Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope. When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. In her trademark exquisite prose, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?

The Wangs vs the World

Cover image for The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang by Jade Chang

ISBN 9780544734098

Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.”

Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who came to America decades ago with nothing but a list of fertilizer manufacturers who might want to buy the urea produced in his family’s Taipei factories. Instead, he ended up building a cosmetics empire, which has come crashing down around him in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With the factories shuttered, the house foreclosed, and the cars repossessed, Charles commandeers the vehicle belonging to his elderly Ama, and sets out with his second wife, Barbra, on the cross country trek to retrieve his younger children from their college and boarding schools, and join their eldest sister at her home in upstate New York. Along the way he plans to deliver Ama to her daughter in Nevada, drop off one last customer order in Alabama, and then find a way to return to China, and reclaim the land his family lost in the Communist Revolution.

The Wangs vs. the World is the ultimate dysfunctional family road trip, told in alternating perspectives among the Wang family members, and with a couple of vignettes from the point of view of the car they are driving, which once belonged to Charles first wife, and the mother of his children, May Lee, who died tragically in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon. Jade Chang approaches it all with a slightly crass sense of humour that starts right out from the fact Charles’ family essentially produces artificial chemical piss (urea) and carries on through such debacles as Andrew masturbating with a leftover ketchup packet. These jokes aside, the family dynamic has a tragi-comic flavour glossing over a deeper level of introspection, but some readers will probably find this tone off-putting.

On the surface, The Wangs vs. the World is a comic story about the shock of rich people who suddenly find themselves poor. Yet it also interrogates the American Dream, income inequality, and the bill of goods immigrants are sold about the possibilities of life in America. Tellingly, Charles goes bankrupt trying to keep afloat a line of cosmetics for non-white women, a huge untapped market that he believes will make his fortune. But skepticism among bankers about his social justice motives causes him to float a personal stake in the endeavour just as the market is about to collapse. Meanwhile, his son Andrew wants to be a comedian, but worries that he will only gain success in the American market by making fun of his own Asian heritage. They have all had to work out their role in a country that promised them everything, and delivered, but at a price they never expected.

While Charles and Barbra are mostly focused on money, and the loss of wealth, Saina, Andrew, and Gracie are also facing losses, not just of money, but the other things they have been taught to value as first generation Americans. The currency of the younger Wangs is mostly fame, though it comes in different forms. Andrew dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, and asks his father to make stops in cities along the road that are hosting open mic nights. Gracie runs a successful fashion blog, with a currency in likes and followers. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Saina, at first seems relatively untouched by the crisis, but as the story progresses we learn that after three critical successes, her latest art show was a controversial flop, and her reputation in New York City’s art scene is in ruins. She has fled to upstate New York to escape the fallout, and perhaps break it off with her cheating artist boyfriend once and for all.

(Content Warning: Rape) Another thing that is lost along the road is Andrew’s virginity, in a part of the plot that is perhaps one of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the story. Having steadfastly refused to have sex until he is in love, twenty-one year old Andrew meets an older woman at a wedding in New Orleans, where the Wangs have stopped to visit an old friend of Charles’. Dorrie takes Andrew home, and proceeds to have penetrative sex with him, even after he tells her he wants to wait. Tied up and blindfolded, Andrew can’t resist her, and is profoundly confused about whether he wanted to. He never manages to tell anyone in his family about it after the fact, either. Andrew’s lingering virginity is an object of humour, and the way he loses his agency in the choice of when to give it up is passed over without much reflection about what was taken from him.

While the crasser side of Chang’s brand of humour wasn’t especially my thing, I think she has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as the road trip narrative, and used the two together to reflect on the immigrant story in a new way, through the lens of the financial crisis. However, I enjoyed the more situational aspects of Chang’s sense of humour, and the odd predicaments the Wangs ended up in as a result, despite my reservations about how she handled Andrew’s story.

Palaces for the People

Cover image for Palaces for the People by Eric KlinenbergEric Klinenberg

ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even benches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.”

In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck Chicago, killing more than 700 people. When sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, began to study the deaths, they realized that communities with similar demographic conditions sometimes had vastly disparate survival outcomes during the heat wave. The disaster formed the core of Klinenberg’s earlier book, Heat Wave, but it also leads into his most recent publication, where he examines the physical conditions that develop communities and make them resilient. In many ways, Palaces for the People combines Heat Wave with Going Solo, where he examined the increasing trend towards living alone, and Modern Romance (with Aziz Ansari) where they looked at how people form romantic relationships in the digital era. In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg examines public libraries, parks and community gardens, schools, and sports leagues, in an effort to demonstrate how these “social infrastructures” improve our communities, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The concept of social infrastructure is related to, but distinct from, social capital, in that social infrastructure represents “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” Social infrastructures are the places people congregate, and develop communities. The physical landscape of a neighbourhood can be the difference between neighbours who develop “strong and supportive relationships” and those who become “isolated and alone.” If roads and subways and electric grids are the hard infrastructure of a city, soft infrastructure is what we fall back on when these things fail. Klinenberg also notes that while pubs and cafes are classic “third places,” they are not the focus of Palaces for the People, because “not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.”

Klinenberg takes as his first, and key example, the public library, drawing his title from the phrase used to describe the libraries endowed by “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie, who gave away most of his fortune in his later years, so that he is today better remembered as a philanthropist. Klinenberg freely acknowledges Carnegie’s predatory behaviour a titan of industry, someone who was involved in breaking unions, and exploiting workers. However, he still cites Carnegie’s contribution to public libraries as an unparalleled work of public service and social infrastructure building, giving away what would be billions in today’s dollars to endow thousands of libraries.

Klinenberg puts his finger on the pulse of the public library when he writes that “the problem that libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them, or take out books. On the contrary, so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.” However, Klinenberg never delves deep enough into the public library to touch on the tensions that often arise between the different groups trying to coexist in these spaces, and the entitlement some “tax paying citizens” feel to never be exposed to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. In glossing over this divide, Klinenberg loses the opportunity to engage with this tendency to self-segregate, to lay private claim to public spaces, or to retreat from public spaces when too many “others” occupy them. Those who can afford to buy their own resources and materials can abandon the public library, just as some white people responded to the desegregation of public swimming pools by building private pools in their own backyards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Palaces for the People are the cases that look like social infrastructure on the surface, but do not effectively serve as such in practice. Gathering places are not necessarily good social infrastructure. Klinenberg highlights a number of institutions that have deleterious effects on community, creating further division rather than unity. Among them are private country clubs, gated communities, fraternities, and tech campuses. In the last case, tech companies often create elaborate social infrastructures for their high level employees—demonstrating that they understand the concept—while shutting out the campus’s service workers, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases, all a tech campus means for the existing community is more traffic, and rising rent. The segregation of spaces that are ostensibly open to the public, such as public pools, and churches, have damaged their ability to serve as effective social infrastructure, though this varies widely from case to case. Klinenberg also notes that safe, separate gathering spaces for minority groups are important social infrastructure despite their segregated nature.

Palaces for the People also takes a look at what role technology plays in our social infrastructure, and our changing civic life. Klinenberg has harsh words for tech companies in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, for the claims they have made about community, versus the reality that has played out as social media proliferates. However, he is careful to qualify that digital technology cannot be simply scapegoated as the source of all our woes. He points to studies that find that polarization has actually increased most among people over the age of seventy-five. By contrast, social media is most heavily used by the eighteen to thirty-nine cohort. Therefore, Klinenberg cautions that “social media may well contribute to our widening ideological divisions, but if the Internet doesn’t explain changes in the group that has grown the most polarized, it cannot be entirely to blame.”

Palaces for the People provides a high level look at a number of social infrastructures and their impact on their communities, any one of which could probably be the subject of their own book. However, this is a broad, useful introduction for the non-academic reader into thinking about how our investment in public spaces impacts our private relationships, as well as our larger civic life and social cohesion.

You might also like The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

Good and Mad

Cover image for Good and Mad by Rebecca Traisterby Rebecca Traister

ISBN 978-1-5011-8179-5

 “Having had the rare and privileged experience of having had my anger taken seriously, valued on its merits, I no longer believe that it is anger that is hurting us, but rather the system that penalizes us for expressing it, that doesn’t respect or hear it, that isn’t curious about it, that mocks or ignores it. That’s what’s making us sick; that’s what’s making us feel crazy, alone; that’s why we’re grinding our teeth at night.”

2018 may feel like a unique moment for the public expression of women’s anger, but in Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister seeks to situate it within a broader history of angry women in American politics, from the suffragist movement, to Shirley Chisholm’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, to the current Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Traister examines how anger, both felt and displayed, has operated for women in American politics, using historical examples and recent events to demonstrate how an emotion that is depicted as the opposite of feminine has fueled the feminist revolution, and continues to be an important source of power and energy for women’s movements.

Traister notes that while she had had the idea for this topic for some time, when it became clear to her that the moment to write it was now, she produced the draft in relatively short order. Thus, Good and Mad is definitely of the current political moment, heavily involved in the ethos of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. It is extremely relevant, though this focus may be detrimental to its staying power, and become dated quickly. In that case, however, it will be a time capsule testifying to all the reasons American women have to be good and mad right now, as well as a reminder that this anger has its roots in a long history of injustice, not just current events.

Traister examines major female political figures such as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Maxine Waters, to show how they have used or concealed their anger, and at what political cost, being portrayed as aggressive, mad, or crazy for behaviour that was a mere shadow of the antics of many men on the political stage. Women’s anger must be couched and justified in ways that men’s anger is not. Traister points to comedy and tears as the two covers under which female anger most commonly operates; necessary disguises, useful, but not without their own costs. It would have been interesting to also look at how the anger of women on the political right—where traditional gender roles are more openly applauded—is perceived and portrayed. Do they get a pass on their anger when it aligns with the party’s views? Are they punished more or less harshly for deviation? Traister makes some brief mention of more conservative women, but does not delve into this line of inquiry.

Good and Mad includes an examination of the ways in which women police one another and themselves in accordance with patriarchal standards. Traister is particularly insightful in her discussion of the successful women who spoke out against the #MeToo movement, analyzing how their success within a patriarchal system led to their defense of the men who supported their advancement, at the expense of those men’s victims. The fall of these men threatened the legitimacy of their successes within a corrupt system. However, Traister also notes that media portrayals of internal conflicts within feminist movements tend towards supporting stereotypes about how women behave in groups, rather than parsing women’s differences in meaningful ways that support understanding and cooperation. Just as abolition and suffrage were historically pitted against one another, to the detriment of both causes, so too do opponents seek to divide and conquer modern feminist movements. Traister engages in a more nuanced discussion of how women sometimes work against themselves.

Good and Mad is a work that pays decent attention to intersectionality, particularly on the issue race, though somewhat narrowly focused on Black women to the exclusion of other women of colour. Traister opens on the 1972 Presidential nominee bid of Shirley Chisholm, discusses how Rosa Parks’ anger has been whitewashed, and considers how Black women, frequently stereotyped as angry, have been asked to bear the burden of performing the emotions white women also feel, as well as the punishment for displaying them publicly. She makes some brief nods to trans inclusivity, does not specifically discuss how these issues might operate uniquely in trans women’s lives or political movements. The very breadth of women’s identities and experiences both demands intersectionality, and makes it very difficult for any single work to be encompassing.

Traister closes with a call for women to do for one another what the culture at large will not; witness and validate the anger of other women, while being mindful of the other power dynamics that intersect with women’s issues. Having shown how anger has been an effective, if double-edged, tool for women’s movements of the past, her cri de coeur is that we not let this energy go to waste by bottling it up and allowing it to eat us alive at a moment that is ripe for action.

You might also like Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Cover image for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robsonby Kelly Robson

ISBN 978-1-250-16385-1

People—especially bankers—had trouble thinking long-term, and nothing was more long-term than ecological restoration.”

After destroying the environment, humanity retreated below ground for centuries, living in hives and hells, eking out an existence. But a new generation dreamed of the sun, and returning to the surface. For six decades, Minh, an ecological restoration specialist, has worked in the Calgary hab, slowly coaxing the surrounding landscape back to life, trying to keep afloat a community that believes in life above ground. But since the discovery of time travel a decade ago, financial backing for ecological restoration has waned, and the younger generation seems less than committed to the dream Minh’s cohort fought so hard for. When the secretive company that controls time travel technology publishes a request for proposal for a multi-disciplinary team to visit Mesopotamia in the past to study the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Minh knows that it is project she cannot pass up, even as she seriously distrusts the agency in whose hands she will be placing her life, and the lives of her team.

In Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson has conjured up an ecological dystopia in which “banks” are actually wealthy individuals who finance only the projects that interest or enrich them. Minh’s generation—the plague babies—cannot hope to achieve their aims without the necessary financial support, but the possibilities opened up by time travel technology would seem to make the slow, patient work of ecological restoration unnecessary. However, time travel is aggressively guarded by the intellectual property rights of the company that discovered it, making it difficult to know what is really possible. The company claims that they can only travel into the past, not the future, and that any changes occasioned by the visit occur in a separate timeline that collapses when the time travelers depart.

Robson’s novella is told through the perspective of Minh, an octogenarian scientist who was a pioneer in her field. A member of the plague generation, she lost her legs to disease, and wears prosthetics, opting for an adaptable six-legged model. Though in somewhat questionable health, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and her grouchy but determined personality drives the narrative. Although Minh carries the main plot, each chapter opens with a brief section centered on an ancient king, and a priestess who reads the stars to foretell the future. An entirely different set of events seem to play out through their eyes.

This is slow-paced work focused on interpersonal dynamics. The world is sketched out and interesting, but the format does not really leave room to develop it more fully. The main conflict does not take place until the last thirty pages, and the conclusion is open-ended. The balance is devoted to the dynamics between Minh, Kiki, Hamid, and Fabian, the team that travels to Mesopotamia. Kiki is an assistant at the environmental firm Minh works for in Calgary, but she will do whatever it takes be on the special project team. A member of the younger generation—known as the fat babies—she is starving for an opportunity to prove herself, and build a better future. However, she is torn between Minh’s vision for that future, and the possibilities offered by Fabian, the historian who takes them into the past.

Despite the slower pacing, I really enjoyed reading about an older protagonist and the nuanced portrayal of inter-generational dynamics between Minh and Kiki. Given the open-ended conclusion, I would not recommended this for those who hate cliff-hangers. I would also be excited to see what this author could do with a full-length novel in the future.

You might also like Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Astounding

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-Leeby Alec Nevala-Lee

ISBN 978-0-06-257194-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

As the atomic age dawned, Campbell was acclaimed as a prophet, a role for which he had carefully positioned himself—he had planted “Deadline” in the magazine so that he could point to it later, orchestrating the most famous anecdote of his career to illustrate the genre’s ability to foresee the future. The fact that he hadn’t predicted anything at all was a distinction lost on most readers, who exulted in their newfound relevance.”

In 1937, a young science fiction writer with a background studying physics and chemistry at MIT, got his big break. He became the editor of Astounding, a pulp magazine that was one of the top publishers of the genre. He was only twenty-seven at the time, and though he had begun as a writer, he is better remembered for his work as an editor, shaping and choosing the direction of the genre, and the authors who would come to define it. He would go on to publish writers such as L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, ushering in what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the years before the Second World War, and serving as the genre’s gatekeeper. He would become the namesake of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is awarded by the company that owns Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine formerly known as Astounding, of which Campbell was the editor for more than thirty years. The publisher has billed Astounding as the first full biography of John W. Campbell Jr., though Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard are also major subjects of the work. Author Alec Nevala-Lee is well-read in early science fiction, and can offer commentary on the evolution of each author’s style, and how it fits into the genre more broadly. He is also a science fiction writer himself, and has had stories publisher in the current incarnation of the magazine about which he is writing.

Astounding is a work of biography that grapples directly with the more problematic history and behaviour of its subjects, and how those attitudes shaped the direction of the genre. Campbell was widely acknowledged as a difficult person to work for, even as he was accorded great respect by the writers he shepherded into the field. While he began rooted fairly firmly in the science he had studied at MIT, in the years after WWII, he veered further and further into pseudoscience, beginning with his early involvement in Dianetics. Racism also often lurked beneath the surface of the stories he commissioned and published, and both heroes and writers were almost invariably white, and largely male. His views on race only became more venomous and marked with age, and Nevala-Lee argues that “the question of how Campbell’s views affected the fiction that he published is central to any consideration of his legacy.” Nor does Nevala-Lee shy away from Hubbard’s abuse of his wives, or the fact the Asimov was known for groping and otherwise sexually harassing female fans, as well as women who worked for his publisher.

Nevala-Lee also notes the absence of women from the genre, and devotes significant attention to Leslyn Heinlein, and Doña Campbell, and the important role the two women played in their husbands’ early work, as well as the deep friendship that developed between the two couples. Doña was known to edit and retype Campbell’s early stories, liberally fixing his atrocious grammar and spelling. Both women talked through plots and stories with their partners, playing a significant role in the development of the ideas that finally made it onto the page, and into the annals of science fiction history. Heinlein even suggested that their wives could run the magazine if the two men were pulled into the war. Ultimately, however, both couples would divorce, and the two women slip from the pages of Astounding, though Nevala-Lee returns to them in the conclusion. Each man remarries, and Ginny Heinlein and Peg Campbell take up their places. Kay Tarrant, the woman who Campbell referred to as his secretary, but who in fact handled “the entire practical and administrative side of the magazine” is frequently mentioned, and seems intriguing, but unfortunately we do not get to learn much about her.

Hubbard and Dianetics play an important role in Astounding, but if you are most interested in Scientology, that is not the core focus of the book. However, Campbell was deeply enmeshed in the early days of Dianetics, before the founding of the Church of Scientology. He regarded it as scientific research, and his deep obsession with auditing tore down the remains of his first marriage, and directly led to his second. He was interested in regaining lost memories of his childhood, and recovering from the trauma he believed these forgotten events had left him with. Doña’s resistance to having their daughters audited led him to believe she was hiding some terrible abuse she had perpetrated against them. His second wife began as his auditing partner, and they continued to practice well after the schism with Hubbard. Officially speaking, Campbell’s role in the early days of Dianetics has been erased. Nevala-Lee quotes Asimov as having said, “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”

Astounding is an insightful look at the early days of science fiction provided through the examination of Campbell’s inner circle of friends and writers. Nevala-Lee’s consideration of the impact their characters and prejudices had on the formation of the genre is a particularly important contribution to the history of science fiction.

You might also be interested in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Time Was

Cover image from Time Was by Ian McDonaldby Ian McDonald

ISBN 978-0-7653-9146-9

Too many of the war loves I had followed did not survive. Peace killed them. People returned to their old lives and loves; quickly the old order reasserted itself, the very order for which they had fought.”

At the closing of London’s Golden Page book store, an online book dealer finds an anonymous book of poetry dating from shortly before the Second World War. Inside is a love letter from Tom to Ben. An online posting about the two men leads to a woman’s attic in the Fenlands, where her grandfather keeps an archive of his father’s war, including a photo of a group of British soldiers in Alexandria. But deep in the bowels of the Imperial War Museum’s photo archives, more images are waiting to be discovered. Because Tom and Ben’s story span’s time, from Crimea to the Rape of Nanking, to Bosnia, wherever there is a war, there seems to be a photo of the two lovers, caught in the midst of the conflict, and our bookseller becomes obsessed with how they got there.

Time Was is told in alternating chapters, one in the present timeline, and then one that follows Tom and Ben when they are stationed at a military project on the East Coast of England while the country prepares for a German invasion. Ben is a scientist, while Tom is an itinerant poet and messenger boy, but they secretly fall in love in the midst of the secretive chaos of the Uncertainty Squad’s classified undertaking. However, Tom and Ben are less important as characters themselves, than they are as the subject of the narrator’s obsession, and his trip down the rabbit hole into figuring out how two men who appear to age very little could appear in photos from wars more than a hundred years apart. As the narrator tracks down other copies of Time Was, we also get to read more letters from Tom and Ben, but they remain at a remove.

Our narrator has an old friend at the Imperial War Museum, who conveniently provides access to the photo archive, as well as a peek at information that is not officially for public consumption. Shahrzad also has a gift as a super-recognizer that speeds up the plot; there is no need to chronicle a long intensive search, as might be done in a novel, though to be sure, McDonald chronicles an obsession that spans years. Shahrzad’s skill, and the access provided by her job allows the narrator to be obsessed with the clues rather than the research itself, to the exclusion of almost everything else. While this speeds up the research, it also highlights a rather unappealing aspect of the narrator; he uses the women around him to further his quest, with no regard for them. In addition to using Shahrzad’s access, he also moves in with Thorn, the woman whose attic yielded the first clue in his search. (But we shouldn’t feel bad when he leaves her in the end, because it turns out that she was sleeping with a bunch of other men!)

Alongside the plot, Ian McDonald builds in a lament for the death of the brick and mortar book store. When they are separated across time, Ian and Ben leave copies of the anonymous book of poetry, Time Was, in independent bookstores across the world, with letters inside. Each bookstore holds special instructions not to sell the book, and to buy any copy of the book they find elsewhere. If a bookstore closes, the book should be sent to another. But as the modern era dawns, Ben and Tom’s messaging drops are dwindling, going out of business one by one.

As a story, Time Was is melancholy and slightly unsatisfying. It was pitched to me as a sad but romantic gay time travel story, and certainly that is what the cover copy, which focuses on Tom and Ben, and never mentions the narrator, would lead you to believe.  There are some good aspects to the story that McDonald has actually written, from beautiful prose, to cool science, and great use of epistolary elements, but the protagonist of this novella is the bookseller, and the story told here is his.

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Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3)

Cover image for Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers by Becky Chambers

ISBN 978-0-06-269922-0

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

She thought of the Asteria, orbiting endlessly with its siblings around an alien sun, around and around and around. Holding steady. Searching no more. How long would it stay like that?”

Long ago, the Fleet left behind the dying Earth, tearing down cities to build generation ships that headed for the stars in search of new worlds. The Exodans also left behind the systems and values that destroyed their home world, creating a new culture of sharing, equality, and responsible resource use aboard the homesteaders, a culture that would enable them to survive together in the generations it would take to reach their destination. Now, the Fleet orbits an alien sun, and many of its sons and daughters have left the ships behind for lives on new planets, among the Harmagians, or the Aandrisk, or other peoples of the Galactic Commons that have welcomed Humans into their cultures to varying degrees. But many still live aboard the ancient homesteaders, still repairing and reusing everything, and living in a communal culture of values that were designed to serve a temporary purpose, but have instead become a way of life. But what will become of the Exodan culture now that the Fleet has served its purpose?

The third volume of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is set aboard the Fleet, home of the Exodan culture from which the Wayfarer’s Captain Ashby hailed. The main events of this installment take place in the aftermath of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which would make them roughly concurrent with A Closed and Common Orbit. Likewise, it follows a new cast of characters.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is composed of many disconnected points-of-view belonging to various people who live aboard the Asteria, one of the many ships of the Fleet. Isabel is the head archivist, responsible for keeping records, conducting ceremonies, and maintaining the memory and purpose of the Fleet. Kip is a teenager struggling to find his purpose, going from one job-trial to another as Exodan culture demands, but really dreaming of leaving the Fleet to see the galaxy. Sawyer is a stranger who grew up on a Harmagian world, but is finally fulfilling the dream of seeing the Fleet from whence his ancestors hailed. Tessa is Ashby’s sister, the child who stayed behind when her brother left for the stars. Now she has children of her own, including a daughter who has been traumatized by the explosion of another Fleet ship four years earlier. Eyas is a caretaker, responsible for the Exodan death rites, and returning the people the Asteria to the soil which grows their food, completing the life cycle. But her highly respected ceremonial role leaves her feeling lonely and disconnected. The final perspective belongs to Ghuh’loloan, a Harmagian scholar who is visiting her colleague Isabel aboard the Asteria to study Exodan culture. Her point-of-view is indirect, coming in the form of blog posts she is making about her trip for the Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration.

One of my favourite things about the Wayfarers series is the world and culture building, and seeing how all of the different alien cultures interact with another. So it was cool to finally see the Fleet where the Exodans come from, and think about how it developed over time, changing from its original purpose of sustaining Humans to the stars, to an independent culture of its own. However, I felt disconnected from the characters, possibly because they have very little relationship to one another. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet also had a large cast, but I came to care about them all partly through their relationships to one another. By contrast, the characters in Record of a Spaceborn Few are only passingly connected. Kip completes a job-trial with Tessa as his supervisor. Eyas and Sawyer have a fleeting conversation in a public corridor. For the most part, they do not know one another. Yet these indirect relationships are undoubtedly significant. Ghuh’loloan and Tessa never meet or interact, but Ghuh’loloan’s mere presence aboard the Asteria ends up changing the course of Tessa’s life. Sawyer knows no one when he arrives on the Fleet, but he too will impact the lives of everyone aboard. This is the nature of a introducing something new into a closed, interdependent system. The narrative follows this ripple effect.

Despite this perhaps being my least favourite of the Wayfarers books, I am still sad to leave this universe behind, and I look forward to Becky Chambers potentially returning to it in the future. I’d love to see more of the Aandrisk culture, or the conflict between the Exodans of the Fleet and the Solan humans who remained on Mars. So many possibilities still remain!

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