Book review: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

20 05 2017

Nnedi Okorafor is an American academic and SF / fantasy writer of Nigerian heritage. She teaches creative writing and literature at SUNY Buffalo. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award.


The titular character in the Hugo- and Nebula- winning novella, Binti, is a young woman of gifted mathematical ability who wins a scholarship to Oomza University, the most prestigious institution of learning in the Galaxy. Her parents and siblings don’t believe she should accept the offer: it would mean leaving home (and leaving Earth, besides) and that’s just not something that the Himba do. Binti’s heritage is deeply important to her, but so is the opportunity to advance in her beloved field of mathematics, so she absconds and catches a shuttle. The subsequent flight from Earth to Oomza (in a living starship which is more-or-less an oversized, flight-capable prawn with bioengineered onboard living chambers) takes around twenty weeks, but is attacked enroute by the Meduse, a race at war with humanity. Almost everyone on board the ship is slain by the Meduse, but Binti survives and must then find a way to prevent carnage when the ship reaches its destination.

The strength of Binti is in the portrayal of the title character, who is smart, rebellious, respectful, fearful, and determined, and whose identity and culture are intimately tied to her braided, beaded hair and her precious clay-and-oil bodypaint, otjize. Her bridge-burning departure from her hometown places her in a position of substantial vulnerability, as a metaphorical ‘fish out of water’ within a literal one (the ‘Third Fish’ living spacecraft, plying the vacuum of space). I wasn’t completely convinced by the Meduse villains, and I’m not entirely satisfied that the pretext given for the longstanding conflict (which may have been between the Meduse and humanity, or between the Meduse and all of the Galaxy’s other sentient, spacefaring races–of which humanity is only one of quite a few) really held up. But the ‘otherness’ of the Meduse is well captured (in this respect, Okorafor’s writing shows some common ground with that of Octavia Butler, Amy Thompson, and Phillip Mann, though Binti is categorisable as ‘science fantasy’, which is not the description I’d apply to those other authors) and the story’s fairly sharp divergence from the customary furniture of space-based SF is, for the most part, refreshing. The story arc is well handled and sets things up beautifully for further work in this fictional universe. The novella might not convince devotees of space opera, but it should satisfy readers whose SF interest is primarily in character-driven fiction.

Book review: The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin

15 04 2017

Over the past half century or so, Ursula K Le Guin’s work has received just about every SF / fantasy writing award going, and has achieved a greater degree of cut-through into the broader literary sphere than almost any of her genre contemporaries. I first encountered her writing through her ‘Earthsea’ trilogy (as it was then), but have also read many others of her books including the avowed classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.


I first read The Word for World is Forest about thirty years ago; it didn’t particularly resonate with me at the time, and I think I subsequently confused it in my memory with her YA novel Threshold (also known by the title The Beginning Place), which I read at about the same time. When I realised recently that I didn’t recognise its synopsis, I decided a reappraisal was in order.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe / World 41 / New Tahiti, home of a diminutive race of docile, intelligent green-furred humanoids known, by the terrestrial scientists who are studying them, as Athsheans, and as ‘Creechies’ by the soldiers and sawmill operators who have moved in to cut down the planet’s trees for precious timber to be sent back to a now-treeless Earth. Many of the Athsheans have been pressganged into service as labourers across the various timber-felling operations, but their largely nonconfrontational nature sees the Terran (‘Yuman’) settlers taking greater and greater liberties with their small green slave labour force. Eventually, a line is crossed, and a vicious insurrection ensues. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Captain Donald Davidson, the supervisor of tree-clearing operations at Smith Camp; Selver, an Athshean held at Smith Camp, whose wife Thele has been raped and killed by Davidson; and Dr Raj Lyupov, a researcher at the central Terran, whose efforts to unravel the secrets of Athshean culture—a matriarchal society which places great importance on the technique of directed dreaming—have been substantially assisted by his interactions with Selver. All three individuals are, in their own way, quite strongly rebellious, and seek to follow their own directions rather than follow the guidelines explicitly or implicitly set for them by their respective societies, and this leads ultimately to disaster.

There are clear parallels between WWF and the movie Avatar: substitute wood for unobtanium, change the locals’ skin colour from green to blue, and you’re mostly there. The more immediate (and openly acknowledged) parallel, though, is with the Vietnam war, at its height when the story was first published in 1968; and I would say that there are also echoes, whether conscious or unconscious, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Depressingly, the book has scarcely dated at all, and seems at least as topical now as it was fifty years ago.

Of the protagonists, Davidson is ruthless and venal; Selver is determined but troubled; Lyupov is prone to doubts. All three are utterly self-consistent, but with sufficient complexity of personality to render them both interesting and believable. There’s a solid moral subtext to the story, but it plays out cleanly as a contest between wholly motivated characters, and the text leaves you in no doubt as to why they’ve behaved as they have. Within its short frame (it is, I think, somewhere on the border between novella and novel) there’s enough vivid depiction to build up a clear and detailed picture of Athshean society—as befits, I suppose, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer—and of the planetary ecology. The story has a kind of horrible inevitability to it, the atrocities are contained and yet truly shocking—as befits, I suppose, a tale of conflict written at the height of the Vietnam war—and the ending rings true. There are almost certainly more comprehensive treatments of the dehumanising effect of war, elsewhere in the SF canon, but WWF endures as a compact and insightful look at the depths to which human nature can descend.

Book review: We Who Are About To…, by Joanna Russ

22 03 2017

Joanna Russ was a US writer and literary critic perhaps best known for her seminal (or should that perhaps be germinal?) work in feminist SF, as typified by her novel The Female Man. Her genre writing has won the Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, and Pilgrim awards.


We Who Are About To is a novella or short novel (I’m not sure of its wordcount, but I’d estimate it’s on the cusp between those categories) first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1976, appearing in book form a year later. Its narrator, who never names herself, is one of eight starship passengers (there are four women, three men, and one twelve-year-old girl) who become marooned, with a limited set of resources (a water purifier; food for six months; a single-seat ground-effect vehicle) salvaged from their vessel, on a habitable but deserted and probably uncharted planet. Most of the group want to establish a colony that will allow them (and / or their descendants) to survive until they can be rescued; the narrator just wants to be allowed to wander off and die, because she knows the prospect of rescue is exceedingly improbable. This aspiration causes friction within the group, not least because she’s one of three potentially-childbearing women on the planet. And, because any sufficiently-small group of people, in complete isolation, is essentially lawless once it starts to notice that there’s no higher authority on call, this friction is taken to a conclusion. It is, in a thematic sense (though not in style or in tone), rather reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Or, if you prefer, a riff on the Gilligan’s Island trope, but with the misanthropy dialled up to eleven, or maybe higher.

It’s a very bleak story, in several ways: none of the characters, not even the narrator (and perhaps especially not the narrator), is likeable; and the predicament doesn’t engender hope. And yet the first two-thirds of it are quietly compelling, as one watches the miniature conflict of ideas that erupts between the narrator and her fellow maroonees, and as one grows accustomed to the narrator’s voice, anger, and mindset. I did feel that the latter section was rather too rambling and unfocussed. (There’s a reason it has this form, which I can appreciate even if I disagree with the author’s choice of presentation.) And there’s also scope for confusion: is Russ railing against society, or against a popular trope in SF? If it’s the latter, then I think it runs the risk of presenting itself as novel-by-strawman-argument. But this description is probably too harsh: there is some very good writing in here; the plotting is skilful, making optimal use of a minimal palette; and the narrator is deeply drawn, with her own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, and a sense of drive that’s admirable whether or not one agrees with the choices she makes. It’s probably better suited to those who are more comfortable with dystopias than am I, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking read, and that’s seldom a bad thing.

Book review: Grass, by Sheri S Tepper

30 12 2016

Sheri S Tepper was an American speculative fiction writer, winner of the Locus and World Fantasy awards, and one of the many notable voices silenced this year: she died on 22nd October.


Grass (1989) is the first volume of Tepper’s ‘Arbai’ trilogy. It sees Lady Marjorie Westriding Yrarier, dutiful wife of the philandering and headstrong Rigo Yrarier, travel with her family (and a sizeable equine retinue) to the planet Grass, on a diplomatic mission to uncover the secret of the Grassian colonists’ apparent resistance to the lethal plague slowly wreaking tragedy elsewhere across human space. But though Grass is, as its name suggests, a pastoral planet, neither the colony’s antiquated nobles-and-commoners social structure nor the planet’s mysterious native ecology can be viewed as friendly: there are secrets here, deep, dark, and deadly. Nobody from offworld understands the dangers.

Rigo is the ambassador, dispatched to Grass through an act of nepotism by the dying Hierarch; Marjorie is included in the mission purely as ornament. But if she is given no official function, she will soon find one for herself as an information-gatherer, first for her husband and then, in impatience and frustration at his unwillingness or inability to perceive the traps embedded in Grassian society, to satisfy her own need for knowledge.

Grass’s noble families—its bons—live to participate in a highly-ritualised, native-fauna variant of foxhunting, in which horse-analogues—the lethally spiky and carnivorous Hippae—are ridden, and accompanied by creatures called ‘hounds’ but bearing little similarity to terrestrial canines, in pursuit of large arboreal scavengers known as ‘foxen’. The Hunt, it’s soon apparent, is a hazardous pastime, a compulsive, addictive pastime, sometimes a terminal pastime, and not just for the foxen. When Dimity bon Damfel goes missing during a hunt, it’s as though her name has been erased from history, and Marjorie finds the noble families’ reaction to her disappearance more concerning than her absence itself. It’s in seeking to uncover the truth behind the bon families’ cavalier attitude to these disappearances (for Dimity is only the latest of many) that Marjorie learns the true secrets which the planet’s inhabitants wish to keep concealed.

Tepper’s setting is detailed and multilayered, her cast of characters is broad and clearly-drawn, each with his or her own agenda. Perhaps because of this, the book is rather slow to get started; or perhaps a better description would be that, like a horse following an oft-travelled route, the story knows where it needs to get to, and knows that the most effective trail to its destination is not the most direct, nor the fastest. (Or perhaps I just wanted to work a horse simile into the review, because the equestrian angle is such a significant part of the book.) Large parts of the first half of the text are so sedate (and yet emotionally charged and insightful of character) that (save for the furniture and the exotic fauna) they might not be out of place in a book by, say, Austen, though this is probably more a matter of mood than of the language employed. The activity heats up in the book’s second half, but the prose remains reflective, thoughtful, often analytical even through the most tense and busy passages. And I even found myself appreciating the book’s more spiritual speculations, which thankfully seemed never to get too preachy.

I started the book thinking that it might be hard SF, and there’s certainly an element of solidly scientific speculation to the storyline; but the plot’s repeated recourse to telepathy was, for me, a deal-breaker on that score. This is, of course, merely a matter of classification, not of judgement. I enjoyed the story, and the setting of Grass is quite immersive and intriguing, though I do wish it had included a map.

I’d recommend the book to devotees of Ursula K Le Guin’s SF: there’s the same sense of detailed societal exploration and something of the same sense of character.

Book review: Paradox Resolution, by K A Bedford

29 11 2016

K A Bedford is an Australian SF writer whose novels have twice won the Aurealis Award. (As it happens, I was one of the five panellists who selected Bedford’s fourth novel, Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, for the award in 2009).


Paradox Resolution, published in 2012, is a sequel to Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait. It continues the twisted and time-crossing adventures of Spider Webb, former police officer and now down-on-his-luck time machine repairman. Spider is co-opted into minding house (and goldfish) for his estranged wife Molly while she seeks fame, fortune, and artistic recognition in the still-fashionable but hazardous urban battlefield of New York. It’s a simple enough task, but three things happen to throw Spider’s plans into disarray: the time machine repair business’s new owner, J K Patel, hires him to rescue his son Vijay, who has taken Patel’s hotrodded time machine Kali (and girlfriend Phoebe) on a temporal joyride many thousands of years into the future, and has not returned; Spider loses his job; and the briefly-communicative severed head of the business’s former owner, the bossy and dangerously persuasive Dickhead McMahon, turns up in the work fridge, with a piece of urgent advice for Spider. (The events don’t necessarily happen in that order, but with time travel, ‘order’ is a malleable concept, and ‘chaos’ may be a more useful guiding principle.) The severed head sees Spider’s former police colleague Inspector Iris Street, of WAPOL’s Time Crime Unit, called in, and Street rapidly realises that Dickhead’s upper section is only one of several highly-troubling developments which all seem to revolve around Spider.

The writing is suffused with elements of humour and, for the most part, a clear mastery of tension. (I baulked at some of the longer-than-a-page paragraphs, but that just seems to be Bedford’s style.) There are comparatively few characters—the novel centres on Spider, Patel, Molly, Street, Dickhead and a couple of others—but these are drawn in convincing detail, as are the more-or-less contemporary settings. (The far-future passages—spoiler alert, this is a time-travel novel; there is time travel involved—are somewhat sketchier, but then, as Niels Bohr may or may not have noted, ‘prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’.) The storyline is, as one might expected, rather complicated, and unavoidably crosses over itself at several points; the action builds to a tense and well-sustained final act that sees many of the loose ends tied up, but leaves plenty of scope—and, indeed, some initial impetus—for a subsequent, as-yet-unwritten, addition to the series.

I don’t fully accept Bedford’s ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ approach to the avoidance of temporal paradox, but I’ll concede that it’s logically consistent, and the imagined technology that makes time travel possible is well-conceived: it all sounds plausible. The background theory, too, is presented in just sufficient detail to usefully inform the story, without becoming a distraction.

Though Paradox Resolution could, at a pinch, be read as a standalone, it would make much more sense to begin with Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, since the earlier novel backgrounds much of the characterisation and some of the story presented in PR. The second book builds appropriately on the first (though I would have liked to see more, this time around, of Spider’s colleague Malaria, and don’t really consider the obsequious workplace coffee-droid a sufficient substitute), but is probably more of interest for the character development, which is both clever and somewhat moving, than for the storyline, which turns against the oncoming traffic at several points (as, indeed, did TMRW-U-W). I have also identified at least one hazardous activity associated with the book: if one were to play a drinking game whereby one downed a shot at each mention of the word ‘coffee’, one would be pie-eyed long before reaching the book’s final third. Webb must be one of the most highly-caffeinated individuals in all of time and space.

Book review: On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard

23 11 2016

Aliette de Bodard is a software engineer and Nebula-, Locus-, and BSFA-award-winning speculative fiction writer of Vietnamese / French heritage. She has several published novels and numerous short stories to her name (to one of which, ‘Dragon Feasts’, I can lay editorial claim, since it appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 35, my first ASIM issue).


On a Red Station, Drifting focusses on the culturally-prescribed enmity between Lê Thi Linh, an erudite former magistrate, and Lê Thi Quyen, the operations manager of Prosper space station to which Linh has fled, seeking asylum, after her home planet falls under attack. The interplanetary society within which the novella is set is one with an inflexible and strongly hierarchical code of conduct, buttressed by ancestor veneration, literary allusion, and the ties of blood. Quyen is obliged to offer sanctuary to her distant cousin Linh, but she is mistrustful of Linh and accordingly assigns her a role, that of tutor, which ensures the former magistrate has negligible opportunity to usurp the operations manager’s role. Linh, in turn, is deeply resentful of Quyen’s heavy-handed power games: her loss of status rankles. Throw in some petty crime—the theft of a headful of memory cubes containing the stored personalities of some treasured ancestors—and the development of a troubling glitchiness in the station’s overarching artificial mind, and the stage is set for a slow-burn confrontation between the two women.

I’m sure there are allusions within OaRS,D which elude me—the story appears steeped in Vietnamese culture, of which I’m largely ignorant—but the novella is impressive for the depth and consistency of the worldbuilding, and it doesn’t take too long before the rather constrained behavioural palette feels innate and natural. It’s well done and rather moving, though the dominance of socialisation over personality did, for me, have a somewhat distancing effect: it’s a strong story, but it’s not a warm story. The story requires its austerity of characterisation, but this isn’t something that endears the reader. (At least, that was my experience of it.)

The book is, in many ways, a tragedy of manners first and a SF novella second. (Which is not to say that the SF components are bolted on as an afterthought—rather, they’re fairly tightly woven into the worldbuilding—but that it would be possible to envisage, and to construct, a variant on the story in which broadly the same outcome ensued in the absence of any SFnal furniture.) Beyond this, it’s a well-executed piece of fiction exploring a setting very different to the mainstays of SF (which is, in itself, a very science-fictional approach to adopt), and de Bodard’s writing is precise and expressive.

For a limited time …

2 03 2013

… and for just the cost of a free glass of water, my deep-space SF / mystery novella Flight 404 is available for free download from the Amazon Kindle Store.

The giveaway commences on the 2nd of March and finishes on the 4th: all times are Pacific Time, apparently, so the window runs from 7 pm Saturday here in Canberra (9 pm in NZ, 6 pm in Brisbane, 6.30 pm–I think–in Adelaide, 8 am in London, or 10 pm (Friday) in Honolulu) until three days hence, i.e. 7 pm Tuesday in Canberra, etc. etc. All of which means, if I’ve set the timer on this post appropriately, that it’s available now.

'Flight 404' cover (artwork by Lewis Morley)

Here’s the elevator pitch, suitable for all but the speediest of elevators: ‘To solve the dilemma of the Bougainvillaea‘s disappearance, investigator/pilot Charmain Mertz must return to the conservative world of her boyhood.’

If you’re wavering, there’s a summary of the reviews to date, here.

Did I mention it’s free? For a limited time?

And, of course, all signal boosts on the topic would be greatly appreciated.