In other news, one last book foo of the year!
Finished: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
Darrow is a Red, the lowest of the low in a rigid (and color-coded) hierarchy of society working on Mars. He believes he's laboring to make it habitable, but it's already habitable... the Golds at the top just keep the Reds in utter subjugation for convenience. But after Darrow loses everything he cares about, he's given a chance to strike back, to turn into a Gold and work to infiltrate their society and, perhaps, one day, strike back at them.
Typical YA scenario. Dystopia run on pure evil. Teen hero with improbably impressive abilities fighting against it. Competition, a little romance. There's nothing exceptionally novel about it, and it's even gimmicky in a few ways... but at the same time it has a pretty good fun factor. The main character also seems a little older than many YA protagonists, even seeming a full adult at many points despite being clearly a teenager.
Like many YAs, the promotional material on the covers compares it to other, more famous ones, like Ender's Game and The Hunger Games. I still think I like both of those books more. But it's not bad, either, it's fun like an exciting TV show where you're always curious about what they'll do next.
The flaws are in some ways the strengths, magnified. The book is fun, but... more than a little over-the-top. Characters spend nights buried in mud with no complaints, rip into wolves with their bare hands, engage in brutal war games, they face a government that is evil to the point of stupid (I mean, even if you're going to go all out evil and make a color coded society based on your unquestioned rule over everybody and use things like genetic engineering... at least use it to make your selves superior or your lowest classes notably inferior so that even with a face-lift and crash education course they can't realistically compete). It's fun but at times it feels like a kid's adventure cartoon, only with gory fight scenes and swearing (much of it made up curse words, but I believe a few real ones made it in) and rape (which, yeah, even though it's not sure it's fair to say that it's trivialized, it's thrown around too casually for my comfort). The book's supposedly going to be made into a movie, but I find it hard to picture it being much like the book without being more than a little ridiculous.
I've heard the series does improve greatly after the first book (and some say it even grows to be more proper science fiction), and despite my reservations with Red Rising, I did like this one enough that I'm willing to follow along and see if that's true.
Finished: The Noise Within, by Ian Whates
A pirate ship's been prowling the spacelanes, and special forces troops are trying to track it down. So is a businessman, who believes the ship is actually a lost prototype his company put out.. and designed to be the first ship piloted by an AI.
There is an idea that is central to this book. I get the feeling the genesis for the book came with that idea, and the rest of the story was built around it. I could be wrong, but that's the feeling I get. But it's an idea that's pretty nifty and well-articulated.
Unfortunately, it's the rest of the book that's the problem.
It's not awful, for the most part. It's competent in terms of prose, but... there just doesn't seem to be a whole lot of good, here. The characters aren't very interesting and often do things for bizarre reasons. Minor characters are set up with a lot of importance and disposed of in weird ways that make you wonder what the point of focusing on them was, and major characters were given long chapters where they basically go on vacation, which might be worth it with a more interesting protagonist, but not here. I can't for the life of me figure out why we needed the deep peek into the life of a teenager who was hired to tell one of the main characters if certain people he was looking for showed up, nor why we needed to see a scene from the perspective of both of them. Or learn about a rich businessman's adventures with recreational drugs and meaningless flings for pages on end. Some plotlines I can only assume are due to be resolved in future books, but in this book, that doesn't feel right. And the narrative jumps around with weird pacing, where I swear some major events were handled completely between chapters. There were some cool ideas, particularly the central one, but overall I was left with a feeling of "what's the point?"
And then there were the eyerollers, like a (pretty much unnecessary) main character who was introduced essentially as the pilot of a space luxury liner flirting/sexually harassing one of the stewardesses (I suppose it was intended to be flirting, since she seemed to enjoy it). Like, what is this, the 60s? Or other characters being described as the most beautiful woman so-and-so had ever seen. Or the overlong depiction of hacking which (one of my pet peeves in the genre) seems to think of another system as a place your mind GOES and if it gets hurt there it might not be able to COME BACK, or at the very least while you're leaving a system you have to find your way home through digital back alleys, rather than, you know, pulling the plug and disconnecting immediately. In a generally better book, I might have looked past these groaners, but here, they're about the only thing that stuck with me.
Finished: Phantasm Japan (short stories)
This is a collection of fantasy stories, about half written by Japanese authors and translated, and about half written in English that just happen to involve some aspect of Japanese culture or mythology.
This is the same deal as The Future is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan., but at least this time, I'm not expecting more from it, so it's not as disappointing. I still wish it was mostly a collection of stories in translation, but I had to make my peace with it. And, besides, this is a fantasy collection, so my expectations are lowered anyway. Not that there's anything wrong with fantasy (it's certainly far better than a book that's completely mundane), it's just that I personally don't respond as well to it as science fiction. And while there's frustratingly almost always outright fantasy stories in what are supposedly science fiction collections (at least, when there isn't a defined theme around it being hard SF), rarely in my experience is the reverse true.
Luckily, this is one of the rare cases, as there are several that at least dance on the line between the two genres, if not crossing entirely.
For that reason, I think I may even like it more than TFIJ. But like all short story collections, it's a mixed bag. Some I liked, some I didn't care for at all. And maybe more often than not, the ones I didn't care for were slogs or felt utterly pointless rather than simply being not my thing. But I was pleasantly surprised by how many I genuinely liked.
The standouts, for me, were:
"Scissors or Claws, and Holes" by Yusaku Kitano (a weird tale of microscopic organisms that try to colonize and can let you see the future, but you must be very careful how you act).
"Girl, I Love You" by Nadia Bulkin (set in a world where curses have begun to work, and following the friend of a girl who paid the ultimate sacrifice to stop a bully)
"From the Nothing, With Love" by Project Itoh (a weird tale of an immortal but very familiar spy).
"Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters" by Tim Pratt (a bit unsubtle but still enjoyable tale of someone seeking revenge on a self-styled monster hunter).
"The Street of Fruiting Bodys" by Sayuri Ueda (about a fungal plague that, possibly, causes those it kills to become ghosts)
I still think I'd give it only 3 stars, like the other anthology, but it's a much higher 3 stars.
Finished: Worlds That Weren't (short stories) (reread)
This is a collection of alternate history tales, and as there's only four of them, they're of novella length. In one, Socrates goes to war with an old friend and ends up changing his mind. In another, over a century after a major meteor shower in 1878 radically realigns the world and puts the brakes on progress, an aristocrat from India (now the center of what was once the British Empire) goes hunting in the wilds of Texas. In another, a group of mercenaries get into conflict with a religious order over their demand to bury a woman fighting with them. And in the last, German Philosopher Frederich Nietzsche moves to the U.S. for his health and eventually winds up in the middle of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
I love alternate history. In theory. I mean, the idea of changing one detail and seeing what might have happened from there is really cool. In practice, when it's JUST alternate history and no other element (like parallel world travel between various alternate histories), it tends to leave me a little cold, feeling a bit too much like actual historical fiction. And while I'm not entirely ignorant of history, my knowledge usually isn't in-depth enough that I can fully appreciate AH tales... sometimes I may be completely ignorant on what actually was supposed to have changed, or what elements were designed to deliberately echo or comment on the original history given the change.
In this case, there's a little help with that, in that the stories each contain an afterword that spells out a bit more of the details. The first of these is the most helpful, in that although I knew about Socrates and that he probably didn't go to war as described in the story, I didn't know what the effects were. In most cases, I suspected it would have helped a great deal if I read the afterword first, to prepare myself.
The stories are generally all right, but still it never really rises above the stated problems I have with AH... it felt too much like reading historical fiction and in many cases bored me. I think my favorite was probably the first, just because watching Socrates question people's assumptions an infuriate them with inconvenient questions about their worldview never seems to get old for me. But, in the end, most of the stories were forgettable (in fact, I've read this before years ago and had only the faintest recollection of any of them), even where the major changes to history were not.
Finished: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
Because even reading the simple summary spoils some aspects of the ending of "The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet," hiding behind a cut.
An AI is installed in a human-looking body and tries to adapt, helped by her friend Pepper, who was raised by an AI on another planet.
This is a loose sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Loose because it directly follows the book and a couple characters, but none of the rest appear. It could almost be read stand-alone (although, it would spoil the first book which is also worth reading, so I'd recommend against it and just reading in order). Now, I liked the previous book quite a bit when I read it.
This one, I think, I like even better. In fact, it may be my favorite book released in 2016.
The weird thing is, it's not especially mind-blowing or innovative. Like its predecessor, it's rather light reading for a SF book (unlike some books which go heavy into jargon and esoteric ideas, I think this series could easily be picked up by someone who's a fan of SF concepts but isn't a huge reader). There aren't even any very big surprises. But it's done very well throughout.
One of the reasons I like it better than the first book is, oddly, that it doesn't have one of the aspects that I found refreshing the first time. In The Long Way, it didn't read like a cohesive novel, but rather a set of short slice-of-life style adventures of a crew. This book, though, is definitely a traditional novel, telling two alternating stories, but coming together in the end and feeling cohesive. This also means it's of smaller scale, which is why I think I liked it. See, the previous book had so many space opera style tropes, filling out the universe, that some of them wound up feeling a bit cliche, and because you're skipping almost immediately to another idea, the cliches were sometimes what stuck with me most. Here, the universe may still contain all those idea, but this particular book only deals with a couple SF concepts, and the added depth makes even the cliche parts fun to read about.
Of the two storylines, I actually found Pepper's most engaging, contrary to my expectations, and as the end was approaching I was emotionally invested and wanting things to work out.
And, like the first book, even though there are sad moments, there's an uplifting feel to the whole thing, that even when the universe seems to suck, it's also full of wonder and good people and if you keep going, maybe you can find ways to get along and make it better. That's something that is sometimes really needed, and I think especially now.
I liked the first book, a lot, but I thought I might like it as an exception, as a novelty. This one is less a novelty, but I liked it even more, which means the author is definitely one to keep watching.
Finished: Golden Son, by Pierce Brown
(description behind cut for possible Red Rising spoilers) Although Darrow's schemes to take down the color-coded caste system from within are progressing after the next book, a sudden setback throws everything into jeopardy... and he must enact daring plans to get himself into position. But while he's made friends, some of them may not be as true as he might like.
Honestly, I still don't get the hype. I mean, yeah, it's fun enough, and I guess it does get a bit more space-opera-y than the first one (where it might has well have been fantasy in many parts), but... it's still just way too over-the-top for my tastes. I don't feel like I'm reading a novel about a real society, I think I'm watching some mix between a cartoon and a summer blockbuster... only including some of the worst of each. I still can't, for example, picture the books as a movie series without changing a whole lot or looking ridiculous like a Zack Snyder movie. Which, I guess is a better description than a cartoon/blockbuster. The book reads like a Zack Snyder space opera movie in book form. And sure, in between all of the eye-rolling grittiness and attempts to be profound, Zack Snyder movies can be fun, but it's hard to take their story seriously or remain invested in the characters.
It looks like I'm hating on the book a lot more than I am, but I think more than anything I'm just disappointed by the hype. It's fine. I don't think I wasted my time on it. I'll probably read the third book (my level of enjoyment and curiosity about how they'll move on from where they did are just enough to make that decision) but I'll set my expectations a lot more realistically. Dumb fun is still fun.
Finished: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson (reread)
Normally I don't review rereads, but since I had to write a Goodreads review for it the first time I might not have my official one posted here, so, here goes:
One night, three kids are outside as the stars disappear. Soon, they, and the rest of the world, come to learn the shocking truth... the entire Earth has been wrapped in some kind of bubble, and for every year that passes on Earth, millions upon millions of years pass in the rest of the universe. If it keeps up, within decades, the sun will die. But life goes on, or at least it tries to, and people deal with the upcoming apocalypse in their own ways.
I've read this book several times already, so I think it's safe to say I really like it, it might even be one of my favorite books. It's just brilliant, both the way the author plays with big science fictional ideas and yet always keeps it grounded in character and never lets them get lost in the big ideas.
The author's master stroke, on the science fiction end, is the way the concept ties the lifeline of the world's habitability in our solar system to the rough equivalent of a human lifespan, allowing us to experience the sense of wonder of grand time scales with a realistic, grounded perspective, and the clever ways used to exploit or get around the problem of the Spin Membrane are imaginative and keep my attention even on rereads. Yet it remains a highly personal story, full of realistic characters relating to each other in complicated ways, people who care about each other but can't make it work, people who have different reactions to big events, people who seem like villains at first but show themselves to just be human.
Overall it's just a fantastic book that I'd recommend to everyone, even if you're not a hard-core SF fan.
Finished: The End of All Things, by John Scalzi
Part of a long-running series, so plot description might be spoilery.
Earth's Colonial Union, Earth itself, and the alliance of alien worlds known as the Conclave are not at war, yet... but the three powers aren't exactly friends, either. It's a situation that could boil over into outright conflict at any moment... and there's a secretive group out there trying to take advantage of the existing tensions and provoke a conflict that might well eliminate one or all of the players.
This is another book in the Old Man's War universe, and moreover, another in the mold of The Human Division... rather than a single novel story following one character or group of characters through the whole book, it's a set of loosely-linked shorter stories involving different groups that, overall, advance the plot.
And it's Scalzi, so if you're a regular reader, you probably know generally what you're in for, for good or ill, there's a particular type of humor, a mix of cynicism and optimism, some entertaining action... it's fun. But it's not great. It lacks the energy of the previous books in the series, and there's the sense that Scalzi's continuing to write them not because he feels there's stories that need to be told, but that he's getting paid enough to find stories.
But, again, it's fun, just not as fun. And the chosen format of the series does tend a lot more towards politics and scheming, and occasionally attempting to get us to sympathize with people who brutally suppress attempts to assert independence from a government that they have no faith in (which, particularly in today's climate, does not sit well with me).
The most entertaining of the stories was the first, "The Life of the Mind," which approaches the spirit and tone of the first couple books the closest. The climax of the book also wraps things up in a more-or-less satisfying way. In between, it's more in the "okay" range.
I like the author, but I want to read stories that I feel excite him, and I don't get that feel from this book, by and large. I'm not entirely ready to give up on the universe, but I think he needs to find a new focus to build stories around, and let the political shenanigans and authoritarian dirty tricks move more into the background, rather than center stage.
Finished: The City and the City, by China Mieville (reread)
Finished: The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
Finished: Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
Finished: Infomocracy, by Malka Ann Older
In the future, the world's political systems have changed dramatically, now (aside from a few holdout countries) everyone is divided into groups of their 100,000 nearest neighbors, and vote every ten years on which government will rule them. Within their 'centenals', the laws of their governments hold, even if another government is just across the street. It's election time again, and everybody's scrambling for control of more and more areas, and a few might be scheming to tamper with the vote.
It's one of those books where you can feel it started with a basic idea, in this case of how elections might be run differently. Unfortunately, it completely handwaves how it got there. Handwaving how you got to whatever setup you're exploring isn't a fatal flaw in a sci-fi story, but here it seemed hard to buy into the premise because I can't picture us ever getting to a point like this, without a drastic shift in technology that would change the world even more. I also would have liked to see more about how it worked in practice having so many mini-states. If one area changes government, how does the transfer of power go? If one's more authoritarian and they don't want to give up power, what happens?
Still, it's interesting enough that I kept reading and wasn't bored, just that I was left with enough unanswered questions that I wasn't fully satisfied. I did enjoy the looks at different philosophies of governance and exploring how things like celebrity and subtle signalling can influence public opinion to an uncomfortable degree.
The characters, while I wouldn't describe them as flat, mostly have similar goals and interests, and passion... they're all people who actively work for the election system (and one who works against it, but has that same kind of righteous idealistic passion for why he's on the outside), so it does render them all somewhat 'samey' especially since they're all involved in a crisis where the very thing that they have in common is what needs to be at the forefront of everybody's mind. I'd have liked to see more 'average people' woven into the narrative, perhaps family members or love interests who are doing other things, to get a richer view of the world and the characters in it. What we have as is, isn't bad, particularly for a first novel, but as someone who doesn't get that into the political end beyond what's necessary to know who to support, I didn't feel especially close to anyone. The book also seemed to take a omniscient third person viewpoint, which meant headhopping occasionally became a problem as we jumped back and forth between the opinions of two characters rather than settling into one viewpoint.
Overall, I'd say I like it more than many of the actual elections that were going on this year that I was aware of. Which is a low bar to beat, admittedly, but still the novel's in a mild 'like' category, so, three stars. I'm not sure I'd read a sequel, but only because I think as a series this may be geared more to the type of people who really are into this stuff. But I might be willing to give it a try, if a sequel expanded on the world more and got more deeply into the character's other traits than being electoral geeks, or try other works by the author.
Finished: World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
I'm not sure what it says that I closed out the year with a reread of a trilogy set in the months before a civilization-ending asteroid hits the Earth. Maybe that it's preferable to how the rest of 2016's gone.
Anyway, my end of the year wrapup!
My complete 2016 reading list was:
1. Planetfall, by Emma Newman
2. Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian (short stories)
3. Aliens: Recent Encounters (short stories)
4. City, by Clifford D. Simak
5. Vast, by Linda Nagata
6. Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar*
7. Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Charles Sheffield
8. The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
9. Murasaki (shared world anthology)
10. Trident's Forge, by Patrick S. Tomlinson*
11. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
12. Crisis in Zefra, by Karl Schroeder
13. Nekropolis, by Maureen F. McHugh
14. Faith, by John Love
15. Engineering Infinity (short stories)
16. Starfarers, by Vonda N. McIntyre
17. Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks (reread)
18. Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft (short stories)
19. Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge (reread)
20. The Fortunate Fall, by Raphael Carter
21. The Harvest, by Robert Charles Wilson
22. Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel*
23. A Darkling Sea, by James L. Cambias
24. Edge of Dark, by Brenda Cooper
25. The Diving Bundle, by Kristin Kathryn Rusch
26. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (reread)
27. Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
28. Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee*
29. Glasshouse, by Charles Stross (reread)
30. Permanence, by Karl Schroeder (reread)
31. A World Out of Time, by Larry Niven
32. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey
33. Packing Fraction and Other Tales (short stories)
34. Echopraxia, by Peter Watts (reread)
35. Too Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer
36. Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder (reread)
37. The Passage, by Justin Cronin
38. Queen of Candesce, by Karl Schroeder (reread)
39. Scratch Monkey, by Charles Stross
40. Company Town, by Madeline Ashby
41. Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic
42. Battle Royale Remastered (reread)
43. Waypoint Kangaroo, by Curtis C. Chen*
44. The Future is Japanese (short stories)
45. The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler*
46. The Mad Apprentice, by Django Wexler*
47. The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North
48. Palace of Glass, by Django Wexler*
49. The Just City, by Jo Walton
50. Metrophage, by Richard Kadrey
51. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North (reread)
52. City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss
53. Blindsight, by Peter Watts (reread)
54. A Hidden Place, by Robert Charles Wilson
55. Slum Online, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
56. Necrotech, by K.C. Alexander*
57. Legend of the Galactic Heroes Vol 1: Dawn, by Yoshiki Tanaka
58. The Promise of the Child, by Tom Toner
59. The Scar, by China Mieville
60. Feedback, by Mira Grant
61. On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
62. Warchild, by Karin Lowachee
63. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
64. The Noise Within, by Ian Whates
65. Phantasm Japan (short stories)
66. Worlds that Weren't (short stories) (reread)
67. A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
68. Golden Son, by Pierce Brown
69. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson (reread)
70. The End of All Things, by John Scalzi
71. The City and the City, by China Mieville (reread)
72. The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
73. Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
74. Infomocracy, by Makla Ann Older
75. World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters (reread)
75 is a new record for me, for yearly books read. Average length was 376 pages, 27,061 pages overall. That's 3.08 pages every hour of the year. Or one page every 19.5 minutes of my life.
10 multi-author short story collections this year (1 was a reread... technically one was a collection of essays, but we'll count it here)
That leaves us with 65. Breaking it down by gender, I did not do so well as last year, 19 books by women. (In addition, one trans male who is counted on the male side, and one author who I understand identified as androgynous, so I haven't counted in either category)
Now, last year I had accidental gender equality, but one key factor was in play last year... last year I had a secondary goal of no rereads. This year, I've been rereading some books. I had 17 rereads, one of which was a short story collection, one was by a female author, and 15 by males. Obviously, there's a historical imbalance, since before I was consciously trying to 'read more women authors', a large majority of my reading was by males, and so a large majority of my favorites have been as well (and that's likely to persist for quite a while).
If we remove rereads from the equation and focus on new books, there'd be 49 single-author books in total. 48 by people who identify either as male or female. Of that, 18 by women authors is still lower than I'd like, but a bit more respectable at least. Still, clearly there are unintentional biases that push my reading taste more towards male writers.
I'll continue trying in the future, to try and read more diverse voices in general.
I got 5 physical books for free as part of promotional 'contest' style giveaways, as well as 4 others that were pre-release electronic book giveaways for review purposes for a total of 9 (these are the ones with asterisks beside them). Another 6 I got for free either because that's how the publishers or authors generally offer them, or as special post-release promotions where they offered them free to everyone for a limited time.
Going into 2017, I'm reading:
The John Varley Reader, by John Varley (short stories), The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds and Fire with Fire, by Charles Gannon