Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Becky Chambers
Completed 5/21/2017, reviewed 5/21/2017
4 stars

I don’t think I can say I hate space opera anymore.  I’ve enjoyed too many in recent months.  Here’s another.  What sets this apart though is that it is more of a character study than a plot driven story.  The book tells the tale of the crew of the Wayfarer on its year long journey to a new planet in the galactic alliance, where it will punch a new wormhole into the fabric of space.  The episodic chapters are little vignettes, almost like short stories, which give us a little more insight into the characters of the crew.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of the book, many of which compare it to Firefly or Farscape.  What I think promotes this view is that the book is written, as I mentioned earlier, episodically which makes it feel like your reading the script for a season of a TV series.  There may be more similarities to these programs, but I don’t know those enough to compare.  What I do know is that I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the characters. 

What surprised me the most about the book is that most of the characters are nice.  They have become like a family in their closeness.  There’s one character who’s very ornery, but even he comes around through the episode where he’s featured.  It’s quite a change from your standard space opera where everyone is dark, where even the good guys have a dark edge to them.  I’m not saying they are Mary Sues’, but it made me feel good to get involved with the characters.  And, okay, one of the characters is rather perky.  Along the same vein, there is a surprisingly little amount of blood and guts. 

Perhaps most interestingly, there are some inter-species relationships.  I think they are handled very well.  The crew is a diverse collection of human and non-human members.  The aliens are particularly well drawn.  Sissix was my favorite of all the aliens.  Sissix has scales and claws and comes from a culture with complex family groupings.  This world building was very interesting and Sissix just stuck out for me as the best of the bunch. 


I give this book four stars out of five.  I read this book because its sequel was nominated for a Hugo, and I’m on a kick to read the Hugo nominees this year.  So of course I have to read the first book before the sequel, right?  I obviously haven’t read the second book yet, but I’m surprised this book was not nominated for a Hugo, though who’s to say what might have been if the rabid puppies hadn’t hijacked some of the nominations.  I think this book should have been a contender.   It’s a fun read with great charactes, aliens, and world-building.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K Dick
Completed 5/13/2017 Reviewed 5/15/2017
4 stars

Another wild book from Philip K Dick.  The world has become hot and crowded.  The UN drafts people to relocate to other planets and moons to alleviate the population and environmental crisis.  But life on the alien worlds is tough and degrading.  To avoid despair, people use a drug called Can-D which creates the illusion that you are on earth via a tableau of Barbie- and Ken-type dolls and accessories.  Palmer Eldritch returns from a ten year trip to Proxima Centauri with a potential rival product called Chew-Z which doesn’t require the tableaus.  The makers of Can-D are threatened by Chew-Z, but find a much more sinister relationship between the new drug, its users, and Eldritch. 

The book is short, only about 230 pages, but it is chock full of weirdness.  The above synopsis just gives you a taste of the plot.  There is so much going on, like the main character Barney Mayerson who is a procog, that is, he can see the future, who works for the Can-D company predicting what products will become good sellers for the Perky Pat tableaus.  He’s having an affair with another precog, but regrets leaving his wife.  His character is really well drawn.  While some of the other characters are a little bit like cardboard cutouts, like Barney’s boss Leo, a cigar-chompin’ stereotypical boss from the ‘50s, they are still interesting and infused with lots of detail. 

Once again, Dick tackles religion and God as he did in the last book I read, Deus Irae.  Here, it comes in various forms, including the religion that pops up around the Perky Pat and Can-D experiences.  But the big theological question surrounds the nature of Palmer Eldritch.  Is he really still Palmer Eldritch, or had he been taken over by an alien on his space trip?  And for that matter, is he now a god, or some type of supreme being?   And does Chew-Z create a spiritual experience or is it just a hallucination? 

The questions are tough and not so easily answered.  As the book progresses, the blur between reality and hallucination becomes more and more confusing.  The beginning is fairly straight-forward: you know when you are in reality and when you are in a hallucination.  Or maybe you don’t know.  I have to say that Dick is an expert at playing games with reality.  It made for a great read, though I must admit I felt a little lost towards the end.  However, I really enjoyed it the ride it took me on.  I give it four stars out of five.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Deus Irae

Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny
Completed 5/7/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

I picked this book to read for a theology in SF/F reading challenge, and boy did I pick a doozey.  At 180 pages, this has to be one of the most complicated little books I’ve read in a long time.  I really enjoyed it, but it is heavy on the theology and has a crazy plot.  My understanding is that Dick started the book, but put it down and offered it to another writer because he didn’t know enough about Christianity to finish it.  Zelazny saw it at the other writer’s house and offered to finish it for Dick.  So part of the fun of this book is trying to guess who wrote what parts.  This only being the second book by Dick I’ve read, but the fifth by Zelazny, I still had fun playing guess the author.  But the real fun comes in the crazy plot these guys dreamed up.

After WWIII, a new religion has formed.  Its god is the God of Wrath (hence the title) and in human form is Carleton Lufteufel who made the decision to drop the bomb that destroys most of mankind.  By the way, Lufteufel means “air devil” in German.  Tibor McMasters is an “inc”, an incomplete person because he was born without arms or legs and has bionic limbs instead.  He’s also possibly the world’s greatest living painter.  He is asked by the Servants of Wrath (SOWs) to paint Lufteufel’s image in a murch, a mural in their church.  Not content to use a pre-war photo which makes Lufteufel look human, he goes on a pilgrimage to find the real Lufteufel to capture his godliness.  Tibor is followed by Pete Sands, a devout Christian who seeks God through the use of psychedelics, and who wants to sabotage the pilgrimage.  On the way, they meet the mutants created by the bomb:  talking lizard people, sentient bugs, worms, birds, and some dying AIs. 

See, the plot is pretty wild.  However, it’s fairly eash to follow.  Part of it is because the characters are developed pretty well, especially for just 180 pages.  So you get the characters quickly and jump right into the craziness that is their missions.  I really like Tibor and Pete even though they are both rather flawed.  Tibor gets sick when it’s time paint.  And he really wants out of painting Lufteufel.  He even considers converting to Christianity just to get out of it.  Pete has taken his parish priest’s advice a little too much to heart and is willing to do anything to stop Tibor. 

There’s a lot of humor as well, particularly with the mutants and AIs.  I particularly liked Pete’s encounter with the autofac, the underground automatic factory, that tortures Pete by “repairing” his bicycle.  And the book is kind of a sausage fest.  There are only three women, but two of them add humor as well.  One is the long-suffering wife of a SOW priest, the other is the long-suffering pipe smoking girlfriend of Pete.  As I write this, I realize that despite his nefarious mission, Pete does seem to be at the center of much of the comedy. 

The theological part comes into play in several ways that are pretty integral to plot.  To say too much gives away a lot.  However, I will say that the theme is that over time, we lose the authentic records of faith and come to rely on that which was artificially created.  It’s sort of like the game of telephone.  Go through enough people and the original message is replaced by the wrong message.  That which is authentic is lost forever.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you know a lot about Christianity.  It also helps if you know a little German (which I don’t).  Dick uses some German phrases and poetry, not all of which is translated.  And it might require some forays into Wikipedia like when he talks about some heresies.  Okay, some caveats to getting it, but I got it and enjoyed it.  I think the average person will too.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

N.K. Jemisin
Completed 5/6/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

There’s something about Jemisin’s writing that is absolutely amazing.  Even though this book suffers from second book in a series sag, the writing is still brilliant and some subplots that seem, well, plotless, are still wonderful to read.  The book is a continuation of The Fifth Season, with the adventures of Essun, an orogene.  As I noted last time, think of her as an earth bender, for those who may be familiar with the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series.  The book also follows what happened to her daughter, Nassun, who from the first book, we know was kidnapped by Essun’s husband after he killed their son.  Essun is still searching for Nassun.  By the way, since this is a second book, there are some spoilers from the first book, but I’ll try to keep it minimal.

The most masterful part of this book is once again the person of the narrator in each section of the book.  There are short first person segments.  The story of Essun is told in second person.  The story of Nassun is told in third person.  While still a difficult way to read a story, the second person parts are very natural.  While I think it is only the third book I’ve read employing second person (though I’ve read a couple of short stories employing it as well) I have to say it is the most amazing writing I’ve ever experienced.  Only occasionally did it bog me down, sometimes losing my stamina for maintaining the story.

Like the first book, there is a mystery to who the narrator is.  This time the narrator is a different person from the first book.  I think it’s revealed about halfway through the book, but I believe I missed it and didn’t figure it out until the end.  But figuring out who the narrator is helps explain a plot hole, that being the use of the word “magic”.  In Essun’s story, we find out that “magic” is a secret word from the past that is no longer used today.  Yet it appears in Nassun’s narrative.   But once you find out who the narrator is, you get that Nassun can think about things in terms of magic because the narrator is a little omniscient. 

Essun and Nassun are both wonderful characters.  Surprisingly, they are both anti-heroes.  As much as you want to like them, you can’t completely because they do harm with their powers.  Nassun really stole the show for me in this book.  Essun’s story line of settling in an underground community was a little slow.  Nassun’s story line of going on the lam with her murderous father is much more riveting.  It was very interesting following her process of loving her dad to realizing that he is anathema, trying to get her cured of her orogene powers rather than supporting her growing into them.  Of course, the father is only reacting as badly as most of the population does toward the orogenes.  It is why he killed his son.  But she is daddy’s little girl and he’s going to get her fixed. 

As with the first book, this one is very diverse, with all sorts of persons of color and different orientations.  There’s even a different race, the stone eaters, who we don’t even know for sure that they’re human, but are perhaps more human than either “stills” or the “roggas”.  The stone eaters come more into play in this book as well with Hoa playing a larger role.


Even though I note that there is a sag to this book, namely in the slowness of the buildup of Essun’s plotline, I give this book four out of five stars.  It is the second of perhaps the most imaginative series I’ve ever read.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tinker

Wen Spencer
Completed 4/27/2017 Reviewed 5/4/2017
2 stars

I’m just dying to say “Tinker” is a stinker, but it’s a tad more complicated.  I went in thinking the book was going to be fluff, but it turned out to be partly fluff, partly really heavy.  Unfortunately, the heavy parts were taken lightly which I found very disturbing.  There’s going to be some spoilers in this review, so don’t continue if you think you’re going to read it. 

Tinker is a young woman, just turned eighteen, who lives in Pittsburgh.  However, it’s a Pittsburgh that mainly exists in another dimension.  You see, the Chinese built an interdimensional gateway and they don’t know exactly how it works.  A side effect is that the city of Pittsburgh spends most of each month in a dimension of elves and magic and monsters.  Once a month, for a day, it exists back in our dimension in its normal location.  Tinker has lived in this travelling Pittsburgh her whole life, running a junkyard, building contraptions, and just being brilliant and pretty.  Of course, she doesn’t know just how brilliant or pretty she is, because, well, she’s a Mary Sue.

For those that don’t know, a Mary Sue is a character that is usually young, pretty, and smart, sort of an idealized and perfect fictioinal character.  Flaws are usually minimal.  Think Wesley Crusher from Star Trek Next Gen.  When this is the main character, the book can become a bore because the character lacks in realism. 

One day, while being chased by wargs, an elf comes to her rescue, but is badly injured.  In the process of getting him healed he falls in love with her, though.  She’s oblivious to this though does find him exceedingly attractive.  In fact, she’s na├»ve about most things.  Thus begins a journey which forces her to confront who she is and where she’s going. 

The plots are the subplots, and vice versa.  The story is really about who does Tinker love.  The action and everything else are really the subplots to Tinker’s love life.  It’s sort of the opposite of how most science fiction and fantasy books work.  But even more problematic is the nature of her love life.  It’s full of non-consensual acts.  Okay, two.  I think it’s okay to have story lines like these in a book, but they need to be dealt with in realistic ways.  In this book, they don’t have the drama that comes after the act.  It all kind of “goes away”.  In fact, one of the perpetrators actually disappears from the story.  I have to assume he comes back in a later volume.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to have mature devices, there has to be a level of maturity to the story.  “Tinker” doesn’t have that. 

There’s another scene which is pretty horrific that involves one of the bad characters.  Again, it seems that it just isn’t done well.  I think a good example of how it could be handled well, while still being deplorable, is in Richard K. Morgan’s The Cold Commands, a dark fantasy where the lines between good and evil are blurry, and it solidifies the main character as an anti-hero. 

As far as everything else in the book, there are some interesting characters.  I particularly liked Oil-Can, her cousin.  Yeah, the names get to you after a while.  The world building is pretty good, mixing science and magic.  But again, I’ve seen better mixes of science and magic, for instance, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season


Maybe I’m just over sensitive, or maybe it’s because I was expecting something different, but I didn’t like this book.  The last quarter became a chore to read.  I’d like to see how other people respond to this book.  This was a book club selection, so I’m interested in seeing where the lines are drawn between the likes and the dislikes.  Two out of five stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu
Completed 4/22/2017, Reviewed 4/23/2017
4 stars

I picked this book up at the library when I realized that all the Hugo nominees except the one I was holding in my hand were checked out.  I got this crazy notion up my butt to read all the Hugo nominees this year.  As I looked through the list, I realized some were the second books of series of which I hadn’t read the first book, and one of the nominees was the third book of a trilogy of which I only read the first book.  That first book was The Three-Body Problem which I read for book club and gave four stars.  So since the library had the second book, I decided to pick it up and give it a try.  It was better than I expected for the second book of a trilogy.  Usually, I find the second book to be a coasting, a long setup for the denouement of the third book. This book, though a tough read, was nearly self-contained and had a very interesting plot. 

The story continues with earth reeling from figuring out that it will be invaded by the Trisolarans in 400 years.  Any attempts to come up with a resistance or solution is undermined by the existence of sophons, particles with the dual role of spying on humanity and suppressing technological development.  Because of the eleven-dimensional sophons, the Trisolarans know instantaneously what kind of resistance Earth may be devising.  So it comes up with a plan to choose four individuals to devise counter plans that only they know the full extent of.  Called Wallfacers, the plans are safely locked in the minds of these people, unshared with anyone.  Three of the four are well-known leaders.  The fourth person is Luo Ji, an astronomer and sociologist who doesn’t want to be a Wallfacer.  The book mostly follows Luo in his attempt to come up with some kind of plan to repel the invaders.

I found the plots of the Wallfacers to be very interesting and entertaining, in a very dark way.  Each Wallfacer is given all the resources and power they want to setup their plans.  Their only resistance is the Wallbreakers, people chosen by the ETO, the Trisolaran sympathizers, to figure out and reveal the secret plans.  Each Wallfacer has a Wallbreaker, except for Luo.  He is his own self-destructive Wallbreaker.  In addition, for some reason, it appears that out of the four Wallfacers, the Trisolarans want Luo dead.  Is it true, or is it just the paranoia of the narcissist that Luo is?  With everything stacked up against the Wallfacers, is there any hope for Earth at all?

What I didn’t like about the book is my same criticism from the first book, characterization.  I felt that I didn’t get to know most of the characters, and what little I knew about them told me what they were doing, but not really who they were.  The only characters I really felt I knew were Luo Ji and his sidekick, Shi Qiang, aka Da Shi, a cop who takes a liking to Luo.  Despite being a narcissist and misogynist, I liked Luo as he became a reluctant messiah, multiple times, grew to love a woman for who she is, and learned to have some compassion for the people of Earth.  And there was something warm about Da Shi, who reminded me somewhat of Jiminy Cricket, a sort of moral guide to help ground Luo. 

There was another character who I didn’t get, Zhang Beihai.  He was a naval officer that became an officer in the resistance space military effort.  His storyline was a hard, military SF plot that had me lost through most of the book.  Whenever I got to a Zhang section, my mind fuzzed over and I lost interest.  Finally at the end of the book, his plot came together, but the reading of his plotline before the end was just painful for me.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is that there are no major female characters.  There are only a few women in the books and they have secondary or nearly non-existent roles.  They don’t interact with each other, breaking the second part of the Bechdel test.  This was disappointing considering one of the major characters in the first book was a woman. 

Lastly, there were quite a few times in the book where there was info dump.  Some of those were tough reading.   Even the part that explains the significance of the title was a long, tedious passage.  


Still, I give the book four stars out of five.  I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the book despite the problems.  It was a heavy, tough read, and the third book is longer by another hundred pages, which is daunting.  But I look forward to reading it and seeing if it is really Hugo worthy or not. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders
Completed 4/15/2017, reviewed 4/16/2017
3 stars

I really wanted to like this book, and I began really liking it. But about halfway through, it dissolved into an uneven plot that got less and less believable and interesting.  It’s been nominated for several awards as of this writing and I’m not sure it’s deserving.  There are a lot of great reviews for this book and a fair number of haters.  I’m just mixed.

The story begins with the young Patricia and Laurence.  Patricia is a witch, Laurence is a brilliant techie.  Both have families that don’t understand them.  Both are outcasts at school.  They meet up and become friends, until Laurence realizes that Patricia really does have powers, abandoning her.  They meet again in San Francisco as adults, both trying to do something for the world that is collapsing around them, each using their own talents. 

I really liked the two main characters, particularly as children.  It is easy to like outcasts, feeling sorry for them, identifying with them.  Right from the start, you cheer for them even though you know that everything they do will be interpreted wrong.  And as the plot becomes more convoluted, you still cheer for them, hoping that they will find each other and fall in love.

It’s roughly the second half of the book that is its downfall.  Patricia has grown up to be a gifted healer.  Laurence is working on a wormhole generator.  The world is being devastated by superstorms and earthquakes. The plot gets convoluted with story lines like destroying the generator, giant robots, the “unraveling”.  It actually got hard to follow, even though the book is really an easy read.  Maybe I wasn’t willingly suspending enough disbelief, but it just seemed like subplots were thrown in to create as much difficulty as possible for Patricia and Laurence to get together and be in love, rather than for what should be the plot of the book, saving the earth and the falling in love being a natural outcome. 

I also didn’t like the grammar.  There were a lot of sentence fragments.  That might have been an editorial choice, or maybe not.  I found it really distracting.  I find sentence fragments to be useful when you want to slow the reader down to make a point.  I found as the book went on, I noticed them more and more and felt like they were stylistically pretentious rather than organic to the overall writing style.


There are a lot of good things about the book, mostly in the first half.  And the very end pulls everything together nicely.  It’s just everything else that I found difficult.  I’m giving the book three stars out of five on the strength of the first half.  It just could have been so much better.