Skip to content

Tag: Science Fiction

My Top Five Favorite Books of the Year

For the holiday season, the bookstore I work at is making a display of all the employees’ favorite books of 2020. Each of us had to pick 5 favorite to put on there. My own list was pretty extensive, so choices had to be made. In the process of deciding what to choose, I left out sequels such as Harrow the Ninth, or massive cultural successes that obviously didn’t need my help to sell, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.

With that in mind, I am very happy with the end result. It unintentionally ends up promoting small press, debut authors, and queer identities, and this feels like the little bit that I can do to help this year suck a tiny bit less.

To clarify, this is not a ranked list. I love each of those five titles for different reasons, and I am not looking to pit them against one another. Feel free to click on each title to read my review.

Anyway, without further ado…

Simeon’s Top 5 Books of 2020:

Docile, by K.M. Szpara

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

The First Sister, by Linden A. Lewis

Surrender Your Sons, by Adam Sass

Review: The First Sister

I first heard of Linden A. Lewis’ The First Sister when a coworker at the bookstore showed me the freshly arrived hardcover, and said “You’re the science fiction guy, tell me what this is”. To my shame, I hadn’t even heard of the book, and went on to correct the lapse. I ended up listening to the audio version, and I am incredibly glad I did. But more on that later.

In this stellar (teehee) debut, the future Solar System is torn between two factions. The Gaeans are the desperate Union that came out of a century-long war between Earth and Mars. Rich in population, but poor in resources and technology, they are driven by the dual powers of the secular Warlord and the religious Mother. On the other side are the Icarii — the people of Mercury and Venus. Descendants of scientific research missions, they have built a militaristic society based on reason and discipline. Using the unique element Hermium, found on Mercury, the Icarii have the technological advantage to counter the Gaeans’ superior numbers.

Three people on opposite sides of this conflict find themselves instrumental to its culmination.

The First Sister has no name. Sold to the Sisterhood as a child, she is a priestess and a courtesan. Her role is to offer peace to Gaean soldiers by listening to their confessions, and giving them her body. Her superiors have taken her voice, so she would not be able to betray their secrets. When the captain of the space ship she serves on abandons her, she finds herself mired in Sisterhood politics. Tasked to break all the sacred rules of her order, she is to spy on the new captain. One she finds herself inexplicably drawn to instead.

Lito sol Lucius is a “Rapier” of the Icarii — an elite duelist warrior trained to fight in a pair. A year ago he was split from his “Dagger” Hiro after the loss of the planetoid Ceres to the Gaeans. He is pulled out of his forced retirement, and tasked with an impossible mission. He must find Hiro — now a covert agent on Ceres — and kill them for supposedly turning to the enemy side.

The First Sister boasts lush worldbuilding and truly spectacular characterization, especially for a debut novel. There are three viewpoints — alternating chapters with Lito and First Sister, as well as interludes of recordings by Hiro. This is also where the audiobook shines, as those are all voiced by three separate actors, expressing the feminine, masculine, and non-binary vibe of each character.

The story itself is only the beginning of a larger conflict, but one that still reaches a satisfying conclusion. Lewis is fantastic in setting up and paying off emotional stakes, as each character deals with a metric fuckton of issues. There is also a wonderful duality between First Sister and Lito. Where she begins as a tabula rasa with simple desires, who slowly recognizes the complexity of the world around her and her role in it, he starts off as someone bogged down by trauma and self-doubt, and has to learn how to shed some of it, and channel the rest. Hiro, meanwhile, plays a balancing act. An elusive off-screen character who knows exactly who they are, and what they were born to do.

The First Sister is one of those HURTFUL debut novels that make you feel like you could never write anything remotely as good. Particularly for someone like me, who regularly struggles with structure, seeing how deftly Lewis weaves the strands of the story into an exciting narrative, was a source of tar-black envy. But of course, that only serves to the reader’s benefit. The book is an absolute gem, and I cannot wait to see where the story will go next.

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel Gideon the Ninth was an absolute revelation to me. Unapologetic and audacious, it easily became my favorite book of 2019. If I could have “Queer Baroque Necropunk” be a legit genre, I would likely buy anything published in it. And as for the sequel, I would have been perfectly content to read another story like Gideon.

But that would be too easy.

The following review contains spoilers for Gideon the Ninth.

Right from the get go, Harrow the Ninth aims to confuse. You see, this is not the Harrow we remember from the first book. Gone is the viper wit, the withering confidence, the precocious bone genius. Instead, we are offered a Harrow that somehow bungled the Lyctoral process. One who is beset by physical frailty and the gravitational pulls of anxiety and depression. She is a young girl, alone and trapped on a space station with teachers who despise her — one of whom is even trying to murder her! — and a God who feels sorry for her, and has no answers to her questions.

This is also a Harrow who went to the First House with Ortus Nigenad as her cavalier primary. But…

Is this how it happens?

Harrow the Ninth is a brave new frontier that flirts with the post-modern. Tamsyn Muir has earned the reader’s trust, and soon the maddening mystery of Harrow’s sorry state, as well as the inconsistencies of her existence begin taking shape. The novel alternates between two types of chapters. Some are in second person, in which she is being told how the present is unfolding by a mysterious narrator. The past tense makes them an interesting experiment of storytelling, as if Harrow herself was not present for these events. The rest are in traditional third person, and retell the story of her journey to the First House. Except, it’s all wrong. Nothing happens the way it was described in Gideon the Ninth. Characters are not who they appear to be, and at sudden moments people will question the reality around them.

The cast of said characters is just as colorful as that of Gideon, though in a completely different way. Everyone carries their own unique damage. Harrow’s new sister Ianthe Tridentarius — formerly Princess of Ida, now Lyctor of the First House — has murdered an unwilling cavalier to achieve her sainthood. Now struggles with a sword hand that won’t obey her. God himself and his three surviving original Lyctors are creatures who have known each other for ten thousand years, They have accumulated civilizations’ worth of grudges and emotional baggage, deliciously opaque for any reader who has not been alive for a myriad. Meanwhile, Ortus Nigenad — failed cavalier primary of the Ninth House in Gideon the Ninth — seeks redemption in the eyes of the reader, as he tries to fulfill his role in a story that never happened.

Harrow the Ninth throbs with the disquieting feeling of paranoia and an almost Gene Wolfean puzzle box quality. Things are not as they seem, the world is not as it should be. This is not how it happens. The wrongness permeates not only the inaccurate retelling of the events at the First House, but also the present in the Mithraeum — the Emperor’s space station, 40 billion light years away from Dominicus and its Houses — where a dead Lyctor stalks the hallways seeking vengeance, while a living one bears the name of the wrong cavalier, as well as an inexplicable thirst for Harrow’s life. In the twisted hallways of God’s home, she is not simply frail and confused. She is haunted.

That this mystery is absolutely maddening, is a given. But Tamsyn Muir uses it brilliantly to tell a story of a girl on the brink of mental breakdown. It is a story of depression and inadequacy, and of injustice. And as Harrow tries to understand her failures, and overcome them, it also becomes a story of heartbreaking intimacy and truly heroic emotional openness.

Harrow the Ninth is an absolute masterpiece, just like its predecessor, while being twice as ambitious. It takes a bold new trajectory, but still retains the baroque darkness that makes Muir’s universe so enticing. What it lacks in contemporary humor, it more than makes up for in far more complex storytelling and character development. The book makes you emotionally invested not only in the current plot, but also in a messed-up retelling of a story you already know. And it the process, it gives wonderful center stage to characters you thought you’d never meet again.

Which is outrageous, as well as absolutely delightful, just like everything about Tamsyn Muir’s writing! To be fair, I wish that the first few chapters were a little more welcoming. The story is extremely confusing at first, and the reader is thrown into a labyrinth with no clear exit. But in the end, there was never a doubt in my mind that the book would deliver on its mysteries. I just didn’t anticipate how incredible it would be in the process.

Reading Update 07/22/20 – Catching the Late Hugo Train

It occurred to me, out of nowhere, that I have never actually managed to read all Hugo Award nominees in time for the ceremony. And of course, ten days out is exactly when one should decide to catch up. But I am not letting things like the objective passage of time stop me! By necessity, I am only limiting myself to novels, though I have already read some of the novella nominees as well.

The nominees for best novel are:

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

As of right now, I have read Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire. Currently, I am halfway through The City in the Middle of the Night, and then I think I will try The Light Brigade, since I have been meaning to read it for a while now. Hopefully I will be able to get to at least 4/6 before the awards are announced.

You Will (Almost) Certainly Disappoint Everyone With Your Prequel

Recently, I reviewed Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was a Hunger Games novel, so I wasn’t going to miss it. I ended up quite enjoying it, because it was focusing on a character, rather than events. But back when I first heard about it, my reaction was an exasperated sigh.

I hate prequels. I hate them with a fiery passion. I respect the fact that not everyone feels as I do, and for some people returning to a beloved world is enough to be happy. But I am not wired this way. I enjoy that, to be sure, but my main drug is story. And here is the thing about prequels: I know what happens next.

There is a pretty solid argument to be made that the very concept of a prequel is messing with the dramatic rhythm of a work. The emotional punchline is by default muted. Sure, we are invested (smirk) in the trade disputes around the blockade of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Or the mystery of the clone army in Attack of the Clones. Or even Sidious’ machinations in Revenge of the Sith. But really, what we want to see, is the rise of the Empire and Anakin turning evil.

Except, we already know those things will happen. The Empire will rise. Anakin will become Darth Vader. And then Sidious will be killed by his apprentice, who will die saving his son. Thus apparently redeeming himself for being the galaxy’s shittiest parent.

This makes any potential emotional punch of the Star Wars prequels – even were they better written – immediately lessened. And what’s worse, we now have the bad taste of those not-awesome movies that mars our experience of the original trilogy. And this applies to any work of art. Often the prequel will create context that damages the original story in some way, and for what? I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I don’t need to know how many adventures the protagonist’s now-dead parents had. It only makes me annoyed that they died so easily before the story even began.

I think it is likely easier to write a prequel than a sequel. You are working with a pre-existing world, and leaning on a completed story that demands a certain direction. Furthermore, publishers LOVE prequels. For established works they are certain cash cows, and even for less successful stories, they are, by definition, low-risk.

But here is the thing. Even when people like a story enough that they are willing to read anything related to it, they would still never truly love your prequel. And they will especially fail to love the diminishing returns of your prequel series. We know what comes after. Sooner or later we are just looking at our watches and waiting for it to just happen.

I did a little mental inventory to see if there have been any prequels I have genuinely loved. Weirdly enough, the most recent example I started this post with, is actually among the successful ones. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was far more exciting to me than the prequel one. It had never occurred to me to even try and read anything about James Potter, even before Joanne turned full TERF evil. But I did enjoy the flawed Cursed Child. The Dune prequels were… not awesome. The Wheel of Time’s New Spring left me gasping from boredom.

Our entertainment culture is driven more and more by profit, and seems to be increasingly terrified of taking risks. Literature, luckily, is low-stakes enough, and by its very nature can’t survive without new voices. But the moment something becomes successful, it is expected to keep proliferating. And hey, if they are offering you bags of money to write prequels, you should absolutely take their bags of money! The easiest way to do so is to look back. ‘How did we get here?’

But here is the thing. You already told us how. In the original story. If we needed to know more in order to understand it, you’d have told us then. And this is before considering that adding more (and rarely necessary) details only has the potential to mar the impression of the source material.

In most cases, prequels add nothing but disappointment and diminishing returns to my experience. I accept that this is not the case for everyone, but I dare you to show me a single work where a prequel was better or more exciting than the sequels. In the meantime, I will continue hoping that Collins takes us further into the future of Panem and the inevitable collapse of its inept people’s government.

Working on the Craft: Invisible Woman

We are now entering a section of Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany that has the potential to cause some cringe. Titled “Men and Women”, it explores gender dynamics through a very… um… potentially traditional way. To be fair to Kiteley, he wrote this book 15 years ago, and it is based on exercises developed even earlier. Furthermore, he does actually make the point that these gender notions are societally enforced, rather than biological. Still, I will navigate the exercises in the section with caution.

With that in mind, I found this one interesting. “Invisible Woman” asks us to write a short scene of a woman becoming invisible for unexplained reasons. The focus is on what she does, how she interacts with a world that no longer sees her, and how different that is from her normal life (if at all). We all know the creepy violating fantasy of an invisible man. Would a woman from our present day society act differently? This is what I came up with.


I look down and see nothing. It is discombobulating for a moment, as my eyes seem to be floating some five feet above ground. I almost topple over, before the sensation of my feet firmly planted on the concrete of the alley – teehee – grounds me.

Hysteria. Possibly a problem. Oh well.

On that note, I don’t have to worry about losing weight now, so that’s a plus. Though to be fair, I wasn’t that worried about it before either.

I look around. Normal streets on both ends of the alley. Downtownish area, a bit north maybe. I have biked around here plenty of times, and coming out onto an actual street will likely tell me all I need to know to orient myself.

So I am the only confusing thing left. Somehow invisible. Good job. Repercussions to follow, though for now I am in survival mode. Which in my case translates into calm, reasoned, analytical, proactive.

If this is a temporary condition, might as well have some fun with it. If it is permanent, might as well have some fun with it before the existential dread settles in.

But what can I do with invisibility? I can be a creep. Sneak into my gym and troll the showers, see all those ridiculously sculpted dudebros vulnerable and unaware. But this feels somehow… bleak. As I am presented with the possibility, I realize no part of me gets off on voyeurism or control. I am almost disappointed by the discovery. What good is the creepiest of superpowers (let’s go with that description for the moment) if I don’t want to be a creep?

Oh well.

There is all the other personal stuff. If I am close to downtown, then my douchey trust-fund baby ex’ place is nearby. It wouldn’t be too hard to get past the doorman, then wait until his cleaning lady or whatever other bourgeois services he employs lets me inside the condo.

And then what? We’ve been definitely-no-longer-a-thing for over a year. What am I gonna catch him do? Have sex with some other girl? Say something racist to his other trust-fund baby friends? Buy stocks, or whatever it is trust-fund babies do?

As I come out onto the street, and figure out exactly where I am, I head north, still no target in mind. Unconsciously, my eyes go up and to the right, and I actually see the top of his fancy building in-between rooftops. This gives me pause. Okay, so it’s been a while, I no longer have emotional attachments to him. The scars are tastefully faded, the self-recriminations of my own stupidity have abated. But what if I’d dumped him last week instead? Would I have wanted to go through with haunting his ass then? More than haunt? I’ve seen the movies – I know how dark this can get.

I tear my eyes away from the building, just in time to avoid slamming into someone walking directly into my face. I lose my balance and nearly plop head-first into a trash can.

Right. Invisible. Pedestrian quantum mechanics don’t apply to me right now. People will literally try to walk through me.

So, no general creepiness, and no personal creepiness. What’s left?

Crime.

Can I steal something? Break some law? I rack my brains for a moment, but nothing comes up. Sure, I could use some extra money. Or clothes. Or, frankly, a new laptop. But I don’t think I have it in me to take stuff I didn’t earn. The one thing I’d love to take care of, is my stupid student loans, and invisibility won’t help with that. And as for laws… I think about another assault on female reproduction that the old MEN on the Supreme Court just vomited on the country last week. If I lived anywhere close to DC, I might be tempted to revisit the idea of haunting and worse. But I can’t do much about it from Chicago.

Now that I think of it, I can’t really travel anywhere if I’m invisible. Unless I feel like walking.

Yikes.

So, to recap. I have somehow gained a power so many dream of, and have found absolutely nothing to do with it. Invisibility ultimately amounts to violation, and I am just not the violating kind. For a moment, I consider offering my services to the government.

Right. Hysteria again.

It is almost anti-climactic when I realize that I have gained an outline – semi-transparent shimmer delineating the boundaries of my body. With every step I take, I gain more and more color and texture. People around me don’t seem to notice the no-longer-invisible woman materializing in their midst.

Was this a test? Did I pass? I am waiting for the existential dread to kick in. But even as I feel the anxiety building up in the back of my mind, I realize, it doesn’t matter whether I passed, or not. I had absolute freedom, and I choose to do nothing with it. There’s something to unpack with my therapist.

I walk up the street, and I start whistling.

(Retro) Review: A Civil Campaign

I knew I had to write this review the moment I finished the book. Obviously, it is nowhere near current. In fact, as of this year, A Civil Campaign can drink legally in the United States. But it is just so incredibly unique in its place in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ouvre, and I enjoyed it so much, that I had to share.

Some housekeeping. While I won’t spoil the specific plots of previous novels, chronologically this is the 12th book in the Vorkosigan Saga. I cannot talk about it without referring to character developments that are likely to spoil some significant moments in the series. But with that said, if you are even remotely interested in reading this review, you are obviously up to speed.

Okay. Here goes.

A Civil Campaign is an impossible book. It shouldn’t exist, and if it were written by a lesser writer, it wouldn’t work. However, it is also possibly the best installment in the entire series. Bujold describes it as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners”. It centers around an upcoming wedding, intertwining several characters’ wacky romances and a number of political sub-plots, also of the wink-wink variety.

The reason why this does not crash and burn, when placed within a military space opera context, is simple. We care. Lois McMaster Bujold has built these complex characters and their relationships within story after story that focused on adventure and mortal danger. Now, she gets to have them relax (well, not really) and just have fun.

(But not Ivan. Never Ivan. Fuck Ivan in particular.)

(…Poor Ivan)

And if we’ve made it this far, we want to see this. Sure, we know how Miles interacts with his psychotic clone brother Mark when the stakes are life and death. But who doesn’t want to know what their relationship is like when living under the same roof, and dealing with an infestation of genetically engineered bugs that produce butter? Or their perspective on each other’s absurdist love life?

Add to that a Vor lord who finds out that he is part Cetagandan Ghem. Then a Vor lady who goes to Beta Colony for a sex change operation, so she could inherit her dead brother’s countship. Now we have political stakes as the Council of Counts must vote on these, and the picture is complete.

Yet, at the same time, A Civil Campaign is a mature work that does not skip character building. The budding romance between Miles and Ekaterin is a glorious portrait of a hyperactive neurotic and a world-weary intellectual, both of whom have trouble realizing that they are really on the same page. Mistakes are made. Some of them hilarious. Some — meaningful. All of them gorgeously written.

A Civil Campaign also features a lot of parenting. We’ve known Aral, Cordelia, and the Koudelkas since before Miles was born. Now we get to see them dealing with the next generation becoming adults in their own right. The result is a mixture of fascination and exasperation. Hilariously, and thanks to Ekaterin’s son Nikki, even Emperor Gregor gets to do a bit of parenting. Which really completes some kind of circle of life that I am not even sure how to describe.

All in all, A Civil Campaign is a flawless work of fiction. It relies on the reader’s love of its world, and the characters whose relationships are interwoven throughout it. And the reader, if they know what’s good for them, does not let Bujold down. At least this reader didn’t. This book is literal therapy, and I cannot recommend it enough, if you’ve read the previous novels and some-crazy-how stopped yourself before delving into this one.

Reading Update 06/29/20 – Vorkosigan Saga

I am almost there! With the completion of A Civil Campaign, I am only one novel away from being finally done with the part of the series I had read as a teenager. Even though I also went through Ethan of Athos — another novel in the universe that I’d never read — this will mark the end of the “Re” portion of my reading adventure.

First, however, as suggested by this here page, I began Falling Free — the 200-years-earlier prequel story on the creation of the Quadies. The edition of the audiobook I stumbled on is pretty terrible. Both the man and woman reading it, do so in an extremely low, mumbling register, which means that literally any sound drowns their voices even with noise-canceling earphones. But as far as the book itself goes, I have no complaints so far.

Next is Diplomatic Immunity. What comes after that, is the portion of the late novels I have never read. Those have gotten mixed reviews, but I am hopeful. A Civil Campaign was far bigger delight than even my vague memories suggested. I am riding this high to the bitter end!

Reckoning

I have been thinking about how to approach the torrent of revelations coming out of Twitter in recent days. Not because I am in any way close to any of the people involved, but rather because I felt I needed to. And I fully recognize that this situation is not about me, and my thoughts are unlikely to enrich it. But this blog is part therapy, and I hope I also don’t cause harm by speaking on the subject.

Several notable authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy have been dragged out for various forms of harassment of women, non-binary folks, and queer people they perceived as vulnerable. Those include Myke Cole, Sam Sykes, Mark Lawrence, Max Temkin, and Warren Ellis. Some of them I’ve met in person, others I know only through their writing or reputation. None has made any overtly bad impression on me.

And I don’t for a second struggle believing the accusations leveled against them.

It’s not even about believing the accusers in this case. Most of these men have freely admitted to their actions, with varying degrees of accepting responsibility. Some have ran away from Twitter, preferring to act like victims. Others are so far standing firm and accepting their punishment, whatever that’s worth to anyone.

It made me consider my own behavior. As a pretty firmly established gay man who hasn’t been on any kind of “prowl” in quite a few years now, I have never considered myself any kind of threat to women. More than that, in my few and limited interactions with female and queer authors, I’ve made it a point to be respectful and considerate.

But I have no way of knowing how successful I have been. I have witnessed autograph tables of accomplished, wonderfully talented women stay empty. Meanwhile, one lane over, a male author would have several lines struggling to fit into the allotted space. I have been in some of those big lines, rather than the empty ones. Of course, sometimes the reason was the particular names involved, rather than gender.

But this raises another question — if a not-inconsiderable number of the most successful writers in the field are men, do they not have an even bigger responsibility to make our shared spaces feel safer and more nurturing for women and queer folks? And what message does it send to these people, when they come to conventions and conferences, only to be met by crude jokes, belittling behavior, and other forms of often overt harassment? Because let me tell you, a super buff dude grabbing me in his lap while telling me he wants to pee on me, would NOT make me want to return to that space.

We are all capable of calling this out. And I believe we are responsible to do so. As fans, as hopeful writers — scary though that might be to our proto-careers — and as people who believe in human dignity and every person’s right to feel safe in any public space they enter. We can uplift underrepresented voices, so that these public spaces are not ran by drunken cops or writer dynasty legacies.

And in the mean time, it takes more than a Twitter repentance. Many of these dudes are fairly successful in their careers. So, put your money where your apologies are. Make meaningful steps to help women, POC, and queer authors. If you need an apology tour, go donate to a charity, or check yourself into rehab. It is high time that “taking responsibility” means more than 240 symbols on a social network.

Reading Update 06/24/20 – Trans Authors, And Where to Find Them

As I have already written here, I was less than happy with J.K. Rowling’s continuing quest to invalidate trans people. Of course, Rowling is in a tax bracket where nothing mortal can really impact her, but the same is not true of the people she is putting in danger through her willful ignorance.

There is very little I can do to help, other than be an ally myself, but I found a nice way to express my feelings.

Recently, I started work at my local indie bookstore (“Unabridged Books” in Chicago). It is smack in the middle of our gay neighborhood Boystown, so I convinced them to set up a display of trans and non-binary authors of fantasy and science fiction. So far the support has been overwhelming, and we are ordering other titles that we didn’t have in stock at the time.

If you too feel grossed out by Rowling’s transphobia, and wonder what you can do, supporting a SFF trans or non-binary author is a great first step.