the Little Red Reviewer

Author Archive

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

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Yes, yes, I know I’m late to the Murderbot party. A while back my twitter feed exploded with things like “I love Murderbot”, and “I want more Murderbot!”, and just shook my head in confusion. I’m actually doubly late to the party, because I’ve now read this novella twice in the last month and am only writing about it now. My lame excuse is that All Systems Red was the August book for my local book club and I wanted to wait until after our book club met and discussed the story to write my review. Also? I’ve been too busy watching Master of None, Arrested Development, and GLOW to give a shit about what anyone else wants.

Much of the fun of our book club meetings is seeing who enjoyed the chosen book, who didn’t, and what people liked and didn’t like. We all have different tastes, and it’s rare that everyone comes to the meeting saying “I loved this book!”. All Systems Red is that rare book. Everyone loved it, we couldn’t stop talking about, and everyone was thrilled to learn that Martha Wells has more Murderbot novellas planned. The bookstore where our book club meets is located next to a police station, and I fear to think what those cops thought when they heard cheers and giggles coming from next door as we all cheered “Murderbot Murderbot Murderbot!”

So, what the hell is this Murderbot craze all about?

Murderbot is a Security Unit bot. You want to explore or scout an unexplored planet? Your contract with the company requires one SecUnit per ten humans, and all sorts of other required equipment of dubious quality. Until said equipment craps out, leaving you to die on a deserted planet, it will record everything you do and say with plans to sell the data later. HubSystem does seem to have a “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” type of personality.

The members of the PreservationAux exploration team have no idea their SecUnit has hacked it’s own governor module, and that this SecUnit helps them and saves their lives because it feels like it, not because it has to. These humans are on a deserted planet with a SecUnit who refers to itself as Murderbot. A SecUnit who has deleted as much data as possible to make room for more downloaded soap operas and other serial entertainments. Murderbot is socially awkward, anti-social, and couldn’t care less about the goals of squishy humans. Murderbot simply wants to be left alone so it can watch downloaded TV shows (huh. wanting to sit around and stream TV shows all day? that sounds, um, familiar)

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The Tourist, by Robert Dickinson

published June 2017

where I got it: received review copy from the published (Thanks Hachette!)

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Welcome to the 24th century, where the most exotic vacation a person can take is to a 21st century mall.  Experience germs and cell phones, risk mild food poisoning and interactions with sullen gothy teenagers, and then spend the night safely ensconced in a resort hotel.   There are tons of travel companies that offer these types of tours.  The companies and their employees choose to ignore all the smuggling that often takes place right under their noses. Time travel has become so easy and common, it’s not even called “time travel” anymore, it’s just called “travel”,  and you get to your destination via a high energy technology called translation.

 

“It’s the logic of travel: the past is just another country, and, if you can afford the translation, you can always go back. Nothing is lost, nobody really dies. You die, of course: but, if they have the right resources, other people can always come back and see you. You remain alive.”

                                The Tourist, page 310

 

The opening chapters of The Tourist fall somewhere between Kage Baker’s Company novels and the movie Twelve Monkeys, complete with a shadowy future century no one is allowed to see, rumors of a genocide in recent history, a near extinction event, and the challenges of how to tell someone you are from the past or the future.  There is a “map” of sorts in the front of the book, that on first glance looks like a map of a shopping mall, but then you realize it’s a chart of a time line. The time line is U shaped, with the character’s lives jumping back and forth all over the place. Ahh, the tricks you can play in a time travel book!

 

Spens is a rep with one of the travel agencies, his job is to shepherd his charges to the mall, show them how paper money works, and warn them against 21st-ers who know how to trick naive idiots.  For shock value, he buys a muffin at a coffee stand and eats it.  This is just a job for Spens, he lives at the resort and gets together for drinks with the other reps at night to share stories of their idiot clients.   He’ll work at the resort forever if it means he never has to work the tunnels again.

 

And then one day he loses a client.

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The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

where I got it:  purchased new

published in 2010

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I first read and reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed in 2011, and it blew my mind. I had no idea jeweled prose like this existed, I had no idea stories could be told like this. I didn’t know an author could do these things in a novel. I remember trying to give someone a 30-second elevator pitch about this book, and I knew I couldn’t boil the entire book down into a few sentences so I simply said something like Have you ever come across a metaphor that wasn’t a metaphor, it was the truth? That’s this book. The person looked at me like I was crazy, but I think I did Habitation justice with that pitch.

This is a hard book for me to talk about, because reading it has become a sort of religious experience for me. Not religious in the way of temples or praying or god or heaven or any of that stuff, but religious in the way of looking up at the night sky, seeing the Milky Way, and feeling very small and realizing you had no idea the universe and everything in it could be this beautiful and understanding that you are a part of that beauty, you are in it, you are of it. Religious like that.

I don’t so much talk about this book as fan-girl about it.

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

“This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?”

I call it a “surface plot”, because this is not a book about some simple plotline. Is a book about the power of story, the power of time, the power of faith, and the beauty of being destroyed and created by those powers.

Prester John had originally been on a mission to find the grave of Thomas the Apostle when he found instead the land of Pentexore, and five hundred years later, Brother Hiob is on a mission to find the possibly immortal Prester John. Where Hiob’s journey ends, he finds a tree. A tree whose fruit are books. Hiob is allowed to pluck three books from the tree, and he finds to his luck one of the books is in the voice of Prester John himself. The second is from John’s wife Hagia, and the third is from the famous storyteller Imtithal. No matter how fast Hiob and his assistant copy and transcribe, the books turn to rot faster. The residents of Pentexore may have had immortality, but it only takes hours for their stories to decompose. (and what does it mean when someone’s story dies?)

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Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

published in 2014

Where I got it: I don’t remember

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Echopraxia, from dictionary.com:

  1. the abnormal repetition of the actions of another person.
  2. the involuntary imitation of the actions of others

 

Daniel Bruks is a regular human.  Living out in the desert after committing career suicide, Bruks is just a regular guy. And by regular, I mean he has no augments and his DNA and brain haven’t been mucked around with. By regular, I mean humanity is, in general, leaving him behind. But so long as they leave him alone, he’s fine with that.

 

Bruks keeps saying he doesn’t understand what’s happening, or why the Bicamerals even took him along on their mission when it would have been much easier to leave him behind. He’s not alone, as for the first half of this book, I had no idea what was happening either.  Watts certainly throws the reader into the deep end, and it was a frustrating first hundred pages.  Luckily, about a third of the way in, there are some conversational infodumps that tell you exactly what all these augmented humans are, and what Bruks is not.  And maybe  Bruks will eventually come to realize all the mean names the augments call him, names like roach and baseline, aren’t insults at all.

 

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, and if you haven’t read Blindsight it is 1) one of the most incredible hard scifi novels ever written, and 2) won’t much prepare you for Echopraxia, as these two novels are those distant cousins who see each other at weddings and funerals, but can’t think of a reason to speak to each other.  That said, I couldn’t stop thinking about Blindsight while reading this novel. There is so much discussion in Echopraxia about how you can’t trust your own brain, you can’t trust your own perception. Blindsight was ALL ABOUT perception, and we see that story from Siri’s point of view, and of course he trusts his perception.  It makes for a fascinating dichotomy between the two novels!

 

Plotwise, I’m not 100% sure what is going on in Echopraxia. Bruk’s desert home is under attack by zombie drones, so he takes refuge at the nearby monastery of Bicamerals.  The Bicamerals are a sort of hive mind type thing, they have souped up synapses spiked with genetics from our ancient ancestors, genetics homo sapiens evolved away from because we “didn’t need that stuff anymore”.  Turns out, it isn’t Bruks the zombies are attacking, but the monastery. When the Bicams escape, they take Bruks and their “pet” vampire, Valerie, along with. What the hell do they need Bruks for? For that matter, what the hell do they need a god damn Vampire for?  Once out in space, the story takes a turn for the visceral horror, because Valerie is the smartest predator the Earth has ever seen.  (What are vampires doing in a hard scifi novel, you ask? Fantastic question!  And the answer is in Blindsight, and also in that novel’s appendix, where Watts brilliantly discusses how Vampires are genetically viable and possible on Earth, and why it was a really terrible idea for us to bring their genetics back)

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Instead of bitching for 1200 words about how unwatchably terrible Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets was (and I wanted to like it! I tried SO HARD to like it!) I will instead point you in the direction of this love letter to Luc Besson’s masterpiece The Fifth Element.

(click the link, not the picture)

I was finishing high school when this movie came out, and I’ll admit, I was just a smidgen obsessed with it.  I still remember the vague promos that came out months ahead of this movie. They didn’t say anything about what the movie was about, or who was it in.  Yes, I was a very impressionable teen, but wow those promos made an impression on me! I had no idea what this movie was going to be about, but I knew I had to see it.

 

When the movie finally came out, I’d never seen anything like it, I didn’t know movies like this could exist. I had no idea if I was watching a movie, or a music video, or both at the same time.   Great art direction, fun set design, fun soundtrack, great aliens,  snarky script, and it is even more over the top than Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge.

 

If you can believe it, there are people who have never seen The Fifth Element!  What would you tell someone who has never seen this movie to get them to see it? How would you convince them that this 20 year old scifi flick is worth their time?

 

Also?  LeelooDallasMulitpass!

 

 

Pilot X by Tom Merritt

published in 2017

where I got it: purchased new

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Do you like Doctor Who?

 

Have you never seen Doctor Who but you’re curious to know what all the fuss is about?

 

If you answered Yes to either of those questions, Tom Merritt’s novel Pilot X might be for you.  I say “might”, because there isn’t much to Pilot X, and if you go into looking for deep characterization or a memorable plot, you’ll come out disappointed. This is a weird little book to review, because plot and character wise, there isn’t much to it. But there are these fun little other things going on that have nothing to do with X’s story that I enjoyed. There is a lot under the surface of the text, and had Merritt explored and expanded on what lies just under the surface, the style of this book would have been very, very different.   I think the trick to enjoying this novel is knowing what it is, and knowing what it isn’t.

 

X is a time traveler.  He starts out as an apprentice, becomes a pilot, and holds other titles during his career as well.  In his culture, everyone has a unique name, with their “first name” being their title or occupation. He was born the first year that single character names became allowed. (Fun thing number one: does the length of someone’s name tell you what era they are from?). This is a society of timelords time travelers, so it’s easy for X to go on a mission that might take him weeks or years, and be able to report back to his superiors twenty minutes after he was given the assignment.

 

As first, I was annoyed by the episode nature of the plot of the book, and much of the actual missions that X  goes on were rather forgettable.  (fun thing number two: This is a non-linear story, so the episodic nature actually makes some sense. When you’re a time traveler, does the order in which things happen even matter?)  As X gets more missions and spends more time with the man who gives the orders, he starts questioning if he’s actually on the right side of the Dimensional War. X doesn’t even know if he’s made contact with a secret operative or not.  If he is successful in his final mission, he will be the only survivor of a race that has been erased from memory.

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I used to struggle with short stories. I had no idea how to read anthologies.  How hard could a themed anthology be, right?  I’d overthink the entire thing, and make myself miserable.  I’d finish stories I didn’t enjoy because some part of my brain was telling me that these stories were chapters in a larger universe, and if I missed the end of the story, I’d have missed some important plot point. No wonder I didn’t get it! For the life of me, I could not understand why anyone thought short stories were worth a damn.

 

Luckily, I finally my hands on some anthologies that weren’t crap, and I came across some fantastic single author short story collection, and I found some fantastic short story podcasts (if you’ve not listened to Kate Baker tell you a story, you are in for a treat!).

 

Also? that table of contents? I completely ignore it.   The editor spent days or maybe weeks putting that table of contents together for goodness sakes, they are telling me something with that table of contents, I should respect their message, right?

 

The first time I realized I could read an anthology in any order I pleased was a revelation.  Since then, I’ve been reading the shortest stories first, and working my way up to the longest stories. Or, I’ll read the interesting sounding titles first. Or I’ll read my favorite authors first.  If I read two or three short stories and I’m still “meh” on the whole deal, I’ll probably put the book down and never pick it back up again. What I’m getting at is that when I started allowing myself to have control over how I read an anthology and read it however I damn pleased, I started enjoying them a lot more.   Sorry editor,  all your work on your perfect table of contents was wasted on me.  Can I buy you a drink or dinner when I see you at a convention, to make it up to you?

 

How about you?   Are you into short stories?  How do you imbibe them? Anthologies? single author collections? short story magazines and/or podcasts?   If you’re like me, and you used to struggle with short stories, how did you get past the struggle?

 


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.