And now, the last of the book posts from 2015! As I said in my stats post, I didn’t read very much science fiction this year, but what I did read, I liked.
This year I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, and I fully intended to read Ancillary Mercy as well, but I ran out of reading time for the year before I got to it, so it may well show up in my 2016 reviews. Sword wasn’t the mind-blowing experience that Ancillary Justice was, but that’s often my experience with a second book in a series. However, in this case, Sword was intentionally a different book. The first book of the trilogy was very much a wide-ranging, time-spanning space opera. The second book, by contrast, zooms in to a much smaller scale, as we follow the main character on a mission to a single space station and its nearby planet. While this book’s story clearly has larger implications for the universe as a whole, the format is much closer to a mystery than a space opera. As Leckie said in an interview I proofread for Lightspeed:
I was definitely going for a different kind of vibe. On the one hand, I would love to give people more of the same who liked the book to begin with, but on the other hand, it would be kind of dull to write the same book a second time. Also, Breq’s situation is very different. She’s in the first book undergoing this huge tragedy and also looking for some kind of revenge or redress. In the second book, that’s already been resolved to the extent that she could do it and now her problems are a little bit subtler, a little bit different, and they’re going to be superficially quieter, at least for a while. So that really did require a different sort of book.
I have talked about the book with at least one friend who was disappointed in the change in tone, but personally, I liked it. (Then again, I like both genre mash-ups and mysteries in general quite a bit.) The other thing I liked about this book was its focus on the long-term, and much more personal, impact of extended colonial rule, especially with regard to class. (Writing these year-end reviews, I’ve noticed this is a cross-genre theme in my 2015 reading, and I definitely approve. I love seeing historical/societal issues being addressed by my friends in mainstream academia then picked up by fiction authors and applied to worlds of the imagination, because it both lends depth to those worlds and provides the reader with another lens through which to examine said issues, which has always been a strength of SFF.) I’m looking forward to seeing how Breq’s story continues to evolve in Ancillary Mercy.
Speaking of playing with ways of telling a story, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance provides a stunning example. This is perhaps the most original book I can recall reading in quite some time. First of all, it’s science fiction as if the retrofuturistic vision offered in Metropolis had come true. All the planets of our solar system have been settled by humans, who travel to them in rocketships fired out of cannons. It’s been termed “decopunk,” and I, for one, hope this is an aesthetic that catches on. Here’s Valente’s own attempt to sum it up at the beginning of this Big Idea piece:
Radiance doesn’t have a big idea at its heart.
It has about six. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.
At its core, it tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of a noted film director, Severin Unck, and chronicles her father’s attempt to come to grips with what happened. But since he’s also a director, the story is told through the medium he understands best: film and audio clips from the archives and multiple drafts of a script for a film he’s trying to write about her disappearance. The story is not very linearly told, which makes it all the more effective at communicating the confusion surrounding Severin’s disappearance (and presumed death.) The film and audio clips from the archives, which come between the main chapters, give the reader some idea of Severin’s true life and the facts that are actually known about her–quite a lot, really, since she grew up on a movie studio lot with a father obsessed with recording events. But the power of the camera and the director to change the shape of those events through the way the story is framed becomes evident as the main body of the novel begins to unfold in the form of supposed script for a new movie about solving Severin’s death. The main character will be a fictionalized version of her adopted son, hired as a private detective and sent to investigate his own mother’s long-ago disappearance. The first third of the book is framed as a noir detective story, but when that begins to break down for the director, the second third is presented as a gothic horror, which is then scrapped once again for a final third that’s more… adventure? By that time I was so invested in finding out what happened, I apparently didn’t register the exact genre shift. It sounds crazy and chaotic, and it is, except it’s amazingly beautiful at the same time (Valente excels at poetic visual descriptions), and it will make you think about the history of science fiction and space travel and film and the nature of storytelling.
In other tales of travel to other planets, I also read Planetfall, by Emma Newman. I’d previously read Newman’s Split Worlds urban fantasy trilogy, so I thought I knew something about her writing, but Planetfall is completely different. From Regency-influenced faerie courts frozen in time, she now turns to a hard SF tale of a human colony on a far distant planet, scientists and adventurous explorers who have followed Suh-Mi, a semi-messianic figure, away from Earth in pursuit of an apparent invitation from aliens. The book is told from the perspective of Suh-Mi’s lover, Ren, the woman who believed in Suh-Mi’s vision enough to do much of the background scientific work needed to get a colony spaceship off the ground and all the way to its destination, now the colony’s 3D printing engineer. But now the colony has been on the planet of the vision for more than twenty years, and it’s soon clear to the reader that not all is right. The residents of the colony believe Suh-Mi is communing with the alien presence that called to her and will emerge eventually to tell them the message they all came so far to hear. But Ren and the other colony leader have a secret… and it could destroy everything if their lies are revealed. This book’s true strength is in the narration. Ren has an incredibly compelling voice, and watching the story unfold from within her perspective is eerily powerful. I can’t give away too much about Ren’s life and personality without revealing major spoilers, but I have rarely read a first-person narration that so completely pulled me in. Maybe Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree.
I swear I don’t read with intentional themes in mind, but in trying to decide which order to talk about these books in, I find there is a tie from Planetfall to the next book, William Gibson’s The Peripheral: 3D printing. Both books envision futures where 3D printing has become so commonplace as to be a staple of everyday life. The Peripheral, though, offers us two visions of Earth, rather than transporting us to another planet. But as Gibson so often proves, life here is strange enough. This book features two storylines that become intertwined: one in far-future London, sparsely populated and full of enormous Shard towers; the other in a more mid-term future in the rural American South. How are they connected? Someone in future-London has figured out how to contact people in little pockets of the past, or history “stubs.” Said future people can affect what happens in their stub, but know that they’re doing so in a timeline unconnected to their own. It’s just a curiosity, a passing fad for the idle rich. But one of those idle rich hires a gamer from a stub’s version of the American South to fly a surveillance droid outside her apartment to keep away the paparazzi… and that gamer ends up witnessing a murder. Which leads to the main character from the mid-future timeline having to travel into the world of the far-future timeline via a telepresence robot (the titular “peripheral”) to help solve the murder, except of course the murder is part of a much larger political plot that ends up with extreme consequences for both timelines. Though I’ve seen a lot of fan response to this book’s vision of far-future London and the proliferation of telepresence robots, the thing I found most interesting about this book was how spot-on I felt Gibson’s vision of the futuristic rural South was. Lower middle class people in a small town making a living from illicit 3D printing of high-tech devices that they all casually use in the most everyday ways; retired army veterans who used to pilot droids (or were maybe piloted in some ways themselves) now reliving the war by playing MMORPG video games as hired gladiators for rich guys to lay bets on; complexly intertwined family and friend networks of gossip, news, and support leveraged to overcome international crime syndicates. It’s a prescient extrapolation of the future that I completely buy as what I’ll find when driving through eastern North Carolina in about 20 years.