book review: the stars are legion

The reason I went back to Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha stories a while back was ’cause I was getting antsy waiting for our library to get copies of her new space opera novel The Stars are Legion. Now I have read it and it was just as gooey and intricate as I’d hoped.

Legion is a group of biological worldships surrounding an artifical sun. There are many layers to these worldships and ruling dynasties for each one. Zan is a soldier who begins the novel being put back together after an attack on a neighbouring world. She has no memory, but a strong attraction to Jayd who tells her that everything is tense but fine. Even the half-memory Zan has of murdering a baby is part of the plan, apparently.

And hoo boy are there plans in this story. Because Zan has no memory she’s piecing together what it’s all about along with the reader (in among the spray-on space-suits and fighter attack runs mounted on spacefaring slugbeasts). After a few chapters we also start following Jayd, who’s working on some crazy manipulative scheme against the ruler of their own worldship. She tells Zan she’s in on the plan but Zan doesn’t remember it and might fuck it all up. Other people have guesses about the plans but they’re keeping Zan in the dark to use her as a weapon (’cause Zan is a brutally effective soldier).

Then as the schemes are unfolding, boom boom boom Zan is killed (in a sudden but inevitable betrayal) and her body is recycled. Spoiler alert: Zan isn’t actually dead and then begins the quest up from the centre of the world back to the surface where all the political machinations we’re just getting used to are happening. This is where I really loved the book because it takes the simple set-up and then shows how big a world is and how surface-based civil wars are kind of just the equivalent of White House cabinet shuffles to get ignored by the people who don’t live that life. It takes it a bit more towards a fantasy-novel quest narrative as Zan comes closer to reclaiming her memories, but by the end we do get back to the worldships hurtling through space, don’t worry.

I tried to explain this book while I was in the middle of it and it was difficult; I got immersed in the details of womb-swapping and blood-drinking bonding rituals and cephalopod guns and not knowing exactly where it was going made it hard to see the big picture. Once you’re done though, it works really well, and what appeared to be chaotic was merely complex.

If you like big scifi stories and can handle technology being mostly biological (which does make for a lot of mucous throughout) I heartily recommend The Stars are Legion.

book review: towards a new manifesto

Towards a New Manifesto is a dialogue about Marxist philosophy between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They are important in Marxist critical theory and are the kinds of theoreticians I did not read enough of in my undergrad and then took “professional” graduate degrees that fled even the notion of critically examining the ways our professions think about what we do. Or I just slacked off in those classes.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It was a very fragmented dialogue that I felt I was missing a lot of context for. I did not feel very smart while reading it, but if bits of it got lodged in my brain somewhere for the next Marxist theory book I read, then I think it’s succeeded.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

book review: the eye of the heron

According to an interview in The Paris Review The Eye of the Heron was the first of Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction novels that she felt was doing something radical, politically.

It’s a story of two communities on a colony world, the City and the Town. The City was the first wave of colonists, mostly criminals, few women and strict notions of hierarchy. The Town was made up of peace-loving anarchists who were causing trouble back on earth. Guess which of these groups is the one I was rooting for!

The plot starts when a scouting party returns to the town to say they found a great spot for a new settlement. The Town people talk to the City people to say what they’d like to do but they are accused of rebellion and leaders are imprisoned. The rest of the book is about negotiation and resistance through talking and letting that which does not matter truly slide. It’s quite good as a depiction of how Gandhi-style challenging of hierarchy and power can work. The reeds not the oak and such.

book review: homeland

I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.

Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.

The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.

It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.

book review: trickster makes this world

Trickster Makes This World is a book about how trickster myths work in different cultures and the impact they have on the cultures they’re found in. It was a very interesting examination of creativity and art and the importance of transgression to humans.

Before picking up the book I was expecting to be reading about Coyote, Raven and Anansi, but Lewis Hyde was interested in a wider interpretation of Trickster that included Hermes (never having read much Greek mythology I wouldn’t have assumed the messenger was a trickster, but now I do) and Loki and applied how trickster-like transgression is used within history by political agents like Frederick Douglass.

It’s written in a pop-science kind of style so it’s not a difficult time. Because of that the insights feel a little easy, maybe a little glib. There’s definitely room to argue with Hyde because of the simplification he does in looking at all these myths with his specific focus. I enjoyed the book but it’s about analyzing stories in a certain way, which might not be the kind of thing everyone would be interested in.

book review: the world that never was

Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.