The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing EmpireGUYS JOHN SCALZI HAS A NEW BOOK OUT! I mean, did. Like three and a half months ago. But I am behind on my reviews, and maybe you are behind on your John Scalzi books, and if so, we can meet together here!

If you’ve read even one John Scalzi book — well, maybe two, there’s one that’s very different and I never finished it — you know the Scalzi oeuvre: One part science fiction, one part snarky humor, and a dash of F-bombs. This first book in a new series follows that formula pretty well, except for the F-bombs. There are a LOT of F-bombs in this book, such that even I, with my mouth resembling a sailor’s, was like, dang, dude, can we dial that back a bit? So. Forewarning.

If you’ve read any of the Old Man’s War series, you’ll be even closer to this new series, which includes much of OMW’s military style and crazy intrigue and crazier subterfuge, but in a whole new universe with new exciting characters to get to know and a fascinating quasi-scientific plot.

On one end of this universe you have the capital of the planetary system, where a new and rather reluctant Emperox is being crowned. She is meant to keep the Interdependency working smoothly, but from the time of her coronation it is obvious that that is going to be rather difficult, what with warring noble houses and also a terrible scientific secret.

On the other end of the Interdependency, at a planet smartly called End, you have the man who discovered this secret, living with his kids and trying to stay under the radar. When a member one of those aforementioned noble houses on End starts doing some odd political machinations that don’t make a lot of sense, the scientist realizes it’s time to send his son to the capital to explain just what exactly is going on with the space highways (vast oversimplification on my part) that rule the system.

In between these places we meet an F-bomb-loving noble-house type who really just wants to sell her dang plants but who gets drawn into the plots on both ends of the system when she takes the scientist’s son aboard her ship.

Put these all together and you have the beautiful space opera brain candy with a little bit of social consciousness thrown in that I love from John Scalzi. It’s super fun, kind of ridiculous, and I already can’t wait for the next in the series.

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Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

Weekend Shorts: Book Club Re-Reads

I don’t re-read books terribly often, but when I do, it’s for book club. This year is probably going to be seeing more than its fair share of re-reads as I’ve been tasked with putting the book list together for my in-person book club, which means several very popular or much-requested books but also some books I know we can talk a lot about — the re-reads!

Of course, re-reading a book doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will…

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name VerityOh, man. I picked this book for my book club for several reasons, including that it’s short-ish and we were short on time, I remember loving the heck out of it, and it had been a while since we read a WWII book. It seemed like a winner.

What I didn’t remember from my first reading is the fact that the first half is slow as molasses in winter. It’s slow, it’s kinda boring, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for what’s happening, the narrator’s kinda weird… it’s bad. About half of the people who showed up for book club hadn’t made it past this part, and they were like, we are here to determine what you were smoking when you chose this book. The other half had finished it, with the redirect and the new narrator and the Actual Plot, and while they didn’t all love it they at least understood what I was going for!

True story, even I only just finished the first half before going to book club, so it was kind of hard to convince everyone else they should finish. But finish I did, and yes, again, the second half was much better, though I didn’t find myself shedding a single tear at the end of it where a few years ago I was ugly crying in public. I’m not sure if this is a function of reading it soooooo slowwwwly this time, or the conversation with people who didn’t like it right in the middle of my re-read, or just the fact that I knew what terrible things were going to happen. But it was just… an ending.

Recommendation: Absolutely yes you should read this. Maybe don’t read it twice.

Lock In, by John Scalzi
Lock InLet’s be honest, and TOTALLY SPOILERIFFIC IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK. I mostly wanted my book club to read this to see how many of them thought Chris Shane was a lady. I had Shane in my head as, like, robot first, dude second; my husband totally thought she was a badass chick. There weren’t a lot of book clubbers at this meeting because apparently sci-fi-based procedural crime stories are not my club’s jam, but of the handful who were there it was a mostly dude-Chris consensus, and in fact a sizable white-Chris minority who had missed the “angry black guy with a shotgun” line about Chris’s father.

I had actually tried very hard to get myself into chick-Chris mode, going so far as to use my free Audible trial to obtain the audio version of this book narrated by Amber Benson (you can also get one narrated by Wil Wheaton). It was a very weird experience. Sometimes my initial read of the book, and Benson’s not-super-feminine voice, kept me thinking Shane was a dude. After a while at each listen, I could get into chick mode, but only if I imagined that Amber Benson was Eliza Dushku instead. I would totally watch this movie with Dushku (or her voice, whatever) as the lead, by the way. And with Joss Whedon somewhere at the helm. Hollywood, make this happen!

Outside of all that, though, the book was just as weird and twisty as it was the first time, enough that I couldn’t exactly remember what was going to happen and all the big reveals were still pretty much intact. My book club was not a big fan of all the intrigue and subterfuge, which of course I loved, but they all agreed it was at least interesting.

Recommendation: Totally pick up the audio book in whichever narrator you didn’t expect the first time. It’s weird and fun.

The End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

Lock In, by John Scalzi

Lock InA few months back I wrote about Unlocked, the companion/prequel/whatever to Lock In. Unlocked was a cool oral history thing, and it was followed by the first chapter of Lock In, which was not an oral history thing but which made me really really really excited to read the book.

I may have been a little too excited, possibly? But it’s a really fun book nonetheless.

The premise is really cool — the book takes place post-This Thing That Happened (the explanation of that left mostly to Unlocked) that left some number of people entirely immobile but still capable of thought, and then some enterprising inventors created robot bodies that could interface with those people’s brains and which could be used to allow said people to wander around and do more or less human things, provided that someone was around to feed the paralyzed body and keep it from dying of sepsis or whatever. It’s a bit complicated.

Our hero, Chris Shane, is one of these so-called Hadens and also a newly minted FBI agent with a non-Haden, cynical, self-destructive partner called Leslie Vann. On Shane’s first day on the job, Shane and Vann are called to a murder scene where the suspected murderer is still there, but not entirely sure he did anything wrong — turns out his job is to act as a human version of the robot bodies Hadens use and that someone else may or may not have been in control of his body at the time. It’s… very complicated. And awesome.

It is definitely a Scalzi book. There’s politics and intrigue and odd humor and a plot line that was drawn with a spirograph and quotes for all occasions, like the ever-useful “Not all of my ideas are going to be gold.” There were certain points at which I found myself feeling a bit of Scalzi overload, with too many characters all sharing the exact same sense of humor and political leanings (and those traits matching the ones I see every day on Scalzi’s blog), but the plot kept on moving right along and I was able to let it drag me away from thinking about it too much. And oh, that plot. Intrigue! Machinations! An ending that probably doesn’t hold up well to strict scrutiny but whatever it’s awesome!

Scalzi also does a fancy thing that I am going to spoil, in the real sense of the word because it’s actually way cooler when you figure it out for yourself so go buy the book and read it and then come back here and we can talk about this. Done? Okay. So, Scalzi, by writing in the first person and having his main character walking around in a robot body thing, manages never to use a gendered pronoun in relation to Chris Shane, which I kind of realized while reading the book but which was hammered home when my husband started talking about Shane and what she was doing and how cool she was and I was like, dude, Shane’s a dude. I think. I’m pretty sure. I don’t think it said so in the book, maybe?, but it said so in Unlocked. Orrrrr I guess it was just a weirdly worded sentence. Well. Huh.

So Scalzi deftly tackles gender roles and gets in some good digs at prejudice in general (see: robot bodies not being allowed to sit in chairs at restaurants because humans who actually eat food need those chairs), although he glosses over the class issues that I thought could have been really interesting but hey, you can only fit in so much social commentary between gunfights and chases and cross-country body swaps. It’s still quite impressive.

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more from this world, and when we do I will be there with bells on.

Recommendation: For fans of Scalzi and/or certain dearly departed sci-fi buddy-cop television shows.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Rocket Girl and Unlocked

Happy weekend! If you’re like me and have all the plans today, here are some things you can read when you have a spare minute or two!

Rocket Girl #2: “Objects in Motion Tend to Stay in Motion…”
Rocket Girl 2I loved the first issue of this comic, which featured our teenaged Rocket Girl causing time-travel troubles and generally being awesome. Less travelling in this issue, but lots of time troubles, for sure. In 1986 the scientists whose work Dayoung destroyed are trying to keep Dayoung from running around being Rocket Girl, but of course that doesn’t happen. In 2013, we see Dayoung and her partner Leshawn listening in to a Quintum Mechanics meeting in which it is revealed that QM sent itself the time machine from the future to give itself a head start in time travel, which, ouchies in the brain. To be continued…

Rocket Girl #3: “Double Reagent”
Rocket Girl 3…here! Dayoung has been arrested in 1986 for her hijinks, and all her future equipment “given back” to QM by the police, but it turns out that she does not need rocket boots to be a badass (damn right she doesn’t). Then in 2013 we see her plan to come back in time play out with subterfuge and trickery that turns out to be entirely unnecessary, and also learn that the future seems to be going on just fine, but the QM powers that be decide to send some dudes back in time to make sure everything works out.

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, by John Scalzi
UnlockedSo a while back Scalzi talked about his upcoming book, Lock In, on his blog, and I was like, John Scalzi book? Sold. John Scalzi book with “occasional murders and explosions and intrigue”?? SUPER sold. So when later he announced this companion ebook short story thing, I was literally sold and preordered it immediately.

This tiny book is, as the title says, an oral history of the disease that Lock In is based on, in which people get sick, some die and some get sicker, and then some of those die and the rest get “locked in” to their bodies, alive and conscious but unable to move a single muscle. Which sounds HORRIBLE. Zillions of dollars are poured into research to cure the disease, but (spoiler? Eh, whatever) the only thing research can really come up with is an awesome “personal traveler” device like in the movie Surrogates but absolutely only for people who are locked in, to the disappointment of people who like money.

I loved the oral history conceit of this story, which allowed narration from military types and entrepreneur types and locked in types as well, and which had a beautiful gender parity not seen in certain other fictional oral histories.

But even better was the included first chapter of Lock In, which indicates that this book is going to be a combination of the best parts of Intelligence (awesome premise, terrible show) and Almost Human (awesome premise, awesome show, so of course cancelled by Fox) and OMG why is it not August yet so I can read the heck out of this book???

Ahem. What good short things are y’all reading this week?