To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.

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Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie – review

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TP-692x1024Winner of the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel, The Arthur C Clark award and the British Science Fiction Association Award, Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera about love and revenge, but it is also far more interesting than (even) that sounds. Some spoilers in what follows (of more than one book!), so don’t read on if you want to come to it cold.

If you ever thought there was nothing new to add to the space opera, this book should make you think again. Its narrator is Justice of Toren, an artificial intelligence that runs a vast military ship but also animates the stolen bodies of people not considered human by the vast Radch empire. (Some reviews put this as reanimating corpses, missing the crucial detail that the people reprogrammed with the personality of the ship aren’t dead, and are merely having their own individuality suppressed in a violent and traumatic way.) These stolen bodies are neither soldiers nor citizens: they are ancillaries, machine parts, mobile aspects of the huge and complex ship.

There are some echoes of the Roman empire in the Radch, but only to help the reader to grasp what they’re doing: absorbing and conquering other cultures, creating new citizens, adapting religions, all in service of the secret centre, which itself is ruled by a mad emperor who occupies thousands of different bodies.

What this idea allows the author to do is create a first person narrator who possesses some of the characteristics of an omniscient narrator. Justice of Toren is the ship, but is also planet side, in the temple, on the town square, in the barracks, or back on the ship, on every deck, in the cabin. This allows the narrative POV to shift around in a fluid way.

As well as multiple points of view (that are actually one point of view) the narrative takes place in three distinct time frames: a thousand years before, twenty years before, and the “now” of the story. The AI is more or less immortal. Except.

One of the narrator, Breq, is actually the sole survivor of the AI, after the ship was destroyed, and has been passing for human for twenty years, looking for what she needs to take revenge.

All of this is great, and complex and wonderful, and gripping, but even all of this is not the whole of what makes this book so great. The Radch, you see, don’t have gender-differentiated pronouns, so they don’t programme their AIs to distinguish people by gender. So Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren calls everybody “she”.

Now, one of the great strengths of science fiction is its ability to throw you out of the familiar and force you to understand different points of view. In Karen Travis’ City of Pearl, for example, we encounter aliens who see all fauna as “people” and are appalled that human people would eat other sorts of people: canibale! In Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, the novel is narrated by a teenage girl who relates the story of the coming of aliens to her home planet – and only towards the end do we realise that she is not, in fact, human, but the aliens who are coming are.

Ancillary Justice, throws you out of familiarity in a big way. There are strange names, strange words. You’re not sure whether Radch and the other people are human or not. The author dumps us in the middle of things without a great deal of background information. There’s a distinct lack of early exposition, so you’re forced to puzzle your way through. At first you don’t get it, but then suddenly you do. Everybody is “she”, even the anatomically male characters. And even when you learn that a character is anatomically male (from a non-Radch character who is amused that Radch struggle to tell the difference when people are clothed), the narrator continues to refer to them as “she”.

What this means is that you stop thinking of people in a gendered way. Or rather, you just read every character – soldier, citizen, farmer, doctor, emperor – as a she. The power of a simple pronoun actually stops you from putting male bodies on the characters as you read them. It’s like that Twitter joke about Dr Pepper: I bet it didn’t even occur to you that Dr Pepper might be a woman. In Ancillary Justice, everybody is a woman. Even the men. And apart from that one character, the one you’re told is male, you have no idea (and don’t care) whether people are male or female, or what. And if they’re sleeping together, you don’t know whether they’re a same-sex couple or not.

So. Far future space opera, interstellar empires, love and revenge, multiple narrative threads, multiple points of view, and a clever use of pronoun that absolutely boots you out of your gendered thinking rut. All this in a gripping story that leaves you gasping for the sequel. Brilliant.