Martha Wells, Network Effect (2020)

Author: Martha Wells

Title: Network Effect

Format: E-book

Pages: 350

Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5

Network Effect is the first and only Murderbot entry to date that had managed to achieved the novel length; the previous 4 were novellas, and the subsequent one, Fugitive Telemetry, which will be published on 27 of April and which I’ll review next week, also reverts to this format at meagre 176 pages.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like novellas. I like them a lot. I’m just not a fan of a serialized novella format. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense. If you have so much to say that you need 4 or 6 novellas to do it, why don’t you just write 2 or 3 novels instead?

With Network Effect, I finally got my wish: 350 pages of one story, undivided. And I must say I enjoyed it quite a lot, definitely more than some of the previous novellas as well as (spoiler alert) the sequel. In Network Effect, Wells gets to create a more elaborate and meaningful plot, full of the ugly f-word (feelings, for those who hadn’t met Murderbot yet) balanced by significant amounts of action. We also get ART (an AI from the second novella, sorely missed since) back, and that in itself is a point in favour, as ART’s overbearing know-it-all disposition and authoritarian tendencies always make for a good counterweight to Murderbot’s gloomy Eyeore personality.

Network Effect also manages to fill out a significant chunk of the world, barely sketched before. The evil megacorporations ruling the known part of the galaxies have not always been there to order people around – there had been a time when corporations were small and vulnerable, and colonists had a say in their decisions, or at least weren’t necessarily treated like slaves. That time had ended badly for everyone involved, however, and many of those colonizing corporations went bankrupt, the colonists and their colonies more often than not becoming not-so-valuable chips in a trade war. Some of them were forgotten, or purposefully omitted from financial reports, and were rediscovered, hundreds of years later – and as the megacorps are more interested in the planets and remaining equipment than those poor wretches who may have or have not survived in their budding colony without a helping hand, reclamation efforts are as intense as they are clandestine. And so, when a sudden attack of a vessel recognized by Murderbot as its supposed friend ART finds the SecUnit’s human clients scattered, scared, and in a lot of danger, well – the game is afoot.

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Izumi Suzuki, Terminal Boredom (2021)

Author: Izumi Suzuki

Title: Terminal Boredom

Format: E-book

Pages: 240

Series: –

Other: Short Story Collection

Don’t let the publication date fool you: Izumi Suzuki committed suicide in 1986, at the age of 36, and her SF dystopian short stories were all written in the period between mid- 1970s and mid-1980s. Her works were both highly controversial and influential, diametrically different from mainstream, and the publication of Terminal Boredom, a collection of seven of her most famous stories, is a good opportunity for the English-speaking readers to get acquainted with Suzuki’s world. A nice introduction has been recently published in ArtReview – Daniel Joseph, one of the stories’ translators, succinctly but informatively presents both the author and her career here.

Suzuki creates a very intriguing world, indeed. Deeply dystopian, populated by unhappy people bound in equal measures by the societal norms, their own fantasies and their fears, it features green-skinned aliens, potent drugs, elaborate medical procedures designed to deal with very mundane relationship and psychological problems, and even a post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where men are held in prison-like structures, kept alive only for procreation purposes, like drones in a beehive. No one is truly happy; some have forgotten what happiness even means. The suffocating mood of ennui seems to arise from a number of moods and feelings: social constraints, regrets, inability to feel empathy, bad life choices haunting the present and the future, and the overwhelming boredom all conspire to create a nauseating lack of will to live. The mood, the feeling of these stories is prescient: four decades on, we deal with the very issues so clearly intuited by Suzuki – from the crippling emotional numbness among individuals to the aggressive, grasping behaviour of societies.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, One Day All This Will Be Yours (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: One Day All This Will Be Yours

Format: E-book

Pages: 192

Series: –

After a couple of disappointing books by Tchaikovsky I approached this novella with certain trepidation. After all, one can become too thinly spread, “sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread,” even without One Ring (unless you want to confess, Mr Tchaikovsky?) I needn’t have worried, tough – this novella is short and sharp and scathing, with long pointed teeth and unrelenting snarkiness that brings to mind the best that stand-up comedy has to offer.

And this novella is indeed written very much in the style of stand-up comedy, with the protagonist wound up to the extreme, never shutting up, venting his anger and misanthropy in an unceasing torrent of words. It’s funny, it’s rabid, it’s sarcastic – but most of all, it’s to the point. You see, in Causality Wars the unnamed protagonist is the veteran of the humanity – and history – ceased to exist. With the onset of time travel rewriting the past became the favorite pastime of governments and agencies, and all the innumerable, contradictory changes to the history carried out by time soldiers resulted in shattering the past and erasing the present. It was still salvageable, more or less – until Causality bombs destroyed the substance of time. And so now, at the end of times, in the one stable point of a glorious indeterminate amount of time, our protagonist treasure hunts the sharp shards of the past, gathering farming equipment, growing veggies and killing random time travellers who inexorably land in his garden, in the farthest possible future. Until travellers from the actual, future, future turn up on his porch and call him Gramps. The gall! Gramps is not happy; he’s a nasty mean old geezer and wants to stay this way forever, so obviously the only thoughts he spared for his bride-to-be are how to most efficiently kill her before they can produce any of that horrible offspring.

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Cixin Liu, To Hold Up The Sky (2020)

Author: Cixin Liu

Title: To Hold Up The Sky

Format: E-book

Pages: 336

Series: –

Liu’s short story collection comes in the wake of his breakthrough success with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Translated by several translators (none of which was Ken Liu, who translated The Three-Body Problem, and Ican’t help but wonder if politics wasn’t the reasond for that) To Hold Up the Sky offers 11 diverse stories spanning near and far future of our own reality; their main common point seems to be their prominent focus on China and a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism. As usual with short stories collections, I’ll review each story separately and give a composite score at the end.

The Village Teacher 0/10

I’d give it 0/10 if I could. Oh, wait, you know what? I can.

Over a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR I never expected to read such a prime example of soc-realist fiction fresh off the publishing press. The primitivity of this story is simply staggering on every level: from the utterly two-dimensional character of the martyr to knowledge – the selfless village teacher bravely giving his life in the heroic quest to teach little kids the Newton’s laws of motion on his death bed in the mountain shed serving as a classroom – to the cosmic conflict between the good carbon-based life-forms who live peacefully in a Federation and the bad silicone-based life-forms who formed a bloodthirsty Empire… Having read both the Polish positivist literature (Orzeszkowa’s ABC vividly comes to mind, and that’s a horrific memory of sickly good intentions married to a total inability to write) and the USSR bestseller and soc-realist opus magnum Story of the Real Man by the Hero of Socialist Labor Boris Polevoy I’ve been scarred for life already. But this… This was even worse. Much, much worse. Polevoy’s book was actually interesting, if you stripped it of the Soviet propaganda – maybe because it was based on a true story. Here? Nothing makes sense.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Bear Head

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series: Dogs of War #2

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.

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