Tuesday, 18 February 2020

"The Light Of Impossible Stars" Shines Brightly

Compulsively readable, The Light Of Impossible Stars is the engaging capstone to Gareth Powell’s
Image via Amazon.com
delightful Embers Of War trilogy.

Following the events of Embers Of War and Fleet of Knives, this concluding novel finds the crew of the Trouble Dog and their allies fleeing from the ancient alien armada they unleashed over the previous two books.

Each sequel in the Embers Of War trilogy takes a hard 90 degree turn from the previous book, both thematically and narratively. The universe changes and lines of conflict are redrawn, providing characters with opportunities to explore loss, grief, and redemption.

The rapid-fire short chapter structure of these novels, along with the breezy first-person narration, continues to provide momentum. Although some point-of-view characters (Nod, Trouble Dog) stand out for their noticeably different voices, there are times when other narrators sound confusingly similar in approach.

More than the previous volumes, The Light Of Impossible Stars seems to oscillate between the military SF subgenre, and the xenoarchaeology subgenre. While the chapters dedicated to Trouble Dog’s crew are largely the former, the introduction of a new setting and a new protagonist, Cordelia Pa, gives Powell the chance to don an Indiana Jones fedora.

One of the most delightful aspects of the Embers Of War trilogy has been revelling in the quirky xenoarchaeology locations and artefacts: The Gallery, The Marble Armada, The Generation Ship “Restless Itch for Foreign Soil.” The chapters featuring Cordelia Pa delve deeper into these ancient aliens and big dumb objects in space, than either previous book does.

Set on a series of artificial metal worlds called “The Plates,” Pa’s adventures (and those of her
Gareth Powell has a reputation for
being one of the nicest people on Twitter.
(Image via Twitter)  
brother) provide welcome details of the now-long-extinct Hearther civilization, and a perspective on what life is like outside of the House of Redemption. It is evident that the author has put a lot of care and thought into the history of this universe. This care pays off in The Light Of Impossible Stars.

There are portions of the novel that seem extraneous to the overall plot; Trouble Dog’s detour to the Druff homeworld seemed irrelevant, and the few chapters dealing with Cordelia Pa’s brother Michael feel a little out-of-place. Thankfully, the short chapters and accessible prose keep the narrative pace up even during these odd detours.

One of the great joys of getting invested in a well-planned and thoughtfully crafted trilogy like this one is seeing the characters grow and evolve over time. Powell has the storytelling maturity and courage to guide readers through character actions with drawn-out consequences that resonate across multiple novels. Easy resolutions to character arcs are avoided, creating tension and moments of drama.

As a trilogy, Embers Of War deserves a place on Hugo ballot for Best Series. Works like this — ones that use the longer-form series arc to craft stories that wouldn’t hold up in in shorter-form works — are exactly the sort of work that should be honoured in that category.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Textual and the Intertextual

Are Best Dramatic Presentations celebrated too much for their context, rather than on their text?

In 2018, Westworld’s second season was lifeless, but for those who waded through the robotic acting and pedestrian plotting, the eighth episode of the season “Kiksuya” stood alone as an exploration of loss, grief, and cultural genocide. Kiksuya’s text was excellent, the context sub-par.

Fuelled by nostalgia and avarice, X-Files returned to television screens in 2016 with two new seasons that have been described as bewildering, threadbare, and out-of-touch. But amidst a morass of repetitive and pointless episodes, writer-director Darin Morgan managed to craft a near-perfect parable about the fallibility of human memory with his one-off episode “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat.” Again, an excellent text is found in a sub-par context.
One of the weirder episodes of X-Files
aired in 2016, and was better than
anything the show had delivered
in several seasons.
(Image via xfiles-fanclub.blogspot.com)

If an audience had still been paying attention to The X-Files or Westworld, one of those episodes might have garnered awards attention. Conversely, it is hard to imagine works like Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or “The Family Of Blood” being recognized on their own merits rather than on the strength of the series of which they were a part.

Which raises the question of whether the Hugos for Best Dramatic Presentation are awarded based on the textual or on the intertextual. In essence, many dramatic presentations seem to serve as avatars of their respective Cinematic Universes, rather than being judged strictly on what is in that individual episode or film.

This leads to many excellent one-off works being overlooked in favour of run-of-the-mill entries of popular franchises. With the benefit of hindsight, is Dr. Who’s “Planet Of The Dead” really better than Misfits “Episode Six,” or Sarah Connor Chronicles’ “Adam Raised A Cain”? In our eyes, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Of all TV series, Dr. Who might mean the most to fandom overall because of the weight of 50 years of goodwill built up by stories like "Blink", "Fury From The Deep", "Delta and the Bannerman", and "The Happiness Patrol". It is understandable then, that there is a block of voters for whom Dr. Who will always be on their nominating ballot, because it is first considered on the basis of being Dr. Who, rather than being assessed as whether or not it is absolutely the most sterling example of science fiction.

We would suggest that two of the most egregious examples of honouring a work based on associations that have little to do with the work itself were on the ballot just last year. These were the cacophonous mcguffin quest Avengers: Infinity War and the execrable and racist Batman film that made the Retro Hugo ballot. Batman is clearly a popular franchise with a strong fanbase, but we highly doubt that most Hugo nominators had actually seen the character’s first foray into cinema. Avengers: Infinity War is three hours of visual noise that capitalized on the good will generated by 10 years of good MCU movies.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(image via NME.com)

We have previously argued that annual awards are in some ways the ‘first draft’ of the cultural canon. The shortlisted works are often the standard by which science fiction is judged, and are an important vehicle for continued rediscovery of classic works by future SF fans. With this in mind, imagine how mystifying Avengers: Infinity War might be to someone who watches it 40 years from now, and experiences it without the context of 18 previous movies: Steve Rogers’ reunion with Bucky would fall flat; Peter Parker’s death would be stripped of impact; the revelation that The Red Skull is guarding an Infinity Gem would have little resonance.

In terms of directing, let’s compare the movie that built the emotional weight of Gamora’s relationships to the other characters (Guardians of the Galaxy) with the movie that offers us the “payoff” (Avengers: Infinity War). GoG’s directing provides some thoughtful and interesting camera work (remember those amazing opening shots of a tiny figure dancing in the ruins of an ancient civilisation?), at every turn Infinity War’s directors offer pedestrian tried-and-true techniques like snap-zooms on falling figures and jerky camera work for fights. More importantly, major moments in Avengers: Infinity War (such as the death of Gamora) aren’t meaningful unless the viewer assesses them with knowledge of texts other than Avengers: Infinity War.

In December, the New York Times’ published a list of what they considered the best individual episodes of television to have aired in 2019 — its an interesting list with a lot of hidden gems in it (including a reminder that in an otherwise critically scorned season, Game Of Thrones turned in one excellent episode). Tellingly, there’s very little overlap with a separate article published a few days earlier in which the same critics had selected their list of the best overall series to have aired in 2019. Perhaps it is worth recognizing that there is a difference between what is a ‘best series,’ and ‘best individual episode.’

Some might suggest reorganizing the Best Dramatic Presentation categories into ‘Best Series,’ ‘Best Episode,’ and ‘Best Movie’ … but this risks both adding to the confusion, and could exacerbate the already unmanageable amount of media consumption needed to make informed choices as a Hugo voter.

As with many aspects of Hugo Award voting, we suspect that more discussion of these systemic biases is the way to address these issues.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

The Bookcase Dimension

If you've ever been disoriented by an IKEA’s cavalcade of showrooms and design arrangements,
Cover design by Carl Wiens.
(Image via Tor.com)
you'll feel at home in the pages of Finna, the new anti-captialist portal fantasy from Nino Cipri.

LitenVärld (Swedish for ‘Little World’) is a fictional big-box chain of furniture stores whose flat-pack modular designs are displayed in faked-up little rooms. The problem is that the set-up is so confusing that shoppers occasionally fall through the cracks and into parallel worlds with alternate versions of the store. Some of these worlds are inhabited by carnivorous Poäng knock-off chairs, others by high-ocean adventurers.

Navigating this multiverse are Ava and Jules, two minimum-wage workers at odds with each other over a recent break-up. As they scour the universe for a lost shopper, they are confronted with possibilities, and paths not taken.

We’ve previously argued that the genre needs more stories about workers and workers’ rights, so it often felt like Finna’s clever lampooning of thoughtless corporate decisions and consequence-blind cost-cutting could almost have been tailor-made for this book club.

Not only does Cipri show the consequences of LitenVärld’s cost-cutting decision to eliminate its wormhole-defense department, they satirize mindlessly cheerful company culture through an evil hive-mind version of corporate-drone Swedes. The book is consistently on-point.
 Almost exactly 20 years ago, in his cult classic comic strip
Bob The Angry Flower, cartoonist Stephen Notley imagined
travelling to dangerous alternate universes while shopping
for a bookcase at IKEA. Until now, we’ve never wished
we could have followed Bob through those IKEA wormholes
and gone on multi-dimensional furniture adventures.
(image via AngryFlower.com)

What makes this work particularly well is Cipri’s deft ability to alternate between moments of high drama, low comedy, and fast-paced action. These changing tones give the book a sprightly rhythm, with the weightier elements made more meaningful by the author’s choices. At a slight 120 pages, Finna never overstays its welcome - several members of our book club powered through it in under an afternoon, deeply engaged in the storytelling.

Nino Cipri’s age is evident in how they write, with a tone that can best be described as “millennial.” The dialogue has a breezy levity to it that feels youthful and fresh. The use of they/them pronouns for one of the protagonists feels both meaningful and natural to the narrative (possibly because Cipri uses those pronouns themself.) One of our book club members said she enjoyed reading a book with a, “millennial voice.”

We approached the book with enthusiasm, and were not disappointed. Finna offers a compelling blend of adventure, relationship drama, and corporate criticism. This is an early favourite for our Hugo ballots in 2021.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Retro Hugos 1945: Best Graphic Stories

Over the past 75 years, few types of storytelling have evolved more than the graphic story. This is
Top picks for comic books
published in 1944:
1) Superman #30
2) Plastic Man #2
3) Donald Duck - Mad Chemist
4) The Spirit - Clara Defoe
(Image via CBR.com)
evident in form, style, marketing, writing, and content. The stories told in 1944 are much shorter than modern comics, often just eight to 15 pages per story, with multiple stories in an individual edition of a comic book. In addition, the pages are significantly denser, with more exposition packed into a given comic panel.

It’s difficult not to see these differences when revisiting contenders for the Best Graphic Story of 1944, which likely presents a barrier for many audiences. That said, it can also give us perspective into which artists and writers were pushing the medium forward at that time.

Having quit Disney animation the year before, a then little-known writer and artist Carl Barks had begun producing the first Donald Duck stories to be first-published in print (rather than originating as film). His dynamic layouts, deceptively simple figure work, and effective use of paneling in story pacing quickly made his work stand out. Contractually unable to sign his name to any comics he produced, for two decades Barks was known to the public simply as “the good duck artist” of Donald Duck.

Two of the classic stories of Barks’ 20-year-run on Donald Duck were published in late 1944, the
second of these “The Mad Chemist” is both the more memorable and the more science fictional. The plot sees Donald developing super-genius intellect, inventing a new chemical, and travelling to the moon. While the layouts are less dynamic than Barks’ experiments of just a year later, you can already see him chafing against the constraints of the medium. In 1999, The Comics Journal ranked Barks’ run on Donald Duck as seventh on their list of the 100 greatest comics of the 20th century, and it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

Another of the great comic creators of the era, Will Eisner, had his career interrupted by the Second World War. In his absence, publisher Quality Comics brought in Hugo-shortlisted author Manly Wade Wellman to script with Lou Fine doing pencils of their top-selling book The Spirit (which still bore Eisner’s name). The results are a mixed bag, though the July and September editions of the book contain stories worth noting. I’m likely to include “For the Love of Clara Defoe” on my ballot.

Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck comics
have been endlessly reprinted, and for
good reason!
(Image via CBR.com)
Fearing for the fate of their business in Eisner’s absence, Quality had also hired a young creator named Jack Cole, whose most famous creation Plastic Man was given his own comic book in 1943. Due to wartime paper shortages, only one edition of the Plastic Man solo book hit the shelves in 1944, but his adventures continued to appear in the anthology book Police Comics.

Cole’s effervescent visual imagination and dynamic pencil work redefines what was thought possible in a comic book. As Comicbook.com puts it, “These stories helped invent the tools and style that would push comics forward throughout the 1950s, and are still a lot of fun today.”

There are so many great Plastic Man works to choose from that year and it’s hard to narrow it down to a single issue. Police Comics 31 offers us a great story about the wartime draft, in issue 34 Plastic Man is forced to take a nonviolent approach to in a metafictional narrative about appeasing his censors. In terms of narrative construction and art, these works hold up better today than almost anything else published that year. For my ballot, I’ll have the only issue of Plastic Man’s solo book that was published that year; “The Gay Nineties Nightmare” shows better use of colour, more dynamic layouts, and a willingness to work text into the frame that would inspire countless imitators over the decades.

Throughout the 1940s, the most popular comic book on the market remained Captain Marvel Adventures. The success of last year’s Shazam! movie, based on these comics, shows why this character has enduring appeal; the childlike glee of Otto Binder’s creations, the celebration of the families that we build for ourselves, and the empowerment of the underprivileged and strong themes that still resonate.

Despite being one of the best-loved Captain Marvel stories of the era, long-running serial “The
As an aside, if I had my druthers,
the 1945 story that introduced Black Adam
would have been granted a Retro Hugo,
but since the 1946 Retros were handed out
in 1996 prior to the creation of
the Best Graphic Story category,
that is not possible.
(Image via Comic Book Herald)
Monster Society Of Evil
,” which ran for two years in Captain Marvel Adventures, has significant flaws (including depictions of Japanese Americans and Africans). This makes it a difficult inclusion on a ballot, though it also pushed the genre forward, being one of the first examples of long-form storytelling in American comic books. Though it’s lesser-known, the short but delightful romp “Dr. Sivana’s Twin” from issue #59 is likely to be on my ballot.

Possibly my top pick for the Retro Best Graphic Story trophy is Superman #30, which introduces us to classic villain Mr. Mxyztplk. This is a memorable story about an extradimensional prankster who torments Superman, and would turn up numerous times over the decades (eventually killing Superman in Alan Moore’s 1986 two-part story “What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow.”)

Mxyztplk’s (that’s not a spelling error, later writers changed the name to Mxyzptlk) reality-warping powers provide Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel with an opportunity to play with the medium. The story ends with a weird abruptness, and Joe Shuster’s art is a bit stiff compared with some of the other artists working in that era, but the playfulness of the story and joy of scenes where Mxyzptlk animates an ambulance make it a classic gem.

As a category in the Retro Hugos, Best Graphic Story presents larger barriers than many other categories. In part because of the evolution of the medium, and in part because so many of the classic stories have been reinterpreted so often that modern audiences might be far more familiar with wildly divergent versions of what was originally published. I would urge those nominating to at least take a look at the original stories before nominating and voting.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Weimer is a fan writer for whom the word “fan” should be in all-caps

Paul Weimer is an incredibly prolific blogger and podcaster. What’s surprising is the consistently
Outside of fandom, Paul Weimer
is known for his photography.
(Image via Facebook) 
high calibre of his analysis and his positive approach to fan writing. And yet — to date — he has never been on the shortlist for a fan writing Hugo Award. We feel that it’s time to rectify this omission.

Weimer’s contributions are diverse, nuanced, and display an extraordinary depth of knowledge of the genre. Whether he’s discussing books by up-and-coming authors, reminding you of forgotten classics, or analyzing mainstream megahits, Weimer will always provide you with intellectual grist to chew on.

Because of his wide-ranging tastes (e.g., he seems to have blogged about every single subgenre of SFF in the past calendar year), and his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, Weimer is sometimes able to provide context and make connections that would elude many other reviewers.

Over the years, Weimer’s byline has appeared in a plethora of blogs and publications that are almost too numerous to list, but include SFSignal, B&N Blog, Tor.com, Skiffy & Fanty, and SFF Audio. In fact, because he’s published so widely, it is hard to get a handle on just how much the Minnesota resident has written in any given year.

Some of our favourites in 2019 include his review of Rory Thorne Destroys The Multiverse, his analysis of Stealing Worlds, his “Six Books with Us” series at Nerds Of A Feather, his look back at the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1999, and his review of The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein. Whatever your taste, it is likely that he has written a blog post that will appeal to your interests — in 2019.

Although not strictly relevant to the award of fan writer, we would be remiss if we did not mention Weimer’s other longstanding contributions to SFF fandom. On top of his volunteerism at conventions, he is one of the administrators of the Down Under Fan Fund.

Weimer is a constant presence in the SFF Twitter community who uses his platform to promote marginalized voices, to advocate on behalf of new writers, and to add positively to the discussion. We’ve previously written about how important the fan writing category is in the Hugo Awards, and when we say that, we’re thinking of people like Paul Weimer.

Weimer is a fan writer for whom the word “fan” should be in all-caps.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Movement of Goods In Science Fiction

Space-based science fiction places a lot of attention on the transportation of goods.
The interplanetary transport Pachyderm
from the movie Space Truckers is just
one of many, many examples of how
interstellar civilization is depicted as
being similar to our globalized economy.
(Image via highdefdigest.com)

Whether it’s a Lissepian captain hauling self-sealing stem bolts from Deep Space 9 or the crew of Firefly delivering cattle to the colony of Jiangyin, we are often presented with depictions of how goods are moved from one location to another.

This focus is probably a reflection of the modern neoliberal consensus that globalized trade is a good and necessary thing, and is a trend in science fiction that is worth questioning.

The large-scale movement of goods only makes sense if there is a strong economic incentive; if it is cheaper to build something in one location rather than another, if the skills to build something are only available in one location, or if the resources are only available in one location. When you see the depiction of merchant space ships travelling on regular runs between two locations, it implies that there are entire planets where it is cheaper to build something, and markets looking to buy those things.

Is inter-jurisdictional trade really that scalable? Between real-world nations, whose populations are measured in millions, there might be a specialized need that cannot be filled by the manufacturing base of a smaller nation. But with planets that are often depicted as having populations that number in the billions, it’s hard to imagine a need so specialized that they don’t have the capacity for local manufacturing.

With the exception of newly established colonies, interplanetary trade often seems to happen without the existence of one of the required antecedent factors. If the writer’s intent is to mirror our globalized economy, either for worldbuilding or plot effect, it would be helpful to see the justifications mirrored as well.

Planet-to-planet trade modelled after our globalized economy is a recurring theme in almost every fictional interplanetary community; the Democratic Organization Of Planets in Futurama, the Galactic Empire in Foundation, the Imperium of Dune, the Interstellar Alliance in Babylon 5, the Minmatar Republic in EVE … the list goes on. In science fiction with less advanced technology (no instantaneous transport, no universal replicators) rarity of resources such as dilithium or unobtanium sometimes serves as justification, but this doesn’t explain the overall “globalization” of the economies we see in SFF.

In short, even the flow of Spice can’t entirely explain a complex interstellar trading economy.
In Dune, the need for Spice still can't
explain why they have a trading economy.
 Bene Gesserit sisterhood may not be
exactly as depicted here.
(Image via spicegirls.fandom.com)
As an example, lets look at Star Trek and Deanna Troi’s home planet of Betazed. If Betazed needs self-sealing stem bolts, they could either have a local manufacturing operation, or they could have them shipped to the planet.

While Starfleet ships may travel at higher warp speeds, freight transports are rarely depicted as going faster than warp five. Depending on the Star Trek resource book you look at, this is approximately 200 times the speed of light, or a bit more than a week to travel each way between Earth and Alpha Centauri. The travel time for such a freighter to get from Earth to Vulcan would be more than a month. Even if Betazed is trading with their nearest star system, the cost of transport is going to be significant, to cover ship depreciation, crew salaries, fuel costs, etc. This would demand a high-profit, highly differentiated product — one that is never mentioned.

Conversely, local manufacturing should in fact be economically feasible. In 2372 (when the trading of self-sealing stem bolts is depicted in Deep Space 9), Betazed has a population of more than 5.6 billion people. Even if the self-sealing stem bolts can’t be made by the universal replicator, one would assume that the factory in which the bolts are made could be set up relatively inexpensively, since much of the facility could be replicated. This leaves labour costs as the remaining barrier to production.

We've never heard any Ferengi rules
that prohibit keeping indentured workers
in conditions of absolute destitution.
(Image via memory-alpha.fandom.com)
Globalization works in our present-day economy because capitalism maintains pools of labour in destitute conditions, and is thus able to offer goods at cheaper rates to those in walled-off prosperity zones. By extension, the existence of large-scale systems of transportation for manufactured goods in a science fictional setting implies the existence of planets with populations that are mired in subsistence poverty or slavery.

This relationship between interstellar trade and slavery is occasionally made explicit, though the criticism of such systems is varied. Star Wars has included several depictions of slavery, and the close relationship between that slavery and interestellar trade. Notably, the recent movie Star Wars: Solo. But in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, slavery on Tatooine is depicted as something tolerable to the upper-class ‘good’ characters Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Cult classic SF TV series Firefly grapples with these issues more successfully in the episode Jaynestown, where we are introduced to disenfranchised indentured workers who mine resources on a slave planet. Likewise Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit includes a planet with a slave culture, though a direct link between interstellar trade and slavery is not made explicit. Other reputable characters avoid the planet and express distaste for the practice, but there must be a large enough market accepting or unaware of slavery for the planet to exist. One wonders how many of the goods on Port Coriol have been produced by slaves.

Despite the fact that these systems would be untenable without a large underclass, science fiction spends a lot of time in walled-off prosperity zones. Earth in the United Federation of Planets is a sparkling gem, where there is no want that cannot be satisfied. People might work but only insofar as they want to. Once labour goes from meaningful to menial, they can simply stop and experience no hardship. Compare this to Arvada III where Beverly Crusher developed a passion for medicine as a child when her grandmother was forced to use roots and herbs to treat a medical crisis. The trade that occurs between these planets seems to benefit Earth a great deal while leaving Arvada III wanting. And in such a power imbalance, it’s no wonder that Earth is able to secure advantageous terms of trade. The threat of withholding trade includes the implicit threat of destruction. But the unfairness of this trading relationship is never made explicit, or commented on.

The plethora of cargo transports seen in science fiction is driven in part by a narrative need; transportation by default means characters move around, and this allows readers to explore a broader fictional universe. If you need a young man to go from a desert planet to a lush green planet to meet with a princess, it’s convenient if there is a YT-1300 Corellian freighter on which to book a ride. Blue collar work that is fixed to a specific location — such as most manufacturing or resource extraction jobs — rarely meets the needs of science fiction storytelling.

But that being said, the predominant depiction of transportation as opposed to manufacturing within space opera has implications for the futures we collectively imagine. Because all forms of economic activity have impacts on society, the primacy of transportation within space opera needs to be examined and challenged. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

The Ebullient Imagination of Stealing Worlds

Optimistic and replete with ebullient imagination, Stealing Worlds is a compelling techno-thriller
Karl Schroeder's at his best
when proposing new ways to
organize political power.
(Image via Goodreads)
elevated by first-rate near-future world-building.

At one level, the plot is a fairly linear whodunnit; On the run from shadowy figures, protagonist Sura Neelin finds refuge in an augmented-reality game world that allows her to hide in plain sight. As she learns more about her new-found community, she investigates the circumstances around her father’s death.

But at another level, it is the story of revolutionary societal change. It is on this second level that the novel succeeds most fully.

Stealing Worlds is a highly political novel, not in a partisan sense, but because it offers thought experiments about how power structures can be organized. While the book depicts a global capitalist structure that continues to erode human freedom, Schroeder also envisions self-organizing communities that work in the interstices of the modern world. New technology and tools evolve to allow for the exploitation of idle and forgotten resources, to the benefit of those left behind or targeted maliciously by those in power.

The most interesting innovations in the novel, however, don’t come from the technology of augmented reality, but from cleverly imagined legal constructions. Schroeder’s idea of giving legal life to inanimate objects and abstract ideas is the most intriguing part of the story. To accomplish this, Artificial Intelligences (AI) are programmed to operate on behalf of eagles, forests, and other entities and to bargain with people to meet the needs of that legal entity. For example, an AI responsible for the legal personhood of a forest might negotiate the sale of lumber to pay for reclamation or protection. More complex ecosystems might comprise numerous, smaller AI actors that coordinate the survival of, for example, a boreal forest by ensuring the rivers are clean, the animals are not overhunted, and enough habitat remains to support life. Using markets to place value on natural resources isn’t a new idea but this agency provides the natural resources a mind-blowing role in the process.

Schroeder demands more than a passing level of technical knowledge. For example, basic levels of
A futurist by trade and
training, Schroeder brings
intellectual rigor to near-
future science fiction.
(Image via KarlSchroeder.com)
blockchain and cryptocurrency literacy help. While this may turn off some readers, it will make the work more engaging for others. Impressively, Schroeder doesn’t condescend, but builds and explores these concepts for a wide range of readers.

The novel has a clear separation between worldbuilding and adventure. Sura’s path weaves between investigating her father’s death and learning about the hidden world of augmented reality. While reading the thriller portions of the novel, we were left wanting more of the intellectual story and the sharp critique of our world. When delving into the world building, we occasionally forgot entirely about the narrative because we got lost in Schroeder’s irrepressible imagination.

Often, when reviewers focus their praise on a book’s worldbuilding, it is a sign that the book might have significant flaws in other areas. In the case of Stealing Worlds, it is an indication that the novel is possibly the crowning achievement of one of science fiction’s most accomplished — and optimistic — futurists.

The fact that Schroeder proposes a believable and positive vision of the future puts this among our favourite novels of 2019.