In July, I was on vacation in Scotland, which was brilliant. It also left me a lot of time to read and explore local book stores. Lots of good science fiction this month! I also culled my reading list by restricting it to one book per author (and then expanded it again, due to said visits to Scottish book stores). Oh, and due to this brilliant book award for alternate history.
Reading list length: 218
Excession & Inversions
Excession by Iain Banks is the infamous Culture book that's mostly ships talking. Which is not the part I disliked, the ships and their story were cool! But the humans were terribly one-dimensional and felt lazy, which distracted me from the cool Excession and nearly-as-cool intrigue.
Inversions is a non-Culture Culture novel – unexpected and refreshing. The story is told in Banks' usual masterful style, and all of pacing, characters, depth, and content are without significant annoyances. I think this is as much Fantasy as Banks will ever get, and I enjoyed the never-quite-touching storylines, and the connections you really had to look out for (and that were never explicitly explained). The fact that I knew that this was a Culture novel added another fun layer, too, because I was constantly considering who was part of the Culture and what their goals were.
The story grows darker towards the end, and while Banks always writes with unprotected people and minorities in mind, I was a bit speechless at how well he first portrayed two cultures filled with class entitlement and elitism, and then contrasted them with torture and a horrifyingly vivid recollection of rape, involving a discussion about the responsibility and reactions of men as a whole. Wow.
Abaddon's Gate (part of the Expanse series) had me discussing and screaming at it a lot. People die. People nearly die. Some of those deaths I was not at all okay with. Discovering the background of the protomolecule, the history, the vast other worlds out there, and the threat was awesome. Seeing both personal and political interactions in the crisis in a closed-off environment, too (my love for generation ships helps). God this series is brilliant.
Dune is a classic (or rather CLASSIC) scifi novel, which can mean it's anywhere between breathtaking genius and hardly accessible anymore. I found it a bit difficult to get into at first, similar to how I felt with Ancillary Justice. Once I grew used to Frank Herbert's storytelling device of an aggressively all-knowing narrator (frequently giving both/all inner views to all sides of a conversation), the world-building was fascinating, and despite the extensive narrator-explanations the reader is forced to make connections themself. My only misgiving was that large parts of the plot were too laid-out: the Mary-Sue protagonist, the evil antagonists (which would have been ridiculously evil even without being a fat gay pedo. Maximum Sterotype yay.), the good Fremen warriors etc. I hope that further parts in the series alleviate the clear-cut morals and abilities of the characters a bit. I'm looking forward to it – the world-building was exemplary. (Also, I can finally watch the movie now.)
Brothers in Arms
Brothers in Arms is the fifth part (in order of publishing) of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga and I enjoyed it immensely. After the previous volumes vaguely related tales, we finally return to Miles and his crew. It's been seven years (!!!. Where are the stories about those years? Well, at least one later volume takes place in the space between.), and it's brilliant. Miles is still the protagonist with the most absolute forward momentum, and the story has no clear villain, the characters are ambiguous, the narrator is only nearly reliable, and the plot is just tremendous amounts of fun. It really says something when you see that a series has 16 volumes + minor works and you're relieved because it won't be over quite so soon.
Ancillary Mercy was … wow! A worthy ending to the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. The actions and decisions of the previous volumes find their somewhat logical conclusion in a complicated struggle for independence in an empire that has pretty much forgotten what independence even is. This book was a truly amazing mix of fast-paced action (lots of fun and creativitiy in there, too), and deep, deep character development. This series hit my tastes in pretty much every way, balancing action, character development, humor, serious issues of personal growth, society, and politics. Wow.
The Will to Battle
The Will to Battle is currently the last volume of Ada Palmer's brilliant Terra Ignota series. One volume is missing, and it's supposed to come out next year, and I bloody hope so because this one leaves me aching for more. As with the previous books, I completely get why people would not like this book, at least its style, but to me it's magical. Even three books into the series, we get an astounding amount of worldbuilding, we receive new information on the previous books (in particular their creation, it's all Very Meta), all the while the world heads straight towards the biggest and worst World War imaginable. I love these books dearly, and the world Ada Palmer shows us is filled with wonders.
Distress is another really enjoyable book by Greg Egan, part of his very loosely connected Subjective Cosmology trilogy. It's less "weird" than the other two parts, and might make a better starting point for interested readers. We accompany our protagonist, a scientific journalist, to a phyics conference on an anarchist island – less happens than in th other books, but that just finally leaves room for better characters and characterisations. The whole book, especially its increasingly twisty story arch, is very recommendable scifi.
Wild Seed (first part of Octavia Butler's Patternmaster series) was good, but not great. She experiments with the implication of mortal and immortal characters, who definitely aren't gods, and while I enjoyed the premise, and the writing, and the characters immensely, I felt that the story meandered a bit and didn't quite know where to go. It was still a very pleasant read, and I'm looking forward to see in which direction the series develops. (After finishing the book, I was told that I had started the series in the chronological order, not the published order, which was not at all my intention, and may contribute to my impression of a vague plot.)
Uprooted by Naomi Novik was a perfect fantasy story/fairytale. It's got all the right parts (dark magic, regular magic, unimpressed heroine, ambivalent wizard, etc), but isn't terribly predictable, and forms real characters instead of shadows of well-known archetypes. By following the easy-to-like first-person narrator Agnieszka, and seeing her relate to the Dragon, her best friend Kasia, and all the others, painted a vivid and realistic picture of the world. We even get a surprising amount of moral ambivalence, considering the genre. A very good book. I may start to read Naomi Novik's fantasy series if Uprooted is any indicator for that series' quality.
The Scar is the second volume of Chine Miéville's Bas-Lag series, and it's as impressive as the first one. Only very loosely connected, we now explore the wider Bas-Lag world instead of New Crobuzon. Again, China Miéville excells with implicit worldbuilding, forcing the reader to think along and ahead (though there's less culture shock included than in Perdido Street Station).
I enjoyed that I was most of the time not cheering for the protagonist and her view of the world, and did not like her particularly, without hating her either. All characters were very morally ambiguous, nearly none just likeable. Same for the story – there was never a clear-cut villain, or a predictable course (for example: not all of the likeable characters got simply killed off). As I spend most of my reviews arguing for exactly this – morally ambiguous characters, implicit and clever worldbuilding, no Good v Evil – I was very pleased with this book. At no time it felt like something groundbreaking, but it definitely is a very good book, and I'm looking forward to the final work in the trilogy.
Flowers for Algernon
I liked Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The ending in itself felt predictable, it was very clear that the journey to that ending was the core of the book. But the core question of the book superseded the predictable plot: How much does intelligence determine who we are, and what would happen if our intelligence were to rapidly in- or decrease? While I liked the concept of the book, I can't say that I enjoyed it though … it felt too stressfull with a hint of the kafkaesque for that.
The Daylight War
The Dailight War by Peter Brett (third volume of his Demon Cycle) was really good fantasy – and yet disappointing. The start of the series seems to have raised a bar the other books can't quite meet. While my criticism of the second volume (too little character development) is met and answered beautifully on all counts, the story drags along a lot. While showing known scenes from a second viewpoint was cute in the second volume, it grew tedious here, and I felt that the pacing between story development and flashbacks was uneven. There was a lot I liked – we get to delve deeper into Krasian culture, for instance (which, to me, is still the most tiresome part of that worldbuilding). But all things considered, not that much happens when measured by the first volume, even if the book fares pretty well compared to regular fantasy novels.
Bonus: Worth the Candle
Worth the Candle is a long story currently being written at archiveofourown.org, which I liked. While I'm a sucker for "suddenly in a game" stories, I dislike most, because they're typically really bad. This one isn't. It gets meta (well, not fast, but it does), and addresses most things you'll point out as ridiculous in the beginning. Still ongoing, and very good.
- Three Worlds Collide is a short and thought-provocing scifi story by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I always enjoy thought experiments with alien cultures with different values. This one was … well, very Yudkowsky-ish, which to me isn't only good in a story. It's still very enjoyable. Babyeathers and Super Happy People, y'all.
- Micromegas is SCIFI BY VOLTAIRE. Sorry. Throughly enjoyable and witty. It's mostly Ada Palmer's fault I read this, but this is definitely the earliest space-faring fiction I know about.
- Repent, Harlequin!, Said the Ticktockman by Harlan Ellison is a metaphor against an over-reglemented world. It's pretty old, and I'm afraid to my eyes it hasn't aged too well. I totally agree with the message, and the scenario isn't bad either, and the language is poetic, but it didn't capture me at all. Maybe something got due to me not being a native speaker, though.
- The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov explores a world in which computers are everywhere, and humans have forgotten how to do anything by themselves, especially calculations. Not a novel concept, you may say, but the publication date is 1958. I'm completely undecided on if this has aged astonishingly well or has been made unreadable, but I'd say take the five minutes and read it regardless.
- We Who Will Destroy the Future is a nice little time travel short story. Good story, good setting, very good narrator voice.
Do not recommend
- Influx by Daniel Suarez was disappointing, especially since I enjoyed Daemon f. Influx bore all the marks of a sub-par action movie, with one Deus ex Machina chasing the next, random high-powered technology spawning all along, a big reveal (oh no! everybody knew!), and characters who are flat, and either Good™ or Evil™. It didn't help that I disagreed fundamentally with the barely-veiled message Suarez tries to bring across (don't ever hide innovation, kids, or you may bring about the end of the world). Even the writing was way over-the-top to make readers see every scene as part of a generic action movie. Very meh.
- The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin contains a short story/novelly named like the book, two essays, a couple of poems, and an interview with the author. I liked the short story well enough, but it was like the remainder of the book: agreeable but inconsequential. The essays held opinions I liked, without anything actionable, and the interview showed a person I liked, but nothing more than that.