by Doctor Science
Between preparing for, going to, and recovering from Worldcon, it's been a while since I wrote about what I've been reading. This round-up covers several weeks, and includes novels by Genevieve Cogman, Laura Anne Gilman, Jo Walton, N.K. Jemisin, and Mary Robinette Kowal. huh. I didn't plan to read only books by woman, it just happened.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. In this variation on the Supernatural Librarians trope, the Library is connected to alternate worlds with varying degrees of "order" and "chaos", magic and science. It's an amusing romp with horror elements, and everyone in the Science household is looking forward to the next one -- already published in the UK, it's coming out in the US in September. I've been assured by a friend of the author that the heroine won't get Anita Blake Disease and waste my time and hers see-sawing between Possible Romantic Interests #1 and #2. I have some hopes of a threesome in their future, in fact.
Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman. I liked it! A very different kind of Western, with magic (/horror) that's not quite overt, in a setting that's just a little offset from our world. Mr Dr and I are both looking forward to the next installment.
The only thing I was dissatisfied with: not enough specific names of animals and plants! I wanted to know what *kind* of blue flowers, what *kind* of birds. I'm not sure how aware a girl raised in a small town on the plains would be of such things, of how much diversity there is in the natural world. Possibly I'm projecting. Ooo, but now I've found the bibliography, I'll have LOTS of fun with this!
The Philosopher Kings and Necessity are numbers 2 and 3 in Jo Walton's "Thessaly" series: in which the goddess Athene gathers people from many time periods to create a society based on Plato's Republic. I'm also dipping into Crooked Timber's seminar on the series -- which they did based on the first two books only, for no reason I understand. I mean, why not wait for the conclusion?
As for the series as a whole: it's a thought experiment about a thought experiment, taking on Plato and Sokrates in the cheekiest manner possible. I don't exactly *believe* in it, because the experiment is far too successful, and a number of things are *much* easier than they'd be in reality. The first thing that struck me is that both Plato and Walton underestimate the energy, time, and dangers of human reproduction. Without spoilers, I'll say that the unconsidered trouble with the Festivals of Hera is that they won't *work*: only about 1/4 of the eligible women will be fertile at any given time, and the chance of conception in a single fertile period is at best 25% (humans are actually very infertile, compared to other mammals). And then, with the technology described at least 1 out of a hundred births would kill the mother, while the infant death rate would be at best 1 out of 10. All this in a society with a very imperfect grasp of the germ theory of disease, as witness Sokrates and Crocus' discussion of the importance (or otherwise) of plumbing repair.
The problem "Necessity" has, as a book and a series finale, is that a lot of it has to be about Gods, and my suspension of disbelief gets a really hard workout. This is partly due to the fact that the personalities of the Gods don't match my takes on them: I think Apollo is actually more of a Divine Nerd Boy, not to mention that--like his sister-- he's Mostly Gay. And I think of Athena as less distant toward humans in general, not just to her crushes. But the idea of [rot-13 spoilers] Mrhf npghnyyl orvat gur rphzravpny Fhcerzr Orvat -- no, I just can't do it.
Anyway, I have many more Thoughts about the trilogy, which I should probably write up at some point. The fact that it *does* make me think and want to argue with it is the biggest sign of its success, because that's what philosophy is *supposed* to do. I'm not sure I'll nominate it for a Hugo next year, but I'm not sure I won't, either.
I read N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate while I was at Worldcon. I found it even more moving than her now Hugo-winning The Fifth Season, possibly because less happened externally, more inside people's heads. Showing how Our Multi-Named Heroine came to her "Orogene Lives Matter" moment was very powerful for me. I didn't find it preachy or pasted-on, but resonant: this is how it would feel, this is how it does feel.
As for the world-building, things now seem to be coming down a bit heavier on the Magic side of the Magic-Science spectrum. That's partly because of Jemisin's choice of words, but also that the Psi Powers that got tossed around so freely in the 50s-70s now look so much more magic-y and less science-y than they did then.
There are two things about the world-building that make me scratch my head. One is saying "Father Earth" instead of the usual "Mother Earth" -- and then not talking about who the Mother might be instead.
There's also the question of whether the "Stillness" continent is big enough to be a Pangaea-type supercontinent. Looking at maps of possible future supercontinents, I can see that the Stillness -- which is about 5000-mi wide at the equator, but stretches pole-to-pole (10K-12K miles or more) might have the same area as Novopangaea or Amasia, but rotated 90°. That implies 250M- years-worth of plate tectonics has happened on fast-forward, which would work in a hand-wavey kind of way. This IS "rock opera", after all.
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. If magic/psychic powers are used in WWI, does that become horror? A lot of the prose is light and even a little silly, but the topic is so dark the mix doesn't quite work, for me. And I can't figure out if the implied Qbpgbe Jub pebffbire vf whfg n fvyyvarff: Yrguoevqtr-Fgrjneg pbhyq whfg or n fvyyl, ohg gura Gbz-Onxre-Qbpgbe fubjf hc. Ohg jul qbrf gur ivyynva rfpncr sebz uvz fb rnfvyl? (ah - I am told similar cameos show up in most of Kowal's longer works.)
Similarly, gur oneenpxf rkcybfvba vf fhccbfrq gb sybbq gur Fcvevg Pbecf, birejuryzvat gurz fb gurl pna'g qrny jvgu tubfgf sebz gur bapbzvat onggyr. Ohg gur fgbel ortvaf nsgre gur Pbecf unf qrnyg jvgu gur svefg qnl bs gur Onggyr bs gur Fbzzr, jura 20,000 Oevgvfu fbyqvref jrer xvyyrq ba n fvatyr qnl. Vs gurl pna pbcr jvgu gung naq abg pbyyncfr ragveryl, ubj pna n fvatyr rkcybfvba or na rssrpgvir QQBF nggnpx?
More importantly, I'd expect some of them to be realizing by July 1916 what a catastrophe the War is, and that the Germans might not be the real enemy compared to the commanders and politicians on all sides. WWI was a many-sided tragedy, and it's not clear that 'doing a better job' would have done any actual good.
Overall, it's amusing enough -- but I won't be seeking out the sequel unless the first penguins off the ice flow tell me it's much more serious about one of the most horrible and pointless disasters in human history.