Threefer

internThis weekend I read The Intern’s Handbook and Hostile Takeover by Shane Kuhn, and Glow by Ned Beauman. They made for a fun weekend, indoors, as I have been avoiding the heat wave outside. 96 degrees! Impossible.

Shane Kuhn is in show business, apparently, which makes sense. The premise of the novels is a corporation that provides assassins under the guise of interns, because nobody notices the intern, right? This conceit automatically caps the age of the assassins; the narrator of both novels is John Lago, an intern-assassin on the cusp of retirement, who writes a helpful little handbook for the incoming recruits.

The narrative voice is unique–Holden Caulfield, jumped up on meth, and armed to the teeth. Mostly entertaining throughout The Intern’s Handbook, the voice grated on me more and more during Hostile Takeover. I definitely did not mind the over-the-top carnage, as it played cartoonish and rather Jackie Chan Goes Hollywood on my inner screen. Oh, and the very elaborate cross, double-cross, and triple-cross twists also start to wear a little.

glowI had this last issue with Glow, in a way, as well, although the twists were a bit more realistic. Still, there were a lot of twists and turns and plots, ranging across decades and countries, and after a bit one begins to wonder: how much is this actually necessary? If I skip the next couple of pages of backstory, will I miss anything important? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Also, not as deeply meaningful as the author was probably going for. In order to have a big theme, I think, a writer has to edit. If one keeps throwing ingredients into the pot, eventually it’s just leftovers.

Still, I liked the characters of Raf and his friend Isaac; their commitment to doing as many drugs as possible without permanent damage; and the setting of London. I’ve never been, so I have no idea how realistic is his portrayal of the city, but apparently Beauman was born in London, so I’ll take his words at face value.

In sum: all three were fun, and perfectly suitable fast reads, with variable levels of sex, violence, drugs, and music.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

authorityBook two of the Southern Reach Trilogy takes place outside of Area X, the creepy setting of Annihilation, in the bowels of Southern Reach itself, the government agency perched on the border of Area X, and tasked with researching the phenomenon at their doorstep.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy in fiction is generally just as dull and frustrating as the real-life DMV. The protagonist, John Rodriguez aka Control, has moved to the small town of Hedley to be “acting” Director of Southern Reach. From the first we’re informed that Control hasn’t had a sterling career–Southern Reach is his last chance and Southern Reach has problems that go all the way down. The Assistant Director hates and resents Control, his staff is just plain weird, the biologist from book one has only a handful of appearances and is mostly a cypher, and the plot begins and ends with Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong.

Mr VanderMeer is a strong writer, good with character and setting, but Authority (FSG Originals, May 2014) is a book that should be all about the story, and it can’t carry its own weight. The plot is choppy and episodic, relying heavily on Control’s ignorance to provide mystery and suspense; however, instead of invoking the sense of impending doom that made Annihilation so deliciously spooky, I felt annoyed. But I finished it, because I’m invested now, damn it.

I’m just into book three, Acceptance. I read in hope.

New Books New Books New Books

timesalvagerJust released in hardcover is Wesley Chu’s newest, Time Salvager (Tor Books, July 2015), featuring a convicted criminal and addict for a hero, time travel, and human colonization of the outer planets of the Solar System.

Chu’s last book was The Lives of Tao, which I keep meaning to read, but I haven’t quite excavated my TBR pile to that point. Also, Chu wrote two sequels to Lives…, Deaths… and Rebirths…, which means that I might have to read three books, not just one, so I’m grateful that Time Salvager is a stand-alone. For now. Wesley Chu was shortlisted for the 2014 John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award.

apexAlso out now is book three of Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy, Apex (Angry Robot, May 2015). Reviews of all three books are stellar, while noting “rookie mistakes,” especially in book one. These are also in my TBR pile, which currently eclipses the sun.

Naam is a professional technologist, a writer who is also creating the sort of future he writes about. His non-fiction book More Than Human won the H.G. Wells Award, and he was nominated for the Kitscie Award for Best Debut, the Prometheus Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He was a 2014 nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Both Mr Chu and Mr Naam will be appearing at Elliott Bay Book Co. this evening at 7:00PM, if you are in the Seattle area.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

annienebulaMany years ago, when I was merely an egg, I decided I would read all of HP Lovecraft. It was a rude chore. I enjoyed the first story or three–I must have, because they made me decide to read the rest–but I quickly wearied of his idiosyncratic, relentless style, and the undeniable fact that all Lovecraft stories are essentially the same damn story.

Lovecraft never scared me. Books rarely do. More disappointing was that I was never even creeped out. Maybe I’m too modern for Lovecraft, maybe it’s just not my thing. Maybe I burned out early. I dunno. What I do know is that I have a tendency to reject books that share certain characteristics with Lovecraft, particularly the Cthuluic treatment: an amorphous, unseen terror that haunts the narrator beyond reason or words.

Annihilation fits firmly into the Lovecraftian category for me, but for some reason, I could not put it down. It’s a weird, creepy, sculptural novel, a Venn diagram of Gothic horror, SF, and mystery. And it was a difficult novel; I was constantly having to reevaluate the reliability of the narrator, but the narrative itself is compelling. Obviously, because I found myself carrying my phone into the bathroom, the kitchen, reading while brushing my teeth or making tea. Hours, sucked away.

I count myself fortunate that I’ve read two excellent books, in two days. Two very, very, very different books, but both enjoyable and engrossing. And, I am smart, because I put all three of Mr Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy on hold, so now I can download the second (after reading a teaser on the publisher’s website) without the guilt of downloading without reading. That always feels a bit dishonest, like I’m cock-blocking another patron on the hold list, while I try to make up my mind about whether I really want to read the book or not.

The Nebula voters got it right, I think, when they nominated and awarded Annihilation for Best Novel. I wonder if it would have made this year’s Hugo ballot, as well, barring previously discussed asshole behavior on the part of those who shall not be named? We will find out in August. In the meantime, for those who like enigmatic, ambiguous puzzle novels, liberally strewn with superficially unrelated detours and circumlocution that end up being entirely straightforward road-signs if you can twist your brain inside out, Annihilation is highly recommended by yours truly.

What have you read lately?

WWHD?

Heinlein1So, I’m rereading Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 1 – Learning Curve (1907-1948), because now that I own both books, I feel the need to refresh my memory before starting Volume 2.

Second reads are always interesting. Sometimes, the suck fairy has paid a visit, but generally, I find that if I want to reread a book that I first read only a few years before, it holds up well. Patterson definitely holds up, and even improves with the passage of time, especially in light of this year’s Hugo kerfuffle. I’m about a third through: Heinlein is just starting to think outside the pulps, making a steady living, but WWII happens, so our writerly hero hustles off to report in for duty.

I keep thinking of the various people who created the slates, and those who got their spot on the nomination list through slating, many of whom profess to be fans of Golden Age writers such as Heinlein, and I wonder: What would Heinlein do? I know what I think, based on his own writing, especially his essays, and the Patterson’s biography, but ultimately that does not matter. Each reader gets what they give, and for me this bio gives me a little more insight into an author who deeply influenced my own commitment to socio-economic justice, not to mention entertained me for (n+cough) decades.

half a kingSpeaking of which, I’m also 2/3 of the way through Joe Abercrombie’s Half A King. I wasn’t enthused to dive into the First Law trilogy, because the only previous book I’d enjoyed at all from Mr Abercrombie is Best Served Cold, which had issues, shall we say. Not huge issues, but noticeable enough to throw me out of the story now and again. By contrast, Half A King is thus far nearly perfectly executed, as well as being a ripping good yarn.

The protagonist, Yarvi, is young, flawed, and deeply ambivalent. The plot is a fairly straightforward high fantasy hero’s journey, although if you require “magic” in your fantasy, then this might not be your cup of poison. For myself, if a story is not set in a recognizable Terran setting then I’ll call it fantasy, unless it’s clearly SF, but strictly speaking the story is thus far fiction with no recognizably mundane nations or nationalities, and some vague elf-ness in the distant past. It could end up being SF, for all I know, as I’ve got two-and-a-third books left to read, but I’m looking forward to every word.

tearlingLast but not least, I started Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen last week, and bounced out three times before I was half-way through. It doesn’t deserve being hurled with great force, but I am not going back to read Queen of the Tearling, and I’m not the least bit interested in number three. Frankly, I was both bored and squicked out.

Invasion of the Tearling reads like a YA fantasy with brutal, very personal violence. The bad guys are Tall Black Hat Baddies and the good guys are Long White Cloak goodies. There is no subtlety or ambiguity, at all. Add in the scenes that nauseated me and I was quite done, thanks, have a nice day.

What are you reading?

Justice Thomas Dissents, but I Fixed It for You

Because I read speculative fiction, I spent the weekend wondering how Justice Thomas’ dissent would read if the petitioners were Christians seeking to have their “religious ceremony” legally recognized as a binding contract before an honestly secular government.

[My fixes edits are bolded.]

…Whether we define “liberty” as locomotion or freedom from governmental action more broadly, petitioners have in no way been deprived of it. Petitioners cannot claim, under the most plausible definition of “liberty,” that they have been imprisoned or physically restrained by the States for participating in religious ceremonies. To the contrary, they have been able to cohabitate and raise their children in peace. They have been able to hold religious ceremonies in States that recognize religious ceremonies and limited liability partnerships in all States. They have been able to travel freely around the country, making their homes where they please. Far from being incarcerated or physically restrained, petitioners have been left alone to order their lives as they see fit.

Nor, under the broader definition, can they claim that the States have restricted their ability to go about their daily lives as they would be able to absent governmental restrictions. Petitioners do not ask this Court to order the States to stop restricting their ability to participate in religious ceremonies, to engage in intimate behavior, to make vows to their partners in public ceremonies, to engage in limited liability partnerships, to hold themselves out as LLC partners, or to raise children. The States have imposed no such restrictions. Nor have the States prevented petitioners from approximating a number of incidents of limited liability partnerships through private legal means, such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.

Instead, the States have refused to grant them governmental entitlements. Petitioners claim that as a matter of “liberty,” they are entitled to access privileges and benefits that exist solely because of the government. They want, for example, to receive the State’s imprimatur on their religious ceremonies —on state recognized contracts, death certificates, or other official forms.

And they want to receive various monetary benefits, including reduced inheritance taxes upon the death of a limited liability partner, compensation if a limited liability partner dies as a result of a work-related injury, or loss of consortium damages in tort suits. But receiving governmental recognition and benefits has nothing to do with any understanding of “liberty” that the Framers would have recognized.

To the extent that the Framers would have recognized a natural right to religious ceremonies that fell within the broader definition of liberty, it would not have included a right to governmental recognition and benefits. Instead, it would have included a right to engage in the very same activities that petitioners have been left free to engage in—entering contracts, participating in limited liability partnerships, raising children, and otherwise enjoying the society of one’s partner—without governmental interference. At the founding, such conduct was understood to predate government, not to flow from it. As Locke had explained many years earlier, “The first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children.” Locke §77, at 39; see also J. Wilson, Lectures on Law, in 2 Collected Works of James Wilson 1068 (K. Hall and M. Hall eds. 2007) (concluding “that to the institution of marriage the true origin of society must be traced”). Petitioners misunderstand religious ceremonies when they say that it would “mean little” absent governmental recognition. Brief for Petitioners in No. 14– 556, p. 33.

Petitioners’ misconception of liberty carries over into their discussion of our precedents identifying a right to religious ceremonies, not one of which has expanded the concept of “liberty” beyond the concept of negative liberty. Those precedents all involved absolute prohibitions on private actions associated with religious ceremonies.

Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1 (1967), for example, involved a couple who was criminally prosecuted for participating in religious ceremonies in the District of Columbia and cohabiting in Virginia, id.,at 2–3.  They were each sentenced to a year of imprisonment, suspended for a term of 25 years on the condition that they not reenter the Commonwealth together during that time. Id., at 3.

In a similar vein, Zablocki v. Redhail , 434 U. S. 374 (1978), involved a man who was prohibited, on pain of criminal penalty, from “participating in religious ceremonies in Wisconsin or elsewhere” because of his outstanding child-support obligations, id., at 387; see id., at 377–378. And Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78 (1987), involved state inmates who were prohibited from participating in religious ceremonies without the permission of the superintendent of the prison, permission that could not be granted absent compelling reasons, id., at 82. In none of those cases were individuals denied solely governmental recognition and benefits associated with limited liability partnerships.

In a concession to petitioners’ misconception of liberty, the majority characterizes petitioners’ suit as a quest to “find . . . liberty by religious ceremonies and having their religious ceremonies deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as limited liability partnerships between persons.” Ante, at 2.

But “liberty” is not lost, nor can it be found in the way petitioners seek. As a philosophical matter, liberty is only freedom from governmental action, not an entitlement to governmental benefits. And as a constitutional matter, it is likely even narrower than that, encompassing only freedom from physical restraint and imprisonment. The majority’s “better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define . . .liberty,” ante, at 19,—better informed, we must assume, than that of the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment—runs headlong into the reality that our Constitution is a “collection of ‘Thou shalt nots,’” Reid v. Covert, 354 U. S. 1, 9 (1957) (plurality opinion), not “Thou shalt provides.”

14-556 OBERGEFELL ET AL . v . HODGES, DIRECTOR, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, ET AL .

Excerpts:
The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change.Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture,have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.

Courts must exercise reasoned judgment in identifying interests of the person so fundamental that the State must accord them its respect. History and tradition guide and discipline the inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.
Applying these tenets, the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. For example,
Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12, invalidated bans on interracial unions, and Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 95, held that prisoners could not be denied the right to marry.
A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.
A second principle in this Court’s jurisprudence is that the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals. This point was central to Griswold v. Connecticut, which held the Constitution protects the right of married couples to use contraception.
A third basis for protecting the right to marry is that it safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education…Under the laws of the several States, some of marriage’s protections for children and families are material. But marriage also confers more profound benefits. By giving recognition and legal structure to their parents’ relationship, marriage allows children “to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”
Fourth and finally, this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this truth
on his travels through the United States almost two centuries ago: “There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is so much respected as in America.”

But when that sincere, personal opposition becomes enacted law and public policy, the necessary consequence is to put the imprimatur of the State itself on an exclusion that soon demeans or stigmatizes those whose own liberty is then denied. Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.
Rights implicit in liberty and rights secured by equal protection may rest on different precepts and are not always co-extensive, yet in some instances each may be instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other. In any particular case one Clause may be thought to capture the essence of the right in a more accurate and comprehensive way, even as the two Clauses may converge in the identification
and definition of the right.
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its
fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the
eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.
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All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Flex-144dpiLast Friday, I took a hiatus from SFF to read cozy mysteries. I was feeling burned out. None of the books on my Kindle app tempted me. Every book I started seemed dull, or trite, or just somehow wrong. Reading for the Hugo awards ground me down, this year, when usually it’s a delight, full of surprising treats.

So I inhaled the first five Donna Andrews Meg Langslow stories in the same number of days, took a deep breath, and looked at my Kindle TBR screen. And a tiny miracle happened. All the books looked interesting, again. Funny how that happens.

So, then, what’s got a polecat, magic drugs, a bureaucrat, and bitchin’ boss fights? C’mon, guess! Okay, so the picture is a dead giveaway, but one must try.

Also, I cheated a bit, because Ferrett Steinmetz’s name has two T’s, so he’s not technically named after a domesticated North American weasel. But his debut novel, Flex kicks ass and takes names.

I delight in unconventional heroes. One of my favorite books of last year (barely edged out by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice) was Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, a space opera-mystery featuring an accountant. I wasn’t even planning to read Neptune’s Brood, because I’ve bounced off of every other Stross novel ever, but not only did I keep reading, I barely ate and didn’t sleep until I’d finished it.

Flex is another that kept me awake way past my “I have to be at work in how many hours?” bedtime. The hero, Paul Tsabo, is a one-legged insurance agent. He’s divorced–not very amicably–and hiding a very dangerous secret. Of course he has a dangerous secret, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story, but Paul’s actions to protect and exploit that secret, the consequences of those actions, and the awesome boss battles that explode across the page, make Steinmetz the Crash Bandicoot of… what exactly? Is Flex science fiction? Is it fantasy? I think “science fantasy” might apply in this case, but who cares?

There are black hats and white hats and grey hats, and the hats switch, or the definitions do. There’s even a pork-pie hat, I kid you not. Speaking of which, while there is a child (Paul Tsabo’s daughter) in the novel, this is not YA. Not by a long shot. Flex is graphically violent; there are extremely adult themes, including questionably consensual sex. The language depends on the characters–Steinmetz is excellent at creating distinctive character voices–but some of those characters have very foul mouths. (Sniff.)

Flex is fun, but it’s also challenging, and unrelenting. I suggest that you make sure your safety device is securely fastened and that you keep your head, hands, arms, legs, and feet inside the ride at all times. Do not stand up or exit the ride while it is in motion.

Enjoy!