Apr. 16th, 2017

juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
Title: Anathem
Author: Neal Stephenson
Published: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008
Rating: 2 of 5
Page Count: 955
Total Page Count: 213,570
Text Number: 649
Read Because: co-read with Teja, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Off-world influence forever alters life for the citizens of Arbre and its math-based monastic order. Math-as-philosophy/-as-speculative-concept/-as-worldbuilding is unique and engaging, and kudos to Stephenson for also making it accessible. There's an attempt to balance the math-heavy sections with daily detail, but these details are boring and there's a sincere dearth of interesting characters or interactions (or women); the worldbuilding is clumsy, especially the use of language, and I don't entirely buy the plot (in particular, the importance of human consciousness). A book this long and obnoxiously dense needs to be a virtuoso work. This isn't. Dump the first 50 pages and the middle action sequences, trim it to about 400 pages, and there's some clever concepts worth exploring. But as it is, it's in no ways enjoyable, nor worth the effort.


Title: China Mountain Zhang
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Published: Orb Books, 1997 (1992)
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Page Count: 315
Total Page Count: 213,885
Text Number: 650
Read Because: recommended by Kalanadi, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: After Chinese-headed socialism has become the leading world power, "Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks." This is a local, personal-scale novel about individuals surviving within a larger political and social climate that's not quite a dystopia. It can be awful to read, occasionally in predictable or problematic-adjacent ways, and requires trigger warnings for rape and queer suicide. But neither is it tragedy porn; there's mundanity and profundity, too, and an emphasis on sanctuaries and the personal narratives that persist in any setting. The stories of the ensemble cast overlap, but not too neatly; not every section is equally strong, but there's a surprising amount of flow. Worldbuilding is secondary to these aspects without being coy. This is a quiet, unassuming book, and a sincere success.


Title: When the Moon Was Ours
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Published: Thomas Dunne Books, 2016
Rating: 4 of 5
Page Count: 290
Total Page Count: 214,175
Text Number: 651
Read Because: recommended by literarymagpie, ebook borrowed from the Multnomah County Library
Review: Miel and Sam have been friends ever since she was found in a water tower as a child; now adolescents, their coming of age is sparked by Miel's magical curse, Sam's gender identity, and their burgeoning romance. There's a lean towards the delineated and repetitive in the imagery and character growth—a larger cast or more precise sense of place may have made the work broader and the themes less blatant. But it's all so fundamentally good as to overcome that weakness. The pumpkins and moons, the descriptions of food and color and scent, are lush and beautiful without slipping into pure purple prose. Everything about Sam's gender is handled with grace and respect,* and the cultural and racial diversity, exploration of women's power, depictions of racism and appropriation and self-presentation, are well-interrogated and complex while still providing a positive, productive resolution. This is a profoundly beautiful book, in style—which is best delivered in bite-sizes, which the chapter length encourages—as well as content. I recommend it.

* Miel's trauma isn't as successfully portrayed—while Sam's identity feels like a lived experience, Miel's history feels more metaphorical, to its detriment.


Anathem was Teja's suggestion, part of a list of books he brought with him while traveling, the only book he ended up getting to because of its grinding length; I power-read it for the sake of being done with it, and then ignored the rest of his SF-by-dudes TBR to read three books—two of them reviewed above—that were by/about women and/or PoC and which I knew would have a localized focus on actual characters and/or beautiful, intentional language. Those were not the fundamental flaws of Anathem—that would be worldbuilding and pacing—but they were the ones I most desperately needed to counteract.

And those three books were, independently, quite good; and they felt bonus extra good for the fact that almost anything with any competency would have at that point seemed amazing.

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