Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. I alternated my digital copy with the audio version I found at Seattle Bibliocommons; the reader does a fine job, and so if you want this book, you can’t go wrong in terms of print versus sound.

This is either exactly the right time to read this book, or exactly the wrong time.

Franny Stone has never been happy staying in one place, and now, when the walls are about to close in on her, she decides that one final voyage is in order. The Artic terns are about to make one final migration, and she means to go with them. Posing as a marine biologist, she persuades a fishing crew to take her along; she has the data to follow the terns, and the terns are following the fish. It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together here, now that so many species are extinct and the fish are so scarce. Once in motion, however, few things go according to plan.

The setting is the future, at a time when humanity has depleted most of the world’s wildlife. It is bleak, bleak, bleak.

Much of the story revolves around Franny’s character, and since we know from the get-go that she doesn’t intend to return alive once this trip is done, there are two questions that keep me turning the pages. I want to know why she wants to die, and of course, whether she does. The reason for her morbid plans is spooled out to us in small bits; whether she dies at the end is something the reader must learn for herself.

As for me, I had huge expectations by the time I began reading, because this novel shot up to bestseller level almost overnight. Perhaps that’s why I felt a trifle let down when it was done. It’s a good story, but I wouldn’t call it one of the year’s finest. Certainly, there is moral gravitas behind it, and yet those most likely to read it are not climate change deniers. For me to have loved this story, I would have needed more hope and less utter despair. When a story starts sad and ends sad, the little places in which it is slightly less sad aren’t enough to bond me to the narrative.

On the other hand, I am just one reviewer. There are a whole lot of readers out there getting all the feels and loving them. I recommend this story to anyone looking for a catalyst for a good ugly cry.

Zed, by Joanna Kavenna***

Kavenna is an established writer, but she is new to me. I saw the description and—okay, yes, the cover—and I knew I had to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

At the outset this story is electrifying. It’s set in future Earth in what was once London. Beetle is an all-powerful company that governs both business and government; it resembles Future Amazon more than a little. Its employees have Real Life selves, and they have virtual selves that make it possible for them to attend meetings without physically being there. They have BeetleBands that measure their respiration, pulse, perspiration and other physical functions, and those bands are supposed to stay on:

The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what they hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever.

Of course, it is possible to avoid the entire Beetle system, but there’s almost nothing that someone that is off the grid can do for a living; these people scuttle about in abandoned buildings, living miserably impoverished, private lives.

Those in high positions of responsibility have Veeps, which are virtual assistants that run on artificial intelligence. There are few human cops out there because those jobs are done by ANTS—Anti-Terrorism Droids—and these in turn follow the protocol, which says they should shoot at their own discretion. And all of these things lead up to the murder of Lionel Bigman, who bears an unfortunate resemblance in both body and name to George Mann, who has just cut the throats of everyone in his family. The ANTS find Bigman and kill him.

The aftermath features the sort of government whitewash and cover-up that every reader must recognize. The error was caused, say the higher-ups, by two factors: one was Mary Bigman, wife of Lionel, the uncooperative widow of Lionel who demands answers and is therefore conveniently scapegoated; and Zed, the term for chaos and error within the system. And Zed, unfortunately, is growing and creating more errors which must also be swept under the virtual carpet.

Those dealing with this situation are Guy Matthias, the big boss at Beetle; Eloise Jayne, the security chief who’s being investigated for saving the life of a future criminal that the ANTS had been preparing to shoot; Douglas Varley, a Beetle board member; and David Strachey, a journalist torn between his paramount duty to inform the public, and his self-interest that suggests he shouldn’t rock the boat.

Once the parameters of this book are defined, I am excited. The book could be the bastard antecedent of some combination of Huxley, Rand, Vonnegut and Orwell. The possibilities! But alas, though the premise is outstanding, the execution is lacking. I have gone over it multiple times trying to figure out what went wrong and what could fix it, and I am baffled. All I can say is that by the thirty percent mark, though a major character is running for her very life, the inner monologue drones until I am ready to hurl myself into the path of the ANTS just to end it. All of the fun stuff has been offered up already, leaving us to slog our way out of it. How could a story so darkly hilarious and so well-conceived turn so abstruse and deadly dull?

Nevertheless, I would read Kavenna again in a heartbeat. Someone this smart will surely write more books that work better than this one. But as for you, read this one free or cheap if you read it at all.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos***

I was invited to read this work of science fiction by Net Galley and Random House; it’s for sale now.

At the outset, I was thrilled with this story’s audacity. The Farm is a luxury retreat that exists for the purpose of pampering young surrogate women that are carrying babies for the most privileged families. In some cases the mothers that will claim these babes after birth are sterile; some waited until they were too old to bear a child naturally; and some just don’t care to deal with the discomfort, the pain, or horror of horrors, the stretch marks.

Mae runs the show. Her talent scouts look hither and yon for suitable young women, and though few white women are available, those that are paler are considered most desirable. Most of all, they need to have incentive, which pretty much translates as desperation. The fees for carrying healthy children to term and through delivery are hefty; money is the carrot as well as the stick, and impoverished young women with helpless dependents will do a great deal to avoid penalties, to earn a bonus.

The set up makes my feminist heart sing.

Our primary protagonist is Jane, a Filipino with a tiny daughter of her own. Who doesn’t want the best for her child? The surrogacy fee will permit her to move her baby, her aging cousin, and herself out of the tiny, nasty dive that is their current residence, and in return for being sequestered away from her family for nine months, she will be able to give her daughter a much better head start in life. Her cousin Ate will watch the child while Jane is away; she is so young that she won’t even remember having been separated.

But piece by piece, we see what appears to be a reasonable business deal descend into a dystopian nightmare. Such things as constant surveillance, personal communication that is monitored without regard to the women’s privacy, and other Big Brotherish components make it clear that the surrogates are little more than meat. Their health is important only as long as they are pregnant; they are kept from their loved ones and deceived in nefarious ways, all with the end result—a healthy baby for each client—as the sole consideration.

Up to the climax I am riveted. For three-quarters of this story, I am making notes and occasionally exclaiming over it out loud. But unfortunately, the message that I believe Ramos intends to drive home is more or less tossed out the window in the end.  I don’t want to spoil it and so I won’t be specific, but it is a massively wasted opportunity. In the end, I am left with my mouth hanging open, not in surprise but in disappointment. I read back a few pages to see if I missed something, because surely a writer competent enough to write the beginning and middle so cleverly wouldn’t write an ending as stupid as it seems to be. But actually? I’m afraid that’s what’s happened.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***

Dusty ZebraClifford Simak was a prolific writer of short stories, mostly science fiction starting in the 1930s when the genre was new, and initially the stories were sold individually to magazines. They have been curated and released digitally by his friend, David W. Wixon, who provides a forward and brief, interesting notes before each one. My thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in 2016 in exchange for this very tardy but honest review.

Open Road offers the entire Simak collection in a series, and as a fan of old school science fiction–the sort that doesn’t make inside jokes for programmers and code writers–I have been snapping them up. I read #1, #4, and #7-10 and loved them all, and so I settled happily down to read this one. The introduction by Wixon is perhaps the best of the notes I have seen so far, and the first story, Dusty Zebra, is uproarious. I loved it. After that, not so much.

In addition to having written a ton of science fiction and a few westerns, which were hugely popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, Simak also wrote a few World War II stories, primarily during and shortly after the war. These are not stories that have aged well. There are a whole raft of ugly racist terms used in them that were horrifyingly common among Caucasian Americans during that time period. We are better people now, most of us, and so reading this sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. I skipped around in the collection some, but even those that contained none of this crap somehow failed to hold my attention. I moved to the last story, since short stories are often bookended with the strongest selections, and I didn’t care for it either; it wasn’t offensive, but it also wasn’t interesting. Simak sometimes struggled with dialogue, and so dialogue-heavy selections are usually not his best work.

Open Road doesn’t post on Net Galley anymore, but I still have one more of their Simak collections, #12, and I intend to read it and review it. With 6 excellent collections and 1 mostly lousy one, I like my odds. But for fans of wonderful science fiction, I recommend turning to one of the others noted above, all of which I have reviewed. Simak’s work is great more often than not, and I still encourage you to read it; in fact, since it’s selling cheaply, you could even buy this one for the title story if you have a mind to. But you’ll get more bang for your buck by turning to the others first.

The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Earth for Inspiration and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

earthforinspirationClifford D. Simak wrote for decades during the mid-twentieth century.  His close friend, David W. Wixon, has undertaken, with Simak’s approval in his declining years, to collect all of the stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies beginning in the 1930’s and ending before the digital age was off the ground. This one is volume 9, and it’s an interesting hodgepodge of the very best—which is most of it—and the very worst, which is just two stories. Needless to say, I thought a lot about how I should rate such a collection.

Finally, I decided that price would be the deciding factor. If it was going to set you back twenty or thirty bucks, then I’d have to cut it down the middle and call it three stars, which would be sad but fair. However, I logged onto the big A and found it’s sold digitally for six bucks. At this price, you’re paying a buck each for six absolutely stellar short stories; there are three more good ones thrown in; and you can afford to skip the two stinkers. Given that factor, I’m rating this 4.5 stars, with just half a star gone for the two missable stories, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Thank you Net Galley and Open Road Media for the DRC, the fifth Simak collection I have received from them. I sat on this one for a long time because I’d been reading a lot of his work, and was beginning to get grumpy at the similarities among some of them. Just how many different characters can a writer name “Doc” and remain credible? But then I realized that when Simak submitted his stories to various periodicals, names were about the least important aspect of his work, because he wrote them never dreaming that his writing would be important enough to appear in an entire series, back to back. Who knew he would become so successful?

During the 1940s and 1950s, as Wixon points out, science fiction was barely off the ground—pun intended—and Westerns were massively in style. I guess you could say they were the zombie apocalypse of their time; if a writer wanted to pay his rent without having to work a day job, he had to write some westerns. And since Wixon is publishing all of Simak’s stories rather than the best-of, he has to insert the few losers somewhere also.

So let’s just get the bad stuff over with so I can tell you what’s great here. The bad ones are sandwiched midway through the collection and appropriately flanked by good writing before and after. “Hellhound of the Cosmos” is bad enough that Wixon’s preface—a brief paragraph appearing before each story—says he “…will not try to excuse this story’s failings” by pointing out that Simak wrote it in 1931, at the very get-go of his career. Fine; don’t. But it’s a really dumb story, and I’d hate to see you use it as a yardstick by which to measure this man, who would become a Grand Master of sci fi. Read it or skip it, but this is not the story I recommend.

Further along we have “Good Nesters Are Dead Nesters”. This one is actively offensive, and if it were written today, I might well shoot down the entire collection because of it. But I know from the things I heard during my childhood that the language used here, while truly offensive, was also commonplace back then. The US was a lot whiter; the interstate was a new thing; satellite communication wasn’t yet dreamed of. People lived in isolated areas and got stupid ideas about what other people were like, largely due to stereotypes promoted in the news, on radio, and on black and white television.

So although I—married to an Asian immigrant—am as pissed as anyone about the singsong caricature of the Chinese cook, I also know this was a widely accepted way to regard people from China and Japan. As if that’s not terrible enough, a disabled person is referred to as a helpless, “twisted cripple”. Ohhh, no thank you. As you can imagine, I quickly gave myself permission to make a note and then skim till I reached the next story.

However, the stories that flank the collection, starting with the title story and ending with “Full Cycle”, are outstanding.  The latter is written in the 1950s, and reflects both the reality of a pair of Atomic bombs having been dropped in Japan eleven years before it was written, as well as the anti-communist hysteria so prevalent in the news. The idea is that all cities are decentralized, because a bomb might be dropped on a large urban center, but the USA is a very big place, and so small, mobile communities, all of them having traded their houses for trailers, is now the way Americans live. It’s very cleverly put together conceptually, and Amby, the protagonist, is so well drawn that at times, I wanted to weep for him.

“Honorable Opponent” has to do with a US planetary colony that has just been defeated by another planet’s military. The result took me entirely by surprise, and I think I’ll remember this story after I’ve read other science fiction by other authors. The same is true of “Carbon Copy”, a fine tale combining  science fiction, ruthless capitalism, and brilliant imagination. “Desertion” is another stellar story. If you want to read science fiction that makes your dreams sweet, read this one at bedtime. “Golden Bugs” is equally clever.

So for the price you pay, there is too much good writing here to turn your back on. My records tell me that over time I have read over 100 short story collections, which is about 90 more than I ever expected to read, and yet this one is outstanding among them. For those that love old school science fiction, this one, with the caveats mentioned, is highly recommended, and it’s available now.

Titles You’ll See Here Soon

The last time I put up a preview page, it was in the midst of household chaos, and I made the post by way of apology for not having a review to put up. I was surprised by the positive feedback I got, and so today, even though I have recently posted a review and will have more soon, I thought I’d show you what’s next. There are some repeats from my last preview that I haven’t done yet, but I’m happy to say most of those are done. Here’s what you can look for between now and Thanksgiving, barring catastrophe: