Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Murderbot

First Impressions

They say first impressions are important. As a writer, I’d say that goes for the first lines of stories, too. Lots of great books and stories open with ho-hum first lines. But I deeply admire a great opening line.

I often kick off a new month with a collection of illustrated quotations. This month, I’ve put my own spin on a related idea that I got from a friend, Lynette M. Burrows. Her excellent blog regularly features great opening lines from books she’s read.

This month is also Women’s History Month, when I like to focus on the creative work of women throughout the years. I’ve highlighted great women artists on my blog in the past, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur. But today I’m featuring opening lines from five great women writers making creative history in the science fiction and fantasy field right now.

First Impressions from Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World

The monster has been here. I can smell him.
--Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Simon and Schuster.

Trail of Lightning is the first of her “Sixth World” books, based on Navajo traditional stories. The second, Storm of Locusts, is near the top of my “to be read” pile, as is her most recent title, Black Sun. Roanhorse identifies as indigenous and African American, although her tribal membership is disputed. Her husband is Navajo. Trail of Lighting focuses on Navajo culture and characters.

FAIR WARNING: some Navajo groups have criticized the book as disrespectful, or as cultural appropriation. Certainly, the nature of the action in the book, if depicted of any cultural group, probably could be seen by conservative observers from that group to be “disrespectful.” Roanhorse herself has said that her goal was “accuracy and respect.”

I have chosen include this book in my collection because in my opinion Roanhorse consistently writes with respect and understanding about indigenous characters. She’s widely seen as an important rising voice in the science fiction field. And it’s an intriguing story with an arresting opening line.

Murderbot’s First Words

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.
--Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Thrift Books.

For those of us who love Martha Wells’ prickly cyborg Security Unit, each new installment of its adventures is a new joy (yes, Murderbot’s pronouns are it/its). The first impressions offered in the opening of its debut appearance provide an important (if incomplete) angle on its approach to life.

The “Murderbot Diaries” stories are set in a distinctly dystopian universe where opportunistic corporations seem largely unrestricted by inconvenient morality. What makes them such as joy to read Murderbot’s personality and perspective.

Whenever our favorite “SecUnit” teams up with the flawed but well-intentioned humans who accept it into their society, we get a new opportunity to see how these well-written stories play out. Not all of them begin with such a marvelous “characteristic statement” as the first line offered here. But in my opinion all are well worth a read.

This is not Wells’ first series. Until All Systems Red, the award-winning first novella was published, she was best known for her fantasy novels and media tie-ins. She writes prolifically in many lengths and several genres/subgenres.

An earlier voice than the others

As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, "We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast."
--Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Amazon.

I’ll confess that when I first began contemplating this blog post, Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring was the first book I knew I wanted to include. I picked it up at a science fiction convention not long after it was first published. Once I read that first line I was hooked. Talk about compelling first impressions!

After Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, Hopkinson was the first Black science fiction author I knew about, or whose work I read. She is in fact a Jamaican-born Canadian Back when I started reading sf, the field was dominated by old, white, imperialistic misogynists. Not all were—but enough.

When I read the work of authors such as Hopkinson, I got a whole new viewpoint. Their unique and intriguing takes on the field stretched my imagination and opened my eyes. Their visions became part of the broader worldview I’ve tried to develop ever since.

The inimitable wit of T. Kingfisher

She was going to die because of the rutabagas.
--T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), Bryony and Roses
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Barnes & Noble, and rutabaga photo from The Land Connection.

You might know Ursula Vernon’s artwork—indeed, I first met her as an artist, when she was an Artist Guest of Honor at ConQuesT 43 (2012). It was only later that I realized she also writes under the name of T. Kingfisher.

Her small gem of a story Bryony and Roses is a distinctly different take on the old story of Beauty and the Beast, and indeed the rutabagas do play an important part. If you enjoy her humor and unique approach, I think you’ll be well rewarded by this tale. And look! She has more books!

First impressions for a jewel-like novella of polished words

"Something wants to eat you," called Almost Brilliant from her perch in a nearby tree, "and I shall not be sorry if it does."
--Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Goodreads.

From the very start to the very end of this acclaimed novella, I had a sense that the author had particularly chosen, placed, and polished each word to perfection. The opening line offers a great foretaste. Seanan McGuire called it a “puzzle box,” and it’s a good description. This story unwinds in its own nonlinear fashion, yet it moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion.

Nghi Vo has so far published two novellas, a novel, and a whole raft of short fiction. I imagine we have only begun to hear her remarkable voice. If you’re curious how to pronounce her Vietnamese name, this might help.

I hope you enjoyed these “first impressions” first lines, and the stories that go with them (and proceed from them). Next week we’ll present another collection: G. S. Norwood has some great first lines to share, too. Please leave a comment about your favorites. Suggest more great first lines. Or maybe you’d like to offer other observations. Please share your thoughts!

IMAGES:

All of the design work on the first-line quote-images is mine, for well or ill, other than the book covers. For those, I have several sources to thank. I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for the Trail of Lightning cover. I’m grateful to Thrift Books for the All Systems Red cover. Same to Amazon for Brown Girl in the Ring. I appreciate Barnes & Noble for the cover of Bryony and Roses (Also The Land Institute for the photo of the rutabagas!). And I’m grateful to Goodreads for the cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Many thanks to all of you!

Recent political-comment books

Politics in Science Fiction

Do you read science fiction as an escape? If you hoped the politics would die down after the election, and now you just want to get away from it all in a sci-fi world, I’ll try to break this gently. Politics in science fiction is pretty much baked-in.

No romance, no adventure story, no mystery, and no historical drama can completely evade society or politics, even when it’s not the focus. But most of these are based on actual events or places. If your romance is set in Tuscany, or if your historical novel takes place in Kublai Khan’s court, certain rules are already set.

But sf was kinda built for political or social comment. Science fiction can range from a simple town hall to a matrilineal nest-colony. But every sf story resides in a world that the author chose to create that way. For a reason.

Sometimes it’s just the wallpaper

Covers for Murderbot stories: “All Systems Red,” “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” “Exit Strategy,” “Network Effect,” and “Fugitive Telemetry.”
Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells.

Would-be escapists take heart! Politics in science fiction novels isn’t always center-stage. Some sf authors choose the “background political system” more for plot-utility.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” stories take place in a system quite different from our own. What kind of place would allow such a cyborg to be made and exploited? We can believe this world would. It’s not obviously presented as a dystopia, but a writer with a different story purpose could actively portray it as one.

But maybe you’d rather take out your political frustrations in another way.

Dystopia

Maybe you’d like to see characters triumph over their politically- or socially-caused adversity. In that case, the politics in science fiction of certain kinds may be right up your alley. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the most inspirational science fiction unfolds in a dystopian world.

Writers use dystopian novels to critique some aspect of their current world. Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from both classical and contemporary sources for her “Hunger Games” books. Her critique focuses on social and economic inequalities, extreme versions of contemporary trends.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale also makes an extremely relevant point about patriarchy taken to extremes. Women still struggle for the right to control their own bodies. Handmaid remains as relevant now as when it was published in 1985. Buzzfeed offers a list of 24 excellent dystopian novels you’d like to explore this subgenre.

Covers for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Ecotopia,” and “Brave New World,” as well as a boxed set of the Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games Trilogy” and the flag design for Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Utopia

Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia gets pointed to a lot, as an example of a utopian novel—one set in a supposedly “perfect” society. Published in 1975, it influenced the dawn of the Green movement (so did fact-based books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962). See my 2016 post “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness.”

Utopias are harder to find in fiction—especially influential utopias. How do you present an interesting story set in a perfect world? Conflict and problems are the soul of plot. This may be the primary reason the Solarpunk movement has been able to produce inspiring and beautiful visual art, but no “breakout” novel to date.

The background society of the Federation in the Star Trek universe has a utopian nature. But few stories in the franchise take place there. Most are set in a less-utopian corner of the Final Frontier.

When one person’s utopia becomes another’s dystopia in some way, we tend to find more stories. Aldous Huxley took that approach in Brave New World (that society’sinhabitants believed it to be a utopia).

Political and social commentary

Politics in science fiction and speculative fiction is alive and well. And has been, all the way back to the genre’s roots.

Many people consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to be the “first science fiction novel.” It’s a cautionary tale against technological hubris ( see Victor Frankenstein’s dying admonition to “avoid ambition”).

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine commented on his contemporary social class system. He employed Darwinian concepts to speculate in an oh, so Victorian way that the upper and lower classes would evolve separately over the millennia into separate sub-species of humans.

Covers for historic books “Frankenstein” and “The Time Machine,” contemporary novels “Ancillary Justice” and “A Memory Called Empire,” and XK9 books “The Other Side of Fear” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

More recent examples

But the sf writers of the past have nothing on today’s works. Nnedi Okorafor, for one example, frequently tackles such topics as racial and gender inequality, environmental destruction, corruption, and genocide through the lens of her fantasy and science fiction.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a unique approach to gender (for one thing, the “default pronoun” is she, which leads us interesting places). Her long, hard look at what Genevieve Valentine calls “the disconnects of culture” opens more parallels to consider.

Arkady Martine‘s acclaimed debut novel A Memory Called Empire tackles political intrigue (she’s a Byzantine Empire historian), and the multiple facets of colonialism.

Politics in the world of the XK9s

My own science fiction isn’t overtly political. My focus in the XK9 books is trying to tell a good story. But I built Rana Station, the environment where most of the action takes place, on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? If a political and social structure made that its guiding question, how would the resulting society look?

I built the world of Rana Station on ideas I started gathering during my coursework. But I don’t believe in “perfect” worlds. In my next post I’ll go into more depth on how and why I created the system where my fictional characters live.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to all of the following: Jaime Jones, who illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells. Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire came from Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

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