The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

This is THE LIGHT BRIGADE by KAMERON HURLEY.

A book I hadn’t heard of before going over the Tor.com reviewers’ best books of 2019.

Some years ago, if you’d have said “military sci-fi” my answer would have been, what? no!

But this was fascinating! Mars and Earth are at war and Dietz has signed up to fight. He’s part of a team that is turned into particles of light and then beamed at lightspeed to wherever they’re ordered, sometimes Mars. But something keeps going wrong with his drops, he seems to be joining his team at different times and situations. And soon he learns the truth behind it all.

It is an intense read. So much happens and the reader is trying to puzzle it out along with Dietz. I’ve seen a few reviews since that talked about this book being a new take on Starship Troopers, which I don’t know about as I’ve not seen the movie or read the book. So I’ve come into this as a reader who doesn’t really know much about more classic SF or military novels.

But what I really liked about this book is the way she constructed her future world. Where there are no nations, just corporations. Where you are either citizens or not. And if not, you have no rights and privileges. You are a “ghoul”. Dietz is a one of these “ghouls”, once an inhabitant of São Paulo which has been wiped out by the Martians.

What a read this is. It is brutal and bloody. It discusses politics and capitalism that, while set in a future society, rings so relevant and true to our current one. Loved it.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m always excited to see what new ideas Kowal comes up with. I quite enjoyed her magical Regency series The Glamourist Histories. And on my TBR list, I have Ghost Talkers, a book about mediums of WWI who aid in the war by talking to the ghosts of men who have just died.

I love how she takes the ordinary and spins it just so very slightly, in a way that is so believable and enchanting.

But The Calculating Stars may be my favourite of her books so far.

At first I thought it would simply be a book about a woman heading into space. The series is titled Lady Astronaut after all.

But it is so much more than that.

What happens if a meteorite crashes onto Earth and obliterates much of Eastern US? Besides the many deaths and immediate problems (DC is gone for instance), it eventually becomes clear to scientists that this is an extinction event and the climate consequences that are to follow will likely spell doom for humankind. It is 1952 though and space travel is still merely an idea. But this event immediately propels countries like the US to start space programs.

Elma York is a mathematician and a pilot. But those who run the space program do not think women – or as a matter of fact, anyone who’s not white – can make it in space.

The administration says space is too dangerous for women and the women are relegated to computer jobs. But Elma doesn’t give up. She starts a campaign to show that women are as capable as the men going into space, putting publicity to work for her by going on a kids’ TV show, setting up an all-women airshow – all while desperately battling crippling anxiety.

I love how Elma is so determined to fight for her place on the team. And I appreciate how Kowal writes Elma as being ignorant (and eventually realizing her ignorance) about how other ethnicities are being treated. If it’s difficult for her to get on the program, it is many times more so for the women of color aspiring to be astronauts.

“Around us, women circulated in a susurration of crinoline and starched cotton. Not a single one was black. And the longer I stood there, the clearer it became that Maggie was the only person who wasn’t white.”

Eventually she does get chosen (I’m hoping this isn’t a spoiler) and one of the first things the women have to do is work with a stylist to select wardrobe and hair for the announcement event.

And it is incredibly infuriating for her when they have to do advanced pilot training…in little blue bikinis and in front of the press.

“After spinning in the pool, I turned to face the photographers and waved at them. A record? No. Even if I’d been fast, it was because the variables weren’t the same as under normal test conditions.

But that was science and science wasn’t what they wanted from me.”

What an absolute stunner of a book. I read it not long before I learnt of the news that the first-ever all-female spacewalk had to be canceled because the spacesuit didn’t fit and it would take too long to get a different size ready. According to an article I read, a 2003 study already had found that 8 of the 25 women astronauts at the time couldn’t fit into the available space suits (while of course all the men could). It’s taken many steps for humans to get into space and even more leaps for women to get there. And I love that there’s a book like this that imagines an alternate history yet also reflects the current state of the world today.

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

seveneves
What I loved:

The premise: The moon has blown up. But the why doesn’t matter. Instead it is what is going to happen to Earth and the human race when the parts of the moon collide and keep colliding. The Earth is going to be on fire. And the survival of the human race is at stake. They have two years to figure it out.

The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil. The only way to survive is to get away from the atmosphere. Go underground, or go into space.

Outer space: Ah I love me a book set in space. And while I enjoy books set in made-up planets or completely futuristic settings, I really liked this one for utilizing things that are already present, like the International Space Station.

The characters: And the fact that many of them were women. A female President of the United States. A female commander of the International Space Station (who is by the way, Chinese-American). A female engineer/miner on board the ISS. Women are more essential in this story. It is after all called Seven Eves.

“…there was an understanding, widely shared but rarely spoken of, that men were not the scarce resource. Women – to be specific, healthy, functional wombs – were.”

The tech: It isn’t too far fetched, and I could easily see a lot of it happening today or at least in the near future. They still use Facebook (although it later became Spacebook). Also there is a billionaire space entrepreneur.

The first two-thirds of the book: It was exciting and dramatic and full of puzzling out of things to do to save (wo)mankind. Figuring out what cultural treasures can be saved. The preservation of embryos and ensuring the diversity o fate species. I liked how some everyday necessities were mentioned, not just how to cultivate food up in space, but also spectacles. A machine that could produce spectacle lenses had to be sent up to the ISS. Just a lot of things that we take for granted.

seveneves2

What I didn’t love

The tech: A lot of it went over my head! I appreciate that he didn’t dumb things down but woah that’s a lot of science.

The final third of the book: I won’t talk too much about it as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’re planning to read it. What I didn’t love may not be the right way to put it, I did like reading parts of the final third of the book, it answered many questions that I had, but also generated many more. I think partly because while Stephenson has great story ideas and all, here the characters (different ones from the first two-thirds) aren’t given much of a chance. It’s hard to explain it without really talking about the story though!

 

(You can read the first 26 pages of Seveneves on Neal Stephenson’s website)

 

Bibliography

  • The Big U (1984)
  • Zodiac (1988)
  • Snow Crash (1992)
  • Interface (1994) with J. Frederick George, as “Stephen Bury”
  • The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995)
  • The Cobweb (1996) with J. Frederick George, as “Stephen Bury”
  • Cryptonomicon (1999)
  • Quicksilver (2003), volume I: The Baroque Cycle
  • The Confusion (2004), volume II: The Baroque Cycle
  • The System of the World (2004), volume III: The Baroque Cycle
  • Anathem (2008)
  • The Mongoliad (2010–2012)
  • Reamde (2011)
  • Seveneves (2015)

Beggars in Spain


“Twenty-two thousand Sleepless on Earth, 95 percent of them in the United States. Eighty percent of those within Sanctuary. Ad since nearly all Sleepless babies were not born, not created in vitro, most Sleepless were now born inside Sanctuary. Parents across the country continued to purchase other genetic alterations: enhanced IQ, sharpened sight, a strong immune system, high cheekbones…. But not Sleeplessness.”

In 2008, Roger and Elizabeth Camden visit a doctor to ‘create’ their dream baby. A girl. Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender. High intelligence. A sense of daring. All these are on the list. As well as no need to sleep. This ‘Sleepless’ program is secret, but Camden is rich and powerful enough to ferret out its existence. And there have been nineteen healthy, intelligent, psychologically normal Sleepless children born so far. The twentieth, sadly, dead. Shaken too hard by a mother who couldn’t cope with a baby who cried 24 hours a day. Fifteen years later, there are 1,082 in the US, more in the rest of the world. Later, it is learnt that the Sleepless are, in a sense, immortal.

So Leisha Camden is Sleepless number 20. She has a twin, Alice, a ‘normal’ girl, a Sleeper.  Roger Camden favours Leisha, Elizabeth Camden, Alice.

“You’re sure the second fetus is no threat to my daughter?”
Susan said deliberately, “Nor is the genetically altered fetus a threat to the naturally conceived one.”
He smiled. His voice was low and wistful. “And you think that should matter to me just as much. But it doesn’t. And why should I fake what I feel?”

It is not easy being Sleepless. Sure, school work and the like are easier to handle. After all, there’s no need to sleep. But they aren’t accepted by the Sleepers. As the majority of Sleepers despise their ‘unfair’ advantage. Fast forward to 2051 and this divide has become even more severe as the We-Sleep movement is gaining momentum, with Sleepers buying products made by Sleepers, with profits going solely to Sleepers. And in the Sanctuary, funded largely by wealthy, fanatical Sleepless Jennifer Shafiri, it is the same for the powerful Sleepless, who more or less control most of the world economy. Leisha is one of the few who wants to unite this world, to bridge the economies. She is shunned by those in Sanctuary.

We progress to 2075, when Sanctuary is orbital, although it and its members are still part of the United States. And now there are the Super-Sleepless children or teens, whose brains operate at several times the speed of the Sleepless, with enhanced concentration and mnemonic capabilities. This gene modification (or genemod) though results in minor loss of motor control, so that the Super-Sleepless twitch.

If all this isn’t disturbing enough, the Sleepless Council on Sanctuary (who run the place, with the Shafiri family presiding) are faced with difficult decisions. Sleeper babies have been born to Sleepless families. A productive Sleepless is hurt in an accident and requires round-the-clock care. In the minds of many on the council, especially Jennifer Shafiri, these people are not productive. For:

“To be productive was to be fully human. To share your productivity with the community in strict fairness was to create strength and protection for all. Anyone who would try to violate either truth – to reap the benefits of community without in turn contributing productively to it – was obscene, an inhuman beggar.”

Beggars in Spain is both a terrifying and remarkable book. There is science and it is fiction. There’s plenty of politics. But the science isn’t the sort that whooshes way above your head. Kress explains it all well, weaves it in deftly, and gives us these characters, especially Miri, a Super-Sleepless, who take us through this evolving society, so like and unlike our own.

“What if you walk down that street in Spain and a hundred beggars each want a dollar and you say no and they have nothing to trade you but they’re so rotten with anger about what you have that they knock you down and grab it and then beat you out of sheer envy and despair?”

Remnant Population

I really like going into a book with no expectations, with hardly any idea of what the plot is. Because sometimes a book surprises you. Like Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population did with me.

And so it began one day with me scrolling through the Singapore library’s Overdrive collection, the Science Fiction category in particular. I’m not sure why I landed on Remnant Population. Perhaps it was the author’s name. Elizabeth Moon. It just sounded like a pretty awesome name to me – Chinese surnames aren’t exactly very interesting, are they? The title – and the cover art – already suggested that this was some kind of space colony-related work. And yeah, that’s what it is.

So here’s the story, if you care to find out. If you prefer to go in blind, you probably should stop here. Ofelia has lived for over 40 years on this colony planet, the more recent few with her son and daughter-in-law, but now the colonists are to be shipped off after the company loses its franchise. She takes matters into her own hands and hides out in the woods while the evacuation proceeds. Ofelia is glad to be the only human on this planet. But she soon discovers that she’s not alone…

Dum dum DUM!

Well no, it’s not a horror-alien kind of story. Instead, the ‘aliens’ (they are actually indigenous to the planet, but for some reason have never come into contact with the colonists before – perhaps this part of the story is a little bit harder to believe) are intelligent, and are actually kind of endearing. And while Ofelia teaches them things, she learns plenty from them in exchange.

The human-alien interaction is interesting – and occasionally amusing – but what I enjoyed most were the very physicalness of Ofelia’s life on the  planet. I’ve never read a book that made me want to go out into my (rather sad) little backyard (I’m so not a gardener and my 8 plants reflect this) and stand in the sun and wish I had a field full of vegetables plump and ripe for the picking. I wanted to sink my fingers into the earth and inhale that green-ness.

Ah, a girl can dream. And in my case, read plenty.

Title: Remnant Population
Author: Elizabeth Moon (Author’s website)
Published in: 1996
Pages: 336
Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia):
Paksenarrion
The Deed of Paksenarrion Novels

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (June 1988)
Divided Allegiance (October 1988)
Oath of Gold (January 1989)

“Those Who Walk in Darkness” (March 1990)
The Deed of Paksenarrion (February 1992)
The Deed of Paksenarrion (October 2003)
The Deed of Paksenarrion (January 2010)

The Legacy of Gird Novels

Surrender None (June 1990)
Liar’s Oath (May 1992)

The Legacy of Gird (September 1996)

Paladin’s Legacy Novels

Oath of Fealty (March 2010)—sequel to Oath of Gold
Kings of the North (March 2011)—sequel to Oath of Fealty
Echos of Betrayal (March 2012)—sequel to Kings of the North

Familias Regnant universe

Heris Serrano trilogy
Hunting Party (July 1993)
Sporting Chance (September 1994)
Winning Colors (August 1995)

Heris Serrano (July 2002)
The Serrano Legacy: Omnibus One (December 2006)

Esmay Suiza continuation
Once a Hero (March 1997)
Rules of Engagement (December 1998)

The Serrano Connection: Omnibus Two (September 2007)
The Serrano Connection (October 2008)

Suiza and Serrano
Change of Command (December 1999)
Against the Odds (December 2000)
The Serrano Succession: Omnibus Three (February 2008)

Vatta’s War
Trading in Danger (September 2003)
Marque and Reprisal (September 2004)
Engaging The Enemy (March 2006)
Command Decision (February 2007)
Victory Conditions (February 2008)

The Planet Pirates Series
Sassinak (March 1990)—Anne McCaffrey & Elizabeth Moon
The Death of Sleep (June 1990)—Anne McCaffrey & Jody Lynn Nye
Generation Warriors (February 1991)—Anne McCaffrey & Elizabeth Moon
The Planet Pirates (October 1993)—omnibus edition, McCaffrey, Moon, & Nye

Other novels
Remnant Population (May 1996)
The Speed of Dark (October 2002)

The Dazzle of Day

Quakers! Quakers in Space!

Hmm…those words really need an old-school horror film, or in more modern times,  Mars Attacks kind of font. So imagine ‘Quakers in Space!’ in this font:

Ok now that’s over with, I have to start all over. Because this is not a weird, spacey space colony pulp fiction type of book. I’m sorry if I misled you but come on, when do I ever get to say, “Quakers in Space!”?

Molly Gloss has written an intriguing, quiet book that speaks volumes in The Dazzle of Day. This is a very international book. Escaping from a dying Earth, Quakers from various countries (they speak Esperanto!) have found themselves a home on board the Dusty Miller, a self-sustaining but ageing spaceship. A crew has been sent out to explore a frozen planet as a possible future home. Bjoro is among the crew, and the planet isn’t something he’s prepared for:

“He had thought in the filmcards he had studied of unbounded landscapes, of storms and snows and seas, there remained no surprises. It hadn’t occurred to him, the vast depth of the third dimension. He hadn’t thought he would fear the sky.”

The funny thing about The Dazzle of Day is that nothing seems to be happening, although things are actually happening. The crew crashes on the frozen planet, someone dies when out working on the sail, all major events that are but a sideline to the relationships, to the tales of the daily lives of these Quakers, such as Bjoro’s wife Joko and son Cejo, these people who work the fields, who cook in the kitchen houses, who take part in meetings and discuss their future on this frozen planet, who look after their families and each other.

“For 175 years they had gone on talking and thinking and making ready for leaving this world. They had lived for 175 years in a kind of suspended state, a continual waiting for change, but it was a balanced and deep-grounded condition, an equilibrium. They knew their world, root and branch, knew its history and its economies. The human life of the Miller and the life of its soil and its plants and animals revolved together, in a society that was well-considered, a community that was sustaining. Some people thought they had lived for 175 years in a world that was a kind of Eden.”

But there are no answers. Or at least the book doesn’t leave us with any firm ones.

The Dazzle of Day is a book best described in opposites. There is an ending, but it is not really the end. It is a story of beginnings and endings. The words are quiet, but also full of strength and understanding.

Molly Gloss’s novels

  • Outside the Gates. 1986.
  • The Jump-Off Creek. 1989.
  • The Dazzle of Day. Macmillan. 1998.
  • Wild Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2000.
  • The Hearts of Horses. 2007.

The Sparrow

Oh what an absolutely wrenching, gut-wrenching read.

How could I not have read this sooner? When will my request for the sequel, Children of God , come in? Should I read the sequel? What if it doesn’t live up to the first book?

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but forgive me, I only just finished this book last night and I was floored by it. And I had blissfully ignored all the reviews on Google Reader that were about this book, so I had absolutely no expectations, except for the fact that it is considered a masterpiece and is on many lists which I can’t recall at the moment, so excited I am about writing this review. Ok perhaps that does count as some sort of expectations about this book.

Because I had picked it up several times at the library in my old neighbourhood. And put it back on the shelves because of two very different reasons. One, a very valid one, is that that very copy was a rather old, slightly tattered book. I don’t expect pristine copies of library books but this one looked like it ought to have been retired years ago. Two, perhaps not so valid, is that it involved religion, and Jesuits, and I’m never all that comfortable with reading fiction that has religion as a centerpiece. (I grew up in what Singapore calls a ‘freethinker’ household. In other words, my parents are not religious, although both sets of grandparents are/were Buddhist/Taoist and many of my relatives are Christians or Catholics, as is my husband). So when a book has a Jesuit priest as a central character, I kind of hesitate. But the writing and the interesting premise just sucked me in.

Because right from the start, you already know that something terrible has happened. Father Emilio Sandoz has returned from somewhere, a wreck, both mentally and physically. He is the sole survivor of an expedition to the planet Rakhat, And we don’t quite know what has happened. The narrative switches from 2016, when the discovery of these extraterrestrials is just beginning, and 2059 and its aftermath.

Russell makes you fall for this motley crew, as she explores their friendships and kinship. It’s hard not to get sucked in. But it’s even harder when you know that something bad happened to the rest of them.

And yeah there’s also the planet Rakhat and its inhabitants and while they are very fascinating, this book was for me about the humans and the way they developed and discovered themselves and each other, and yes, about faith. In an interview with Bookslut, Russell talks about religion and SF, which kind of made me understand where she’s coming from a little better:

“Well, as Stan Schmidt once said, human beings have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past they were called angels and demons and elves and trolls. Folk tales and science fiction are often about what it means to be human in a large and terrifying and beautiful universe, so naturally they overlap a good deal. As for religion, well, the great monotheistic world religions address the same concern. And if God is real, and the ruler of the universe, then logically that sovereignty must extend to other worlds and their inhabitants. That’s a perfect set up for SF.”

I know those two words Science+Fiction can often make people back away in… fear, horror, but I do think The Sparrow would make for a great introduction to SF. It’s very well-paced, challenging, totally engrossing and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

This is my final read for the Sci-Fi Challenge, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.