Light From Uncommon Stars

Unless you went to high school with me, you probably don’t know that I played the violin in orchestra.

Well, now you do, I guess?

I was never particularly good, let me be clear. It would be fair to say I was a perfectly mediocre violinist. Nonetheless I enjoyed orchestra and continued throughout my entire high school career, concert orchestra as well as pit orchestra. I don’t really think about the violin very often—usually only when I listen to a particular symphonic piece we performed, where my memory of it is more deeply embodied than with other music. Who knows, maybe my brain is still sending phantom signals to my lefthand fingers and bow arm.

Light From Uncommon Stars, on the other hand, made me think about the violin a lot.

Our heroine is Katrina Nguyen, a trans teenager and gifted violinist. Legendary violin instructor Shizuka Satomi hears Katrina playing in a park and decides to take her on as a student so she can complete her Faustian bargain with the demon Tremon Philippe and deliver Katrina’s soul to Hell. Alien refugee and spaceship captain Lan Tran has fled to Earth with her family and fallen in love with Shizuka after she visits the donut shop Tran runs as a cover operation for constructing a stargate.

Catch all that?

There is a lot going on in Light From Uncommon Stars, and while it’s at times a fun and dizzying combination of science fiction and demons from Hell and classical music, sometimes it’s a bit too much. Memories and flashbacks appear out of nowhere without adding anything to the story or its characters. Shizuka’s grand declamations and philosophical reflections about the power of musical performance are at once too long and too shallow to really ring true for me. All of this crowds out more interesting material for me, like Katrina’s genuinely insightful and touching reflection on gender identity through the metaphor of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

Nor does Aoki flinch from at least gesturing at the more traumatic events of Katrina’s previous life, which don’t always blend well with the wacky feel-good sci-fi hijinks. There were moments where it hit something like anti-lagom (mogal?), exactly wrong instead of exactly right: what should be goofy space shit feels a bit out of place compared to what just happened in the last chapter; betrayal that would take a lot of time and therapy to work through in the real world is brushed aside almost immediately to get our wacky plot on the road.

But there are violins.

According to her author bio, Aoki is also a composer. This is hardly surprising given the countless musical references, including several to—of course—Paganini. (And yet, apparently Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” was too on the nose for Aoki to use here? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.) I don’t know if Aoki is also a violinist, but whether it was lived experience or impeccable research, many of the violin-specific asides landed for me in an almost visceral way; the same embodied memory as when I hear a piece I performed in orchestra. “Does she need some tape on her fingerboard?” is one withering remark from the antagonist about Katrina’s inexpertise that made me cringe in shame: that controversial, or at least pedestrian, method was how I had been taught. Crappy rosin in plastic cases. Tuning forks. The way it feels to slide a wire mute over the bridge. Viola jokes. (Or, well, one viola joke. Which was mostly implied.) All of that was an absolute delight, to the point where I began to get a bit irritated when the book wasn’t talking about music. (Or food. Lots of food in this book. Her bio doesn’t mention it but I bet Aoki would call herself a foodie.)

Violins, however, are not enough. To put it bluntly, there was a lot in Light From Uncommon Stars that was simply not written for me. I don’t mean that because of the subject matter beyond my own lived experience (I’m not Asian, I’m not trans), but rather on a more “philosophy of reading” level.

Any conflict not immediately related to the relationships between Shizuka, Katrina, and Tran inevitably comes to a pat conclusion within a page or two. Minor villains are either destroyed immediately after their appearance (a racist storeowner drops dead of a heart attack half an hour after he disses Katrina’s violin; the emcee of a talent showcase who makes transphobic jokes at Katrina’s expense suffers a housefire), disappear entirely from the narrative (Katrina’s awful roommates), or are declared irredeemably toxic by Implied Word of God and summarily consigned by Katrina to the memory hole with no mourning or regret (Katrina’s parents). All of these had the potential to be the site of really thoughtful consideration and nuanced storytelling, but Aoki just sidesteps them, which then inspires the question of why include those conflicts or characters in the first place.

Everything neat and tidy, warm fuzzies and bear hugs for everybody.

I get why people want that in a book. I get in that mood sometimes, too. But I wasn’t in that mood when I picked up Light From Uncommon Stars so I had a hard time enjoying the book on those terms. Settling back into my violinist body, though? Even for just a couple of hours? That’s what I’m here for.

The Seep

Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.

Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.

Perfect, no notes.

Bellwether

I picked up Bellwether entirely on a whim. I was at The English Bookshop in Stockholm with time to kill and I recognized Connie Willis’s name from The Doomsday Book, which I had enjoyed immensely in high school. Chaos theory? Sheep? Sure, why not!

Bellwether by Connie Willis
Image courtesy Bantam Books

I don’t quite regret reading this, since Willis is a wordsmith par exellence and the story itself is breezy and cute. Our narrator is a scientist at your generic corporate research lab, researching fads and their causes. A series of events lead her to meet and collaborate with another scientist focusing on chaos theory. There’s a lot of snark, a lot of mishaps, but eventually our heroine winds up with her hero, wins the grant, and comes to a breakthrough in her fad research, all in one fell swoop. It’s a science fiction screwball comedy.

But Bellwether is also a very dated book. A brash young person once asked Connie Willis to put out her cigarette in the 90s and she decided to write a whole book about it. Okay, I can’t know that happened, but it sure seems like it. Willis’s bile for The Youths and the anti-smoking movement, at first incidental in the story, become pervasive and inescapable through lines that make a lighthearted romantic comedy much less palatable. (I complained about this to my boyfriend, who was willing to cut Willis some slack…but then he picked up the book and opened to a random page and immediately lighted upon a rant about smoke-free environments. “Oh, I see what you mean.”) The Youths see some redemption in the end, from a narrative perspective, but the rage and incidental conflicts stemming from smoke-free workplaces are entirely irrelevant to the plot. And the rage is palpable.

Nor has time been kind to that particular element of the book. The narrator (and, presumably, Willis) write off the anti-smoking movement as a fad on par with Kewpie dolls or prohibition, which is a weird thing to read 25 years later, now that fewer people smoke and that the anti-smoking public health campaign seems to have made a permanent cultural difference. It’s enough to make me wish that someone would put out a revised edition of Bellwether with all the screeds about not being allowed to smoke edited out. More than Power Rangers, fax machines, or Barney, that’s what dates the book the most, and is the one thing that keeps me from recommending the book wholeheartedly. It’s not hurtful or offensive, it’s just embarrassing. Go read Doomsday Book instead, it makes a much better first impression.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Once in a while I like to revisit things I hated when I was younger, usually in the form of either books or food. Sometimes I leave with my aversion even more fully cemented (still hate ham, still hate Nightwood) and sometimes I discover that my palate has sophisticated in the intervening years.

Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those authors, to my shame as a science fiction fan. My first encounter with her was when I was too young and too impatient to really appreciate the complexity of what she was doing: I had to read The Tombs of Atuan for an extracurricular reading event in middle school. I didn’t enjoy the experience, to the point where I gave up midway through the book—unusual for me, especially at that age. A few years later I gave The Dispossessed a try. It was a fancy edition from the Science Fiction Classics series put out by Easton Press, with leather binding and shiny gold trim. Despite the luxurious trappings, once again my brain wasn’t having it.

But this tale has a happy ending! Well into adulthood, the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picked The Dispossessed and I liked it just fine. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just needed to finish developing. Who knows.

And here’s the happy postscript to the above happy ending. The two founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club were married in 2021 and, as a sort of long-distance wedding favor, sent all of their originally intended guests random science fiction paperbacks that one or both of them had really liked. This is how I came into possession of The Left Hand of Darkness.

There is a lot of intrigue in The Left Hand of Darkness, and from what I recall in The Dispossessed as well, and maybe that’s what kept my brain from taking to Le Guin to begin with. I’m a simple creature, naive and without guile. All of the political maneuvering in both books is lost on me, but I can still enjoy the complexity of the societies Le Guin creates, whether it’s anarchist collectives of Anarres or the ambisexual population of Winter. And considering our shifting and broadening cultural understanding of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly apt example to revisit right now.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black was a long-time suggestion from one member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Club and it finally made it to the agenda for our July meeting last Sunday.

Sisters of the Vast Black cover art
Image courtesy Tor

Science fiction is usually pretty critical of religion, especially contemporary established religions like Roman Catholicism, so it’s interesting to see a book take it seriously. Not so much for its cosmology or morality, but for the importance it plays in people’s lives, the good it can inspire them to do, and the soft power it can wield in the name of international (or in this case, interstellar) relations and colonization.

Sisters follows a small spaceship of nuns who find themselves caught up in political intrigue, with a potent biological weapon (and its cure) at stake. Also, their ship is a giant sentient slug who has suddenly imprinted on a mate and needs to change course drastically. And because they’re nuns, of course there’s at least one crisis of faith and a character on the run from a very sinister past.

This was a fun read because the world was so creative and rife with interesting thought experiments, but in the end there were a few too many ideas crammed into the space of one novella. (Rather mentions in her acknowledgments that this started as a short story, which must have been very crowded indeed!) A longer book, or fewer plot threads, would have allowed Rather to give each idea the consideration it deserves and to tie everything together a bit more seamlessly. Maybe the sequel will do just that.

The Venus Project

To start with, note that this is a novel heavily inspired by the real-life Venus Project non-profit organization associated with Jacque Fresco, which might be confusing. What I mean by “The Venus Project” here is the English translation of a debut Turkish sci fi novel from Ilker Korkutlar.

Cover of the English edition of The Venus Project by Ilker Korkutlar
Image courtesy Portakal Kitab

As a novel, The Venus Project is amateur and flawed. There’s simply no beating around the bush there. I nearly went on about those flaws at length, but I decided that would be unasked for and unkind. The truth of the matter is, despite all of its problems, I still had a pretty good time (mostly). It’s not a great novel, or even a competent one, but it’s bonkers and different.

There’s a certain class of English language genre author that has developed a steady fan following over the years. Each book they produce panders more and more to that following, rehashing proven formulas and tropes, further insulating their writing and their fans from everything else. For a reader outside of the target demographic, the problem isn’t that they “just don’t get it.” The problem is that there isn’t anything to fail to get—there’s no “there” there. It’s a reading experience that’s bland at its best and insufferable at its worst. It’s the book equivalent of a Marvel movie.

I will take a flawed, amateur novel experience over a Marvel movie book any day of the week. Bring on the crackpot conspiracy theories! Tell me all about graphene! Yes, bees are pretty cool! As long as you’re not advocating for violence or genocide, I’m here for it!

A Desolation Called Peace

This was another pick for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club, one of the few times we decided on a sequel. I touched on the first book, A Memory Called Empire, in my most recent GoodReads Roundup post. I wish I’d found the time to write a more in-depth review, but so it goes.

Cover of A Desolation Called Peace
Image courtesy Tor

Desolation follows fast on the heels of  MemoryVery fast. Memory focused on intrigue and the politics of empire and national sovereignty; Desolation takes that conflict and then throws it into a first contact scenario. Considering how much of a plot point the alien threat ended up being in Memory, part of me suspects that they started out as one single volume. If this is indeed the case, then I think the surgical separation went well. Memory had a satisfying, clearly demarcated ending. I would have been perfectly satisfied if I never got around to reading Desolation.

But I still loved A Desolation Called Peace.

Desolation takes our ambassador Mahit, freshly returned from the events of Memory, and throws her into acting as a negotiator and xenolinguist alongside her former cultural liaison, friend, and maybe-lover. The alien threat, meanwhile, is a good ol’ fashioned hivemind with an incomprehensible spoken language so hideous it induces vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, tensions are high at Mahit’s home station and she might not be welcome back. Like Memory, there is still plenty of casual bisexuality, intrigue, and lesbians.

Martine left herself an opening in the end of Desolation. Several openings. Maybe that’s job security on her part, or a cash grab on the part of her publisher. I choose to see them as a gift to the reader. Sometimes the vast imaginary potential of a story is better than any follow up.

Fiasco

My third Stanislaw Lem book comes by way of a gift-recommendation from a friend, possibly after he noticed The Cyberiad on my book pile last October.

Calling Fiasco “relentlessly pessimistic” is maybe a bit harsh, but only a bit. It’s a Stanislaw Lem novel, after all. Sometimes I want to talk about a book as soon as I finish it—I think most times I do—but this was a case where I re-read the last paragraph a few times, closed the book, and sat quietly for a while. I appreciate when a book makes me do that.

I think in the end, all I can say is that Fiasco was a more invigorating “first contact” take than Axiom’s End, which I read back in March and which is total garbage. Fiasco was also an unintentionally interesting choice to read right before another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick on the first contact train, A Desolation Called Peace. 

The Sea of Tranquility

The good book/bad book ratio for Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club has been a little wonky as of late. I insinuated a lot of very not-nice things about You Sexy Thing earlier; a couple books before that was Moira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep. We don’t usually get two stinkers in such close company (I don’t think?).

Cover of The Sea of Tranquility y
Image courtesy Knopf

Once bitten, twice shy, so I went into Sea of Tranquility  with no small amount of trepidation. I loved Station Eleven so now the stakes were higher. Would Mandel stick this landing? Or would this book suck and thereby lead to retroactive mixed feelings about a book I loved? (I also want to say that I’m glad I read Station Eleven before a devastating flu-like pandemic happened.)

Good news everybody! It didn’t suck!  There is so much in Sea of Tranquility to make it sci-fi, but as with what I think is the best kind of sci-fi, the point isn’t “story for the sake of cool sci fi ideas” but “using sci-fi ideas to tell an interesting story.” The entire story hinges on 1) a very pernicious and annoying pop philosophy “problem” and 2) time travel, but neither of those are really what the story is about. A lesser author would have exhausted the reader with their preferred solution to The Problem, or at least a detailed explanation of The Problem and its ramifications, while Mandel cuts through the Gordian knot of pontificating by telling a story that arises from The Problem but leaving any specific philosophizing or moralizing out of it.

The Space Between Worlds

I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.

The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions.  Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.

US edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
US cover, courtesy Crown

Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:

UK edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
UK cover, courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!

Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.

There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.

Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.

Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.

Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)

But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.