Welcome, Chaos (1983) by Kate Wilhelm

Welcome chaos2In keeping with this month’s theme of me showing up in places I don’t belong, both physically and virtually, my review of Kate Wilhelm’s post-Sweet Birds thriller, Welcome, Chaos has posted at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. Thanks to He Who Shall Be Called Joachim for letting me take over his site every once in a while. (I participated in the Michael Bishop series last year.)

Joachim’s author review series are an important effort to revive interest in still living authors of groundbreaking vintage works. It’s unfortunate but common that many celebrated and award-winning authors are overlooked by later generations. That new release you have in your hands right now? The one we’re all sick of hearing about? Probably not gonna be talked about much ten years from now. Yup.

And, twenty years from now, people are going to lose their shit over a similar book on a similar topic, written by some young punk. Because that young punk didn’t bother to read their classics. (Or did they? Hmmm.)

Anyway, here’s my review of Welcome, ChaosAnd remember to check out the other excellent Kate Wilhelm reviews. And then check back for more upcoming reviews this month!

And then go read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976). Seriously.


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke

JonathanStrange2Nikki at Book Punks recently did an interesting post about books that break books. In other words, books that are so good that no other book can ever be enjoyed again. Book Breakers. Story Smashers. Reader Eradicators.

My book breaking moment—a definitive moment in my life— occurred a little over a decade ago. I came upon it during a, at the time, typical aimless dance of bookstore aisle gazing, common to the unobsessed lay readers of the book world. Usually dissatisfying results, but this time… there it was. Eggshell-colored cover. Black typewriter font. Simple. Minimal. Zero hot chicks with guns.

What can I say? It caught my eye. So I took it home with me.

I would love to say that I was immediately whisked into a world of wizardry and wonder, where I engorged myself on the text in a weekend, and then called in sick on Monday because my brain was still spinning, but that’s not how it happened.

It sat by my bed for months. I read a little some nights. It was cute. Dry.

But then, at some point, it went from bedraggling to bedazzling. I couldn’t put it down. I LIVED IN IT. I caught on to what Clarke was doing and she opened my eyes to what fiction could do. I wasn’t able to enjoy another SF novel for another TEN WHOLE YEARS.

Clarke didn’t just break books for me. She murdered them. Continue reading

BSFA Shortlist Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

TheFirstFifteenLivesofHarryAugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Setting: Pre- and post-WWII Europe. Over and over again. With some dalliances to China, Argentina, U.S.

Summary: Harry August is a “kalachakra,” a person who lives his life over and over again, but he is a “mnemonic,” and remembers everything from his previous lives. A little girl (another kalachakra) brings him a message to his deathbed: The world is ending, but more rapidly than before. Harry thinks he knows why, but can he stop it without becoming part of the problem?

Existential quote:

What is the point of me? [145]

Some reader criticism: It’s so boring. It’s just about this old guy.

My response: Shouldn’t you be watching your cartoons right now?

Why it’s so cool: Forget redundant reincarnation. That’s just the crux. With the barreling invasion of premature technology (color television in the forties, cell phones in the sixties), North (Webb, actually) conveys a surreal world unready for its advancements. Maybe it’s not so surreal…

How it feels: Riveting, with game playing and historical manipulation. Taut with character tension. Not since Batman and Joker have a protagonist and antagonist needed each other so badly. High quality storytelling.

Funny lines like:

If Pietrok-111 was a one-horse town, Pietrok-112 was the glue factory where that horse went to die. [174]

Best enjoyed by: Book or audio. North’s writing is captivating, but Peter Kenny’s narration is like buttah. (Kenny can switch character voices on a dime, hence his recent Audie Award nomination.)

SF literary sibling: Oh, you already read that other big name 2014 SF novel about a club of immortals who battle for control over time and reality? This one comes without the contrived and exaggerated fantasy mess.

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Should you give this to a friend for Valentine’s Day? I did.


This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Wolves by Simon Ings


BSFA Shortlist Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

ancillarySwordAncillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Setting: Mostly on a space station belonging to the vast Radsch Empire, thousands of years in the future of the galactic human diaspora.

Summary: After the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, the Lord of the Radsch gives Breq, the only surviving Justice of Toren ancillary soldier, command of a Mercy ship. She is assigned to Athoek Station, where institutionalized classism has led to the neglect and abuse of conquered citizens.

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Time for Breq-fast! (Because it was a long time between reading Justice and Sword. Get it? Ohnevermind.)

The premise-puncturing quote that everybody’s thinking:

‘I may well be extremely foolish just letting you live, let alone giving you official authority and a ship…’ [5]


Synopsis quote:

…there were no tiny, brightly colored penises hanging in the corridors,… [18]

Haha, just kidding, but yeah… a funny scene in book full of “shes” and “hers.” I think Leckie is digging at herself here.

How it feels: Television-in-a-novel, much like its predecessor. Less than subtle address of imperial classism. Lots of indignant dialogue of the Picard shirt-tugging variety, which upstages the much more interesting quirks of an “unplugged” AI protagonist. Much tea drinking.

Word count time: Tea is mentioned 74 times, up from 39 in Ancillary Justice.

The blurb that was never blurbed, part 2:

More tea with your Breq-fast? (Eh?… eh?)

But about that tea drinking: It is a worn out sensory detail that I am quick to condemn, but it does serve the character of this sprawling empire maintained by delicate diplomacy.

Should you read this: Meh. Dramatized sci-fi makes for a blasé read, but I genuinely look forward to seeing this on the small screen, where the indignant dialogue and overt social commentary will be best utilized. Non-gendered pronoun use among sexually-ambiguous humanoid characters is not the most nuanced form of social commentary– it should not blow away dedicated SF readers– but this will be good for mainstream ‘Murica. I eagerly await the conservative huffing and puffing that will come from this development.


This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Upcoming BFSA Shortlist Reviews:
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings


BSFA Shortlist Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

lagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Setting: Lagos, Nigeria

Summary: A scientist, a soldier, and a rapper lead this multi-character exploration of Lagos in the midst of first contact with aliens.

Actual summary: A social peephole into Nigerian society.

Synopsis quote/Commentary about Western politics: We can work with you people, the alien tells the people of Nigeria.

How it feels: Hyper and lampooning. Primarily dialogue-driven, with some confusing head-hopping in scenes. Might disappoint critical readers with its initial pedestrian style, but the second half of the novel drives home Okorafor’s dark and funny observations about Nigerian social sectors, civil unrest, and mob mentality.

Characters you’ll meet: Shapeshifters and crossdressers, profiteering preachers and machete-wielding youths, a crazy Christian church lady and some level-headed Muslims. Oh, and a highway that eats people. (Nigeria and Texas have a lot in common.)

Best enjoyed: The audio format is supreme, and available in the U.S. (The book will be released in the U.S. in July.) The Nigerian performers are brilliant and wonderful and SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THIS YEAR’S AUDIE AWARDS AND WERE NOT.

Unanswered question: So why do all of the main characters’ names begin with ‘A’? They ask, but did I miss the alien’s answer?

Should you read this? Yes. Yes, you should read this.

Irrelevant observation: I get excited when giant story-weaving spiders show up in books. What’s that about?


This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Wolves by Simon Ings



BSFA Shortlist Review: Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge

cuckoosongTitle: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Setting: post-WWI English village

Summary: 11-year-old Triss wakes up in bed after a mishap she cannot remember. She barely recognizes her family, or her home, and she always feels hungry. Her little sister Penny knows more than she’s letting on, and her parents are receiving strange letters that they won’t talk about. Triss needs to solve this mystery to make things normal again. But were things ever normal?

Flavor quote:

’I…I don’t…’ Triss trailed off helplessly. She didn’t know what she didn’t, but she was frightened by how much she didn’t. [2]

The blurb that was never blurbed:

Münchausen syndrome by changeling proxy.

How it feels: Roomy and light, as middle-grade fiction should be, dappled with eerie aesthetics. Feisty little sister relieves the tension with humor. Dysfunctional family insight from the POV of an unaware insider. At times, less hand-holdy than some adult novels.

How it does not feel: The blurbs make it sound like a horror story. Might be scary for very young children, but everyone else gets the green light to read this at night.

How it does not feel, part 2: Without the occasional references to car cranking, wristwatch history, and displacement of the war-time female workforce, it’s easy to mistake this for a more recent time period.

Supplemental use: Could be useful with young kids suspected of a binge eating disorder. Multiple descriptions of relentless hunger and unsated void-filling might get them talking.

But let’s be serious: It’s cute, but inferior to the rich and sophisticated adult fiction that populates this shortlist.

Should you read this? Your little niece or nephew should read this, while you read The Race. Then you can have a nice chat over scones about the importance of psychological and feminist aspects in speculative fiction. (Both The Race and Cuckoo Song do a fine job of this without reducing feminism to a marketing point.)


This review is part of an 8-part review series on the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Shortlist. The winner will be announced at the BSFA ceremony at Eastercon on Sunday, April 5.

Previous BSFA Shortlist Reviews:
Europe in Autumn by David Hutchinson
The Race by Nina Allan

Upcoming BSFA Shortlist Review:
The Moon King by Neil Williamson

The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula K. Le Guin

TheLatheofHeaven1One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way. Continue reading

The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ

TheFemaleManEveryone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.” [60]

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” [60] Continue reading

The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin [7].

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.


With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers. Continue reading

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarkness1stEdSomebody in the menopausal supplement industry reads classic SF and has a sense of humor, because it can’t be a coincidence that the main supporting character in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness shares a name with the popular brand name supplement I have spied in the pharmaceutical aisle. Estreven, the character, and Estroven, the supplement, both deal with the consequences of fluctuating hormonal changes, but for Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, the changes are embraced.

Before the male readers of this blog bolt, The Left Hand of Darkness is not a story about menopause, although hormone changes and fluctuating sexuality are common themes.

Reviewing Le Guin’s engaging and brilliant 1969 novel, Left Hand of Darkness, is an impossible and intimidating task. Only a dissertation can do this novel justice, and I doubt I have anything of value to add to the mountain of praise that already exalts this book. It’s a masterpiece. You need to read it. You really need to read it.

Continue reading