SF Impressions: Chambers, Kowal, McGuire

As I mentioned early last week, I think I’ll start posting short reviews, or impressions, of recent SF novels I’ve read, every month or two, in groups. This is supposedly a blog mostly about science fiction, after all! These won’t be traditional reviews, nor will they be the annotated “walkthrough” reviews I was doing for Black Gate for a while (see list here). I’ll talk about each book’s context as much as its plot, and discuss what insights I can take from each book as much as evaluating whether I think it was a “good” book or not. And I’ll feel free to dismiss some books in a line or two.


(As I’ve finished this post, I’m only covering the three 21st century novels shown in the above pic — those in the title. I’ll cover the others in a later post.)

Let’s start with the most recent book I’ve read, or that I’m part way through. Part of my intent for this year has been to begin reading more current SF, by which I mean SF novels published in the last decade or so. I had kept up with the SF field, both novels and especially short fiction, from the mid-1970s all the way until about 2001, when my living arrangements changed (and I gave up my Locus column). While I haven’t entirely looked back to older books for these past 20 years, my reading of current SF, both novels and short fiction, has been haphazard. The turning point came in 2015, when I read Robinson’s AURORA, VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION, King’s REVIVAL, and a couple others, before stepping back and beginning an Asimov reread, then a Silverberg reread, then a Bradbury, and a Clarke, and a Heinlein, and so on.

As it stands right now, I’ve only read 3 of the past decade’s Hugo Award winning novels, and 3 of the past decade’s Nebula Award winning novels, and none of the World Fantasy Award winning novels since the 2010 winner. (Of course I tend toward SF, not fantasy.)

This is sort of a marvelous situation. When I began reading SF in the late 1960s, everything was new, all the authors were new, and as I read somewhat randomly, I would follow the authors I liked to find all their books I could, and read them. Asimov Clarke Heinlein Bradbury, at first. Now, having not read many of the current authors who’ve emerged in the past 20 years, I’m in the position of discovering an entire new 21st century genre..! But let’s see how this goes.

Becky Chambers, THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET (2014/2015)

This is a Star Trek pastiche. It’s overwritten. I’ve read the first 100 pages, out of 400 some, and I’m not sure I’ll finish. the book is notable in that it was self-published by the author in 2014, then picked up by an actual publisher (Harper Voyager) in 2015, and it was successful enough that the author has gone on to write several sequels. And in fact, the series, called “Wayfarers,” won a Hugo (see <a href=”http://www.sfadb.com/Becky_Chambers”>here</a>) once three of the novels were published.

A glance at her <a href=”https://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/chambers_becky”>SFE entry</a> is revealing; she was a columnist for a website called The Mary Sue; Wikipedia explains that “A Mary Sue is a type of fictional character, usually a young woman, who is portrayed as unrealistically free of weaknesses.” My impression until now has been that a Mary Sue is a young women who is brought aboard a starship, say, and by her plucky nature is able to solve problems that all the senior officers cannot; that is, it’s an adolescent girl’s fantasy.

I’ve not read enough of this book to tell if this is precisely a Mary Sue fantasy, but even if not, it’s derivative. Of Star Trek, and of every other space opera that presumes easy passage around the universe, one filled by other intelligent species with whom humans can easily communicate with (and breathe each other’s air).

Further, the book is cliché-ridden. Early on the captain reads “a newsfeed over a cup of mek” (the cliché is <a href=”https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CallARabbitASmeerp”>“call a rabbit a smeerp”</a>, which I think derives from criticism by James Blish back in the 1950s, about superficial SF that creates phony words to replace ordinary concepts, to make it seem futuristic or otherworldly). Later the prose contains “sooner rather than later” and “measure twice and cut once”. Far in the future, apparently, these phrases endure.

Chambers’ books are very popular. But I vacillate between feeling an obligation to keep up, however belatedly, with the current state of science fiction, and how I might otherwise spend another couple days than by finishing this book.


The first recent Sf/F novel I read in February was Seanan McGuire’s EVERY HEART A DOORWAY (2016). Because it’s short (a novella by current awards practices), despite its being a fantasy, and because it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards (and a Locus award) – see <a href=”http://www.sfadb.com/Seanan_McGuire_Titles”>here</a>. And launched a series of similar short novels.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, this is a fantasy about abused children who appear in an otherworldly manor, apparently to interact with each other and heal their emotional scars, even as they search for “doors” to return home. The plot is a whodunit about a series of murders (the villain turns out to be a child who *really, really* wants to return home. Why, if these children came from abuse? I probably didn’t pay close enough attention). The children are classified into one of four types. There is a big banquet scene at the beginning. What jarred me were the references to “gender expression” and being “asexual,” perfectly reasonable concepts in 2022, or 2016, but rather jarring in a supposedly otherworldly land for the healing of children. Not my cuppa.


And the third current novel I’ve read is Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE CALCULATING STARS (2018), the first book of yet another series, this one called “Lady Astronaut.” (The book was preceded by a novelette about the main character, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which won a Hugo.) Again, this book won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and a Locus Award, and the series was nominated for the Best Series Hugo Award.

It’s an alternate history about the space program. The key departure from our own timeline is an asteroid that strikes the Earth in 1952, just off the coast of Maryland, wiping out the US government in Washington DC. Early estimates are that the asteroid’s effects will be a chilling of the planet, followed by a global warming that will wipe out all life. As the US recovers, the space program is thrown into high-gear for the purpose of getting humanity a foothold on another planet.

The story follows a former WASP pilot, Elma York, who is instrumental in understanding these consequences, and then in trying to influence the space program (here, IAC, not NASA) to include women in its pool of potential astronauts, against typical male disdain. After many dramatic episodes (many effective emotional scenes, quite well told) she succeeds, and is on the first launch of astronauts to the moon. There the book ends – see sequels.

Is this a “women’s novel”? On the one hand, it’s comparable to the film Hidden Figures, mentioned in a blurb on the front cover, in its focus on women (and black women) who actually participated in the space program, unacknowledged for decades. (The cover of this book evokes the movie’s poster, very obviously.) At the same time, there’s not a lot in the book outside of Elma’s perspective and her particular concerns; if a similar novel focused on the male character this much, what would we think? I am probably wrong in thinking this; the men, obviously, take their roles and dominance for granted. The women struggled for recognition. So I think the perspective is justified.

(The classic “women’s novel” in science fiction I know of is Judith Merril’s SHADOW ON THE HEART (1950), about the outbreak of a nuclear World War III, but told entirely from the perspective of a housewife wondering if her husband has survived.)

Still—here’s another 400+ page novel that is the first of a series. Do I need to read further ones? Why am I reading science fiction…?

This entry was posted in Book Notes, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.