System Collapse, the latest in the science fiction series of novellas-approaching-novels by Martha Wells, was released four days ago. I did extra housework to get in the listening time so I could discuss it today. My floors are looking nice.
Murderbot is a security unit, a construct of human and machine parts. Its job is to provide security to a group of human researchers, who keep getting into mortal peril when they visit other planets. Its likes include watching soap operas. Its dislikes include getting attached to humans, who are messy and complicated.
Narrator Kevin R. Free does such a good job with this series. I am especially fond of the voice he does for ART, the sentient research vessel that steals every scene it's in. I'm almost as fond of ART as I am of Murderbot. Don't tell Murderbot I said that.
Don't start with this one of you're new to the Murderbot Diaries. Go back to the beginning with All Systems Red.
I realize I haven't said anything about this book specifically. I don't think I'll go into plot details, but I'll say that it made me feel some feelings the same way poor Murderbot felt them.
"I was having an emotion, like a big, overwhelming emotion. It felt bad but good, a weird combination of happy and sad and relieved, like something had been stuck and wasn't stuck anymore. Cathartic, okay? This fits the definition of cathartic."
On the one hand, Consider Phlebas is a smart, fast-paced opener for The Culture books, an acclaimed science fiction series by Iain M. Banks. On the other, there are two stereotypes all tied up in one villain package. One of the villains is a Jabba the Hutt knockoff who invites us to equate corpulence with corruption. Then audiobook narrator Peter Kinney comes along to give him the voice of an effete homosexual. Banks strikes me as an intelligent writer, and Kinney is one of my favorite narrators, so I am mad at both of them.
And before you go telling me how Things Were Different back then, the book's pub date is 1987. The moon landing was old enough to vote.
So to enjoy this book, you'll need to have tolerance for some unfortunate stereotypes, and you'll need to have a stomach made of steel, because there is one scene that is revolting. I have a high tolerance for reading disgusting things and I about lost my lunch.
If you're still with me, this is a fun space opera. I see why it endures on Best Of lists, and I expect I'll continue sampling from The Culture books. This is not the kind of science fiction that makes you contemplate your own humanity. It's the other kind. the SPACE LASERS kind.
I listened to a classic of science fiction, The Lathe of Heaven (1971), written by Ursula K. Le Guin and narrated by George Guidall, easily one of my favorite voice actors.
George Orr transforms reality through the power of his dreams. He's terrified each time he falls asleep because he can't control what he dreams.
No one else realizes it's happening. Each time George dreams up a new reality, everyone else enters the new continuum unwittingly. His only ally is his psychiatrist, who is secretly developing a dream machine that will replicate George's powers in other people.
This is what science fiction was made for, to help us consider alternate realities, the nature of dreams, and parallel universes. I give Le Guin full marks for investigating these concepts.
But I didn't like the book. I find Le Guin to be humorless and largely unemotional. The characters felt flat and the prose was dry. There was nothing wrong with it, but the stylistic choice to be deadly serious did not suit me.
I have similar criticisms about many, many, many science fiction books, especially those written in the twentieth century. The science fiction writers I love best--Connie Willis, Martha Wells, Becky Chambers, Tom Holt, Tamsyn Muir--can manage thought-provoking speculation without treating character development like an embarrassing hookup they'd really rather forget.
I've been similarly disappointed by Le Guin's fantasy--The Wizard of Earthsea bored me as a teenager--though I did enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, a pioneering novel about gender. And the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is terrific. I recommend that as an entry point for anyone wanting to try Le Guin.
For those wanting to learn more about alternate realities and the interconnectedness of everything, you could take psychedelic drugs like mushrooms or LSD, only those are illegal in most places to please don't construe this as legal advice.
A generally less criminal approach would be reading classic authors like Philip K. Dick (only I haven't read him yet, given my prejudice against 20th century speculative fiction writers), or you could read "The Life of Chuck," a Stephen King short story I read last year that I still haven't recovered from, it was that good.
Tom Holt is among my favorite contemporary writers. It's his prose style that does it for me. When I write fiction, it's his voice that I try to emulate, more than any other writer. He sets up his words in such a way that an ordinary sentence turns into a vehicle for comedy.
Under pseudonym K. J. Parker, he writes fantasy novels that are laugh-out-loud funny, but it's hard to persuade anyone of that, what with the high body count and catastrophically tragic story lines. As Tom Holt, he writes science fiction novels that feature somewhat less slaughtering.
For example, although the protagonist of When It's a Jar does at one point take a mortal wound, it's not a permanent condition. He's able to free himself from Valhalla after a few weeks, so no harm done.
This is the second book in Holt's YouSpace series, which can be roughly summarized as: madcap escapades through the multiverse. Or putting it another way, this is like A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but funnier. And Ray Sawyer's audiobook narration is pitch perfect.
After the death of King Arthur, the wizard Merlin cast a spell on the knights of the round table, ensuring they would be resurrected any time Britain faced great peril. From the Battle of Hastings to World War II, they have risen from the earth to defend the realm.
Now they're back to fight climate change.
Perilous Times, Thomas D. Lee's debut, is a delightful take on Arthurian legend. Characters from the old tales share the page with contemporary people, including a ragtag group of feminist eco-terrorists, a satanic cabal of powerful men, and a white nationalist who gets turned into a squirrel.
The depictions of an uncomfortably-near future ravaged by rising waters and rising temperatures make this science fiction as well as fantasy. It's also a political satire. The squabbling and inertia among the rebels threatens to forestall action against the corporate polluters.
Be aware, there's a fair bit of violence here, including violence against a pet. There's also violence against a dragon, but she started it.
I enjoyed the audiobook, narrated by Nicola F. Delgado, who did a fine job with English, Welsh, and American accents.
A version of this post originally appeared on April 8, 2023.
All I knew of The Last Policeman (2012) was that it got a lot of acclaim. Also I figured it for a crime novel. There is a clue for this hypothesis hidden in the title.
There's an asteroid coming toward the earth, though it's still several months from impact. Society is collapsing in fits and starts. Lots of people are choosing to check themselves out before impact, but the corpse in the McDonald's bathroom stall seems like a murder, and detective Henry Palace is determined to investigate it, even as the structures of law enforcement (like habeas corpus) disintegrate.
I would have enjoyed this book more pre-pandemic, but I no longer need help imagining how people respond to global threat. I'm good.
Still though, this is a decent way to spend your time: Police procedural, society under threat, noirish feel, mild science fiction. I especially recommend it for people who like a literary feel to their genre fiction. Peter Berkrot narrates the audio.
A version of this post originally appeared on April 1, 2023.
In anticipation of turning 42 next Thursday, I reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As a young teen I found it hysterical, absurd humor mixed with running gags. Douglas Adams hit all the right chords when I was developing my sense of humor, and familiarity with Hitchhiker signified inclusion in a science fiction in-group, back when nerd fandom was more in the margins.
It was like recognizing Led Zeppelin’s Lord of the Rings references, back before Peter Jackson made his movies, when obsessively listening to an album was the only way to learn lyrics. Knowing that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42 marked you as a special type of nerd.
As an adult: the book is still funny. I frequently laughed out loud to Stephen Fry’s audiobook narration.
And that’s all. There’s no depth. It’s a diverting story. I would still gladly suggest it for anyone wanting a laugh, especially a younger someone who would enjoy it as much as I did thirty years ago.
But if you want speculative fiction with pathos and deep meaning in addition to laughs—well. I need to catch up on the Christopher Moore books I haven’t read yet, for starters. And it sounds like I’m talking myself into a re-read of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
A version of this post originally appeared on March 11, 2023.
Samuel R. Delaney is one of the pioneers of modern science fiction. He's garnered critical and popular success in his long career, an especially impressive achievement given his race. Black authors are still rare in science fiction, yet Delaney won his first Nebula in 1966.
Wanting to correct this gap in my SF knowledge, I started with Babel-17, in no small part because it is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose voice improves any story. In this space opera, the main character is a pilot turned poet, and she is a major celebrity, because in this universe, poetry is a big deal. (This is difficult to believe, but science fiction requires us to accept outlandish ideas.)
The military has hired this poet to break the code of Babel-17, the language used by the enemies in a protracted intergalactic war. And thus we get a story with lots of space battles punctuated by discussions of phonemes.
While I didn't fall in love with the book, I admired it, and I'd like to go back and read more of Delaney.
A version of this post originally appeared on February 18, 2023.
I revisited a favorite, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the novel that got me into Claire North. This time around I read it as an audiobook, and may I observe that Peter Kenny is excellent. North has this habit of sending her characters around the globe, and Kenny narrates the accents from six different continents like it's nothing. I bet he could do penguin accents if it came to that.
Harry is born in England in 1919 and is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. August. He serves in the second world war and proceeds to live an unremarkable existence. Things only get interesting after his death, when he is reborn into the same circumstances: same year, same location, same birth parents, same adoptive parents, same soul. By age three, when memories of his first life begin to resurface, the young Harry goes mad. This is a common reaction for members of the Cronus Club, those rare individuals who recycle their lives, though Harry doesn't learn of them until life number three.
It's such an enchanting premise: what would you do if you could learn from your mistakes, if death held no sway over you? It's a captivating thought experiment, though an unlikely plot for a novel. Characters who don't fear death get tiresome after a while.
Fortunately for the sake of the narrative, a character named Vincent develops a technology that can wipe the memories of Cronus Club members, thereby upping the stakes from trivial to existential. In the process, he is accidentally destroying the world. Also he's Harry's best friend.
North's characters are prone to getting into abstract arguments, debating their way through topics with whole philosophical essays that pass for dialogue. This is not a criticism. It's my favorite part of science fiction, where you get to muse over unexpected What If scenarios.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.