February DNFs

Posted 28th February 2024 by Sia in Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

There are quite a few books I’m hesitating over continuing – not convinced I want to push on with them – but only two actual, solid DNFs this month!

In Universes: A Novel by Emet North
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Queer MCs, F/F
Published on: 30th April 2024
ISBN: 0063314886

An imaginative debut that follows a queer physicist’s search for love and belonging across time and space

Raffi works in an observational cosmology lab, searching for dark matter and trying to hide how little they understand their own research. Every chance they get, they escape to see Britt, a queer sculptor who fascinates them for reasons they also can’t—or won’t—understand. As Raffi’s carefully constructed life begins to collapse, they dream of a universe where they mean as much to Britt as Britt does to them. And just like that, Raffi and Britt are thirteen years old, best friends and maybe something more.

In Universes is a mind-bending tour across parallel worlds, each an answer to the question of what Raffi’s life would be like had things happened just a little differently. Across lives, Raffi—alongside their sometimes-friends, sometimes-lovers Britt, Kay, and Graham—reaches for a life that feels authentically their own. The universes grow increasingly strange. Women fracture into hordes of animals, alien-possessed bears prowl apocalyptic landscapes. But Raffi’s divergent existences all lead back to the summer of the terrible thing Raffi did and the guilt that continues to chase them across realities. Blending realism with science fiction, In Universes explores the pull of desire, the power of connection, the nature of identity, and the desire to lead a meaningful life.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Is it fair to call a book boring because you thought it was going to be something it isn’t? Can I call this a bad book when I have a sneaking suspicion that I Just Don’t Get It?

I think I can.

As a science fiction novel, this is fucking terrible. It’s slow and dreary and the scifi elements are relegated to the background when they appear at all – and they often don’t; every ‘chapter’ is functionally a standalone short story, featuring different versions of the same character/s, and the majority of them contain no scifi stuff at all, nor do they explore or play with scifi themes and tropes. There are so many ways to play with gender and sexuality in SFF – The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum comes immediately to mind – and none of that is happening here. The blurb is phrased in such a way that I took it to mean we were going to be following one character moving through different universes, something in a similar vein to Nathan Tavares’ Fractured Infinity. That is not what this is! We, the reader, are taking peeks at different realities, at different versions of Raffi in different timelines, but they are all entirely separate; this isn’t a scifi adventure, it’s a collection of short stories about the same characters. Instead of a queer physicist hopping from world to world, we’re reading about professors who are unhappy in their academic success, kids who bow under to peer-pressure, women too cowardly to confess their true feelings to a partner; blah, blah, blah. It’s the kind of Lit Fic nonsense we mock Lit Fic for being, for crying out loud; if it were entertaining, I might even consider whether North intended this book as some kind of satire or spoof on that genre. But I think not: it takes itself too seriously, and is just so mind-numbingly boring, to be (successfully) doing something sneaky and clever.

As a literary fiction novel… Look, I’m not qualified to make that judgement. I hate Literary Fiction with a passion and think it’s all pretentious drivel by default. It is genuinely possible that I Just Don’t Get what North was doing here. But speaking as a nonbinary person, I didn’t see anything being said about gender or sexuality at all, never mind something smart or interesting being said, never mind it being done well or poorly. In some of the vignettes the main character was queer, or sapphic, or nonbinary, and in some they weren’t, or at least did not appear to be: being married to a man doesn’t make a woman straight, of course, but if that’s all I see in that particular vignette, I have nothing else to go on. Using she/her pronouns (as the MC does for at least the first half of the book) doesn’t make you a woman, for that matter – I use she/her pronouns, and am decidedly not a girl – but when a character uses she/her and spends her time obsessing over sandcastles and Shakespeare’s Ophelia, I have no evidence suggesting she’s not cis. It sucks that our society defaults to cishet, that I need evidence of obvious queerness to recognise a character as queer, but the fact is that I do. It’s not like that in real life – in real life, you can call yourself queer and I need no more evidence than that to consider you queer. But when we’re talking about a fictional character, I need to be shown, and in many of the chapters I read, I was not.

On the other hand, sometimes we did get that; in several chapters/universes Raffi is a woman attracted to women, or men and women; sometimes Raffi is nonbinary. But that in and of itself isn’t saying anything interesting. So, not all versions of us across the multiverse will have the same sexuality and/or gender identity: I mean, le duh??? Is that the Big Deal that’s supposed to be blowing my mind? I took that as read long before I even heard of this book. Hells, I would argue that Orphan Black did a better job of showing how wildly different different versions of us could potentially be – including Tony, the trans clone we barely met, who I wish we’d seen more of – and that all took place in one universe!

Insert me banging my head against the desk here.

Push comes to shove, In Universe is a series of vignettes about a person who has depression of varying levels in a lot of the various versions of their life, a person who is not interesting and does nothing interesting, who is sometimes self-destructive in eye-rollingly obvious, even clichéd, ways. I skipped ahead to part 3 and that was no more promising than the first half of the book. It’s mundane and dull and banal, and yes all those words mean the same thing but I had to read dozens of boring versions of the same person’s boring life so you can deal with three synonyms.

Please let me go back to the sci fi that goes pew pew, thanks.

Be the Sea by Clara Ward
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Neurodivergent nonbinary MC with chronic pain, major asexual Filipino character, major queer Filipino character
Published on: 5th March 2024
ISBN: 1961654059

In November 2039, marine scientist Wend Taylor heaves themself aboard a zero-emissions boat skippered by elusive nature photographer Viola Yang. Guided by instinct, ocean dreams, and a shared birthday in 1972, they barter stories for passage across the Pacific. Aljon, Viola’s younger cousin, keeps a watchful eye and an innovative galley. Story by story, the trio rethink secrets, flying dreams, and how they experience their own minds.

When they reach Hawaiʻi and prepare to part ways, opportunity and mystery pull them closer together. Both scientific and personal discoveries take shape as they join with ex-lovers, lost friends, and found family. Wend must navigate an ever-shifting future, complicated by bioengineered microbes and a plot to silence scientists, entangled with inexplicable dreams and a calling to Be the Sea.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Be the Sea feels a lot like it’s going for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet vibes, but solarpunk and marine-based rather than out in space. Which feels like a very intuitive set of vibes/themes to me, and a really promising one! I mean, that’s why I requested an arc of it!

But… I was very bored.

It’s not the pacing that’s the problem – I have absolutely zero issue with long, languid, rambly stories; I love them! I would love to see more of them! This is instead an issue of… While I care ideologically about marine life, I’m not actually that interested in fish and algae and so on for their own sake. If Be the Sea had been written more descriptively, I think I could have enjoyed myself – tropical waters are absolutely gorgeous, after all, so I would have loved to have all that colour and diversity described to me! A more sensory style of prose, and this probably would have gotten at least four stars from me.

Unfortunately, it’s not written that way. I wouldn’t call the prose completely bare-bones, but it’s not lush and descriptive. And I completely understand the way the main character, Wend, communicates – how and why they find it easier to communicate via telling stories instead of what a lot of us consider ‘normal’ conversing – it makes sense to me. But instead of having what I can only call the Arabian Nights effect – that thing where stories are nested and interconnected with other stories; is there an official trope name for that? – it reads like semi-constant, and very, very boring, info-dumps. Which I at least can’t connect to whatever Wend & co are, or were just, talking about. I was bored to tears by Wend’s stories, for the most part, and nothing was happening except that they and their crew-mates were on a boat.

From other early reviews, it’s clear that Be the Sea picks up a fair bit towards the middle, and from what I’ve read of the book I think I can guess what the big science conspiracy plot might be. But I really just don’t care – I like the characters fine, but I don’t love them, and without lots of sensory description to balance the slow pace, reading this was a chore. I made it to 20%, but I won’t be pushing on any further.

Just two DNFs isn’t bad! Crossing my fingers for even fewer next month.

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