Women’s Book March: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

No matter how much I love the radical scientific extrapolations and handwavium of space opera, sometimes I get a craving for rigorous, technical hard science fiction–the kind whose calculations have been checked over by physicists for accuracy. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is that craving satisfied and wrapped in a gripping alternate history tale that pits sexism and racism against an overwhelming need for humanity to work together to escape ecological catastrophe.

When a huge meteorite destroys Washington D.C. in 1952, it sets off a series of climatic changes that could render the Earth uninhabitable in mere decades. Elma York, a computer and a former World War II pilot with the Women’s Air Service Pilots, is working for a nascent NASA when the disaster hits. She and her husband Nathaniel join the International Aerospace Coalition, or IAC–part of an accelerated, international effort to establish viable colonies in space. Despite her and other women’s vital contributions to the space program’s efforts to put a man on the moon, the IAC resists allowing women to join the astronaut corps. But Elma’s desire to go into space is so strong she won’t rest until she and every qualifying woman has a chance to.

There’s so much I loved about this book: rigorous science, a richly imagined alternate history, and a main character whose trials, successes and growth had me glued to the pages. Elma is determined, smart, and does her best to help other women in similar positions as herself. At the same time, she struggles with sometimes debilitating social anxiety, as well as prejudice due to her gender and Jewish heritage. Yet she also has her own blind spots regarding how she has benefited from whiteness, especially at the beginning of the book. Part of Elma’s growth in the book involves gaining awareness of the racist systems that affect the Black and Asian women on her team, and trying to use her privilege to get their voices heard, too.

It’s equally inspiring, and often harrowing, to watch her deal with her anxiety as she gains fame as the “Lady Astronaut” and circumstances conspire to place her in the spotlight.In a society in which people with mental illness often have their symptoms belittled or are encouraged just to “push through” them, it’s very heartening to see Kowal treat anxiety disorder as a condition deserving serious consideration and one that is possible to live with given the appropriate treatment.

Give this book a shot if you’re into alternate history, hard science fiction, and well-developed female characters of diverse backgrounds!

Already read The Calculating Stars? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

My last Women’s Book March read for July is The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper! This book explores what might happen if a revolution of the proletariat broke out on a generation ship traveling between the stars. Ruby Martin is a young “gray” (so named because of their gray uniforms), one of the repair and maintenance workers on the generation ship The Creative Fire.

According to Cooper, Ruby is loosely based on Eva Perón, the wife of Argentinian president Juan Perón and a political leader in her own right. At the beginning of the story, Ruby is prepared for a life of drudgery repairing robots, with no possibility of moving to other levels. Her one creative outlet, singing, seems like it will only remain a pasttime until a shipwide emergency throws her in with Fox, a “blue” from the higher levels and a music producer. Ruby seizes the chance to go to the blue levels with Fox, where for the first time she sees the chance to be a voice for her people.

Although the premise drew me in–generation ships! Art as a vehicle for revolution!–I ended up feeling decidedly lukewarm on this book. The story left too many questions unanswered, including why The Creative Fire began its multigenerational journey in the first place. There is a single comment made about collecting samples from other planets to bring back home, and that the grays are revolting in part to ensure they receive an equal portion of the payout for the samples when they return. However, we never learn what these samples are, what makes them valuable, or even what form the payment on their return would take.

Of course, we’re reading a novel here, not a cargo manifest. I wouldn’t have minded the lack of backstory if the main story were compelling. Although Ruby starts out with a clear motivation to improve life for her people, her arc gets a bit muddied when she actually begins to acquire fame as a singer. This could’ve been a solid growth arc in itself if the revolution’s stakes and costs had felt more urgent and immediate. However, the events Cooper chooses to focus on don’t put the reader in the thick of it: we spend more time hearing about the pitched battles and coups than witnessing them firsthand. Additionally, a persistent lack of sensory details made me feel like I was watching a televised version of this revolution instead of being there.

To its credit, The Creative Fire makes me want to learn more about the life of Eva Perón. Perón did much in Argentina to improve the lives of working families and women, and has been memorialized in fiction before in the musical Evita.

Already read The Creative Fire? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Madeline Ashby’s vN is one of the gnarliest, most biological takes on humanoid machine intelligence that I’ve come across. What do I mean by “biological”, you ask? After all, isn’t that a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about synthetic humanoids? Take a gander at the book’s back cover copy:

Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine – a self-replicating humanoid robot. For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks them, young Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

The humanoid vN of Ashby’s universe are a synthetic lifeform that grows, matures and eventually reproduces in direct proportion to how much nourishment it receives. Amy has been kept small by being fed a restricted diet of synthetic food, but as a result she’s constantly hungry. With the much larger meal of her granny onboard, she quickly matures to an adult size just as the world starts treating her like an adult: public footage of the attack reveals that in Amy, and Amy alone, the failsafe that prevents vN from harming humans has stopped working.

She finds herself on the run, from a government that wants her threat contained, from her mother’s murderous sibling androids, and from her granny, who has survived as a partition on Amy’s memory drive and emerges to fight her for control of her body and destiny.

The concept of the failsafe owes its roots to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, specifically the first one: A robot shall not harm a human, or through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. Indeed, there are many loving references to other works of robotic fiction, video games, and anime throughout the book, from Bladerunner to Silent Hill to Neon Genesis Evangelion. I found these subtle enough to be appreciable if you get the reference, without requiring it to enjoy the story.

vN is more than a referential simulacrum of geeky nostalgia, however. At its heart it is a deeply interesting and human story about what it means to truly be able to give consent and make your own choices when your very programming (or genes, social conditioning, etc.) is urging you to act, feel, and believe a certain way, and to support interests that aren’t necessarily your own.

Already read vN? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

One of the goals of this challenge is to introduce my followers to more books written by women and femme people. I’ve also been trying to showcase literature written by women of multiple identities: women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, etc. Ada Hoffmann is the first author for the challenge who fits this last category (as far as I’m aware): her author bio says that she is autistic, as well as queer and genderfluid, and her debut novel The Outside is an #ownvoices autistic and queer story.

#Ownvoices literature, or stories about people of a certain identity or multiple identities, written by authors who share those identities, has gained prominence as a hashtag on Twitter and other platforms. The #ownvoices movement calls for better representation of non-white, non-cis, non-hetero, and yes, non-neurotypical identities, written by authors whose stories are informed by their lived experiences as people with these identities.

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Outside for a long time. As an autistic femme myself, I’m frequently looking for good autistic and neurodivergent representation in media, but I rarely find it. Often we are simply not represented at all, or when we are, it’s as magical savants or socially inept proto-adults. The Outside succeeds beautifully both as a piece of good #ownvoices autistic representation and as a gripping, imaginative space opera.

Dr. Yasira Shien, the protagonist of the The Outside, is an autistic queer woman whose research on the cutting edge of physics, alongside her also neurodivergent mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr, promises to unlock an infinitely renewable source of power for a human-built space station. But when disaster strikes at the Talirr-Shien reactor’s activation, tearing a hole in reality into the unreal spaces of the Outside, Yasira is tasked by the machine Gods that rule human civilization to find her missing mentor before more people die.

Hoffmann has created a rich, unique space opera universe in which human-built AI attained sentience and then Godhood centuries in the nvoel’s past. In exchange for providing humans with protection, advanced technologies such as warp drives and stargates, and figures of worship, the Gods absorb the souls–the personalities and memories–of mortals after death to sustain their own cognitive processes. The system has worked for hundreds of years, but it’s more of a stable dystopia than a utopia: for people like Yasira who aren’t particularly devout, it can uncomfortable; for heretics, those who question the basis of reality, it can be deadly.

The Outside is a reality parallel to our own, one whose physical rules don’t follow those of our world. Contacting Outside creatures can destabilize our reality. While the Outside is inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which populated space and other dimensions with incomprehensible monsters, Hoffmann puts her own spin on it throughout the book, suggesting that communication even with things as different as Outside beings is possible if we learn to listen.

Yasira Shien is a wonderful protagonist: a smart lateral thinker (yet not a savant), empathetic, with a strong sense of justice. Realistically, her autism sometimes helps and sometimes hinders her, and it’s inextricable from who she is without ever being all she is. It also gives her valuable perspective into her mentor, Dr. Talirr. Their relationship in particular is very richly drawn: by the end, both the reader and Yasira understand that Dr. Talirr was damaged by being forced into a box that wasn’t made for her, yet we can sympathize without ever wanting her to succeed.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. Seriously, stop reading this blog post and go pick up The Outside. And when you’re finished, check out Ada Hoffmann’s blog, where she keeps a frequently updated roundup of the best (and worst) representations of autistic people in books and other media.

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Women’s Book March: Negative Return by Jessie Kwak

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Jessie Kwak’s Durga System series is fast becoming one of my favorite indie reads. The first novella, Starfall, introduced us to the infamous Bulari crime lord Willem Jaantzen and his devoted crew; Negative Return zeroes in on the story of how one of those crew members, Manu Juric, first joined up with Jaantzen, and it’s a wild ride.

Manu Juric is a street smart, independent hitman who doesn’t want to be anyone’s underling. But when he takes on a contract to assassinate Jaantzen on behalf of another crime boss and is captured by him instead, Jaantzen offers him a simple choice: join his crew for an upcoming heist, or die. Manu is pragmatic. He’ll join Jaantzen’s crew, play along, and wait for his chance to take the boss out and fulfill his contract. But of course things are never that simple in Bulari!

I loved getting to know Manu as a character: at first he comes off as brash, flirtatious and charming, and he is all those things, yet as the story progresses we also see his hidden depths. He is highly skilled at reading people and situations and can manipulate them to his advantage; yet often as not, he uses his powers for good to protect the people around him. His role in Starfall was relatively small, so it’s great to see his backstory and learn more about the other crew we met in the first novella.

Negative Return is a fast-paced heist story in Jessie Kwak’s signature style, with a surprising depth of characterization alongside the explosions. Space opera fans owe it to themselves to check out this series.

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Women’s Book March: The Unseen World by Liz Moore

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Though it’s shelved as literary fiction, The Unseen World really makes me want to claim Liz Moore as a science fiction writer. The last 5% of the book makes a solid case for the story being at least technically sci-fi (I’ll get to that), although the majority of this engaging, heartfelt novel is set against the recent historical background of early computing and artificial intelligence research taking place in the 1980’s.

Ada Sibelius (yes, she’s named after that Ada) is a thirteen-year-old prodigy being raised by her eccentric father, David, who runs the Boston Institute of Technology’s computing lab. When David begins succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, Ada faces the prospect of losing not just the person who means the most to her in the world, but also the life they’ve built together. And when evidence starts coming to light that suggests David isn’t who he says he is, Ada must grapple with a legacy that threatens to cast her family history in an entirely new light.

I loved this book. I was caught off guard at first by Moore’s plain, straightforward prose–more straightforward than what I’ve been conditioned to expect from a literary novel. The rich complexity of the characters and the unfolding of the book’s central mystery snuck up on me until, without realizing how I’d gotten there, I was devouring chapters to see what happened next while simultaneously not wanting the book to end.

We discover the story of David’s life right alongside Ada, watching as she deals with each piece of the puzzle. What is revealed transforms not just her understanding of her father’s past, but also the direction of her own life.

Now, for that last 5% I mentioned: Both David and Ada research and develop software, including an early prototype chatbot, ELIXIR, based on the AI “therapist” ELIZA developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. Weizenbaum developed ELIZA to show the superficiality of communication between humans and machines. However, he became disturbed when many of his human volunteers attributed human feelings to ELIZA, despite knowing it was just a program. Some people even wanted to be alone to talk to it.

ELIXIR plays a similar role as emotional support, confessional, and diary for both David and Ada in The Unseen World. The last 5% of the book provides an intriguing glimpse of a possible future direction for chatbots such as ELIXIR and ELIZA. I can’t be more specific than that without getting into spoilers, and if any of the above interests you, you deserve to discover this deep, textured novel for yourself.

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Women’s Book March: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

The Tea Master and the Detective is a tautly focused murder mystery in space starring one of the oddest odd couples I’ve read about in quite some time.

The Shadow’s Child is a shipmind who once flew military troops through the mind-bending unreality of deep spaces. After a traumatic accident left her terrified of accessing deep spaces, she scrapes by blending teas for human passengers to help them tailor their neurochemistry for various tasks.

She is approached by Long Chau, a mysterious woman doing business under a nomme de guerre (Long Chau apparently means Dragon Pearl and is, to The Shadow’s Child‘s sensibilities, obviously a fake name). Long Chau wants a blend that will maintain her sanity in deep spaces–no small task when she’s already riding on several custom drug blends of her own. But when the two of them discover a body in deep spaces who may have been murdered, some hard questions arise–including about Long Chau’s own mysterious past.

I will always be down for a story with a living ship as a protagonist, and de Bodard does an amazing job creating The Shadow’s Child as an individual with a past, a family, hopes, fears and dreams. In a genre that often treats AIs and cyborgs as singular creations, it was especially nice to see references to The Shadow’s Child’s mother and younger siblings, as well as the society of shipminds she participates in. Her developing relationship with the prickly Long Chau is also fascinating to watch, and suggests, to me at least, that this isn’t the last adventure these two will have. I sincerely hope it isn’t.

This novella was my introduction both to Aliette de Bodard as an author and also to her Vietnamese space opera Xuya Universe, a series mostly of short stories and novellas as well as one novel, On a Red Station Drifting. However, you don’t have to have read the other stories to enjoy this satisfying standalone novella.

Already read The Tea Master and the Detective? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

If John Woo had directed Goodfellas instead of Martin Scorsese, and added a generous portion of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style martial arts, he might have come up with something like Jade City. This book is a crime drama, a generational epic, and a martial arts fantasy rolled into one, and it is so much fun.

Ever since the island nation of Kekon won its freedom from a colonial power, two clans have ruled over the capital city of Janloon, and by extension most of the island. The clans maintain power through a complex network of tribute-paying businesses, council ties, and investments, but on the street, that rule is enforced by jaded warriors called Green Bones. And by jaded, I don’t mean world-weary: in this universe, jade can endow people with superhuman strength, speed, and godlike senses, but only after years of rigorous training can they control these powers.

The story centers on the Kaul family, the ruling family of the No Peak clan. The book had a bit of a slow start for me as it introduced the three main Kaul siblings–Lan, the Pillar of the clan; Hilo, his brother and military right hand; and Shae, their estranged sister, who has sworn off wearing jade after living abroad, much to the chagrin of the family. However, once Lee finishes grounding us in the world and the characters, the story dug its teeth into me and didn’t let go.

Jade City is a masterful illustration of the adage, “What is plot but action and character? What is character but plot personified?”. As the three Kaul siblings are drawn into a struggle with the opposing Mountain clan, first for control of Janloon, and then to preserve the heart of No Peak, every event and its consequences are driven by the characters’ motivations, actions, and the effects that stem from them in a way that feels both inevitable and surprising.

Like both the gangster and martial arts films it takes inspiration from, Jade City doesn’t have a totally happy resolution in the end: not all the characters are left standing, and those that survive are battered both emotionally and physically by the preceding events in ways that will definitely have repercussions in the sequel, Jade War.

My edition of Jade City also contained an author interview with Fonda Lee where she goes into some of the inspirations behind the book. She wanted to create an explanation for the seemingly supernatural abilities of martial artists in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and found a natural (or supernatural?) source in jade, a gem already culturally significant in China and other parts of East Asia.

By having jade confer literal magical abilities in her universe, Lee has created a fresh-feeling take on martial arts fantasy set in a notably modern world one step removed from our own. Highly recommended to martial arts and crime drama aficionados in particular.

Already read Jade City? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

For my first Women’s Book March pick of May, I read Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly! Amnesty is the third and final volume in Donnelly’s debut Amberlough Dossier trilogy, a taut blend of film noir and espionage novel that creates a vivid depiction of the rise of fascism in a world much like ours.

The first novel, Amberlough, introduces the book’s eponymous city on the eve of the rise to power of the One State Party, colloquially called the Ospies. The OSP is a political organization eerily (and deliberately) reminiscent of the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis. Donnelly has said that she based the setting of Amberlough heavily on Germany’s Weimar republic, because she wanted to show the vibrant culture that was lost to the Nazi crackdown, and which isn’t often talked about today.

Without giving too much away since it’s the last volume, I will say that Amnesty takes place after the One State Party has come and gone and the country of Gedda is rebuilding democracy. But it’s not enough to rebuild: politics demands that someone be punished for the tyranny of the past few years. Cyril DePaul, former spy and unwilling collaborator with the Ospies, may very well become that sacrifice–unless his estranged sister and former lover can work together to save him from the public’s wrath.

Donnelly’s characterizations are as excellent as ever in Amnesty: she deftly yet clearly shows Cyril’s struggle with PTSD and sketches the hardships he’s been through over his years in exile, without loading the book down with pages of backstory.

His former lover Aristide had a softer exile, waiting out the Ospies as a movie producer in a foreign country, yet even that has left him depressed and in thrall to an unnamed but clear-on-the-page alcohol addiction.

Aristide is sick, and Cyril is broken, and both of them have given up on life at the start of the book … which makes it all the more powerful to see them rediscover purpose in each other, and in the chance to do something more than live or die as a symbol of a past now gone. This is a story not just of living with trauma, but of living through it toward hope and healing, both as a country and as individuals. For fans of film noir, spy thrillers, or just a ripping good story, I cannot recommend this series enough.

Already read Amnesty? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Updraft by Fran Wilde

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Delequerriat: The act of concealment, in plain sight, may only be used to turn wrong to right.

This time I read Updraft by Fran Wilde! Wilde has created a unique secondary world for this fantasy coming-of-age story. Many elements of Updraft will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Hero’s Journey, but it’s set in a universe that bears no resemblance to our own.

Wilde’s Bone Universe is aptly named: everyone who lives in the city–which, as far as we know, houses all of humanity in this world–lives in huge towers of living bone that rise above an ever-present cloudbase. No one knows what’s under the clouds; things that are thrown down below the cloud layer (including, in some cases, people) tend not to return. An origin myth tells how the Singers, a mysterious caste who enforce Laws within the city, helped the bone towers grow above the chaos of the clouds, an event recorded in song as the Rise.

In the city, people get around on connecting bridges made of sinew, or, more commonly, on artificial wings of spider silk and wood. Updraft introduces us to Kirit, a young woman excited to pass her wingtest and become a trader like her mother. But when she breaks a Law and exposes her tower to the depredations of an aerial monster called a skymouth, the Singers give her a choice: become a Singer or be marked as a Lawsbreaker and demoted “downtower”, a harsh punishment that includes the possibility of being selected as a human sacrifice to appease the city.

Updraft employs an interesting structure: we meet Kirit on the cusp of fulfilling her rite of passage into adulthood as a tower resident, only for her to be thrust into a totally new set of circumstances as a novice Singer, which almost amounts to a second childhood. The stakes are all too adult, though, as Kirit faces the constant threat of being found unworthy as a Singer, even as she develops skills with them that account for their unique status within the city.

It is in large part Kirit’s unfamiliarity with Singer tradition and her unconventional route to them that leads her to question The Way Things Are Done, with consequences that shudder through the city and lead to revelations of secrets long hidden.

Updraft asks incisive questions about power, secrecy, and transparency of government, including if it’s ever right for governments to hide things from their citizens for their own protection. If that sounds dry, fear not! The themes are gracefully embedded in a rich, moving story with plenty of action, engaging characters, and worldbuilding that manages to be both sweeping and subtle.

Already read Updraft? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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