Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

New Releases: 2019, Part Three – Four Mini-Reviews

New Releases: 2019, Part Three

Four Mini-Reviews


Exhalation – Ted Chiang


I was perhaps the only person on the planet who was less than enamored with Ted Chiang’s debut collection of short fiction, Story of Your Life and Others (you are likely familiar with the title story because it was adapted into Denis Villenueve’s phenomenal 2016 film Arrival); although he explored engaging ideas throughout the collection, I found his prose to be blunt and stilted. I’m happy to say that, even though I’m still not quite ready to board the Ted Chiang hype train, I enjoyed Exhalation—it’s an immense improvement over his previous collection.


Let’s get the negative out of the way: Chiang’s prose isn’t any better this time around. I do understand why it works, though. The intellectual breadth on display throughout these stories is so overwhelming that simplistic prose almost becomes a necessity, because the alternative would mean alienation for all but the most hardcore of readers. (To be honest, I would devour an academic text by Chiang.) With that in mind, it didn’t bother me as much as it did before.


But how are the stories? Strong. There are no real missteps, and the weak link of the collection (“The Great Silence,” a cute but unsubstantive fable which was originally written to accompany an art exhibit) is only a few pages long and doesn’t overstay its welcome. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is also somewhat shaky; there’s a devious brilliance to its structure, which complicates our collective fear of impending technological advancement by juxtaposing it with the transition from an oral to written culture, but its ultimate message is trite and reductive.


Otherwise, the stories in Exhalation hit the mark. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (which was my introduction to Ted Chiang many years ago) opens the collection with an elegant fable of time travel. The title story is a literal journey into the mind of a mechanical being who seeks to understand the nature of their universe. And “Darcy’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which concerns an inventor who creates a wind-up child caretaker, is a sly satire about parenthood.


Three stories crown the collection. The first, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” is a novella which swallows up nearly half of Exhalation’s pagecount. Chronicling the relationships between “digients,” digital pets programmed with a realistic learning and development software, and their creators and owners, the story onion-peels its way into the heart of rich philosophical questions concerning consciousness, child-rearing, citizenship, education, autonomy, disability, sexuality, and technological obsolescence (that’s including, not limited to). Guided by Chiang’s graceful hand, the multitude of themes don’t tear the story into thousand parts—rather, they prevent it from becoming didactic and maintain its aptitude for intellectual stimulation throughout.


“Omphalos,” while perhaps not the best story in the collection (that title probably belongs to “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”), might be my favorite. Taking place in a world which was created, presumably by an omnipotent being, 8,000 years prior to the present—the evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible—it concerns a religious scientist who is exposed to a discovery which forces her to rethink her faith. It’s a brilliant, beautiful tale about how we find meaning.


The closing story of the collection, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” ends Exhalation on a high note. If Hollywood gets its hands on anything in this collection, it’ll be this killer premise: humans now have access to “prisms,” a technology which, when activated, creates a parallel timeline that people can communicate with until the prism’s “pad” runs out. It’s the thematic inverse of the shortest story in Exhalation, “What’s Expected of Us,” which concerns an invention consisting of two parts—a button, and a light which unfailingly activates one second before the button is pushed. The implication is obvious. “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” on the other hand, concerns the paranoia of possibility, the claustrophobia of free will. We make so many choices, and there are so many consequences, and we so rarely know what might have happened if we had done just that one thing differently. Sometimes it’s better not to know. But I recommend reading Exhalation; that way, you’ll never have to wonder what you missed out on.


A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) – Arkady Martine


Arkady Martine is a Byzantine historian, and it shows in her stellar debut. The empire of the title is Teixcalaan, a sci-fi equivalent of the Roman Empire which is swallowing up independent populaces around the galaxy; one such populace is that of Lsel Station, whose ambassador to the Empire, Yskander Aghavn, has recently turned up dead. His successor, Mahit Dzmare, has his imago—his consciousness—implanted in her brain, but it is fifteen years out-of-date, and he doesn’t know any more than her about how or why he died…or was conveniently killed.


Teixcalaan is the star of the show. Much of the core tension in Empire is derived from Mahit’s love of Teixcalaan culture and language, which seduces her even as it threatens to assimilate the culture and language of her home. The people of Teixcalaan communicate via canon and well-placed caesuras, and Martine wields the discrepancy between the truth of their empire and the stories they tell about it as both a constant source of tension for the characters and a means to comment on rampant jingoism, privilege, propaganda, xenophobia, and imperialism. Teixcalaan may resemble Rome, but American readers will also be rightfully discomforted by its similarities to the United States—and yet, Martine doesn’t let herself become trapped in a “Teixcalaan bad/Lsel good” dichotomy. She condemns, but she also celebrates. It’s always complicated.


Empire is sometimes at risk of becoming bogged down in linguistic exposition, but Martine keeps things moving with a murder mystery that clips along at a brisk pace. Her portrayal of a budding queer romance is also deftly handled; it blossoms organically within the story rather than feeling tacked on for the sake of a diversity checkbox. Another prominent theme, albeit one I would have preferred Martine unpack in greater detail, is that of identity. Since she has the consciousness of another person bubbling up in her brain, Mahit sometimes struggles to keep her emotional, intellectual, and sexual identities from being subsumed by Yskander. This is a long-running sci-fi trope, but it’s one with a great deal of resonance, and I hope Martine continues to mine it as the series progresses. There’s an almost dizzying amount of untapped potential here.


I have a few nitpicks. Martine doesn’t always seem to trust the reader, as she has a tendency to needlessly italicize words for emphasis or over-explain insinuations which are much more satisfying to put together yourself. The climactic events of the story are also strangely tidy. A Memory Called Empire suffers in comparison to A Game of Thrones: it has a similar plot, but Thrones ends with the status quo utterly upended and Empire ends with the status quo largely unchanged, which results in a more complete but less satisfying story. This isn’t to say that there aren’t major plot threads left dangling for the sequel (Martine is planning a trilogy) or that I won’t be seizing a copy of said sequel the second it’s released, but Empire concludes on a note which tempered, rather than stoking, my anticipation. This book is so good that these minor weaknesses seem magnified in relation to what it does right, which is almost everything.


The Light Brigade – Kameron Hurley


Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was released in 1959, and every decade or two in the time since, a new novel steps forward to play with its formula and become a classic in its own right: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War in 1974, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in 1985, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in 2005, and now Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade in 2019. It more than lives up to its predecessors, and it makes a potentially-tired formula feel fresh once again.


Our protagonist in this case is Dietz (whose gender is wisely withheld by Hurley), a grunt on the front lines of a war against Mars in a future where climate change and corporate greed have ravaged Earth; soldiers in this war are brought to battlefields by being broken down into light—and thus transported at lightspeed—but this process cause Dietz to become, to steal a phrase from Slaughterhouse-Five, “unstuck in time.” Dietz experiences combat drops out-of-order, and their spiral into madness reveals a war utterly unlike the one they thought they were fighting.


It’s an elegant spin on the classics, but this is a modern book in every respect; whereas The Forever War was written by a Vietnam veteran and was about returning home from war and feeling displaced—socially, culturally, politically, economically—it’s hardly a spoiler to say that The Light Brigade is about something much more universal: the obscene power of corporate conglomerates, pulling us around like puppets. I would have preferred Hurley set her sights higher, because rampant capitalism is an easy target for critique, and it is only in this respect that the book seems to have no interest in digger deeper and unearthing richer, more dynamic themes.


Everything else about The Light Brigade works. Hurley is not one for exposition dumps, and the prominence of time travel throughout the novel creates a plot that pinballs around, which will leave you as disoriented as Dietz and require your full attention if you want to keep up. But it’s a fast-paced and tightly-structured journey that is nothing if not rewarding to read. The Light Brigade will rightfully take its place as one of many worthy successors to Starship Troopers.


Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb #1) – Tamsyn Muir


I believe it’s safe to say that Gideon the Ninth was one of the most buzzed-about speculative fiction releases of 2019, which meant I was especially wary when I began eyeing it—how often is it, really, that buzzy books live up to the hype? When I finally got around to reading it, however, I was pleased to discover that Tamsyn Muir’s debut is just as fiendishly delightful and outrageously entertaining as was promised by so many reviews. There haven’t been many books that have managed to make me smile almost nonstop from beginning to end, but this was one.


The world of Gideon the Ninth is an irreverent mashup of fantasy and science fiction—spaceships abound, but so do animated skeletons—where eight Houses of necromancers serve an immortal Emperor who has summoned the heirs of each House to compete against one another (the First House, the House of the Emperor, is defunct). The winner of this contest will become an almost all-powerful lyctor. Harrowhark Nonagesimus represents the Ninth House, but like the other heirs, she requires the assistance of a cavalier, in this case her childhood nemesis Gideon Nav. Gideon has a sword and an attitude, but she doesn’t have a choice.


And so Gideon and Harrowhark, alongside the heirs and cavaliers representing the other seven Houses, find themselves in a palace where tricks and traps lurk around every corner, and it isn’t long before the bodies begin to pile up. There are shades of The Hunger Games here, but a closer point of comparison is And Then There Were None. Muir breathes new life into the genre Christie exhausted and creates a murder mystery that’s unlike anything you’ve read before.


The characters in Gideon the Ninth speak as if they spend the majority of their time browsing Twitter, and their dialogue is generously sprinkled with references to memes which cannot possibly exist in their world. Some readers may find that these references break their immersion, but they mesh so seamlessly with Muir’s fast-and-loose style that, at least for me, they became part of the fabric of Gideon’s reality. Sometimes, you just gotta let your hair down and have fun.


I had so much fun with Gideon the Ninth. Muir knows how and when to go for pathos (the emotions, when they hit, hit surprisingly hard), but she seems more interested in making sure the reader has a rollicking good time—and that’s what she delivers. Gideon the Ninth functions perfectly well as a stand-alone story, but a sequel, Harrow the Ninth, is on the way in 2020.


Reviews by Erin Larson