Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
As 2019 tipped into 2020, readers started compiling their lists of the best books of the decade. I thought long and hard, but the only book I had any certainty about was the decade’s best: a debut novel from Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. With a tenacity matched by few other books, The Night Circus has not left me since I first read it years ago.
The Night Circus is a classic novel that will sit on the highest shelf of my bookshelf, right next to The Hobbit and The Shadow of the Wind. … There’s magic in this novel and it deserves to be read by anyone wanting to be reminded that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Usually when I liken a book to two all-time classic, the comparison begins to show its age as the days, weeks, and years pass?—but not so with The Night Circus. If anything, the comparison seems more fair to me now than it did then, especially after having read Morgenstern’s much awaited follow-up, The Starless Sea. Like Tolkien and Zafon’s novels, The Night Circus is a book for the ages.
This was a lighter year of fiction for me as I focus on completing the first draft of my novel project, The Thousand Shattered Gods, with just one piece eligible for “Best Short Story.” I am also personally eligible for “Best Fan Writer” for the reviews, essays, commentary, news coverage, and other non-fiction work I produced for Tor.com, Barnes & Noble SFF Blog, Uncanny Magazine, here on my blog, and via Twitter. I also had notable (but ineligible for “Best Fan Writer”) work in Kotaku and EGMNOW.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve done a round-up of my recent work, that’s not for lack of writing. I’ve got a couple of reviews, a retrospective of a video game I’ve been waiting to play for over 20 years, and a round up of books perfect for fans of Japanese RPGs.
It feels like hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel about necromantic lesbians, bone citadels, rockin’ adventures, tantalizing mysteries, wicked sword fights, and many, many reanimated corpses has been building for YEARS. It was earlier this year, however, when it really started to catch my attention. Isabel Yap, who’s been championing the book since its earliest days, popped onto Twitter and blew my socks off by callingGideon the Ninth “the closest thing to a JRPG in novel form.”
Over on Kotaku (!!!, what is my life?), I’ve got a longread the explores the connection between the new wave of SFF writers and the influence of Golden Age Japanese RPGs (from the 16- and 32-bit era, like Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, etc.) I’ve been working on it for a long, long time and I’m so proud it’s finally out there for everyone to read.
When I think back to my childhood and teenage years, when my literary tastes were being forged in the crucible of youthful emotion and impressionism, particular scenes come to life: Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom. The Reaper chasing Wil Ohmsford through the Westland. Marle hugging Crono on top of Death Peak.
Most fantasy readers won’t need a reminder of what books the first two scenes come from (Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks), and most Kotaku readers won’t miss the reference to the classic Japanese role-playing game Chrono Trigger. And for some, all three of those works are of equal importance. Today’s fantasy novelists are just as likely to have been inspired by JRPGs as they are J.R.R. Tolkien. For some authors, Celes’ performance at the Opera House is just as much of a storytelling touchstone as young Simon fleeing Pryrates beneath the Hayholt.
It was an absolute pleasure to chat with various SFF writers about the topic. When I first started conceptualizing the piece, I had this vision of me showing up on Twitter like a naked dude at a graduation—everyone staring at me funny because I was the only one writer inspired by Golden Age JRPGs. Based by the overwhelmingly positive response on Twitter, this is obviously not the case.
I had to cut A TON of content from the interviews and first draft, so check back soon for a post featuring some of my favourite out takes that didn’t make it into the final article.
I’ve got reviews piling up these days, and, can just point out how blessed we are to be living in such a rich, wonderful time for SFF literature? Some seriously good books coming out these days, and my most recent reviews cover two of the best fantasy novels of the year: Empire of Grass by Tad Williams and A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay.
One of the benefits of being a part of the vast SFF community is making great friends. One of the benefits of those great friends is the opportunity to read their books early. I consider myself fortunate to count Sarah Gailey among those friends. They’re smart, funny, dynamic, and have a range to their writing that few other authors can match. I had an opportunity to read their first novel a couple of years ago, back when it had a different title, and it’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve been on the edge of my seat WAITING until it was released ever since then so I could scream at everybody I know to read it. It’s out now, called Magic for Liars, I’ve read the final version, and, y’all, it’s GOOD.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I felt my previous involvement with the novel meant it would be in poor taste for me to review it for a professional venue—but, here on my blog, I can say whatever I want. So:
Last week, Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade was released with much fan fare and critical acclaim. Over on Tor.com, I said, “The Light Brigade is a standout novel in Kameron Hurley’s already impressive career. It’ll get your pulse pounding, your blood boiling, and your heart aching. It’ll make you angry, scared, and, at the most unexpected moments, hopeful. The history of Military SF novels is long and storied, but Hurley’s work can stand up with the best of them.”
In the tradition of Heinlein and Haldeman, The Light Brigade is a Military SF novel that explores one soldier’s tumultuous, asynchronous experience through a war between Earth and Mars.
Here’s a little more from my review:
Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is the latest in this line of novels to modernize Heinlein’s classic tale, and like those that have come before, it too is an important, critical look at the role of how war bends and warps modern society. It is also every bit as good as The Forever War and Old Man’s War, and has the potential to become the next great Military SF classic.
Aidan Moher, Tor.com
Among its myriad themes are explorations of war’s toll, anti-capitalism, personal motivation, xenophobia, media manipulation, and vengeance. If it sounds heady, it is. Hurley digs into these themes with a razor-sharp scalpel, connecting each of them inextricably tight to the novel’s plot and characters. To further explore these themes and the story behind the novel, I caught up with Hurley for a chat about The Light Brigade, its influences, time travel, and what the future can tell us about the present.