Capsule Reviews – January 2018

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty 6.3
Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer 8.5
The Changeling, by Victor LaValle 8.7
Tomorrow’s Kin (Yesterday’s Kin Book 1), by Nancy Kress 5.8
The Man in the Tree, by Sage Walker 8.2
Provenance, by Ann Leckie 8.1

six wakesMur Lafferty’s Six Wakes has an intriguing setup – six clones wake up on a mid-journey colony ship to find their previous incarnations brutally murdered and discover that their memories have been sabotaged and their personalities hacked as they try to get to the truth of what happened. The novel is a generically fun and pleasurable read, but has one major design flaw: Lafferty plays her cards too close to the vest when it comes to her characters – the plot follows everyone but endears us to no one, leaving us with scant investment in what’s at stake.
The novel’s easygoing pace and light tone don’t do it any favors either – tension is built and released too easily, when a story like this would benefit from more of a steady rise in pressure. The various moral and ethical quandaries associated with cloning are dropped on the reader but don’t offer much to chew on; the mind-hacking angle is exploited to much greater effect, and thankfully Lafferty focuses on this to drum up a satisfying conclusion to the mystery. “Adequately entertaining” is the most favorable verdict I can muster.

seven surrendersAbout halfway through Seven Surrenders, it dawned on me how nearly all the characters we’ve met in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota fit neatly into one category or another in the traditional RPG alignment system. I don’t know enough about Palmer to know if this was intentional or not (she is obviously an intellectual, and a history scholar by trade, but who can say what she does in her spare time?) but that is ultimately beside the point. Mycroft Canner, whose perspective on the proceedings is nearly absolute, is the only one who is impossible to classify. Canner, by his own admission a slippery and untrustworthy fellow, grants himself the ubiquity and breadth of understanding he denies the other actors in his grand narrative. He aggressively typecasts each player, right down to his belligerent gendering of them. They are all slaves to their nature, in his view, and their capacity for self-deception portends the unraveling of their fragile utopia. That his opinion of other humans – born of an extreme, narcissistic self-regard – is a well-documented feature of psychopathy is not entirely lost on him, and certainly not on Palmer.
Seven Surrenders is as philosophically dense as its predecessor, and as playfully baroque in tone. Its style, a deliberate imitation of 18th century literary discourses, necessarily favors the rational over the sensational (especially the visual); while this is one of the most original, and oddly subversive, features of the series, it sometimes works against Seven Surrenders, as the second half of the novel could have benefitted from a little more sensibility over sense. But even if a crack or two shows in this volume, Terra Ignota continues to stimulate the intellect and the imagination, and I look forward to picking up the next volume.

changelingThe difference between understanding what one sees and seeing what one’s understanding permits is central to psychological realism in fiction. For Victor LaValle, this difference can also be explained when our understanding is asked to cross the boundary between the real and the uncanny. His dark fable, The Changeling, is the story of Apollo Kagwa, a book dealer whose storybook romance with librarian Emma Valentine is devastated when Emma disappears after committing an unimaginable crime. His journey to find his wife, and to discover the truth about her actions, leads him to an extraordinary turn of events that alters his understanding of the world he lives in.
It is difficult to talk about The Changeling without spoiling its twists and secrets, so abstraction will have to do. Appreciating the novel hinges on whether one can accept that our assumptions about everything from race to class to gender is an impediment to true understanding. It also hinges on whether one can digest LaValle’s marriage of literary realism and the fantastic, which his seemingly effortless skills and imagination are uniquely suited to express. You can count me in.

tomorrow's kinTomorrow’s Kin is Kress’ expansion of her award-winning novella Yesterday’s Kin. The plot is a first contact/soft invasion story, in which aliens come to earth to warn humanity of an impending disaster and to help us develop the technology to stop it. There is a catch, of course (no spoilers here), that calls into question the aliens’ motives for helping us (or possibly, questions whether they are here to help us at all).
The premise of Tomorrow’s Kin is a strong one – worthy of Arthur C. Clarke – and Kress, being the kind of writer who likes to put the science in science fiction, puts it to good use. The human story is where the novel falters: Kress builds a drama of family conflict around her setup, one full of clichés and obvious moments. It seems like her primary tool for padding the story to novel length, and big chunks of it are a slog to get through. There is some good stuff here for hard SF fans, but it has limited appeal overall.

man in the treeGeneration ships have been back in vogue lately, as three major works have appeared this year to apply contemporary social and scientific theories to the classic subgenre. Sage Walker’s The Man in the Tree is unique among them, in that it is a murder mystery set prior to the ship’s launch, rather than during the journey itself.
The story follows Helt Borresen, the Incident Analyst of the pre-launch generation ship Kybele, who is assigned to investigate the suspicious death of an outside contractor named Charles Ryan. To complicate matters, Helt is already romantically pursuing the prime suspect, Biosystems researcher Elena Maury, when the body is found. Elena is the only person seen leaving the habitat shortly after Ryan’s death, and had actually lived with the man some years before. But Ryan was a shifty character, and more than one colonist had a reason to want him gone.
The mystery plot, while intriguing, is more useful as a catalyst for Walker’s examination of the scientific and philosophical questions inherent in such a project, as well as the cultural circumstances that produce it, and the political forces – internal and external – that complicate it. Though the conclusion of the story is jarringly abrupt, and a little too pat, Walker’s meditative prose and intellectual rigor, as well as her complex characters and detailed worldbuilding, meant my excursion on Kybele was time well spent.

provenanceNow that the Strong Female Protagonist (meaning, what happens when a lazy writer writes a female action hero that is basically just a stereotypical male action hero with girl parts) has become a tired cliché, it is something of a subversive pleasure to follow Ingray, the heroine of Ann Leckie’s new novel Provenance, who is clever and resourceful and likeable, but who also makes as many bad decisions as good ones, is riddled with anxiety, and is nearly always on the verge of bursting into tears.
Ingray’s journey is as hectic (and as endearing) as her personality: what starts as a prison break story tinged with an unfortunate case of mistaken identity shifts gears to a heist story, then to a family drama, and then to a comedy of political intrigue, and then…. Well, suffice it to say that Provenance wears a lot of hats over the course of its story, which is not nearly as convoluted as some reviewers have complained, though there are moments where some intriguing developments (like the contentious relationship between Ingray and her snake-charmer stepbrother Danach) get shortchanged as the story shoots off in wild new directions.
The novel is sharp, fast-paced and entertaining – and more emphatically comical than the Radch Trilogy – and it is fascinating to catch a glimpse of what human civilization is like outside of Radch space. In the end it feels more like a side-quest than a main storyline in the Leckieverse. Don’t let that put you off – it’s fun and memorable and well worth reading even as an appetizer for bigger things to come.

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