Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review - Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro

Short review: The Rhon are all that stand between the Traders and dominance, and now the Traders have a Rhon of their own.
Saucony is Rhon
She must choose love or power
While war rages

Full review: Sauscony "Soz" Valdoria possesses a special power that grants her superior abilities as a combat pilot. Her enemies feed upon that power, and should they ever get their hands on her they will torture her because that enhances their enjoyment while they mentally and physically rape her. Soz discovers that the only suitable genetic mate for her is one of these enemies. Add in the complicating factor that she and her potential mate are both highly placed political figures in bitterly opposed nations. Throw in some fairly imaginative, but well-supported science speculation about faster than light travel and artificial intelligence and you end up with Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion.

Primary Inversion was the first novel written by Catherine Asaro for her Skolian Empire series, which now spans thirteen novels. Sauscony Valdoria, is a Jagernaut, which means that she is also a telepath, as only telepaths have the mental abilities necessary to mentally meld with their squad mates and act as one during the chaotic and stuttering form of space combat imagined by Asaro. Among the Jagernauts she is a "Primary", essentially the equivalent of an admiral, but even more, she is an Imperial Princess, potentially in line to succeed to the throne of the Skolian Empire. She was also abducted and used as a "provider" by an Aristo some years prior to the events of the book while she was conducting a covert operation.

Which leads us to the Aristos, who are the implacable enemies of the Skolian Empire. Asaro lays out the components of telepathy in her fictional reality, with some humans possessing the ability to send out an empathic or telepathic signal, and others possessing the ability to receive such signals, and some few who are true telepaths - able to send and receive thoughts. Soz and her fellow Jagernauts, as well as a small number of others in the Skolian Empire fit this final category. But the ruling elite of the "Traders" (or more formally, the Eubian Concord), who are dubbed "Aristos" can only receive, and only are able to empathically perceive thoughts such as fear or pain which gives them pleasure. The Aristos covet empaths and telepaths as "providers", seeking to enslave, rape, and torture them to fill the need they have to experience the pain of others through their ability to receive emotions empathically. Aristos also have a stranglehold on political power in Eubian Concord, as all other inhabitants are regarded as slaves who exist to serve the whims of their masters.

Given this background, one would be unsurprised at Soz's bafflement when, while on leave on the neutral planet Delos, an Aristo approaches her and behaves civilly, and is even clumsily friendly. Circumstances lead Soz to conduct an impromptu raid on the mysterious Aristo's rented residence, where she learns an array of explosive secrets: the Highton is named Jabriol, is a critically important Eubian political figure, and also turns out, for plot specific reasons to quite possibly be the only man who Soz could have a satisfying personal relationship with, a fact obviously complicated by their respective political allegiances, but also by the fact that Soz had established a personal relationship with a member of her squad. But during her raid she also learns potentially explosive information about the Eubian plans for the inhabitants of the rebellious planet Tams. One interesting element of the story is that although the reader, seeing the world through Soz's eyes, is likely to consider her cause righteous and the Eubians to be truly evil, Jabriol is not so easily convinced, making a patriotic case for his nation.

After a brief detour through the Delosian legal system following her breaking and entering spree, during which she happens upon a mostly closeted telepath (an interesting wrinkle in Asaro's fictional future is that the neutral Allied worlds don't acknowledge the existence of telepathy), Soz sets about acting on the military intelligence she gleaned as a result of her late night foray. And this leads Asaro to throw in some more exposition, explaining how the much smaller Skolian Empire is able to resist Eubian might - through the reliance upon the psiberweb to allow for swifter than light communication. But this also reveals the Skolian weakness: the psiberweb is powered by the mental abilities of the Rhon, powerful telepaths all of the heretofore known examples of which are members of Soz' own immediate family, and who are nigh irreplaceable. In effect, the psiberweb is powered by the overpowering telepathic capabilities of a single family of telepaths, who consequently wield almost unassailable political power within the Skolian Empire, but whose powers also make them the most coveted prizes of the Eubian Aristos. The very power that makes the Rhon capable of providing the Skolian Empire with the means to resist the Eubian threat is what makes them such a tempting target for Eubian aggression. Because the Eubian's consign their telepaths to the lowest rung of society to serve as sex slaves for their elites, they have no hope of establishing a similar communications web of their own.

Nor can the Eubians create soldiers like the Jagernauts capable of communicating during the heat of space combat, as Asaro explains the mechanics of space travel in her imagined future by invoking imaginary numbers, and interesting mathematical concept that is given a central place in how the Skolians and Eubians manage to exceed the universal speed limit of the speed of light using a process called "inversion". But traveling faster than light comes with drawbacks, and these drawbacks can only be overcome by psions working together. But even the psiber edge enjoyed by the Skolians is not always enough, which is amply illustrated when Soz leads her squad into a desperate battle with Trader forces in the space over the planet Tams with millions of lives at stake. A battle that also results in some fairly devastating personal consequences for Soz.

Which leads to the second portion of the book in which Soz is sent to recuperate from her ordeal by teaching at the military academy on the planet Forshires. And this "down time" allows Asaro to explore the psychological consequences of the enormous amounts of stress she has piled upon her heroine. As one might guess, as a former provider and an empath who has been required by circumstances to kill and who has seen her own squad mates maimed and killed, Soz is a mess. It is in this section where Asaro seriously focuses on what her books are known for - melding strong science fiction with romance, as Soz takes halting steps towards establishing a relationship with a lover to replace the relationship smashed by the events of the first section of the book. It is also in this section that we meet the various members of Soz's family, including her imposing brother Kurj, the Imperator of Skolia. And it is in this portion of the book that Asaro reveals that she isn't going to let her heroes off the hook - an inhabitant of Forshires that Soz comes across suggests that the Skolian Empire may not be as altogether benevolent as Soz believes, and makes a strong argument for that position. And Kurj's actions with respect to a pretty young hospital worker seem to show a disturbing parallel to the behavior of Aristos. Granted, he isn't going to torture her, but he doesn't seem to care that her desires might or might not coincide with his own, nor does he care about the consequences his actions have upon her. The point is made fairly subtly, but it seems that Kurj may not be all that different from those he despises. And that the Skolian Empire may not be all that much better of an option than the Eubian Concord.

All of this builds to a head in the third section of the book as political obligations and personal desires collide - and Soz is forced to choose between her patriotism and ambition and what may be her lone chance at finding a compatible life partner. In effect, Soz must choose between her country and her lover, and whichever choice she makes will have potentially explosive consequences. Once again, Asaro doesn't let her heroine off the hook with an easy choice, or an easy path to the choice she makes. But the choice she makes, though difficult to make, seems natural when made. And then Asaro turns the story from an exploration of Soz's emotions and ramps up the intrigue and action to a high pitch as Soz tries to make her choice reality. In the end, she gets help from an almost entirely unexpected source (actually two fairly unexpected sources), and ends up with an ending that, while not exactly perfect, is at least good enough for Soz to live with.

In the end, Primary Inversion turns out to mean something different than one would have thought at the outset of the novel, being more of a descriptive play on words than a description of a fictional faster-than-light technology. This was Catherine Asaro's first published novel, and it is clear that she hit the ground running. Asaro created two interesting opposed camps, and despite the temptation to make the good guys all good, she didn't shy away from the implications of having an elite few possess such unique powers that they also control the levers of politics, and how this would be resented (unlike, for example, the Lensman universe, where most people seem happy to have a super powered elite run the show). Although it seems a bit mystifying why the Traders would exalt what seems to be a genetic defect as a symbol of their rule, it does make the source of the conflict clear, and gives what could have been a bland set of wooden villains a clear motivation for their perifdy. With a strong character driven story, a little bit of romance and intrigue all backed by well thought-out science fiction elements placed in an interesting setting, Asaro's story delivers an enjoyable read. As a bonus, the novel has enough loose ends and interesting wrinkles to provide fodder for a number of interesting stories to follow.

Subsequent book in the series: Catch the Lightning

1996 Locus Award Nominees

Catherine Asaro     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Event - InConjunction: July 1st-3rd, 2011 in Indianapolis

So, next weekend Catherine Asaro will be the guest of honor at InConjunction in Indianapolis, Indiana. She'll be bringing her band The Diamond Project as well (which features Music Guest of Honor Donald Wolcott), and they will be performing twice. There's a whole pile of other guests too - artists, writers, musicians, and just generally notable nerds. Who else is going to be there? Me, that's who.

InConjunction runs from July 1st to July 3rd (nerdy side note, the same three days in which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought 148 years ago), and promises to be a weekend full of geeky goodness. There's going to be a Dr. Who room playing a mixture of new and old Dr. Who episodes mixed with some episodes of the Sarah Jane Chronicles, an anime room, and a movie room where the cheesy awesomeness of movies like Army of Darkness and Bubba Ho-Tep will be shown. This being a science fiction convention, these showings will play all day and all through the night, with (very) short breaks in the mornings. And I haven't even mentioned the panels, presentations and other geeky events that are on the schedule. Because it will be the Fourth of July weekend, there's even going to be a 1776 sing-along. I expect that when I come home on July 4th, I'll be completely dead from three straight days of zero sleep.

And all of this will be great, but for me the real draw is Catherine Asaro. I love science fiction, but I especially love written science fiction, and hers is great. I'm currently working my way through her Skolian Empire series, which is probably her best known work (since it spans more than a dozen books) and also, in my opinion, her best work. The best part is that even though I have read several of her books, I still have a pile of her stuff left to read. She has an official web page titled simply Catherine Asaro, and a Facebook fan page.

Catherine Asaro     Event     Home

Saturday, June 25, 2011

2011 Locus Award Nominees

Location: Seattle, Washington.

Comments: And as quickly as it had vanished in 2009, the Best Art Book category returned to the Locus Awards as an independent entity in 2011. As always, there appears to be no rhyme or reason available to explain the sudden appearances and disappearances of this award category. Suffice it to say that the category is back for now, and seems to be back to stay. Of course, one could have said that before and one would have been wrong, so we'll just have to see.

Best Science Fiction Novel
1.   Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Other Nominees:
2.   Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
3.   The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
4.   Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
5.   Zero History by William Gibson
6.   The Passage by Justin Cronin
7.   Feed by Mira Grant
8.   Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
9.   Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
10. Chill by Elizabeth Bear
11. Starbound by Joe Haldeman
12. Yarn by Jon Armstrong
13. Zendegi by Greg Egan
14. Directive 51 by John Barnes
15. Sleepless by Charlie Huston
16. Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov
17. Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo
18. Saltation by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Best Fantasy Novel
1.   Kraken by China Miéville

Other Nominees:
2.   Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
3.   The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
4.   The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe
5.   Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
6.   The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A. McKillip
7.   The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente
8.   Horns by Joe Hill
9.   The Bird of the River by Kage Baker
10. A Dark Matter by Peter Straub
11. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
12. Changeless by Gail Carriger
13. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
14. The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
15. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
16. The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett
17. Hespira by Matthew Hughes
18. The House of Discarded Dreams by Ekaterina Sedia
19. The Wolf Age by James Enge
20. The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker
21. Jade Man's Skin by Daniel Fox
22. Kings of the North by Cecelia Holland
23. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
24. A Matter of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

Best Young Adult Book
1.   Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Other Nominees:
2.   I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
3.   Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
4.   Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
5.   Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones
6.   White Cat by Holly Black
7.   Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card
8.   Tresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
9.   The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
10. The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 7: Lord Sunday by Garth Nix
11. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
12. Kid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout
13. Factotum by D.M. Cornish
14. Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

Best First Novel
1.    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Other Nominees:
2.   How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
3.   The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
4.   Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
5.   The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer
6.   The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
7.   The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
8.   A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files
9.   Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
10. Clowns at Midnight by Terry Dowling
11. The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
12. The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
13. Meeks by Julia Holmes
14. The Last Page by Anthony Huso
15. Noise by Darin Bradley

Best Novella
1.   The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Other Nominees:
2.   Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear
3.   The Mystery Knight by George R.R. Martin
4.   The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window by Rachel Swirsky
5.   Troika by Alastair Reynolds
6.   The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand (reviewed in Errantry: Strange Stories)
7.   The Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey A. Landis (reviewed in Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 9 (September 2010))
8.   The Taborin Scale by Lucius Shepard
9.   A History of Terraforming by Robert Reed (reviewed in Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 7 (July 2010))
11. Chicken Little by Cory Doctorow
12. Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason
13. Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park (reviewed in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010)
14. A Glimpse of the Marvellous Structure (And the Threat it Entails) by Sean Williams
15. Cloud Permutations by Lavie Tidhar
16. The Rift by John G. Hemry
17. Seven Cities of Gold by David Moles
18. Jackie's Boy by Steven Popkes

Best Novelette
1.   The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

Other Nominees:
2.   The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
4.   The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie
6.   A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan
7.   The Naturalist by Maureen F. McHugh
8.   Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson
9.   In the Stacks by Scott Lynch
10. Map of Seventeen by Christopher Barzak
11. Sleepover by Alastair Reynolds
12. Eating at the End-of-the-World Café by Dale Bailey
13. A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias S. Buckell
14. The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund
15. La Lune T'Attend by Peter S. Beagle
17. Pining to be Human by Richard Bowes
18. Trinity County, CA by Peter S. Beagle
19. Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov
20. Amor Vincit Omnia by K.J. Parker
21. --30-- by Laird Barron
22. Seven Years from Home by Naomi Novik
23. Amor Fugit by Alexandra Duncan
24. A Rich Full Week by K.J. Parker
25. The Cage by A.M. Dellamonica
26. Eight Miles by Sean McMullen
27. Under/Above the Water by Tanith Lee
28. Black and White Sky by Tanith Lee
29. To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix
30. Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot
31. Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World by Lavie Tidhar
32. The Spy Who Never Grew Up by Sarah Rees Brennan

Best Short Story
1.   The Thing About Cassandra by Neil Gaiman

Other Nominees:
2.   The Things by Peter Watts
3.   Thirteen Ways of Look at Space/Time by Catherynne M. Valente
4.   Booth's Ghost by Karen Joy Fowler
7.   How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente
9.   Sleeping Dogs by Joe Haldeman
10. A Letter from the Emperor by Steve Rasnic Tem (reviewed in Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 1 (January 2010))
11. The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar
12. The Man With the Knives by Ellen Kushner
13. Tonight We Fly by Ian McDonald
14. After the Dragon by Sarah Monette
15. The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening by Cory Doctorow
16. The Taste of Night by Pat Cadigan
17. The Exterminator's Want-Ad by Bruce Sterling
18. Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots by Sandra McDonald
19. Sobek by Holly Black
20. Elegy for a Young Elk by Hannu Rajaniemi
21. Polka Dots and Moonbeams by Jeffrey Ford
22. Blue Fire by Bruce McAllister
23. Clockwork Fairies by Cat Rambo
24. Graffiti in the Library of Babel by David Langford
25. A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix
26. Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain by Yoon Ha Lee
27. The Children of Cadmus by Ellen Kushner
28. The Cull by Robert Reed
29. The Monster's Million Faces by Rachel Swirsky
30. The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders
31. Standard Loneliness Package by Charles Yu
32. Fair Ladies by Theodora Goss
33. Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare
34. Futures in the Memories Market by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
35. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson
36. The Night Train by Lavie Tidhar

Best Collection
1.   Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber

Other Nominees:
2.   Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle by Peter S. Beagle
3.   The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson by Kim Stanley Robinson
4.   The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny: Volume Five: Nine Black Doves by Roger Zelazny
5.   What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
6.   The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny: Volume Six: The Road to Amber by Roger Zelazny
7.   The Best of Larry Niven by Larry Niven
8.   Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds
9.   The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Volume 3: The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson
10. The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories by Walter Jon Williams
11. Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham
12. The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black
13. The Ammonite Violin & Others by Caitlín R. Kiernan
14. The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer
15. Mysteries of the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman
16. Case and the Dreamer: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume XIII by Theodore Sturgeon
17. Journeys by Ian R. MacLeod
18. Occultation by Laird Barron
19. Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance by Jack Vance
20. Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
21. Holiday by M. Rickert
22. The Sky That Wraps by Jay Lake
23. Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories by Sandra McDonald
24. The Juniper Tree and Other Blue Rose Stories by Peter Straub
25. Amberjack: Tales of Fear and Wonder by Terry Dowling
26. On the Banks of the River of Heaven by Richard Parks

Best Anthology
1.   Warriors edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Other Nominees:
2.   The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
3.   Swords & Dark Magic edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders
4.   Zombies vs Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier
5.   The Beastly Bride edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
6.   The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year edited by Jonathan Strahan
7.   Godlike Machines edited by Jonathan Strahan
8.   The Way of the Wizard edited by John Joseph Adams
9.   Year's Best SF 15 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
10. The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Arthur B. Evans, et al.
11. Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
12. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror edited by Ellen Datlow
13. Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S.T. Joshi
14. The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2010 Edition edited by Rich Horton
15. Sympathy for the Devil edited by Tim Pratt
16. Wings of Fire edited by Jonathan Strahan and Marianne S. Jablon
17. Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein
18. The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: 21 edited by Stephen Jones
19. The Best of Talebones edited by Patrick Swenson

Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Book
1.   Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: 1907-1948: Learning Curve by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Other Nominees:
2.   80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin
3.   C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary by Mark Rich
4.   Conversations with Octavia Butler by Consuela Francis
5.   Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001 by Gary K. Wolfe
6.   British Science Fiction & Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys edited by Paul Kincaid and Niall Harrison
7.   Anthopology 101: Reflections, Inspections and Dissections of SF Anthologies by Bud Webster
8.   Into the Media Web by Michael Moorcock
9.   The Animal Fable in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Bruce Shaw
10. Science Fiction, Imperialism, and the Third World: Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film edited by Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal

Best Art Book
1.   Spectrum 17: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner

Other Nominees:
2.   Instructions by Charles Vess and Neil Gaiman
3.   The Bird King and Other Sketches by Shaun Tan
4.   Middle-Earth: Visions of a Modern Myth by Donato Giancola
5.   Dragon's Domain by Bob Eggleton
6.   Otherworlds by Tom Kidd
7.   Star Wars Art: Visions edited by Anonymous
8.   Outermost by Jack Gaughan, edited by Luis Ortiz

Best Editor
1.   Ellen Datlow

Other Nominees:
2.   Jonathan Strahan
3.   Gardner Dozois
4.   David G. Hartwell
5.   Gordon van Gelder
6.   Lou Anders
7.   Sheila Williams
8.   Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
9.   John Joseph Adams
10. William Schafer
11. Terri Windling
12. Stanley Schmidt
13. Patrick Nielsen Hayden
14. Toni Weisskopf
15. Sharyn November
16. Shawna McCarthy
17. Betsy Wollheim
18. Gavin Grant and Kelly Link
19. Peter Crowther
20. Martin H. Greenberg
21. Betsy Mitchell
22. Ginjer Buchanan
23. Stephen Jones
24. Beth Meacham
25. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

Best Magazine
1.   Asimov's

Other Nominees:
2.   Fantasy & Science Fiction
4.   Analog
5.   Subterranean
6.   Clarkesworld Magazine
7.   Strange Horizons
8.   Interzone
9.   Lightspeed
10. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
11. Realms of Fantasy
12. Fantasy Magazine
13. Weird Tales
14. The New York Review of Science Fiction
15. SF Site
16. Ansible
17. Black Gate
18. Apex
19. Jim Baen's Universe
20. Cemetery Dance
21. Postscripts
22. Electric Velocipede

Best Book Publisher or Imprint
1.   Tor

Other Nominees:
2.   Subterranean Press
3.   Night Shade Books
4.   Baen
5.   Orbit
6.   Pyr
7.   DAW
8.   Ace
9.   NESFA Press
10. Del Rey
11. Gollancz
12. Angry Robot
13. PS Publishing
14. Small Beer Press
15. Tachyon
16. Roc
17. Spectra
18. Harper Voyager
19. St. Martin's
20. Golden Gryphon
21. Aqueduct Press
22. Eos

Best Artist
1.   Shaun Tan

Other Nominees:
2.   Michael Whelan
3.   John Picacio
4.   Donato Giancola
5.   Bob Eggleton
6.   Charles Vess
7.   Stephan Martiniere
8.   Kinuko Y. Craft
9.   Frank Frazetta
10. Phil Foglio
11. Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon
12. John Jude Palencar
13. Thomas Canty
14. Julie Bell
15. Daniel Dos Santos
16. Dave McKean
17. Vincent Di Fate
18. J.K. Potter
19. Michael Kaluta
20. Tom Kidd
21. Boris Vallejo
22. Frank Wu
23. Chris McGrath
24. Yoshitaka Amano

Go to previous year's nominees: 2010
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2012

Book Award Reviews     Home

Friday, June 24, 2011

Follow Friday - Twenty-Two Is the Same Backwards and Forwards

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - I'm a Book Shark.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: In light of the Summer Solstice. Also known as Midsummer . . . let's talk about fairies. What is your favorite fairy tale or story that revolves around the fae?

Most people have probably realized this but I'm something of a traditionalist so I'm going to go with Evangeline Walton's novels based upon the Four Branches of the Mabinogion: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. Built on the central stories of Welsh legend, Walton's books capture the Fey at their source - fierce, dangerous, and frightening like Arawn, but also beautiful and loving like Rhiannon. In the myths, the world of Faerie is a strange place that does not conform to human expectations, but the characters weave back and forth between the worlds often. Walton's books are more accessible than the Mabinogion itself, but retain the tone of the original poems, and they, along with Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series are why I love Welsh mythology.

Go to Previous Follow Friday: At Twenty-One, the Follow Friday Can Drink Now
Go to Subsequent Follow Friday: Twenty-Three Is the Last Prime Number Until Twenty-Nine

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review - Cobb's Legion Cavalry by Harriet Bey Mesic

Short review: A detailed history of a single Confederate cavalry unit with a definite editorial slant.

They came from Georgia
Fought mostly in Virginia
And then surrendered

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Cobb's Legion Cavalry is a detailed unit history of a single unit of Confederate cavalry that served mostly with the Army of Northern Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. The level of detail included in the book is impressive, with an almost day by day recounting of the activities of the unit, a roster of all the officers and enlisted men who served in the unit giving as much of their prior history, service record, and life following the war as could be found, and various other sundry details concerning the unit. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a pervasive and relentless editorial bias that renders many of the glowing tributes paid to the men in the unit seem hollow and forced.

About half of the book is taken up with a detailed account of the doings of Cobb's Legion Cavalry during the U.S. Civil War. Originally raised as part of a combined arms unit under a theory that was quickly discarded, the cavalry portion of Cobb's Legion, officially designated the Ninth Georgia Volunteers, was quickly detached from the artillery and infantry portions and combined with the rest of the Confederate cavalry in Virginia. The book first discusses the recruitment of the soldiers and the Confederacy's process of equipping them with horses and appropriate gear, or rather, the Confederacy's process of asking them to provide their own horses and its struggles to provide firearms, ammunition, and rations. The details her illustrate one of the primary difficulties faced by the Confederacy - the lack of an effective quartermaster system, which plagued the Southern forces from the beginning of the war throughout the conflict until its bitter end. This inadequate supply is cited as evidence of the heroism of Confederate soldiers, but what it really demonstrates is the dysfunctional nature of the Confederacy. After detailing the unit's organization, the narrative launches into a detailed accounting of the actions of the cavalry, reporting on every movement and engagement, including a regular casualty report listing which those members of the unit who were wounded, captured, or killed on that particular day or handful of days described in the given entry. This form of narrative is somewhat interesting, as it gives a view of the flow of history from a very specific viewpoint - confined to the actions of a single unit, but it also contains some limitations, being both to large and too small. To large because it is difficult to get a feel for any individual member of the unit making it difficult to generate empathy for them, and too small because it is easy to lose track of the larger events of the war amidst the details, and consequently many events lose necessary context. Even so, the level of detail provided is impressive, even though it is quite possible to easily get lost in the details if one is not familiar with the broader events of the military actions in Virginia, and later, in the Carolinas.

Following the detailed unit action report, the book contains a comprehensive listing of all the members of Cobb's Legion Cavalry complete with a thumbnail biography of each individual. The first appendix contains biographical information about the various commanding officers who led the unit, followed by a listing of every known individual who served in any capacity at any time with this cavalry, and then a listing of all of the original members who joined when it was originally formed. Also included are lists of those members who were surrendered at the end of the war, those who were killed in action, those who were taken as prisoners of war, and those who were listed as deserters. The sections that are primarily of interest are the first two giving biographical data about the members of the unit, because the remainder are simply lists of names, and are probably of limited interest to anyone not specifically tracing the fate of a particular soldier. The biographical data generally includes the particular soldier's enlistment date, his rank, what the unit records say happened to him, and in many cases a brief bit of background information about that soldier's life before and after their time serving with Cobb's Legion. This section boasts a wealth of detail, but as it is simply an alphabetical listing of the soldiers, there is no real way to get a feel for the structure of the unit, or the connections between the men. Anyone looking for the records relating to a particular soldier, such as a descendant seeking information about their forebear, will likely find this section quite useful. For most other readers it will likely be little more than a curiosity as a source of exacting detail.

But all of this wealth of detail is rendered somewhat less useful by the obvious editorial bias that runs through the presentation of the book. There are few issues in U.S. history more contentious than the U.S. Civil War. But the primary reason for the contentiousness is Confederate apologists trying to salvage some sort of honorability for their preferred side in the conflict. Mesic is no exception to this - from the outset she describes the men who served in Cobb's Legion as "fighting for Southern freedom from Northern tyranny". But this is just an attempt to divert attention from the fact that the side they were fighting for was tied to a repugnant cause. Confederate apologists have tried to argue that their forebears were fighting for something noble and idealistic, but the bare fact remains that when the Confederacy was formed, its Constitution only differed from the U.S. Constitution insofar as it enshrined ironclad protections for slavery. In short, the men of Cobb's Legion, like the men of all Confederate units, were fighting against a "tyranny" that sought to compel them to eschew treating other human beings as chattel. They were fighting for "freedom", but a freedom so narrowly defined that it removes any moral claims they might have had to fighting "civilized war" (even though those claims were somewhat dubious to begin with). Fighting in favor of slavery is inherently uncivilized. Supporting an army fighting in favor of slavery is inherently uncivilized. Complaining that your property has been destroyed when you seek to hold others as property is a stance that is hypocritical in the extreme. Confederate boosters try to argue that their cause was for "States Rights", but the brute fact remains that the only right they chose to advocate for was the right to hold other men in bondage.

For the most part, Mesic's litany of Confederate apologetics are a fairly standard set. J.E.B. Stuart's Chambersburg Raid is lauded as an example of gallantry and daring. Never mind that militarily it was mostly a failure because they were unable to destroy the Chambersburg rail bridge. Never mind that one of the major accomplishments of the raid was capturing unarmed civilians to hold as hostages. Because it was Confederate cavalrymen, they were dashing and brave and it was a brilliant maneuver. One suspects, given the descriptions given the Union cavalry movements that a similar effort on the part of the Federal troops would have been described as a futile waste of lives. Confederate frontal charges are described as bold and gallant. Union frontal charges are described as useless and costly foolishness. The blundering errors made by J.E.B. Stuart during the days leading to and during the Battle of Gettysburg are glossed over and recast as brilliant strategic decisions. By the end of the recounting of the events of the War, Mesic is reduced to lauding the brilliance of an excursion forced upon the Confederate cavalry to steal cattle to supply the starving Southern troops.

Mesic saves most of her opprobrium for Grant and Sherman, who Confederate apologists loathe, mostly because, as Mesic demonstrates, they still don't understand how these two men served as the agents of the destruction of their beloved Confederacy. Mesic consistently disparagingly refers to the large casualties suffered by the Union during Grant's Overland Campaign, but fails to place them in context. For example, she refers to the Confederate troops as the "victors" of the Battles of Wilderness and Spotslyvania Court House, and from a very technical tactical standpoint one could argue that they were, but by focusing on this narrow technical definition one misses that the "victories" were meaningless. In the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the Union suffered 18,399 casualties and the Confederacy 13,421 and "held the field". In raw terms, this seems to show that the Confederacy got the better of the engagement, but as a percentage of their forces the Union casualties amounted to 17.5% of Grant's forces, and 22.4% of Lee's. And Lee couldn't afford the casualties. When one looks even more closely, the figures are even more disastrous for the Confederate cause - broken down the Union losses were 2,735 killed, 13,416 wounded, and 2,258 captured or missing while Confederate losses were 1,467 killed, 6,235 wounded, and 5,719 captured or missing. Union losses were mostly men wounded, many of whom would recover and return to the ranks, while Confederate losses were mostly permanent losses. The "missing in action" figures are the most telling: despite the steady drumbeat of Confederate propaganda that the boys in grey were willing to fight to the bitter end no matter the odds, it is clear that they were surrendering or deserting in droves. With the exception of the Battle of Cold Harbour, most of the battles of the Overland Campaign had similar results - the Battle of the Wilderness for example, resulted in 17,666 Union casualties (16.8% of the Union force), and Confederate casualties totaled 11,125 (18.5% of the total). Grant beat Lee on the battlefield because Lee burned his forces faster than Grant, despite what Confederate apologists will tell you. More to the point, despite "holding the field", the Confederate victories did nothing to stop the Union advance into Virginia, rendering their supposed accomplishments hollow and empty.

But Mesic completely misunderstands the nature of Grant's campaign when she discusses his eventual crossing of the James River. She notes that the Army of the Potomac had suffered 60,000 casualties by then, whereas Grant could have placed his forces in that position via ship transport without suffering any casualties. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Union strategy assuming that positioning the Union army to threaten Richmond was the primary goal of the Overland Campaign, as opposed to the destruction of the army of Northern Virginia. Grant certainly could have repeated McClellan's maneuver and landed his troops on the banks of the James River by sea, but he would not have bled Lee's army in the process. He also would not have occupied Lee's troops, preventing the Confederacy from transferring troops to confront Sherman's advance. In effect, Grant's action in Virginia allowed Sherman to gut the Confederacy by locking the bulk of Confederate troops into the defense of Richmond. One hundred and fifty years after the fact and the proponents of the "Lost Cause" don't understand what went wrong other than to say they were overwhelmed by superior numbers - which, given the advantage defenders had in the Civil War era, weren't all that overwhelming after all.

But why is this sort of editorial bias an issue? Because when one starts to notice that the author is shading the truth in favor of their preferred historical figures, it calls into question the reliability of other statements made in the text. And because of this, all of that wealth of detail that is packed into the book becomes less than useful, because one has to fact check those details for oneself, which more or less defeats the purpose of having those details in one place. And when information is presented without context in order to slant the reporting, it causes the reader to wonder what else has been left out. For example, Mesic complains frequently about how the Union troops failed to follow the rules of "civilized warfare", but overlooks, for example, that the Confederate use of mines to try to slow Sherman's advance, or the habit engaged in by Cobb's Legion Cavalry "Iron Scouts" of wearing Union uniforms were also violations of the accepted rules of civilized warfare of the time. The editorializing even bleeds into the biographical data provided: Matthew Calbraith Butler's post Civil-War legal career is described as being dedicated to opposing "cruelties" imposed upon Southerners. But Butler is most known in the post-Bellum era for his involvement in the Hamburg Massacre, a race-riot in which seven people were killed, mostly black militia men who were captured and executed for the offense of drilling in a public area. The fact that the "cruelties" imposed upon Southerners mostly consisted of trying to compel white Southerners to treat black Southerners like human beings is not merely glossed over, it is completely ignored.

It is difficult to figure out what to do with a book like Cobb's Legion Cavalry. On the one hand it is clear that the book is a labor of love that required an enormous amount of effort to produce. On the other, it is clear that it should not be regarded as anything other than an advocacy piece. Given that the primary intended audience for the book is likely the descendants of the members of the Ninth Georgia Volunteers, a certain amount of cheering for their accomplishments is to be expected - after all who would want a book that described their ancestors as evil defenders of slavery? But at a certain point, such cheerleading seriously damages the credibility of such a book as a source of historical information. Cobb's Legion Cavalry appears to have crossed that line. As a result, while the book is an interesting window into the day to day experiences of a Confederate unit, the fact that it shades the truth to advocate for a particular viewpoint means that book cannot stand on its own as a historical source.

Harriet Bey Mesic     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Review - Alpha by Catherine Asaro

Short review: Charon is gone, but Alpha remains. But is Alpha sentient or merely a machine? And will General Wharington fall in love with her, or be killed by her, or both?

Charon is no more
Alpha still follows orders
Wharington loves her

Full review: Alpha is a sequel to Sunrise Alley (read review) that follows directly after the events of the first book. The primary characters are Alpha, an autonomous forma (as humaniform androids are called in Asaro's fictional future) created by Charon to act as his primary lieutenant, super soldier, and sex toy and General Thomas Wharington, an Air Force General who is part of the military command tasked with dealing with issues related to Artificial and Emerging Intelligences. Both Alpha and Wharington appeared in Sunrise Alley as secondary characters, but in Alpha they are promoted to the focal point of the story, with Alpha becoming the title character. As with Sunrise Alley, the story features high-intensity action and a romance that highlights questions concerning the personhood of one of the participants. Whereas Sunrise Alley asked how much of a man could be replaced and have him still be considered human, Alpha takes the next step and poses the question of whether a wholly artificially created individual can be considered human, or is merely a machine.

In Alpha, Alpha, the presumed to be masterless forma, is being held by the Air Force, which is trying to figure out what to do with her. The decision is complicated by the fact that Alpha has seemingly imprinted upon the handsome Wharington (who she says reminds her of Charon), and she will only work with him. Meanwhile, the senior members of the Air Force want to dismantle Alpha, a prospect that horrifies Wharington and raises the central question of the novel: is Alpha a person, or is she property? Alpha is more or less a male fantasy. Beautiful, deadly, and hypercompetent she was designed by Charon to act as his most trusted aide and to service him sexually. Wharington, for his part is a handsome and manly seventy year old Air Force pilot still full of idealism and patriotism with a healthy sense of honor and duty. He is a widower with a strained relationship with his adult children and a genius granddaughter that he dotes upon. He also has heart trouble, underwent rejuvenation therapy to reduce the impacts of aging, and is a surrogate father to Sam Bryton, the female protagonist of Sunrise Alley.

With Charon presumed dead following the events of Sunrise Alley, Alpha is taken into custody by the Air Force, which regards her as a valuable source of intelligence about Charon's operations and plans. Alpha, for her part, insists on working solely with Wharrington, but refuses to provide any information, asserting that she is bound by her programming to act in accord with Charon's wishes, but hinting that Wharington might replace Charon as her master. Wharington, for his part, urges Alpha to think for herself and make the leap from being an AI to being a free willed EI capable of transcending her programming and making decisions unfettered by the desires of her creator. Alpha's intransigence, however, is frustrating to Wharington's superiors who push to have her dismantled and her neural net examined directly for intelligence - which would both destroy Alpha (obviously) and result in far less intelligence gained concerning Charon's plans, but would have the advantage of providing at least some information immediately.

This is all more or less just background, including Wharington's interactions with his granddaughter who proves to be remarkably precocious and a cameo appearance by Sam Bryton in which she talks about AI psychology and how brilliant Wharington's granddaughter is (a subplot that doesn't really go anywhere). The story really gets going when Alpha escapes from custody and attempts to kidnap Wharington and his granddaughter, leading Wharington to make a rather futile attempt to resist her resulting in a broken leg and a heart attack. The heart troubles and the broken leg serve to hamper Wharington for the rest of the book, which I suppose was necessary to explain how a seventy year old man could be kidnapped by an engineered super soldier when Alpha shows up for a second time and forces him into a privately owned incredibly technologically advanced warplane and flies him off towards Africa.

Circumstances force the pair to land on a tiny uninhabited island in the Atlantic that happens to have a conveniently placed abandoned bungalow for the two to shack up in. Once there, a sort of odd romance begins to bud between the forma and the General as Wharington attempts to persuade Alpha to overcome her programming and develop desires of her own and Alpha continues to lust after Wharington because of his vague resemblance to Charon. The nascent romance focuses the book on the central question of Alpha's humanity as Wharington wrestles with his attraction to Alpha and questions whether one can have actual feelings towards what is quite possibly nothing more than a very finely crafted machine, and whether Alpha herself could actually have feelings for him. Though the romance is packed with philosophical questions, it is the weakest element of the book, since Wharington's desire for Alpha seems to be founded on little more than the fact that she is incredibly sexy and he lusts after her. Wharington's background - his patriotism, his duty, his honorability, his love for his family, and so on - provides numerous obstacles in the path of his realization of his feelings for Alpha, but there is little that explains his attraction to her other than the fact that she is beautiful and can kick his ass without breaking a sweat.

Eventually Alpha and Wharington consummate their relationship with a little bit of late night android-human sex. In an unrelated turn of events, Wharington suffers another heart attack and while he is being nursed back to health by Alpha the supposedly dead Charon shows up to reclaim Alpha's loyalties. At this point the story gets somewhat implausibly silly as Charon emulates a James Bond type villain by trying to kill Wharington in "sporting" ways that, of course, allow Wharington to survive and work against Charon. Given that Charon is supposed to be a ruthless mastermind capable of building a globe spanning empire of wealth and power that is a threat to the entire world order, this sort of cackling villain who sets death traps for his enemies instead of just shooting them in the head seems out of place. This sort of behavior seems to transform Charon from a criminal genius to an insane lunatic who just got lucky. I suppose that this could be explained by the fact that Charon has been copied so many times that the current version is just a degraded imitation of the original, but that isn't mentioned in the book, and no one, including Alpha, seems to think that Charon's behavior is out of character.

After Charon is defeated, Wharington freed, and Alpha turns sentient, Alpha offers Wharington the choice to be her remanufactured immortal lover in blissful exile or return her to Air Force custody. Given that Wharington is described throughout the book as being an intensely honorable and patriotic soldier, there isn't any real doubt as to which choice he will make, but he does go through some obligatory agonizing first. Though the story in the book is interesting, as one might gather from these elements, it is not particularly surprising. The hero defies death and escapes. The villain is defeated. The potentially sentient AI actually does become sentient and free-willed. The honorable soldier acts honorably. And so on. (I wonder how many science fiction stories that feature the potential of evolving machine intelligence making the leap to free-willed sentience have story lines in which the machine does not become sentient. I don't recall any.) Once back in the comfortable arms of the Air Force, Wharington urges Alpha to seek the aid of Sunrise Alley, which she proves reluctant to do. This leads to an appearance by a Sunrise Alley representative in which all is revealed, a last gasp by Charon's organization, and a relatively tidy ending in which everyone lives happily ever after.

Alpha is a good "machine becomes sentient" story interlaced with a good action adventure story and a fairly dull romance story. While the questions related to the legal status of machine intelligence are well done, and the story is thematically the logical next step in the path begun in Sunrise Alley, both Alpha and Wharington are so bland as characters that their romance is not all that interesting. Further hampering the novel is the cartoon-like nature of Charon as the primary villain and the somewhat predictable nature of the plot. Despite these flaws, the fundamental question of the story concerning who is entitled to be treated a person as opposed to property is presented in a strong enough manner that the book as a whole remains quite good.

Previous book in the series: Sunrise Alley

Catherine Asaro     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, June 17, 2011

Follow Friday - At Twenty-One, the Follow Friday Can Drink Now

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Rhiannon Paille.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Genre Wars! What's your favorite genre and which book in that genre made it your favorite?

I will shock absolutely no one by saying SCIENCE FICTION! I also love fantasy fiction, but science fiction will always be my first love. But I have been reading science fiction for so long I don't actually remember what book it was that I read that made it my favorite, but it was almost certainly a book written by Andre Norton. It might have been Exiles of the Stars, or maybe Judgment on Janus or Moon of 3 Rings. Possibly Star Guard or Quest Crosstime. I can't remember which specific book did it for me, but my love of science fiction, my love of reading in general, and the eventual existence of this blog, is pretty much Andre Norton's fault.

Go to Previous Follow Friday: D&D Characters Can Buy Arrows by the Score
Go to Subsequent Follow Friday: Twenty-Two Is the Same Backwards and Forwards

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review - Sunrise Alley by Catherine Asaro

Short review: An evil genius creates the next stage in human evolution.

Is Turner human?
That is the question for Sam
If she falls in love

Full review: Sunrise Alley is a near future cyberpunkish romance featuring cybernetics expert Samantha "Sam" Bryton and recently dead human-machine hybrid Turner Pascal as the focal couple. The story follows two broad and mostly intertwined plots, the first involving Turner's flight from and conflict with the shadowy villain Charon, and the second involving Sam and Turner's budding romance which is complicated by the fact that Turner may not be human, and at many turns clearly does not behave like a human, points that are clearly difficult ones for Sam to overcome. Connecting the two plots is the question of whether Turner is a human or a machine - is he merely property, as Charon regards him, or is he a sentient and free-willed individual with the right to be treated as such, as Turner himself insists.

The story starts with Bryton living in semi-isolation in her cabin and its beach front property, having given up a high paying job as a developer of AIs and EIs ("Artificial Intelligences" which are capable of independent thought, but are not sentient, and "Emerging Intelligences", which are independent and at least plausibly sentient) over ethical concerns. While she is walking on her beach, a half-dead unconscious man washes by, who she promptly rescues. She quickly learns his name is Turner Pascal, and he was not merely half-dead, but he had recently recovered from being wholly dead. And then she learns that he was reconstructed as a cyborg human-machine hybrid by an insane and cruel genius Pascal can only identify as Charon, and that Turner intentionally sought Sam out after escaping from his imprisonment because she had been publicly sympathetic to the rights of EIs in the past.

But Turner insists that he is neither an AI or an EI, and is not a human-form android, or, in the vernacular of the story, a "forma", but is rather a human and fully entitled to all of the rights of a human. After some negotiating, Sam agrees to try to get Turner to safety and first contacts an academic friend of hers with expertise in EIs as well as an Air Force General who has been a kind of surrogate father to her after her own father's death and who happens to be in a command of the Air Force that is tasked with dealing with issues related to artificial intelligence. But no sooner than they leave to travel to the airport in Sam's souped up car, but they find themselves pursued by unknown forces, presumably working at the behest of Charon, who Turner is convinced can track the entire world "mesh" (a sort of advanced form of internet that permeates the daily lives of just about everyone on the planet) and thus was able to locate him as soon as Sam began making calls about him. Much of the tension in the book is driven by the unknown nature of Charon - neither Turner nor Sam know who Charon is (in fact, Sam has never heard of him, which surprises those she comes into contact with, and becomes a minor, although not very convincing plot point later in the book), and neither know exactly how long his reach is. Because of this, Sam and Turner never know who to trust, as anyone they try to seek aid from could be the nefarious Charon, even those that Sam thinks are her closest friends.

Though Charon is a background menace for much of the book, lurking in the shadows and operating through others, it is his relationship with Turner, contrasted with the developing relationship between Turner and Sam that drives the interesting question of the book. Turner is legally dead. Much of his body has been replaced by cybernetics. His vastly increased power needs are satisfied with an implanted microfusion reactor. His brain has been replaced by a distributed network of neural circuitry. In short, just about the only parts of Turner that remain "Turner" from before his death are his memories. So the obvious dilemma is how much of a man can be replaced before he is no longer a person? Charon seems to consider Turner to be property, whereas Sam in interacting with Turner comes to regard him as not merely a person, but as a potential partner. The only real weakness in this storyline is that Sam's infatuation with Turner seems somewhat less than convincing - other than the fact that Sam thinks Turner is pretty, and he makes for a fascinating science project for her, there seems to be little connection on a romantic level between the two characters.

And in a world in which we can already implant devices to keep our hearts going, and replace lost limbs with electronic ones responsive to nerve impulses these sorts of questions are likely to loom large. I have no idea if we will ever be able to replace a human brain with a copy that has been placed into some sort of computer driven memory, but it is not entirely implausible. And then those who believe in qualia or other theories of transcendent consciousness will have the dilemma of whether someone whose claim to identity rests upon the stored memories of a person is still that person, or whether something irreplaceable was lost in the transition from biological machine to electronic machine. And of course, that's exactly the situation Turner is in Sunrise Alley. Complicating matters is the fact that in the transformation Turner has acquired some decidedly non-human characteristics: He is able to transform himself, and goes so far as to reform his hand into an eight-fingered metal interface early in the book. But this change is only the outward manifestation of what is a more significant change - Turner chose to reform his hand into an eight digit member because he was more comfortable thinking in hexidecimal. Over and over again the change in Turner is highlighted, and throughout Turner insists that he is still himself despite these changes.

The story draws the reader along, exposing the changes in Turner step by step, peeling back each layer of the differences between Turner and a natural human progressively. And each step of the way Asaro reveals just enough to allow Bryton (and thus the reader) to become comfortable with the idea that despite his changed nature Turner is still human. Eventually, Turner and Bryton seek refuge with "Sunrise Alley", a mythic organization of escaped and "free" EIs, bringing them into an environment made by machines for machines, with no reference to any human concerns, extending the question of what constitutes a person to its furthest possible point. But even this refuge is fraught with danger, both because it is possible that it exists merely as a front for the evil Charon, and because even if it is not, a paranoid inhuman intelligence afraid of being discovered may not be kindly disposed to the human Bryton and the presumed human Turner. But at the same time, the story makes the case for even this possibly malignant, completely machine driven intelligence, being a sentient being that should be treated as a person.

The story progresses towards its multiple resolutions - Charon is confronted, Sam and Turner's nascent relationship develops, the question of Turner's status is brought to the fore, as is the status of the now-revealed Sunrise Alley. And each of these elements intertwines with the other, some in interesting ways: Charon's claims to ownership of Turner are somewhat ironic given the revelations of Charon's own nature that come to light. And Turner's claims to autonomy and personhood form a stark contrast to Charon's - while Turner shows he can at least manifest the appearance of empathy and love, Charon seems to be incapable of either, raising the obvious question of which one is more human. But even after the thriller portion of the plot is resolved, the characters don't ride off into the sunset to a happy ending - Asaro then brings the very real questions concerning the legal status of the characters into focus.

Sunrise Alley is an interesting look at the nature of what makes someone human. Exactly how much of a person can be replaced and have the result still be regarded as that person? With the exception of the somewhat weak nature of the romantic storyline and a wholly unconvincing and mostly extraneous memory-loss subplot that crops up late in the book, the book is well-executed, with a strong story full of intrigue, dramatic tension, and a fascinating exploration of what counts as human, or more broadly, what counts as a person.

Subsequent book in the series: Alpha

Catherine Asaro     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, June 10, 2011

Follow Friday - D&D Characters Can Buy Arrows by the Score

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Nicki J. Markus.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: The magic book fairy pops out of your cereal box and says "you and your favorite character (from a book of course) can switch places!" Who are you going to switch with?

These questions are always hard for me to answer, because so many of my favorite characters are also characters that I would never want to be. I love Paul Atredies from the Dune series, but knowing how his story turns out, I'd never want to be him. I like Hari Seldon from the Foundation books, but I'd never want his life. Severian from the Book of the New Sun is a character I enjoyed reading about immensely, but once again, not someone whose life I would care to have. I think that most of the characters that I like feature in my favorite books have crappy, difficult lives, and often they end up dying in sad ways.

Even though her story is somewhat less than happy, I think I'd go with Leisha Camden from Beggars in Spain as the character I'd like to be. She is one of the Sleepless, a human genetically engineered to never need to sleep. I am always running on a sleep deficit because I'm trying to keep up with all the projects I want to get done. Having those extra hours in the day, and never feeling too tired to use them effectively would be perfect. Add in the fact that the genetic modification seems to make the subject smarter and possibly better athletically, and you have a combination that I would love to have.

Go to Previous Follow Friday: Does Anyone Else Remember the Song "Nineteen"?
Go to Subsequent Follow Friday: At Twenty-One, the Follow Friday Can Drink Now

Follow Friday     Home

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review - The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

Short review: The United States has collapsed after a nuclear attack, and the Mormons get to run things. Naturally, they are insufferably pious when doing so.

After America
The Mormon rule commences
And they are tyrants

Full review: The Folk of the Fringe is a collection of five shorter works mostly set in post-apocalyptic America and detailing the travails of Mormons struggling to survive in the face of some religious bigotry and the harsh new landscape. One thing that is interesting about the stories is that despite having suffered at the hands of intolerant non-Mormons, when they get into the majority, the Mormons in the stories are more than willing to engage in some religious bigotry of their own. Overall, four of the stories form a decent (although somewhat scary) narrative showing how a small religious group could survive the collapse of society, while the fifth seems to me to have been tacked on with little regard for continuity.

In the first story West, Mormon refugees from North Carolina head west to the promised land of Utah following the collapse of society after some sort of apocalyptic event. (It is never revealed exactly what the trigger for the collapse is, but it is hinted to be some sort of limited nuclear exchange triggered by a weak U.S. President confronted by a strong-handed Soviet dictator). This seems a little autobiographical, as Card had taken up residence in Greensboro, and makes the events the precipitate the story a little bit creepy. One wonders if Card imagines that his non-Mormon neighbors are just itching to round up the Mormon and slaughter them, although this kind of persecution paranoia seems to run through a lot of Mormon fiction. Granted, Mormons were persecuted . . . in the 19th century. I doubt anyone still cares nearly as much as Card imagines they do. Even so, this triggers the events of the story, without which there wouldn't be much in the way of a book, so it can be overlooked. Along the way, the Mormons, who demonstrate themselves to be pretty lousy at traveling in a post-apocalyptic world, meet up with a guide who helps them out, and inspired by their obvious goodness, duly converts and leads them west (hence the name of the story).

West leads more or less to Salvage, in which a minor character from the previous story becomes the central character. Even though he has been raised since early childhood in the Mormon promised land of Utah, Deaver Teague has somehow avoided becoming Mormon himself, which doesn't seem all that unusual until one begins to note just how oppressively religious the post-apocalyptic Mormon society has become - swearing has become a criminal offense, as has premarital sex and pretty much all of the other minor peccadilloes of modern society that Card usually rants about. Poor and with limited prospects (as a result of not being Mormon), Deaver cooks up a plan to make himself wealthy that, in the end, serves to demonstrate just how pious and wonderful the Mormons really are.

The Fringe is a story connected to the others in the book, but none of the characters from West, Salvage, or Pageant Wagon appear in it. Card includes a central character with cerebral palsy, an affliction that is clearly of interest to Card due to his own son having it. In this story, the necessity and virtue of living under the thumb of the local Mormon clergy is explored, with the caveat that there need to be spies to make sure the clergy is honest in their heavy handed rule over the colonies on the fringe of arable territory. The story includes some discussion about how the Mormon's have been systematically reclaiming arable land from the desert, which counts as science fiction, but the central thrust of the story is that a command economy run by pious Mormon leaders is necessary to make this system work.

Finally, Pageant Wagon sees the return of Deaver Teague, who runs into a traveling family of performers who make the rounds of the communities on the fringe providing more or less approved entertainment. While most of the stories about the Mormon enclave in post-apocalyptic America make Mormon rule seem quite heavy handed, and this story is no exception, Deaver finds the one more or less socially acceptable exception to this rule (although there are definite limits on what even the pageant wagon families are allowed to do). With respect to religion, this story seems almost thematically the opposite of West, as now that the Mormons are in charge, they are insufferable to non-Mormons. They don't treat outsiders as brutally as the non-Mormons in North Carolina treated Mormons, but when religious law and temporal law become one and the same, tyranny is not far behind, and it shows in the story.

The final story in the volume is America, which doesn't really fit the rest of the collection. It is supposedly the first chronologically, and draws heavily upon Mormon theology. In the story, a young Mormon boy sent to live in South America with the father he despises for being a lying, cheating, non pious sinner spends his time in the company with an older Native-American woman. He, of course, ends up sleeping with her, but its okay, because it is more or less divinely ordained that he should and that she will have a child who is marked for greatness. It doesn't fit the rest of the collection because the explanation it gives for the fall of the Westernized nations in the Americas is at odds with the story that is given in those stories. This story really amounts to little more than Mormon wish-fulfillment, and as anything other than a view into the strange world of Mormon theology and prophecy, it isn't very good.

If one is interested in reading a Mormon fantasy, then this set of stories would certainly fit the bill. I am unsure whether Card was parodying his own faith to a certain extent, or if he truly thinks that marrying religious and civil law together in a kind of religious police state is a good idea. If his intent was the first, then he didn't make himself clear. If it was the second, then this story is even scarier than I had originally thought. Either way, it is worth reading if for nothing else than to get a look into how a Mormon thinks Mormons would behave if left unfettered by silly impediments like secular law.

1986 Locus Award Nominees
1987 Locus Award Nominees
1988 Locus Award Nominees
1990 Locus Award Nominees
1986 Hugo Award Nominees
1986 Nebula Award Nominees
Orson Scott Card     Book Reviews A-Z     Home