Sunday, May 20, 2018

Odd John


Olaf Stapledon
Completed 5/20/2018, Reviewed 5/20/2018
4 stars

This book was first published in 1935.  It has aged remarkably well.  It reminded me somewhat of Theodore Sturgeon’s “More Than Human” which was written nearly twenty years later.  It’s about the next stage of human development, homo superior.  The “superman” concept has some similarities to the works of Nietzsche.  Though I’ve never read Nietzsche, I am a little familiar with his ideas.  It tackles the concept of the morality of the superman with respect to the normal homo sapiens.  I liked the book, finding it generally readable, although much of it is, like a lot of early science fiction, about ideas rather than a real plot.


The basic premise is that a superhuman is born to an average family in England.  Named John and nicknamed Odd John by his mother, he matures mentally faster than he does physically.  He’s disruptive at school of course so he learns at home.  He tackles subjects in fits and starts, growing tired of them after he’s read almost everything there is to read about them, then extrapolating the concepts in his own mind.  Eventually, he decides he must find others of his kind around the world and create a colony of superhumans.  The book mostly focuses on his growing up, rejecting human morality and creating his own. 

The character of Odd John is not very likeable.  He’s the ultimate precocious child.  He flaunts his superiority over his siblings and friends.  He learns to have complete control over his body and has little emotion.  He’s uber-rational and condescending.  He murders someone at the age of ten.  The narrator is a friend of the family and journalist who basically becomes a slave to John’s whims.  But he reacts with horror at John’s lack of human morality, so we at least can identify with the narrator.  Despite John’s deplorable behavior, I was still kind of rooting for him, even though in the first chapter you find out his story ends tragically. 

The book is short, an easy two day read.  The prose is very smooth, very readable, especially for an older novel.  The only part I had got kind of lost in was a middle chapter where John and the narrator get into a philosophical discussion of Christianity and Communism.  I was a little tired when I read that part and didn’t follow the arguments too well.  Doing a little research on the author, I discovered he was a Philosophy professor in England, and well, I never took philosophy in college.

I particularly liked a couple of chapters where John is finding other superhumans.  The narrator gives brief biographies of some of these people as well.  It’s interesting to see how these people grew up with their “gifts” and compare and contrast them to John’s youth. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  I was engrossed with what happens next.  Even though we know that it’s going to end tragically, the journey is quite good. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Stories of Your Life and Others


Ted Chiang
Completed 5/19/2018, Reviewed 5/19/2018
4 stars

Ted Chiang is an incredible story teller.  Whether I liked the stories or not, it was easy to recognize they were written beautifully.  His prose is simply magical.  This is his first collection of short stories, eight in all.  Several are award winners and others are award nominees, and it’s easy to see why.  He doesn’t write a lot, perhaps a story a year.  It shows in his words and sentences.  That may sound weird, but there are many times when I was in awe of his word choices and how well the sentences were constructed. 


My favorite story was “Hell is the Absence of God”.  It’s about a world where angels regularly manifest on earth, healing some people, plaguing and sometimes killing others because of the power released in their arrival and departure.  In addition, people can see souls rising to heaven and descending into hell.  Occasionally, they can even catch a glimpse of hell.  The story focuses on one man whose wife is killed by one such angelic incident.  He’s not religious and struggles with the idea of loving God, knowing that if he doesn’t, he won’t be united with his wife in heaven.  I think the story is brilliant.  The concept building is so creative, with angels causing disasters as well as healing. 

“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is another excellent story.  It is comprised of interviews with people, mostly students, at a college where a campus vote is about to take place whether or not it should be mandatory to have a certain brain lesion performed on everyone.  This lesion effects the part of the brain that causes people to notice if someone is beautiful or ugly.  With this lesion, people would be able to see the qualities of another person without being spellbound by their beauty and conversely repelled by their unattractiveness.  In addition, it moderates the effects of advertising with beautiful models.  I liked the format of this story.  It’s told in interview snippets in documentary style.  It gives the pros and cons of the procedure, letting you decide for yourself about how beauty affects our attitudes toward someone or something. 

“Story of Your Life” is the basis of the film “Arrival”.  It is different enough from the film that reading it was a new experience, and basically, quite a pleasure.  The form of the story intertwines a linguistics professor’s experience decoding an alien language with telling the story of her daughter’s life.  What’s especially interesting is that the daughter’s life story is told in second person future tense.  It’s really a revelation in how it’s read.  And while not as heart wrenching as the movie, it’s still quite a poignant tale.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is about making golems.  I like stories about golems.  This one is particularly intriguing because it considers the making of golems from human reproductive material. 

I liked three of the other stories in differing degrees.  There was only one I didn’t care for, “The Evolution of Human Science”.  It’s very short and didn’t stay with me. 

I’d recommend this collection to everyone, with one caution: a lot of the science is pretty hard.  At times, I had trouble following some of it.  However, even the hard science is written well.  Very nearly a perfect reading experience for me, I give the book four stars out of five.  I only took off because according to my definition, a five star book causes some emotional response in me, and none of the stories quite got there emotionally for me.  Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

An Exchange of Hostages


Susan R. Matthews
Completed 5/13/2018, Reviewed 5/13/2018
2 stars

Only occasionally does a book come along which I just don’t care to be reading.  This was one of them.  I found the premise intriguing but the execution was awful.  I found it difficult to read and the narration to be confusing.  I ended up just barely absorbing what I read.  There were only a few aspects of the book I liked, but that didn’t make up for how much I disliked it in general.

The premise as I said is intriguing.  Andrej is a recent medical school graduate who reluctantly agrees to become an inquisitor, i.e. a torturer and executioner.  He goes to a space academy where he learns the tricks of the trade in ten easy lessons.  Okay, I’m being facetious there.  It’s not easy, but there are ten levels of training.  Upon graduation, he will be assigned as a Chief Medical Officer aboard a space ship.  The result is that Andrej is one of the best torturers in years, though he finds it simultaneously morally repugnant and sexually arousing.  While at this training center, he makes a vile enemy of another student, little to his knowledge.  Mergau is a sadist in a non-sexual mode, making up excuses for how she goes beyond the limits of levels she’s supposed to be learning.  She reviles Andrej.  On the other hand, Andrej’s personal slave while at torture school, Joslire, comes to love him in a way that he has not experienced with any other master.

Of all the characters, I liked Joslire the best.  He has the best characterization with an actual arc of development.  His growth from being a personal slave to just another student to becoming confidante and eventually friend.  Unfortunately, the main character Andrej, while an interesting character, doesn’t have much of a growth arc.  He mostly gets drunk to calm the cognitive dissonance he experiences for both getting off on the torture and feeling like a sinner for causing pain and death.  Mergau, being the antagonist, is merely one note.  With this book being the first of a hexology, I think her main purpose is introduction and motivation for being a thorn in Andrej’s side in later books.

What I didn’t like about the book was the writing style.  I thought the prose seemed forced, with word choices that were meant to impress rather than convey the story.  The dialogue was often broken up by internal thoughts, making for rather disjointed conversations.  And the point of view of the narration changed a lot, going between these three main characters, another indentured servant, and several academy higher ups.  I think the narration would have been a lot more effective if the author stuck to maybe three points of view. 

One thing I thought was really strange was the author refers to Andrej’s penis as his fish.  That was just bizarre.  There aren’t a lot of references to, but when there are, it just made me laugh.  There wasn’t any other real humor in the book, and I don’t think this was supposed to be funny. 

I think the book is supposed to be taking the whole torture concept to its natural conclusion if left unchecked.  With all the public awareness of torture that governments perform, this could be a timely book.  A lot of other reviews I read would agree with this statement.  But I found it a chore to read and didn’t have any sense of profound insight into the future of the military-industrial complex while reading.  I was going to give this book one star, but reflecting on how much I liked Joslire, I realized it had at least one redeeming quality for me.  So I settled on two stars out of five.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Shadowdance


Robin Wayne Bailey
Completed 5/6/2018, Reviewed 5/6/2018
3 stars

Every now and then I get a book that’s meh, not bad but not very good.  This is one of them.  Shadowdance seems like it should be better than it is.  The publisher’s summary is really good, but the execution is just not that great.  The prose is good, but somehow it doesn’t convey the angst and the occasional horror all that well.  I found this book by perusing some LGBTQ-themed book lists.  It wasn’t nominated for anything, which I think is a good thing.  It’s an okay novel, but really nothing worth recommending.


Innowen is a young man paralyzed from the waist down since birth.  He comes upon a witch who gives him the ability to walk, but only at night.  In return, he must dance every night.  However, anyone who witnesses the dance becomes obsessed with their deepest, darkest desire, acting it out, regardless of the repercussions.  Innowen sets out to find the witch and lift the curse.  While unsuccessful in his journey, he finds he has relationships he never knew before amidst plots by the witch to destroy the kingdom.

See, it sounds good even as I write the summary, and parts of it are good.  The beginning is just magical.  That’s the part where he meets the witch, gains the ability to walk, and finds out the curse of watching the dancing.  It really grabbed me.  The last thirty to forty percent of the book was also exciting.  In that part, we find out about the twists and turns of the relationships between Innowen’s guardian, his adoptive father, the witch, her champion, the king, and his daughter.  It’s a tangled web but handled well. The middle third simply dragged.  I haven’t said this for a while, but I believe you could have cut about one hundred pages of this section and you wouldn’t miss any continuity. 

I think the main purpose of the middle part is to establish all the relationships with Innowen, including that of his lover Razkili.  That relationship is not very clearly defined however.  There are no love scenes, or even a hint of romance between the two.  You have to infer it from them sleeping together platonically.  Then suddenly, the author starts using the term lover to describe their relationship.  I didn’t make the connection at first.  I was waiting for a scene to signify that a little more clearly.  It didn’t need to have a sex scene, but it needed something a little more profound. 

The prose was pretty good.  In general, I thought it was very easy reading.  The sentences and paragraphs flowed very well.  The only think that got me was some of the emotions Innowen had.  He got angry a lot, about his plight, about the relationships, about the curse.  My general feeling was that a lot of times, anger wasn’t called for.  Other emotions definitely, like pity, surprise, sadness, but not anger, at least not all the time. 

The book ended on a high note, and it began well, so I’m giving it three out of five stars.  The whole dancing plot was really interesting.  It works as a book, but thinking about it as a film, it would be kind of hokey, losing all the drama.  Reading it is definitely better than watching it would be.  I’m not sure why I thought about it as a film.  For some reason, I kept on thinking about it terms of Channing Tatum doing the dancing, and it made me laugh.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Parable of the Talents


Octavia Butler
Completed 5/2/2018, Reviewed 5/2/2018
5 stars

This book was outstanding.  It’s the continuation of the story from Parable of the Sower and it does not fail.  It’s still depressing as hell but has a somewhat happy ending.  What amazed me the most was how relevant the story is to today’s times.  If Butler were alive today, I bet she would have amazed herself at how accurate a future she predicted.  Sure, some of the extreme plot points haven’t happened, yet, but it’s a scary enough parallel to what’s happening today to make one think twice about the consequences of their political actions.

The book continues the tale of Lauren, now called by her last name, Olamina, and the community she created in hills of California.  The community is called Acorn, and they members follow a religion she created calls Earthseed.  Its basic premise is that God is Change.  They live more or less happily in the Pox, the post-apocalyptic US.  Then, a populist Christian president is elected on the platform to Make America Great Again.  It incites extremist Christians to start going after the poor, the drug addicts, the thieves, the prostitutes, and the “heathens” and “rehabilitate” them.  They invade Acorn and turn it into a concentration camp, enslaving and killing the members of Earthseed.  Olamina and her followers try to survive this deplorable situation.

To add a twist to the narration, Butler introduces text by Olamina’s daughter, Larkin.  The format of the book is commentary by Larkin followed by Olamina’s journals.  In addition, there are a few other texts by Olamina’s husband and one of her brothers.  This mixes it up enough to give you different perspectives of the events that happen to Acorn.  It added some hope to the otherwise dark situation Olamina was in. 

The plot is stupendous.  It turns the belief that it could never happen here on its head.  When we look around at what’s happening today in the US, seeing the rise of white supremacists and the president calling them good people, it makes you wonder just how far we are from what Butler describes.  Me being the general pessimist, I see us heading in this direction now if things don’t change. 

If there’s one fault of the book, I’d say it’s that there are too many other characters, that is, the people of Acorn.  I kept most of them pretty clear in my head with the first book, but I could only keep a few really clear this time.  But I guess that’s what happens when the narrator is first person and the community has over sixty members.  I’m just glad I read it rather quickly after the first book. 

This book is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a brutal future that Butler depicts and at times the only hope is that you know that Larkin survives.  Still I think it’s a great book that’s really well written.  I give it five out of five stars because I had a lump in my throat through the majority of the middle and again at the end. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)


Dennis E. Taylor
Completed 4/30/2018, Reviewed 5/1/2018
4 stars

This was a fun book.  At times, the science got a little hard, particularly during battle scenes.  But overall the book was quite enjoyable, especially after reading a couple of heavy novels.  It’s not great literature, but the story telling kept me riveted.  In a way, it reminded me of The Martian, with its lone man solving lots of complex problems. It has a lot more humor than The Martian, though, but just as much suspense.  Unfortunately, it’s the first of a trilogy, so while some of the plotlines come to a conclusion, some are still open and others are just beginning.  It’s an easy read though and I’ll probably get through the whole trilogy, especially since I already accidently bought the second book. 


Bob is a software engineer in the present day 21st century.  He’s hit by a car and killed, but his head is cryogenically frozen.  He’s revived in the 22nd century, only to find that his existence has been transferred to a computer.  Unlike some people who have undergone this process, Bob takes to it very well.  The US has become a theocracy and corpsicles have no rights.  They are basically considered blasphemous, but necessary to run simple robots, still contributing to society.  However, Bob has been brought back from stasis to run a space probe to find habitable planets, something that several countries are in a race to win. 

The best part of the plot is that in space, Bob has a 3D printer and a replicator.  He creates new probes that contain copies of himself so that there are numerous Bobs running around the interstellar neighborhood, hence the title.  The Bobs spend their time discovering new worlds and fending off enemy countries’ probes.  The Bobs all take different names, many based on pop culture references, particularly Star Trek, comics, and animation.  Of course, for unknown reasons, the Bobs all have different quirks to their personality even though they are all cloned from the same instance of the original Bob. 

The narrative is really well done.  It follows the different Bobs around, all in first person.  It’s pretty easy to follow the different story lines because each instance of Bob begins a new plot.  The two best plots are following the original Bob and Riker.  The original Bob finds a planet with an emerging sentient life form.  He follows them around, observing their development and worrying about them as they try to keep from being driven into extinction by a savage species of gorilla like predators.  He struggles with whether or not to play god and interfere with their natural development.  The Riker plotline has him and his clones going back to Earth to see how the world has held up.  He finds it devastated by nuclear war and confronted with how to save the remaining few million people left on the earth. 

As I said before, it’s not great literature.  It’s a fun, space opera-ish romp through the galaxy through the eyes of a really smart guy who gets to clone himself over and over again.  It allows for multiple story lines all told through the same person, more or less.  I give the book four stars out of five for its inventive plot and storytelling style, and of course for the amount of enjoyment I received reading it.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Minions of the Moon


Richard Bowes
Completed 4/28/2018, Reviewed 4/28/2018
3 stars

This book started out as a novella which won the World Fantasy Award in 1998.  Bowes expanded it into a full novel and it won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2000.  It’s sort of an urban fantasy about a man with a shadow self or doppelganger.  It was a strange story.  I felt like the author couldn’t make up his mind on whether the doppelganger was real or imaginary.  At times nobody saw it; other times people would report to Kevin, the main character, that they thought they had seen him somewhere where Kevin wasn’t.  Other times people saw the two of them together.  It was very confusing, and although I have a good suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t tell what was real outside of Kevin’s frame of reference and what wasn’t.  Maybe that was the point.


The basic plot is that Kevin grows up in ‘50s with an alcoholic mother in an extended Irish family in Boston.  She has a shadow.  He can tell the difference between his real mother and the shadow.  His grandfather had this ‘gift’ and it turns out, so does Kevin.  He starts abusing drugs and alcohol.  He sells his body to lecherous men at the YMCA for money to fuel his addictions.  Eventually he goes to New York where his lifestyle nearly gets him killed a few times.  The theme of the story is can Kevin’s real self and shadow self ever become reconciled.

The book is basically very good.  It is really well written, that is, the prose is very readable and fluid.  It begins in the book’s present, with Kevin in his fifties.  He hears that his doppelganger has been spotted again and he realizes that it’s time to have showdown with it.  As he approaches the meeting, he reflects back on his life and his relationship with his shadow.  It begins when he is a youth, progresses through his teen years, college, and eventually adulthood in New York City.  Of course, his youth and teen years are troubled.  College isn’t too bad.  He even lands a job and a cheap apartment in NY.  But drugs and alcohol rule his life and always ruin a good thing.  He continues to be a victim, especially sexually.  Then he meets a man who works with addicts and brings him to sobriety. However, his shadow is still out there living fast and hard. 

That’s where I faltered with the premise.  I understood the concept of the doppelganger when he was drinking and using.  There were times the shadow saved him from potentially deadly situations.  However, the shadow was like a real person in that it was living out there on the streets while Kevin was sober as well.  I didn’t make sense to me.  And I even understand, being in recovery myself, that even when you’re sober, your disease is still out there waiting for a chance to jump back in if you’re not always working on your sobriety.  Still it had to do with the reality of the shadow, not the concept of the active disease of addiction. To keep from being totally frustrated, I had to suspend not just disbelief, but logic as well.  Usually, fantasy worlds have their own internal logic.  But this didn’t seem to have any internal logic.  It was like Schrodinger’s shadow:  it both existed and didn’t exist at the same time.  Once I could accept that, I was able enjoy the book.

If I were a half star reviewer, I’d give the book three and half stars.  Technically, it’s very good.  Good writing, good plot, good premise, good characters.  But the details of the reality of the shadow keep it from being four stars.  So being a whole star guy, I give the book three stars.