Oct 282016
 

allbirdsskyAll The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

Synopsis: A pair of outcasts meet as children and overcome social isolation and opposing ideologies to become friends and save the world.

Book Review (Rational Fiction version): This must be done in two parts, because first I must address the Rational Fiction flavor of this book! This is the most only novel I know (so far) that captures the style of Rational Fiction without being Rational Fiction itself. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, so let’s start with the conflict.

A foundation of RatFic is that there aren’t “good” and “evil” sides (per se)–there are factions with conflicting values who are intellectually consistent and morally good to themselves, but who clash over their differences. All The Birds does this thing, as the two protagonists are from opposing ideologies and are each other’s antagonists, and whenever you are reading a chapter from the POV of one of them you identify with that character, and you realize how right and proper their actions are, and why of course they must fight the stupid/bad actions of their opposition. The next chapter switches to the other character, and you feel the exact same thing from the other side. I love that sort of thing.

Secondly, both protags are child prodigies who are socially isolated because of their gifts. This isn’t a defining feature of RatFic per se, but it is a common theme, and it’s very HPMoR-esque, which kicked off the whole RatFic genre in the first place.

Third, it is comfortable in the language/culture of transhumanism. It isn’t a treatise on the movement or anything, but the author is either familiar with the movement, or had a lot of input from people who are. This feels like it was written by someone in the scene, and it’s refreshing to read something that comes from my culture! You don’t realize how alien the overwhelming majority of the world is until you stumble across something that feels like it came from your home group, and you can love it for the comforting family tale it is. I get fuzzies just thinking about it.

Fourth, the humor is straight-up Yudkowskian. If you liked the humor of HPMoR, you’ll likely enjoy the humor here too! It is slightly absurdist, but in a way that is delightful, like the assassin’s guild that requires its members to perform pro bono hits from time to time to remain in good standing. The word play is top-notch. And there are a fair smattering of the geeky pop-culture references, done just right, that we all love (ala Forks +2).

That being said, this is explicitly NOT Rationalist Fiction! The male hero starts the novel by crafting a 2-second time machine which apparently anyone can make if they have internet access, but most people don’t, and which isn’t abused or munchkined at all. There’s a TON of these throw-away things in the novel which could potentially break the world if an enterprising hero were to munchkin them into abuse, but which are never exploited in that way, because this isn’t RatFic. It’s a story of friendship, and love, and growing up, and it focuses on THAT. As long as you don’t expect RatFic-style exploitation, and accept this as a surreal fantasy story where everyone has a blindspot as to the game-breaking-potential of all the magic/gadgets around them, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. :)

Book Review (Traditional Version): This is a beautiful story. I don’t know if anyone read the works of Daniel Pinkwater as a kid, but this novel feels exactly like I remember those. It is surreal in a way that allows the author to focus on the parts of reality that really MATTER to the story, and seriously drill into those. The story does not give any fucks about “realism.” In Pinkwater’s Lizard Music, for example, there are talking lizards who play jazz music on public access television after midnight. In a world that otherwise makes sense. There is no explanation given, it’s just a brute fact of the story world. All The Birds In The Sky has many similar things, straight-up absurdities which are fun and which don’t need explanation (like the 2-second time machine). They are quirky and delightful, and put you in the frame of mind that this is a fantasy for precocious, imaginative people that are willing to revert to a more child-like play state for the duration of a novel.

This is important, because much of this novel is an exploration of how we move from being wonder-filled children to jaded adults. Sooooo much of it is a commentary on Adulting. On trying to stay true to yourself in a world filled with mundane madness, with a sanity waterline so low it drives you to exasperation… and maybe conformity? This is a paean to anyone who still uses Adulting as a verb to proudly describe things they sometimes do, rather than a noun describing what they are.

And oh god, the childhood of these characters. It is my childhood. It is angst and isolation, and thinking if maybe you can do this one glorious thing it will all be different… but it never is. The parents are absurdly extreme in a way no real humans are, but in a way that speaks to the emotional reality of what it is to be a child. It sacrifices literalism to get to the emotional core of a world dominated by overwhelmingly powerful beings who cannot relate to or fully understand you.

The teen years too! The sexual struggles of the male character are the most true-to-life of any novel I’ve read, and I think it says something that a surrealist YA novel has come so much closer to portraying realistic sexuality than anything trying to be Serious and Literary.

The prose itself is just fantastic too. After a love scene between the male protagonist and his then-girlfriend, the final paragraph ends with

“When Laurence got back to bed, Serafina had fallen into a cold sleep, and her elbow jutted into him.”

It just ends like that, flat. And it’s the most beautiful way to say “They do not fit together. This relationship is awkward and uncomfortable and doomed to failure.” Because instead of just telling us that, it shows us it in the most physically-literal way possible. In just one sentence, describing a single action. And yet everything is wrapped up in exactly that one line, and it hits you and lingers, because that one line is all it took, and it did it via demonstration. There’s a number of these literary feats sprinkled throughout this book, and it’s perfect every time.

Also, it is written exactly the way I would talk with my friends! For example, there’s even a part where the two characters try to speak at once, and the next sentence is literally:

Then they were both like “You first.”

Which is awesome. :)

The book has a few weaknesses. Patricia’s stay at the Magic School (and the resulting Siberia Incident) never felt very fleshed-out or compelling to me. And the ending was a bit weak. But the beauty and wonder made up for it, for me. I don’t want to over-hype this, because nothing can live up to too much praise, and then one is disappointed. But I certainly enjoyed it. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This review has gone on for quite a while already, so I’ll try to make this short. Not everyone liked this book as much. A couple of our members just couldn’t swallow the absurdist aspects. However, as a commentary on what sort of world we have built for ourselves as we became adults, and how we changed to accommodate that, it did give a group a couple interesting lines of conversation to talk about. The way it portrays environmentalism vs humanism, and the recklessness of over-ambitious leaders, is also intriguing. The fact that it isn’t too long and is a pleasant read helped with completion and turn out as well. Overall, this is makes for good book club reading/discussion. Recommended.

Oct 182016
 

lilith1Lilith, by George MacDonald

Synopsis: A landed gentleman stumbles into a magical dreamland, which I guess is full of parables and symbolism?

Book Review: Written in 1895, this book reads like it was written a century earlier. It’s short, only 200ish pages, but I still gave up after 60. This thing is not worth reading.

First, there’s no reason to like the protagonist. He’s a bland young man of the landed gentry class, who inherited his wealth, and has no friends or anyone important in his life. I just don’t care about his aimless wanderings through a nonsense world.

Second, there’s no tension. In addition to not caring about the protag, there’s no reason to care about what’s happening. None. He just goes wandering.

Third, it’s poorly written. Something something different time period – whatever. MacDonald will often write extremely long sentences that, once you parse them, say literally nothing. Sometimes several in a row. And those are just the ones that intentionally say nothing. My biggest complaint is that:

Fourth – this book is nothing but a huge dump of Pretending To Be Wise. In fact, it’s worse than Pretending To Be Wise. At least if you’re Pretending To Be Wise, you’re actually making some claims with substance, even if they are shallow. Lilith contains innumerable passages with a bunch of fancy-sounding words which don’t actually say ANYTHING. There is no substance there at all! It is the 19th century equivalent of the Quantum Homeopathy Woman. It’s fancy gibberish that doesn’t have any referent!

Well OK, not *every* time. It’s pretty obvious that the little people vs giants section is a big ol’ sign to say “Greed is bad.” Thanks for that update George. It was extra-profound when you demonstrated Greed Is Bad by pointing out that it would be awesome if everyone lived in an Eden, in perfect health with unlimited food and no need for shelter. Totes applicable to my life.

Strongly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Yeah, there’s not much to talk about here. There’s no topic to discuss, because nothing has been said. I was going to chalk this up to “Writing technology has advanced a lot”, but our English Major pointed out that MacDonald doesn’t even have that excuse. This post-dates Charles Dickens. It post-dates “Alice in Wonderland”, which was an actual GOOD tale set in a magical dreamland. It’s only a couple decades removed from Hemingway.

The only person in our book club who enjoyed this novel was someone who misinterpreted it as an Absurdist Humor piece, and found it hilarious. Even she got tired of it after about halfway through though, and skipped to the end.

On the plus side, it’s in the public domain, so you can get it free. Or for under a buck at Amazon.

Not Recommended.

Oct 032016
 

steel-beach Steel Beach, by John Varley

Synopsis: A tour of a transhumanist future on a lunar colony, where Humanity struggles against the ennui of irrelevance, and a sovereign Friendly AI struggles against value drift.

Book Review: It is really impressive how ahead-of-its-time this novel was. It was published in 1992, and for the most part I felt like it could have been published last month (with a few notable exceptions–the “we update our news sites every hour” must’ve seemed like a lot back then, nowadays we update in real time…)

I was wary at first, because the story starts with a journalist being told to write a series of articles about how life is different now than it was 200 years ago (due to the approaching bicentennial of humanity’s exit from Earth). That just felt like a very ham-handed way of saying “I, the author, shall now pontificate on my personal vision of what a cool future would be for hundreds of pages.” But I was pleasantly surprised. The world is indeed pretty cool, and its oddities and quirks kept me interested in the initial chapters. The plot, while it does flag in a few points, keeps things moving pretty well. Varley’s style totally steals the show though! He writes with a very strong voice that really brings his protagonists personality to the fore and lets it shine. I may not like everything about the protagonist, but I feel like I know who they are after spending this novel with them.

The big draw with this book is Varley’s dive into the meaning of life. Not in the pretentious “Let us ponder upon the meaning of life” way, but in a somewhat-more-intelligent-than-average character trying to figure out what exactly to do, and how to be meaningful, in a world that doesn’t really need humans anymore. Let me take that back – not just “try to figure out”, but actively churning his/her life experiences in multiple attempts to try stuff and find a thing! It’s cool to see someone actually make efforts and go through several feedback loops.

Hell, the protagonist even falls back on the old “revert to survivalism” and “have children” clichés, and fortunately doesn’t come to the conclusion “It turns out we all just need to go back to living like our ancestors.” :)

Most interestingly, the book doesn’t really give any answers. Varley certainly doesn’t have any method to push, aside from the usual “keep seeking, there’s gotta be meaning somewhere.” It’s more of an exploration of ennui than a refutation of it, and has a bittersweet taste throughout. If that thought turns you off, this is not the book for you. But I enjoyed it.

One big downside—most of the climax happened off-stage. That’s a storytelling sin, IMHO. But the book wasn’t really about that plot, so I’m more forgiving of it than usual.

This is not a book that I would give a hearty “You must read this as soon as you have free time!” endorsement of. However I’m glad I read it, and I would recommend to my past self to read through this at some point, when there’s a lot going on in my life and I need something to bring me some calm for a bit. So, a Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Holy crap, there is so much in here to talk about! The entire novel is a comment on modern life and how we deal with it. There are so many hooks for conversation you may have to choose to focus just on the ones most interesting to your group. This will spark a lot of discussion about human nature, the coming age of automation, the banality of modern news media, the ethics of X and/or Y, and so forth. It is absolutely fantastic.

And it does so in a way where the focus is on the fiction, not where the fiction is just some thin excuse for the author to expound on how much Kids Suck These Days or whatever. It’s got a legit good story with good characters, who happen to be wrestling with those issues, but who were written for their own sake. Not to serve as mouthpieces.Quite well done.

One would be excused in thinking that this book was written specifically for book clubs that like read a neat story and then discuss cool things. Highly Recommended!

Sep 192016
 

ghostbrideThe Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

Synopsis: At the turn of the century, a young girl must marry the dead son of a rich family to save her father from ruin, but he’s a total jerk.

Book Review: An interesting animal! First, this book feels like an Urban Fantasy that’s set in an early 1900s Chinese colonial holding rather than in modern-day Chicago. It’s a neat blending of modern style and old setting.

The thing I most enjoyed about this book was its exploration of the afterlife mythology of this culture. It’s not exactly Chinese, and not exactly Malaysian, but kinda a blending of the two that happened in that time/place. I am almost entirely ignorant of that mythology, so seeing their afterlife beliefs coming to life in these pages was entirely fascinating. It’s very much the Bureaucratic Hell version of afterlife, except everyone goes there. Then they suffer through a century or so of paperwork and red tape and corrupt government officials until they die for real. Not the worst of tortures, but certainly not a pleasant afterlife. :) Almost every chapter had something new and fascinating that kept my interest. And the prose is basically well done, in some places slipping into cliché, in other places really shining.

The thing about this novel though… well, just a week or so before I read it I came across this essay about the Basic Girl Story (as compared to the Basic Boy Story), and I’m glad I did, because it put everything into perspective. (OK, tumblr post, but basically an informal essay)

The Basic Boy Story is “common boy is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. He gets training under a mentor, pushes his abilities to new levels, and completes some difficult task. He returns to his home town as a much-lauded hero.”

The Basic Girl Story is “common girl is found to be Special, with Special Powers or Destiny or some such. She meets a Gruff Loner. She is put in danger several times, and in each case rescued because she is Precious and Worth Rescuing. In the end she and Gruff Loner fall in love, the danger passes, and the most significant change in her life is that now she’s happy.”

The essay itself compares The Matrix to Jupiter Ascending as the two Basic story examples, and it’s interesting and short. But the main point is that neither story is bad, they are just… basic. We’ve seen them both a hundred times. There’s no shame in enjoying them, they are so basic because they are widely enjoyable! But unless they incorporate some sort of radical twist or concept (like The Matrix had), they won’t cover new ground.

The Ghost Bride is the essence of a good Basic Girl Story. It hits every beat, and if you’ve read a few of these before, you can see everything coming from a mile away. I knew when the Gruff Loner was removed from the story that he wasn’t really gone for good – he had to come back for the declaration of love at the end. But I was hoping maybe, MAYBE our protagonist would solve at least one problem by herself now. Nope. He’s back before you know it to save her yet again. Ah well, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. :)

If you like that sort of story, this really is a great execution of it! And the interesting world makes up for a lot. But it doesn’t really grab me, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The book isn’t bad for book clubs. The exposure to a foreign mythology is really neat, and it’s a fast read, and not an unenjoyable one. There are a couple things to talk about, such as how much society has progressed since the time when it was hard to marry off a nearly-spinsterly 18-year-old girl.

I personally was bothered by how the book strongly pushed the narrative of “parents have an obligation to sacrifice everything for the child’s happiness.” I realize that parents sacrifice a lot, and this is generally good. But Choo seemed to speak very approvingly of a young mother who committed suicide so that her daughter could marry the guy she wanted to. That’s really overdoing it IMHO. You don’t have an obligation to kill yourself so your bratty 14 year old can run off with her True Love. These over-the-top sacrifices, and the entitlement of the children to them, really rubbed me the wrong way. That sparked a fair bit of conversation. However I think this was a peculiarity of my own, and most people wouldn’t think that much of it, and wouldn’t make it a talking point.

All things considered, it isn’t bad. No one disliked it. Most people weren’t significantly excited by it either though, so I can’t give an Enthusiastic Consent recommendation. Ultimately, Not Recommended.

Aug 252016
 

lightningToo Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Synopsis: This book is about your reaction to it. Heed the trigger warnings. The plot is incidental.

Book Review: Wow, man, where do I begin? Ambitious is an understatement.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Yes, this book has trigger warnings. It needs them, which I’ll get into in tomorrow’s in-depth, spoileriffic post. It is impressive that Palmer got trigger warnings into her book, because that’s frowned upon in “serious literature.” The way she did this is by having the trigger warnings be integral to the story itself. This book takes place several hundred years in the future, and humanity has (re)embraced censorship for societal good. The conceit of this book is that it is a history written by a person in that era, so the book itself must first be approved by the censorship bodies. This provides your first dive into this world – where the approval and comments of various censorship boards preface the history itself. You learn right off the bat that not only does this world have censorship, it has strong anti-religious censorship, and it is controlled by a number of vying factions who have very unique ways of expressing themselves. One censorship body is an arm of the Mitsubishi corporation. Another writes only in Latin. It is incredibly effective world-building, and the tigger warnings themselves almost sneak by you! Which is why I felt the need to say “No, seriously, heed them.”

The novel is an INTENSE exercise in world building and character crafting. Almost every page reveals something new about the world, or how our protagonist exists within it. It builds itself up slowly, but with astounding richness. One member of our bookclub said “It’s like one of those Magic Eye pictures, and comes into focus as you read.”

I will say that I almost didn’t read past the first chapter, because I found it infuriating. The setting is a high-tech hard-SF future. The first chapter focuses almost entirely on a wishy-washy mealy-mouthed priest of the kind I get so damn frustrated with, because every single thing he says is “Well, SOME people say this, OTHERS say that.” Or “What do you think? Yes, that could be.” He’s saying all this to a pre-pubescent boy, who really could use some real fucking answers that we actually HAVE and could provide to him! The priest’s job is literally to encourage any hare-brained religious thought, even including something like “Well, do you think Thor creates lightning with his magic hammer? It could be! Some people say that.” The rage, it was like flames, at the side of my face. You learn later on in the book that there’s a very good reason that society is shaped this way, but I almost didn’t make it through it.

In addition to that, we are in a high-tech hard-SF future, and in chapter one we are introduce to a literal god-child. A kid who can create miracles. Any toy he touches comes to life. Not via holograms, or nano-fog, or any sort of “looks like magic” tech. Literal magic. Plastic soldiers turn into 2-inch tall flesh-and-blood humans who talk, think, have internal organs and blood, and can be killed in the ways you’d imagine. It drove me nuts, and I wanted to hurl the book across the room. (Again, I later came to appreciate this, which I’ll cover tomorrow)

The one thing that kept me going was the absolutely enthralling writing style. This novel is written in what I’m now thinking of as an “Enlightenment Style”, wherein the author directly addresses the reader. (Well, that and seeing lots of praise from authors I respect) It is the most unique and fascinating style I’ve ever read, and the lush (and bizarre!) world made me decide to give it another chapter. And the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The narrator not only addresses you directly, he later begins to speak FOR you, and you engage him in a dialog in the pages of the book! It’s fantastic! And he’s such a genuinely good person that you really start to care for him. I decided I would keep going until I got bored.

And then I hit That Scene. The Promised Reveal. I will not say what it is, because it would not be fair to spoil this book for you in that way. But every person who has read this book will know immediately what Scene I mean, and they will give me a knowing look and say “Yeah. Man. That fuckin’ Scene.” I still feel charges of emotion over a week later, typing about it. I literally had to put the book down, and walk away from it for several days. It made me think about myself. It made me think about what I want in fiction, and how I relate to an author. I was almost positive I’d come back to finish the book, but I needed some time. And maybe I wouldn’t come back after all.

Of course, I did. But the amount of introspection and emotional reaction I got from That Scene alone was amazing. I will remember this book for decades. And while it is the most powerful scene in the novel, it is not the only good one, there are several other brilliant moments throughout it. This novel just came out a few months ago, and I will be surprised if it doesn’t end up on a number of award lists.

That being said – this novel is slow. My summary was a little facetious – there is actually a plot. But you don’t really find out what it is until you’re about 80% of the way through the book. The rest of the time it is world-building, character-building, and laying groundwork. There are many times when I thought “Why do I care about these people? Who cares about that a popularity contest result was leaked a couple days early? What is my investment in any of this?” The majority of the action is dialog or conversation, much of it often deeply philosophical. You know the anime we grew up on, things like Akira or Ghost In the Shell, where characters will break into discussion about the purpose of consciousness and the underpinnings of the human psyche? And it’s a total trip, and you think “damn this is marvelous” and then it goes back to blowing shit up? Imagine that, without the blowing shit up part. Personally, I LOVE that sort of thing. It’s why I hated the first chapter so much (the priest is sooooo wrong and stupid!), but everyone else in the novel has much better and more interesting things to say than that priest. The entire society is based upon Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and they act the part.

What I’m saying is, this is a glorious work! It has what I would consider some flaws, but everyone will find different flaws in it, and that’s one of the signs of something that’s more than the sum of its parts. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece. Maybe it is. But it is certainly unique and exciting.

Before I recommend it – this book is certainly not for everyone. I mean yes, some people will find it boring and dreary. But more importantly – if you are the type of person that is traumatized by the things described in the book’s trigger warnings, you really should stay away. For anyone who falls in that category – strongly not recommended! But since the conceit of my reviews is “What would I say to myself if I could tell the me of 15 days ago if this novel is a good use of their spare reading time over the next 2 weeks?” – Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is much harder to say. When I was driving in to my book club meeting, I was on edge in a way I haven’t been in years. I suspected some people would hate this. I was worried some people would be angry at me for recommending it.

In the Afterwards, Palmer says that one of her goals in writing this book was to join the Great Conversation. She has succeeded IN SPADES. There is so much to talk about within the pages of this book that I can’t even begin to summarize it all. Normally when I go to a book club meeting, I open my eReader and scroll through my highlighted passages to talk about what I liked. This time I had to take notes on my highlights before I went, because I had highlighted so damn much! You could run three different book club meetings off this one book if you wanted to, tackling different issues each time. It is that rich.

But on the other hand, a couple members felt it was too complex. A couple others stopped reading early-ish, because they grew bored with the slow pace and the low emotional stakes. And, again, if you have any members of your book club who will be triggered by the things presented in the warning, you shouldn’t ask them to read it (and/or make them feel excluded by basing a meeting around a book they can’t read). This is a book that I feel uncomfortable recommending en masse, please use your discretion. That being said, none of us knew what we were getting into when we started it, no one was traumatized or triggered, and we had one of the most exciting and interesting meetings that I’ve been a part of. That can be considered a tacit “Recommended With Cautions.”

Oh, also, the book is Part 1 of 2, and ends with (almost literally) “to be continued.”

Aug 112016
 

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman16085483

Synopsis: A half-dragon teenage living secretly as a human in a country that despises dragons must foil a plot to plunge the two races into renewed warfare.

Book Review: I have a well-known prejudice against YA, so I was initially extremely surprised when I showed up for book club and everyone referred to this as a YA novel. Because I loved it. After thinking on it for about five seconds I realized that yes, this is totally YA. But it is awesome!

The heart of this book is its characters. They pop in bold colors, and feel like real people. Interesting, expressive, often admirable, and always real. I fell in love with all of them.

Particularly interesting to people like me are the dragons, who are basically extremely-thoughtful, Aspergers-ish, geeks. They love math and applied game theory, and have trouble understanding emotions, and give off a bit of a Spock vibe. Seeing a society of such creatures, and the way they are hated by humans, warms my heart. Even moreso when Seraphina (the titular protagonist) starts to discover her own dragon-like tendencies. When she first enters a pub for dragonkind and finds other humans like her, who love to talk about math and are terrible at flirting and other social things, she finally feels like she’s found a home. She’s finding her geek family!! It’s YA for people like us! Sadly, this doesn’t get as much attention as maybe it should. The story focuses more on the Prince and Princess of the kingdom (well, queendom technically), who are very much the Popular Kid crowd. Yet I still related very strongly with the geekiness of Seraphina, and it was kinda gratifying seeing her find acceptance among the cool crowd too.

(Seriously tho, one of the dragons is investigating love, which has been striking some of his comrades, so that he can better understand and combat this malady that has been infesting some of their brightest minds! And he’s willing to face lobotomy as a consequence, to help his people overcome this scourge. How can you not love that?)

It has some fantastic humor based off of this geeky stuff too. When one particular musical instrument is played FAR too loudly near her, Seraphina says “my appreciation increased with the square of the distance separating us”. :D

I also love that much of the conflict is informed by her constant need to lie to everyone about herself. The world of lies she wraps herself in feels very close to home for me. I never feel like I’m being honest with the world, everything is a dance performed so I am not shunned, and Seraphina has the same problem. Her fear of being found out comes with far worse consequences than mine, and that made the story all the more compelling.

Finally, while it ends in a traditional “love triangle” situation, the reader ends up loving all three of the people within it, and more importantly – all three of those people care deeply for each other, and are very close friends! I strongly suspect that this is setting up for a polyamorous triad situation, which would just be the best coup ever for a NYT Best-selling YA series! Yes!! Make it so!

The one downside of this book is that the ending goes on forever. The denouement is 2-3 times longer than a good denouement should be. The final three chapters should NOT have been in this book – they should have been the first three chapters of the sequel. Or just hinted at. It felt very much like the sequel was started at the end of this book, and that’s just clumsy. Yes, we know there are lots of complications that arise due to the events in this book, and much will still happen in this world. We understand not ever thread can be tied up when there’s so much left to do. Don’t go starting the NEXT story within this book! Just finish up the one you have, and start the next story at the beginning of the next novel.

Still, that’s a small drawback to a delightful novel. Recommended!

Book Club Review: In general, I think YA has less to say that can really get adults talking. That was borne out again. While we did talk quite a bit about the things we liked, there wasn’t any deeper conversation that was sparked. Nevertheless, just seeing a YA book that is aimed directly at the growing-up-geeky demographic was so refreshing that I have a hard time saying one shouldn’t read this. I’m glad I read it, and so was everyone else at the book club, it got very high ratings from all. If you’re willing to have a meeting that’s less about theme and more just chatting about a fun book with lots of heart, this is a good one. Recommended in that case, but otherwise the most warm-feeling Not Recommended I can give.

Aug 042016
 

cover_peter-and-the-starcatchersPeter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Synopsis: A Peter Pan origin story.

Book Review: This is straight-up very good fanfic. I guess not technically fanfic, since fanfic is fiction that you can’t legally sell, and Peter Pan is in the public domain now. But any reader of fanfic will recognize this in a heartbeat!

It’s a good story. It’s fun, it updates the story for modern audiences (ie: makes Peter Pan relatable, and removes the racism), and it creates a cool magic system that gives a neat alternate explanation for all the stuff we saw in the Disney animated movie. It’s full of witty humor and action. In fact, the entire second half of the book is basically one long, running, climax.

It’s also a very good portrayal of a newly-teenaged boy, if my memory of being 12-13 can be believed. I normally dislike YA, but this was well done. My only real complaint was that the introduction of Tinkerbell felt tacked on, like the authors didn’t want anything to do with her, but felt obligated to have her in there. She should have been left out if she wasn’t going to do anything (she literally just appeared for the span of a few paragraphs to be included in the origin story), and maybe introduced in some future novel where she’d have some reason to exist.

This book was a very quick, light read. That being said, it was a light read because there wasn’t anything of substance here. I had fun reading it, and I’ll probably never think of it again. Very good as a palette cleanser, or if you want to take a break after slogging through something overly-long and tiresome. But nothing to write home about. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As mentioned above, this is very light. Normally I wouldn’t care for this sort of thing, but it really had impeccable timing for us, having come on the heels of SevenEves. We all needed a break, and this story was delightful and refreshing. It was nice to enjoy a simple thing together, and have a chat. I wouldn’t want to do this sort of thing often, but it’s good to do now and then. So, overall, Not Recommended, but consider Keeping It In Reserve for when your book club needs something like this to recharge. :)

Jul 212016
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzMost years we read all the Hugo-nominated short stories and novelettes in our book club, as generally all (or nearly all) of them are available free online. This year, that is not the case. :( (yes, I blame Vox Day). So we were unable to read them as a group. However I still read them myself for voting reasons, and my impressions are below.

This is the last of the Hugo works I’ll be reviewing. If you have a Hugo membership and you haven’t voted yet, you should do so very soon, there’s less than two weeks left! And they warn that their serves often get hammered on the last day.

 

Best Novelette

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)

I don’t really understand the love for this piece. It’s cyberpunk, and I grew up in cyberpunk. It is my home genre, I love everything about it. But “You Shall Know Her” doesn’t do anything new. This story has been covered a dozen times, from Ghost In The Shell to the starter adventure given in the CyberPunk 2020 Rulebook!

Nor does it fit quite right. It feels a little off, like someone trying to emulate a style that doesn’t come naturally to them, and they can’t exactly pull it off. It goes over the top in an attempt to imitate a form, and ends up feeling like a good B-movie. Those can be tons of fun, but they aren’t really award winning.

 

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This is a perfect example of “making the action scenes boring”, and it’s nothing but actions scenes. We see a bunch of stuff blowing up, but we don’t care who wins, because we were never given a reason to. There aren’t any characters or stakes we care about. And even the fights are yawn-inducing, because it’s a bunch of technobabble that doesn’t mean anything without a world built up around it to give it context.

 

Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)

In this story, the Chinese government found a way to double (or triple?) the population density of Beijing by folding it up. This lets a lot more people live there, but in exchange they have to sleep a lot more. Instead of losing 1/3rd of your life to sleep, you have to lose (depending on how rich you are) either 1/2, 2/3rds, or 5/6ths. However this is apparently still a good deal, because millions of people jump at the chance, and compete for the opportunity.

This story also got a lot of positive attention, and I’m even MORE confused as to why. It’s an interesting premise, but it certainly isn’t ground-breaking. It’s message is dirt-simple: being poor sucks. Um, ok. Can you say something more about that? Or just make us feel it?

Because, worst of all, this story is poorly written. I’m just gonna come right out and say it. I don’t care if it’s a translation issue or a cultural variance or something. By every standard that I apply to prose, this is just plain bad writing. It is flat and emotionless. It tells rather than shows. It paints in broad, flat sweeps, rather than poignant details. The sentence structure is clunky. The POV jumps around at random, sometimes even within paragraphs. Even if this was an AMAZING new concept with message that made you go “Ohhhhhh… shit!!!” those would still be extreme sins. They’d have to be truly fantastic to make up for prose this crappy. But it doesn’t have any of those. It’s just plain “meh” in all respects, and crappy in writing. Heck, this is on the same level as last year’s “On A Spiritual Plain”. I have no idea how this made it on any award lists.

 

“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)

Steven King takes the premise of Death Note, but doesn’t do anything with it. I suspect this is one of those nominations given out because when the author published his truly fantastic genre-defining work(s), he was somehow overlooked, and this is to make up for that. Fair enough, I guess? I see those sorts of nominations every now and then. Still, it feels like a disservice to whoever should have been in this slot instead.

It did get me to wondering how old this idea is. Obviously Death Note is the work that took the idea to its fullest/best exploration. But the concept of “being able to anonymously kill anyone in the world, instantly and unstoppably, without being a trace” has got to go a looooong way back, right? I bet there’s ancient myths using this idea.

 

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This one was actually pretty decent! It has the same basic premise as Vinge’s “The Cookie Monster,” but applied to a military setting.

As far as re-using mindwiped soldiers goes, this was done better in “The Immaculate Conception of Private Ritter,” but that’s a high bar to clear, not everyone can be Seth Dickinson. It did pretty well for itself.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. It did seem to try to force some angst in the end in a way that was completely unwarranted (“Isn’t it terrible that these people get to relive the most awesome two weeks of their lives endlessly, all just so they can save the human race?”). But, eh, I can let that slide.

 

In the end, I don’t think a single one of the Novelettes is actually award-worthy. VanDyke came closest, and I can see him making the grade fairly some day! :)

 

Best Short Story 

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)

Cute, and fun! Not award-material, but it’s clever. :)

 

Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)

Also cute, and also fun! This story has some neat ideas, and explores them in a fun way! I don’t really know comedy, so I don’t know if it’s good. But the writing is well done, and it’s certainly the best of this year’s lot. In a normal year this would probably be near the bottom of my list, and I am saddened that I can’t see the stories it would have legitimately competed against. That being said, at least there’s something worth voting for in Short Story this year!

 

“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)

This is not a short story, it’s a shit someone took on the internet, which Vox has splattered on the Hugo list to show his disdain. Disdain of the same award he’s trying so hard to win. Oh Vox.

 

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

Hm. There’s… not really much story here? It’s basically “all humans are horrible, awful people, and we’d be better without them.” It’s literally just barbarity upon genocide upon cowardice. This is the sort of gloomfic that normally stays in high school notebooks. I really like grimdark, but this wasn’t even grimdark. It would do very nicely as the prologue of a post-apocalyptic novel, but it doesn’t work as a story in itself. The only good part is when it quotes a 400 year old poem, and you’re really better off just reading that poem instead.

 

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

I loved it. See my previous comments here. :)

 

Don’t forget to vote!

Jul 142016
 

Seveneves_Book_CoverSevenEves, by Neal Stephenson

Synopsis: Present-day humanity has two years to evacuate as many people as possible before the Earth is destroyed.

Book Review: This isn’t really a story, insomuch as it is the fragmented pieces of a story buried within mounds of engineering. You will hear more about how chains and whips work in zero-gravity than you ever cared to. Unless you are of a very specific audience, you will skip over dozens of pages multiple times searching for some interesting event. Reading this book is like doing archeology – you have to spend a lot of time clearing away dirt and debris to get to the valuable stuff.

The frustrating part is, most of the good stuff really is good! When Stephenson bothers with plot or dialog, the story is interesting. But it’s so fragmented that you can’t even pull an entire story out of it. The archeology metaphor applies further in that it seems a lot of the valuable stuff has been lost over time, and you can guess at the pieces that are missing, but unfortunately they just aren’t there.

The only reason I got to the end of this book is because Stephenson has written really amazing things in the past, and he had a lot of my goodwill to ride on. This determination led me to see things I wouldn’t have if I’d just abandoned the book, which now I kinda wish I hadn’t seen.

Stephenson doesn’t seem to care about portraying other people realistically anymore. The characters that are engineers & scientists feel very similar (can you tell Dinah and Ivy apart? I can’t), and I suspect they have a lot in common with Stephenson himself. Everyone else is a monkey. The contempt for all non-engineers displayed in the book is surprising. Politicians are power-hunger moustache-twirlers happy to damn the human race to extinction if they can rule for a few years. The common people are blind sheep, easily falling for the most asinine and bald-faced lies, which only the engineers are impervious to. The entire book reeks of “You all deserve to be wiped out, because you were too damn stupid to put us engineers in charge!” As a fan of Atlas Shrugged, I recognize this bile. And sure, I’m a bit of an elitist jerk myself. But I at least do my best to understand why intelligent people could reasonably disagree with me, rather than portraying them all as fuckwits deserving of the fate they’ve brought upon themselves with their stupidity.

Also, Stephenson seems to have gotten very, very lazy. He tells us (via a character talking to the protagonist) that what we’re going to see is possibly the saddest thing we have ever seen. He then describes a scene which is, at best, a mild downer. Later on he tries to make us feel moral outrage by having every relatable character react with outrage and horror over an event… but the event itself is no big deal at all. Dude, you can’t just tell us we’re supposed to feel a certain way and call your job done. You must actually make us feel it!

He even gets lazy with technical aspects. At one point it looks like he decided to have a character up on the Space Station whom he previously hadn’t intended to have there. So he inserts the line “[he] had been sent up to Izzy a month before” with a one-line excuse for why, and then continues. Anyone with respect for their art would have taken the time to go back and write a scene in a previous timeframe where this actually happens. Simply deciding “oh, he should be here” and dropping him in with an excuse in the middle of the action is not how one does good writing.

SevenEves honestly just feels like someone trying to cash in on the success of The Martian, but without having any understanding of what made The Martian so amazing. Not Recommended.

2nd Book Review: There is another book included with SevenEves. It’s passed off as part of the novel, so it doesn’t have its own title or anything. SevenEves just continues with “Five Thousand Years Later.” However, it is a new book, with a different feel, new characters, etc. Again I think this is a case of Stephenson being lazy – he didn’t want to establish setting and introduce characters again. Which is unfortunate, because it means we get several hundred pages of text without characters we care about.

In fact, the second book doesn’t even have a plot. I wouldn’t even call it a book. It is a bunch of awesome concepts, that are in desperate want of characters and story to drive them somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts really are amazing! I would have loved to read this if it had a storyline. The second book is of FAR more interest to me than the first book, because it’s actual science fiction! It has awesome speculative elements, strange cultural and social constructs, semi-alien characters. In contrast, the first book was basically EarthFic with a lot of techno-fetishism. It was barely SF, IMHO. Sadly, the second book isn’t a novel – it’s a RPG source book. Lots of cool setting ideas and concepts, no story. Again, Not Recommended.

An Aside: Does anyone else think it’s a terrible idea to name the book “SevenEves” and have a huge eye on the cover? It’s almost impossible not to see “SevenEyes” when you look at it.

Book Club Review: If you stick to just the first book, and don’t bother with “Five Thousand Years Later”, it’s actually not bad for a Book Club book. After the first couple technology wanks it becomes pretty easy to flip pages rapidly until things start happening again. The plot (when it’s present) proceeds quickly enough that one can skip over the simmering misanthropy without taking too much note of it. In the final pages of the book it does raise some interesting questions about how we should improve the human race, if it were possible to do so (but sadly, it doesn’t bother trying to address them, it just ends.)

In our meeting, a bit of time was spent discussing Stephenson’s views of humanity, and how radically unrealistic they felt. Speculation of that sort (“what would happen if everyone only had 2 years to live?”) is kinda interesting. But you don’t need to slog through a door-stopper of a book to ask them, and you can find unrealistic portrayals of humans in all sorts of novels.

If your book club isn’t specifically SF-focused, please avoid this. This is the sort of book that I hope people who don’t read SF never pick up. It plays directly to the stereotype of “Science fiction is just technology fetishists drooling over made-up tech, without care for characters, plot, or writing craft.”

If your book club is SF-focused… well… I still think you could do better. Get one of Stephenson’s earlier works, those are very good! Anathem was great (although, again, long). Snow Crash was fun as hell. I’ve heard great things about Cryptonomicon, and it’s on my list. But SevenEves… Not Recommended.

Jun 272016
 

Lilith_Third_ImpactThis post will have tons of spoilers for The Fifth Season. If you want to read this book (and again, I suggest you do!), it’s a good idea to skip this post for now, and maybe come back when you’re done.

OK, let’s continue.

There are a number of moments that really stick to me. When young Damaya is told the foundational myth of their culture, and is swelling with pride and excitement about how she’s going to be just like the hero, and then is told in no uncertain terms “You are the villain. You are the monster we are defending ourselves from. You are Other.” The punch of being forced into the role of the hated enemy is visceral. And it allows us to feel empathy for this culture, and the things it must do to survive. That will be handy, since our protagonists are the villains of this world, and we will have this touchstone of learning to fear and hate the villains to come back to, established from very early on in the story.

Honestly, starting out the story with Alabaster destroying the world and wiping out humanity was an equally genius move. It tells us right from the start that this culture’s fears are justified.

Of course what makes a Tragedy a Tragedy is that the Tragic Figure (in this case, the Sanzed Empire) brings about their own destruction. Fifth Season portrays this beautifully, showing us exactly how Damaya is turned from a normal, spirited child, to the very monster that their society so fears. Much of the book is dedicated to showing this process, so I won’t restate every case of it, but my favorite is when she and Alabaster are forced to breed more children. In the initial scene, she comes to the realization that Alabaster is more traumatized by this than she is. He fears it more, and hates it more, and that fear is partially reflected as fear of her. And she LIKES this. She’s no longer entirely a helpless victim, this gives her a measure of delicious control. She is more the aggressor in this rape than he is, and that is a comfort. That sort of “the abused comes to embrace dealing out abuse of her own” is the type of detail that makes this novel so moving. Not because Jemisin thought to include it (something to this effect is required in this sort of story), but because she made us feel it too. We felt that measure of joy and relief in getting to be the powerful one, this one time, even if it does make us monsters. That is good writing.

But what really sealed this for me, and why I found this book so effecting, is a scene very early on. After the mayor of her town helps her to quite an extant – and does so without hedges or questions or compulsions! He puts himself at some personal risk to use his power to help her, because he is a genuinely good person and believes that is the Just thing to do – she is forced to kill him (and at least a dozen other innocent people near her) in order to fuel the magic to defend herself. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Because he is part of this society. She just saw her husband murder their son, out of fear and hatred. And:

“The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.”

The internalized revulsion that leads a good man, a man she loved, to this sort of hate-murder of his own children, is not a flaw in a single man. It is not an incidence of mental illness. It is the well-known (and at least partially desired) result of this society. It cannot live in one man. It is the product of all of society, of everyone who participates in it, who accepts it, and does nothing to change anything about it. EVERYONE is complicit, and EVERYONE is equally deserving of condemnation for participating in and profiting from it. So when the complicit, even the friendly ones who smile and shake your hand, are caught up in the cycle of death they helped create, they are only getting exactly what they deserve. Very similarly to this excerpt from The Woman’s Room:

“Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don’t even need to shrug. I simply don’t care.”

Perhaps we’re bothered by this scene, occurring as it does very early in the novel. This scene is letting us know where we’re headed. Because the thing that this novel does is take us from the point of being just another average reader, to embracing that the world must be destroyed.

I spoke of this in Episode 7 of The Bayesian Conspiracy (“Kill All Humans?”), but if you haven’t heard it – when I was in college, I was pro-annihilation-of-mankind. Because all life is suffering. On net, existence is more pain than joy, and the most moral thing to do is end it all as quickly as possible.

I feel a lot better about life now, and no longer hold these views.

But a part of me still feels that. A part of me looks at the sealed box of Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs on my shelf and thinks “Maybe I should watch that again…” A part of me suspects maybe I’m just in a local-maximum in my life right now, and eventually things will revert to misery, and that’s the natural and inevitable state of all human life.
This novel guides the reader to that place. It takes an entire novel to do it, because you can’t do it in less words than that. But it shows anyone who is willing to read it how one can come to that conclusion. No, not just shows – it makes the reader feel it as well. It brings understanding of that emotional state, on an emotional level. It allows others who read it to be, however briefly, Broken in the same way that I am/was Broken. And I appreciate that deeply.

I assume not everyone will get quite there. And I’m not sure people who have never felt that state in their past will feel as strongly about this book as I do. But to me, it was absolute perfection. That’s why I loved it so much. I hope others do too.

[EDIT: prediction time – since Alabaster has already doomed humanity to extinction, but *still* wants Essun to make it worse, his ultimate goal isn’t just the destruction of humanity. I’m thinking he has a plan for restoring/recreating a moon, which requires this level of destruction to make it happen, and he can’t do it alone. So even in this, he’s still trying to heal the world. :) ]