THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Short Review
I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…
- Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
- Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
- The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
- 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
I sort of missed it and gonna blame that on COVID19, but April 26 is the day the scifi community celebrates the Alien Franchise. Today, a little late, I’m re-watching ALIEN and feel there are some great lessons for the 2020 human host of COVID19
Five Lessons Ripley Can Teach Us About Living with a Hidden Enemy
- Be on guard at all times. The “man” the “government melded with the corporation” is always trying to pull one over on ya…so be wary.
- Take care of your own team (including yourself). The bad guys will infiltrate your team, your mind and your spaceship and they lie real good…they will lull your people into passivity and then STRIKE.
- Let go of sentimentality and fight till the end. Some of your team will fall. Hell, you might even fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still fight. Do not give up.
- Kill the demons…never, never, never give them an inch. They feed off you and will take advantage of any weakness you exhibit. They deserve no mercy, so don’t give them any.
- Always keep the goal in mind. Your survival and that of humanity, especially the young and the weak. Hope is everything.
Confession, before I write anything else, I have to say…I love Ripley and not just because Sigourney Weaver graduated from my alma mater and starred gorgeously in the original two Ghost Buster films. I love her for her character in the Alien franchise. I love Ellen Ripley because though she is that suspicious babe you wish would go away most of the time, you def want her on your team when the going gets tough. She always chooses humanity, always chooses moral good, even when it costs her everything.
If you have the stomach for it in this season of quarantine, re-watch the original ALIEN. The creature in the film is modeled after this parasite and not a virus, however, the fear of contagion is palpable and gripping (We can relate).
The ALIEN screenplay, for those who love the genre, resembles the haunted house narrative. Enclosed in a house (in this case, a spaceship) the members of a routine haul (AKA…this crew is made up of blue collar haulers) must battle an enemy determined to consume and hide. Many of the emotions parallel our current quarantine, so if you think it will help you process and release steam, watch Ripley kick ass and conquer.
Read All Three Issues of SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN You Won’t Be Sorry
- Comic book action and a great story
- Relatable kid characters who make poor or good choices and learn from them
- Even Superman grows and changes
- 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
- I can’t get enough of Gurihiru’s lovely art
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
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.
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
- Meaningful story that unfolds with a tense, creepy vibe
- More family friendly than a lot of current scifi
- If you happen to be a Brad Pitt fan, he’s pretty much in every scene of this film with a lot of closeups. Has to be on your bucket list.
- The science fiction fan will enjoy a number of zero gravity fist fights, a vehicle chase/ambush on the moon, raging space baboons, and a more gritty portrayal of space travel and space tech for the science geeks.
- Nuanced performance by Pitt. His character is non emotional with flat affect, but this film is about his growth toward engaging his emotions. I thought Pitt pulled it off.
I recommend AD ASTRA for the whole family. It’s worthy of a watch party. AD ASTRA is rated PG-13, I’m guessing for its few gory scenes. I don’t think the gore will disturb most viewers. If you need warning, write to me via comments section and I can warn you when to walk out of the room.
There are no sexually explicit events in this film and very little offensive language. It’s a quiet film in portions, much of it narrated by Pitt in voice-over journal entries/reports…The vibe felt similar to Space Odyssey, monotone and spare. However, unlike Space Odyssey, AD ASTRA gives its audience a few exceptional action sequences.
AD ASTRA, directed by James Gray, written by Gray and Ethan Gross, follows one character’s odyssey into space to save the world. Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is contacted by SpaceComm, the military’s space command, for a special assignment.
Power surges are wreaking havoc on Earth. These surges seem to be coming from an old space station, the Lima Project, the station run by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). That station went as far as Neptune. In Roy’s youth, the station stopped communicating with SpaceComm and all its inhabitants were presumed dead. At least this has been the public’s assumption. Roy’s included.
Now, the military reveals they believe Roy’s father is still living on Lima. The want Roy to communicate with his father, but Roy can only do this from an underground Mars station. (For some reason it cannot take place on Earth). Thus begins his odyssey to Mars and beyond.
The audience knows Roy has more than a few daddy issues. He’s serious, non-emotional and disconnected from others. Roy describes himself as someone who compartmentalizes for the sake of survival. Roy does have a wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), but that relationship is failing. They have no children.
So, in saving the world, Roy McBride will journey to save himself and if possible, his father. The interior journey that parallels the exterior journey to salvation is not so subtle in the film, but it is still a fun ride.
So, yes…our family is following the trend. We viewed the much talked about THE MANDALORIAN this past holiday vacation. If you count the fact that we (my husband and I and our two kids in their twenties) actually plunked ourselves down in theater seats and watched the new Skywalker film, our eyeballs were largely captivated by the Star Wars universe.
A big win for Disney because I’m guessing we weren’t the only family doing this.
THE MANDALORIAN is a PG-13 show. Don’t let cute child Yoda-like character charm you into thinking this is for little kids. Many of them will be terrified by the series, in part because the cute little character is often in danger.
There is also graphic violence in the series. The main character, Mando, is a bounty hunter in the spirit of Jango/Boba Fett.
First, The Short Review: Five Reasons to Watch THE MANDALORIAN
- Similar to Stranger Things, this series is turning out to be an international phenomena. If you don’t watch it, you’re bound to miss about 1 out of every 5 late-night tv jokes and tons of cultural references.
- The production is well done overall, including the special effects.
- Each of the 8 episodes are action packed and tension filled.
- Baby Yoda (this isn’t actually baby Yoda, but a child of the same species as Yoda) is adorable.
- The story helps to expand and fill out the Star Wars universe and that is kind of fun if you have enjoyed the previous stories.
The story and the main character evolve in this production. I was a little bothered by never being able to see the face/read the face of the hero, but the Star Wars film folks have genuinely figured out the best possible way to convey feeling even when a character is a robot or wears a helmet that covers the face. Speaking of helmets…one of the most delightful interactions took place between two storm troopers. At one point, they are alone and commenting on their superiors’ orders and interacting over a creature/prisoner in their possession. It’s funny and humanizing to hear their banter, though the two of them still seem bent on serving their evil overlords.
As is typical of our most beloved Star Wars tales, the protagonist adores his ship and seems to have a particularly affectionate relationship with it. Star Wars writers do a good job of making machines, like ships and droids take on personality. Droids are a sore subject with our hero. He mistrusts all of them and the story arc grapples with this view. The teaching character introduced in an early episode is called Kuiil. He not only assists Mando when our hero is in need, he represents the gentler and more peace-loving side of the universe. Where Mando can seem brutal and hard, his moral angle on the universe is expanded as the audience sees him interact with the child first and second with Kuiil.
As usual, Star Wars writers are good about villains and rogues, some of whom are weird looking aliens. Yes, there is even a bar scene right at the getgo in episode 1. In addition, the audience visits new planets, sees new creatures and encounters cultures not previously shown in any Star Wars film. This happened organically and it didn’t feel like overload to me. I appreciated the universe getting filled out in more details for the fans, all while telling a story that I cared about. Moreover, the new planets and creatures kept each episode action-packed and visually interesting.
Mando is a loner, but eventually the task of caring for the child becomes bigger than him. He needs allies and those allies are an interesting group as well, gritty and loyal to the cause. Mando’s willingness to team up with others, including a droid, reveals the character growth he has undergone.
This story takes place a few years after the Empire has fallen (post Return of the Jedi, 1983), but 25 years before the the rise of the First Order, the authoritarian regime that is firmly in control of the galaxy when Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) begins.
DisneyPlus Streaming Note:
If you want to watch THE MANDALORIAN, you might be able to access it illegally…these things I try not to know, but I realize it happens. If you want the legit way to watch, you’ll have to obtain DisneyPlus. Google search DisneyPlus deals and see what you can find. Our family found that our carrier, Verizon, gave the service free for a year because we have unlimited data. After one year, we pay $6.99 per month. This article in Business Insider will fill you in. We obviously took the deal.
Free is awesome, but will we re-up at the one year mark? We might, but it depends on the overall content value. Right now, our family subscribes to Netflix and now DisneyPlus. We are Amazon Prime Members and we use YouTube/Roku/Apple TV combo for lots of other content.We do not subscribe to HBO or Hulu or other subscribe options. I do try to watch Hulu shows when I fly Delta, which I do often, so I haven’t felt like I’ve missed that service. HBO would be nice, but there are only so many hours in a day and I still want to read! So…that’s it for us, for now.
It’s August, which means we’re almost done with summer, but it is not too late to steer your teen away from screens and toward reading. I have a soft heart for parents of teens. I have two kids and know well the battle parents wage relentlessly to engage their teens with anything other than their devices. (Truth…we parents have an addiction as well…which is why tackling this issue is so tricky!).
But why even fight? Why fight the powerful riptide that sucks our kids into the digital universe?
I interviewed reading specialist, Dr. Marnie Ginsberg, who focuses on training teachers of early readers and has two teenagers of her own. Even she is familiar with the struggle! This is what she says about teen reading…
“Good teen readers read hundreds of hours more each year than average readers. As a result of this reading practice, they keep developing their reading achievement. And reading achievement is strongly correlated with so many positive outcomes for teens and their future selves that one can hardly count them all…”
Dr. Ginsberg’s list included these: “Higher reading achievement leads to…
- better school achievement–in all subject areas, including math
- stronger oral and written language knowledge and skills
- better job prospects
- higher wage earnings
- better health; and even better life expectancy!
- Besides these long-term benefits, time spent reading helps in immediate ways, too, such as mood regulation and stress reduction.”
Yet, Dr. Ginsberg said that most teens today are not reading enough to enjoy these varied benefits of high reading achievement. Multimedia usage instead, soaks up most of the typical teen’s day–upwards of 8 hours a day.
If you are an educator and want to learn more about how to better teach young readers the skills that will help them succeed at reading, check out her website. ReadingSimplified
Discovering Great Stories Your Teens Will Love…
The challenge for parents and teachers is to help the teens in their life discover great stories. Our kids still love stories, but they tend to take them in via the screen. Stranger Things, the Netflix hit is my case and point. That series has become a must see event for most of our teenagers. It seems to be as important as any of the Avengers blockbusters. All that to say, stories still matter to our kids. Let this be your best ammunition as a parent. If you work hard at finding good stories in the books you are putting in front of their faces, your kids have a much better chance of sitting down and reading.
There are many compelling stories waiting to be uncovered by you/your teen, but how do you find them? Try going to Goodreads (book review site) or googling something like The Top 10 New Novels for Teens. Also, follow the lead of your teen who might have a favorite author or genre. I would advise heading to a library over a bookstore when looking for the right story because librarians are golden.
A great librarian is like a matchmaker. Librarians read enough to know the answer to a question like this…What is the best Middle Grade book with a female protagonist who isn’t an orphan that is under 300 pages. A great librarian will be able to give your teen one or two books that fit that description.
However, if you’re in a hurry and a little stuck, check out reviews on my website (not all are teen appropriate), but here are a few I would put forward that are teen appropriate.
All these books except for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE are speculative fiction or sci-fi.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. To buy the audiobook, click here.
- THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. To buy this audiobook, click here.
- DOGSBODY, By Dianna Wynne Jones. Click here to buy.
- DESCENDER SERIES (graphic novel series), by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (See below for links to purchase)
- AMERICAN BORN CHINESE (graphic novel), by Gene Luen Yang. Click here to purchase.
In addition to finding the right stories. Here are a few strategies that will encourage teen reading
- Take a road trip where screens are forbidden in the car and listen to an audiobook that everyone has agreed on. Bonus…if you pick the first book in a series (and there are many of those out there), your teen might pick up the subsequent books on his/her own.
- Make it a summer tradition (or an all-year tradition) to read aloud together as a family before bed each night. I know a few families that practice this habit and their kids cherish the time. Think of it in a similar category as watching television together…
- Don’t despise the graphic novel. There are sophisticated stories, characters and lengthy dialogue to be had in the modern graphic novel.
- Go on a phone-free, screen-free vacation where every member of the family gets to take his/her own book of choice This NY Times article gives tips on how to best unplug in case one phone must come along.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Decent tension to keep the reader going.
- 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…
- Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
- The conflict is resolved too easily.
- 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.
- 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 Hive Brain Alien (Spoilers Galore)
Writing non-humanoid aliens who don’t speak a human language is no easy task. This post is preceded by three others. If you want the earlier insights, link to to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. It occurs to me that I ought to define dynamic. That word is in all four titles.
In terms of a dynamic literary character, I mean a character who is neither pure good, nor pure evil…a character that can change its/his/her mind, can act morally or immorally, and can find its way into the audience’s heart.
This post will be a study of ALIEN, BATTLE STAR GALACTICA, ANNIHILATION and ENDER’S GAME.
Hive brain aliens (or A.I. in the case of Battle Star Galactica) differ so much from human beings, in part because their societies resemble what would be perceived by humans, as dictatorships or slave states. Hive communities, though a perfectly reasonable way of life for many of Earth’s tiny creatures, when translated into human terms, feel unpalatable. All hive individuals think alike. All live for the queen. All work for her good and the good of the community, often at the expense of the individual. So, how does an author drum up empathy for these characters? In the case of Ridley Scott with his Alien creature…almost none. The exception would be in Alien Resurrection, the third film in the franchise, when the newborn hybrid alien is killed by its own mother, Ripley. The audience knows this is necessary, but still…it hurts to see that cute (not cute) little spawn (not little) sucked out of the spaceship.
So, these aliens in the Alien franchise are not sapient. They do not make tools and have no technological civilization of any kind.
They are predators, with one goal…survival. Not only will they eliminate other lifeforms that may pose a threat to them, they will impregnate those who remain and use them to feed their young. Yeah…not a pretty picture, but still, that moment when Ripley turns her back on her offspring…it tugs our heart for a brief moment.
My husband and I have been re-watching Battle Star Galactica (which, by the way is fantastic; the writing, the acting and the overall production hold up to any tv series produced ever after). In BSG, the Cylons are the worker bees of a hive mind (an A.I. computer searching for meaning). The Cylons have destroyed human civilization and are chasing down the remnant who are fleeing in space vessels across galaxies to find a place where they will be able to survive/start over. The Cylons are called “toasters” by the humans who shoot them dead (otherwise, they will likely die by the hands/guns of those Cylons). The Cylons are non-human with little or no individuality…until, the computer brain figures out how to create machines that are VERY human-like. Those Cylons infiltrate the human remnant and take on unique personalities. One even falls in love and is impregnated by a human. So…it all becomes complicated. Including, the episode we just watched which chronicles a Cylon called Scar. The episode is the 15th of the second season and is titled, Scar. It is free for for Amazon Prime members as is the entire series.
This particular Cylon is not only named by the human fleet (naming a hive member changes the way the audience sees this character), it is feared by them. The fleet’s fear of Scar also puts it in a unique category. No longer is Scar a worker bee.
Scar has been able to kill more human viper pilots by learning. The implication put forward by one of the human-like Cylons (the pregnant one) is that each time Scar has been destroyed, its failure in battle remains in its brain. As that brain is downloaded into the new Cylon body, a new pilot is born, only it does not forget. Scar is able to access the lessons of its battle failures and grow more adept at fighting human pilots. In a previous episode of BSG, the human fleet has destroyed the Cylon “resurrection ship”. Therefore, this battle with Scar is to the death. Scar will not be coming back in a new body if it is destroyed this time.
In BSG, the writers want the audience to grapple with a morphing understanding of the Cylons. Cylons start out all evil, but don’t stay that way. Various human-like Cylons enter into human community and help it, many step in with critiques of human society, acting almost like prophets. The Cylons are monotheists, who believe there is a purpose to their existence. The human remnant is polytheistic, worshipping the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Wonderful fodder for philosophical ponderings within BSG.. Through the many episodes of BSG, the audience begins to feel more compassion for the Cylons. The entire series is worth watching if you are a writer who cares about humanizing characters that fall into the category of enemy or other.
In ANNIHILATION, the enemy is mysterious, hive-like in that it reacts en masse and not as individuals…In fact, it can’t be categorized as a hive-brain alien exactly. There is little clarity that the anomaly in Area X is actually an alien takeover. What emerges is the notion (at least in the novel) that the changes taking place in Area X are inevitable and may be good for Earth. The anomaly, however, is impersonal. The alien impact, or whatever it is, is spreading and seems to have no consciousness in the way we think of consciousness, but is more like a fungus or a virus. It has power to change its environment, but any actual “brain” that would become a military target, allowing our government to remove the anomaly is unclear. Lots of mystery, but the writer, Vandermeer, makes it work, especially in ANNIHILATION, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Area X is frightening because it consumes and/or changes all who encounter it. As a writer, ANNIHILATION is worth studying for the utter strangeness of the alien anomaly. There is no verbal communication with it, only physical and psychological encounter. The biologist character in the novel (Lina, in the film) helps the audience see the mystery as beauty. However, the ambiguity remains and is never truly resolved. It’s good to see an alien like this. The presence of it pushes the human characters to their limits and reveals aspects of our humanity that are important to recognize. Really great sci-fi ought to do this.
Lastly, ENDER’S GAME. The Formics are the enemies, (the Buggers) that Ender eventually destroys. The novel is about how he is trained to perform this act. Ender commits xenocide without knowing it. It’s worth reading or re-reading ENDER’S GAME to watch how Orson Scott Card pulls this off. The Formics are all evil until very close to the end of the novel. The turn takes place when the innocent, but talented Ender realizes how he has been manipulated and how his power has been used to “save Earth”, but while doing so, he has destroyed another species. His grief is immense. Ender will bear this guilt into subsequent novels. The audience, once it realizes that the Formics have been destroyed, enters into Ender’s regret. A young boy’s conscience has been scarred. The novel then portrays the Bugger queen communicating with Ender, giving hope to him that there might be a path to redemption. The audience wants this for Ender. The queen reveals that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race because they lacked a hive mind. She/they realized their mistake too late. In other words, the war was a BIG misunderstanding. The queen requests that Ender take a dormant egg that has not been destroyed to a new planet where this species can thrive anew and Ender agrees. Suddenly, the audience is rooting for the Formics.
That is a turn around worth studying! The audience goes from hating Formics and seeing them as a monolith, to empathizing with them and hoping for their rebirth.
Make sure you pick this novel up next time you’re at the bookstore or you can order it here.
Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.
First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.
For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.
Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.
How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?
- Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.
- Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer.
- The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
- The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
- Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.
Caution: A few spoilers in this post…
Non-humanoid aliens are a challenge for writers…hopefully, established in my previous post on writing dynamic non-humanoid aliens
- If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
- If it doesn’t speak in plain human lingo, along with not looking like a human being…it will be near impossible to draw in the typical audience. The alien will remain “the other” and may never transcend its designation of foreigner/alien.
The honest sci-fi writer knows that if a first contact event were ever to take place in the real world, the likelihood of an alien looking like a human being and/or speaking or thinking like a human being is slim to none.
Therefore, the imagination must soar and novels like Embassytown (China Miéville) and short stories like Arrival (Ted Chiang) come into the canon. These are stories that give the audience an alien we might never have imagined. It’s worth looking at both examples. In this post, I will focus on ARRIVAL, the short story and the film. Both were excellent and if you haven’t already consumed these stories, do so and do so before you read on. Here is my non-spoiler review of the film, ARRIVAL Otherwise, I forge ahead with analysis and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
How did Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenplay writer) pull off portraying an alien that was both non-humanoid, with no human language and still give it/them so much character that went beyond “the monster” designation?
- They reveal the alien through the eyes of Louise Banks, the main character and the linguist who is trying to communicate with the creatures/entities. The story is told from Louise’s point of view. That makes a big difference in how the audience sees all that transpires in the narrative because Louise comes to the aliens as a learner, as curious and though the creatures are powerful and instill fear in most of the humans who encounter them, Louise is not overcome by fear. (Note: Louise is a fantastic hero, but she is no Ripley, of the Alien franchise. It’s likely she would have been an early snack for the buggers on that vessel. Louise is fierce in her dedication to her academic discipline, but unlike Ripley, my guess is she would not be as ready to use a gun to blow their brains out if they had revealed themselves to be monsters).
- The writers give the aliens agency, first by showing their power. These entities that have arrived on Earth are powerful, there’s no doubt about that and showing their power is not a difficult writing task. It is accomplished in a variety of well thought-out details. For starters, the vessels they have traveled in are massive. Also, these entities have traveled through space to find another sentient species, which reveals how their technology is superior to human tech. In addition, the mystery of where they have come from, their beautiful language, their form…all create an aura of their power, and I would add, their dignity. The fact that humanity is freaking out (especially the military) is another clue about these aliens and their power. We learn about them by watching how others react to them. This is a classic writing tool, especially when a mysterious character presents itself. The audience takes its cues from the group surrounding the mystery.
- The writers reveal alien character by showing us how those aliens use their power. They show us by showing us the alien actions As ARRIVAL progresses, the audience begins to form an opinion about the motives of these characters. They are characters with personality. First, the audience recognizes what the aliens have not done. They have not blasted the planet to shreds, started a war or abducted any humans. In terms of what they have done, the aliens are trying (trying hard) to communicate. They readily engage when Louise begins to learn their language. The most important scene in the narrative that reveals their goodness is the moment the entities warn Louise about danger, then save the lives of Louise and her counterpart when a bomb, planted by one of the freaked-out military men, explodes in the cave-like room where they have been making slow progress on communicating. The contrast becomes clear. We see humans who are fearful and violent. We see aliens who are steadily revealing themselves and using their power to save lives.
To close this second of four posts, I’ll nerd out a little on words.
The Etymology of Our Other-Worldly Friends/Enemies
In English, the word alien is derived from the Latin, alius, meaning other, and alienus, meaning belonging to another. The al in these words comes from the Proto-European root (it precedes Sanskrit), meaning beyond. Its root is different from the English word, foreigner, whose Proto-European root is the word dhwer, meaning door. The senses of the two words are different based on the roots. The foreigner lives outside one’s door, the alien is from somewhere beyond. I key into the fact that the word precedes Sanskrit. The labeling of the other is incredibly old. Human psychology is fundamentally tribal. Those outside our door or from beyond are automatically suspect. The film ARRIVAL is about this tribal fear and our inability…not just to communicate with strangers/aliens, but to communicate with one another. In the film, this becomes a large issue and almost leads to disaster.
One other term for the sci-fi consumer…E.T.
The term extra-terrestrial was coined in the modern era. It was first documented in 1953 or 1956 depending on who you believe. The initials, E.T., was made famous by Spielberg’s 1982 film.