Book Review: Autonomous

autonomousAutonomous
by Annalee Newitz
Biopunk
301 pages
Published 2017

Autonomous is an interesting story that poses a lot of moral questions. It doesn’t really take sides; both the pharmaceutical pirate and the agents tracking her down are painted in sympathetic ways, as if we’re meant to like them all. We see why Jack is a pharmaceutical pirate; medicine is only available to those rich enough to pay for it, so the poor stay poor and sick and short-lived. She wants to change that. She reverse-engineers drugs, manufactures them, and distributes them to the needy through her associates.

Meanwhile, Eliasz is a conflicted military agent who is sexually attracted to robots. Or at least to his partner, Paladin, though a flashback shows what might have been the start of his attraction to robots. Paladin is probably the single most interesting character in the entire book, as she muses on the nature of being indentured, and searches through her memories and the internet for information about her situation.

The book does have LGBT content – Jack is bisexual, and Eliasz is – robosexual? Is that a thing? Paladin could be called nonbinary or trans; she repeatedly mentions that gender isn’t a thing to robots, but because she’s a military robot, most people call her a he at the beginning of the book. She learns the brain inside her is female, and to make Eliasz more comfortable with his attraction, she decides to use female pronouns. Eliasz does use the F word to refer to himself being attracted to the robot at the beginning, when they were using male pronouns. This puzzles Paladin for a while, causing her to search the term and figure out what Eliasz meant by its use.

There’s a lot of complex world-building in this book that is barely brushed past. From the corporations who own patents covering everything, to the system of indenture that covers humans as well as robots, to the bio-domes that cover cities (but it’s livable outside the biodomes, so why are they needed?), to the new federations that cover continents that used to be divided into several countries – there’s a LOT going on. And there’s not just robots, but also some pretty advanced cybernetics implanted in humans as well as an everpresent network of data that can be tapped into with implants that everyone has.

Ultimately, for as complex as the world is, and cohesive as the plot is, I’m left wondering who, if anyone, was in the right in this story. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be happy with the ending or not. I’ve seen other reviews saying Neuromancer was a way better book in a similar vein, and I actually have copy of that waiting to be read. So we’ll see.

From the cover of Autonomous:

When anything can be owned, how can we be free?

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, a pharmaceutical Robin Hood traversing the world in a submarine, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack leaves a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, repeating job tasks until they become insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his partner Paladin, a young indentured robot. As they race to stop information about the hacked drugs at their source, they form an uncommonly close relationship that neither of them fully understands, and Paladin begins to question their connection – and a society that profits from indentured robots. 

Series Review: The Bannerless Saga

bannerlessBannerless/The Wild Dead
by Carrie Vaughn
Dystopia/Murder Mystery
274/264 pages
Published 2017/2018

I first fell in love with Carrie Vaughn’s work with the Kitty Norville series – a werewolf named Kitty who ran a late-night radio show. Kitty and the Midnight Hour. (Both the name of her show and the first book.) So when I discovered she’d starting writing a dystopia that revolved heavily around reproductive rights, I was SO ON BOARD. Bannerless and The Wild Dead are the first two books of the Bannerless saga. And they’re GREAT. They’re technically murder mysteries set in a dystopian society; Enid, our main character, is an investigator, the closest thing this society has to police.

The dystopia part of the society involves epidemics and natural disasters nearly eradicating humanity; with so few people left and less of the earth habitable, they’ve regressed to a mostly agrarian society. Farmers, weavers, hunters. To keep the population from exploding past the land’s ability to feed it, birth rates are strictly controlled. As civilization was falling, people realized birth rates were going to be massively important, and the birth control implant, and the technology to make it, was one thing they managed to save. They also have solar-powered cars, lights, and flashlights, though they’re uncommon enough to be notable.

the wild deadI find it a little improbable that they still have the tech to make the implants; they say that before the supplies from “before the Fall” ran out, the medics figured out how to make the hormone from “what they had on hand” – but – I feel like a more interesting plot point would be that they’re running out of implants, and how the society would have to deal with that changing. But that is not the case, at least not in the first two books.

Regardless of how improbable the birth control issue is, the rest of the plot is pretty good. There’s a good mix of salvaged goods and subsistence farming; of new houses built in low-tech ways and the occasional ruins from Before the Fall. They have some books and records of what it was like, and Enid often wishes she had the tools that forensic investigators had, Before. Fingerprints, and DNA, though she doesn’t call it DNA. They don’t have cameras, she has to sketch crime scenes and take notes.

I really enjoyed both books; Carrie Vaughn’s writing style is wonderful to read. The first book rambles a little bit, but while some of it doesn’t seem necessary for the first book, it’s important for the second. I’ll definitely be following this series.

From the cover of Bannerless:

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroyed much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving, but thriving – built on a culture of population control where people are organized into households that must earn the right to bear and raise children by proving they can care for them. Those who are deemed worthy proudly display the symbolic banners that demonstrate this privilege, while those who are not are outcast, living alone and branded as “bannerless.”

Enid of Haven is an investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. But now she’s summoned to investigate the suspicious death of a man rumored to be bannerless. Was it murder or an accident? Was he truly bannerless or simply a loner? As Enid races to answer these questions while confronting unhelpful townsfolk and her own past, the secrets she reveals could expose the cracks in the entire foundation of the Coast Road society.

From the cover of The Wild Dead:

A century after environmental and economic collapse, the people of the Coast Road have rebuilt their own sort of civilization, striving not to make the mistakes their ancestors did. They strictly ration and manage resources, including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven is an investigator who, with her new partner, Teeg, is called on to mediate a dispute over an old building in a far-flung settlement at the edge of Coast Road territory. 

The investigators’ decision seems straightforward – and then the body of a young woman turns up in the nearby marshland. Almost more shocking than that, she’s not from the Coast Road, but from one of the outsider camps belonging to the nomads and wild folk who live outside the Coast Road communities. Now one of them is dead, and Enid wants to find out who killed her, even as Teeg argues that the murder isn’t their problem. In a dystopian future of isolated communities, can our moral sense survive the worst hard times?

Book Review: The Book of M

the book of mThe Book of M
by Peng Shepherd
Dystopia/Magical Realism
485 pages
Published June 2018

What defines a person? Your experiences? Your personality? The emotional bonds you forge? What happens when you forget? Are you still you if you don’t remember who that is? The Book of M tackles these questions and takes an intimate look at what happens when some people forget but others remember.

We enter on Max and Ory in an abandoned hotel, running out of food and supplies. Max has lost her shadow, which means she will soon start forgetting. Everything. (There are rumors that Shadowless have died because they forgot to breathe or eat.) We learn it’s been a few years since the phenomenon started happening, and flashbacks tell us the story of those early months. Like any good dystopia, it is a world-altering process. Governments are gone because no one remembered to run them. Food and other supplies are dwindling because farmers, shippers, manufacturers forgot what they were doing and how to do it.

But with the forgetting comes – magic, of a sort. Ory comes across a deer in the forest that instead of antlers, has wings sprouting from its forehead. Because someone forgot that deer shouldn’t have wings – and so it happened. Forgetting that something can be destroyed can make it indestructible. Forgetting that you left a place can take you back to that place. Forgetting a place exists can make that place no longer exist. It’s not a very controllable kind of magic. And it’s dangerous – you can never be quite sure what you’ll forget, and you can affect other people with it.

And the forgetting starts with losing your shadow. Ory gives Max a tape recorder, so she can record things she might forget. He posts signs around their hideout to remind her of things, like “Let no one in. Ory has a key.” and “Don’t touch the guns or the knives.” But Max knows she is a danger to Ory, and so while she can still remember enough to function, she runs away.

The book mostly concerns Ory and Max’s journeys across the country; Max trying to find something she’s forgotten, and Ory trying to find Max. The adventure is gripping, heartbreaking, and at times confusing. (Mostly on Max’s end, as magic warps things around her.) There are a few side characters who also have viewpoint chapters. Naz Ahmadi is an Iranian girl training for the Olympics in the US – in archery, which comes in quite handy. We also have The One Who Gathers, a mysterious man in New Orleans who has gathered a flock of shadowless.

If you ever played the roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension, and remember the concept of Paradox, this book reminds me of that a lot. (Is it a surprise that I’m a tabletop RPG geek? It shouldn’t be. I own almost all of the old World of Darkness books, and currently play in a D&D game, and hopefully soon a second D&D game!) Anyway. Paradox. Where doing magic too far outside the bounds of acceptable reality punishes you, so you have to weigh the potential consequences against the magic you want to do.

I really enjoyed this debut novel; it is a very original take on a dystopia, and raised a lot of questions about personality, memories, and what makes a person the person you remember.

From the cover of The Book of M:

Set in a dangerous near-future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. This sweeping debut illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears – an occurrence that science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, the magic comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife, Max, have escaped the Forgetting by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods outside Arlington, Virginia. Their new life feels almost normal, until their greatest fear happens to them, and Max’s shadow disappears, too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away while Ory is out foraging for supplies – but he refuses to give up what little time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, Ory follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged amid the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Book Review: Red Clocks

red clocks dystopiaRed Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Feminist Dystopia
350 pages
Published January 2018

Red Clocks first caught my attention because it’s set in a small fishing town in Oregon, my home state. After that, learning that it’s a dystopia where abortion and in vitro fertilization have both been banned outright meant I HAD to read it. Of course, I got it from the library some weeks ago and had so many other books to read that I didn’t get to it until the day it was due back to the library! Luckily, I read fast!

I think the cover description oversells the book a little. I wouldn’t call Gin’s trial “frenzied” nor the drama exactly “riveting” but it did keep my attention throughout the book. I really enjoyed the relationships between the characters, and the point that none of them really know what is going on in each other’s personal lives. One moment I particularly liked is slightly spoilery, but I loved how Ro was able to put her personal feelings aside to help Mattie, her student. That was really, really hard for her, but she recognized how much damage it would do to Mattie to not help her.

I think I found Gin the most interesting – given all the reading I’ve been doing lately about autism, her entire personality screams autism to me, but she was never labeled as autistic. So I’m marking her as a possibly autistic character. (I’d love if any of my autistic readers could weigh in on that, if you’ve read the book!) Between preferring to live in the woods with animals and NOT around people, specifically, and the way she reacts to the textures and smells in the jail when she’s arrested (shoving the bleach-scented blankets as far away in the cell as possible, and refusing to eat the food), and how she stumbles over her answers in the courtroom when she’s interrogated – it seems likely.

My only actual complaint about this book had nothing to do with the writing or plot! But it refers to the ghost pepper as “the hottest pepper known to man” which the Carolina Reaper growing in my backyard would have an issue with!

Other than that very minor quibble, I thought this dystopia was pretty good. I’m always interested in Reproductive Rights-related dystopias. This isn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s MILES better than Future Home of the Living God. It’s good at showing the lengths women will go to, to ensure their own reproductive freedom. Outlawing abortion doesn’t eliminate abortion. It just makes it less safe.

From the cover of Red Clocks:

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom. 

Ro, a single high school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own while also writing a biography of Eivor, a little-known nineteenth-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted forest-dwelling herbalist, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt. 

Red Clocks is at once a riveting drama whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. In the vein of Margaret Atwood and Eileen Myles, Leni Zumas fearlessly explores the contours of female experience, evoking The Handmaid’s Tale for a new millennium. This is a story of resilience, transformation, and hope in tumultuous – even frightening – times. 

Library Loot Wednesday!

the merry spinsterThe Merry Spinster finally made its way to me through the library system! It’s a collection of short fantasy stories and I’ve been quite eager to read it. The author also recently came out as trans, so this is part of my effort to read more inclusively! There’s apparently a lot about gender in the book, too.

tolstoy purple chairI also checked out Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which is my PopSugar pick for “favorite color in the title.” It’s about a woman spending a year dedicated to reading, so I’m hopeful I’ll find something in here for another PopSugar prompt, “a book mentioned in another book.” Also, that chair on the cover? I WANT IT.

red clocks dystopiaRed Clocks finally arrived in my holds! I’ve been pretty excited about this one, but there were a lot of people in line ahead of me. It’s another feminist dystopia – I love those – this one set in a small Oregon fishing town, so – my home state! Abortion and in vitro fertilization are both illegal in this dystopia, and it follows the stories of women dealing with that.

pretending to be normal aspergerAnd one of the books off my Autism Reading List arrived from another library system – Pretending to be Normal – Living with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is the expanded version published in 2015.

women from another planet autismIn not-quite-library-loot, I also bought the Kindle version of Women From Another Planet? Our Lives in the Universe of Autism on the recommendation of Catana, who commented on my review of Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate.

One of these days I’m going to gather some pictures of my library to show you guys my local branch. The librarians there are pretty awesome.

Book Review: The Wolves of Winter

wolves of winterThe Wolves of Winter
by Tyrell Johnson
Dystopia/post-apocalypse
310 pages
Published January 2018

First off, I love this cover. Second, I am somewhat amused that Canadian dystopias always blame the US for the end of the world. It’s always, always, because the US decided to be stupid. I can’t blame them. It’s perfectly realistic. But it is slightly amusing. In the case of The Wolves of Winter, the US carried its War on Terror too far and started nuclear war. It’s unclear how widespread the nuclear winter is; the book is based in the Canadian Yukon where it’s already cold. There’s a brief mention of farmers farther south, so there is still some warmth somewhere. What really did humanity in, though, was the Asian flu. There’s rumor that it was a biological weapon deployed by the US, that then escaped their control, but no one’s really sure.

Lynn – Gwendolynn – lives in a small compound in the Yukon with her mother, brother, uncle, and uncle’s ward. (The son of his best friend – I’m inclined to believe he’s actually the son of the uncle’s lover, but nothing was actually verified.) The only other human they’ve seen in years is their scumbag neighbor who occasionally steals deer out of Lynn’s traps.

Until one day, while out hunting, Lynn comes across the mysterious Jax and his husky, Wolf. She brings him home for food and to tend his wound, and while her family is initially very wary of him, he starts to fit in. And then, of course, the brown stuff hits the fan.

I really enjoyed Lynn and her family. In flashbacks we see them before the flu, before they had to be survivors. I got the feeling her father always saw this coming, and was preparing her for it long before it actually happened. Lynn’s memories of her father are particularly vivid and help to explain exactly how she’s become who she is now.

I really enjoyed this book and read it in a single sitting, but I really like dystopias and winter settings. Ultimately, it’s a pretty average nuclear winter dystopia.

This is the 13th book for my Read Canadian Challenge, so while I do have more Canadian books I plan to read (I just picked up The Young in One Another’s Arms from the library!) I am actually done with the challenge! This also fits the “book about the outdoors or environment” prompt for my Litsy Booked 2018 challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. this book!

From the cover of The Wolves of Winter:

In a postapocalyptic tradition that spans The Hunger Games and Station Eleven but blazes its own distinctive path, this captivating tale shows humanity pushed beyond its breaking point and features a heroic young woman who crosses a frozen landscape to find her destiny.

Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive in the endless white wilderness beyond the edges of a fallen world. Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. As the memories of her old life continue to haunt, she’s been forced to forge ahead in the snow-drifted Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap and slaughter. 

But her fragile existence is about to be shattered. Shadows of “the world before” have found her tiny community – most prominently in the enigmatic figure of Jax, who brings with him dark secrets of the past and sets in motion a chain of events that will call Lynn to a role she never imagined.

A stunning debut novel that delivers unforgettable images, The Wolves of Winter reminds us that when everything else is lost there are still things to fight for.