The Word for World is Forest (Hainish Cycle), by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Library of America just published these definitive hardcover collections of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle novels and stories, which made my decision to finally start working my way through this classic series of speculative fiction again that much easier. I’m going to be tackling these in no particular order, since they’re only tertiarily connected to one another, but take place in a shared universe.

The Word for World is Forest is a terrific novella, originally published in the Harlan Ellison edited Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972. It went on to win the Hugo award for best Novella later that year. I believe it was very influential to James Cameron’s Avatar (which I am now certain was constructed entirely from story elements and themes originating in Old Man’s War & The Word for World is Forest). The novella also definitely influenced George Lucas’s Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, to such a degree that I think plagiarism is the better suited word.

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s a social science fiction story, and a moralistic/ethical one with some wonderfully insightful and precient things to say about dangerous ideas entering the public consciousness. In this way it was perfectly suited for that Dangerous Visions anthology. My main takeaway from tWfWiF is that once a dangerous idea is out there for the first time, there is no turning back. It becomes a part of the public consciousness. Here, specifically that dangerous idea is the very concept of murder, introduced to the peaceful Athsheans by their human/yuman occupiers.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed the waking dreams that the Athsheans were capable of, and how deeply dreaming was ingrained into their culture and at such a foundational level. Especially when that was contrasted with how little the humans/yumans dreamt; how they had almost lost the ability altogether and required drugs to fully dream. It speaks volumes to how overworked and under-rested western, and specifically American culture has become. Assuredly, this has only become a larger problem since the seventies when this was written. Dreams are necessary, not only as moments of respite from our chaotic lives, but as catalysts for forward imaginative thinking. We need downtime in order to reset. Dreams fuel us and encourage us to create. What are we without dreams? Without the possibility to imagine something different?

There was a great line in this book about how suicide harms those who live on, but murder harms the murderer herself. I really liked that. It may not be entirely true, but poetically, it was beautifully constructed. This story almost represents the antithesis of that sentiment, when the concept of murder enters the societal consciousness of the Athsheans, it continues to harm them after the fact, by perpetuating itself ad infinitum. It’s impossible to go back once innocence is lost. The Athsheans are forever changed by the invading yumans. Be cautious what you allow into your lives and societies.

Okay, so onto the Ewok/Return of the Jedi connection:

You’ve got a forest planet, filled with furry little creatures about a meter tall. They’re described as looking quite a bit like teddy bears. They live in the forest city named Endtor. Some of them were being used as slaves. They eventually rise up and decide to take on their occupiers, and reclaim their planet. All of their names are exactly 2 syllables long. Hmm… sounds a little familiar.

Ewoks

Are you kidding me George Lucas? For real dude? It took about 9 years, but you massively ripped that concept off from Le Guin. You didn’t even scrape the serial numbers off it. If Le Guin were particularly litigious, she could probably get a percentage on all Ewok merchandizing past and future. She doesn’t strike me as the type to sue, and Disney is a bit of giant to go up against these days. Still, credit should be given where credit is due. The Ewoks originated in Le Guin’s mind, and she deserves the recognition.

Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Strange Dogs, by James S.A. Corey

Holy shit. This changes things.

I love that we get these short stories and novellas between the main Expanse novels. If the novels are considered big, pulpy action movies with great characters, then the short stories and novellas in The Expanse are tightly focused character pieces, in smaller stories. But this, this is something special in addition to all that. It stands incredibly well on its own as a self contained story, but in the context of the larger narrative happening in this series, it’s extremely exciting as a taste of things to come. If this is the direction the series is heading, then sign me the hell up!

What always impresses me about The Expanse, is that these guys can seemingly write from any point of view, any perspective, and they completely nail it. They’ve demonstrated this over and over again: A pampered daughter of the richest businessman in the system out for revenge against what she perceives as a wrong orchestrated against her family? They nailed it. An ex Martian Navy pilot who abandoned his wife and turned renegade pilot in an effort to find his true self out among the stars? Yep, they nailed that too. A botanist growing soybeans on Ganymede? A priest presiding over a small congregation on Europa? A washed up detective living in a spun-up ceres station, looking for some sort of salvation? Nailed it with all of ‘em. They’re either extremely empathetic, extremely in tune with the human condition, or extremely creative – probably a combination of all three – because these characters are just too good

James S. A. Corey

 

The narrative in Strange Dogs unfolds through the eyes of another entirely new, unique point of view: Cara, a 10 year old Earther girl living a life on Laconia, a science colony in a remote part of the milky way galaxy. She moved there with her scientist parents when she was very young, and their stay has been made indefinite due to calamitous events unfolding back in the Sol system, and an unexpected arrival of a military presence on Laconia. The things she discovers on Laconia have the weight to potentially change the entire direction this series is heading. Because of that I would say this is the first of the shorter Expanse fiction that may be absolutely essential to read. The others have been incredible, but this one feels like required reading; like a longer than usual prologue to a huge story to follow.

What I really enjoyed about Strange Dogs, is that this same story told instead from the perspective of either of her parents, or some other secondary character, might belong more comfortably in the horror genre. But, because we’re seeing events through the youthful eyes of Cara, there is instead a childlike wonder to it all. Her perspective also brings an ambiguity, and slightly unreliable narration to everything, which combines to set a tone of general unease in addition to that wonder.

December, or whenever Persepolis Rising comes out, cannot get here soon enough.

 


Escape Velocity, by Jason M. Hough

Escape Velocity, by Jason M. HoughThis is the second half of and conclusion to the Dire Earth duology that began with Injection Burn. This duology itself is also a follow up to the Dire Earth cycle, a trilogy of novels published a few years back. I haven’t read the Dire Earth cycle novels, but these books do a wonderful job of filling in any gaps that may be present for readers new to the series. I never felt like I was missing anything, but undoubtedly there are little character details that are probably improved by a more complete understanding from having read the trilogy.

If Injection Burn was basically “get there”, Escape Velocity is very much “get it done and get home in one piece”. It hits the ground running at the same breakneck pace established in Injection Burn, and never really hits pause. At the end of Injection Burn our characters have been forcefully separated, thrown in different directions by their AI ship in a last ditch effort to accomplish their collective goal. We have three main group POVs to follow, each fighting for survival on a hostile alien world, trying to find each other, trying to gather their bearings and figure out how to do what they need to with nearly everything (even the air) trying to kill them.

It’s a great conclusion to this story, but leaves the universe open enough for more. I’m particularly interested in what may come after this. There’s a lot of potential for some really interesting far future Earth society stuff, as well as more information about some of the alien societies present here.

Jason M. HoughI was introduced to Jason M. Hough through his fantastic sci-fi spy thriller Zero World a couple years back, which I absorbed (and need more of! Don’t be shortsighted Del Rey, make it happen). It was the most original science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while. He writes really straightforward prose that gets out of the way and lets the fun flow straight to the brain. You often forget you’re reading a book, instead you’re just experiencing the story. It reads so effortlessly.

I’d recommend these books for fans of the The Expanse novels for sure. They’re very much written in a similar style: huge, narratively driven ideas, delivered in a fun, highly-readable package. Like classic era science fiction for a new generation. Blockbuster page-turners with great characters, adventure and thrills. These are great summer reads.


Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

Off Rock, by Kieran Shea

I read this novel almost entirely from a hammock in my backyard, and I’d recommend taking that approach. It’s good and pulpy, a light summer Science Fiction read. A blue collar crime caper set during the closing days of a mobile mining station on an asteroid. Seedy characters, none particularly too bright, almost all involved in some sort of side action, fumbling their way through life with the limited choices left to them. Blackmail, vices, bribes, and lost causes are all welcome here.

Shea writes in a straightforward, no-nonsense style that reads fast and easy. Think a pulpy crime mag from the 40s, but make that 2740, and transplant that magazine onto a virtual rack residing on an illicit local intranet, accessed from portable “CPUs”. There are no lessons learned, no moral philosophies tying everything together. No overall takeaway. Sometimes a gold heist is just a gold heist. I think it works very well here.

The worldbuilding is sparse, but it has a vague feel of existing just on the outside edges of Cyberpunk. There are mega-corporations that demand complete loyalty, drones that watch your every move, and offenses against mega-corporations carry the harshest punishments: medical experimentation, and if you survive, maybe life in prison afterward. It’s a rough life for an asteroid miner, but if a highly illegal once-in-ten-lifetimes capital one corporate offense comes up, you say fuck the odds, grab hold and see how far it might take you. Maybe it’ll be just the right ticket to get out of that life, but you still have to get your loot off rock to have it do you any good. That’s where things might get difficult. Who do you trust? How much should you trust them? Give ‘em just enough rope for them to hang themselves if they fuck you over? Fuck them over first just in case? All pertinent questions if you’re a low life with limited options trying to better your situation.

This is some great sci-fi escapism, read it on a lazy Sunday, or take a copy on vacation, grab a chair by the pool, or chill in a hammock with a highly alcoholic cold drink. Turn off your head and enjoy. It was just what I needed to read between some heavier non-fiction that I’ve been slowly working on over the last month or so. I plan on picking up copies of the Koko books by the same author this summer as well. I’m hoping it’s more of this, but in a more detailed cyberpunk setting. I’ve heard good things.