An interview with Kameron Hurley about her new novel Empire Ascendant
Exploding Spaceship: The universe of the Worldbreaker Saga has multiple cultures and you even have parallel world versions of those cultures. As writers ourselves, it seems a daunting task to keep everything straight when you are writing. How do you keep track of the cultural differences between parallel worlds?
Kameron Hurley: The worlds are actually very different – it’s the characters who share faces. Which may sound like it’s even more confusing until you realize how I build my novels. I often start with a character and then figure out what type of a world would have made that person into who they are – then I build the world around them. This was very true of the mercenary Nyx in my God’s War novels, too. I came up with the line “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert,” and I wanted to figure out what type of a world would produce that sort of person. Who would do something like that so casually? Everything that was the world of Umayma came from that, driven by her act.
This world was very similar, in that I had the characters of Ahkio and Lilia – an amorous young man with no interest in a title who teaches ethics to shepherds and a plain-faced young scullery girl with no family who dreams of a more compelling life – in my mind long before what would become the final version of the world of Raisa. Originally I didn’t find the world very compelling, and the narrative fell flat again and again. There was nothing to make the book stand out from any other fantasy book. When I went back and started building a world of sentient plants and satellite magic and polyamorous societies around them, the characters made more sense and the story was far more compelling.
To make the alternate world, I started again with the different versions of the characters, who needed to be single minded and ruthless. Whereas I had a pacifist polyamorous culture in a more or less predictably non-cataclysmic climate in one world that made one set of characters who they were, I created a militant, hierarchical culture with far more strict marriage rules and death raining down from the sky for the alternate. This had the result of realistically creating just the sorts of characters I needed to wage a genocidal campaign of attrition.
As for how I actually keep track of them, circling back to that question – I do have a wiki that my assistant maintains. It includes entries for any characters that have two (or more!) versions, and gives a brief rundown of their individual histories (or untimely demises).
ES: Your different cultures deal with genders in very different ways and some characters seem to have issues with pronoun usage, particularly when one culture doesn’t have the same gender definitions as the culture in which they are comfortable. We have similar issues in the real world and some languages deal with this much better than English does. Did you use any real world examples to help you define how your cultures deal with gender? Can you point to any useful resources on this issue that would be helpful for other writers in developing their own alien cultures’ gender descriptions? Read the rest of this entry »
Review of The Last Witness by K.J. Parker (Tor.com October 6, 2015)
This is a first person point-of-view story about a man who can look into people’s heads and remove memories. He feels and remembers all the things he removes, and thus has many unpleasant experiences stored in his head, because those are the most common type of memory that people want to lose. Some people also want no one to know their secrets and they trust the memory-yanking man more than they do their associates. This type of work puts him at odds with some of his partners when he wants to retire to the country.
It turns out the man’s talent has profound implications for his family, and when faced with the situation he has to look at his life in a new way. The main character is profoundly unpleasant and treats many people like dirt, so it is not really a surprise that others don’t like him; they only tolerate him because of his talent. He is only likable when he puts his talent aside.
The concept of what the main character can do is interesting, but Your Humble Reviewers found no one in the novella to be particularly likeable. The setting wasn’t really present except as a place for the story to occur, just a backdrop with very little depth.
So far this has been the [Tor.com Publishing] novella we have liked the least: it isn’t bad, just sort of ho-hum. Neither the setting nor the characters grabbed us; the only thing you are left with is the man’s weird memory-yanking talent, which is interesting but without the character and setting to back it up was not sufficient for a good read.
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Review of Windswept by Adam Rakunas (Angry Robot, September 1, 2015)
This story chronicles the adventures of Padma Mehta, a labor organizer on an alien planet which has a very restricted economy that depends upon the growth of a single plant species. The plant is sent off-world by the ton because it is used for energy/fuel for modern technology. Corporations have workers who are really slaves (sounds familiar, right?). Independent union workers, corporate slaves, crop failures, and bad liquor make for an exciting backdrop for Padma to try to save the planet.
She meets some interesting people from off-planet and finds out some secrets about people she thought were acquaintances, friends, or enemies. Padma has a history of sleep problems because of a bad sleep drug that was given to her for interstellar travel, and this causes her to self-medicate more than is really a good idea. Padma is saving her money to buy a rum distillery which would solve two problems: employment and alcohol supply. She gets accused of crimes she did not commit and must solve the murder and sort out the weird plant disease in order to clear herself. Every time she has to pay a fine or bribe someone during the investigation she gets more frustrated as her savings shrink.
The universe of Windswept is definitely not a nice place to live, although it is very interesting and complex place. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is tremendous and the middle class seems to have shrunk to basically nothing. The real world is headed this way, but is not as bad as this setting. The characters do have hope though, and there are some people fighting against the worst of the corporate slave culture. For all of its showcasing the worst of the corporate world, the book is rather upbeat. Padma is a tough woman fighting to get herself and others out of the corporate rat race. Read the rest of this entry »
Review of A Red-Rose Chain by Seanan McGuire (Daw, September 1, 2015)
This is the ninth October Daye novel. She is engaged to the King of Cats, Tybalt, and in this volume their relationship deepens as they both realize losing the other one would be horrible. A crazy woman has evented a way to put fae to sleep for one hundred years by using something called an elf-shot arrow, and a neighboring kingdom seems to think that is an excellent way to get rid of problem people like October and her crew. They try to avoid getting shot while also working on a cure to wake those who have already been shot before they miss any more time.
While all this is going on, October has been sent on a mission as a diplomat to stop a war (and yes, the characters in the book think it is funny too)! This involves a trip to Portland, which was quite well-done. Having just visited there prior to acquiring the novel, many of the quaint shops and weird things October saw seemed quite familiar.
We find out quite a bit of history of the setting in this volume, including details about Walther the alchemist that we didn’t know previously. Spike the rose goblin goes on the road trip with them and we learn more about his species in this volume too. Quentin the squire has to make some choices about when and how it is appropriate to endanger himself, since he is the crown prince; we also we get a glimpse of some of his tastes in clothes and culture in this story. Some local Portland people of Faerie make guest appearances and are quite a contrast some from other locales, so it would be interesting to see them visit in later volumes.
As much urban fantasy as Your Humble Reviewers get asked to review, it is rare that we go out and start an existing series in order to be in a position to review the new volume. We liked this one enough to do that when it was on volume eight! Having already been sucked into Seanan’s other work via short stories and the InCryptid series, the covers, blurbs, and reviews of the October Daye stories made us want to read about her. Toby’s world is rich and vibrant, so detailed you feel like you are in it. Seanan uses just enough real world info to make you feel that if you went to that part of the city, you could find the Faerie things there. Toby is a jeans-leather-jacket-comfy boots kind of girl, so we identified with her right away. We find her discomfort with getting her clothes magically changed to dresses and hatred of having to put on finery for court to be a more reasonable response to being thrust into a princess world than the response of most urban fantasy heroines. Read the rest of this entry »
Review of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com, September 22, 2015)
Binti is the adventure of a young woman leaving her tribe behind to accept admission to a university off Earth. Her tribe, the Himba, doesn’t have access to much un-salted water so they wash with a special mixture of red mud and oils. They cover their bodies and hair with it. No one from her tribe has ever gone to the prestigious Oozma Uni.
Binti travels on a space ship full of other students and soon finds the other math nerds. They settle into a routine and she even finds a young man to admire. However, their ship is attacked by aliens who broke the peace treaty with the humans. It turns out that humans stole something belonging to the chief alien and he wants it back. Binti only learns this after she uses some old technology to communicate with the aliens, who are called the Meduse. She communicates with a young adult Meduse named Okwu and manages to stay alive until they are almost to Oozma Uni. Her old technology can also be used to destroy the Meduse so she must set it aside. She is changed so she can communicate without the technology which can destroy Meduse and speaks as their ambassador to the sentients at Oozma Uni.
Binti has to be one of the most interesting and unusual characters in all of science fiction. I love that she is female and has unbelievable math skills; as an engineer I find it difficult to understand the common perceptions regarding girls and math, since obviously they don’t apply to me. It was great to find a young adult female character to whom they obviously don’t apply, either! She even has skills with making devices, which makes her a totally cool techie girl too.
Her heritage and family background make her desire to go off-planet even more interesting, and the explanations of her culture were very educational as well as interesting. Sometimes the cultures you aren’t part of on earth can be just as amazing as an alien one written in a science fiction setting. This story has a great helping of both types!
We had better see Binti again, as Okorafor left us hanging with her just calling her mother from Oozma Uni for the first time. All we know is that mom picked up the call! So the next story had better arrive really soon! Also, someone needs to make Binti art so we can see her new hair and her interesting clothes. Perhaps we can get a full body shot of her and Okwu on a future cover?
If you love Janet Edward’s Earthgirl series, or Brenda Cooper’s generation ship novels, then you better buy this gem of a novella right away! All lovers of science fiction adventure will want to read this wonderful story.
Review of Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss (Tor.com September 15, 2015)
This is the story of the warrior Cete and the seamtress with whom he fell in love. He was attracted to her shop by a beautiful mantle which he is told was paid for but not bought . Marelle lives in Reach Antach and Cete joins the Antach Army in order to buy a work from her.
Things don’t go so well for Cete after the army musters out. His relationship with Marelle had advanced to him visiting her shop almost daily before the army went into battle. She ends up taking him to her house after he receives a beating but he gets upset because they aren’t married and she could be shamed by his presence. Ever the practical woman, Marelle promptly returns with a priest to marry them! She links her fate to Cete’s by marrying him. They both must help save the Reach from traitorous army officers who hate Cete because he exposed their plans.
The cultures in the setting are just hinted at in some cases but clearly there are many tribes and many towns, all with their own ways. Cete is a warrior who loves beautiful embroidery, so the two sides of his nature are clear from the first scene. Both sides of him exert an influence on his behavior, making him a complex character who commands others in war but also loves spending time at home. He is able to motivate the non-warriors of the Reach to fight to defend their families because his nature allows him to see what would push their anger forward to save them all.
Cete and Marelle have a wonderful relationship and they are left with opportunities at the end of the novella, so hopefully we will see them again!
This novella looks at the issues of lawful orders versus ethical orders. Should an officer follow someone’s orders if he knows they are a traitor? Anyone who loves low tech military battles, or military fantasy will appreciate the well-done ones here. Also, the cost of the war to the people of both sides is quite clear and is not glossed over at all.
The Exploding Spaceship Reviews Dawnbreaker, His Father’s Eyes, Waterborne Exile, and The End of All ThingsPosted: 14 September, 2015
Review of Dawnbreaker: Legends of the Duskwalker Book Three by Jay Posey (Angry Robot Books, August 4, 2015)
This is the third volume of Cass and Wren’s story. This time they spend much of the story apart, so we have separate narratives. Wren leaves Greenstone with Three’s training brother Haiku and goes off to the tower where they live in order to be trained. He learns a great deal from Three’s teacher but most of what he learns is about himself. He becomes more confident and secure in himself and much more independent. After the decisions he must make in the final battle, Wren is no longer a child, but a small size man.
Cass is fighting to stay alive because Asher can track her. She and Gamble’s group get attacked several times and once Cass realizes she is being tracked she sends Gamble off to Wren (or where she thinks Wren is). Gamble’s group go to Greenstone and they and all the local bigwigs help form a plan for defense since the city guard refuse to believe an attack is imminent. Cass and Wren head to Greenstone for the final confrontation with Asher.
The two viewpoint characters in the book, Cass and Wren, have grown and changed over the course of the series, and both are vastly different at the end of this volume than they were at the beginning of it. Because Wren is a child, showing the changes he goes through without sacrificing his childlike qualities is a difficult stunt to pull off. The author does a good job of making him more responsible and able to strategize and do some things above his age because of the training, but shows that Wren still wants to be a child at the end of the day, and this shows in the choices Wren makes. Cass has to be able to let Wren go in order to protect him and in the end this allows her to learn more about herself as well since Wren isn’t there to do some tasks for her.
This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction story which feels sort of like an urban fantasy. There is fighting in amongst buildings and the characters explore urban areas. There is hidden tech which the bad guys use and the good guys want to destroy. There is extensive use of guns and even little Wren fires one in this book. If you like urban fantasy or low-tech science fiction then this would suit you. It is a character story, primarily focused on a mother and the fight between her two sons, one of whom has gone completely into the digital world and in order to get his little brother threatens their entire known universe. You really want to root for Cass and Wren and hope they can save the last remnants of civilization. It will be interesting to see if both mother and son enter the training tower of Three’s teacher in another book.