, as the Beatles might say, get by with a little help from our friends.  The fantasy of the rogue loner makes absolutely no sense. 
I would go so far as to say that this fantasy represents the kind of hyper-individualistic theory of human nature ... What's odd about this theory of human nature is that it touts itself as "rational" when it resolutely ignores all evidence of human history and human nature: namely, that we naturally care about each other and cooperate for the greater good.  ...
This isn't to say that humans always get along in blissful harmony.  Jemisin is pretty clear about that, often brutally so.  But she's also clear that the characters need to cooperate to survive, as hard as that can be.  This comes up again with the choice between destruction and attempting improvement.  Although the last installment of the trilogy wasn't my favorite, you need to read it to get a sense of how the trilogy as a whole sheds light on these questions.  ... Jemisin gives some food for thought on who we are, who we want to be, and what sorts of difficult choices we face here in this world. 
See the full review here. 

Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

This is the sequel to Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, which was one of my favorite books of 2016.  Does this one live up to its predecessor?

From my review...
... The "new world smell" has worn off by the second volume and I could never really follow all the levels of intrigue, but there are still plenty of ideas about utopia, gender, sex, politics, philosophy, history, religion, etc. to keep you thinking in this second book.
... Philosophically, there's a lot going on.  The theme of what you might call an "ambiguous utopia" continues (to borrow a phrase from the subtitle of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed).  The world of the 25th century is pretty nice: flying cars transport you anywhere on Earth in hours and poverty, hunger, discrimination, nation states, and war are (at least for now) things of the past.  ...
... But, of course, all is not well in Palmer's utopia.  Democracy has more-or-less been replaced by a complex system of well, what exactly?  Techno-nobility?  Benevolent feudalism?  Monarchic socialism?  Corporate communism?  It's hard to say.  Nations have been replaced by Hives, which are non-geographically located affiliations that citizens can join according to their personal preferences.  The idea seems to be that once the world is geographically thoroughly connected by transportation technology, we could organize ourselves by our values rather than the patch of dirt on which we happen to live.  Personally, I'd be a Utopian.
The catch, of course, is that the leaders of each Hive basically do what they want and play all the same Machiavellian games that royalty and head honchos throughout history have always played.  This makes for a dizzying level of intrigue that really only comes into focus toward the end.  ...
So is this a utopia?  Is it the best we could do?  Is this the story of a utopia's decline, or its ascent to a true utopia?  These are just some of the questions Palmer considers, and I'll be interested to see how she returns to them in the next book. 
... With only a mild spoiler, dear reader, I can say that some of the characters consider the wisdom of the outright ban on old-fashioned gender associations (along with bans on religion, of course).  The idea is this: while gender certainly creates a lot of trouble for us, it does serve social and cognitive functions of organizing human experience.  Gender gives us a way to make sense of "masculine" traits like aggression, competition, etc. and "feminine" traits like nurturing, cooperation, etc.  This is a far more subtle point than it appears.  The point is NOT gender essentialism.  The characters aren't saying that all men are essentially masculine and all women feminine.  The point is that simply banning all gender associations that have developed over thousands of years without replacing them with something else leaves humans with impoverished resources for making sense of their experience. ...
... Is gender the best way to organize our thoughts and feelings about these traits? Would we be better off just dropping the whole idea of gender?  Should we replace it with something else?  If so, what?  How might our descendants in the 25th century navigate these issues?  How might we navigate them today?  The most interesting thing about Seven Surrenders is that it gives some rich food for thought on these and other topics. 
See my full review here.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Another sequel to another book (technically a novella) that I really liked.  This one's a little longer, somewhere on the border between a short novel or a long novella.  But Okorafor continues to pack a lot of great stuff in these short volumes.

Here's my review in its entirety.
This 2017 novella is a sequel to the Hugo and Nebula award winning Binti (see my review here).   I've become a big fan of Okorafor recently (see my review of her first contact novel Lagoon).
In Binti: Home, Binti is homesick after a little while at the interstellar university where she's studying mathematics, not to mention the ordeal she endured en route there from Earth (detailed in the first one).  So she returns home, now part alien, with an alien companion.  As if this isn't weird enough for the folks back home, she discovers that home is far more complicated than she thought, which is a nice reminder that, galactic politics aside, Earth is a pretty complicated place in itself.  
I particularly like that Okorafor details three very different cultures in Namibia (one of which, the Himba, are based on a real present-day cultural group).  Namibia is just one country on a continent many Americans erroneously think of as a uniform place.  And Okorafor adds some nice futuristic, science fictional touches, too.   
I admit that, as a space opera fan, I got a little disappointed in the middle of the book when it became apparent that little of the novella takes place at Oomza University and that we weren't going to see much more of the galactic civilizations, but the idea that home has secrets of its own that go deeper than our idealized comfy conceptions of it is an interesting theme.  I still hold out hope that a future entry in the series will return to Oomza and the galactic stage.  This one ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I'll be excited to see what happens next.

The Man in the Tree by Sage Walker

At the beginning of this post I mentioned a book that was partly responsible for putting me behind my reading schedule.  See if you can piece the clues together to solve the mystery, er, okay, yeah, it was this one.  You got me.

From my Goodreads review...
... The idea of a murder mystery on a generation ship is cool and what piqued my interest in the first place.  But the execution was really, really slow, often painfully so.  I'm also missing most of the explorations of "law, justice, and human nature" promised in the book description.
First, the good: the basic concept of the novel is pretty neat.  I've been into generation ships lately, especially Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, so the idea of a murder mystery set on one sounds neat.  We get some cool details on the ship and some of the issues that arise about how to build a community that can sustain itself in relative harmony for generations.  Also, Walker is a retired medical doctor and obviously knows what she's talking about when it comes to the gory details of a murder.  The prose is pretty good for the most part.
Next, the bad: The weird thing, however, is that this intriguing premise takes place BEFORE the ship leaves the solar system.  To me this lessened the tension a bit, since they can just send people back to Earth easily.  But I guess it had to happen this way in order to create tension that the ship may not leave at all because of the murder.  I understand that move for the sake of the second kind of tension, but I thought that was a less interesting way to go, or at least not what I was expecting.
The big themes that a generation ship raises (Is it fair to condemn your descendants to life on such a ship?  Are we right to colonize other systems?) are pretty much ignored.  The issue of how to maintain law and order on such a ship is discussed, but not in much detail, certainly not in the depth you'd expect from someone like Kim Stanley Robinson or Ursula Le Guin (RIP!).  There's also a bit of the old "let's put people indistinguishable from early 21st century people in the future as if that makes sense."
The mystery itself is okay and does get resolved.  The problem is that the investigation moves at a snail's pace - if that snail stopped to court his love interest and took the occasional weekend off for a leisurely romantic rendezvous.   It's .... so .... slow....  I don't need action to enjoy a novel.  I don't even need it to move quickly if there's enough going on for me to enjoy the ride.  But this one is narrowly focused on the mystery (and the romance to a far lesser extent), so it feels like more of a slog.  They take 100 pages just to decide it was a murder, and pages and pages to do anything else.  ...
So this is not a bad novel per se, but it's not especially good, either.  Maybe those who are bigger fans of slow burn murder mysteries would appreciate it more.
See my full review on Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is one of the most successful science fiction authors working today, and for good reason.  He's particularly good at writing stories that are accessible for new fans of the genre while providing enough science fictional goodness for longtime fans.  All of this is delivered with plenty of acerbic snark and fun characters.

From my review...
... The patented Scalzi Snark is turned up to 11 on this one, but behind it is an interesting story that's a melange of Asimov's Foundation, Herbert's Dune, and Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga ... with of course several heaping teaspoons of that aforementioned Scalzi Snark to spice things up.
If you've never read Scazli before, imagine a novel in the form of a snarky, clever, foul-mouthed twitter account, but somehow with characters, plots, and ideas.  And then imagine this somehow actually being pretty good.  Many of the characters here clearly give no fucks.  Or rather, they give lots of them in the form of frequently using the word "fuck" or in their (PG-13, mostly off screen) sexual exploits.
Can all of this snark and no-fuck-giving be a bit distracting?  Yes.  I find it amusing for the most part, but sometimes I wanted to tell the characters to take it down a notch.  I also wonder how this sort of style is going to read in say, 20-30 years.  On the other hand, one of the main characters is a thoughtful, vulnerable person with little snark who is pushed into the role of leader of a galactic empire, and thus has an empire's worth of fucks to worry about.
The most surprising thing about Scalzi, though, is that this is all surface-level stuff.  ...
I mentioned Asimov at the beginning, because this is about a collapsing space empire.  The title to me sounds like it was a working title that somehow stuck (Scalzi also assures us in the postscript that it's not intended to be direct allegory for contemporary politics).  We also have an empire filled with great noble houses, like Dune but what the characters lack in mystical spice-fueled abilities they possess in having more relatable human emotions, which makes it more like Bujuld's Vorkosigan Saga on that count. 
... If there were a Star Wars crawl for The Collapsing Empire, it would talk about the rebellion going on on the planet End, but it might also mention that the empire called the Interdependency relies on a feature of space-time called the Flow that allows quicker travel between planets (not technically faster than light, I guess, but yeah, it basically amounts to the same thing).  The thing is that the Flow is in danger, or so at least a handful of amateur scientists would claim ... 
... For me the most interesting issue in the novel, aside from the cool world building, is that the plot hinges on a case of scientific disagreement.  Specifically, there's a disagreement (based on different mathematical models) about whether the Flow is going to change in a way advantageous to one planet or whether it's going to upend the entire civilization. ...
... Is Scalzi doing ground-breaking stuff?  Not really.  But if you like a healthy dose of snark in your space opera (or can abide it at least) and are looking for some mildly thoughtful entertainment, check this out.
See my full review here. 

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