On to the better books!
Jonathan Strahan, ed. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 8 (Solaris Books: 2014)
Like any Year's Best, this is a mixed bag. I particularly liked Yoon Ha Lee's "Effigy Nights", M. John Harrison's "Cave and Julia" (I hadn't read any M. John Harrison in a few years and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy the way he writes the subtly, devastatingly weird in the real world), Lavie Tidhar's "The Book Seller", Benjanun Sriduangkaew's "Fade to Gold" and Karin Tidbeck's "Sing". Others were enjoyable, if less memorable. Others were not. There's a definite presence of non-conservative stories here, a variety of voices, but not enough, and then the second-to-last story -- Ian McDonald's "The Queen of Night's Aria" -- is a retro-style adventure on Mars where women are retro-style sidelined, and it's so irredeemably backwards-looking that I don't see the point, what is this for? It speaks to a conservative thread that runs through this anthology alongside the forwards-looking thread. It's apt: the tension between conservative and forwards-looking in SFF was a significant feature of 2013 -- and 2014, too, and 2015, I don't doubt -- but I really just look forward to leaving this tension behind.
Zen Cho, Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo: 2014)
I love Zen Cho's writing! It's funny, comforting and clever. Spirits Abroad collects some of Zen's short stories, which are often about families or friends -- not always living, not always human, not always on Earth -- but always important, if often difficult. The characters are so down-to-earth (that's... a bad pun for the earth spirit and Liyana, sigh), no matter who they are and whatever they're dealing with, whether an unexpected forum attendee or a difficult grandmother or moving to the Moon. I had a really great time reading Spirits Abroad and I hope other people will too! Zen has helpfully listed where you can buy the book. (I also like that the publisher's manifesto at the front of the book says "italics are a form of apology" re: italicising non-English words.)
Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu (Tor: 2014)
I got an ARC. I'm glad: it's an interesting science fiction novel. It has several narrative threads. Young scientist Ye Wenjie falls afoul of political upheaval in the 1960s and is assigned to a mysterious base where she works for the following decades. In roughly the present day, scientist Wang Miao receives mysterious, scientifically impossible threats if he continues his nanomaterials research. In the game of Three Body, Wang observes -- and contributes to solving -- the problem of sustaining life on a strange planet with three suns and periods of atmospheric chaos and stability.
The game segments most interested me, as well as Ye Wenjie's career: she's a compelling character, even if I strongly dislike the conclusion that humans will never redeem themselves and require outside intervention. It shifts responsibility away from us. It denies the possibility of hard work and change. Ye's experiences are pretty awful, so her conclusion is not that surprising, and fortunately the book points out the biggest problem with the idea of benevolent intervention. Back to the game segments. They, like the rest of the book, involve a lot of science! It's no surprise that they involve the titular three-body problem, which is especially fun when there's a planet added to the system and life has to evolve on the planet. I liked this aspect the best. It's incredible to imagine life surviving in such harsh conditions -- the sort of what-if I want in science fiction about space. (De-hy-drate...) It's a bit sly in places (the in-game personae of at least two prominent Western scientists are played by Chinese gamers -- one of them Wang), and fun to follow to its conclusion(s), which helps to compensate for Wang's lack of personality.
The prose is nothing to remark on and while there are varied female characters, there are also unnecessary moments such as a young woman being described as "so soft that the bullet hardly slowed down as it passed through [her body]". Right then. It's very het and binary-gendered. Some of the footnotes explaining cultural references are cringingly obvious, but I'm sure this is an impossible balance to strike. Fortunately the unnecessary moments are only moments, not the tone of the book: it's scientific/hard science fiction that doesn't think science/the future is 100% white men! More than just that, it's fun science and I liked a lot of the story. I look forward to the second and third books in the trilogy.
Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree (Angry Robot: 2010)
Free at WFC 2013. A secondary world fantasy novel I enjoyed sinking into: lots of worldbuilding (bones! ghosts! creepy tree!), a good story and a gender set-up that's not out of a privileged man's erroneous wet dream about the past.
Communities called Orders live around the Tree that takes up almost an entire island. Almost all children go on Schools: walking around the Tree, learning as they go, for the five years it takes for a full circumnavigation. Their teachers are young women, who each typically stay in one of the Orders along the way, ensuring genetic diversity. Men rarely move between Orders after school-age, instead enjoying power within their Orders, such as choosing the young women to be teachers. Women move between Orders as teachers, enjoying a privileged welcome into each Order and the freedom to choose where they stay (for the most part). Often, older women walk too. In all but the worst Order, women have access to contraception, their consent is respected and they are free to stay or move on as they choose.
This set-up does a decent job at disrupting the gendered assumptions of most secondary world fantasy, although it doesn't quite dismantle and rebuild. The (most) women = mothers thread was strong, although a mother can walk away around the Tree without her children. Men hold what I'd generally call 'political power'. There's an echo of our gender imbalances. The echo isn't strong enough to put me off. There are gay/lesbian characters (though the main character is relentlessly heterosexual), but I wish the book had reached the Order where many of the gay and lesbian people of the island live (or, say, normalised non-heterosexuality more so they don't have to go to that one Order). It's thoroughly binary-gendered. Walking the Tree isn't everything I'd like to see in secondary world fantasy, but it's a decent read and I'm glad I got it.