Today, I’m reviewing two adult science fiction novels I’ve read recently! Both are new releases; one is a new installment in a well-loved series and one an introspective futuristic novel translated from Chinese.
I first decided to read Network Effect because of the hype. I know, I know, that kind of thing usually doesn’t end well, but while I love Murderbot, I don’t think one character is ever enough to carry a whole novel – not when I hadn’t felt anything about any other character in the last two novellas. However, since I know this will probably be a Hugo nominee next year, and since I had just read Exit Strategy (of which I won’t post a full review just because I found it that uninteresting), this seemed like a good idea.
And at first, it didn’t go well. I was kind of bored for the first 30% and I considered DNFing the book, because none of the human characters were that interesting (as usual for this series, and to a degree I think this is a deliberate choice) and there was that weird alien contamination plotline I wasn’t a fan of. However, I like the narration and I do care about Murderbot (also, these books are funny), so I continued.
And, once ART/Perihelion was in action, I couldn’t stop screaming internally. I’m understanding just how much it wasn’t a case that Artificial Condition was my favorite of the novellas. ART and Murderbot have Feelings about each other! Which they’d never want to admit! And it’s so funny to see two characters be dragged by all the humans around them because they won’t admit they’re friends – and the effect is strengthened by Murderbot’s organic and inorganic parts running almost completely on denial.
Also, the way Amena (Mensah’s teenage daughter) ends up being the middleman of the situation? Perfect, best character dynamic of the year, award-deserving
I still didn’t strongly care about the plot, or the world; while I like the commentary around the existence of corporations and their profit-driven way of life being inherently tied to AIs (an certain people’s) lack of rights, I just don’t find this universe to be that interesting! It’s very straightforward, which I guess makes it accessible, but it doesn’t do much more than throw acronyms at you without much context. Why write sci-fi if you won’t even try to use the Cool Factor!
I might read the recently-announced Fugitive Telemetry next year, because Network Effect finally gave me the feeling that the plot is going to branch out from the repetitive outline of the novellas, which all kind of felt like remixes of each other – we’ll see. This was overall a fun time, and I wouldn’t mind rereading it someday (…though I’d probably be skimming the first 30%)
My rating: ★★★¾
Vagabonds is a Chinese science-fiction novel by Hugo-Award winning author Hao Jingfang, translated into English by Ken Liu, and I listened to an audiobook narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. This was a buddy read with Silvia, and if you’re interested in reading this book, I really recommend reading it with a friend. It will give you the motivation to get through what’s a 640-page-tome/21-hour-audiobook, and discussing it – because there will be a lot to discuss – is half the fun. (All of the fun? This was many things but it wasn’t fun.)
“This is the tale of the fall of the last utopia.”
― Vagabonds, prologue.
Don’t let the prologue fool you: Vagabonds is not that kind of sci-fi. It’s not a war story, even though the possibility and memory of war are ever-present shadows; it’s not a story about an apocalypse. It is a slow-paced, introspective novel about a group of young Martians returning to their planet after having spent years studying on Earth, where they started to question everything about their way of life. This is a tale about the fall of the very concept of utopia in the characters’ mind; a story about loss of faith accompanied by gain of insight. A story about how a society came close to becoming the very thing it swore to never be.
While it follows many characters, the closest thing to a main character Vagabonds has is Louying, the granddaughter of the Martian consul and one of the eighteen-year-olds returning from Earth. We follow her journey in discovering the history of her family and some ugly truths tied to it; we follow her as she asks questions and tries to find answers that work for her, and a place that might fit her after the way her experience in with living on two very different planets shaped her.
Louying has been taught she lives in an utopia, while the citizens of Earth believe her grandfather is a dictator; the truth is much more complicated than either statement. This book navigates these questions – what makes an utopia; what is freedom; what it means to be a dictator – while exploring many different points of views. It compares Martian collectivism against the individualism of Earth, digs into each society’s failing, and it never gives you definitive answers, but it still exposes the dangers of cultural exceptionalism, supremacy and close-mindedness. At its heart, Vagabonds is a story about the importance of communication between different viewpoints, how we can all learn a lot from each other.
I’m always here for stories that talk about what utopia might mean. I find the very concept of utopia as we usually conceive it inherently disturbing because stasis seems encoded in its very foundation, when that’s antithetical to human nature, or nature in general. (If ecological stability in an ecosystem is always is a dynamic equilibrium, I don’t have reasons to believe the situation is much different for human societies.) This book gets how every generation perceives its society in a different way and always strives for change, as it’s natural, but sometimes doesn’t understand the impact it may have.
I liked the lack of answers paired to a very well-defined, resonant character arc. At the same time, my usual bookish habitat is western queer SFF, so I kept thinking that Mars is a dystopia without considering any of these things just for its treatment of women – all people involved in politics are men and so are most people this book shows being involved in the sciences (all the relevant female characters are artists); you can also see the reflection of this in how the men around Louying treat her. I recognize this as the simplistic take it is, and yet it’s not something I can brush off. Maybe it’s because it isn’t an element of comparison – I don’t have any reason to believe book-Earth is any better in this – so the book chose not to engage with that. I don’t know; I’ll just say that it kept jumping up at me. Especially considering how multifaceted the worldbuilding is, how the book manages to talk in detail about the role of art, architecture, history, revolutions and innovation in a society, also going into the details of physics and engineering on Mars.
In an American categorization, this book would probably be seen as something standing on the line between genre and literary fiction, with the premise of the first and the mood and aim of the second. As I’m only familiar with the first, I can say that compared to the average sci-fi, is significantly slower, descriptive and meandering, with an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The characters are wonderfully crafted but you’re not reading the story for them (for the most part, I say, thinking about Dr. Reini), and there are some beautiful parts involving space exploration on the surface of Mars, but they’re again not the point. I ended up liking this book for what it was, but I think it’s important to know all of this before going into it – it’s not what you usually get from a sci-fi Saga Press tome. As for the translation, this is possibly the best translation I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them. It probably helps that the translator is an author himself.
My rating: ★★★★
Have you read or want to read any of these? Can you tell I wrote one of these in a hurry because conjunctivitis means I can’t look at a screen for too long? I say it shows