Book: Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Audiobook cover at libro.fm

Noor
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by Penguin Random House
audiobook read by Délé Ogundiran
audiobook published by Tantor Media, Inc.
2021

This amazing African Futurist novel engrossed me completely this weekend!

AO has a many cybernetic enhancements, having been born with life-threatening birth defects, and having further been maimed in an unexplained autonomous vehicle accident. She’s followed her fiancé to a new city, made a life for herself, improved her body, and found a meaningful profession. After a rough day coping with the abrupt end of her engagement, she just wants to have a nice dinner. At her local market, however, locals who have been radicalized by a passing imam against the evils of cybernetics have other plans for her…

In a time of environmental devastation, oppressive corporate monopolies, and wireless energy transmission, AO finds herself on the run with a nomadic herdsman, a bloody nose, and an increasing awareness of the surveillance technologies that have infused every element of Nigerian society.

The tech is great; the inserted documentary about how some of the tech was invented is engaging and wonderful; the the environments, both urban and desert, are well described; the cosmopolitan people, the languages, the different traditions, the meals – all are vividly and richly laid out in world building of great depth for such a brief and satisfying novel.

I recommend Noor highly to everyone who likes a great, earth-bound, science-fiction story in a vivid near-future that never lets up the pace.

Film: The Matrix Resurrections

Oh! So, I mentioned how excited I was about this 4th Matrix film back in September, and I’m happy to report that I adored it for unexpected reasons.

Yes, it’s funny, and self-aware, and makes jokes about being forced to make a 4th film in a franchise by Warner Bros – yes, all that.

Yes, I saw it in theaters, and it looked great. (And then I watched it again online, and it STILL looked great.) It is action packed! The effects are pretty! The story lines about re-evaluating life’s meaning and struggling with middle age are relevant!

The pleasant surprise, something I hadn’t realized during filming here in San Francisco, was how wild it is to see the setting of your real life used in a film. Sure, I often enjoy seeing scenes from San Francisco in films, but this was different. This was very specific. SO specific. A building where I worked for 10 years is a settling for key scenes in the film. The coffee shop meetings and fights were set there. The top of the building serves as a backdrop in other scenes. And nearly all of the chase scenes and outdoor night scenes were filmed on the surrounding blocks, where I have walked (and shopped, and dined, and caffeinated) countless times.

Even some of the later scenes, where the protagonists flee into other buildings, felt eerily familiar, because I have been in those buildings, too! My second viewing required sending time stamps and photos of filming locales that I’d walked past just days before to a friend, so he could see what the doors in the lobby scene looked like from the other side… Plus time stamps of when our current mayor has her cameo.

I know it wasn’t as big a blockbuster as the first one, but the film is still a treat for hardcore fans (yes, I own the prior 3 films; yes, I’ve seen the first film more times than is reasonable) who were interested in how people managed to recover after events in this world after the ending of the prior trilogy, and anyone who has worked in the area north of Montgomery Street BART!

Manga: Kaiju No. 8 by Naoya Matsumoto

This is the cover for the compilation of the first 7 chapters. And it’s COOL.

Kaiju No. 8
by Naoya Matsumoto
published by Viz, San Francisco
2021 (ongoing)

Kafka Hibino has a dirty job: cleaning up the mess after giant monsters (kaiju) that attack his home city are violently “neutralized” by the nation’s Defense Force.

Kafka didn’t PLAN to be cutting up monster guts: he planned to fight against the kaiju directly at the side of childhood best friend, Mina Ashiro. But his plans went sideways, and decades later, he handles sanitation, while Mina leads the Defense Force’s third division as a national hero(ine), using weapons made from previously killed, powerful kaiju.

But… one day, things go very wrong, and Kafka becomes a part-time kaiju himself. Which is… SO AWKWARD. How will he ever get into the Defense Force and work with Mina if he is the enemy?

This is a charming adventure with dangerous monsters, dangerous humans, loyalty, teamwork, men gossiping in bathhouses, monster intestines, secret identities, partial kaiju transformations, very sharp blades, unexpected alliances, and fun illustrations between chapters.

I subscribe to Viz’s Shonen Jump, so I have access to all available chapters (1 through 54 as of mid-January 2022), and have been delighted by the story so far! Chapters 1-7 are available in book form, and I imagine the rest of the story will be bundled and released in the future.

I’m looking forward to future issues!

Book: FTL, Y’all! Tales from the Age of the $200 Warp Drive, edited by C. Spike Trotman and Amanda LaFrenais

FTL, Y’all! Tales from the Age of the $200 Warp Drive
edited by C. Spike Trotman and Amanda LaFrenais
published by Iron Circus Comics
2018

I love sci-fi, and so this anthology of what people would do if faster-than-light travel was possible, cheap, and open to anyone who could assemble some off-the-shelf parts was irresistible.

I think I actually said, “OH NO” out loud in the shop, because my first thought was, yes, some people would make their parents’ old Camaro into a FTL travel device, and go into space with NO PREPARATION AT ALL. I would like to thank the editors for assuring me that I’m not the only one who would fear this…

This anthology has it all: people who are competent with interstellar travel! People who are not! People who prepare! Cool ships! Quiet disasters! People on the run from the authorities! Other forms of life! The absence of other forms of life! Social media! Pop culture references to famous sci-fi movies! A wide range of illustration styles in a wide range of stories… I really enjoyed this hefty, speculative collection of adventures from a collection of talented artists.

Film: Matrix 4 Preview

I have watched this. Many times. Possibly too many times.

It’s fun to be excited about this.

Also, I just love to see San Francisco in films. (This was really filmed here, in part: there were many excited sightings of filming downtown, and some pretty funny warnings from the public health service letting us know what the helicopters downtown were for. 🙂 )

Book: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson
published by Tor
2018

One of the funnier recommendations I’d read for this book observed that it was hilarious that, even in the future, scientists will devote entirely too much of their time writing grant proposals. Yes, this book EMPHASIZES that in a way that feels a bit too real!

Without revealing any spoilers, this is a science fiction story of first contact (my definition of it), environmental devastation, underfunded environmental restoration, practical business applications of time travel, and the risks of the combining those things!

Robson tells the story in a non-linear way, which is fair and even appropriate for time travel stories. Her approach develops an excellent tension while reading: you know from the first page that something will go wrong, but HOW it will go wrong and how the wrongness will be resolved is the mystery.

Robson’s world-building is done well – you learn about the different ways humans have survived the devastation they wrought without being bogged down with too many details. The way the world works is experienced as characters accomplish other things, which is efficient and makes the characters’ efforts feel appropriate. It is great to have some grown-up characters in the book: people whose experience, scientific knowledge, and past successes made them valuable. (I live in a youth-worshipping culture, so this stood out.)

I had my doubts about the book during the proposal writing sections (because, as someone with a procurement certificate and experience writing grants: TOO REAL), but was rewarded for my persistence with a book I couldn’t put down once the time travel started.

Books: Writing Fiction during an Implausible Time

I write legal and technical materials professionally, AND I recreationally write a range of other things. Blogs like this, web pages, a surprising number of letters and postcards, diaries, notes for stories, and fiction. Writing is something I have always enjoyed, and I am always writing something, at least for my own satisfaction.

As with so many other fiction writers, the current pandemic has been a wake up call that the popular fictional narratives we have around plagues are not accurate. Yes, in nearly every popular movie, there is a warning from scientists that goes unheeded, and there is needless suffering. Yes, there are rumors and superstitions and panics, and we see those in films and playing out similarly in real life.

Yet, the level of denial visible in real life in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic is shocking. People are devoting significant time to announcing that the pandemic is: a hoax, a domestic conspiracy (despite its global nature), a foreign plot (it is somehow not real but also a foreign bioweapon), a domestic power grab (preventing illness is oppression?), a disease carried by outsiders (again, somehow it is not real but also something strangers bring? WHAT?), something that isn’t real so they flout precautions, something that isn’t real so they sabotage the medicines (but if it isn’t real, why bother sabotaging medicines?), a situation where the vaccine is free but a counterfeit card that falsely claims you were vaccinated costs $400 (so it would be cheaper to go along with the treatment than pretend you did), a private sector plot to embed microchips into people (for generally unexplained purposes, though when they are explained, it always involves something like the location your smartphone already records, which means an additional device would not be necessary)… In this bizarre current reality, the pandemic is somehow BOTH a situation where precautions against catching the illness are banned by a governor AND a situation where that governor’s state requires federal emergency supplies of hospital ventilators and monoclonal antibody treatments for the seriously ill, which the governor suggests people somehow self-medicate with for this illness he says isn’t serious?

If I had written ANY of these things into a fiction story, my writing would have been rejected as implausible. The publishers would have told me that people are not that stupid, and that I should feel bad about making my fellow Americans look so ridiculous.

-I mean, really.

I want people in my fiction writing to be both realistic and smart, but it feels like I can only have one of those two.

I am inspired to post this after reading the tweet above, about news that a sci-fi movie has been interpreted as reality by the anti-vaccine-far-right (who failed to even grasp basic details about the movie they are basing their nonsensical conspiracies on). Their nonsense has gotten so much press that the screenwriter for this remade sci-fi movie had to make public statements emphasizing that it is fiction:

(It is still strange to read something on Twitter and later find the tweets I read subsequently inspired news articles…)

The past several years have inspired many discussions about the death of parody in the face of an absurd reality, but the current absurd reality also is killing off the premise that the vast majority of people could consistently act intelligently. Maybe we could get to half, or nearly half, but not an overwhelming majority.

I want a future where people ARE actually intelligent. I want to WRITE futures in which people are intelligent!

I suppose my defense for stories with predominantly intelligent populations will be: yes, but I told you this is fiction.

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.