Month in Review: March 2016

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TBR Fail. Blog Derailed. Sort of.


An erratic month of reading and blogging here at FC2M where I had too much time off and a case of Sudden Onset Shortlist Paralysis: too many TBR potentials and no idea where to go next. Much of what I ended up reading started sluggish, inspiring lots of book avoidance in the name of unplanned but sudden anything-but-reading-to-dos. Even my audiobook addiction went into remission.

A mid-month computer crash didn’t upset my already derailed reading plans (thank Wintermute for data clouds), but my cherished book schedule spreadsheet somehow missed the upload and now my purposeful reading habits are without direction. Having to pause and think about what I’ll read next is an inhibiting process. My reading and blogging plans have gone adrift… Continue reading

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The Postman (1985) by David Brin

ThePostman1There’s something mythical about the persistence of the U.S. postal service which even still manages to carry on alongside the ever-expanding models of privatized shipping, especially in this age of digital communications and industrial shipping accounts. Even C.M. Kornbluth satirized those uncanny postal promises to weather any misery, his mail girl’s bureaucratic duty surviving without a hiccup during the Soviet occupation of the U.S. in his Cold War satire Not This August (1955). I assume Terry Pratchett beat the joke to death in Going Postal (2004). David Brin also exercises this confidence in the power of postal bureaucracy, imaginary though it may be, in his post-apocalyptic, Earth Abides-tribute, The Postman (1985), in which a post-civ loner, Gordon, stumbles upon a wrecked mail truck in the spring of nuclear winter and adopts the persona of a mail carrier to make favor with budding, hair-trigger communities of the ruined western United States.

It’s actually a humorous premise, this dystopian Johnny Appleseed of mail, and probably one that would be more successful in the hands of a deft SF satirist. Continue reading

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel (1974) by Kate Wilhelm

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Great story, terrible cover.
No me gusta. (M.C. Escher)

This 1977 Hugo winner about cloning is a powerful dystopic vision that addresses common social themes, such as the constriction of society, the strength of the individual, and the power of imagination. But there is nothing common about it. And it’s not even about birds.

It’s no surprise that this novel is cherished by many SF fans. Wilhelm does it right: the story is engaging, the characters are relatable, and the science is provocative. I have no complaints. None.

The novel is broken into three parts, each about a different generational character:

  • David is the progeny of a wealthy, educated family who erect a well-stocked hospital in time for the coming apocalypse. As humanity is wiped out and sexual reproduction fails, David and his uncle decide to clone the family, but the clones seem… different. This section of the book oscillates between romantic and creepy tones.
  • Molly is a clone with astounding artistic gifts. A life-changing cartography trip down the river results in her loss of interest in her clone sisters, which upsets the clone community. Some of the more nightmarish aspects of the community are revealed in this section.
  • Mark, the product of a sexual relationship, is the only of his kind among a society of clones. He is gifted, intelligent, and willful, which means he is a powerful threat to the clone community. But they also need him for the same traits they fear. We get to explore the strained, tenuous relationship between the individual and the community.

In addition to social issues, Where Late the Sweet Bids Sang evokes popular past and present SF concepts. The societal influence brings to mind Le Guin’s The Dispossessedthe Hugo winner from two years prior. For TV lovers, the clones and their numbered monikers behave much like the cylons from Battlestar Galactica, while the references to “tree voices” resemble the disembodied “whispers” of Lost. Genre-hoppers might appreciate the creepy foreboding that edges on the brink of horror, and the unique romances that bloom within the twisted society. Wilhelm also posits an interesting theory regarding the effect of individuality on our potential for telepathy.

This story is close to perfect. If I had any criticisms, I would wish for more of each story, but I can see how that would negatively affect the overall tone and story. I also have a few questions about the transition of clone children from the nursery to care of the older clone siblings, and there are undefined chronological gaps between stories, which make it difficult to determine the duration of intervals between stories. (I kept wondering if and when the original family members had all died out). Regardless, this is all nit-picking, and the story proves its value as a must-read SF classic.

Month in Review: October Reads and Recommendations

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October sent me all over the SF/F genre with my random Hugo reads. I was introduced to an anarchist alien physicist, subjugated deities, steampunk zombies, and cyberpunk druggies. So now, as I sit around waiting for trick-or-treaters (and eating their candy), I present to you my mini-reviews of what I read this month and what I recommend to anyone seeking a good SF/F book.

(Okay, creepy moment just now: I just heard a very loud train whistle behind my house. The nearest railroad track is at least 20 miles away. In the other direction. Spooooky.)

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (Hugo winner, 1975) This novel about an alien physicist from an anarchist planet is by far my pick for the best SF I read this month. It’s beautifully written, with golden nuggets on the human condition located on nearly every page. For you fantasy lovers who steer clear of outer space SF due to its often cold and distant style, this is a great novel to experience the heart and soul of humanity beyond Earth, through the eyes of a brilliant physicist on the cusp of a major breakthrough, who must navigate the constraints of society and intellectual freedom (both anarchist and fascist). The protagonist is warm, introspective, and genuine, and the philosophical scope of the story is huge.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison (Hugo nominee, 2011) Yeine is a teenage clan leader who digs dark, brooding deities. That’s all you need to know. I mean, she might risk her life to become the next ruler of the most powerful kingdom in her world, but… OMG, the Darklord is so hot! And complicated! And lonely! This was my least favorite book of the month, due to the poor writing, weak characters, and untapped potential of many more intriguing story nooks. It could have been way better. Hey, NaNoWriMo folks– somebody needs to take this premise and try again! They reboot movies all the time, so why not novels?

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest (Hugo nominee, 2010) Civil War-era Seattle is polluted by a zombie-causing gas, but Ezekiel Wilkes breaches the walls anyway, and his mama follows after him. They ride airships, fight zombies, and meet a colorful cast of steampunky characters who guide them back together. All the action and adventure still had me bored, mainly because I could not understand why, when you have zombies walled up with flammable gas, did no one think to just ignite the city for one night and move on?

Neuromancer by William Gibson (Hugo winner, 1985) You know it’s going to be trippy when Rastafarian space tugboat drivers are involved, but that’s not even tip of the Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE)-berg. (Lots of Halloween candy = terrible SF puns.) Computer hacker Henry Case is tasked to upload a virus to breach the ICE of the most powerful dynasty in the universe… but who is really giving the orders? The plot is unwieldy, and the characters are as stale as last year’s candy corn, but Gibson’s 1985 vision for the future of human interaction with computers is pretty uncanny. Read history as it is foretold and, possibly, sculpted, as Gibson coins terms like “cyberspace” and “matrix.”

My recommendations: Read Le Guin, because she’s beautiful. Read Gibson for the novelty. Avoid Jemison and Priest, unless you think poor writing and plot holes are worth the gimmicky premises.

Upcoming November reads: November will be heavy on outer space. I’m finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama this week, then I’m declaring November as Kim Stanley Robinson month! I loved this year’s nominee 2312, and I have been eager to experience his Mars trilogy, all of which appeared on the Hugo list throughout the nineties. I also hope to cap off the month with either C.J. Cherryh or Octavia Butler, as I am close to completing the “Women of Genre Fiction” challenge over at WorldsWithoutEnd.

Happy Reading! I need to go investigate this phantom train…

Neuromancer by William Gibson

ImageGood writers follow the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” William Gibson prefers “just don’t tell.”

In other words, this book needs pictures.

At the risk of sounding like a dummy, I won’t pretend I understood everything that happens in Neuromancer. At least, not all by myself. This is the kind of book that would benefit from an abridged version for its less computer-literate readers. In my case, an occasional Googling of terminology* and, upon my completion of the story, a cursory read of an online summary, aided in my comprehension of this complex and trippy novel. I would recommend this approach for any future readers who do not subscribe to Wired magazine.

It’s not that the plot is particularly genius– there are other things going on that are genius, but the plot is not one of them– it’s just that so many elements are only alluded to, with the expectation that the reader make some pretty wild assumptions, and there were a few leaps I completely missed. I appreciate that level of trust in a relationship between author and reader, but Mr. Gibson did baffle me at times.

Here is my summary of the introduction. The words in parentheses are my translations of common references in the story.

Henry Case, former console cowboy (computer hacker that actually implants himself into cyberspace) and current drug addict, lives in Japan in a cheap coffin (hotel rooms that are plastic capsules primarily used for sleeping). He is recruited by a stranger named Armitage and a Razorgirl (female bodyguard with surgical enhancements, like retractable blades underneath fingernails, and martial arts training) named Molly. The trio attempt to pull off a heist involving a ROM module construct (a dead console cowboy whose consciousness has been uploaded into cyberspace for posterity) and an unknown black market computer virus designed to break the ice (security software) of a corporate techno-conglomerate owned by a wealthy family who alternate states of cloning and cryogenics, but reside in an ornate (late 20th century junk pile) mansion (concrete maze) on the tip of a space island (spindle-shaped space station at L5, a location within the moon’s orbit of Earth– thank you, Wikipedia).

Oh, and there are Rastafarian space tugboat drivers (Rastafarian space tugboat drivers).

Normally, context can help a reader make inferences about the meaning of most of these things, but the context in this book is pretty trippy and vague. I was especially lost whenever Gibson took the scenic route with his allusions to the design of the elements of his world, whether it be a spindle-shaped space island or a labyrinth-like mansion in zero-gravity. I needed pictures to grasp it all.

Why it’s amazing:

1. It’s prophetic. Neuromancer was written in 1984. William Gibson was one of the first writers to coin the term cyberspace, but his description is probably the most accurate foretelling of what would eventually become the Internet: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…” It’s old news now, but imagine reading about something like that back in the days when MTV played music videos.

2. It’s creative. There are a whole lot of things going on here. I was expecting a cut-and-dry heist story that takes place within cyberspace. I was not expecting humans with holographic capabilities or trips to outer space.

3. It’s well-written. Gibson’s prose is lovely, even when you don’t know what the hell is going on.

4. It’s nightmarish. Imagine an all-powerful, cybernetic artificial intelligence stalking you. The scene with the payphones creeped me out. (Granted, Gibson’s foresight did not extend to the future’s reliance on cell phones.)

What was not-so-amazing:

1. Boring, jaded characters lacking plausible, if any, motivation. The artificial constructs are the only things with personality in this book. And, maybe the Rastafarian space tugboat guys, and that’s only because they are blatant, 2-dimensional stereotypes. And, Case is the only character who actually has a legitimate, albeit forced, stake in the operation. Everyone else is just there for funnsies (there is a promised pay-off, but do you think a riotous AI keeps promises?) Even the antagonists seem to have no real purpose or interest in the outcome.

2. Lots of “WTF, I better Google that” moments, which is fine, when I’m dealing with esoteric techno-verbage, but not when the story fails to explain fundamental character traits or plot points. Am I to assume that when a slimy, octopus-like creature bursts out of a guy’s chest and runs off, it’s only a hologram that the man is capable of producing as a distraction? And, how did I miss that the purpose of the fake terrorism plot was to steal the consciousness of a dead, former console cowboy? I thought they were just doing it for practice.

My guess is that Neuromancer gets better with multiple readings, and some prior knowledge. Even my re-readings of passages for this review have resulted in a better understanding, while deepening my appreciation of Gibson’s writing style. Still, this is not a story to charm or warm its readers. The characters are self-destructive lowlifes who commit crimes for personal gain, and they won’t change or grow by the conclusion. I advise readers to approach this story with the desire to explore groundbreaking ideas concerning artificial intelligence, human interaction with cyberspace, and space tourism. Neuromancer won the sci-fi triple crown for its ideas and its landscapes, although the actual story and its characters leave much to be desired.

*Where Google failed me: I still don’t know what a Braun is (a small, computerized butler/pet?). Or a fletcher (an arrow-gun?).

Next read: Rendevous with Rama by sci-fi grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke

His Majesty’s Dragon (2005) by Naomi Novik

hismajestysdragon2Until now, dragon stories have never really captured my imagination, but maybe I’ve been reading the wrong ones. I could never get everybody’s fascination with the dragon in The Hobbit– his appearance felt brief and simple in a book styled primarily for an audience of children. Beyond that, I can’t think of any dragons that have made any major impression on me. However, the darling Temeraire, the dragon from Naomi Novik’s debut novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, is charming, intelligent, and witty.  He reminds me of Falkor from The NeverEnding Story.  In fact, the relationship between Temeraire and his captain is similar to the trusting bond between Bastian and Falkor, which brought up pleasant feelings from my childhood, and I found myself envying Captain Laurence.  It almost makes me want to watch The Neverending Story again… almost.  Much like toothpaste and orange juice, adulthood tends to ruin the flavor of childhood classics.  I probably won’t risk it.

Synopsis

In an alternate history, both sides of the Napoleonic War are aided by aerial fleets of dragons. Captain Laurence, the unflappable leader of a British navy ship, unwittingly becomes the adopted partner of newly born dragon, Temeraire, and is forced to leave his service with the British Navy and join the air squadrons. Laurence and Temeraire must adjust to this new lifestyle, as well as to each other. They experience adventure, danger, and dragon puberty. It’s a boy-and-his-dog tale, but with a man and his Imperial dragon.

HismajestysdragonHis Majesty’s Dragon reminded me of one of my most favorite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. They both have the same Englishy essence, the utterly proper etiquette of their main characters, and both stories are set during the Napoleonic Wars. Who knew that early 19th century imperialism would eventually spawn such charming and magical stories?

The story moves quickly, although it drags on a bit toward the latter half of the novel, and it ends sooner than expected. There are more books in the series, which I may revisit at another time, although I hesitate to make that commitment. This novel ends in a satisfyingly happy way, but my expectations– much like typical “boy and his dog” books– suspect that not all stories in the series will end so happily.