Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Stone Sky

NK Jemisin
Completed 2/16/2020, Reviewed 2/16/2020
3 stars

I was a little disappointed in this last installment of The Broken Earth Trilogy.  I thought it was slow going.  It’s basically a travelogue of two of three the main characters.  It probably didn’t help that it took me two years to read this third book, but still, because of how good the first two books were, I thought this would hold my interest better.  It helped that there was a Glossary at the end of the book, which I reviewed early on in my reading to refamiliarize myself with the jargon and concepts.  Still, I thought there could have been immediacy written into the traveling, as their actions at their destinations would determine the fate of the Earth.

As with the earlier books, there are three narratives.  The narrative of Essun, the Orogene who is trying to save the Earth by bringing the approaching moon back into its orbit, is told in second person present.  This in itself had previously been rivetingly told.  Here, it was more about her relationships with several people in a newly formed community looking for a home.  Yes, she was also searching for her daughter, Nassun, the subject of the third person narrative, but it just wasn’t gripping really gripping.  The narrative of Nassun was also a mixed bag.  She was going to the Obelisk Gate to destroy the Moon, which would destroy the Earth.  She had seen a lot that was not good with humanity and thought it best to put it out of its misery.  She’s only eleven years old at the time, but has seen the horrors that Stills inflict on the Orogenes, that is, the people who do not have any control over the seismic activities of the earth versus people like her who do.  The third narrative told in first person by Hoa (Houwha), a Stone Eater, was much more interesting.  It is a flashback into how the Moon was released from its orbit and how he became a Stone Eater.  But even that plotline took an awfully long time to rev up. 

The writing is still marvelous.  The book was very readable even if the plots were slow.  Her word selections were inspired.  It went hand in hand with the world-building, which was quite excellent, even though most of the world-building had already happened in the first two books.  There was so much more that was revealed in the deadcivs, that is, the ancient civilization’s cities that they encountered.  The one part that was really riveting and terrifying was when Nassun and her Guardian travel through the middle of the Earth on something like a subway, passing through all the magic of the Earth’s center. 

The ending was also riveting, which I was grateful for.  You know it’s going to be a showdown between Essun and Nassun, but how it happens is quite a surprise.  I’ll leave it at that as to avoid spoilers.  But was it worth the wait?  Not necessarily.  All too often throughout the book, I just wanted it to get there. 

The characterization is excellent.  Even though it had been two years since I finished the second book, Jemisin did a great job of recalling the characters and their emotional lives.  I felt like I had just put the books down yesterday, and she didn’t even have massive recaps at the beginning of the book.  It was just enough to get me back into the swing of it, along with the reading of the Glossary. 

I give the book three stars out of five because it just felt too long.  About halfway through, I wanted to be done with it.  I think part of the problem with the book is also that it is very depressing.  There is very little humor in the book.  We’re still in a Fifth Season, that is, six or more months of devastation from seismic and volcanic activity.  So there’s desolation everywhere.  And even though there’s diversity in the characters, the persecution of the Orogenes by the Stills is depressing.  Particularly, Nassun’s view of the world at age eleven is just heartbreaking.  There needed to be some type of levity to keep it from being such a drag to read.  Reading the reader reviews, a lot of people loved this book.  I can say I liked it, but didn’t love it as much as the first two.  Still, I’ve become a fan of Jemisin’s writing and will definitely be reading more of her. 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish

Douglas Adams
Completed 2/9/2020, Reviewed 2/9/2020
4 stars

The fourth installment of the Hitchhiker’s series was a surprise.  I really enjoyed it.  Like the first two, it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the storytelling is much tighter and there are fewer asides.  It’s not necessarily laugh out loud funny, but I often had a smile on my face.  Unlike the first three, the majority of it takes place on Earth and Arthur Dent is the main character, not merely a MacGuffin (that is, a person, object, or event that is necessary to the plot but irrelevant itself).  Rather than being the butt of many of the jokes, he gets to have a real plot line and much deeper character development.

The plot is very straight forward.  In a nutshell, Arthur comes back to Earth five months after it was supposedly destroyed (eight years his time), finds his way home, and falls in love. The woman he falls in love with is named Fenchurch (don’t ask).  She like everyone else on Earth had the “hallucination” that Earth was destroyed by the Vogon construction fleet, but she actually remembers the Earth being destroyed.  She doesn’t believe it was a hallucination.  In addition, all the dolphins have disappeared.  She has a strange story to tell, having received a message in her sleep that she doesn’t quite remember, as does Arthur from his hitchhiking around the Galaxy, so they hit it off pretty quickly, although how they meet is a strange story in itself, sort of a Sleeping Beauty trope.  Anyway, they try to pursue answers to their questions about the message, the Earth, and the dolphins. 

In the meantime, Ford Prefect is getting into trouble in space and is desperately trying to find a way back to Arthur.  He too finds that the Earth seems to have escaped destruction when his copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy updates itself so that the entry for Earth changes from “mostly harmless” to Ford’s full account from his fifteen years of research.  Eventually, he catches up with Arthur and Fenchurch and joins them in their search.

What I liked most about this book was the romance.  It was both touching and funny.  It was simply nice to see Arthur get his due after being the hapless schlemiel for three books.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Arthur teaches Fenchurch to fly and they are intimate at airplane altitudes.  It is the butt of a few jokes later on in the book. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It felt like Adams was becoming more of a novel writer rather than a skit writer with this book.  I don’t mean to diss the previous books, but it seemed like he was growing as a writer.  Even though this book was pretty short, it packed a lot of punch.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Spin Control

Chris Moriarty
Completed 2/8/2020, Reviewed 2/8/2020
4 stars

I liked this book without really understanding what was going on.  Like most books in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, the concepts usually lose me.  I guess I just don’t have the mind for them.  It’s kind of like being a luddite while working in the computer industry, which I am, and in which I do.  Still, I really liked reading this book.  The prose was terrific.  It was very readable.  My problem though was that the author threw around a ton of jargon that I only partially comprehended.  This is the second book of a series, though it’s not a direct sequel to the first.  Still, I wonder if I would have understood more if I read the first book, or if I would have simply stopped at the first book if it had the same complexity of this one.  I read this because it is on the Worlds Without End LGBTQ Spec. Fic. Resource, having been nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2007.

The plot is very complicated.  I know I only have just a light grasp of it, but here’s the gist of what I gathered.  In the far future, clones, Ais, and some regular humans live on a Ring around the Earth, where technology continues to advance.  They send clones into space to travel to other planets to terraform.  The people who stayed on Earth are mostly religious fanatics still fighting wars over the same old issues as well as for water, the rarest resource on the planet.  As punishment, the civilization on the Ring has a technology embargo on the Earth, keeping them from advancing technologically. 

Arkady is Syndicate clone who has been on a mission to terraform a planet called Novalis.  There he acquired a genetic weapon that could possibly wipe out humanity.  The Syndicate sends him to Earth and Israel is not trying to buy the weapon, but sell it, and Arkady, to the highest bidder.  This weapon, though, has more far-reaching consequences than anyone ever imagined.  Among the bidders are Catherine Li, a former officer for the Peacekeepers, and her lover, Roland Cohen, the longest-lived AI.  They not only share their lives, but their minds, though their relationship is rather rocky.  There are other bidders, and no one is above manipulation and violence to get their hands on Arkady. 

I have to admit that even though I didn’t get the plot, I applaud Moriarty for its complexity.  Normally, I would have been very frustrated with it.  For some reason, I wasn’t.  I was intrigued, though I never really got all the ins and outs of it.  There were times where I didn’t know what I was reading, but it read well, if that makes sense.  And there were an awful lot of characters who I could never tell whether they were good or bad, which I believe was probably the point.  Moral ambiguity to the max.  The only character I really had an understanding of was Arkady.  Being developed and raised by his Syndicate, he didn’t know much about the ways of regular humans.  Often, he was confused about what was going on around him, which I really identified with. 

The world-building was quite tremendous.  I was amazed at Moriarty’s grasp on her creation, that is, a world so far in the future but still has the same old conflicts, particularly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious fanaticism, the dominance of corporations, and the eroding of the US.  This kind of goes hand in hand with my amazement at her prose.  She so expertly described everything in this world that I really felt a part of it, even when the plot was lost on me. 
The book falls in the LGBTQ category because the clones, like Arkady, only partner with other clones from their same Syndicate.  Normally, the clones from the same tank all have the same name.  But Arkady’s clone-mate is named Arkasha, though they are made from the same genetic material.  We know of their relationship because both were sent on the same mission to the planet Novalis.  The format of the book has the chapters alternating between the plot on Earth and the past mission to Novalis where Arkady acquired the weapon.

I give this book four stars out of five because I realize it is a really good, well-developed, and executed book.  Normally, when the plot is so convoluted that I can’t follow it, I give the book two or three stars.  But this time, I knew I was reading something quite amazing, even though I didn’t get it.  So how would I recommend this book?  I’d suggest it for people who are into cyberpunk and/or espionage novels and aren’t afraid of a lot of characters, acronyms and new jargon. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/27/2020, Reviewed 2/2/2020
3 stars

This third installment of the Hitchhiker’s series wasn’t as gripping and hilarious as the last.  It really feels like Adams is losing steam here.  It seems like there are fewer jokes and puns in this one.  The situations, while absurd, made me smile, but not really laugh.  I remember feeling this way when I first read it.  I think one of the problems is that some of the jokes might be more conducive to being visual.  Like the time-traveling couch appearing at a cricket match and the theory of flying.  I also think I probably missed a lot of the jokes because I only know the bare bones of cricket, and the main plot hinges on knowledge of the game.

The book picks up on Earth two million years ago where Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are stranded.  Ford has wandered off leaving Arthur alone for several years.  One day Ford comes back and they also happen to find a time-traveling couch.  The couch brings them back to Earth at a cricket match two days before it’s destroyed, and right before a spaceship attacks the field.  They’re picked up by another spaceship helmed by Slartibartfast, a character who made a brief appearance in the first book.  Together, the three of them go on a quest to save the universe from the inhabitants of a planet seeking to destroy it.  They’re rejoined by Trillian and Zaphod Beeblebrox as well.

There was more plot to this book and less asides.  I think that was the downfall of the book.  The first two books are pretty much absurd scene after absurd scene loosely connected by a plot.  This one seemed more to be a strong plot which happens to have a few asides.  Most notably, the party that never ends.  That’s where we meet up with Trillian again.

Trillian has a little bigger role in this book.  She acts as an empathetic listener to the aliens who want to destroy the universe, giving them a chance to talk out their feelings and help some of them get over wanting to destroy the universe.  Marvin, the depressed robot also makes an appearance and has a particularly influential presence with these same aliens.  That part was genuinely funny to me. 

The science of flying made more sense to me this time and was more comical than the first time I read the book.  The science is that you fall, but are distracted at the last second and miss hitting the ground.  It’s something Ford Prefect struggles with, but happens to Arthur, well, accidentally. 

Overall, I give this book three stars out of five.  It just didn’t grip me as strongly as Restaurant did.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Time and Again

Jack Finney
Completed 1/25/2020, Reviewed 1/25/2020
4 stars

The second book club selection of the year, this book was a pleasant surprise.  It is a very readable take on time travel.  It is prosy and full of adventure, a little like a Jules Verne story.  It is also a romance and something of a mystery.  It takes place in the present, 1970, and 1882 New York City.  I found the copious descriptions of the past very interesting, despite taking up almost the whole first half of the book.  It didn’t win any awards, but I thought that this was well-written and easily accessible. 

Simon “Si” Morley is an artist who works for a small advertising agency in NYC.  One day, he’s approached by a man promising a thrilling but secretive experience.  The man expects Si to commit even though he doesn’t give him all the details.  Thinking he doesn’t really have much to lose, Si accepts and soon learns that the man is an agent of the government involved in a highly confidential experiment in time travel.  There are already some people trying to travel to the past, but none are yet very successful.  Si is given the training, consisting mostly of psychological tricks to believe he is in the past.  It’s not very scientific.  It’s almost like “if you believe really hard, it will come true”.  And it does.  Soon, Si masters the technique and travels back almost one hundred years. 

The reason he goes back to 1882 NYC is because his girlfriend has a slightly destroyed letter from a past family member with a mystery.  He convinces the project to let him go back to this specific time to witness the mailing of the letter.  They agree and Si gets his wish, and more.  He meets a young woman who is a lodger at her aunt’s boarding house.  She is connected to the letter via the man who wants to marry her.  He slowly falls in love with her, possibly changing the course of history.

My biggest surprise of this book was that I enjoyed Si’s description of the past.  The author goes into great detail describing the people and architecture of NYC, complete with photos and drawings.  I’m not big on architecture, but Finney’s prose simply made it very interesting, making me feel like I was right there discovering it with Si.  The exploration of NYC goes on for quite a bit, over a quarter of the book, but I never really got bored with it.  Just when I began wondering when the mystery was going to kick in, it did, and made up the last half of the book. 

The characterization was very good, breathing life into the disaffected Si, the people on the project, and the people in the past.  Julia, the woman he falls for in the past, is a particularly good character.  She’s a feisty young woman, but definitely a product of her time.  So is her extremely jealous, vindictive, and possibly bipolar suitor, Jake.  Si is also a product of his time, the early 1970s, being a bit misogynistic, sexualizing all the women he comes across.  It was much like a television or the movies of the late 60s, early 70s, where women might be strong characters, but ultimately, they are present for the pleasure of the men.  This is noticeable throughout the book. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  The prose is simply a delight, despite the sexualized descriptions of the women.  It’s not pornographic, but annoying and obvious.  I’ve never read a book where I was interested in the architecture and geography, but I’m originally from the NYC area and often went into the city.  Perhaps this is why the descriptions were so fascinating to me.  Some people may find the book a bit of a slog to get through because of this, so be forewarned.  But I found it interesting and exciting. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/19/2020, Reviewed 1/20/2020
4 stars

I think I finally got back into the spirit of the humor with this book.  I enjoyed it much more than Hitchhiker’s, probably because I didn’t remember all the jokes.  It seemed fresh and inventive.  I thought the plot was great, allowing for a little more character development.  My only big complaint was that the one female character, Trillian doesn’t get much to do or say. 

The team decides to go to the restaurant at the end of the universe because they’re so hungry from their previous adventures.  On their way, they are attacked by Vogons looking to kill Arthur and Trillian, the last remaining humans, after they destroyed the earth in the previous book.  They attack the ship, but it has no defenses because all of its resources are going into trying to figure out how to make a cup of tea for Arthur.  When all hope seems lost, the ship transports them to the restaurant.  After eating a meal of an animal that wants to be eaten, they steal a ship that’s autopiloted to crash into a star.  The improbable antics keep adding up until Arthur and Ford find themselves on a planet with nothing but middle-men, no intelligentsia, no workers.

The plot is absurd, a device to take the team from one crazy scene to another.  I was lots of fun.  At the same time, a lot of the scenes were quite poignant.  Adams is definitely poking fun at a lot of things, like the middle-men who are unknowingly exiled from their planet, including telephone sanitizers for example.  They are all oblivious to what’s happened to them.  The joke seems pretty cruel until we find out that their home planet is wiped out by a virus caught from an unsanitized phone. 

Underlying all the absurdity, there is a conspiracy plot that’s a bit more serious.  Zaphod Beeblebrox, the now former president of the Galaxy, doesn’t remember a mission he was party to.  There are powerful people trying to stop him.  It leads the team to the ruler of the universe and to the realization that people who want to be in power shouldn’t be.

The book, like all the books in the series, are not meant to be taken seriously.  It’s basically a collection of crazy skits thrown together to make some sort of linear plot.  It is much like an episode of Monty Python, which had crazy skits that segued into each other.  Some of the skits are more memorable than others, but they are all funny.  I give this book four stars out of five.  This was a welcome relief after the last book I read which was very heavy and dark.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Heritage of Hastur

Marion Zimmer Bradley
Completed 1/18/2020, Reviewed 1/18/2020
3 stars

This is my first MZB novel, and I was reassured by a lot of the reviews I read that although this is book nine in the Darkover series, this was the one to start with.  It did stand on its own, with a fairly self-contained story, and characters introduced as if it were a stand-alone novel.  The world building is also quite exceptional and the plot complex and interesting.  Yet I didn’t feel that the sum of its parts added up to a satisfying whole.  I chose this book because it is considered important in LGBTQ speculative fiction history in its portrayal of a gay main character in mainstream speculative literature.  (I use “speculative” here because it’s something of a cross between science fiction and fantasy).  The book is good, but not as great as I was expecting, or hoping, it would be.

The story is about two young men on the planet Darkover who are frustrated with the traditional ways of their society.  Regis Hastur is the heir to the Hastur domain, the strongest domain of the seven domains on the planet.  He doesn’t want to be.  He wants to travel the stars and see the Terran galactic empire.  Besides, he doesn’t seem to have the gift of psychic powers, known as laran, which is practically a necessity for a ruler.  His grandfather, the regent, says he will allow him to go if Regis spends three years in cadet training.  Regis agrees.   The other young man, Lewis Alton is heir to the Alton domain, Regis’ childhood friend, and an officer in the cadets.  The book tells of their time in the cadets, and then segues into a tale of the matrix of Sharra, a potentially evil power that a renegade domain wants to wield to overthrow the Terran presence and the Darkover power structure.  Lew is initially seduced by a veil of goodwill by the domain, but he and Regis eventually must find a way to stop this power. 

Regis is a fiery character, full of unrealized privilege.  Going into the cadets knocks down his ego and helps to round him out.  There he meets and is befriended by Danilo, a young man from a poor family who has a history of the men being right-hand men to the Hastur heirs.  It is with Danilo that Regis’ homosexuality is brought to the surface.  We also find that Regis’ closetedness is what’s holding back his laran powers.  However, Regis is afraid of professing his love because Danilo is being sexually and psychically harassed by a commanding officer and also because Danilo comes from a conservative religious tradition.  This causes a lot of conflict for Regis.  It makes him a very well fleshed-out character.

Lewis is also a strong character, fighting with his own coming of age.  His father tries to prepare him to take over the domain, initially by matchmaking, and eventually by sending him as emissary to the renegade domain.  There, Lewis falls in love with their ruler’s daughter.  But their love is taboo as she is made a Keeper, that is the central figure of the circle that controls the power of a matrix, which demands being chaste.  Again, we have unrequited love, but in a different context.

If all this sounds confusing, it kind of is.  The book is very complex, but highly readable.  Everything from the traditions to the matrix is explained in great detail.  I didn’t feel that I had needed to read any of the previous books to understand it.  My main problem with the book was that in the end, I wasn’t satisfied with it.  The characters were well-drawn, the world-building was tremendous, and the plot well thought out.  But by the end, I was exhausted from it.  I think MZB packed too much into it.  At only 350 pages, the book felt a lot longer.  Towards the end, I just wanted it to end.  I was becoming bored with it, tired of waiting for Regis to come out to Danilo and tired of Lewis being trying to subvert the renegade domain’s use of the matrix of Sharra.  That’s why I felt the whole didn’t match the sum of its parts.  The tension just didn’t hold my interest.

I give the book three stars of out five.  I felt it was a good book but would have been better if it could have held my attention better in the last quarter.