Reviews, September 2015

If You Listen, You Can Understand

From the End of the Twentieth Century — John M. Ford

If I had been more on the ball, I’d have had this review ready in time for 25 September, the ninth anniversary of John M. Ford’s death. Ford was an author’s author, beloved by the literati, someone who didn’t condescend to the reader by making his texts easy to read. That, and a habit of drifting from genre to genre, left him more obscure than he deserves. Although no more obscure than lazy readers deserve.

To make matters worse, although he had long been in ill-health (in the US, no less), Ford never got around to choosing a literary executor. Due to barbaric laws that grant no inheritance rights to significant others to whom one is not legally married, the rights to his books are held by his blood kin. They didn’t approve of his career and have not, the last I heard, allowed any out of-print-material to be reprinted.

I seriously considered reviewing John M. Ford’s 1993 juvenile Growing Up Weightless to get the taste of Luna: New Moon out of my mouth … but I was already in a bad mood. Thinking about why Growing Up Weightless is out of print would have just made it worse. So I decided to review his 1997 collection, From The End of the Twentieth Century, one of three works by Ford that I believe are still in print. (See the end of this review for a list.)

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Unfamiliar familiar

Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

You might be expecting a review of the 1993 Tiptree winner but since I reviewed that book, Ammonite, last year, that’s not going to happen. Or alternatively, already happened last year. Instead, have one of the more notable books from the 2014 Tiptree Honor List.

2014’s Lagoon puts a familiar situation—first contact with aliens—in a setting that is likely unfamiliar to most readers of the book. Having (presumably) given the Earth a good lookover, the aliens in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon pass over such standard venues for first contact as the UN building in New York City, the National Mall in Washington, or even a particularly large front yard in America’s Midwest.

Instead, their ship sets down off the African coast, near Nigeria’s sprawling metropolis, Lagos.

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I don’t care what happens to these characters

Luna: New Moon — Ian McDonald

I knew before opening this book that it was unlikely to please me (I will explain why later). I probably would have avoided reviewing 2015’s Luna: New Moon (unless paid) … except that Tor went to the trouble of sending me a copy. I am torn between

1) ignoring what Tor clearly hopes is going to be a popular novel, one they spent money to send me, and

2) giving a full and frank account of what I actually think about it.

It’s not clear which would be worse from Tor’s point of view. Still, as Roscoe Arbuckle might have said “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And it’s not like me panning The Wind Up Girl had any negative effect on its sales.

Luna: New Moon reminds me of Robinson’s 2312 in a number of ways, none of them positive. I have the same sense that this is one of those books fated to be widely praised as a brilliant work of hard science fiction, whereas I will be once again reprising my role as Tolstoy in Nobody Cares Why You Hate Shakespeare, Leo.

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Remember when Niven was fun?

All the Myriad Ways — Larry Niven

I will be blunt: this second foray into what I have decided to call “the essential collections of Larry Niven, being an irregular review series I may not even get around to finishing or continuing” is an attempt to get the taste of Vernor Vinge’s The Witling out of my mouth.

1971’s All the Myriad Ways was Niven’s third collection after 1968’s Neutron Star and 1969’s The Shape of Space (which I will not bother to review, because I’ve never seen a copy and anyway all the stories were repeated in later collections; it’s not essential). All the Myriad Ways collects stories published between 1965 and 1971, most of them from the later years of that span 1.

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Penny Century Versus the World

God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls — Jaime Hernandez

I was in the mood for something like Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar collection, but the library didn’t seem to have anything along those lines. They did have collections by both Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, as well as several by Jaime Hernandez alone. It was one of the latter that caught my eye.

While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would, it did speak to a question raised by another Hernandez collection.

A footnote in my review of Esperanza read, in part:

The original setting had superheroes in the way our world has rock stars; they were around, but the odds were that mundanes never got to meet them. One of Maggie’s friends, Penny Century, was a genuine adventurer who kept hoping she’d have an origin.

Thanks to God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls, I now know that’s not the full story.

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Return of the Psychocrats!

Android at Arms — Andre Norton
Psychocrat, book 2

1971’s Android at Arms brings us ever closer to the end of this review series. It’s not a Norton I encountered as a teen. To my surprise, even without the nostalgia factor, I kinda liked it. It succeeds in being creepy; indeed, it’s one of the creepiest Nortons I’ve read.

Andas, Prince of Inyanga and likely heir to the emperor, went to sleep in a lavishly appointed bed chamber. He wakes in a stark prison cell, which comes as something of a surprise.

Andas isn’t alone in the prison. His fellow prisoners come from many worlds, but all have one thing in common: they all are important people, at least on their own planets. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to kidnap powerful (or potentially powerful) people. That someone might be … the Psychocrats. Or the heirs of the Psychocrats. It’s impossible to tell, as the villains rule through their machines.

On the basis of surprisingly little evidence, the prisoners convince themselves the mass kidnapping is only half of the scheme. The villains must have built android doubles for the prisoners, then swapped those doubles for the originals. Using the strategically placed androids, androids conditioned to obey their creators, the villains can control the galaxy. Bwahahaha!

The prisoners have been suspended in stasis. They wake up when the prison’s stasis machines break down; they escape the prison because the locks have failed as well. They manage to get off-planet, thanks to the automated spaceport nearby (a spaceport like the one in Galactic Derelict ). Home again? Not so simple.

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Implied Spaces

Root of Unity — S. L. Huang
Russell's Attic, book 3

Third in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series, 2015’s Root of Unity sends protagonist Cas Russell on a treasure hunt. Her quest will pit her against a casually murderous criminal gang and it may well threaten her new friends. The prize is nothing less than a proof that will transform mathematics … and mathematics, or at least a specific application of mathematics, happens to be Cas’ superpower.

Successful or not, Cas’ quest will definitely raise more questions than it answers.

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Welcome to Olympus

The Promethean Challenge — Masamune Shirow
Appleseed, book 1

For many people in North America—well, me, at least—Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed series was one of the first translated manga they ever saw. First published in 1985, it won the 1986 Seiun Award for Best Manga. Between 1988 and 1992, the series was published volume by volume by Eclipse Comics, which is the edition I first read1. It was pretty addictive stuff back in the Reagan Era—no American comics I knew of explored SF themes like Shirow’s or had the same striking art—but how well does it stand up today? Does it still have the same punch in a world where many great manga are no further away than the nearest library?

Well, I just happen to have Appleseed: Volume One: The Promethean Challenge to hand….

No country involved in World War Three resorted to nuclear weapons but there are other weapons of mass destruction. As the prelude puts it, “even without (nuclear weapons), the Earth became a quieter planet.”

Survivors Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires have settled in a very quiet, very peaceful neighbourhood. Before they came to town someone doused the place in sarin. The nerve agent is long gone, and so are the unfortunate inhabitants, leaving their material goods for the two soldiers to loot, and their homes for the woman and her cyborg friend to take for their own.

But someone has noticed the pair.

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We are only free when we slip through the cracks.

China Mountain Zhang — Maureen F. McHugh

The great thing about being one of the early winners of an award is that it’s easy to be the first something. Maureen McHugh’s 1992 China Mountain Zhang may not have won the very first Tiptree Award, but it is the first book to win a Tiptree without sharing that victory with another novel. It also won a Lambda, was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula and came in first in Locus’ Best First Novel.

It’s also has a more challenging structure than the previous winners (A Woman of the Iron People and White Queen), which were relatively straightforward narratives. CMZ is an elaborate interweaving of several narratives, which touch each other only tangentially.

With the Great Cleansing Wind relegated to an embarrassing memory of well-intended but disastrous political excess, 22nd Century Americans like Zhang can forget about politics and focus on their careers and personal lives. Zhang has advantages that many other Americans lack, the most obvious of which is that although Zhang is mixed race, he can pass for Chinese. This is very useful in a world dominated by sometimes xenophobic Chinese.

But life is not perfect for would-be engineer Zhang, for reasons not immediately obvious to those around him.

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If not for that interfering cop, BZ Gundhalinu.

The Summer Queen — Joan D. Vinge
Snow Queen Cycle, book 3

As has been previously established, I am very fond of Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen. I was delighted to hear that Tor Books is bringing it back into print, after a lapse of fifteen years1. Granted, it is being republished without the wonderful original Leo and Diane Dillon cover,

but this Michael Whelan kid Tor tapped to provide the new cover

seems like he has potential.

What better way to celebrate the re-release of a book I like than with a shiny new review!

Alas, unaware that The Snow Queen was going to be re-released this year, I reviewed the novel in question last year.

So what you’re actually going to get today is a review of one of the two sequels, 1991’s The Summer Queen, plus! extra! bonus! exhortations to buy both The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen.

The Hegemony has temporarily retreated from Tiamat, forced to abandon the only source of the Water of Life, the elixir which reverses aging. Tiamat’s twin suns are again nearing the black hole around which they orbit and the hyperspace route to Tiamat is unstable and unsafe. The Hegemony (the miniscule successor to a fallen galactic Empire) is forced to leave Tiamat to its own devices for the next century. Time enough for Tiamat’s Summer Queen, Moon Dawntreader, to encourage the two cultures of her world to modernize. If she succeeds, Tiamat will no longer be defenseless in the face of superior technology.

Or at least that was Moon’s plan. She’d have gotten away with it too, if not for that interfering cop, BZ Gundhalinu.

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Bob Shaw’s love letter to Canada

Vertigo — Bob Shaw

1979’s Vertigo is not my first Bob Shaw novel. That would be Who Goes Here.

It’s also not my favourite Bob Shaw novel. That would be The Palace of Eternity.

It is, however, the only Bob Shaw novel set in Canada1.

Well, Alberta. But as an Ontarian I regard all of the lesser provinces with equal favour. At least they aren’t Manitoba! Well, except for poor Manitoba.

Today’s venerables mourn the bustling Moon bases and omnipresent jet packs promised by the futurists and SF writers of ages past. Air Patrolman Rob Hasson’s twenty first century may not have moon bases 2, but it definitely has the counter-gravity harness, that marvelous device that gave the freedom of the skies to millions.

Millions of idiots.

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Legacy of the Psychocrats

Ice Crown — Andre Norton
Psychocrat, book 1

1970’s Ice Crown is one of Norton’s standalones, though it shares one background element with many other novels: the forerunners, the long vanished alien civilization whose fall foreshadows humanity’s fate. Oddly enough, what came to mind when I read this novel wasn’t other Norton books (like Forerunner Foray or the Warlock books), but a very well known television series of the 1960s.

Clio is a closed world, protected from all contact with the surrounding galactic civilization (a civilization of which it is utterly unaware). Or almost all contact; Offlas, his son Sandor, and Offlas’ niece Roane are allowed to visit Clio for research purposes, to search for rumoured Forerunner relics. Not that either Offlas or Sandor see much value in Roane’s potential contributions to the mission.

Access to Clio is a rare privilege, but one with a price: there is to be absolutely no contact between the scientists and the locals. An offending off-worlder pays a steep price for violation of the rule: essentially an end to their career. For the unfortunate local who encounters an off-worlder, the cost is much higher: they are to be memory wiped. This is intended to preserve the great secret: Clio is just one world among many.

Any guesses as to how long it takes for Roane to break that cardinal rule?

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Return to Chalion

Penric’s Demon — Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric & Desdemona, book 1

Bujold returns to the world of Curse of Chalion in the 2015 novella, Penric’s Demon.

Penric is a lesser son of impoverished bluebloods, a harmless fellow whose greatest value to his family is marital: he can score some much-needed dosh by marrying Prieta, the daughter of a wealthy cheese merchant. This is a pleasant enough prospect. Not only will the marriage restore a measure of financial stability to the House of Jurald, but Prieta is herself a charming armful, someone with whom Penric can easily see himself spending a happy life.

Alas, there will be no curvaceous cheese merchant’s daughter for Penric and no financial windfall for the House of Jurald — Penric is sabotaged by his own good nature.

It begins with a dying woman by the side of the road.

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The Last of Lumikki

As Black as Ebony — Salla Simukka
The Snow White Trilogy, book 3

Salla Simukka’s 2015 As Black as Ebony is the third and (if trilogy is to retain any meaning) final book in her Snow White Trilogy1.

Lumikki Andersson has returned from a diverting summer holiday in Prague to her parents and home in Finland. Her attempts to lose herself on the stage and in the arms of her new boyfriend Sampsa are doomed before they begin. She is haunted by the mystery she encountered in Prague: how can an only child like Lumikki have had a sister? Why can’t Lumikki remember her? Why are there no photos of the sister? Why have her parents never mentioned her?

And, of course, there’s the lunatic stalking Lumikki.

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The Rosinante Trilogy — Alexis A. Gilliland

Alexis Gilliland is a four time Hugo winner—but not for his written fiction. Only his 1982 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer was for fiction; his fellow nominees were Robert Stallman, Paul O. Williams, David Brin, and Michael Swanwick 1. You may have heard of some of these guys. When he won, Gilliland had just two novels in print 2.

You may be wondering ”How did someone with such a small body of work manage to win the Campbell?”

Partly it’s because most Campbell nominees tend to have only small bodies of work when they win, due to the whole New Writer thing. Cynics might say that Gilliland’s long career as fan and lauded fan artist ensured name recognition. But I would credit his Campbell win to the fact that those two novels, The Revolution from Rosinante and Long Shot For Rosinante , really are fun little books, books I was certain I would not regret revisiting after a gap of twenty-two years 3.

(I do understand that’s like saying “Don’t worry, I know what I am doing” while playing with burning plastic.)

They are also the first two volumes in the Rosinante Trilogy, the subject of today’s review.

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The Other Winner of the First Tiptree Award

The White Queen — Gwyneth Jones
Aleutian Trilogy, book 1

Gwyneth Jones’ 1991 The White Queen is one of the two novels that won the first James Tiptree Jr. Award ever. Unlike the other winner (A Woman of the Iron People), I have not heard much about The White Queen, and have not been looking for a copy of it for decades. Having read it, I find myself unenthusiastic.

2038’s socialist revolution in America is big news, especially for Americans, but for journalist Johnny Guglioli it offers very little hope of an end to his exile in Africa. Johnny is, according to top American authorities, a carrier of a particularly nasty (although apparently not especially contagious) retrovirus disease and despite his claims that the diagnosis is a politically motivated sham, the new government is no more likely to let Johnny back into the US than the one it replaced.

What might earn Johnny a chance at a reassessment is to become the celebrity du jour. What better route to that than to interview Aleutians? Who, despite their misleading name, are the very first aliens to visit the Earth1.

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My first Cherryh

Downbelow Station — C. J. Cherryh
Company War, book 3

Although Cherryh was active in the 1970s, I think her 1981 Downbelow Station was my first exposure to her work in general and to her Alliance-Union setting in specific. Not that this is strictly speaking an Alliance-Union novel … at least not until towards the end.

I remember finding it a bit of a slog at the time. Clearly other readers disagreed with me, because it not only won the 1982 Hugo Award for Best Novel, but was named by Locus as one of the top fifty SF novels of all time.

The good news for humanity is that by the 24th century, humans have spread far beyond the confines of the solar system, first at sub-light speeds and later with FTL. The bad news is that the human worlds outside the solar system are caught in a vast interstellar war, with the predatory Earth Company on one side, the authoritarian slave-drivers of the Union on the other, and a handful of neutrals, mainly merchants and a few stations, caught in the middle.

The war between Company and Union has dragged on and on, far beyond the point the balance sheets would justify. Earth Company is ready to beg Union for peace. The problem is, the Earth Company’s Fleet is not ready to stand down, and it answers not to the Company now, but to Commander Conrad Mazian.

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There could be no mercy in the application of Commonwealth law.

The Bohr Maker — Linda Nagata
Nanotech Succession, book 1

1995’s The Bohr Maker was Linda Nagata’s debut novel, followed eight months later by Tech Heaven, which shares a common background with The Bohr Maker. Two strong novels in the course of a year is an effective way to get my attention; how annoying that I would then have to wait until 1997 for her third novel….

Many are those who revere Kirstin Adair, Chief of the Commonwealth Police, for her unending efforts to protect Mother Earth from the threats posed to Gaea by modern nanotechnology (or makers). Few of those admirers revere her quite as energetically as Kirstin adores herself.

Nikko Jiang-Tibayan is an outlier. Even though he sometimes shares Kirstin’s bed, he is not among those who admire her ideals. He himself is an example of just the sort of tampering in god’s domain that the Commonwealth’s laws were intended to eradicate.

And while Nikko was temporarily granted a waiver allowing him to exist at all, that waiver had a time limit—and that time limit is about to run out.

Not to worry! Nikko has a cunning plan.

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And now for a collection

High Sorcery — Andre Norton

I was surprised when I first encountered a short work by Norton; I had never thought of her as someone who worked in short lengths. In fact, she wrote dozens of short pieces. If ISFDB’s list of her short works looks comparatively small next to a list of her novels, that only reflects how many novels Norton wrote. Her output may not have been quite Asimovian but it was certainly Andersonian.

Which brings us to Norton’s 1970 collection, High Sorcery.

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Kitchener Public Library is feeding my Kaoru Mori habit

A Bride’s Story, Volume Three — Kaoru Mori
A Bride's Story, book 3

Until Kitchener Public Library’s supply of volumes of A Bride’s Story runs out, I am going to keep revisiting this series.

Unlike the previous two volumes, the focus in Volume Three isn’t on Amir, but someone previously a supporting character and info-dump facilitator: wandering ethnologist and linguist Henry Smith. In this volume the inquisitive Mr. Smith gains the answer to a question he never asked:

Just how much trouble can an Englishman traveling alone in Central Asia get into?

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Batiya Abroad

Fealty’s Shore — L. Shelby
Across a Jade Sea, book 3

In L. Shelby’s 2014 Fealty’s Shore, the third and (probably) final volume in the Across a Jade Sea series, Batiya Dachahlra finally gets to meet her father-in-law. She has accompanied her husband, Chunru Dachahl Pralahnru, to his distant homeland, the vast and wealthy Changali empire—a powerful nation whose customs, laws and language are all quite unfamiliar to Batiya.

A powerful nation whose crown prince is none other than Chunru Dachahl Pralahnru, and whose emperor does not look kindly on the whirlwind romance between his son and heir and an odd-looking barbarian engineer with an unpronounceable name.

Of course, there’s an obvious way for the emperor to deal with his son’s inconvenient foreign wife. He can simply have her assassinated.

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Wartime First Contact

Cold Allies — Patricia Anthony

1993’s Cold Allies was the late Patricia Anthony’s debut novel. It was followed by six more novels over the next five years: Conscience of the Beagle (1993), Happy Policeman (1994), Cradle of Splendor (1996), God’s Fires (1997), and Flanders (1998). After Flanders, silence save for one short story, 1999’s “Mercy’s Children”, and one posthumous novel, The Sighting, published by Wildside in 2015.

Cold Allies introduces us to a 21st century transformed by abrupt and dramatic climate change. Desperate economic migrants flee across North America only to find themselves confined to camps or worse. In the Old World, new armies follow ancient invasion routes to win a new homeland for themselves.

Climate change, agricultural collapse, and invasions are only part of the story. There are also the aliens….

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“She knew a happy ending when she saw it.”

The Witling — Vernor Vinge

Someone—I cannot recall who and Googling has not helped—used to assert that each Vernor Vinge novel was significantly better than the last. I don’t think this is quite true1, but it is often enough true to be useful. The corollary is that the older the Vinge novel, the more likely it is to be bad. Now you must be wondering: just how bad is the worst Vernor Vinge novel?

I have 1976’s The Witling at hand, so I can tell you the answer to that question:

“Pretty damn bad.”


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“You don’t treat your cousin like a chicken!”

Jupiter Ascending — Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski

I will admit I was not impressed when I saw trailers for 2015’s Jupiter Ascending. Still, reaction to the film was varied enough that I decided to give it a chance. (Only on DVD, which may have been a mistake. More on that later.)

What I found was a movie that kept me entertained for a couple of hours, a movie that reminded me very strongly of a particular Hugo-winning novel (or two) … but also a movie that broke one of the fundamental rules of movie story-telling.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an illegal alien who makes a meagre living cleaning other people’s toilets. Jupiter Jones is also a space princess who, if only she knew how to assert her rights, owns the entire planet Earth and everything on it.

The first fact keeps Jones relegated to low pay and subject to constant risk of deportation. The second puts her life at risk.

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Always Read the Fine Print

Dread Companion — Andre Norton

In Andre Norton’s 1970 standalone novel Dread Companion, Kilda c’Rhyn’s great tragedy is

Unfortunately, I inherited my mother’s sex but my father’s spirit and interests. I would have been supremely happy as a scout, a seeker-out of far places and strange sights. My favored reading among the tapes were the accounts of exploration, trading on primitive planets, and the like. Perhaps I might have fitted in with the free traders. But among them women are so few and those so guarded and cherished that I might have been even more straitly prisoned on one of their spaceports, seeing my mate only at long intervals, bound by their law to remarry again if his ship was reported missing for more than a stated time.

It may be so far in the future the location of Earth is but a rumour but sexism is alive and well.

Abandoned by her spacer father, crèche-educated and unsuited to life in her mother’s clan, Kilda is desperate to escape Chalox, the world of her birth, before she is consigned to those roles deemed appropriate for women. When Gentlefem Guska Zobak offers to hire Kilda as her house aide on the distant world Dylan, Kilda doesn’t look too closely at the details.

She should have.

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Thank you, Kitchener Public Library

A Bride’s Story, Volume 1 — Kaoru Mori
A Bride's Story, book 1

I am in no way obsessive but having read volume two of Kaoru Mori’s ongoing A Bride’s Story series without having read volume one induces a mild disquiet, as though a million rats were trying to claw their way out of my brain. Luckily for my brain, my local library had volume one.

At twenty, Amir Halgal is considered very nearly a spinster by her nomadic tribe. When the chance to marry her off presented itself, Amir’s family didn’t look too closely at the deal, or at her spouse.

Which is how twenty-year-old Amir found herself in an unfamiliar town on the Silk Road, married to twelve-year-old Karluk.

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Out of Many, Many

The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Reviews — Neil Clarke

Thanks to my interest in audio SF, I have listened to a fair selection of Clarkesworld’s material. I am not really in their target market but I do find them worth my attention. It was with some interest that I followed a link to Neil Clarke’s recent piece “The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Reviews.”

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Once Was Science Fiction

Esperanza — Jaime Hernandez
Locas, book 5

Once upon a time Margarita Luisa “Maggie” Chascarrillo dreamed of being a “pro-solar mechanic”; her pulp-SF adventures took her around the world. In 2011’s Esperanza, the fifth volume of the Locas stories of graphic novels, Maggie is a middle-aged apartment complex manager. Her best friend and occasional lover Esperanza “Hopey” Glass is studying to be a teacher’s assistant, while doing her best to ignore the slow erosion of her relationship with her current lover, Rosie.

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