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Recent Reading: December 2017

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately: Ann Leckie, James S.A. Corey, Rosa Brooks, and more.

A circular library with three floors and an open center.
Photo by Alexandre Van Thuan on Unsplash

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Orbit Books, 2017.

Last winter, I read Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie, which make up the Imperial Radch trilogy. I loved that series, and Provenance secures Ann Leckie’s place as my current favorite writer.

Provenance is a smaller tale than the trilogy, which is understandable — it’s a self-contained, standalone novel. Provenance takes place in the same universe as Ancillary Justice, after the events of Ancillary Mercy, but in a different pocket of the universe. This is a fun setup: we get to see fallout from the events of the trilogy, but we also get to be immersed in a whole new culture. I enjoyed reading Provenance after the trilogy, but it can also be read on its own.

Provenance takes place in a different society than Leckie’s Radch trilogy, which allows her to world-build an entirely new culture — one of Leckie’s signature strengths. Most of the action in Provenance takes place in Hwae, a republic obsessed with vestiges, relics of important persons and events. Leckie pays careful attention to gender, dress, food, politics, and power differentials in creating the Hwae civilization, and it pays off. Provenance has an enjoyable narrative, but for me the sweetest parts of the book were the world building. Especially the aliens. Ann Leckie is a joy when she writes aliens.

Interestingly, I noticed that the structure of Provenance is basically an miniature version of the Imperial Radch trilogy. Ancillary Justice and the beginning of Provenance are wild, space opera adventures. Ancillary Sword and the middle of Provenance are political dramas uniquely shaped by the idiosyncratic cultures Leckie creates. And Ancillary Mercy and the end of Provenance raise the stakes, neatly intertwining action, character drama, and political drama.

I strongly recommend this book, but I also have to note that it isn’t entry-level SF. Leckie makes casual, unexplained references to space elevators. The Hwae have a third gender, complete with invented pronouns. (Awesome!) Provenance isn’t hard science fiction, so you won’t get lost or confused about technical details. In fact, there are hardly any infodumps in the book, but that means there’s a good chance you’ll end up lost or confused if you’re not familiar with common tropes of the genre. I think Provenance is awesome and I recommend it widely, but I also want to note that if might not be for everyone.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

My favorite stories were:

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks

Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Rosa Brooks is a Georgetown law professor and the daughter of left-wing antiwar activists who has worked with the State Department and Human Rights Watch. She is also married to a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and has spent a couple years working inside the Pentagon. That is to say, she’s in a really interesting position to write about the military, and she’s written a really interesting book. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything is a lot of things: a memoir, an anthropological survey, a piece of journalism, and a law journal article. It’s great.

Brooks begins with a survey of the modern US military. She writes:

Modern military personnel […] analyze lines of computer code in Virginia office buildings, build isolation wards in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, operate health clinics in rural Malaysian villages, launch agricultural reform programs and small business development projects in Africa, train Afghan judges and parliamentarians, develop television soap operas for Iraqi audiences, and conduct antipiracy patrols off the Somali coast. They monitor global email and telephone communications, pilot weaponized drones from simulated airplane cockpits thousands of miles away, and help develop and plan for high-tech new modes of warfare, from autonomous weapons systems operated by computers using artificial intelligences to DNA-linked bioweapons.

That is to say, the US military does a lot of things not traditionally associated with either the military or war. Brooks surveys these functions and outlines how this state of affairs came to be. Brooks is less concerned with the outsize role of the Department of Defense compared to, say, the State Department — where others might argue that the military should stick to just war, Brooks is more concerned that whatever the military does, it does well. Brooks is most concerned about the dangers of a degrading boundary between war and peacetime and how the post-World War II order is being subverted and challenged in dangerous ways. The nature of war is changing, Brooks argues, and we are sliding into a state of perpetual war. Brooks puts forth an important argument that we need to develop new institutions and norms capable of protecting human rights and the rule of law in this new era.

This is a kick-ass book, although I recognize it isn’t for everyone. I recommend this book if you get excited by questions of sovereignty, international law, and the use of force. I recommend this book if you’re intrigued or agitated by the drone war or Guantánamo Bay. I also recommend this book if you want to better understand the functions of the modern military. If this all sounds cool, but you’re not ready to read a 350 page book, click here to listen to Rosa Brooks discuss How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything on an episode of the marvelous Lawfare Podcast.

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Orbit Books, 2015.

Nemesis Games is the fifth book in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I read the fourth book, Cibola Burn, back in August 2016 and blogged about it back then.

The Expanse is my favorite book series and the most fun I’ve had reading. Go read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, right now. Also, The Expanse has been adapted into a TV show on Syfy. (The show is also called The Expanse.) The TV show is also amazing. Go watch it right now also.

Nemesis Games, in particular, was another solid addition to the series. It had great character moments, a couple fabulous moments of space adventure awesomeness, and marked a striking turning point in the series.