THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

A Short Review

A Lady Astronaut Novel

I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…

  1. Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
  2. Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
  3. The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
  4. It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.

THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.

These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.

Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.

The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.

Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.

THE CALCULATING STARS won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.  

Click here to purchase THE CALCULATING STARS

 

Cover Art

I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.

Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:

  1. Superman Smashes the Klan
  2. The Man in the High Castle
  3. Colony
  4. An Excess Male
  5. Kindred

History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).

In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.

In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.

Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan

 

History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was  produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.

This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.

 

Josh Holloway, Sarah Wayne Callies

History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.

In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.

Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.

 

Maggie Shen King

History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.

Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.

 

Octavia Butler

History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.

KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred

 

Read All Three Issues of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN You Won’t Be Sorry

Short Review: Here’s why you need to read all three…

  1. Comic book action and a great story
  2. Relatable kid characters who make poor or good choices and learn from them
  3. Even Superman grows and changes
  4. History lesson combined with Gene Luen Yang memoir tidbits in the final pages of each issue are perfect for spurring deeper conversations about racism in the US
  5. I can’t get enough of Gurihiru’s lovely art

Longer Review:

It’s a sad season for many of us on planet Earth who are living under the threat of COVID19 spread. Schools have been shuttered, so many activities cancelled and parents are left trying to figure out how to keep their kids off screens and at least somewhat engaged in their education. Great books, ones your kids will be motivated to read without any of your coaxing, are the home-school parent’s best friend.

On my website, you can use the menu bar for educators to see what science fiction books might appeal to your student. It’s not an exhaustive list, but there are more than a few gems you’ll want to check out. When I review a book, I give the story a movie type rating…G, PG, PG-13, etc.

If you want to read a review of issue 1 of this series, click SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, A No Spoiler Review

Superman makes peace with his identity

If you want to read a review of issue 2, click here

In the case of issue 3, I have no reservations in recommending this book to all kids and adults, though you might give it a PG rating for the serious topic it tackles, racism and violence.

The story (as portrayed in all three issues) is accessible to a child. He/she might need to be old enough to engage in a basic conversation about race, justice and belonging, but my experience in having two kids who attended public schools in California, they were ripe for the beginning of that conversation by kindergarten. I would recommend you don’t shield your young ones from starting this conversation early.

In this third issue of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, the story climaxes with a confrontation between Superman and the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Superman has befriended the Lees, an Asian American family that has moved out of Chinatown and into the suburbs. They are the focus of the Klan’s animosity and Superman is defending them against the Klan’s violence. Author, Gene Luen Yang does not pull punches. There is a real portrayal of race hatred in this comic series, but that is what makes this story all the more powerful…it delivers truth.

Roberta, the young sister in the Lee family plays a crucial role in helping Superman beat back injustice. She will appeal to both girls and boys with her quirks (in the opening sequence of the first issue, she gets car sick and has to throw up while her family is driving out of Chinatown) and her bravery (she confronts evil and injustice head on, even though she can’t always defend herself). In this issue, Lois Lane takes Roberta under her wing and encourages her to research a mystery for the Daily Planet as a cub reporter. Roberta is a wonderful hero.

Given the talented writer that he is, Yang draws out a number of characters on both sides of the conflict who have depth. The bad guys are more than just foils. Likewise, the good guys are not always perfect. Even Superman is grappling with flashbacks around his own childhood, trying to make sense of his alien nature. It’s one of a number of great storylines that will please the Superman fanatic and add much to the themes that emerge in SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN.

A bonus delight in all the issues are the final pages where Gene Luen Yang puts forward a bit more history of his own immigrant story and that of the Klan…In a vulnerable and testimonial way, he reflects on both the challenges and the beauty of our mixed cultural nation.

The Klan of the Firey Cross

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN is a story in three issues. One issue every other month released since October. This is something comic book readers understand. You buy one issue, read about your favorite hero and wait in anticipation for the next issue to come out. Comic book adventures are serial-styled stories. Each comic book usually contains one story arc and always ends with a cliffhanger. That is one reason why readers buy the next issue. There is delight in this way of consuming a story, but it requires more patience than most of us are used to.

In case that style does not appeal to you or your child, buy all three. All three SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN issues contained in one book, a story that will grab your child and keep him or her reading. The three will be released together on May 12. To preorder the story in one paperback instead of 3 separate issues, click here.

My advice in case you plan to discuss race with your child, make sure you read the story too. The education that will come out of the reading will benefit parent and child.

To buy SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, ISSUE 3, click here.

To buy the previous issues, click

Issue 1

Issue 2

 

Cover Art

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.

For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review

Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.

Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.

Yang does not sugarcoat the violence of the Klan

The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.

All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.

Worth noting:

  1. Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
  2. A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
  3. A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
  4. Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.

Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.

Superman’s Flashbacks

A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.

To buy Part 1, click here

To buy Part 2, click here

KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is a nearly perfect novel.

I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.

I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.

Short Review…3 Reasons to Read

  1. KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
  2. KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
  3. KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.

Longer Review

Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.

The story premise is brilliant.

Dana, whom the reader affixes to very early, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times. Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful, but an interesting narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying because the readers knows, as does Dana, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days of her respite. Her oasis in the modern era taunts the reader and gives the reader pause. At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrifying reality of slavery. That reality cannot be denied, or at least it is harder to deny when the reader is identifying so powerfully with this main character.

Dana, because of her experience of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman, becomes a guide to those in the past. She has agency, yet because of her skin color, she is also threatening to everyone who exists in this past world, including the slaves she will try to help.

Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.

Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.

To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED

To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN

To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy

 

BY NNEDI OKORAFOR

BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.

Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).

The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.

To order BINTI, click here.

What I enjoyed about BINTI.

  1. Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
  2. The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
  3. Decent tension to keep the reader going.
  4. A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)

It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.

What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…

  1. Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
  2. The conflict is resolved too easily.
  3. There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
  4. The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?

The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?

 

Why read?

 

  1. I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
  2. I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
  3. I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
  4. I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
  5. The writing style was unique and often beautiful

 

Why avoid reading?

  1. Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
  2. Disappointing ending
  3. The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse for my tastes)
  4. Not only does VanderMeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
  5. I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing

To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.

To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.

 

The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE

 

This longer review, may contain spoilers for the first two novels in the trilogy. For those reviews, click Annihilation, A Book Review and/or Authority, A Book Review.

 

If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was introverted and anti-social. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death  She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.

 

What to say about VanderMeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:

 

In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.

 

I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?

 

Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess VanderMeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books, Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want satisfaction by the end of the third book. I don’t want to have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.

 

Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded more or less in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.

I am delighted to introduce this third guest post. Professor Liam Corley, an old friend from my early years as a University pastor at UC Berkeley, writes on Jemisin.

First, Professor Corley will show us why Jemisin is worth reading. Second, he will comment on Jemisin’s deft handling of the story-telling craft. The latter part of the post contains spoilers, but for anyone who cares about writing great characters in epic novels, the professor’s sharp analysis will be incredibly helpful. Enjoy!

Five Reasons…(no spoilers)

N.K. Jemisin

 

Sure, N.K. Jemisin has won all of the top prizes in the industry, and every one of the books in The Broken Earth trilogy has won the Hugo. But you’re a discerning reader. You don’t follow trends or hype. Why will you be glad you read Jemisin’s amazing novels?

  1. You’re a mom, and you have fought with your daughter. Maybe been mean. Apologized. Did it again. Jemisin’s work is all about the woman protagonist, especially mothers, and the tangled relationships she depicts will have you thinking about YOUR relationships in a new way.
  2. You know Black Lives Matter, but you don’t know how to talk about it without bursting into flames or tears. Jemisin’s work is a treasure trove of insight into how to confront, live through, and go beyond racial injustice and all of the horrors it has inflicted. From lynching to the casual use of the N-word, it’s all there, in sci fi clothing.
  3. You care about the environment–really care–and wonder what humanity is doing to its survival prospects by destroying our home.The Broken Earth faces up to the end of the world. Again and again and again. Why are we destroying the world? Because we’re greedy and hate each other. Yup, that’s pretty broken. But Jemisin also shows people learning how to survive in the aftermath and figuring out how to make things right.
  4. You think Toni Morrison is the best writer ever. Hands down. Ever. If Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had a love child, it would be N.K. Jemisin. If you can remember reading Beloved in college or watching the movie with Oprah and bawling your eyes out because it was all just so wrong, so beautiful, and so painfully wrong and beautiful, you’ll want to read The Broken Earth.
  5. You love great science fiction and fantasy world-building and character-driven plots. If you are an avid sci-fi reader and especially if you write it, you’ll want to immerse yourself in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. For more on this point, see my longer review on Craft and Culture in Jemisin’s work below.

Click here to buy the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. Click here if you want to buy all three.

The Broken Earth Trilogy

Warning: there are spoilers below, so in case you haven’t read Jemisin yet, you may want to stop reading and pick up the first book of the trilogy. 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Season, first book of the Broken Earth trilogy

 

 

Craft and Culture:

Notes on N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

(spoilers below)

 

Readers of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) have embraced N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, and every installment of the series has won the coveted Hugo Award. Consequently, this post is not meant to introduce new readers to the series. Instead, I will be pointing out elements of Jemisin’s writing that contribute to the magic of the reading experience. Other SFF writers will find this of interest, but so will readers who want to understand why the novels affected them as they did. I’ll touch briefly on how Jemisin weaves her alternating timelines into a narrative fabric that turns flashbacks into a strength, not a weakness, on Jemisin’s incorporation of racial politics that are already part of her reader’s core emotional lives, and on the genres novels’ connections to more literary traditions.

I found myself reflecting on Jemisin’s woven chronologies when I was trying to think through the best ways to incorporate character backstories in my SF work-in-progress. Writers know that flat characters live only in the moment, and their motivations tend to have more to do with survival or accomplishment than working out emotional consequences of their past. Yet providing a character’s past can be a distraction from engaging readers in the drama of the story’s “now” time. How then can authors deepen their characters without losing narrative engagement? Jemisin’s solution is brilliant.

In the first book of the trilogy, Jemisin takes her main character’s timeline and slices it into three parts—childhood, adulthood, and post-apocalyptic adulthood. The character has different names in these time periods and acts in much different geographies and societies, so it takes a while before most readers realize that the chapters which alternate between these three perspectives are actually all the same character at different times of her life. What this allows Jemisin to do is to provide the entire scope of her main character’s life in a nonlinear fashion that is as engaging as it is emotionally excruciating. Getting to know the main character at three very different stages of life gives readers a clear view of the character’s depth, journey, change, and motivation.

This technique shouldn’t simply be adopted wholesale by authors wishing to provide an engaging saga, but it makes evident a point that could be adopted more broadly: backstory needs to be as engaging as the main story or it shouldn’t be indulged in beyond broad strokes and hints. All narrative is a dance between scenes and interludes, scenes and interludes, scenes and . . . Flashbacks, to be compelling and to maintain the hooks of engagement, should be fully realized scenes and not inert paragraphs of backstory.

The Broken Earth series is almost entirely a story about race-based injustice and the ways that civilizations built on exploitation create systems and stories to obscure or recast their dependence on a despised underclass. Jemisin is incredibly effective in evoking readers’ feelings about American racial politics by incorporating parallel dynamics in her fictional world. The first, and probably most overt, instance is her use of a racial epithet, “Rogga,” to indicate orogenes, the enslaved and exploited earth magicians. The sonic similarity of the epithet to the N-word is obvious and intentional. Indeed, even the complex ways the term is used in the series—as slur, as indictment of injustice, as insider labeling—mirror the many ways the N-word is debated in our society. This instance of labeling leaves no questions in the readers’ minds about the allegorical nature of racial politics in Jemisin’s world.

What makes Jemisin’s evocation of contemporary race so powerful is precisely such correspondences that, despite their overt nature when reflected upon, fit so well within plot of the novel that readers can escape the sorts of mental coping mechanisms they have for engaging racial issues in their non-reading lives. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this technique. His tales of the grotesque and macabre are set far distant in time and geography from the slave-owning Southern states where he lived, but their depictions of torture, fear, guilt, and sadism draw indirectly on the repressed experience of those dynamics on plantations. Jemisin’s incorporation of lynchings, segregation, dehumanization, and other tools used by racist societies to subjugate their victims both draw on and make explicit the prevalence of these practices in our own world.

I’ll pivot here to Jemisin’s relationship to African American literature because the series has numerous plot points and characterizations that evoke masterworks by Toni Morrison, one of the most important American writers of the last century. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in a distinguished career that exploded into prominence with the publication of Beloved in 1988. Morrison’s novels often focus on a strong African American woman character, something Jemisin also does through her allegorical association of orogenic ability with African American identity. [spoiler alert] Several key plot points in The Broken Earth draw on Sethe’s world in Beloved, most notably when Sethe murders her own child to prevent her from being taken back into slavery.

There are at least a dozen other correspondences between Morrison and Jemisin that occurred to me as I read The Broken Earth, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by listing them all. Suffice it to say, SFF editors and agents interested in fostering more #ownstories in the genre should expect to see more explicit borrowing from more established traditions in the future. Most importantly, I think that editors and agents should take note of what Morrison and Jemisin already have expressed through their work: #ownstories aren’t niche or sideline stories; they are central to the human condition, and in the case of the United States, foundational to our national identity and culture.

Related to the issue of a society’s foundations in racial injustice, i.e. SLAVERY, is how Jemisin draws on another classic of SFF literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s immensely powerful and well-known story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story poses a philosophical question about injustice and the related phenomenon of scapegoating: would I live in a society that seemed perfect if I knew its perfection depended upon the suffering a single nameless child? The Broken Earth stages this epiphany and existential crisis time and time again throughout the series, with the added element of the unmerited scapegoating being race-based.

On the whole, I’ve become quite a fanboy of Ms. Jemisin’s work, and I hope someday to assign it in one of my classes on American literature

Liam Corley

Liam Corley is a professor of American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is also a Navy Reserve officer, and he returned to creative writing as a way of understanding the world after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009. His work on literature and war can be found in BadlandsChautauquaCollege EnglishFirst ThingsThe Wrath-Bearing Tree, and War, Literature, & the Arts. He is currently at work on a science fiction manuscript about genetics, time travel, and humanity’s irreligious future. He lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and four children.

 

Book 2 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

AUTHORITY, by Jeff VanderMeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.

First,  A Little Data About this Book Review

  1. I listened to the novel via Audible and felt it was difficult to follow and a little boring, this after loving the Audible version of ANNIHILATION.
  2. AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
  3. I have not yet read ACCEPTANCE, but have been told by a trusted scifi-reading friend that the trilogy is worth reading overall

The Short Review. 

I Give this Book a Semi-Enthusiastic yes. Read AUTHORITY for these reasons:

  1. The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
  2. It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
  3. The narrator character is the protagonist and insists on being called Control. Though I’m not fond of him, he establishes a relevant relationship to someone who has survived Area X.
  4. The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.

Longer Review

So…if AUTHORITY was a stand alone novel, I might not write a stellar review and I would give up on reading any other VanderMeer novels, but since I loved ANNIHILATION so much, I will read on. If you’re curious about my review of the first Southern Reach novel, click here for the ANNIHILATION REVIEW

In AUTHORITY, the narrator is a male who calls himself Control. His birth name is John Rodriguez. He is the new director of the Southern Reach. In an early introduction, he insists that his colleagues call him Control. I realize the title of this novel is AUTHORITY and that the book is much about who has authority in the confusing situation that is taking place in and around Area X. This was another reason I was annoyed by John Rodriguez’s moniker. It felt like the author was trying to make me think in a certain direction and less about a person. I didn’t like that.

Control seems like a weirdo, socially. I was not fond of his narrative voice, nor his behaviors or leadership. Control does not compel me. I feel a distance from this character that I think I’m supposed to feel compassion for. Since the story is being told by him, in the first person, I can’t get away from him. I would have stopped listening had I not been told by a friend that the final book and the whole arc of the three books make sense when you finish them.

Despite me not feeling a connection to this narrator character, I can see why author, VanderMeer, changes perspective in this book. He wants the reader to receive another view into Area X. That which is mysterious and difficult to describe, much less understand in Area X, is seen from another angle in this novel. Control provides the US military/intelligence/bureaucratic angle as well as some recent history.

Given that the reader knows the content of ANNIHILATION, that Area X has consumed a number military and government expeditions, the background is helpful to the larger story.

But, for me, the main silver lining around this new narrator was that the reader finally received a physical description of the narrator and protagonist from the previous book.

“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, green eyes, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family…”

This description does make me bummed about the filmmakers of ANNIHILATION casting the biologist for the cinematic story as a white woman (Natalie Portman) with zero (or near zero) Asian heritage. Bummed for many mixed-race actresses out there who did not get this part.

I will listen to the next book, AUTHORITY, on Audible. I hope to enjoy it more than this middle novel.

Click here to buy ANNIHILATION, Bk 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

Click here to buy AUTHORITY, Bk 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

Click here to buy ACCEPTANCE, Bk 3 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

THE MACHINE WAR

The 6th and final post of a 6-day reading fest. I’m excited to recommend this series…all 6 volumes. I would rate DESCENDER as PG-13. This comic series is pretty mild compared to some of the stuff your kids are exposed to. Parents might want to view volume 4 to get a sense (regarding the one sex scene). Overall, the language was extremely tame. The violence was not graphic…not as graphic as many other comic series.

Also…FYI…don’t piss off you machines, those very helpful robots that make your life easier.

Today, I want to acknowledge my dishwasher, for all the hard work and quality service it does every other day or so…also, my robot vacuum machine. Also…the electric toothbrush, and much much more. Thanks to you, machines…I have more time to read amazing comics/stories like DESCENDER, THE MACHINE WAR.

Really, though, I have continued praise for the story. You can view my previous reviews on allscifi I’ve written a review for each volume. As a novel-writer, I am intrigued by the strengths and weaknesses of the comics genre. The visuals in this epic are so gorgeous and add so much to the understanding and the feeling the story. However, I did find myself missing lovely passages of linguistic poetry and the interior monologue that takes place in some novels and short stories.

THE MACHINE WAR does close with a longer interior monologue. A character the reader has not yet met, but one who makes sense in the story overall, she begins to narrate the post-story of DESCENDER, the pre-story of the coming series. This is the bridge character who will take center stage in the sequel to DESCENDER. The next series will be called ASCENDER.

Final word on the review. If you love comics…you will absolutely LOVE this series. The art and the writing are top notch. Furthermore, if you’re a scifi fan…you ought to read this tome. The narrative adds so much to our morality around how we understand ourselves, our machines, our planet and those who work in the shadows to make our lives easier. Let us no forget that real work has to be done by someone. More and more of that is done by machines…but much of it is still done by humans, people who we can easily marginalize and treat as less than human. This is important for all of us to remember. The best scifi stories teach us to be better humans. DESCENDER does exactly that.

Click here to buy this final in the series: DESCENDER, Volume 6 The Machine War

Click here to buy the first installment of the sequel to the DESCENCER, series ASCENDER, Vol. 1, The Haunted Galaxy