A Closed and Common Orbit (CBR11 #18)

In early April I made the choice to put my limited free time (so, so limited in late March and early April) into a complete rewatch of Game of Thrones before the series came back for its final series. I also picked up and put down two different books earlier this month, just not feeling any of them. When it was time to travel for Easter, with a total of four flights, I reached for a sure-fire winner: A Closed and Common Orbit.

I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last summer and was excited to see what else Becky Chambers had waiting in her universe. I wasn’t disappointed, but I did have a bit of a struggle settling in to this new story. The first book was set within one ship with one small but diverse crew. A Closed and Common Orbit is an even smaller story, structurally. We are primarily with just two characters, and they hand the narrative back and forth. I had a tough time sinking into one character’s half of the story for the first third or so.

From Goodreads:

“Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.”

As Lovelace learns to navigate the body she is in following the events of the previous book (which you do not have to have read to read this one, but I suggest it anyway) she forms a new identity to go with it, and renames herself Sidra with Pepper’s blessing. I struggled with early story Sidra because she is struggling so much with the limitations of her body. As the story continues and we get more of Pepper’s background and personal history, and the story of Jane 23 unravels I found my footing in the overall story – Chambers is using hard sci-fi to have a discussion about identity, sure, but also personhood writ large.

Emmalita sold this series to me (and everyone else) as “cozy sci-fi” and that is such an accurate description. There is plot happening, and the world of Port Coriol is explored, but we are really digging into Sidra, Pepper, Blue, Owl, and Tak. Once it got going it did the thing that all really great books can do, it made me cry on public transport (I startled my seatmate on the plane).

I’m so looking forward to the next book in the series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

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All Systems Red (CBR10 #57)

Bless Cannonball Read, praise be for friends who you know share a similar taste in books, and let the world rejoice for Murderbot. I’ll be using a slightly modified plot summary from Goodreads because, well, I’m really tired.:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are (required to be) accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder (you’re shocked, I know), safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant (uninhabited) planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is (and go back to watching the serials on the feeds). But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”

I have a very hit and miss relationship with novellas, but Martha Wells seems to have nailed just the right amount of characterization and world building and forward momentum of the plot without the equation going out of balance. I identified with Murderbot from very early on – Wells has written an android that has depression and social anxiety, and is generally apathetic about the whole “life” thing.

It’s subtle in the best possible meaning of the word. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective and we are thrown into a world where we are at the whims of said apathetic android to piece the world together.  As Murderbot becomes more invested (particularly in keeping tits entertainment feed and keeping its rating from going any lower), we learn more about why the humans are where they are and why.

Murderbot’s deadpan delivery and dark humor underline how it views itself. While self-aware and in control, Murderbot still prefers to be thought of as just another piece of equipment. Due to that, it struggles to finds ways to keep itself separate from the humans while still performing its job of keeping the humans alive. I was pulled in by the sheer uncomfortableness Murderbot feels – it gets injured early in the book and I frankly aghast at its failing human parts and fluids and just wants to be left in peace to regenerate. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing and humans looking at it and seeing the details of  said personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious. This is definitely a different way into unpacking a story about relationships and our humanity.

It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”

I’ll be picking up the next three in the series for my holiday travel reading.

Morning Star (CBR8 #18)

Morning Star rounds out the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown, wunderkind of science fiction publishing the past three years. There’s a movie deal, a bunch of us at Cannonball Read have read the books, and you may want to as well. Heck, how else are you to weigh in on the many comments on scootsa1000’s first review of the book?

Let’s start off with the easy part. I liked this book. I liked it quite a bit most of the time. I liked it more than I liked Golden Son, and maybe even more than I liked Red Rising, since I thought this final book did a better job with the pacing. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It does many things well, and several things not so well.

This book, like its predecessors, is very dense. This is both a pro and a con. When you finish reading these books, you’re exhausted. There is just so much that happens and all “down time” happens off page. The reader is thrust from plot point to plot point and Brown never lets up on the accelerator. In conjunction with that, Brown never stops escalating his plot. To the point where I’m often shocked that he manages to find the skinny nuance in which he slides in even more tension and drama to a story that is already full of both.

Another point on the high stakes discussion: we, as the reader, are not allowed to love anyone. Ever. For any reason. Unless we are prepared to watch Darrow lose them. Even in the rare cases that Darrow doesn’t lose them forever, the process is heartbreaking. Brown is very good at hitting the emotional cues.

Brown will attempt to wring every emotion out of his reader over the course of the series, just prepare yourself for that. He may not succeed in making you feel all the emotions, but he is certainly going to try.

Also, on a completely silly note, I still really like the way people curse in this world. Gorrydamn is on par with frakking.

As to the underutilization of women in science fiction problem and if Brown commits too many crimes against his female characters (a topic which comes up again and again if you read reviews of his work): I come down on the side of no, he does a good job (but not great, since I have to defend it) of gender politics in his story and world building.

  • Mustang and Victra are integral to the planning and execution of everything that is done by Sevro, Darrow, and the Sons of Ares during the course of Morning Star and its predecessor Golden Son.
  • The Howlers are a female inclusive group, and the ladies are kicking just as much ass as their male counterparts. The original group had 50% ladies, and the later additions keep the ratio similar.
  • The Sovereign is female, and so is her greatest warrior Aja.
  • Orion. Blue Lady Pirate of Space. Enough Said.
  • Holiday the ever-increasingly badass Gray Legionnaire.

Things that were not so great? Similar complaints to the previous outings: there are just too many names to remember, and when a character shows up on page after having been missing for hundreds of pages, or a book or two, Brown assumes you remember. And even if you didn’t and flip back to the front of the book to the character listings with allegiances and colors to find a character you won’t – only the “major” characters are listed. Forget trying to remember which Howler is who.

The nitty gritty of battle is boring. I’m a history person, but I still don’t care. This one definitely had less of that than either Red Rising or Golden Son, but it was still boring and I may have skimmed pages here and there to get around it.

Freaking Single POV writing. I know many of you are writers, and I beseech you: if you are going to write books which expand out into a universe give the idea of additional POVs a shot. Not all narratives are served by staying faithfully with one character, and especially if that character is male and we have no avenue for getting into the heads of his female counterparts. There is a plot development at the end of the book which comes to us with ZERO foreshadowing (maybe some of you caught it? I certainly didn’t) that left a bitter taste in my mouth. I understand that the character in question had reasons for not talking to Darrow about what she was hiding, but because she felt that she couldn’t speak to him, we had no way of knowing or understanding her character motivations. It happened time and again through this story and I would have loved a few chapters from Victra, Mustang, Sevro, or even Roque or Thistle. The bad guys don’t view themselves as such, and hearing from those that had betrayed Darrow and Sevro would have made for interesting reading. But the author has to build that stuff in, and Brown didn’t and his books could have.

I remain forever, House Barca.

The Sparrow (CBR7 #4)

Many moons ago I read Dreamers of the Day for CBR4. I loved the prose, and marveled at the rich character development even if my review isn’t as effusive (the book has grown on me over time). The author, Mary Doria Russell, has received positive reviews over the course of the many Cannonball Reads, so I decided that I wanted to jump back in with this author. I put The Sparrow on my library request list, and when the email came in that it was ready I picked it up and eventually got around to reading it, without reminding myself what the plot was (I tend to go back and work through an author’s oeuvre from the beginning after I’ve discovered I enjoy their work, and The Sparrow was Russell’s first book).

The Sparrow tells the story of a not too distant future (which we are nearly already in thanks to this book being nearly 20 years old) in which extraterrestrial life has been discovered on a not too far away planet and the team that assembles to make first contact. The story ping pongs back and forth between 2019 and 2060, and eventually the years in between. One of the time periods is full of hope, and one is full of despair. The despair of our main protagonist, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz was almost more than I could bear. But we’ll get to that.

Russell imagines a near future where the United States is no longer a predominant world power having lost two economic wars with Japan. Poverty is rampant, indentured servitude has returned to common practice and so-called futures brokers mine ghettos for promising young children to educate in return for large chunks of their lifetime income. Science and space travel are accelerated from the reality we know today, with near space asteroid mining and improved medical care. It is to this world, where specialists are hired to automate human work, that the Singers are first heard by a scientist about to be replaced. He shares the news with a ragtag assortment seemingly brought together by God, and the adventure is off.

But we hear about it after knowing it all ends in tears. And throughout much of the book, as we piece together the pain Emilio has suffered, and  are eventually told what happens to his friends we are constantly asked by the author to ruminate on what it means for our faith, and for the faith of the characters. We are also asked to examine the opinions we hold of our history’s own ancient explorers and what lengths groups like the Jesuits have gone to in the name of knowledge. What has been the cost?

I would suggest this book to almost anyone. Even though it has religious overtones (Judaic and Catholic) and is science fiction. It is written in poetry, and for that alone, and for the thinking it requires I am all in. However, you should be warned that this work might trigger you if you cannot handle the killing of young people and sexual abuse. That was perhaps the one thing that threw me off while reading, was that nearly all of the characters who interact with Emilio in 2060 to one extent or another engage in victim blaming. I think now upon finishing the book that it is supposed to show us that these characters cannot imagine what Emilio endured, but to this reader it made me angry at the characters several times, and often had me deciding to put off continuing into a 2060 chapter for fear of running into it again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.