The Power, by Naomi Alderman

29751398There are few things that are always true, but I’ve always thought that the old proverb about how power corrupts everything it touches comes closest to the mark. It’s definitely true in Naomi Alderman’s angry novel, The PowerIn this novel, women gain the upper hand over men for the first time in centuries when they suddenly develop the ability to deliver lethal electric shocks at will. The Power is rewritten as a retelling of the ten years after the first girl shocked someone, a work of historical fiction written by a male author centuries in the future.

The Power is a satirical thought experiment rather than a straight work of science fiction. Thus, character development and logic take a back seat to exploring gender power dynamics. We bounce between three female narrators who use their newly developed powers to amass even more power in religion, politics, and crime. They face fierce resistance from men who are unwilling to cede their places. They’re not entirely helpless in the face of the women’s power, so it isn’t long before the two sexes are on the brink of all out war.

They’re balanced by the perspective of a male journalist who documents the changes he sees as women around the world start to get revenge on men for years of violence and suffering. The Power is one of the angriest books I think I’ve ever read. Over and over in this book, we see the perpetrators of abuse, sexual harassment, and rape flip from male to female.The lesson that sexual discrimination is really a matter of power is reinforced at every turn. I say male and female because this book is very clear about the divide between the biological sexes. I wondered about trans women and men, but they don’t make an appearance here at all and I was disturbed by their absence.

The Power is more a talking piece than anything else, I think. Considered apart from the violence, the idea that women might gain a power that puts them on equal or better footing to male physical strength is tempting to contemplate. Would this equalization make it possible for males and females to leave behind centuries of domination of one over the other? This violence in The Power argues against it. This cynical book shows us many scenes in which power is only used for revenge or to take advantage of male bodies in the same way that sexually rapacious men take advantage of female bodies. Women like me might think that we could do better if we had more power, but human nature to act selfishly and be tempted will always get in the way. Power will always corrupt, no matter how much we fight against its corroding touch.

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An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

34381254Aster’s world is too small for all the people living in it. Her world is the generational ship, Matilda, crammed with thousands of souls that live in a strict hierarchy based on skin color and desk level. Something went wrong with their home planet; then something went wrong with the ship. Matilda is dying. Unfortunately for everyone on the ship, their leaders are content to let Matilda float through space forever. But in An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon, everything comes to a head after Aster starts to investigate why her mother died on the day she was born.

Solomon populated her novel with diverse characters, which I deeply love and appreciate. Very few of the characters conform to traditional genre tropes. Instead, we have characters who are the next thing to asexual, have mental illnesses, or appear to be on the autism spectrum. Genders are rarely binary. Reading about Aster (who might be on the spectrum) alone is worth the price of admission to this book. But on top of all this wonderful diversity, An Unkindness of Ghosts has an intriguing conspiracy at its heart and the race to put right the wrong of the past is simply thrilling.

Aster has always struggled to fit in. Not only do metaphors and some human behavior baffle her and not only did she lose her mother on the day of her birth, but Aster was born too brown and too far from the upper decks to pursue her talent for healing. She is constantly harassed by the whiter guards. She has to labor on the field decks with her relatives and deck mates. In her extremely limited free time, she heals as much as she can with plants from her bodged together botanarium. We meet her as she is amputating the foot of a young child, whose foot turned gangrenous from frostbite. The cold—caused by the lack of warmth and energy from Matilda’s pocket sun—has made conditions nearly intolerable on the lower decks. (I say nearly because people are surviving. It’s just miserable.)

The injustice of how the upper deckers (the whiter folk) treat the lower deckers (the browner folk) makes Aster burn with anger. After the amputation, she starts to agitate for better conditions. Meanwhile, her volatile friend Giselle clues Aster in to the fact that Aster’s mother’s journals are written in code. Aster and Giselle start to tease out the meaning from the journals and discover that everything they’ve been told about Matilda‘s journey and its sun is a lie.

As it rolls on, An Unkindness of Ghosts puts more and more pressure on Aster and her few allies. The tension builds and builds—so much so that I had a very hard time putting the book down to go to bed. The tension, the plot, and the refreshing diversity of this book made for an utterly gripping reading experience. I hope this book gets lots of attention after it’s published.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde

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The History of Bees

Bees have fascinated humans for centuries, I suppose, because it’s unsettling to see such small insects build such complicated structures and societies. Even after all those centuries of study, bees are still mysterious as we learn in Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees. Lunde shows us three characters in three different countries and three different centuries who depend on bees (more closely than the rest of us do). The three seemingly disparate characters also seek to impose order on their families, so that the next generation hums along and maintains the orderly status quo. Of course, this is an engraved invitation for everything to go topsy-turvy.

Lunde first takes us to the end of twenty-first century to show us a world without bees. Tao works as a pollinator at a massive pear orchard. Everyone is hungry and poor, yet they carry on because humans tend to be stubborn in Tao’s future China. The same cannot be said for the main character at our next setting. In England in 1852, William has refused to get out of bed for months because of ennui and malaise. He’s lost his passion for everything, until his son happens to leave a book on beekeeping in his room. The book relights William’s interest in science and he returns to life (though he’s irritable and too willing to throw in the towel with things go awry). In between Tao and William is George, who manages a large beekeeping operation in the Ohio of 2007. Until he’s hit with a serious case of colony collapse disorder, George’s greatest irritation is his son, who doesn’t seem to want to take over the farm (bee ranch? I’m not sure what to call it) after he goes off to college.

The chapters alternate between the three characters. Bees are an important part of all of their lives, but I feel that they have more in common as fierce, unbending parents. In each century, the parents face children who—like children often do—want to go their own way. Tao’s young son would rather run around and play than learn math. George’s son wants to be a writer and not a beekeeper. William’s son doesn’t want to do much of anything except carouse. The character’s lives would be a lot more simple if their children behaved like bees, preprogramed to fall into their genetic roles without any fuss.

I found The History of Bees to be compulsively readable, if melancholy. I wanted to yell at William and George and tell them not to be so set in their ways, that they’re making their children miserable. I had more sympathy for Tao because of what happens to her son early in the book. Also, seeing these characters’ dependence on bees made me think more of our general dependence on bees as pollinators. Without them, as we see in Tao’s China, our society would suffer its own collapse disorder as our agricultural system fell apart. We currently don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder and we still don’t know all the hows and whys of bee behavior, yet so much depends on them keeping the status quo. The events of the book make it seem like both the children and the bees are in rebellion.

What I loved about this book was its ending. The ending just shines. When I finished it, I put down my iPad with a big smile on my face.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore

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Reincarnation Blues

Milo has had many chances to get it right—almost 10,00 to be exact. One would think that he’d be able to get it right and achieve not just perfection, but Perfection. At least, that’s what his definitely not gods think. In Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore, we see Milo on his last chances to live a perfect life. The only problem is that Milo isn’t ready to move on. He’s in love with Death (who prefers to be called Suzie) and they get to be together after every incarnation. What’s the point of perfection if it means leaving the person he’s loved for millennia behind?

We meet Milo just before he’s eaten by a shark. It’s the end of one more life on earth, but it’s routine for an old soul like Milo. (His favorite death was the time he was catapulted over the walls of Vienna in 1683.) Every time he dies, Milo gets to spend time with Suzie, who he’s known almost since his first death. When he gets the itch, he picks a new life and head to earth for a while. It’s a surprisingly cozy existence for Milo—until he learns that he only gets 10,000 tries to live a Perfect life. If he doesn’t get it right, his soul is erased. No more Suzie. No more interesting lives. Nothing.

In Reincarnation Blues, we see Milo struggle to figure out how to get it right and still hang on to Suzie. These last chances play out in short episodes, with glimpses of his past lives. He lives in an asteroid prison colony, is a student of the Buddha, and more. As his clock winds down, Milo tries ever more desperately to show love to his fellow souls and make huge sacrifices to show his worthiness for just a little more existence.

This book has so many of the things I love: a non-linear view of history, a quirky love story, and plenty of reincarnation. On top of that, the tone and storyline remind me a lot of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, one of my absolute favorite books, with its irreverence and off-kilter cosmology. I truly enjoyed reading this book because it kept raising the stakes for Milo in terms of what a perfect life might be. It’s not just a matter of following rules or being kind. Rather, a soul has to make a difference in the world with its lives, so that the arc of history really does bend towards justice. The best thing, in Milo’s universe, is to improve as many lives as possible. No wonder souls have 10,000 chances at it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017. 

Riverworld and Other Stories, by Philip Jose Farmer

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Riverworld and Other Stories

Philip José Farmer was one of the leading lights of mid-twentieth century science fiction and his Riverworld series is considered some of his best writing. Unfortunately, mid-twentieth century science fiction has not aged well and this collection, Riverworld and Other Stories, contains only two Riverworld stories and a bunch of previously unpublished and unfinished standalone stories. I was disappointed in this collection.

I asked to read this book because it had Riverworld stories. I’ve been fascinated by the premise ever since I saw Syfy’s pilot episode/movie of Riverworld in 2010.  The Riverworld is a seemingly endless river valley where billions of humans have been resurrected. The world contains little metal or biodiversity, but everyone’s needs are taken care of through alien technology. No one knows why they’ve been resurrected or what they’re supposed to do now, which makes a great setting for philosophical stories about the meaning of life. While characters like Yeshua and Doctor Faustroll advocate personal reflection and improvement, most of the Riverworld is organized into kingdoms and empires run by violent warlords like Árpád the Hun or Kramer the Hammer, a German religious fanatic. This is what I wanted to read about. I got a little of it, but not enough.

The two Riverworld stories bookend a series of stories that I did not like. One of them contained a surprisingly pornographic scene in the middle of an interesting premise. I’ll admit to skimming them because I was disgusted or uninterested in the content. I only stuck around for the Riverworld stories. This collection is clearly not Farmer’s best work.

The biggest issue I had with these stories was the depiction of women. There are no female leading characters. The few prominent women seemed to have been written in solely so that the male characters would have someone to have sex with. They either have highly charged libidos (and are scorned by male characters as sluts or Jezebels) or are “good” girls who are willing to have sex with the male leads. Only the male leads and secondary characters—with two exceptions—get any kind of character development. The two women who get some development are only seen through the eyes of males who either despise or disrespect them. There was barely enough interesting content to keep me going through this collection.

I doubt that I will give Farmer another chance, no matter how much the Riverworld interests me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

The Refrigerator Monologues, by Catherynne M. Valente

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The Refrigerator Monologues

In 1999, comics writer and critic Gail Simone started a website called Women in Refrigerators to call attention to a troubling trope. In comics (and TV shows, movies, books, and other story media), hundreds of female characters get killed only to add pathos to the main character’s (almost always male) story. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente lets these characters tell their stories from their own perspectives. The stories in this short novella are poignant, fascinating, and profoundly angry. I plan to push this book into the hands of every reader I come across for the next several months. This book is absolutely brilliant.

Valente created a universe that closely mirrors our superhero universes. There are analogs for Aquaman, Batman, the Joker, Harley Quinn, and the X-Men. Part of the fun is figuring out the references. The purpose of this universe is the opposite of those universes, however. In The Refrigerator Monologues, we spend our time in Deadtown, listening to a series of women tell their origin stories, talk about their deaths, and let us know how they feel about being killed off to motivate their boyfriends and husbands to take on the Big Bad in their stories. As Daisy Green says during her story, “It always stings when there’s this whole story going on and you’re really just a B-plot walk-on who only got a look at three pages of the script” (102*)

All of the stories are sharp and interesting, but three stood out to me. Julia Ash (an analog to Jean Gray, I think) has a very confusing story because she’s been retconned so many times by a villain actually named Retcon. Julia is a super-powered mockingbird (mutant), so powerful that even her partners fear her and want to keep her on a leash. She keeps changing her appearance and popping in and out of the afterlife because Retcon keeps rewriting her story. Then there’s Pretty Polly (a Harley Quinn) who is still in love with her Mr. Punch (Joker) even though he killed her. She is a chilling portrait of the disturbing psychology of the love-obsessed female villain who is never allowed to really develop self-awareness.

The character most talked about (rightfully) is Samantha, who becomes a literal woman in the refrigerator at the end of her chapter in her boyfriend’s story. While her boyfriend, Chiaroscuro, messes about with his super pals and fights crime, Samantha pays rent, keeps up the apartment, and tries to have a normal life. But then the plot swoops in and she dies because the Big Bad wanted to hurt her boyfriend. The other monologues in this book capture the range of wronged womanhood in comics, etc., but Samantha’s story really captures the sting Daisy mentioned and the sadness of being a bystander in someone else’s story.

The Refrigerator Monologues was the book I needed to read after Rebellion. In Rebellion, I felt like the women never really got to speak for themselves. In The Refrigerator Monologues, you’re given a front row seat while the characters tell you exactly what they thought and felt. This book turns the trope inside out to ask, “Why can’t the woman ever be the hero in her own story?** Why is the girlfriend always cannon fodder?”


* Quote is from the 2017 kindle edition by Simon & Schuster.
** Yes, I know about Wonder Woman. But how many refrigerated women are there compared to female heroes who have leading roles?

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

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The Blizzard

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

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All the Birds in the Sky

The future is impossible to predict, which is why I’m always surprised that some people are so willing to give credence to prophecies and visions. There are two many factors at play to say for certain what’s going to happen very far down the road. Things are different in fiction, of course, but I tend to stay away from books about destiny and prophecies because the outcome is preordained. What I do enjoy, however, are stories that subvert this trope. Near the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, the stunning debut by Charlie Jane Anders, we learn that one or both of the protagonists will destroy the world. But since neither has actually done anything, they’re innocent. It’s a dilemma.

All the Birds in the Sky is the story of a witch and a nerd genius. (It’s a delightful blend of the two genres.) Both have a very hard time with bullies because they just don’t fit in with their peers. Because they are both ostracized, they gravitate to each other, comforting each other in the middle of rumors, dumpster wedgies, and worse. Life gets hard for each once they hit their mid-teen years. Their guidance counselor—who is an incognito assassin from a mystical order—has had a vision that these children will destroy the world with their powers. They must be stopped. But since he is prohibited (on pain of death) from killing children, he tries everything to get someone else do the dirty work. He starts with the witch, Patricia. He tells her that her only friend, Laurence, must be killed or else. When that fails, the counselor turns the school against Patricia and has Laurence packed off to a sadistic military school.

After a spectacular scene in which we learn what Patricia is capable of, All the Birds in the Sky jumps ahead. Patricia has learned to be a witch and is doing some kind of penance by healing everyone she can get her hands on. Meanwhile, Laurence has left behind his AI project to try and create a wormhole creator so that humanity can escape if earth becomes uninhabitable. The two characters’ stories once again weave together as Patricia and Laurence reestablish their friendship. Unfortunately, events run ahead of them and the pair find themselves in the middle of a war between science and magic.

I realize that my summary might make All the Birds in the Sky sound a little dull. This book is anything but. It’s just hard to capture the richness of Anders’ characterization and world-building. The science fiction chapters and the fantasy chapters are utterly convincing. It only takes Anders a few paragraphs to get you to sink into each genre. Also, unlike most destiny-based novels, Patricia and Laurence get less likely to fulfill their destinies as time goes on. How are these two, who only want the best for humanity, going to destroy the world? The mystery kept me reading All the Birds in the Sky way past my bedtime.

Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls

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Mrs. Caliban

Rachel Ingall’s Mrs. Caliban is an odd novella of a bored housewife who suddenly finds someone who needs her: an amphibian man who has recently escaped from captivity. Dorothy’s husband has been drifting away from her for years. Frank stays late at the office and doesn’t say much when he is home. They’re planning separate vacations again this year. And yet, Dorothy hangs on to her life as it is, until Larry shows up at her backdoor.

Dorothy remains admirably calm when a giant amphibian man appears at her house and starts eating her prized vegetables. When she hears his story of abuse at the hands of guards and scientists, Dorothy feels sorry for the poor, murderous creature. Their affair isn’t inevitable (because he’s a gigantic amphibian man), but it does make sense in that they are two misunderstood beings with no one to love them.

Most of this short books covers Dorothy’s efforts to help get Larry back to his home in the Gulf of Mexico, while her domestic life unravels after a few deaths and some further revelations about Frank. Even though this book was originally published in the early 1980s, it doesn’t feel very dated. There are no cell phones, of course, but apart from Larry, this story could be set any time in the last fifty or so years. It’s so brief, however, I don’t think I really understood what the story was trying to communicate to me. Dorothy is the only character we get to know in this novella. Everyone else is something that just happens to her. Still, I was entertained by this weird little tale.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.