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.

Life: NOT Talking About COVID-19, and other topics

Some of my friends in other countries talk about things other than the COVID-19 pandemic, and that’s a bit disorienting. I realize that their regions are only applying quarantine-type precautions NOW, and so their experience of 2020 was different, and still is different.

I’m sincerely happy for them, that life has proceeded almost normally for them. (It bothers me, to the extent that “normal life” got people killed, but these attitudes are so regionalized that it’s hard to even know what information they have.) I can remember what that WAS like, in the Before Times, and I can ask them questions about it, and cheer them on.

I can’t reciprocate conversationally with news of my own, because it’s like I’m reporting from a well-appointed cave. Yes, I’m still in the cave! It’s still very cave-like! My food delivery to the cave was botched today! Cave living involves too much planning! Blah blah blah, cave cave cave! (Yes, I’m TOTALLY pretending I wasn’t this boring before the pandemic! 😀 I mean, I work in law (on the systems, processes, people management, and project management sides), so draw your own conclusions there.)

Nothing is “normal.” Nothing has been normal for a while. There is almost nothing in my life that hasn’t been affected in some way by the pandemic. What I eat, what I wear, how I spend my free time, how I exercise, who I interact with, how I spend money, how I look, how healthy I am, when I can see my doctors, what I read, how I sleep, what I daydream about, what news I seek out, which charities I support, how often I see my own parents, how often my parents see each other…

~ on coping and consolation activities while sheltering in place ~

I’m a largely self-entertaining person, and I’m “holding up” well. I’m reading great books; I’m writing to great friends; I’m having audio and video calls with family and other dear people; I’ve been out on masked outdoor walks with my gal pod; I’m fearlessly experimenting with recipe modifications; I’m studying Spanish; I’m watching sci-fi films and even some television… but it’s all “making do.” It’s all a series of compromises. It sounds nice because of how I am describing it, but it’s not what I want – I want to VISIT my family, I want to TRAVEL to and with far away friends, I want to DINE OUT with my local social groups, I want to COOK for my pals, I want to see movies on HUGE SCREENS in proper theaters while eating overpriced popcorn after a day of chatting IN CAFES, buying books IN BOOKSTORES, viewing art up close IN MUSEUMS, and chattering away with pals in LIVELY NEIGHBORHOODS with cheerful ‘street life’ all around.

I know there are better versions of the activities I’m doing now. I remember them. I want them back, but won’t resume ANY of them until it truly appears to be safe to do so. (And I won’t be an early adapter to return.)

So I’m glad I’m doing so much with my small amounts of non-working time, but I am not satisfied.

~ on fictionalizing not discussing disasters ~

Although NaNoWriMo is over for 2020, I’m considering writing a science fiction novella about life during a vivid, gaudy space invasion, while people are trying to pretend that it isn’t happening. There are aliens marching down the street; there is a vast spaceship hovering over the grocery store; the skies light up with strange lights every evening… Yet people are looking down at their cars and making small talk about a new Marvel movie, a new bakery that they haven’t tried yet, or the school they hope their child will apply for in three years. My character is standing there, agreeing, brushing small drones out of her hair when they get tangled. She’s thinking: “Damned drones: I’ll need to get a repellant,” but won’t say that aloud, because that would be rude. Acknowledging the drones would be talking about the invasion. She can’t talk about the invasion. No one talks about the invasion. Except children, who have no manners and need to be shushed.

~ on metaphors for losing touch with prior ways of living ~

I have more empathy for people working in space, and especially for the people who will go on long interplanetary missions in the near-ish future. Their loved ones at home will send them emotional video messages about broadcasted sporting events, new television shows they are engrossed in, and how they had trouble parking; their children will show them their algebra homework and complain about their soccer coach; and the astronauts will smile, nod, and not entirely be able to relate in that moment because of the distance between the life they used to live, and the life they are living now. “It’s really great to hear from you! How are things here? Well, I eat lunch that I can squeeze out of plastic bags, if anything goes wrong we will decompress and die, if my mission goes well I will never see the earth in person again, I’m working on some science projects that should earn me several more Ph.D.s, and the results may allow us to survive in a space colony. Yes, sure, tell me more about parking problems you had near your favorite restaurant!”

I’m hoping there are space therapists. Lots of space therapists. And that they have a really nice mission patch.

Book: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin
published by Hachette
2015

It’s been a while since I read an expansive sciency, future/past work of fiction, so I am delighted to have found this book, the first in The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. There’s a lot of sciency stuff to geek out over, and I need to tell you just enough about it to tempt you, without spoiling anything about it.

In a future or alternative earth, humans and much other life on earth has nearly been wiped out by extreme seismic and volcanic activity. Periodic volcanic winters that last from years to decades have dramatically limited human habitation and survival, and people lead relatively simple lives while forever preparing for the next time ash blots out the sky. Civilizations have risen and fallen, over and over, scattering technology that no one remembers how to operate around the remaining large continent where people scrape by.

Some of the surviving humans have inexplicable skills in managing or controlling seismic activities. Those who can be trained and controlled by the dominant empire are exploited to minimize earthquakes for society, but are killed if they become too independent; those who aren’t controlled by the empire are killed by mobs, even if they are just children, due to superstition and fear surrounding their abilities.

The story follows the adventures of several individuals, but especially a woman who secretly has these seismic energy powers. She returns home to find the body of her murdered toddler, and pulls herself together just enough to begin a quest to avenge her son and rescue her daughter; this happens shortly after a major seismic event may have set off potential mass death across the earth again…

The characters, who are organized into three groups, are engaging and interesting enough that I got misty over what my favorites experienced; the societies we see are superstitious and nearly feudal, but the powers that trained seismic experts wield are advanced; there are subtle technologies that people can’t interpret as such; there are non-humans present that people likewise can’t interpret or perceive correctly; the many abandoned structures and mysteries of prior civilizations have me giddy with curiosity, even while people are almost completely disinterested for practical (if misguided) concerns about their immediate survival. And, as a multi-racial person, I am delighted with the descriptions of the characters, most of whom have brown skin of different shades, and kinky or curly hair. The fact that they have these characteristics is completely normal, as it should be.

This is an engaging, FUN, gloomy, interesting book! I recommend this book for other people who also have a go-bag ready for earthquakes, who generally object to empires, who wish people weren’t so suspicious of education, and who desperately want to know what the abandoned tech lying (or HOVERING ) around is for! I’m looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy.

Book: Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel, by Martha Wells

Cover of Martha Wells’ new novel, Network Effect

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2020

Yes, Martha Wells has published the fifth book in the Murderbot Diaries, and she hit the word count to be a full-length novel while doing so, which is a big WIN for all of us Murderbot fans! More Murderbot to love!

First: if you haven’t read all four of the novellas, you really must do so: not only because they are awesome, but because they are part of one story, and you need to read those to understand the characters and events that appear here.

Okay: the novel is fantastic. It is fun! It combines the heavy action, emotional angst, sincere affection for certain humans, profane internal monologue, gender-neutral grammar, and inter-robot-friendship you have come to know and love. Adventure! Drama! Alien artifacts! Wells’ writing continues to be delightful, concise, and fantastic. The greater page length delivers more of the same joy the novellas did, in the same style.

This book made my day. Murderbot fans can rejoice in this novel, and look forward to more.

Book: Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Cover of Martha Wells’ Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries)
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2018

Book 4 in this delightful series of novellas about a cyborg-ish Security Unit who has been through some very bad situations, has liberated itself from human control, has some natural-feeling human-saving habits continues!

This volume has everything you’ve come to love Murderbot for, from its amusement at silly humans, its irrepressible desire to hack systems, relationships with differently-abled bots, a bit of time to enjoy new entertainment media, and…. okay, there was some unexpected shopping, which was brief, and didn’t appear to be habit-forming. But all the stuff you really want to know about Murderbot’s fondness for some special humans from the first book I’m going to withhold, so you can enjoy finding out what happens on your own.

I enjoyed it, and now I’m ready for the full length novel!

(Yes, you need to start reading the stories from the first novella, silly human. Go do that.)

Book: Rogue Protocol (the Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

Cover of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol (the Murderbot Diaries)
by Nancy Wells
published by Tor
2018

As you know by now, I love me some Murderbot. Martha Wells’ stories about an unauthorized / independent, telenovela-addicted android-cyborg security unit trying to understand its situation and cope with fragile humans who put themselves into dangerous situations are delightful, and this is the third novella in the set. There is a full length book that was released THIS WEEK, and so of course I am changing my strategy from doling the novellas out to myself slowly to catching up quickly.

In this exciting episode, Murderbot has a suspicion that its favorite human could use some evidence against the corporation that tried to kill her and her team. So, being a very direct kind of SecUnit, it goes to the scene of a potential crime.

There are bots! Drones! Weapons! Heavy equipment! Various combinations of nice and dastardly humans! The story maintains an engaging pace, is well-written, and… is it just me, or is Murderbot developing a soft spot for people? No, I don’t mean where it was shot or caught all that shrapnel, I mean… oh, I can’t spoil it for you.

It is another fun episode. 🙂

Book: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Cover of The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power
by Naomi Alderman
published by Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company)
2016

What would happen to the structure of society if women had the physical power to defend themselves, or even routinely overpower men?

In this engrossing novel, women develop the ability to generate electricity. Humans already have a lot of electrical wiring internally, but in the book, a scientific intervention intended for one purpose may have inadvertently given rise to the ability for women to generate and control electricity, an have the ability to taze at will from puberty onward.

This changes the world.

The story follows several women, both privileged and disadvantaged, comfortable and abused, in the spotlight and sidelined, who find different ways of utilizing this development to influence the direction their societies evolve in. The story of an intrepid male reporter from Lagos also provides a sympathetic (and at times, alarmed) point of view.

Alderman does a remarkable job of showing the RANGE of impacts that could arise, from fiercely patriarchal societies harming or killing women to maintain control, to government leaders militarizing this new ability; from women who use moderation in utilizing their new powers in societies that have included them, to women who wreak vengeance upon their captors and oppressors in societies were they functionally enslaved.

The way the book ends… just be sure to read what looks like an appendix, but is a key part of the story.

Yes, I’m sure Margaret Atwood is DELIGHTED that she got to make such a concise review-and-play-on-words about this book ON THE FRONT COVER.

As someone who has daydreamed of subtly engineering women to be stronger to decrease abuses, do I think that power struggles could play out as they do in this book? Yes, and perhaps Alderman is more realistic than I am, considering history. When have the powerful ever shared power willingly and peacefully? When have enslaved people ever received justice? When have oppressors ever willingly made amends? My own dark futures in fiction are dark DIFFERENTLY, but yes, I think we agree on the backlash. Because: humans.

Also note: read the acknowledgements. No, really.

Summary: a page-turner of a book with a thoughtful story arc for the characters, thoughtful (and very dramatic) implications across the wide range of conditions, and a dark view which is entirely fair, considering the state of the world. I’m glad I read it.