Science, Fiction, Life

Month: May 2015

Book Review: Ancillary Justice


I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice”. All I knew about it was that it had been winning just about every sci-fi award out there, it was in the subgenre of military sci-fi, and that it did some interesting things with pronouns.

I came very close to not finishing this book. I found the beginning to be extremely slow, to the extent that I often found myself nodding off, even when I was reading in the afternoon instead of before bed. I’ve heard it said that the greatest sin an author can commit is to bore the reader: readers will put up with all sorts of emotional abuse (see also: Game of Thrones) but boredom is the death knell for a book. I find that my tolerance for novels where the only motivation to keep reading is to figure out what is going on is waning as I get older, and in this novel nothing really happens until about a third of the way in, and I didn’t really understand the main character’s motivation until closer to 50%. To be honest, I would have given up on Ancillary Justice if it hadn’t won All the Awards. The only reason I stuck with it is that I wanted to see if it ever got better, or if I was really that out of touch with what SFF fandom likes.

Thankfully it does get better once the story actually begins. Now that I have finished the book, I see that all that early stuff is relevant, and provides the foundation upon which the rest of the story is built. It’s just that while reading much of the beginning of the book I didn’t know or care what was going on.

The central idea for the novel is pretty cool. In this far future universe, space ships are powerful artificial intelligences, and they are crewed by a combination of normal autonomous humans and “ancillaries” which are human bodies that are controlled by the AI. The main character of this novel is one of these AIs, so to add to the confusion at the beginning of the novel, not only do we not know what is happening or why we should care, but the point of view is very very odd. It’s actually a rather clever way of having what amounts to a first-person omniscient narrator: from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, the POV jumps from one ancillary body to another, so you end up with multiple conversations with multiple people in multiple locations happening at once. Or simultaneous descriptions of what is happening inside a building, and out on the street, and across town. I actually thought this was pretty cool even if it was hard to follow at times, and when, at one point the connection between the main character’s various bodies is severed and they are left as a collection of individuals, the shift from near-omniscience to regular old first person is suitably jarring.

Once the plot gets rolling, the book is better, though I still found myself confused more often than I like. I won’t get into the details of the plot other than to say that it’s your basic revenge plot, with some interesting twists.

I have to take some time to talk about the pronouns though. Throughout the novel, the main character refers to everyone as “she” except for a few rare cases where the main character is speaking in a different language. The idea is that the primary language of the empire does not make any gender distinctions. This is far from the first science fiction novel to play with pronouns like this, but I think it’s the first novel in a while to do this and also become extremely popular. I was not surprised by the pronouns in this book, because they had been causing a buzz in fandom since it came out. To be honest, my first reaction to the constant use of “she” was annoyance. Not that the female pronoun was being used, but because I couldn’t accurately picture the characters. But then that leads to the question: why do I care whether this character is male or female, if the society in which they live doesn’t care? A society like that would not have all of the other visual signifiers of gender that we take for granted so it doesn’t really matter what characters look like. In some ways it would have made more sense to use a new word that does not connote maleness or femaleness: that would be more consistent with a language and culture that doesn’t distinguish. But then using a made-up pronoun all the time in a book written in English might have been just as distracting.

I eventually got used to everyone being called “she”, but because my brain has spent its whole life in cultures where it does matter whether someone is male or female, and because the word “she” in English denotes female, I ended up giving up on trying to figure it out and just pictured this as a novel populated entirely by women. That doesn’t bother me, I just know it is not accurate, because in the rare cases where the narrator switched to a language that does distinguish, some characters are called “he”. In the end, I think my feelings on the pronouns in this book are that I found them annoying, but in a good way. They made me think about some of my cultural defaults, which is a healthy thing to do.

So my overall thoughts? It was ok, and I might give the sequels a try: I suspect they won’t start off as slow because less time will need to be devoted to explaining how ancillaries work and setting up the events that eventually set the plot in motion. I am surprised that this book has won so many awards. I found it to be very slow to start, and once the plot was rolling along it was ok but not great. The idea of AI-controlled ancillaries is pretty cool, and the unusual pronouns were mind-bending in a good way, but the novel has an unfortunate tendency to force the reader to turn the page to make sense of what has already happened rather than turning the page to find out what will happen next. Personally, I much prefer the latter.

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road


The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.


I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.



Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel



There’s no shortage of post-apocalyptic stories out there, but it has been a while since I’ve seen one done this well. The taxonomy of post-apocalyptic fiction is worth its own blog post, but for our current purposes, it can be simplified down to two types: the loud, angry apocalypse, and the quiet, sad apocalypse. Station Eleven falls squarely into the latter camp. It doesn’t tread any new ground: the premise is that a highly contagious and lethal strain of the flu sweeps the world and causes the collapse of civilization in a matter of days, leaving behind isolated groups of survivors struggling to come to terms with their new world. But the strength of this novel is not in an original premise, but in its almost flawless execution.

The story is centered around the events of a night just before the end of the world, when famous actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack onstage while performing as King Lear. From this central event, the novel jumps forward and back in time. It looks ahead to decades after the apocalypse, following the Travelling Symphony, a caravan of musicians and actors with a motto borrowed from an old episode of Star Trek: “Survival is not sufficient”. They roam what use to be Michigan, trying to survive and putting on performances of Shakespeare and classical music. The novel also jumps back in time, providing glimpses of characters’ lives before the apocalypse. The decadence of Hollywood and jet-setting business people contrasting with the “simple” life of the survivors of the end of civilization.

In a less-skilled author’s hands, a novel with so many jumps between characters and times could become confusing or difficult to follow, but that’s not a problem here. This book is very well-written: it’s well above par compared to most genre writing, while avoiding purple prose. Mandel deftly handles the shifts in time, place, and point of view in such a way that they make perfect sense and all build upon each other, weaving together connections between them all. She also manages the impressive feat of making the pre-apocalypse scenes just as interesting, if not more so, than the post-apocalyptic ones.

Station Eleven is the sad, quiet type of post-apocalyptic novel, reflecting poignantly on all the things about modern life that we take for granted, and speculating about the values that people would try to keep alive after the end of the world. Yet for all that, it doesn’t wallow in sadness. The feeling that it evokes is more bittersweet than depressing, and there is a hopeful strain to it.

I highly recommend this novel, whether you are a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, or just a fan of good writing. This is one of those novels I found myself savoring I approached the end because I didn’t want it to be over, and I’m looking forward to reading it again someday.


Book Review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb


Of all the epic fantasy series I’ve read, Robin Hobb’s Farseer books are among my favorite, and that’s primarily because of the great job that Hobb does getting the reader inside the main character, FitzChivalry’s head (for better or worse). The previous books follow him from being a young boy struggling to survive court intrigue, to a trained assassin working for the king, to a battle-weary man seeking solitude after a life of trauma and loss. I was surprised to hear that Hobb was coming out with a new Fitz trilogy since his story was pretty clearly finished, but at the same time I was excited to spend some more time with Fitz and the other characters from past books.

Warning: It’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling anything. I’ll keep the spoilers mild but you have been warned.

Fool’s Assassin starts with Fitz in late middle age, enjoying a peaceful retirement with his wife Molly. The book moves slowly, but the writing was good enough to keep me turning the page as the reader is brought up to speed on some of Fitz’s past exploits and his current situation. Although they both had thought she was too old, Molly announces that she is pregnant. After a long section where Fitz believes Molly has become demented rather than pregnant (my first reminder of the downside of being inside Fitz’s head: he is all too often oblivious to major plot points when it is convenient for him to be so) she eventually does give birth to a tiny but healthy daughter, Bee. Everyone assumes Bee won’t live long because she is so small, but other than her small size she turns out to be healthy, capable, and smart. She’s just shy and a bit odd. When Molly dies suddenly, Fitz is left to raise Bee himself.

About halfway through the book, the point of view chapters start to alternate between Bee and Fitz, and much as I have enjoyed the previous Fitz books, I found myself dreading Fitz’s chapters and looking forward to Bee’s. Fitz has the habit of throwing himself long, elaborate pity parties in his head, and the reader gets to come along for the ride. There is some nice writing in here about dealing with loss of a spouse (Hobb writes poignant and bittersweet very well), and the challenges of parenting, but Fitz still tends to be a downer.  And as this book progresses, his tendency to be wrong about everything just to add conflict to the plot got to be really annoying. Bee on the other hand is everyone’s favorite point of view character type: smarter than she seems, constantly underestimated by everyone around her, clever but flawed enough to be interesting, with hints of extraordinary abilities that even she does not fully understand. (Actually now that I think about it, she reminds me a lot of Bean in the Ender’s Game books.)

The book continues on, with other new (and often highly annoying) characters introduced to add conflict, but unfortunately the plot does almost nothing, and that ends up being my biggest criticism. This is not a finished book, this is the first act of a book that has been split into three pieces so it can be released as a trilogy. There’s a lot of filler here and not much plot, and what plot there is has some pretty significant holes in it that I won’t go into to avoid major spoilers. The writing was still good enough that I found myself staying up late turning pages, but in the end all this book gives is the inciting event for the real story. I’ll be reading the sequels, but if I had known how unsatisfying this one would be I would have waited for all three books to be out first.


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