The story of green-haired gun-runner who wakes up one day to discover that she’s ruler of an interplanetary empire despite herself, there’s a lot here to like. K.B.Wagers isn’t doing anything astoundingly new with her political-intrigue/assassination-filled space opera… but she is doing some very nice things that would definitely make a Kitschies judge keep reading.
For a start, the empire that our heroine has to rule is matriarchal, and deliberately moulded on Indian mythology and culture. A men’s resistance movement is fighting back against the entrenched female monarchy, and as much time is spent attending temple and offering incense to Ganesh, as it is reminiscing on days with smugglers from other Chinese or more European-styled empires. It’s a nice take on familiar political themes, and a pleasant inversion on some very basic gender stereotypes.
Would it win? Alas, probably not. There is some dubious editing, and a large cast of characters blur into each other fairly easily, not to mention an impressive amount of time spent on remorseful tears and descriptions of saris. The plot, when you stop to think about it, is light around the edges – however it’s still a headlong rush of Stuff Happening In A Funky Place, and even if you put it aside after with a cry of ‘ah well next!’ you won’t have regretted the time spent reading at all.
The Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett
I can see this being submitted to the Kitschies with a cry of ‘hell yes’. Its premise – what happens when 99.9999% of humanity is wiped out – isn’t new, but has the addition that it’s set in a future in which humanity has colonized the stars. Consequently, this isn’t your usual shuffle across a desolate Earth, but can be the story of what happens to the one person left alive when a whole colony goes dark, or the few survivors stranded in a hostile corner of the universe when it all collapses. It is also a story about going home, and what home is in a space this big, weaving in religion, sexuality, authoritarianism and loss.
While both the book and the writing hold huge promise, it suffers from a supporting cast of two-dimensional characters, who sometimes feel as if they are ticking off a wish-list of narrative viewpoints. Quietly-tortured sort-of-priest? Yeap. Prostitute with a heart of gold? Tick. Swaggering space Captain with a hidden gem of conscience who we all learn to love? Boom. For all of the book’s many charms, the SF-geek in my soul still feels that Firefly did this better.
It’s also worth noting that the book does an important thing well, and then gets hobbled by it. It talks about miscarriage, from a mother’s perspective, and how that has changed her life. Tackling this in life and fiction is an excellent thing, and huge cheers to Anne Corlett for going at it. However, when most of humanity has been wiped out from the universe and survivors are struggling to survive violence, oppression and probable death, you begin to ask whether the scale of the narrative premise set before this characters, doesn’t begin to outweigh the topic that is being put at the heart of the book. To my shame, as one who’s all down with talking about things that matter more, I found a moment arriving fairly soon where I just didn’t care about the main character’s history or anxieties… because the unexplored dangers of the situation and the unknown future were just more damn interesting.
Poison City – Paul Crilley
Hell no it wouldn’t win a Kitschie. But hell yes, we’d have had fun reading it, and at the shortlist meeting Glen would have broken out a Tupperware box full of wine and at least a couple of minutes would have been spent celebrating how much fun we had reading this book, and but how there were too many other books that are just pushing harder, more at the boundaries of fiction for us to give it a prize.
And yes – a brief flurry of discussion would have arisen about how nice it is to read urban fantasy both set in South Africa, and which draws so refreshingly on South African mythology and folklore. There almost certainly would have been a moment of tense discussion over how ethnicity is written about in the book, because these things do matter, followed fairly quickly by the conclusion that hey, this isn’t a tome setting out to tear anything down or build anything new – it’s just dead fun urban fantasy doing a funky thing in a groovy place, and it does that well.
It does it very well, and it’s hugely entertaining, and sometimes, amid the earnest contemplation of what the hell a progressive book prize even is, we’d all just breathe a sigh of relief that we get to rejoice in pure fun and fantasy too.
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
I was a judge the year A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet got shortlisted, and it was a damn good book. As well as being beautifully written, it was a picture of a universe in which humanity was, for once, fully embracing what it meant to be humane. Aliens fell in love across the boundaries of species… sentience was celebrated as a beautiful gift, everyone was accepted for who they were and judgements were rarely levelled by characters against each other, and never by the writer. It felt like a universe I wanted to live in.
Plot? Heh. They go a place, and at the end, some stuff happens. But that is more or less the be-all and end-all of the book, and afterwards you’re left wondering just what it was that drew you along.
A Closed and Common Orbit is in many ways much the same… and it still works. Even though the plot is fairly light, even on the flashback sections which help build the characters more, and what action there is almost happens off-page in a sorta shrug at the end… I kept on turning pages and damnit, I kept on really, really caring. I cared for every single character, for their hopes and their dreams, and I loved them all not for the conflict they were experiencing, but for the compassion they showed each other, and how that drove them on. At the end there was a cry of ‘but what even happened really?’ and every now and then, when feeling vulnerable, I might just hug the book like a childhood teddy bear, and be in my happy place.
Tomorrow Adam Roberts will give us his inimitable taste.