19 August 2018

Lemonade Easy: A Review of Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells

It's early - the sun having risen hours before still looms lightly in the sky, casting a waning summer glow to the trees beyond my windowpane. The house sleeps around me while I quietly sip my coffee, glancing to the splayed edition of the next Murderbot chronicle. There is something about summer reading that catches my eye - the books need to be quick, something I can plunge in and out from without distraction. Summer is my mental cleansing months - reading becomes a purely pleasurable experience reliant on whodunits and easy sci-fi. Sure, there was that intense moment when I drank up the The Three Body Problem, flailing in the deep end of conjecture and wonder, but mostly my summer has been lemonade-accompanied easy-reading. 

Rogue Protocol, third in The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells has our favourite anti-social, soap-opera loving SecUnit in mid-transport trying to hitch the right ride to Milu system. Having successfully hacked its system, living beyond the confines of a SecUnit's strict protocols, Murderbot had, for a brief period been living the rogue life - performing security for Company contracts, all while being a willing sentient individual with a heart. Constructs, SecUnits live outside humanity acting as the boogieman, the scary enforcer who will keep you safe, killing when necessary. Owned and operated by large corporations, SecUnits are treated as property, controlled by software to ensure public safety but more accurately the corporate bottom line. 
In the first novella, All Systems Red, Murderbot inadvertently entangles itself with a group of scientists who are meant never to leave off-planet alive. To save the team and itself, Murderbot casts off it's mask of indenture, so beginning it's crusade for justice against GrayCris.

I am having a whoop of good time following this slightly depressed, socially awkward cyborg reluctantly embrace its humanity. Will Murderbot find closure by slowly peeling away its layers of discontent and sadness? Martha Wells has captured the unique dilemma of a creature not quite human but very much a part of humanity. Although Murderbot has enjoyed endless hours stuffed into cargo holds, watching hours of streamed entertainment it is becoming more obvious this is more a coping strategy rather than a life-choice. When he meets a Bot named Miki whose child-like innocence reveals a touching relationship of trust with it's human owner, Murderbot is overwhelmed with a complex mixture of anger and longing. 

The Murderbot Diaries unpack the psychological complexity of the reluctant hero. Remarkably it is the relationships with the operating systems of elevators, ships, drones, cameras and the varying models of Bots that bring life to these novellas. There is something quite delightful about a Ship so bored by its massive intellect that it force friendship's Murderbot into entertaining it as it successfully instructs Murderbot how to be less scary. 

While the future of The Murderbot Diaries is seemingly far from our present day there are elements that ring true. That smart fridge in your kitchen that pings you with milk expiration messages could very well be judging your dietary decisions. The future is much closer than we believe - be kind to our future robot overlords.

10 May 2018

Mothers: A thank you

The world is soft again. Newly born lime green leaves dance in the wind, giving vibrancy to the very air I breathe. I drink in the green, as I walk my boy to school, melancholy because he doesn't want to hold my hand. It's a bittersweet blessing, these days in which he claims his independence, his personal space, his instance of his very self. My husband and I worked parent hard to arrive at this moment, and yet all I want is to hold his hand all the way as we discuss red tulips, Pokémon cards all intermixed with deeper questions regarding friendship and trust.

He is my world and my world is walking to his future. How can these past eight years hold me hostage, keeping my heart beating at a faster pace, all-consumed by this child's bright blue eyes, his dark curly lashes. He is gorgeous, complicated. He has made me more compassionate, fierce. He draws out my best and my very worst. 

This is motherhood.

Books continue to be my nemesis this spring, I can't seen to catch the science fiction bug, preferring to read current "literature" that oozes human drama backlit sadly in Florida without a generational ship in sight. Without a book I feel slightly less than, similar to visions of my future motherhood-self wondering how I will survive when the little hugs, cuddles and quick handholds disappear completely. How does my mother bear it as she looks at me? Is she trying to capture an image of her baby from 46 years ago in the woman I am today? Do we as mothers ever stop looking for our babies? 

Under the guise of safety, I will grab his hand this Mother's Day as we slowly walk to our favourite second-hand bookstore. It is gloriously dusty with rising piles of fiction. The very hazardous leanings beg you to stay just a little longer, entice you to buy just one more book. We will meet his Dad in the park to play soccer as I sit on bench, bask in my motherhood and thank the stars for these past 8 years. 

23 April 2018

Worth My Time: A Review of Artemis by Andy Weir

Only 8 a.m. and the kid has wandered outside eager to embrace the first sunny spring day.  I can feel the smack of the soccer ball being smashed up against the fence wondering when the 20something neighbours will kindly request him to lie in a little longer.  It's been a long haul here with ice storms in mid-April and dreary winter coats decorating hooks that should be drying raincoats. The thermometer rose to a balmy 10 C degrees yesterday.  Pandemonium as people flung themselves onto sidewalks in a disarray of toques with shorts intent on feeling wind that promised not to freeze their grins in place. 

The annual hosing of the deck took place at 2. A momentous occasion in this household, topped with the first BBQ and a bevy or two, winter's last vestiges washed quietly away. Lawn chairs magically appeared as a strong desire to just sit and read until the sun slowly made it's way West settled down up on me. Summer is all about a tree, a good bench and a book. Day-dreaming of green things, I flipped through Artemis, Andy Weir's sophomore novel desperate to read one developed sentence. 

I gave up when the protagonist found it necessary to disguise herself as a prostitute. 

Jazz Bashira immigrated with her father to the Moon city of Artemis at the age of 6. She was a sweet child, quick, and full of promise to someday work along side her father as welder. That was then. Wandering the corridors of Artemis we quickly discover that her place in this small town is not favourable. Renting a single coffin bed in one of the poorer areas Jazz works as a porter, fixated on increasing her self-worth and fortune side shuffling as a smuggler. Delivering the latest contraband cigars to the richest man in town, Jazz is offered a job that would answer all her dreams.

My annoyance of this book has me stopped in my writing tracks. I could discuss the paradigm of the frontier town. It's wiliness to work outside of the law to produce a productive economy, even society. If I was bothered, I could unpack Jazz herself, unconsciously clothing herself as a tough woman running from her past mistakes into new ones, all the while simply wanting love and acceptance. I could chip away at the idea of Moon city, one of Sci-Fi’s oldest and enduring tropes. 

I won't, however the book isn't worth my time. 

15 April 2018

Rebooting My Sci-Fi Brain

Like my breakfast pairing of coffee with jellybeans my recent reading weeks have been everything but ordinary. Months of disenchantment with my book piles, I have rambled through March/April holding resolute to obscure Agatha Christie short stories. With the myriad of choice in science fiction why do I shipwreck myself on Mystery Island so frequently? 

The finalists for the The Hugo Awards rather than pique my interest has me grasping for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland like a talisman of literary inspiration. Sorry but not sorry, American popular speculative fiction is all that I am desperate to avoid. For years my reading lists have been peppered by Clarke nominations, sprinkled on top with a few solid Canadian writers, all the while patiently waiting to see what springs from The Kitschies

Has my geeky love for science fiction finally run dry? If I am not this girl, the Mom in the playground buried deep in a space operatic adventure lost to the nuances of daily life, then who am I? There is nothing direr than a reader without a reading purpose. As a sub-species, the 'bookless' reader mopes through the hours of the day, bewildered, definitely rattled, awash in loneliness. "I have nothing to read!" bounces through the reader's soul pounding in the necessity to share the desperation to anyone in visual proximity. An annoyance of the sub-species, the lamentations serve purpose, drawing forth recommendations and driving the species to visit second-hand bookstores, library stacks and internet lists which  feed the publishing system, completing the circle of reading life.

I am everything and nothing without a book. 

So what indeed, as I lament on the beaches of Mystery Island have I succumbed to read? There was that fortuitous moment when I grabbed a second-hand copy of The Great Gatsby, acclimatizing myself to the grandeur of the American Dream, wondering if we all just stopped the pursuit what our world would become. Nick Carraway's glimpse into the privileged heart, accessible only as a second-hand friend, serving as narrator reflects to us the decadence that was post-war New-York. The Jazz Age beat continuously, striving to forget The Great War masking the depths of grief through a haze of booze, drugs and seemingly endless rising of fortunes. Through the veils of wealth, the agony of the human heart is revealed in all its petty, fragile glory.  

This is novel stimulated my reading brain, pursued me to grab non-fiction books on psychology, on parenting, led me to Lewis Carroll, willed me to read current best-selling authors found in airport magazine stands. Stranded on Mystery Island has quieted my SF genre heart, permitting me to explore and just read. 

23 March 2018

Revisit: A Review of A Wrinkle in Time,

Succumbing to trend, I am revisiting an old classic.The newly released Hollywood film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time has led me to my third floor bookcase in search of my dusty copy. I must somehow identify with this book again, erase the earwig of Oprah hearing a voice in the universe, and properly evaluate my perspective without popular distractions. The probability of me watching the film is slight having a phobia of movies ruining a good book - This is I desperately staying on topic without addressing every adaptation of Dune. Are not books to be imagined? Truly, the printed word in essence is enough? 

I was one of those children who at breakfast would prop a book up against the milk carton, even read the carton for those dire days when a book was not at hand. James and the Giant Peach defined me, as did Crunchy chocolate bars, salt n' vinegar chips and cream soda pop. The definition of young girl's heart beats deep with junk food specializations, a deep love of purple and her favourite book. My elementary years were spent laughing riotously along with the hijinks being had at Macdonald Hall, visualizing what could possibly be through the wardrobe and sleuthing along with Nancy.  And yet, my reading self somehow never came across Madeleine L'Engle's The Time Quintet. Surely, someone failed me in my past and so I righted this wrong reading A Wrinkle in Time in my late 30s and promptly forgetting it. This gap in memory lures me back, that and Oprah and Reese, let us not forget Reese. 

Where is Mr. Murry? Two years of town gossip, and still his family insists he hasn't left them for another woman. Sporting another black eye, Meg returns home from school. If it isn't defending her absentee father then it's the snide remarks about her baby brother Charles Wallace, Meg's young life is full of turmoil. That night listening to the howls of a storm thrash against the old farmhouse, Meg retreats to the safely of the kitchen for a glass of cocoa. As expected, Charles Wallace, her baby brother of merely four is waiting not only for her but her mother. As the three set upon their midnight snacks, a witch appears, having blown off course by the storm. 

Any critique of a cherished children's book is fraught with complications. Our childhood books encapsulate our dreams, memories and wonder. Any revisit of a classic could possibly unhinge the magical quality the book once held. I read A Wrinkle in Time with soft eyes, careful in my harsh science fiction gaze, hoping to realign with my 10-year-old self. Is the story of Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin an allegoric tale of the importance of family, an identification of self, or a multi-faceted exploration of the space time continuum, questioning the role of God and our place in the universe? 

With many a science fiction book I open, time travel to the fifth dimension has less to do with the physics and much more to do with our humanity. The alien qualities of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, even Aunt Beast provide the main characters with the tools to find the inherent truths to life. A Wrinkle in Time is in essence a story about love. Although my adult self found the reading flat, less opulent in fantastic descriptors than I enjoy, A Wrinkle in Time continues to shine. It revels in the splendour of possibilities, all while speaking with intention to children. 

26 January 2018

Not Okay: A Discussion of Grief and the Books That Helped

Serendipitous factors always deliver the right book to the top of my reading stack. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, followed by Lois Metzger's YA novel, Change Places With Me encapsulate the intensity of grief. Ove, a curmudgeon, surly enough to claim king of the cranky old man castle woke one Tuesday morning without purpose. This is a funny, odd book about an odd, funny man who doggedly attempts to quiet his mourning widower's heart. In Change Places With Me we swing to the teenager, lost without her father, freezing the pain, and subsequently herself. Rose, or is it Clara sleeps in late, childishly giddy with wanting to explore the wonders of her world. As we walk along her high school hallways, we as with Rose begin to notice that not all is what it seems. Ove, and Rose have lost someone, as they meander through and around their anguish, they reluctantly embrace their sorrows, learning to live again. 

A great writer died on Monday. And while I have read only one of her books, Ursula Le Guin’s passing has left me glum. Not delusional regarding my role in her life, the emotions conjured by her death honour my melancholy as I continue to walk the road of my grief. 

Eugene Everett Best died September 16, 2016 - it took me, his daughter one year to arrive at my own season of sorrow.

The autumn of 2017, the acceptance of my loss filled me with oppressing heartache. Anxiety crept in like a cancer, holding me hostage as I cried alone, looking out my living room window as the leaves gradually turned from green to orange. School morning drop-offs, I circled the blocks of my downtown neighbourhood, gasping for breath, attempting to lay back claim to my lungs that seemed imprisoned in spinning fear. I continued to maintain a shell of normality, keeping fit, smiling when deemed appropriate, willing to laugh, to crack the joke, drink that coffee even when the bitterness rang to the bottom of my toes. 

I began to question happiness, intently curious if the emotion was achievable once one’s heart exploded. Surely the serenity permeating from my acquaintances, friends and strangers was an abnormality conjured by their own dismay? Gradually, I began to substantiate my life in two fractured parts: the Holly with a father, and the Holly Without.

The Holly Without transitioned to the beginning flurries of winter with a scream locked at the top of her throat. That siren of sadness needed to escape but the shame of not feeling better kept it at bay. When someone dies, people legitimately want to ease the burden of the bereaved; flowers sent, casseroles made, hugs given all within an acceptable period that too quickly closes. Time, as the adage claims does not heal. Each second the clock ticks is a reminder of how long it has been since I last spoke with my Dad. Time was a curse, not the conceived Band-Aid that everyone assumed it to be. And then the day came, as days do come to pass when the barriers crashed down around me, and I confessed to my mother, standing on a bustling city street, that I was not okay.

I wasn’t okay. The very utterance of the word unhinged the scream, and I willingly wanted to make myself whole again. Where to start, counselling was a startling daunting process that I barely could navigate, books on mourning, prescribed reading torture. Eventually I honed my circle for help into a tighter, more malleable process by cloaking myself in honesty. I began to share my truth. Confessing myself as not okay, unhinged some friendships; sadness is an emotion few of us are willing to be comfortable with, let alone allow in a friend. The loss of a few people in my life gradually made room for me to find myself. 

We all have our story of grief, our moments of not being okay. I am a daughter, eternally grateful for my father's love, finally able to walk down my own road to happiness. Sad days come, but they no longer define me.

12 January 2018

Murderbot: A Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

There is no better adjective for today but disgusting. The rain gods must surely love Toronto as they have showered down their love for 24 hrs. My kitchen view expands out onto a dreary, grey-soaked winter day, snow banks depressingly vanquished, debris sadly on display all the while the mercury plummets. We have been promised an ice palace by this evening, one that no one wishes to enter, least of all visit by car.  Standing outside my library branch, damp and windswept my thoughts jumbled from the morning argument with child regarding appropriate garments to Murderbots. 

The nominations for 2018's Philip K. Dick award for science fiction novels published in the United States for the previous year were released. A living breathing paradox, my very geeky science fiction proclivities extend not to the conventions, awards and publishing houses that make what I love available. Indeed, Arthur C. Clarke and the tantalizing lists that have come out of The Kitschies have only recently piqued my interests, giving momentum to my recent year's reading piles. Sorry for the dis Hugo, but this girl is just not into you. Yet, here I sit having read one of the nominees, debating whether to continue with my planned review, feeling slightly annoyed that an award has deemed it reading worthy. 

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is an adequately satisfying read for a novella, providing enough world building to enrich the reader's imagination but brief enough to encapsulate a mood fully. Truthfully, the time spent between waiting for the second book of a trilogy to arrive through the library hold system can be a bleak experience. The pull of the first novel is so complete that any book read in the interim can be lost, used mostly as filler. Not so is the case with All Systems Red, the confessions of government SecUnit gone rogue, who darkly refers to himself/herself as Murderbot. 

This is a future in which sentient constructs of synthetic and organic parts exist to fulfill specific societal roles. Not quite a robot, defiantly not human, our Murderbot is in security, owned and hired out to protect the corporation's contractual obligations for myriad of clientele. On an unexplored planet, Murderbot contentedly streams hours of hacked entertainment feeds, successfully convincing the small survey team it works for that it is a focused, professional SecUnit. Things begin to unravel as it becomes clear that someone wishes them all harm. 

The Murderbot Diaries have an Isaac Asimov, 'I, Robot' quality, interlaced with a twang of Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep'. Because it is a novella, information that would normally develop is eluded to, giving All Systems Red a real-time perspective. We meet Murderbot, speculate on his/her existence, and surmise that Murderbot is more than the constructed parts he/she presents to the world. Martha Wells has created a powerfully humane sentient being, alarmingly alien yet complex enough that we want to be his/her friend. I look forward to the movie that hopefully will spawn from this little gem of a book. I have a deep desire to see a meaningfully deep science fiction film, sprinkled with murder and mayhem.