COMING SOON TO A LIBRARY NEAR YOU: THE WORLD WE MAKE

One of the best perks to my job is that I get to see what’s going to be published in advance of its release date.  Of course I wouldn’t take (undue) advantage of this knowledge by putting things on hold before anyone else even knows the things are coming out (at least, not most of the time), but knowing that something exciting is coming soon is definitely a thrill. 

Okay, so November 1 isn’t quite as soon as I would like, but I just discovered that The World We Make, by N. K. Jemisin, is coming out on that date, and I’m tremendously excited about it.  The World We Make is the sequel to The City We Became, and if you read my blog, you’ll know I loved that book with a holy passion, and the only thing that worried me about it was that it was part of a series and I didn’t want to have to wait years to see how it came out.  The good news is that the series is only two books, and here we are, with the second book on the near horizon.

For those who don’t remember, The City We Became was speculative fiction (nominated for Nebula and Hugo Awards, among others, and won the British Fantasy Award and the Locus Award for best fantasy) in which cities are sentient beings, with avatars who protect them.  The City of New York, lovingly and vividly portrayed in this book, has not one but six avatars, the primary, who stands for the whole city, and one person for each of the boroughs.  The city barely comes alive before it’s under attack by The Enemy, the Woman in White, who turns out to be an avatar from another city of a different kind. The book was filled with wonderful characters, and pits the Lovecraftian dislike of/fear of cities against the vibrant multicultural life of a modern city (and, at least in that book, the modern city wins out).  

I am so pumped about the sequel, in which the avatars of New York City join with other cities in the world (who are more distant presences in The City We Became) to defeat the Enemy once and for all.  The only difficulty will be waiting for November 1, when we get our copy here at The Field Library.  If you loved the first book, then you should definitely put in your hold for the second so you don’t have to wait a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.

2022 HUGO WINNERS AT THE FIELD

Once again the Hugo Awards have been given to well-deserving writers and works, and once again The Field Library has its share of winners and finalists, so if you’re interested in what the experts in the field consider to be the best in speculative fiction, give these works a look.

The Field Library is especially rich in the area of novellas.  Not only do we have the winner of Best Novella, A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers (reviewed here), but we also have all of the finalists: Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire (reviewed here), Elder Race, by Adrian Tchiakovsky, Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, The Past is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente, and A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow (reviewed here).  The last few years have been a golden age for novellas, which the Hugos define as being between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  If you’re interested in testing the speculative fiction waters but aren’t sure you have the time or energy to devote to a full length book (and, to be fair, some speculative fiction novels are huge), try one of the finalist novellas, including this year’s winner.

I was personally delighted to see that Seanan McGuire won the Hugo for Best Series for her Wayward Children series.  The series, the books of which I’ve reviewed in this blog (here, here, here, here, here and here), involves children who left this world for another one, with different rules, and then were forcibly returned to this world.  The complex worldbuilding, the variety of characters and situations, the compassion McGuire shows for these damaged children, all adds up to a series that deserves the best series award, and more power to her (she has another book in the series coming out in January, just FYI).

The Field Library also has on its shelves The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik, which won the award for Best Young Adult, though I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as a Young Adult Book, and most of the libraries in our system don’t treat it as such.  Still, Novik is an excellent writer, and this book, the second in a trilogy that began with A Deadly Education (which the library also has), takes the reader deeper into the world of the Scholomance, a dark school of magic that devours its students.  The third book (for people like me who don’t like reading series that aren’t finished) should be coming out this month.

Finally, what used to be the John Campbell Award for new writers, which has been renamed The Astounding Award for Best New Writer, went to Shelley Parker Chan for her novel, She Who Became the Sun, a book which reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty in China after the Mongol invasion.  While I’m delighted to see the Hugo voters recognizing the value of stories set in other parts of the world than Europe and North America, I’m a little sorry that one of the other finalists didn’t win.  Micaiah Johnson, who wrote the excellent The Space Between Worlds  (reviewed here), was up for the award but didn’t get it, deserving as she was.

So here you have it. Come to The Field Library and check out our Hugo winners and the finalists who didn’t quite make it, and immerse yourself in the best of speculative fiction.

COMING HOME: A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY

Sometimes you just hit on the perfect book to read right now.  Becky Chambers’ new book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, happened to be that book for me this week, possibly this year.

It’s the sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and this is one of those sequels where you really are better off reading the books in order (and why shouldn’t you?  Neither one is very long, and both are warm and charming), so you know who Sibling Dex, the tea monk, and Mosscap, the robot, are, and why all the people they encounter react so strongly to seeing Mosscap.

Sibling Dex is a nonbinary monk, one of the most gentle characters I’ve come across in fiction in recent years.  Their job is to drive around their world in a person-propelled cart, stop in different villages and places and let people come in and drink the tea Dex makes and talk to Dex, not as a therapist, not as a confessor, but as a fellow human being who listens and cares.

Mosscap is a robot.  A long time ago, all the robots left the humans who built them and exploited them.  The robots went elsewhere and set up their own civilization and the humans learned how to live without the help of robots, which turned out to be a good thing for humans.  Mosscap reveals itself to Dex, and to the world of humans, with a seemingly simple question: what do you need?

The first book introduced the characters and the setting and started them on their way.  This book takes them into the world of Panga, where people have the opportunity to meet and interact with Mosscap and with Dex as Mosscap’s – guide? Friend? Helper?   To some people, Mosscap is a celebrity, or as close as you can get to a celebrity in this culture which doesn’t have the same mass media fixation as ours.  To some people, Mosscap is a symbol of bad times in the past which we want to forget or get over.  Those people, I hasten to add, react by ignoring Mosscap, not by taking any violent action against it (there is no violence in this book whatsoever, which is a major point in its favor).

Mosscap has a unique curiosity about the whole world of humans.  As it looks at both the natural world and the human constructions with wonder and delight, we the readers get to see the world through its eyes, as does Dex.  It is a wonderful place, a place where I, for one, would love to live, between the low technology and the social organizations (Dex’s family is intensely complicated but there’s lots of love and connection among the members).  

I don’t think there’s going to be another book in this series, because the ending of this book feels right and settled as if there’s not much more to say, but I also think if  Becky Chambers wants to write more about Dex and Mosscap, I would be delighted to pick up the next book.

If you’re in the mood for a gentle, optimistic novel about an alternate society and a world healing from the kinds of mistakes we’ve made in this one, I recommend A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy.  You won’t regret it.

MAY FIELD NOTES SELECTION: KLARA AND THE SUN

After a more contentious discussion than we usually have in the Field Notes Book Group on Saturday (only peripherally connected to our book this month, The Confidence Men), the group chose our book for the month of May, Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, and one can hardly argue with the award.  Anyone who’s read his The Remains of the Day or his heartbreaking Never Let Me Go knows the breadth of his writing, his ability to create entirely different worlds and fill them with characters for whom we feel great compassion. From a World War II butler in England to a young woman living in a future startlingly like our present but with one significant difference, Ishiguro knows no limits.

Klara and the Sun, his latest book and the first since the Nobel Prize, is set in a somewhat dystopian future.  Our main character, Klara, is an Artificial Friend, waiting, at the outset of the book, in a store for someone to purchase her.  She’s extremely observant and a gifted mimic, and lives in hope that she will be bought and become a friend to some young person.  She’s purchased for a sickly teenager, but she’s been warned not to trust too much to the promises of human beings. The book, like so many of Ishiguro’s, asks deep questions about who we are, what makes us human, what is love.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk in advance of our May 21st meeting. Come and pick one up and join us for what promises to be an interesting discussion, complete with coffee and donuts.

ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE MARTHA WELLS (AND MURDERBOT)

As you know if you’re a fan of Murderbot and its author, Martha Wells, that series has been winning accolades and awards of all kinds for years, well-deserved accolades and awards, in my fangirl opinion (though it’s nice to have my opinion confirmed by other people).  In case you were wondering whether it was possible for Martha Wells to be a cooler person, here’s your answer.  

Fugitive Telemetry, the most recent Murderbot installment, was due to be nominated for a Nebula Award this year, but Martha Wells “graciously” declined the nomination.  Her reason was that the Murderbot series had already received a great deal of attention and praise from her peers in the speculative fiction community, and she wanted to open the floor to the many other wonderful works in the field.

Talk about class.  Thanks, Martha.  Murderbot would approve.

SPECULATIVE FICTION FOR ALL TASTES

One of the coolest things about speculative fiction is that it’s so protean.  Whatever your particular bent, whatever kinds of stories you’re interested in, there’s some speculative fiction that will give you just what you’re looking for. We have a wide variety of new speculative fiction here at The Field Library that demonstrates that for you.

For instance, say you’re an old school science fiction fan.  You like stories about future technology, how that’s going to shape our world and change things.  You’re exactly the right person to read Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson.  If you’re a fan of technological thrillers, odds are you already know Stephenson’s work and are ready to read the book just because he wrote it.  This book takes on the question of global climate change.  It’s set in a near future world where the worst of climate change has already started to happen: superstorms, rising sea levels, more virulent pandemic diseases.  One billionaire has a plan for how to reverse climate change.  Can it work?  Will the cure be worse than the disease?

In the same way, if you’re a fan of classic epic fantasy, just knowing that Terry Brooks is starting a new series with his Child of Light is enough to catch your interest.  Brooks, the author of the Shannara series, starts with a new world and a new plot.  Auris Afton Grieg is a 19 year old human who’s been imprisoned since she was 15.  She doesn’t know why, and she doesn’t remember much of her life from before her imprisonment, but she knows that the adult prison to which she’s supposed to be transferred is going to be worse.  She and some of her friends escape into a world she finds unfamiliar, and she immediately meets a handsome but alien stranger who claims to be a Fae and claims, despite the lack of any resemblance between them, that she’s a Fae as well.  As Auris and her new companion, Harrow, navigate this world of magic and strangeness, Auris begins to discover more and more about herself, and how to heal herself and maybe her world as well. 

Star Mother, by Charlie N. Homberg, author of the Spellmaker and Spellbreaker books, goes in a different direction than the author’s other books.  In this world, stars are born to mortal mothers, and the star’s birth inevitably kills the human who gives birth to it.  Ceris chooses to birth a star, knowing the risk, to help her family’s honor, and to everybody’s surprise, Ceris survives the birth.  Only when she tries to return home afterwards, she discovers that seven hundred years have passed instead of nine months, and everything has changed.  She’s joined in her search for her descendants by a godling, Ristriel, who’s incorporeal, a trickster and a fugitive, who’s the only one who could possibly get her where she needs to go.

And then there are the books that look as if they’re fantasy but turn out to be something else, such as Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  It starts out with obvious fantasy elements: a world with a princess who’s trying to protect her homeland from a demon by invoking an age-old pact between her family and the local wizard.  However, things are not what they seem.  The so-called wizard is actually an anthropologist studying the culture, and he’s sworn to non-interference.  At the same time, though, he can see clearly that the threat to the kingdom isn’t a demon but something else, something more dangerous.  The possibilities are intriguing: can the “wizard” do anything to help without jeopardizing his work?  Can he remain scientific and keep from intervening even if he realizes the people are going to be destroyed?

And finally, if you’re more of a mystery fan, there are science fiction mysteries that add just that note of futuristic technology and different worlds to the age old questions of who did it and why.  For instance, we have Far from the Light of Heaven, by Tade Thompson, in which someone or something murdered a number of the sleeping souls on the colony ship Ragtime.  First mate Michelle Campion discovers this macabre situation when she’s roused from cybersleep at the Lagos Station when the ship docks.  Investigator Rasheed Fin responds to her distress call and has to find out what happened to those people and why, which leads to questions about the Lagos station, the planet to which the colonists were going, and even leads back to earth itself.

Mystery AND speculative fiction?  A marriage made in the heavens indeed.

So come in and check out the variety of speculative fiction here at the Field.  You’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

GREAT NEWS: SAGA IS COMING BACK

When I read the last page of Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s 9th volume of Saga, the amazing science fiction graphic novel series, I was heartbroken (you know why, if you read it, and if you haven’t yet, I’m not going to spoil it for you), but I was even more heartbroken when years passed and there was no succeeding volume.  The creators said they were burned out and needed time to regroup, but I was afraid (and I bet a lot of other fans were, too) that the writer and artist would never come back to this series and that heartbreaking spot would be the end of it.

Fortunately for all of us, Saga is not dead, and the next edition will be published in January, 2022, and will continue for years to come. 

Now, if you’re asking why you should care, let me explain why Saga is such an outstanding series.  If you’re a reader of speculative fiction, or if you’re a reader of graphic novels in general, you owe it to yourself to read this terrific series, which has won numerous awards including the Eisner (in graphic novels) and the Hugo (in speculative fiction).

But even if you don’t consider yourself an aficionado of either of these genres, you’re missing out if you don’t at least try Saga, and let me tell you why.  It’s science fiction with a heart, telling the story of two star-crossed lovers from different planets which happen to be at war with each other.  Alana met Markos when he was a prisoner of war and she his guard, and they ultimately fell in love with each other and had a child, Hazel, together. Their marriage, and especially their child, have put them in the cross hairs of the leaders of both sides of the war, and they are on the run for their lives for most of the series. After all, if Alana’s people and Markos’ people can fall in love and have children together, how can you continue to justify this endless war?   Along the way they encounter all kinds of aliens, some of whom become their allies and their found family, some of whom are out to kill them.  The worldbuilding alone, the variations on the different kinds of beings that populate those worlds, are incredible, but at no point do the author and artist forget that the beings they’re depicting are individuals, shaped by their different cultures but accepting or rebelling against those cultures in their own individual ways.  It’s so refreshing to have authors who don’t treat other cultures, including alien cultures, as monoliths.  And what characters fill these pages!  We all have our favorites (Lying Cat is extremely popular, for instance), but the most important thing is that none of them is flat, all of them have the potential to change and most of them do, over the course of this long story.  We care so much about these characters that when bad things happen to them (and they do), we hurt for them.

You have time between now and next January to start the series and get caught up, and I encourage you to do that.  You will not be sorry.

FIELD NOTES SEES DOUBLE: THE ECHO WIFE

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I really do love my book groups.  I love choosing the possibilities for the group to decide on, I love getting the books for the members, and I love the discussions of the books each month.  Each group has a different flavor, a different character, even when some people are members of more than one group.  This Saturday the Field Notes group had a rousing, and funny, discussion of our September book, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, by Lisa Genova, with people sharing their own experiences with memory, with Alzheimer’s disease, and with the tricks and techniques and suggestions in the book.  After this discussion, we turned to the difficult process of choosing a book for October.

Actually, it wasn’t that difficult. It may be that I poured it on a little for the book, The Echo Wife (which I’ve already read and discussed here) when describing our selections, and maybe I was extra persuasive when it came to that one (I must remember to use this power for good and not for evil), because that was a pretty overwhelming favorite (the fact that it’s a short book helped, of course; we’re all busy people and can feel daunted by a really long book to read).

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey, is speculative fiction and a mystery, of sorts, and the sort of book that raises all kinds of questions (which will be fun to discuss in book group).  Evelyn is in a most uncomfortable position: her husband left her for another woman, a younger woman. What makes this worse than usual is that Evelyn is a scientist who’s working on human cloning, and her husband stole her work to create a clone of Evelyn herself, and THAT person, Martine, is the one he left Evelyn for.  When Martine calls Evelyn and tells her that Martine just killed her husband, what does Evelyn do?  She goes to the house to help Martine, of course.

And that’s just the beginning of this twisted novel.  I have to hand it to the author: every time you think you have a grip on what’s going on, she throws in a wicked twist (all reasonable, too; nothing comes completely out of left field) and you’re off balance again.  For such a short book, it packs quite a wallop, as you learn more about Evelyn’s work, about Martine, and about what made Evelyn the way she is.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk, and we’ll be meeting to discuss the book on October 16.  Join us if you can: this will be a fun discussion.

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: FERAL CREATURES

As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I absolutely loved Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom.  It was one of my favorite books the year it came out.  When I heard there was a sequel, I was torn between excited anticipation (some fangirl squeeing involved) and apprehension.  Not only was Hollow Kingdom a wonderful book in itself, but it felt complete to me when I read it.  Yes, there was the ending which left some things up in the air, but on the whole, I felt the book said what it wanted to say.  We’ve all seen sequels to movies that really didn’t need sequels, some of which were so bad they actually made us rethink our liking for the original movie (The Matrix sequels come to mind, but of course there are others as well).  I really didn’t want to be in that position with respect to Hollow Kingdom, but at the same time I couldn’t resist putting Feral Creatures on hold so I would be the first one to read our library’s copy.

The verdict?  It’s a great book.  Not, perhaps, quite as outstanding as Hollow Kingdom, but that book had the advantage of being the first, of creating the painful and beautiful world that begins after humanity self-destructs.  That world is the background of Feral Creatures, so you don’t have the piercing joy of discovery.  At the same time, Feral Creatures delves deeper into some of the questions the first book didn’t raise, and the author’s insights are powerful.

We are, once again, hearing the story from S.T., the formerly domesticated crow who was a witness to the end of humanity’s reign over the world.  His position of straddling the two worlds, the wild and the human (or, as he refers to them, mofo’s) gave him insights that other creatures didn’t have, and made him the perfect narrator for the first book, and, as it turns out, for this one as well.  S.T. is a great narrator, funny and observant, snarky and witty, and capable of deep feeling.

He’s in a unique position here: as the book opens, some time after the end of Hollow Kingdom, S.T. is raising what he believes to be the last undamaged Mofo, an Inuit girl he named Dee.  With the help of a group of owls and other creatures, he’s trying to protect her and help her to grow up to be a human being.  There are a couple of problems with this.  One is that many of the wild creatures around them have reason to hate and fear all human beings, even innocent ones like Dee.  Another is that, for all his love and energy and the urgency of his desire to bring Dee up right, S.T. is not human himself, and we mofos are social animals at heart.  Without other human beings to teach her language and customs and culture, she is very unlikely to turn out to be an ordinary human.

Things have not gotten better in the years of Dee’s childhood and early adolescence.  While we might have assumed from the way things were going at the end of Hollow Kingdom that the last mofos would die out in horrible ways, it turns out we can’t even go extinct right.  Instead of the zombie-like creatures of the first book, the mofos now are evolving into different, and more horrible, creatures.  The world is becoming more dangerous than ever for wild creatures, and S.T. and Dee have to leave their haven in Alaska and return to Seattle to fight for what’s left. 

There’s plenty of adventure in the book, plenty of action, many wonderful characters (though not, perhaps, one to break your heart the way Dennis the dog did in the first book), but, as in Hollow Kingdom, there’s more going on than just adventure.  As we watch Dee try to figure out what she is, we start questioning what’s essentially human about us.  Are we doomed to violence?  Is it possible to be a true human being and at the same time be connected to the earth and to nature?  Dee is a figure of hope, as she was at the end of Hollow Kingdom, but she’s also a walking contradiction, and you ache for her, especially when she encounters the changed humans and realizes that they are — at least on some level — the same thing she is.

As S.T. desperately tries to protect his beloved Dee from the world the mofos have made, trying to make her human but not like the damaged humans, fighting against her animal nature at every step, you feel for him, especially if you’re a parent.  Yes, S.T.’s situation is unique, but on some level all parents are trying to find that balance between protecting our children from the cruelties of the world and letting them grow into what they really are, even if what they really are isn’t what we expected them to be.

Should you read Feral Creatures if you liked Hollow Kingdom?  Without a doubt.  You will not be disappointed, and you will be moved.  You should definitely read Hollow Kingdom first, of course, not just because this builds on the characters, situations and relationships of that book, but because it’s an excellent read in its own right.  While the book is dark and sad in a lot of places, it is, ultimately, a hopeful book, suggesting that maybe, even if we blow it, we might get another chance to live properly in this world.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MONK, A DIFFERENT KIND OF ROBOT: A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers creates a world that is so intricate and beautiful and yet so plausible that I wasn’t halfway through the book before I wanted to live in this world. When you read the book, you’ll feel the same way.

Panga, the setting of this book, isn’t earth or necessarily a version of earth, but it does have characteristics in common with our world.  There was once a factory era, during which robots were built and used to do the menial and difficult work.  Then at some point, the robots gained self-awareness and all decided they were not going to work for humans that way again.

In another kind of book, this would have led to a war between the robots and the people (as in The Matrix), and there would have been all kinds of horrible stuff going on.  In this book, however, the people showed remarkable self-awareness and goodness, and let the robots go into the wilderness where the people didn’t venture.  The robots promised to come back at some point and check on people, but for a long time nobody has seen or heard of any robots, and robots have become a sort of myth for the humans of Panga. 

In the meantime, people have built a different kind of society, with various gods being worshipped by the people (each god having a particular area of interest).  Human organizations are small, more on the lines of villages than of cities, and things are powered by sustainable means, such as solar power and human power. It’s not a medieval-type society with serfs and lords, but an egalitarian one.  There are monks living together or living separately, but they’re not very much like the Christian variety.

Our protagonist, a non-binary monk named Dex (whose title, owing to their non-binary status, is Sibling Dex, rather than Sister or Brother) comes to the conclusion that their life with the other monks is lacking something (specifically, the sound of crickets chirping in the wild), and decides to become a tea monk, traveling from village to village, providing tea and a listening ear to anyone who needs it.

Pause here and relish the idea of a tea monk.  Reading this, I could immediately see how useful such a person would be in our society, especially if we built the society around those kinds of rituals. 

Anyway, after a somewhat difficult start, Dex becomes a good tea monk, developing relationships with the people and towns along their route, but still there’s something missing. Dex decides to set out for the Hermitage, an abandoned monastery in the wilderness, despite having little or no understanding of how to get there or how to survive in the wilderness.

While Dex is traveling on this somewhat half baked journey, a robot appears at their campsite. The robot, which calls itself Splendid Speckled Mosscap, is following up on the robots’ promise from long ago: it wants to find out what people need, and it hopes Dex will be able to answer that.

This is not a plot-heavy book.  If you’re interested in plot driven novellas starring robots, may I recommend (once again) Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. Mosscap is not like Murderbot in most respects, being a curious and gentle companion to the confused Dex, and falling in love with the world all around it.  The heart of the book is the relationship between Dex and Mosscap, and they are a wonderful combination.

The book is short enough to read in a sitting, and warmhearted enough that you’ll want to.  My hope is that this is the beginning of a series, because I would gladly read anything else that happens in this charming and beautiful world.