Look at my Book Bingo Card; I managed to sneak a bingo in right at the end. This was a diagonal line, that includes the free square, so I can talk about any book I want. I’m going to use that square to talk about a book I hated, although the four from actual challenges I loved a lot.
A Detective Story
The Album of Dr. Moreau
By Daryl Gregory
Published 2021 (Tor.com)
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this story. A locked room murder mystery about a furry boy-band set in 2001. Well, it seems like a locked room murder mystery, but one of the detectives points out that one of their suspects is a cat man with great jumping powers, and another a bonobo man with superhuman climbing skills. Also, one of the guys is a bat, though physics makes him flightless.
There are some nice meta layers to this story. The detectives discuss different murder mystery tropes (such as the aforementioned locked room discussion), and there is even a mention on all the references and stuff early mystery writers put in their works. On top of that, the group, WildBoyZ, are anthropomorphic animal people created by evil scientists on a barge, and a lot of their adult fans are furries. I feel that there is some paralleled to be made between the two different references, but I don’t really know where I’m going with this.
The boys are an interesting collection of animals. Bobby “The Cute One” is an ocelot, Matt “The Funny One” is a megabat, Devin “The Romantic One” is a bonobo, Tusk “The Smart One” is an elephant, and Tim “The Shy One” is a pangolin. (On a side note, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Their scales are not medicine.) This is an interesting collection of animals; I don’t think we see a lot of bats or pangolins around. They are also interesting characters, and even though the size of this story means they only get one interview each, we still get to see a lot of personality from the whole band.
With how short this story is, it does feel slightly rushed, but overall it still delivered the mystery well. This little book was a lot of fun, and I was super hooked at the end. This book is connected a bit to the 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. I can’t really say how, because I have not read The Island of Dr. Moreau. I imagine some things in this story might make more sense, but the story was still perfectly accessible and enjoyable even without this additional knowledge. I also felt the mystery was relatively fair, and had grown suspicious of the killer halfway through, though I had no idea how things went down and loved the reveal.
This is a book with lovable characters with tragic lives, which becomes impossible to put down. Would definetly recommend to anyone looking for a fun, quick fantastical mystery.
Short Story Collection
Warm Worlds and Otherwise
By James Tiptree Jr.
As with most short story collections, there are hits and misses here. Mostly hits this time. I think the only story that didn’t have anything I liked was Amberjack, and that’s mostly a case of me just not getting it. And I suppose The Night-Blooming Saurian was dumb, but it did get a chuckle out of me. Overall this collection is a lot of fun. It starts with a hilarious-in-hindsight intro by Robert Silverberg (“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”), which in my edition contained a postscript from three years later where Silverberg reveals that Alice Sheldon had contacted him and revealed herself to be Tiptree. We then dive into twelve stories that are though-provoking, surreal, and very 70s. We see aliens having sex with hippies, a scientist abandoning his spaceship to climb a strange mountain, deadly diseases being spread by excessive air travel (ha, what a strange notion), counterfeit dinosaur poop and a colony facing destruction by giant sea monsters.
The two stand-outs are the cover story, The Women Men Don’t See and the Hugo Award winning novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In. These two stories alone are worth the price of admission for the whole collection. There has been a lot of discussion about both, so I’ll be quick. Let’s look at The Women Men Don’t See First. The story kicks off with a plane crash in Mexico, where our narrator Don Fenton is stranded on a sandbar with the Mayan piolet Esteban, fellow passenger Ruth Parsons and her daughter Althea. Despite being writen decades ago, Don gives off subtle incel/MGTOW vibes. He does only sees the women in a sexual way. He doesn’t understand how Ruth and Althea are not being super panicky and useless in this emergency situation. The fact that Ruth makes good suggestions and has something to contribute besides being a pretty face is a shock to him. He automatically thinks Ruth wanting to come with him to find fresh water implies that there may be a possibility for sex later. He assumes that her daughter and the pilot must be banging while they’re away, and that of course it’s the young daughter who is initiating this. Women are invisible to him until they interest him sexually. And then he wonders why Ruth feels alienated from the human race and might want to go with the aliens. Weird right? Took me a while to figure out what was happening, but in the end I liked this one. The Women Men Don’t See is a feminist story that still feels relevant.
Now the star of the collection, The Girl Who Was Plugged In. First of all content warning for ableism. The protagonist, P. Burke, has Cushing’s Disease and as the story progresses she is referred to in increasingly degrading terms. This is one of the main points of the story, which explores how society devalues some bodies and reveres others; how femininity is tied to beauty and performance, and the dehumanising effect of excluding people based on their bodies. The shitty way people treat P. Burke is done well, but she is still treated in a really shitty way that is not always pleasant to read.
The story is set in a feature controlled by a capitalist regime where advertisement is banned. To circumvent this ban, the capitalist overlords go to great lengths to secretly manufacture perfect celebrities that they can use for product placement. After a failed suicide attempt, P. Burke is disappeared and recruited to remotely operate an artificially grown human body dubbed ‘Delphi.’ Delphi is physical perfection; young and beautiful, perfect for secretly advertising products to the masses. With P. Burke – desperate, expendable, and easily controlled – controlling the Delphi body, the corporate overlords don’t have to worry about their star going off-script. Or at least, that’s the plan.
Everyone loves Delphi. She becomes a star overnight, and suddenly P. Burke has fame, influence, friends, love, and money. All the things that she was never allowed in her old life, with her real body. This is like Black Mirror thirty-six years before Black Mirror. This story says a lot about how society treats different bodies, and there has been discussion about how it relates to the author. Alice Sheldon published these stories as James Tiptree Jr. It is no secret that men have an easier time getting published, and Sheldon is not the only women to use a male name or publish under her initials to obscure gender. We’ve come a long way, but even today, there are many, many different ways in which we are granted privileges’ or denied opportunities because of the body we inhabit.
Overall this whole collection has been a lot of fun, and I will read more Tiptree in the future.
The Stars, Like Dust
by Isaac Asimov
I grew up reading Isaac Asimov. After the Animorphs, Asimov is the one who pulled me deeper into science fiction. Not literally in this instance, something that given Asimov’s wandering hands and disturbing fondness for pulling bra straps, should be clarified. Despite growing up with Asimov’s robots and the Foundation, it has been a while since I’ve read any of the Good Doctor’s work, so I was expecting this book to be like a little nostalgia trip to me.
I’d also enjoyed the other two books in the ‘Galactic Empire’ series, Pebble in the Sky and The Currents of Space. Though I must admit I don’t remember a lot of The Currents of Space. This trilogy is a collection of three unrelated, lesser-known books of Asimov’s that are vaguely set in the same universe as his Foundation books, which was later retconned to be the far future of his Robot books. I’m not going to say I had high hopes for The Stars, Like Dust, but I did expect to have some fun and encounter some cool ideas.
But that didn’t happen.
I really, really disliked this book.
A lot of it is the fact that it hasn’t aged well. The evil empire is a Mongol Empire expy, with all the unfortunate 1950s racial coding present. It is very sexist, and the romance between the princess and the hero is trash. Of course, being the early 1950s, I do have lowered expectations in these areas. I was asking myself if I have grown and expanded my reading tastes too much to enjoy problematic older SF. I came to the conclusion that my inability to compartmentalize and disregard the problematic elements isn’t because I’ve grown more sensitive to such things, but more because the story didn’t offer anything of creative merit to compensate for the assault on my modern values. It’s like one of those microwave meals that is full of onions (I hate onions) but the rest of the meal is tasteless too, so picking out the onions just feels like a waste of time. There’s this carbonara I like that has tons of big chunky onions, but I like the sauce a lot and its full of tasty bacon bits, so I keep buying it and eating around the onions. The Stars, Like Dust is not that carbonara. Its just all onions. It is everything bad about Golden Age science fiction without the inventiveness or grandeur that makes stories from this era worth reading.
I’m not alone in bagging out The Stars, Like Dust. Many consider it Asimov’s worst book, including Asimov himself. The story is an uninspired, generic space opera, where one Mary Sue Man is on the run after the evil Tyranni kill his Nobel father, and then has to find the Rebel World and woo the Princess. And no, Rebel World isn’t my derisive description, that’s what they call the base of the resistance in universe. There is a subplot about a mysterious weapon from Earth that turns out to be one of the cheesiest, dumbest reveals I have ever read. I later read that Asimov hated this sub-plot, but was forced to put it in by his editor. Which explains why this sub-plot was so poorly inserted into the main story.
Speaking of things that were inserted into the story, Asimov has put a link to his Foundation series here. A prototype to the emotion influencing visi-sonar instrument so prominent in The Mule plays an important role in this book. I kinda liked that, it was a cool little reference, but at the same time I don’t really like the attempt to connect all of Asimov’s works into one universe. The Stars, Like Dust has a few cool space opera set pieces, and I think it could have been more fun if it wasn’t bound to the Foundation universe and its rules. Though in the end, given how overall uninspired this story is, I think the enjoyment I got from being reminded of Foundation outweighs any positives that Asimov could have wrung out of freedom from continuity.
I suppose this story also gets a point because if I pretend not to know who wrote this or when, I can pretend it is a parody of sexist space opera tropes. Though it also loses most of its points because the sexism is real. I think the most memorable instances of this book are the sexist bits, and they are so ridiculous. The book ends with the Princess going off to save her true love (who has been a jerk to her the whole book, and her to him) and fainting multiple times on the way before making the situation worse. To conclude this review, I am just going to leave a few key quotes, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about.
“There are depths in feminine psychology, which, without experience, defy analysis.”
“Well, she would have to get used to it. Byron let that he had done enough for her, gone sufficiently out of his way. Why couldn’t she be pleasant about it and smile once in a while? She had a nice smile, and he had to admit that she wasn’t bad, except for her temper. But oh, that temper!”
“The trip, he decided, could be quite wonderful if she would only learn to behave herself. The trouble was that no one had ever controlled her properly, that was all. Certainly not her father. She’d become too used to having her own way. If she’d been born a commoner she would be a very lovely creature.”
Those three aren’t the only nuggets, but they are the most unsubtle ones that aren’t said by a villain. Time to end my rant and move on to happier books.
Across the Green Grass Fields
By Seanan McGuire
Published 2021 (Tor.com)
This is book six of the Wayward Children series, and being an even numbered entry it can be read as a standalone. Green Grass Fields introduces us to a completely new character, Regan, and a whole new world, the Hooflands. After being a bit underwhelmed with Come Tumbling Down, Green Grass Fields bought me back into this universe, filling me with wonder once again.
This series is about children who have gone through portal worlds and come back. As someone who loves worldbuilding, this premise is perfect for me. We visit a lot of amazing worlds, that do not need to be logically compatible with each other. In fact, the incompatibility between these worlds is part of the fun. Especially in a story like Beneath the Sugar Sky when characters who had gone to a variety of different worlds end up in a nonsensical candy land.
The Hooflands is a land for horse girls. It is full of centaurs and unicorns and kelpies and any hoofed mythological creature you can think of. I am not a horse person, but I still really loved the Hooflands. It helps that seeing the Hooflands through Regan’s horse-obsessed eyes is a lot of fun. I liked Regan a lot; she is dealing with a lot of normal young schoolgirl clique behaviour, and watching her find her place in the Hooflands is rather heartening. I connected with this young girl who was so hurt in our world by her inability to be ‘a normal girl’, and I enjoyed watching her find true friendship and self-acceptance.
The Wayward Children series is big on representation, and Regan continues this trend. When Regan turns ten, she becomes concerned that she is not reaching the same milestones as some of her friends. She asks her parent’s about this lack of puberty, and discovers she is intersex. This is troubling news to her and leads to her finding the doorway to the Hooflands. Being Intersex is not Regan’s defining character trait, but it makes her being comfortable as herself very powerful, and it shows a unique aspect to the theme of the story, which is that there is no correct way to be a girl.
With this being book 6 in a series, most people who are interested in this one would have already had some experience with the Wayward Children and therefore have an idea what to expect. I suppose the only thing to really say to these people is that this book continues the series in a similar vein and with high quality. If you are new to the series, then yes you could start here; this story shares no characters or plot elements with the other books in the series. At least not yet. Might be a good book to try if you want an introduction to this world without committing to a 6+ ongoing novella series, this is a perfectly fine sample.
Hugo Award Winner
By Dan Simmons
I originally reviewed this book after doing the Space Opera September Readathon, and at the time I said I couldn’t give a score or final verdict on Hyperion because it didn’t stand alone. As huge as this story is, most of what happens is just setting up for the sequel, Fall of Hyperion.
Since then, I have finished Fall of Hyperion, and I can say that yes, this book is a classic for a reason. This duology is just absolutely amazing. Yes, you do need to continue the story. Hyperion is frustratingly incomplete by itself, but everything pays off so well by the end of the duology. I’ll just focus on Hyperion for this review.
The first thing that grabbed me was the epic worldbuilding. The setting is a far future Hegemony of Man; hundreds of planets connected by farcasters (teleportation portals), and colony worlds that don’t have farcasters and must be reached by ships bounded by the laws of relativity. Which is cool because we get stories and settings that take advantage of both the instant travel – like a chase scene through a nature walk that travels through different environments on different planets – and storylines that rely on the time dilation effect of relativistic travel. This is just one example of how complicated the worldbuilding is.
As well as this great Hegemony of Man with its long history, we also get to feel like the planet Hyperion is a real world. The history, the scenery, the wildlife is all richly detailed. The planet Hyperion is the perfect place to tell a story about a pilgrimage, because Simmons makes this world come alive.
With the focus on the pilgrimage and the planet, we don’t realise just how complex this universe is at first. We follow seven pilgrims travelling to the mysterious Time Tombs, where they will confront the mythical killing machine known as the Shrike. Along the way, they take turns telling the group stories of their previous experience with Hyperion, and with each story our understanding we see more of the wider world, the the massive scope of this story. A couple of the stories are a bit disturbing actually, but all form a tapestry that tells a grand epic. My favourite story is that of Sol Weintraub and his daughter Rachel. That was just tragic.
The Shrike and the cruciform parasites are also amongst the most terrifying SF creatures in existence. Some of the stories strayed into pure body horror territory. Of course, the Shrike doesn’t truely make itself known until Fall of Hyperion, but just as a source of menace it makes this book something special.
In the end, the fact that I did feel the need to jump right into the next book is proof that Hyperion has done its job. This story is a classic for a reason. It won the Hugo in 1990 for a reason. Considering it is over thirty now, the story hasn’t aged too badly either. There are some things about the way women are depicted that made me cringe, but there are some really good female characters here and I feel it is perfectly fair for its time.
I enjoyed this book. Or rather this half of a book. You really need to read Fall of Hyperion to get the full payoff from the story, but that payoff is worth it. I’ll read the second duology in this series, Endymion and Rise of Endymion one day. A series this big, I do need a break before going back.
With only three days left of 2021, I won’t be filling out any more challenge tiles on my card. At least not by reading more books. I’ll write a review about every bingo-related book I read last year at some point in January. Just need some time to go over my reading list and see if I can shuffle books around to fill more squares.
I’m debating if I still want to do a book bingo challenge next year. I have the Sol System Bingo Challenge, and I think using the generator to give myself random monthly challenges could be more attainable. But I really like making bingo cards. Maybe I can do monthly challenges based off of my card. Or alongside them. I’ll figure it out and share some reading challenges next year.
I’ll see you all in 2022,