Catfishing on Catnet, by Naomi Kritzer

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a personal friend.

This. This book is so good. It is so wholesome and so loving. Scary things happen in this book, but there is a constant stream of friendship and support–not flawless, but loving human support. And, not at all incidentally, loving inhuman support. Because this is a book about a young AI finding its place in the world, figuring out its possibilities and limitations. It is very much, very literally, a teen AI novel.

So. A young AI and a teenage human have formed strong internet friendships with some additional humans. They’re both dealing with a lot of stuff. The AI: what are the bounds of ethical interaction, how does friendship work, where can I get more cat pics. The human: ordinary high school stuff is far worse when your mom has kept you moving from town to town multiple times a year to keep your abusive father from finding you. Together they fight crime! Sort of! And also make art and friends and take care of animals and–

Look, this is a very hard review for me to write, because basically this book made me incoherently happy start to finish, and it is going to be SO HARD waiting to post this until a sensible time close to the release date instead of just collaring strangers at the bank and the post office and telling them to READ IT.

REEEEEEEAD IIIIIIT.

I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever encountered fiction that portrays the nature of close (core!) internet-mediated friendships this accurately before. This is an emotional reality of my contemporary life that feels completely untouched by most fiction. And it is so great.

Books read, early November

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 23. In which the unification of character arcs begins….

Marie Brennan, Turning Darkness Into Light. This is doing a thing I wish I saw more, which is telling more stories in the same world but in a different time period. I really like that, showing how a world can change in small and large ways, how there are always more stories–and this one is an academic’s story, albeit one with adventure around the edges, but the shape of it is very different than in the Lady Trent books. I had fun with it.

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster. Carter is writing about his grandmother here, so there is a lot more focus on who Eunice Hunton Carter was as a person and less on the trial with Lucky Luciano than I expected. It was still an interesting biography and well worth reading as a portrait of a woman doing things that were unusual for her time but not unheard-of.

Aliette de Bodard, Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight. I loved the elements of family relationships and melancholy that threaded through these different settings. Though they were not all related stories, there was a cohesive feel to reading this collection that I really enjoyed.

K.A. Doore, The Impossible Contract. Discussed elsewhere.

Paul Krueger, Steel Crow Saga. This was a giant brick of fun. While Krueger’s media influences are written in the blurb on the front–Pokemon! Avatar: the Last Airbender!–they are jumping-off points rather than elements he’s going to copy whole-heartedly, and the way he’s thinking about magic and culture is not exactly like anything else I’ve read. These elements definitely ramify in his characters in ways I liked a whole lot–the length felt like a feature, not a bug.

Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun. Ramification and consequence and the end of a trilogy. The plot twist in how this particular end is accomplished was pretty cool once I got to it, and also the protagonist having to live with fallout in multiple ways.

Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford, and James Devlin, LaGuardia. This comic features alien plants and human families and immigration law and all sorts of cool things. And I actually did appreciate the art, yes, even me, even non-visual me.

Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whisky Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts. You know how people talk about some books and shows and etc. as competence porn, enjoyable just for watching someone do what they do well? This…is the opposite of that. This is a true crime book that is staggering for how few people do anything even remotely competently, and how it just…keeps…going. There is a semi-pro hockey player criminal in the wreckage of immediately post-Communist Hungary and…how did any of this keep working? Lack of resources is a hell of a trip, wow. Wow. What even happened here. Train wreck. No literal trains wrecked but that may be the only thing that didn’t get screwed up. I am aghast. And yes, I kept reading.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities and Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters. Two essay collections, separated by over a decade–the latter is the newer one, and it’s still struggling toward hope. Both of them are dealing with hope as a struggle, and I needed them both. Both brief, both filled with thoughtful, pithy takes. Reading them back-to-back was interesting, too….

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a beautiful novel about the effects of PTSD on three generations of a Vietnamese immigrant family. Brace yourself and read it when you’re in a good place if you’re going to read it at all–it’s incredibly well done, and I’m glad it exists, but it was a gut punch.

Peter Watts, Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor. Discussed elsewhere.

Visible in the wilds

I’m done with professional travel for this year, but I still have at least one more public appearance for fiction-related stuff: a week from today–that is, Thursday, November 21–at 7:00 p.m., I’ll be doing a reading at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, with Naomi Kritzer and Sue Burke.

Naomi and Sue and I each plan to read a short selection, and then we’ll have conversation and questions from the audience (if any). Should be a good time! Come on out if you’re around!

Present Writers: Robin McKinley

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress,Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey , and Greer Gilman.

There’s a lot of pressure for sequels in this world. Robin McKinley basically doesn’t do sequels. Sometimes this makes those of us who have been her fans since we were staggering around the grade school thinking big dragon thoughts tear our hair and scream. Sometimes it leaves us with basically part of a story, waiting to see if the promised sequel ever comes. That way lies madness, friends. It might. But you can’t actually wait for it. That’s not what she’s doing.

What you can do–what you should do–is enjoy what’s here. Because what’s here is delightful. What’s here is its own thing in all sorts of explosively different directions. I don’t know of any other author who can write two retellings of the same fairy tale and have them feel as completely different as McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings that they can feel so utterly non-repetitive. The same author did something as sweet as The Outlaws of Sherwood and as dark as Deerskin–and fairly close together, too. The two Damar books are listed as related to each other, but they are such different views of the same land as to be completely transformative of it. What is Damar, what are its customs and mores, what do its people mean and think and do? Utterly transformed things over time–and yet connected, related. I could have–would have–read a dozen books about Damar. If you’d asked me, when I was a tiny child who had just finished reading about Narnia, I would have expected to. And instead I got Sunshine and its bakery and the way that it tells a vampire story when I thought I never wanted another. What else will there be. I can’t begin to guess, but McKinley’s body of work has taught me to appreciate what there is, and that is itself such a gift.

Peter Watts is An Angry Sentient Tumor, by Peter Watts

 (and a good thing, too, because if it was by someone else those would be fighting words)

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Regular readers know, I think, that I read a lot of review copies in advance, depending on when I get them and what my schedule allows. I write the review when it’s fresh and post it later. This one I read at the end of a week of being sick in bed with influenza.

This is no one’s fault but my own. I’ve read Peter Watts before, and in case I’d forgotten what it was like to do so, he and Tachyon Press gave this essay collection the convenient title listed above. So that for readers who have not encountered Peter’s writing before–my brief and entirely internet encounters with Peter-the-person, I hasten do add, have nothing of this quality–there is the title in large friendly letters. It does not say Don’t Panic on the cover. It would not dream of saying that. No. This is a Peter Watts book.

So I, clever person that I am, decided that the best thing on day six of being in bed with a variable fever, would be to let an entire collection of Peter’s blog posts and editorial rants wash over me.

I…would suggest that you read this book in another condition, if you have one available to you.

In the introductory essay, Peter makes a comment about John Scalzi having collected his blog posts in two volumes, then an aside about how cheerful John is. And this made me think: possibly there are people out there who were introduced to the concept of John Scalzi by the descriptions of his self-appointed enemies. Who heard that there was this angry, radical leftist who was putting loads of his politics into his science fiction and thought, sure, I want one of those!, went looking and were mildly baffled by what they found. Well, it turns out there’s an entire buffet of such people, it’s just that cheerful centrist John Scalzi is not on the list really. Try Peter Watts if you want a collection of blog posts from a writer like that.

As with any contentious blogger, you’ll probably find at least some of the posts/essays in here to cheerfully disagree with–or to bury your head in your hands, groan, and wish you could disagree with. But remember: the reader expectations should be set pretty clearly. This is what it says on the tin. Not: Peter Watts Is An Angry Sentient Tumor But Look! A Butterfly! or Peter Watts Seems Like An Angry Sentient Tumor But In Just Three Essays You’ll Find Out How He Learned To Play His Cares Away On The Ukulele–And So Can You! There’s a lot of climate change realism, a lot of anger at police brutality and surveillance state assholery, a lot of frustration at entirely valid frustrating human behavior. Also a little bit of talking out his ass about YA fiction, some movie reviews, mourning for some much-loved humans and cats. This is a set of blog posts, not a two-minutes’ hate, no matter how well-directed. It’s easy to slip into “just one more” here even when you’re wincing and going “oh God too much truth.” Just a little more truth though, just one more blog post worth of truth before I go back to my fever dreams….

The Impossible Contract, by K.A. Doore

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also, the author is a friend of mine, and we share the same agent.

This is the sequel to The Perfect Assassin. It’s not as crucial as some series to read the first one first, but there’s a lot of chewy worldbuilding grounding going on, so there’s a lot to be gained from reading them in order, and the first one is still perfectly well in print, so why not?

What it is not, however, is a series where you follow the same protagonist throughout. Frankly, I love that about it. I love having a different perspective, a completely different protagonist–although Amastan is still a character in this one, he’s no longer center stage. His cousin Thana is trying to make and keep her own reputation as an assassin in Ghadid. She’s fond of Amastan but sometimes frustrated with him, and always full of her own concerns, her own ideas–her own love life.

And Thana’s problems only start in the city of Ghadid. They take her into the desert, on caravan trips, into empires, and beyond. Ghadid is Thana’s heart, but the larger world is her canvas. She and acerbic healer Mo are sometimes working together, sometimes at cross purposes, but with a far larger stage than either of them ever expected–and knowing Ghadid well from the first book helps make the rest of it feel even more vivid and urgent. I had so much fun with this, and I highly recommend it.

Books read, late October

Sarah Archer, The Midcentury Kitchen: America’s Favorite Room from Workspace to Dreamscape, 1940s to 1970s. This is one of those photo-heavy books that could have done with a dollop more analysis for my taste. The pictures of how kitchens were designed and advertised to Americans over the middle of the twentieth century is interesting, but there were several things that Archer takes as given but could have done deeper work on–or takes as true that I frankly doubt. There’s one moment, for example, where she blames Lillian Moller Gilbreth being tall for kitchen cabinet heights being taller than the average woman would want them. But Gilbreth, while influential in motion study, was only an inch or two taller than the average height Archer cited–and the cabinet height was a good five inches taller. Is it likely that this is all down to one woman, no matter how efficient an efficiency expert, or is there…some other explanation we can think of, somehow, for this phenomenon? Also, cutting off with the avocado green kitchen doesn’t do anything with the fall of the avocado green (harvest gold, etc.) kitchen, which is also interesting, so it seems a curious omission.

Christopher Brown, Rule of Capture. This is an environmental and legal thriller set in the future. It’s a day-after-tomorrow setting, so there’s a lot about this book that may be a little close to the bone. On the other hand, this stuff is worth talking and thinking about, and I wish there was more of this kind of legal thriller in modern SFF. So.

Ben Clanton, Narval et Loutre Amie. This is a kids’ comic I picked up in French in Montreal, about a narwhal and jellyfish making friends with an otter. It’s extremely sweet and did not tax my French skills unduly.

Nicky Drayden, Temper. This is yet another example of Drayden not doing exactly the same thing as anyone else–a nation (world?) composed almost entirely of twins, with virtues and vices split between them, navigating the dichotomous forces that made them and the social assumptions about those forces that are…not quite right. I love worlds where people are approximate rather than exact about what’s going on in their world (that is how science works!!!) and this was an interesting one.

Greg Egan, The Best of Greg Egan. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. I really liked the way Fenn managed to deal with the effects on all of North America, not just the part having the American Revolution. The effects on the Mandan and the Sioux and their balance of power, for example, were exactly what I was in this for, and she delivered. This is no less grim than you would expect for a book about a giant continent-spanning smallpox epidemic, but if you’re ready to brace yourself for that it’s really well done.

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire. Imperial America and the ways we do and do not deal with US overseas territories as part of the “real” US. I feel like this one gets a little vague towards the end where the different locations for US airbases and how those are managed gets fuzzy compared to “English spreads worldwide and people drink a lot of Coca-Cola,” but still it’s an interesting read and worth thinking about.

Gina Kolata, Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family’s Genetic Destiny, and the Science that Rescued Them. This is a somewhat disjointed book, starting with the difficulties in getting medical attention to a rare genetic disorder in the first place (difficult if you are close with anyone who has had this experience or is having it right now) and then veering off into how one individual dealt with her genetic lottery. Kolata decided for some reason to treat this individual’s choices as immutable or inevitable in some ways, to focus on what she felt like she “had to” do as though she really did have to, sometimes to the exclusion of other family members in extremely similar situations who had other perspectives and made other choices. Not entirely satisfying.

Laurie Marks, Fire Logic. I’m still not entirely clear why Marks began with the two chapters she began with. After I got through those things got much more interesting. I find particularly compelling her approach to “here are multiple cultures doing the best they know how and being imperfect in the same space, how do they fit together.” I’m very glad I persevered through the first two chapters and am eager to read the rest of the series.

Pat Murphy, Points of Departure. Kindle. I’d read several of these short stories in various anthologies in the past; together they’re a quite different thing, a whole and holistic perspective rather than a tiny window. It’s interesting to me how very different her time travel stories were from the ones I was reacting against in some of mine. How very much less I need to yell at them, basically, than at the men of the same era, though we’re not occupying the same space.

Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day. This is a book I would never have picked up if I didn’t know the author, and I would be much the poorer. I would have read the premise–“musicians finding a way to make music when gatherings are banned”–and rolled my eyes and moved on. But no. No. Sarah is a musician, and as a result, while she believes in the power of music to move people–which it can, it absolutely can–she also knows firsthand the power of musicians to annoy the shit out of each other. This is a book where the musician characters are absolutely real, not idealized versions where the author has muttered “if I’d gotten into music instead of stinkin’ writing, everything would be so much cooler.” And the people who are trying to make money off the musicians are not simplistic villains either, and…yeah. It’s all day-after-tomorrow stuff–an interesting companion to read with Rules of Capture, come to think of it–and I am so glad I trusted Sarah, and you should too.

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. A novel of Victorian London featuring a clockwork octopus and a universe where the ether is apparently real. Since ether jokes were some of the most hilarious things in my physics major (…we made our own fun…), this bemused me. Entertained me. The way its characters attempted to be practical and failed badly and had to try again in entirely different configurations was interesting. Huh.

Kate Williams, The Babysitters Coven. This was mostly a fun teen read, and I will look forward to the sequel, and one thing I was looking for in it was emotional bond between babysitter and kid. Absolutely present. Yes. And strong friendships, yes, that too. I want to flag that there are some parental mental health issues here, in case anybody wants to handle those with care–I feel like the book is also trying to handle them with care, but I know that some friends really don’t want to relive personal experiences with their own parental mental health crises without warning in their fun teen fantasies, and that’s utterly fair, so: that’s in there.

The Best of Greg Egan, by Greg Egan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a large and fairly comprehensive volume of short stories. For anyone who wants a view of what Greg Egan is up to in his work, this is an extremely good selection of What Greg Egan Is Up To, a cross-section, a sampler. I talk about hard SF a lot in various configurations, and Greg Egan is one of the people who’s aiming at doing it, not just moving other people’s furniture but building his own configurations of hard SF futures, nerdy ideas and the humans that poke at them.

Ideas are Egan’s strength, and it’s fun to watch him turn some of them over and examine them from different angles in adjacent stories. Sometimes it’s the same idea resurfacing–a “jewel” that stores a human mind and how people would interact with such a machine, how they would conceive of which thing was “really them,” their brain or the jewel–and sometimes it’s variations on a more general concept, biochemical happiness, religion and its manifestations in the human brain.

I was a little surprised that Egan didn’t take the time, in a note of some sort, to comment on what things he would do differently now, because I would hope there are some things–nor is that unique to him, heaven knows I’ve learned some things in the time I’ve been writing, one would hope a person would. In particular I’d flag that I’d hope his concept of bisexuality has evolved and that he would no longer use the word “retarded” in the casual offhand manner in which it shows up in a few stories. I’m also a little baffled as to why no one suggested that a story called “Crystal Nights” should either have a clearer connection to Kristallnacht or get a different and considerably more sensitive title.

But with those caveats established, this is an excellent place to start thinking about the career of Greg Egan, and about what can be done with the sub-genre of hard science fiction.

Present Writers: Greer Gilman

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean,Gwyneth Jones , Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede,Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, and Candas Jane Dorsey.

Some of the writers I’ve featured in this series have been extremely prolific. My friend Greer is not. She has to her name two novels (Moonwise and Clouds and Ashes) and a handful of shorter work, including two novellas about the extremely startling adventures of Ben Jonson (yes, the playwright). But this body of work is very densely written, with the closest of attention paid to the language in every instance.

Some of this work is very natural and seasonal. Some of it is filled with artifice in the best way–what is more created, more artificial, than the theater?–and one of my favorite things about reading Greer’s work is the moment when I fall into the cadence of one of her stories. This is lovely and easy when you have the pleasure and privilege of hearing her read aloud, but something can still click when you’re reading to yourself, and then the utterly singular and personal prose just flows, like being told a story in the way that only one person on earth could do it.

We are not here to tell stories like anyone else. No one exemplifies telling the stories that only we can tell better than Greer Gilman, and I am so glad that she is present and still coming up with charming, hilarious tales of Ben Jonson and beyond, with us today.