January 4, 2022

November/December Reading Recap

I wrapped up my reading year with a lot of great books:

NEW SUNS: ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Nisi Shawl: This anthology offers a great range of styles, tones, and genres, presenting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and stories less easily classified. Every story made an impression, but these are the ones that will stick with me most:

• The first story, "The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex" by Tobias S. Buckell, quickly drew me in with an Earth dominated by alien tourism and the problems of the tour guide protagonist.

• The engrossing "The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations" by Minsoo Kang is written as a scholarly analysis of archived documents that uncover the truths behind a misunderstood historical event.

"Burn the Ships" by Alberto YaƱez is a gut-punch of a story about a husband and wife taking two different approaches to magic against the colonizing forces that have imprisoned their people.

• "The Freedom of the Shifting Sea" by Jaymee Goh tells an intense, sexy, constantly unexpected tale of love with an immortal sea creature.

• I loved the subtle shifts in "The Robots of Eden" by Anil Menon, a family story that gradually reveals its science fictional aspects.

• The anthology ends strong with the inventive "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath" by Darcie Little Badger, in which the lingering last breaths of the dead need to be herded onward by the human main character and her dead sheepdog.

BLUE-SKINNED GODS by S.J. Sindu: Since he was a little boy, Kalki has been told he's the tenth human incarnation of Vishnu. The proof is that he has blue skin, and Kalki accepts these facts about himself, believing he's a god. His parents raise him in an ashram, where villagers come to pay tribute and receive Kalki's healing blessings, and little of the outside world filters in. When Kalki is ten years old, he first begins to doubt his powers after a sick girl he tries to heal is slow to recover from her illness. As he gets older and learns more about the world, he has many more questions, and far more doubts.

I like the way this story develops, starting with Kalki narrating as a child who yearns to understand the events happening around him but has little information to go on. The plot takes many surprising turns as he grows up, and I never knew what to expect but was always deeply invested. Kalki is a complex character facing a slew of conflicts, both internal and external, and the members of his family also receive nuanced depictions. The novel wrapped up faster and sooner than I expected, and I was sorry not to learn more about how Kalki's life turned out.

SEVERAL PEOPLE ARE TYPING by Calvin Kasulke: Gerald finds himself in a strange workplace predicament: He's somehow trapped inside his company Slack. One moment, he was at his desk at home, and the next, he's a disembodied entity within the corporate chat application. None of his coworkers believe him when he explains this, of course, and they think he's abusing the work-from-home policy. But it turns out he's a lot more productive without the distractions of a body, and anyway his colleagues are all dealing with their own problems, some of which end up being almost as strange as Gerald's.

This workplace comedy written entirely in Slack messages is very weird and very funny. I had a great time getting to know these characters and following along with their jokes and dramas. The story really is odd, and the humor is quirky as well, but it worked for me. The book is a short, fast read, so if you're intrigued, I encourage you to check it out, though if you don't know anything about Slack, I expect it will be harder to get into.

THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Jake teaches writing at a third-rate MFA program because his career as a novelist fizzled after an early success. Every year he resents his job more, and he never expects to find any talent among his students. Of course it would be the most arrogant jerk in his class who demonstrates some skill, but Jake is skeptical of the guy's claim that he's working on a novel with an unbeatable plot. Then the blowhard privately reveals the plot, and Jake is seized with the jealous realization that this unworthy person is going to produce a bestseller. So when some time later Jake learns that his student died before ever completing the novel, it's easy to justify that he should bring the amazing plot to the world himself in a book that does indeed become a huge bestseller. After all, nobody will ever know, right?

This was a lot of fun to read. The insidery parts about the publishing world delighted me, the humor made me laugh, and I enjoyed guessing at what was coming next. While I did figure out most of the twists (brag, brag), I still found the story clever and well constructed. Much suspension of disbelief is required, but I was willing to go along with that in order to appreciate this entertaining thriller.

PERHAPS THE STARS by Ada Palmer concludes the Terra Ignota series, an ambitious story of politics and power set in the twenty-fifth century. In this fourth book, the systems that have kept the Earth peaceful for centuries have broken down due to pressure and corruption, and world war has erupted. While the major divisions of global society are divided into two sides, many smaller factions and hidden conflicts complicate the conflict. Everyone is fighting for what they see as the best path toward the future, and nearly everyone wants as little loss of life as possible, but war is still hell. This final installment switches up the narrator but continues to provide an insider's chronicle of world leaders as they scramble to gain control, maintain their principles, and eventually achieve a new peace.

Many aspects of PERHAPS THE STARS captivated me, many others left me frustrated, and I kept wishing I was reading a shorter novel. I've consistently praised these books for their ambitious scope, but in the third and fourth installments, I felt the story was attempting too many things that didn't all land successfully. I'm glad I read this series, which contains so much that's going to stick with me, but I'm sorry to not end up as enthusiastic as I was after the first two books. The story's culmination was still extremely satisfying, and I remain so impressed by the world Palmer has created.