Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fiction I've Been Reading Lately

[mild spoilers ahead]

The Golem and The Jinni (Goodreads): 9/10. This is a story of two mystical creatures coming from two different cultures, Jewish and Syrian, and trying to pass for human in Ellis Island-era New York City. I'm coming to love the category of "magical historical fiction" (see also: Temeraire). It's incredibly well written, and mostly ends up being a rich depiction of immigrants in New York and how their communities support each other, with some fascinating magical elements to round it out. Highly recommended.

Species Imperative series (Goodreads): 8/10. This trilogy starts slow, but I enjoyed it tremendously. Highlights:
  • Lots of sci-fi focuses a lot on worldbuilding via interesting physics or engineering, but this one is mainly via alien biology, which is interesting and unusual. (There's interstellar travel that is basically handwaved away as part of the backdrop. I'm fine with this.)
  • The protagonist, Mac, is a Tough Lady Scientist who doesn't take shit from anyone, and who feels incredibly out of her depth trying to save the world - but it turns out that her skills at running a research group are surprisingly useful in a situation where the imminent existential risks aren't yet well-understood. 
  • The level of detail that goes into describing her life at a research base in Alaska studying salmon makes an excellent backdrop for the rest of the series. I personally enjoy how much Earth-nature aesthetic is in here, despite the main plot revolving around aliens.
  • Gender treatment is unusually good, in several ways. Another female PI, Emily, is frequently underestimated because she enjoys dancing and having one-night stands; but the books make it clear that she's just as smart and determined as the more-reserved Mac, although diametrically opposed in her problem-solving approach.
  • It gets to be pretty good "competence porn" near the end, including emotional competence. An exchange between Mac and her love interest goes something like this:
Him: "You know I can't make any promises to you, because I'm busy trying to save the human race. If I have to use you up in the service of that cause, I will."
Her: "Well, duh. I'm trying to save the human race too, you know."
[They stare into each other's eyes hungrily and tacitly resolve to have hella sex once the human race is saved.]
  • Part of the reason Mac is so successful as a research head is that she picks up friends like lint rollers pick up dust, and this makes her great at putting heads together to get things done. (Such as saving the human race.)
In short: Highly recommended.

Incarnations of Immortality series (Goodreads): 1/10. DO NOT READ THESE BOOKS.

I decided to go back and reread these because I remembered reading them at a fairly young age, and was curious what it was that had shaped my impressionable mind. What I found was... concerning. The degree of sexism in these books is frankly alarming, and explains some strange misconceptions I've discovered myself having over the years (e.g.: "all men turn into pathetic toddlers when they see a sexy woman"). They're also, for the most part, fairly terrible. The writing is awkward, the characters are two-dimensional, and the plot isn't all that interesting.

On a slightly more encouraging note, my favorite of the series as a kid, Being a Green Mother (also the last book), was in fact much better than the others on every dimension mentioned here. The protagonist Orb is treated as a real human being, and the plot was far more interesting than the others. Still wouldn't recommend it to those without a particular personal interest, but I found it restored my faith in tiny-me somewhat.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Goodreads): 10/10. The latest installment in the uniformly excellent Vorkosigan saga, released just this past year (Feb. 2016). Let me say just this, which is revealed in the first thirty pages or so: CANON POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS. I'm thrilled that Bujold actually took it into the open. I have a slight suspicion that she wanted this to be part of the saga all along, but wasn't sure of her audience or social norms enough to do so until now.

This book reads like fanfiction of the rest of the series. It's not just the polyamory - it's also the way she spends time luxuriating over little mundane details of the characters' lives, enjoying their relationships with each other and the great things they're building with everyday effort. It's very slice-of-life. I enjoyed that, and I think anyone who really likes the rest of the series will too, but it might be a bit boring for newcomers to it.

I've heard the Vorkosigan saga described as "competence porn." I've always been a bit skeptical of that description, because that's not what I like about it at all - I've always been most interested by the relationships and the effects of biological technology on social structure that Bujold explores. However, you can definitely describe the events in this book as emotional competence porn: the characters are put into tricky emotional situations, including the notoriously fickle Miles, and they just handle it like adults. It's not something you see often in fiction, and it's refreshing.

The House of God (Goodreads): 3/10. When reading this book, I sometimes found myself thinking, "Wow, this is depressing. Maybe I should re-read my book on the horrors of factory farming instead." It's magical, and well-written, and powerful - and it uses its power to make you, the reader, feel intensely disgusted, disturbed, and upset.

I did not enjoy this book. Still, it gets points from me for style, and for exposing hard truths that the medical system apparently needed to hear. (See also: SlateStarCodex's review.)

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