Newsletter May 20, 2021
Hail Mary Project Review! Three apocalypses. Plus Book Reviews, Promotions and more.
The Lampworks Lamplighter SF & Fantasy News & Reviews
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I’ve recently read three hard science fiction tales set in near-present time, centered around an existential threat to Earth, and featured a desperate space flight to seek a salvation. Those three were The Hail Mary Project by Andy Weir, We Are Legion by Dennis Taylor, and The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. (Hail Mary and Calculating Stars are reviewed this month; We are Legion was reviewed last month.)
While the three stories share a theme and a structure of sorts, I was struck by their very different viewpoints on cooperating and competition. We Are Legion portrayed humanity as bickering, backstabbing competitors (rivals, bitter enemies) who would do anything to get themselves and their particular group off the dying Earth. The aliens all varied from suspicious up to xenocidally hostile. Practically the only decent person in the story was Bob (and he was narrating). In this story, the disaster was human-made, while it was an external event in the other two.
In Hail Mary, by contrast, the worldwide cooperation to find a solution is astonishing. Almost all interests (except the patent lawyers) are set aside to save humanity. Research is international, the crew is international, the launch vehicle is Russian. This is humanity at its finest.
Calculating Stars is somewhere between the extremes. Cold War differences are still present, to be set aside with difficulty. Race relations and gender differences keep some of the most talented people from contributing, holding back the effort. Slow advances are made on those issues throughout the series, but it’s a work in progress just like today.
It’s a choice we make, often unconsciously, as we create our characters and set our plots. Are people as a whole altruistic or selfish? Are they more often kind or cruel? I lean more towards the kind and altruistic myself, though if you don’t have some of the opposite kinds, you don’t have much conflict in your stories. Too often the real conflict is against inertia and apathy: “I can’t save the world this week. I’ve got take the kids to soccer practice and then spend the evening doing my taxes.”
Monsieur Resche is an art thief. He has crossed a bridge into a quaint town, a town that disappeared from Switzerland four centuries ago. Magic is possible there; in fact, all the magic that our world once had has ended up there. A precisely tied knot, an exactly folded paper, or a cunningly drawn figure can unlock wonders and horrors.
Resche has a mind that lets him excel at this new craft, but that brings him to the notice of powerful mages who play a great game of geomancy with tiles the size of countries. And when he looks for the bridge back to Geneva, it is nowhere to be found.
The Fractalist priest offers aid that may not be what it appears, the Jeweler has intricate schemes, the newspaper editor has taken an interest, the Astromancer had good advice before she was murdered, and Resche’s cat just makes wisecracks.
Knots is a compelling story filled with unexpected characters, plot twists, literal location twists, mystery, and redemption.
Have Kindle Unlimited? Read Knots for free on Amazon!
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What We‘re Reading
Visit our archive of reviews and recommendations on the Books We Like page of our website. You‘ll find over one hundred recommendations in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Non Fiction.
The Hail Mary Project
Ryland Grace wakes up on a small spaceship with two dead bodies, and wonders why. He was a junior high science teacher, not an astronaut. His mind has turned to mush after an induced coma that’s lasted years. Gradually he remembers: he is here at Tau Ceti to save the Earth from disaster.
This is from Andy Weir, the author who wrote The Martian, the best seller and hit movie. In this book he exceeds the benchmark of his first novel, and redeems himself from his somewhat disappointing second novel Artemis. It has the lone survivor, the desperate odds, and the constant innovation to survive one setback after another that was the hallmark of The Martian, and then it kicks it up a notch.
This may be the most entertaining SciFi book of the year. Make room at the top of your reading list and add this book right away.
Buy on Bookshop.org amazon
The Calculating Stars
Mary Robinette Kowal
In a slight variation from our history, a meteor lands on the East Coast of the US in 1952, wiping out most of the coastal cities. Elma York, a WASP pilot, mathematician, and lightning calculator, has the good fortune to be on vacation that day, and so survives the blast the destroyed her home.
Elma soon realizes that the climate will change rapidly and that humanity’s chance of survival depends on colonizing other planets. Kickstarting the space program a decade earlier than our timeline, they race to get people in orbit, then to the moon, then Mars. There’s one trouble: brilliant though Elma is, she’s a woman, and people don’t believe women can be astronauts.
The book explores how the space program could get off the ground before electronic computers, before miniaturization, and before the other advances that seemed necessary to us before an existential threat made it a do-or-die proposition. Just as much it explores how women, people of color, and people of other cultures have to fight to contribute and to have their contributions recognized.
Buy on Bookshop.org amazon
Catfishing on Catnet
One of Steph Taylor’s few escapes is CatNet, a place to share pictures of cats and socialize with other teenagers. Steph isn’t allowed to really make friends outside, since her mother picks them up and moves to a new town every few months, telling Steph that her abusive ex-husband is tracking them.
CheshireCat is the benevolent moderator of CatNet, who seems to always be online, always available, and capable of finding out nearly everything. CheshireCat may not be a person at all, or at least not a human-type person. When CheshireCat starts helping the teenagers with some real-world hijinks, Steph’s cover is blown and they’re on the run again. But this time she has friends and a very capable mentor. But CheshireCat has secrets and a different kind of vulnerability, and the friends have to help CheshireCat as well.
This is a story of friendship, belonging, helping out, and winning causes. It explores what it means to be a person, and why it’s important to fight for the inclusion of everyone, no matter how different. Plus it’s just downright fun.
Buy on Bookshop.org amazon
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Sixteen-year-old Abigail Masters has been tormented with nightmares–realistic and terrifying dreams that keep her awake at night. But, somehow, they don’t feel like dreams, but more like things lurking in the back of her mind, like events she can almost remember as if they were her own experiences. A chance meeting with a mysterious fortune-teller at her aunt’s rural hometown awakens in her a shocking realization: her dreams were, in fact, not dreams, but actual memories of a previous life, when she was the renowned sorceress Angelica Bennett.
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Bartholomew Roberts is retiring, leaving his son in command of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It is his first command, and it may be his last. The Alliance will do everything in their power to ensure that he fails. Failure in the Alliance is not tolerated. If Doc Roberts is lucky, they will hang him. If not, he will be sent to a reeducation center, mind-wiped, and a control collar will be placed around his neck, then he will be paraded in the streets of Avalon’s capital city, as an example of what happens to people who fail in their missions. He can’t afford to fail!
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