“Dawn” by Octavia E. Butler – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

Goodreads


I read this with my online book club, as our last selection for our #DiverseSFF reads. I couldn’t let a whole six months go by without tackling some Octavia Butler – and I had never read her, myself! She is considered by many to be the mother of afrofuturism – or, black authors writing black and African stories and main characters in science fiction.

This one was not one of her earliest, although it is the first book of a trilogy. It was first published in the late 80s, and members of my group saw similarities to Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” series. I also thought it reminded me of the TV series LOST at some points. So, it’s probably safe to say that it influenced various things that came after it.

The story begins with Lilith waking up alone in a room. She goes through this scenario multiple times, with slightly different results. She has captors, who she can talk to, but she can’t see them initially. At one point, she is given a companion for a short period. She always ends up being put back to sleep, and being awakened again.

In the next portion of the book, Lilith finally gets to meet her captors – the Oankali. Earth was ravaged by a large scale war, and these interstellar travelers have taken many survivors onto their ship while working on rehabilitating the planet. While the humans have been in stasis, the Oankali have been studying their genetic code. Their species trades in this information, and has survived by integrating bits of other genetic code with their own – and vice versa. They tell Lilith that she had a genetic predisposition to cancer, which they have cured for her. While she eventually learns to communicate and live with them, she never fully trusts them – and sometimes thinks they did other experiments on her.

While she is living among the Oankali, Lilith learns that she has been chosen to train a group of humans to return to Earth. She does not want this position, but has no choice in the matter. And, of course, she does want to return to Earth herself. So, she learns what she is supposed to do.

In the next part of the book, she starts awakening other humans, and trying to teach them what they need to know to return to Earth. They don’t trust her, thinking she is too tight with their captors. The humans fight and break into factions – and it’s at this point that I start feeling the LOST vibes.

Those carry over into the last part, where the humans inevitably have to fend for themselves in a jungle environment to prove that they’re ready to go back to a wild and uncolonized version of Earth.

So, I’ve mentioned a lot of the major plot points here without going into the interior struggles and ethical debates that these events bring up. And those are really the things that make you think, even after you set the book down.

One of the key ideas that my fellow readers latched on to was the idea of consent… Lilith and her fellow humans are entering into a relationship with the Oankali in which they will be expected to trade their own genetic code. And, in reality, the Oankali have already taken it. So, how much agency do these humans have over what happens next? The Oankali think of themselves as saviors more than captors – the Earth was rendered inhabitable, after all. But the humans pretty much have to play by their rules if they ever want to see Earth again.

These are just a few of the concepts that are ripe for debate within this story. At roughly 250 pages, it’s succinct and effective. If you are a fan of science fiction, you will probably find a lot here to chew on.


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“The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.

Goodreads


This one was my group’s #DiverseSFF pick for May. After many struggled with “The Brothers Jetstream,” we opted for something short for the next month – this one came in at 111 pages in paperback, or 3 hours 4 minutes on audiobook (I did the audiobook).

This was a fun romp set in an alternate-history version of New Orleans. In this story, the Civil War did not end in the rejoining of the United States, and there continues to be both a Union and Confederacy. However, New Orleans is a free port, where both sovreignties – and many from throughout the Caribbean – can come and go to enact trade. This feels fair for New Orleans, as they tend to consider themselves, culturally, their “own thing.”

One of the things that intrigued me about this one is that I would put it in the realm of steampunk, which I had never delved into before! There are airships, and Captain Ann-Marie has a mechanical leg.

Another fun aspect is that there is a mixture of religious and cultural beliefs that are woven through the story. (Again, totally fair for the ethnic diversity found in real New Orleans.) The main characters believe in orisha, which are a pantheon of gods and goddesses brought from African tribes to the New World. Our two main characters, Creeper and Ann-Marie, are imbued with special characteristics of two, Oya and Oshun.

And yet, they rely on some Catholic nuns for information.

Another interesting aspect in here is that The Black God’s Drums are actually an invention that allows the user to manipulate the weather. I know that in steampunk, we’re dealing with some theoretical contraptions, but this whole idea made me think of the current debate on geoengineering.

Overall, this was a fun, quick romp through a very diverse and lush alternate version of an already diverse and lush city. If you’re interested in mixing old traditions with outlandish science fiction inventions, you would definitely enjoy it.


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“The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan” by Zig Zag Claybourne – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Saving the world one last damn time. When the Brothers Jetstream and their crew seize the chance to rid the world of the False Prophet Buford other evils decide they want a piece of him too. A wild race ensues to not only destroy Satan’s PR man…but make sure no one else gets to him first. Mystic brothers. Secret cabals. Fae folk in Walmart — and the whale that was poured into the oceans when the world first cooled from creation. Adventure doesn’t need a new name. It needs a vacation.

Goodreads


This was the April selection for my group #DiverseSFF read, and… I think I was the only person to actually finish it.

I really wanted to like this one – and at some points, I did. But I admittedly had to push myself to stay with it at times.

The first thing that stood out was the language. The book has its own rhythm, or way of speaking. It’s not just that the characters speak in this rhythm, in the dialogue, but the entirety of the book is written in it. At first, it was fun and different. But after a while, it wore on me. This could very well just be my own mental state – I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I would.

(I think the author is hilarious on Twitter, but maybe the patois is more entertaining in shorter doses.)

Most of my fellow readers, however, seemed to struggle with the story. We jump right into the characters and action without much explanation. While this can be a challenge, we’ve dealt with this before (most recently, in “The City We Became“). Because the characters talk fast, and throw in all sorts of references to other things that have happened, it can be difficult to mentally tie all the things together. However, as I stuck with the story, and got more acquainted with the characters, this mostly resolved itself. Even if I didn’t have the clearest picture of what happened before, I was now tracking the most recent events – the ones within the book – and had a full picture of those. So I didn’t let it weigh me down. And, around the half way mark, they finally offer some exposition!

The story involves a diverse crew of “Agents of Change” who are trying to stop a big baddy named Buford, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of one of their crewmates. The action takes them to Atlantis, which is a real place.

Our main characters are the Brothers Jetstream of the title: Milo and Ramses. We also meet characters who are immortal (or close), vampires, Atlantideans, clones; people who can teleport, who can jump into different realities, who can communicate telepathically, and who can communicate with creatures of the sea.

To that end, we meet Leviathan about a quarter into the book. He is an ancient beast who lives in the Atlantic and is massive in both size and psychic ability. At this point, he appears pretty briefly, but he comes back for the final battle later.

I would call this fantasy – maybe even urban fantasy? – more than sci-fi. The action takes place on Earth, present day, but involves a lot of creatures and concepts that are generally thought to be fictitious (like the city of Atlantis, or vampires). There are some fun bits here and there – good lines of dialogue, colorful characters. As I said, I did like it in parts. But overall, it felt like it was trying to throw too many things at you at once.


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“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

Goodreads


This is the third official full-length novel from Andy Weir, who is mostly known for having written “The Martian.” (Even if you didn’t read that one, you may have seen the Matt Damon movie version.)

If you’re familiar with Weir’s other works, you will find this to fit right in. It’s heavy on science (and math), and comes in just under 500 pages. It also focuses on a character who needs grit and ingenuity to survive his circumstances, and it’s full of humorous asides.

The actual plot is entirely different than that of “The Martian” or “Artemis,” obviously, but how much can I tell you without being spoiler-y?

The story goes back and forth between what Grace is doing on his spaceship, the Hail Mary, and what happened on Earth before the ship’s launch. In these flashbacks, both Grace and the audience learn what his mission is, and why he’s involved.

That second part turns out to be a bigger deal than you’d think. More on that later.

We learn that our sun is being attacked by a small organism that humans name “Astrophage.” It’s reducing the sun’s energy/light output, which puts Earth on track for catastrophe in approximately 26 years. (Even a slight reduction in the Earth’s temperature will cause crop failures in some areas, leading to collapses of food chains and extinction of various species. It’s like current discussions of climate change, except with everything getting colder.)

Grace is a junior high biology teacher. So how does he end up on a space mission? We learn first how he got involved in researching astrophage, which makes slightly more sense. As the preparations ramp up for figuring out how to deal with the astrophage problem, Grace stays with the team determining what to do next. At this point, he knows more about astrophage than anyone else, so this still makes sense. We don’t learn how he actually ends up on the ship until we’re 80% through the book, and… it’s a total gut punch.

While this mystery keeps you guessing in the flashbacks, the real joy of the book happens in the segments on the ship. Grace has traveled to another solar system that seems to also have astrophage present, to see what’s happening there and if it can help Earth in any way. He’s been asleep for most of the trip, but now has to find what he’s looking for – once he remembers what that is. This is not as lonely and boring as one might think, but I don’t want to give away what happens. Let’s just say it’s fun, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately pretty awesome.

I am a classic right-brained person who is not great at science-y things, therefore I took this one kind of slowly. I didn’t look up the things he was talking about, to try to understand the science behind it. I know Weir is known for doing a good job with this stuff, overall, despite fictionalizing where needed. I just kicked back and enjoyed the ride. And it’s totally one you can enjoy, if you like science fiction at all.

This is sure to be another blockbuster under Weir’s belt, and it comes out today, May the Fourth. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher, Random House, and Netgalley.

Also, if you’re a fan of Andy Weir, check out this interview on Goodreads.


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“I Hope You Get This Message” by Farah Naz Rishi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When news stations start reporting that Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization.

Goodreads


This is a fast, fun YA read. The author is Pakistani-American, and I read this in March for my monthly diverse SFF read.

We are introduced to three main characters, and the chapters alternate between focusing on one of the three. Cate Collins, Jesse Hewitt, and Adeem Khan are all in their late teens. Cate hails from San Francisco, and has spent her life caring for her schizophrenic mom. Adeem lives in Carson City, and is more obsessed with his amateur radio hobby than doing his school work – much to his parents’ dismay. Jesse lives in Roswell, where he and his mom are barely scraping by.

Earth translates a signal discovered in space, and learns that a race from another planet – which humans name Alma – is putting humanity on trial, and determining its fate within the next seven days.

Much of the world devolves into chaos after this news sinks in. Looting is rampant, people trying to escape cities cause major traffic jams everywhere, and cell towers stop working.

But within this chaos, many people also start trying to reach estranged family members or other loved ones. Cate’s mom tasks her with finding her father – who never even knew of Cate’s existence. Adeem sets out to find his older sister, who ran away two years ago after coming out to her family and fearing they would not accept her. As tourists flood Roswell, Jesse stays put, and sees this turn of events as a way to make some money off people who are looking for hope.

Jesse’s dad was a failed inventor, and even though he passed away years ago, many of his materials are still gathering dust in their shed. So Jesse builds a “machine” to send messages to Alma. People line up to send messages, and Jesse makes decent money. He thinks he’s lying to people, and ripping them off. But a new kid in town sees it differently, and thinks Jesse is giving people hope, which is the only thing they really need.

Inevitably, these three stories start coming together. (I don’t even consider this a spoiler – by about 20% in, you figure out that they’re all going to end up in Roswell.)

Most of the book deals with the issues these kids are facing, and the interpersonal relationships between them and their families, friends, etc. But there are interstitial bits featuring the aliens, as well. The friends I read this with debated whether this was really “sci-fi,” since it was mostly teen drama. While I agreed that the bulk of the book falls more under that Young Adult scope, I can’t say it’s not sci-fi when there are actual aliens in it. Those parts may be small, but still – aliens.

And I will also argue that most good sci-fi is meant to examine the humans, anyway, right?


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“The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

Goodreads


This was my diverse sci-fi group read selection for the month of February. The book came out last year, and was immediately on my TBR, so I’m glad I finally got around to it!

We jump right into the action, with no explanations. There is a fairly long intro section, and we don’t reconnect with the characters in this section until quite some time later. This really threw me at first, so I went into the rest of this book with a “just go with the flow” attitude.

The action all takes place in New York City, in the current time. So, that helps. Of course, this version of NYC is being attacked by an avatar/being from another plane of existence who wants to take the space over for herself. But, each borough of New York claims its own avatar to fight back.

We spend a decent amount of time being introduced to each avatar, and learning why they are emblematic of the borough they represent. Each one has some encounter that tips them off to the problem going on, and lets them know that they have perceptions and powers in relation to this (that not everyone else has). Then comes the realization that there are others like them, and that they need to find each other and work together.

The avatars are a pretty diverse crowd – Black, Indigenous, South Asian, multiracial – and some are also within the LBGTQ spectrum. Only the avatar of Staten Island is Caucasian, of Irish decent. The female avatars are all feisty and forceful, as well, while one of the male ones doesn’t have any memory of who he is.

As they come together, there are some personality clashes. But the biggest clashes here are with the enemy – who often appears as a white woman, but changes form slightly depending on who she’s appearing to – and the people she has under her influence.

One major clash that really struck a nerve with me was between the staff of the Bronx Art Center (where our Bronx avatar works) and a group of Neo-Nazis who call themselves the “Alt-Artistes.” The group makes art that they deem edgy and provocative, which can be exploitative of women and minorities. Their entire purpose seems to be getting these pieces rejected so they can claim they’re being censored, and flaying the censoring parties on the internet. Under the influence of the enemy, they take this battle into the real world and actually attack the Bronx Art Center, in addition to their online hi-jinks.

Even though this was written over a year ago, this really felt similar to the recent crackdown of the alt-right on Twitter, and discussions around whether or not that constitutes “censorship.” (Like real life, I think it’s sad that it had to tumble over into real world damages before anyone really drew some lines.)

There are many themes in this one that seem equally as current. The tone of the book is often fast, sometimes fun, and sometimes full of anger. The language is one of the most fun aspects to me, but might not suit people who don’t like liberal use of cussing.

I did feel that the ending was a little fast. Overall, though, this was an interesting and often fun read, full of very vibrant characters.


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“The Future Is Yours” by Dan Frey – Review

By: Angie Haddock


If you had the chance to look one year into the future, would you?

For Ben Boyce and Adhi Chaudry, the answer is unequivocally yes. And they’re betting everything that you’ll say yes, too. Welcome to The Future: a computer that connects to the internet one year from now, so you can see who you’ll be dating, where you’ll be working, even whether or not you’ll be alive in the year to come. By forming a startup to deliver this revolutionary technology to the world, Ben and Adhi have made their wildest, most impossible dream a reality. Once Silicon Valley outsiders, they’re now its hottest commodity.

Goodreads


This is sci-fi at its simplest.

There is literally no world building, as the story takes place in 2021. It’s told entirely in texts, emails, blogs, etc., making it super easy to tear through quickly.

Two Stanford grads create a computing system that can connect with itself in the future, thereby letting them “see” what will happen before it happens. The enthusiastic Ben wants to market the technology to the public, and become the next Steve Jobs. Yes, he intends to make billions… but not by using it to play the stock market, because he wants fame and glory, too.

Then the inevitable troublesome issues start coming up: can the future be altered? Does just knowing the future make it inevitable, or changeable? Does knowing, in fact, cause these future events to happen? And ultimately: is it possible to send more than just data back?

Our two main characters, Ben and Adhi, have differing views on these issues, and on the morality of using their technology. As their views diverge further and further, so does their friendship and the world around them.

Since this story takes place in our current world and time, it is also peppered with plenty of pop culture references – especially, but not only, sci-fi ones. We see the dilemmas presented be compared to those faced by previous fictional characters such as Kirk & Spock, The Doctor, and Rick Deckard.

If you knew those characters by name, you would probably enjoy this book!

This book comes out today, February 9, 2021. I was able to read an ARC through Del Rey Books and Netgalley.

Backlist bump: if you like time travel, another quick read I’d recommend is “This Is How You Lose the Time War.” It’s more abstract than this one, but fairly short and very engaging.


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“Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In her Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella, Nnedi Okorafor introduced us to Binti, a young Himba girl with the chance of a lifetime: to attend the prestigious Oomza University. Despite her family’s concerns, Binti’s talent for mathematics and her aptitude with astrolabes make her a prime candidate to undertake this interstellar journey.

Goodreads


The above description is for the first story of Binti, which was a novella. Several more stories followed, and I actually read the anthology of all of them.

The first novella starts in the middle of some action – specifically, the action of Binti leaving home to go to a university on a faraway planet. She belongs to the Himba tribe (a real people, by the way), and most of them never leave their home turf. So she is going against the will of her family.

We are immediately introduced to the interesting dichotomy present in all of the Binti stories: the juxtaposition of a technologically advanced future world where humans interact with beings from other worlds, with that of a traditional tribe who mostly stay to themselves.

Because the stories are individually short, I loved that the action started right away. Even though we’re in a fictional/future world, Okorafor doesn’t have time for elaborate world building to take place up front – you just learn as you go through the story.

The trip to university does not go smoothly, and we meet the main adversary of the first story: the Meduse. These are large jellyfish-like creatures who are connected through a hive mind. They attack the ship taking Binti to the university, but of course, our heroine survives. She even learns to communicate with the creatures, and learns why they attacked: the university has something of theirs that they want back, and they plan on using the ship to sneak into their territory.

Binti offers to be a liaison of sorts, to negotiate with the university and get the item back for The Meduse. Binti is known in her tribe as a “master harmonizer,” but up to now she has mostly used this skill in the context of math and technology. This interaction sets her on a new path, where she will harmonize between different beings and cultures.

This theme continues throughout the series. In later events, Binti tries to bring peace between her tribe and another tribe on Earth who live in the desert, between the Meduse and their enemy the Khoush, and more.

Another ongoing theme is Binti struggling to find peace between what her family and tribe expect of her, and what she feels she is being called to do. A life in space, interacting with other species, was not exactly on her family’s radar for her. And when she brings a Meduse home to Earth, it causes problems with the neighboring Khoush, for which Binti is blamed.

Overall, these stories were fun and engaging. I felt like the second and third novella were really one continuous story, and the division between them seemed arbitrary. There were a few minor issues like that – things that bugged me, but didn’t necessarily ruin what was good about Binti’s story.

I read this story with friends, as part of my deep dive into diverse sci-fi. See more here.


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Angie’s next mission: Welcome to the future

By: Angie Haddock

Welcome to 2021! (And it couldn’t come too soon, right?)

For the last half year, I had set myself a challenge of reading a biography a month. I did a little more than that, as I actually reviewed eight of them for this blog.

But, I did like the idea of working through one theme at a time – even if I still do read other books at the same time. So, I have set myself a new goal for January – June of this year: Diverse Sci-Fi.

Science Fiction was one of my first loves, and I read quite a bit when I was a teen. In recent years, I’ve heard a lot about various authors writing within the Afrofuturism sphere – admittedly, I heard about a lot of them through listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast.

(Momentary break to recognize what a legend he is, in both reading and sci-fi.)

So my list of authors to read from this subgenre has grown. Time to tackle that list!

I have not decided which books I’ll be reading every month yet, but I do know that I’ll be starting with “Binti,” by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also reading this one along with some friends, which may provide me with some good conversations and thoughts beyond my own. Also, I will probably tag these entries as “diverse sff” because, having not picked the titles, I am not ruling out some fantasy titles.

Have you read any great Sci-Fi or Fantasy titles lately? Any favorite authors within those genres? Are any of them minorities, or authors from other countries? Let us know in the comments!

“Future Furious” by W.K. Valentine – Review

By: Angie Haddock


As the hunters become the hunted, Hen and her crew must run. Run from the bloodthirsty mercenaries and corporate soldiers on their tails. Run from the pasts that rear up to confront them. And run straight into the high-stakes conflict against a ruthless world designed to suck them dry and grind them beneath its heel. 

Goodreads


I seem to be on a sci-fi action/adventure kick lately (see last week’s review of Persephone Station), and this is the second one I’ve read lately with a female-led group of mercenaries! Interesting trend to watch out for? I could get on board with it.

The similarities end there, though, as the plot and tone of this one is completely different.

“Future Furious” takes place in a time when humans have colonized many of the planets and moons within our own (currently known) solar system, but haven’t gone further than that yet. This particular story takes place on Ganymede, but our characters are in contact with others on Mars, Io, etc.

Government has been replaced by the top five corporations operating across the colonies. The entire culture is dictated by commercialism, advertising, and capitalism run rampant. It’s an exaggerated version of our current culture, especially if you consider the way our present-day online overlords (think, social media) utilize our personal data to tailor their sites to our personalities.

Hen is our crew’s leader, a forty-ish “Mother Hen” to the various down-on-their-luck troublemakers she’s rehabilitated over the years. In between the current action, we see glimpses into all of their tragic pasts.

(There’s also a character who – while we don’t learn much about him – would definitely be played by Sam Elliott if this was a movie.)

The action starts to pick up when the crew takes a gig looking for Knickers, who turns out to be an overly-enthusiastic lead singer of a glam-punk band called Space Trash. He’s also a bit of a kleptomaniac, and he snagged a souvenir that the leading corporation on Ganymede wants back. Knickers and his sister, Layla, are now on the run… along with Hen’s crew, who stumbled into this mess unwittingly.

This book has a lot of humor in it. It’s not for anyone who’s easily offended by cussing, though. One line that illustrates both of these points:

“You look like shit,” Lin said as Hen neared the glass. “Actually, you look like some shit that shit ate and then shit out.”

The writing style can be a little choppy, which took me a minute to get used to. There are quite a few shorter sentence fragments that could easily be combined into a longer sentence. An example:

They sloshed their way through the dank, dingy sewers. Bacchus and Dionysus following closely.

It’s not a deal breaker for me, necessarily, but I did feel like it broke up the flow sometimes. So, that’s just a head’s up for the grammar junkies out there who can get caught up in that sort of thing.

Overall, I thought this was a good read. It was fun, and fast-paced. More impressive was that it’s by a first-time author, who recently gave up teaching English to try his hand at writing! He’s hoping to create more stories with these characters, and the world he created in this book is definitely rich enough to sustain some more great adventures.

You can find/read “Future Furious” on Amazon, and follow the author on Tumblr.


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