Kamo and Pep Together At Last – Pt. 1


Kamo (this is how she fight start): Unless you’ve been dead for the last couple of months (or alternatively completely uninterested in contemporary speculative fiction, in which case YOU’RE DEAD TO ME! DEAD I TELL YOU!) then you’ll have noticed that both Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett have recently released new books. While I plumped for a pre-order of Hurley’s Mirror Empire our estimable host here at Two Dudes ended up reading Bennett’s City of Stairs, and so some kind of joint post seemed like the thing to do. Pep, as is his wont, will probably be looking to tease out themes and draw Significant Conclusions about The State of The Genre, but I am both more capricious and more easily distracted and I quite fancy doing this as an antagonistic Jets vs Sharks thing for no other reason than since August these two books have accounted for about two-thirds of my Twitter timeline. So we’re going to have a dance-off. We’ll drag the books on stage, whack some MC Hammer on the boombox and see which has the better moves and more garish costume. Pep and I will champion our respective books, or, since we’re talking about fantasy here, I’ll be pitching for Team Edward and Pep for Team That Other One With The Eyebrows.

Pep: Go Eyebrows. I’m all ready to dance, with a playlist cued up of Westside Story, “Can’t Touch This,” and “Superfreak.” (That’s the Rick James tune that Hammer sampled, for all you young’uns out there.) I tried to wear my old parachute pants, but they don’t fit now, more’s the pity.

Round One – Contemporary Hip-Hop

Kamo: We begin, as we seemingly must, with considerations of genre. Both books appear to be characterized by the genre-straddling that seems to be in fashion at the moment: is it horror? is it fantasy? is it science fiction or new weird or slipstream? Who cares?

We do. We care. Or at least I do, for reasons I’ll try to tease out later on. In the meantime The Mirror Empire slots itself relatively neatly into the drawer marked Epic Fantasy. We can be fairly certain of this because there’s a map inside the front cover depicting the conveniently rectangular landmass upon which events are set to unfold. There’s also magic and intrigue and prophecies and children marked for greatness and a metric fuckton of blood. (Is that the correct unit of measurement for lots and lots of blood? An arselitre perhaps? A twatgallon?). There are some vague feints in the ‘indistinguishable from magic’ direction, but as this the first of a series we’ll have to let those bubble along for another book or two, I suspect.

Pep: I care a great deal about genre, or in this case, the breaking thereof. I suppose the catch-all is “fantasy,” but for me it’s more of Cold War spy thriller/steampunk/political fantasy/dead gods religious horror. Is that an official genre yet? If John Le Carre and Immanuel Wallerstein teamed up to write gaslight fantasy with religious underpinnings, we might get City of Stairs. Very little of this book conforms to convention, so the one giant nod to fantasy tropes stands out like a skyscraper in the Sahara. That would be Sigurd, the sidekick and “secretary” for the main character. Sigurd is a brazen archetype, almost a Platonic form of the savage Northern barbarian. It probably goes without saying that he totally kicks everyone’s butt, all of the time. He is certainly jarring, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Bennett trolling the fanboys. When Sigurd is offscreen, things focus much tighter on spycraft, historical analysis, and the governance of empire.

Round Two – Pasa Doble

Kamo: AH-HA! A theme! I told you there’d be some. Because if the genre of ME is relatively easy to define, what raises it above its peers is the way it interrogates, subverts, and generally abuses some key conventions of that genre. And this means we must gird whatever parts of our anatomy we feel most in need of girding and discuss worldbuilding; the storytelling equivalent of Stuart in Accounting who never shuts up about his static caravan in Dorset and that one time he met Carol Vorderman in Tesco but is also the only person in the company who knows how to correctly file VAT returns.

Pep: Apropos nothing really, I wish the US had VAT. It’s a revenue tool vastly superior to most of what we have in place.

Kamo: Now there’s whole other can of worms. Given Japan’s just called an election at least notionally as a referendum on a sales tax increase, with all the promised fun a Japanese election entails, you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly well disposed to the subject right now. Which is a pain, because I’m usually not so well-disposed to worldbuilding, either, viewing it with a grudging tolerance as, at best, a slightly tiresome necessity for the greater good of the story. I mention this here because while I’ve read, enjoyed, and can highly recommend Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, she does have an approach to worldbuilding perhaps best described as, “KITCHEN SINK? FUCK YOU AND YOUR SHITTY TIMID SINK, BUDDY,” which means that there’s inevitably going to be a bit of tension on this point. (Read more about Bel Dame here! And here!) Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s an approach that works for me more often than not; whatever else you may accuse her of, she definitely commits to the universes she creates and if you’re going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks you might as well throw it as hard as you fucking can. Things adhering with a resounding SPLAT! in this instance vary from the overtly ideological (one participant culture has five standard genders, and even in those with a smaller range of roles the male-female continuum is notably mutable), to the innovative twists on the familiar (magicians wax and wane in power according to whether their associated satellites are ascendant or not), to the just plain cool (KILLER BONE TREES! URSINE STEEDS! MAGIC NINJAS!). This book has many strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them grow from the mindblowing universe that Hurley has set in motion.

Pep: Coincidentally, worldbuilding is really where Bennett makes his mark. City of Stairs has possibly the best setting in years; it’s completely irresistible. Imagine a city of the gods, animated by their power and filled with all the wonder and beauty that godlike power can bestow. Then imagine the catastrophe when the gods are killed – floating towers crashing to the earth, lines of reality redrawn, temperate weather reverting to a natural tundra, the works. With this description alone, Bukilov is one of fantasy’s most engaging cities, and this is just from the dust jacket. The Bukilov we see is a fallen capital, ravaged by poverty and disease as the empire it once commanded is ruled by a former colony, the upstart Saypur. The first fifty pages of the book felt like a spy novel set in post-WWII Warsaw, with all the paranoia, suspicion, and tradecraft in a rubble-strewn city.

Kamo: All to the good, I’m sure, but I notice that you nowhere mention Magic Ninjas. This must count against it, I fear.

On the upside, it looks like we can also tick off ‘messy colonialism’ (is there any other kind?) in our I-Spy book of Discourses in Contemporary SFF. The scope of ME is several orders of magnitude larger than a single city, but here too the cultures are marked, and to a large extent defined, by their previous roles as both colonizers and colonized. The history provided for each culture is vast, even if explanations of the accumulated waves of invasion, subjugation, decline, and re-invasion do occasionally bear an unfortunate resemblance to the recruitment scene in Hot Shots (‘They’re the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize…” It’s turtles all the way down). The in-play cultures also all seem to have names that start with D, which doesn’t help with telling them apart. I’m sure there are very sound linguistic reasons for some of the similarities, but what kind of loon would base an epic fantasy on linguistics?

Pep: Very true, there are no magic ninjas. Boo. Or killer bone trees. There is a lot of colonialism however. Saypur revolts, then conquers through science and economics. Once itself oppressed, Saypur now attempts to control the Continent by erasing its history. All references to the dead gods, no matter how obscure or unintentional, are proscribed. The conflict between heritage-burying colonizers and conquered believers flows through and around everything else that happens in the book.

Kamo: This does appear to be A Thing right now. Witness the recent World Fantasy win for A Stranger in Olondria (Note: I really hope this reference is still current by the time we finish this post). Is it that new though? I’m not asking as a rhetorical device either, I get the impression that you’re much better versed in ‘the classics’ than I am. Is it just more visible than before, or is genuinely being interpreted in new ways that extend beyond transparent proxies for The White Man’s Burden?

Pep: I think it is indeed a new thing. People probably touched on it during the New Wave (the period of SF I know the least about), but I don’t think there was a broad consciousness about the whole colonization issue until recently, even in society as a whole. It’s probably related to the ongoing globalization of SFF, at last no longer the sole preserve of white men. I’m trying to think of books that really took on issues of empire or oppressed people, and nothing really comes to mind until the last few years.

With this, Part One comes to a close. Kamo and Pep continued to ramble, at great length, so please stay tuned for Part Two, to be posted over on This is How She Fight Start.

War Dogs

War Dogs
Greg Bear

There had better be a sequel for this.

Greg Bear returns from shared universe forays with a military/Hard SF hybrid set on Mars that borrows gleefully from a whole grab bag of classic SF tropes. I had fun with it, but my final verdict will depend largely on where he takes it in the second book, for reasons that will become clear later on. Part of me wants to call this a return to form for the veteran Hard SF writer, but it’s really hard to say what exactly “form” is for Bear. I enjoyed his previous book, Hull Zero Three, though it felt a bit like something he tossed off in a weekend. Lately he is working with Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad project and has written in the Halo and Foundation franchises. My idea of typical Greg Bear is hopelessly out of date, since I haven’t read his near future stuff and basically only know vintage stuff like Blood Music and Forge of God. Still, this feels like him going back to his 1980s playbook.

My first thought on starting the book was, “I guess it’s time to get in touch with the Inner Heinlein.” It’s all there: the space marines, the power suits, the drop from orbit in the first pages. I’m starting to think that the interstellar infantry thing is like jazz albums with strings – everyone wants to try it once, no matter how often (and how badly) it’s been done in the past. Full disclosure: I generally don’t like jazz albums with strings. It turns out that Greg Bear apparently knows a thing or two about this, as a recent interview shows. He grew up around military types and has certainly dabbled in soldier-type stories before, so this isn’t a complete change of form.

The nods to traditional SF start early with the semi-benevolent aliens who appear suddenly and start doling out both technology and strong policy recommendations. Then, and I’m spoiling nothing here that isn’t on the dust jacket, things quickly move into familiar “superior aliens enlist our help as cannon fodder” territory when they start shipping Earthlings to fight a mysterious enemy on Mars. Bear knows what he’s doing here, not really subverting tropes, but having fun with them. Despite being a military-oriented book, there isn’t much fighting for awhile. We get marines (“Skyrines”) roaming around Mars and nearly suffocating a few times before Bear unveils the real reason for writing the book. A Muskie (original Mars colonist group named for Elon Musk) rescues a gaggle of airless characters and marches them off to a big, secret rock. This is where the fun begins.

We get the bait and switch here, as War Dogs turns into a Big Mysterious Object story. This is good news if you’re me, possibly disappointing for those who came for the explosions. I haven’t said a lot about the plot at this point because at least two thirds of the book is, not necessarily plotless, but utterly opaque. This is a first-person narrative from a grunt who only knows what he needs to know, and who is even more lost once inside the rock structure. Bear plays things close for the entire book though, thus my demand for a quality sequel. (It’s apparently in the works.) He only hints at deeper meanings – what is this giant thing and what is it for? Who are the Antagonists? (The bad aliens.) Why are they fighting? I need to know the answers to these questions.

I expect that the overall reception to War Dogs is mixed. Bear makes demands of the reader without offering much of a payoff. In the absence of a follow up, I can’t give an accurate assessment; things could go south in a hurry, or this could end up being a big deal. My guess is the latter. I enjoyed War Dogs and want to read further, but I won’t be surprised when others are irate.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 2

With a wait of just 24 hours, I am very happy to post the second half of my conversation with Gemsigns author Stephanie Saulter. Please check the first part here. I promise this wasn’t just a clickbait move on my part – this interview more than doubled my usual post count and I wanted to keep it easily digestible. I hope everyone enjoys her comments as we dig in things more deeply. And, for those who haven’t yet given Gemsigns a read, please do. It’s well worth the time. Even better, the sequel, Binary, is available now in the UK and next year in the US.

When I read Gemsigns, it only took about five pages before I said to myself, “Oh hey, it’s the Jim Crow South!” I would imagine that this is a common reaction here in the Thirteen Colonies. I’ve seen you say that the European reception is different. What is it that people over there connect the book to?

What’s been really interesting about the reaction to Gemsigns is that every community that reads it relates it to some issue which is current and relevant for them. In America, as you say, it resonates with the black experience: slavery, emancipation, reconstruction as the backdrop to lingering inequalities centered on race. In Jamaica it’s much the same, although as I said earlier the post-emancipation path has been a bit different in the Caribbean, so the nuances that people pick up on are different.

(Although appearances remain very important in both. You made an amused comment in your review – and no, it does not make you a bad person – about the gems’ brightly-coloured, glowing hair. That and similar observations have been made several times; always, as far as I’m aware, by white folks. It’s worth pointing out that for black folks in these countries, hair is hugely political, hugely fraught. A black woman in Jamaica thanked me, with tears in her eyes, for making the point about how having the ‘wrong’ hair can condemn you. So even within the same national group you get these very different readings: white people read the hair thing as a clever or maybe not-so-clever SFnal device, black people read it as a forthright political statement.)

In Europe there is a degree of removal from the legacy of slavery; people do recognise it as an element of the metaphor, but the impact tends to be a bit less visceral. However what a lot of people here thought I was specifically commenting on was immigration, which has become a very big issue in the UK, and Europe more generally. There’s a narrative around people who are not ‘us’ taking ‘our’ jobs and living in ‘our’ houses and enjoying the benefits of ‘our’ welfare state. And the counter-narrative, of the data that shows immigrant groups tend to put more into the system than they take out. And the counter-counter-narrative, which both disputes the numbers and complains about changes to ‘the British way of life’ – as though that hasn’t been in constant flux since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is a very complex, very emotive topic, and it has parallels in the Gemsigns story as well.

I will admit to never having thought of hair that way. Mostly I just worry about it thinning. You seem to be a vocal participant in the equality discourse within the genre community. Here, many of the arguments and talking points mirror those in US politics. Do things have a different tone on your side of the pond?

They do, because questions of equality don’t generate quite the same kind of political friction here. Even our most right-wing politicians don’t tend to suggest that everyone isn’t or shouldn’t be treated equally, and when someone does let some horrible sentiment slip (as has happened) the public, the press and other politicians generally land on them like a ton of bricks. That doesn’t necessarily mean our society is intrinsically fairer – we talk a better game than we play – but I think there is more of a shared agreement, at least in public, that every citizen should have the same entitlements no matter who they are or what resources they possess (the differing attitudes between the UK/Europe and the US to the provision of health care is an example of the kind of consensus I mean).

What’s interesting at the moment is the way grass-roots arguments and issues drive political responses. There’ve been a number of really horrendous Twitter campaigns against women who’ve taken a stand on various issues; that becomes a big story in the mainstream media, and then politicians weigh in to condemn the trolls’ behaviour, and, increasingly, the ones who make threats are arrested and hauled off to the clink. Our politicians and public institutions seem pretty clear that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to threaten rape and murder.

From your perspective, are things getting better in the community? For every Hugo/Nebula Awards slate we have a Gamergate; it’s sometimes hard to think we’re making any progress. (For the record, I think that the book community is far ahead of other tribes in Greater Geekdom.)

It’s hard for me to judge, because I am so new to the community; until I sold the Gemsigns manuscript I didn’t know it existed. It was my agent who told me about conventions and genre fandom and suggested I go along to a few things and start to get acquainted. This was in 2012 – really, I’m that new. He thought I would find them welcoming and friendly and supportive, and he was absolutely correct. It’s a bit astonishing that I have become part of such a longstanding tradition so quickly, but I’m still climbing the learning curve.

So I guess I have two comments about how things are. First, the fact that I have been welcomed so readily gives the lie to the notion of an exclusionary, hide-bound, horribly conservative group who want to remain the center of their imaginary universe; but of course, I’m in the UK. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard are US-centric, so it may be that there is simply less of that conservative, exclusionary ethos on my side of the pond.

Second, I have bought and read and enjoyed and shared SFF throughout my life, and wrote a science fiction novel that I very quickly sold (and on the back of which a trilogy was commissioned), without ever knowing the tribe existed, let alone being a member. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad now to know it exists, I’m very glad to have been admitted. But it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. It’s a big, big world out there. One of the wonderful things about this year’s Worldcon in London was that it felt broad as well as deep; it understood its context within the larger culture. It wasn’t insular.

Finally, and in a non-spoiler way, how hard was it to sit on Aryel’s secret, just waiting to let everything out? I have this image of you fist-bumping yourself in relief once the moment finally came. (Great moment, by the way. Very memorable.)

Thank you! It actually wasn’t very hard – I knew I couldn’t drop that bomb too soon. If anything I was worried about the reveal itself: whether I could do it justice, whether I had the skill to craft it so that my readers would experience the emotional impact that I thought it warranted. In that sense the entire Aryel narrative was very tricky. I really get into my characters’ heads, but she is such an enigma. It’s hard to fathom the willpower, the sheer depth of character, that enable her to do what she does; until you know what she’s hiding, you can’t really understand how hard it is for her to hide it. I just thought to myself, If she can keep this secret, so can I.

Thank you, Stephanie, for the insightful comments.

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

Interview With Stephanie Saulter pt. 1

I promised further explanation of just why I read Gemsigns when I did, and here it is. As part of Sci-Fi November, a mutual friend introduced me to Stephanie Saulter, Gemsign‘s author, after she graciously agreed to be interviewed. After reading and reviewing the book, I had plenty of things to ask Ms. Saulter. Luckily for me, it appears that our interests are mutual, as she provided lengthy, thought provoking answers to my questions. Lengthy enough that I can break this into two parts! Very exciting. I hope everyone enjoys reading our conversation as much as I did having it. A big thank you to Stephanie for taking the time to talk with me. And now, we’re off.

I suspect that many readers here are not yet familiar with Stephanie Saulter or Gemsigns. Can you give a primer for all the folks out there who are going to buy your books for the first time after reading this interview?

Hmm, no pressure then. Let’s see …

Gemsigns is the first book of the ®Evolution trilogy. It’s set in the near-ish future, and has been mis-described as a dystopia: it actually takes place just as a period of intense repression of a genetically modified minority, the gems, has come to an end. They have not been granted legal equality though, and there are huge disputes within the norm community about whether they are really human, and huge pressure from the gemtech corporations that engineered and owned them, and for whom their emancipation represents a catastrophic loss of assets. The background to the action is one of massive social and economic upheaval.

The story centers on a scientist, Eli Walker, who is trying to come to an objective, reasoned view of what gems are and how the law should treat them. That makes him a target for everyone else’s manipulations. Zavcka Klist is the gemtech executive who wants to roll things back to the way they were, but also has evidence of a very real threat the gems might pose. Aryel Morningstar is their charismatic leader, who seems to both contradict and confirm all the fears norms have of gems. Gaela is a gem whose engineered ability makes her extraordinarily powerful and valuable, even though all she wants is to live and work and raise her son in peace and safety. That child, Gabriel may prove to be the most dangerous of all. Against this backdrop are rumours of gem violence and perversion; the fears and resentment of the norm majority; media scaremongering; political uncertainty; and the godgangs, religious fundamentalists who believe that all gems should be destroyed. Gemsigns takes place over a crucial week in which all of these forces come together. It’s a thriller. There are twists and turns and highs and lows and reveals and deceptions and chases and sleights of hand. People get hurt; some may not make it.

However, and in spite of the advice I got from a neighbour when I was moaning about the difficulty of bringing everything to a satisfactory conclusion, everyone does not die at the end. This turned out to be a good call on my part, as it meant I could write more books following these characters and their story. Binary is already out in the UK, and will be published in the US in 2015. The third book, Regeneration, will hit your shores in 2016.

As for me … I’m the kind of person who comes up with layered, twisty stories involving genetics and information technology and social dynamics and business ethics and what it means to be human. There’s more below if you can stand it.

Here’s a softball to start (I hope). Gemsigns is a book about discrimination in a post-apocalypse setting. Did you come up with the apocalypse first and write a story about it? Or was the apocalypse a necessary background to explain the creation of Gems?

Closer to the latter, although it’s not quite such a linear process; things developed in parallel. It started with a very powerful mental and emotional image of a violent confrontation. I knew that moment was what the story was ultimately all about, but I had to work backwards to understand how the moment came to be. There was a woman with a small child on the one hand, and they were in mortal danger from a group of adults. I felt like I had been handed a puzzle: why would this group of apparently far more powerful people have such fear and hatred for this tiny woman and tiny child? What could they possibly have done? Was it about what they’d done, or who they were? Who were they? What was this power dynamic, this imbalance, really about? I puzzled over it for a long time … years, in fact. And many other things that I was thinking and speculating about, to do with technology and progress and culture, went into the explanation I built for myself of who they were, and who the other people were, and what had led them to that place.

I confess that themes of equality, be it racial, gender, or anything else, didn’t resonate with me until I moved to Asia and tried out life as a minority. Why did you choose this for your first book? Was there a similar watershed experience for you or has this always been a part of your life?

This is going to sound bizarre, but it was only as I wrote the novel that I became consciously aware of it as a story of inequality and prejudice and the way different communities try to negotiate their settlements with each other. That’s probably because there’s never been a time when those issues did not fundamentally inform my life; they are so intrinsic to my understanding of the world that framing things in those terms is natural for me. It’s like the structural elements of a building – you don’t generally see or think about them, but they affect everything about the shape and look and feel and function of the building itself.

I’m a Jamaican woman of mixed ethnic heritage. Because I’m very light-skinned, and a product of the more affluent and educated middle-classes in my birth country, I felt what it was to be in a minority growing up; but a privileged minority. Then I went to the US to go to university in the 80s, and discovered what it was to be part of a different kind of minority: for once I didn’t stand out on account of my appearance, but my accent marked me as foreign, I was looked at askance for identifying as mixed-race instead of allowing myself to pass for white, I had to deal with assumptions that I could only have gotten into my elite university because of affirmative action. I was accepted into the small African-American community there, and both in college and subsequently I learned a lot about the black and mixed-race experience in the US, which has both commonalities with and huge points of departure from those legacies in the Caribbean.

Then I moved to London in the early 2000s, which introduced me to yet more cultural perspectives on the minority experience, diversity and immigration. I was working on urban regeneration projects, among other things, and for the first time dealing in a very intimate way with poor white working-class communities who have been really left behind by the shifts away from manufacturing and mining, and towards the information, finance and retail sectors. You have the scenario of brown and black children of first and second-generation immigrants often doing better academically and going into the professions, while the children of the white folks who initially looked down on them have ended up on a lower rung of the attainment ladder.

The takeaway lesson from all of those experiences is that ‘equality’ as a concept is very simple in principle, but hugely complex in practice. I think we can talk about the complexity without undermining the principle, and I think we should.

Stay tuned for part two, where Stephanie digs deeper into questions about the book, the SF community, and equality concerns across two continents.


Stephanie Saulter

I read a review of Gemsigns back in the spring, leaving a comment that the heirarchy-equality themed book sounded like an interesting companion to CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen, which I had recently finished. I then forgot that I had put the book on my TBR pile until gently prompted by a friend some weeks ago, for reasons that will become clear later in the month. It is indeed a book about discrimination issues, but it is very different than Cyteen. It’s also every bit as good as others are claiming, and seems particularly relevant right now.

To be honest, I had a hard time getting through this one. It’s not Saulter’s fault at all – the book is compelling, the characters are alive and engaging, and the questions at the core of the book are handled with considerably more grace and sophistication than one might expect. I think it’s just my timing. Gamergate is marching on, in all its puerile, adolescent rage. (If one is unaware of Gamergate, one should count oneself lucky and move on with a happier life.) That Anita Sarkeesian talk that got canceled because police couldn’t be bothered to ensure her and her audience’s safety? That was at my school. (And forever a stain on Aggie-dom worldwide.) It may just be that I am more sensitive now to discrimination issues than I once was, living in a multi-ethnic family. Whatever the reason, many passages were bracing enough that I had to step back and read some Hard SF to settle my soul. I always came back to Gemsigns though, because it was worth the time invested.

So, plot. Gemsigns is two things, one more than the other. It is a post-apocalypse (of sorts) story, and it is a story about two groups of humanity trying to figure out a way to get along. The former is toned down a bit, mostly just setting the backstory for the latter. To Saulter’s undying credit, there is a reason for the sorta-apocalypse. We aren’t just dropped in a story with, “After everything went wrong…” and marched on from there with no description of what, exactly, did go wrong. Mostly though, Saulter uses this to explain why we came up with genetically modified people (Gems), since they are the focus of the story. (In short, everyone died, we needed labor, Gems were born. Now they are not slaves, but still having a rough go of it.) People being what they are, public acceptance of Gems is spotty at best. A major conference to determine what to do with Gems, how to handle their rights, and how to defuse conflicts acts as the center of the book.

Gemsigns is fairly predictable, at least in a general sense. Some of this is a result of adherence to SF tropes, some of this is because until people stop being people, we’re going to see the same conflicts over and over. It was no surprise to me that the bad guys in a near-future SF are big businesses and religious fringe groups. Those are kind of the go-to villains now that the Commies are gone. It depresses me a bit as an employee of a giant company and member of an organized religion that this is so, but I can also understand why. Very little separates either in real life from, say, launching a crusade or poisoning a town. Saulter is even-handed enough to add good church people as well, though I don’t remember any particularly sympathetic corporations. In terms of people, we know that Gems and unmodified humans are going to fight because of course they are. We can’t get along with other genders, other colors, other religions, or other anything. In some countries, certain groups are singled out for hate just because we seem to need to hate something, no matter how identical they may be to ourselves. None of the fights, escalations, justifications, or results surprised me in Gemsigns. Again, it’s depressing, but we haven’t found a way around it yet.

The final genius of the book is Saulter stepping around convention and inevitability. Nowhere is this more noticeable than the end, which of course I won’t spoil here. I could see where things were headed about ten pages in advance, but was blind to the twist before that. Even guessing the surprise that a certain character would spring on everyone in advance didn’t lessen the impact. It was a beautiful and inspiring moment, both inside the story’s world and to the reader. The truth about another key character played into the theme nicely, enhancing the book’s message. I suppose in hindsight that there was a bit of moustachio twirling going on among the bad people, but overall, Gemsigns is uplifting and hopeful.

I am a bad person, but I must confess that the addition of brightly colored hair to mark the Gems made me picture them all as those little troll dolls.

Trolls or not, Gemsigns is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It takes on a tough subject, treats it with honesty, and comes out making the reader feel better about things. Saulter also keeps the heavy stuff within the context of the world she has created, subordinating the message to the needs of the story. It’s all very impressive and I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

Carbide Tipped Pens

Carbide Tipped Pens
Ed. by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

While I haven’t had time to post much about them lately, I have been on a run of dense, cutting edge science fiction. Rewarding stuff, but hard work. When the ARC for Carbine Tipped Pens arrived in my inbox from Tor, it was like a refreshing glass of water. There’s nothing quite like coming home to a collection of Hard SF short stories.

The slightly odd title for this collection is apparently taken from a writer’s group that one of the editors once belonged to, a group with the stated intention of starting a Hard SF renaissance. It sounds like most of those writers have now moved on to other projects, but attempts to revitalize Hard SF by addressing its traditional flaws remain. Choi tells this story in his introduction, then explains that the stories gathered in this book maintain a core of the rigorous science that is the hallmark of the subgenre, while keeping character at the forefront. People are, of course, Hard SF’s Achilles’ heel, with cardboard cutouts and questionable gender/racial stereotypes standing in for lifelike characters. Bova and Choi hope to avoid that, but still center the collection in astrophysics, quantum theory, robotics, medical tech, and other favorites.

Beyond the commitment to Hard SF, there is no thematic unity in the anthology. Some stories work better than others, as is to be expected, and my favorites are unlikely to be everyone’s. I recognized a few of the authors, but at least half were new to me. Many are longtime Analog authors. I was most excited to see Aliette de Bodard and Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu) included, as these are not typically who one would find in a Hard SF anthology. Names like Bova, Benford, and McDevitt also warmed my heart, these are all authors I would expect to see. Oddly enough, the genre archetypes tended towards more character and less science than some of the others.

In terms of favorite stories, I think the Liu Cixin was the highlight. It didn’t provide the typical, span of galaxies sense of wonder, but there is a certain type of wonder that comes from a feudal Chinese army acting as a humongous calculator. (I’m really excited for Liu’s Three Body Problem, which I should have my hands on by late November.) de Bodard’s story was as entertaining as ever, combining her Asia-dominated future history with authentication puzzles. Dirk Strasser’s mind-bending “The Mandelbrot Bet” is the kind of time travel I can get behind. Choi’s contribution starts as a tale of failed love destined to irritate me, but ends in sardonic redemption. There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t go for, which is a pretty good batting average for this sort of thing.

One thing that really stood out is the tone of the stories overall. Amongst the various complaints and doom sayings about SF is the feeling that SF has lost its ability to inspire, that the scientists of tomorrow aren’t getting their start from the sense of wonder that many of today allegedly did. I don’t know how true this is, but there is a clear difference with the optimism of yesterday’s SF. The idea that science would lead us all to an inevitably better future has faded, leaving cynicism and fear of what lies ahead. Carbide Tipped Pens isn’t depressing or grim, but there is an unease throughout, a lack of faith in humanity. This is part of a larger trend within SF, as stories seem to be darker than the Jetsons and Star Trek of days past.

Some of this I think must lie at the feet of quantum theory. “Welcome,” as one character says, “to Club Heisenberg.” Science has moved far from the once clean realm of Einsteinian physics, itself a severe challenge to Newtonian ideals, and into a universe where uncertainty rules. Some are probably at home here (Hannu Rajaniemi perhaps?), but the realities of quantum physics and their implications are daunting. More than this though, I think that knowledge today breeds cynicism much more than in the past. The more one has a scientific mindset and understands what’s going on in the world, the more worrying one does. This is most true of environmental concerns, though it extends into medical issues, economics, and other topics as well. Even the most optimistic near futures I have read involve submerged cities and farmland turned to desert; not many gleaming cities or square jawed engineers leading us into the glorious future.

I digress. Musings on the whole of SF and humanity’s tenuous future aside, this is a solid anthology aimed squarely at readers like me. The earlier stories are somewhat more human than science, with a few not out of place in non-genre settings. (Bova’s contribution, for example, would be equally at home on Baseball Prospectus as in Analog.) Parts of the middle get much heavier and might not be the best gateway stories, but overall the mix is strong. Does it revolutionize Hard SF? Maybe not, but it adds to the conversation.