Wednesday, July 19, 2017


17776 ("What football will look like in the future") is a piece of fiction by Jon Bois, published on the sports website SB nation. Its exact categorization is evasive: experimental fiction? multimedia experience?

It's very cool, in any case, and the entire project is now published. No uncomfortable waiting now, just a lot of scrolling and loading. (And warning: it doesn't seem to work entirely on mobile.) It posits a future, many thousands of years from now, and what game(s) football may have gradually shifted into... and so much more. Purpose, humanity, climate change, the Fermi paradox... it's all there.

This was very engaging, even if I am left with a lingering worry that I'm not getting it. Certainly there were some references I missed, but there were sentient satellites watching a thousand-year-long game of hide-and-seek.

This post's theme word is gesamtkunstwerk (n), "a work of art that makes use of many different art forms." The internet facilitates a vast new landscape of gesamtkunstwerks!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Penric and the Shaman

Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric and the Shaman is one of the 2017 Hugo nominees (for novella). It is a straightforward fantasy-medieval-plus-magic setting, telling a story that pretty clearly can stand alone, but has lots of signposts and hooks pointing to its existence in a huge universe of available stories. (Indeed, there is an extensive and complicated author's note / reading-order guide appended to the end of the novella.) It tells the story of the titular Penric, himself possessing a dazzling array of magical and social powers, who gets sent on what definitely has the feeling of a sidequest. This ultimately involves a bit of travel, some clever conversations (both inside Penric's mind and outside), and a sprinkling of shamans.

I'd definitely read more of these books, though I might need to print out the reading-order guide to keep track of where I want to start and how to progress.

This is the third 2017 Hugo nominee which used the word "cabochon". Was there some kind of contest for writers last year that involved inserting this word into stories? I'm delighted to find that a newly-acquired vocabulary word is getting such exercise.

This post's theme words, featured in this work, are:

  • scud (v), "to move or run swiftly, esp. as if driven forward; to run before a gale", 
  • withy (n), "a flexible slender twig or branch", and
  • lour (v. intr.), "to look sullen; to frown."
The louring caterpiller scudded down the withy at the sight of a bird.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Taste of Honey

Kai Ashante Wilson's A Taste of Honey is one of the 2017 Hugo nominees (for novella). It tells the story of minor noble Aqib, who lives in a city heavily formulaic in its social structure, religion, and familial obligations.  Aquib is pretty oblivious about interpersonal signals, but somehow still manages to have chemistry, and then fall in love, with a foreign soldier visiting on embassy. He is faced with a choice --- flee home with his lover, or stay and fulfill his political/family obligations?

This choice fractures the story. It is told out-of-order, with some events of the "present" (meeting, falling in love), and some an entire lifetime in the future. This does not dissipate the weight or narrative tension of his choice, because we see scenes from both possible futures. He is happy in both, and sad sometimes, and has fulfilling lives no matter what his choice --- the story definitely comes down in favor of one choice, but the fact that he finds a place for himself in both branches seems an interesting moral, and leaves some exploration to the reader.

I liked it, though in length, topics, and writerly style, I probably wouldn't have picked this for myself.

The story also managed to cram in several new-to-me words. I had expected this of China MiĆ©ville's entry (he is dictionary-trawler extraordinaire), and it was nice to see so many:

  • thew (n), "muscular strength"
  • actinic (adj), "of, relating to, resulting from, or exhibiting chemical changes produced by radiant energy, especially in the visible and ultraviolet spectrum"
  • fatidic (adj), "relating to or characterized by prophecy"
  • tiffin (n), "a light meal, especially lunch."

This story also used the word "cabochon", which is pretty neat. (See previously.)

This post's theme word is mansuetude (n), "gentleness, meekness." His fatidic thews belied the mansuetude that he grew into as he matured; his appetite meant frequent tiffins, and he was often too shy to ask for more food in the actinic and judgmental dining hall.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning takes place in the future, a 25th century whose views of our modern day are as colored by weird historical narratives as our views of our own history. The book is described as "political science fiction", a genre I'd never heard of, and its philosophical leanings make it a good partner to Stephenson's Anathem, in that both books academically examine political and philosophical structures that don't --- quite --- exist in our present reality.

This book is excellent. I can see why it's a 2017 Hugo nominee.

I love an unreliable narrator, and the gradual reveal of different layers of story was done very well. The narrator is educated and wary of his audience, but also makes vast assumptions about our familiarity with philosophical, social, economic, and political history and theories. He plays fast and loose with ideas and with pronouns. He has very little free will and yet manages to make pivotal, important decisions for the plot. He is an open liar, but still an interesting narrator. (Many chapters ended with cliffhangers, which isn't my favorite style, but they varied and were interesting and none of them ended up feeling like cheap gimmicks.)  The fact that this highfalutin' philosophical world where everyone is ideally healthy and educated ends up being... bad [spoiler: corrupted by the same interpersonal intrigue as a typical HBO show] is very intellectually crunchy and satisfying. I immediately purchased the sequel book, although it can't jump to the front of my queue since I'm trying to read all of the Hugo nominees before the voting deadline.

One lingering unfinished thread: the title is an oblique reference to Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, act 2, scene II), and wasn't ever referred to during the novel. Shakespeare is mentioned a few times, as a famous bard (page 54), as someone now only understood with footnotes (page 55), and as a literary wordsmith alongside Voltaire (page 337). Romeo and Juliet are mentioned only as being one of many famous pairs of lovers depicted in a gallery of paintings (page 132). "Lightning" is referenced as the usual weather pattern, and only once it is used to reference a person: "I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning." (page 220), but this doesn't mesh well with the phrase "too like the lightning"; while many plot points are too rash, too unadvised, and too sudden, the character thus referenced has not ceased to be ere one can say he lightens. Is this an extremely oblique way of foreshadowing his death?

It's an ongoing mystery, and one I'm happy to seek in the sequel, much more sensically named Seven Surrenders --- since there are seven nation-states, this one seems easy to decode.

This post's theme word is aretocracy (n), an invented structure for electing government officials according to from-each-citizen personal nominations. Its exact details are not clear. The Humanist faction-state favors an aretocracy, but this is susceptible to charismatic cults of personality.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit is a fun bit of military, space-battle science fiction. It opens in media res, mid-battle, and that is where the book does its coolest things. I'm in favor of any book where a character's aptitude for mathematics makes her especially powerful and desirable as an ally.

I was baffled by the line between metaphor and physical reality in this book. The premise is that certain formations --- of people's bodies, of spaceships, of... space stations? --- are powerful according to whichever calendrical standard one follows.  This is never explained, and neither are the special area effects / technological effects of certain calendars. Under one calendar, a gun which amputates-at-a-distance works; under another calendar, it is useless slag. Under one calendar, standing in a particular formation protects from incoming artillery; under another, it does nothing. I was never exactly sure when the poetic descriptions of battles were literal and when figurative, since the physical reality was rarely described, but the ephemeral effects of calendars were often mentioned. It was never really clear why the calendar has such an effect, or why one couldn't just switch from calendar to calendar, as convenient for the particular technology at hand.

The book ended with a neat, tidy climactic battle, and set itself up to be the first of a series, with a fairly predictable protagonist-quest-outline of the subsequent books. I liked this book fine, but probably by bafflement and the formulaic one-person-takes-down-an-empire setup will combine to influence me away from reading subsequent installments.

This post's theme word is polonian (adj), "bounding in aphoristic expressions" or "a native or inhabitant of Poland." The polonian prose dissuaded me from further literary exploration.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

 N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, a 2017 Hugo nominee, continues where The Fifth Season left off --- instants later. This means that it continues the momentum of the first novel, and since I am inhaling these books between fever-naps, I can continue to read, with no break between installments. This momentum is no slow-building thing; like the continental plates in the book itself, it starts with a lot of powerful momentum already. The Fifth Season is dedicated "For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question", a theme which is reinforced by later explicit guidelines for slavery, which state "Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default." (The Fifth Season, p. 61) These are generic enough to hook my attention: whether commenting on the explicit formation of an underclass, or the implicit ways in which gender often sidelines women, these quotes shape how I approached the book and the themes that stood out while reading.

If that was not enough, the series begins with a murder and progresses by showing that the main characters are not invincible or immortal. Jemisin does not shy away from killing characters who, in a typical fantasy context, I would have earmarked as protected-by-narrative-importance. Quite early, we have this narration:
When we say "the world has ended," it's usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.
But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.For the last time." (p. 15)

If the force of subjugated peoples were not enough, the blazing reference to T. S. Eliot is certainly a strong hook, a demand for attention and an indication of the scope and importance of the narrator's tale.

All these layers continue in The Obelisk Gate, where we finally see the culmination of the intertwined threads of The Fifth Season, and some new narrative threads begin to spread out. One would think that in a three-book series which begins with "this is the way the planet ends", there might not be very much more to say or do, but Jemisin's main characters reach to grasp their fate in full knowledge of the limits of their power and the lifetimes available to them. The novel progresses in the usual fantasy way --- people study hard, focus their attention, and are able to harness increasingly absurd amounts of mystical power --- but the a-few-months-ago apocalypse, and the characters' individual motivations, make this book enjoyable. There is, of course, some fantastic writing to carry the entire thing, a nice dollop of words atop a teetering pile of ideas.

I liked it.

This post's theme word is cabochon, "a gem polished but not faceted." The ability to control magic is a cabochon in children; a sparkling, cut jewel in trained adults.

The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, a 2016 Hugo nominee, is excellent. It alternates between several stories of women in the land of “the Stillness”, so-called ironically because its continental plates are so mobile that the inhabitants’ architecture and social structures are centered around the common occurrence of earthquakes and other geologic activity. In the face of such disruption, society demonizes the few people who have the power to control seismic activity, since they have enormous destructive potential. The magic training school --- which inevitably exists, this is fantasy --- emphasizes both that it is difficult to learn to control this ability, and that certain magical potency is innate. Geomancers (not their actual nomenclature in the novel) are denied personhood, ostracized, killed, or collected as slaves and subjected to the cruel and often lethal regimen of the magical training school, then permanently enslaved by the government in service of providing geologic stability to politically-important regions.

This book was excellent. It reminded me of many other things, which I want to emphasize does not mean that it actually shared any deep similarities with them.

In giving women agency and the freedom to exhibit a variety of motivations and character traits, it reminded me of Le Guin's Earthsea series; also, of course, it featured a variety of not-particularly-Western people, often described by the color of their skin (almost none of which were "white"), coping with an uncooperative earthquake situation. Yes, there was magic. Yes, there was racism. Yes, family and social structures were highlighted and important. But whereas Le Guin's stories usually turn inwards, focusing on small-scale solutions and interpersonal conflict, Jemisin's story grew bigger and bigger, accreting import and severity as the characters (inevitably) levelled-up in magic and in their understanding of what is really going on with the social structure. The scope ballooned in typical fantasy style, and it did it magnificently.

There's always an interesting feature of reading a novel (especially digitally): the images conjured in my mind are completely my own, not even influenced by cover art. I appreciate that Jemisin consistently reminded her readers that her characters, and everyone in her world, was a shade of brown, lest our whitewashing imaginations run away with us. The geography --- unsurprisingly an often-described feature in a book about lethal geological activity --- was often described in magical-intuitive terms, as if one could sense the pockets of magma circulating below. Vegetation gets short shrift. This was okay with me, as it meant that my brain often substituted settings from From Dust, a video game where gameplay consists of reshaping geography by dropping lava and trying to avoid too much destruction of villages.

Describing a book by its magical system, and then by similar-but-distinct things that it reminded me of, is surely a disappointing and unsatisfying type of recommendation. The book was great. You should read it for yourself. I'm not alone in liking it; it won the Hugo award!

This post's theme word is sorb, "to take up and hold by ad/absorption." The soil can only sorb so much groundwater before a disastrous flood ensues.