A reappraisal

30 11 2018

Last year, alongside the release of Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, my Guerline Scarfe SF / murder mystery novella, I somewhat rashly promised, within the confines of said book and alongside a first-chapter teaser, that a sequel would be appearing this year. That, alas, won’t be happening.


In essence, I realised quite far into the writing of said sequel (which somewhat ironically has always been called A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death) that the new SF / murder mystery I’d outlined didn’t really cut it: it didn’t resonate the way I’d hoped it would. So I scrapped it, stripped the story back to basics, and have had it sitting up on blocks for the past year or so while I sought to find the keys to its salvage. On this front there has been, recently, significant progress.

A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death is currently over 16,000 words, up from just 6,000 a week ago. There’s far to go, yet; it’s not yet half written, even in first draft. But I’m pleased at what is coalescing. The first-chapter teaser is still canonical, and should remain so. And steam is up.

Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.


Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)

Book review: Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells

12 08 2018

Martha Wells is an American fantasy and science fiction author best known, until recently, as the author of the ‘Ile-Rien’ and ‘Books of the Raksura’ fantasy series. For the past year or so, her ongoing SF novella series ‘The Murderbot Diaries’ has been receiving considerable acclaim, with the first ‘Murderbot’ novella All Systems Red having won the Nebula and Locus Awards and in contention for the Hugo and Philip K Dick Awards. I’ve reviewed the two earlier ‘Murderbot’ novels here and here.


In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot hitches a ride on a personnel shuttle from Milu to a derelict orbital terraforming station, once the property of Murderbot’s former owners GrayCris Corporation and now in the hands of GoodNightLander Independent (GI), a research / resource exploitation group. GI believes the terraforming station to be of sufficient interest to place a group of researchers aboard, and of sufficient hazard to have those researchers accompanied by a two-person security detail, Wilken and Gerth. Murderbot has its own reasons for wanting to get onto the station: it believes GrayCris’s activities on the station to have been dubious, at best, and probably illegal from the standpoint of handling of alien artefacts. In seeking evidence of this illegality, Murderbot (itself, of course, a fugitive from the corporate ‘justice’ which sees it solely as a potentially-dangerous item of escaped property) hopes to make sufficient trouble for the corporation that any ongoing media speculation regarding the fugitive SecUnit and its former mentor Dr Mensah is tamped down. It’s a reasonable plan, if somewhat sketchy on the details, but it doesn’t really allow for the complications that flare up once all involved are on the terraforming station…

Murderbot is one of those characters who, on first principles, shouldn’t engage an empathetic response from the reader—the SecUnit is a naïve misanthrope with a media addiction and an unwarranted reliance on sarcasm and sardonism—and yet, perhaps because it as a narrator is so upfront about these attributes of its personality, and so open about its reliance on ongoing deception, it comes across as an utterly charming creation. With each novella, also, Wells appears to be growing more comfortable with Murderbot’s voice, and more effective at integrating tension, action, and compelling character interaction. The results are superlatively readable; the series is already identifiable as a modern classic. It’s a deserved reputation.

Book review: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

20 06 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer, with a number of fantasy and SF novel series and tie-in novels for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis. She has received numerous nominations and awards, including a recent Nebula ‘Best Novella’ award for All Systems Red, the first instalment in the ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series (which, as it happens, I have reviewed here).


Artificial Condition is the second ‘Murderbot’ novella. It sees the newly-liberated security cyborg seeking to make its way back to RaviHyral, a mining installation on a world set aside for minerals exploitation; in its former existence, Murderbot was one of several SecUnits charged with defending the human workers in one of RaviHyral’s corporate mines… until a mishap leads to an all-humans-have-been-killed situation. Murderbot’s involvement in this incident is unknown—its memories of the tragedy, and indeed, of its entire time at the mine, have been wiped—but it has always understood that it simply went rogue, slaughtering the humans because of some hardware or software glitch. Now, Murderbot has decided, it’s time to learn the truth of the incident. But human society is rather skittish on the subject of autonomous SecUnits—you know, the whole killing-machines-running-amok thing, as hyped up by the entertainment and news media—and so it’s important that Murderbot is able to travel incognito and unrecognised, and for that it’s going to require help…

The Murderbot series is not really as bloodthirsty as the name suggests. A large part of this novella is concerned with the cyborg’s exploration of issues such as trust and responsibility, and its attempts to define its own moral core. In the process, it learns (and illuminates) aspects of human behaviour. This perhaps makes the series sound dry and instructional, which it is not: it’s moderately-paced (because Murderbot, though notably paranoid in some respects, is not really prone to panic in any demonstrable fashion), intriguing in several ways, and quietly addictive. It helps, too, that Murderbot has a discrete personality (somewhere near the intersection of Star Trek: TNG‘s Data and Altered Carbon‘s Takeshi Kovacs, if that helps to clarify matters at all). If anything, I think I enjoyed this novella somewhat more than its Nebula-winning predecessor, which I felt was slightly let down by an overly-complicated and awkwardly-choreographed combat sequence. This time around, things are more pared back, and the story flows more assuredly. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m looking forward to it.

Does it count as hard SF? I’m inclined to assess that it does: while there seems to be some nebulosity on the vexatious subject of interstellar propulsion, the laws of physics are otherwise treated with appropriate seriousness, and the processes of data transfer by which Murderbot communicates with other artificial intelligences and bots (and, on occasion, hacks into security systems) are credibly detailed. It’s thoughtful, it’s fun, and it’s serious: what more could you want?

(This is the fourteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

13 05 2018

Nnedi Okorafor is an American speculative fiction writer, of Nigerian heritage, who has become one of the most well-known proponents of what is now termed ‘Afrofuturism’, a subgenre of speculative fiction which draws largely on African lore and culture. Okorafor has won numerous awards for her work, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. I’ve previously reviewed the first ‘Binti’ novella, Binti, here.


In Binti: Home, master harmoniser Binti, whose studies at Oomza Uni are (for the most part) progressing well, is drawn to return to her homeland, so she can partake in the pilgrimage which is a rite-of-passage for her people, the Himba. But going home is not straightforward, for Binti has grown in ways that are highly atypical for her people: she has escaped off-planet, she has been exposed to a plethora of alien cultures on Oomza, she has become innately connected with Okwu, a member of the warfaring alien race, the Meduse, with which Binti has been pivotal in securing a truce. To the Khoush people, especially, who live alongside the Himba, the Meduse are murderous monsters: how will they perceive Binti’s decision to have Okwu accompany her to Earth? And for that matter, how will Binti herself cope with the flight back aboard Third Fish, the living ship aboard whom Binti had earlier been the only human survivor of a vicious assault by the Meduse on the flight to Oomza?

Binti: Home is a busy, fizzy, deeply-felt novella that explores the uneasy interaction between tradition, change, and personal growth. It frequently seems to be pulling in several directions at once, ensuring that the narrative is at times disorienting, but the end result is to convey a complicated world—indeed, a complicated universe—that is distinctly larger than the novella it contains. The worldbuilding is expansive and impressive, and Binti is a complex and sympathetic character, wearing her strengths alongside her vulnerabilities (and on occasion mistaking which is which). And Okorafor ensures that readers will want to find out what happens next, in the series’ concluding novella.

Book review: Runtime, by S B Divya

28 03 2018

S B Divya is an electrical engineer and SF author. She’s also co-editor of the Escape Pod weekly SF podcast. Her debut novella, Runtime, is a Nebula Award finalist.


Mary Margaret Guinto, known as Marmeg to her friends, is a gifted and determined young woman from LA’s marginalised underclass who dreams of a better life for herself and her younger siblings: education, security, opportunity. Marmeg sees the Minerva Sierra Challenge—a tech-augmented footslog across a demanding and dangerous stretch of mountainous, wooded terrain—as her ticket to this better life, with the promise of considerable prize money and sponsorship deals offered to the race’s winners and place-getters. But there’s nothing of the ‘level playing field’ about the Challenge: it’s a race where the quality of your gear can lend an inordinate advantage, and Marmeg’s gear is, to put it politely, broke-ass. Her cobbled-together exoskeleton is rubed from dumpster discards, her biochips are hand-coded and prone to breakdown, her support team (a mandatory requirement for the Challenge) is nonexistent. And the parental permission she requires to participate in the race? No, she doesn’t have that either. What she does have is the adaptability and inventiveness that comes from having rebuilt the gear from the ground up rather than simply buying it off the peg for an exorbitant amount. But will this be enough? There are lots of hazards in them thar hills …

The setup is of a Cinderella-style story, where virtue triumphs over adversity, but it’s to Divya’s credit that this isn’t exactly what she delivers. Runtime pulses with moral ambiguity, as Marmeg comes to question how important the act of winning the race can be, and because of this there’s a substantial additional strand of tension and grit which would otherwise be absent. This also gives greater opportunity to set Marmeg within the future society in which she operates, where biophysical augmentation through exoskeletal attachments and implants is becoming the norm. Though Marmeg identifies as female, many of the people with whom she interacts have transformed themselves into ‘moots’, neutered and ostensibly agendered, and a sense is conveyed that only two things have stopped Marmeg from yet going down such a path herself: lack of funds, and maternal disapproval.

The issue of cyborg-style body modification is a thorny one, and Divya provides both proponents (Marmeg herself, her friend T’Shawn, her competitors in the Challenge) and opponents (her mother Amihan, and ‘Mike’) of the concept and the practice. There’s a general sense that cyborgification is the way of the future—understandably, given Runtime‘s storyline and protagonist—but dangers are acknowledged, as are the grit and tarnish (breakdowns, infection etc) of component failure.

Does it qualify as hard SF? Overall, I would say so. The treatment of the various possible augments (exoskeletal armour and rewritable implants for Marmeg, lightweight adaptable smartsuits and retractable appendages for her considerably wealthier competitors) isn’t overly detailed, but it is broadly immersive, and doesn’t flinch at showing the more gruesome aspects: there’s a bit of body horror in the scene where Marmeg has to perform improvised surgery on herself to swap out a malfed implant for a functional one. If the surrounding society remains somewhat sketchy, this can be excused because (a) it’s quite a short book and (b) for large parts of the book, its protagonist is effectively isolated from that society. There would be plenty of scope for further exploration here, if the author chose to revisit this world, whether with Marmeg again or one or other of her contacts. It’s a slender book, though not a slight one.

(This is the thirteenth in my occasional ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

10 03 2018

Aliette de Bodard is an American-born French science fiction and fantasy writer, of Vietnamese heritage, writing in English. Her work, which is variously informed by Aztec, Asian, and European cultural backgrounds, has won several awards including the Nebula, Locus, and BSFA awards. I’ve previously reviewed her novella On A Red Station, Drifting here.


The Tea Master and the Detective, another novella, is set in the same ‘Xuya’ universe (I think) as On A Red Station, Drifting, a spacefaring future dominated by Vietnamese heritage and mores. It concerns the hiring of troubled and impecunious shipmind The Shadow’s Child by the brusque and markedly arrogant consulting detective Long Chau, who wishes to acquire a corpse from the ‘deep spaces’ by which the shipmind is haunted following a horrific incident of years past. Long Chau’s interest in the corpse is ostensibly as a subject of research—she claims she wishes to understand the effect of deep spaces on human remains—but it transpires that the detective’s motives may be particular, rather than general. Affronted, traumatised by the necessity of revisiting deep spaces, but dependent on the detective’s coin, The Shadow’s Child does some digging of her own: since Long Chau apparently knows every shameful secret of the shipmind’s past, it seems unfair that the shipmind should know nothing of the detective’s. The relationship between them develops as something of, it seems, mutual mistrust and interdependence. The ship needs money; the detective needs transport and a steady supply of specialised, mind-altering infusions, a commodity which The Shadow’s Child has some skill in concocting. The mystery of the retrieved corpse’s demise emerges slowly, alongside the deeper mystery of Long Chau’s scandalous past, to culminate in a sequence that’s quietly satisfying and strongly resonant, and leaves the reader with the hope that we might encounter these characters again, in circumstances similarly challenging.

Book review: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

1 02 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer trained as an anthropologist and perhaps best known for her ‘Ile-Rien’ and ‘Raksura’ fantasy series, although she has also written Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis tie-in novels. Among other honours, she has been shortlisted for the Nebula Award.


All Systems Red is the first volume in a continuing SF novella series called ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, whose protagonist is a rogue combat-capable security android that has decided it would rather absorb human cultural media, during clandestine downtime sessions, than have to interact with the real humans it’s contracted to protect. Unfortunately, this ambition is thwarted when the planetary survey mission it’s contracted to, as the sole bodyguard for a team of eight scientists on a variegated life-bearing planet, starts to experience progressively more hazardous data anomalies: the maps they’ve been issued have sections missing; a vehicle’s autopilot cuts out at the worst possible time; the other survey mission elsewhere on the planet suddenly goes offline. It gradually becomes apparent that the mission is in deadly danger, and Murderbot and the scientists must decide whether they can trust each other so as to find a way out of the predicament they’re facing.

As a character name, ‘Murderbot’ doesn’t exactly invite reader investment; and yet the character itself is engaging and empathetic (supposedly because of all the entertainment it’s consumed). The story is fast-paced and suspenseful, yet still reflective enough for some rewarding character interaction (most substantially between Murderbot and the team’s supervisor Mensah). Like almost all humanoid-robot-in-human-company stories, there’s an element of rite-of-passage here, as well as a degree of questioning over just how humanity is defined, though the novella’s compact frame prevents any of these aspects from being explored exhaustively. There were aspects of the novella’s climactic confrontation that seemed incompletely captured (in the sense of an underlying plan that remains somewhat nebulous even in the wrap-up), but overall this is an intriguing and entertaining start to an ongoing SF series that will be well worth following.


Book review: Forest of Memory, by Mary Robinette Kowal

13 01 2018

Mary Robinette Kowal is an American SF / fantasy writer, voice actor, and puppeteer. Her work has been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and she has won the John W Campbell award, and three Hugo awards, for her fiction.


Forest of Memory is a novella set in a mid-22nd century future so digitally enmeshed that the grid is omnipresent and ever-watchful. So when Authenticity & Capture specialist Katya—who deals, essentially, in the provenance of pre-grid artefacts and digitised memories—experiences disconnection enroute to an important meeting in another town, during a bike ride through an Oregon forest park, it’s an unsettling experience. Particularly because the disconnection has occured simultaneously with—indeed, may even have been initiated by—an enigmatic and seemingly-ruthless deer-hunter. Ambushed, tranquilised, abducted, there’s nothing Katya can manage that will allow her to escape from the mysterious and anonymous figure, and even her efforts to obtain an explanation for whatever he’s doing with the forest’s deer—which apparently requires them to be anaesthetised for an hour or more—are met with confident denial. All she can do is keep watch, and hope that an opportunity for escape, back to the grid’s security, presents itself.

The novella claims to have been typed by Katya on an antique typewriter she has purchased (and which she has in her bike trailer at the time of the encounter with the hunter), and the story therefore contains intentional misspellings, crossings out, and misplaced word spaces. It also doesn’t explain things a reader of the 22nd century would already know, which does mean that some aspects of the story remain obscure. But Katya and her interactions with her eerily-efficient abductor are drawn with admirable clarity, which gives the narrative a sense of grounding that compensates for the absence of detail in some parts of the setting. This is an intriguing, atmospheric piece that indirectly provokes questioning as to how much interconnectedness is desirable, and leaves me keen to check out more of Kowal’s writing.


Book review: Shortcuts, Track 1, edited by Marie Hodgkinson

7 01 2018

Shortcuts is an anthologisation of the first six novelettes and novellas released under Paper Road Press’s novella project of the same name. The anthology encompasses some of NZ speculative fiction’s most notable authors. I’ll comment briefly on each story, then do a wrap.


‘Landfall’, by Tim Jones, is a well-realised climate-dystopia piece that posits a future New Zealand with a ruthless, militarised ‘solution’ to the climate refugee problem. Nasimul, the apparent sole survivor of the deliberate NZ Navy sinking of an overloaded Bangladeshi river ferry off the coast of Auckland, must swim for his life in order to reach shore. Once he makes terra firma, fate decrees that his life depends on the actions of disaffected young Home Guard reservist Donna. This is a gritty, chilling, uncomfortable piece somewhat in the spirit of Greg Egan’s ‘Lost Continent’.

In A C Buchanan’s ‘Bree’s Dinosaur’, Cam is a Vietnamese business student taking an English For Business Purposes course and homestaying with a local couple, Sue and Martin, and their teenage daughter Bree. There’s more than a decade between Cam and Bree, plus a hefty bundle of cultural difference, but Bree’s parents seem to hope that their houseguest can forge a connection with their sometimes-shy, sometimes-abrupt daughter whose time home seems principally to be spent in building a titanosaur in her bedroom. While I’m a big fan of saurian plotlines in general, I found the dinosaur aspect to this story to be something of a hindrance, appearing tacked on to a story which really did not need it. The plot here seems slightly confused, but the characterisation is excellent, strongly immersive and pleasantly detailed.

‘The Last’, by Grant Stone, sees seasoned British rock journo Rachel Mackenzie travel to a backblocks NZ farm to conduct the sole interview that legendarily reclusive singer-songwriter Katherine St John has agreed to offer in connection with her upcoming final album. Rachel has known from the outset of St John’s mysterious past—as an eleven-year-old, Katherine went missing for a week or more in Kent’s Bedgebury Forest during a camping trip with her parents, and was the subject of a major manhunt until she turned up clean, unharmed, and with no recollection of where she had been all that time—but it quickly becomes apparent that the strangeness that surrounded her childhood has taken root, somehow, on the ground of the farm she now calls her home. This is a decidedly eerie tale that draws the reader into its mystery.

In ‘Mika’, by Lee Murray and Piper Mejia, the titular character is an adventurer who’s journeyed from Aotearoa to New York’s Ellis Island in an amphibious vehicle, determined to reach the Las Vegas biotechnology company where, twenty-four years ago, her late father had been working on a gene-therapy treatment for the diabetes that now threatens her pregnant sister Huia. Along the way she acquires as companions a young girl, Bree (no relation to the A C Buchanan character) and a renegade paramedic, Steve. This is a fast-paced, sometimes sketchy story that I felt sought to cram too much in—though I enjoyed the immediacy, the mythological and cultural grace notes, and the crash-through-or-crash enthusiasm, it could probably have benefited from a little more length so as to flesh out its characters and its worldbuilding somewhat more.

In ‘Pocket Wife’, by I K Paterson-Harkness, grandparents Carl and Jenny are half a world away from each other—he’s in Montreal, she’s in Auckland—but they stay connected through their Tinys, miniature simulacra with some kind of optical / neural connection to the brain. So Carl has a miniature Jenny with him, while she has a diminutive Carl. Carl’s infidelity is something he definitely doesn’t want Jenny to know about, but when the little Jenny in his pocket won’t power down and disconnect the way it’s supposed to, it all goes to pot. I couldn’t quite decide how much sympathy to feel for Carl: he is very much a bastard, but it also seems as though he doesn’t manage to do anything right, and that level of failure is always painful to witness. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re his poor always-on spouse.

Octavia Cade’s ‘The Ghost of Matter’ sloshes between pivotal moments in the life and career of physicist Ernest Rutherford. The story’s bookended by the disappearance at sea of his younger brothers Charles and Herbert, in 1886, and by the death, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, of Rutherford’s lone daughter Eileen, in 1930. These events, as much as the struggle to understand the atomic structure hinted at by his laboratory studies, trouble Rutherford across the years, heightened by repeated manifestations—seawater, a girl in a blue dress—that his rational mind cannot account for. Cade is very good at this evocation of the private lives of scientists (I recollect reading her story ‘Eating With Ghosts’ in a recent issue of Asimov’s), and this is an eerily powerful piece with which to close the anthology.

I’ll avoid invidious comparisons in giving a summation on the anthology: the stories, really, are each too different to effectively compare and contrast. The volume does give an effective overview of the range of NZ speculative fiction talent, and for that reason it’s well worth seeking out for those interested. It would also be interesting to see further volumes in the series, though since as I understand it the ‘Shortcuts’ programme is currently in abeyance, that’s probably some distance off.