The Windup Girl.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best sci-fi novel of that year, manages to be both fantastical and realistic, with an all-too-believable setting in a world after a series of environmental catastrophes where food supplies are controlled by “calorie” companies and nations have fallen under their extortionary practices. The title character is a genetically modified human, grown in a lab in Japan as a sort of modern servant and concubine, whose mistreatment will lead to the fall of the Thai government and a shift in the area’s ongoing power struggle. Bacigalupi’s story is violent and his worldview bleak, but in a time when the world’s largest economy is pulling out of a worldwide agreement to try to slow man’s effect on the global climate, it seems entirely plausible – and his take on corporate ownership of genes and species doesn’t seem quite so cynical as it might have even seven years ago.

The multifacted plot gives us Anderson Lake, ostensibly an American managing a foreign factory in Thailand but in reality a researcher hunting for unusual genes and species bred or developed by Thai scientists – especially the location of the country’s seedbank, a potential goldmine of new genes for Lake’s employer to use to create new species of grains and other plants to resist the latest waves of diseases and pests. (Bagicalupi has created a rather terrifying-sounding array of these biological threats, including the evocative “blister rust.”) The factory Lake oversees uses animal power to create kink-springs that are used in this post-petroleum world as portable power sources, while also growing species of algae to help generate power to be stored in these springs. He stumbles on Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, who is now owned by a strip club owner after her original Japanese owner decided to abandon her in Thailand rather than pay the dirigible fare to fly her back to Tokyo. The Thai government’s power is split between two warring factions, Trade and Environment, each of which plays a role in protecting the insular kingdom from outside threats and influences – like the importation of plants carrying new diseases – with each requiring its own sets of bribes and connections before shipments of outside goods can enter the country. When one of Trade’s enforcers, Jaidee, goes too far in punishing an importer who hasn’t paid sufficient bribes, it sets off a chain reaction that will eventually envelop Lake, Emiko, Jaidee’s forces, the heads of Trade, Environment, the army, and the queen’s regent in a political cataclysm that threatens to bring the country down.

The story is violent, especially to Emiko, often way beyond anything necessary for the plot to move forward. While the one major scene where she’s raped and forcibly sodomized leads to a revenge sequence that is integrated into the political storyline, there’s just more detail of her degradation than any reader should need – or than any author should want to offer. It engenders sympathy for her character, but she’s already such a pariah in this society that this is superfluous. Instead it seems like pandering to the worst elements of the audience.

Yet beyond Emiko, is there really a compelling character anywhere in the book? Lake is a blank page; his compassion for Emiko doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior, and if it’s just sexual attraction, that doesn’t exactly explain the compassion either. There’s no explanation for why he’s one person in his work mode and someone else entirely once he encounters Emiko and ends up saving her from officials chasing her in the street a day or two later. The closest thing to a fully-developed second character in the book is Kanya, Jaidee’s top lieutenant who ends up taking over his squad and finds the agency that Emiko lacks. Their paths don’t intersect – Kanya has a marked disdain for the windup who temporarily helps her hunt for Emiko – but they do represent contrasting sides of the issue of women establishing any sort of control over their lives in a male-dominated world.

Post-environmental catastrophe novels have been around a long time – A Canticle for Leibowitz, set after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, won the Hugo over forty years earlier – but Bacigalupi manages to fold a number of current problems or concerns into his setting that make it seem immediate where others in the subgenre have been remote. Global temperatures have risen with predictable consequences like higher sea levels. Food insecurity is a political destabilizer in this world, and food shortages are exacerbated by more tumultuous weather patterns and new plagues that evolved around monocultures foisted on the world by GMO food monopolies. Petroleum is gone, presumably exhausted, and methane use is tightly regulated. That means airplanes are gone and cars are luxury items. Air conditioning doesn’t seem to exist, which is particularly relevant to Emiko, who has been designed with smaller pores that mean she can’t sweat properly to cool her body. None of this seems that improbable or that far off, especially with our current government backpedaling on virtually all initiatives to protect the environment.

This novel winning major awards makes sense given the themes it tackles and the level of detail Bacigalupi has invested in his world, but I don’t think it’s that great of a novel in a literary sense due to the lack of compelling central characters. It’s thought-provoking, as many of the great sci-fi novels are, and there’s an immediacy here that stories of interstellar travel or time-shifting can’t bring. After I finished, however, I found the characters had completely vanished from my mind – the setting stuck, but none of the individuals did. That keeps it from the top echelon of sci-fi novels I’ve read in my run through the Hugo winners.

Unrelated, but “Bacigalupi” sounds like something the Hoobs would say.

Next up: I’ve run through three short books since finishing this, including Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novella The Big Time, which is free for the Kindle because it’s in the public domain but which I found boring, and am now reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

Babel-17.

My second first-round projection (“mock”) for this year’s draft is up for Insiders.

Samuel Delany wrote his short novel Babel-17, a smart, profound philosophical work, when he was just 23 years old, an astounding achievement for a work that would be impressive for an author of any age. The prose is a bit abstruse and the story a little meandering, but this is a novel of ideas, or rather one very big idea, that the language we speak can ultimately shape the way we think, a concept known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s also the core idea behind the 2016 movie Arrival.)

According to The Linguist List, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that “an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.” The words and concepts of a language thus define not just what you say, but what you think and do. That simple version of the hypothesis, also called “linguistic relativism,” is generally accepted to be true, although there’s naturally disagreement on its extent, and there are stronger variations of the theorem (found in that link above) that are more controversial.

Delany builds an entire story around Sapir-Whorf, using an alien language called Babel-17 that humans and their allies have tried for years but failed to fully decipher, but that the other side in an ongoing, intergalactic war have weaponized to create turncoats within the allies’ forces. The protagonist, the poet and starship captain Rydra Wong, finds herself recruited by the Allies to crack what they suspect to be a code, only for her to discover that it’s an actual language that can re-program someone’s brain. This leads her on a series of missions into the war zone while coping with the likelihood that one of her own crew members is trying to sabotage the ship and potentially kill her.

For a novel that’s ostensibly set in a war, there’s very little fighting in Babel-17, which spends more time describing the consequences of war (like mass starvation) than the details of battle. Delany was enamored with his ideas about language, and managed to combine those with a compelling, three-dimensional protagonist – perhaps a too perfect one, as Rydra is brilliant, empathetic, and apparently beautiful, although the last point is only mentioned but never a factor in the story. The plot itself is a little muddled, and Delany’s prose struck me as Joyceian in spots, so for a book of under 200 pages it took me more time than I’d expect to get through it … which isn’t a criticism per se, more an observation given how quickly I read in general, and a reflection of how philosophical this novel is.

Delany does struggle to get the story to a reasonable, fulfilling conclusion, but I think that’s more feature than bug because the open question of the book, can language determine who we are and how we act, is not conducive to a plot deep enough for a novel. (Arrival got away with it, I think, because it was based on a short story, and a movie can work with a much shorter or thinner plot than a full-length novel can.) I never found myself wrapped up in the war plot. Delany gets more mileage out of the saboteur thread, although that conclusion wasn’t terribly satisfying on its own, only in the context of the broader question about language and thought. While I imagine linguists might object to his metaphor here, using Babel-17 as a brainwashing tool (and thus weaponizing Sapir-Whord), it takes a difficult and I think controversial topic in linguistics and puts it into a story in a way that an adept reader would understand the hypothesis and be left with plenty to chew on after finishing. That’s the great achievement of this book.

Jo Walton, whose book Among Others is one of my favorite novels of any genre, also weighed in on the wonders of Babel-17.

Next up: Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. It’s good to see Sully again.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. You can find links to order it here or get it at any local bookstore.

Kate Wilhelm won the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel in 1977 for her book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which Locus called – I kid you not – the best book about cloning, which I guess is a subgenre I just missed over the years. It’s also much more than just a book about cloning; like the best genre fiction, it uses its setting as a platform to tell a bigger story, in this case one about the importance of individuality in a society that might overvalue the collective good.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang starts with the fall of civilization; environmental degradation leads to worldwide food shortages and global pandemics. One family in the Shenandoah Valley starts planning for the apocalypse by building a research facility and eventually a hospital on their rural property and beginning a cloning program to combat declining fertility. Over the course of the novel, which jumps forward a few years at multiple points, the clones take over the kibbutz and start building their mini-society in a very different way than their ancestors would have, creating something akin to true communism as described by Marx in the end of Das Kapital. That attempt runs into massive practical and cultural problems, and Mark, the hero of the last half of the book, becomes the reluctant individual who tries to topple the status quo.

I don’t know what Wilhelm’s political views were, but I found it hard to see this as anything but a criticism of communism and its advocacy of a command (centrally planned) economy. The clones aren’t just similar; they experience a psychic bond to each other, so when one is injured, his/her clone siblings feel it, but so they’re also unable to function apart from their broods. Mark is raised outside of the commune for several years by his mother, Molly, who was part of a group that attempted to explore the ruins of nearby Washington, D.C., the members of which were all permanently altered by the traumatic experience of their separation. That leaves Mark the one true individual in the colony, not just able to function on his own, but able to think critically and creatively in ways that the clones cannot. At first, he acts out the way that bright kids do, playing pranks on the clones who can’t think their way out of trouble, but eventually realizes (or decides) that he’s the only person who can save both the colony and what remains of humanity.

And that’s really what this is – a savior story, set against the backdrop of a collective society that doesn’t just deny the individuality of its members, it breeds all individuality out of its members, selecting clones based on physical or mental characteristics needed to maintain the colony. (There’s an anti-eugenics theme in here as well, although it’s not as well-developed.) In a novel with few complete characters – that’s a feature of a cloning story, not a bug – Mark is the best, and comes across as the reluctant hero, beset by internal demons that resulted from mistreatment by the very society that he’s trying to save. I haven’t read the works of Ayn Rand beyond a few snippets, but this seems to mirror the anti-communist, individualist themes of her objectivist philosophy, just with better writing.

Next up: Kelly Link’s Pulitzer-nominated short story collection Get in Trouble.

Spin.

Smart Baseball is out on Tuesday! You can still preorder it here.

Robert Charles Wilson’s ambitious novel Spin, winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, combines some hard science fiction with some highly speculative work in both cosmology and nanotechnology as it follows three characters after the cataclysmic event that gives the book its title. It’s a bold novel of ideas that struggles a little in its midsection but comes through with a rousing, clever finish that also gives a bleak story a hopeful if uncertain resolution.

The Spin of the title is the name humanity gives a temporal bubble that an unknown, external entity (later dubbed the “Hypotheticals”) has placed around the Earth, causing time inside the bubble to move more slowly than it does outside. Where one year passes on Earth inside the Spin, a hundred million years pass outside of it, which means that after thirty to fifty years inside the Spin, the region of the solar system where the Earth exists would become uninhabitable as the Sun begins the expansion that precedes its death.

The story itself starts with twelve-year-old Tyler Dupree and his two friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, from the night the Spin first appears, obscuring the stars and knocking out satellite communications worldwide. Jason is the scientific genius of the trio; Diane, his sensitive twin sister who turns to religion; and Tyler, the narrator and balancing figure, a bit of a Nick Newland for his bland presence in the story, whose love for Diane is unrequited and whose friendship with Jason feels professional even before, later in life, he becomes Jason’s personal physician.

The narrative jumps around in time, with vignettes from a distant future where Tyler is going through a process we later learn is a massive physical adjustment to a sort of drug regimen brought to earth by a human who has returned to Earth from Mars. It’s one of Wilson’s most clever gambits in the book – Jason and others at his father’s think tank/quasi-governmental organization Perihelion decide to create life on Mars by terraforming and seeding it from afar and then sending people. This takes advantage of the time discrepancy, so the hundreds of millions of years required by evolution take just a few years of Earth time. And it turns out that Life on Mars advances even beyond what life on earth has, with a life-extension treatment that upends the lives of the few on Earth who try it. His return to Earth sparks a second, even more extensive space program that holds the key to humanity surviving the imminent death of its home planet and solar system.

Spin is saved from itself by Tyler and the twins, as the story, while entertaining for its speculative aspects, could not support a 450-page novel by itself. They’re only moderately well-developed, but are at least developed enough to feel real (unlike the twins’ parents, who are straight out of central casting – the hard-driving, materialistic, unloving father, and his miserable alcoholic wife); the twins have a yin/yang dichotomy between them, the hardcore rationalist against the emotion-driven sentimentalist, but Wilson has them behave in ways that transcend two-dimensional stereotypes. Jason’s tortured relationship with his father could make up its own book, and felt more authentic than Tyler’s cold pining for Diane over years when he doesn’t see or hear from her.

The speculative science involved in the second space effort and the resolution of the Spin story reminded me a bit of Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, a non-fiction science book that delves into the idea of the multiverse and whether, for example, wormholes might exist or someone (or something) might travel through a black hole into another universe. In the science world, this might be called “bunkrapt,” but it is fantastic fodder for hard science fiction, and gives Wilson an improbable but internally consistent resolution to the story. There was a point around 2/3 of the way through Spin where I felt like the narrative had slowed down and I was probably going to end up giving it a negative review, but the truly clever endings to the various plotlines make the book a success.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

Arrival.

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, another nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture, is something of a rarity in movies these days: a major-studio film with a thoughtful, intelligent script that challenges the viewer with big philosophical questions while also satisfying everyone’s desire for a compelling plot. Based on a Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life,” Arrival looks like a story about humanity’s first contact with an alien race, but in the end it’s truly about human happiness and how knowing the future might change your choices in the present. (It’s now available to rent/buy via amazon and iTunes.)

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a polyglot and linguistics professor who is summoned by the US Army when twelve alien spacecraft land around the globe, including in one remote spot in Montana where most of the movie takes place. Before that, we see a brief overview of Louise’s story outside of the alien visit, where she’s married, has a baby, but loses the child to a rare disease in adolescence. At the landing site, she meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker, using a bizarre accent), and begins the process of trying to communicate with the aliens, dubbed “heptapods” because they have seven legs. They write in a pictograph-like script of circular images that deliver entire sentences in one symbol because the heptapods perceive time in a different way than humans do, and the center of the film revolves around the effort to establish for the two species to interact.

It’s an incredibly academic story at its heart; I joked on Twitter that this was the best film ever made about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is also the core subject of a book by Samuel Delany, Babel-17, currently sitting on my to-read shelf. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer could have skipped over a lot of the details, but instead treated the topic seriously, consulting linguists, developing a consistent writing system for the heptapods, and spending a fair portion of the script on showing us Louise’s efforts. The script treats the viewers like intelligent adults, and that was probably my favorite aspect of the film.

Great science fiction stories should just be great stories, period, in different settings. Once the science part of the science fiction takes over too much (like Red Mars, the most egregious example of this I’ve ever read), the whole endeavor suffers. Arrival manages to strike a perfect balance between its two halves – there’s enough of the science-y stuff to satisfy genre fans, but this remains a fundamentally strong story about people. This is a story about Louise, and about how we choose to live our lives, including whether we’d do something different if we perceived time the way the heptapods do. In that sense, it’s smart, emotional, and very thought-provoking; I saw this movie three days ago and am still turning the ending over and over in my mind.

I’m floored that Amy Adams didn’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance here; I’d probably have given her a nod over Ruth Negga from Loving, but I haven’t seen three of the other nominees yet. (As great as Meryl Streep always is, I also wonder if she’s just an automatic nominee at this point in her career.) Renner doesn’t have a ton to do here, although I think he also infuses humanity into what could have been a stereotypical “brilliant but aloof scientist” role. Whitaker’s weird accent, best described as “drunk Bostonian,” was a terrible idea poorly executed, and his character is the most one-dimensional of all, serving as the “we’re running out of time!” guy in most of his scenes. It’s not quite a solo record from Adams, but it’s pretty close, enough that the film sinks or swims with her performance, and I think she nailed every aspect of it. (I was also mildly amused by their attempts to make her look a little frumpy, especially when she’s at the university. Needless to say, it didn’t take.)

I’m dancing around the film’s twist, although rather than one big reveal moment, Arrival gives it to you gradually to pick up over the course of the story. I thought it worked on two levels – as a surprise revelation, but also as a way to change the entire meaning of the film. Without that, the film is smart; with it, it’s clever. The story really stuck with me in a way that other great movies of 2016, including Moonlight, didn’t. Between that and Adams’ performance, I can at least see how it ended up with a Best Picture nomination, although I would put it behind at least three other films that also received nods in that category, as well as at least two films that didn’t get nominations.

Stranger in a Strange Land.

Continuing my roll through Hugo winners, I finally got around to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land right before Christmas. It’s long been on my to-read list, but I figured I’d eventually find a copy in a used bookstore and waited until that happened to read it, even though I’ve read a few other Heinlein works (Double Star and Starship Troopers, both Hugo winners) and enjoyed them. Stranger is something else entirely, however – a deeply philosophical work, a new version of the Christ figure in literature, and a book with just a veneer of science fiction about it. Heinlein’s views on religion, morality, and human nature may not be yours or mine, but this novel gives you plenty to consider and reconsider on these subjects and more, simply because he sets off the correct bomb in the middle of the metaphorical town square.

That bomb is the person of Valentine Michael Smith, a man who was born on Mars and raised by Martians, an alien race, apparently much older than ours, that evolved quite differently from our own and possesses physical powers well beyond anything humans have acquired. When “Mike” returns to Earth with a second spacecraft, he’s suddenly the most sought-after person on our planet, with the government hiding him, multiple authorities trying to steal from him, and the media chasing him, and, eventually, one reporter and his nurse friend choosing to free him, sneaking him out of the hospital where he’s a de facto prisoner. Mike and the nurse end up at the estate of Jubal Harshaw, a polymath, hack author, and attorney who takes an immediate interest in Mike’s case and becomes his mentor and cicerone and protector all in one, negotiating for Mike’s freedom under the guise of the latter being the leader of humanity on Mars.

Mike ends up exploring human religion and philosophy, including the megachurch/cult of the Fosterites, and selects pieces of that he finds worthwhile in building his own Church of All Worlds, where members advance through various levels of enlightenment towards an inner circle, learning the Martian language and acquiring some of the same psychokinetic abilities Mike has. The Church of All Worlds becomes a counterculture haven, preaching free love and naturalism, eschewing modern capitalism, and living in a commune-like structure each time they set up shop in a new town. Their popularity threatens many existing forces, from the government to traditional religions, who whip up enmity towards its members and Mike in particular, leading to an entirely predictable ending that completes his Christ-like journey through the novel.

The novel’s title comes from one possible translation of a phrase in Exodus 2:22, “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Smith comes here as ignorant of human customs as a baby, and even has to learn to use his body properly in our higher gravity. He brings Martian concepts of dualism and an afterlife, of war, commerce, and, of course, of water, which is revered through the practice of “sharing water” with someone, after which you are “water brothers,” a sort of blood oath that bonds you to each other for life. He adopts some trivial aspects of human culture, at least temporarily, such as wearing clothes, but takes on a mystical role to those around him – first Jubal’s employees, then gradually more and more who take to his own message of free love, spiritual enlightenment, and … uh … being nice to everyone.

That’s where the book goes a bit off the rails for me, at least, although Heinlein is aiming for something very big here and probably gets as close to his goal as most authors could. Smith’s religion is cultlike too, and it’s not very clear what he’s preaching or promising – people see that he can move stuff with his mind, and he’s offering a sort of spiritual salvation without stigmatizing or forbidding sex the way the Catholic Church and many evangelical Protestant groups do, so of course they’re flocking to him. And there’s certainly something Christ-like in his messages of love, tolerance, and nonviolence, as well as his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone around him. But Smith’s transition from ingenue to wiseman/Pied Piper is wildly abrupt and unexplained; in one chapter, he’s still confused by common human norms, and in the next, he and Jill, the nurse who got him out of the hospital, have run off to join a traveling carnival. (I read the version of the novel that was first published; Heinlein later restored material cut by his publishers in a separate edition that’s about 30% longer.)

Where Heinlein succeeds, however, is in crafting a sci-fi story that’s powered by the plot, not by the scientific details. None of the action in the book takes place on Mars; we meet Smith on earth, and for a time it’s unclear whether there’s anything different about him beyond his experience. He has psychokinetic powers learned from the Martians, and some very different ideas on death, but Heinlein uses that to drive the story – how would Earthborn humans respond to the appearance of a man with these abilities? It’s a twist on the Second Coming, but rather than playing it straight, Heinlein adds the interplanetary twist. There’s also an ancillary subplot, never fleshed out, about what the Martians might do to earth, having previously destroyed a nameless planet and civilization between Mars and Jupiter, but it feels unnecessary and unfinished, especially since the novel stands just fine on its own without that attempt to justify Mike’s return to earth.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a big novel of ideas – or perhaps a novel of big ideas – and whether it works may depend on your acceptance of some of the more mundane aspects of the philosophy Mike preaches to his followers. And it is preachy – there’s no question that Heinlein is advocating something here, which I thought caused the last of the novel’s five sections to drag until the last few pages. The real power in Heinlein’s concepts here, as voiced by Smith, is how absurd human conflicts, from war to prejudice, would appear to someone who fell in from the sky and wasn’t raised among the rest of us. If there’s a lasting message to take from this novel, that should be it.

EDIT: Oh, I forgot to mention the one absolute nails-on-chalkboard line in the book, where one character (Jill?) says that nine times out of ten, a rape is at least partly the woman’s fault. I know it was written a half-century ago, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy, and knocked the book down a full grade for me.

Next up: I knocked out Thomas Hager’s non-fiction book The Alchemy of Air, about the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, and have just started Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that year.

A Fire Upon the Deep.

Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep shared the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1993 with the vastly superior The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a “tie” that beggars belief if you’ve read both books. Willis’s ranks among the best novels I’ve ever read, period, and comparing Vinge’s to it is unfair to the latter book, which is certainly ambitious and epic in scope and theme. Where A Fire Upon the Deep falls short of the greatest sci-fi novels I’ve read is in the stuff that makes a novel a good one: Vinge can’t give us compelling, well-drawn characters, despite his imagination and remarkable ability to create a complex, textured universe within his book.

Set millions of years into the future, A Fire Upon the Deep finds the Milky Way populated with numerous races, including humans, who can travel faster than light – but only if they’re in a zone sufficiently far from the galaxy’s center. These “zones of thought” affect everything from technological and philosophical progress to speed of travel, so a spaceship that moves from the Beyond down into the Slowness (nearer the black hole at our galaxy’s core) can go from traveling at several times the speed of light to a mere fraction thereof.

The story opens in confusing fashion, but after a hundred pages or so it becomes clear that the main plot thread revolves around an ‘ancient’ threat unleashed by the humans of a planet known as Straum, who appear to have found a dormant AI routine, implemented it, and opened Pandora’s Box on a “perversion” that attempts to take over huge swaths of the galaxy. One ship survived the apocalypse at Straum to jump to the Slowness, where the ship lands on an earthlike planet that, it turns out, is populated by a race of wolves, later called the Tines, who have the ability to think in groups: an ‘individual’ Tine is a pack of four to eight wolves who operate with one mind. The Tines attack the ship’s denizens, a family of four, killing the parents and taking the two kids as captives, one to each of the Tines’ two warring camps. These two plot strands are connected in a way that isn’t immediately obvious, spurring a cross-galaxy space chase, an exploration of predetermination, and a story of the intrusion of modern combat technology on a primitive society.

This is a space opera, with shifting timelines, multiple perspectives, intersections between several alien races, and even a pit stop that might as well be the book’s Mos Eisley, with no shortage of sci-fi wizardry. Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, which foresaw the era of wearable technology, was bogged down by his need to give us extraneous details, and A Fire Upon the Deep isn’t much different, especially when it comes to details of the operations of various spaceships – we don’t need any of this, and it brings everything to a crawl (like we’re stuck in the Slowness). Here, this problem is compounded by a plot that can only have one ending: there is no question that the people working to stop the ravenous “perversion,” known as the Blight, are going to win out in the end. The story would just end abruptly if there were any other resolution, and if I tell you one or more heroes will die in the effort, you can probably pick them out before the halfway point.

The other core problem here is that Vinge expends so much effort on crafting this brilliant, imaginative universe that the characters are all far too thinly drawn to create any emotional investment on the reader’s part. The kids are actually both kind of annoying, even though they’re orphans on a strange planet with no other humans around, and for almost the entire book each thinks the other is dead. If you can’t generate any empathy for those characters, you have a serious problem. Another character finds out her home planet has been basically blown up and her whole family annihilated; it’s a ho-hum moment that passes without any real emotion in the text or, obviously, off it.

I didn’t actually hate this book, although it may sound that way; I just wouldn’t recommend it that highly. It’s an achievement in scope and vision, but not as a work of cohesive fiction. I assumed that the Blight would lose the race, and that certain characters would survive, but I can’t say I particularly cared about any of the characters, and there was nothing specific to their individual story arcs beyond mere survival. The mark of great fiction, genre or otherwise, is more than mere plot; without strong characters or good prose, it’s just a story, and that’s all A Fire Upon the Deep was for me.

Next up: I’m halfway through another Hugo winner, Robert Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land.