Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Year in Review

This is my first look back at a year in some time, and the first for my blog.  I want to focus on my SF/Fantasy experiences for the year, but I also wanted to acknowledge some of the good experiences and challenges in my personal life as well.

The most profound event of the year began in 2012 with my partner’s cancer diagnosis.  The surgeries and recovery extended into this year, and the effects on our lives has been profound.  I could wax poetic on how screwed up heath “care” is in this country and how his illness has affected us, but suffice it to say that recovery from a traumatic health crisis is a long, difficult process, and it is not helped by the minimal and indifferent aftercare experience.  

The most joyous event of the year was driving my mother-in-law down from Alaska to Oregon.  We got to visit Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St Elias National Parks, see the glories of the Canadian Wilderness, relax on the ferry through the panhandle’s inside passage, and experience a little of Vancouver, BC and Seattle.  We went to a lot of really amazing museums.  And yes, we saw bears and whales.

One of the most fun experiences of the year was meeting Peter S. Beagle on his tour of the remastered animated feature The Last Unicorn.  The tour came through Portland in November, and it gave me the opportunity to see if for the first time.  My partner and mother-in-law also came along, and they got to see it for the first time since its initial release on the big screen.  Afterwards my mother-in-law and I waited in line to have Mr. Beagle sign our book (Jacob had a prior appointment right after the movie).  We waited for an hour and half.  The cause of the long wait was all these unicorn merchandise tables before Mr. Beagle.  Granted, unicorn bling probably provides more revenue than the movie ticket sales alone, and I’m sure the cost of the remastering and the tour were not cheap.  But this held up the line so much, that from where we were standing, we could see Beagle checking his phone, looking bored and tired, waiting for fans to get past his aggressive salespeople.  When we finally got up to him and started talking about our favorite parts of the book, he perked up, became gregarious, and engaged us in a wonderful conversation.  It really made me aware of how much Mr. Beagle appreciates his fans, loves to talk about his books, and just banter gregariously with people.  And that warmed my heart.   

I was unemployed more than I was employed this year, which is how I was able to read 55 books this year.  This reading experience, and the encouragement of my partner, prompted me to begin writing book reviews, which eventually lead up to my beginning this blog.  I was hoping I’d blog about feelings and experiences besides reviews, but maybe this entry will be the beginning of being more comfortable writing about personal things.  

My greatest achievement this year was having three of my reviews from my blog featured on the Worlds Without End genre fiction site blog.  The three books were Summer of Love by Lisa Mason, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and Among Others by Jo Walton.  They were books I read for the WWEnd Women of Genre Fiction challenge:  read 12 books by women authors of genre fiction who you’ve never read before.  I found many gems through this challenge.  When I started my blog, I never thought I would have more than a couple of hits from people who were close to me, and from some of those blog watcher sites that give you a hit as soon as you post.  Through the recognition of WWEnd, I’ve had the opportunity to share my voice with a few more people than I would ever have expected.  I have a lot of thanks to WWEnd for recognizing my efforts.

Okay, finally, onto my favorite books of the year.  I found so many treasures this year, you might just go to my Hugo List and WOGF list pages and look for the 4 and 5 star reviews.  This list is the most noteworthy of them, and they are not in any real order:

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord
The Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
Summer of Love – Lisa Mason
Way Station – Clifford D Simak
Dreamsnake – Vonda N McIntyre
Redshirts – John Sclazi
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

My favorite of the year:  The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

Special Mention: A Canticle for Leibowitz– Walter M Miller Jr.  This was my third read of this book and will always have a special place in my heart.  

I don’t have my reviews posted for the Willis and Gaiman books yet, but just so you know, they made my eyes dewy.  

And what SF/Fantasy year end review would be complete without another expounding on the latest installment of “The Hobbit” films.  I thought “The Desolation of Smaug” was better than “An Unexpected Journey”.  As much of a Tolkien fan as I am, but not being a purist of many things, I believe it is a good film in its own right.  I can appreciate Jackson and company’s attempt to pull in from other sources (including themselves) and make the connection to the LOTR films a little stronger, even the throwing of Legolas into the mix, which I know many people despised.  My complaint with the movie is that it lacks the heart and intimacy that the LOTR films had.  And that to me is what separates a good film from a great film.  There was more emphasis on the action than the characterization.  I loved, cared about, or hated all the characters in LOTR.  I don’t have many feelings one way or the other about the characters in The Hobbit films.  I can watch Sir Ian McKellen read a phone book, but even Gandalf seems terribly two dimensional.  Despite all this, I will go see the last installment.  I just wish it was better.

Other things of note.  Jacob started his own blog, Speak To Make It Out, to release some of the feelings about his struggles this past year.  I broke the 1000 pageviews mark on my blog.  I found some other great SF/Fantasy bloggers, Stainless Steel Droppings and The Hugo Endurance Project.  I regularly participate in three drumming circles, and made my own frame drum.  I had a good time at Faerieworlds again.  We saw Mumford and Sons in an awesome concert.  There was no Kings of Poland t-shirt booth at the Polish Festival this year, so instead of selling shirts, I just ate a lot of Polish food.

My goals for next year?  (1) Finish my quest to read all the Hugo winners.  I have 5 to go, plus 5 more that I read over 10 years ago which I’ll have to reread to write reasonable reviews.  (2) After reading the Hugo winners, read some of the books and authors that I’ve stumbled across but have been postponing until after the Hugos, including more Simak and Willis.  (3) Post the rest of my already written reviews to my blog. (4) Be less judgmental of others opinions at my local SF book club.  (5) Write more, in general.  

Happy New Year everyone!

WOGF Review: Sorcery and Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Completed 12/22/2013, Reviewed 12/31/2013
4 stars

Sorcery & Cecelia is a wonderfully fun young adult novel written in an epistolary form which I don’t think I’ve ever encountered.  The authors wrote the story by actually writing letters to each other in the voice of their respective character.  According to their afterward, they did this as a game.  The result is a delightful romp with young Victorian women who dabble in a little magic.  Some reviewers call this a cross between Jane Austen and Harry Potter.  I think it’s maybe more of a Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for teens.  But neither comparison does justice in conveying the amount of fun you’ll have with this book.

The story is about Cecy and Kate, two young cousins writing to each other bemoaning how they are separated for the Season.  Kate is in London while Cecy is still in the country.  While at an affair, Kate stumbles into a magical garden and is mistaken by an old woman to be someone named Thomas under disguise.  The woman invites Kate to have some chocolate from a gloriously blue chocolate pot.  Normally clumsy, she spills the chocolate and watches the splashes eat through her dress.  She narrowly escapes this scene and writes to her cousin about it.

The strange incident leads Cecy and Kate into a mystery with roots in both London and in the country.  The two of them unravel the clues through their letters, discovering a deadly plot involving two evil wizards, the “odious” Thomas, his friend James, and that dratted chocolate pot, all while navigating beneath the radar of their magic-hating guardians, Aunts Elizabeth and Charlotte.

I can’t help but use adjectives like wonderful, fun, and delightful to describe this book.  Cecy and Kate are wonderful characters, vividly drawn through their letters and antics.  There are a lot of fun little gags, like the oft-referenced incident with the goat and a scene involving one aunt and “the vapors”, which all take place in this manners-conscious Victorian setting.  And the humor adds to the pace and excitement as the two cousins make their way through the dangers of dealing with the evil Sir Hillary and Miranda. 

This book is a great read.  It’s not deep or heavy, but it’s irrepressibly fun, exciting, and fast-paced.  I discovered this book when it was offered but rejected as the recent fantasy selection for our SF book club.  Between the title and the book club leader’s brief description, it sounded fun, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Four stars.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1961 Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M Miller, Jr
Read in fall semester 1981, late 2012, and completed again on 12/18/2013, reviewed 12/18/2013
5 stars

How do you review a book you love so much that you read it multiple times and after each reading, hold it in complete awe?  Canticle for Leibowitz is that book for me.  I find so many themes, ideas, and questions in it that I don’t know where to begin my review.  So I’m just going to start writing and see if I can communicate the profound effect this book has on me.

“Canticle” was originally written as three distinct short stories.  When Miller converted the stories into a novel, he made heavy revisions to create continuity while keeping each story distinct.   The first story is set in the post-apocalyptic dark ages of the 26th century.  Somewhere in the American Southwest, Brother Francis, a novice monk at the Albertian Order of Leibowitz abbey, finds what might be relics of Isaac Edward Leibowitz and his wife.  Leibowitz was an engineer who, after a great nuclear war, and coming to the conclusion that his wife was a casualty of the war, converts to Catholicism and starts a monastic order whose mission is to save books which are being purged by the angry rabble left in the war’s wake.  Leibowitz is discovered and martyred as one of the intellectual elite who contributed to the buildup of technology that caused the war.  The relics may lead to the canonization of Leibowitz.  The story details Brother Francis struggle as the discoverer of the relics and receiver of a possible vision of Leibowitz himself.

The second section is set 600 years later.  The abbey is at the center of controvery over its guarding of the ancient memorabilia of the 20th century.  Thon Taddeo, a brilliant scientist from a nearby kingdom, goes to the abbey to inspect the documents himself, discovering that the monks themselves have discovered how to generate electricity and create a light bulb based on the memorabilia and Thon Taddeo’s work.  The world appears to be at the dawn of new Renaissance.  But like the Renaissance of the 15th century, there is fighting between the kingdoms, conflict over the new discoveries, and a potential schism in the Church, not unlike that Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England.

The third section takes us another 600 years into the future.  Now the abbey is coping with a world on the brink of another nuclear holocaust.  The current abbot, Dom Zerchi, has the task of selecting some of his monks to leave the earth in the event the war comes to fruition, taking the holy ancient memorabilia with them and keeping the Church alive on one of earth’s colonies.  Zerchi must also deal with the question of euthanasia for severe victims of radiation poisoning, and whether the second head of woman with a genetic mutation has its own soul. 

The three stories create a future history of the earth, covering a second dark ages, renaissance, and nuclear age, mimicking our own history after the fall of the Rome.  Once again, the Church saves science, although this time, it’s not Plato and Aristotle, and Euclid, but Newton, Einstein, and Leibowitz.  No one may still be able to understand the past, but the Church works to preserve it.  What’s different this time, at least according to the novel, is that the Church isn’t burning what may be heretical.  It’s the common people who are burning books, all books.

When I first read this book, I found it to be a criticism of Christianity.  Now I’m not so sure.  As another reviewer noted, it’s hard to tell if this is a critique of or a love letter to the Church.  For example, I initially thought the suffering of Brother Francis and the road to Leibowitz’s canonization was a statement about Church hagiography.  Now it feels more like an homage to stories like St Bernadette of Lourdes and the early missionary martyrs.  If you’ve seen the old film “Song of Bernadette” with Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price, might get the Lourdes analogy.

Another good example of my quandary is Dom Zerchi’s fight over euthanasia.  I can’t tell what side of the issue Miller was on.  In fact, the whole third section initially felt like he’s criticizing the theology of pre-Vatican II Rome.  But on my third read, I felt more like he was siding with the Church.  It seemed more like he was really speaking to the Church’s lack of moral authority in the secular present.  Yet, if Miller was siding with the Church’s stance on euthanasia, then the more ironic is Miller’s own death from suicide. 

Probably the most confusing point is his description of New Rome.  It is full of all the splendor and vulgarity of our Rome.  But upon closer inspection, the plaster is cracked and falling, the paintings are faded, and the pope’s vestments are worn and moth-eaten.  Again, at first I thought he was describing the fa├žade of Rome in the late ‘50’s.  It looks wondrous, but is it really just lipstick on a pig.  And is the pope just a nice, old, friendly guy, or is he just a doddering fool oblivious to the hardship of life on the plains?

I don’t have answers to any of my questions.  I just know it makes me want to read it again and again, and maybe even do some real research on Miller… I mean, besides Wikipedia.

Miller’s characterization is very strong.  I found that I could fully experience the viewpoints of all the main characters.  Brother Francis is my favorite character, maybe one of my favorite characters in all of SF.  He grows from being a terrified novice to a deeply spiritual monk.  His journey is at times comical, but is more often poignant and incredibly touching.  His innocence and reverence serve as a stark contrast to Abbot Arkos’ fear and cynicism.  As much as I love the whole book, I could read a whole novel just of him.

The hermit is an awesome character.  I love the question of whether or not he is Lazarus, as well as the mystery of a resurrected being.  If Lazarus was raised from the dead, then shouldn’t he be immortal, and what is the implication?  Here, he gets to be a comical character, offering interesting perspectives, often like a Greek chorus. 

I do not want to dissuade potential readers from discovering the magic of this book because of my quandary over what Miller’s message might be.  It is a brilliant book.  As I have read through all the Hugo winners, my experience with this book was the standard against which I held all the others.  This is what a 5 star book should be.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1979 Dreamsnake

Vonda N. McIntyre
Finished 5/2/2013, Reviewed 5/2/2013
5 stars

There is a warmth to this book that is wondrous.  It had the same effect on me as did “Jonathan Strange.”  Whenever I picked it up, at home when I had time, or on the train to work for 8 pages at a time, the prose of the book put me in a wonderful place. 

The basic plot is that of a quest, but it is so much more than that.  First, it’s the quest of a woman, the first female main character in a Hugo winner, if memory serves me correctly.  Second, the woman is a healer who produces vaccines and cures through the manipulation of venom from snakes.  She is a doctor in a post-apocalyptic world that fears snakes.  Third, through her journey, she heals those around her mentally and emotionally, while trying to heal herself.

There are several analogies that are easy to make.  It’s about power of and struggle against addiction.  That one is obvious.  It’s about the hoarding of knowledge and the breakdown in society because of it.  It has a ring of Christian mythology, the journey of a “miracle worker,” dying to one’s self, being lowered into the depths of hell, and even a crucifixion/resurrection motif. 

Despite all these themes that run through the book, it all comes down to the main character.  She is strong, determined, compassionate, charitable, and loving.  She is also flawed and filled with self-doubt.  Within the first chapter of the book, I loved the character.  I wanted to see the journey to the end.

There is only one complaint I had with the book.  The last chapter was a little too “nice”.  I don’t want to write a spoiler, so suffice it to say, there’s a happy ending.  But I didn’t count this against my final rating of the book.  I just did not want to put it down.  I got the book the day before my first day at a new job.  After the first chapter, I was angry that I hadn’t gotten the book while I was still unemployed, when I would have had time to finish it in just a few days, instead of a week.  That’s how much I enjoyed it!  Five stars.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1994 Green Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Completed 12/11/2013, Reviewed 12/13/2013
3 stars

I think it was a mistake to read “Green Mars” right after Red Mars.  Reading two massive tomes about the Martian landscape one after the other became a little tedious.  The books are structured the same.  The saga of living on Mars is told from a different character’s perspective per chapter.  Where the first book was more about the colonization of Mars, this book’s plot is the terraforming the planet and the formation of an independent Martian government.  Some action and characterization takes place, but once again, the primary focus is tons and tons and tons of descriptions of the environment.  Instead of actors chewing the scenery, the scenery does the chewing.

The book began well, picking up the story of the remaining first 100 colonists after the war of 2061 and hiding out in the southern hemisphere, and being told from the perspective of one of the first children born on Mars.  I was excited.  The characterization of Nirgal was great, and the tone was markedly different from the first book.  But by the second chapter, the perspective changed to one of the adults and narrative returned to the same pattern as the first book. 

Several large chapters of the book are simply travelogues.  The premise of one is to drive around the planet and visit the refuges of the Martians hiding from Earth’s transnational corporations’ security forces.  Another is to drive around and sabotage transnat installations.  The third is to drive around to all the refuges again and keep them from openly revolting against the transnats until a coordinated effort can be made.  The key phrase here is “drive around”, giving the author way too many opportunities for descriptive prose.  I have to say the prose is good.  But it just got tedious.

One character I really liked this time around was Sax.  We get a whole chapter of him geeking-out on biogenetics and the planting and development of his genetically engineered plants.  It may sound tedious as well, but there was something about his intensity that really engrossed me. 

I had a love-hate relationship with Hiroko.  She was the lead biologist in the first book who disappears into the southern hemisphere to become the leader of a Martian nature cult.  She becomes the Mother of Mars, promulgating a unifying energy among the splintered refugee groups.  She is the only person who can, at least temporarily, bring together terraformists and anti-terraformists, the radicals and the less-radicals, the old and the young.  At one point, she walks through a huge crowd painted head to toe in green while her followers get the crowd to chant the names of Mars in all languages.  It’s a weird and powerful scene.   I loved the fact that she is a crazy embodiment of the Mars experience, but I hated that the character is one dimensional.  There are no interpersonal interactions with her that tell you who she is.  Did she really go off the deep end and become a goddess, or is there still a human being in there somewhere?  We don’t get to find out.  She’s simply a colorful enigma. 

Nirgal, her son, is also an enigma.  We get a good picture of him growing up in the first chapter.  We also find out he has a strange gift of temperature regulation.  He gets to use it once.  He stays relatively prominent through the first half of the book, but then becomes one-dimensional as the story continues.  And there is only one more reference to his gift.  I was hoping Nirgal and his gift get a little more focus, maybe adding some magical realism to the story.  Maybe we’ll get more in “Blue Mars”.

The conference of refugee groups trying to build a self-ruling, free Martian world community really worked for me.  It was an interesting way to incorporate a political/philosophical debate into a novel.  And it drew a very realistic picture of how difficult it is to get people to come to agreement about what freedom means.  Not everyone has the same concept of how to create and Eden, and people seem more willing to fight about a few differences than agree about the similarities.

I gave this book 3 stars.  I wonder if I would have felt differently if I had read it two years after Red Mars, the time between the publications of each.  It’s a really good book, but I just didn’t feel it as much as I did for the first book.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF review: 2012 Among Others

Jo Walton
Completed 5/17/2013, reviewed 5/24/2013
4 stars

It’s great that a Hugo winner is a book about a science fiction fan.  The attraction to science fiction, for many of us, begins when we’re young, feeling outcast, different, or otherwise disenfranchised from the mainstream.  We find it a solace, a place where we can believe that there’s something else out there, something better, something more real than our cruel reality.  The main character of this story is one of these fans, a teenage girl whose turns to SF to escape from the cruelty and craziness in her life. 

Morwenna has a crazy, abusive mother from whom she’s escaped, an alcoholic father who she’s just met, and goes to a private boarding school where, of course, she doesn’t fit in.  She is also the surviving twin of a car crash caused by her mother.  However, she finds her peace in SF, and has read an unbelievable amount of SF and fantasy, mostly by some of the most esteemed and prolific authors.  To her joy, she also finds an SF book club at her local library.  She gets to do a little growing up through new relationships she forms with the members of the club as well as with other book lovers.

One other thing, Mori can do magic and can talk to the faeries.  She spends most of her time protecting herself against the bad magic of her mother.  She is originally from Wales where she often spoke with faeries.  Now living with her father in England, she can see them, but doesn’t have much interaction with them.

Mori’s story is told through a diary.  The format made it easy to read as well as immediate and profound.  It follows her through the meeting of her father to the final confrontation with her mother. 

I loved almost every aspect of this book.  While the plot is linear, it does not really develop like a standard novel.  Some things happen out of the blue.  The ending, for example, doesn’t have any real build-up.  It simply happens.  But that was okay for me.  I like the fact that we were learning about Mori as she reveals herself to us in a non-formulaic way. 

The magic was interesting too.  It was more akin to magical realism than a “normal” fantasy containing magic.  I liked that as well.  It wasn’t constantly fantastical.  It was simply part of her everyday life. 

There was only one part of the story that bothered me.  Her father, in a drunken stupor, tries to climb into bed with her and kiss her.  It seemed extremely out of context.  Sure the father is an alcoholic, meeting her for the first time since she was an infant, and struggling with having a relationship with her.  But what point does the scene make?  None.  There’s no further mention of it, no repercussions, no tension.  It just happens, and then it disappears.  To me, it was totally unnecessary.  I think the uneasiness I felt because of it prevented me from having a more profound experience with the book.  Without it, I think I could have given this book 5 stars, a rating I only give to books which profoundly move me. 

I loved the insipid step-aunts, who bear some resemblance to Hamlet’s wyrd trio of witches.  I also liked the development of her relationship with a boy from her book club.  It came across as real, and not melodramatic.  I also liked her portrayal of the librarians.  They are the modern stereotype of librarians:  book lovers who have a better understanding of the world, who can see life through eyes different than most adults, because their minds are expanded by the books they treasure, and can see into the soul and needs of their patrons.

I gave the book 4 stars because, despite the incest scene, the story is awesome, the characters are wonderfully developed, and I felt like I really got to live inside Mori’s skin for a while.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1971 Ringworld

Larry Niven
Read 4/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
4 stars

I had trouble starting this book.  I had heard so many rave reviews of the book dating back to friends from the 70’s.  I was a little afraid of the hardness of the science fiction.  The fact that a sequel was called Ringworld Engineers brought up my less than admirable feelings towards the engineering students I rubbed elbows with at the University of Colorado (the Math department and classes were located in the Engineering Center). 

The book started well with Louis Wu’s 200th birthday, but stumbled for me with the introduction of the two main alien characters, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals.  My first impression was that they were too cartoonish.  Again, it raised my distaste for alien species based on earth creatures and their earthly characteristics (here, a horse and a tiger, respectively).  But by the middle of the book, I was hooked.  I had made peace with my bias, and found the aliens to be the perfect such aliens of this genre.  They grew on me as their personalities grew and fleshed out. 

I made peace, too, with my bias against engineering and hard sci fi.  The description of and journey through Ringworld was amazing.  It reminded me at times of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle.  In general, I think I find it difficult to read descriptions of and imagine huge complex entities, such as the outside of Ringworld, or large spaceships, or complex civilizations like the layout of Luna in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”  But once getting through that struggle, I was able to explore the rest of Ringworld and enjoy it.

I liked Louis and Teela, as well as their relationship.  At times, I was a bit put off by Teela’s simplicity, raising my easily ruffled sensitivity towards portrayals of women in science fiction.  But I found myself accepting her as being not a typical woman, because of her “gift” of luck.  And I loved how she grew through the book.

I also enjoy the whole concept of engineering/interfering/experimenting with life.  It was done well here.

My biggest criticism was that flycycles seemed a bit to amazing to be real.  They flew hundreds of thousands of miles with an undescribed energy source (unless I missed it somewhere).  They had tons of controls, including the ability to make food.  Given the amount of my suspension of disbelief in their existence, it was then hard to believe that they could crash.

When I was done with the book, I was glad I had read it, and wished I had read it back in the 70s or 80s.  Although at the time, I don’t think I would have had as critical an eye.  4 stars.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nebula Winner: 1993 Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson
Completed 11/25/2013, reviewed 11/25/2013
4 stars

Imagine James Michener writing hard SF.  That’s “Red Mars.”  Robinson blends vivid descriptions of the Martian landscape and detailed science, sociology, and economics to bring to life an epic depiction of the colonization of Mars and the personal and cultural strife that ensues.  Like Michener, Robinson’s detail left me in awe, but when all was said and done, the book left me exhausted and questioning my decision to read all three books of the Martian trilogy in a row. 

The book begins with a short chapter which drops the reader amidst the chaos of the Martian colony, creating an immediate tension and a burning desire to understand how things collapsed so badly.  The second chapter then whisks you back to the beginning, describing the colonization, from the selection of the “first hundred,” to the journey to Mars, and to the workings of making Mars a scientific utopia.  Of course, it never is utopia, and as more colonists arrive, it quickly devolves into mayhem.

The story is told in third person, but from the perspective of several of the first hundred.  Each chapter (and sometimes two) is told from the point of view a few of the main characters.  Through them, we learn of the hardship of this mission.  I particularly liked the chapter where Maya was the focus.  She seemed the most fully realized.  The other characters were less emotional, in general.  I ascribed this to the fact that almost all the members of the first hundred are scientists, and thus have scientists’ demeanors, probably testing ISTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator.  The side effect is that as the story progresses through the others characters, Maya seems less like a fully realized character and more like an annoying bipolar victim.  I found this unfortunate, because I really liked Maya and found everyone else to be a little too much like the Martian landscape, primarily sterile. 

Nonetheless, the characterization in general is very detailed, giving you very different accounts of the progress of the colony.  I just would have liked to have had the characters show more feelings.

The details of the science, the politics, and all other aspects of a society are amazing.  There were times I could follow it, other times when my eyes just glazed over.  Its clear Robinson is very smart and did a lot of research, but I felt the detail, particularly to the landscape, was too long.  Halfway through the book, I found myself skimming over descriptions of the landscape.  Maybe that was intentional, reinforcing the sterile majesty of Mars.  But I kept feeling like a good editor could have made it tighter and less rambling.

This is a 4 star book.  It is excellent, despite my problems with the length and lack of emotionality.  The development of the society on Mars is amazing, and feels very realistic.  It is not candy-coated in the least.  Just because we leave the earth doesn’t mean we leave all our problems as well.  We’re human, and we bring our chaos and conflict with us wherever we go.  I look forward to the rest of the books in the trilogy.  The next book covers the terraforming of Mars.  I’m just hoping the emotional state of the characters warm up as much as the planet does. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 2013 Redshirts

John Scalzi
Completed 11/19/2013, reviewed 11/25/2013
4 stars

“Redshirts” is a lot of fun.  It’s an extrapolation on the observation that in the original “Star Trek” series, one of the ensigns on an away team, often wearing a red shirt, is usually killed on the mission.  A group of redshirts figure this out and try to outsmart their destiny. 

What’s most fun about the book is that it’s a kind of meta-meta.  The reason the red shirts are dying is because their fate is determined by fiction.  Somehow, their universe has overlapped the fictional universe of a “Star Trek” rip-off.  When an episode of this series is produced, the narrative dictates their circumstances and action, and they are compelled to follow it.  Their mission is to destroy this link between fiction and reality.

The book is a light romp, full of action and comedy.  If you know about the original “Star Trek” series, you’ll understand the premise.  The dialogue is fun and tight.  The characters are light, but well-developed.  I read this book in two short sittings.  It’s a quick read, with fast-paced scenes.  There were a few times, particularly in the beginning of the book, where I burst out laughing.    I usually don’t laugh out loud while reading a book.  I surprised myself when I did, particularly because I was reading the book in public in a coffee shop amidst the clicking of laptop keyboards, the buzz of multiple conversations, the hiss of the espresso machine, and the pacifying notes of the light R&B station playing in the background. 

When I finished this book, I thought it was a great read.  Worthy of a Hugo?  I wasn’t sure.  I liked the fact that the fans had picked a fun light book.  It was a deviation from the massive space opera, deadly serious cyberpunk, and gritty urban fantasy novels that have dominated the award for the past few decades.

What really convinced me that the book was award-worthy was the inclusion of the three codas at the end of the book.  They were short accounts of three people whose lives were affected by the efforts of Dahl and his red shirt pals.  Each one was poignant and profound.  It provided depth to the light-heartedness of the main story.  Maybe Scalzi was trying to add some weight to the story.  But it didn’t feel forced.  It demonstrated the simple premise that our actions affect others, sometimes in profound ways, without our realizing it.  I also thought that there was another point here.  That the people in all aspects of the medium of television need to be aware of how it affects people lives.  Because even the shortest-lived character on a trite space opera on basic cable can have an affect on someone somewhere. 

I gave this book 4 stars for its fun, inventiveness, and for the awesome three codas. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1981 The Snow Queen

Joan D. Vinge
Completed 6/29/2013, Reviewed 6/30/2013
4 stars

“The Snow Queen” is based on the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”  In a way, I wish I knew this before beginning the book.  I read the fairy tale after the novel, and understood why she made some of her plot choices.  However, for the general reader, it is not necessary to read the fairy tale before the novel.  Vinge’s book stands on its own.

After reading so many earlier Hugo winners, I’ve become accustomed to short SF novels. I find myself impatient with the later, longer novels, looking for plot movement rather than prose and extensive characterization.  I struggled with this book for this reason.  From the beginning, it seems that the plot is simple; we can predict how it’s going to end.  So just get on with it.  At some point, though, I stopped fighting it and realized how well the book is written.  Vinge’s prose is lovely.  It creates an amazing universe and gives us very well developed characters.

The other trouble I had with this book is that it is basically a sweeping romance.  I have never read books normally categorized as romance, but I have read romantic best sellers like “The Thorn Birds.”  This novel reminded me of that type of book.  A woman goes on an epic journey, battles evil, and discovers her true self as she searches for her one true love, all in an SF/fantasy setting. 
This book also fails the Bechdel test.  To pass this test, a work of fiction must satisfy the following requirements:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.(I didn’t add a footnote, but you can do a quick internet search to confirm.  And Alison Bechdel is an awesome graphic novelist.)
The main characters are all strong woman.  Vinge even notes that she wanted to write a book with strong female characters.  However, in the end, all their primary motivations are the finding or keeping of men.  And even though they talk to each other about major plot points, it all boils down to men. 

The realization of this made me want to dismiss the book as nothing but a glorified romance.  Again, I had to get over myself and my prejudices to realize that this is a really good book. 

So despite all the negativity I’ve unleashed, I give this book 4 stars.  I loved the subplot of the mers, the revelation of the nature of the sybils, and the extensive use of masks.  A whole paper could be written about masks.  The snow queen herself is deliciously evil, and yet not without a pinch of humanity. 

“The Snow Queen” is a marvelous book, and well worth the read.  I highly recommend it, particularly as a wonderful example of the transition point in the evolution of the science fiction novel.  It is epic in style and creates an incredible universe (and borrowing from a quote on the book jacket) not seen much in science fiction since “Dune,” and the works of Ursula LeGuin. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

WOGF Review: Witch World

Andre Norton
Completed 10/8/2013, Reviewed 10/8/2013
3 stars

My mother-in-law is a huge Andre Norton fan.  She’s living with us now, and because of our tight living quarters, a lot of her and our stuff is in storage.  So when I told her I thought I’d read “Witch World” for my WOGF challenge, we took a trip to our storage unit, opened about six boxes of books until she found it, as well as the next three books in the series. 

“Witch World” is iconic fantasy with some SF mystery thrown in.  It’s about a man, Simon Tregarth, from the post-WWII present who’s offered a chance to be transported from a dangerously difficult situation to a world that is more suited to who he really is.  Taking the offer, he is whisked away to the Witch World.  There he immediately rescues a damsel in distress, who turns out to be a witch, is welcomed into her culture, learns their language, and joins their forces to fight a growing menace in the west.  There are hawkers who can communicate with their raptors, shape-shifting, an evil zombie army, and a strange hi-tech invading force behind the evil.

Sounds kind of standard fantasy, no?  Well, yes and no.  This book was published in 1963.  In fact, the copy I have from my mother-in-law has no reprinting listed, the cover is tattered, and the pages are deep sepia.  The significance of this is that it comes from very early in genre literature.   While it seems like standard fantasy now, it wasn’t quite so standard fifty years ago.  And throwing a little SF into the mix is, I think, that much more surprising for this period.

When I began reading this book, I had a hard time following it.  I partly blame the tiny font size in this ancient paperback.  Besides the density of the text, writing style is quite dense.  I often found myself getting tired and losing focus.  After finishing, I decided I needed a second read before I could review it. 

Upon my second read, it fell into place.  The prose is gorgeous.  For some reason, while reading, I could imagine Norton pounding this out on her typewriter in a stereotypical black and white movie about a writer.  I have to remember that this book is from the era of pulp SF and initial publication in magazines.  I think if she were writing today, this initial story would have been quite a bit longer. 

I liked Simon.  I wish I could have gotten more into his head.  His integration into his new environs was a little too straight forward.  I wanted to experience his growth into his new life in this magical place.  I also really liked the setting, a fantasy in a middle ages-like place with a touch of modern technology and a sprinkling of SF.

As much as I liked many of the parts of this book, as a whole it left me a little “meh.”  It felt like something was missing, that the parts were greater than the whole.  My sense is that it’s because this comes from the Amazing Stories era, and was conceived with an episodic, long-term sensibility.  I also realize that Norton’s work is considered juvenile fiction.  I give this book three stars just because it feels like something is missing.  But I’m really intrigued by the rest of the series and would love to see how all the mysteries begun in this book eventually play out.  I would just like to spend more time in Simon’s head.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Daniel H. Wilson
Completed 11/11/2013, Reviewed 11/12/2013
1 star

The reason I read this book was because it was the November selection for the local SF book club, and the author, who is a local, would be joining the book club’s discussion.  I did a quick search for the author’s bio.  He’s a brilliant robotics scientist from Oklahoma.  Between reading the book and the bio, I put together my interpretation of the point of this book.  It’s a bully-revenge fantasy in the national context of Tea Party hate groups extrapolated to Nazi-like extremes.  This is the kind of story I would have written if I could have voiced my fears and fantasies when I was a twelve year old nerd who was picked on for being smart.

 “Amped” is a fast-paced action novel with an interesting premise.  It begins well, giving us the state of a country brimming with hatred toward its half million amps, i.e., citizens implanted with the Neural Autofocus, a device used to help people with mental and physical disabilities overcome their limitations.  We learn this as Owen Grey, a school teacher, tries to dissuade an amped student from jumping off a roof.  There is an organization, the Pure Human Citizens Council, let by an angry senator, whipping the country toward a Nazi-like frenzy, and quickly stripping the rights of the amped, fueled by the fear that they have an unfair advantage over regular people.  The student sees the horror of this future and leaps to her death.  Owen, who has an implant to control seizures, finds himself wanted for the suicide of this teen. 

The first two chapters gave me high hopes.  They set the scene well and immediately set had me empathizing with Owen, the school teacher.  Then it falls apart.  In the third chapter, Owen finds out from his brilliant neurosurgeon dad that his implant is not what it seems.  His implant isn’t just medical, it’s an amp.  Not just any amp, but a special amp.  He’s just never had full access to its powers.   His father tells him he needs to hide out with a kindly old man in Eden, Oklahoma to find out more about his special powers.  And he better do it fast because he’s about to be wanted as an amp terrorist.

In Eden, Owen meets a cocky cowboy named, Lyle.  He has one of these special implants and teaches Owen how to use it.  The rest of the book follows the conflict between Owen and Lyle, and the race to save the amps and the US from the evil grip of the PHCC.  Oh yeah, and Owen falls in love.  And, oh yeah, there’s an adorable, amped kid who’s a Rubik’s cube prodigy.

The whole “You have special powers. You must learn how to use them” thing really bothered me.  When I came to that chapter, it just sighed.  It felt so trite.  The dialogue quickly degraded as well.   After the super powers speech, most of the dialogue seemed forced and standard B-movie stuff.  Halfway through the book, I felt like I was reading a treatment for a made for TV movie for the SyFy channel.

All the characters are pulp fare.  Lyle is an annoying Matthew McConneghay tough guy character clone.  It was almost like Wilson wrote the part just for him.  Owen started out with some depth, but then quickly becomes a one-dimensional muddled mess as he learns how to use his powers.  The kid and the love interest are simple manipulative tools.  The Senator who leads the PHCC is the evil politician. The kindly old man barely even registers as a character. 

I think there should be a special mention of how much Wilson hates rednecks.  With Eden being located in the middle of Oklahoma, he blatantly alludes to the stereotypical red-state intolerance he must have grown up with.  Eden is an oasis surrounded by stupid bigots whose sole purpose in life is to abuse people who are different, just waiting for the chance to kill them.  Wilson treats them the same way they treat the amps, reducing them to unredeemable lemmings having no depth, and completely disposable.   

I gave this book one star for the initial premise, and because I was picked on for being a nerd, smart, fat, Polish, white, gay.  And I had revenge fantasies too.  Would I recommend this book to anyone?  No.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1977 Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
Read 1/2013, reviewed 4/26/13, revised 11/7/2013
5 stars

This book is a great post-apocalyptic/dystopian future novel.  It is a variation on the “Brave New World” themes of cloning, societal control, and personal rebellion.  In this book, the clones rule an enclave created by an extended family on the eve a nuclear war.  But there are flaws with the creation of the clones, including the requiring of infusion of original DNA every few generations, and a crippling emotional need to be close to one’s clone siblings.  One non-clone, Mark, is born and becomes an outcast and potential savior of the human race. 

The environment is another major theme in the book.  This is the first reference that I’ve come across in literature where the concept of nuclear winter is discussed.  Popularized by Carl Sagan and sensationalized by popular media, it dominated our cold war nightmares in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Many popular books and movies about nuclear war depicted the radioactive devastation in the aftermath of such a war.  Instead of the radioactive desert, Wilhelm explores the shortening of the summer and the advancement of the glaciers. 

Wilhelm uses the forest almost as character of its own.  She creates a contrast between the relationship between the clone society and the forest surrounding it versus Mark’s relationship with the forest.  One sees it as oppressive and terrifying, the other sees it as friend and refuge.  Despite the fact that this book was written during the early days of environmentalism, I think she accurately forecasted the backlash against it, which came later in the Reagan and Watt era of the destruction of the American forests.  Mark’s relationship with the forest made me think of the themes of the film “Silent Running” and the song “Boy from the Country” by Michael Martin Murphy. 

Wilhelm, who I had never heard of before my Hugo quest, is a master of setting mood.  This is one of those books that put me in a completely different head space.  Every time I picked up the book, I was immediately transported into its environment, the uneasy, false eden as seen through the desperate other, who is rebelling against the conformity of the society.  It speaks to everyone who feels different.

I was surprised and thoroughly satisfied by this book.  I would go so far as to say this is an unsung, forgotten classic of SF.  I give this book a 5 star rating, where 5 stars is only awarded when I find a book so powerful and moving, it stands far above other great books.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

WOGF Review: The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell
Completed 10/15/2013, Reviewed 11/5/2013
5 stars

Despite being an agnostic, I love SF and Fantasy that questions, critiques, or parodies religion.  Some of my favorite novels are “Canticle for Leibowitz,” Case ofConscience, and “Live from Golgotha” by Gore Vidal.  So when I looked for more books to read for the WOGF challenge, I searched in the WWEnd database using the tag “theological.”  Once again, I found a gem.

“The Sparrow” transposes the experience of the New World Jesuit missions to the genre of SF.  Fr. Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest leads the first mission to a planet which seems to harbor intelligent life.  Something goes terribly wrong and leaves the priest the only survivor, demoralized and in a crisis of faith. 

The premise of “The Sparrow” may seem absurd by today’s standards.  We don’t expect the Catholic Church to be the first to send a mission to an extraterrestrial world.  Placed in a historical context, it is not absurd at all.  This happened throughout the European exploration of the Americas, as well as the non-Christianized regions of the other continents.  This book takes that premise and places is in a contemporary context with our modern sense of cultural sensitivity.  The result provides the reader with a group of very likable, honorable, and by most definitions, good people put into a morally ambiguous and deadly situation. 

I loved the prose of the book.  It was beautifully written.  I found the narrative structure to be quite compelling.  The history of the mission is told parallel to the trials of the surviving Fr Sandoz.  It is another book where every word seems important and every paragraph necessary. 

I also loved the characterizations.  The people on the mission were drawn in such detail and with such love, that I could relate them to specific people I knew from my college days when I hung out with a group of left-wing radicals which spanned the spectrum from radical nuns to philosophical scientists.   During the ‘80s, all these people came together to form an intentional community of support for each other and care for their fellow human beings in a spirit of peace and justice.  I read several reviews of the book that insisted that these characters were too good to be true.  My experience is that these people exist, and find each other and God in the world in profound ways. 

What would it be like if there were more than one sentient species on a planet?  There must be some novels that have speculated on this concept, but this is my first encounter with it.  Uplift stories don’t even come close.  Russell takes the premise of multiple sentient species interacting on a planet and forces us into a moral quandary.   How will we interact with extraterrestrial life where evolution has created a morality so radically different than ours?  The answer may be difficult and even abhorrent, but it is a question we will probably have to face.

Despite my absolute love of this book, I had a few issues with it.  It saddened me that Russell’s Church of the future is still run by celibate males, and that there is no feminine influence at the highest levels.  I also found it disheartening that the one gay character only came out to one other character.  The way he came out reminded me of a quote by Montgomery McNeil in the movie “Fame,” “Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy.  Is it?” 

Russell uses a lot of archetypes and common Catholic iconography in the formation of her main characters.  Fr Sandoz is the saint of classic hagiography.  He is a sinner who has a conversion experience and goes out to live the gospel.  In the tradition of the mystic saints, and as the main plot of the book, he experiences an existential crisis in a dark night of the soul.  Fr Yarbrough can be likened to St Peter, the rock, the commander and pragmatist of the mission, carrying his rifle like Peter carrying his sword at the Garden of Gethsemane.  The two women on the mission, Anne and Sofia, fit snuggly into the archetypes of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, respectively.  Anne, while not being a virgin, is childless.  She admittedly becomes the mother to the members of the mission. 

Sofia has an awesome back story, going from privileged child to teen prostitute survivor to asocial genius software developer.  However, the use of the archetype of repentant prostitute drives me nuts.  Mary Magdalene is never described in the gospels as being a prostitute, nor is she the woman caught in adultery.  This popular representation of her is wrong, but is unfortunately ubiquitous.  This did not bother me as I read the book.  Reflecting on and analyzing the characters afterwards, I realized how Russell clearly used this archetype of Mary Magdalene to fashion Sofia.  Her character is great, but it still makes me moan.

The big reveal at the end feeds into the existential dilemma of Fr Sandoz: if God exists, then how can evil be God’s will?  If God doesn’t exist, then isn’t this deplorable situation the fruit of my own choices?  Both questions lead to despair and hopelessness.  It reminds me of the commonly thrown-about phrase, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”  How do we discern which good intentions do not lead to hell?  Even if we think we have a well-formed conscience and believe we are doing God’s will, we may still be making the wrong decisions.

I made the mistake of reading a lot of reader reviews of this book, and had to hold myself from speaking to a lot of the criticisms.  One or two slipped out anyway.  I think the amount of criticism signifies that the book accomplished its goal: to create a dialogue about the nature of moral ambiguity in a beautifully written piece of science fiction.

This is a five-star book.  This is also the longest review I’ve ever written.  “The Sparrow” evoked a lot of feelings and ideas.  Clearly, I had some issues with it, but ultimately, I loved it.  I think great literature asks profound questions and leaves us with ambiguity.  The pursuit of the answers is beautifully summarized in this quote, “If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them.  And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1990 Hyperion

Dan Simmons
Completed 11/5/2013, Reviewed 11/5/2013
4 stars

I had been holding off on reading “Hyperion” in my Hugo quest because I thought it was JASO, just another space opera.  After all, it came from the peak of the space opera era of the Hugo winners.  Instead, “Hyperion” turned out to be rich collection of horror tales with a common theme: an unknown terror evolving on a planet in the politically volatile outback of the galaxy.

The basic premise is that a group of seven people are invited on a pilgrimage to ancient relics of unknown origin on the planet Hyperion.  To deal with the boredom and uneasiness of the trip, they tell the stories of their experiences with the planet, its paradoxical relics, or the enigmatic and violent god known as the Shrike.

The stories are diverse and fun.  My favorite story was the one told by the priest on the pilgrimage.  As is evident through my reviews, I have a fondness for theological SF.  The priest’s story, as well as the references to the cult of the Shrike in the other stories, was right up my alley.  The other stories are great too.  Each one is told from a very different cultural perspective.  Besides the priest, there’s the soldier, the poet, the “Wandering Jew,” the PI, and the consul.  My followers will also know I don’t care for military SF and cyberpunk.  But here, they add to the discovery of the awesome universe that Simmons created.

I think this is the first Hugo winner I’ve read which could be considered a horror novel.  Despite being prone to bad dreams, I love a good horror novel.  The Shrike is a terrible creature, reminiscent of some of Clive Barker’s creations.  We don’t exactly know what it is, god, demon, or just some terrifying alien.  It seems so powerful, and leaves such fear and destruction in its wake, that a galaxy-wide cult of the Shrike has emerged throughout the galaxy and has significant influence on the Hegemony, the central power comprising the majority of the planets and the virtual network between them.  To complicate matters, Hyperion is becoming the focal point of a military confrontation between the Hegemony and a band of separatists called the Ousters.  This combination of terror and war is driving away most of the population of the planet and creates a profound atmosphere of suspense.

My only disappointment with the book was that it was not exactly a self-contained story.  “Hyperion” is the first in a series of four books in “The Hyperion Cantos.”  This book stops after the stories are told, but before the pilgrims meet the Shrike.  I assume the confrontation occurs in the next book.  However, unlike other book which were part of a series and just ended without resolution, like Cherryh’s “Cyteen,” I didn’t mind that the climax occurs in the next volume.  The collection of stories and their role in unveiling Simmon’s universe created an extremely satisfying read. 

I gave this book 4 stars.  It has great prose and great character development.  It is a horror story within a SF framework, told in a format that kept me turning the pages with anticipation.  It is one of the few Hugo winners that made me want to read the sequel.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hugo Winner and WOGF Review: 1989 Cyteen

CJ Cherryh
Completed 10/30/2013, reviewed 10/31/2013
2 stars

I first tried to read Cyteen this summer.  I borrowed it from the library and started it, four times, then returned it.  The first fifty pages were leaden with a huge number of characters and complex political intrigue, and I just couldn’t get my head around it.  On the day I was laid-off from work, I checked it out from the library again, still needing to read it for my personal Hugo challenge, and thinking I could use it for my WOGF challenge.  Being unemployed, I’d have the time to hunker down and give it better try.  I devoted ten days to this complex 680 page behemoth which seemed to mix elements from the classics of SF and paranoia literature:  “Brave New World,” “1984,” “Future Shock,” and Kafka’s “The Trial.”  When I was done, I felt sorely cheated.

Cyteen is a planet in an interplanetary system recently out of a disastrous war.  The government is controlled by the Expansionists and dominated by the powerful, arrogant, and manipulative head of Science, Ariane Emory.  Ariane is murdered.  Jordan Warrick, a colleague and rival, admits to the murder and is exiled to the opposite side of the planet.  It’s not a spoiler.  That’s just the setup, the first 150 pages.  The rest of the book follows the coming of age of Ariane’s clone, also called Ariane, and her relationship to the tortured but brilliant Justin Warrick, Jordan’s clone/son.

This book has a lot of interesting concepts.  One of the most central is the “azi,” cloned people who learn and are trained using tapes, sort of like subliminal messaging.  These tapes are programmed so that different azi are able to perform different functions in society.  Citizens, or CITs, are regular people, sometimes clones, but not azis.  They may also learn via tapes.  The difference is azis are never allowed the ability to completely think for themselves.  The whole of an azi or CIT’s tape library is called a psychset.  Reseune, the powerful scientific research center of Cyteen, exists for the study and development of cloning and psychsets.  Ariane and Jordan were brilliant psychset developers. 

While these concepts were great, it is also the cause of my disappointment in the book.  Despite the scientific and sociological wonders, it felt like Cherryh never developed a real story out of them.  The book feels more like a simple novelization of the life of a famous person.  There was no real plot, direction, or denouement.  The setup takes place, then we watch Ari, the clone, grow from infant to young adult.  There’s some tension because you don’t know if she’s going to be ruthless like her progenitor, or more compassionate.  But it just feels like a series of events written around the science.

Another big disappointment was finding that the book didn’t end.  There was no conclusion or resolution.  It just stopped.  There’s a lot of drama at the end, but nothing to bring closure to the story.  And you see it coming.  As I was finishing the book, I just keep reading, and reading, and thinking “Oh no, it’s not ending…Fifty pages left and it’s not ending…forty…thirty…where’s the ending?”  You get to the last few lines of the book, and there’s a very simple wrap-up with no emotional impact.  I researched the book on the internet and sure enough, there’s a direct sequel.  Aaaargh!  That’s when I felt cheated.  Ten days of my life, and there’s a sequel.

A third issue is the Kafka-esque harassment of Justin by Ariane’s uncles.  Justin is constantly abused by Denys and Geraud Nye.  I couldn’t figure out why they kept on abusing Justin so horribly, turning this brilliant software developer into a miserable, paranoid victim.  He already has PTDS from his interaction with the first Ariane.  Their motivation for continued abuse and torture just isn't clear. Maybe because the book was so long, I just lost sight of it.  But after a while, it just seemed like Cherryh was a sadist nursing a fetish. 

Now, the technical complaints.  I have never seen--- never seen---- such an overuse of dashes and repeated words and phrases.  Words and phrases.  My initial guess was that Cherryh was trying to use punctuation and repetition to more accurately mimic real thought, speech, and conversation.  I found it distracting and annoying. 

There was also a unique dropping of words in phrases.  The most notable were the use “of a sudden” instead of “all of a sudden” and “what hell” instead of “what the hell.”  At first I though this was a publishing or editing error.  But she uses “of a sudden” a lot, and “all” is never part of the phrase.  And words seem to be missing throughout the book.  Whether it was her style, her editor, or her publisher, I found it terribly distracting and annoying.  Between that and the complexity of the science and politics, it made the book very hard to read.

After all that, I will admit that the book wasn’t all bad.  As I mentioned at the beginning, the science is really interesting.  I was lost at times when it got into heavy sociology, but still, I enjoyed it. 

I also really liked the character development of the Ari the clone.  As her story unfolded, I found I really liked her, and wanted her to succeed in everything, and believe she was striving for honesty and integrity.  In retrospect, I find this an interesting experience, because the setup at the beginning is written so that you hate her and are rooting for the opposition.  But by the end, I was rooting for Ari.

I liked the relationship between Justin and his personal azi, Grant.  Justin and Grant were raised together, as many people and their azi are.  Their relationship is incredibly intimate, but as the story progresses, it becomes pretty clear that they are lovers.  This relationship becomes profound.  I wanted Cherryh to explore that a little more.  The only affirmation of it is one point where Ari makes note of a rumor.  And that little reference just felt like a cop-out.

For a rating, I have to give this book two stars, solely for the universe she created.  I just don’t like books that don’t have a plot or an ending.  I also don’t like books that need such a long setup.  I felt like I wasted my time.  I had no gratification in finishing it, nor did it give me any motivation to even consider reading the sequel.  In fact, it makes me dread reading her other Hugo winner, “Downbelow Station.”   

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1971 Ringworld

Larry Niven
Read 4/2013, reviewed 4/13/2013
4 stars

I had trouble starting this book.  I had heard so many rave reviews of the book dating back to friends from the 70’s.  I was a little afraid of the hardness of the science fiction.  The fact that a sequel was called Ringworld Engineers brought up my less than admirable feelings towards the engineering students I rubbed elbows with at the University of Colorado (the Math department and classes were located in the Engineering Center). 

The book started well with Louis Wu’s 200th birthday, but stumbled for me with the introduction of the two main alien characters, Nessus and Speaker-to-Animals.  My first impression was that they were too cartoonish.  Again, it raised my distaste for alien species based on earth creatures and their earthly characteristics (here, a horse and a tiger, respectively).  But by the middle of the book, I was hooked.  I had made peace with my bias, and found the aliens to be the perfect such aliens of this genre.  They grew on me as their personalities grew and fleshed out. 

I made peace, too, with my bias against engineering and hard SF.  The description of and journey through Ringworld was amazing.  It reminded me at times of "Neverworld" by Neil Gaiman and the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle.  In general, I think I find it difficult to read descriptions of and imagine huge complex entities, such as the outside of Ringworld, or large spaceships, or complex civilizations like the layout of Luna in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.”  But once getting through that struggle, I was able to explore the rest of Ringworld and enjoy it.

I liked Louis and Teela, as well as their relationship.  At times, I was a bit put off by Teela’s simplicity, raising my easily ruffled sensitivity towards portrayals of women in science fiction.  But I found myself accepting her as being not a typical woman, because of her “gift” of luck.  And I loved how she grew through the book.

I also enjoy the whole concept of engineering/interfering/experimenting with life.  It was done well here.

My biggest criticism was that flycycles seemed a bit to amazing to be real.  They flew hundreds of thousands of miles with an undescribed energy source (unless I missed it somewhere).  They had tons of controls, including the ability to make food.  Given the amount of my suspension of disbelief in their existence, it was then hard to believe that they could crash.

When I was done with the book, I was glad I had read it, and wished I had read it back in the 70s or 80s.  Although at the time, I don’t think I would have had as critical an eye.  This is easily a 4 star book.

Hugo Winner Review: 1995 Mirror Dance

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 10/21/2013, Reviewed 10/23/2013
3 stars

After loving Barrayar and not really liking The VorGame, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the eighth book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and the third of Bujold’s three Hugo winners from the series.  Being on this Hugo quest, I had not read the novel where Mark Vorkosigan, Miles’ clone/brother, is introduced, and I was concerned that there would be little or no character development.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not JASO…just another space opera.

Be aware that the synopses of “Mirror Dance” around the internet are not entirely accurate.  I regularly saw things like “…Miles faces off with his clone…” or “…Miles confronts his clone…” while prepping for this book.  Instead, this book is really about Mark finding his place in the world. 

Mark has some serious existential issues.  He wants to understand who he is separate from Miles.  And very specifically, in an effort to reconcile his past, he wants to rescue fifty clones being developed for the life-extending whims of their evil, rich progenitors.  He shanghais a ship from Miles’ fleet by impersonating him and launches his attack.  Miles discovers the plan and attempts to help Mark.  What ensues is entertaining and thought-provoking.

I love a good existential crisis and I was drawn into Mark’s.  Throughout the book, he primarily struggles with the thought he is just an insignificant copy of his smarter, successful, swashbuckling brother.  He must also confront the fact that he is no longer a slave to his original purpose for being, to kill and replace Miles and undermine the Barrayaran empire. 

I was reminded of Frankenstein, which I had just read about a month earlier, both in its similarities and contrasts.  There are times when Mark even refers to himself as a monster.  Like Mark, the Frankenstein creature didn’t ask to be created, but now that he is, he has to make sense of the world.  In contrast to the monster’s response to creation, Mark takes a higher road, but is still plagued by inner demons. 

My favorite chapters were the ones where he meets Miles’, and thus his, parents.  This is probably because I was introduced to and loved Cordelia Vorkosigan, their mother, in “Barrayar.”  Her smart, sardonic, off-worldly perspective on society adds some welcome relief for Mark and the reader.

Bujold enters some dark territory with this novel.  She explores the results of torture and victim reprogramming.  There’s a very uncomfortable scene where Mark has his first, though inappropriate, attempt at sexual expression.  Later in the novel, Mark experiences dramatic disassociation due to repeated torture.  I was impressed that the author took on such serious topics.  

Despite my excitement with the ground Bujold covers, I have to admit that I don’t care for her writing style.  The characters are still two-dimensional and the prose is, well, not prose.  The dialogue is mechanical and the constant exposition becomes tedious.  It feels like at least once per chapter, you get a monologue that begins with, “The true story is…”, “Our real mission is…” or “My evil plan is…”  It’s the literary equivalent to musical opera’s “park and bark.”

I give this book three stars.  It’s good space opera with some strong attempts at depth, but still doesn’t reach the bar set by “Barrayar.”