The Perfect Story Collection? ‘Exhalation’ Astounds with its Look Into the Human Soul

Exhalation1

Click image for interactive version. Most stories are less than an hour, and it’s time well spent for seekers of not just great, but essential speculative fiction.

 

Exhalation isn’t just a collection of short stories, it’s an experience that you will revisit over and over in your mind. I’m still processing the issues it raises about technology, society, and our collective and individual free will. It’s hard to put into words how profound the ideas, and the execution of those ideas, are.

Again, it’s an experience.

Story collections can sometimes be hit or miss and they are only as strong as their weakest link. There are none here. Ted Chiang wrote the stories in this collection, his second, over the course of almost a decade and a half (2005-2019). They all feel timeless, distinct, and something that is experienced at a personal level.

I’ll argue that these stories do what the best sci-fi should do, and then some. Science fiction allows people to potentially be more open or exposed to ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t be. Exhalation checks that block and then does something even more rare – it gets you thinking about changing your behavior, about being a better citizen of the world, and by doing so, moving the needle in the right direction.

Happy Reading!

Josh

exhalation2

Recreation of the book cover. Click image to interact.

A Compelling City on Water Filled with Staggering Human Misery

Splendidly spoiler free review.

Blackfish City is an extraordinary piece of fiction. Sam J. Miller is able to build a world, immerse readers in it, and make them marvel at its strangeness and decaying grandeur. The mysteries that surround the water city of Qaanaaq — its history, technological wonders, and status as the envy of the Sunken World nations — set a riveting stage for the book’s cast of deeply scarred and fascinating characters. The narrative itself is expertly paced and written, giving each character a depth that makes you almost feel their anguish and understand the desperation of their lives in Qaanaaq.

The social and political subtext that is a hallmark of every great piece of speculative fiction is abundant in Blackfish City and often made me think of contemporary parallels without ever beating me over the head with an agenda. It opened my eyes to broader perspectives about different lifestyles, the fallibility of human systems, and the absolute corruption of the soul when survival becomes the only goal.

This book tries to deliver the entire package in a single tale – authentic world, fully-realized characters, compelling narrative, social commentary, unique fantastical elements – and I think in large part it succeeds. I appreciate immensely an author being able to bring a story to life within a single novel and deliver on all these elements. It’s a testament to being able to enthrall readers and give them a story that stays with them, moves them in some way, and becomes a meaningful part of their love of the genre without them having to commit to a ten-book series. *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*

Qaanaaq is a scary place, and it echos the dead nations that preceded it in many insidious ways that aren’t immediately apparent. The squalor and social divides are all the proof that’s needed that the computer programs that run the city are no better than their human programmers. It was absolutely chilling to think that the most ruthless of the old world could rule the new one and use anonymity and hide behind the so-called benevolent computer programs to keep a stranglehold on what was left of the world’s wealth.

Qaanaaq is seen as a successful model forward as the world floods or burns, but those who make it to the floating city find only temporary relief. There is barely enough space for the population, many residents crammed in closet- and box-sized living spaces. A deadly disease the breaks, is sweeping the population and a phantom of the old world, bent on vengeance for the genocide of her people, has arrived.

My favorite parts? Slight spoilers start now…

I was a big fan of Ankit and Kaev. They are both tragic characters, but survivors. Miller isn’t afraid to shatter his characters and it was devastating to see how short lived some of their happiness was. Joy has been in short supply their whole lives and I had a hard time when I realized that part of their tale would not end well.

There is so much sorrow in this book, and Ora and Masaaraq represent the core of this. Their story is arguably the center of the narrative, and they are determined to persevere no matter what. They are symbolic of an older generation under siege but with the strength to help those who come after them. They could represent the philosophy of yin and yang, one fiercely loyal to blood family, the other committed to the human race achieving more harmony.

To get a quick take on all of the book’s main characters, check out my data visualization. It shows the order characters were introduced in the book and a ranking of my favorites. For those who want spoilers, hover on the dots to see some of my analysis of each character. DON’T hover on the dots if you don’t want want spoilers!

4 out of 5 stars (I wish the third act hadn’t been so rushed.)

Happy Reading,

Josh

Blackfish City

Click image to interact

 

‘Artemis’ Review: Jazz, you’ve been a bad, bad girl.

Image result for artemis book coverThe book Artemis by Andy Weir is like the flavored algae that the moon colonists in the story eat, passable but it’s no gourmet meal. No matter how much chicken flavor you put on the algae (known as Gunk to the locals), it’ll never be the real thing.

As much as I wanted to love this book, and as many laughs as I had with it, it was an exercise in frustration because of its unevenness. Its highest of highs – corporate sabotage, hilarious inner monologues, “sciencing the s#&*” out of any Martian lunar problem – were stifled by flat characters, horrible dialogue, and a third act, that while entertaining, warp speeds to a tidy convenient conclusion.

Like the book’s liquor, food, and air, the story feels reconstituted or recycled from Andy Weir’s acclaimed debut novel “The Martian”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the reader is treated to several survive-or-die scenarios in this book like those found in the other.

Jazz Bashara, our smuggler and supreme smart-ass, is the most well-developed character with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but as far as her character arc, it could be summarized as “hustle harder to make more money and move up to a nicer moon apartment.” Her current living arrangement is nicknamed the coffin for its size.

The story attempts to depict a frontier town on the moon, but the handful of half-dome structures that make up the town along with a desolate moonscape are the entire setting. Realistic, maybe, but it’s a bland backdrop that doesn’t really feel complete.

The story at face value is a cool concept with heartwarming moments and some great MacGyver on the Moon situations, but the character relationships are uneven, which made me care only half the time. (I liked the dad, Dale, and Svoboda, and others grew on me (Ngugi, Rudy), but others were wasted (The Landviks, Sean, Chu, Sanchez, Bob).

The good stuff? Weir is extraordinarily strong in his science writing and weaves it seamlessly into the narrative, making for fun action scenes that are the life of this tale. I’m glad to have read it just for these moments: Sabotaging a moon rock harvester in an EVA suit where one screwup means death? Check. Using a remote control bot to illegally open airlocks for you? Check. Putting out moon fires, starting moon explosions, and rolling your moon rover to escape said explosion? Check. The finale, which I won’t ruin, is nuts and satisfying – it creates a true heroine out of Jazz.

I recommend reading this for the fun of it and getting an idea of what you can expect as a tourist on the moon (no drinking age!). Don’t let the shortcomings prevent you from taking this wild ride. Verdict: 3 of 5 stars

Bonus: Poking fun at “The Martian” – “Only an idiot relies on duct tape to maintain a pressure seal, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Favorite Quote:

“The trick with Gunk is to steer clear of stuff trying to taste like other stuff. Don’t get the “Tandoori Chicken” flavorant. You’ll just be disappointed. Get “Myrtle Goldstein’s Formulation #3.” That’s good s*&%. No idea what the ingredients are. It could be termite carcasses and Italian armpit hair for all I know. I don’t care. It makes the Gunk palatable, and that’s what matters.”

Happy Reading!

Josh

A Pitch Perfect Sci-Fi Short That Speaks Volumes

Emergency Skin (Forward collection) by [Jemisin, N. K.]

The best fiction keeps your undivided attention. It holds you in the moment, simultaneously letting you savor every word and creating anticipation for what happens next.

N.K. Jemisin’s short story “Emergency Skin” does these things and more. The story of a human foot soldier on a mission to a decimated Earth is almost immediately flipped on its head. The Earth is thriving when it shouldn’t be since the ‘best’ of the species hightailed it off-planet with as many resources as possible centuries ago when they saw everything circling the drain. Everyone else be damned.

Jemisin cheekily uses the AI embedded in the soldier’s suit to show how wrong our ‘superior’ cousins got things. The planet survived the catastrophic damage that people inflicted on it and society didn’t crumble. We rebuilt.

The story could almost be a standup comedy routine (the audio story is excellent) the way it’s delivered and how exasperated the AI is at not being able to explain things.

But Jemisin does something more here than entertain; she creates multiple layers speaking basic truths about civility and compassion without beating you over the head. It ultimately made me reflect deeply on how we think we have the solutions to everything and he we might be deeply flawed in some of these assumptions.

It’s hilarious, it’s thoughtful, and it shows Jemisin at the top of her writing game.

(Part of the Amazon Prime Reading collection “Forward“)

Happy Reading!

Josh

‘Strange Weather’ Forecast? Bloody Good Reading

strange-weather-4

Don’t read the description of this book; you’ll only spoil the setup for each of the four wickedly good tales collected here. And they are wicked good. Each evokes a different kind of terror, and their implications hang heavy like the weather in each of the stand-alone stories. This anthology doesn’t have a weak link, and intentionally or not, the stories get weirder and more fantastical as you go. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling these reads, so here are my emotional reactions to each instead:

Snapshot: Evil in the world lurks right out in the open and I want to smash a baseball bat square in its face.

Loaded: I was unsettled by the lengths people will go to for self-preservation. Truly terrifying.

Aloft: It’s bizarre, it’s funny, it’s a guy’s fantasy, it’s heartbreaking, and ultimately it shocks you back to reality.

Rain: My favorite because…I never saw it coming. Full of fun characters that I would want to meet, an apocalyptic tale that’s both fantastical and plausible.

SPOILER SECTION:

Rain was an interesting take on the near-apocalypse and was full of misdirection. The main character Honeysuckle was catalyzed into action after her girlfriend was killed by crystal needles raining from the sky. She wanders a devastated Boulder where people still try to cling to the normal (McDonald’s fries during disaster relief) while dealing with the staggering death toll (mass graves at a high school football field). There are Russians, crazy cultists, and more than a few bigots in this tale. Honeysuckle tries to honor those she’s lost by doing right by them and along the way meets strangers of every type – among them an MMA fighter who can’t put his suffering cat out of its misery, state troopers getting the job done, and the Queen of the Apocalypse, wandering Denver in a wedding dress and tiara and who claims she can walk between the raindrops.

This needle rain starts to infiltrate the global weather system and a panicked public listens to the news media and government, which claims it’s the work of terrorists. Two storm fronts begin to brew: the deadly rain (which eventually is the only kind falling) and threats of nuclear retaliation on the assumed culprits.

The ending is startling and satisfying in how it completely circles around to the people closest to Honeysuckle to reveal the mystery of the hard rain’s origin. It’s closer to home than Honeysuckle would have ever imagined. The misdirection in the story is brilliant – those who would harm Honeysuckle (the jealous Russian with the stripper girlfriend and the cultists who would convert her by locking her away and dehydrating her) are not the real threat. It turns out Honeysuckle’s young neighbor Templeton, who lost his father, has a vengeful mother who blames her husband’s death on the company that stole his research (aka fired him and left him unemployed). She exacts her revenge in a dust cropper plane spreading the seed agents from her husband’s research that create the first storm in Boulder. Honeysuckle puts it all together right when it’s too late and her friend Marc Despot is cut down by the mom with a machete (but Marc lives!).

In the end, when trying to kill Honeysuckle, who has taken the boy Templeton as a shield, the mom is pierced by several hundred needles protecting the boy from another storm. The world meanwhile is in poor shape since the U.S. President — a brash, Twitter-crazed egomaniac — nuked the company that could have solved this new climate crisis. There’s hope one scientist can reverse-engineer the damage and the world waits with abated breath. The End.

Loaded shows how guns play a huge role in our society. It’s a boiling pot of water waiting to spill over, and it does so in spectacular fashion. The author doesn’t spare anyone in this tale, which is is what makes it such an emotional slap in the face when we reach the end. There’s no clean, easy solution to America’s gun problem and this one drives that point home in a blaze.

Snapshot is eery and shows how we can be easily seduced by power. A powerless boy comes across a man who can wipe memories by snapping someone’s photo. The boy gets the slip on him, and as the new owner of the Solariod (an evil Polaroid), he ultimately can’t resist the evil camera, which promises all the answers in universe. That thread is never really pursued, as is the connection between the evil man and the boy’s babysitter, so the story feels incomplete in that regard.  I believe this is an allegory for the evils of technology, but it’s told in a fashion that centers on the human decisions to use that technology for good or ill. I still can’t believe the kid wiped the babysitter’s memory (thus killing her) thinking it was a mercy since she was already far advanced with Alzheimer’s caused by the camera. That was a morally ambiguous decision that still doesn’t sit well with me.

In Aloft, it’s pretty simple. Boy pines over girl, girl’s not interested and boy is perpetually tortured as being the “best friend.” In was fun for the fact that the cloud he lands on (when attempting a skydive to impress said girl) is so damn weird. The cloud materializes what you need at just the right time. And up there, he does get his dream girl. Er, um, yeah, that happened. There’s also a sleeping alien that the cloud’s security system (pounding headaches and blackouts if he get’s too close) won’t let the main character near. Lucky for him, the cloud doesn’t throw anything away and he escapes with a 19th century balloonist’s balloon buried in a cloud grave with the former owner? Weird stuff but the guy survives and hopefully this experience can help him get past said girl or man up and let her know how he feels. RIP Junicorn!

Happy Reading,

Josh