Moving Forward, Together

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So, I know you’re a just about as tired of my bi-annual “sorry I haven’t posted in a while” posts as I am. But I am sorry, and I am trying to figure out how I can make this better for you and for me.

I’m thinking that I’d like to split my posts between three topics I enjoy:

  1. Writing Craft – posts about how to improve your writing, posts about people who write well (and why) etc.
  2. Broadening Horizons – focusing on marginalized writers or characters through book recommendations, reviews, and literary analysis, especially regarding Sci-Fi and speculative fiction
  3. Flash Fiction spotlights – sharing my own and other’s flash fiction pieces (under 1500 words) to get people reading and share new writers with all of you

These regular topics will be peppered with posts on my personal publishing journey, hopefully with some insight that will help those of you who are hoping to embark on a similar path.

So. I will be working on a series of posts of my own that fit within this framework. But I will also be seeking guest posts from book reviewers, authors, enthusiasts, and critics from all stages in their career. If you have something you’d like to share with “Sarah Does Sci-Fi” please do (you can comment here, message me on FB, or email me at scj3ns3n@gmail.com)

I’d like this page to operate as a cooperative of writers moreso than just a space for my own thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to suggest post ideas, too, even if you don’t feel qualified to write them! What do you want to see in this space?

 

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Book Review: Albert Perkins and the Lost City (The Tau Bootes Chronicles, book 1) by Lazarus Gray

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I haven’t done a book review in a really long time. I honestly hardly have time to read these day. But I just finished reading Albert Perkins and the Lost City, the debut novel by indie author Lazarus Gray. I’m so glad I made time for this book!

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by an indie read in a long time, and I’m thrilled to recommend it to you today. Albert Perkins is a quick, action packed read that will take you from the deepest desert of the Australian outback and to the furthest reaches of outer space. The combination may sound strange, but Gray has drawn it up with an expert hand. Albert Perkins is an aborigine meteorologist who, with his companions, manages to survive a deadly earthquake only to find that the adventure is just beginning. They embark on a mission to save mankind from themselves (not to mention the notorious Grays, no relation to the author).

 

Gray’s writing is reminiscent of a modern Jules Verne. His attention to detail is impeccable, and the science that back up this fascinating story is both well-researched and well-presented. But what I think I loved most about this book is how kind-hearted it is. It’s uncommon to find such a cast of lovable, relatable characters—people who genuine just want to do what is best and to make the world a better place. There is conflict, of course, and lots of action. Yet Gray manages to maintain a pureness of spirit that is so refreshing, particularly in contemporary science fiction writing.

 

Albert Perkins and the Lost City would be an excellent entry point to those who are new to the genre. The writing is very accessible, the science is both believable and easy to understand, and it hits on many key themes within SF writing—alien life, conspiracy theories, natural disasters, the failings of modern civilization—and it brings with it an optimism and positivity that is much rarer. I also loved the unique focus on aborigine culture and spirituality. Whether you are a sci-fi buff or beginner, you will be well-rewarded by making time for this book.

 

Congratulations on a great debut, Lazarus Gray. All in all, it was a fun, refreshing read. I look forward to seeing more of you in the future!

Calling all Reviewers!

Looking for a summer read?
Looking for a summer read?

I’m looking for some sci-fi and spec fic fans to review my new novel, The Timekeepers’ War. If you’re looking to add another book to your summer reading and think you’d enjoy a little post-apocalyptic adventure, please get in touch! I’m looking for honest, thoughtful reviews. No fluff! If you don’t like it, I’d rather read a constructive review on why than a fake positive review 😉 Thanks in advance for your interest!

SF Book Review: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin

It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review here, so I’m going to try to kill three birds with one stone. That is, if you believe you can kill something by just loving it too much… I hope Jemisin is resilient, because there is going to be a lot of love coming her way.

I cannot say enough good things about N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This isn’t going to be a proper, detailed review because I simply read them all in one great insatiably hungry sitting. Now, I can’t remember all of the details that made me love these books; all that remains is the hazy afterglow of book-lust in all its warm and fuzzy glory. One of the hazards of binge reading, I suppose.

Jemisin is a recent discovery for me. I stumbled upon a review of The Broken Kingdoms by the Little Red Reviewer, and in an uncharacteristic act of blind faith, immediately bought the entire Inheritance Trilogy as well as the first two books in the Dreamblood trilogy. What can I say. I’m a sucker for well written reviews and pretty book covers.

Jemisin did not disappoint. Not only did she not disappoint, she blew every expectation that I had out of the water. She is everything that a great science/speculative fiction or fantasy writer should be, in my opinion. She is everything that I hope to be, some day, as a writer. I thought I was getting close, but Jemisin has shown me exactly how far I can still push myself. And I love her for it.

I’m not going to tell you the plotline of these books. You can look that up easily enough. What I am going to tell you is that Jemisin does three things marvellously well, and I believe these three things are essential to good, progressive SF&F lit.

1) Women: Jemisin writes female main characters who are main characters that happen to be female. She does not do stereotypes. She does not do caricatures. She writes full, well-rounded, interesting female characters who are as tough and vulnerable as they need to be. They are human, even when they are gods. This is also true for her male characters, although I would argue this is less of an anomaly in today’s fiction. Jemisin creates balance and believability with her characters without resorting to age old tropes and conventions.

2) Gender and Sexuality: I will never understand why, when a writer creates a completely original and unique world, they insist on conforming to heteronormative social constructs. Jemisin is not afraid to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality in her writing, she uses ambiguity to great effect, creating complexity and tension in her characters’ relationships that would not exist otherwise. And I’m not talking about trendy lesbians, either. She writes male characters who slip with ease from raw masculinity into sumptuous femininity. She writes about love between men, and the complications of having both male and female lovers. She deals with power and dominance in ways that rise above gender. And it’s hot. I dare you to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and tell me otherwise.

3) Race: Like issues of gender and sexuality, race is another oft overlooked aspect in SF&F literature. The genre is notoriously whitewashed; the most popular SF writers tend to be white men who write about white men. This is true in all literature, but seems to be a particularly stubborn reality in SF. As more and more female writers and/or writers of colour are taking off in literary fiction, SF seems stuck in the mud. But this is the genre that should be the most able to accommodate writers and characters of all backgrounds. There are literally NO RULES when you’re writing SF. You get to make it all up, top to bottom. Why the hell do we insist on continuing to read and write predominantly white characters? Jemisin does not feel compelled to follow this formula, obviously. And she shows exactly how easy it is to make the shift. I honestly didn’t really think much about the fact that she created a world with many races (which were not sullied by “real world” stereotyping/exoticising) as I was reading. It was after I had finished that I thought, “Holy shit, that was refreshing!” Now that she has shown me how it can be done, she’s given me new goals for diversity in my own writing.

So regardless of where your tastes lie as a science fiction or fantasy reader, I urge you to pick up N.K. Jemisin the next time you’re looking for a fresh new voice. I honestly believe there is something for everyone in The Inheritance Trilogy and Jemisin has something to teach us all, as readers and writers, about how easy and effective it is to push those boundaries. I truly hope she will help to usher in a new age of SF fandom now that she has thrown open the door for those of us trying to follow in her footsteps.

SF Review: The Forever War by Joe Haledeman.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman


4/5 Stars

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a short but sweet military sci-fi masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece, of course, is that it’s not really about military sci-fi. It’s about people. It’s about war and the devastation and alienation suffered by those who are fighting, compared to the world they leave behind. It is about the futility of warfare on a cosmic scale (and, therefore, on a more local one). It is about how we live to die, and how we can still find room for aliveness. Does that make any sense?

Is it the best military sci-fi ever written? How the hell do I know? I can only read so many books. I think a lot of people are touting it as such without having read nearly enough (which would be all) other contenders. In my experience, it’s a solid front-runner. But there are hundreds of thousands of books out there that I haven’t read, and will never read. And which many people will never read. Maybe one of these unknowns, or lesser-knowns, should really claim that “best ever” title.

There are enough reviews out there to give you a decent idea of the plot of Forever War. I’m not into plot summary. But I did enjoy this book. Almost every aspect of it. Even the anachronistic horror surrounding homosexuality, because at least Haldeman tried. He was able to envision a time in which homosexuality was normalized. And although his protagonist, born in the 1970’s, never outgrows the prejudices of his era, those born afterwards see heterosexuality as the deviant behavior and turn “modern” ideas on their heads. In fact, if the book hadn’t ended with so many of the homosexual characters choosing to be brainwashed into becoming heterosexual at the end (seemed like Haldeman’s way of making these characters “likable” as opposed to “repulsive”), I would have given The Forever War a five star rating.

But I love Haldeman’s vision of war in space and the conundrums which arise with light-speed travel. The notion of a Forever War is frighteningly realistic (in my admittedly unscientific mind) in its futility. Never have I read a book which made me question human nature’s apparent inclination towards violence so thoroughly. And Halderman’s solution to our humanity is equally terrifying. The Forever War is definitely worth a read. And it will be a quick one. I promise!

SF Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2/5 Stars

 

Let me say first that my rating of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is through an “enjoyment as reader” lens, rather than a comment on its historical and cultural value. There is no doubt that Brave New World is a hugely influential and important piece of literature. It crosses the boundaries drawn around it by the Science Fiction genre and has been accepted as a classic work of English Literature. And there are a lot of valid reasons for this to have happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book—the broken and disjointed viewpoints worked to build a comprehensive setting and provided us with all the background we needed without coming across as an info dump (which it certainly was). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the readability does not. The characters reveal themselves to be little more than shallow “place holders” for Huxley’s vision. Brave New World is an allegory, sure. But it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these puppets as they are pulled from one predictable scene to the next. Part of their banality is obviously intentional, Huxley is emphasising the lack of individuality and independent thought in his dystopian London. By this rationale, we would expect something more from John Savage. But he too is a puppet. A puppet inexplicably reciting Shakespeare with no linguistic or socio-cultural reference for what it actually means.

As we switch perspectives from Bernard Marx to John Savage, my compassion for the characters actual wanes further. Bernard is a flawed, though, oddly sympathetic character. Of all of the characters I actually felt I understood him, even if he was a cad. Lenina is vapid and pointless. Helmholz may have been interesting, but we’ll never know as he never does more than lurk at the periphery of the story. Savage is all misplaced teenage angst and over-the-top romanticism, but he translates all of his experiences through the words of Shakespeare so that I got the feeling he wasn’t really present in his own story, merely acting out a role in a play he didn’t understand. The only time John Savage interested me was during his debate with Mustapha Mond, when Huxley puts his vision to the test.

Huxley’s take interest in eugenics is surely a response to the emergence of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. The twist on pronatalism speaks to the 1930’s population concerns regarding low fertility rates during the depression era. The two combined, and taken to extremes, are in essence a recipe for great dystopian SF. Had the narrative kept up with the ideas, this would be a fabulously good read. But the problem with readability was, for me, compounded by the Huxley’s problematic treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This isn’t an undergrad paper, so I’m not going to go into ridiculous detail, but I will highlight some of the issues I had with this novel:

On Gender: Ya, I know. It was written in the 1930’s and I really shouldn’t expect anything more. But all of the female characters in this book are completely insipid. All of the characters who challenge ideas in this Brave New World are male. Bernard, Helmholz, Savage, and Mond. That is it. The only possible exception to this is Lenina’s tendency to “fall in love,” first with Henry Foster and later with John Savage. Linda challenges some ideas, but not by anything that she does, merely by the fact that she gets fat and old and therefore ugly. Not exactly screaming examples of female agency.

On Sexuality:In this world of required promiscuity and universal sterility, there is not an inkling of anything other than heteronormative relationships. Even when the goal of sex is just “fun” there is no room for bi-sexual or homosexual attraction, except maybe by accident during a compulsory orgy. Again, ya, I know. Written in the 1930’s. But it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of. In some circles it was even recognized and accepted (albeit in a limited sort of way). Huxley’s hetero world just comes across as unimaginative at best and cowardly at worst.

On Class: There’s a lot going on in Brave New World if you are interested in class issues. Huxley’s dystopia abides by a rigid, genetically engineered and enforced, caste hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In many ways, Brave New World is a scathing commentary on American-style capitalism; consumption is the name of the game. However, in Huxley’s world of supply and demand, there are those who demand and those who supply. Alpha’s and Beta’s go about their lives doing the “important” work in sciences (mind you, they aren’t actually allowed to think for themselves) and they happily spend their money on stuff, they are the demand. The lower castes exist solely to supply the labour to fulfill these demands. They are genetically engineered to not want or expect anything more than their station requires of them. And they are happier for it. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that if poor/uneducated people would accept their positions and quit trying to rise above their stations, they too could be happy. [This flies in the face of the capitalist fantasy of the “self-made man,” and seems contradictory to Huxley’s other points against the ideology… colour me confused.] Furthermore, the idea that castes are somehow naturally ordered based on intelligence irks me. Granted, there is some social conditioning involved to keep the Deltas and Epsilons content, but the suggestion appears to be that all you need to do to create a happy slave caste is kill a few brain-cells in the embryo stage.

On Race: Ahhh, racism. This was the biggest issue for me. Racist imagery occurs repeatedly throughout this text and it repeatedly grated on my nerves. A pair of Delta-Minus twins are described as “small, black, and hideous,” (Pg. 55) they look at Bernard with “bestial derision,” (Pg. 56). Later, another group is described as “almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas “ (Pg. 138), or another as “dark dolichocephalic male twins…[with faces like]a thin, beaked bird-mask” (Pg. 183). Now, I should not that there are Deltas and Epsilons that are described as sandy and red-haired, but they are never dwelt upon with such horror as the “dark” ones. Also, it is only the “dark” workers who are described in animalistic language (beastial, beaked). And none of the Alphas or Betas are ever described as dark; they are all Caucasian variants.

Since the caste structures are achieved through eugenics there are two possible scenarios which would account for this: a) dark-skinned embryos are purposefully chosen for the Delta, Epsilon and Gamma castes and not for Alpha and Beta, or b) stunting the development of an embryo somehow creates dark-skinned outcomes. Neither of these possibilities makes me feel any better about what Huxley is trying to say.

Further racist images include the Indians on the reservation, where the once-fair Linda is polluted by her sexual relationships with the dark skinned “savages.” John Savage, Linda’s blonde haired fair-skinned son, appears to be instinctually repulsed by this. When he comes upon Linda and her lover Popé, John describes the scene thusly: “…white Linda and Popé almost black beside her…[a] dark hand on her breast, and one of the plaits of his long hair lying across her throat, like a black snake trying to strangle her,” (Pg. 114). He is so revolted by this that he attempts to kill his mother’s lover.

Later, there is the “feely” that Lenina takes John Savage to. The film is about a love affair between “a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female,” (Pg. 146). The black man suffers a blow to the head and develops an unnatural and uncivilized attraction to the blonde woman, kidnaps and rapes her, before she is saved by “three handsome Aphas” (Pg. 147). Tellingly, the gigantic black man is not given a caste, signifying that even before his injury he is outside of civilized society.

Likely there are more examples, but I’ll leave that up to the scholars…

Now, I’m not going to say they no one should read Brave New World because it’s racist/classist/sexist. Despite these shortcomings, Huxley’s dystopic vision is interesting. Indeed, because it’s dystopic once could argue that Huxley is not advocating racist/classist/sexist views, but speaking against them (I would argue that you are wrong, but it might be fun anyways).

These issues did, however, disrupt my enjoyment of the novel for reading’s sake. And that is what I have based my review on. I have never studied Brave New World in an academic setting. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have, who may be able to enlighten me on any points that I have missed or misinterpreted. I am essentially arguing in a vacuum here. But for now, I’m going to go with a whopping two stars. Brave New World, “It was okay.”

Adventures in Publishing: My First Amazon/Goodreads review!

Cold Metal War: a novella
Cold Metal War: a novella

Okay people. I need to toot my own horn a bit here. I just got my first Amazon review (it is also on Goodreads) for my novella Cold Metal War. And it’s not even by someone I know! You’ll obviously just have to take my word for that. But I swear it’s true. I’m just going to copy the review here, but please check it out in all it’s glory on Amazon as well. While you’re there, you can pick up your own copy! You’ll make my day, probably my week, if you do. Here it is:

 

“S. Jensen’s Cold Metal War tells the story of ValCora Mortlocke, Captain of the Extreme Terrain Specialist with the Canadian Armed Forces, who has been reluctantly pulled out of retirement for one final assignment, much to the disappointment of her partner, Len.

I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting when I decided to read this short story—generally, I don’t read short fiction because I don’t find it nearly as easy to get into. Thankfully, Cold Metal War absolutely does not have that problem. Not only was the characterization fantastic, but the story and setting were also perfect. This story had a distinctly Orwellian feel to me, which is definitely a compliment. From the pacing, to the dark nature of the story, to the abbreviated language (which came across as natural and perfectly suited for the world in which this story takes place), everything about this story drew me in and painted a very clear and vivid picture of this near-future world.

The pacing was fantastic and it really kept me reading till the end, but I definitely think the strongest point of this story was the characters—especially Cora. This is the kind of story that reminds me of what great fiction should look like—and highlights what’s lacking with a lot of other stories out there. Cora is strong, capable, and also flawed; the relationship between Cora and Len was poignant and believable—utterly relatable and perfectly plausible. Watching two people fall out of love is something that is hard to get right without seeming preachy or judgy, but this story nails it—and given the nature of the climax, it’s doubly impactful. Overall, the story really captured where these characters come from, what motivates them, and truly how they suffer and survive despite that suffering.

Do I wish it was longer? Yes, absolutely, but that’s only because I wanted to read more into the lives and world of these characters—this story feels and is utterly complete and it’s a testament to S. Jensen’s talent that I was left wanting more, but still feeling wholly satisfied and complete with the story. I honestly was blown away by this, the prose, the dialogue, the characters—everything adds up to a fantastic piece of fiction. If you are looking for a snappy, compelling piece of sci-fi leaning literature, you will love this story. I can’t wait to see what else S. Jensen publishes in the future and I eagerly await her new releases.”

Intrigued? I hope so. Grab a copy for yourself, it’ll be the best dollar you spent today! Thank you for your support 🙂