Thursday 23 August 2018

Künsken has a talent for imagining new unfreedoms

On one level, The Quantum Magician is a straightforward heist novel that might be compared to an
(Image via Goodreads)
Ocean’s Eight set in space.

But there’s far more going on under the hood of this well-engineered machine than that reductive description conveys. It is a novel about self-identity, about colonialism, about being handcuffed by our own instincts, and about the subversion of human freedom.

Derek Künsken’s debut introduces the reader to con-man protagonist Belisarius, who gathers up a rag-tag group of his former associates to pull a scheme worth billions.

These associates include his childhood love, his dying mentor, an outcast from the Puppet society, a zany demolitions expert, and an AI that thinks it’s the reincarnation of a Catholic saint. To be fair, some of these characters seem like they’re straight from central casting, but for the most part their relationships and dialogue are engaging and enjoyable.

Belisarius’ scheme, which involves helping a small fleet of warships successfully pass through a heavily fortified transport hub, is somewhat grandiose, but it provides Künsken some interesting chances to comment on colonialism and economic justice.

The planning, execution, twists and turns of the heist are interesting enough to make the book worth your time. But it’s the interplay between human and transhuman motivations that elevates The Quantum Magician.

Central to what makes the book so enjoyable is the character of Belisarius, the Homo Quantus.
It would be easy to imagine a
young Michael Cane as
(Image via Mirror.Co.Uk) 

Genetically engineered as part of a project to create a human capable of understanding quantum mechanics, he is able to enter various trance-like states in which he redirects portions of his brain that are usually dedicated to social skills or motor functions.

He is, however, a reject from the genetic engineering project, incomplete and unable to fulfill his instinctive need to understand. To distract himself from his inabilities, he focuses his prodigious intellect on understanding human motivations and working as a con artist.

It is a difficult task for those of us who have standard-issue brains to write believably about the thought processes of those who are neuro-atypical, but Künsken pulls it off admirably. Some of the best portions of the book are those in which we get a window into how Belisarius’ brain is constantly churning with mathematics, a need to count items, and to grind away at even minor quandaries.

One of the other real highlights of the book are when Künsken uses the plot and the setting to take readers on a tour of a variety of ways that genetic engineering might lead humanity on a road to unfreedom: the engineering of people like Belisarius whose instinct for curiosity is so tweaked as to be inescapable; the creation of benthic monstrosities Homo Eridanus that cannot escape the task that they were designed to do; and finally, the citizens of the Free City of Puppets.

Two hundred years prior to the events of the novel, The Puppets were designed to be slaves. Genetic engineers boosted their ability to feel religious fervor, and coded them to worship a breed of master humans. By the time that The Quantum Magician takes place, the society of the Puppets has devolved into something strange and awful.

Although they aren’t front-and-centre, the particular form of unfreedom embodied by the Puppets is
Derek Künsken offers new ideas about
how freedom could be subverted.
(Image via  
affecting, viscerally repugnant, and creepy.

More than anything else, it’s the subplots about the Puppets that might place The Quantum Magician into a grand tradition of dystopic science fiction novels that warn about the subversion of human rights. The work I was reminded of most often when reading this book was Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In The Sky, and the particular unfreedom embodied by Emergent focus.

Science fiction is often at its best when imagining new forms of tyranny. It is clear that Künsken has a talent for imagining oppressions. On the strength of that alone, The Quantum Magician is well worth picking up, and may end up on some of our nominating ballots.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Not On The Shortlist

Every year there are more worthy works than could fit on any Hugo Awards ballot. There will therefore always be works that are not included, no matter how great they may be. Inspired in part by an upcoming panel at Worldcon 76, some of the members of our book club have selected the works they wish could have made this year's ballot.  


The Marrow Thieves 

by Cherie Dimaline

(All cover images
via Amazon)
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline may have gotten significant attention in Canada with CBC’s Canada Reads and The Governor General’s Young People’s Literature Award, but it’s lack of presence for either Best Novel or Best Young Adult Book categories is disappointing.

The book’s imaginative dystopian world ravaged by climate change, the loss of the ability to dream and genocide sound dark, but the book’s characters remain hopeful. Despite the tragedy, there is love, reconciliation and the will to stand against tyranny is never extinguished. Dimaline lets Indigenous youth, a demographic subject to high suicide rates, murder, and other trauma, be the heroes in this story. These characters are relatable, realistic and flawed as humans, not as literary devices. The book may look like a dystopic future, but it’s also a message for today with memories of a colonial past.

Just because it was written with YA in mind doesn’t mean you should shy away from picking up this tightly-written book.


by Jeff Vandermeer

More than a few of the panelists I heard at Worldcon75 spoke highly of Vandermeer’s work,

prompting me to pick up Borne. This hopeful-dystopian novel explores the ramifications of species decline post-biotech obsession. Readers are led to the raw edges of our survival instincts by characters written to be mindful of both set and setting. Through scavengers in a broken and surreal city, desperate for respite in an increasingly hostile ecosystem, this novel explores transhumanism in ways that are both precautionary and personal.

While Vandermeer’s eco-fiction should appeal to both the SF and Fantasy contingents of Worldcon and the popularity of his Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) is undeniable, this three-time Hugo finalist has never received a nomination for his fiction. And that seems much stranger to me than any flying bears.


The Stars Are Legion
by Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion will squick out most readers, and perhaps that’s why it failed to connect with enough people to make it onto this year’s shortlist. That’s a shame because underneath all the bile, mucus, lymph, afterbirth, and other bodily fluids, it’s one hell of a read.

Set on a fleet of decaying biological spaceships, the political factions of The Stars Are Legion are fighting for control of dwindling resources. All the characters in the book are physically female, have romances with each other, but are impregnated by the biological worldships on which they live.

While the disorienting first 100 pages — mostly narrated by a character with amnesia — were difficult to get through, once you start following what’s happening in the plot, the book is hard to put down.

On a basic prose level, Hurley is an excellent writer, and that actually makes the book harder to read because reading The Stars Are Legion becomes an immersive experience. Even when the protagonist is exploring the digestive tract of the worldship or giving birth to machine parts.

Inventive, ingenious and utterly gross.


American War 

by Omar El Akkad
American War is a smart, near-future story about a second American civil war. The south secedes from the Union after fossil fuels are outlawed following extreme climate change. The story follows Sarat Chestnut throughout her life as she goes from being a southern refugee with her family, through tragedy and radicalisation as a Southern agent.

The story presents radicalisation in a very empathic way. Each choice Sarat makes seems entirely plausible. Her further radicalisation and hatred of the north is a result of rational choices and manipulation.

El Akkad’s writing is engaging and his unique perspective is surely influenced by his middle eastern heritage. While not excusing terrorism, this story does much to explain people’s choices and makes the point that empathy is a much better tool for peace than it is given credit.


Kill or Be Killed, Volume 1 
by Ed Brubaker (Writer), Sean Phillips (Artist), Elizabeth Brietweiser (Artist)

Kill or Be Killed reunites noir master-trio Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) and Elizabeth Brietweiser (colourist) in a comic series that adds dark twists to vigilante tropes.

The series follows Dylan, a depressed graduate student who survives a suicide attempt only to meet a demonic figure that claims to have spared him and that demands Dylan re-pay the debt by killing a deserving soul every month.

The series is grim (murder and demons will do that) and Dylan is a deeply unlikable protagonist, but Brubaker's writing and characters make the story compelling and Phillips/Brietweiser's art and colours are invariably gorgeous and atmospheric. Kill or Be Killed is a troubling yet masterful display of graphic storytelling and I was sorry not to see it on the Hugo ballot this year.

Sunday 5 August 2018

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2019?

The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2019. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Items that are controversial amongst our club are marked with an asterisk (*)

(List last updated on October 25, 2018). 

The Quantum Magician — Derek Künsken
Embers of War — Gareth Powell
The Calculating Stars — Mary Robinette Kowal
Record of a Spaceborn Few — Becky Chambers
Blackfish City — Sam J. Miller

The Million — Karl Shroeder
Gods, Monsters & The Lucky Peach — Kelly Robson*
The Expert System's Brother — Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Only Harmless Great Thing — Brooke Bolander
A Study In Oils — Kelly Robson (Full text of story is HERE)

Short Story
Tierra y libertad — Madeline Ashby (Full text of story is HERE)
Noon In the Antilibrary — Karl Schroeder (Full text of story is HERE)
Contingency Plans For The Apocalypse — S.B. Divya
Thirty-Three Percent Joe — Suzanne Palmer (Full text of story is HERE)

Best Series
Centennial Cycle — Malka Older
Merchant Princes / Empire Games — Charles Stross
Peter Grant / Rivers Of London — Ben Aaronovitch
Adventures of Arabella Ashby — David D. Levine

Related Work

Best Professional Artist

The Endless

Dramatic Presentation - Short Form
Westworld Season 2, Episode 8 "Kiksuya" — Written by Carly Wray & Dan Dietz
Preacher Season 3, Episode 8 — Written by Carla Ching, directed by Michael Morris
Expanse Season 3, Episode 10 "Abaddon's Gate" — Written by Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck and Naren Shankar
Counterpart Season 1, Episode 6, "Act Like You've Been Here Before" — Written by Jennifer Getzinger, directed by Justin Britt-Gibson
The Terror, Episode 1 "Go For Broke" — Written by David Kajganich, directed by Edward Berger

Graphic Story
Paradiso, Vol. 1: Essential Singularity — Ram V and Dev Pramanik
Days of Hate, Act One — Aleš Kot, Danijel Žeželj, Jordie Bellaire, and Tom Muller
The Black Monday Murders —  Jonathan Hickman, Tomm Coker, Michael Garland, and Rus Wooten
Eternity Girl — Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew
The Wild Storm — Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt

Fan Writer
Alasdair Stewart

The Alternate Historian
Doctor Whooch
New Books In Science Fiction 
Skiffy & Fanty

Black Nerd Problems
Escape Pod
Strange Horizons

Best YA Novel
The Disasters — M.K. England