Review: Death’s End by Cixin Liu

Death’s End

By Cixin Liu

Translated by Ken Liu

So, there’s this trilogy by a renowned Chinese SF writer named Cixin Liu, who probably doesn’t have enough room in his home for all the awards he’s won.

The first volume, The Three-Body Problem, won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. It was basically about a strange star-system with inhabitants, called Trisolarans because they have three suns, of intimidating technology who hear Earth shouts for attention. They provide that attention by sending two fleets to overwhelm Earth and take it for themselves. They, at light speed, send out unfolded particles called Sophons that are basically computers to spy on Earth and prevent humans from developing further technology that might make us more dangerous. It was very good, and deserved the Hugo it won.

The second volume, Dark Forest, was released the same year and wasn’t nominated for any awards. Dark forest is a strategy that emerging species wisely practice. It doesn’t announce itself to the galaxy, but continues to build technology until there is the inevitable confrontation. The idea is to stay isolated and unknown for as long as possible. It was okay, but had some pretty silly premises and downright bad science on occasion. It didn’t really deserve any awards, but did deserve reading.

This third and final volume, Death’s End, is an epic tome! 600 pages of dense action and info-dumps to bring the whole thing to a conclusion, literally at the end of the universe. Normally, I can read a book like this in a week. This one took a month. Yeah, like that.

So, now is REVIEW TIME! (Can’t you hear the trumpets blaring?) We will begin with short parental advisories; then a summary of this with as few spoilers as possible; some faults and praises, which probably will involve some spoilage; and finally, my take on its award potential.

Parental Advisories:

Language/ Profanity: Perhaps 2 f-bombs, and that’s it.

Sex / Nudity: None.

Violence: Some and it can be gory in a couple of places. However, the author treats this with the shock any normal human SHOULD have, and does not glorify it, nor wallow in it.

Suggestion: If you have a bright young one who wants to tackle this, it is probably okay without you reading it first. However, many of the concepts are difficult to envision, and that might be good for them to try and discern. It certainly will be educational. And quite boring in places, so tenacity will be required.


Part One of this book takes place during the same time as Dark Forest, but from a different angle. That one was about the Wallfacer Project to deter the impending invasion. This begins during that time, but with another scheme called the Staircase Program that is acting separately. This program has the objective of meeting the invading fleets and planting a spy amongst them. It seems to fail, but is quite interesting in its practical application for accelerating space ships quickly through the Solar System.

Part Two follows the successor to Luo Ji as Wallfacer as the fleet nears. She is supposed to send a signal into the galaxy with the invader’s coordinates, insuring that their own home star will be destroyed if they attack. She fails. However, out at the edge of the Solar System, two human-crewed space ships send out the signal, and the Trisolaran’s sun is hit with a photoid, destroying their System. Unfortunately, this transmission endangers Earth also, because it generally provides triangulation for more powerful aliens to find Earth and destroy it also. The Trisolarans flee in terror, having lost their own world and unwilling to face the consequences to our world.

Part Three is unraveling three fairy tales that the spy sent humans, giving clues of how to defend themselves. No one really understands the symbolism throughout them. Humans embark on two more projects: The Bunker project, which involves building space cities behind the gas giant planets, to provide shields if the Sun is destroyed by the unknown super-aliens. And the Black Domain Plan, which involves slowing the speed of light around the Solar System, so it appears to not exist. Neither one will ultimately work. Another option was attaining FTL drive by space curvature technology, but the dangers make it unrealistic, and so this research is outlawed.

Part Four explores those space cities, touring many of them to show off the variety that is possible, the population, and even why Earth is relatively empty of people now because most folks are afraid of the dark forest strike they believe may be coming. One of those cities has clandestinely continued working on FTL drive, and has to stand down or be destroyed.

Part Five opens with the dark forest strike being sent Earthward. It enters the Solar System appearing to be a small slip of paper. However, it defies the known laws of physics, and humans try hard to figure out what is going on. Too late. We learn that the protagonist’s ship has been outfitted with a proscribed FTL space curvature engines, and is the only ship that can escape.

Part Six follows the main character as she escapes the System and heads out into the galaxy, skipping ahead through hibernation until the Universe’s entropy collapses. How will they be saved? Sorry, that’s just too much spoilage. Those fairy tales are clearly explained, which is pretty great!

Faults and Praises (with spoilers, so get lost now if you don’t want them):

Fault: The science in this is front and center, which makes the bad science jump out at you and go, “Boo!” Once again, we see people firing rifles and pistols in weightlessness without any recoil or spinning backward, but if a man uses a cane in weightlessness, it keeps sending him into the air.

Praise: The science in this is AWESOME! The author will spend quite a lot of time trying to explain four dimensions to three dimensional people, then describing two dimensions also! It is quite evocative.

Fault: The author will spend QUITE A LOT of pages explaining all that dimensional stuff. BORING! Give us one good example, not five bad ones.

Praise: The scale of this story is EPIC! There are so many cool extrapolations of ideas that this book is rapid-fire one after the other.

Fault: The scale of this story is SO EPIC that it is hard to contain. There is enough here for five novels, let alone one. It’s overwhelming.

Praise: The difficult decisions the protagonist is faced with are enormous. The fate of humanity literally weighs in the balance.

Fault: The protagonist is uneven in how she deals with these decisions. Ultimately, she fails more times than succeeds.

Praise: Doesn’t matter. A few humans will survive and she will be one of them.

Fault: When explaining all those dimensional things, we are told that what a shuttle has already done is quite improbable if not impossible. Then it does it AGAIN! What? Two tries to go from four dimensions to three and nail your target? Sorry. Not happening.

Another Fault: At the end of Part Two, we have detailed the efforts of two space ships at the edge of the Solar System to explore those dimensions. They decide to leave the System because the Earth is doomed. Some don’t want to go, so they construct and ark and send it inward to Earth. That ark disappears from the novel completely. We have to assume from then on that they arrived at Earth, simply to explain how Earth suddenly knows about four-dimensional qualities. No message is sent to explain it, so they must have arrived. It’s just not mentioned.

Another Fault: Those two ships appear in the final act in other parts of the galaxy, and somehow they know about and have built curved space FTL propulsion. They were gone from the Solar System before that was addressed. How?!? Where would they find the ability to do research, testing, and development of the exact same method of FTL that Earth developed?

In other words, if I had enough Vaseline I could probably slide a locomotive through the plot holes in this novel. I’ve only listed three of them. There are more. However, it is gratifying that the author ties up many loose ends. There were just too many to tie up.

At the end Ken Liu, the highly esteemed author and translator of this, praises Cixin Liu as a genius. I have to agree with him. The man is a genius. He could use a genius editor who will keep him in check, making wiser uses for Liu’s genius. It’s interesting that Ken Liu began the work with footnotes to help western readers understand some nuances of Chinese language. Then we hear nothing from him until the last 100 pages, when the footnotes return. There are about 350 pages of this that needed footnotes, but doesn’t get them. Though Ken Liu will never say, nor should he, I suspect the tedium of this work wore him down. He’s got his own stuff to do. He was probably paid a handsome fee, and you don’t piss in your bosses Cheerios, so kudos.

The tone remains strictly isolationist. The dark forest strike drives everyone to retreat inside themselves. This is a negative way to approach the world and the galaxy. Think about what is going on in the UK with their Brexit vote, due largely to fear. Think about what is going on in America with the presidential election, being campaigned on a platform of fear from both candidates. It’s messy, stupid, and is, overall, unproductive. With China’s history, this tone is unsurprising from a Chinese author, but should be rejected by reasonable people with hopes, dreams, and ideals.

Award Worthiness:

It’s epic. No doubt about that. It should, at least, be nominated for the Hugo for this year. But those plot holes are pretty devastating. Granted, there is a great hullabaloo about diversity in SF/F right now, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the SFWA or the Nebula folks will respond to that by giving Cixin Liu another award. But, does it stand up to The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds? I don’t think so. Nominated, probably. Win, not so much.

24 October 2016

Vonne Anton


Revolting Revolution in America: An Outsider’s View

I am not from this universe, so that makes me an outsider looking in, currently living on Earth simply because it is such a funny place to live, and explore the inanities of the people inhabiting this beauteous orb. Right now my focus is on American politics and the governed’s view of their democracy versus the governors’ view of their republic.

Wednesday night there was a third and final debate for the office of President of this crazy country that somehow found itself – quite by accident, I’m sure – the world power of this whole planet.

I was quite impressed with the pluckiness and determined spirit of goodness pervading every move and thought of the pretty blond lady. The other lady was doomed to failure because she had been corrupted by the political atmosphere. However, even she would soon be revealed to be a really nice person who had simply lost their way.

Then I learned that I was watching “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blond,” and not the debate that everyone else watched. Oops.

So, here are my thoughts: it seems everyone got what they wanted from the real debate:  Those on the blond lady’s side got confirmation that the orange man is a loony tune and she has the demeanor and experience to be a successful President. Those on the orange man’s side got confirmation that the blond lady is still a lying failure and he has the demeanor and drive to shake things up in Washington. Meanwhile, both of them enjoy between 30% and 50% popularity figures with the voters.

To my view, there is something no one has been talking about enough through all of this and they are the real problem. Yes, I mean Congress (who are the opposite of Progress). When, in modern times, has Congress ever even had 30% approval ratings? Never? Really? Why not? Aren’t they your representatives to the executive and judicial branch?

Congress is pretty quiet these days, not even raising their heads to denounce stupidity and culpability from both candidates. They are loving the fact that your attention is not on them; because Congress is the real problem in America.  Why do you even bother getting all heated up about either of the other two branches of government? Congress legislates, so the state of matters in America is primarily on them.

It’s due to one deficiency in your Constitution, and due to two ridiculous practices that Congress indulges in that has led to the deplorable state your fellow citizens think they are in.

The deficiency in your Constitution: Lack of term limits for Congress. Seriously, if an incumbent can stay there forever, they will(!) and rake in the dough, spending an inordinate amount of time schmoozing and campaigning instead of actually legislating on behalf of their districts.

Term limits need to be imposed, so fresh blood can literally invigorate the democratic republic. However, Representatives should be given their office for at least four years. At two years, they spend all their time campaigning! That is about the current campaign trail durability, you know. Perhaps Congress would pass a law limiting campaigning to one year. Really? When have they ever voted anything regarding themselves except pay rises?

Two ridiculous practices of Congress:

  • Gerrymandering. I know it’s a long word and you’re probably not sure what it means. Here it is: gerrymandering is the practice of restructuring each Congressman’s district to reflect only those voters who will actually vote for them. If you get what that means and are not properly outraged, then you have no business being upset about anything going on in your country.

It means that Congress decides who they represent. And if you personally aren’t voting for them, then they do not represent you.

Consider the gridlock you have suffered through for decades: it is because Congress will only do what their hand-picked constituents are telling them to, not what the Constitution directs them to. There should have been a Supreme Court justice appointed many months ago. Did Congress really delude themselves into thinking Trump had a chance? They don’t even want him there, for the same reason some of the people do!

You should see the districts outlines being tortured beyond sense. Seriously, google it.

Gerrymandering might get fixed soon, but not by Congress. Why would they fix something that keeps them in caviar? I hear President Obama is going to spend a lot of his spare time now on fixing gerrymandering.  Though I applaud his choice, the practice doesn’t need fixing; it needs burning to the ground and re-assigning districts by population (as in number of people, not number of their friendly voters). Congress needs to start earning their votes.

  • Stop padding good bills with pork projects and extra rider expenses. Each bill should address its immediate concern. I learned this from Legally Blond 2. If the learned gentleman from Wisconsin wants federal aid to build a new bridge over a river, then the learned gentleman from Wisconsin should present a separate bill to that effect. The learned gentleman should NOT tack it onto a national health care bill.

You see, you hilarious Congress-folk: when you tack pork projects or irrelevant additions to any bill, you risk another Congress-folk feeling like they cannot support the bill because they don’t think you need another bridge. Especially when they need financial aid from the nation to improve early warning tornado alerts for Wichita, Kansas. Meanwhile, something really worthwhile – like national health care – drowns in your pork. The only thing that should drown in your pork is your gravy, and perhaps mashed potatoes. Oh, and who hasn’t heard of Stove Top Stuffing! How I wish my universe has that!

There is one other thing that might change the course of government, but I request you give me a couple of months notice on this one. That is an actual revolt by the voters to overturn the government. In this country, that revolt will inevitably involve guns, and I don’t want to be around for that. I’ll take a vacation in the Fornax cluster while you all kill each other.

Oh yeah! Get corporations out of your government. Trump would hate that idea because he is a corporate all by himself, while Clinton will love it! As long as corporate money is involved, then the people will be stuck with the best government that money can buy . . . for those with the money to buy it.

Take note America: Trump will not fix Congress. Clinton will not fix Congress.

Take note government of America: Trump’s sort-of-success is the barometer of how close you are to an actual revolution. Or, at least, how far the Republican party is. That is the true terror surrounding this election.

This has actually occurred twice, with varying success. The first time was a doozy and brought this nation into existence. Much blood was shed, and famine cursed the patriots. The second time was called the Civil War. Tens of thousands died, just at Gettysburg, let alone all the rest.  Many thousands lost a substantial amount of blood on their own hallowed ground. Abraham Lincoln oversaw that, demonstrating extraordinary bravery.

(By the way, you should know that Lincoln is held in such immense esteem throughout the multiverse that most adopt his courageous viewpoint that all creatures are created equal. Unfortunately, he is the only one of your leaders whom everyone else could give a flying quark for.)

Isn’t it ironic that the revolution party seems to be the Republicans, the party of Lincoln? If he were here, he’d probably slap all of you.

Don’t be complacent. Revolution has happened here before. Twice. Care to go for a third one? I don’t. It will be awful.

Then you better pressure Congress to go back to caring for all the people and not just their own chosen fan clubs.

20 October, 2016


Vonne’s Shelf: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate

by N. K. Jemisin

You flicker into this strange place, wondering how you got here. Simple, really, you clicked on something that brought you here. How you got here is immaterial; why you are here is the real question.

You’re expecting something, yes, an overview of The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin.

But you realize the only other person in the room is a statue, obsidian black, standing with one arm poised before his torso, as if in warrior mode.

His body? Why do you assume the statue is male? You look closer down there, and see only a jumble of rocks precariously poised against each other, just like the rest of him . . . it?

The statue doesn’t move, yet its black glinting eyes still seem to follow your movements.

You look away to find your overview, but it eludes your senses.

You look back at the statue, wondering if your review will come from him . . . it. The statue is in a different pose. You did not see it move. Both hands are covering its groin area, and its eyes are turned away. You sess, or sense, shame? Embarrassment?

“It is appropriate to begin like this,” the statue says. Its lips do not move, and the sounds seem to come from his . . . its chest. The voice is deep, and decidedly male in its tone. So any gender designation must be male, then, if a clever pile of rocks can ever truly have a gender.

For the sake of convenience, you decide to refer to it as he or him or his. His hands are not big enough to cover his groin, and the size of his rocks somehow excites you a teensy bit. He must be heavy, therefore it would be prudent – should you follow up on that excitement – to be on top.

“First,” he says from his chest, his luscious pecs, “We need to establish parental advisories.”

You groan in despair as these words beat your rising desire to death with an umbrella. You look down and away, knowing that you are now the one embarrassed.

“There is no sex in this second book of The Broken Earth trilogy,” the statue continues. You are disappointed and want to let him know, so you frown at him. His position has changed again, and you did not see that movement either. Now one hand is braced against his hip, and the other hand is pointing a finger at you.

You hear a low rumble in your head, a quivering of the earth, and realize the statue is shaking his finger at you, admonishing you for your bad thoughts.

“None at all?” you stammer.

“Well . . . just a bit, off camera. You might hear moaning and groaning, but you mustn’t see it out of respect for the lover’s privacy.”

That low rumble is intensifying, and you close your eyes, fearing a migraine is building. When you reopen them, the statue is sitting on the ground in the lotus position.

He speaks, “Too, there is a change in the profanity from the first volume. In fact, regarding that first volume, have you read it?”

Your thoughts flutter into random moths at this sudden change of subject, and those moths beat at the inside of your skull. “What was it called?” is all you can weakly query.

“Only a little thing called The Fifth Season. Not much of a book as far as books go. After all, it barely made a ripple in the SF/F realm. It only won the HUGO FOR BEST DAMN NOVEL THIS YEAR!”

You sess, or sense, that the statue is getting a tad testy.

It continues, “If you haven’t read The Fifth Season, then two things are apparent. First, that you have no business here while we talk about its sequel The Obelisk Gate. Secondly, it is apparent that YOU ARE AN UTTER IDIOT!”

Your mind turns elsewhere and you remember it now. Yes, that one. The one about earthquake people called Oral Genes or something, which need guardians, and stone eaters that are made of stone and . . . and eat stone, as their designation clearly suggests, and those strange obelisks in the sky. “Yes, I remember it,” you say, and realize the statue has changed position again.

It is standing on one foot, and it’s in profile to you now, so that you can clearly see its arms and hands making that walk-like-an-Egyptian pose.

Its voice continues, “Then you should know there are fewer f-bombs in this one. In fact, Ms. Jemisin decided to replace a lot of them with the word ‘rust’ or ‘rusting.’ Like, instead of saying like, ‘He couldn’t just f-ing tell me,’ she changed it to ‘He couldn’t just rusting tell me.’” Sounds more family-friendly, don’t you think?”

“Um,” you pause. “Sounds like a euphemism for the same thing. Won’t people just insert the bad word in their minds?”

“Don’t use big words on me or I’ll, like, get angry. You don’t want to see me get angry,” the statue says. “Besides, she uses both words, sometimes together, which is all very confusing, but I’m not the author. Regardless, the bad one isn’t as common as it appeared in the first part of this journey.”

It occurs to you that the statue is adopting, like, Valley Girl Stupid vocabul-air-y, and you begin to think this was a waste of time. But you ask anyway, “Is there any violence?”

Somehow, without you seeing the movement even though you never took your eyes off the statue, it is now posed with hands like photo screen shots framing its smiling face. You think the word ‘Vogue’ and can’t remember why. And you wonder how a face made of gravel can smile so brightly.

“Of course, there is violence. After all, this is a war story at heart. The orogenes, guardians, stone eaters, obelisks, and your own kind are at war with each other. Orogenes will die. Guardians will die. Stone eaters will . . . actually, we don’t die. Obelisks will . . . actually, I’m still not sure about them. Your own kind will die. But still – “

“Wait,” you interrupt. “My own kind? What are my own kind?”

“Still – “ he says, but you interrupt again.

“Don’t ignore me; tell me what my own kind are!”

“I just did. You’re still – “

“Stop it! WHAT AM I?” you demand, raising your voice because you are now getting a tad testy also.

He stops, smile gone, staring at me as if studying an ant in a magnifying glass. Yes, you can see it’s just like that. You don’t need to sess it. You see it. Somehow the statue found a magnifying glass and is peering at you through it.

One of his black, shiny, obsidian eyes loom larger than the other, and you think that’s really kind of cool.

“You are a Still,” he says.

You are confused. You know that he has now told you the same thing for the third time (or is it more properly the ‘same thing for the second time,’ considering the first time doesn’t really count as it is the original thing, not the same thing . . . oh, who gives a crap. You know what you meant). Yet, your confusion remains, and you bravely ask the obvious question.

“I make hooch?”

His shoulders slump. The magnifying glass drops to the ground but doesn’t shatter. It just puffs dust and disappears into the earth. (But wait, you think, you’re not on the earth. You’re at a website on the Interweb. You wish this whole conversation would just GET ON WITH IT!”)

“Do not fear the violence,” the statue says. “It is not reveled in by the author. She wisely states what happens, and demurs from describing the effects in detail. In fact, I am the one who gets torn apart, and see how well I turned out.”

You are back to that again. That strange sensation that you want to get your rocks on with a pile of rocks. (Or, would that be ‘get your rocks off’ rather than on. Such beautifully smooth, strong rocks; rocks that cause you to feel oddly ‘nasty.’)

“This installment has an upside and a downside,” the focus of your desire says, which causes even more illicit ponderings on your part. “The upside is that you will learn much more about my kind, the stone eaters, and a little more about the obelisks, and you will realize that the stone eaters and obelisks are linked to each other. You will also learn how Essun will learn to befriend many of us, and to use the obelisks as the gates they truly are. Some things will be kept in reserve. This novel does not yet reveal all. The outcome of this war is yet for the third volume.”

Yes, even a handsome hunk of rock-hard manliness loses his allure when being pedantic. Your desire ebbs to the appropriate level for your question, “And the downside?”

“This is the second book in a trilogy. This one’s purpose seems to be to explain things in story form. Think of it as a mildly entertaining info dump. There may easily come a moment (around two-thirds of the way through) where you will get bored and want to skip ahead. But don’t. All this meaningless action will turn out to have meaning later. Besides, don’t you want to know what becomes of the ten-or-twenty-ringed orogene called Alabaster?”

Actually, yes, you would like to know that. So, yes, you will read it, and probably the third also. This is not for children, but you know each parent will delight to read these and then decide for themselves what their child can handle in a mature manner.

“Will this one win a Hugo also?” You ask.

“Nah,” the statue says. “Oh, it’s good, just not quite THAT good.”

The statue has changed pose again. It is now upside down, balanced only on its fingertips in the earth, that entire rippling torso on full display rising up, and you think that maybe . . . yes, perhaps there . . . you see a slender slab of rock rising down . . .

“Whoa!” you exclaim.

The statue’s eyes flick at you, and they smile a little. “Actually, there is no ‘W’ in my name,” he says, and dives straight into the earth, disappearing.

Gone. This website is empty now. Even that rumbling of the ground has subsided, echoing into the distance.

Are you glad you came? Only you can answer that question.

9 October 2016




Diversity in SF/F

Diversity in Science Fiction / Fantasy

There is quite a bit of brouhaha going on right now about diversity in our chosen sandbox.

It seems that some folks think awards are given dependent solely on “difference” instead of the quality of the actual story. In other words, a standard issue military SF novel isn’t necessarily given the same consideration as a completely fantastical world with fantastical characters doing fantastical things; similarly, an American white male author who likes to write high-octane adventure tales is believed to be less worthy than a Polish green transvestite who gets their ideas from tossing random Etch-O-Sketch patterns.

Frankly, I think this is just a stupid distraction. Please note the following definitions of our chosen sandbox, as well as the concept of diversity, and see what role you think diversity should play in SF/F (italicized and bold letters are my own, while the definitions themselves are hash-ups from and Merriam-Webster).

Science Fiction: A literary genre that makes imaginative use of scientific knowledge or conjecture; dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component

Fantasy: Imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained; something that is produced by the imagination; an idea about doing something that is far removed from normal reality; the act of imagining something; a story about things that happen in an imaginary world

Diversity: The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness, variety, condition of having or being composed of differing elements.

Perhaps you read those definitions differently than I do; which would be a good thing, because that would indicate diversity.

The way I read them is that Science Fiction / Fantasy is DEFINED by diversity. So, should the Hugo, Nebula, et al, necessarily reward the same old same old just because the author likes it? No, because of diversity.

If you don’t like diversity, then go create your own awards. Lots of folks do it. I usually call them the Emmy’s, but that name is taken, so invent another one. I have no problem with that because it’s called diversity. Seriously, go create your own award.

Science Fiction and Fantasy REQUIRES DIVERSITY! Deal with it, or go somewhere else.



19 September 2016



The Angry Glare of Midnight Sample

The Angry Glare of Midnight

Copyright 2016 by Vonne Anton. All rights reserved.

Chapter Two

Tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona

He sat in a little chair in a little room off a large corridor.

He watched his dead mother dying, though that wasn’t exactly a news flash. It was the second time this week. She had actually died over a year ago but her body refused to give up the already lost war. He watched it unravel over the days and weeks and months and years, over and over again.

Wasn’t he the lucky one . . .

Mom: whittled down to ninety pounds, cadaverous skin stretched over bone like blotched paper; her head turned to the other side and staring dully into the corner of the room, perhaps looking into heaven; gray hair wisped with the gentle caress of the air conditioning unit; sticks for arms ending in talons clutched at the cream-colored blanket that covered her body, no more than concealed ashes; her breath clawed its way from her throat, rattling and hoarse, staggered into the room and flittered away, transparent moths, forgotten memories.

Quiet . . . no murmur, no song, no babbling. Just Mom dying again. Wasn’t she the lucky one . . .

He buried his face in his hands and felt the blood pounding his brain.

“How is she?” someone whispered behind him. The door was opening, and a nursing aide was there, an ephemeral shadow of efficiency and objectivity.

“Okay,” he mumbled, something like that.

“Let me check her vitals.” The nursing aide moved to the machinery clustered around the bed. She took Mom’s right wrist in her hand and held it, staring off into a distant place. A flower with falling petals drooped from the end of his mother’s arm: her fingers. Mom swiveled her head to see without seeing.

He watched the aide. She was young and pretty, with Asian eyes, coffee complexion, and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail that flung itself down her back. Slender, fit, well hidden by the oversized blue uniform they made her wear. Her left-breast tag said, “Krystal”. Krystal looked like a high school student.

She gently replaced Mom’s arm at her side. “Her blood pressure is up to 85/52, pulse up to 53, and her temp is up to 95.4.” Krystal met his gaze and smiled. “She seems to be improving this morning. You must be good for her, Mr. Lockhart.” Her amber eyes crinkled and sparkled when she smiled. “Can I get you anything?”

Manny shook his head, and she evaporated from the room.

Alone again.

Should he have The Talk? What if this wasn’t real? Did we want to have The Talk again, later, if necessary? What if he didn’t have The Talk now, and this really was it? Hell . . .

“Mom,” he began. “I promised you, when Dad died, that you would end up in a nursing home only over my dead body. That was before we knew about Alzheimer’s. We tried to keep you at home as long as we could, but the doctors finally threatened legal action if we didn’t get you into a place where you could have twenty-four hour care. So, here you are, and I couldn’t prevent it, and now . . . ” he stopped to meet her eyes. They were still staring into eternity, as if she didn’t care that he had lied to her so many years ago. In a way, it was better this way, at least for her.

Her throat still rasped with agonized breath.

A tear slipped from his right eye. “You don’t remember it, I know, but it got too dangerous at my place, what with stairs and ovens and the city and . . . ” He remembered the frantic hours searching the neighborhood for her when he got home from work; walking in to smell the oven rings blazing and a forgotten pan boiling itself into smoke; up all night afraid she would creep by his room to get a drink in the kitchen only to take a fatal fall down a steep and forgotten flight of stairs.

“I had to do this. Please forgive me.” She stared away, oblivious to his need for absolution.

Dying. Dying. Maybe finally dying. Would he be glad, sad, or just relieved? Seven years had passed and he didn’t know where her strength came from for another day. But she was enduring, and she was the sick one . . . no self-pity, kid, you’ve got the easy part of this;you only need to watch. Tears flowed as hot lava from his cheeks. No, she had the easy part.

When he looked up again, his mother was staring at him. Her blue eyes were clear and focused, blazing embers from a very old and weary flame, with understanding and recognition, her mouth curled in a joyous smile.

She said, “Don’t cry. They’ll show us the way.”

It was like that: months of incoherent babble punctuated by a few words of lucid clarity from the other universe her weary mind had hidden in.

She turned her head back to her pillows and drifted into tortured sleep, her eyelids beating hearts down to cessation. Her breath gurgled.

“Mom?” he whispered, a lonely echo in an empty room. “Mom?” She didn’t stir. “Please don’t die yet.”

Her throat constricted and a breath escaped. Her chest heaved in another one. “Mom?” She exhaled again, breath caught, inhaled, held, exhaled, gurgle, inhale, heave . . . He changed his mind.

“Mom? Please, Mom . . . Please go to sleep. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay. Sleep now, you hear?” Her shallow breathing was steady now. “You don’t have to wake up if you don’t want to.”

Did he mean for her to die? Was he wishing his beloved mother to die? Could he–dare he–was it fair and right? She had nursed him when a babe, rocked him all night when he was sick and couldn’t breathe himself, soothed his fears, kept him alive, helped him recover and gain strength, encouraged him ever onward, upward, and forward to be the man he was today. God, he was tired.

The man who would sit across from her and wish her dead. A man without the guts to just take her life. It would be so easy now. She wouldn’t even resist. Just ease the door shut, take a pillow, and in the dark, cool room show her how tender and strong his love for her was.

No, not because he hated her. Because he loved her. Alzheimer’s had eaten away her brain, leaving this empty sculpture of a human who merely existed and knew none of her family or friends. A two-dimensional husk, a cartoon living in a cartoon world. Her only holds on reality were the endless pacing of the corridors and sucking pureed food through a straw because she had forgotten how to chew.

No. Not his mother.

He tried to remember that she wasn’t dead yet, and so there was still joy to be found with her. That’s how all the social workers encouraged him with understanding nods and sorrow-filled eyes: think positive remember the good seek the fun make her last months enjoyable for her. There could still be laughs antics dancing; yes, dancing! She had once auditioned to be a Radio City Rockette in New York City when she was but nineteen so many decades ago. She was turned away, and always believed it was because of her Latina heritage. In those bygone days all the Rockette’s were Anglo. A Cuban girl from Miami never had a chance.

She still danced here at the nursing home, but he couldn’t hear her music, he couldn’t keep the beat so she always led and he always smiled and they laughed together and when he left she clung to him clawing like a harridan until a nurse came to take his place and he ran away from the madness. Life was just so damned good!

Damn the merriment. Damn the good life. Damn the social workers. Damn the nurses. Damn Alzheimer’s. Damn his father. Where was he? Why did he get out of all this fun? A stupid heart attack right when things with Mom were getting interesting? How convenient! Sure, drink yourself to death Manuel Lockhart, Senior; the man of the moment the tower of strength who never got mad but never got anything else either and then you left us with this little surprise. You knew Mom was losing it but you didn’t want anyone to know keeping your precious little secrets and your precious mystic control. Only your secret survived you and now no one was in control. No one knew how to be in control. We were never taught, never prepared, never . . . never a lot of things.

All you left us was . . .

The lights in the building flickered. “Beep, beep, beep . . . ” one of her monitors demanded attention.

He darted to the door and stepped into the hallway. Other monitors were complaining at fringes of the nursing home. Some dementia patients stared around themselves confusedly.

Krystal appeared at his elbow and squeezed by him into the room. “Have to re-set it, is all.” She began punching buttons and checking the display. “With our generators, that shouldn’t have happened. Weird, huh?”

He nodded and slid back into his chair. Emergency over. Krystal hustled on to the next beeping monitor down the hallway.

His mother squirmed in her sleep, and her eyes flickered, then opened and fixed on nothing across the room.

All you left me was your name, he thought, corrupted to just “Junior” by the family . . . and love for Mom. And that was enough. It would have to be enough. Who was he to wish for more? What other riches could compare? What other heritage would he trade this moment for?

He laughed to himself. He would trade this moment to have Mom’s personality, her heart and mind back. He needed her to hold him, comfort him, and whisper that everything would be all right son my beautiful little boy don’t worry Junior don’t cry I’m here and everything will be wonderful just you wait and see . . . just like always before. Only he wasn’t Junior anymore. Dad was gone so he was now just Manny Lockhart. When Senior died he took “Junior” with him into the crematorium.

That had pissed his Dad’s family off. Not the cremation; they would have done the same, but they would have done it by the old ways: on a bonfire in the outback wilderness playing their strange music, dancing their mojo, and chanting odd tales in languages and symbols while sparks flew into the night. No, his Dad got a white man’s send off, like the good Catholic his Mom had never really been.

Mom shifted, then turned her head and glared at him, obviously trying to figure out who he was. She smiled again, her eyes warmed and shone again, and she said, “Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.” Then she drifted back into ruffled, psychotic slumber.

Again? What was this new insanity? Someone was coming to save us, were they?

If only that were possible; if only . . .

The room had two beds in it. Mom was using hers, but her roommate was out wandering the halls of the Secured Unit with the other residents. He was so tired he idly considered crawling into the empty bed for a nap.

Mom’s bed had rails on the sides. They were never pulled up to protect her from falling out onto the hard white tile floor. He had asked for them to be raised earlier in the week, and Krystal had explained that it was illegal for them to do that because the State viewed rails as “physical restraints”, and they were not allowed to use that form of control, not even to keep her from falling out of bed.

“What if there was a fire, Mr. Lockhart? She might not be able to get out fast enough,” Krystal had explained cheerily, smiled cheerily, and flounced cheerily from the room, her ponytail flicking like a horses tail. Apparently that made sense to somebody somewhere. Manny wondered which was more likely: a fire; or a frail, debilitated, weak old woman falling out of bed. That bed had to be dealt with and negotiated every day; fires didn’t, he hoped.

To the left of her bed was a small nightstand with a fluffy, brown teddy bear sitting atop it, beguiling in a large green satin bow tie. Above the nightstand hung one yellowed and grainy photograph in a simple wooden frame: Mom and Dad, in ancient sepia, on the night of their wedding; she in gown and he in a suit, both young and handsome, smiling, holding hands, anticipating a wonderful future where all their dreams would be fulfilled in each other. Fifty years and five children later, Dad was gone and Mom might as well be gone.

What a dream . . . better never to wake up from it.

He hung his head and muttered a weary prayer. He didn’t know if anyone was listening, but he fervently hoped someone would hear and act. When done, he raised his leaden head and gazed through tired, puffy eyes at his mother sleeping tranquilly.

With a sigh he pushed himself up and turned away, out of the room and into the hallway, weaving his way around shuffling elderly bodies.

One old man, his hair wild and uncombed, eyes bloodshot and glaring, right hand shoved down the front of his pants, licked his lips and leered at him. “Chester the Molester” is what Manny nicknamed him. He was harmless, but prone to masturbate in public. Chester followed Manny with his eyes, and bellowed at his retreating back, “Don’t worry, son! They’re gonna’ show us the way!”

Manny turned back, wondering if hope of mysterious salvation was somehow contagious among nursing home patients.

Chester’s glee cackled like merrily crumpling paper.

Manny hurried on, pausing only when he got to the nurse’s station. “Mom is sleeping still,” he told Myrna, the aging head nurse over the Secured Unit. “I’m gonna’ go ahead and take off.”

She smiled, blue eyes glinting through eyeglasses. “Thank you, Manuel. You take such good care of your mother!”

Right. Manny nodded, bolting for the exit. He felt for the asthma inhaler in his pant’s pocket, primed it, and sucked in deeply as it automatically fired off a dose of albuterol. In a few seconds his breathing steadied to normal.

His mind raced ahead to the rest of the day as his fingers fumbled with the security code that would unlock the inner door, and it took three attempts to hear the click of freedom. He never could remember the numbers exactly right. He hurried pulled the door closed behind him to keep wandering residents from escaping, and hustled through further corridors until bursting into bright sunshine in the parking lot.

He had to get back to work, and get his mind on other things. Better things. He had a full schedule with his students and their parents, as he had conferences half the day. Children’s things.

Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.

God, he missed her.

He kicked his Kawasaki into life, slipped on his helmet, and roared away from the nursing home, letting hot wind whip his memories and his emotions away.

Michael Swanwick + 2

Not So Much, Said the Cat

By Michael Swanwick

Plus two personal asides by me, the Reviewer.

This is a collection of SF/F stories, 17 in all, by one of the best short story writers working today. Or, is it?

This review is going to take the collection in total, not attempting to review each story separately, though a story or three might be called out for representing the scope and wisdom of the author. This review will be more about the author than his stories. It will feature some parental advisories, as is the whole point of my reviews anyway. Finally, the question of Mr. Swanwick’s status as “one of the best short story writers working today” will be answered. Just as that last sentence quoted me, so the answer will be merely my opinion as well.

In 1999, six short stories were nominated for the coveted Hugo Award. Three of them were by Michael Swanwick. Needless to say, with odds like that, he won. In fact, several years have featured multiple stories by him nominated for the same award. He has won the Hugo five times (it says so on the cover), and yet lost more awards than others (it says so inside the cover).

It goes without saying that he is the master of his craft. And yet, I just said it. To the discerning reader that is called irony.

The most amazing thing about Mr. Swanwick is his dexterity with subject matter ranging – seemingly – across past history, future history, various cultures and nations on Earth, as well as other planets and even star systems. If we were to attribute to Mr. Swanwick the author’s maxim to “write what you know,” then we would have to assume he knows about almost everything. This is implausible, so it says more about what he can convince us he knows than what he has actually experienced. (He seems to have an affinity for Russia, as this is the context of more than one story in this collection; as do I, so those stories resonated for me.)

Parental Advisories:

Sex: Some, but not explicit.

Nudity: Rather more, but rarely explicit. Only once does he bother to describe pubic hair color, but even then, it serves the story nicely. More about this in my second aside.

Violence: Some, but only once a bit graphic. This scene is brief, so not too much to concern me.

Profanity: Yes, and here will come my first aside.

Aside Number One: I was banging along nicely through these stories, enjoying them very much, even if there were a few f-bombs sprinkled around. Then I got to story #11, named “Libertarian Russia.” This one featured a seemingly (to me) random sexual connotation, but didn’t get bothersome until a character was introduced that was immediately recognizable as the bad guy. We know he was a bad guy because he dropped the c-hydrogen-bomb-word, one of the vilest words in any language. Sure, it was used properly (if there is such a thing); as a degrading epithet, but with Mr. Swanwick’s command of his craft, this was unnecessary. He can build characters out of nothing, and doesn’t need crudity.

He dropped that word, and I dropped the book. Had to think about this now. If the author would use it once, would he use it again? I fanned through the pages remaining in the story. Didn’t see it again via that brief scan, but did that mean it wouldn’t be there in one of the six remaining stories? It was time for sleep, so I pulled my bookmark out and inserted it into my next project. I laid this book on top of our recycle bin, thinking at least the paper could be dealt with humanely, and went back to bed.

The next morning I looked meditatively at my next project, and thought about this book. Was I being fair? Shouldn’t the quality of the stories, admittedly very high, allow for me to not judge the author so quickly? Shouldn’t he get a pass, just this once? I have some authors on my reading list that have done the same thing, just once, and stayed on my list because their stories were too good to allow a single nastiness to deprive the reader of the rest of the goodness. Shouldn’t I forgive Mr. Swanwick once?

So, I pulled my bookmark and went to the recycle bin. I slipped my bookmark into the next story place – completely avoiding finishing the current story – and pulled this volume from the recycle bin. That particular story wasn’t nominated for any awards, so I don’t feel like I missed anything.

Happy to report that he did not make that same mistake again. (By the by, the last story in this collection might be the best, ending with a wry twist of humor. Be sure not to miss it.)

Aside number two: Most Americans – bewilderingly – make a big deal out of nudity. I guess it has something to do with the puritanical nature of the invasion and capturing of this country centuries ago. Mr. Swanwick treats it correctly, as just something to note and little else. I like that. Here’s a story that will present two reasons why this doesn’t bother me.

I was born in rural South Carolina, in the northwestern tip of the state, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We moved from there when I was six, so I remember little of it. In fact, I don’t remember this story’s basis in fact, but my mother loved to tell it, and I always found it amusing, so now you get to know it.

There was a young man, perhaps in his mid-to-early twenties, whom we shall call Ben. He eschewed the rural country life-style, preferring to be “citified.” (Anyone who ever watched The Andy Griffith Show will know exactly what I’m talking about.) Ben pursued and attained a job as an insurance-salesman. Why anyone would bother with selling something no one could see baffled the simple townsfolk, but they felt affection for Ben, and tolerated his foolishness. Ben went out and bought a fine black suit to wear.

So, it’s Sunday and here comes Ben, walking into church wearing his flat black three-piece suit, black bowtie, white dress shirt, black lace up shiny shoes, and white socks. Yes, white socks. Seriously. Oh, and lots of Brylcreem in his dark hair, making it quite a shiny target. By sitting where he sat, poor Ben becomes the victim in this story.

Behind Ben sat a nice, motherly, woman named Ruth. She had a few young-uns. And, like most mothers in rural country, had developed the amazing ability to focus on one thing only, oblivious to what her young children were doing around her. So it was that she became engrossed in the sermon that day and thereby became the unwitting abettor to the crime that would do Ben in forever more.

We sat in the same row as Ruth, as she and my Mom were good friends. Mom had a passel of kids also, but had not yet developed the ability to focus, so her eyes were roaming around, constantly making sure the kids were behaving themselves.

Funny thing about rural folk in the late 1950’s or early 60’s: mothers would often breastfeed their children in public. This has become a matter of hot controversy, but at that time, it was just what someone did. A child was hungry, pop a teat in its mouth, and everyone can get back to the subject at hand. An even funnier thing, and this might disturb some tender consciences out there, they tended to wean their kids when the kids started going to school. So, it wasn’t particularly unusual to see a five-year old still getting breast milk in a pinch.

This brings us to the evil perpetrator of the crime. Young 4-year old Bobby, one of Ruth’s sons, decided he was hungry. So he crawled into Ruth’s lap, undid her buttons, pulled out a breast, latched on and began to suckle. Right there in church! Ruth remained oblivious because this was not unusual for her.

In time, little Bobby got sleepy and lolled away from his mother’s breast. But the bared breast still had his fist pressing on it. Occasionally a stream of breast milk would spurt from her nipple and hit Ben in the back of his head.

Ruth did not notice. Ben began brushing at the back of his Brylcreemed hair and looking toward the ceiling, wondering if there was a leak up there. Finally, Mom noticed and jabbed Ruth from three seats away and whispered sternly that she needed to cover up. Ruth, embarrassed, moved Bobby to sleep on the floor, and put her breast away, where it could do no more harm.

But the story got around, and poor Ben moved, thoroughly defiled as a citified country boy. The rural folk won.

As it turns out, the church taught us that God made Adam and Eve perfect, and perfectly naked, and “saw that it was good.” Quoting the Bible there. I guess it’s a combination of rural attitudes about nudity and God’s apparent idea that there’s really nothing wrong with it that influences my casual regard for the subject of nudity.

Mr. Swanwick apparently agrees.

Now, is Mr. Swanwick actually “one of the best short story writers working today?” I don’t think so. To me Ray Bradbury was the best short story writer ever. Mr. Bradbury’s prose was simply magical. I think Mr. Swanwick would agree that Ray Bradbury is the superior short story writer, probably of all time.

But Ray Bradbury is gone from us now. He is no longer working and writing.

Though Michael Swanwick doesn’t quite meet the high bar that Ray Bradbury set, his prose is still very good. Occasionally it becomes lyrical and beautiful, hitting tones sweetly.

Therefore, in my opinion, Mr. Michael Swanwick is not “one of the best,” he is currently The Best.

Parents, you know what this collection contains, so as usual read it first and decide for yourselves. But, please don’t completely cheat your young readers by keeping them from ALL of Swanwick’s work. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.


8 September 2016

Review Supernova by C. A. Higgins

By C. A. Higgins

Before we begin this review: Please, if you have not read “Lightless,” the first novel in this series, go do so now. This review will contain spoilers of that novel, and perhaps even some mild spoilers for this one, though I will try mightily to minimize them.

We’ll start with Parental Advisories for parents, then a brief summary, some difficult portions for me (and those could be simply due to the density of my brain), concluding with a recommendation.

Parental Advisories

Profanity: Not much. An f-bomb in the beginning, another at the end, maybe one in the middle. Not enough to raise too many warnings.

Sex/Nudity: None.

Violence: A lot, but the themes herein are a violent revolution spanning many planets and moons. Also some kind of cruel psychosis, so be warned that violence is part and parcel of this novel. There is an especially gory and extended scene at the end, and all I can say about it is that it amps up the terror and horror of part of the surprise ending.

Plot Summary

This story vacillates back and forth between two different plot lines. One part (guesstimate 35%) following the interactions between Althea and her surprise AI ship Ananke who has awakened into sentience. Most of this novel follows the rebellion against the System, an interplanetary tyranny, led by the Mallt-y-Nos, Constance.

The rebellion continues through far off moons to Mars, Venus, Mercury and back to some of them but incorporating Jupiter and Saturn to mop up returning System inclined opportunistic warlords, endeavoring to assure freedom by violence. Allies betray Constance, while she gains or losses other allies.

Meanwhile Althea tries both to raise and protect her AI child. The author pulls off a pretty neat trick here: the ship is called the Ananke while the AI person is simply called Ananke. I tried hard to catch any inconsistencies here (because I can be that kind of jerk sometimes), but the only time could have gone either way. Kudos to the author!

The mood aboard the Ananke remains delightfully claustrophobic, while the revolution sprawls system-wide, diluting the tension in that struggle. Constance has to face a reality more akin to Ahab and Moby Dick, while Althea deals with a sentient glorified computer that has no comprehension of human morality.

An auxiliary teenage girl named Marisol proves to be the humane advisor to Constance and her revolution, while the (in my opinion) autistic Althea proves incapable of teaching her AI daughter basic moral concepts. The dichotomy is interesting to meditate on.

My Difficulties

All of my difficulties with this novel are with the system-sprawling revolution portions. The Ananke/Althea portions are brilliant. Even the grotesque surgery scene at the end is necessary. This is an adult novel that is not squeamish about any kind of violence.

There is a scene early on in which Constance gives a hand gun to a ten-year old girl stuck in the bombed out rubble of her war torn city so she can protect herself. The instructions given are minimal – safety off, point, pull trigger – and I wondered if this was on purpose. Certainly a young girl should be warned about recoil, and/or blowback. No such warnings are given. Is that unawareness on the author’s part, or symptomatic of Constance’s slide from reality?

Another difficulty for me was the ease of moving fleets of ships from planet or moon to other bodies in our solar system. Late in the novel a relativistic drive is briefly mentioned as the means to travel vast distances in days instead of months, but no further explanation is offered. I googled the concept and found that such a thing is improbable and hotly debated. That doesn’t spoil it for me, but the lack of explanation does. I don’t criticize books that use FTL drives, even though most scientists consider them impossible. But an earlier notice would have removed the confusion earlier.

Along these same lines, the convenient lining up of the planets on one side of the Sun for easy access destroys any hope of suspending my disbelief. That just isn’t realistic.

Lastly, how Constance can rid all the planets and moons of the dreaded System without some idea of a replacement governmental system is amazingly short-sighted. She never really gives thought to anything beyond destroying the System.

So, as a result, the story flagged for me so much that I went into “skimving” mode around page 220 of 290. “Skimving” is a copyrighted and trademarked method of reading quickly, and it’s all mine, so don’t try to use it without permission!

But, I had to drop into normal reading by page 270 because the ending goes off the HOOK! On both sides of this story!


Read this book. Get the sense, get the flavor, endure until the end. You might like the bits that bored me. But the ending of both parts are nigh unforgettable, and well worth the effort.

Something puzzles me: Why exactly is this titled “Supernova?” Is it a reference to Althea, Ananke, Constance, the rebellion? What exactly is that supernova-like thing that Constance sees at the end?

I have a hunch, but not much evidence to support it. Regardless, another installment would be welcome.

25 August 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit

by Yoon Ha Lee

Machineries of Empire Book One

Let’s begin with Parental Advisories, as normal. Then an attempt will be made to tell you what this book is about without – oh, who am I kidding?! There will be spoilers, but you’ll be given fair warning to bail before then if you want to read this novel for yourself. This means I’ll have to change the order of things.

Parental Advisories first; THEN I’ll tell you what my own opinion about this book is; lastly it will be summarized with well advertised spoilers at the end. Agreed? (No? My website, so deal with it.)

Parental Advisories

Profanity: LOADS! I won’t say the f-bomb is pervasive, but it certainly comes close. Basically this is a war story, and (trope #1) everyone knows soldiers swear like a little blue “F-U-Elmo” when you give him the slightest squeeze.

Violence: LOADS! Grisly, gory, bloody, any way the author can depict it and MORE! He describes the viscera, brain splatters, intestinal flailing as if it’s a Rockette’s Can-Can line badly out of sync. Then he glories in it, adding sprightly poetic descriptions to evoke the sense that there is a strange beauty to the carnage.

Sex: One bizarre scene near the end. Slightly graphic, but young readers won’t know what they’re reading, so it barely achieves “mentionable” status.

Parents: It is not my place to tell you what to let your gremlins read or listen to. All I can tell you is that I wouldn’t let mine near this. Do what you want.

My Own Opinion

Well, if anyone has read the webpage here called “Vonne’s Ratings” (where I detail the rules in my universe) you already know that Mr. Yoon Ha Lee has triggered an avalanche of stuff I hate. So, we are off to a bad start.

Mr. Lee is a skilled and beautiful writer, subject matter notwithstanding. He is best known for dozens of short stories that are staggeringly imaginative and inventive. This particular novel has been anxiously awaited by the SF scene, primarily because it is Mr. Lee’s first full length novel. Many well respected SF writers have chimed in with enthusiastic reviews, marveling at its mathematical precision and world building. Google it, you’ll see.

I cannot recommend it. The calendrical culture is – in my view – merely an artifice with no more relevance than to lend an exotic air to a story that is really mundane. The caste system of the hexarchate is about the same, merely a reflection of what is probably truer than we care to admit about our own societal systems. (Americans especially would hate the idea of acknowledging any caste system here, but the wiser know it has already been that way for a very long time.)

Plot Summary

There were originally seven main castes in the hexarchate (then known as a heptarchate), but one caste became too rambunctious and started breaking a lot of rules. So, they were nearly decimated into extinction. That’s all in the past.

This story kicks off with that seventh caste (the Liozh) arising again and taking control of a very special space station that represents all of the castes (called the Fortress of Scattered Needles). Now they are imposing a “heretical calendar,” or way of living that is not in harmony with the standard calendrical way of the entire human race. This leads to “calendrical rot,” an unstable society.

What should the other castes do to take back their special space station and restore order? (No, I’m not going to tell you the names of any castes but the three main ones. The others are there for . . . well, I suspect they are there to occasionally move the plot along, but otherwise really serve no actual purpose at all.)

They get the cooperation of a Kel (the boot soldiers of the military) named Cheris, a female officer who has shown an aptitude for math far above her station in life. Then they download into her the personality of a dead, possibly insane, General of the Shuos class, named Jedao. This general has been in a sort of hibernation over the last four centuries because he is amoral, not really caring who or how many people he kills, and can’t be let loose except in very extreme situations. Like this one.

A caveat here: this General Shuos Jedao casts his own shadow around Kel Cheris, as if she has two. Only Jedao’s shadow has nine eyes of a fox that glow. Neat trick that, and it explains the title.

They are given a swarm of assault ships with exotic weaponry to go liberate the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Mayhem ensues with the occasional amusing servitor sideshow (R2-D2 and C-3PO equivalents), and some really funny message interchanges among the Liozh who are trying to figure out if they should even acknowledge, let alone try to repel, the approaching swarm. I liked them. That’s about it.


What in the HELL is so great about this story? Rather bland, unimaginative, Seven Samurai, Patton, Ocean’s Eleven even! The whole “download-but-with-a-shadow” trick is unexplained, nor are any of the weapons explained, nor how the ships operate. It reeks of fantasy rather than science fiction.

And what is the message? Is the author really trying to tell me that chaos is a valuable part of culture? I learned that watching Bugs Bunny when I was a tadpole! OLD NEWS!

Alright, we find out by the end that General Jedao completely takes over Kel Cheris’ body and is implementing a centuries old plan he set in motion to breed heretic ideals throughout all of the hexarchate. We find out that the hexarchate suspected this and really sent him on a suicide mission with even his own swarm dedicated to killing him at the slightest hint of treachery, which they failed to do.

Setting up nicely the second book in this series. Which I will probably not waste my time on unless someone tells me I’m just being obstinate.

Let’s be clear: I have no bones with Yoon Ha Lee, and have enjoyed his exotic stories. But this is a vile, blood-drenched, average war story with lots of words that lack clarity. “Invariance Ice:” What comes to your mind when you hear that? “Carrion Bomb?” “Threshold winnowers?” They aren’t explained, so they mean NOTHING! Except clearly new ways humans have found to destroy each other, and the author would rather show that than explain anything.

And to think I could have been playing cribbage with my soul-mate instead of wasting so much time on this book. Now THAT I resent! Give me my time back, Mr. Lee! Certainly in your universe that’s possible.


15 August 2016

Vonne’s Ten Rules of Writing

Vonne Anton’s 10 Rules of Writing

I’ve read lots of “how to write” books and/or web pages from various unknown authors; nincompoops who couldn’t sell a book even if it were dipped in chocolate. People like Stephen King, David Brin, Jack McDevitt, Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison and others like them. You’ve probably never heard of those people, but hopefully they’ll be successful one day. I’ve boiled down their recommendations into a simple Top 10 Rules of Writing.

  1. Write, write, write every day about anything (most say this is all of the Top 3 Rules). Write letters, blogs, stories, vignettes, scratch hate messages onto bathroom stalls, “tag” your neighborhood with remarkably provocative novel concepts, re-write cereal box trivia, etc.
  2. Edit and rewrite whatever you wrote. Over and over and over and . . . I think you get the point.
  3. Establish a goal, and construct a reasonable plot to achieve it. A “goal” is defined as “What do you hope to accomplish? What message do you want to convey, if any? How far will you need to throw it to swish the trash basket?”
  4. Do research to enhance the plot’s feasibility and to assist the suspension of disbelief. There’s an old maxim: “Write what you know.” But they didn’t have Google back then. With Google and imagination, I say challenge yourself and research what you don’t know and write about it if it helps you achieve your goal. You’ll become a smarter writer. Fun fact: most successful writers pay someone to do this for them. Yeah, that’s what money can buy.
  5. Respect all of your characters; keep dialogue or clothing styles, attitudes, personalities, motivations, and goals unique to each character, while still allowing them to grow and change. Be patient with them. They’re only people. And you created them. For those who believe in God, you’re pretty glad He’s patient, right?
  6. Don’t panic when your characters change the direction of the plot on you; it’s their story and they might know better. If this happens, save the original plot for later and write characters that will actually behave themselves.
  7. Don’t challenge the vocabulary of readers before they have engaged with the characters; you can teach them new words later, and the reader will accept it because they are already invested. Some authors deliberately throw in a couple of words in the first couple of pages that cause me to scramble for the dictionary. But then I get captivated by the plot of the dictionary and never get back to that other thesaurus. And no, I am not content to wait for that fabled “Dictionary” movie.
  8. Disappear from your project. This is a blow to the writer’s ego, but your name is on the cover, so relax. If the reader keeps thinking about the author and how wondrous your writing is, ultimately they miss some of the finer points of the story, and then you failed. If the reader stays engaged with the story to the very end, they will reflectively stare at the cover name afterwards and remember you for future reads. Joy and peace fill the land.
  9. Think of a title, but don’t fall in love with it. Editors and agents may break your heart with their own ideas about the title. They aren’t always right, but they are the folks giving you money, so flex.
  10. Write, write, write.

Harlan Ellison adds: Be angry. If a writer isn’t angry they shouldn’t be writing. But Mr. Ellison has quite a reputation for being a cranky, angry, old man. Ray Bradbury was rarely angry and he wrote beautifully.

One other thing to remember (yes, James Patterson, I’m looking at you): don’t allow yourself to sink into formulaic writing habits. Grow and improve and claim victory over “different!” If the reader suspects you are merely changing the names of places and characters and hitting “Print” or “Attach” to crank out one or more novels a year, then you have lost your soul, and the reader is on to your evil machinations.

Somewhere in there you’ll need to take some time submitting your stories and arguing with editors or agents, but that is about publishing, not writing. I don’t know anything about publishing. Oops, did I just say that? I only know two sure-fire things about publishing: 1) Write really good! and 2) Pay close attention to how your target publisher wants the story formatted. The quickest way into the slush pile is to ignore their rules.

Well, there it is.

What did I miss? Don’t be afraid. Tell me.

VA 7 August 2016

Hugo’s and Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

By N. K. Jemisin

I’ve puzzled for days about writing this review, but eventually came to the conclusion my difficulties were my own biases and not relevant to this novel’s merits. So, we will begin as usual with parental advisories, then into a lame review, a discussion of my own waywardness about this novel, and finally, a discussion of all the Hugo Nominations for Best Novel this year of 2016 (predictions included).

Parental Advisories

Language: A moderate amount of the f-bomb and little else that would register very high on the “possibly offense” meter. Only a couple of references to male genitals; the occasional f-bomb is due to high-stress WTF circumstances, but most of them are used accurately to describe sex between people who don’t love each other; and perhaps a couple of times coarsely describing sex between people who DO love each other. This is a trend in SF/F these days: the idea that this word is appropriate in all situations. Personally, I disagree, but well, there it is.

Sex/Nudity: Some, usually not explicit. There is one scene that is explicit between a threesome: a man and a woman who do not love each other but are having a child because of an edict that they must, and another man that both of the others are in love with. Or perhaps, in lust with. Anyway, that menage a trois is more explicit than usual.

Violence: When you think about it, there is quite a lot, but little bloodletting. This will be explained in the summary that will follow. Hint: Volcanoes and Earthquakes.

Recommendations: parents might be best off reading this first and then deciding for themselves whether it is appropriate for their yearlings.

Summary (particularly lame)

This novel insinuates more than it explains, so some of this review will include my inferred out-sinuations. The first one is that this takes place on an Earth in the far future, having been spoiled by humans to the degree that its very mantle is convulsing. (It is not clearly stated whether this is far future earth, but the inhabitants are humans, and they call it Earth, so . . . well, there it is.) Therefore, this is a dystopian future wherein mankind no longer looks to the stars because their full attention is demanded by tectonic plate shifting and continental drift and lots of earthquakes. There is basically only one continent at the time of this story (map included).

A few humans have developed a special ability – stemming from their, well, brain stem appropriately – to sense the quakes and even exert substantive force to quell them, limit them, or redirect them. Unfortunately, this ability can – and is – used as a weapon also. It is hard to wage war when the enemy has a citizen that can literally drop a mountain on you. To constrain such, there has developed a group of people called Guardians, who can render impotent that seismic ability (called orogene: you might as well get used to that word as you will see it a lot if you read this novel). Don’t bother getting a dictionary, as the author provides a nice glossary to help the reader out. (And – not one, but – TWO Appendices! Mostly boring historical background stuff.)

Then there are the stone eaters. They literally subsist on rocks. Also, they pass through rock as if melting into them and coming out the other side of that mountain; or go underground and come up where they wish, and can even drag people underground with them. These humanoids are carefully not called human. And this is where my problems begin, because they feel like “fantasy.” More on that later.

Moving on, three groups of characters, all headed up by a strong female point of view, are followed throughout this novel as they seek a way to just exist safely on this world. All three of these women/girls are orogenes with varying degrees of power to shake and bake. One is a school girl getting her training in the central government’s school for the seismically gifted called the Fulcrum. Another is searching for her lost daughter and the no-good husband who stole her and killed their baby son. The third is paired up with the most powerful orogene on the planet, a man named Alabaster, and they are seeking to stop a volcano erupting in a coastal city, as well as procreate a more perfect orogenic baby. (Rather like that name, Alabaster. Don’t you? If he dies, it might describe the baby, sorta. That was a joke. Yes, lame, but well, there it is.)

Tumultuous and surprising times occur, but protocol forbids me from telling you that [redacted for spoilers], and that will blow your mind! The only further thing I can say about [redacted] is that when you finish the book, you will start reading it over again armed with foreknowledge and delight once more!

The first couple of chapters in this are written exquisitely. As if the author chose each word carefully and precisely to reveal mysteries you did not suspect were lurking there. I couldn’t predict what the next paragraph, nor even the next sentence, nor even the NEXT WORD was going to be. Honestly, after that grandiose beginning, the rest of it settles into more easily understood and accessible adventure prose. This kept me from engaging with the characters, as I was continually thinking about the author. Rule #8 violation: The author shalt disappear from thine storeys!

My only real criticism is the tone. The future is dark and bleak again, and again, and again. I am SO TIRED of dystopian views of the future. The author has a degree in the Trick-Cyclist field (that’s what I call Psychiatrists, and is a misnomer when applied to her; she is trained in psychology and education). Please everybody, go take some Xanax and relax, or take some Zoloft and conquer your depression! You might be right: the future could be awful; but you might be wrong, too. I read for entertainment, and studiously refuse to meditate on the possible pointlessness of my existence for entertainment! Ms. Jemisin should know this!

This is the first in the series, and I am likely to read the next simply because it is called “The Obelisk Gate,” and the obelisks that float gemlike in the air over this world are never clearly explained. I want to know about them!

My Limitations

I don’t do fantasy. Not really. Exactly what category this novel is eludes many other reviewers, and that might be the point. Before I started this review, I felt it important to see what others had said. They were each as conflicted as me. I have decided to call it “science fiction fantasy” for lack of a better term. And yes, I stole that from one of those other reviewers.

When it comes to “science fiction fantasy” I am a complete hypocrite! I love Star Wars and Star Trek and they both contain fantasy elements (that whole FTL bugaboo), but because they are in space it’s okay. Here, in this novel, I really couldn’t quite get there. This problem goes back a long, long way.

A decade or more ago, booksellers started lumping Science Fiction in with Fantasy and that ticked me off! I didn’t want to read fantasy, and I didn’t want to shuffle through a bunch of zombies, unicorns, wizards, and vampires or werewolves to find the rare actual Sci-Fi book! Hours of frustration for me have been spent on this.

This novel makes me look at it differently, and somewhat more positively. Just not enough for this year’s crop of Hugo nominees. Three of the five are fantasies, including this one.

The 2016 Hugo Nominations for Best Novel

I’ve already commented elsewhere in this blog that Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is another epic doorstop and great, but derivative from Jack Williamson’s 2002 winner of the John W. Campbell Award. I don’t expect it to win. He could really use an editor. Don’t get me wrong, I love his stuff, but he evidently loves the sound of his own voice typing more than he should.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy will likely remain unread by me. I liked the first one (Ancillary Justice), but all the gender confusion was just boring and slightly irritating in the second one (Ancillary Sword), which I didn’t bother to finish. A case of the gimmick getting overdone. Ms. Leckie won the Hugo – deservedly so – for the first one in 2014. I doubt they will give her another one in this series.

I am chagrined to admit that I have never read a single Jim Butcher novel. That fantasy thing again. He’s been around a while, so he might get it.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is fantasy, and I probably won’t read it. She already has the Nebula Award for this novel this year, so I’m guessing the Hugo folks will bypass her just because The Fifth Season exists as an alternate.

My money is on The Fifth Season, perhaps just because I read it, but also because there is a big controversy about diversity in science fiction that is a massive distraction. I think the Hugo will go to Jemisin just for the backlash, if not for the writing. Ms. Nora K. Jemisin is an African-American woman living in New York. Perfect statement award. That is not meant as a slam of her or this novel in any way. If it wins, I will be happy for her and glad I read it.

You will probably be glad you read it also. It has served to stretch my view of exactly what “science fiction fantasy” can be. I’ve known this for some time (way back in the early 70’s when reading Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and Again DV), but have generally tried to play in my preferred sand box. Perhaps I have been missing out on a lot of good experiences.

And finally: well, there it is.

VA – 6 August 2016