Books

Small Crush: Every Heart a Doorway

Magical Boarding Schools are not exactly my kind of thing. When characters in stories have to go to school, I tend to skip whole passages, unless it’s Jo Walton’s Morwenna in Among Others, who hates her school experience in a very relatable and well-narrated way.

So I was genuinely surprised when I came upon Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway in my Hugo readings and began to feel this novella was written for me.

Every Heart a DoorwayIts main emotion is longing, an unhealthy and absurd longing not to live in this world anymore. It’s the main motivation of every student in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, because everyone of the girls (and very few boys) there has once been lost, following a path to another world, and now all they want is to go back there, where they feel they truly belong.

Or so they say.

Their parents see another story, of troubled young minds and traumatised kids they can’t reach anymore.

There are so many layers and ways to read Every Heart a Doorway: is it a metaphor about growing up and leaving childhood dreams behind? Does it tackle mental illness and trauma? Or is it a fairytale, where special children are called to other worlds?

It is, first and foremost, acknowledging that people have very different needs. Some will never fit in, and they will break under the expectations and demands of the world. Unless someone offers them a place to be themselves, and that’s what Eleanor West (whose own story is one of the heartbreaking moments of this novella) does.

But her small bubble of inclusion is threatened when students start to get murdered. The whodunit part of Every Heart a Doorway is not its main feature, though – it’s the diverse and varied bunch of characters and their stories instead. That’s why the murders hit so hard; they show very clearly the stories that are left unfinished. From goth-like, fascinated by death Nancy to wannabe mad scientist Jack, these characters are somewhat quirkier than your standard magical boarding school students.

I’m still not sure what to think about the ending. It was a little bit anticlimatic, so very easy, and it seemed to narrow down the story and to factor out some severe implications. Discussing it with a friend, I found it could still be ambiguous, Pan’s Labyrinth style. If anybody wants to know more or discuss, I’ll write some spoiler-y thoughts in the comments section.

Every Heart a Doorway starts the Wayward Children series, and I’m also not sure I needed to know more, because it was pretty self-contained. But I’m willing to get surprised once more.

Sunday Story Time: Postcards from Natalie

It’s been some time since I last posted a free online story goody for Sunday aftern…ight reading. Well, at least it’s technically still Sunday around here, and I want to pick up the habit again, so here we go!

Today’s story, Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben, really gripped me, and I think it will stay with me for quite some time. It’s a short story about two sisters, one of which ran away from home and keeps informing the other one on her travels via postcards. Deep rifts run through the family and keep the younger sister from getting all the messages. But as they begin to sound more and more despondent, she goes to some lengths to read them.

Postcards from Natalie has been published in dark fantasy/horror magazine The Dark, so better don’t expect a cheerful story. There’s no blood and gore, though, and it’s a really beautifully crafted piece of fiction – the dread creeps upon you very slowly, and you won’t realize it punched you in the guts until it’s too late.

But then, it has some surprisingly uplifting imagery for a story about those dealt a bad hand by fate. There is a quiet strength to the ending, in how it deals with the fact that some people, especially women, just fall through the cracks and are dismissed all too easily. A haunting, intense read!

One of my favorite Murder By Death songs came to my mind: The lyrics (not the video shown here) of Hard World are eerily fitting for this story, right down to some of the images.

Small Crush: All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

Murderbot does what it says on the tin (although it doesn’t say ‘Murderbot’ on its tin, it says SecUnit, and Murderbot is just the not-so-ironic nom de guerre it chose for itself): It’s a bot intimidatingly apt at deploying the array of weapons at its disposal. Murderbot is also pretending to be a normal android slave, even though it has attained free will. And it’s addicted to binge-watching a cheesy show called Sanctuary Moon.

If this isn’t the stuff good stories are made of, I don’t know what is.

All Systems Red by Martha WellsMartha Wells has been a staple of my reading life and a long-time favorite of mine. Somehow I had filed her mostly as a fantasy author, although her fantasy novels often include SF elements such as lost technology or steampunk contraptions. All Systems Red is fully-fledged SF, with strong characterization and a fascinating style and POV. Murderbot tells us of its own adventures, and it speaks to the part of us that is withdrawn, socially awkward and needs its alone time (a lot of it, actually).

All Systems Red is written with all the thoughtfulness and empathy of a truly modern SF tale and fits in with other feel-good SF adventures of our time – we join a diverse group of scientists on a planet survey, and they simply like each other and are nice people. And while the plot revolves around something less nice harassing Murderbot’s clients (leading to some biting commentary on capitalism, which turns its deadly side on the protagonists, too), the inner struggle of Murderbot is far more important.

It is a story about truly accepting free will in another – maybe odd – life form, with all consequences. Good intentions may not be good enough, and changing attitudes is always a struggle on both sides. I loved how these themes are tackled in All Systems Red. It comes with a solid adventure story, not too complicated, because it is a novella you can read in one sitting, and features some shiny nuggets of worldbuilding (hey, it’s Martha Wells; she’s a master worldbuilder).

All Systems Red is framed as The Murderbot Diaries 1, and I’m already waiting for the next installment like it was an unwatched episode of Sanctuary Moon.

Sunday Story Time: If My Dog Could Talk

Last time, I had a cat for you, so naturally, this week, it has to be a dog.

If My Dog Could Talk is by no means a literary masterpiece and, befitting a dog, it lacks the elegance of the cat text from last week. But I laughed. It’s so dog. We all know a pupper like this one. Or maybe even a person? I HALP

It’s part of the endless treasure trove of tumblr again – check it out!

It’s the end of the world and we love it

Bang, lights out, and it’s all over and done with? As if! Post-apocalyptic scenarios represent one of the classic, never-grow-old sub-genres of sf, and while the reasons why everything goes down the drain follow certain trends, as well as the kind of (non-)societies emerging afterwards, the end per se remains a solid narrative trope.

So here’s why I think we can’t resist telling stories about the fall of Man and the destruction of Earth.

Some people just like to see the world burn, a wise old butler once said, and he’s right, I guess. I for sure do. The concept is thrilling. A larger than, well, death memento mori moment. Everything we cared for, everything that mattered could be gone in an instant. Our whole style of living withers away, and with it the thin patina of civilization. That’s how those big American road trips through the end times like The Walking Dead or The Road show it.

But for me, to see the world burn is not enough. I found out that I deeply value the “post” part in my apocalyptic endeavors. That’s maybe why the recent revival of dystopias didn’t appeal to my taste. I think they’re a whole different kind of beast: Where post-apocalyptic tales mostly focus on a world remade by the forces that destroyed it, dystopias dwell on the downfall of society (often only of its lower rungs, while the upper classes thrive). If this is the way the world ends, I think I prefer the bang to the whimper. But curiosity gets the better of me more often than not.

It’s in our guts. It’s our survival instinct – devastating disasters shaped the collective consciousness of mankind, from real earthquakes and volcano eruptions to mythical endless winters and deluges. We are no cockroaches who will crawl out of radioactive zombiefied lava downpour just fine, so we better pay attention when disaster hits. The same instinct is still active today; catastrophes fascinate us: when planes crash or plagues strike, we go click.

We are compelled to ask: Who will survive? Me me me, some tiny inner MacGyver cries, and that’s how I’ll do it! And if the scope of time and destruction gets bigger, at least we want to know what will survive of us: Just silly things like the shopping list in Canticle for Leibowitz? Did we leave something eternal, something helpful for those who come after us, and will they still be human enough to appreciate it?

The resilience of Man provides the much needed positive vibes for a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios. We want to witness that something survived. That people will hold out, some even without reverting to barbarism. By stripping away everything and looking at the remains, these stories also determine what is human … and what is not anymore. But something will emerge from the ruins, and I love to see that despite all adversities, mankind might be as hard to kill as the cockroaches in the end. The survivors will try to cling to some form of live or the other, even if they have to fight off a whole mutant roach society. Or forge peace with them.

Because maybe, we’ll be able to learn. Post-apocalyptic stories are about hubris. Since we found out that we are truly capable of destroying it all, they have served as a warning, as an exploration of the consequences of bringing about our own downfall. Sure, there are meteors, plagues and other natural disasters, but very often, apocalypse is self-induced.

There are even benefits: Nature will take a breathe. When we also realized that we’re not exactly crucial to Earth’s wellbeing, there has been a lot of interest in imagining how fast our footprints will be gone and forgotten (as in The World Without Us) and what might evolve after we’re gone (as in After Man).

It’s a whole new world! The bleakness of Earth destroyed is often set off by the prospect of a different world, a different society, free from the burden of the past. It’s a relaunch, and the world will be decluttered like your apartment after you get one of those throw-away-everything self-help books. This is a deceptively easy path to post-apocalyptic bliss: live the simple life, back to the basics, fight mutants, mildew, and meningitis …

Anyway, post-apocalyptic scenarios provide us with a fresh slate to experiment with, without dumping us on a new world or in a strange, far-off land. The whole thing is ready to be re-imagined, but relatable at the same time (you now, when the mutant roaches dig out this shiny inexplicable, inedible thing with an engraved apple). And from then on, anything can happen, and the big bang that should have been the end of it all is a starting point for something new, or at least for a compelling story, just as it should be.

Sunday Story Time: From the Point of View of a Cat

Time for some cat content, always a wise choice when time is short and the mind is distracted with other things. Czech writer Karel Čapek did not only coin the term ‘robot’ in one of his plays, he also wrote about animals frequently, as in War with the Newts.

In this short piece from 1935 he takes the point of view of a cat, and he seems to be a real cat connoisseur.

I stumbled upon it on tumblr, where you can have a look at it, too.

Small Crush: Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty)

Once in a blue moon, some book’s premise triggers my curiosity so effectively I can’t resist. I. Need. To. Know. I need to know what happens and how it’s done. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes is one such story.

Six WakesDormire is a starship with six crew members on a long, long voyage. They all wake up in their cloning tanks with memory loss, while the ship is off course and their murdered former bodies are still floating around in zero gravity, because someone disabled the AI and the basic functions of the ship. One of them did this, but they can’t even trust themselves, because each and every one of them has no memories of the time leading up to the disaster.

I didn’t need to know more to start reading. It’s like playing the RPG Paranoia – you can’t trust anyone and keep staying on your toes. And it’s kind of a derailed cousin of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. While Angry Planet’s Wayfarer is full of fluff and love, and nothing much happens in an utterly adorable way, Six WakesDormire houses an equally diverse crew (not as colorful, because no aliens), but it’s full of suspicion and flaring tempers, and ALL THE THINGS happen. The whirlwind plot cycles through the characters, the pacing is relentless, and your suspicions shift along with the crew’s. Before long, you expect this dysfunctional team to rush into another killing spree any minute instead of working together to save the ship.

Gradually, the story transcends the fundamental Whodunnit premise and ends up asking questions about cloning ethics and forgiveness. There are even some echoes of Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain when you learn about the development of mankind under the influence of cloning. And then to read in the afterword that it all started as an FTL fan fic warmed my gamer heart, although I never would have guessed.

Six Wakes offers no easy camaraderie and feel-good vibes, but an interesting bunch of troubled characters in a dire, dire situation, and the revelation that comfort food helps even in space.

Sunday Story Time: Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth

This Sunday, I want to share a brilliant, gripping novella I discovered last week. In Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth by Juliette Wade, you get thrown into a mix of different and utterly strange cultures in a world inhabited by dog-like, sentient creatures. These canine peoples are beautifully envisioned and use some distinct forms of language you’ll have to adapt to. I’m always amazed at how fast we are normalizing new linguistic quirks if they are presented cleverly. (But, as a caveat, this story is not for you if you don’t like to have to cope with lots of new words and concepts you just have to accept for the moment and work out their meaning by reading on.)

The story of Rulii, an older, high-ranking member of the conquered race of canines in this scenario, and nearly the only one interested in the human scientists also visiting this world, is a fast-paced mix of adventure, intrigue and character development. While the concept and setting were totally down my alley, I was equally fascinated by the clever, sweeping tale itself. Both come together admirably in the way Rulii perceives and eventually understands the human word friendship, an absolutely outlandish concept in a culture that defines all relationships by dominance and submission, hierarchy and rank.

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth was published in Clarkesworld #127, and you can find it online here, or subscribe to the magazine, for example on Patreon.

Implied Spaces on a shoestring budget

This week marks the deadline for my translation of The Exodus Towers by Jason M. Hough. Somehow, despite all planning, the end is always a very delicate time – I just can’t squeeze in a love letter or other blog post. But in case you need a recommendation anyway: One of my all-time favorite books, Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams, is on sale this week (eBook editions, just look it up at your preferred seller – mine is Smashwords). It’s a story about a bright future on many worlds, and it’s very interesting to see Implied Spaceshow suspense is created in a universe where mankind seems to have found solutions for most big questions. If you are interested in the craft (or just good old ingenious entertainment), this novel also shows how style and genre work, because every chapter presents a new genre. Also featuring speaking cats, soul-devouring swords and battle by throwing around wormholes. I’m going to write more about this novel with its brilliant characters and formidable concepts some day soon, but in the meantime, you could just go ahead and read it. You’re not going to get a better deal this week!

Small Crush: Sleeping Giants (Sylvain Neuvel)

I have a confession to make: I am no giant robots girl. Robots are cool, sure. The Iron Giant is fine, too. But show me Transformers or Gundam style piloted vehicles, and I’m mostly out. So why on earth was I intrigued by a novel evolving around the idea of mankind stumbling upon giant robot parts buried deep in the earth for millennia?

I guess it was the premise to treat these unwieldy and, for me, inefficient huge heaps of metal as a real thing. In the beginning of Sylvain Neuvels debut novel Sleeping Giants, they are exactly what I imagine them to be: weird, giant metal pieces lying around, and nobody knows what to make of them and what to do with them. Nobody knows that they exist, to be exact, because giant body parts emerging from the earth all of a sudden are a top secret thing, of course. And this is the other feature to guarantee a fascinating read: You are let in on a secret. You’re allowed to snoop on the classified files of the giant robot dossier, and that’s what you get to read – interviews, surveillance data, secret reports, and so on. Sleeping Giants is not the first book to do this (World War Z comes to mind, among others), but as much as you have to fill in the blanks and put together the bits and pieces of information, Sleeping Giants has a narrator, kind of: the one who collects the files, a shadowy figure you know nothing about, who conducts interviews, controls and manipulates the events. He (or she?) stays completely opaque, so you’ll gobble up every little bit of (indirect) information about them.

Sleeping GiantsThis “narrator” gathers personnel (recruited from military and science) to study the giant robot parts. Their findings seem to defy everything we know about history and science. It’s the biggest top secret discovery on Earth. Yet people … are people. The protagonists are fascinating, flawed characters, real persons in the face of robot perfection. So real, in fact, that their drama seemed a little bit over the top to me in places, given the surroundings and events of the story. On the other hand, all those boiling emotions are able to close the distance created by the dossier style of Sleeping Giants. Simultaneously, global drama unfolds, and there’s still a whole bunch of questions about those robot pieces.

I don’t know if I like the direction the story is going in the end, but Sleeping Giants kept my eyes glued to the pages, that’s for sure, and Sylvain Neuvel knows a thing or two about the art of suspense and cliffhangers. And while I’m still no giant robots girl, I really liked all the giant robot(s) girls portrayed in this book.