A Natural History of Hell – Jeffrey Ford

A Natural History of HellA Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I let A Natural History of Hell sit on my shelf for two and a half years before I read it! I’d enjoyed a story or two by Ford, but I can’t recall what made me want to buy this collection. It was probably a blurb describing the stories in a way that piqued my interest, followed by a review gushing about how good Ford is. That usually does it. I’ve purchased many a short-story collection this way.

I loved it. His stories have such interesting premises delivered on by great characters.

My journey through the book was a little trippy. There was a story I’d read years ago in an anthology that I had no memory of reading, and I thought it was great. I don’t know how it got so completely erased from my brain, but I’m okay with a little bit of weirdness to keep my life interesting. When I closed the book, I felt that I-need-to-read-more-by-this-person feeling. Lucky me, Ford has quite the body of work for me to add to my tbr bookcase. I hope I don’t take two and a half years next time.

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The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” so I was very excited to see a novel about Elma’s earlier life. I nearly bought a copy of The Calculating Stars three times while circling the bookshop at Readercon but passed on it to purchase American Hippo instead (absolutely no regrets; you can read my review of how much I enjoyed American Hippo here).

I also wasn’t impressed by the quality of the materials used in the trade paperback hard copy. The cover curled and the paper felt cheap. The $18 cover price seemed too high. I know the higher price offsets the direct-to-paperback loss of hardcover sales, but I don’t like to buy chintzy books because I tend to keep them for a long time. So, when The Calculating Stars went on sale for Kindle for $2.99, I purchased immediately.

I was not disappointed by this book- it was fabulous. A League of Their Own meets Hidden Figures, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the 1950s and 60s space race in a time of accelerated global warming that necessitates off-world colonization, with a large and diverse cast of smart women all based on real historical people, fighting their way to the role of astronauts. In the real history of NASA’s voyages to the stars, women got men into space. Women were the mathematicians (called computers) behind the trajectories and engineering of space shuttles and lunar modules, doing the calculations by hand that early electronic computers were too slow and unreliable to do. Women also flew just about every kind of plane all over the place during WWII in the WASP program. Like women in the military today, the story that gets told is that these women didn’t go into combat, so it was never dangerous or difficult, but then and now, that’s a lot of bullshit.

Elma is a former WASP and a computer, a Doctor of Mathematics, married to a rocket engineer who is supportive and acknowledges her intelligence, talents, and ambitions. She has anxiety and struggles with whether or not to take medication and what people might think if they knew. She likes her work as a computer, but desperately wants to go to space, to the moon, to Mars. Elma is such a well-crafted character. In a brief description she sounds too perfect: smart accomplished woman with perfect marriage has one tragic flaw to overcome on her way to destroying the patriarchy and achieving her dreams! But she’s so much more complex than that, with little nuances and asides. She loses most of her family, constantly forgets about and then is reminded of her white privilege as the women of color around her suffer from racism, struggles with the lingering effects of being a girl and then a woman who moves through life outshining men and is bullied and traumatized to boost fragile male egos. She’s also Jewish, and grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and the loss of her own family line among thousands of lost Jewish families. This story may be alternate history, but it is very grounded in its time and place. Elma does not destroy the patriarchy on her way to achieving her dreams. She eats a lot of shit, grits her teeth and smiles through it, because she knows she is building a better future.

The focus on global warming and society’s attitude toward it, is very timely. Sadly, so is the racism and sexism. Decades of advancement, and we haven’t come as far as Elma would hope. I’m looking forward to escaping into the world of the sequel, The Fated Sky, to spend some time in a hopeful fantasy of a better tomorrow.

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Plum Rains – Andromeda Romano-Lax

Plum RainsPlum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The unearthing of buried family secrets, robots in near-future Japan, and gorgeous prose got me into Plum Rains, and the complex characters and relationships they build with each other kept me turning the pages. Romano-Lax pulls the strings tauter and tauter as we follow nurse Angelica through her days of constant worry and stress, elderly Sayoko through an unburdening decades in the making, and robot Hiro through the first days of his consciousness. I almost rolled my eyes when I picked up on the parallels between Angelica and Sayoko, and again when Hiro pointed them out and started talking about the human need and desire to tell stories and find meaning in patterns (another writer getting meta about writing, I thought), until I got to the end and stewed over it for several days and finally understood the full complexity of the point Romano-Lax is making in this book.

The world has put a moratorium on AI, called the Pause, but it is on the brink of a breakthrough. Japan is a society on hold, clinging to the past, celebrating the centennial birthday of every aging citizen, desperate for the birth of a new generation. Sayoko is paused, wilting as she waits to die and yet railing against the end of a life she found unfulfilling. Angelica’s life has been on perpetual hold since the death of her family during childhood, and she is utterly consumed by the need to be needed. Hiro awakes into this world, caught between the dramas of these two women, informed by their stories and actions as he constructs an identity for himself. His act of building identity mirrors the painful process both Sayoko and Angelica have undergone and continue to undergo to build their own selves. Although Hiro presents as masculine, his role in the story is distinctly feminine. He is the maiden in the triad, Angelica the mother, Sayoko the crone. Three faces, three phases, three lives challenging the Pause.

Society’s dismissal and fear of Hiro is a potent parallel of society’s dismissal and fear of women’s lived experiences, of women’s autonomy, of women’s authority. These are all treated as thing that should not exist, things society keeps trying to Pause, to put off, to ignore and pretend are not real. When Angelica’s phone and identity is hacked, it is handled with a curious mix of terror and mundanity in the text—see how easy it is to take control of a vulnerable woman, how expected, how commonplace? When Sayoko speaks out about the “comfort women” of WWII, everyone is shocked and embarrassed and wants to pretend it didn’t happen that way. When Hiro asserts his right to exist, everyone questions it, asking if a robot as a created object has the capacity to assert at all. It is not far from the creation of identity society performs on women every day, telling them who and what they are, and then questioning if they have the capacity to assert, if their recollections are true, if their existence outside of that constructed identity is valid. Romano-Lax doesn’t keep anything simple; she layers on native peoples, colonialism, and immigrant rights. She leans into issues of women’s bodily autonomy not only through the necessity of invasive care for an aging body but through the outlawing of abortion as a means of addressing the birth-rate crisis. Once again, society stands on the backs and necks of women and tells them they have no right to refuse.

The more I dwell on this novel, the better it gets. But at its core are the relationships—everything is expressed and explored through the characters’ relationships to each other: familial, romantic, friendly, convenient, unwanted, fraught with tension and uncertainty. The friendship that grows between Angelica and Hiro, the building of an alliance, culminates in such a killer final scene. After such a slow unfolding of story and sad climax, I applaud Romano-Lax for ending with a thriller-genre note. Perfection.

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