Book:The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Audiobook cover version

Book:The Space Between Worlds
by Micaiah Johnson
audiobook read by Nicole Lewis
published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
2020

Here’s a great premise for a sci-fi story: rather than developing time or interstellar travel, scientists find a way to travel between a limited number of parallel universes with parallel earths, and then use information from those earths to adjust our earth for success. Though not for EVERYONE’S success…

This conceit has a catch, and it is a brilliant one: the only people who can travel to parallel earths can’t be alive there. Those with a living equivalent die a horrific death in transit due to [mysterious law of physics]. So, the most valuable potential multiverse spies alive on earth zero are those who live in dire circumstances. This means interworld travel is NOT safe for members of the ruling elite – only the marginalized, living marginal lives, who have the odds stacked against them in a way that killed them off in other universes.

Cara, our heroine, had a rough upbringing that was fatal to her on most earths, so she can go to more earths than anyone else. She is recruited to the small force of traversers, and finds herself working for the predominantly white elite, living in their fancy walled city, and manifesting on other earths where everyone looks so familiar, but where the other versions of herself are dead. Her position on Earth 0 feels tenuous, her crush is cold toward her, and she experiences racist and classist snubs as a black woman from the desert. A forthcoming scientific breakthrough OR being too ethical about what she sees (and what her bosses collect) could end her job and her chance at a safe life with clean water and fresh food.

When something goes terribly wrong on another earth, she has a chance to shake things up, though she may not survive it, and has no way of knowing what the result will mean…

This book didn’t go where I thought it would go; it wasn’t over when I thought it was over; and it was filled with thrills and surprises in all the best, ultimately epic ways. Cara is a savvy, smart, opportunistic, determined heroine. (I only yelled at her for saying something dangerous when she was delirious/medicated, and it couldn’t be helped. Note: yelling at an audiobook is best done when you are home alone, so as not to startle others.) She isn’t some perfect superhero – she gets hurt, she carries scars, she’s loved/hated terrible people, she’s survived horrific abuse, she wallows in self-doubt and self-blame, she put ethics aside in favor of survival – but her determination and ethical evolution as she makes a place for herself in the world(s) is a solid, stimulating heroic journey.

This audiobook (libro.fm) is performed by the remarkably talented Nicole Lewis, who reads beautifully, acts brilliantly, represents the many characters by voice clearly, and makes a fantastic Cara. The author, Johnson, provided excellent dialog in the unabridged version, and Lewis made it come to life. (I discovered this audiobook on Libro.fm’s Playlist, “Black Narrators You Should Be Listening To” from June 2021. Nicole Lewis is fantastic. She sounds like black women I know, and hearing her perform these characters so brilliantly was a delight. I would have appreciated this list even if I wasn’t half black myself, the same way I research and enjoy great books by Asian writers without being Asian.)

This book is impressive sci-fi, I loved it, I zealously recommend it, and I’m hoping for more brilliant work like this from Micaiah Johnson.

Book: William Gibson’s Archangel by William Gibson, et al.

The hard-to-find hardcover compilation of the comics

William Gibson’s Archangel
by William Gibson, Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and others
published by Idea and Design Works LLC (aka IDW)
2017

This World War II spy thriller incorporates William Gibson’s recent theme of branching alternative futures in an action-packed, dark comic book.

A brief synopsis: a despotic American leader on a toxic earth goes back to 1945 to create a new branch reality in which he has even more power. A small resistance force plans to interfere…

The story is fast-paced, and the action is dense. The compositions are dynamic, with lots of diagonals, fists, kicks, and planes flying at steep angles. The panels are sepia-tinted and dark, with deep colors and deeper shadows. The characters have a lot of texture, shading, wrinkles, coarse fabrics, and the sort of surface definition that comes with harsh lighting. (Or orthochromatic film, which played such a big part in the noir look of movies of past eras.) The faces are expressive and stern. (Characters’ faces sometimes look unfamiliar, which is a minor distraction in a solid series like this). The drawings set a really remarkable mood, and I’m especially impressed that I’m even THINKING about the coarse look of fabrics!

The individual issue cover art by Tula Lotay (tulalotay.com) is more vivid, with a different palette (remarkable greens and purples), and slightly different interpretations of the characters. These look fantastic.

This is a well produced, action packed, very William-Gibson story, but with WWII noir and timeline-splinters that started far back in time, which distinguish it from his other works. There are additional cover art panels and sketches of each of the characters the appendix, to round out your appreciation of the effort that went into this great book. I’m so glad I found the compilation!

Unexpectedly, IDW has very little promotional content on their website about this comic, but did produce a lightly animated preview!

Book: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Excellent, space-y use of bubbles!

Lagoon
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster), NewYork
2014

This ‘first contact’ sci-fi story by Nnedi Okorafor immediately delighted me, because the first earth being the aliens communicated with was not human. Hooray for other species getting their moment to shine!

This is a story of aliens turning up off the coast of Nigeria, and the chaos that erupts when they announce themselves and walk among the residents of bustling, cosmopolitan Lagos, Nigeria.

The aliens are good at making friends, and so three humans find themselves taken by a wave into the sea for deep (heehee) conversations, and then tasked with assisting an alien representative in meeting the public and authorities. The humans have their own messy lives and drama, and get abundant additional drama served up to them by their relatives and neighbors. I hope I would be as smart, curious, and enthusiastic as the marine biologist of the group if aliens dragged ME into the ocean!

It’s a fun ride! Lagos is depicted as lively, corrupt, dangerous, bustling, and nearly addictive; the humans of Lagos are curious, food-obsessed, friendly, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing, helpful, loyal, violent, religious, superstitious, music-loving… It’s a great setting, and the dramatic reactions the public has to the news seem entirely fitting. (Especially now, years later, during this global pandemic, it is even more convincing!)

I enjoyed this VERY much, and having already enjoyed Binti, I’ll now need to find some additional Okorafor (nnedi.com) books to dive into.

Book: Binti, The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti (2015)
Binti: Home (2017)
Binti: the Night Masquerade (2018)
Binti: Sacred Fire (2019)
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by DAW Books, Inc., New York
2020

Binti is a very good student, a math genius, and a traditional Himba girl adorned with fragrant red clay. When she’s the first of her people to be accepted to an interstellar university, her family just shrugs it off – Himba girls don’t DO that. An education would just upset her family and damage her chances of marriage.

She goes anyway, and just when she is getting to know the other students on the university-bound starship, the massacre occurs…

Binti won a Hugo and a Nebula, and it’s easy to see why! This collection of novellas covers so much ground, from living ships to parental disapproval, from bullying to interspecies mass murder, from tradition to homesickness, from the weight of being the first of your people to do something to the awkwardness of having your friends meet your family, and the rather outrageous burdens that are put upon the heroine’s shoulders while she copes with what she has experienced…

Okorafor moves at a fast pace, and does compelling worldbuilding without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s fun! There are lots of characters, but they all have a purpose. There is ancient tech of unknown utility, which is one of my biggest weaknesses. (*squeal!*) Descriptions of organized university biomes and the seeming madness of people with hidden communication devices were some of many satisfying elements in Binti’s world.

I’m especially glad I read this collection after it was fully compiled, so I wouldn’t suffer suspense over what happens next.

P.S. The author also gives a concise explanation of the difference between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, which is referenced in the list of Africanfuturist recommendations on Tor.com.

Book: Fugitive Telemetry (the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Yaaaay, Murderbot!

Fugitive Telemetry (the Murderbot Diaries)
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
April 2021

Yes, everyone’s favorite socially-awkward security unit is back for the sixth novella in the Murderbot Diaries. Yes, due to the fast nature of the novellas, you MUST read them all in order, as the characters and situations that brought them together are all assumed to be understood by the time you arrive at this novella.

I also recommend reading the short scene, Home, Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory that Wells published on Tor.com before reading this volume, as it refreshes your memory about why everyone is… a little high strung! (It’s charming!)

Without spoilers, I can say that this novella is… a MURDERBOT MURDER MYSTERY! No, I didn’t see that coming. This fast-paced adventure allows Murderbot to help station security solve the murder of a human within their ordinarily very boring jurisdiction. Is the killing related to Murderbot’s favorite humans? Are they in even more danger than usual? Is Murderbot itself a suspect?

One novelty to this novella is that Murderbot ordinarily provides great running commentary of all of its thoughts/fears/fluid-losses, and this time around, it HOLDS BACK so you have to find out during an action sequence who did it. That was a sneaky surprise!

Of course, this novella just makes me want another, and while I’m happy that Wells has signed a contract to write more, I WANT THEM NOW. You’ll want them, too, and I recommend this volume to tide you over slightly longer while you wait impatiently for more.

Book: Lena by qntm

Lena
by qntm
published online at Things of Interest (qntm.org/mmacevedo)
2021

I’m going to classify this as a book, because I am using that classification for novellas, and I make the rules here. [ahem]

This story gave me the CREEPS. The best way I can think to describe it is as ethical horror for the Amazon.com age.

If technology was available to image your brain and make an AI copy of your mind and personality, how would others want to use that copy of you? How would scientists want to use it? How would your EMPLOYER want to use it?

See how dark your thoughts just went?

It’s somehow all the more creepy by the matter-of-fact, research-abstract tone.

I would have found this relatable for many reasons, including some geeky ones relating to emotional responsibility I felt over my clones in a 1990s role playing game. (You don’t need to know more about that.) But it also feels… appropriate to the moment in late stage capitalism that we are in.

Just go read it. It’s concise and remarkable. (The author moderates the comments, so the comments are readable!)

Book: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky, book three of the Broken Earth Trilogy
by N. K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2017

I finished this BRILLIANT trilogy, which I enjoyed as an audio book read by the extremely talented Robin Miles, and have taken a few days to really reflect on it.

The writing is excellent, and I’m admiring it technically before getting to gush about the story. It is brilliantly paced; the introduction of narration by a key character in the second volume opened a path for some brilliant development of Stone Eater themes in this volume; and the development of various parallel storylines makes this volume feel VERY high stakes. I’m just floored by the talent it took to lay out this story so skillfully! This is what I’ve been dwelling on – not just this book as a standalone, but how it fits so WELL with the other books, while still feeling like a distinct yet internally consistent part of one story. This is just such a great structure, and is so well put together… I’m awed.

Story: This third volume continues following Essun, who has lived multiple lives in her way, as she attempts to save the unstable, constantly quaking, ash-covered world. She has already experienced life detours, tried to start afresh in new locations and under new guises, lost and regained hope of ever reuniting with her lost daughter, found community, survived attacks, killed with her powers, and taken on some friends/followers with ambiguous motivations. Despite how cruel the planet and the people on it both have been to her, she is determined to save the world, using ancient technology and her newfound abilities to use that technology to do it. The task at hand feels impossible, but she’s already practiced doing a seemingly impossible thing, and has been growing in skill and perception. And her adoring Stone Eater is by her side. (I love that character, and its affection for her!)

Working against her is her own daughter, whose absolute child’s belief in extreme right and wrong has already turned deadly, and is ready to end it all – not her life, but human life across the world. And she has allies of her own…

Why I like this trilogy: it’s got the perfect depth in its world-building; the way the planet’s past is revealed is perfect – I had thought some of the knowledge had been lost forever, and to have it revealed after I’m already deeply attached to the characters, and have it be a drama unto itself, was SO EXCITING I couldn’t stop listening; the technology that is present is used at just the right level – it is an enabling device, never a crutch; the technology is both a benefit and a threat, which is so true to the nature of technology generally; Essun’s world-weariness feels so right, as does her stubborn determination to see things through; the people in the world have their own motivations, flaws, and strengths — no one feels like a drop-in generic type; the descriptions of how things feel (without getting down to some crazy level about the types of screws used) is quite successful…

The build up to the story’s resolution is great; I have favorite characters, and had creepy feelings in scenes with the villains (who also evolved in their way); there were a great ratio of relatively calm moments to crises or surprises (at one point, a character has a cup of Saf(e) that turned a color and I freaked out completely, because I had context they didn’t); travel on foot took a long time, AS IT SHOULD; the ultimate patterns of humans fearing other humans and establishing castes and bigotries and exploitation felt true to human nature; and this is just a ripping yarn. It glided along, and I was at the edge of my seat for exactly the right amount of time to feel stimulated rather than exhausted.

N.K. Jemisin wrote a fantastic trilogy in a world that I found compelling, with great characters, ideal pacing, and tantalizing ways of revealing how things worked, and I zealously recommend it.

Book: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Cover of the Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (Book Two in the Broken Earth Trilogy)
by N.K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2016

Note that Hachette’s site for the trilogy, linked above, contains light spoilers, in that the summaries reveal whether certain characters survive the previous volume(s).

Essun’s long quest to avenge her murdered toddler son and rescue her daughter, if that is still even possible, suffers a detour. She and her peculiar traveling companions are attracted to a place where Hoa says that there are many others of her kind, but her daughter isn’t there. The Season (the devastating aftermath of a volcanic/seismic cataclysm) is becoming more severe, and people – now organizing into factions – are becoming more desperate…

In this book: Essun finally returns her attention to the giant, floating crystals in the sky; Hoa’s backstory and insights about the stoneaters add depth (we learn how he REALLY met Essun!); someone who should know better disregards light up, hovering, holographic warning symbols; a powerful child makes some severe value judgments; and there is some mass murder.

I want to gush – there were times while listening to this that I refused to stop to do <some real-world thing>, because I HAD TO HEAR MORE – but won’t risk spoilers. I will just say that I am delighted by the story’s progress in this volume, especially the ancient technology revelations, and am eager for the third book. The last pages of this volume serve as a warning that our major characters are not all sharing the same goals…

As with the first volume, I’m LISTENING to this book on the Hachette audiobook version, and it is extremely well done, and I recommend it highly.

Film: Dystopian Anime: Iczer 1

Iczer 1
based on manga by Aran Rei
directed by Toshiki Hirano
1985

Admittedly, this is a sci-fi horror story, not merely a dystopia. But… have you watched the news lately?

Overview: Humanoid aliens looking for a new home get mixed up with some creepier aliens, and by the time their ship arrives at earth, these alien “Cthulhu” immediately cause humans to have weird mask faces, become murderous, or explode in gory, bloody ways as they turn into an army of monsters. This approach allows the Cthulhu to take control of earth without having to have a destructive, conventional war (which humans still think they have a chance at!). A blonde alien with enormous hair and an even more enormous giant robot takes the humans’ side of this fight. All she needs is a sympathetic human girl to [take a deep breath here] get naked and use her emotions to power the giant robot, so she can succeed in battle. (I probably had you until that last sentence.). The Cthulhu also have a giant robot or two, and they fight back!

This embedded video is a link to a gorgeous, clean, fan-subtitled version of the film (via Reflex Studios)(YouTube):

Why I like it: It has everything – alien invasions, secret earth spaceships hidden near Mt. Fuji, light sabers, big hair, energy weapons, giant robots, fights that throw people into walls that they make craters in, parents that burst and turn into monsters, tentacle attacks, and a nearly all-female cast! (This particular version is CLASSY, so the tentacle scenes are brief! ) The timing and use of music is brilliant in several scenes, which I don’t want to spoil for you.

You’ll notice the summaries elsewhere describe the “body horror” elements quite a bit, and I’ll just say: it is definitely in the sci-fi horror genre, and the body horror is much like that of the film Aliens. So, while it isn’t realistic, just the same, the idea of parents exploding and becoming monsters isn’t exactly child-friendly, so don’t share this with little ones.

Film: Dystopian Television During the Pandemic

I’m a big reader, writer, and all-around-city-explorer, and don’t usually make time in my routine for television. In normal times I work long hours, see movies on the big screen with friends, go out to social dinners, run evening errands, take long walks, read non-fiction, go to evening museum events, and have a packed life: TV is just too big a time-suck. (I have so many friends who CLAIM they want to pursue some passion, but can’t because of time constraints; these same friends can summarize thousands of hours of shows, and don’t make the connection.) During this pandemic, however, I am heeding the signs posted throughout my neighborhood begging me to stay at home. Cultural institutions, movie theaters, most indoor gathering places, and all non-essential shops are closed. The streetcars stopped running, so my normal routes to explore are out of reach. There is news that melts my heart on every device around me, and I’ve found concentrating on books has been hit-or-miss, as my mind strays back to the problems of the day.

To refresh myself, I decided to seek out dystopian fiction in various video/film formats. Considering the times I am living in, I wanted something less optimistic than fairy tales or positive-future-sci-fi: since I’m living in a world where people would all become zombies due to their desire for ‘freedom’ or refusal to believe in a zombie plague, I wanted stories grounded in human flaws. I am fond of this genre (I have written dystopian novellas!!), and thought a distraction from current dystopia could be stories that are DIFFERENTLY dystopian. I found some great shows that could fully hold my attention and interest. (What are the odds?)

I’ll write about them here, in the order I watched them in:

Watchmen (2019, one season of 9 episodes, HBO (series page))

Note that this series is set in the future of an alternative world of the ’80s comic book of the same name, but this series can also stand alone. (I do NOT recommend the 2009 movie, which is unduly creepy toward its female characters.)

Overview: decades after corrective actions are made for the (real life) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, white supremacist violence leads the police to need to wear masks, hide their identities, and engage in very direct confrontations with extremists. The series follows one remarkable veteran and police-officer who tries to raise her family and make Tulsa safe against violent, organized terrorists. Meanwhile, the world is pelted with rains of interdimensional space squid, and people bemoan the disappearance of the god-like superhero who won the Vietnam War for the U.S.

Why I like it: it was done well enough to give me actual anxiety, so I needed a break after the first episode before I could deal with the rest! The casting is great; Regina King is a bad-ass, compelling lead; Jeremy Irons is a compelling, amoral character in a weird situation; the sci-fi elements are pretty chill, and presented in a matter-of-fact, non-distracting, just-roll-with-it way; the dialog is tight… I felt INVESTED.

Lovecraft Country (2020, one season, 10 episodes, HBO (series page))

Overview: a veteran’s father goes missing, and his search takes him and his loved ones through the dangers of both a segregated, racist, violent U.S. AND an equally dangerous, secret world of magic, curses, and monsters from another universe.

Why I like it: The primarily black cast is fantastic; all of the characters are developed, interesting, flawed, afraid, and determined in some way; the villains are layered, and their infighting and rivalries are elaborate; the costumes (especially for Ruby and Christina) are GORGEOUS; the plot is mysterious; the plot stakes are high – there are dark and often fatal consequences for mistakes and misunderstandings; the sets are great and varied… Oh, and like Watchmen, the Tulsa Massacre also figures in.

This is the first show that I’ve listened to the PODCAST for, and it was worth listening to! There is a lot of insight on the characters and script that I didn’t know I wanted to know.

Altered Carbon (2018 & 2020, 2 seasons, 18 episodes, Netflix (series page)

Overview: Elite military operative Takeshi Kovacs is revived after 250 years in a digital prison, given a new body, and obligated to solve the murder of the wealthy creep who bailed him out. His pre-owned body has its own history with the police; his mind has a history with his mercenary sister and his lost rebel love interest, both of whom may still live.

Why I like it: it’s real sci-fi! The world is compelling, and the debates within both seasons about the ethics of the technology are realistic; the characters are fun; the world is diverse (the way my own world is); the head rebel love interest is a fun character (yes, three in a row in this post with a compelling black female lead!), and all of the major female characters have compelling motivations and different skill sets; the actors who play Kovacs are all fun, attractive (well-defined abs for miles!), and each get their own timelines/eras to take on, which lends variety and clearly defines eras in his life; the sets are great; there are some tech-artifact mysteries to be solved; and a lot happens.

Raised by Wolves (2020, 1 season (so far), HBO (series page))

Overview: After a war between religious and atheist groups leaves the earth in ruins, two androids are entrusted with human embryos to raise on Kepler 22-b, far from the dangers of human zealotry. The planet is strewn with the bones of extinct, giant reptiles and hot gas vents. It is difficult to provide enough food to keep the children healthy. Meanwhile, a colony ship is on the way, and the religious colonists believe it is a sin for androids to raise children. However, Mother, one of the androids, happens to be a reprogrammed weapon of mass destruction…

Why I like it: Ridley Scott brings us layered sci-fi! Settling new worlds, and all the things that can go wrong in that effort, is always exciting, and the design of the ships, sets, and such is all stimulating. (That colony ship!!) The two androids, Mother (who appears as a young, white woman) and Father (who appears as a young, black man), show their quirky, awkward, charming dedication to child protection and collaboration, while engaging in a purposeful rebellion against their original servant programming and the religious patriarchy. YAAY FOR ANDROIDS OVERTHROWING THE PATRIARCHY! Oh, and the villains (whose motivations change over the first season, and who (of course) do not believe they are villains) are interesting, too.

Science Fiction custody battles are the best custody battles!

~~~

These are all recent shows, and I recommend them if you like high stakes, well-executed, entertaining stories.

I’ll write about older video works, including animation, separately and later.