Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson is a novella set in a post climate-collapse world, with a few other apocalypses thrown in. I did not realise, before I started reading, that it was science fiction. Possibly that’s because I didn’t read the blurb properly (or at all — I don’t remember), but I think it’s mainly that the cover didn’t strike me as obviously science fiction rather than fantasy. As a result, since I’ve been more in the mood for SF than F of late, I didn’t pick it up when I first saw it and have come to it now because it was shortlisted for a Hugo Award.

Discover a shifting history of adventure as humanity clashes over whether to repair their ruined planet or luxuriate in a less tainted past.

In 2267, Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity's ancestral habitat. She's spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel. When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.

I enjoyed this novella. It touches on a lot of different ideas and concepts that interest me. The characters are working to rebuild the surface of the Earth after severe ecological collapse and various other disasters have plagued humanity in the meantime, including a plague which lead to the main protagonist having prosthetic (tentacle) legs. It also touches on bodily autonomy and the morality of interacting negatively with people in the past if the timeline is erased when you leave (or is it?). While all these issues are interesting, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is still only a novella in length, so the issues aren't delved into in as much depth as they could be.

Before I finished reading, when I mentioned that I was part-way through this book, some people mentioned that they'd liked the book but not the ending, which made me a bit apprehensive. I bring it up because what I expected from their completely spoiler-free reactions was not at all what I got. In short, the ending was a little abrupt, which was slightly disappointing because I wanted to see more of what happened with the characters, but I thought it made sense in the context of the book. Actually, my main criticism is the way in which the rules of time travel remain a bit vague. One character tells the others what they are, but the other characters remain sceptical about some of them, so we, the reader, aren't sure whether to believe him either. Other aspects of the worldbuilding were more detailed, which I liked, but the uncertainty surrounding the time travel bothered me. Not enough to dislike the book, just enough to feel unsure about some of the resolution.

Overall, however, this was an entertaining read and I recommend it to fans of mid-future SF, climate apocalypse fiction, and also time travel stories. It's Hugo shortlisted is well-earned and I will be having trouble ranking it among the other novellas.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2018,
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Hugo Voter Packet

Thursday, 23 May 2019

#ReadShortStories in context (71–75)

In this batch I finished off the fiction in Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, the special edition of Uncanny, and caught up on a couple of Nature Futureses.

I want to briefly talk about a a short story in DPDSF which I read a while ago, “A House by the Sea” by P. H. Lee. When I read it, I did not realise it was from that particular issue of Uncanny because, for whatever reason (probably Twitter) it was presented to be without context. At that time, I didn't really "get" the story, because of said lack of context. When I came across it more recently, within DPDSF, I immediately recognised it when I started reading and, more importantly, the story suddenly made perfect sense. I had initially suspected that it was about disabled people, but now I had firm context to that effect. Does that mean it's a less good story if it isn't guaranteed to work without that context? I'm not sure, but I suspect a few of the stories in this particular issue of Uncanny fall into the same category of making more sense within their intended context. Is this ultimately a good or bad (or neutral) thing? What do you think?

This Will Not Happen to You by Marissa Lingen — I liked this one. A story about the frustrations of being diagnosed (too late) when chronically ill. Presented in a somewhat sarcastic tone to someone (sort of) who thinks these things only happen to other people. Source:

By Degrees and Dilatory Time by SL Huang — A thoughtful read about a man getting artificial eyes after a cancer diagnosis. It’s entered mainly on his feelings and sense of self. Source:

Listen by Karin Tidbeck — Another enjoyable story, this one a bit more alien in that it literally involves interactions between planets and different types of people. A neuroatypical protagonist is translator for aliens whose speech other people cannot remember after they have heard. Source:

Without Access by Deborah Walker — Flash, kind of interesting world building but a blatant premise. Unsubtly about internet/social media addicts but also with aliens. Source:

Brick City by Robert S Wilson — Not a bad flash piece, charting the end of life and eventual fate of an obsolete android. I found the ending appropriate but was a bit confused by the intended emotional resonance. Source:

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan is a short novella about a woman imprisoned in a cave system on an alien planet. Or so it starts. She does not fully remember who she is or what her crime was, but at least she is not alone. Her fellow prisoner seems to know more than she does but is reluctant to divulge the information.

All Bee has ever known is darkness.

She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.

This novella grabbed me straight away. Even though it is not very clear at first what's happening, I was drawn in my my desire to find out more about the world. I wasn't expecting the story to be about telepaths (probably because I don't pay overly much attention to blurbs), but it played out more interestingly than I would have expected. On the one hand, the plight of telepaths in this future world is central to the story since it's closely bound with the reasons for Bee's imprisonment. On the other hand, the actual conflict is backgrounded with the main focus being on Bee's personal struggle. In a society at war, we are presented with a very stark example of the personal being political.

I don't think I can say much more without spoiling the story, but I found it consistently very readable. The setting and story was a bit unusual, and at the same time the personal journey was very unexceptional in the context of fiction (aside from the parts that were). I recommend Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water to fans of soft science fiction/science fantasy — there's no avoiding the telepathy aspect of the story — and to any readers interested in personal stories with political backdrops.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2019,
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 19 May 2019

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl is, like it says on the cover, an anthology of original speculative fiction by people of colour. Aside from that commonality, there is quite a diverse group of stories contained within. On the one hand, this means there should be a story for every type of speculative fiction reader, but perhaps that not every story will work for every reader.

Anthology of contemporary stories by emerging and seasoned writers of many races

There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,” proclaimed Octavia E Butler.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichés, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

I found this anthology to be quite the mixed bag. There were some cute stories, some dark stories, some stories dealing with very interesting ideas, some that I didn't feel I "got" but that I'm sure will be meaningful for other readers. As such, I'm finding it hard to have an opinion on the anthology as a whole. As usual, I recorded my thoughts on each story as I read it — and you can find these below — but an overall impression is difficult. I also ended up reading New Suns over a long period of time, which doesn't help.

A few of the stories which stand out for me are:

  • "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang, which was based on a delightful premise. It wasn't the easiest read, but absolutely worth putting the effort in for.
  • "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh was a meatier read than some of the others and featured a memorable cross-species romance.
  • "One Easy Trick" by Hiromi Goto was cute and entertaining.
The above is not an exhaustive list, so I do encourage you to read the mini-reviews below if you haven't already.

Overall, New Suns is an anthology filled with diverse perspectives and written by diverse authors. If you are looking to branch out a bit in your short story reading and try some new authors, this would be a good place to start. 


The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex, Tobias Buckell — What if a lot of different aliens all decided that Earth was a perfect tourist destination? Find out how mere humans live on the edges of a society that mainly relies on tourist income to Manhattan. Interesting parallels as well as interesting aliens.

Deer Dancer, Kathleen Alcalá — A story about a collective living arrangement in some sort of post-apocalyptic future (climate change I think). It was mostly slice-of-life, interesting but lost me a bit towards the end.

The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations, Minsoo Kang — I originally started reading this story on the second of two long-haul flights and it transpired that I was far too tired to take the story in. When I restarted it later, better rested, I realised I had had no idea what it was about from the first attempt. It doesn’t help that it’s written in a very dry style, in the manner of a non-fictional historical essay, and that the story itself emerges gradually. Once established, it was a very interesting and amusing read, if not exactly an exciting one.

Come Home to Atropos, Steven Barnes — Told in the form of a horrifyingly unsubtle infomercial, this story is about assisted dying and euthanasia tourism. The overtones of historic and modern slavery seemed a bit gauche for an infomercial but certainly added to the plausibility of the story overall. (Also, the story was more a a take on racism than an interrogation of the concept of assisted dying.)

The Fine Print, Chinelo Onwualu — The premise of the story was a bit unpleasant (from a feminist point of view) and I didn’t feel the story itself really made up for that, despite acknowledging it. The writing was fine but I didn’t really enjoy the plot.

unkind of mercy, Alex Jennings — A slightly creepy story. It reminded me of the episode of Doctor Who with the ghost angels that was part of the Tenth Doctor’s last season finale. With a very different ending, of course.

Burn the Ships, Alberto Yáñez — A story of conquerors from the east colonising an empire in southern America. There is oppression and slaughter and vengeful magic. I think the setting is an alternate world rather than a precisely real historic setting. It was a longer story and featured culture that I have not come across too frequently in stories.

The Freedom of the Shifting Sea, Jaymee Goh — One of my favourite stories in the collection. A multigenerational epic featuring a mermaid/mermillipede (any description from me isn’t going to do her justice, I suggest just reading the story). I liked the twist on the traditional mermaid idea and the way the story spanned many years, in bursts.

Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire, E. Lily Yu — As the title says, variations on the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. It adds to the obvious take and was written in a very readable voice.

Blood and Bells, Karin Lowachee — This story was a slog to get into and I ended up setting it aside for quite a while. When I came back to it and read further it was more interesting (to see the actual plot develop). Gang warfare and a father trying to protect his kid in the middle of a murder investigation.

Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister, Silvia Moreno-Garcia — An enticing story about a witch living in a city and attempting to lead a normal life. I enjoyed the time and writing style especially.

The Shadow We Cast Through Time, Indrapramit Das — A dark and fantastical take of a far future but lowish-tech colony on some alien planet. The story evoked a compelling mood, but I found it a bit too slow to draw me in effectively, for all that it was interesting during sufficiently long bursts of reading.

The Robots of Eden, Anil Menon — A dystopian/utopian future in which most affluent people have implants that regulate their emotions and protect them from life’s emotional struggles. I was quite intrigued by the story of a banker dealing exceptionally well with divorce and even befriending his ex wife’s new husband, with the dark realities of the world lurking beneath the surface.

Dumb House, Andrea Hairston — A bit of a slice of life story set in a dystopian rural US. A woman living in a “dumb house” fends off salesmen trying to upgrade her to a smart house. The character development was interesting but I felt that a bit more of the worldbuilding details could have been included; some aspects were clear, some foggy.

One Easy Trick, Hiromi Goto — A cute story about a woman, her belly fat, and a forest. I quite enjoyed it and found it a bit unexpected, in a good way.

Harvest, Rebecca Roanhorse — A kind of creepy story. I found aspects of the ending a little too ambiguous but, nevertheless, it was well written.

Kelsey and the Burdened Breath, Darcie Little Badger — A bit of a mystery but mostly a ghost story. I enjoyed the mythology of it and wouldn’t have minded a longer/meatier story.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2019, Rebellion Publishing
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, 17 May 2019

#ReadShortStories and travel in mind as well as body (66–70)

As I mentioned in the last batch, I decided to make a concerted effort to finish New Suns after having neglected it for a little while. Once I did that (the last few stories were enjoyable, I had just stalled after one or two stories I didn't enjoy in the middle-ish of the anthology), I moved on to making my way through Uncanny's special issue Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. That's where the latter stories in this batch have come from.

One Easy Trick by Hiromi Goto — A cute story about a woman, her belly fat, and a forest. I quite enjoyed it and found it a bit unexpected, in a good way.  Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Harvest by Rebecca Roanhorse — A kind of creepy story. I found aspects of the ending a little too ambiguous but, nevertheless, it was well written. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Kelsey and the Burdened Breath by Darcie Little Badger — A bit of a mystery but mostly a ghost story. I enjoyed the mythology of it and wouldn’t have minded a longer/meatier story. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Abigail Dreams of Weather by Stu West — Cancer kids (or similar) living on a space station during a meteor shower. A cool scene-setting story, although there wasn’t very much to it beyond the worldbuilding. Also opened with a lot of vomit, which I could have lived without.  Source:

Disconnect by Fran Wilde — This story was about a woman with wandering joints (literally they seem to disappear and reappear in space) who is also a physics lecturer (well, adjunct, since it’s set in the US). Since I have stupid joints and am an astrophysicist, it seemed like I should have enjoyed this story. Alas, instead I got the very strong feeling that the author only had a passing knowledge of physics at best, which was very frustrating. Ultimately, this story did not work for me at all.  Source:

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

#ReadShortStories on trains in other countries (61–65)

This batch starts off with a bit of randomness, but then I started on a concerted effort to finish off New Suns (which is a few more stories beyond those shown here). It helped that I did a bit of recreational travelling and actually had time to read without worrying about work stuff. (I didn't get much reading done on my last trip, partly because it was for work and partly because I had a lot of deadlines around the same time, so this was a nice change.)

The Fast Stuff by George Zebrowski — A surprisingly incoherent story that felt like a bit of a slog despite being flash (really, it’s one page, I should not have gotten bored) and despite the author’s noted accolades (not that I’d heard of him before). A pilot yearns to fly impossibly fast. (And then he does, because aliens.) Source:

Act of Kindness by Emma Newman — A nice little Planetfall universe vignette. Showing another character’s point of view during a scene from After Atlas. Source: Emma Newman’s newsletter

Gulliver at Home by Anatoly Belilovsky — Flash concerning aliens and astronauts, written in a more interesting way than I might have expected. Source:

The Robots of Eden by Anil Menon — A dystopian/utopian future in which most affluent people have implants that regulate their emotions and protect them from life’s emotional struggles. I was quite intrigued by the story of a banker dealing exceptionally well with divorce and even befriending his ex wife’s new husband, with the dark realities of the world lurking beneath the surface. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Dumb House by Andrea Hairston — A bit of a slice of life story set in a dystopian rural US. A woman living in a “dumb house” fends off salesmen trying to upgrade her to a smart house. The character development was interesting but I felt that a bit more of the worldbuilding details could have been included; some aspects were clear, some foggy. Source: New Suns edited by Nisi Shawl

Friday, 10 May 2019

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a standalone novella centred around a “big dumb object” in a science fictional sense. I haven’t read any of the author’s novels, but apparently did read his novella in Monstrous Little Voices, which was not very memorable. I think Walking to Aldebaran is a definite improvement on memorability, if nothing else.

My name is Gary Rendell. I’m an astronaut. When they asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “astronaut, please!” I dreamed astronaut, I worked astronaut, I studied astronaut.

I got lucky; when a probe sent out to explore the Oort Cloud found a strange alien rock and an international team of scientists was put together to go and look at it, I made the draw.

I got even luckier. When disaster hit and our team was split up, scattered through the endless cold tunnels, I somehow survived.

Now I’m lost, and alone, and scared, and there’s something horrible in here.

Lucky me.

Lucky, lucky, lucky.

This book starts a little slowly with our first person protagonist walking through crypt-like passages in space. We get a feel for the crypts and the backstory is slowly meted out over the course of the novella. At one point I started to wonder whether there would be much plot to it or whether we would just a description of the space-bending alien artefact from the inside. But then we get some fresh hints about backstory still to come and the plot progresses. By the end, I found myself enjoying the book more than I expected to.

We get a reasonably detailed description of the crypts and the weird physics inside them. We get enough backstory to understand why the astronauts went there and (eventually) why Gary ends up alone. There was a reveal that came right after I thought “wait, was that <spoiler redacted>?” But another similar thought was not followed up my confirmation either way, since it’s not something Gary could have known and was not in a position to guess. Things like that open the text up for a lot more discussion and speculation than I would have expected, making this all the more satisfying a read.

Overall, Walking to Aldebaran was an interesting read, exploring a nifty alien artefact. Where it shines is towards the end, where the true story is revealed and we see Gary’s journey as a whole. I found myself pleasantly surprised although I wasn’t bored by the first half of the book either. I recommend Walking to Aldebaran to fans of philosophical science fiction or fans of big dumb objects.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2019, Rebellion
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Monday, 6 May 2019

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is a standalone novel set in a world similar to the real world, but bursting with alchemy. As far as I’m aware, it is not linked to any of McGuire’s other books or series.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

The opening of this book grabbed me immediately with the in media res working particularly well thanks to the unusual timeline structure of the book. While we do get a lot of the main story in chronological order, it is interspersed with bits that come out of order, as well as the point of view sections of the antagonist and a thematically-linked children’s fairytale. Overall it makes for an interesting reading experience. That said, I did feel like the book dragged a little in the middle and to me it felt quite long, which is the worst thing I can say about it. (Note, also, that it is objectively on the long side, but it still should not have felt that way.)

Back to the content, this is a story of alchemically created twins, separated by the length and breadth of the USA, and left to grow up in isolation. They were created to channel immense power for their maker but a lot of their upbringing was left to chance. We follow them through their lives as they learn about each other, push each other away, meet by chance, push each other away and so forth. At first I found the story a little confusing — while the start grabbed me, it took a little while to fully understand what was happening. Then I grew more invested in the characters and wanted to know what would happen next, despite the slower middle section. The climax came not a page too late, to kick off the last portion of the book.

This is a dark fantasy book, shading to the horrific, that I expect fans of McGuire’s other books will enjoy. In general tone I found it most similar to the Wayward Children books, although the story structure (and length) was quite different. It’s certainly not science fiction horror like the Mira Grant books are, though this was not immediately apparent to me when I started reading. All in all, a structurally interesting read that I recommend to fans of dark fantasy.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2019,
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Hugo Short Story Round-up

Those of you who have been following along with my blog and my #ReadShortStories posts will have seen my mini-reviews of the Hugo-nominated short stories as I read them. But I did not read them in a group, so I am collecting them here together in a single blog post.

I found this to be a strong category and there were no stories I actively disliked. "STET" is definitely the story I have the most mixed feelings about, and that is mainly due to its structure, which is also sort of the point. The ranking of the rest of the stories felt a lot more subjective to me; none of the stories stood out as especially better or worse than the others and my ordering of time comes down to personal preference more than anything else. So, although the voting is not yet open, I include the stories and my mini reviews of them in the order I expect I will put them on my ballot. Although I reserve the right to change my mind, especially if I end up engaging in some interesting discussions about them that change my mind.

If you've already read the stories, what's your opinion of them? How much do you disagree with my ranking?

(Story title links below go to where they can be freely read online.)

The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander — I found this dinosaur-esque fairytale very entertaining. I even laughed a few times. From the chatter in the podcast around it, I gather the rest of the Uncanny dinosaur issue, which I haven’t read, is set in a shared world. But this story absolutely stood alone. It also wasn’t what I expected, since it also contained humans, not just raptors. And a witch. Anyway, very entertaining.

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow — A lovely story about a witchy librarian, who just wants to help her patrons, and one patron in particular who hasn’t been dealt the best hand by fate. I quite enjoyed it.

"The Court Magician" by Sarah Pinsker — An unexpected but interesting story about a poor boy, street magic and the more powerful real magic he eventually learns about. I liked it.

"The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington" by P. Djèlí Clark — A story told in nine snippets pertaining to the lives of nine black slaves, set in a parallel world where magic and magical creatures exist. It was an interesting read, but felt a little long because of its structure.

"The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society" by T. Kingfisher — An amusing story about the tables turning on a group of fairies who usually get their way and enjoy leaving humans to pine after them. Short and sweet.

STET” by Sarah Gailey — Hands down, the most interesting thing about this story is the form in  which it’s presented. The actual story is sad and all, but I do think the impact is lessened by the format. An interesting experiment but I didn’t feel as drawn into the story as I would a more conventional narrative, though it was still heartbreaking.