Book Review: Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel

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Fool's WarFool’s War by Sarah Zettel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge and the Space Opera Challenge.

The book has received a lot of mixed reviews. I think the big reason why is that no matter what you’re expecting, this book is not what you expect. Is it space opera? Well; yes; sort of. Is it cyberpunk? Yeah; that too. Is it a story about the Singularity? Yes; but not entirely. Is it a story about First Contact? That too.

What’s the plot? I think the second paragraph of the back of the book summary is probably the best description I could come up with: “Katmer Al Shei, owner of the starship Pasadena, does not know she is carrying a living entity in her ship’s computer systems. Or that the electronic network her family helped weave holds a new race fighting for survival. Or that her ship’s professional Fool is trying to avert a battle that could destroy entire worlds. And when Al Shei learns the truth, all she’ll really know is that it’s time to take sides.”

What’s a professional Fool? Well, in Firefly they have Companions to keep the space travelers sane; in this world they have professional Fools, allowed to go where they want and keep people laughing.

And if I tell you any more than that, I will totally spoil the book for you, because plot and counter-plot and plot twist are the name of the game.

It does take a little while to get going. A lot of time is spent at the beginning of the book fretting and worrying about what the other owner of the ship, Al Shei’s no-good brother-in-law, might have done with the Pasadena while it was in his possession (they time-share) and with not much apparently happening. I see that people have gotten impatient with that. Relax; it picks up quickly. All of that is necessary setup. I think that people may have just gotten lazy about reading setup in recent years because we’re all used to reading James Patterson novels and Twitter feeds. Stick with it, and you’ll find a whole world of wonder opening up to you.

There’s so much to like about this book! One of the first things? There are two protagonists. Both are women. The plot would not change much if they weren’t. One of these women is a devout Muslim, who blows all the Western stereotypes about Muslim women into the void. This novel doesn’t have any issues in passing the Bechdel Test.

Another thing to like is that Al Shei (the Muslim protagonist) is happily married, shows no interest in the male members of her crew, and is a mother, but still travels around the galaxy because that’s the nature of her job. The writer, Sarah Zettel, pulls off a very difficult task; she manages to make Al Shei’s husband Asil into a significant character whose fate you care about, even though he does not appear in the book more than a handful of times. Also, Zettel succeeds admirably at the John W. Campbell challenge.

Aside from that, it’s just really good writing. And good all-around space opera. And hard science fiction, proving that space opera doesn’t have to be disguised fantasy.

I see that someone else who reviewed this book was saying that they didn’t like it because they were comparing it to Ancillary Justice, and that wasn’t fair because “that book was the Exception That Proves the Rule.” I assure that reviewer that without Fool’s War, which was written in the 1990s, there would not have been an Ancillary Justice. I see why Fool’s War is considered such an influential book in science fiction, and as I have many times before, I find myself wondering why it has not won more awards, nor garnered more attention than it has.

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Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

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Stand on ZanzibarStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

The plot synopsis posted for this book is misleading. It implies that this is a proto-cyberpunk tale of the evils of big corporations. It’s not. But the plot is rather complex so it probably works as well as anything else as a plot description. It’s not really about a plot, anyway; it’s more about the theme.

Overpopulation was a big concern for sci-fi writers in the 70s. They were concerned at the rapid birth rate and that we would be the cause of our own extinction as we overtaxed the world’s resources. The classic sci-fi movie “Soylent Green” was produced during this time, based on an award-winning short story called “Make Room, Make Room!” Fortunately, two factors seem to have thus far rescued us from this fate (but perhaps not forever, as we continue to inflame climate change): 1) modern agricultural technology (which often treats animals immorally and has done terrible things to engineered crops, not the least of which is the creation of inert seed, which I believe should be outlawed across the planet, but which has considerably maximized food production); 2) in urban environments humans have less babies because there is less advantage in it, and so the birth rate declines as the world urbanizes.

The two focal protagonists, roommates Norman House (rising star business executive in an ultra-megacorporation) and Donald Hogan (sleeper spy “synthesist” for the U.S. government) are trying to get along in this overcrowded world of the future. Most governments have imposed eugenics laws in an attempt to control population, and have forbidden breeding rights to an increasingly large group of people, justified by an ever-broadening laundry list of “genetic flaws” (colour-blindness having been one of the most recently adopted.) In the meantime, the tension of living in such close quarters is so high that people are running around on a hair trigger. “Muckers” (people running amok) are a routine danger, losing it for minor trigger reasons and going on a killing spree or blowing things up or committing serial rape. This “rat theory” (humans too crowded will kill each other like rats in a cage) has been generally disproven; but you have to use the space in such a way that it creates peace of mind, so tenement slums will likely produce overcrowded tensions, but megabuildings with a built-in park and shopping mall probably won’t.

Except, this is not happening in a small African nation called Beninia, where everyone, even though they’re living in crushing poverty and overcrowding, gets along and lives in peace. All attempts to invade them or take them as slaves have failed as the people attempting to do so just gave up. And one of their scientists has just announced a process that can genetically select to prevent all such flaws; which would completely topple the existing social order. The US send Donald to stop it, and Norman’s company send him to figure out a way to make a profit on it. In the meantime a near-sentient computer created by Norman’s company attempts to calculate all of this.

Brunner interrupts his narrative to show us media slices and slices of the lives of other people affected by this world. Many have described it as an experimental novel. Maybe it was at the time. To me, I was reminded of Frederic Pohl’s Gateway, which included slices of the local messages and advertising in his space “gold rush” town, and it didn’t throw me like it seems to have thrown others.

I think this novel was a lot of fun to read. I didn’t like it at first but it grew on me, probably because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Also, I think it has a lot to say to us in the modern time. Because of the overcrowding a vast income inequality opened up; the rich did better in this story than the poor and had to deal with less negative conditions (and that remains true because of the way in which comparative spaces are utilized for the rich and for the poor). Also, people were looking for an excuse to dislike each other and would categorize people according to any perceived difference, from race to national origin to eye colour. Perhaps this explains current politics.

Also, this novel, though in many ways it feels dated, might be one of the ways you could introduce a non-sci-fi friend to science fiction. Atwood fans might call this “speculative fiction” because the science isn’t really that far-fetched or that far in the future, and they would probably read it for the same reasons.

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Lightyear FM

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Wildspace: The Spelljammer Fanzine

Want a perspective on what flying through space might actually look like?  Here’s one project to give you an idea.  Working on the knowledge that radio waves travel at the speed of light, this simulation shows you the local neighbourhood near Earth (excluding exoplanets) up to the limit of the first Earth radio broadcasts; up to 110 years ago (as of 2015).

Things I learned from this:

  • In general, stars don’t float randomly by themselves.  They appear in clusters.  We’re part of a pretty little cluster of mostly much tinier, dimmer stars than our own, that might look like the Pleiades with a red-shift in someone else’s perspective.
  • We can infer that most of the stars near us are smaller/dimmer than our own because most of them have alpha-numeric names (more on that in a minute).  Also, stars progress from red to orange to yellow to white to blue in…

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Cobblestone Fantasy

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An interesting blog post from one of my fellow Wrimos this morning.

amo vitam

cobblestones-raven

We had a meeting of our local NaNoWriMo group this morning. We call it a Write-in, but it’s really more of a Yack-in. It’s just exciting to get together with a whole bunch of other crazy Wrimos and jabber on about how insane this is, and how difficult to find the time, and “Did you get your word count so far?” and “What are you doing about an outline – are you a plotter or a pantser?” And of course, the big question: “What are you writing this year?”

And in the course of that latter discussion, one of us coined a new term. They’re writing fantasy, and we asked if it was set in a classic medieval-style fantasy world. And they said, “Yes, cobblestone fantasy.”

Bam, on the nose! That’s such an awesome term, it needs to be put in the dictionary of genres. “Cobblestone Fantasy: n., fantasy…

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So You Want to Write a Novel? Ten Steps to Prep for National Novel Writing Month #NaNoWriMo

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Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch

Want to write a novel and you don’t know where to start? Sable Aradia gives you some suggestions for how to prepare for National Novel Writing Month.

Source: So You Want to Write a Novel? Ten Steps to Prep for National Novel Writing Month #NaNoWriMo

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