The Revolution Will Be Incrementalized: Peter Watts and The Freeze-Frame Revolution


By JJ: Imagine being groomed from birth for a role on an galactic construction ship, on an endless journey to build a cosmic superhighway of wormhole transport gates for humans to use in the far future. Imagine being awakened by the ship’s AI for a few days, as part of a team to assist with a gate build, then spending millennia in cryogenic sleep before being awakened again to work with a different team of people – an endless cycle broken only by the occasional appearance of a strange lifeform as the ship exits at hyperspeed from a newly-constructed gate. Imagine the boredom, the isolation, and the devastating realization of the personal futility of being near-immortal, yet never getting to live a full life. Imagine the anger and resentment at realizing that you’ve been sold a bill of goods about this being your “noble destiny”.

Imagine trying to coordinate a rebellion with your co-workers, when you’re only awake for a few days every several thousand years – with an omnipresent artificial intelligence which has been programmed to protect the ship’s mission at all costs watching your every move, and hearing every word that you say.

This is the premise behind Peter Watts’ Sunflowers series and the just-released novella* The Freeze-Frame Revolution**.

Sunday Ahzmundin is one of 30,000 “spores” – diasporans who were groomed from birth to be sent out on the Eriophora, a cryosleep ship powered by a singularity and accelerated up to one-fifth of lightspeed, on a mission to prepare the way for a future humanity to travel the stars once their technology has advanced to the point where such travel would be possible. But their ship was a last-ditch effort made by a race of troubled people on a poisoned planet, whose survival was far from assured. And the ship left Earth more than 60 million years ago: the spores have no idea whether there are even any humans other than themselves still left alive in the galaxy. They have come to realize that they are living only shallow imitations of real lives – and they’ve discovered that their ship’s AI has been lying to them… about something.

It’s clear that the full story of this universe is something which Watts has had in development for at least a decade, because the worldbuilding in the novelettes “The Island” (which won a Hugo in 2010), “Giants” (2013), and “Hotshot” (2014) is solidly intertwined with that of The Freeze-Frame Revolution. And it is a wonderfully-rich, hard science fiction universe, filled with big concepts and unique imagery woven together in a plausible execution.

I was just as blown away by this fantastic story as I have been by all of his other works. The Freeze-Frame Revolution has earned a place at the top of my Hugo Novella nomination ballot next year – and I will be very surprised if I read anything this year to displace it from its Number 1 spot.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is available right now on Kindle in both the U.S. and the UK, and will be released in paperback on June 12 in the U.S., and on June 28 in the UK.


* the cover says “A Novel”, but the story is 41,300 words, and Watts considers it a novella

** I received a free e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review


Fair notice: All Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit fan site Worlds Without End.

Recommended reading order

Other works by Peter Watts

Blindsight [Firefall #1] (Tor Books, 2006)

(Seiun and Imaginaire winner and Hugo, Campbell, Aurora, Sunburst, Locus, Premio Ignotus, and Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis finalist)

Two months have passed since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since – until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find – but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them…


Echopraxia [Firefall #2] (Tor Books, 2014)

(Aurora and Sunburst finalist)

It’s the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it’s all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat’s-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he’s turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.

Now he’s trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn’t yet found the man she’s sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call “The Angels of the Asteroids.”

Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

(Blindsight and Echopraxia were released together in an omnibus edition entitled Firefall, Head of Zeus, 2014)

Starfish [Rifters #1] (Tor Books, 1999)

Civilization rests on the backs of its outcasts.

So when civilization needs someone to run generating stations three kilometers below the surface of the Pacific, it seeks out a special sort of person for its Rifters program. It recruits those whose histories have preadapted them to dangerous environments, people so used to broken bodies and chronic stress that life on the edge of an undersea volcano would actually be a step up. Nobody worries too much about job satisfaction; if you haven’t spent a lifetime learning the futility of fighting back, you wouldn’t be a rifter in the first place. It’s a small price to keep the lights going, back on shore.

But there are things among the cliffs and trenches of the Juan de Fuca Ridge that no one expected to find, and enough pressure can forge the most obedient career-victim into something made of iron. At first, not even the rifters know what they have in them – and by the time anyone else finds out, the outcast and the downtrodden have their hands on a kill switch for the whole damn planet…


Maelstrom [Rifters #2] (Tor Books, 2001)

This is the way the world ends:

A nuclear strike on a deep sea vent. The target was an ancient microbe – voracious enough to drive the whole biosphere to extinction – and a handful of amphibious humans called rifters who’d inadvertently released it from three billion years of solitary confinement.

The resulting tsunami killed millions. It’s not as through there was a choice: saving the world excuses almost any degree of collateral damage.

Unless, of course, you miss the target.

Now North America’s west coast lies in ruins. Millions of refugees rally around a mythical figure mysteriously risen from the deep sea. A world already wobbling towards collapse barely notices the spread of one more blight along its shores. And buried in the seething fast-forward jungle that use to be called Internet, something vast and inhuman reaches out to a woman with empty white eyes and machinery in her chest. A woman driven by rage, and incubating Armageddon.

Her name is Lenie Clarke. She’s a rifter. She’s not nearly as dead as everyone thinks.

And the whole damn world is collateral damage as far as she’s concerned…


ßehemoth: ß-Max [Rifters #3] (Tor Books, 2004)

Lenie Clarke – rifter, avenger, amphibious deep-sea cyborg – has destroyed the world. Once exploited for her psychological addiction to dangerous environments, she emerged in the wake of a nuclear blast to serve up vendetta from the ocean floor. The horror she unleashed – an ancient, apocalyptic microbe called ßehemoth – has been free in the world for half a decade now, devouring the biosphere from the bottom up. North America lies in ruins beneath the thumb of an omnipotent psychopath. Digital monsters have taken Clarke’s name, wreaking havoc throughout the decimated remnants of something that was once called Internet. Governments have fallen across the globe; warlords and suicide cults rise from the ashes, pledging fealty to the Meltdown Madonna. All because five years ago, Lenie Clarke had a score to settle.

But she has learned something in the meantime: she destroyed the world for a fallacy.

Now, cowering at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, rifters and the technoindustrial “corpses” who created them hide from a world in its death throes. But they cannot hide forever: something is tracking them, down amongst the lightless cliffs and trenches of the MidAtlantic Ridge. The consequences of past acts reach inexorably towards the very bottom of the world, and Lenie Clarke must finally confront the mess she made.

Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way-and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds…


ßehemoth: Seppuku [Rifters #4] (Tor Books, 2005)

Lenie Clarke – amphibious cyborg, Meltdown Madonna, agent of the Apocalypse – has grown sick to death of her own cowardice.

For five years (since the events recounted in Maelstrom), she and her bionic brethren (modified to work in the rift valleys of the ocean floor) have hidden in the mountains of the deep Atlantic. The facility they commandeered was more than a secret station on the ocean floor. Atlantis was an exit strategy for the corporate elite, a place where the world’s Movers and Shakers had hidden from the doomsday microbe ßehemoth – and from the hordes of the moved and the shaken left behind. For five years “rifters” and “corpses” have lived in a state of uneasy truce, united by fear of the outside world.

But now that world closes in. An unknown enemy hunts them through the crushing darkness of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. ßehemoth – twisted, mutated, more virulent than ever – has found them already. The fragile armistice between the rifters and their one-time masters has exploded into all-out war, and not even the legendary Lenie Clarke can take back the body count.

Billions have died since she loosed ßehemoth upon the world. Billions more are bound to. The whole biosphere came apart at the seams while Lenie Clarke hid at the bottom of the sea and did nothing. But now there is no place left to hide. The consequences of past acts reach inexorably to the very floor of the world, and Lenie Clarke must return to confront the mess she made.

Redemption doesn’t come easy with the blood of a world on your hands. But even after five years in pitch-black purgatory, Lenie Clarke is still Lenie Clarke. There will be consequences for anyone who gets in her way-and worse ones, perhaps, if she succeeds…

Peter Watts is a former marine biologist who clings to some shred of scientific rigor by appending technical bibliographies onto his novels. His debut novel, Starfish, was a New York Times Notable Book, while his fourth, Blindsight – a rumination on the utility of consciousness which has become a required text in undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuroscience – was a finalist for numerous North American genre awards, winning exactly none of them. (It did, however, win a shitload of awards overseas, which suggests that his translators may be better writers than he is.)

His shorter work has also picked up trophies in a variety of jurisdictions, notably a Shirley Jackson Award (possibly due to fan sympathy over nearly dying of flesh-eating disease in 2011) and a Hugo Award (possibly due to fan outrage over an altercation with US border guards in 2009). The latter incident resulted in Watts being barred from entering the US – not getting on the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by border guards is a “felony” under Michigan statutes – but he can’t honestly say he misses the place all that much. Especially now.

Watts’s work is available in twenty languages – he seems to be especially popular in countries with a history of Soviet occupation – and has been cited as inspirational to several popular video games. He and his cat, Banana (since deceased), have both appeared in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A few years ago he briefly returned to science with a postdoc in molecular genetics, but he really sucked at it.

Connect with Peter Watts:

Book Review: Typhoon Time by Ron S. Friedman

Review by Susan Forest: Typhoon Time is Ron S. Friedman’s debut novel, following hard on Escape Velocity, a collection of ten short stories, all of which were finalists for Writers of the Future. Typhoon Time is a fast-paced, big-cast science fiction thriller that reads like a blockbuster movie.

The story centers on Eric Sobol, an eighty-one-year-old billionaire and survivor of World War II’s holocaust. Diagnosed with brain cancer and given 24 months to live, Sobol turns his vast resources toward taking advantage of a wormhole hidden within a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea, that opens out into 1938. As a child, Sobol was robbed of his mother during a Nazi roundup, and he is determined to use any means possible to prevent World War II.

To this end, Sobol assembles a Mission-Impossible-like team with a computer nerd, historian, forger, Navy Seal, and a brilliant femme fatale, onto a Typhoon-class Russian nuclear submarine armed with two hundred nuclear warheads. Things first go wrong when the team is followed by a Colombian pirate intent on stealing Sobol’s hoard of gold. The entanglement of the pirate’s small ship with the technology that keeps the wormhole open as the submarine passed through to its destination alters Sobol’s plans from the get-go.

From there, the novel takes the reader repeatedly into new territory. Most time travel stories are highly concerned about travel to the past affecting—and destroying—the timeline that is familiar to the story’s characters. From page 1, Typhoon Time is unconcerned about this taboo and instead explores multiple dilemmas and alters history in continually surprising ways. If you think you know anything about the events of World War II—and if you don’t, Typhoon Time catches you up—be prepared to have it turned on its head.

To say more would give away too many spoilers; however, one of the key delights for me in this book was the juxtaposition of modern and historical attitudes, particularly around the agency of women and minorities.

Ron S. Friedman is well-positioned to tell this story. Born in Israel, Ron served in the Israeli army, and understands the military mindset. He has clearly done his research—as a reader who has just finished reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I can see much that is factual, or intentionally altered—but his research is subtle in its influence on the book, providing necessary background for an understanding of the events, but never sidetracking the story.

More than the science fictional expectation of cool technology and a debate over big ideas, though, Typhoon Time is a nail-biting thriller. Chases, explosions, the mafia, Nazis and even cameos by Roosevelt and Einstein fill this novel, and take you from the debauchery of pre-Castro Cuba to Hitler’s eyrie.

Were there elements of Typhoon Time that could be improved? Yes. An occasional key scene was reported from off stage, and the point of view character of the historian lacked agency, but such quibbles did not interfere with the logic chain or the story telling. None of this gets in the way of enjoying the adventure and surprising twists of Typhoon Time.


Three time Aurora finalist, Susan Forest, is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and is an award-winning fiction editor for Laksa Media. Her novel, Bursts of Fire, will be out in 2019, followed by Flights of Marigolds. She has published over 25 short stories, most recently in Analog (March/April, 2018) and Intergalactic Medicine Show (Issue 62). She has appeared at many international writing conventions. Visit her website at https://fineartemis.wordpress.com.

Sufficing

By John Hertz: Here’s one I missed entirely.

I think it’s worth your attention.  It was certainly worth mine.

You now have an excuse given by me to rebuke my not staying in touch with Electronicland.

I knew Baen had started publishing Tim Powers.  I knew a new-assembled collection Down and Out in Purgatory had appeared in 2017.  I’d read the title novella happily – if that word may be used of a Tim Powers story – hmm – with pleasure – hmm – well, awestruckly, when it was published in 2016.

I knew the collection had some twenty tales going back to his first published short fiction from 1982 (which George Scithers, then editing Asimov’s, invited, but didn’t like, so Powers sold it to F & SF).  I saw a nice new copy in a bookshop but didn’t buy it.

Oh, fatal error.  Play in your mind your favorite “Shouldn’t have turned away” music.

I’ve just read it – two weeks after Hugo nominations closed.

At the end I found “Sufficient Unto the Day”, a new Powers short story from 2017.

Not only was it in the paper version – published November 2017; I had three months – it had appeared electronically in the Baen Free Library.

Alas, I can’t nominate it now.  I can’t urge you to.  We can’t vote for it either; it didn’t reach the ballot.  But neither did other things you or I or someone thought worthy.  So it goes.

While we’re all catching up reading so as to think or re-think about what did reach the ballot, I’ll try to tell you why I find this story so swell.  When I did that with another story it helped at least one person.

Powers’ writing is vivid, poetic, and neat.  That’s not the only way to deal with strange things or even the only mighty way. But it does make use of the suggestion The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  Some of a Powers story seems so ordinary that it heightens the strangeness.

Also Powers is the opposite of Nothing is revealed.  A hundred thirty words into “Sufficient” the main-focus character is in her kitchen, and

At 4 PM on Thanksgiving afternoon she had put on an apron and tied her chestnut hair back in a ponytail and was preparing the accommodation water for certain of the expected guests.

She was preparing what??  All will appear (I’ve warned you about these puns).  I can’t say “Fear not” – this is a Tim Powers story – but it will.

Also once strangenesses arrive they operate quite matter-of-factly.

“So what does my brother say?” Nana asked Shortstack.  Uncle Scuttle had been mute since his death, never having got the trick of vibrating the water surface like a speaker diaphragm, and could only communicate by way of Shortstack’s automatic writing.

Some of his poetic quality is like that.  Only after you’ve imagined what he’s shown you do you notice what a good metaphor he made.

His stories are architectural.  There is a sense – I hesitate to say “plain”, but in a way it is – of a place for everything and everything in its place.  That place could be a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind – or indeed much worse.  You might not belong there, I might not belong there, but what we find there does.  The ribs and spans of the story hold.

“They’re not fishbowls tonight, and get out of here.  If you’ve got to upset your sister, see that you don’t do it in the dining room.”

This to a ten-year-old nephew will seven pages later have its result.

I happen to like the way he waves at outside reading as he goes by.

Her father had always liked Dylan Thomas’ poetry.  “You really think?” asked Biscuit.  Shortstack had paused in prying at a black blob on the muzzle of his revolver.

If you don’t, as with any ornament it’s not essential.

And he jokes.  There are jokes in Dante’s Divine Comedy, there are jokes in Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Powers doesn’t duck or belittle his own creations; their dilemmas are pressing, their horrors are shocking; but this can at the same time be comical.  He doesn’t duck that either.

There are endnotes from him at the end of each story in this collection.  At the end of “Sufficient” he says

This is as close as I’ll probably ever get to writing a James Thurber story like “The Night the Bed Fell”.

Powers fans, however, would not venture a prediction.

Read Every Mountain: Books For Your Mount To-Be-Read

Installation by Alicia Martin

By Daniel Dern: It seems a shame to have the topic of “what’re we reading, what do we recommend” as a late-comer thread (some starting some 400 comments in, give or take) to an existing page (# 39769), which is mostly about con stuff, I suggest we dive into the topic in its own scroll, sic:

Allow me to kick this recommendapalooza-fest with a few that I’ve read (and enjoyed) over the past several months. Note, some aren’t sf or f, some aren’t even fiction — but IMHO they’re the kind of books that Filers and other sf/f fans might (also) enjoy:

PERSEPOLIS RISING, James A. Corey. The seventh novel in THE EXPANSE series. This one starts about three decades after the previous book — soon enough that the protagonists we’ve come to love (James F***ing Holden, Bobbi Draper, Amos, etc.) are still alive and causing trouble trying to solve problems… but long enough that they’re not spring or even summer chickens. I enjoyed this one; as Nero Wolfe says (sparingly), “Satisfactory.”

CODE NAME VERITY. I saw something about this in one of my magazines, which led me to getting it from the library. The prose is incredible compelling, particularly the descriptions of airplane maintenance, aerial views of terrain… and, well, everything else.

I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy info-lifting: (Hmm, there’s two related books, I’ve just gone and library-reserve-requested ’em.)

Code Name Verity is a young adult historical novel by Elizabeth Wein that was published in 2012.[1] It focuses on the friendship between two young British women, one English and one Scottish, in World War II – a spy captured by the Nazis in German-occupied France and the pilot who brought her there. It was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book in 2013, and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

A loose sequel, Rose Under Fire, was published in 2013. A prequel novel, The Pearl Thief, was published in May 2017; it is a mystery involving Code Name Verity’s protagonist Julie one year before the war starts.

THE EMERALD CIRCUS, Jane Yolen. A collection of stories. I’m about halfway through, it feels wrong to read these hastily.

Steven Brust’s VLAD TALTOS series. Somehow I never tried these before. I picked one up at our town recycling’s take some/leave some book cabin — always great to find an author new to me with 10 or more books I haven’t read yet.

I started enjoying it enough that I set it aside, so I could read them in order. (Brust says that it doesn’t matter what order you read them in, and, five in, I can see that; that said, one method is “order written in” (which I’m doing), or “chrono order”). Medium-rigorous fantasy with interesting politics. Clearly owes a lot to Zelazny’s Amber and other works for attitude, narrative tone also reminds me of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe in spots.

THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS, Oliver Sacks. Essays, by the neurologist who brought us “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and other fascinating stuff. The first essay alone, on Darwin’s writings about plants and evolution, could fuel a bookshelf of sf and f stories.

OK, fellow Filers, the bouncing ball is in your court!

Celebrate the Clarke Centenary with a Book Cover Parade

Photo, L to R: Arthur C. Clarke, Evelyn Gold, Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch in 1952. Clarke and Bloch were both born in 1917.

By Bill Higgins: Today is the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. I would’ve liked to attend a Clarke centennial event of some kind, but I live far away from any of them.

I did celebrate in a small way on Twitter: I rounded up links to interesting reviews for each of Sir Arthur’s solo novels, and tweeted them out in chronological order, along with cover art.

 

Review: Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage

By Daniel P. Dern: La Belle Sauvage (note, ‘sauvage’ appears to translate to ‘wild’ or ‘unspoiled’ rather than ‘savage’) is the first of a new trilogy from Pullman, set in the same universe (figuratively and literally, arguably) as his His Dark Materials trilogy — The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights),
The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, set about twelve years before the start of Compass, when Lyra Belacqua is a six-month-old baby. The next two books will, according to Pullman, take place almost a decade after the end of his first triology. (So, “prequel, sequel, sequel.”)

I found LBS readable and engaging enough… but unsatisfying in that it didn’t, to me, add to the original trilogy, it’s easy to feel it’s fleshed-out “off-stage” text establishing the world, characters and key plot elements for Materials.

Author Philip Pullman launches La Belle Sauvage, 22 years after his best-selling Northern Lights, at Bodleian Libraries. Image is copyright Anthony Upton 2017©.

Prequels are a challenging proposition, whether done by the original author or by others, as anyone who’s read through the various prequels for Dune, Zelazny’s Amber, Asimov’s Robots’n’Foundations, etc. knows. Some do add to our total sense of enjoyment, some don’t.

Yes, there’s some new/additional information (or theorizing, by the characters) about the nature of “Dust” (“Rusakov particles”)… but I don’t feel that the pre-Materials events involving familiar and new characters added to my previous enjoyment (or concerns) of Pullman’s Materials trilogy. Hopefully it will pay off in Books 2 and 3, and perhaps they will justify LBS as needed to establish these new characters and the formative events they went through.

Anyhoo, that’s my non-spoiler philosophic reader’s opinion. I don’t resent the time reading this book, but having done so, I feel that I would have not been the worse or less for not reading it. I do look forward to reading Books 2 and 3, and conceded that I may feel differently about Book 1 after that; perhaps it’s best put on the “wait until the series is done” pile.

Meanwhile, here’s a few quick non-spoiler details, notes and thoughts.

The main protagonist of La Belle Sauvage is an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm. (La Belle Sauvage is the name of his canoe.)

Through circumstance (when not in school or doing other things, Malcom works in his parents’ pub), Malcolm becomes involved and embroiled with/in, unsurprisingly, Dust, Lord Asrael, Mrs. Coulder, (baby) Lyra, witches, etc. (But no Bears.)

Although La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, if you haven’t read the Materials trilogy, you should read those books first, in my opinion, so you have a better understanding of the world that Pullman has created.

One thought — I’m not sure if it qualifies as a criticism, or is simply a question — is baby Lyra as the anti-MacGuffin. Since Lyra is the lead protagonist in Materials, it’s a given that, barring some comicbook-or-Game-Of-Thrones-level “dead — no, alive again” plot contortions, it’s a good bet that Baby MacG will survive basically unscathed. This, IMHO, seriously turns down the dramatic tension, and also makes LBS feel less like it has a “plot” than “a sequence of related events.” And similarly, while the book is introducing us to a cast of new characters, and expanding the backstory for those we already know from Materials, it doesn’t feel like the plot, or peoples’ actions, are integral… Pullman could just as easily written ten or twenty character study summaries.

But, like I posit above, LBS may legitimately be a necessary set-up to Books 2 and 3. Only time will tell.

Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Review by Mike Glyer:  Three of the four short novels in Joe Hill’s Strange Weather merge nightmarish technology and mythic predicaments in a way bound to fascinate sff fans, while the fourth is rooted in gun-related horrors the daily news won’t let us escape. All four tales are radically enriched by Hill’s exploration of the characters’ interior lives and relationships.

Joe Hill takes questions before signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena on May 25, 2016.

Years ago I lamented the fact that while a commercially-successful author like James Michener filled his epic bestsellers with heart-tugging characters, science fiction remained exclusively populated by the same two-dimensional figures that had marked it from the beginning, possessing just enough heroism and sentiment to explore the idea that was the reason for the story. That changed a generation ago, but I always appreciate a writer like Joe Hill, who’s ready to explore why someone makes the choices he or she does when plunged into the crucible of a science fictional crisis.

George Alec Effinger once explained that if you had a certain goal – like writing an sf novel that was also a mystery — you had to “budget” the wordage needed to honor the tropes of each genre. Similarly, for Joe Hill to drill into his characters’ backgrounds and emotional lives as he does in these short novels requires more wordage to unfold than it would to isolate on the sf/horror ideas underlying them had they been written in the days of sf’s pulp origins.

Snapshot

In Snapshot, a 13-year-old nerd finds himself the only force standing between an elderly couple and the menace of “The Phoenician,” a tattooed thug with a mysterious Polaroid-style camera that erases memories snap by snap.

The nerd, named Mike, tinkers on all kinds of projects, his latest being a confetti-firing party gun which obligingly obeys Chekov’s Law by the end of the story.

The wife in the couple once was a younger Mike’s caregiver, someone who helped raise him and now seems mentally ravaged by age. Although the “real” reason is an otherworldly camera in the hands of an evildoer, Hill takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore the end of human life, memory, and the loss of relationships in the face of frailty and illness.

Snapshot summoned the same emotional response from me as Keith Laumer’s “Long Remembered Thunder,” which is about a student who has to master an alien weapon to save his teacher and the person she loves. But I would add that while Laumer worked within a narrower frame of archetypes and sentiment, Hill frequently hits on compelling psychological, ethical and spiritual truths about his characters.

If Snapshot has any weakness, it’s that the story has more than one ending. Somebody needed to tell the author the story was over. Not that the extra wordage did any harm to my enjoyment of what had gone before – and maybe Hill just needed me to see what happened later on to an interesting family, the way Tolkien planned to do at the end of The Lord of the Rings until his friends talked him out of it.

Loaded

Loaded, the second short novel, is inspired by America’s gun culture, racial injustice, and the routine bloody sacrifice of fact-based truth at the altar of patriotic mythology. It’s painful to read, with a constant flow of tragedy, not just a tragic ending.

This is horror. Just keep waiting for the people you like to die. They will.

Aloft

Aubrey Griffin doesn’t really want to jump out of an airplane, he just wants to impress Harriet, and is on the verge of backing out until fate intervenes in the form of a strange-looking cloud.

He’s yet another of Joe Hill’s fat, farting heroes whose self-indulgence and denial must be explored on the way to unraveling the protagonist’s one-sided romantic aspirations, before he finally realizes he won’t be missed from the world any more than the guy in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath.

Aubrey Griffin’s abortive parachute jump lands him on an impossibly solid cloud, where his human willingness to yield to delusions and wish-fulfillment may cost him his life. Aloft revolves around an idea that’s a classic sf mix of myth and mystery, made science fictional by repeated hints that it might all be a product of alien technology. Hill effectively draws on traditions like Shakespeare’s Caliban, the trials of Psyche in classical literature, and doubtless even more things than I recognized.

What is the cloud really made of? Will Aubrey survive? Having just read Loaded, I was feeling that was unlikely, and was marking time til the author arbitrarily decided which of the many dumb decisions Aubrey was making ought to be the one that killed him. Instead, Hill surprised me, and in the end it’s a new life, not the afterlife, that Aubrey is headed for.

Rain

The final of these four novels is Rain. On a seemingly ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of crystal spikes that tear apart everyone who can’t quickly get to cover. The first casualties include the protagonist’s girlfriend. The protagonist, Honeysuckle Speck, is a black lesbian and the girlfriend was in the middle of moving in on that fateful day.

And the neighborhood she was moving to is loaded with characters —

  • Russian expat dope dealers
  • a kid who likes to pretend to be a vampire
  • a house full of cultists and their leader

— not to mention loving mothers and absent fathers.

The crystal rain is not a single Fortean event — Hill pays Vonnegut a brief homage – this climate calamity is spanning the world and might be irreversible, reminiscent of Ice-9.

Honeysuckle wants to tell her girlfriend’s family what has happened, but can’t raise them on the phone, so she decides it’s her duty to walk to Denver and tell them, despite the risk of further shard-filled stormclouds. This quest also gives Hill his wanted opening to view the human race breaking down under the strain, to honor those who unexpectedly prove to be remaining pillars of social order, and to show how quickly the jackals come out.

Hill is very inventive and sometimes has trouble “killing his darlings,” getting rid of a really clever bit of wordplay that breaks character or throws you out of the narrative. (Like a reviewer who refuses to strike a gaudy phrase like “climate calamity.”) However, most of them remain carefully embedded in the flow of the story and ring true as insights the characters discover about themselves.

The quest and the view of many different people under pressure would seem like the point of the story – and it really is. Maybe Rain is another story with more endings than it needs, because before it concludes Hill also reveals how the weather crisis was caused, in a rather Twilight Zone-married-to-the-X-Files kind of way. But no harm was done, I didn’t become any less interested as he worked through the denouement, so neither I nor Hippocrates have reason to object.

Joe Hill, of course, is known as one of America’s leading horror writers. I come away from this collection rethinking my notions about the horror genre – which I not only identify with dark events and toxic emotional experiences, but with portentous and slow-as-molasses reveals. Strange Weather’s four short novels all move right along, quickly dispatching characters to meet their trouble or doom, and mapping the way with a personal history that needs to be solved just as much as the monster/invention/disaster that may end everyone before they can. I don’t know whether this book has made me a fan of horror, but it’s certainly made me a fan of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill meets Ray Bradbury for the first time at 2009 Comic-Con. Photo by John King Tarpinian.

Carey – Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom Review

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

Tor Books, ISBN 9780765383297, June 2017

By Lis Carey: Retropolis is a city of the future as imagined in the first part of the 20th century. Robots walk the streets and work in many jobs that require physical abilities and machine precision that humans don’t have. They’re intelligent, and while they start out as indentured workers, they earn their full freedom over time, and have formed a pretty powerful union.

Meanwhile, humans do other work. Everyone relies on InfoSlates, which are a lot like our phones, except perhaps standardized more at the size of an iPad. That’s my impression of them, anyway. Another difference between InfoSlates and either iPads or phones is that they rely on human switchboard operators.

Nola Gardner is a switchboard operator, and she and her sister operators (remember, think 1930s rather than present day) abruptly find themselves out of jobs after a surprise efficiency review. What they can’t seem to find out is who replaced them.

Rusty is one of the aforementioned intelligent robots, who on his way home from work one day finds a female robot with no legs lying in the street. She doesn’t seem to talk, which is awkward, but he takes her back to his apartment, determined to find out where she belongs.

Nola persuades her coworkers to pool their severance pay and hire adventurer Dash Kent, who is also a plumber who lives in Rusty’s building. He’s got a great track record rescuing cats from the temple of a weird cult on Mars…

Soon an unexpected and unlikely group have formed to fight an unseen, devious enemy.

Rocket cars! Private rocket ships! Robots! Evil industrialists!

And all that is before the world’s tiniest giant robot shows up and starts wreaking havoc.

Schenck captures this retro future perfectly. It’s goofy, it’s exciting, it’s joyful.

Don’t go looking for science-fictional plausibility here; that would be missing the point. This is an adventure in the 1939 World’s Fair’s future, not ours, and it’s a lot of fun.

Highly recommended.

(I received an advance reader’s copy of this book, and am reviewing it voluntarily.)

Leveling-Up in Emma Newman’s Split Worlds

Angry Robot 2013

By JJ: A couple of centuries ago, the World was split to protect humans from the much-more-powerful Fae. Now the Fae reside in their land of magic, Exilium. They are separated from the mundane world by the Nether, a mirror-image version of Mundanus where society is frozen in that of Regency/Victorian times and populated by the people who chose to leave the real world and serve the Fae in exchange for near-immortality.

While the human denizens of the Nether are able to reproduce, those children must be raised in Mundanus in order to grow to maturity. This is often accomplished by living in homes which straddle the border between the Nether and the real world, keeping the children in the mundane section; since adults from the Nether will continue to age naturally whenever they enter Mundanus, they try to do so as seldom as possible.

Although Nether humans are able to visit the real world, a group of sorcerers known as Arbiters monitor the Fae to ensure that they do not violate the terms of the agreement, that they and their magic are kept away from the humans and Mundanus, and that innocent humans are no longer abducted from the real world to serve as playthings — or food — for the Fae.

Each of the Fae lords are designated by a flower, and the families who are their servants in the Nether take this as their surname to make their allegiance clear, including Rose, Lavender, Iris, and Rhoeas-Papaver. The latter family’s headstrong daughter, Catherine, has run away to the real world to escape an abusive father and the traditional Victorian restrictions and mores in which she has been raised — strictures which include marriages arranged by parents. In Mundanus, Catherine has made a life for herself as an independent adult, free of her family’s control.

Angry Robot 2013

But Catherine’s family is extremely unhappy about her escape, and they are determined to drag her back to a life she sees as stifling and strangling — and a husband chosen for her, without her consultation.

This, then, is the setting for the opening of the first novel in Emma Newman’s Split Worlds pentalogy. In the Nether, the author has created a world both charming and horrifying — one where the lovely fashions and entertainments mask the more sinister underlying society controlled by capricious Fae and tyrannical family patriarchs.

The biggest success of these books, I think, is the author’s choice to show almost all of the characters with complexity. Most of the people featured here are slowly revealed as neither all good or all bad, but as conflicted, contradictory people embodied by a mix of admirable and despicable characteristics, of virtues and weaknesses. Even though some of them behave quite badly, the reader is often able to feel empathy — or at least understanding — for them, due to recognition of the pressures and fears which motivate that behavior.

I especially appreciated the way that Newman has avoided slipping into the easy tropes of romance and idealised resolutions. The people in these books, and their relationships, are messy and realistic — and conflicts are handled in a believable way, rather than with pasted-on Happily-Ever-After Hollywood endings.

Angry Robot 2013

Due to Filer recommendations and my enjoyment of Planetfall and After Atlas, I had these books near the top of my To-Be-Read pile, anyway — and when the newly-published fifth and final novel in the series became available through NetGalley, the publisher was kind enough to give me the opportunity to read them all at once, in exchange for an honest review.

I make no secret of the fact that I much prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy. But I have to admit that I really enjoyed this series — not just for the detailed and believable worldbuilding, but for the way the author has deftly interwoven into the stories the current hard questions and challenges facing our own world regarding gender roles, race, domestic violence, and social status.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Tsundokus, highly recommended.


Diversion Books 2016

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman [Split Worlds #1]

Beautiful and nuanced as it is dangerous, the manners of Regency and Victorian England blend into a scintillating fusion of urban fantasy and court intrigue.

Between Mundanus, the world of humans, and Exilium, the world of the Fae, lies the Nether, a mirror-world where the social structure of 19th-century England is preserved by Fae-touched families who remain loyal to their ageless masters. Born into this world is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who escapes it all to live a normal life in Mundanus, free from her parents and the strictures of Fae-touched society. But now she’s being dragged back to face an arranged marriage, along with all the high society trappings it entails.

Crossing paths with Cathy is Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds treaty with a dislocated soul who polices the boundaries between the worlds, keeping innocents safe from the Fae. After a spree of kidnappings and the murder of his fellow Arbiters, Max is forced to enlist Cathy’s help in unravelling a high-profile disappearance within the Nether. Getting involved in the machinations of the Fae, however, may prove fatal to all involved.


Diversion Books 2016

Any Other Name by Emma Newman [Split Worlds #2]

Cathy has been reluctantly married into the Iris family and moves to Londinium, the magical Nether reflection of London, setting her on a collision course with the restrictive, high-pressure social circles that demand propriety and obedience, things the vocal and free-spirited Cathy cannot abide. Will, meanwhile, is trying to find a compromise for his new bride, but whispers in his ear are urging him towards dark deeds…

Sam, determined to dive back into the world of Exilium to rescue innocents, crosses paths with Cathy and Max once again as Max and the gargoyle uncover more information about the mysterious Agency and the chain of events that wiped out the Bath Chapter. Sacrifices, terrible deals, and dreadful revelations mark this second installment of Emma Newman’s wondrous Split Worlds series.


Diversion Books 2016

All Is Fair by Emma Newman [Split Worlds #3]

Caught in the insidious designs of powerful puppet-masters and playing a life-or-death game for control, Cathy and her comrades face their greatest challenge yet: changing the balance of power in the Split Worlds.

Now at the heart of the Londinium Court, deceit and murder track Will’s steps as he assumes his new role as Duke. Faced with threats to his throne and his life, the consequences of his bloody actions are already coming back to haunt him…

Meanwhile, Cathy, wrestling with the constraints of the Agency and Dame Iris, comes to terms with her new status in Fae-touched society and seeks others who feel just as restricted by its outdated social rules. As Max works with Cathy to uncover the horrors that underpin Fae-touched society, he bears witness as the final blow is struck against the last Sorcerers in Albion…

Darkly imaginative, vividly detailed, and genre-defying in scope, ALL IS FAIR is at once a thrilling and intellectual journey into worlds beyond sight.


Diversion Books 2016

A Little Knowledge by Emma Newman [Split Worlds #4]

Cathy and Will are now the Duchess and Duke of Londinium, the biggest Fae-touched Nether city, but they have different ideas of what their authority offers. Pressured by his Fae patron, Lord Iris, Will struggles to maintain total control whilst knowing he must have a child with his difficult wife. Cathy wants to muscle the Court through two hundred years of social change and free it from its old-fashioned moral strictures. But Cathy learns just how dangerous it can be for a woman who dares to speak out…

Meanwhile, as Sam learns more about the Elemental Court it becomes clear that the Fae are not the only threat to humanity. Sam realises that he has to make enemies of the most powerful people on the planet, or risk becoming the antithesis of all he believes in.

Threatened by secret societies, hidden power networks and Fae machinations, can Sam and Cathy survive long enough to make the changes they want to see in the world?


Diversion Books 2017

All Good Things by Emma Newman [Split Worlds #5]

As the Iris family consolidates their hold on society within the secret world of the Nether, William Iris finds himself more powerful and yet more vulnerable than ever. His wife, Cathy, has left him, a fact that will destroy him if it becomes public. To keep his position – and survive – he needs to get her back, whatever the cost.

Cathy has finally escaped the Nether, but hates that she must rely so heavily on Sam’s protection. When the strange sorceress Beatrice offers her a chance to earn true freedom by joining the quest Sam has been bound to, Cathy agrees. But can she and Sam navigate Beatrice’s plans for the future without becoming two more of her victims?

And Beatrice, a self-taught and powerful killer, is not without her enemies. Rupert, the last sorcerer of Albion, is obsessed with finding and destroying her. He orders Max and his gargoyle to help him, pulling them away from protecting innocents. As the Arbiter and his partner face the ugly side of their responsibilities to Rupert, they begin to question where their loyalties should truly lie.

Amidst death, deceit, and the fight for freedom, friendships are tested, families are destroyed, and heroes are forged as the battle to control the Split Worlds rages to its climatic conclusion.


Emma Newman

(Fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

Other works by Emma Newman:

The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.

  • Planetfall [Planetfall #1] (Roc / New American Library, 2015)

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

  • After Atlas [Planetfall #2] (Roc / New American Library, 2016)

Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room – and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

LONDON, 2012: It arrives, and with that the world is changed into an unending graveyard littered with the bones, wreckage, and memories of a dead past, gone forever.

LONDON, 2032: Twenty years later, out of the ashes, a new world begins to rise, a place ruled by both loyalty and fear, and where the quest to be the first to regain lost knowledge is an ongoing battle for power. A place where laws are made and enforced by roving gangs-the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardners, the Red Lady’s Gang-who rule the streets and will do anything to protect their own.

THE FOUR: Zane, Titus, Erin, Eve. Living in this new world, they discover that they have abilities never before seen. And little do they know that as they search post-apocalyptic London for Titus’ kidnapped sister that they’ll uncover the secret of It, and bring about a reckoning with the forces that almost destroyed all of humanity.


  • From Dark Places
  • The Straw
  • The Need to Create
  • Burnt
  • Someone to Watch Over Her
  • The Perfect Escape
  • The Tenth Lord
  • Sunday Lunch
  • The Art of Desire
  • No Surprise
  • Seeing Him Again
  • Shedding
  • The Victim
  • The Letter
  • The Unwoven Heart
  • And Then There Were None
  • Everything in its Place
  • The Best Pie in the World
  • The Handsome Dragon
  • The Bell
  • In the Bag
  • Her Fall
  • The Supporting Statement
  • Idolised
  • Getting Fixed

Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. Between Two Thorns, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards for Best Novel and for Best Newcomer in 2014. “A Woman’s Place” won the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, and her science-fiction novel After Atlas, the second in her Planetfall series, is a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award in 2017. Emma is a professional audiobook narrator and also co-writes and hosts the Hugo-nominated and Alfie-winning podcast Tea and Jeopardy which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and role-playing games.

 SOCIAL MEDIA

Review of Cosmic Powers, Edited by John Joseph Adams

By Lis Carey: This is just one kickass good anthology. Go buy a copy in your preferred format now.

Okay, okay, you want to know more.

Every one of these stories is, as advertised, far-future, galaxy-spanning, and involves people confronting huge problems caused by technology, in some cases so advanced as to be, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “indistinguishable from magic.”

They vary wildly in tone, also.

Charlie Jane Anders’ “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime” is just really funny.

“The Chameleon’s Gloves” by Yoon Ha Lee features an interstellar thief saddled with the unenviable job of committing one theft not for profit but to prevent the deaths of billions. I hadn’t been attracted to what I’ve heard of Ninefox Gambit, but now I very much want to read it.

“Diamond and the Worldbreaker” by Linda Nagata gives us a twelve-year-old who just wanted a chance to be the bad guy for once, and her mother whose job it is to prevent the kind of chaos created by the kind of “bad guy” her daughter admires.

In Becky Chambers’ “The Sighted Watchmaker,” Umos has the responsibility of tending a planet through its evolution, and wishes he could have the guidance of the Makers. But who are the Makers? Meanwhile, Seanan McGuire’s “Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair” is straight up adventure.

There’s more variety and excellent storytelling in store as well.

It’s rare that I’ve enjoyed an anthology so thoroughly, and Yoon Ha Lee isn’t the only author represented here for whom I will be seeking out more work when I previously had my doubts.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.