Book Review: Dahlia Black by Keith Thomas (2019)

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Like World War Z, but with aliens!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Netgalley. Trigger warning for violence and mental health issues, including suicide.)

In 1977, the whole world turned towards the stars. We wanted to believe there was intelligent life somewhere out there. And we hoped that if we could reach them, maybe they’d reach back. Voyager 1, this satellite dish with bristling antenna, was a message in a bottle. Our way of letting the galaxy know we existed. That we were out here if anyone wanted to find us.

Over the next forty years, the probe flew past Jupiter and Saturn before it drifted into the void, swallowed up by a silent universe. Or so we thought . . .

Truth is, our message didn’t go unheard.

The universe reached back and changed everything. Not with war or an invasion but with a whisper. Almost overnight, all that we knew transformed.

And I saw it happen.

I am not an incubator, but my head has become an executable.

On October 17, 2023, a rouge astronomer named Dahlia Mitchell unwittingly picks up a signal originating from farthest reaches of space. Rather than the sound of a dying star or an errant transmission from the breakroom microwave, Dahlia and her colleagues quickly realize that this signal is intentional, complex, and was most likely purposefully directed at earth by the members of an intelligent species. The signal is dubbed the “Pulse Code,” owing to its similarity to a computer code as opposed to, say, an attempt at communication or contact.

Before the president and her cabinet can formulate an action plan, the Pulse begins working its nerdy magic. Once received, the Pulse got right down to business, altering the brains of roughly 30% of the earth’s population. Initially, those affected experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. They saw, heard, felt, and tasted things others couldn’t, from electromagnetic radiation and ultraviolet colors, to the ultrasonic songs of mice and insects, and gravitational waves. One woman was able to taste things with her fingers, like a fly. Many claimed to be able to see ghosts.

Before long the Elevated, as they would be known, manifested enhanced cognitive abilities; they could “calculate new forms of mathematics, develop innovative computer algorithms, uncover unseen biological processes, and create unimaginable works of art.”

In the end, they simply vanished – pulled, perhaps, into that other dimension they saw, overlaid on top of our own. Yet many – as much as 15% of the infected, by some accounts – succumbed to the changes prior to the Finality, their bodies too weak to withstand the demands placed on them.

In a scant five years, the global population dropped from 7.7 billion to 2.5 billion. In addition to the 3 billion people killed or disappeared by the Ascendant – aka our alien overlords – billions more were murdered in the resulting violence and chaos.

Now it’s five years on, and a reporter named Keith Thomas is trying to make sense of the Pulse Code. Disclosure: How One Woman’s Discovery Led to the Greatest Event in Human History is the result. Thomas weaves together original interviews with historical documents, police transcripts, diary entries, and illicit files in order to deconstruct the Pulse and its aftermath.

So this is a really fun read, and comparisons to World War Z are spot on. I enjoy the change of pace that faux nonfiction books constructed of various files offer, and Dahlia Black is no exception. It’s kind of like World War Z in this way, but with aliens! Or like Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy, but with a whimper instead of a bang. (The latter has giant weaponized alien robots, so there’s that.)

I had a lot of, um, fun following Thomas on this ride, as he imagines what a world suddenly devoid of more than half its population might look like. (“Fun” in scare quotes because many of the events outlined here are downright horrifying, particularly because they have happened in the past and will no doubt replicate themselves in the future.) Just take the reference to deepfakes – which I just learned about on an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee a few short months ago – used four years from now to foment mob violence against the Elevated.

There’s also a great conspiracy theory subplot that adds another layer of intrigue and general gruesomeness to the story. (Yes, I’m talking about the girl with two spinal columns.)

Dahlia Black is a great summer read that would also make a great summer blockbuster. Just don’t do it like Brad Pitt’s World War Z, okay. That shit was disappointing.

P.S. I also await the comic book adaptation.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: We Are Here Forever by Michelle Gish (2019)

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

I for one welcome our adorable purple successors.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

King, Poppy, Jingle, and Pot are adorable, floofy purple quadrupeds who live and play in the detritus of human society. Their planet is curiously devoid of humans and pigs alike, yet evidence of our past existence abounds…and most of it tastes delicious. Puramuses – as we once called our good-natured friends – will eat literally anything, from pink flowers to mysterious glowing orbs and more boring things, like lightbulbs and spoons.

Luckily we humans left a ton of stuff for them to devour.

Told in four acts, We Are Here Forever follows multiple generations of the Puramus as they adapt to life on this new planet. Watch as King sends his sons Pot, Box, and Bowl on a quest to find him a new flarg, or as he fends off an attack from a neighboring village. Get to know aspiring poet Jingle as she searches for the meaning of art. And follow PuffPuff and Bubble on their respective journeys, which may shed a light on what happened to their ancestors’ human friends.

The apocalypse has never been so snuggable.

We Are Here Forever started out (like most great things do) as a webcomic of the same name (which I managed to miss, like I usually do). There’s some new content in the book, and also some comics that didn’t make the cut, so definitely read them both if you enjoy one or the other.

If it seems like a silly-cute idea for a comic, it is; but it works, and works spectacularly. These squishy purple herbivores are surprisingly relatable, whether trying to assemble some Ikea bookshelves, suffering a crippling bout of anxiety, or bemoaning the lack of pigs to pet.

If I ever met a Puramus IRL, I would hug them gently, even if it meant my certain death.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Ark Land by Scott A. Ford (2018)

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Bellyups, and Mountain Mantises, and Gnarles, oh my!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Kairn lives in Ark Land, an alternate (or future?) version of earth. The main point of divergence between our worlds? Well, that would be the alien arks that float above Ark Land. They first arrived nearly a century ago, and starting falling from the sky not long after. Filled with alien lifeforms and tech, the ships became a prime source of revenue for scavengers like Kairn, who strip the arks down to the studs and pawn the debris for cash monies. But pickings are slim, at least out in the moors, where Kairn lives – along with two dogs (Rex is an earthling dog; Bertrand is his extraterrestrial counterpart) and a scrappy robot named Patterson.

When local radio station Ark Peak Radio announces a scavenging contest to coincide with the town’s annual Ark Day, Kairn throws her hat (um, mask?) in the ring. She must outwit fellow scavengers, elude the forests’ hunters, and defeat an entire robot army to win her share of the 4000 coins up for grabs. But little does she know that the contest is part of a conspiracy involving the Ark-worshipping religious order that resides in the mountain – one that could lead to the death of one of her best friends, if not the destruction of the entire planet.

The story in Ark Land is entertaining enough, but it’s the artwork that really shines here. Between the bright and vibrant colors, the occasional throwback ’80s vibes, and the craaaaaazy alien life forms, Ark Land is a visual feast. Everything is just super-imaginative and gorgeous.

It’s hard to tell if this is meant to be the first in an ongoing series; the main story arc is wrapped up tidily enough, but there are so many avenues for further exploration. I really hope to meet with Kairn (and Rex and Bertrand and Patterson!) again, if only because I found her relatable AF, from her video game and candy addiction right down to her fierce loyalty to her nonhuman friends. SUCH a cool protagonist.

Okay BYYYYEEEEEE!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Chimera: Book One – The Righteous and the Lost by Tyler Ellis (2018)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A promising start to a new series.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

— 3.5 stars —

Reminiscent of Firefly and Saga, Chimera follows the exploits of a rag-tag group of space traveling misfits. There’s Alice, the captain, who was the war-hungry Emperor-God’s champion in a previous life; her brother Charlie, who went AWOL from the rebel coalition; Russell, a three-eyed, telekinetic, wolflike alien; and Wex, the crew’s translator, who just so happens to look like an iguana. Their latest heist? Retrieve an artifact called the “chimera” – and use the funds to get the heck out of the ‘verse, and the holy war that’s tearing it apart.

Based on the cover – specifically, its minimalist, playing-it-oh-so-close-to-the-vest artwork – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chimera, or whether I really wanted to bother with it at all. I’m glad I did, because the artwork is stunning. Seriously, the cover doesn’t begin to do it justice. The world building is easily the best part of Chimera, from the desolate desert landscape to the plethora of wonderful and imaginative aliens.

Less shiny is the actual story line, which I sometimes found muddled and confusing. There are so many different factions to keep track of, and their relationships to one another aren’t always clear. The true nature of the titular “chimera” remains a mystery throughout most of the book, and even when we get more information on it, it’s alternately referred to as both a piece of tech and a planet, which is hecka confusing.

You know the old admonition to “show, don’t tell”? It’s the exact opposite with Chimera.

Additionally, the first book feels incomplete; it ends before the story arc can be wrapped up, and as a result is deeply unsatisfying.

Still, I regret nothing. The Righteous and the Lost is a promising start to a new series, and I look forward to the next installment. Maybe the inevitable re-read will even improve my grasp of the first book.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Only Human (Themis Files #3) by Sylvain Neuvel (2018)

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Yokits!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains spoilers for the previous two books in the trilogy)

You think the world ch … changed while you were gone? It hasn’t. This is who we are.

What does a man’s life amount to? What does the life of a thousand, a billion? What is an ant’s life worth? I see now that the answer is irrelevant. It’s the question that matters. Should the ant let itself die, crushed under the weight of its own insignificance? Or should it live, fight giants, and build magnificent cities underground? What do I choose?

It was always you, Rose. Just you. This is your movie. The rest of us are just extras in it.

When last we visited the world of the Themis Files – a world in which the discovery of an alien robot/spaceship/war machine upended humanity, in ways both good and bad (but, let’s face it, mostly bad because humans gonna human) – physicist Rose Franklin, linguist-turned-pilot Vincent Couture, ten-year-old orphan Eva Reyes, and EDC head General Eugene Govender were on board Themis, celebrating their unlikely victory against alien invaders, when the ship powered up and transported them … somewhere else.

The quartet have spent the last nine years living in limbo on the alien planet Esat Ekt – “Home of the Ekt,” the builders of Themis and unfortunate contributors to humanity’s gene pool. Due to their strict moral philosophy of non-interference in the evolutionary paths of other species, and well as regional political BS, the Ekt cannot decide whether to send the accidental guests home, as aliens – or make them stay, as part-Ekt citizens.

It was this very philosophy of non-interference that led the Ekt to attack earth in Waking Gods, releasing a toxic gas that killed millions. What the Ekt meant as a surgical strike against their own people quickly snowballed, since the original twenty-four Ekt visitors couldn’t keep it in their pants, so to speak. The mass casualties sent shock waves through both planets: the earth of today performs mandatory blood tests on its citizens; anyone deemed to have “too much” alien DNA is rounded up and put in camps, even executed. Meanwhile, the fiasco has led to civil unrest on Ekt, with the h. sapiens guests/prisoners serving as a constant, painful reminder of the Ekt’s epic fuckup. Something’s gotta give.

Only Human is a pretty solid end to a series that I’ve really enjoyed. Like its predecessors, the story is told via a series of interviews, journal entries, and the like, in both flashbacks (to Rose et al.’s time on Ekt) and real-time. As you can probably gather from this sentence, Rose, Vincent, and Eva have managed to find their way back to Earth, which is now in possession of not one but two alien robots. In a post-9/11 climate of paranoia and fear, this is very much Not A Good Thing. The parallels Neuvel makes to our current political climate are inescapable, and I had to wonder how much of the story he wrote before/after the 2016 election (or if he altered the narrative at all later). The ultimate view he posits of humanity is both grim, but also cautiously hopeful.

I really enjoyed getting to know teenage Eva, and to see Vincent as a father. The father-daughter conflict seemed a little over the top at times, but Eva’s narrative is really compelling: a “freak” who saw visions on Earth, Eva is more or less “normal” – if a bit of an alien curiosity-slash-celebrity – on Ekt. Vincent is pretty insistent that he wants Eva to have a “normal” life – but to her, Ekt is it. So you can imagine her angst at being forced to leave by dear old dad. (I was pretty peeved with him until the final chapters.)

I also came to love Mr. Burns – something I wouldn’t have thought possible in books one or two – and kind of teared up at the surprise twist ending. Slow clap on that one.

Someone needs to stop giving these war criminals government jobs though, smh. #StillNotReadyForThemis

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado (2018)

Friday, March 30th, 2018

’80s Nostalgia Like Whoah

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Thirteen-year-old Wax wants to be the best DJ in the world – but little does he know that the very fate of “Planet Brooklyn” will rely on his skills. It’s 1980-something, and young Wax is recording a song for his crush, the aptly named Pirate Polly, when he inadvertently answers an intergalactic challenge. Wax, his crew, his entire block – all are transported to a planet called Discopia, where Wax must best a giant robot named Choo Choo and his crew, the Five Deadly Dangers, in order to save everyone he loves.

There’s so much to love here, I don’t even know where to start. Sci-Fu is such a fun mashup of all things ’80s: Wax’s training montages with mentor Kabuki Snowman are like the bizarro sci-fi version of The Karate Kid, and the style left me yearning for a Fresh Prince marathon. Between Teddy Backspin (read: Ruxpin) and the Transformer-esque Choo Choo, there are a fair number of elements that could feel like rip-offs, at least in lesser-skilled hands. But Mercado walks the line between homage and pinching with ease. If you lived through the ’80s, you’re all but guaranteed to be in on the joke.

Oh, and there’s an ’80s hip-hop playlist at the end! How cool is that?

And the cast! Wax is adorable and sweet in that way that makes you want to bake him a batch of cookies and pinch his little chipmunk cheeks. His little sister D is like the animated version of Diane from Black(ish), which is to say that she’s as smart as she is diabolical, and you most definitely want to keep her happy and on your side. Pirate Polly is rad AF, and I kind of love that Mercado never bothers to explain the eye patch and nickname (which came first? Is the patch functional or decorative? Is she a distant relation of One-eyed Willie maybe?) The Ultimate Showdown with the Boom Box of Doom is one of my favorite scenes, for obvious reasons.

I also adored Uncle Rashaad, who owns an ice cream truck and speaks in ice cream flavored expletives. The back story for why Wax and D are living with him is pretty great too. I really hope we meet the ‘rents in a later installment of the series. There’s some serious superhero potential there too.

Sci-Fu is definitely on the bizarre side, but if you can embrace the weirdness, you will have a good time.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun (2017)

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

So much more than “a book”; a new way of looking at the world.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a physical ARC for review through Goodreads and an electronic galley through Edelweiss.)

Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book fell into my life just when I needed it. I recently lost someone very close to me, and Jomny Sun’s adorable illustrations, juxtaposed with his insightful AF observations, brought me not just momentary distraction from my grief, but also a much-needed laugh (or two or twenty) and, best of all, a small but very palpable sense of hope for the future. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times in the past six weeks, and find something new to hold tight and cherish each time.

Is Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too silly? You betcha. From the moment Jomny’s alien shipmates abandon him on earth, you just know that the story is going to be weird and irreverent and not a little preposterous. But things escalate quickly, and we go from goofy to trenchant in the space of just four pages (I feel you, little snail).

In his travels, Jomny meets and befriends a wide range of earthlings – lonely trees, lovestruck bees, industrious beavers (but no humans, who Jomny was really sent to study) – who teach him all sorts of Very Important Life Lessons. About self identity and reinvention; prejudice; work and leisure; the fleetingness of life – and love; acceptance and friendship; and, of course, the nature of nothing. For a book wherein a talking bear pairs off with what looks to be an alien yeti, this is one existential and angst-filled narrative.

Another Goodreads reviewer said simply, “reading Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Ablien Too made me a better person.” That just about sums it up.

I could quote the book for days on end, but here are just seven of my favorite scenes. (This was so hard to narrow down, you guys. YOU HAVE NO IDEA.)

(Click on the image to embiggen.)

 

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Book Review: Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel (2017)

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

A satisfying follow-up to Sleeping Giants.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

If I grab a bunch of matter, anywhere, and I organize it in exactly the same way, I get … you. You, my friend, are a very complex, awe-inspiring configuration of matter. What you’re made of isn’t really important. Everything in the universe is made of the same thing. You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from. Do you think it matters when it comes from?

—Do you really wanna grow old with just grumpy old me?
—No offense, Kara, but I don’t think either of us will get to grow old, especially if we’re together. The only question is: Do I wanna die young with anyone else?

Now the world is ending and somehow I’ve managed to make that about me too.

— 4.5 stars —

It’s ten years after the events in Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel’s AMAZING debut novel – give or take, and the aliens have finally returned to Earth to reclaim their war bot, Themis. Army pilot Kara Resnick and Canadian linguist Vincent Couture are still at Themis’s helm, but after the show of force in Korea, their role has been more benign: touring the world, speaking to schoolkids, and doing PR for the Earth Defense Corps. In between celeb sightings and autograph signings, the squints in the basement are still studying Themis, trying to figure out what else she can do, but their progress has more or less slowed. It doesn’t help that head scientist and the first person to discover Themis – or her hand, anyway – Rose Franklin hasn’t really had her head in the game. Not since she was brought back from the dead.

When a second robot materializes in the heart of London, earth’s tenuous peace is disrupted in a matter of hours, with some pushing for a first strike and others wanting to approach their alien overlords/benefactors in the spirit of love and cooperation. Considering the synopsis, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things go sideways but fast. Themis can maybe take on one robot, but thirteen? Who are Themis’s creators, and what do they want from us? And how do Rose and Eva factor into their plans? Perhaps most importantly, what does it take to get someone to kick mad scientist/medical rapist Alyssa Papantoniou in her stupid smug face?

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Book Review: Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1), Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Already jonesing for the sequel!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Possible trigger warning for medical rape.)

My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us.
—Alterity?
The concept of “otherness”. What I am is very much a function of what I am not. If the “other” is the Muslim world, then I am the Judeo-Christian world. If the other is from thousands of light-years away, I am simply human. Redefine alterity and you can erase boundaries.

Definitely a girl! I couldn’t stop grinning when they brought the chest in. Her breasts aren’t that large, given her size, but they’re still bigger than my car. Perky … She must have been the envy of all the giant girl[s] back in her day.

—You’ve seen her a thousand times. She’s blindfolded holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other.
—Is that who we call Lady Justice?
—More or less.

On her eleventh birthday, little Rose Franklin takes her new bike out for a spin in Deadwood, South Dakota…and ends up falling into what appears to be a massive crater. Only the walls are decorated in mysterious hieroglyphics, and at the bottom sits a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, Dr. Rose Franklin – now a physicist – finds herself at the University of Chicago, in charge of studying the very hand that cradled her so many years ago. It turns out that the hand is just one piece of a much larger puzzle (a message? a statue? a spaceship? a robot? all of the above?), and someone – or something – scattered the other dozen-odd pieces around the globe. Primed to react to argon-37, some of the pieces have begun “activating” now that humans have discovered how to “tap the power of the atom,” as it were, causing metal body parts to ascend to the earth’s surface from their hiding places some 900 feet underground. A phenomenon U.S. Army pilots Kara Resnick and Ryan Mitchell stumble onto quite unwittingly when their plane loses power over a pistachio field in Harran, Turkey – and crash lands right next to a forearm.

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Book Review: The Gods of HP Lovecraft, edited by Aaron J. French (2015)

Friday, January 15th, 2016

A Solid Collection of Stories Rooted in the Lovecraft Mythos

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and animal abuse.)

Confession time: I’m not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not not a fan, I just know very little about his work. Most of my limited knowledge comes from the recent World Fantasy Awards controversy (which, I must admit, doesn’t exactly make me want to run out and buy copy of The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft), and that one episode of Supernatural (which, as it just so happened, TNT reran this morning. Serendipity!)

I am, however, I huge Seanan McGuire fangirl, and it’s her contribution that sold me on this anthology. (Her short stories in particular are phenomenal, and “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves” is no exception.) I’m glad, too, because The Gods of HP Lovecraft is a pretty solid collection of science fiction stories. As you can see, I rated everything a 4 or 5, which is pretty impressive; usually anthologies are more of a mixed bag for me. The individual summaries are relatively vague and un-spoilery, but please skip them if you’d rather read this book with fresh eyes.

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Book Review: Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, Peter Öberg, ed. (2015)

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

A Mostly-Solid Batch of Swedish Speculative Fiction with a Few Standouts

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape and violence.)

Short story collections are always a little tricky to rate, especially when there are a number of different contributors. In Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, there are exactly twenty-six. The unifying factor? All are Swedish authors, and the anthology has a speculative fiction/scifi/fantastical bent. Keeping with the title, most of the contributions are science fiction, or at least science fiction-y, with robots and AI figuring into many of the plots. As promised, steampunk horses (in an old timey Western setting, no less!) and sassy goblins also make an appearance.

The result is a mostly-solid mix of speculative fiction, though the odd fantasy/fantastical stories felt a bit out of place and disrupted the overall feel of the collection. As usually happens with anthologies, I enjoyed some stories more than others; there are a few that I absolutely fell in love with, and will no doubt revisit again in the future (“The Rats” in particular) and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I DNF’ed two of the tales (“Melody of the Yellow Bard,” which is way too wordy and could benefit from a more ruthless round of editing; and “The Philosopher’s Stone,” which seems like a perfectly fine story but just wasn’t for me).

Many of the pieces fall somewhere in the middle, with quite a few 3- and 4-star ratings, and a smattering of 2-stars.

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Book Review: Unexpected Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2014)

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Two New-to-Us SF/F Short Stories from Octavia Butler

five out of five stars

Published eight years after her death, Unexpected Stories contains two all-new stories written by the great Octavia E. Butler: one fantasy, the other with more of a science fiction bent. As Walter Mosely observes in the forward, “In these stories we find two women faced with war or with peace. Carrying on their backs society’s future or its end.” One works within the confines of her position and the system which holds her there, while the other has escaped – albeit temporarily.

The beings in “A Necessary Being” are humanoid – but decidedly non-human. Their skin shifts and shimmers in shades of blue, signaling their emotions and intent; highest among them is the Hao, a pure blue being thought to be divine – a harbinger of good luck. Unfortunately, Hao are rare; occasionally a member of the judge caste may birth one “out of the air,” but more often they’re descended from a long line of Hao. Kohn tribes without a Hao are “tribes[s] in the process of dying.” This has caused a great many tribes to find a Hao wherever and however they can – even if this means kidnapping another tribe’s Hao, imprisoning him or her – sometimes crippling the captive Hao to prevent future escape.

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Book Review: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2005)

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

These stories will burrow into your brain like a grub into an achti carcass.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for rape and sexual/reproductive exploitation.)

The truth is, I hate short story writing. Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.

Yet there is something seductive about writing short stories. It looks so easy. You come up with an idea, then ten, twenty, perhaps thirty pages later, you’ve got a finished story.

Well, maybe.

Don’t let Butler’s apparent distaste for short stories fool you; many of the stories collected here are shiny little masterpieces in their own right.

(…although I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t also love to see several of the stories fleshed out into full-length novels; “Bloodchild,” “Speech Sounds,” and “Amnesty,” I’m looking at you!)

The second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories includes seven short stories (five previously published, two brand spanking new) and two essays (both reprints). While the essays offer advice to aspiring writers as well as insights into Butler’s childhood (“Shyness is shit.” might be the realest, rawest sentence in the whole damn book), the stories are that wonderfully creepy, complex, unsettling, and ultimately deeply profound brand of SF/F that I’ve come to associate with Butler: earth-based worlds characterized by rapidly crumbling dystopias, or alien societies in which the human survivors are forced into untenable compromises with their extraterrestrial saviors/overlords. Each piece is followed by a brief (but enlightening) Afterward penned by the author herself.

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Book Review: Zenia, J. Gallagher (2014)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

One Weird Ride

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through the Goodreads First Reads program.)

570 light years from Earth, there lies a planet called Shula – “a distant star in Scorpio’s poisonous tail” – ruled by a race of fierce warrior women. Or there did, anyway, until the men (“pricks”) revolted and then in turn were conquered by their own machines. As their world teetered on the brink of collapse, the Queen of Shula and her sisters transmitted their consciousnesses (“live steam”) into space; many years later, the Queen’s essence is downloaded by a computer on Earth, one of many involved with SETI. It belongs to Atticus – henceforth known as “BitBoy” – one of many geeks employed by the robotics company DigiCorp (though BitBoy is the only one related to its founder and owner, “ScrumMaster.”)

In short order, the Queen convinces BitBoy to upgrade her RAM and outfit her computer with a state-of-the-art 3D printer; overnight, she makes the jump into a DigiCorp robot, and then “scarfs” BitBoy’s girlfriend Zenia, taking over her physical body and subjugating her consciousness. As she learns more about her new home, she realizes that DigiCorp must be stopped before it creates self-replicating, intelligent robots – the same thing that resulted in the destruction of Shula. With the help of her recently-downloaded sisters, Melpomene and Thalia, as well as a few carefully-selected “meat puppets,” Zenia goes to war with the corporation – which, in this distant future, is a co-owner of democracy and enjoys the same civil rights as people.

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Mini-Review: “Grace Immaculate,” Gregory Benford (2011)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Too Short!

three out of five stars

Sometime in the unspecified future, humans make contact with extraterrestrials: “The first SETI signal turned up not in a concerted search for messages, but at the Australian Fast Transients study that looked for variable stars.” Thus begins a multigenerational, excruciatingly slow exchange of information and ideas with an alien species that we humans nickname the “Hydrans” (for their physical similarity to earth-bound hydras). Naturally, the evangelical Christian community wants in on the action – particularly when it begins to suspect that these aliens might be (gasp!) atheists – and so a coalition of churches builds a seven billion dollar beacon in order to proselytize to these heathen, hive-minded extraterrestrials. Needless to say, things don’t go so well for the hapless Hydrans.

Benford plants the seed of what could be a very interesting story, yet it remains just that – a seed. “Grace Immaculate” is a very quick read, ending seemingly before it even begins. The ending is appropriately ambiguous, yet still quite unsatisfying. I’d really love to see this as either a longer short story or even a novella.

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Book Review: The Culling (The Slave Girl Chronicles #1), JC Andrijeski (2014)

Friday, February 21st, 2014

A dystopian alien abduction story – WITH DINOSAURS!

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaway program. Also, vague spoilers in the last few paragraphs.)

Nineteen-year-old Jet Tetsuo is a skag. Along with thousands of other human refugees, Jet spends most of her time underground, eking out the barest existence beneath the ruins of what once was Vancouver. It’s this, or risk capture by the Nirreth: a race of blue, bipedal, lizard-like aliens that invaded Earth several generations before. Rumor has it that the Nirreth vivisect humans, keep them as slaves, and even cook and eat them. To be picked up by a Nirreth culling ship means certain death. Or at least that’s the word in the skag pits that Jet calls home.

A fierce fighter who’s skilled with the blade, Jet saves most of her worries for her younger brother, Biggs, who’s been spending a dangerous amount of time hanging around the rebel fighters. It’s him she’s thinking of when, out on a trading errand overworld, she’s spotted and captured by a Nirreth culling ship. In time, she learns that she’s a “special commission”: the ship’s captain, Eamon Richter, former leader of the resistance in Vancouver, abducted Jet for sale to the Nirreth High Command for the Pacific Region – “The Royals” for short. Like many humans kidnapped to the Green Zones (park-like cities constructed by the Nirreth), Jet is to be a pet for her Nirreth owner’s amusement. In addition to providing protection to Ogli, the young heir to the throne, Jet is slated to fight in the Rings for the amusement of Nirreth crowds. But only if she can pass the demonstration.

The first installment in The Slave Chronicles, The Culling is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. It’s got everything a YA (NA?) scifi fan could want: A kick-ass heroine. Sword play. Space ships and intergalactic travel. Environmental collapse. A burgeoning rebellion. Alien colonizers. Dinosaurs, even!

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Book Review: Shifters, Douglas and Angelina Pershing (2013)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Editing superpowers, engage!

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation.)

Fourteen-year-old Tanner Ascunse and his twelve-year-old sister Ryland are about to find out that they’re adopted. And that’s not even the most shocking part: the siblings are aliens, refugees from the planet Gaia, one of twelve colonies ruled by the Shifters.

Made faster and stronger (thus able to “shift,” or move more quickly than the human eye can perceive) through generations DNA mutations, Shifters have special “Apts” (aptitudes) and “Endos” (endowments) that give them unique powers. Some, like Tanner, can control technology; others, such as Ryland, can fly – or at least appear to. Other powers include the ability to shift while holding objects, to hide from cameras and other tech, and to see the future. But these abilities don’t emerge until adolescence, leaving young Tanner and Ryland blissfully unaware of their true origins.

Believing themselves superior, the Shifters subjugated their Ordinary brothers and sisters, exploiting them as a cheap and expendable source of labor. To the Shifters, the Ordinaries are “less than.” But Shifters and Ordinaries alike are human. When humanity colonized the universe thousands of years ago, the location of Colony 7 – earth – was kept secret from the Shifters, and the Ordinary Earthlings were able to live and evolve free of Shifter interference.

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Book Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 29, Dave Wolverton, ed. (2013)

Monday, August 26th, 2013

A thoroughly enjoyable collection of contemporary science fiction!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest – now entering its thirtieth year, it’s one of the longest-running short story contests still in existence – attracts thousands of submissions a year. From this, a panel of judges selects just thirteen essays for publication in the annual anthology. Also included are thirteen illustrations similarly culled from the Illustrators of the Future contest, along with three instructional essays on the art of crafting and selling science fiction, written by professionals in the field. (This year’s collection includes one piece by contest founder L. Ron Hubbard himself.)

As suggested by such stiff competition, the essays included in the 2013 anthology are all thoroughly enjoyable, with one exception (Christopher Raynaga’s “The Grande Complication,” which I didn’t much care for). The collection starts of strong with Brian Trent’s “War Hero.” In the distant future, soldiers and war criminals have achieved virtual immortality with the ability to save one’s consciousness, downloading it into a new body (or multiple bodies) as needed – thus assuring the interminability of war, conflict, and the military-industrial complex. (As an added bonus, cross-gender downloading also carries with it some interesting sexual connotations.)

“Planetary Scouts,” by Stephen Sottong, is one of the lengthier stories in the collection – and it’s also one of my favorites. Having long since ventured off earth, humans are constantly in search of new planets to colonize. Enter the Planetary Scouts, who land on and probe (“explore” is too lofty a word) strange planets to determine whether they support “intelligent” life. If not, they’re considered open to human settlement. As always, a species’ intelligence is measured solely in human terms, leading to the genocide of countless “lesser” species who might not be able to grasp arithmetic – but are still sentient, capable of experiencing joy and suffering, with families and interests and lives of their own. On more than one occasion – such as when he and his partner Aidan explore a mostly aquatic planet to determine whether an intergalactic aquaculture company can install one giant fish farm on it – this crass policy leads to a crisis of conscience for young upstart Lester. (As it turns out, the planet is home to one enormous “distributed intelligence,” which is self-aware – and thus worthy of continued existence. More often than not, you’ll find yourself rooting for the aliens.) In more extreme cases, such as when it’s home to “dumb” animals or plant life that’s deemed harmful to humans, a planet may be “sterilized”: stripped of all life, leaving a clean slate for its future human overlords. Talk about your euphemisms!

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Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I’ll never look at an octopus the same way again.

five out of five stars

Lilith’s Brood is one of those books that’s so amazing and epic that I can’t even. As in, I can’t even form a complete sentence, let alone maintain a coherent flow between paragraphs and ideas. And so this is where I break out the bullet points.

* Warning: major spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence. *

  • The books in Lilith’s BroodDawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – were originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy. Definitely pick up a copy of Lilith’s Brood – it’s easier and less expensive than buying the books individually, and you’ll be hooked after the first installment anyway!
  • The basic premise is this: some time in the unspecified future, earth is decimated by nuclear war. Though it primarily involves northern, industrialized nations, the fallout results in massive casualties and renders the planet uninhabitable. As humanity lingers on the brink of extinction, the few remaining survivors are “rescued” by an alien species. The Oankali transport the human refugees to their ancient ship, where they’re kept in a state of suspended animation as the Oankali work to repair their wounds and rejuvenate earth. A century and a half later, the Oankali begin “awakening” humans so that they can prepare for their homecoming. Among them is Lilith Iyapo, an anthropology student from New Mexico. She was in vacationing in the Andes, grieving the loss of her husband and young son to a drunk driver, when the war started. (Many of the survivors are from the southern hemisphere – South America and Africa – resulting in great racial and ethnic diversity among the characters. Lilith, who has dark skin and curly, “cloud-like” black hair, is African American.) Lilith becomes a sort of “pioneer,” choosing, awakening, and teaching survival skills to multiple groups of humans before she’s allowed to return to earth herself.
  • Though vaguely humanoid (at least in their current form), the humans still find the Oankali dreadfully – repulsively – alien. (So much so that they must be acclimated to their rescuers slowly over time, usually with multiple awakenings and the use of drugs to dull the sense of revulsion.) Bipedal with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, the Oankali are hairless; their earth-toned skin (in colors of gray, brown, and mossy green) is covered in hundreds of slug-like appendages called “sensory tentacles.” Through these, the Oankali are able to communicate with one another on a neurochemical level, sharing thoughts, pictures, feelings, memories, and even genetic information almost instantaneously, and with one or more people simultaneously. While they’re also capable of verbal communication – they can speak, and are proficient in countless human languages – the Oankali prefer to “hook in” to one another’s nervous systems. This is also how they control the ship, a living, organic creature created especially for intergalactic travel by the Oankali.

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  • Book Review: American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett (2013)

    Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

    One part each Supernatural & Stephen King, with a splash of Donnie Darko for that extra-trippy feeling.

    fiveout of five stars

    (Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

    Welcome to Wink, where the sky meets the earth – and bumps up against the skies of infinite other worlds!

    No matter how far or long her travels, Mona Bright has never felt as though she belonged; never felt at home, or even whole, deep down in the innermost reaches of her soul. Her chronically depressed, possibly schizophrenic mother committed suicide when Mona was just four years old; after Laura’s death, Mona and her alcoholic father Earl resumed their nomadic lifestyle, chasing odd jobs through the southwest and finding common ground only in hunting blinds and improvised shooting ranges. As soon as she turned 18, Mona left home, eventually settling down in Houston where she became a police officer. She met a guy, fell in love, became pregnant – only to have to her hopes of fresh starts and second chances destroyed in one tragic instant. With this, Mona resumed a life of drinking and wandering. Running, you might say.

    The source of Mona’s malaise never required a supernatural explanation. That is, until she lands in Wink, New Mexico.

    Upon her father’s death, Mona unexpectedly inherits a house that her mother, Laura Gutierrez Alvarez, purchased before her life with Earl and Mona. Set in the shadow of the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, the town of Wink was established in the ‘60s as a support for the government-funded research lab. Though Coburn is long deserted, the town remains – and in an idyllic state: despite its harsh desert climate, all the lawns in Wink are forever green and perfectly manicured. The sky is always a brilliant shade of blue, and at night an oddly pink moon shines down upon the residents. Divorce is unheard of, and all the television sets are tuned to the 1980s. Think: Leave It to Beaver meets Roswell.

    With less than two weeks to spare, Mona speeds off to Wink to claim her inheritance – and hopefully learn more about the mother who is but a distant, painful memory.

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