The Bayern Agenda: an entertaining space opera spy thriller

One of the books I’ve been picking away at lately is Dan Moren’s The Bayern Agenda, a quasi-sequel to his debut, The Caledonian Gambit, which I haven’t read. Moren jumped publishers, so the marketing here downplays their connection a bit, and you can read this one without reading the other. 

In it, we’re introduced to a global cold war: the Illyrican Empire and Commonweath of Independent Systems are fighting with one another, and when the Illyrican Empire sends emissaries to the Bayern Corporation, a planet-sized bank, the Commonwealth sends its own agents to check it out. Agent Simon Kovalic is forced to hand over his intelligence team to his ex-wife, Lt. Commander Natalie Taylor when he’s injured, who brings in former Illyrican pilot Elijah Brody. When things go sideways, Kovalic is brought in to try and get them out. 

The book is a solid military science fiction thriller, and it trades off power armor for spycraft. I’d describe it as John le Carré meets Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse. The book is a measured one: it’s a gripping read, but Moren takes his time getting to some of the action, jumping from character to character, until events really heat up in the last third or so of the read. The book is clearly set in a large world, and I felt like I didn’t absorb much of it, unfortunately, but it feels like it’s a durable enough place that more of that will come out in upcoming installments. (A sequel, The Aleph Extractionis coming out next March.)

Overall, I enjoyed it. The book reminded me a bit of books like Chris Bunch’s Star Risk Ltd., a fun action space opera series that I picked up in high school, and as I noted on The Verge, it’s the best sort of summer science fiction read: something that isn’t exactly mind-blowing science fiction that will tilt the future of the genre in any particular direction, but which is a perfectly fine adventure. That’s something I’ve always thought was important: sometimes, you just need a fun read. 


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Finder: what not to do in a novel

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One of the books that I recently read was Suzanne Palmer’s Finder, which… left a lot to be desired. 

I had high hopes for the book. Palmer earned a Hugo award last year, and the description for this book was particularly intriguing: it’s about a man named Fergus Ferguson whose specialty is recovering things like spaceships. When a Cernee crime boss named Arum Gilger steals a ship called the Venetia's Sword, Fergus is sent off to recover it, and ends up in the midst of a civil war. 

The first half or so of the book is quite a bit of fun: Palmer sets up an intriguing world, and sends Fergus and a bunch of newly-acquired companions after their target. Capers are always fun, and I dig the idea of someone trying to pull off a heist in the middle of an orbital civil war. 

But by the end of that first section, Fergus recovers the ship something that should be the finale of the entire story. He’s then captured and brought onboard an alien ship, given some fantastical powers (he can generate electricity and zap people), ends up back in our solar system, then heads back to Cernee to finish out the rest of the conflict. In short, it’s a mess, because it becomes so unfocused. Ultimately, the book is a good demonstration for what not to do with a story. 

While the plot turns into a bit of a mess (it honestly feels a bit like it started out as a shorter work, and was expanded), but it’s the character of Fergus that ultimately bothered me the most and undermined the entire narrative. 

He gets a pretty comprehensive backstory: he ran away from home at an early age from his home in Scotland, ended up on Mars, and bounced around the galaxy, getting into trouble. But while he’s established as a roguish figure, I never really get the sense that his backstory really influences his decisions for this new adventure. He’s just … sort of along for the ride, and he’s a character that really should have more agency here. He talks a lot about his past, but it never connects in a meaningful way, and it feels as though Palmer is just juggling too much. I’ve been noticing this a lot in stories: authors have a lot of interesting ideas, but they end up undermining the story by throwing too many in, where they might be better served by slimming the story down a but to give it focus. I think this is a habit from my work at The Verge leaking into my story preferences, that it’s a good preference to have.

What’s annoying here is that this is a story where the character should be right in the center, driving the action forward beat by beat. That was fine for the part where he’s recovering the ship, but he’s soon pulled off in various directions, none of which really circle back to the ship. He’s given fantastical powers by a mysterious alien species, but that feels like part of the plot that’s bolted on as a bit of an afterthought. Furthermore, I just... really didn’t care about the characters by the end of the book.

Ultimately, it’s a story that reads as though it needed a good, critical scrub of an edit to work out some of the kinks. All of the right parts are there, but they just don’t line up in a satisfactory way, and it didn’t work for me.

Review: Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars

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I’m a big fan of the magical school trope. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was one of those life-defining books from high school through the end of college, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians books came right in after as I was starting my career as a college administrator and writer. Sarah Gailey’s debut novel Magic for Liars is like a third part of that transition, and I blew through the book in just about a day. 

The story introduces us to Ivy Gamble, a woman who works as a private investigator, and who has a bit of a secret: her estranged twin sister is a brilliant magician. She’s hired by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages in California, where her sister works. The two haven’t spoken in years, and when a teacher at the school is found dead in the library, they’re unexpectedly reunited. 

Gailey is the author of the American Hippo novellas, and while I loved the concept, I felt that they were a bit weak, character-wise (one of the downsides to Tor.com’s novella line: sometimes, a story is too slimmed down, and could have been a bit longer.) That isn’t a problem here. Gailey brilliantly sets up these two sisters, and Ivy is a phenomenal, bitter character who is pretty much burned out on everything, stemming back to some deep-seated family history that drove her and her sister apart. 

This book succeeds in two ways. First, it’s a fantastic mystery, and Gamble, an outsider to this magical community, is the perfect person to solve it, because she can approach it from that unknowledgeable angle, but who knows how perfectly messed up people are, and what sorts of bad decisions they can make. Secondly, it’s a great magical school entry. Hogwarts is delightfully twee, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is realistically cynical, and the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages is… a typical high school. There’s plenty of details that show off that kids — even magical kids, will be immature, do stupid things, are egotistical, and crave attention. 

What really makes this book stand out is that it revolves around a couple of things that fantasy (and science fiction, for that matter), typically ignores: wOmEnS IsSuEs. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but it’s a mystery that comes down to teenage and family drama in ways that feels utterly realistic, and I’m guessing entirely relevant and relatable to any woman who picks up this book. Gailey also keeps the mystery entirely fresh throughout the entire read, throwing me off in a couple of places, and nailing the book with a fantastic (and frustratingly ambiguous) ending. She tells me that she’s not planning on a followup, which is also refreshing? There needs to be more standalone novels, although I would dearly love to see more of this particular world.  


Review: Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night

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I finally finished Elizabeth Bear’s book Ancestral Night a while back, and it’s a really superb work of space opera, one that did a lot of interesting things. It’s set in a distant future where humanity is part of a larger, galactic civilization, and where everyone pretty much gets along. There’s no real big war that’s driving humanity against a plethora of alien civilizations: they’re coexisting as best they can. The novel follows a team of space salvage operators, Halmey Dz, her partner Connla Kurucz, and their AI, Singer. They’ve had a rough go of it in recent years, and they search space for lost wreckage, hoping to score it big. They end up finding a massive alien ship, and a terrible secret onboard, which puts them into the path of a band of space pirates, and galactic authorities. 

There’s a real retro feel to this book, but one with a nicely modernized set of sensibilities. Bear includes everything from commentary about the value of communities, includes plenty of LGBTQ characters, and muses on the nature of intelligence and nature vs. nurture, especially when it comes to augmentation and free will. Halmey comes from a particular cult that focuses on consensus decision-making, and was involved in a terrorist plot earlier in her life, and has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. She’s constantly trying to find her place in the universe, and a good part of the book is how she’s re-learning who she is after a pretty traumatic past. She’s an excellent character, as are her two companions — especially Singer. 

While I loved all of the component parts of the book, there was one big flaw: there’s a lot going on and it feels really unfocused at points. Bear throws a lot of good stuff in there, and I’m not sure it always meshed. At one point, Hamley gets stuck on an alien ship with a pirate, and they spend a lot of time talking and going over her past. It’s interesting stuff, but it slowed the book down, and felt a little out of place — almost like it could have been the focus of another novel set in the same world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t poorly executed; it just feels as though the book could have been slimmed down just a tad. It took me a little longer than I would have expected, given the subject matter and story. Folks who liked Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series or James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will love this one. 


Spiders! In! Space! Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time

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In December, I put out a call for recommendations for standalone science fiction novels — in part to assemble a list for The Verge — but also because I was looking for something along those lines. I got a bunch of recommendations, but one that stood out was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s 2015 book, Children of Time. A friend of mine had already highly recommended the book, so I picked it up, and when we did a bit of traveling over the holidays, we listened to the audiobook. It’s a magnificent, epic story, and it’s well worth reading if you’re in the mood for book that deals with big ideas.

The story begins in the distant future. Humanity has begun to spread to the stars, and has enacted a variety of terraforming projects on several planets. Dr. Avrana Kern is the researcher overseeing the final efforts on a planet that she’s called “Kern’s World,” which has been made habitable for human life. She’s also about to kick off an experiment — two cargo capsules are to be dropped to the planet’s surface: one carrying a monkeys, the other a nanovirus that’s designed to uplift said monkeys in a handful of generations. It’s a grand experiment on evolution, and it goes drastically wrong when a crew member sabotages the mission, sending the monkeys to their doom. At the same time, a war breaks out on Earth, destroying space habitats and wrecking the planet’s surface. Kerns barely escapes, driven by the desire to oversee any hope that her experiment might work out.

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That’s just the prologue. The story then jumps ahead. Remember those monkeys that were supposed to get uplifted? They burned up in the atmosphere, and the nanovirus jumped to another creature: a jumping spider. Tchaikovsky introduces a spider named Portia who has an uncanny realization while she’s hunting a larger spider — she can get help from others like her, and by working together, they’re able to get a tiny evolutionary foothold.

Tchaikovsky then jumps to another perspective: the crew of a human starship called the Gilgamesh, and a “classicalist” named Holsten Mason. Humanity, as it turns out, wasn’t wiped out completely in that war, but it was set back, with a new civilization blossoming on Earth during an ice age, only to realize that when the ice recedes, they’re going to be left with an uninhabitable rock. The survivors cobble together a generation ship, and set out into the depths of space, trying to find a new home. Mason is awoken a thousand years into the voyage, when they come across a beacon — Kern’s signal over her planet.

The novel alternates perspectives, first with a new generation of spiders, and then the crew of the Gilgamesh as they try and find a suitable place to set down. By shifting perspectives, Tchaikovsky shows off two things: the rise of the spiders, who are quickly evolving a sophisticated society as they overcome their neighbors, and figure out how to survive and thrive by coopting the skills and directing the evolution of other creatures, like ants and beetles. On the other hand, we see the downfall of the humans, who quickly devolve to an almost feudal society aboard the ship. They’re turned away by Kerns when they reach her world, and are directed to another, only to find that it’s unsuitable, and are forced to turn back in order to safe civilization.

Gerry Canavan (the scholar who spoke highly of the book) mentioned somewhere that he was reminded of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, and there are a lot of parallels between the two works. They’re both huge, epic stories of evolution and the rise and fall of civilizations, much in the mold of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Frederik Pohl. Tchaikovsky builds on this trope by exploring a wide range of topics that complicate any civilization — gender roles (the spiders form a matriarchal society), and he flips arguments about sexism and culture nicely.

The juxtaposition between humans and spiders also plays out a larger story about how a culture is composed. Over the centuries, Kerns is deeply concerned with what she sees as failures of humanity: that they’re prone to warfare and balkanization, arguably poor footing and habits to extend out into space. We see that play out on the Gilgamesh as well — the ship’s captain becomes obsessed with his assigned task to shepherd humanity to safety, which causes its own problems as he works to keep the ship going, and as new generations of people appear over the millennia. By the end, the two cultures will have a pretty epic clash, and those differences force a resolution between the two. The book has shot to the top of my hypothetical “favorites” list.

Canavan compared the books to Three-Body Problem, and i’ll toss in another comparison: The Expanse. One of the things that’s attracted me to James S.A. Corey’s series is its focus on humanity’s tribalism and how we’ll likely bring some of our inherent issues with us if and when we begin to establish a foothold in space. Tchaikovsky doesn’t specifically look at racism in the same way that Corey does, but there’s a number of parallels that ultimately stack up to “humanity has the capability to improve itself, and it should.” Children of Time really makes a good argument that propagating out into space means that there are major issues that need to be addressed if humanity wants to survive long into the future — not necessarily in the depths of space, but here at home, too.

Becky Chambers' Record of a Spaceborn Few is a delightful space opera about preservation vs. change

One of the absolute best books that I read this year was Becky Chambers’ latest novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few, the final installment of her Wayfarers “trilogy".” It’s preceded by her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and A Closed and Common Orbit. I’ve loved each of the books in turn, and the world that Chambers has set up to host all three stories — each of which stand on their own, rather than flow into one another as in a conventional trilogy.

On the face of it, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is pretty standard space opera. It’s set in the distant future, Earth is no longer inhabited, and humanity has joined a larger diaspora of galactic life. But what really sets the stories apart from the space opera stories around her is that they’re intensely focused on the plights of her characters, and most importantly, the bonds that they form with their companions. These books have a bright, intensely optimistic view of the world and universe: people (of all species) can get along and live in relative harmony, despite their differences.

I had a bit of trouble getting into a Record of a Spaceborn Few the first time I picked it up, but it wasn’t until I listened to an episode of Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds about the use of faith in SF. (If you like SF commentary, you should listen to the show, it’s pretty great). One of the guests spoke about looking at the book through the lens of her Jewish heritage, and everything clicked into place for me — it’s a story about preserving one’s way of life, even as change is inevitable.

At its core, this is what Record of a Spaceborn Few really excels at — it’s about a society that lives aboard the ships that left Earth, eons ago. As is to be expected, ships that have been operating for generations will fall apart eventually, and its inhabitants are struggling to keep their civilization together. They’re reluctant to let some of their traditions fade into the past, even as people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere. There’s a lot to read into this — I’m reminded of some of the utopian societies of the 1800s that existed in Pennsylvania that had trouble competing with the lifestyles of their neighbors. The inhabitants of the fleet also have trouble dealing with newcomers and the changes that they bring with them.

What the book ultimately comes down to is that change is inevitable, and it’s how people balance the preservation of their traditions with altering them that matters. This is not an entirely novel realization — just look at how any religion or civilization has slowly altered itself over time.

But it’s a nice slice-of-life look at a society continually coming to terms with this as Chambers follows a slew of characters, young adults, visitors, researchers, etc., as they move about their lives. In a lot of ways, it’s a good book to sink into and relate to, given the toxic environment that surrounds us now, and how much of that is driven by generational differences and prejudices.

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.