Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

April Short Speculative Fiction in Translation

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Each month, I will be reviewing new translated short works of SF, fantasy, and horror that appear either online or in print for Speculative Fiction in Translation, a site run by the wonderful Rachel Cordasco (@Rcordas). A podcast recording of her updates is now also appearing as part of Skiffy & Fanty. Each month I’ll post a link to my reviews here as well.
In the April debut edition I review:
  • “Deep Sea Fish” by Chi Hui, translated from the Chinese by Brian Bies (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • “Fifth: You Shall Not Waste” by Piero Schiavo Campo, translated from the Italian by Sarah Jane Webb (AkashicBooks.com)
  • “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, translated from the Chinese by Andy Dudak (Clarkesworld)
  • “Taklamakan Misdelivery” by Bae Myung-hoon, translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu (Asymptote Journal)
  • “Aspirin” by Park Min-gyu, translated from the Korean by Agnel Joseph (Asymptote Journal)

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

Kickstarter for 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Short Stories

I’m pleased to help announce the start of a Kickstarter campaign for a new SF anthology inspired by Orwell from Unsung Stories titled 2084: An Anthology of Eleven Science Fiction Stories (Print ISBN: 978-1-907389-50-4; Ebook ISBN: 978-1-907389-53-5)

To my recollection I previously reviewed two of their publications,  The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley (which I really loved) and Déjà Vu by Ian Hocking (which I didn’t enjoy as much, though others did). I have a new novella by them on deck to review, and I’m really looking forward to this collection, which will feature a new story by Whiteley, as well as stories from many other notable SF authors.


From the publisher’s press release:

“Unsung Stories have gathered eleven leading science fiction writers who have looked ahead to 2084, as Orwell did in 1948, for a new anthology – writers such as David Hutchinson, Christopher Priest, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe, Jeff Noon and Anne Charnock, who are already famous for their visions of the near future.

As the events of 2017 reveal an ever more complex relationship between people and their governments, classic dystopian literature is proving its relevance once again. But as readers turn to classics, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, writers are also looking to our future, and what may lie there.

Speaking about the anthology, George Sandison, Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “We knew when we first started work on the anthology that the idea was timely, but the start of 2017 has really hammered home how important writing like this is.

“Dystopian fiction gives us a space in which to explore today’s fears, and the nightmares of society. For many people the events of the last eighteen months have brought those dark futures much closer, so it’s inevitable that we turn to literature to help us understand why.

“The ideas at work in 2084 range from the familiar to the fantastic, but all are bound by a current and relevant sense of what we could lose, what’s at stake. As with Orwell’s work, decades from now, we will be looking back to our stories, to better understand today.”

2084 will be published by Unsung Stories in July 2017.”

The full contributor list is:

  • Desirina Boskovich
  • Anne Charnock (author of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and A Calculated Life)
  • Ian Hocking (author of Deja Vu)
  • Dave Hutchinson (author of The Fractured Europe Sequence)
  • Cassandra Khaw (author of Hammers on Bone and Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef)
  • Oliver Langmead (author of Dark Star and Metronome)
  • Jeff Noon (author of Vurt, Automated Alice, Pollen, and more)
  • Christopher Priest (author of The Prestige, The Dream Archipelago, The Gradual, and many more)
  • James Smythe (author of The Australia Trilogy, The Echo, The Explorer, and more)
  • Lavie Tidhar (author of A Man Lies Dreaming, Osama and Central Station)
  • Aliya Whiteley (author of The Beauty and The Arrival Of Missives)

Head over to the Kickstarter  page now to help support this anthology and take advantage of backer rewards! Also be sure to share the news with your social networks.

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

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“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

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Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
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The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE TERRANS by Jean Johnson

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The Terrans
(First Salik War Book 1)
By Jean Johnson
Ace Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780425276914 – 454 Pages – Paperback
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Although set in the same universe as Johnson’s Theirs Not to Reason Why series of military science fiction The Terrans marks the start of a new series, with a different thematic focus, which can be read on its own. Having never read anything by Johnson before I can attest that the start of this series does work on its own, though doubtless fans of her science fiction universe will find nods and gems that I couldn’t pick up on. The novel also works effectively enough without its sequels. Its followup, The V’Dan, was published this past winter and the series conclusion, The Blockade, is slated for this coming November.
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This is one of those books that I wouldn’t likely pick up on my own. A mass market paperback of an author I’m not familiar with at all. The start of a series that could compel a commitment to read more. A subtitle and cover that brings to mind military SF, a sub-genre I’m unlikely to get much enjoyment in. Without a recommendation or reading reviews that suggest some compelling part to the novel, I just wouldn’t risk the time.
The Terrans did not blow me away, but it is a better-than-average space opera with some strong assets that will get me to seek out the second book in the series. Unlike the five novels to date in Theirs Not to Reason Why, this first book of The First Salik War focuses on first contact diplomacy more than military culture and conflict. Had that not been the case I likely wouldn’t have finished the novel because the other aspects of the novel I did enjoy would not have made up for an undesirable plot and theme.
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Set two hundred years prior to the events of her other series, the Terrans features protagonist Jacaranda (Jackie) MacKenzie, a diplomat and translator with powerful psychic abilities and training. The prescient members of humanity have foreseen alien first contacts and the coming of a terrible war. Jackie is recruited back into the Space Force to serve as both soldier and politician in a team sent to investigate the threat of the alien race and find a way to delay or prevent conflict. While dealing with bigotry, prejudice, and internal conflicts among the team she has been designated to lead, Jackie must find a means of cross-cultural communication with the V’Dan, a long forgotten branch of humanity that already has been targeted by the predatory Salik aliens.
The Terrans is superb in concept and genre balance. I enjoyed the mixtures of action, romance, social commentary, and politics in the novel. Johnson does a phenomenal job in making her novel diverse in character. She includes technological and psychological details that provide a hit of ‘hard’ science fiction among the space opera and the fantastic. I loved the considerations of quarantine, and the struggles of even communicating with fellow humans, whether the distant V’Dan or fellow members of the same planet with vastly different points of view.
However, the novel really fails in how it executes its grand ideas. The dialogue and exposition are heavy handed, even tedious. The writing is geared more towards celebration of its ideas rather than a more artistic side of literature that would use well crafted lines for nuanced exploration of themes. Seeming almost ‘preachy’ in some regards Johnson makes her characters too clear-cut, idealized or criticized. Jackie in particular is a Renaissance woman type, excelling at so many skills, yet bearing the patience of a saint in the face of harsh, unjust treatment. A small dose of such perfection contrasted with villainy is fine, but here it begins to get frustrating, drawing the reader out of the story itself into a view of the novel as a constructed image of the author of how people treat one another versus how things should be.
And so if you are reader who would like space opera that affirms diversity with feel-good idealism, then this is something you’d probably really enjoy. I wouldn’t want to just read something like that, but I did overall enjoy The Terrans despite its heavy-handedness. The story was compelling enough and I liked the dilution of action with inter-human and human-alien communication. If you, however, feel time away from action makes a novel drag, then Theirs Not to Reason Why may be more the series for you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.