Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Venus Plus X

Theodore Sturgeon
Completed 12/15/2015, Reviewed 1/4/2015
4 stars

I really love Theodore Sturgeon.  He writes terrific prose and usually finds a way to shock me.  This book is no different.  Charlie Johns is a kind of everyman who is plucked out of everyday life and dropped in the middle of Ledom (backwards for Model), a society that feels it is on its way to being a utopia.  Here everyone is single-gendered, removing all the evils of the patriarchal world.  But can Charlie cope?

“Venus Plus X” was very much ahead of its time.  It was published in 1960, just ahead of the modern feminist movement.  While there were other books about female utopian societies, as far as I know, there wasn’t anything single-gendered or androgynous.  Particularly, not during the pulp SF days.  It would be more than ten years before LeGuin would write “Left Hand of Darkness”. 
Sturgeon does it so well mostly because of his prose.  He writes really well, even when most of the book is simply the people of Ledom explaining their lives and world to Charlie.  One would think this would get boring, but it doesn’t.  Then to contrast, interspersed through the text, Sturgeon also follows two families in the present day (1960) where the sexual revolution seems to be beginning.  The wives go out bowling talking about work while the husbands stay home and take care of the kids.  We are made painfully aware that it is just the beginning when the father kisses his daughter goodnight, but shakes his son’s hand.

I think it’s significant that Sturgeon emphasizes the point that Ledom is not a utopia.  It is a transition to becoming a utopia.  By removing the sexual differences, all the other differences begin to fall to the wayside.  It is not perfect, as we see in the end, but it is better than what we have now.  This is an important book because it calls us to keep on looking at ourselves, at how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go to achieve equality.  Is it by becoming more gender-neutral?  Maybe, maybe not, but certainly things seem to be better as we focus less on the differences between each other and more on what makes us the same.  I give this book four out of five stars. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2006 Hugo Winner: Spin

Robert Charles Wilson
Read 2012, reviewed 5/18/2013
3 stars

This was the first contemporary science fiction novel I read once I decided to undertake the Hugo Challenge.  It was also the first contemporary novel that was hard science fiction.  I enjoyed the book, but I felt it a little lacking.  The concept was mindboggling.  Some alien race builds a protective shroud around the earth to protect it from the dying sun.  It also permits time to remain constant for the earth while the sun grows from burning denser materials and expands. 

The real problem with the book was in the characters.  I liked the main character.  I didn’t like his conflict with the woman he loves and her brother.  Maybe it was because the supporting characters are privileged and brilliant, and therefore un-relatable.   The story begins with their friendship as children, and that’s interesting and believable.  As they get older, the main character’s unrequited love for the woman becomes rather annoying.  I was more interested in the cult she had joined, than she and the main character finding resolution to their relationship.

The brother is also annoying.  He’s brilliant, rich, and flawed.  But he’s no Hamlet.  He simply seemed whiny. 

There were many points in my reading when I just became tired of the relationships and just wanted the facts of the alien shroud to become uncovered.  This is a flip-flop for me.  Usually, I want to know more about the characters and how they interact with each other in their setting.  Not the other way around.

When I finished the book, I thought, that was decent; not great, not bad.  I gave it 3 stars because I believe it is worth a read.  It’s just not the most satisfying book I’ve read in this challenge.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Isle of the Dead

Roger Zelazny
Completed 12/9/2015, Reviewed 1/4/2016
4 stars

There is a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin called “Isle of the Dead”.  It shows a boat being rowed to an island that looks like the remains of a caldera.  Zelazny used the image as inspiration for the setting of the ending of his book by the same name.   But the setting is only a small part of this book.  What’s really amazing is that Zelazny creates a mythology from scratch and his main character is one of the gods, albeit a reluctant one.  It’s the primary reason I found this book so intriguing.

Zelazny has written many books that are based in a religion or mythology.  His two Hugo award winning novels were plays on Greek mythology and the Hindu pantheon.  So it only seems natural that he would have eventually created one himself.  The religion is that of an alien race, the Pei’ans.  The premise is that when someone terraforms a planet, or worldscapes, they go through a ritual that basically binds them to one of the gods of the Pei’an pantheon, becoming a sort of avatar for the god.  Francis Sandow is the oldest living human, having been sent on an early interstellar mission, where because of relativity, he’s survived many centuries.  New technology also keeps him youthful and healthy.  Since he made some wise investments before his mission, he’s also one of the richest people in the world.  Because of his wealth, he’s able to become an apprentice to a worldscaping master, creates a world, and becomes the avatar for Shimbo, god of Thunder. 

The book begins with Sandow discovering that someone has kidnapped several of his old friends and lovers.  He begins a quest to find them, only to find out that it has to do with jealousy of him being an Earthling who has attained godhood.  All the other gods are Pei’an.  The final showdown takes him to the “Isle of the Dead”, a remote location on one of the planets he worldscaped. 

The reason I really liked this book is because of the religion, and Sandow’s hesitancy in fully embracing his status as a god.  In fact, he’s an agnostic, even though strange things happen like statues of Shimbo glowing when visits a temple.  While there isn’t anything messianic about him, it does have overtones of the reluctant messiah theme. 

Another part that was fascinating was his visits to the worlds he created.  Besides terraforming, he also created all the animals on the planets.  On each planet, we get to meet some of the animals briefly.  They add an occasional touch of humor to the epic scale of Sandow’s and ultimately Zelazny’s world building.

The plot is short and almost secondary to the world that Zelazny created.  It’s good, and the end is action packed, but the real draw for this book is the mythology.  Besides being nominated for a Nebula award, I think this book could have won a Mythopoeic award if it had existed at the time of publication.  I give this book four out of five stars.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

2005 Hugo Winner: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

2005 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke
Read 2012, reviewed 5/18/2013
5 stars

This was the book that made me decide to do the Hugo challenge.  After reading it, I couldn’t wait to see what wonderous literature I would find in Hugo winners. 

The format of the book is non-traditional.  It is a fictional account of the rebirth of magic in 19th century England.  While it is a normal novel in most respects, it has footnotes.  They refer to fictional works, such as non-fiction books written by the main characters and histories of the faerie or magical inhabitants of the England.  It also retells famous events in history, such as the war with Napoleon as if magic were used to win battles against him, and how the faerie king interacted with mad George III. 

I found this format wondrous.  It made this alternative universe seem authentic. I couldn’t get enough of the text in the footnotes.  Usually, in a non-fiction work, the footnotes can distract me, derailing me from the flow of the main text.  Here, it added a richness that I found satisfying and thrilling.

The greatest part of this book was Clarke’s writing style.  Every sentence was a joy to read.  I found myself reading it with an English accent (no doubt derived from my exposure to British film and TV).  If I picked up the book before going to sleep, I only had to read a few pages to find pleasure in my reading. 

The reality is, the book is long.  I think it took me over a month to read.  I have some friends who couldn’t get past the first hundred pages, and others who wished Clarke had a better editor forced upon her.  But I was perfectly happy every time I picked it up. 

The characters were very Victorian: either overly modest, or overly self-absorbed.  My favorite character was Stephen, the black footman.  I mention him as black because that is relevant to how he relates to the faerie king, and how he exists in a modest life as an uncomfortable oddity in this conservative time. 

I realize this book is not for everyone, as my friends will attest, but I recommend giving it a try.  I believe that if you like it, you will love it.  I gave it 5 stars.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Three Against the Witch World

Andre Norton
Completed 12/5/2015, Reviewed 1/4/2015
3 stars

This is the third entry in the Witch World series.  It follows a quest by the triplet offspring of the Simon Tregarth and Jaelithe from the first two books.  When Simon disappears, Jaelithe goes in search of him, leaving the three children on their own.  When the witch society take their daughter Kaththea against the whole family’s wishes, it’s up to her brothers Kyllan and Kemoc to rescue her.  Doing so however means they would incite the wrath of the witches and be traitors to their people.  So they flee to the east, a direction that’s been wiped from everyone’s mind.  It’s a good story, but suffers from one thing.  It’s half a book.

I wasn’t expecting that.  It becomes quite evident that as you get closer to the end, there can’t possibly be an ending.  It is completely a setup for the fourth book.  While in and of itself, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, I think I was expecting the book to be more self-contained, as the first two entries in the series were.

Aside from that problem, the book is good.  The world building of Witch World is truly masterful.  It had been almost a year since I read the last book and I was right back in the center of it.  Fortunately, Norton knows how to give you all the info you need to get back into the story without making it tedious. 

With there being only a minimal plot, the star of the book is the characterization.  Kyllan is the narrator and a warrior.  Kemoc is a warlock and Kaththea is a witch.  While individuals, they carry the psychic power of being triplets, able to accomplish things that they can’t always carry alone.  If there’s any fault in the characterization, it’s that Kemoc isn’t as memorable.  With Kyllan as the narrator and Kaththea as the focus of the witches, Kemoc gets a little lost between the two stronger characters.  Just like a middle child.

I also liked the device of no one having any sense that anything lies to the east.  It’s sort of a cosmic un-consciousness or communal forgetfulness, a blank space in society’s mind.  Even the Tregarth children must fight to keep aware of it themselves.  I thought this was much more mysterious than just saying no one knows what lies east.  No one even knows that there is an east. 

I wish this review could be a little longer, but like the book itself, there isn’t much going on.  It’s basically half an adventure.  I’m hoping I have more to write after reading the fourth book where I think this will all conclude.  I have to give this three out of five stars because there isn’t enough plot or action, but is still a solid beginning of a story.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Roger Zelazny
Completed 12/25/2015, Reviewed 12/31/2015
4 stars

This is a short novel about time travel.  It is represented by a highway with exits and entrances that get you to and from the time you want to visit.  Only a few people have access to this highway each century.  One such person is Red Dorakeen.  He’s being hunted by assassins while trying to find his destiny.  The plot for the assassins is a little thin, but provide a decent framework for understanding the highway and meeting a cast of strange and sometimes humorous secondary characters along the way.

This is the second novel of Zelazny’s I’ve read where he plays with form.  Unlike “Lord of Light” where our English professor let the class in on the timeline of the chapters before we read it, I had to figure this one out.  All the chapters are labeled Two or One.  The One chapters follows Red fairly linearly.  The Two chapters are about all the secondary characters who also have come upon the highway.  They usually have something to do with Red, but not always directly.  And these chapters are not necessarily linear, reflecting how you can get off and on the time travel highway wherever you want.  

Red being the main character is the most fleshed-out.  With a cigar always clenched between his teeth, he travels the highway in a pick-up truck with a book and a robot as travelling companions.  The book is an artificial intelligence with its own distinct personality and powers, helping navigate their truck and even changing its shape when needed.  The robot was left on earth by an alien species when the robot proved defective, residing in a monastery making pottery.  Together, they work to elude and overcome the assassins. 

All the secondary characters remind me a bit of “A Night in the Lonesome October” though a little more interesting.  I especially liked the knight from the crusades who much preferred washing windshields to war.  Though the randomness of the chapters labeled Two make for a confusing start, it all comes together by the end and eventually it all makes sense.  This book is primarily about having fun with a really interesting premise.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s solidly enjoyable.  It’s another book which makes me realize that while I don’t think he always wrote the kind of novels that move me emotionally (I’ve only given Zelazny one five star rating), he had a great imagination and produced consistently fantastical, entertaining, and experimental science fiction.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

2003 Hugo Winner: Hominids

Robert J. Sawyer
Completed 5/5/2013, reviewed 5/5/2013
3 stars

This is a fast paced book.  It reads very quickly.  I really liked the main story line.  A modern Neanderthal man from a parallel Earth crosses into our world.  A doctor, a physics post-doc student, and a geneticist try to keep him from the press and learn about him and the world he comes from.

I did not like most of the other plotlines.  The most offensive to me was the rape scene.  I thought it was completely unnecessary for the character of the geneticist.  This is not a spoiler alert.  It happens before she meets the Neanderthal man, Ponter.  If the author was looking for some character arc for her, I didn’t think something as dramatic as a rape was appropriate.  It just didn’t fit into the whole tone of the book.  It seemed forced, like he had a table of possible experiences to explain her behavior, and this won out over other ideas. 

I also didn’t like the accusation of murder of Ponter’s partner.  It occurred to me that it’s not a bad device.  If you think about it, how else would you explain the sudden disappearance of someone, when the idea of a parallel universe is at best a theory among scientists, not the general public. 

The problem I found was the when you add these two plotlines to the book, you end up with a soap opera.  That’s how it felt.  Remarkably, the author was able to keep it all moving quickly.  Fortunately, the author knows how to write pop-fiction, and kept the soapy parts as fast paced as the rest of the book. 

I really liked the main Neanderthal characters, Ponter and his partner.  Despite the rape scene, I also liked the geneticist.  The world of the Neanderthals is also interesting.  It almost utopian, though with a potential for big-brother monitoring.  Sex just is.  There is no distinction between gay and straight.  There is just sex with your partner and procreation with your mate.  Indeed, because of the division of the sexes in this world, the dominant behavior is homosexual, but it is not identified as being separate from being heterosexual.  It is just what one does with either your partner or your mate, and you love both.  It’s a really interesting idea that was well portrayed.

So I gave this 3 stars.  Initially I was leaning towards 2 or 2 ½, but when I finished the book, I felt good about it, despite my dislikes.