I’ll be frank: this week’s Stack Overflow is a bit of a mish-mash, because I’m still catching up from my family trip and also prepping for Gen Con this week. Jet lag hit me harder than before and I’ve been in this “tired, but can’t sleep” mode for nearly two weeks: I’ve gotten some reading done, but not much writing. I was planning to plow through a big stack of comics and novels I’ve read in the past few months that haven’t fit into a particular theme … but I ran out of time, so instead I’ll focus on these four novels. Maybe I’ll get to those graphic novels for next week.
I’ve got two science fiction novels, and two speculative dystopian novels.
An authoritarian empire in space, ancient technology left behind by a mysterious civilization, and an entire artificial galaxy—that’s what you’ll find in Creation Machine. The Spin is a galaxy filled with wondrous technological achievements, though nobody knows who built it or why. Now, however, one of their machines has been discovered—and the whole universe wants a piece of it. Fleare Hass is our heroine: the estranged daughter of Viklun Hass, the iron-fisted ruler of the Hegemony. Locked up after joining the rebellion, she’s still nurturing hope that there’s a way to stick it to dear old dad. There are other actors as well, including the slimy (not literally) Alameche, a man who delights in cruelty and is constantly looking for ways to advance himself. One of my favorites is Muz, one of Fleare’s rebels and former lover, who was turned into a cloud of nanobots after an unfortunate accident. The story is sprawling and wide-ranging, with conspiracies and cover-ups; it has both political maneuverings and action-packed battles, and I had a fun time reading it. It’s the first of a planned trilogy, so I’m curious where things go next.
GeekMom Rebecca Angel wrote about the Binti trilogy a while back, but I finally got around to reading it this year in a collected edition that also includes a new story, Binti: Sacred Fire. The story takes place between the first and second books. Binti is from the Himba tribe, and her people are looked down on by the Khoush, even though they rely on Himba technology. She is the first from her tribe to be accepted to Oomza University, the most prestigious school in the galaxy—but the Himba are very much tied to the earth, and her family doesn’t feel she should go.
That premise sets up a theme that carries throughout the books about identity and home: Binti goes to Oomza, but is radically changed by an encounter on the way there. As somebody who never quite fit in at home, she ends up being an oddity at school as well. One of the things I loved about this series is the way that Okorafor weaves together aspects of her Nigerian heritage with futuristic sci-fi. Even though the story is set in the far future, the Himba women still cover their skin and hair with otjize, a red clay made from the earth; when Binti travels to Oomza, the otjize plays a big part in the events that play out, and when she runs out she struggles to make more. It’s an important piece of her identity and helps connect her to her home.
The stories also deal with expectations: Binti’s family and tribe have expectations for her; her professors at Oomza University make assumptions based on what she looks like and where she’s from; the Khoush don’t see her worth. And on top of it all, there’s a lot of amazing, fun science fiction. Binti travels to space inside a creature that’s kind of like a giant space shrimp. Everyone in the galaxy seems to use a device called an astrolabe, kind of a successor to a smartphone, though it contains information about your entire life. And there’s a whole storyline involving the Desert People, another tribe that even the Himba deride as uncivilized and crazy: Binti discovers there’s more to them than she had suspected.
I found the Binti trilogy very engaging and fun to read (though I was bothered a little by some errors and typos I came across in this edition), and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a good sci-fi book. I’d been meaning to read Nnedi Okorafor for a while, and don’t have any good excuse for why I hadn’t gotten around to it yet, and I’m glad I’ve finally experienced her writing. I’ll need to look up some more of her books soon.
I mentioned The Warehouse in my “Current Stack” section last week, but I’ve since finished reading it. It’s set in an indeterminate near-future, a time when our economy has dried up and left a lot of people without good options, and climate change has made it impossible for people to spend much time outside. One of the only options left to Americans is Cloud, an online retailer that perfected drone delivery, and then managed to push government policy in many ways that benefited its growth, all in the name of helping consumers and employees. Getting a job with Cloud means having both employment and housing, though it turns out to be closer to indentured servitude than a dream job: you’re constantly being rated on your performance, and if you fall to 1 star, you lose your job.
The story focuses on three characters: Gibson Wells, the founder of Cloud who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; Zinnia, a corporate spy who has been hired to break into Cloud; and Paxton, whose business was destroyed by Cloud’s pressures for ever-lower prices. Gibson’s portions are told through his blog posts as he recounts the origins of Cloud, gives hints about who will succeed him as CEO, and describes all the ways that he’s worked to make the world a better place. He’s got a down-home, no-nonsense sort of voice—I pictured him played by Sam Elliott—but behind his rose-colored depiction of Cloud, you also see how its predatory practices have contributed to the state of the economy.
Zinnia is more of a cipher, and is a bit like a super-spy from a movie: she can fight, hack, and seduce, and she sees caring for another person as a weakness she can’t afford. She’s trying to track down the discrepancy between the amount of power each Cloud facility uses and the solar and wind farms that supposedly power it.
Finally, there’s Paxton—I think he’s probably meant to be the everyman that we experience the world through. He’d invented a kitchen gadget, and Cloud was the biggest source of orders, but they kept driving the price down until he couldn’t survive. Now, he’s resorted to working at Cloud as a security officer, and he’s just hoping for a chance to confront Gibson Wells face-to-face before it’s too late. Zinnia and Paxton, who both join Cloud in the same cohort, form a relationship, though they have very different perspectives on it.
Cloud reminds me a bit of The Circle by Dave Eggers (which I wrote about in this Stack Overflow column): the employees are all required to wear a CloudBand, a smart watch that serves as their keys, wallet, health tracker, and communication—and also happens to track their location at all times. The employees aren’t quite as cult-like about the wonders of Cloud as those in the Circle, because they know how awful the working conditions are, but they’re just as trapped by the system.
I didn’t always enjoy all of the writing: it felt at times that the author was trying too hard to show how enlightened he was about race and gender, but it seems a bit of a trope to have a woman who is just interested in no-strings-attached sex and a man who just wants to settle down and wants to snuggle more. So there’s that. But I did enjoy exploring the world that Hart built around this mega-retailer to end all retailers: it seems exaggerated as a whole, but a lot of the pieces of it had the ring of truth. And Gibson’s patronizing voice, the hard-working American who just knows what’s best for the country, is really well-written. You can hear echoes of that same voice in many politicians now.
It’s not a particularly optimistic view of our future, but it’s a good cautionary tale. Up until recently, I always included Amazon affiliate links in my posts—it’s a way for us to make a little money writing for a blog that is largely a labor of love, and I don’t fault our writers for doing so. At the same time, I became a little uncomfortable with it: Amazon offers convenience and low prices, but those costs are still borne by somebody. The Warehouse digs into those costs. If you enjoy dystopian fiction and you don’t mind characters who sometimes fall into trope territory, The Warehouse is a wild ride.
The Passengers story centers around Britain’s near-future switch to fully autonomous vehicles, and the secretive government inquests that investigate fatal accidents. One morning, eight passengers find themselves trapped in their vehicles, while a mysterious hacker tells them that they’ve been rerouted to a new destination, where they will die in a matter of hours. The inquest jury room is also hacked, and the five jurors are tasked with an impossible decision: they must decide which passenger will live—the rest will all be sent to the same location in a massive collision. On top of it all, the hacker is broadcasting all of it live on social media, giving the entire internet a vote in the matter as well.
The book is fairly sensational: each of the passengers is presented first in a good light, and then an ugly secret is revealed, and then some mitigating circumstances are revealed, so that the audience (which includes the jurors and the rest of the internet, not to mention the reader) is yanked back and forth a bit emotionally. It felt just a little too emotionally manipulative to me. The members of the jury—four people from various governmental organizations, plus a citizen summoned for jury duty—are also flawed in various ways, but especially Jack Larsson, a cabinet member who was instrumental in switching Britain to driverless cars.
The book raises some questions about how autonomous vehicles can be programmed to make difficult decisions in the case of an approaching accident—basically an AI trolley problem—but it feels more like it’s done for shock value rather than really trying to get at those answers. It also sends up our obsession with social media: Cadman, a social media whiz brought in to take the temperature of the internet, seems appropriately named, as he is more concerned about breaking records with trending hashtags than the lives of the passengers. And though the security of driverless cars could be a real concern, the hacker in this story is one of those omnipotent villains: he knows everything about everyone, and can control cameras and cars and drones with the touch of a key. He has everyone completely under his control, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do but play along with his sick game.
And it is a twisted game, with some horrible outcomes. I did find it a bit frustrating that the two women from India and Somalia seemed to be there just to have some victims to kill off early on—their stories are apparently not as worth telling as these others, who are presumably native Brits. And I would say that the people in the jury, particularly Jack, seem a bit over the top as well … except that perhaps a power-hungry politician who goes off the rails when his secrets are uncovered isn’t such a stretch these days.
Reading The Passengers was like a cross between a reality TV show and a car crash: it was hard to look away, but I also felt a bit sickened by it. I think I was expecting it to be a little more about how driverless vehicles could fail or be hacked, and not as much about building up drama because nearly everyone involved was secretly terrible. I wasn’t quite as pulled into this world as I was with The Warehouse, but it did keep me wondering how it would all turn out.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column.