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Machinehood, by S. B. Divya

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a classic science fiction form I’m not seeing enough of: near-future SF written from an intimate voice. The main points of view in the book are two sisters-in-law, Welga and Nithya, who are also close friends, and whose perspective gives triangulation on the future Divya has created. Most humans are constantly accompanied and assisted by their WAIs (weak AIs), machine intelligences that don’t quite make the full equal personhood grade by humanity’s current estimation. But they’re darn good at what they can do, and as a result humanity has chosen to enter an arms race of source with machines, taking a variety of designer drugs to enhance intellectual focus, speed, healing ability, stamina, and more.

Enter the Machinehood. The Machinehood is a combined human-AI group that is not the least bit satisfied with the status of AIs in the world–and not thrilled with the way human bodies are treated, either. They’ve gotten to the point where they are willing to engage in violent revolution.

Welga has been aligned with the status quo for most of her life–previously as a Marine, now in her work as a shield. But her mother died of bad reactions to drugs, and she’s starting to have some of those herself. Her sister-in-law Nithya has the biotech skills to help her if anyone can–if anyone human can. And they’re both ready to oppose the Machinehood for the safety of their loved ones–for humanity as a whole. They think. They hope.

This book has a few weaknesses. The exposition is often clunky, and the secondary characters (especially Luis, the man who ties the two protagonists together) are sometimes sketched-in ciphers. But if you like near-future hard SF that centers the lives of individuals and gives you close views of their thoughts, Machinehood is exactly what you’re looking for.

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COVID Fall: Memorial

I wanted to know who she had been
They gave me adjectives–nice, so nice
The sweetest lady. I wanted to know her loves
And those fell rarely from their lips.
By chance, a mention: she loved
The river valley in autumn. Oh. Me too.
She was oak and birch, maple and sumac
Blazing? Yes. So am I. Then another:
Turtle sundaes, pecan and caramel
Sticking in our molars. Yes. Oh yes.
With that I start to build an idea,
The faintest image of who she was,
Who we would have been together.
As we approach a million,
Gather their loves: this one a sunset
Streaking wide prairie skies,
That one petrichor and sunshine,
Another varnished wood. This is how
We keep them. This is how we keep our souls.

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Books read, early September

Ben Aaronovitch, Tales from the Folly. Kindle. Vignettes and side stories from the Rivers of London series across time. Fun but not a good place to begin, and not crucial unless you really like the series.

John Blair, Building Anglo-Saxon England. This is a literal title: it is about architecture and archaeology and what we know about this era of English history. Lots of cool details about how we know what we know, interesting research fodder for a project.

Desirina Boskovich, ed., Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lavishly illustrated, including some illustrations that appear to be newly commissioned for this book–money well spent in my opinion, the Angela Carter one by Dea Boskovich was gorgeous. Many of the entries are house-written but some are guests. Most serious SFF fans will already know some of what’s in here, but which things which people will know varies–I expect there’s something new for everyone here, ranging all over the field including different media.

Marie Brennan, The Nine Lands. Kindle. These were fine short stories, but sometimes one is conscious of an author improving, and this is evidence that Brennan has. Still worth reading? Sure, yes, it was fun. But don’t make this your first Brennan book. They’re early stories, and she does keep getting better.

Christopher Brown, Failed State. The third in its series, and I recommend reading the other two first. It’s fast-paced and well-done and thinking very carefully about the near future of the environment and politics of the US–not always cheerfully. But carefully; and not hopelessly either. This book has forays into both the legal system and land reclamation projects, and does not neglect characterization along the way. Recommended.

Marcia Douglas, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. This is a female (feminist?) Rastafarian novel, across time and certain parts of local space. It’s an extremely different perspective from what I usually read and very interesting; I’m still thinking about it.

John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting. Reread. Discussed elsewhere.

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution. This is a magisterial history of that section of Haitian history. James is acute and unrelenting. There is one footnote from the second edition where he basically said, “this sentence has gotten a lot of criticism and it is still exactly what I think,” and I love this book for that as for so many other things. This book has the courage of its convictions–and has also bothered to significantly research its convictions.

Naomi Mitchison, The Land the Ravens Found. A retelling of the settlement of Iceland through the family of Aud the Deep-Minded. This is my jam and may well be your jam as well. If only it was longer.

Megan O’Keefe, Velocity Weapon. Are you short on charming AIs in your fiction at the moment? Would any number of charming AIs still leave you short on charming AIs? Megan O’Keefe has your back. I enjoyed this a lot and ordered the sequel basically right away.

Nunzio Pernicone, Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892. As I said to a friend in email, this book is very strong on the who, what, where, when, and not so hot on the why, how. If you want to know what conventions and schisms took place in Italian anarchism in the late 19th century, this is a solid resource. If you want to go any deeper about who these people were personally, why they felt the way they did, how their thinking evolved and why…you’ll have to find another book, because that’s not what Pernicone is here to do. Ah well.

Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. This is lovely. It’s got quite a few direct interviews with people living on disappearing or threatened land, it’s got Rush thinking about different American coastal ecosystems, it’s thoughtful and beautiful, hurray this book.

Dana Simpson, Camping With Unicorns, Phoebe and Her Unicorn In Unicorn Theater, The Unicorn Whisperer, Unicorn Bowling. I realized that I had not read the latest adventures of Phoebe and Marigold in quite some time, so I got them all from the library at once and (almost) caught up in one silly evening on the couch. (There’s another new one out. I’m in line for it.) I can recommend silly evenings on the couch with Phoebe and Marigold right now.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 36. Kindle. I am in this, and I make a policy of not reviewing things I’m in.

Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt. If you’ve been feeling like contemporary people are uniquely terrible to each other, wow is this the book to remedy that. The staggering amount of racism in and out of both major American political parties during the Roosevelt presidency is quite a lot to deal with. Several remarkable people tried, and knowing about them is good. But yikes, the amount of blatant overt racism is nauseating.

Rebecca West, The Judge. Kindle. Oh this was so bad. Oh goodness this was so bad. It was not worthless, it was not without its charms or I wouldn’t have read it all the way through. (You have no idea how many books I don’t read all the way through.) And other Rebecca West is lovely! But this was long-winded, never taking a paragraph to say what five pages could. And it suffered from so many other flaws that West doesn’t usually, such as: Batman Villainitis! Wherein you can tell by looking at someone whether they are smart, interesting, and generally worthwhile! Expired Satire! Where the thing that was going to be cleverly sent-up doesn’t even really matter in historical context! Excessive Freudianism! Where instead of her usual observations of people, it’s Oedipal complexes all the way down! Improbable Staging! Where seriously, you can’t do that with any bread knife I’ve ever met. There is much better Rebecca West out there for you to read, and I suggest you do that instead.

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The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dear Mike,

I miss you. There are signs of life in the atmosphere of Venus, the American West is on fire, and the world in general is in a state that would have gotten us at least four of your poems, maybe more. I don’t expect you could have fixed any of it, but it’d still be better to face it with you.

But we have your stuff. We have that. So I read The Dragon Waiting for the fourth time this week, in its new edition. Scott Lynch wrote a lovely introduction for it, and I had to go off and cry and swear like four times while reading it, because Scott didn’t get to know you, he’s very clear about that in the introduction, and he’s just the very tip of the amazing ship-shattering iceberg of people who should have gotten to know you. But he has The Dragon Waiting. Not the same as getting to talk to you about EMT/firefighter geekery or caper stories or whatever it is that you’d know in common that I don’t even know yet, but it sure isn’t nothing.

In some ways your books are where I left them, Mike. There are bits that I always remember, and I’ve never found them to pale on rereads. The parts I love, the horrible moment of the doctor realizing about the young prince, or the scene where [spoiler] is deliberately horrible to [spoiler] for strategic reasons, or the way that it all unfolds by implication–they’re all still there.

But they also change on the rereads. There are always things that hit me harder later. The line about how if Dimi’s father could die, so could any god: my dad was alive the last time I read that, so it was a softer blow, more bearable. But also I think of you when I read that, though you were neither father nor god to me. If Mike could die so could any friend. If Mike could die so could any mentor. If Mike could die so could any artist. You left us so many of the things we’d need in your absence, but friend, you never intended that they should sit easy, and they don’t.

The things you did with this different world were more graceful, more compact, more allusive than–my God, you wrote this in 1983. 1983. Some of it might look a little less astonishing now that other people have come along and said, hey, yeah, I think I’ll do that too, but it’s like our friend’s kid saying Hamlet was a lot of common quotes strung together. You were there first and best. Your Byzantium, your Margaret of Anjou, your Lord Rivers, the things you think to do that other people still don’t think of…backwards, on schees.

It’s September, which makes it 14 years since we lost you. That math is very hard to understand. And now there’s this new edition, so instead of scouring used bookstores we can just…tell people to pick up a copy. Just casual-like. At their favorite bookstore, if they can go there in this plague; online if not. It’s such a relief, Mike. We’re doing the best we can, but a new copy of The Dragon Waiting sure doesn’t make anything harder. I’ve written you a whole series of Nature stories, Jo’s got Richard and Savonarola and Ficino in Lent, so many others, we haven’t stopped wanting to talk to you. It’s just that now it’s going to be easier to ask more people into the conversation.

Thanks. For all of it.

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Present Writers: Kate Elliott

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones, Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, Susan Cooper, Ellen Klages, Lisa Goldstein, and C.J. Cherryh.

Kate Elliott has had a prolific and varied career in SFF that is only getting stronger every year. She has even, conveniently, put together a page to tell you where you might want to start with her books depending on your tastes! I call that considerate.

My personal favorites are–and everyone who knows me will be shocked to hear this–the trilogy with “cold” in their titles–Cold Magic and its sequels. They’re funny and adventurous and doing an alternate history thing that is not the common run of alternate history things. (Phoenicians many years on!) But the other series range from space opera to epic fantasy with lots of non-standard stops along the way. Elliott is great at taking a genre and constructing it, rather than deconstructing it–deciding what makes an epic fantasy interesting to her and doing it that way from the ground up rather than borrowing bits and pieces of genre furniture. Many/most of her books are medium-to-long books that exist in series, but generally with defined endings rather than meandering around.

Elliott has been at this since the mid-90s, and while she’s definitely picked a few things up along the way, I still like the Jaran books quite a lot–I feel like they hold up. The other thing she’s managed to do since the mid-90s, and with increasing skill, is to be a supportive presence around the writer community. In both cases, we’re very lucky.

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Stories I liked this summer

I haven’t read anything close to everything that came out this summer–I haven’t even read everything I personally have downloaded to my Kindle this summer–but here’s what I’ve liked so far. Please feel free to chime in with recommendations in the comments.

Gilded, Elizabeth Acevedo (A Phoenix First Must Burn)

Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox, Jeremy Packert Burke (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

An Incomplete Account of the Case of the Bird-Talker of Yaros, Eleanna Castroianni

All the Time in the World, Charlotte Nicole Davis (A Phoenix First Must Burn)

The Inaccessibility of Heaven, Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny)

A Voyage to Queensthroat, Anya Johanna Deniro (Strange Horizons)

Exile’s End, Carolyn Ives Gilman (

The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly, Alix E. Harrow (Fireside)

Saltwashed, Jennifer Mace (Uncanny)

Yellow and the Perception of Reality, Maureen McHugh (

The Necessary Arthur, Garth Nix (

Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life, Rebecca Roanhorse (A Phoenix First Must Burn)

We’re Here, We’re Here, K.M. Szpara (

Open House on Haunted Hill, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots)

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Books read, late August

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories. Joan Aiken’s body of work is vast and varied, which makes it a bit of a surprise when an entire collection is fairly one-note. But that’s what these are, in tone and style, in length and so on: they are all of one thing. Which makes sense: they were written specifically for one magazine in one era, and Aiken knew her audience. They’re interesting, they’re just much narrower than I expected.

Jose Andres and Matt Goulding, Vegetables Unleashed. Spanish-influenced treatments of vegetables, most of which were fairly familiar to me but colorful and easily laid out for cooks who have not done a lot with Spanish cooking.

David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Probably the most disappointing book I read this fortnight. I would still like a history of how we think and talk about civil wars, but this was not really it. Armitage mentioned four strands of thought on this matter and then did not discuss two of them (Arabic and Chinese) at all; he promised to discuss how the Western European strand dominated the discourse and then did not; he made small but important mistakes of fact in areas that I knew well, making me suspicious of his claims in areas I did not. Not recommended.

Sarah Caudwell, The Sibyl in Her Grave and The Sirens Sang of Murder. Rereads. These remain delightful, and they were exactly what I wanted. The voice and the reading experience: such fun. The ending of the series is very much a downer, and I had forgotten why (it’s a characterization thing, it’s a very dark characterization), but I still found them both very much worth rereading and am glad that I now have my own copies so that I can do so again at will.

Kirstin Chen, Bury What We Cannot Take. The gut-wrenching story of a family trying to escape the Cultural Revolution, mostly from the perspective of the two fairly young children. I’m not sorry I read it but will not want to read it again any time soon. Make sure you’re in a steady place for all kinds of child danger if you try to read this one.

Megan Crewe, Wounded Magic. The second volume in a YA trilogy about magic, oppression, and rebellion. I feel like the character relationships and the writing are better than genre-average here, even as Crewe is playing with tropes a lot of other people like to play with two.

Maggie Doherty, The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. This is supposedly about a Radcliffe fellowship program for outstanding women in the early ’60s, but most of it is really about Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin’s friendship. Which turns out to be a pretty interesting thing to center a book around, especially if you’re prepared for excursions into other writers, artists, etc. I was reading this in conjunction with the Aiken above, and that was interesting timing.

Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. This book is gross. Good! But gross. The “grisly” in the title is there for a reason, and as someone in my family pointed out, they have given it a horror novel cover for a reason: Fitzharris wants to make darn sure you know exactly how bad things could get before proper sterile procedure in surgeries. For many of you, ghouls that you are, this is a recommendation; I certainly found it interesting. I just don’t want it to take you by surprise, because…there are no punches pulled here.

Eleanor Fitzsimmons, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Victorian Iconoclast, Children’s Author, and Creator of the Railway Children. I love Nesbit’s books, and I also love AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book. This is, I think, a balanced look at an interesting and complicated person. There are a few places where the timeline shuttles back and forth a little, but that happens when you’re trying to follow multiple threads; people’s lives aren’t necessarily tidy.

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See: And Other Stories. This is very well-done short fiction about generally quite unpleasant people. Not mostly genocidal criminals, just rather nasty humans. Adjust tolerance/reading time accordingly.

Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife. Discussed elsewhere.

Molly Gloss, Unforeseen: Stories. These were beautiful and self-possessed and sometimes speculative and generally a glowing volume of just what I needed, quiet, right.

Justina Ireland, Deathless Divide. Sequel to Dread Nation. Tries to do a little more with Native characters than in its sequel but still focused on questions of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, within the framework of an alternate history zombie YA. A very quick read considering the weight of its subject matter.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, Trouble the Saints. And speaking of passing and social priorities for Black Americans, this is a really intense book about ’20s New York with a lot of cultural texture and interesting magic. I liked it a lot.

Shion Miura, The Great Passage. More books should be about the construction of dictionaries. This one happens to be a novel about the quirky individuals who are working on a Japanese dictionary, and it is lovely and the stakes are dictionaries, which are quite high stakes and at the same time very little bloodshed. Hurrah.

Abir Mukherjee, Death in the East. The fourth in its mystery series, and the protagonist is making personal progress, and his sidekick is making political progress. Along with the rest of India. Since that part is the part of this 1920s Calcutta setting that interests me most, I’m very happy with the direction of the series and will keep reading as soon as there’s more.

Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. This book is very much pop history. It was reasonably fun, and it did a good job of covering the world rather than just “the world haha no really we mean England and France, maybe a little Spain for fun, the US after 1800.” If you know a lot about any area of maritime history, it’s not likely to go into as much detail as you know, but if you don’t actually already have a chapter on Viking shipbuilding (or equivalent) outlined in your head for if somebody asks for it, you might like this one.

Una L. Silberrad, Desire. Not nearly as racy as the title makes it sound–the protagonist’s name is Desire, and this is a 1908 novel that was criticized at the time because the male love interest supported and respected the protagonist in her work outside the home, and clearly that was a female fantasy. I’m not kidding. Anyway, Desire is forthright, practical, and delightful, and so is Desire. Content warning: the death of a Very Nice Dog, but otherwise just what I needed, a heroine who takes her fate–and that of everyone around her–by the horns and builds a life she enjoys. There’s more Silberrad out there, and I’m excited.

Jonathan Strahan, ed., The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1. Discussed elsewhere.

Tade Thompson, Making Wolf. This is the most violent Ruritanian novel I’ve ever read. It’s a thriller set in contemporary “Alcacia,” which is a heck of a lot like Nigeria but, y’know, all the benefits of being fictional. You can talk about different governmental and extragovernmental entities in ways that make sense with your plot and metaphors. I really like Ruritanian novels, and I like thrillers well enough. This reads very much like the start of a series, and I’ll be glad to have the rest of the series.

Bjorn Vassnes, Kingdom of Frost: How the Cryosphere Shapes Life on Earth. This is not highly technical, so if you’re interested in cold-dwelling life at all sizes, you should be able to enjoy it no problem. That is, in fact, my jam. So.

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Go ahead and mess with Mr. In-Beween though

New essay out today! Uncanny has published The Roots of Hope: Toward an Optimistic Near-Future SF in a Pandemic.

I’m trying to practice what I preach in the above with the story I’m working on. I don’t think that optimistic near-future SF is the only thing that’s valuable right now, but I think it’s a thing that’s valuable right now, if you can manage it. So I’m trying to manage it. And the above essay is a practical look at how.