Friday, November 27, 2020

Short Book Reviews: The Collapse of All Worlds

 Driftwood, by Marie Brennan (Tachyon)

Consider a universe in which dying worlds slowly accrete together, colliding and compressing into a super-condensed Core. The aggregate is known as Driftwood, with the outer rings being less reduced in size, the inner ones mere fractions of their former selves. Each world operates according to its own rules; some have magic, others don’t; some have more than one sun, and so forth. No matter what the geography or culture, one constant remains: the desperate need to preserve memory and identity against the final, irreversible collapse.

This present volume comprises short fiction, some previously published, others original, loosely framed but eminently readable as stand-alone pieces. Overlapping worlds, occasional familiar place names, a historical timeline, and a charismatic recurring character enhance the cohesiveness of the collection. For me, though, the unifying factor was the shared experience, across cultures and personalities, of inevitable loss through change.

In “The Second Coming,” Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” But in the world of Driftwood, things fall into a center from which nothing emerges, not even the memory of what was once vital and precious. Yet despite the sadness, in the skillful storyteller hands of Marie Brennan, the stories move through compassion to hope, with many memorable moments along the way.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Jaydium Chapter 6 Now on Curious Fictions

 The next chapter of Jaydium is available FREE on Curious Fictions!

Jaydium, Chapter 6

By Deborah J. Ross
Apr 6, 2020 · 1,707 words · 7 minutes


Art by Vincent Di Fate.  Edit Art · Remove Art

From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe.

 An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →


Chapter 6

"What's happened?" Kithri gasped. "Where the bloody hell are we?"

Eril didn't answer. For the moment, he had no ready answers. Adrenalin thrilled through his veins, bringing his vision into sharp focus--every instrument on the scrubjet's panel, every tone of green filling the endless Plain, every brilliant mote of sunlight.

Silently they circled back and brought Brushwacker to a halt on the wide, wind-scoured ledge. In contrast to the debris-strewn entrance they'd flown into, here they found ample room here to land. Otherwise, the treeless purple-gray mountainside looked just like the one they'd left, but that was the only familiar feature of the landscape.

Kithri yanked the door open and jumped out, Eril at her heels. "The Plain, the dust--it's gone, all gone!" she cried. "Where--oh god, where did all those trees come from? Even the sky looks different, it's..." Her voice trailed off into a whisper. "It's so beautiful..."

Eril had to agree with her. Standing there open-mouthed and momentarily speechless, he could see for hundreds of miles, clear to where the dazzling azure sky melted with the forest in a thin, hazy line. From this height, the expanse of green resembled a felt-topped gaming board. He'd seen forests before, on Terillium where he was born and the two worlds where he saw ground action, but compared to this one they were nothing but pale, manicured gardens. He imagined tigers prowling the depths, hunted by spear-wielding woodmen who guarded the ruins of once fabulous cities, the last remains of a race of galaxy-spanning telepathic tyrants...

Argh! I must have seen too many bad tri-vids as a kid. But his nerves hummed with a

Friday, November 20, 2020

Short Book Reviews: The Murderbot Novel, Hooray!

 Network Effect, A Murderbot Novel, by Martha Wells (

Murderbot, beloved and intrepid SecUnit-with-a-soul, graced previous novellas (All Systems Red -- 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, Nebula Award for Best Novella, Locus Award, and New York Times and USA Today Bestseller -- Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy). Once an android Security Unit capable of ruthless and lethal efficiency but lacking volition, this particular unit managed to free themself from its governor module. Over the course of the earlier adventures, they gave themself a personal name (Murderbot) and developed relationships with humans and artificial intelligences alike, often filling empty time and educating themself about human behavior by watching space-based soap operas. One such AI from a previous novella was the snarky ship brain Perihelion, nicknamed ART. Now Murderbot has their own novel, with plenty of scope for reflection, development, and Things Going Seriously Splody. This current volume reunites Murderbot with their favorite and not-so-favorite humans, with ART, and with yet more seasons of ridiculously unrealistic serial dramas, all tied up with a burgeoning conflict between the exploitive Corporate Rim and pockets of egalitarian resistance.

As complete in itself and entertaining as Network Effect is, I highly recommend reading the previous works first. Themes run like seams of gold from one story to the next as Murderbot develops self-awareness, compassion, friendships, and purpose. This doesn’t happen instantly or easily. Growing up is hard, and even harder when one is a newly empowered consciousness in an organo-mechanical body capable of mass murder at a moment’s notice.

The struggle from being a mere tool to becoming a person often takes unexpected, poignant turns. I found some of the most touching moments to be when Murderbot realizes with confusion that while a few humans treat them as a person, the majority of others don’t, and Murderbot’s nurturing mentorship of another SecUnit. It’s said that the best way to solidify growth is to guide another, and this is true here. By giving SecUnit 3 the key to disabling its own governing module and then asking, “What do you want?” Murderbot may be igniting a robotic revolution. We’ll see where the next installment leads.

Needless to say, Network Effect grabbed me on the first page and held my rapt attention through plot twists, heart-pounding perils, and tender moments. The entire series is highly recommended.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Coping With Post-Election Stress

Earlier, I've posted suggestions for coping with despair and anger due to the magnitude of cumulative stresses of 2020. My series, In Troubled Times, began shortly after the 2018 elections. It turns out that most folks feel some degree of depression following a presidential election. Whether it's a let down from months of effort, disappointment in the results, fear for the future, or simple exhaustion, it's common. And there are steps we can take to recover from it.

In this article in The Conversation, Christopher Ojeda (Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee) offers the following suggestions:

  1. Focusing on healthy living will help restore your energy. Give yourself breaks from the news – and politics. Get enough sleep, eat well and get some exercise.

  2. Limit time on social media, or better yet, log off altogether for a few days. While it’s a way to connect with other people and share information, it’s also a key source of political misinformation, echo chamber conversations and polarized thinking. Overall, too much time on Facebook or Twitter can intensify anxiety and depression.

  3. Seek out social support. Talk to a trusted family member, friend, community leader – or find a social support group in your area. While that may be a bit more challenging in a pandemic, with the need for social distancing, it’s still possible to pick up the phone, get on a FaceTime call or set up a virtual appointment with a mental health professional. But also remember Goldilocks’ rule: Social isolation intensifies negative feelings, but so does spending too much time talking about problems.

  4. Affirm the value of democracy. Electoral loss is scary because it means having to contend with unwanted or disliked policies – and can create extreme polarization. But accepting loss is part and parcel of democracy. One way to bridge political differences is to join a group, such as Building Bridgers, which brings together citizens with diverse political views to engage in structured conversations.

  5. Once you’ve accepted the outcome, get involved with politics. Elections are just the start of what is a complex policymaking process. Participating is empowering and can help alleviate psychological distress. There are many ways to contribute, from contacting elected officials, protesting, running for local office or donating money to joining advocacy organizations or starting a political discussion group.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Remote Space Exploration Goes Wrong

Nucleation, by Kimberly Unger (Tachyon)

Kimberly Unger’s debut novel opens with a brilliant premise: space exploration, overcomes the vast distances involved by squirting “eenie” nanobots through very tiny wormholes. The eenies then follow their programming to construct whatever’s needed to explore and exploit their material surroundings, such as an alien moon. Included are particles that allow an Earth-based human operator and her navigator to remotely manipulate robotic devices. This is such a nifty set-up, I was hooked from the start. Almost immediately, however, Things Go Wrong. As fast as the eenies can build machinery, other nanobots “the Scale,” are tearing it down, and these are alien, not human-created nanobots – but to what purpose? Who programmed them? Where did they come from? And can our heroine stop the process before the alien bots gain access to inhabited planets and launch a major remodel of Earth?

The story quickly morphs into a murder mystery industrial espionage thriller space-gadget adventure with a most satisfying, intelligent, and determined female protagonist. Unger moves the reader from one vivid scene to the next, skillfully weaving in context and background. Even the most exotic, remotely accessed environments become accessible as we follow our characters from Earth to the far-flung stellar mining outposts. Corporate power structures and personal relationships emerge through action, so that even complex, subtle aspects are balanced with dynamic plot twists. Unger’s handling of breath-taking tension and reflection held my attention, page after page.

The verdict: A spectacular debut novel, at once thoughtful and exciting, packed with innovative ideas and plot twists. I’m looking forward to Unger’s next!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

[shameless self-promotion] Dashiell Harrison Reviews Collaborators


Here's another rave review for Collaborators, this time from Dashiell Harrison:

Collaborators follows the social and political fallout of first contact between an alien spaceship crewed by powerful and technologically advanced spacefarers and the population of farmers, poets, book-sellers, and diplomats on whose politically volatile planet the spacefarers land. The twist: the spacecraft is crewed by Terran humans from our solar system, and the unsuspecting natives are the alien population of the planet Bandar. The Terrans try to remain neutral, but the political situation in Chacarre is especially unstable, and they soon transition from visitors to invaders. The occupation of Chacarre quickly spawns an insurgency that turns friends to foes and lovers to enemies, and threatens to wipe out the entirety of the Terran expedition.

Collaborators immediately sets itself apart from standard first contact type stories by focusing primarily on the alien perspective. Human characters feature heavily in the first few chapters, but no sooner have we come to know and like the Terran astronauts than Ross subverts our expectations by whisking us out of the relative familiarity of the Terran-crewed spaceship and drawing us into the rich and complex world of the Bandari aliens as they grapple with the effects of Terran occupation on their already fractious society.

It is in the interactions between the Bandaris that Ross reveals a mastery of world building which rests firmly on her background as a biologist and international traveler. The Bandari feel simultaneously alien and human, with single-sex bodies that exhibit sexual dimorphism only when they are pregnant or in heat and a single-gender culture that is as exotic as their urban, clan-based society is familiar.

Ross strikes a neat balance between humor and thoughtfulness in the scenes when the Chacarran diplomat Ferro first meets with the Terran landing crew. How does one read emotion on the face of a creature without a crest? He wonders. What kind of civilization crews a spacecraft with pregnant personnel?

The characters - both Chacarran and Terran - come through vividly and sympathetically, each the hero of their own story, each painfully ill-equipped to understand the needs and customs of the aliens with which they are suddenly forced to interact.

At its core, Collaborators is a tragic tale of cultural misunderstandings and a compelling journey into how they can be fixed.

Here's where to order the book (ebook, trade paperback, and hardcover editions):

Amazon (ebook and trade paperback)
B & N (ebook, trade paperback, and hardcover/laminated cover) 
From your local bookstore, order via Ingram:
     Trade paperback: 9781952589003
     Hardcover/dust jacket: 9781952589027

Kobo (and other ebook retailers) 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Jaydium: Chapter 5 Free on Curious Fictions

Between the wildfires and evacuation, I've fallen behind in posting free chapters of Jaydium on Curious Fictions. With apologies, here's the next one!

Jaydium, Chapter 5

By Deborah J. Ross
Nov 6, 2020 · 1,761 words · 7 minutes


Art by Vincent Di Fate.  Edit Art · Remove Art

From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe

 An audio version is available for this chapter. Listen online →


Chapter 5

For a moment Eril considered telling her the truth, that he had as much chance of getting into the Corps without her as she had getting off Stayman without him. In the mood she was in, she'd probably tell him to stuff a comet up his pitouchee. The only thing to do was to keep his mouth shut and wait for another opening. He hoped he'd get one.

Kithri picked up the water bottle, took a long swallow and then dropped it, sputtering. She pointed down the tunnel.

As he followed her gesture, Eril's mouth went electrically dry. The last time he'd looked, the tunnel had been empty except for the two of them and the scrubjet. Now a man-shaped mist hovered in the middle of the 'hole, one moment diaphanous, then condensing into near solidity. In stark contrast to the rosy glow of the partly-sealed jaydium, it was a clear, untinted gray. Eril made out a bulbous head, two arms, and two splayed-out legs. He thought he saw markings on the head section, but they faded so quickly he could not be sure.

"What the hell is that?" Kithri whispered. "I've been running these tunnels for years, and I've never seen anything like it."

"Space ghost," he said, dredging his memory. "They're sighted along the old interstellar routes. There are only about six or seven documented cases known, never this close to a planet. By our best guess, they're relics of early attempts to exceed the speed of light. Residues of energy that just happen to be shaped like humans. They probably don't actually exist in three-space."

As he spoke, the figure descended until its feet seemed to touch the tunnel floor. For a moment it stood there, motionless. Then it began to move. First one leg and then the other stretched out and swung back as it drifted along in a mechanical parody of walking. 

Here's the link to the rest...

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Election 2020: A Love Letter From Ruth

   “We must criticize without wounding and debate without dehumanizing our opponents. Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

-- Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Friday, November 6, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Medical Rescue in White Space

 Machine (A White Space Novel), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga)

My introduction to Elizabeth Bear’s gorgeously inventive “White Space” novels was Ancestral Night (check our my review here). While I highly recommend be read first, Machine stands on its own. Both are huge books in the sense of sweeping plots and vast universe-building.

As before, Bear uses an unreliable but highly competent first-person narrator, in this case Brookllyn Jens, a rescue operations physician ex-cop with a chronic pain condition, who relies on self-administered drugs and an exosuit for support. Despite being estranged from her wife and daughter, she’s formed deep ties with her crew and shipmind, the AI of their rescue vessel. Chance places them first on the scene of a generation ship, drifting far from where it ought to be, with a much smaller ship of methane-breathing aliens attached to it. One mystery unfolds into the next: why are both crews in cryo sleep? What’s going on with the generation ship’s android/ship-computer peripheral unit? Matters take a turn for the much, much worse when one AI after another becomes infected with a meme virus, and all too quickly Llyn realizes there is no one she can trust but herself.

My reactions to this book were very much in line with how I felt about Ancestral Night, so I’ll paraphrase them here: The book is filled with action and reflection that say as much about the different ways of looking at self vs society as they do about Llyn’s journey of self-discovery. It’s all fascinating, if a bit sedate in places, until the pieces start coming together. Then the parts I had previously found slow made brilliant sense and I couldn’t put the book down until the exciting and immensely satisfying conclusion. I say this as an advisory to other readers to hang in there: every piece is there for a reason, and it is richly worth the ride. Machine is in turns dramatic, thoughtful, humorous, hopeful, and tragic. From the government ship name, I Really Don’t Have Time For Your Nonsense to the weird and wonderful aliens to everything I’ve mentioned above, the book is as much about how we balance individual choices with the greater good. Worth savoring, and re-reading, as is the previous book.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

In Anxious Times: Holding on to the Hope We Create

In 2016 and after, I wrote a series of posts called, "In Troubled Times," about despair, anger, determination, hope, and all the myriad emotions that followed the 2016 election. 

Now, as we await the results of 2020, I have a few thoughts to share. If the muses are with me, I'll be posting more. No matter what the results, we are in for a tough, divisive time. But we're in it together, and together we shall prevail.

First and foremost -- As I took my evening shower on Election Day, I was struck by a moment of light. No matter what happens, we always have within us the power to be beacons of hope for one another. We are not alone. We can lift each other up when despair overcomes us. I keep remembering my father's steadfast hope -- and he lived through a revolution, pogrom, starvation, the Depression, McCarthyism, and more. He never gave up working for a better world -- and neither will we.

Then I read these words from Robert Hubble

We must be patient. Biden has a path to victory that does not depend on Pennsylvania with its contested mail ballots. Biden gave a hopeful speech on Tuesday evening and urged us to wait until all votes are counted. Trump, on the other hand, declared victory in the early hours of Wednesday morning but demanded that counting cease. That tells us all we need to know about what the respective campaigns believe about the ultimate result of the election and the will of the American people. Trump is now trying to subvert that will based on a legal theory that says the functioning of the U.S. Constitution should be stopped based on his personal preferences. That's not how the Constitution works, and Trump's claim is ludicrous and meritless.