My August-September 2021 Reads

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers (2021) Book cover - I was excited to read this since the “Wayfarers” series has now ended, and given the subtitle (“A Monk and Robot Book”), it looks like this is planned to be the new series. I liked it but it felt a little rushed–I wish the concept had been given more room to breathe (it’s less than 200 pages). Panga is a cool setting, both for its solarpunk aesthetic and for its interesting history (sort of a non-violent Butlerian jihad). And I think Chambers’s portrayal of the robots through the character of Mosscap is quite original. In the latter part of the book we get a lot of Dex and Mosscap having philosophical conversations, and I would have enjoyed having more of that–I didn’t mind the relative lack of plot!

Trese: Bloodlines, vol. 1, Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (2021) - I’m a big Trese fan and was glad to see another book after finishing the Netflix series. But, I felt like this volume was just OK, and assuming the “vol. 1” indicates that another volume is on the way, I’m not sure I’d buy it. This book is a series of “episodes” focusing on other members of the Trese family. I think Alexandra’s brothers are good as supporting characters, but not so good as leads. What I would really love to see is a book more specifically focused on Alexandra’s father Anton, or even further back in time (similar to the “Alejandro Pardo” books).

The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004) - I felt like I stretched out the four “Steerswoman” books as long as I could, because I love them and I didn’t want to be done–but upon reflection, it was less than two years. On the plus side, Kirstein says books 5 and 6 are in the works; on the minus side, it’s been 14 years since book 4 was published! Anyway–this one reunites the core book 1 party of Rowan, Bel, and Will, who are separated to varying degrees in books 2 and 3. I did miss the main supporting characters from book 3, Steffie and Zenna, although we get some pretty good new supporting characters (including the first acknowledged same-sex couple) and the return of some from all the way back in book 1. While the whole series has a backdrop of technology-understood-as-magic, this book leans the hardest into it–book 1 bascially introduces the idea through several clues, but then book 2 focuses more on Outskirter culture and ecology, and book 3 on demon society and language. I think Kirstein is good at writing all of these, but I found books 2 and 3 to be more engaging as investigations because the reader doesn’t have relevant outside knowledge and is in the same epistemological situation as Rowan for the most part. The only real negative, though, is that so many things remain to be resolved in the remaining unpublished volumes!

Planting for Wildlife, Jane Moore (2021) - As a new homeowner with a strong interest in gardening, this book caught my eye (at the excellent Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine). It’s a non-technical book that I think very effectively makes wildlife gardening seem inviting and fun. There are some very practical suggestions, and although the book is a little bit UK-centric, I think it’s pretty applicable for someone in the northeastern US such as me. The author is REALLY into hedgehogs (which unfortunately are not a thing in North America).

Dark Skies, Daniel Deudney (2020) - A very interesting book that I’d like to write more about at some point. Deudney casts a critical eye on the “manifest destiny” or, in his terms, Tsiolkovskian vision of human colonization of the stars (also Lauren Olamina’s vision!). This is a vision that I grew up on as a kid (Marshall Savage’s book The Millennial Project was a huge influence on me), so I was curious about the critique. Deudney argues, pretty compellingly I think, that the optimistic view of space colonization glosses over a lot of risks that are inherent in the biological and geographic features of near-earth and solar space. Prominent among these are the ease of bombarding the earth with asteroids from other locations in solar space, and the authoritarian/hierarchical political affinities of life within a very circumscribed and fragile containerized habitat. Deudney offers in place of the colonization program a much more modest space program focused on enhancing planetary security. I doubt we will get any billionaires interested in it, but I think his views are a worthy corrective to Mars colony boosterism.

Trafik, Rikki Ducornet (2021) - This book caught my eye in Hello Hello Books as well, but honestly it probably would have been a DNF if it weren’t so short. The writing style is very wacky/madcap, and there’s not much of any plot. The most similar thing I’ve read is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but in my recollection (it was a long time ago) even that was much more readable for me.

Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas Tallamy (2019) - This was an interesting book, with a couple of big shortcomings. Tallamy makes a pretty clear case for why it’s important to grow native species in a yard/garden, which I had never seen spelled out before–basically, since animals and plants co-evolve, if you plant non-native species, the area becomes in many ways a desert for the local fauna. I appreciated that it’s more than just an aesthetic/cultural idea. The book was a good, more technical complement to “Planting for Wildlife.” But now for the shortcomings. First, Tallamy’s proposed solution to the biodiversity crisis, the eponymous “best hope,” seems wildly inadequate to the scale of the problem. He basically says that individual homeowners should plant more native species in their yards, and he calls this “Homegrown National Park.” I have to imagine this was just a cute idea to make the book more accessible. Habitat loss is a collective action problem, and voluntary individual action isn’t going to solve it. In particular, Tallamy spends a fair amount of time describing why isolated natural environments aren’t sufficient to preserve biodiversity, but that’s exactly what’s likely to happen with voluntary private action. To be fair, he does talk some about trying to influence local HOA rules, but again, it just seems inadequate to the scale of the problem.

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein (1989) - This was a re-read, and the first pick for a sci-fi/fantasy book club I convened. It was really fun to introduce the series to friends, as well as to revisit the first volume after just finishing the fourth. For the most part, I enjoyed the book as much as I did on the first read, and enjoyed picking up on several things that I had missed the first time, in light of events in later books. It’s awesome to read a fantasy series where the author has clearly planned out the entire plot in advance, so is able to drop clues and references early on that are paid off in later books. I didn’t even remember the scene of Bel giving Rowan a tarot reading, but it’s clear that Kirstein is using that to signal several things about the ultimate plot! I only had one new criticism of the book, which is that having Rowan temporarily renounce her Steerswoman status so early in the series is kind of a strange choice, when that status is so important to the series and to her character. We’ve barely had a chance to see how a Steerswoman operates, and then those rules are temporarily thrown out the window. I think this development would have been more effective if introduced later in the series–for example, after we’ve had a chance to see Rowan’s strict adherence to the rules of the guild cause complications.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Imbalance, Faith Erin Hicks (2018 - 2019) - The last in the original run of Avatar comics bridging the period between ATLA and Legend of Korra. This series is sort of the final origin story for Republic City and introduces the bender/non-bender tension that drives the plot of the first season of LoK (which is still like 70 years in the future, a lot of time for something like that to remain unresolved!). I appreciated that Hicks dropped the “sweetie-sweetie” Aang-Katara vibe that we got in the earlier Gene Yang series, which I thought was a big misstep. I also appreciated that these books questioned just how “nonviolent” Aang’s removal of Ozai’s bending ability at the end of ATLA really was. I’d love to see a new series set later in the period between shows, with the original cast as adults–but I appreciate why that would be a pretty risky proposition.

Dawn, Octavia Butler (1987) - Read with my sf/f book club. This was a worthwhile read, but I didn’t like it as much as Parable of the Sower/Talents. Butler got me into a paranoid headspace where I repeatedly guessed that things weren’t what they were purported to be, though ultimately they were. Similar to PotS/T, Dawn investigates the process of human community building, but under much more artificial circumstances and, I think, with less interesting results. I also didn’t find Lilith to be as compelling of a protagonist as Lauren Olamina (though that’s a pretty high bar, to be fair).