Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Domestic life in space: Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

I really loved The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first in Chambers’ loosely connected trilogy of stories about spacefaring people and aliens. It was such a refreshing book in a world of grimdark books filled with backstabbing characters. I skipped the second book in the series but I was not going to miss this one as it’s nominated for a Hugo Award. Let’s just say while it’s not a bad book  it’s at the bottom of my ballot right now…

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW
by Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
eBook: 400 pages
Series: Wayfarers #3
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “Mom, can I go see the stars?”

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.
Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.
Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn’t know where to find it.
Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.
When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:
What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Record of a Spaceborn Few delivers exactly what the title promises. The book follows five characters and their life on the Exodus Fleet – a group of gigantic ships that left the Earth for a better life somewhere else, and that has techically reached its destination. Except not all people are leaving the Fleet for life on a planet but would rather stay there living they life they know. One with artificial gravity, no horizon, and their own rules.

Through the five protagonists the author shows us what life in the Fleet is like. Tessa, a mother of two with a mostly absent husband (because work in space can take you quite far away sometimes) struggles to hold her family together, to keep her dautghter Aya’s fears of being sucked into empty space at bay, and to simply make a home for them.
Isabel, an older archivist, lives happily with her wife in their close-knit community. She receives an alien visitor who wants to learn about humans and the Fleet – so it is mostly in her POV that a lot of exposition happens but I also found it very intriguing because it explains simply what life is like for these spaceborn people and why they choose to live it.
Eyas has one of the least popular jobs in the fleet. She’s responsible for the reclamation of dead bodies. As nothing is wasted, it’s only natural that deceased human bodies be used in whichever way is most helpful for the remaining people. Eyas’ storyline has next to no plot.
Kip is a teenager who doesn’t know what to do with his life (which teenager really does?) and who’s not sure he even likes being part of the Fleet. His coming of age takes a long time to build up but when it does, it’s quite satisfying.
Lastly, Sawyer is a newcomer to the Fleet, a young man who used to live on a planet but wants to try a different sort of life. He arrives filled with hope and naivete.

So… five quite different people, most of which don’t get an actual plot in this book. The kickoff moment is an accident on the Oxomoco, a ship that suffered a breach, killing everyone on it. It means something for Isabel to take into the archive, it means lots of bodies for Eyas to take care of, it means an emotional impact on all the characters, but it doesn’t really mean there’s going to be any plot.

For a very long time, all we get in this book is domestic life in the Fleet. The world building was brilliant, so learning about how everything works, what the society is like, how people interact with each other, was interesting enough. But there came the point when I asked myself why I’m reading about Tessa cleaning up after her two kids, or about a dinner with Isabel and her wife, or Kip trying to go see a prostitute. There’s no bigger plot anywhere to be found. Until – very late, I must add – there is.

Sawyer, a character I immediately liked, arrives at the Fleet knowing nothing. He has no idea what to do, how to meet people, where to get a job… he’s a fish out of water and unfortunately, someone immediately takes advantage of his blind trust. That’s all I’ll say about his storyline. As it’s pretty much the only one that has a plot, I don’t want to give anything away. Only let me say that had the book focused more on him, I would have liked it much more.

As much as I like Chambers’ way of writing characters that are nice, this was almost a bit too much. Everyone is just so respectful and so nice and friendly all the time. Sure, the world would be a much better place if everyone behaved the way these people do, but let’s face it: humans don’t work that way. Even the nicest person occasionally has a bad day, even the friendliest, most helpful human will have something bad happen to them (the death of a loved one, say) and won’t care about the feelings of others for a little while. But because the characters here are all so damn perfect, there is pretty much no conflict. The only one who acts out a bit is Kip, and even his teenage shenanigans are resolved maturely and calmly. I’m not saying every book needs to have a villain or violence, but every character should have layers and moods. Here, everyone is just too nice all the time.

So although I liked the characters as such and I liked reading about the Fleet, this book was tedious for a long time. At one point, when something big happens and the characters are finally loosely connected to each other, it got really good. This was maybe the last quarter of the book though, so even the excellent ending couldn’t make my rating go up by much. Chambers knows how to write, she does fantastic world building, she also writes lovely characters. I just wish she switched it up a bit and had given this book a plot from the beginning.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Just like the short story category, the nominees for Best Novelette are almost universally excellent. Again, there was only one story that didn’t resonate with me at all, but I enjoyed the other five. Some more than others, with two that clearly stood out to me.

The nominees for Best Novelette

  1. Brooke Bolander – The Only Harmless Great Thing
  2. Daryl Gregory – Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
  3. Zen Cho – If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
  4. Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
  5. Naomi Kritzer – The Thing About Ghost Stories
  6. Simone Heller – When We Were Starless

It was a close call to pick Brooke Bolander‘s story for my first place because my top three are all wonderful, ambitious pieces of fiction. What took The Only Harmless Great Thing over the top for me was its basis in reality. It’s the story of one of the Radium Girls, women hired to paint all sorts of equipment so it would glow in the dark. The paint they used – and the fact that they had to lick their brushes to keep them nice and sharp – caused severe physical damage (and I mean gruesome stuff!)  and a very early death. Bolander adds elephants as characters who come with their own mythology and gave the whole story a lovely fantasy vibe. As tough as it was to read, this was my favorite story of the bunch.

Daryl Gregory follows closely with his tale of alien seeds crashing to Earth, messing up the planet with new and unusual plant life. It’s both an intimate tale, following one character as they grow up, have children and grandchildren of their own, but also tells the broader story of the alien plants. I loved everything about this story, the narrative voice, the pacing, the plot, and most of all the characters.

I had read some of Zen Cho‘s fiction before, so I knew I was in for something good. Her story about an imugi trying to ascent to heaven to become a proper dragon, was at the same time tragic and funny. Waiting a thousand years for even a chance is already a sign of great patience. But when the protagonist imugi fails – and not once, but many times – even they have trouble keeping up hope. It takes trying out a different life for them to find the will to keep going, and this is that story.

Tina Connolly‘s story is what it says in the title. A banquet of temporal confections. A baker who can infuse his confections with memories serves a banquet of them to the evil Duke. While there are lovely descriptions in this story, both of food and the memories it evokes, I found this story to be too predictable and a little bit too safe to make one of my top spots. The story unfolds with each course, but you can see from very early on where it is going. So the ending, while technically satisfying, left me thinking: so that was it?

Another story that gives you exactly what you’d expect was Naomi Kritzer‘s novelette about ghost stories. The protagonist researches ghost stories and the people who tell and who believe them, all the while kind of living through her own ghost story. It’s without a doubt an accomplished story well told, but again it lacked that certain something. The protagonist hid her feelings a little too well for me, as a reader, to get involved enough in her story for the ending to resonate. I think I should have felt more than I did.

The only story I didn’t like at all was the one by Simone Heller. I’m still not sure what exactly it is about. A tribe of post-apocalypse (maybe post-Earth) creatures is trying to survive in a hostile environment. There are “ghosts”, there are weavers, none of which are described or introduced properly. Some of what’s going on I figured out by the end, but as I spent most of the story trying to puzzle out what’s going on, who the protagonist was in relation to the others, what they were even doing, and where the hell everything took place, I can’t really say I enjoyed this. Maybe that’s my own fault for not reading carefully enough, for missing some key explanation or hint, but I didn’t like this enough to give it a second try.

I hope to have finished all the nominees for Best Novel by next week and then follow that with the Lodestar finalists. The novellas will have to wait a bit longer because I’m just not in the mood for them right now and I’m trying to keep up with my reading challenges this year. You know how it is: So many books, so little time…

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

I’ve been slacking in two departments this year. One is science fiction novels, as I’ve been leaning heavily on the fantasy side, and the other is older SFF. Last year, reading one newer book and one older one was a very rewarding experience for me. But as new releases and award ballots come floating in, it’s easy to forget the classics. Thanks to the Sword & Laser Podcast, however, I finally picked up this Bradbury book and – again – was positively surprised at how much I liked it.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
by Ray Bradbury

Published by: Doubleday, 1950
Ebook: 263 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

The strange and wonderful tale of man’s experiences on Mars, filled with intense images and astonishing visions. Now part of the Voyager Classics collection.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.
But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.

This story of humanity colonizing Mars is presented as a fix-up novel, a collection of connected short stories, that each show different aspects of the migration to Mars, starting from the very first efforts to even reach Mars, the first settlements there, dealing with the locals, and questioning the meaning of humanity and life itself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Fix-up novels are usually not my thing because I like to get to know a set of characters and then follow them for a while. Here, you meet a character and they’re gone by the next story. Sure, some are mentioned later on, but you only really follow a character for as long as their story lasts. But The Martian Chronicles worked for me. I loved that it started with the Martians, the aliens living on the Red Planet before humans arrived in their shiny metal rockets and started messing shit up.

The book goes along chronologically, beginning with the first few (failed) missions to Mars. But they were intriguing in how they failed. While the people on Earth may believe the rockets never even arrived, us readers get to find out that they did arrive, but things weren’t as simple as putting a flag in the ground and building a house. Humanity’s arrival also has other, unforseen, consequences for the local population – and that’s not even considering that humans plan to do what they’ve always done and just take someone else’s land for their own and drive away the people who lived their before…

As colonization progresses and more and more people come to live on Mars, more and more questions arise about history. We meet characters who feel great concern at what has happened on Mars, who look at the ruins of Martian buildings with awe. Then there are others who want to make a fortune and build a completely new life for themseves on this new planet. And let’s not forget the threat of war down on Earth. Remembering this book was published in 1950 helps a lot in putting things into perspective and gives an interesting glimpse into the issues and fears of that time.

And while we’re on the subject of the book being “of its time”, there is a highly controversial story included here – “Way in the Middle of the Air” – that has been edited out of some edition (or so I hear). The story deals with an unabashed racist, a despicable piece of human garbage, as he watches pretty much all the black people from his home town pack up their stuff and decide to leave for Mars. While others have called the story racist, I felt that Bradbury was always clearly on the side of the black characters and hated his protagonist as much as I did. I found the story hard to read (not only because of the frequent use of the n-word), but I didn’t think the story as such was racist. Only the shit-for-brains protagonist was and although worse things could and maybe should have happened to him, the story doesn’t exactly end well for him.

There were some things about this book that felt at the same time silly and very Golden Age of Science Fiction. The fact that astronauts landing on Mars can simply walk around without space suits, breathe the air and experience no difference in gravity – it was weird, at first, but with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, I got used to it. I would have liked to read more chapters from the Martian’s point of view or at least featuring them in a more prominent way, and I definitely would have liked more (or even a single) female characters who were more than just that important guy’s wife or somebody’s mother – women with jobs, women with hopes and dreams for this new life in Mars… you get the idea.

But again, considering this book as a product of its time, and judging simply on reading enjoyment, I quite liked. My foray into older SFF has once again been rewarded.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

My thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists 2019

I AM SO EXCITED!!!! Every year, when the Hugo Award finalists are announced, I get all giddy and excited to see what I’ve already read and what I have to catch up on. Ever since I started voting in the awards myself, I have seen a mix of books I loved, books I didn’t much care for and books I hadn’t even had on my radar. This year looks absolutely fantastic and I already have no idea how I’m going to rank these books on my ballot…

Here are my thoughts on some of the categories.

Best Novel

I have read four out of the six nominees, which is much more than I’d ever read when the finalists were announced. I read the first book in both Yoon Ha Lee‘s trilogy and Becky Chambers‘ series and I loved both of them. So it’s time to catch up. As I heard the nominated Chambers book is only loosely tied to the first two books, I’ll probably leave out the second one and go straight to Record of a Spaceborn Few. Chambers’ feel-good characters and optimistic style make me really look forward to the experience. I will also read Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun because if they’re anything as good as the first novel, I want to know. Even though it will make ranking these books even more difficult.

As for the books I’ve already read: I am beyond happy that Cat Valente’s excellent, heart-warming, and hilarious Space Opera made the cut. It was quite a departure from what Valente usually writes, although she does stay true to her style, even if it’s tuned down a bit. I am in no way surprised this book pleased so many people. It is highly original, super funny (I’m still giggling about the alien “invasion” chapter) and full of love and hope and all things good.
The Calculating Stars was a surprise hit for me. I didn’t really expect to like it all that much, and it was definitely not a comfortable book to read, but it no doubt deserves to be on this list. It had great characters, a super interesting setting (alternate 1950ies and 60ies) and dealt with so many themes that make the story exciting even without space battles. Sexism, racism, anti-semitism, mental health issues – it’s all there but it doesn’t bog the story down and it all feels so organic. Which is probably why reading this book was so uncomfortable.
I adored Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and that is why I wasn’t quite so in love with Spinning Silver. That may be slightly unfair because this is a fantastic book with minor structural problems, but it simply can’t  keep up with its predecessor. I loved the protagonists, the love stories, the fairy tale feel of it, but the POV changes (and randomly added POV characters) diminished my reading pleasure quite a bit. And with an author that excellent, I have to nitpick like this.
Now for my slightly more unpopular opion. Trail of Lightning was a lot of fun. I am already looking forward to reading the sequel, but I don’t think that this book is worthy of an award. The only thing that made it stand out for me was the setting and mythology – using Native American myths as a basis is something new to me and I found it refreshing and exciting. But the plot and the characters were very generic. It’s like reading a cozy mystery. You know what you’re going to get and you’re totally happy with that. But I personally wouldn’t throw an award at this book.

Best Novella

  • Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  • Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: The Night Masquerade
  • P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums
  • Kelly Robson – Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Tea Master and the Detective

I’ve read only two of these novellas. Artificial Condition is at the top of my list at this moment. While I loved the first two Binti novellas, I thought the third one was the weakest in the triloy and therefore didn’t nominate it. It was a nice ending to the story but nowhere near as good as the first two books.
As for Seanon McGuires series, I’ve read the two previous instalments. I really disliked the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, but felt the second one, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told a much stronger and engaging story. So I’m curious to see what the third one holds in store.

I’ve heard of the other three books but don’t know any of them yet. The first to catch up on will probably be The Black God’s Drums, simply because I like the sound of it most.

The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

  • Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles
  • Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  • Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  • Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

I have read a whopping single book of this list. The Cruel Prince was quite good and I will read the sequels, but I get the distinct feeling that I will prefer some of the other nominees. I’m currently reading Tess of the Road and (at about 10%) I already know I love this story! Children of Blood and Bone has been on my TBR ever since it came out but since then, I have read some really scathing reviews that make me a little hesitant to finally pick the book up. As a good voter, I will definitely read it, but my high expectations have been lowered considerably. I once read a teaser excerpt of Peadar O’Guilin’s book The Calling – to which The Invasion is the sequel – and remember liking it. I hope I’ll find the time to read both books before voting ends.
As for Dread Nation and The Belles, neither book really spoke to me when it came out but I trust my fellow nominators and will check them both out. A great book you didn’t expect is always a good thing.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Katherine Arden 
  • S.A. Chakraborty 
  • R.F. Kuang 
  • Jeannette Ng
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Rivers Solomon

KATHERINE ARDEN!!! Ahem… So, you may have guessed who I’ll be voting for. I nominated Arden because she absolutely blew me away with The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. With one book, she became an author whose books I’ll buy witout looking at the synopsis and that’s saying something.
I was also really impressed with R. F. Kuang‘s novel The Poppy War, so she’ll be high on my list as well. My current read is The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty and I’m loving it so far. Which only makes my decision harder.
I have Jeannette Ng’Under the Pendulum Sun and Rivers Solomon‘s An Unkindness of Ghosts on my TBR and look forward to reading them. Vina Jie-Min Prasad is the only author of whom I’ve heard nothing before, probably because (as far as a quick interwebs search goes) she writes mostly short fiction and I’m always behind on short fition.

Best Series

  • The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
  • The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
  • Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
  • The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
  • The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
  • Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

This is the category that I find the most daunting because if you’re not already familiar with a series, that means a lot of reading! I have read the first books in the Machineries of Empire series and Wayfarers but since books in both of these series are also nominated for Best Novel, I will read the sequel(s) as well.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle is the next series I’ll tackle after that because I’ve been dying to read Infomocracy anyway. I don’t know how long the first October Daye book has been on my TBR and I’m not sure I’ll manage to read much more than that first book. The Laundry Files have also been on my radar for a while but the only book I’ve read from that series was the novella Equoid which was excellent (book #2.9 according to Goodreads). So I’ll probably also give the first in the series a try. For the Xuya Universe, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by reading the nominated novella The Tea Master and the Detective.

I do follow the other categories, I’ll listen to the nominated podcasts and already watched (almost) all of the movies, but I don’t have that much to say about them. The long fiction categories are the ones that have my heart so I’ll spend my time reading as much of them as I can. But I have to say, this year looks absolutely spectacular in terms of what got nominated. If the books I haven’t read yet are as good as the ones I have, choosing favorites will be difficult. Once I’m all caught up, I may do another post with my ranking. Whether you guys are also voting in the Hugos or not, rest assured that the nominees are an excellent source for recommended reads.

Post-Apocalyptic Family Confusions: Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

I read and loved Sam J. Miller’s book The Art of Starving last year, so there was no question I’d check out his non-YA novel. This book cemented my opinion that Miller is an author to watch and one whose books I can buy without hesitation.

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Ecco, 2018
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse.

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Qaanaaq is a floating city in the Arctic Circle, built by rich men to flee a world devastated by climate change and war. It is run by AI, is heated by geothermal vents, and it’s rife with poverty. Add to that a new-ish disease, “the breaks”, and you’ve got a most intriguing setting, and that’s before anything resembling a plot has even started, before you’ve met any of the characters. Needless to say, this book had me excited from a very early point and kept my interest up through to the end.

The story  is told through four (occasionally more) POV characters who don’t appear to be connected at first but who will be brought together through Qaanaaq’s newest arrival – a woman who rode into the city on a orca, accompanied by a polar bear. Or so the stories go at least. Through the eyes of these very different protagonists, we don’t only get to know them, but we also learn about the city. And the city absolutely counts as a character in its own right.

Fill is a young man who must grapple with the hard truth that he has caught the breaks. So he considers his life as good as over, he is haunted by weird visions or dreams or memories more and more often, and even his wealth cannot help because there is no known cure. With Fill, we see Qaanaaq very differently than with the other characters, because his grandfather is an extremely rich man. So while Fill knows that parts of the city are overflowing with people who sleep in boxes (because there is no living space), he is not affected himself and his thoughts reflect that.
What I particularly liked about Fill’s chapters – I didn’t care for him as a person all that much – was his obsession with the broadcast “City Without a Map”. Nobody knows who writes these texts that talk about their city, show its beautiful and its ugly side, give accounts of things that happen, etc. Each broadcast is narrated by someone else, people without any obvious connection. But these texts were beautiful to read and did wonders for the world-building.

Fill may be a rich boy with little to worry about. Genderfluid Soq, on the other hand, is almost at the opposite end of the city’s wealth divide. They do sleep in a box, hunting job after job just to get by. At the same time, Soq felt  surprisingly savvy and wise to me, although they are very young. Soq works for one of Qaanaaq’s crime bosses and aspires to become on themself one day.

Probably my favorite characters at the start were Ankit and Kaev, the only two that are connected at the beginning of the story. Kaev is a fighter, paid to fight (and sometimes to lose) the spectacular battles that provide entertainment for Qaanaaq’s population. He is also Ankit’s brother but he suffers from some form of brain damage that includes memory loss. So these two never really connected. I loved Ankit because although it’s her job to look the other way when she sees people suffering from the breaks, she just can’t. Working for a politician does that to you.

All of these characters are simply going their own way and doing their own thing when the story begins. What changes everything is the arrival of the orcamancer, who at first is nothing more than an urban legend. But because of this woman, the course of every character’s life changes and – surprise! – they all come together somehow. I won’t tell you the orcamancer’s back story or how everything is connected, but I really enjoyed the revelations in this book.
It was just after the first big reveal that the plot got a bit slow. But like I said, all character get together and find out that their individual plans go pretty well together, so why not team up for an epic ending?

While this wasn’t a very comforting book to read – after all, the world is broken, many lives have been lost, and life in Qaanaaq is nothing more than pure survival for most – but it was an incredibly rewarding, exciting read. Finding out how the city works was almost as much fun as figuring the characters out. The social structures, the politics, the infrastructure of Qaanaaq – everything was just so interesting. And let’s not forget the past! It is often mentioned that the water levels rose, climate change has ruined most of the planet, ressources got low, there was war all over the place, and only some escaped to a place they could still live. Some things are almost like legends in people’s mind, like the nanobonded, people who have a mind-connection with animals and can control them. Were they real? Did they die out? How? All of these questions are not even the main plot but I wanted to find out the answers, so even when the plot slowed down a bit, I was never bored.

There is so much more to discover in Qaanaaq than I’ve talked about. The technology (chin implants to translate the numerous languages represented), the diversity, the orca and the polar bear… I could go on and on. But because I’d rather not spoil the fun for you, I will simply say I highly recommend this book and I totally think it should take home and award or two.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Quietly powerful: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Last year, through no reason at all, I started reading a newer book and an older book at the same time. There are still so many SFF classics I need to catch up on and, somehow, combining and older and a newer read worked really well. It led me to this amazing book, which led me to a LeGuin shopping spree.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Gateway, 1969
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Hainish Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

A while after I started reading this book, I discovered that it was part 4 of something called the Hainish Cycle. Don’t let that scare you away. I haven’t read any of the other books and this one stands quite well alone, although it gives you glimpses of what the other books may be about.

The story is set on Gethen, a winter planet populated by an androgynous people who can become male or female when they reach a certain time in their sexual cycle. They may become male once, female the next time, but the rest of the time they appear neuter and thus, all equal. This may seem like an obvious choice for a feminist writer to make a point about gender equality and it could have come across as a cheap trick – but with someone of LeGuin’s caliber, the people’s gender identity (or lack thereof) grows naturally from the story.

Much like other aspects of the culture Genly Ai discovers on Gethen, the world-building itself is done so effortlessly, by showing instead of telling. While the gender thing may feel complicated to someone like Genly – who is male and always looks male (which makes him appear as constantly at the peak of his sexual cylce to Gethenians, or constanlty aroused) – Gethenian politics and social norms seem even stranger. This is just one aspect that made this book so great. It introduces you to a humanoid people on a planet that has similarities to ours, except it’s always cold, always winter. But the social structures, the genders, the sexual identity of its people are just different enough to give you the same sort of culture shock Genly must be feeling.

There are other things that I had a lot of fun discovering with Genly and trying to piece together in my mind. Oracles, prisons, tensions between nations… but those are just things that happen on the sidelines, between the actual plot. And that, although one might say not very much happens, is just as thrilling. Genly is on Gethen to observe, to let the people know that there are others out there in the vastness of space, that they are not alone but rather welcome to join a greater unity of people. One of the people Genly has to do with on Gethen is Estraven, whom he does not fully trust and who we, as readers, also can’t really put our finger on until the story progresses.

Genly Ai may be the offical protagonist of this novel, but it was Estraven I kept wanting to follow, to learn more about. Through their adventures together, the reader gets to know both of them better as they get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. What LeGuin does here with language is just beautiful. There are no long expositions, no explanations even, simply us readers quietly watching Genly and Estraven and the planet Gethen doing what they do and learning through them. The descriptions of the eternal ice and the winter landscapes were lovely, but it was the relationship that builds up over the course of the novel that really intrigued me.

I could read all sorts of things into this book and that makes it enjoyable even after having finished it. It’s the sort of book you should read with others, to discuss afterward, to see what others saw when they read it. I suspect every reading will give you a different experience (although I have yet to try that out myself) and every person will get something different from the book. But despite having only read it once, I understand why it won all sorts of awards and why it counts as a classic of science fiction. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!