Myke Cole's The Queen of Crows is a timely story of fighting back

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I’ve been a fan of Myke Cole’s books for a couple of years ago now, ever since I picked up his debut novel, Control Point in 2012. Myke’s really grown as a writer in the years since that first book, and I was particularly fond of the first installment of his Sacred Throne trilogy, The Armored Saint. The sequel, The Queen of Crows, is a superb followup, expanding the world a bit more, and echoing some real world concerns about the rise of totalitarian-minded individuals.

In that first book, we’re introduced to a young villager named Heloise, in a world where the brutal Order maintains control through force, working to stamp out wizardry — which can open portals to other worlds, with devastating consequences. Heloise sees this first-hand, as a wizard accidentally opens such a portal, and as members of the Order come down on her town, hard. At the end of the book, she kills a demon, and wards off the Order with a suit of power armor that was being constructed by a tinker in her town.

Now, she and her fellow villagers are on the run: the Order is regrouping and after them for their resistance, and they fall into the company of a roving band that helps protect them. Heloise and her allies realize that they can’t run forever: they won’t find shelter, and they’ll be picked off one by one. They decide to take a nearby fortified town, to either start up a sort of resistance movement against the Order — not necessarily the Emperor himself — or die trying.

What struck me the most about this book is that where Myke set up a fascist order in The Armored Saint, he’s portraying a world where the bad guys control the world in The Queen of Crows. This is the world of the Empire, the Trump administration, or any other evil organization that you can think of. It’s here where hope seems to be lost, but the heroes begin to get a bit of a toehold against them, and from there, they’ll go on to carry on the fight. Where Armored Saint was pretty bleak, Queen of Crows is, well, still pretty grim, but there’s tiny rays of hope. There’s allies out there, people willing to stand up when they realize that they have companions. Like I noted earlier this year, it’s extremely relevant in 2018. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, The Killing Light, whenever that ends up hitting bookstores next year.

From the beginning to the end: Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy

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I dipped my toe into the world of Chinese science fiction over the course of this summer, as i did a bit work on my home. To keep myself on track and entertained, I began listening to a string of Clarkesworld Magazine’s podcasts — their fantastic translations from China. (In particular, “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, “Farewell Doraemon” by A Que , “Your Multicolored Life” by Xing He, and “To Fly like a Fallen Angel,” by Qi Yue) I’ve read stories from the China before: I wrote a post for Barnes and Noble about the history of Chinese science fiction, and through Ken Liu’s anthology, Invisible Planets, and of course, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I reviewed for Lightspeed Magazine a couple of years ago.)

I’ve begun work on a new project for The Verge, and along with the stories that I had been listening to, I decided to go back to The Three-Body Problem and its sequels, which had been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, books that kept telling myself that I’d pick up eventually. So, after I reviewed Liu’s novel Ball Lightning for The Verge, they were books that I picked up right away, to revisit that world. I blew through each of the three books in the trilogy, and I’m kicking myself for not reading them earlier.

The most impressive thing that I found with the trilogy as a whole was the scale that Liu was writing at. Reviews and blurbs for the series teased that it spanned the entire future: from the 1970s all the way to the heat death of the universe, and he manages to do that, in a really interesting way. Spoilers ahead.

The Three-Body Problem begins in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution: a woman named Ye Wenjie watches as her father is killed during a riot. She’s sent first to a labor camp and then to an isolated scientific facility, where she’s able to put some of her astrophysics training to work. While there, she conducts some research, and ends up testing a way to amplify a radio signal to beam into the cosmos. She’s surprised, eight years later, when a representative of an alien civilization, the Trisolarans, contacts her, warning her not to respond to any further messages. Fed up with the human race, and with the treatment that she’s endured, she responds, allowing the Trisolarans to locate Earth.

Trisolaris, it turns out, is a harsh world: it orbits three stars in an unpredictable pattern, destroying civilizations over and over again. Now, the system knows where a stable, habitable planet is, and they’re bent on traveling to it. It’ll take them 450 years to reach Earth, however, and to prepare, they form a fifth column of like-minded Humans to prepare for their arrival. The Three-Body Problem jumps back and forth between various time periods, and in the present day, the Trisolarans send along a device called a sophon — a multidimensional supercomputer that interferes with advanced physics research, effectively stalling scientific progress to counter the Trisolarans.

In the first novel, humans uncover the Trisolaran plot, but are left with a conundrum: anything they do to prepare will be seen instantly by the Trisolarans. The next installment, The Dark Forest, we follow Earth’s various efforts as they work to counter the alien invaders, electing four individuals with immense resources to act as “Wallfacers,” who are tasked with formulating plans that only they know, in order to prevent the plans from falling into enemy hands. The book largely follows Luo Ji, a scientist who initially refuses, and after taking advantage of the resources, formulates a plan to “cast a spell” on a star — testing to see whether or not there are other observers in the galaxy. It turns out that there are, and it forms the basis for a sort of mutual self-destruction pact between Earth and the Trisolarans.

In the final book, Death’s End, the Trisolarans and Earth reach an uneasy balance during what comes to be known as the Deterrence era. This book largely follows a woman named Cheng Xin, who finds herself in the role of Swordholder — someone who maintains the deterrence that keeps Earth safe. When that fails, we follow as humanity prepares to take whatever means it can to ensure its survival.

That summary is just a tiny, thumbnail sketch of the entire series: Cixin covers an incredible amount of territory over the course of the trilogy. The Three-Body Problem is the most straight-forward of the trilogy. The Dark Forest and Death’s End each deal with incredible jumps in time as characters enter hibernation, and as society makes its own leaps and bounds technologically. Earth’s society swings between incredible austerity and poverty to utopian-like periods of high technology, and beyond. There’s really everything in this book, from massive space battles, political intrigue, and social commentary embedded in here. The books as a whole are a bit uneven: Cixin likes to devote a lot of time to exploring futuristic technologies and infodumps (which I don’t mind, but some people complain about), and there’s a lot of tangents that give me the impression that the entire trilogy could be tightened up quite a bit. But the adventure is in the ride, and that awesome scale really plays well here.

One of the biggest points that Cixin makes in this series is a grim answer to the nature of life in the universe: in all probability, there’s life beyond Earth — there’s just too many planets out there for us to be alone. Cixin’s world is teeming with life, and everyone is quiet. He likens the galaxy to a Dark Forest, in which there are many people, hidden from one another. The rise of one planetary civilization means a potential, existential threat others, and the moment that one becomes visible, they’re immediately in danger. The Trisolarans are certainly one threat, but Luo Ji realizes that there’s likely others, and that lighting up one’s location for the rest of the cosmos to see would mean a quick response from another, more powerful neighbor.

This actually happens — Death’s End has an gripping, and utterly horrifying example of what that looks like. It’s a brilliant scene, and it’s part of a larger culmination of the trilogy as a whole.

But what Cixin is doing is playing against the larger body of science fiction. There’s plenty of stories throughout the genre’s canon that imagines peaceful (and sometimes not so peaceful) coexistence with other aliens out there — the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, but those don’t come close to the grim world that Cixin portrays. With a veneer of hard physics limiting the characters, everyone in the galaxy is essentially moving around this dark forest, trying to avoid being spotted, for fear of being wiped out. In many ways, I think this series helps set a tone for science fiction that will follow: a new way to look at and conceptualize the universe around us.

This, to me, is big. There’s always been a sort of argument between the hard-SF crowd and the softer space opera circles between how to realistically portray the harsh nature of space, and Cixin’s trilogy essentially finds a newish way to look at the cosmos, somewhere between awe and wonder, while also recognizing that we’re an incredibly small part of the universe.

Ian McDonald's Time Was is a haunting time travel romance

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Ian McDonald has become one of my favorite science fiction authors in recent years: his novel Luna: New Moon kicked off a fantastic trilogy (the third installment has sadly been delayed until next year), while River of Gods and The Dervish House used the intersection between cheap technology, poverty, and politics to present a really intriguing set of futures for Earth. McDonald's latest, Time Was, is a change from that model, but it's no less a gripping read. 

Set during the Second World War, it follows two men, Tom and Ben. Ben is a scientist working on a secret project, and as he and Tom fall in love, the project goes wrong, sending both men to wander throughout time, trying to find one another through messages left in books. The story ping-pongs between the story of a man named Emmett Leigh in the present, who discovers letters from the two men and embarks on a mission to try and find out who they were as they intersect throughout time, and the story of the two men leading up to their accident.

McDonald does something impressive over the course of its short length, blending hard physics with a really tragic romance that comes full circle in a sort of reciprocating way — a form that I really love reading, as in Lev Grossman's The Magician King and Joe Hill's Horns. But McDonald also treats his characters well, showcasing a gay couple that feels natural, and not playing to tired tropes. It's incredibly well written, and is well worth picking up. 

Myke Cole's The Armored Saint is an intense, timely dark fantasy about standing up against fascism

IMG_2226.jpg Myke Cole's new fantasy novella The Armored Saint hits bookstores today, and it's a really fantastic read. I brought an advance copy with me when I went to New York Comic Con in October. I figured it would be a good backup read while I went through a couple of other books I was covering. I ended up reading the first couple of pages while I had a spare moment, and ended up devouring the entire book in a sitting on the train ride home. It's a grim fantasy novel with a hell of a punch.

As a bit of a disclaimer, Myke and I are friends: take my review with whatever grain of salt you want, but I think this is a book that I'd recommend regardless of that.

The Armored Saint is set in a pretty grim fantasy world, ruled by the brutal Order, a fascist, militaristic body that seeks to stamp out wizards and magic users, as their powers open a portal to another, terrifying world. The Order arrives at Heloise's village, and we see their brutality firsthand: dragging a dead villager behind their horses, and later, they attack and destroy a village.

Behind all of this is some exquisite worldbuilding: this is a short book, Cole packs quite a bit in. Where some fantasy novelists will pad out their work with every little facet of the characters, their surroundings, and history, Cole lets this book breathe a bit: the details come out little by little, painting a larger portrait through dialogue and actions.

Fantasy traditionally follows heroic lines of good verses evil, but Cole injects this story with a bit more grey: when Heloise eventually encounters the magic that the Order is brutally trying to suppress, it's clear that their fanaticism has legitimate roots, and that what they are fighting against is something to fear.

But what sets The Armored Saint apart here is that Cole sets up a story that looks to critique those in power, and it's a relevant, timely story about a single girl (along with a nice set of armor) standing up against a fanatical regime. The Order might be a useful group to ward off destruction, but it leaves in its wake broken people and villages: it's clear that their presence can be just as harmful. In Cole's world, power corrupts absolutely, whether it's a magical power or one given for the protection of all.

This is a theme that I think is extremely relevant in 2018, not just in the United States, but wherever authoritarian attitudes have been strengthened in recent years.

But while fantasy and science fiction literature are ideal genres for political messaging, I think The Armored Saint succeeds beyond that. Again, it's a short book, but it's one loaded with excellent and well-sketched characters. There's a world with fascinating history and backstory that I want to see much more of (the next installment is due out later this year, fortunately), and it's all conveyed by Cole's excellent writing. Simply put, it's a novel that clicks, and once I started reading it, I couldn't stop until the last page.

Annalee Newitz's Autonomous is a razor-sharp look at the future

In 2009, I got a phone call for what turned out to be an internship at a new website about science fiction and science fact called io9. At the other end of the line was Annalee Newitz, the site's editor, and we chatted about academics, science fiction, and what I wanted to write about. That was the start to a really wild ride, and ultimately has brought me to the place where I am today: writing about science fiction and science fact.

So, I'll get it out of the way that I owe Annalee big time, but as with any book I crack open, I attempted to get into it objectively. Either way, I really adored Autonomous, her debut novel. It's a book that crackles with a really intriguing, nuanced vision the future of work, drugs, technology, and ownership that's both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. If you want a review that's not mine, I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Adi Robertson's take over on The Verge. (I did get to take the picture for the review!)

Set about a century in the future, Autonomous follows a pharma pirate named Jack who reverse-engineers drugs to give out to those in need. This future is ruled over by powerful governmental organizations that rigorously enforce property rights and ownership laws, where people and robots can be legally contracted out for work (really, a form of slavery), if they don't purchase an enfranchisement (citizenship) in any given territory.

When Jack reverse-engineers a drug called Zacuity, a work enhancement drug that gives its user a high while they go about their jobs. It turns out that it's highly addictive and leads to some bad outcomes: addicts become so addicted to their work that they don't do anything else, and they end up crashing trains or flooding cities, or just die from forgetting to take a break to drink water. Jack unleashes this drug on the open market, and has to turn around and figure out how to reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, this outbreak of addicts attracts the attention of the International Property Coalition, an organization that enforces intellectual property rights — with armed androids and soldiers. It sends a duo, Eliaz and Paladin, to track her down and take care of the problem.

Annalee plays with a lot of things in this book, and if you read io9 under her tenure, some of this will be familiar. The book plays out a sympathetic argument about intellectual property rights — how things like copyright and patents hamper innovation and contribute to the feedback loop that is capitalism. Jack and her academic compatriots are revolutionaries who work to try and break that system, opening free labs and pirating drugs.

On the other side of things, she explores some interesting thoughts on what the nature of work might be, for robots and humans. With the rise of intelligent robots, a system of contracts comes about: robots can offset the cost of their creation by going into a contract with their 'employers,' and people are brought in under the same system. It's essentially dressed-up slavery, and Annalee plays out these arguments between the Eliaz and Paladin's relationship.

The two dynamics tie into one another, but they are a bit uneven: this feels almost like two books smashed together, but they complement one another decently enough, essentially coming down to citizenship acting as another form of property.

As someone who wrote for io9, I really appreciate the sheer vibrancy of this book. It's packed with ideas and visuals and weird technologies. It's like walking through a crowded bazaar somewhere: there's too much to look and take in, and the book is a sensory overload in paper form. It's buzzing with huge ideas that warrant their own stories, but Annalee buzzes past them as the main narrative thunders along.

Ultimately, it's a fantastic, brilliant debut novel. I can't wait for her next one.

Iron Fist... Meh

I finally finished slogging through Netflix's Iron Fist. I really enjoyed watching Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and I was interested to see how this one would turn out. It's... definitely at the bottom of the  list when it comes to MCU entries.

The show gained a considerable amount of controversy for its approach to race, which I'm not really going to get into, other than to say that it felt kind of oblivious when it came to that particular topic. My colleague, Kwame Opam, wrote about it better than I could over on The Verge, and I generally agree with his review.  As I noted in my thoughts on Ghost in the Shell, it'll be interesting to see how this plays out a bit more broadly.

One thing that stuck out for me with Iron Fist was just how boring it is. Daredevil did some really spectacular fight scenes, but this should have put that to shame: it's a show about martial arts! The action was just... lackluster. A good example is this scene, where there's 56 cuts in 35 seconds, which made the whole thing jittery.

Above all, however, the story was a bit of a mess. It meanders, characters do a ton of really dumb and contradictory things, and Danny Rand's whole character journey just... doesn't seem to exist.

It feels as though Marvel didn't really think the story through, and really break the season into a coherent arc. What would have felt better to me is if Rand was still in training to become the Iron Fist, rather than coming back and seemingly went back to square one, which seems to negate everything he had been before. It feels as though it's an origin story set after the origin story, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, Defenders will be better when it hits later this summer.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures

This is a cool book I picked up recently: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures, written by the Library of Congress. It's a cool blend of history and visuals, and if you're nostalgic at all for the days of the card catalog or even libraries, it's well worth picking up.

The book alternates between two sections: images of the Library of Congress's collection, showing off books and their card counterpart, and history.

The history is the most appealing thing for me. It takes the reader through the history of the card catalog, with a broad view of how the library system itself came into being. From the very first Library of Congress to the present, it talks about something that people don't think about much when it comes to libraries: how an organization ... organizes itself, and how that helps steer the mission and purpose of the institution from thereon out. The actual cards are interesting, but it's the way in which they're used that's most fascinating. Now that computers have largely taken over the task of locating books in a library's collection, understanding that organizational mindset is pretty important. What I found most interesting is that the LoC actually still has their catalog in place, and the cards are still incredibly useful for researchers and librarians.

Ghost in the Shell ... meh.

I finally caught Ghost in the Shell at our local theater. It's *shrug*. It's got an amazingly pretty design and visuals — the props and world is stunning, which pleased me, because I was pretty much prepared to enjoy this film as eye candy. The story was run of the mill action / betrayal thriller. Scarlett Johansson was fine.
I've never seen the original anime, so I don't have a baseline to compare the story against. It's basic. Heroine is enhanced to carry out mission, discovers that she's been snatched away due to nefarious super-corporation, turns on them and gets revenge. No surprises there. It's an accessible film that I enjoyed for the most part.
The two things that bothered me about this, though. The film felt like it should have been so much more interesting, visually. Not the design, but the actual camera work. Anime has had a really neat influence on film: just look at what The Matrix did. Animation can do so much more than live action because of its medium, and extensive CGI now frees up live action film to do so much more.  I was hoping that the film would do more than just dramatic slow motions, and that the action scenes would be a bit more dramatic or interesting to watch. That it was sort of dull to watch is a crime in and of itself. I guess that's what you get when you put the guy who directed Snow White and the Huntsman behind the camera.
Secondly, the whitewashing thing? I think that if they hadn't explicitly made it a plot point, it probably would have been okay. It would still be a problem — hiring a caucasian actress for the role should have been thought out a bit more. That it was a point integrated into the story itself made it feel as though they realized it would be a problem, and didn't actually do the one thing they could have done to fix it. Given how the movie has been bombing, it's pretty clear they overestimated Johansson's star power and underestimated the negative press they got. At least they have an easy out if this ever gets a sequel: just recast Johansson by saying that she gets a new body.
It's interesting to see just how this has been playing out, especially so soon after Marvel's Netflix show Iron Fist rightly earned wide-spread criticism for exactly the same reasons. They underestimated the flurry of negativity that the show earned, but also put together an incredibly dull show. For a story about martial arts, it should have outdone Daredevil by a country mile.
Hopefully, studios will actually pay a bit more attention to this sort of thing moving forward. At least they're owning up to the problems this time.

Vick's Vultures, by Scott Warren

I'm a sucker for durable space opera novels. I like crews on space ships flying around doing things in the vastness of space, and one of the books that I came across earlier this fall was Scott Warren's new novel Vick's Vultures.

The premise of the novel is pretty straightforward: humanity has entered a larger diaspora of galactic civilizations, and has been keeping its head down, for the most part. We realize we're outgunned, and have been salvaging tech from other aliens to catch up. Vick's crew on board the U.E. Condor have been doing just that, and rescue First Prince Tavram, heir to a massive empire. Another empire is after him, and they flee through space to get him home.

It's a straightforward tale, and a nice diversion from some of the headier genre books out there. (The audio edition is also quite good). It's fast and engaging, and it's the type of book that falls neatly in line with the likes of John Scalzi or Marko Kloos. It's not straight-up military science fiction, but there's plenty of action and combat to keep you entertained.

 

Nightshades, by Melissa F. Olson

Nightshades was a book that I had placed on Gizmodo's 'Must Read' list this summer, and it's been one that I've had lingering on my to-read list since it's come out. I picked it up between books, and it's a fun vampire story that's a solid, quick read.

This is a YAVN: Yet Another Vampire Novel, although it's a short one. Vampires are out and about in Chicago, killing a whole bunch of people, which gets the FBI involved. One of the new agents is Alex McKenna, and he is placed in charge of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in the city after several fellow agents are killed.

This is the type of book that is quite a bit of fun, even as just about every element is made of recycled materials. It's like a fun cross of Underworld, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and maybe a bit of True Blood. That's okay: it's a book that's a perfect sort of beach read, or a quick book to pick up if you're traveling or reading on the go.

This is one of Tor.com's latest offerings, and the short size is a neat feature for most of the books that they're putting out. There's some bugs along with this feature, though: the short stories sort of rely on the idea that the author has a much bigger world going on behind the scenes, and that these stories are discrete episodes that pop up. (Fran Wilde's Jewel and her Lapidary has the same issue). Nightshades moves at a fast pace, and as a result, there's a whole bunch of character things that happen far too quickly: one character locates a shade (Vampire) rather quickly, and convinces her to help out just as fast. There's some other things like this that happen, and the ending of the book definitely makes this feel as though it's designed around a pilot episode of a television show, with no word on whether or not it'll be picked up.

That's okay by me. It'll be interesting to see just how Tor.com works with these authors and shorter works: I'm guessing that we'll see hugely successful ones get picked up for new installments, which could make the publisher a fairly unique offering when it comes to storytelling: longer-form stories, but not quite serials.

Even if it's not the most original novel out there, Nightshades is entertaining. Olson sinks nicely into her world with a fun story. Hopefully, there'll be more to come before too much longer.

Review: Pitbull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when my wife first showed me a picture of Tiki on her computer screen. We had just gotten married, and were in the final stages of getting a house. A dog was something that we had talked about for quite a while, and we had gone through the ups and downs of searching through countless pictures of pets from the local shelters. I had my heart set on finding a black lab, a type of dog that I've always seen as loyal and family-friendly.

The description said 'Lab Mix', one of the more generic labels that a shelter can put on a dog. I hesitated because Megan pointed out that he was probably part pit bull.

I had only met a pit bull once, and it was a good experience. A friend of Megan's owns a sweet dog named Peaches, who had broken every stereotype of the dog. Regardless, we went up to meet Tiki, and fell in love instantly. He's currently sulking down in our living room because he was subjected to a bath.  He is, as my dad described him, a 'dog's dog', the base unit of dog. Snout, tail, ears, friendly attitude, etc.

I came across Bronwen Dickey's book after reading an article about the negative response to her debut book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. After the book's release earlier this spring, she's had to get extra security and endure a relentless bout of harassment from anti-Pit activists who have condemned her as a sort of propagandist for the animals.

The book is a fascinating history of the type of dog - not a breed - but more importantly, it's an in-depth look at how ideas get embedded in society, and how these ideas are slowly changed. I didn't expect it, but it's probably one of the best self-examinations of media sensationalism and good journalistic practice. It's also a great book about dogs and how their role as human companions has changed with time.

The Pit Bull, Dickey argues, is a type of dog that has been maligned recently - in the early 20th Century and earlier, it was viewed as the best sort of dog - good with families, good companions, and so on. Dickey looks as the dog's legacy as a fighter, which was eventually rolled into coverage whenever a dog bit or killed someone. The shorthand article of a dog whose history includes fighting kills someone only reinforces the idea that the bite or death was inevitable.

Pit Bulls have bitten people, and a they have killed people. It's impossible to get away from that point. However, she notes, all other types of dogs are responsible for the same actions: there are golden retrievers and labs that have bitten and killed as well. Part of the general impression of these dogs stems from the type of coverage that they receive, which is disproportionately angled against these particular animals. They also aren't the first - they're just the latest in a long string of movements where they're at the wrong end of public opinion.

Furthermore, there's a deeply embedded level of racism that's associated with these dogs.

Furthermore, there's a deeply embedded level of racism that's associated with these dogs. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dogs became synonymous with rising crime levels and as guard dogs for - predominantly inner-city (read: black) - residents. This further solidified the general impression that these animals had no purpose other than violence. Dickey points to the rise of breed-specific legislation as a means of not only quelling white, suburban homeowner fears about 'killer dogs', but also as a good way to discourage minorities - who prominently owned the dogs - from moving in.

The combined series of events and circumstances have really tainted the reputation of the dog, which is unfortunate, given that there's absolutely no indication that there's a 'killer gene' that makes these particular dogs inherently dangerous. Numerous studies and data show that there's no breed more dangerous than any others.

What makes dogs dangerous? It's likely living conditions and abnormal stresses from owners who want dogs but are ill equipped to deal with them, and that doesn't extend to just pits. Dickey closes out the book with efforts that groups are putting together to help dog owners, whether it's providing fencing, training, neutering, food or basic healthcare for those who might not ordinarily be able to afford it. Similarly, breed-specific legislations are beginning to fall across the United States, an incredibly positive step.

Stress also has its impact. Tiki is an incredibly friendly, happy member of the family, but he has his buttons that we sometimes inadvertently push. I got a bite on the hand once when I tried to get him out of the car - he had hopped in expecting a ride, but got nervous as I tried to grab him by the collar to pull him out. I hadn't recognized how anxious he was, and how afraid he when I raised my voice. I now know how to recognize the signs when he's upset, and haven't had an issue since. When he hopped into the car the other day expecting a ride (seriously, saying the words 'Car Ride' gets him excited), I just hooked a leash to his collar and was able to get him out of the car without a fuss.

I've met more Pit Bulls or Pit-type dogs since we've adopted Tiki: some are sweet and adorable animals who are bursting with energy and ready to play and receive attention. Others encounters haven't gone well: while walking Tiki one day, we came across a female Pit that grew really angry as we walked past: she slipped out of the tennis court that she was in with her owners, closed the distance between us and attacked Tiki, biting him in the neck. (His wounds were superficial), but the inattention of the owners (hers and myself - we should have turned around and walked the other way) led to the encounter. It appears to have been an isolated incident. Tiki was already a slightly stressed and anxious dog, and the encounter has certainly made an impact, one that we've worked on with training and reinforcement.

If you like Pit Bulls or really dislike them, Dickey's book is one that's really well worth picking up and giving an honest read. This is a book that's evenly balanced, and cuts through hearsay and the accumulated bullshit that had become truth to so many people. (Another author to check out in the same vein is Maureen Ogle, with her book In Meat We Trust, a spectacular history of meat and the United States). Dickey's book has had the unexpected impact of making me a better journalist and pet owner, all while providing a really interesting history of dogs and how we interact with them. I hope that it will help improve things for the dogs.

Acer Chromebook, Initial Impressions

Earlier today, I got a new computer in the mail: an Acer Chromebook. For most of my freelancing / working life, I've used a work computer in my off hours to write up just about everything. When it became clear last year that I'd be leaving Norwich, I ended up buying a used iMac at a good price, which has been an absolute joy to use. It's reliable, user friendly, and didn't require too much effort to get used to.

The problem with a desktop is that it's really chained to one area, whereas before I have a sort of freedom of movement with the laptop, and while I don't travel all that often, when I do, it requires some extra finagling, such as carting along an iPad with its keyboard.

I like that setup, but my iPad 1 is getting up in age, and it's hard to do anything but watch Netflix or read the occasional book on the various book apps that are available for it. Last month, one of my fellow Gizmodo writers wrote an interesting post about how he picked up a Chromebook, rather than a new Macbook.

What hooked me here was the price that he got his at: $173. That's a staggeringly low price for a computer, especially if you do some light writing and surfing, which is pretty much what I do day to day, especially if I'm on the road.

So, I picked up this little Acer Chromebook for $140. I've been playing with it for a bit, and it plays Netflix nicely and seems to work decently as a writing device.

The main main thing that I need to get used to is the fact that there's no default Capslock button. I've trained myself to use that button instead of shifting (for some random reason that I can't fathom), so I have to get used to using SHIFT properly. There's a search button that's in the place of the Capslock that has me opening up a window every couple of minutes. Going into Settings allowed me to move that button to Capslock, which is nice, and makes things easier.

A couple of other buttons are in weird places - Control and Alt, but that's not bad. The keyboard isn't all that different from the Mac, and it's about as responsive, so that's a plus. It's a bit smaller, so that'll take some getting used to.

I'll have to see if I can get a small wireless mouse for it - my Apple mouse doesn't seem to want to connect.

I'll take this out with me when I go away from the house. It's simple and small enough to toss into my bag and cart along with me, provided I have an internet connecting where I'm going.

The initial impressions that I've got? For $140, it's stupidly simple and cheap, and it'll fill the role that my iPad just wasn't filling. Hopefully, once I get on the road later this month, I'll be able to try it out.

Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier

I've always been more of a Marvel and Dark Horse Comics fan: I picked up a ton of Hellboy, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Spider-Man and Iron Man comics over the years, but only the occasional DC comic: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen currently sit on my shelves. Superman, Green Arrow and most of the others really haven't interested me over the years, until I came across Darwyn Cooke's artwork.

Cooke died the other week, and the outpouring of grief populated my Twitter and Facebook feeds with excerpts of his artwork. I was hooked immediately, and ordered a copy of his book, DC: The New Frontier.

It was a lot bigger than I expected, and it was a read that I sank into with glee. I loved his artwork: bold, simple art deco that feels both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time, the perfect epitome of the 1950s/1960s.

The story for this comic was fantastic, but what I really appreciated was that this comic was fun. It wasn't a grim, dark story that deconstructed the nature of superheroes. It was an adventure, exactly everything a comic book story should be.

It's a shame that Cooke passed away, but I'm looking forward to discovering more of his work.

Can We Talk About Serial's Second Season?

Like many people, I got hooked on Serial about halfway through the first season when I had heard a bunch of ads for it on NPR, and diligently listened to the rest of the season as Sarah Koenig, worked her way through the story.

I just finished listening to Serial's second season, and I'm surprised that there hasn't been the same level of cultural obsession with it. It seems like everyone was talking and buzzing about how Season 1 would end; this time, it feels like it's been overlooked.

I really like long-form journalism: stories that really require you to sit down and read through, not because they're in depth or well researched (although that helps), but because it helps me think better. When done right, they explore something that I probably would never think about on a normal day, but find that they have ramifications that impact how I see things.

I was let down by Serial's first season, to be honest. The story reached an abrupt halt, with Koenig stumbling over whether she believed his story or not. It was a fun ride, but it ran into the limitations of covering something that's unresolved: you get to catch everyone up, but when you hit the present, you can't really report too much more on it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Serial was set up as this sort of narrative storytelling experiment that felt as though it had a beginning middle and end: it didn't, although they're now updating Adnan Syed's case bit by bit as new developments happen.

I think that's why I didn't pick up on Serial's second season until it was over. The focus this time around was on a surprisingly high-profile case:Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who walked away from his OP on June 30th. I listened to the first episode, found it interesting, but didn't really look into it again until recently.

I went to a military school (as a civilian), and studied military history, and since then, I've become friends with a number of people who work in and around the military. Bergdahl's case has been a source of discussion across most of them, and I remember the initial news of his recovery and the backlash against him - many weren't happy about it.

I listened through Season 2 in the last couple of weeks, and what's struck me is the podcast's (and how longform journalism) can really take the time to tease out the story: that's exactly what's done here. This is journalism at its best: taking the time to really cover a story, from the initial impact of the soldiers sent out on patrol to the larger geo-political problems that his capture caused in the general war effort. When all is said and done, it's an incredible story, one that clarified and at points, reinforced some of my thoughts on the matter, all the while providing some context. I had fallen in the 'He's suffered enough' camp before listening, and now, I'm not sure that I believe that.

I think the subject matter here worked quite a bit more than Syed's story: Bergdahl's story wasn't so much about whether or not he should be prosecuted: it was more to understand why and what happened. Unlike Syed's case, there's a good resolution to it, with his current legal situation an additional chapter.

Along they way, they explore some interesting, and important topics, none of which are easy: what is the value of human life in war? It's an easy thing to abstractly think about, but listening to the various people talk about the decisions that they made during the entire story, it's clear that this is a complicated situation, and the Serial team did a good job pulling it together. Already, I'm really eager to see what they'll talk about for their next season, which will apparently be launching sometime this spring.

On a personal level, the podcast has become this really aspirational thing for me, as a journalist. I like researching and writing in depth articles - the Expanse and Star Wars ones from last year were certainly influenced by the type of reporting done there, and there's other topics that I've been seeing with new eyes after listening to this (and seeking out and reading other stories as well), and motivated to write and research accordingly.

All The Birds In The Sky, Charlie Jane Anders

Here's a book that I've been looking forward to for a long while, ever since it was first announced a couple of years ago: Charlie Jane Anders' All The Birds In The Sky. It's a stunning debut novel, one of the best that I've ever read.

If Charlie Jane's name seems familiar, it's probably because it is: she's the editor of io9, and is my boss. So, take that as you will. I can't say that my view on the book is completely unbiased, but I really enjoyed this novel.

The story is a fun mashup of fantasy and science fiction. There's Patricia, who learns to talk to birds when she's a young girl, and Laurence, who invents a time machine that takes him two minutes into the future. Their paths diverge in childhood, but converge back when the world is ending.

What I love about this book is CJA's voice. It's light, snarky, entertaining and sinks right in. I blew through this book in a handful of sittings, and I think that's a testament to just how accessible it is. This isn't a clunky genre book designed for hardcore genre readers, although there's a lot to love for them as well.

I've been trying to think of comparable books that I've read, and the only thing that I can come up with is Lev Grossman's The Magicians or Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, but with a bit more weirdness. This is a strange book, but it's the type of strange that you get when you're writing and editing a site like io9. There's a ton of genre love here, but also for a really great story of two characters, when you break everything right down.

So, go read it. It's a wonderful book.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

I'm trying to make it a point to read up on some of the books that I missed over the last couple of years. One, V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic came recommended from all corners of the internet, and it lives up nicely to those reviews.

Schwab has put together a really intriguing world: four of them, in fact. A select few can travel between worlds. Kell is one such individual, and he travels between Grey, Red and White Londons. At one point, magic was commonplace throughout the worlds, before Black London fell to corruption. White London is cold and brutal, while Red London is decadent. Only Grey London is largely without magic, and when Kell stumbles upon a secret, he's saved by Lila, a street thief from Grey London, and plunged into a deeper conspiracy.

I really loved this book: it sucked me in and didn't let go. Schwab has paced her story really well, populating it with really fun characters and some distinct worlds that gripped me from beginning to end.

The story is straight forward: Kell discovers a remnant of Black London, and there are people who want to use it to their own ends. He has to resist the token's power in order to save himself and his friends.

It's a fun adventure, plain and simple. I'm already looking forward to the next, A Gathering of Shadows, which is due out in a couple of months.

Armada Is Fucking Terrible

Ernie Cline's novel Armada dropped last week with an enormous publicity campaign that's sure to get this book selling exceptionally well. Cline has been riding high on his debut novel, Ready Player One, an Easter-egg infused novel that hit the nerd sweet spot with a hefty dose of references and nostalgia. The problem with Armada is that it's absolutely, fucking terrible.

The plot is basic. A spacecraft drops by the school of one high school gamer, Zack Lightman, and tells him what absolutely every gamer wants to hear: Aliens are about to attack Earth and a secret military organization has shepherded video games, movies, novels and television shows to help attune humanity into fighting back against the alien invaders. On top of all that, Lightman's one of the top gamers in the world, and that because of his scores in Armada, he's one of the last best hopes for humanity. He's brought to a secret base on the Moon, where he meets his long-lost (and presumed dead) father, who's helping to oversee the counter attack.

I enjoyed Ready Player One quite a bit: it was a fun read that had some neat recursive things going for it: it was a book about a video game that relied on the tropes and conventions of real-world video game history, and it worked well enough. Armada is a pretty far cry away from this, going through a story that's essentially a rehash of Ender's Game and The Last Starfighter. Hardly a sentence goes by without Cline dropping a reference to something from the 1980s, and as it becomes more cringe-worthy, it feels as though Cline is simply stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to grow beyond geek-man-child stage and reenter the present.

This bothers me a great deal. The decade was responsible for an incredible surge of creative properties, but it isn't the only decade when it comes to science fiction or fantasy; you'd never guess it from the endless references. Geeks have always been interested in shibboleth, sorting out who belongs and who doesn't in nerd circles. Cline, throughout Ready Player One and Armada, drops references to everything from films to television to games to the occasional novel, and seems to be establishing a sort of precedent: if you don't recognize these sacred tomes, you don't belong. If you haven't put in the hours that Zack Lightman and Wade Watts have in establishing their own geek cred, you're not a 'true' geek worthy of the title.

There's been a bunch of stories that have been incredibly popular that seem to do this sort of listing: Cline's novels, for one, but also shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is essentially lightly-improvised lines of dialogue strung together with a whole bunch of 'in the know' references to any number of geek things. The obsession with checking off the boxes and making a set of qualifications to weed out outsiders isn't anything new to the science fiction or fantasy circles, but it's tiring to see after such a long history.

There's the story of a geek guy meeting a geek girl, where he interrupts her when she expresses an interest in Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and interrogates her on the minutia of the world. I've seen it happen before (hell, I've probably done it myself), and it's just flat out not good for any sort of community. There's the personal stories of that one lone geek at high school who gets picked on or slammed into a locker for carrying around a Star Wars novel, D&D Manual or Magic: The Gathering Cards, and how the stories that they read carried them through those dark times. Never mind that High School isn't some sort of fantasy quest to be metaphorically endured, I sometimes wonder about the widespread validity of those stories, or if it’s just a story that we tell ourselves as part of our collective nerd mythology. As books like this and shows such as The Big Bang Theory have demonstrated (not to mention my hometown, where you can spot shirts of Superman, Flash and Green Lantern on the local rednecks) Geek stories appeal to just about everyone, especially now. I think it says more about the high school kid with problems getting along with his classmates and less to do with the kid who blew through Ender's Game for the tenth time.

Within this archetype story, we always complain that we wished that there were more people who were into Star Wars, D&D and McCaffrey's Pern novels, but when it comes to the end of the day, we seem to filter out the people who we don't perceive as being good enough, unless their interests and backgrounds line up perfectly with our own. I've seen many people get worked up over the quality of other costumers at conventions and how they've only jumped on some sort of bandwagon because science fiction and fantasy movies dominate the box office.

Some people might be attracted to it because it's popular and because they saw a film/book/game that looked cool with plenty of people watching/reading/playing it. But so what? Why do you need to be born in the mid-1970s to properly appreciate standing in line for Star Wars or ET? Are you really less of a fan of The Lord of the Rings if you saw the films in the theaters and rushed to the store to pick up the books because you enjoyed it so much? Personally, I want as many people as possible to read/watch/enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so that we can have a richer community of fellow nerds.

This isn't a good book on a story side, by any stretch of the imagination. Where Ready Player One was entertaining and goofy, this just got tedious and annoying to read. The references had a point in the story - it was a hunt for Easter eggs. Here, they're just annoying and don't really serve any point other than to establish, over and over again, that Lightman (read: Cline) is a nerdy kid. We get that from the first couple of pages. Armada feels very much like Cline trying to find some way to make a nerdy adolescent existence mean something greater than it really is. But in doing so, he sets out to define what exactly a geek is, and that vision is limited only to the references he lists off, which is a pretty limiting list of things: science fiction / fantasy did some pretty cool things in the 1990s/2000s, but you would hardly guess it from what Cline/His characters list off.

I really despise this manufactured image of a geek-man-child and related stories, as much as I'm made uncomfortable by the people who rush to fill the role. Armada is a book that rushes to fill that role, and in doing so, it ignores just about everything that makes a book readable: likable characters, a plot that makes sense (seriously, the ending is a pretty spectacular failure), and good supporting characters and elements that support the story rather than prop it up. When it isn't cringe-worthy to read, it's Picard-facepalm worthy when it comes to actually being a good story. Any novel that ends with (SPOILERS) something completely out of left field along the lines of 'and then the aliens came and cured cancer, entered us into an intergalactic hegemony and then everyone lived happily ever after the end', you've got a serious fucking problem. Maybe Cline is doing something more clever - subverting the tropes of video games to pull out a satirical work of fiction that makes us think differently about the genre. If that's the case, you'd never guess under the weight of its failure of characters and story.

This is wish-fulfillment fiction, through and through, from the situation Lightman finds himself in to the few constructed, idealized women who appear in the book. Wish fulfillment isn't necessarily bad: what person playing a video game hasn't wanted to save the world? But how many people use it to define their existence? Lightman, in saving the world, has his many hours validated. He even puts in a scene at the end where his accomplishments are acknowledged by the high school bully who beat up on him!

Armada would work perfectly if there was some recursive thing about it that made all the references make sense. There's been plenty of books / movies like this that went heavy on the nostalgia: John Scalzi's Redshirts comes to mind, along with Austin Grossman's fantastic novel You or even movies like Galaxy Quest. But the thing that made those books / movies excellent aren’t in Armada: it's just an annoying, tedious read that made me want to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

Review: The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game, by Mary Pilon

For me, the best types of history books are the one that look at something that seems innocuous, but turns out to be a small part in a much larger story. Mary Pilon's history The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game is one such book, and it's an excellent look at the history of the board game Monopoly and how its history is murkier than one would ever expect. The board game you likely played as a family has a long, fascinating and exciting story behind it, and a story that ties into tax philosophy and business practices from major game maker Parker Brothers.

The commonly recounted history of the game goes like this: one man, Charles Darrow, unemployed during the Great Depression, went into his basement to make up a game to keep his family entertained through the dark times the country was going through. He emerged with Monopoly, and ended up selling it to Parker Brothers. He gets paid, Parker Brother has a hit on their hands, and the country gains a beloved pastime.

That's not the full story, however. Pilon recounts the story of Lizzie Maggie, an advocate for a single-tax system and feminist activist who came up with the game's immediate forerunner, The Landlord Game, patented it and continued on her way. Interestingly, the game was one that sought to demonstrate how rent created wealth inequality. Over the following years, the game and numerous imitators sprang up across the Northeastern United States, particularly in Quaker communities. From the early 1900s, the game was a popular pastime.

In the 1930s, Darrow was introduced to the game, and after some tinkering, he sold the game to Parker Brothers, passing it off as his own creation. The company didn't look too deeply into Darrow's story, and pushed his own creation narrative on the public, and it slowly became accepted fact as the game's popularity skyrocketed.

This is a story of intellectual property, and Pilon deftly picks up the story with an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, who had created a game titled Anti-Monopoly. His game touched off years of litigation between himself and Parker Brothers, who had aggressively defended their product and its trademark. In the course of his work to try and save his own game, Anspach uncovered much of the hidden history of the game to support his legal argument that Monopoly had been widely known to the general public.

Pilon goes through the history of Monopoly's predecessors to help with the main objective of the book: looking at how Parker Brothers took the game over, repackaged it and maintained a firm hold on the game, warding off any potential competitor through litigation: ironically, creating a monopoly of their own. Parker Brothers doesn't come off well here, and this is where the book feels like it could have been a bit better. A disclaimer in the back of the book notes that Parker Brothers refused interviews, which is a shame: there's an interesting story from their side about how they created a national past time, especially when you begin to consider how important they are to the board gaming industry. Some of the more interesting parts of the books are the insights into the formation of Parker Brothers.

Additionally, the last half of the book is wholly focused on the trial and legal issues: it makes for an interesting David and Goliath story, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more. Parker Brothers has exploded the game in the last couple of decades, from publishing licensed versions of Monopoly (I have a copy of the Star Wars version at home), to the games companies like McDonalds and Shaws have run year after year: there's nary a mention here, which would have been interesting to see.

Regardless, The Monopolists does what most good, readable (read: Non-academic) nonfiction titles do: they present an interesting and exciting story that plays out well and serves to look at the much larger picture surrounding it. Here, we see a bit of the social fabric of the United States at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. For me, fondly remembering the endless games I played with my siblings, it's an interesting read that imparts some new trivia and context for those many hours we spent passing go and collecting $200.

Book Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi's latest addition to his Old Man's Warseries, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy - that's just the first episode.

Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.

The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.

The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.

I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.

The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.

When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.

I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)

The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.

The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.

Book Review: Other Half of the Sky, edited by Athena Andreadis

In the introduction for The Other Half of the Sky, the book's editor Athena Andreadis describes space opera in less than glowing terms: "Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And therein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination."

They’re harsh words for an incredibly popular genre: after all, when you lump in television and film, you’re essentially describing what most people think of as science fiction. But, they’re necessary words, because she’s completely right: space opera, and most of the Golden Age of SF, has often been described as being the age of 12. Andreadis’s anthology seeks to put together a group of stories that paints a picture of the other half of the sky’s occupants, and this book succeeds at its task in grand fashion.

The Other Half of the Sky is an impressive anthology of 16 stories, with an equally impressive group of authors. Well known authors such as Vandana Singh, Joan Slonczewski, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Martha Wells, and Jack McDevitt are all included in this book, as well as several authors who were new to me: Christine Lucas, Kelly Jennings, Sue Lange, Nisi Shawl, and a couple of others. I first came across this anthology at the 2012 ReaderCon, where several authors held a reading of their works in the book. Then, it sounded interesting. In my hands, the book is an impressive group of stories. The space opera of the 1950s contains a certain formula of characters and plot types: frequently, we’d have stories of plucky scientists discovering something extraordinary, heroes finding themselves in situations from which they had to extracate themselves, and some sort of logical puzzle that was solved through the protagonist’s wits and bluster. That’s an overly simplifed version, to be sure, but after a while, it gets boring. The Other Half of the Sky opens up a range of stories that aren’t necessarily new, but they’re not seen nearly as often.

Political and sociological intentions aside, this is a hell of an anthology. Ken Liu’s story, ‘Shape of Thought’ is an interesting take on family dynamics, while ‘Mimesis’, by Martha Wells, puts together a really cool alien world and society. One of my absolute favorite stories, however, is ‘Velocity’s Ghost’, by Kelly Jennings, following a bounty hunter in deep space. There’s certain value in a book that has positioned itself to make a statement, but there’s a greater value when the focus falls equally on the quality of the stories: this anthology focuses on the latter.

There’s a pointed message in this book: we can do that too, and in light of an entire range of conversations brewing around the SF community as of late, this book should be considered required reading. Far too often, it seems that there’s an attitude that women can’t or simply don’t write the sort of hard SF and space opera that’s traditionally been published. This book utterly crushes that assumption with its incredible range of stories and superior level of writing that’s consistent throughout the entire anthology. The Other Half of the Sky is an anthology that’s long overdue, and I hope that it’ll serve as a good example for future authors and readers in the genre.