Book Review: Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler (2019)

Friday, May 10th, 2019

“Behind every brilliant woman is her doubly brilliant mother.”

five out of five stars

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

She knew them by their light, the gentle differences—Amit’s warm, yellowish brown, Evgeni who glowed like a pearl, Louisa who was brighter than all of them. Nedda would know them anywhere; if she lost their shapes, she’d recognize their light.

They would likely die. It was why they were childless, unwed. Freedom of sacrifice. It was a shame that only three people would ever again be in the same room as Evgeni when he sang. Only three people would know that Singh ate with his pinkie out. That Marcanta pulled hairs from her eyebrows when frustrated. Children would know their names, and drive on roads named Sokolov or Papas. Children would know their ship, Chawla, and who she’d hauled. A little girl somewhere would rattle off everything she’d read about them, and with it everything she knew about space and time, about light.

“I got a boat too. It’s not real big, just enough to take a few people out, that’s all.”

“What’d you name it?”

Flux Capacitor.”

Doc Brown’s a better name.”

“Yeah, but boats are women.”

“Everything’s a woman. Cars, boats, houses. Anywhere that’s safe or takes you somewhere better is a woman,” she said.

“So, Chawla is a woman?”

“Obviously.” She opened her eye to find him staring.

Her father’s machine was as much hope and wish as it was metal and glass.

In the present day – her present, our future – Nedda Papas has achieved everything she’s dreamed of. As one quarter of the crew of Chawla, Nedda is humanity’s last best chance. Climate change has wrought havoc on earth: rising sea levels have disappeared entire islands and shrunk continents, hunger fueled by drought is the new normal, and wildfires plague what little land is left. The planet is beyond saving; now flight is the only long-term option.

Sent to colonize another planet in a galaxy far, far away, Nedda will never again set foot on earth. And she’s okay with that – it’s for the greater good, after all, and doesn’t she owe her species at least that much, anyway? But when cost-cutting and politicking threatens Chawla’s success, Nedda must revisit her past in order to salvage our future.

It was 1986 when Nedda’s world imploded: first, with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; and again with Theo Pappas’s magnum opus, the Crucible.

Light from Other Stars unfolds in two parallel narratives: aboard the Chawla, and in January/February 1986, when Nedda is eleven years old.

Middle-schooler Nedda lives Easter, Florida, in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center. She and her professor father Theo – newly laid off from NASA after the latest round of budget cuts – are inseparable, whether devising and executing experiments or trying to spot Halley’s Comet shoot across the night sky. Her relationship with mother Betheen is a little frostier, but not necessarily for lack of mutual interests: Beth is a chemist. But her (women’s) work is undervalued, because of course it is. It also doesn’t help that Betheen has been drowning in grief for most of young Nedda’s life. But spoilers!

Theo has suffered from psoriatic arthritis since childhood, and the joint pain and inflammation makes his work difficult (as does the markedly inferior resources at Haverstone College). Ostensibly, this is the impetus behind his crowning achievement, the Crucible, a machine that can slow down, stop, or even reverse time (and thus heal all manner of physical injuries) by manipulating entropy. (Swyler includes a fair amount of background on the science, only a fraction of which I can claim to understand, and I have no idea how sound it is. But I didn’t find these bits boring or excessive, fwiw.)

Theo’s machine is a success, in a manner of speaking, but things go sideways, because of course they do. When Crucible threatens to devour all of Easter (including Nedda’s best friend Denny), it’s up to Nedda and Betheen to save the day.

Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Ed White – Nedda’s heroes have always been astronauts. WWJD – What would Judy do?

As much as I loved Swyler’s previous novel, The Book of Speculation, I think she managed to outdo herself with Light from Other Stars. It is beautiful and magical and excruciating in the best way. I am writing this review weeks after turning the last page, tears coursing down my face anew. (Okay, that makes my ugly crying sound a lot prettier than it is. A spectacle, I am making one.)

A big part of this are the passages on death and dying and the afterlife. I’m an atheist, and don’t generally envy people their religious beliefs … that is, unless it’s the comfort that the grieving can find in stories about heaven (or reincarnation, or what have you). Some days I’d give anything to believe that I’ll be reunited with my deceased love ones, eventually. But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, even when it’s convenient, and so I go scavenging for secular comfort wherever I can find it, like a sad, lonely little heathen magpie.

I find it in all sorts of places (but mostly books, to no one’s surprise): Aaron Freeman’s essay, “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.” The passages in The Subtle Knife where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead. The entire science-based religion created by Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parables duology. Add to that Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts. (Carl Sagan’s quote about starstuff! I knew I was forgetting something!) There’s some truly breathtaking stuff in here. This is a wonderfully godless book; a wonderful book for the godless. I’ll hold it close to my heart and cherish it, always.

(I want desperately to include some excerpts here, but spoilers!)

Light from Other Stars is also fiercely feminist, even if the ferocity sometimes comes in a whisper instead of a shout. It’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons … but also, especially, about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. Nedda’s relationship with Theo is as magnificent as it is tenuous, but her bond with Betheen is all the more wonderful for its complexity, for the way it grows and strengthens and changes – and holds fast even across the vast chasm of space. Nedda’s evolving perception of her mother as she discovers what Betheen is capable of is a revelation. I wonder if they ever perfected that champagne cake together?

Last but not least, it’s a joy to watch as these two narratives come together, often in unexpected ways (Amadeus, I’m looking at you).

Swyler’s writing is exquisite and will pummel you right in the feels. I really hope Netflix picks this one up for a screenplay or miniseries. I need to see what time made liquid looks like, stat.

(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: Vagrant Queen, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith (2019)

Friday, April 5th, 2019

A Fun Enough Shoot ‘Em Up Space Opera

three out of five stars

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

Elida Al-feyr’s ancestors were … not very nice people. At the edge of a galaxy (not ours), they developed a mind-control device called the Bezoar of Kings. With it, they brainwashed the people of Arriopa into believing that they were gods, accepting their will without question. By the time Elida was crowned Queen of the Divine Monarchy – at the tender age of ten – the Bel-iors had not relied upon the amulet’s power for generations. Yet this doesn’t quell a popular, violent uprising, in which the monarchy is overthrown and replaced by a republic. Elida and her mother escape certain death, but barely – and the last two remaining members of the royal family are separated within the year.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Elida is in hiding, making a living by scavenging wrecks and reselling her finds. A not-so-chance encounter with an old frenemy named Isaac sends her in search of her mother, said to be imprisoned in the Monastery of Wix. But is Isaac double-crossing her, or triple-crossing someone else? Is the long-lost Bezoar of Kings merely myth, or is it out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found? And if it is, what responsibility does Elida bear for its misuse?

Vagrant Queen is a fun, shoot ’em up space opera. There’s not a whole lot that’s noteworthy or especially memorable about the plot, but it’s a fun enough ride while it lasts. Some elements work better than others; Elida is a badass anti-hero, but Isaac’s bad boy schtick feels played out. That said, his facial hair is a thing of wonder. Ditto: Elida’s ‘do, which almost feels like a throwback to Aeon Flux. Ten-year-old Elida is a compelling character, and I’d love to see more of her in future issues. (And her fro? Even more glorious than her future self’s locks.) For those who like gory, over-the-top violence, Vagrant Queen has it in spades; to wit:

While I love the diversity in this story, it feels a little weird to see a Black family enslave a bunch of white people. Like, is this progress? Just dessert? Post-racial, race-blind storytelling? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it? Idk what to think.

(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: Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (2016)

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

A character-driven story driven by two very boring characters.

three out of five stars

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

“But you are a scientist. You understand how this works. We study the universe in order to know, yet in the end the only thing we truly know is that all things end—all but death and time. It’s difficult to be reminded of that”—he patted her hand where it lay on the table—“but it’s harder to forget.”

The basic premise of Good Morning, Midnight immediately reminded me of the opening scenes of The Walking Dead: protagonist Rick Grimes awakens from a coma, only to be greeted by a world he barely recognizes. Entire buildings, blocks, cities, all in shambles. Radio, internet, and satellite communication (mostly) down. His wife and son missing. The dead come back to life; zombies (sorry, walkers!) as far as the eye can see.

Ever since the show’s premier (not a huge fan of the comics, sorry!), this idea has fascinated me: what must it be like to return to the world after a prolonged absence – whether voluntary (a cruise) or not (a coma), mundane (a hiking trip) or the truly spectacular (terraforming Mars!) – only to find it radically transformed? To the stuff of nightmares? And you’re the last woman standing?

Good Morning, Midnight plays with this idea in the form of two survivors, both of whom exist – by chance or by choice, for a time or permanently – in the margins of humanity.

(More below the fold…)