Saturday, February 10, 2018

What I'm Reading

The weather continues cold here, and now today it's drizzling and foggy as well. If it were just a bit colder, we'd have snow, which would be lovely. Instead, the temperature hovers around the 35/40 degree mark, so that we're just miserable.

I've been drinking a lot of coffee, writing a little, and reading a lot.

Alix E. Harrow, "A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies"

 I don't usually include short stories in these reviews, but this is a wonderful short story. I've been reading Harrow's short fiction for a couple of years now, and loving it to pieces. This one is wonderful even for her. It's about the true nature of librarians, or at least some librarians. Go read now; you won't be sorry.

Annalee Newitz, Autonomous.

This is a complex and -- though I hesitate to use such an off-putting word -- important novel, about the power of corporations and the relative powerlessness of individuals to resist them, told through a story about "Big Pharma."

Set in the near future (2140s, mostly), it concerns an outlaw (pirate!) bio-researcher, Jack, who creates pirated forms of the drugs owned by Big Pharma and sells them cheap or gives them away to people too poor to afford the prices the corporations charge. When something goes wrong with one of these pirated drugs, this researcher discovers the problem isn't in her version, but in the original version itself -- and enlists the aid of her former fellow pirates to prove it.

Meanwhile, a militarized police force, owned by the state but working for the corporations, is hunting her down.

The story is told from multiple points of view -- Jack, the indentured slave she rescues, named Threezed, the soldier who is hunting them, and the robot/biobot who has been slaved to that soldier.

This is the other thing that makes this novel interesting -- it's about the nature of consent on multiple levels. Do we consent to be owned by the corporations that employ us / make debt serfs out of us? Newitz asks this question by taking the ownership one step further: in this future world, humans are "allowed" to indenture themselves and their children, to sell themselves and/or their infant children into slavery.

In this future world, unless you have wealth, you have no rights, not even the right to a job. So being "allowed" to sell your children or yourself into slavery may be your only option. (As being "allowed" to join the military or to take terrible jobs is the only option for many American from certain classes today.)

Both Threezed and Paladin, the biobot, have been "programmed," Paladin literally, and Threezed through intensive education from infancy. The novel -- among other things -- asks questions about their ability to consent, to relationships, to sex, to anything. By extrapolation, these same questions can be asked of the apparently "free" characters in the novel, who have also been programmed, though they may not recognize that. The IPC agent, Eliasz, is especially interesting for this reason.

Not exactly an easy read, but very much worth reading.

Spider Robinson, Variable Star

This is Robinson "finishing" a novel that Robert Heinlein left behind. From reading the afterword, I see that what Heinlein left behind was a few index cards with some notes and part of an outline, not an unfinished novel.

The first thirty pages of this are reactionary and very mean-spirited. Our "hero" and the love of his life spout opinions straight out of the pages of far-right screeds like The American Conservative or The National Review -- all about how society will collapse if people live together without being marriage, or how the purpose of marriage is to make babies, or disgust at the existence of "dole blodgers."

But our young lovers, Jinny and Joel, cannot get married, because Joel is poor, and he thinks Jinny is too. (He's perfectly willing to be supported by his wife, he insists, if she can find a job that will support them and their children. But stay tuned, he's lying.)

Then we learn that Jinny, the hero's true love, is filthy rich. Instead of solving his objections, it sends him into a tizzy. He flees -- flees so far as to join a colony ship heading for a planet hundreds of light years away.

We're told -- the narrative of the book tells us -- that he makes the right choice, since actually Jinny is a terrible evil person. Nothing in the book shows that, except, you know, her wanting them to follow her life plan, instead of his. That qualifies as evil for women, I suppose.

Also, while he's at Jinny's family enclave, Joel meets Jinny's cousin, a seven year old girl. You can see where this is going, I bet.

What is it with SF "heroes' who are terrified of feminist women, who then fall in love with little girls? Oh, he doesn't marry the seven year old until she's "grown up" (eighteen to his twenty-eight, I think it is, by then) but he starts courting her right away, via a telepath on the ship. Gah.

Once Joel is on the ship, by the way, the reactionary /hateful nature of his opinions begins to decline a bit. He turns out to be bisexual, for instance, and he doesn't even comment when his (male) friend marries another guy. He accepts help from the ship's psychiatrist. He's a pacifist, and seems to think being a pacifist is a thing to be desired. There's a great speech by one of the ship's smartest characters about how anger comes from fear, and how we should not listen to that anger or that fear. Plenty more like that.

I've heard Spider Robinson is a good writer and a good person. I'm not going to hold this one against him. Maybe he did the best he could with what he had.

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Vol. I)

Confession: I've never read Tolkien. I did start to read the Hobbit once, and couldn't get on with it. So I thought I would once again give him a try.

I got all the way through Volume I of the multi-volume set our library has, mainly by skimming the last 30 pages or so. I don't think I'll be pushing on. We're 300 pages in, and essentially nothing has happened. Bilbo had a party. He left. Frodo inherits the ring. Gandalf tells him its dangerous. The hobbits leave the shire. And leave the shire. And leave the shire. And fucking leave the shire. Jeez, can we cut to the chase?

This just isn't for me.

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, S is for Space

In the spirit of giving writers another chance, I thought I'd give Bradbury another chance, so I checked these two out of the library as well.

Gah. And nah.

What is it he's doing wrong? I don't know if I can articulate it exactly. He's both twee and self-important, I think. All that lyricism, all that adoration of small-town coziness and small town American childhood, and almost nothing else to say.

He does rise above this occasionally.  His "There Will Come Soft Rains" is a great story, and so is "The Veldt." But on the whole, yeah, no.


Nicoleandmaggie said...

I really liked Spider Robinson in college. I reread one of his omnibuses recently in middle age and didn’t like it as much, I think for women sex stereotype reasons but I can’t remember (and I think maybe later books were better than earlier?)

I do still like his themes that shared pain is lessened and shared joy is amplified.

A said...

Thanks! I love finding new authors in your roundups.