This is the SF Experience edition of my “mini reviews” thing, which on occasion aren’t very “mini” because I do ramble so aimlessly, but these are the stuff I’ve been thinking while reading these books. Three of these books (with * after the titles) double as reads for the Diversity on the Shelf Challenge!
My Real Children, Jo Walton
I never did write about Walton’s Among Others, because I have a feeling that I’ll never be able to do it – and Walton – justice. I feel the same about My Real Children, but I will try. The thing about My Real Children is that it’s an alternate history book, but taken to a very personal level. The story starts in 2015, where Patricia Cowan is in a nursing home, feeling confused. She seems to have two sets of memories – one in which she marries Mark and is called Pat, and one in which she doesn’t, is called Trish, and lives with Bee instead. This whole double memory thing immediately brings Fire and Hemlock to mind, which lets me know that I’m going to love this book very much, and I do.
The rest of the book goes through each of Patricia’s lives – as Pat, and as Trish. In a way it reads almost like contemporary fiction, because even the SF elements feel completely in place and ordinary and just part of her life. One of these lives is happier than the other, and one of them is a better future for the world in general than the other, but she has children in both lives and consider them all her real children. It is a story of how every choice can make a big difference in a person’s life, but it’s also a story of how one woman’s choices can determine the fate of the world. I’m still not sure as to the hows and whys of her decision changing what happens to the world, but I find that I don’t really care about that detail, not when this book about a woman whose lives are as different as mine as I can possibly imagine, still manages to speak to me on a very personal level. As much as I love the two alternate histories shown, it is Patricia, and the families and friendships she makes in both histories, that really got to me. Also, usually I hate reading anything remotely historical, setting-wise, but so far Jo Walton always manages to get me to read – and love – things outside my usual interest.
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
I was both really looking forward to and very hesitant to read this follow up to Ancillary Justice, because the first book was just mindblowingly incredible and I didn’t know how the sequel could/would live up to it. It turns out that Ancillary Sword is just as good, and is possibly better, and also very different. While Justice was a vengeance story, where we see Breq travels to different worlds, working towards her attempt to assassinate the many-bodied, immortal Lord of the Radch, most of Sword is set on a single setting, the Athoek Station, where the sister of Lieutenant Awn lives. On the surface, this world has been “civilised”, but Breq would find that all is not as it seems.
Justice interested me in a “oh but I’m not sure I really want to read this” kind of way when it came out, and only made me determined to read it when I found out about the pronouns used – the Radch use “she” and “her” to describe everyone, and do not draw distinctions between genders. It’s not a new idea, and it doesn’t make Justice the first work of SF to put discussions of gender at the center, but it was enough to make me pick it up. Of course, Justice also talks about colonisation and cultural differences and the humanity of AIs and it has BREQ and SEIVARDEN, all the things that made me love it, but. The pronouns thing was what made me pick it up. With Sword, I’ve gotten more used to the pronouns, and the idea of Breq as a single-bodied ancillary – so instead I was completely immersed with Athoek, the political hierarchies of all the separate races living there, and the tensions between them, and what the Radch invasion/colonisation means to them, the complexities of it all. And, oh, I enjoyed Breq’s development, and seeing a bit of her ancillary/inhuman side now that she can communicate with her ancillary-less ship, while also seeing become more and more human. Perhaps it starts a little slow for some (it’s just perfect to me, but I happen to enjoy slower-paced books), but it does pick up, and the only quibble I have with it is that I’d like to have more Seivarden in it. Other than that, it’s amazing, and I can’t wait for the next book.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel R. Delany *
Having read comments and reviews about being squicked out by the amount of sex in the book, I am starting to think that perhaps I read too much yaoi manga. That aside, I have no idea how to even talk about this book, there is so much to talk about. There’s slavery, for one. The prologue introduces the idea of “Radical Anxiety Termination”, a medical procedure that basically makes a person unable to feel/process anxiety, but in doing so, also makes them lose their free will. Rat Korga volunteers for the procedure, and is a slave for the first few chapters of the book, which is rather hard to read, especially the sequences in which he is depicted to enjoy rape (no free will = inability to give consent!). But we’re meant to be uncomfortable with what has been done to him, as Radical Anxiety Termination is banned in most worlds for a good reason. And then Korga’s home planet, Rhyonon, gets destroyed, and as the lone survivor he gains Web’s interest. Web is like Google, only better, because Web is never wrong. Those connected to Web can use it to access information, much like we use Google. So yes, there’s Web, which is one of the few pre-internet SFs I read (not that I read that many!) that predicts such a thing.
And there’s literature, as Rat Korga is given book after book to absorb and learn about the world from. The other main character is Marq Dyeth, an ID or Industrial Diplomat, in a somewhat privileged position with good family to boot, who is passionate about the works of an obscure poet – a fascination shared by Rat Korga. There’s all the different cultures and weird laws in the different worlds, and the different species living on Marq Dyeth’s world. There’s the sex, of course, and the fact that Web determines that Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga are each other’s “perfect erotic objects” down to seven decimals. (Okay, if Google can calculate such stuff, it would be kind of cool.)
There’s the discussion of sexual practices and more weird cultural laws regarding it – in Rat Korga’s home planet, for example, sex between tall people and short people are forbidden! – and gender identity. The alien species introduced in this book, the Evelmi, comes in three genders, as do dragons, which is interesting to think about. But my favourite thing about it is most probably the way Delany writes about all these places and cultures, how tactile everything is. And then there’s the pronoun thing – in Marq’s world, all humans are refered to as “her” and “she”, reserving “he” and “him” for persons one feels sexual desire for, regardless of sex and gender. There is a lot to this book, and I find the ending a bit abrupt because of that, but I’m trying to keep in mind that this is one part of a diptych, and the second book was never written. It was to be called The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities. I mourn for the absence of this book in the world.
Salt Fish Girl, Larissa Lai *
Why is it that I keep wanting to say “there is a lot going on in this book” with every single book? But that’s also true with Salt Fish Girl, which has mythology and lore and reincarnation and discusses gender/sexual identity in an interesting way and while one-half of it is set in a futuristic dystopian city, the other half tells of a creation myth, and it reads like magical realism.
The synopsis decribes the narrator as a fish/girl/snake/woman, and while it doesn’t quite makes sense just thinking about it, it’s completely crazy, and yet quite natural. Like the Delany, the imagery in this novel is just incredible, but Salt Fish Girl is heavier on the lyricism. The story is told in two halves, one from the point of view of Nu Wa, a shape-shifting goddesslike in ancient China being who creates humans and then becomes one of them, being reborn into different lives as she moves forwards in time. The other narrator is Miranda, from 2044, living in a walled city called Serendipity. Miranda is afflicted by a strange condition, causing her to smell like a durian fruit at all times. If you haven’t smelled a durian before, Larissa Lai describes it perfectly – like pepper mixed with cat pee. I always try to tell my relatives this, ever since I was a kid, but I’d get shushed at best and punished at worst, for “insulting” this fruit they love so much. (I’m not saying it tastes bad! It’s an acquired taste, definitely, but it smells how it smells, you know?)
There is a lot to talk about in this book, like I’ve mentioned, and a lot to love, but my favourite parts are mostly Miranda’s, because I find myself fascinated by her dystopian world. There’s this part where she finds out that the factory workers that makes Pallas, a popular shoe brand, aren’t technically human – they’re cybernetically engineered. I read a GR review that says Larissa Lai reads like if Margaret Atwood merged with Amy Tan, but to me Salt Fish Girl reads more like Atwood meets Murakami Haruki. The sequence in which Nu Wa disappears to an island after following a glamorous woman certainly has a surreal, Murakami-esque feel to it. This book requires the reader to pay close attention, and even then it may not make complete sense, but somehow this is one of the things that I like about it. It combines the surrealism with the SF elements so well, and it’s something that I rarely encounter, and one that I appreciate.
The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson *
This is another alternate history, that I looked up and got interested in after my friend Daphne asked if our store had a copy. (She rarely asks for SF, so when she does, I pay attention.) In this alternate history, Europe was nearly wiped out by the plague. Chinese and Arab civilisation flourish, with Buddhism and Islam being the most influential religions. Having said this, even these religions evolved differently in the book. I was having a discussion with a colleague on how I think that this book might end up being banned if our censorship board actually bothered to read it, because of its version of Islam. (Not that I think it isn’t a respectful depiction of my religion. It’s just that our censorship board tends to ban anything that shows Islam differently from how we practise it.) The story spans hundreds of years, told through the points of views of a large variety of people – from kings to slaves to soldiers to philosophers and scholars and at one point, even a tiger. These characters are basically the same people, the conceit being that they are the same cast reincarnated through the ages. Their names change over time as they’re reborn, but with the same initials, possibly to help in placing who they are, but it’s easy to guess because each of their voices are so distinctive. Because they do change over time, and the novel – which doesn’t really read like one – is divided into “books” or subsections containing different stories, there are parts that I ended up liking/disliking more than others.
There’s K, my favourite, who is brash and impatient and usually violent, with a strong sense of justice. He first appears as a black slave, made into an eunuch by the slave traders. There’s B, who is more gentle and nurturing, who first appears as a warrior captured by the same slave traders, who takes care of K. And there’s I, who is the intellectual of the three, and who first appears as a chef who befriends B. B explains that they – and some other recurring characters – are part of the same jati, meant to be reborn and recognise each other in each life cycle. In each of their lifetimes, they are witness to a change or turning point in history. In each of their lifetimes, they witness inequalities that would inevitably make K determined to change the status quo, B insisting that they keep love at the center of things, and I telling them to forget the gods and to try making their own way through their various incarnations. Most of the time, they end up dying violent deaths.
My favourite parts are when K is reborn as a tiger, and another when K is reborn as a Sultana who tries to change the world with a rather feminist reading of the Quran. And then there’s the book where K is the widow Kwan, which could just be a book by itself and I’d reread it all the time. I guess if there’s anything that I can’t stand about The Years of Rice and Salt is just that there’s so much of it that it can’t help having sections I’m not interested in, and I know reincarnation and religion as a focus isn’t exactly scientific (and reincarnation is Islam is a pretty iffy thing, something we’re taught to be entirely untrue here, although I can believe that it’s an idea that flourished in this alternate history), but I guess reading a lot of YA in general, and Diana Wynne Jones in particular, have normalised the whole “use of SF elements in Fantasy” thing for me, so why not the opposite?
In any case, this is SF with non-white characters, with an alternate history that I find myself VERY interested in, and that makes me want to make my friends read it so that we can spend hours talking about it.