Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright by Allen Steele
Published: Tor, 2016

The Book:

“Contemporary of science fiction masters Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, Nathan Arkwright is a seminal author of the twentieth century. At the end of his life he becomes reclusive and cantankerous, refusing to appear before or interact with his legion of fans. Little did anyone know, Nathan was putting into motion his true, timeless legacy.

Convinced that humanity cannot survive on Earth, his Arkwright Foundation dedicates itself to creating a colony on an Earth-like planet several light years distant. Fueled by Nathan's legacy, generations of Arkwrights are drawn together, and pulled apart, by the enormity of the task and weight of their name.”

This is technically the first novel I’ve read by Allen Steele, though I enjoyed his stories about the colonization of the planet Coyote as serialized in Asimov’s Science Fiction.  This novel was identified by the community at World’s Without End as one of the award-worthy books of 2016.  

My Thoughts:  

Arkwright is a very different kind of colonization story than you’ll find with Steele’s books about Coyote.  Instead of focusing on the details of the project and the people who eventually live on the alien planet, Arkwright primarily follows the Earth-side humans who are behind this monumental effort.  The story explores what would drive Nathan Arkwright to establish his foundation and how subsequent generations react to their unchosen connection to the generations-long undertaking.  It is a difficult thing to dedicate oneself to a project that spans longer than a human lifetime, and I can’t imagine that everyone would be able to handle such pressure. I’ve had similar thoughts about the architects behind the great cathedrals of Europe, wondering how they might feel knowing that they will not be able to see their life’s work come to completion.  This is a relatively short novel, and it spans several generations of Arkwrights who have very different ways of coping with their family heritage.  I enjoyed seeing their range of reactions to the Arkwright Foundation, but I felt like I didn’t have enough time with each cast to feel an emotional attachment to the characters.

In the build-up to the establishment of the colonization project, it becomes clear that Arkwright carries a lot of love for the social scene of 1950s science fiction.  There are a number of scenes featuring fictional and actual authors of the era, and involving their interaction in conventions and elsewhere.  I was a little impatient to get back to the future-focused story, but these nostalgic parts helped me to understand Nathan Arkwright’s motives.  I also enjoyed how it highlighted the role of science fiction in inspiring scientific development, something that certainly happens in reality.  Science fiction can help us imagine a path to the future, even as it also can point out potential pitfalls of developing technology.  In this case, Arkwright’s vision created a foundation that would define his family for many years, and would spur technological development along the way.    

After all of this, we do eventually get to see the final outcome of the colonization project.  Separated as it is in physical distance and time from the Arkwright family’s story, this part of the novel felt like an extended epilogue.  I would have been disappointed if there had been no closure on what happened to the colony ship, so I was happy that this part was included.  However, there’s only really enough time to see the situation in broad strokes, when I would have liked to see more detail. Despite the brevity, I appreciated the author’s choice to let his readers move into the future, to see the ‘cathedral’ that was completed long after the builders we met had passed beyond knowing.  

My Rating: 3 /5

Arkwright has an interesting premise, focusing on the human side of the development and execution of an extrasolar colonization project.  It has a clear fondness for the history of science fiction, and the way that science fiction can inspire developments in technology.  It’s also a relatively short book that covers a lot of content, from the inception of the colonization project, through multiple generations of the Arkwright family, all the way through to the project’s culmination.  As such, there is not a ton of depth to each segment or each set of characters.  I’m still happy I read this one, and I will probably read more work by Steele in the future.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey, Part 3

Welcome to week three of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah’s Blessing, the final book of Kushiel’s Legacy.  This week’s questions cover up through chapter 42, and they are provided by Grace of Books Without Any Pictures.  This was a very eventful week, so beware of spoilers below!

1) Were you surprised by Durel's betrayal? Do you think the captain and Balthasar handled it well?

I guess I have been giving Rogier a lot of benefit of the doubt, so yes I was surprised.  I wish he could have just had different political goals without actually being evil. It now seems like he and his wife totally know their kid is a rapist, and are okay with it.  Also, they don’t really care at all about Terre d’Ange, but care so much about power that they’re willing to kill and coerce people to keep it.  Basically, they’re not any better than Melisande ethically, and in some ways worse.  However, they’re definitely not as talented as Melisande, so I think they’re going to be thwarted quite soon.

I think Balthasar and the others handled it really well.  The man had nothing against any of them, and Balthasar and the captain addressed the hold that Rogier’s family had over him.  Now, he can in good conscience help the team, knowing that they plan to make sure his family is okay when they make it back to Terre d’Ange.  All the same, it does make sense to keep an eye on him from here on out.

2) Now that we've had some time to get acquainted with Terra Nova, what do you think of it? What do you make of the Nahuatl, and of the overall political tensions in Terra Nova? Do you think there's any hope for reconciliation between the Aragonians, D'Angelines, other tribes, and Nahuatl?

I think history is not on the side of the Nahuatl, and I expect Terre d’Ange will not have that much to do in the region after Thierry is rescued.  Based on what we’ve seen so far in the trilogy, I am anticipating that Moirin with have some more transient against-established-history success here, and the Nahuatl will successfully reconcile with the other tribes long enough to briefly resist the Aragonians.

3) What are your impressions of Achculati and the bargain he offered? How do you think Moirin's choice will impact her going forward?

I don’t think he ever expected her to accept it.  I think he was ready for her shock and refusal, and then he would have refused to give them aid.  He was very kind to Moirin, but I think his treatment of his youngest wife is a little more telling of the kind of person he is.  You can always tell a person by how he treats those he considers his inferiors, and bargaining her off to provide sex to a complete stranger without her knowledge or consent was a pretty callous thing to do.  I am glad Bao did not actually take advantage of the poor woman. I don’t know whether this will impact Moirin going forward or not.

Other Things:

--I was surprised that Balthasar was able to evoke Kushiel so easily.  In the earlier books, it was really only Phedre and Melisande, as Kushiel’s chosen, who really felt divine influence.  These days, it seems like every member of every house of Terre d’Ange can channel their respective angels at will.

--I’m still finding Moirin’s shame and guilt about her poly nature confusing.  I can only assume that this is all coming from her trauma with Cillian’s family, since I don’t think anyone has shamed Moirin about it since then.  I mean, how many times does Bao have to tell her it’s okay before she can believe it?

--Does anyone else find Moirin’s sudden ability with Nahuatl a little unbelievable, after all her talk about her struggle with the language?  She went from ‘Hello/Thank You”-level to discussing theology in a single day, after months of failing to master the tongue on the voyage.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Short Fiction: April 2017

There were a lot of really entertaining stories published in April, and I had a hard time narrowing them down to my favorites.  All of the ones I eventually picked are by authors I have not featured here before!  They’re also all available to read online, at the indicated links.  Three of these include a kind of splitting or parallel worlds, while the other two feature conflict with humans living on alien worlds.

In the Shade of the Pixie Tree by Rodello Santos (Short Story, Beneath Ceaseless Skies): This was a clever magical time travel story that is told in both directions.  Bekka heads off to collect pixies, and a boy she likes comes with her--even though he’s not supposed to.  In a world with magic, their innocent flirting can lead to dangerous consequences.
When Stars are Scattered by Spencer Ellsworth (Novelette, This is a story about faith and an unusual alien species, “Kites”, on a colonized world. A Muslim community is converting the Kites, and a nearby Christian colony sees them as pests.  When a disease begins to spread through the Kite community, it inflames tensions between the two groups.  

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth by Juliette Wade (Novella, Clarkesworld): This is another story featuring humans interacting with aliens, specifically a small group of humans studying an alien civilization.  The non-human cultures and the political situation depicted here were really fascinating, and I loved the creative use of language and the alien perspective.

The Selkie Wives by Kendra Fortmeyer (Short Story, Apex): The general selkie story involves a beautiful selkie woman, who is trapped on land and married when a man steals her sealskin.  This story presents a clutter of variations on that theme, some sad and some hilarious, exploring different relationships between men and women.

Seven Permutations of my Daughter by Lina Rather (Short Story, Lightspeed): This one is a very emotionally affecting story about a woman whose daughter is struggling with drug addiction.  Feeling desperate and helpless, she builds a machine that allows her to jump into parallel worlds.  She thinks that if she can find a world where her daughter is happy, she’ll be able to see where things went wrong and how to make things right.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey, Part 2

It’s time for week two of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah’s Blessing. This week covers chapters 16-26, and questions are provided again by Susan of Dab of Darkness.  Beware spoilers below!

1) What do you think of the assistance the Shahrizai have provided to Moirin and Bao so far? Do you think there's merit to their claim that the Shahrizai should govern the Shemhazai district?

It’s good that they have allies, and Moirin and Bao may feel cheered by the fact that the Shahrizai are generally quite good at playing politics.  The Shahrizai must think that the pair has a good chance of succeeding, or they would not have given them their support.  I don’t really know much about the Shemhazai folk, so I’m fine with the Shahrizai taking over the area!

2) Did you enjoy the Oath Swearing Ceremony where Moirin pledged to be Desiree's protector? What did you like best about it?

I liked the lottery for common folks to attend the party, and it was nice that Moirin ran it personally. She seems like a very genuine person, which seems to be helping her win over people who are not embroiled in d’Angeline politics.

3) Finally, there's news from Terra Nova. From chocolate to spices to riches to a vexing pox that Raphael may be able to cure to the loss of crown prince! Do you think Prince Thierry is really dead? If not, what kind of trouble might he be in? What else about Terra Nova intrigues you at this point?

Ghost-Jehanne is probably telling the truth, so he’s probably alive.  He also can’t be in any urgent trouble, because it will be months more before anyone can arrive in Terra Nova.  Maybe he is being held by some of the people there for some reason? Maybe he was exploring a new culture and lost track of the days?  Maybe Focalor-possessed-Raphael has taken over a kingdom and Thierry is trying to stop him?  I guess we’ll see!

4) Let's discuss King Daniel. He spent some time with his daughter but then planned to abdicate to Thierry when he returned. Upon the sad news, King Daniel is no longer with us. Is there anything more that could have been done, either by Daniel or for him?

I have a lot of sympathy for King Daniel’s grief, but that was also so selfish.  He couldn’t be strong enough to minister the realm, he couldn’t be strong enough to love his daughter, and he couldn’t even manage to tell someone else his concerns instead of taking them with him to the grave.  He must have realized that Moirin claiming that he’d completely changed his mind about Rogier would not be especially convincing.  

I still think he should have gone to Balm House, and just lived there for a while.  I also think that after he basically abdicated the throne to Rogier’s control, that should have been a sign that he should no longer have been permitted to refuse help.  This is going to be a grief that will shape his daughter’s life, both from the emotional trauma and the political problems it will cause her.  At least, through Moirin, she’ll know that one of her parents had loved her.  

5) Rogier is angling for more political power. What do you think of him using his grieve to obtain his goal? Will Moirin and Bao be able to head off to Terra Nova without provoking Rogier further?

I have to believe that he doesn’t know his son is likely a rapist. That is extremely negatively viewed in Terre d’Ange, to the extent that his son would be guilty of blasphemy.  I feel like Moirin needs to find a way to bring that to light, because it is a big deal.  

If Rogier does not know this, I suspect he thinks he is doing what’s best for Terre d’Ange. While he is being calculating about using his emotions to accrue power, I don’t think, at this point, that his intentions are impure in a patriotic sense.  I’m suspecting that Moirin and Bao will quietly slip into the Shahrizai mission to Terra Nova, and maybe in that way they can just disappear without him realizing until after they’ve gone.

Other Things:

--It was really weird to see Moirin and Bao in Melisande’s house, viewing all her stuff as historical artifacts.

--I like Balthasar.  He seems like a good guy.

--I am impressed with Moirin’s father’s strength in his convictions.  I did not expect him to turn against his childhood friend, but he did not hesitate to do so when he realized Rogier was in the wrong.