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N.A. Ratnayake

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families - J. Anthony Lukas "To say that Common Ground is about busing in Boston is a bit like saying that Moby Dick is about whaling in New Bedford." - back cover

The Quiet War

The Quiet War - Paul J. McAuley Well deserving of its many accolades and awards, The Quiet War is a novel among those on the new hard science fiction frontier. McAuley artfully blends genetic engineering, artificial ecosystems, political intrigue, sociology, environment, economics, and space travel. The prose is direct and well crafted, and the ideas simultaneously fulfill both aims of what I love to see in science fiction: exploring future possibilities and holding a critical mirror to the current times.

I think it is also worth mentioning that McAuley's protagonists are strong females with depth, who buck the two-dimensional stereotypes often seen in the genre. The novel also declines to glorify (or vilify) western cultural projections of humanity's space-faring future. Most importantly, this welcome diversity in thought and character does not come, as it often does, at a compromise to craft -- McAuley has bucked the status quo and set a new standard for contemporary science fiction.


Cosmopolitics - Paris Arnopoulos A good faith stab at attempting to consolidate information on a wide-ranging and complex question. How do we set up social structures that will work for the dawn of the real space age... when space is commercial accessible and exploitable by private interests?

However, the perspective is dated and some of the underlying assumptions naive. For example, Arnopoulos assumes that wealth disparity is due purely to the random distribution of resources on the planet and who was able to apply innovation to make use of them. This perspective completely ignores the much larger role that exploitation, slavery, genocide, and predatory monetary policies have had on the distribution of wealth in all human societies to date. Economics in a free market system are not based on people cooperating in rational self-interest, but rather conscious and subconscious xenophobia and the drive to maximize in-group wealth.

These human tendencies are certainly not going to magically disappear just because we will venture out into the solar system. Consider that a private company is now resupplying the space station and has designs on Mars, another private interest is sending a manned (slingshot) mission to Mars by the end of the decade, and still another is planning to mine asteroids in roughly the same timeframe. This is real, and this is now, and not facing the very real social problems we still have on earth will hardly lead us to anywhere sustainable or equitable in space.

While I did glean some useful thinking points from many of the essays, I confess to putting it down halfway through due to its sociopolitical and economic naivete.

Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience

Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience - Ben R. Finney The book contains a series of essays, the published proceedings of The Conference on Interstellar Migration that took place in 1983 at Los Alamos. Now three decades in the past, many of the perspectives are somewhat dated. However, the core physics and essential social questions remain potent. The essays consider not just the technological hurdles of human colonization of space, but the myriad sociological, ethical, biological, and psychological challenges as well. The essays look to the past for anthropological models on which to base future projections of individual and large-scale human behavior under novel circumstances.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls Fascinating character studies, strung together on the common thread of love.

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction

Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction - Kelly Jennings, Shay Darrach, Angeli Primlani, Jasmine Templet, Margaret M. Gilman, Kevin Bennett, Jude-Marie Green, Clifford Royal Johns, Sophie Constable, Dany G. Zuwen, Sabrina Vourvoulias, M. Bennardo, Sean Jones, Barbara Krasnoff, Camille Alexa, A.D. Spencer, Andrew Crossed Genres has released a great collection in MENIAL. Rating an anthology is always difficult, because my ratings for individual stories tend to vary. I would really like to give MENIAL a 3.5; alas, that is not an option, so I'll play it conservative and 3 it is.

Here's the good. Firstly, I LOVE the theme of the anthology. MENIAL focuses on the people whose lives, hopes, struggles, and dreams would never have crossed the minds of the bridge crew of the Enterprise. They are the common folk, the laborers. The sometimes reviled, but more often ignored. And they are always at the mercy of the exploitation of those at the top, and their own vulnerability to the vagaries of chance.

Secondly, as with all of what Crossed Genres publishes, MENIAL features characters whose meta-identities are disproportionately ignored or invisible in the greater tapestry of speculative fiction (in authentic ways at least). By these I mean anyone but straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males. Not that such characters (or writers) are bad or need be eliminated from the genre, I hardly mean that at all. Just that their stories should not be the overwhelming majority of the stories being told. CG does a fine job of advancing the genre on that front, and MENIAL is no exception.

For the above reasons alone, I strongly recommend taking a look at this anthology, especially if you are a writer. Exposure to the perspectives of the speculative working class and the conflicts of identity presented herein will make your own reading and writing more aware of all facets of the human element.

Here is my complaint. I'm not one who believes that "speculative fiction" means that you can do whatever you want. Believable worlds (even imaginary ones) must be self-consistent, and I believe many of the stories in the anthology fall short on that count. Advancing diversity in the genre should not come at the price of diluted rigor, nor should science fiction ever be excused from the same aesthetic standards as mainstream literary fiction.

Science fiction should most certainly speculate on what we think could be true; and certainly no holds barred on anything we do not know for sure cannot be true. But if you are writing fiction that blatantly violates known laws of physics, chemistry, or biology, there had better be a good (and explained) reason. And fantasy is not exempt: superheroes, wizards, and Jedi all must use their powers in particular ways, which are governed by rules that create consistent limitations (and interesting plot points).

As just one example, if your story takes place in an asteroid belt (especially ours), then it is ludicrously improbable that one could be suddenly hit by a stray asteroid. The asteroids are hundreds of thousands of kilometers apart, with relative velocities perhaps in the tens of kilometers per second or less. It is highly unlikely that you would even be able to see another asteroid while flying near any particular one, and you'd have on the order of days to motnhs to see one coming (especially with the level of technology required to have private spacecraft flying around). You'd have to intentionally try to hit one, and it it would be really hard to do so. Just ask the mission planners for NASA's Dawn mission. This is simple math on facts that are not hard to look up. I'll leave it there, but I highlighted close to forty instances of questionable consistency in the anthology.

Further, in several stories, it was never really explained why such menial positions exist for humans at all, given the level of technology explicit or implicit in the milieu. E.g. if setting X is possible, then task Y would already have to be automated as a prerequisite, or something would be ludicrously expensive or inconvenient. Some stories had interesting characters and consistent science and technology, but it was hard to concentrate on what was happening when the engineering part of my brain would remind me every page or two that "we already have robots that could do this... faster, cheaper, and better."

(As an aside, this is of course a hugely unexplored consequence of the future trajectory of the "knowledge economy." As Pournelle says, if you invent a technology that drives the truck for you, what do you do with the truck driver? No doubt this made writing stories for MENIAL quite difficult.)

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an excellent job of seamlessly integrating the theme into a solid story without sacrificing rigor or consistency:

Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
Storage, by Matthew Cherry
The Belt, by Kevin Bennet (though I question the effect of one major collision)
Air Supply, by Sophie Constable
Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen (absolutely fascinating projection of nanobot technology into military use)
Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Props to the following specific stories that I thought did an exceptional job of rendering believable, authentic characters who promote diversity in science fiction without being gratuitous:

Thirty-Four Dollars, by M. Bernnardo
A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
Carnivores, by A.D. Spencer
Snowball the Rabbit Was Dead, by Angeli Primlani
Storage, by Matthew Cherry
Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

And double props to the following stories which made at least one of the above lists AND did it through great prose (i.e., the writing itself was also enjoyable):

A Tale of a Fast Horse, by Sean Jones
Leviathan, by Jasmine M. Templet
The Heart of the Union, by Dany G. Zuwen
Ember, by Sabrina Vourvoulias

I note that Ember is the only one to make all three lists.

I will conclude with a positive as well. MENIAL has definitely been a strong influence on the process of planning a novella/novel I am working on, through which I am attempting to explore social justice issues projected forward into a near-future, space colonization setting. As one of my main characters would probably fit in with many of the protagonists in MENIAL, it's easy to see how I have every story in this anthology to thank for many new ideas which are now simmering.

In sum, notwithstanding my ranting about consistency, I think that MENIAL is worth the read (especially for the particular stories that I called out) and also to support the diversification of the genre.

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer's Art and Craft

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer's Art and Craft - Susan M. Tiberghien The philosophy and tone are more than a bit New Agey, but the exercises are valuable and the advice is practical.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein I will undoubtedly be branded a science fiction heretic, but I just don't see what all the fuss is about.

I can respect Heinlein's technical proficiency as a writer, particularly the highly consistent dialects and comprehensive rendering of technology. I can appreciate how forward-thinking (in some respects) Heinlein was in anticipating the space era in a novel written in the mid 60's. I can also see how this novel undoubtedly influenced many writers down the line.

None of these merits, however, makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress either enjoyable, informative, or insightful to the contemporary reader. Its technological futurism is obsolete, its view of humanity mired in a bygone era of chauvinism and nationalism, and its social commentary amounting to little more than Ayn Rand in Space.

I care about none of the characters, because I cannot relate to them -- thus it fails as a story (to me). Nor does the story bring me to any new understanding of the human condition, because its postulates in this regard are archaic -- thus it fails as art (to me).

My impression of Heinlein's masterpiece is something analogous to the Deuteronomic Code: it has its set place in the establishment's canon, mostly for historical reasons, but ultimately has very little worthwhile to say to contemporary society.

Majesty's Offspring

Majesty's Offspring - A.J. Vega Entertaining reading for the bus, waiting in line, or whenever you have a minute to kill... but it didn't really make me think. Plot is mildly interesting but not very complex, characters are on the shallow end, and the dialogue is trite. I really don't think space opera is my thing.


Anathem - Neal Stephenson In terms of interest, the plot is little better than decent. Also, the characters are somewhat emotionally flat. The redeeming quality, overwhelmingly, is sheer force of ideas -- in quantity and quality. Anathem exemplifies one of my favorite roles of science fiction as a genre: to play with the possible and to spur highly intelligent imagination.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, and I'm not going to even try. However, Though knowledge thereof is not necessary to understanding the book, I can recommend Anathem highly if you enjoy any of the following subjects: mathematics (particularly geometry and topology), quantum physics (particularly the many-worlds / world-branching hypotheses), Latin, the structure of religious orders, hierarchies of thought, philosophy, metaphysics, the sociology of religion, cycles in history, individual spirituality, and/or political intrigue.

I think it is destined to enter the canon of Great Science Fiction Novels That Any Self-Respecting Fan Should Have At Least Read.

Green Grass, Running Water

Green Grass, Running Water - Thomas King How do a people continue to tell their story, when their souls have been leeched from them, then bottled and sold?

American Nerd: The Story of My People

American Nerd: The Story of My People - Benjamin Nugent The rating is based on my reading of the first chapter, beyond which I will probably never proceed.

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Raymond Chandler is the fedora-topped man's man answer to the trashy romance novel. Full of hard-biting dialogue, dark alleyways and fiery lithe blondes, pistols, racketeers, and cheap cigarette smoke -- The Big Sleep is detective pulp noir at its finest.

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. I was a part of that nastiness now.

Set up on the beach or pour yourself a glass of cheap whiskey and indulge in night of suspense, with zero pretense of being anything close to high-brow literature. Guaranteed to be as ridiculously overdone as the metaphors filling every page.

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City - Bill Reynolds Bill Reynolds dives into far more than a great baseball game in this account of the 1978 American League East playoff game between the Red Sox and the Damnyankees. Here baseball in Fenway Park is placed in the context of the racial, social, and economic divisions ravaging Boston at the time. Reynolds tells the tale of a city struggling to reconcile a view of itself as an enlightened center of civilization against the ugly hatred and violence that was daily tearing Boston apart. Underneath it all, we see more than racial questions -- the story of a suburban elite using inner city children as pieces in a game, playing the suspicions of the city's poorest (Blacks and Irish) against each other for the sake of politics.

'78 seems well-written but poorly edited. The juxtaposition of jumping between a play-by-play of the baseball game itself and the zoomed-out view of the contemporary context is not managed well, and the overall impression becomes one of disorganization. Similes and metaphors are sometimes repeated often enough to get tiresome. The chapters feel less like parts of a whole and more like individual columns pasted together.

Despite my criticisms, I did find it to be an enjoyable read. I was repeatedly brought into the historical foundations for many of the modern fractures I will have to confront myself as a future teacher in Boston's urban neighborhood schools. I liked getting a look into the past of the Red Sox certainly; but I think more importantly I have taken away a more thoughtful view of the present state of the city.

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, 10th Anniversary Edition

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life,  10th Anniversary Edition - Parker J. Palmer More a philosophy of inner being than a manual for teaching, this is an absolutely wonderful read for anyone working in a field that involves the intersection of people and ideas (which in theory should be everybody). It does get a little esoteric and new-agey... but the overall message is positive, relevant, and engaging.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck When life isn't repetitive for the characters in Cannery Row, it is brutish, short, and/or filled with arbitrary misfortunes. Most have no idea how to deal with it. So they mostly don't. Yet they still manage to find happiness in companionship, simple living, and embracing who they are at heart. Cannery Row is an important parable that highlights how, though the System doesn't give a damn about the common man nor does an indifferent universe give a damn about mankind, we all do still have each other. So we might as well cherish what we have and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

A quick read, and it gave me a great sense of the feeling of the real Cannery Row in Monterey, where I bought and read the book.