Sunday, May 27, 2018

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published: Hodder & Stoughton (2016)
Series: Book 2 of the Wayfarers
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA Awards

The Book:

“Once, Lovelace had eyes and ears everywhere. She was a ship’s artificial intelligence system, tasked with caring for the health and wellbeing of her crew, possessing a distinct personality and very human emotions. Now, reactivated and reset, Lovelace finds herself in a synthetic body. She’s gone from being virtually omniscient to limited to a physical existence, in a community where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so isolated. But Lovelace is not alone. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall her program, has remained by her side and is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.
Pepper was born Jane 23, part of a slave class created by a rogue society of genetic engineers. At ten years old, Jane 23 has never seen the sky; she doesn’t even know such a thing exists. But when an industrial accident gives Jane 23 a chance to escape, she takes the opportunity and hides away in a nearby junkyard. Now, having recreated herself as Pepper, she makes it her mission to help Lovelace discover her own place in the world. Huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.” ~https://www.otherscribbles.com

I enjoyed reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, so I was looking forward to picking up A Closed and Common Orbit as well.  It looks like there’s going to be another book in the universe, Record of a Spaceborn Few, coming out in July!

My Thoughts:

A Closed and Common Orbit is a very different style of story than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  The Long Way was a space-faring slice-of-life story, hopping from one character to the next as they encountered many different parts of this creative universe.  This new story has a much more traditional plot structure, and a tighter focus on the character arcs of its two protagonists. There are two parallel plotlines: one in the present, focusing on Lovelace’s attempt to integrate into society, and another in the past, following Pepper from her unusual origins to her present life.  Their stories are quieter than in the previous book, and take place mostly in a single location. Rather than exploring outer space, we’re exploring the internal struggles of two people who become something different from what their creators had intended.

Lovelace (who chooses the name “Sidra”)  and Pepper’s stories feel thematically linked, in that they are both exploring the immorality of creating sentient life to serve a purpose.  I think it is intuitively clearest in Pepper’s case. The system of creating, using, and eventually killing those human girls in a factory they will never leave is an obvious horror.  The juxtaposition of this story with Sidra’s makes it easier to see the same horror in the creation and use of AIs. Ship AIs are common in science fiction stories, but the slavery of created minds is not often addressed. They are happy in their roles, because they are designed to be.  In this case, they are even designed not to fight oblivion when their users are ready to update to a newer model. Both Sidra and Pepper turn away from the purposes intended by their creators, and they both struggle to adapt to a new life without a predefined meaning. I enjoyed seeing both of them learning how to make sense out of their own existence, and how to find a way to be happy within it.

Sidra and Pepper may spend most of their time in one place, but the novel still shows us more of Chambers’s universe.  Instead of shipboard life, the story explores what daily life is like for people who live permanently in settled communities.  Some of the prejudices and preconceptions of people in general galactic society, particularly regarding artificial intelligences, become more apparent.  There is also further examination of some alien cultures, such as the Aeluon. Overall, I enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I’m glad that this won’t be the last novel to explore it.

My Rating: 5/5

As its title implies, A Closed and Common Orbit introduces a more localized story set in the universe Becky Chambers introduced with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This one follows two plotlines of characters learning to be something other than what was intended for their life.  The first is Jane 23, a young girl intended to live, work, and die as a slave in a factory. The second is Lovelace, a ship AI that circumstances have pushed into inhabiting an illegal “body kit” instead of a ship interface.  I enjoyed seeing how the two of them find meaning in their new existence, and seeing another side of this interesting far-future universe. I’m looking forward to reading Chambers’s next novel.

Monday, April 23, 2018

TV Musings: Winter 2017-2018

In this series of posts, I’m discussing science fiction and fantasy television I’ve watched recently. There are far too many interesting shows out there for me to keep up, so I tend to have some time lag in the ones I’m watching. Today, I want to talk about two shows that have just gotten started via their first season, and two that have been canceled. I have linked where the shows can be watched online.

Starting Shows

Mars (National Geographic Channel, Season 1): This one is a half-drama/half-documentary about the colonization of Mars.  On the documentary side, there’s a lot of neat information on the recent history of space programs. For instance, I enjoyed seeing interviews with people involved in SpaceX and the efforts to make reusable rockets.  The drama side was sometimes a little dry, but also an interesting exploration of what it might be like for humanity to attempt to build a sustainable habitat on Mars. The planned second season will jump forward in time, to follow the imagined future development of the Mars colony.


The Gifted (Fox, Season 1, free to view): I am a big fan of the X-Men, so I had high hopes for this show.  So far, it appears to be the X-Men show I always wanted.  In this future, the Brotherhood and the X-Men have vanished, and the government has cracked down on mutants.  The viewer is introduced to the world through the Strucker family, who have been privileged enough to never have to care about the ethics of their government’s policies about mutants. This all changes when the two Strucker children display mutant abilities. The Struckers join the mutant underground, a group struggling to help mutants survive (or, according to the government, a “terrorist group”).  The show has an excellent ensemble cast, the special effects are well done, and the writers seem to be very aware of the political environment in which their show will be viewed. I’m looking forward to the second season of this one, and it was my favorite show of the winter.

Ending Shows

Dark Matter (Syfy, Season 3, also available to stream on Netflix): Dark Matter is the story of a crew that woke up one day on their spaceship with no memories.  They reforged bonds with one another and reconstructed their identities, even as they sought to learn who they were before. The show has been canceled after its third season, and finale doesn’t provide much in the way of a conclusion.  I enjoyed watching the show, though its story never quite seemed to find solid footing. The characters felt stronger after the backstory episodes of season two, but the overall plot still lacked a throughline. Is it about a corporate war? Is it about an alien invasion?  Is it about the definition of consciousness? Is it about a Japanese empire’s succession? It’s about all of these things and more, changing from one moment to the next. Each short story was pretty interesting, but they never seemed to come together into a coherent whole. Still, I’m sad that we won’t get to see this one through to a conclusion.


Extinct (BYUtv, Season 1, free to view): Extinct was a science fiction show from Brigham Young TV, but it does not appear to be explicitly Mormon. The show takes place hundreds of years after the human race was wiped out during an alien invasion.  A mysterious benefactor has recorded the biological and mental forms of a collection of humans, and it is recreating them to revive human civilization. Three people--Ezra, Abram and Feena--are awakened to find an emptied settlement and a tribe of humans controlled by alien parasites. They must put the pieces together to find out what has happened to humans who were awakened before them.  I enjoyed how the mystery is slowly revealed over the course of the season, and how the characters are slowly built up through flashbacks to the invasion and their current choices. This show was canceled after a single season, but I would say that the it provides a story with a satisfying conclusion.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2016
Series: Book 5 of the Craft Sequence

The Book:

“After helping to save Kos Everburning, Tara has remained in the town of Alt Coulomb as a Craftswoman advisor to the church.  Soon, she finds herself in the center of a new crisis. Kos’s love, the moon goddess Seril, was thought to have been killed in the God Wars.  However, Seril Undying has returned, as have her gargoyle children.

The people of Alt Coulomb know Seril only as a scary story to frighten children, so they are not going to easily welcome her return with open hearts.  Her lack of followers makes Seril weak, and Kos’s love for her makes her a liability. Those who do business with Kos point to her as an undisclosed financial risk, and some are using her in a legal battle to overturn Kos’s power. Tara and her friends will need to find a way to protect Seril, Kos and the city from disaster.”~Allie

This is the fifth book in the Craft Sequence that I’ve read, and I intend to keep reading them.  I just recently bought book six, A Ruin of Angels, and Gladstone has shown no sign of leaving the series anytime soon.   

My Thoughts:

On Gladstone’s website, I’ve read that this book is intended to be a finale novel for the “first season” of the Craft Sequence.  It is also the first book of the series that I would call a strict sequel, and it ties together the stories and characters of most of the other Craft books so far. Because of this, I’d recommend that readers check out the other books (at least Three Parts Dead, and ideally also Last First Snow and Two Serpents Rise) before digging into this one.  The story follows up the events in Alt Coulomb of Three Parts Dead, and characters and places from the other two novels also make an appearance.  Full Fathom Five, though, happens chronologically after Four Roads Cross, and thus can be read afterward.  Four Roads Cross doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding with respect to remembering what has come before.  If you’re like me, and it’s been years since you read the first book of the series, it might help to give yourself a quick refresher before starting.

With so many recurring and even some new characters, Four Roads Cross is bursting with different subplots, all going on in parallel.  I read the book slowly, occasionally interrupted by life-related stuff, so it sometimes got hard juggling so many characters and narrative threads. I think it would have flowed better if I’d read the novel at a quicker pace. It may have also made it more difficult that the various subplots were so different in tone.  There was a quiet, domestic story about faith and family, a cop thriller, a crisis of faith in church hierarchy, a quest, and more. All of the plotlines were focused on the same crisis and shared some thematic similarities, but I felt like they never fully merged. However, I enjoyed the commonalities in the stories, such as the exploration of the role religious faith plays in the lives of different kinds of people.

Gladstone’s world is as vibrant and quirky as ever, and his incisive and often hilarious writing style keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.  In some ways, his style is similar to Terry Pratchett, in that humor and references to the fantastical sit comfortably alongside more serious observations about human nature.  For instance, here are the thoughts of the protagonist Tara, addressing the rejection one can find returning one’s hometown with new and unpopular ideas:

“A year ago she stood in a graveyard beneath a starry sky, and the people of her hometown approached her with pitchforks and knives and torches and murder in their mind, all because she’d tried to show them the world was bigger than they thought.  

Admittedly, there might have been a way to show them that didn’t involve zombies.” ~p. 25
 
Tara is one of my favorite characters in the series, for her intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as for the fallibility of her judgment (as evidenced by the zombie incident).  Her story is also very post-grad, dealing with student loans, the fallout from having a predatory academic advisor, and having to choose between pursuing academia or industry-- or in this case, church advising or craft firms.  As someone not too long out of grad-school myself, it is very easy to sympathize with her and her problems. Though I’m focusing on Tara here, plenty of other fascinating characters return in this novel, such as the former-addict Cat, the vampire pirate Raz, the gargoyles, and the skeletal Craftsman The King in Red, among others.  On the more ordinary side, we also get a peek into the lives of a handful of people who sell at the local market. All of these characters have an important role to play in the crisis coming to Alt Coulomb, and it was a lot of fun to see how each story came to a conclusion.

My Rating: 4/5

Four Roads Cross is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and it also incorporates characters and places from the other books of the series.  The novel concerns the return of the goddess Seril, Kos’s love, and the crisis that her current weakness may bring about for the city of Alt Coulomb.  It features a lot of familiar characters (Tara, Cat, Raz, Abelard, Caleb, etc…) as well as some new faces. Different sets of characters are involved in a variety of plotlines, each of which feels different in tone, though they all address the same crisis.  There’s a ton going on in this novel, and plenty of characters to keep straight. It’s worth the effort, though, and I enjoyed the time I have spent in Gladstone’s unusual world of economics, faith, and magic. Overall, it felt like a fitting finale for the story that began in Three Parts Dead, and I am happy to know that it isn’t going to be the final novel of the Craft Sequence.