Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (Goodreads awards)

I wanted to dismiss this book as yet another girly YA title where some action girl does occasional sparring practice in between mooning over some rich boy. However, that wouldn't be accurate. The girl here is not all that action-y, and the love interest is a cute pirate boy who keeps bedeviling her with his boyish sense of humor while they chase clues doled out by the Willie Wonka meets Goblin King mastermind of the Caraval game.

Scarlett, player of said game, lived until recently on a remote island with her sister, who is now missing, and her mean dad. Mom ran off years ago. Scarlett has been obsessing over playing Goblin Wonka's awesome game, which is basically a bunch of clues to solve. Accompanied by the cute pirate, for the most part.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I do, and in fact I definitely prefer it to the Sarah J. Maas book, although not nearly as much as Warcross. I like games, I like girls who play them, I think the sister-rescuing is a nifty change of pace, and I'm enjoying the lack of opulence porn. There are some imaginative sets instead, and curious people populating them. I think part of my problem had to do with the vision being very cluttered -- the moment I'd work up a good inner visualization of some surreal scene we were moving on to the next one. It's like a great big graphics heavy puzzle game that takes a while to load, but once it's on the screen, it's dazzling. Alas, I'm more about the swift strategy games (like Warcross).

One thing I thought I'd mention -- the author gets a little religious in her acknowledgments, which made me think for a moment as to whether she'd telegraphed that anywhere in the story. And I noticed nothing in this book that made me think she was either pro or anti religion, and in fact there is a remarkable lack of soapboxing, moralizing and preaching in this book. At the same time, there's plenty of wisdom, in that the characters' real puzzle is learning to understand their own hearts, and communicate honestly with each other. That the author can convey all that without resorting to ideology speaks of real talent.  I haven't conducted any formal experiments, but I'm pretty sure the warmth is apparent to theists and atheists alike.

Friday, December 1, 2017

You Can Totally Judge A Book By Its Cover, I Do It All The Time And So Do You

Camestros Felapton has assembled a longlist of 2017 book covers. I couldn't resist self-nominating (autonomming?) Sieging Manganela because all the other entries lacked penguin-shaped death drones. It's kinda nice seeing all that gorgeous cover art in one place.

Review: A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses) by Sarah J. Maas (Goodreads awards)

EDIT: Whoa, it won! No doubt a bunch of people who have been reading this series from the beginning put it there. Well, congrats to Ms. Maas from an out-of-touch old, and I think I'm going to keep reading nominees. 

“For a woman who had been tortured and tormented for months, I looked remarkably well.”

I’ve read a couple of other Sara J. Maas books, can’t recall the titles. She’s a straightforward writer with a flair for plot complications but she lacks a couple of things I tend to seek in novels that I can’t put my finger on, so I’ll chalk it up to parallel tastes.

This one starts on a corpse-strewn battlefield, with flies crawling on eyes, just to let us know this world is a dark and serious place. It’s a fantasy story involving high elves and/or people with wings and/or pretty folks who fight with swords and pout a lot. Our hero Feyre, still attractive after whatever torture she met with in the preceding volumes, heads right into all kinds of convoluted disagreements with people that have stylish names and no senses of humor.  In fact, many of them, like Cassian and Azriel, have names I associate with different sections of fandom, making it a little difficult to keep everyone’s personality straight given the huge cast. This would be a great book for someone trying to think of a good name for a pet or baby.  

“My goal was bigger than revenge. My purpose greater than personal retribution.”

I made it to the 20% mark before my eyes started to glaze over. Lots of scowling and domination and submission by lovely pouty people, with some anti-Twilight type focus on consent. Not my cup of tea, but maybe it’s yours.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: Warcross by Marie Lu (a Goodreads award finalist)

Warcross is an interesting story about being Asian.

Oh yeah, right, it’s also kind of a YA spin on Ready Player One with a sprinkling of Snow Crash. There’s a game, Warcross, which is a really big deal, and part of it involves augmented reality that requires special glasses or contacts; our hero is a rainbow-haired and tattooed bounty hunter of those who scam this game. She’s a master hacker, she has a flying skateboard, and her name is Emika Chen.

Later on, she meets a Chinese-from-China boy, who condescendingly asks if she speaks Mandarin. Her heart is set on the rich and powerful, and Japanese, Hideo Tanaka, who has hired her to wreck some haxxor who’s meddling with his game, and to do that, she needs to get in there and play it. 

And in order to do that, she has to fly to Japan and party with an international crew of cut-throat gamers, in a glistening throbbing visualizable high-tech world.

Why am I calling it an interesting story about being Asian?  That occurred to me during a nightclub scene, where the singer is belting out a tune that goes “Hey Ninja / Gangsta / Dragon Lady / Hey, where you from, no, where you really from, baby / Hey how ‘bout / you cut all that shit out / Yeah!

That “where you really from?” is a question that American-born Asians get asked all the time by mainland white people, and it’s sometimes aggressive and sometimes just curious, and it’s also always racist and awkward. You’re telling them they can’t be real Americans, not with those Asian features. I grew up hanging around with lots of Asian people and I’ve definitely heard it – not as much in Hawai’i and California but elsewhere, in those heartland type places. Reading it was a jolt, reminding me I was reading about Asian characters in contact with Asian-American characters, reflecting Asian-influenced American tropes like Bladerunner and Snow Crash right back, in the midst of telling a regular YA story about an action girl who heads off to fight school while loving a handsome yet unattainable boy that's as familiar and comforting as chicken jook washed down with Mountain Dew.  

Just personally, I’m not really a weeaboo or anything, and I’m not that conversant with anime and J-Pop and Japanese videogames and Harajuku fashions, although I realize it all exists. But I do prefer to live in places with lots of Asians, because I’m fond of Asian food and culture and people, and while I was thrilling to Ms. Lu’s marvelous world that evokes so many gorgeous science fictional graphics, I kept wondering, “omg, she’s a Chinese girl and she’s falling for a Japanese boy, how’s that going to work out?  She’s an orphan that grew up in a foster home, so no parental stuff at least on her side, but they’re celebrities now so people are probably going to get into arguments about them.”  And that aspect, not the videogame chase stuff, not the obligatory opulence porn, not the multicultural teamwork scenes, was what kept me turning pages. 

This book is also a perfect example of why I go for teenager sci fi. The author, whose gamer credentials are solid (she even sneaks in a Leeroy Jenkins joke), describes a bunch of gamers sitting around talking, and they’re from all different countries but they have realtime translation. And I felt a sudden sharp wave of nostalgia for some of my old gamer guilds, and being on Vent with people from all different countries, using the game as a conduit to converse and learn about each other.

I remember this one time I went to Disneyland with a bunch of guildies, and it was sheer optimized heaven. With our trusty intercom-phones we juggled fast pass cooldowns and evaded crowd control, maxing out our ride achievement score while smiling happy smiles of efficiency.  I miss being a gamer sometimes, but now I’m a novelist. Just like Marie Lu, whom I suspect would pwn me in Mario Kart, but maybe I could take her in Warsong Gulch.

So far my first Goodreads YA Science Fiction nominee is also my favorite, and the others are going to have to work hard to knock it off its perch. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Hi South Korea

[Numbers redacted due to humility.]

So yeah, I'm getting lots of South Korea hits lately. Maybe this is due to my love of meat jun, or my respect for the formidable gamer skills of the South Korean people. Maybe this has to do with the Korean characters in One Sunny Night (they're from the United States of Korea, which exists in 3748, not quite sure how it happened, I'll defer to the fanfic, if any ever happens). 

Maybe it has to do with that piece I wrote about being nervous re nuclear war, since the press keeps harping on it. And I am, but it has faded into the background of anxieties. First of all, I think everyone realizes a nuke exchange would be tactically stupid. The latest news claims North Korea can send a nuke as far as Washington DC, while at the same time claiming the people of NK are weak and infested with stomach parasites from human-generated fertilizer. Hawai'i is resuming their nuke siren program. San Francisco never discontinued ours, by the way, it goes off at noon every Tuesday.

So either we'll get nuked or we won't, no use worrying about it. If it happens, and Ground Zero turns out to be the land of sourdough bread and Twitter, then I'll die. If it happens, and I don't die, then I'll probably throw nuclear disarmament onto my list of political priorities. If it doesn't happen, then I didn't waste any time worrying about it. 

I get waves of these visit spikes, and they seem to alternate between South Korea and Russia. Interesting times we live in.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Proper Role of Violence in Fiction

Just thought I’d clarify, in case anybody took my enthusiastic review of that medical thriller as an ominous warning. I’m about as pacifistic as one can get. I live in a gun-hating city full of hippies, where I cheerfully avoid professional sports, superhero movies and other manifestations of extreme testosterone. Although he wasn't my cat at the time it happened, I'm glad my cat is declawed. I don't do physical aggression.  

While I occasionally engage in videogame combat, it doesn’t happen very often, and that’s about the closest I’ll get to actually exchanging aggression with other people – I’ve got this weird belief that humanity can save ourselves by learning how to harness our aggression and siphon the excess into harmless venues like videogames, and writing adventure stories. Eventually. Once we learn how. Until we can control and direct our aggression toward mutually beneficial goals, we’re just a bunch of random sphincters.

Do I write about violence?  Hell, yeah.  Read my books, see for yourself. My heroes are subjected to all kinds of violence, and occasionally they’re even cornered enough to dish it out themselves …
… but only after exhausting all legal remedies …
… and making certain that violence is the only reasonable solution …
… and even then, aiming to incapacitate+escape rather than kill …
… in fact, my heroes have a remarkable propensity for standing there innocently when their antagonist’s uncontrolled aggression gets him/her killed, kind of similar to Disney villains …
… because controlled aggression is kind of my thing, you know, my gimmick, you could in fact consider all my work to be meditations on controlled aggression …
… because if this species doesn’t learn how to clinically detach from aggression and use it for something worthwhile, soon, we’ll never get to the spaceships.

No, we can’t make the aggression go away by agreeing to stop talking about it. We need to face it, to be honest with it and to figure out how to feed it with harmless substitutes like e-sports and violent stories.

So I’m in favor of violence in fiction. People occasionally endure violence in their real life, and some of how they model dealing with it comes from fiction. I think violence should be described realistically, to encourage people to refrain from inflicting it while satisfying their scientific curiosity about bodies and anatomy.
No headbonks that result in convenient, residual-free unconsciousness for as long as the plot demands.
No jogging with arrows protruding from your patellae.
No shaking off concussions and third degree burns and gunshots.
No broken bones that heal in a week without physical therapy.
No ludicrous tales of survival such as people falling out of planes and landing in backyard swimming pools, unless it’s a comedy and everything else in it is ludicrous.

Super-realistic violence in the form of descriptions of surgery, what can happen when teen pranks go awry, what actually occurs on a battlefield … bring it on!  When I was a teenager there was a notorious driver’s ed movie with gory crash footage that was supposed to scare you into driving safely, and the prohibition against exposing innocent schoolkids to violence was waived for this film, under the theory of reminding them that something as mundane as driving can be lethal if you aren’t careful. Yes, life can be bloody and terrifying and dangerous – and yes, lots of it can be fixed if you stop the bleeding and refrain from panicking.  Recovery sucks. Pain hurts. Being physically rearranged is scary. All of these are things that need to be in stories, with as much honesty and compassion as possible.

Besides unrealistic violence, there are a few other fictional types of violence I dislike heartily.  One is the idea of disposable people, as in stories where unnamed extras are gleefully massacred left and right, with nobody so much as raising an inquiry. Who are these people? Why isn’t anyone mourning them or trying to recover their bodies? Why is this storyteller so lazy?

Another one is sadistic violence, and I realize there’s a fine line between sadistic humor and actually taking delight in someone’s pain, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus basically owns that line.  Some of it is sweaty and furtive, lingering on the details of the mutilated girls/pets/kids with a sort of heavy-breathing sliminess. Some of it is cold as ice, with characters standing stoic as others suffer grim fates.

Being morally outraged by a book is a really slippery line, since we all have different thresholds. Nobody likes it when some prig throws a hissyfit over their favorite art, and yet we’ve probably all blundered into words and images and sounds that really need to have every existing copy destroyed by fire.  In these days of ferocious culture battling, outrage is frequently politicized, with some central troublemaker -- possibly sincere and possibly trolling -- yelling “I hate this art so much I want to wreck stuff, who’s with me?”  Meanwhile, we all chuckle approvingly over our own side's outrage porn, imagining our opponents' angry reaction with glee.

Calculating the harm done by a book is another extremely gray area. Hitler wrote an influential book, but his cronies were doing quite a bit more than engaging in book discussion. Lincoln facetiously blamed the Civil War on a book discussing the horrors of slavery. It’s hard to say whether the Civil War or World War II would have been fought without these corresponding books, but the books did provide a galvanizing focus, as books occasionally do. 

When books include violence and moral outrage, prodding people toward inflicting harm isn’t difficult at all.  Quite a lot of sharks have met with unjust and untimely deaths since Jaws was written. Other books have begged people to start revolutions yet were received in lukewarm fashion. Predicting what the mob will do is tricky.

It’s equally tricky to gauge the impact of intense storytelling on young minds. Will they experience a life lesson that will make them strong, or a trauma that hampers their development? Can a book make a kid sexually active, or gay, or liberal, or religious, or vegetarian?  Or does a book just enunciate truths that are more or less universal, some of which might be extra appealing at some particular moment in time? 

I can’t tell you. I think it’s an unsettled question. I don’t agree with the people who believe that writing about muggers or bigots or molesters causes them to spring into existence, or that writing should reflect the world which oughta be rather than the one that sadly is.  At the same time, I don’t like reading the gleefully angry rants of bigots or the fuzzy meanderings of junk scientists, because I think they can become battle flags for idiots without too much retrofitting. 

I’ll leave you with this: I very much enjoy stories of people surviving things. Accidents, fights, adventures, quests, amazing journeys. It reinforces my belief that life is worth clinging to, so that we can see what happens next. Sometimes these stories contain violence. Stories like this have existed for as long as humanity has, despite periods of suppression by religious or political authoritarians. I intend to keep reading them, and to keep writing them too. 

Hugos/Goodreads 2018 – Focusing on YA

This year I’m not going to be doing much nominating for the Hugo awards. Keeping track of adult science fiction is too much of a pain in the neck, so I’m going to focus on my competition instead.

These are this year’s Goodreads finalists for YA Science Fiction (sorted according to price).  I have purchased the cheapest and wishlisted the rest, so I can grab any that go on promo sale, and will work my way towards the ambitious Ms. Aveyard and Ms. Clare. Probably some of these will be on my Hugo nominee list, along with the latest Philip Pullman and the newest Arabella. 

By Marie Lu
$7.99 at Amazon
I like it already; it’s got a colorful cover with something more original than a dark brooding hooded figure, it's riffing on WoW and it’s the cheapest. Look at all these books about video gaming! You don’t see as much of that in adult spec fic. Probably because most adults are noobs.

Tower of Dawn (Throne of Glass)
By Sarah J. Maas
$8.53 at Amazon

A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses)
By Sarah J. Maas
$8.57 at Amazon

Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity)
By Victoria Schwab
$9.99 at Amazon

By Stephanie Garber
$9.99 at Amazon

Strange the Dreamer
By Laini Taylor
$10.99 at Amazon

Carve the Mark
By Veronica Roth
$10.99 at Amazon

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe)
By Neal Shusterman
$10.99 at Amazon

Lord of Shadows (The Dark Artifices)
By Cassandra Clare
$12.99 at Amazon

King’s Cage (Red Queen)
By Victoria Aveyard
$12.99 at Amazon