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The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Spectra
ISBN-10: 0553581279
ISBN-13: 978-0553581270

One of the best things about older science fiction is its ability to stand the test of time. Although The Silver Metal Lover was originally published in 1981, the story, characters, and events are so universal that it could have been written only yesterday. Many of today’s authors have lost this knack, the talent of writing universal stories that will be as applicable in twenty or forty years as they are this year.

Jane is a living girl afraid to live. Having grown up as a pet project of her mother’s, she has no will or thoughts or opinions of her own, merely what those around her believe she should have. Her mother has even chosen what Jane will look like, ordering her prescriptions and hair treatments that leave her plump and plain. Her friends are not really her friends, and the course of her life has been set since the moment her mother chose to be artificially inseminated.

All of this monotony changes in a moment when Jane sets her eyes upon Silver for the first time. S.I.L.V.E.R. stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot. Electronic Metals has released a new and innovative line of robots, designed to appear nearly human and with extraordinary creative skills. Silver is one of these robots, let out into Jane’s city to act as a walking advertisement for the new models. He sings and plays music like that of a master musician, and Jane is instantly drawn to and repelled by him.

As they run into each other over the next few days, Jane begins to realize that Silver is like no man or robot she has ever encountered before. Eventually, she falls in love with him, and gives up everything she knows to buy him and be with him. When the government forces Electronic Metals to recall their too-human robots after pressure from a discontented public, Jane and Silver must run from the corporation determined to melt him down into scrap.

Jane herself is represented well as an inexperienced, sheltered rich girl. She doesn’t lord her wealth over others, but does take it for granted in the usual privileged way. Her most telling sacrifice and the true start of the story is when she sells her possessions in order to pay for Silver. Jane has never exerted her will or her own desires on anyone, always letting others take the lead, especially her mother. It takes a dramatic upheaval in her emotions for her to begin realizing how very controlled she is, and for her to start breaking that control. Silver is a catalyst for asserting her own independence.

The relationship between Jane and Silver could so easily have become clichéd and sickly sweet, but instead the problems that arise between them are serious and taken seriously. Their relationship isn’t perfect, and neither are either of them, regardless of the fact that Silver was supposedly constructed perfectly. As Jane begins to live her own life, she in turn brings Silver to life through her own human emotions and reactions. They grow and change through each other, in a way that two human partners often don’t learn how to do.

The side characters in the story are themselves interesting people, each with their own neuroses and flaws. Clovis, possibly Jane’s closest friend, is unable to love or be loved. He frequently uses cheap parlor tricks to get his live-in lovers to vacate, including holding phony séances in which a spirit tells them to leave. He is also very casually and matter-of-factly gay. Egyptia is a self-absorbed drama queen, often putting herself at the center of attention in as loud a way as possible. Jane’s mother, Demeta, is a distant and calculating figure, manipulating Jane and her life in whatever manner she deems best. Each character we meet plays a vital part in the story, no matter how minor it may seem at the time.

I wouldn’t call this story realistic, because in reality I think life would have been much harder for them once they moved into a place of their own and tried supporting themselves. But again, it’s science fiction, and it’s difficult to imagine what the reality of this situation would be like. Tanith Lee has a very elegant touch with descriptive words and personal narratives. You never get tired of hearing Jane’s inner thoughts, and it’s fascinating to watch Jane grow from a mousy child into an independent woman. There are some corny parts in The Silver Metal Lover, but it is after all a love story, and they are kept to a minimum.

This book not only brings up questions of self awareness and personal freedom. Hinted at is the implication that even as humanity strives for perfection within themselves and their machines, a truly perfect copy of a human would never be accepted. The idea that a machine could be a better human than a real human is a concept that the general public could never tolerate. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for thought provoking science fiction on top of a good love story. I know I’ll be thinking about The Silver Metal Lover for days.

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My guest review of Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson is up at Color Online. This book really blew me away. Monkey Beach follows Lisa, a young girl from the Haisla Native American Tribe living in Canada, with beautiful touches of magical realism and deep insights into what it means to grow up and be a family. I hope you’ll head over to read and leave some great comments.

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Delilah and the Space-Rigger by Robert A. Heinlein
Part of the The Green Hills of Earth anthology
Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Baen Books; Reprint edition (February 1, 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0671578534

It’s a well known fact that women are a serious and often dangerous distraction on high risk jobs, such as constructing a space station. At least, that’s the attitude held by Tiny Larsen, the crew chief in charge of building Space Station One. He works with an all-male crew, trying to get this monumental task accomplished while maintaining order among the men. That all seems to be in jeopardy when G. Brooks McNye is sent up to the station to replace a man who was fired.

Gloria Brooks McNye is the first and currently only woman on a space station crewed entirely by men. Larsen fears for her safety and the respectfulness of his men, as loudly and obnoxiously as he possibly can. He goes completely out of his way to try and keep her sequestered from the rest of the crew while he hustles to get a male replacement sent up.

This is a humorous story poking fun at the sheer ridiculousness of judging competence and character based on gender. McNye sets out to prove from the beginning that she can do anything boys can do, and in some cases, better. It’s up to her and rest of the crew to convince Larsen that women have as much right to help build this huge undertaking for as men do. It’s a funny story, and I recommend it and the rest of The Green Hills of Earth for any Heinlein lovers and any newbies alike.

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The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr.
Part of The Hugo Winners: Volume 3 anthology
Hardcover: 603 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (January 1, 1977)

P. Burke is a social pariah, deformed in body and in possession of not much mind. The near-future society in which she lives is utterly devoted to the worship of beautiful people. They are seen as gods, striding above the rest of the population on a wave of adoration. Every holocam is pointed in their direction. Burke cannot even hope to be noticed by such people and in the end, her existence becomes too much to bear. She tries to kill herself. And is miraculously offered the chance of a lifetime while recovering in the hospital.

Become a Remote for a new god. No one will ever know that P. Burke is really the brain running the beautiful doll body of lovely little Delphi, the newest splash on the celebrity scene. Burke sits five hundred feet below ground, hooked up to wires and controls and circuits, her own body nearly lifeless, and lives the life of Delphi. But why would she be offered such a chance? What’s the catch?

A set of stringent laws called the Huckster Laws have banned nearly all forms of advertising. The only way you are allowed to advertise is either on or in your product, or during an in-store demonstration. No more billboards, no more TV commercials, no more painted buses. And that just doesn’t work for the corporate men. So they’ve found a way around it. Create celebrities beloved by all, and have them showcase select products in their “everyday” lives. The millions of people who watch their broadcasts won’t fail to notice what brand of toothpaste or what kind of shoes their living gods are wearing.

P. Burke and her alter-ego, Delphi, will be a living advertisement. But when Burke/Delphi falls in love and grows a conscience about breaking the ad laws, her life is irreparably changed.

Tiptree’s deft hand in this story is wonderful to read. The narrative style is great, and the descriptions of corporate life, evil machinations, and the desire to simply be loved for who and what you are, are absolutely captivating. This is a fantastic peek at where are own world could be headed, with our reality TV shows and the incessant consumer culture we live in. Read this story, and weep for Delphi. Then break your TV.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction

Ender Wiggin is just your average six-year old boy, the youngest of three siblings. Average, other than the fact that he’s a budding military genius, taken from his home on Earth and shipped off to be trained in Battle School in space. The human race has been fighting a war against an alien species that attacked the Earth a hundred years ago. They’re called Buggers, for the obvious reason that they look like giant insects. After a fluke victory during the first war, the military has been desperately searching for the next great leader. They hope they’ve found him in Ender. Ender will suffer through five years of grueling training as the men in charge manipulate him and the children he trains with in order to turn him into the best strategist the world has ever seen.

As Ender struggles to survive and thrive in Battle School, his older brother and sister back on Earth are going through their own crucible. Peter Wiggin, the eldest, is a cruel and sadistic boy with grandiose but entirely plausible ideas of ruling the world. Valentine Wiggin is the middle child, protector and defender of Ender and buffer to Peter, trying to keep him from taking out his frustrations and manipulations on the innocents around him. All three kids are scarily smart and intensely calculating; each move they make, each word they utter is analyzed unto the nth degree. Between the three Wiggin children, the world is in for a hell of a ride. But they just might manage to save the human race in the course of all their machinations.

The title Ender’s Game refers to so much more than the mock battles he learns to fight in the Battle School. He is both pawn and player, manipulated by the military men around him, but also trying his best to fight back any way he can. He is very much aware that they are playing with his life, even at the beginning of the story when he is still a child. Although Ender is still very young when the story ends, he stops being a child very early on.

The story asks many questions of us: How far will we go to turn a child into a killer? How much manipulation and isolation can one boy handle for the sake of humankind? Is the price of survival too high? Is the complete and utter destruction of another race really what it takes to ensure our continuation? Is the only true path to power through the means of manipulation and deception?

There are few easy answers in this book. What Ender, Valentine, and Peter endure and engender because of who they are and what they can would be too much for most normal children. But it is very clear that they are in no way normal children. This book is not about childhood. It is about the loss of one, two, or three childhoods for the good of many. Ender is the butt of the worst of the training, but every boy and girl he fights beside and against is a victim of necessity.

Ender, in himself, is not a killer. He has been forced into situations that cause him to defend himself, but on his own, he is a sweet and caring boy. Forces outside of his control cause the literal weight of the world to descend on his small shoulders. Card manages to portray him as very human and very real, even as Ender is pushed above and beyond the edge of human endurance. The people in charge of his life are all bad; many of them care deeply for Ender. But because of the threat of the Buggers, they can stop at nothing to create the ultimate defender. Valentine is also seen as a good sister and a kind person, as she is coldly manipulated both by the military and Peter. Peter is the real bad guy, but he’s bad in such a way that can’t be stopped or proven, but must be endured. He is a megalomaniac in the truest sense, convinced he is the only one that can prevent war between the countries of Earth after the Buggers are defeated. It’s very unfortunate that he might be proven right. In the end, even the Buggers are proved not to be all bad, but merely guilty of misunderstanding the structure of the human race.

The characters and settings within Ender’s Game are compelling. This is a true classic of science fiction. You have space battles, weightless fights, an alien species, and truly genius characters. You also have examples of the best and worst of humanity. There are strong and weak male and female characters, although the boys vastly outnumber the girls in Battle School. Valentine manages to stand out even against her two brothers, though, and she is a genuinely interesting character in her own right.

There are some mixed feelings in the Speculative Fiction community about Orson Scott Card’s works because of some of opinions he has expressed in regards to the gay and lesbian community. Because of those opinions, I can’t honestly endorse buying Ender’s Game, because I feel that the author does not deserve to be supported by the very people he admits to loathing. But sometimes a story reaches beyond petty feelings, and in this case, Ender’s Game is one of those stories. So go to your nearest library or used bookstore and get this book. It’s absolutely worth reading, regardless of the author.

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valors choiceValor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
Mass Market Paperback: 409 pages
Publisher: DAW; 1St Edition edition (April 10, 2000)
ISBN-13: 978-0886778965

Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is a proud member of the Confederation interstellar military. She travels to far off planets and fights against The Others, a race bent on destroying or conquering every other sentient species in the universe. When the Others bumped up against the peaceful aliens of the Confederation, the Confederation realized they needed troops to help fight them off. As they themselves had lost the art of war centuries ago, they recruited the still mostly planet bound human species to be their shock troops. That was about a hundred years ago, and the humans, along with the di’Taykans and the Krai, have created a military force to be reckoned with. Staff Sergeant Kerr is one of their finest products.

When Torin and her company are tapped for ceremonial duties on a new planet the Confederation is hoping to recruit, she knows things won’t go as planned. The Silsviss are a lizard-like race that weeds their excessive number of males out by sending them into battle against each other. And Torin and her Sh’quo Company of Marines are there to convince them that the Confederation is a powerful force that would be a worthy ally for the Silsviss planet. Of course, nobody told Torin or her Marines that this would involve being shot down in a game preserve and fighting off scores of hormone-crazed adolescent Silsviss males.

Torin is a Staff Sergeant’s Staff Sergeant. She is the balancing point between the enlisted men and women on the ground and the officers in charge of her people. She must be seen to know all, see all, and be psychic besides. Staff Sergeants don’t make mistakes, at least not where their Marines can see them do it. When Torin wakes up in bed next to her company’s new Second Lieutenant, nobody will hear about it from her. It’s up to her to make sure Sh’quo gets through this ceremonial duty without too many people dying and no one finding out she’s actually human and not infallible.

The Staff Sergeant is an utterly confident woman. She knows what needs doing and she’s not afraid to get dirty doing it. She can shoot, march, and strategize as well or better than anyone, and with her eyes closed. At least, that’s the picture she must present in order to keep her people confident and unflappable. As a leader Torin is charged with upholding morale and getting them through even the most dire situations as intact as possible. What this means as she is unable to show any weakness, even that of normal emotions, for fear of letting her people down. We only learn about her emotions through her inner monologues, but that is more than enough to admire Torin for. She truly cares deeply for everyone under her command, and for the officers who depend on her. She just doesn’t let that get in the way of her job.

Valor’s Choice is a fantastic example of Military Science Fiction. You’ve got guns, troops, aliens, and lots of gore. Huff manages to instill a very human or at least human-like quality, to all of her species. They are thinking and feeling people, not just killing machines. Even as they are cutting their enemies to pieces, they retain those aspects that make good soldiers and good people. Dignity, respect, loyalty. There are three more books in the Valor series, and I suggest you go out and read every one. War isn’t pretty or heroic. Most of the time, it’s just soldiers out there doing their jobs. Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr does hers better than anyone else.
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Check out Tanya Huff’s website or follow her on Twitter @TanyaHuff

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Thanks to a comment I received today from an annoyed author, I wanted to talk a little bit about writing and relinquishing control of that writing.

Writing a story or book is often like having a child. The original idea, as it grows and changes within you and then begins to pour out onto the page, is comparable to birth and sometimes just as painful and exhilarating. As you write the story, polish it, pass it around to your friends for analysis, you are raising that story.

When you send it off to the publisher hoping for acceptance but fearing rejection, it’s like the first day of school. Once that book is published and available to the masses, your child has graduated and is at the mercy of the world at large. Just as you wouldn’t follow your kid to every friend’s house, every job interview, and every party, at some point you won’t be able to keep up with everyone who has read your book.

Some people will not like your book, it’s inevitable. They won’t “get it” in the way you had intended. There will be misunderstandings and interpretations that may not make sense to you. However, you can’t control every reaction. In most cases, you can’t even argue it. You can try to understand where the person is coming from with calm discourse and clear discussion, but a defensive posture won’t win anyone over to your side.

Criticism is the bane of every professional, be it writer, artist, or teacher. Criticism means somewhere, someone thought you did it wrong. A consummate professional learns to take criticism in the spirit in which it is given. It is directed at the work, and the impression that person garnered from it. Basically, it’s not personal. Learn from criticism; that’s its purpose. If you feel you must engage with critics, do so in a manner that reflects well on you. Cries of “My baby!” or the equivalent will not bring about real constructive conversation.

A great way to learn and grow as a writer is through discussion. Why didn’t they like this character? Why didn’t they get the tone I was trying to portray? Ask. No story is perfect and the best way to improve upon future works and future children is to learn from the mistakes of their older siblings. Once that book has left your hands, you lose control of where it will go and who will read it. You lose control of people’s responses and interpretations. If you find you don’t like what you’re hearing from critics, listen to what they’re saying and decide if you should change that in the next book.

As a reviewer, I try to ignore the author completely when I’m reading. Although I might be interested in them as people later, when I’m reading I honestly don’t care. I care about the story and characters in it. If I feel like it’s a good story, I then try to analyze why. If I feel like it wasn’t a good story, I go into as much detail as I can about why that is. If the author of the book comes across my review, it is their job to interpret my response in a rational way. If you can’t do that immediately, go away and come back later after the initial impact has passed.

Being a writer means being brave. You pour your innermost thoughts and feelings out onto a page and hope for the best. The bravest thing you can do as a writer, beyond writing, is letting go. Once that story is out there, it’s over for you. What comes next can only be another story. There will be some minds you can never change, and it frankly is not your job to go around explaining what your book really meant. It is the job of your book to tell its own story. If you’ve done your writing well enough, your book will be able to speak for itself.

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MagicInTheBloodMagic in the Blood by Devon Monk
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Roc; 1 edition (May 5, 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0451462671

Picking up where Magic to the Bone left off, we meet up with Allie Beckstrom just as she’s recovering from her last adventure in Devon Monk’s first book. For Allie, magic is still pulling a double whammy on her, making her pay in pain and memory. Because of this, Allie does not remember much of the events that happened in Magic to the Bone, including her relationship with the mysterious Zayvion Jones. She also doesn’t remember the investigation of her father’s death or the events that led up to her strange set of magical tattoos. Thanks to her friend Nora, though, she’s gotten the gist of past events.

When her father’s ghost begins haunting her, however, Allie begins to wish magic could be directed to take specific and very unpleasant memories. Daniel Beckstrom was a manipulative bastard while alive and death apparently hasn’t changed him much. He’s riding Allie to investigate the disappearance of some dangerous new technology that Beckstrom Enterprises developed. Meanwhile, MERC, the magical arm of the police department, wants Allie’s help in tracking down a serial kidnapper who’s been stealing young women with the aid of magic.

On top of all of this madness, Trager, a man Allie helped put away years ago for dealing in illegal blood magic has gotten out and is looking for revenge. He’ll use any means necessary, including her fellow Hounds, to get back at Allie for what she did to him. Add to this a creepy new twist in Allie’s magic that is causing ghostly people to attack her, and you’ve got a recipe for either disaster or a great book.

One of the best parts about this book, though, is the relationship between Allie and Zayvion. He’s not out to be her knight in shining armor, although he’s helped her out of more than a few tight spots. He wants her to learn to control her magic and her life, and many times goes out of his way to help her understand what’s going on. The romance between them doesn’t detract from the book, and it’s not even the main focus, but it adds some nice background music to a thrilling story.

Allie continues to grow and change as a character. After living for years with her head in the sand about how her city really runs, she’s finally started to take a look around. What she sees isn’t all bad, but it’s in no way all good either. People are using magic in ways that are dangerous and even deadly and Allie is out to stop them any way she can. As she does her job as a Hound, she also starts to take responsibility for the life she ran away from. Reconnecting with her stepmother Violet is one part of this, but she also starts to realize she has more friends to call on then she ever knew.

My favorite side character in the storyline barely shows up for twenty or so pages, but he’s quite memorable. Grant Rhines runs Allie’s favorite coffee shop, Get Mugged, with a friendly and casual style. He’s a big, tall, and handsome guy who just happens to be gay. Grant is quick to come to Allie’s aid, asks few questions of her, and stands up for her when she needs it. I honestly hope we see more of this very warm character, because he’s a breath of fresh air compared to many of the thugs Allie ends up meeting.

Magic in the Blood is great sequel. It develops the characters and the storyline, and answers some questions that were raised in the first book. Too often, authors think being mysterious and close-mouthed about what’s really going on in their created worlds leads to repeat sales. In my case, it just annoys me when you get so few clues about the behind the scenes action. Monk does a good job of revealing answers to older questions, while bringing to light new questions. The complexity of her world continues to grow along with her characters, and that’s absolutely a good thing. This is one urban fantasy that’s headed in the right direction.

Since this book is part of a series, it’s generally a good idea to read the first book and then go down the list. But I think the author does a good job of giving enough background without info-dumping so that you could conceivably pick up the second or third book and just read.

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Check out Devon Monk’s website or follow her on Twitter @DevonMonk

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