Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/31/2017, reviewed 12/31/2017
4 stars

This book is considered the third book in the VALIS trilogy.  In actuality, the third book was supposed to be The Owl in Daylight, but Dick died before he had outlined the story.  According to online sources, though, he did once consider Transmigration to be part of the trilogy.  While it doesn’t deal directly with his psychic/psychotic event, it does deal with God, theology, and Gnosticism, topics which appeared in the previous two novels.  This book is the most mainstream novel Dick ever wrote.  It has no science fiction element, but does have some speculative aspects.  It’s literary and intellectual, but mostly accessible to the average reader.  It’s also the first time Dick has a woman as the main character of a novel.  I really enjoyed it, even though the content is fairly tragic.

The plot is a little more straightforward than in the last two books.  Angel Archer goes to a self-help guru on the day that John Lennon is shot and reflects on the previous decade or so and her relationship to her husband, Jeff, his father and Episcopal bishop of California, Timothy, and Timothy’s lover Kirsten Lundborg.  Timothy Archer is based on Bishop James Pike, a friend of Dick’s who died in the Dead Sea Desert.  He’s the central figure in her relationships as he draws everyone into his own personal existential crisis.  He becomes privy to new scrolls found in the Dead Sea caves which indicate that Jesus’ sayings may be two hundred years older than Jesus himself.  They are part of a Gnostic tradition that points to some sort of Messianic event pre-dating Christ.

I did a little reading of Bishop Pike’s life and found that Dick didn’t just loosely base the book the Pike, he basically created a docudrama of the bishop’s life.  If you read about Pike, you’ll have the plot of Transmigration.  What makes it interesting is that it is told from Angel Archer’s point of view.  Dick shares his own personal theology through her and her interactions with the other characters.  That’s what makes the book fairly intellectual.  Yet the headiness doesn’t distract from the story.  Sometimes Angel’s thoughts get pretty rambling, but they’re still interesting.

Dick also continues his exploration of mental illness.  Kirsten’s son, Bill, is schizophrenic.  He’s not a central character, but does come into play more fully towards the end and has to do with the transmigration of Timothy Archer’s soul.  The best thing about the character is that he’s quite real, and shown in quite a compassionate light.  We see him when he’s normal and when he’s in the throes of his illness.  We know that Dick was quite possibly schizophrenic himself, and I have to hand it to him for keeping his depictions of it based in reality and not in fear. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It kept me quite engrossed for two whole days.  I would have liked a little more elaboration of the Gnostic scroll findings but what we get is pretty good.  As I mentioned earlier, the book is quite tragic, but so was Pike’s life.  And through Pike/Archer’s tragedies, we get a pretty clear peek into Dick’s theology.  

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Divine Invasion

Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/29/2017, reviewed 12/30/2017
3 stars

This is the second book in Dick’s VALIS trilogy.  It’s a standalone novel, but having read VALIS, the first book, adds a lot of insight into the plot of this book.  It once again deals with his schizophrenic episode of Feb-March of 1974, but more specifically, the theological and philosophical questions and ramblings that grew out of that experience.  The plot is way more complex and more science fiction-ish than VALIS.  I’ve read from numerous sources that this book was written in about a month, and it shows.  There are what I consider pretty big plot holes and the rambling goes on and on.  Still, I found it an enjoyable read, but not as tightly put together as VALIS.

The plot is very complex, so here goes my attempt at a summary.  Herb Asher is in cryogenic suspension and is dreaming about his life before being put in suspension.  He lived on a distant planet in a dome.  Yah, the divine being of that planet tells him to help his neighbor, Rybys Rommey, who is sick with MS.  There they meet Elias, who is really the immortal soul of the prophet Elijah who reveals that Rybys is pregnant with Yah by immaculate conception.  Yah’s plan is to return to earth as Rybys’ unborn baby, since he is really Yahweh, and usurp the demon Belial who has been ruling earth since 70 C.E.  Things go awry and Rybys dies, but the unborn baby, Emmanuel, is saved, but with brain damage.  The fight to regain earth continues. 

Throughout the book, there is philosophizing and theologizing.  A lot comes from Emmanuel and his companion Zina, who attempts to help him remember who he is and what his mission is, as well as from Herb and Elias.  The theology comes from Christian, Hebrew, Islamic, and Zoroastrian traditions.  I really don’t know much about the last two, but Dick is kind enough to let you know that’s where the ideas are coming from.  Some of this gets really dense, but is fairly readable nonetheless. 

Dick also once again retells his account of his 1974 episode that was either a divine revelation or a schizophrenic break.  Even though this book could be standalone, this incident is more understandable thanks to having read VALIS first.  In fact, there are times the book seems to be a further attempt at the fictionalization of the incident.  In VALIS, the narrator is himself and the main character is his split personality.  In this book, Herb Asher is the main character who has the incident. 

There is one part that is a little creepy.  Apparently, Dick had an obsession with Linda Ronstadt.  He incorporated that into the book via a character named Linda Fox who becomes the most famous singer in the galaxy.  He works her into the plot most interestingly, although it did seem to be a little deus ex machina-ish at the end.  Unfortunately, I can’t really elaborate on that because it would be quite the spoiler. 

I liked the book, but felt that VALIS was the better book, even though this has a more science fiction setting.  The bouncing back and forth in time was a little tricky and there’s a switch to a parallel universe which really adds to the complexity.  And it just feels to me like it’s a forced rather than a natural unraveling of the story.  I give the book three stars out of five.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/24/2017, Reviewed 12/26/2017
4 stars

Wow.  What a crazy book.  This is the story of a paranoid schizophrenic incident in the author’s life, vaguely veiled as fiction.  I was engrossed by it, finding it equally intriguing and terrifying.  Basically, how do you tell the difference between reality and fantasy, especially when the fantasy has an element of truth in it?  It calls into question all the rest of the fantasy as well.

The story is basically about an episode the author has that causes a split personality.  At least, I don’t think the split personality existed before the episode.  Anyway, in this episode, the other personality, Horselover Fat (a Greek and Latin translation is Philip and Dick, respectively), receives a data transmission from God in the form of a pink laser beam.  In the transmission is the correct diagnosis of his son’s mysterious stomach ailment.  Confirmed by doctors, the question becomes, if this is correct, wouldn’t everything else in the data transmission be correct?  So Fat searches for the truth, including the birth of the new messiah.

Dick is the narrator of the story, retelling Fat’s experiences searching for the truth as if Fat was a separate person, even though right in the beginning, Dick tells you he’s one and the same person.  That’s one of the scariest aspects of the book: he is aware of his own schizophrenia while relaying Fat’s experiences.  And he reinforces the notion that if the diagnosis of his son was real, why aren’t the rest of his experiences real.  Even more coincidentally, one of Dick’s friends finds a film called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) that seems to mirror the schizophrenic incident, including the pink beam, and many of the seemingly paranoid imaginings that Fat has.  Are there others out there who have received the same messages?

Dick also studied and analyzed his experiences in what became known as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a nearly one thousand page collection of notes and reflections on the schizophrenic incident.  He includes the main theses of the exegesis in VALIS.  For me, including these statements simultaneously added a veracity to his experience and exemplified how detailed the incident was.  I found it truly frightening how complete the experience was.  His delusion didn’t come as a simple fleeting thought, but as a complex and detailed encounter with God.

Valis is the first of a loose trilogy of the last three works before he died.  They are a trilogy only in that they are thematically similar, questioning God, reality, and existence.  I’m about 50 pages into the second book and I’m glad I read VALIS first.  It adds insight into the plot of the second book.  However, I don’t think this is a good first book to read by Dick.  I would make sure to start with one of his other stories.  VALIS, as I mentioned before, is thinly disguised fiction.  It’s really the search for truth by a mind in crisis.  I give the book four stars out of five.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Treason of Isengard

JRR Tolkien
Completed 12/19/2017, Reviewed 12/21/2017
4 stars

This is the seventh book in the History of Middle Earth (HoME) series, and the second in the History of the Lord of the Rings.  It picks up where the last left off, in the mines of Moria.  It covers the development of the story up through the beginnings of Rohan.  I found the previous book, The Return of the Shadow, to be quite entertaining, watching the development of a story that actually led to publication.  I thought this second book would continue to be as entertaining, but I found it much drier than I had expected. 

I think the reason for the dryness is that the changes between drafts are much less dramatic.  In the previous volume, the story was still simply a hobbit adventure.  As it grew into being much more than that, the changes in the drafts were more profound and therefore interesting.  It was fun watching where, how quickly, and how often the names of the characters were changing.

Perhaps the biggest change in this volume is that Aragorn goes from being a wooden-shoe wearing hobbit and comes closer to the ranger we all know and love.  He still goes by Trotter at this point, instead of Strider.  He was going to marry Eowyn.  Arwin wasn’t even in the story yet.  And Boromir wasn’t going to die originally.  Rather he was going to go to Ondor (not yet known as Gondor) and be a rival to Aragorn.

Other points of interest include the beginnings of Treebeard.  He was originally going to be evil, but instead turns into the giant talking tree.  Galadriel also comes in here.  She starts out as Mrs. Keleborn and evolves into a dominant presence.  And Wormtongue barely shows up in these drafts.

Once again, I give a nod to Professor Cory Olsen at Signum University for his Tolkien Professor podcasts of his textual analysis of the book.  It really makes a difference in reading these HoME volumes.  He and his audience add a lot of levity to what could easily be a very boring study.

Even though this book is a little drier than its predecessor, I still give it four stars out of five.  And I still don’t recommend the book for the average reader.  This is for serious fans only.  I’m only reading two a year at this point, following along as Cory Olsen completes his analyses. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

That Hideous Strength

C.S. Lewis
Completed 11/15/2017, reviewed 12/18/2017
2 stars

This book is the third in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.  And it nearly put an end to my blogging career.  When I finished reading it, I didn’t even want to review it.  I found it that dull and uninteresting.  I put off the review for over a month.  I think I was somehow expecting something akin to Lord of the Rings when I began this trilogy, mostly because I knew Tolkien and Lewis were friends and critiqued each other’s works.  They couldn’t have been farther apart.  I was also expecting something great because in my Fantasy Lit class in college, we had the choice to read this book or Earthsea Trilogy.  I chose Earthsea, but I thought THS would be equally as good.  I was so disappointed.

The book is about Mark Studdock, a sociologist at an Oxford like school who is drawn to work at an organization called N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments.  Unbeknownst to Mark, its mission is to take over the planet.  Mark’s wife Jane has terrible visions of the near future.  She meets up with people who believe her visions are real and indictments of N.I.C.E.  These people are led by Elwin Ransom, the hero of the previous two books.  Their mission is to put an end to N.I.C.E.

The book is very British.  Manners play an important role as to why Mark can’t get out of N.I.C.E.  They are more sinister than that, but it just feels like he’s too polite to put his foot down when he has the chance.  It’s also very old-fashioned.  There’s one woman who works for the organization who is every negative Lesbian stereotype, right down to the cigar chomping.  It’s so bad, it’s offensive.  Even knowing that this book was written in the ‘40s, I couldn’t help but feel offended.

I read many reviews of this book looking for like-minded readers, but there weren’t many.  One thing many fans agree on is the prose.  I thought it was overbearing.  It was simply just a tool for converting his philosophical arguments into fiction.  It’s about natural law versus logical positivism.  I didn’t know this until after I began reading the reviews after finishing the book.  I think I might have gotten a little more if I knew that ahead of time.  It’s pretty clear though, that N.I.C.E. represents the more atheistic logical positivism and Jane and co. represent the more theological and spiritual natural law.  N.I.C.E is mean and destructive and pushes the good little people of England out of their country homes and into the terrible city.  Jane is wholesome and mystical and pastoral.    Ugh.  Make me barf.

I’m giving this book two stars out of five because it did have some moments.  I did rather like the appearance of Merlin.  On the whole, I’m not fond of Lewis from my experience with the Space Trilogy.  Maybe I’ll like Narnia, if I get around to reading it.  But I feel like I wasted several weeks reading books that propagate a moral argument thinly couched in near-science fiction, or I guess this was fantasy since Merlin showed up.  Life is more complex than any one philosophical statement and I believe anyone who thinks otherwise is terribly naïve.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017


CS Lewis
Completed 11/4/2017, Reviewed 11/4/2017
2 stars

Perelandra is the second book in CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy.  It began with Out of the Silent Planet, taking place on Mars.  This book takes place on Venus, or Perelandra.  Elwis Ransom, the protagonist from the first book, is asked to travel to Perelandra with little detail.  There he meets a solitary green woman.  Soon they are joined by Professor Weston, Ransom’s nemesis from the first book.  This time he seems to be the devil incarnate, tempting the green woman to disobey the one commandment given by Maleldil.  Ransom’s mission seems to be to stop the temptation and let Perelandra exist in a way that Earth never could. 

So does this all sound like an allegory for the Genesis story and the fall of Adam and Eve?  Well, then you guessed right.  Even in the story, Ransom is aware of the biblical nature of the events in which he’s embroiled.  The woman is the new Eve and Weston is the new Serpent.  But this time, Ransom is thrown in as someone who just may give this Eve a fighting chance to defeat the Serpent.

In some ways, I liked this book better than the first, in other ways, not.  I liked the first half of the book very much.  The interactions with the woman, aka the Lady and the Queen, are very entertaining.  It is also exciting to watch Ransom’s reaction when Weston appears and engages the Lady in the temptation.  Eventually, this begins to unravel when Weston and Ransom begin to engage in philosophical arguments.  I could see this coming and was hoping it would be good reading, but I found it to be pretty dry. 

CS Lewis comes from the school of “tell me, don’t show me”, rather than the opposite.  So the world building occurs in extremely long passages that feel like they run on forever.  It’s the equivalent of a science fiction film where the characters are standing mouths agape at unfolding special effects.  There is some awe to what’s transpiring, but it goes on so long, it gets boring. 

I was very surprised at the number of glowing reviews this book had out on the net.  I think it comes from people who like the Garden of Eden allegory.  While I liked the allegory too, the execution just got in the way for me.  The enormous descriptions of the planet were simply too prosy, even for me.  And the last twenty pages took me three hours to read: I kept falling asleep.  I give this book two stars out of five.  What I liked in the first half was outweighed by the tediousness of the second half.  My next book is the third in the trilogy.  Considering it was a book assigned to my fantasy lit class back in college, I’m hoping its better than the first two.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Roadside Picnic

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Completed 10/26/2017, reviewed 10/28/2017
3 stars

I was very confused by this book.  I got the gist of it, but I didn’t understand the point of the main story line.  So, the premise is that aliens visited the earth without us detecting them, and left detritus, akin to the garbage left after a picnic.  The main plot follows a young man, Red, who is a “stalker”, someone who goes into the Zone where the detritus is left, and collects these artifacts.  He then sells it on the black market, and even to the institute founded to study these artifacts.  It’s all very interesting, but just didn’t work for me as a novel.

I think the point of the story was that Red was an average guy, just trying to make a buck to support his family.  It was the only thing he knew how to do, so he did it, and he was good at it.  He braved all the dangers in the Zone, like gravitational anomalies, corrosive slime, and reproductive mutations, to bring back the treasures he could find there, risking fines and imprisonment for going into the Zone unauthorized. 

What I didn’t care for was Red’s nature.  He was an angry young man.  As a characterization, it was very good, but unlikeable.  He cursed and fussed and insulted everyone and everything.  He wasn’t a good-natured soul.  When a book’s main character is so unlikeable, it’s hard for me to like the book. 

The book is very short, barely 200 pages.  It’s divided into four chapters.  The premise isn’t revealed until the third chapter.  I think if I hadn’t read the summaries of the book, I would have been pretty lost.  I thought that the first two chapters would have been very difficult to understand without knowing the premise.  It’s also important to note that this book was written in Russian, so the prose is quite a bit different than an English language novel.  The translation I have is direct from the Russian.  An earlier translation was from the German and apparently not as accurate.  I believe this translation includes much of the language that was censored by the Communist Party.

One reviewer I read said that this book isn’t for the lazy reader, and it is not.  It requires concentration, attention to detail, patience, and a tolerance for ambiguity.  I think I’m a lot less tolerant than I used to be.  I still give this novel three stars because of the premise.  The aliens aren’t benevolent or aggressive.  They’re simply indifferent.  Their trash is our treasure, and it’s we who must come to terms with who we are as we react to them.   

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss
Completed 10/21/2017, reviewed 10/22/2017
5 stars

Wow, what a terrific book.  I really needed a killer book like this one right now.  It’s the first book in a long time that I can say produced a deep emotional response for me.  Everything came together for me: the writing style, the story, the characters.  It was simply one of my best experiences reading in a long time. 

I have to admit, the book started slowly.  It’s a story within a story and the framing was a bit dry.  It begins with a pub and some of the people in the pub.  I found this rather dry.  A friend of mine actually put the book down because of this beginning.  Fortunately, we find out that the owner of the pub has a hidden past.  A Chronicler enters and the owner, Kvothe, dictates his story to him.  This is where the book really picks up.

This story within a story begins with a boy who lives with his family in a traveling acting troupe.  Life is pretty good.  They meet a mage who joins the troupe and teaches Kvothe how to do magic, aka sympathy.  Kvothe has a real gift for sympathy, as he does for many things.  This all comes in handy when his life is shattered and he must forage on his own.  He becomes an orphan, living in the seamy side of the city, trying to bide his time until he can get accepted into the University, which he sees as his only hope for having a future.

The book is really long, over 700 pages (though not as long as the sequel, which is over a thousand pages long).  However, I found it all to be very necessary.  The world building and the character development are marvelous.  It’s all done at a really good pace and it’s done in the context of the action.  The author conforms to the show me, don’t tell me rule of world building.  Hence, there aren’t long passages of prose describing things.  Now, I like my prose, but in a book this long, I want there to be a lot of action and dialogue to keep me going.  And Rothfuss provides that.  I found only one part to drag.  It was towards the end and involved a lot of waiting. 

I even liked the way the book ended.  It’s the first of a trilogy.  The second book is out, but we are still waiting for the third.  Normally, I don’t like finding out a book doesn’t end.  I like the books of my trilogies to be self-contained.  However, I had ten years of knowing about the book and knowing it was the first of a series, so I was prepared for an episodic-type ending. 

So all the hype about this book is worth it to me.  It’s a long, but easy read about a likable but cocky teen learning about life the hard way.  It has just enough magic to be a fantasy.  The University setting has drawn comparisons to Harry Potter, but it’s not like the Potter series at all.  If anything, it’s reminiscent of the style of The Lies of Locke Lamora.  It’s warm and intimate.  In fact, I found myself nearly in tears a few times over the plight of Kvothe.  I felt very personally attached to the character even though he’s often full of himself.  I give this book five stars out of five because I got so involved with Kvothe, and also, because it’s the first book I read in a long time where I didn’t zone out in parts.  This book gripped me.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Ellen Kushner
Completed 9/23/2017, reviewed 9/24/2017
2 stars

I guess I’m not much of a fan of a melodrama of manners.  I found this book to be quite boring.  There’s not much action even though it’s about a swordsman in a land where nobles hire such people to duel for them.  The plot is more about the fine line between killing during a duel and out and out murder.  Richard St Viers is the swordsman.  He’s the best there is and is very difficult to hire.  A noble kidnaps St Viers’ lover to blackmail him into dueling for him.  St Viers does not put up with this and thus we have our melodrama. 

The characterization is very light.  I didn’t get much of a sense of most of the characters.  St Viers is quiet and aloof.  His lover Alec is sarcastic and cynical, a former scholar who now gambles too much and gets into all sorts of little scrapes.  There isn’t much that holds them together except the fact that they are together.  But I think that’s also because of the writing style.  I get the feeling that Kushner wanted to keep the relationship low key, but the side effect is that there isn’t much to explain why they remain together.  There isn’t even that much kissing.  So if you want a book with M-M relationship but none of the romance, this is the book for you.  I included this book in a list of LGBTQ themed books for Worlds Without End because it was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Gaylactic Spectrum awards.  I believe it was inducted because it was an early book where the gay theme was an integral part of the book and yet handled as a non-issue.  I just wish there was a little more romance between St Viers and Alec.

The noble characters all bled together for me.  There wasn’t that much to differentiate them.  Plus I’m one of these people who can’t handle getting a bunch of similar characters at the same time and then trying to keep them separate throughout the story.  There was a whole lot of treachery and intrigue between the nobles, but since they all ran together for me, I had a tough time keeping track of who wanted to kill whom.  I soon found it to be as convoluted as a space opera, of which I am generally not a fan.

The book is relatively short, although it took me a long time to get through it.  I simply didn’t find it all that interesting.  There is no fantasy in the book, other than it being sort of a lightly alternative history of a Renaissance-ish period.  I was disappointed in that.  I would have liked to have seen some fantasy element make its way into the novel.  I give this book two stars out of five.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Death’s End

Cixin Liu
Completed 8/27/2017 Reviewed 9/12/2017
4 star

Wow.  This book was so huge and sweeping it’s hard to get my thoughts together for a review.  It took me a while to get through it, considering I get most of my reading done on weekends.  It was excellent, although there was so much, I occasionally got lost.  I think there’s a lot of things and connections I missed.  The science fiction is hard, so there are sections that are tough reading.  It’s a space opera, but I found the politics intriguing rather than annoying.  It took a long time, but I’m glad I read it.

The story takes place after the Doomsday battle of the previous book.  There is something akin to a Cold War between humanity and the Trisolarans.  Luo Ji, also from the previous book, is the Swordbearer.   He has his finger on the button that will destroy the Trisolarans, but probably also destroy the Earth.  Enter Cheng Xin, an astrophysicist from our time who awakens from hibernation to help with a near speed of light propulsion spacecraft.  Even though that appears to fail, she becomes beloved by the world and is voted to take Luo Ji’s place when he gets too old.  The Trisolarans attack and Cheng Xin must decide what to do: allow the attack or destroy the Trisolarans and possibly the Earth.

But it is much more complex than that simple summary.  Cheng’s relationship with the people around her and the world are complicated by the fact that she goes in and out of hibernation.  So the world and its politics change over and over again each time she appears.  There has been some criticism in the review literature that she is a Mary Sue.  I think this is incorrect.  She, like the novel is so much more complex.  She does not always make the right decisions and does suffer through that. 

I don’t have much more to say about the book.  Saying more would be mega-spoiling.  My only criticism is that, like the previous novels, there’s an emotional component lacking.   I would have given this book five stars if I could have become more emotionally attached to the characters.  If I gave out half stars, I would give this a 4.5.  So I’m rounding down to a four out of five.  I think the whole series is worth the effort, if you can get past the hard science fiction.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Octavia Butler
Completed 9/9/2017, reviewed 9/10/2017
4 stars

I’m not a voracious reader of vampire novels.  In fact, I’ve only read a few.  I picked this one up because it was by Octavia Butler and it was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.  I’ve not read a Butler novel yet and this one seemed like an easy first read.  It was in fact a fairly easy book with strong messages about race, sexuality, and relationships.  It has some of the classic vampire tropes, but with different twists.  I found it enjoyable, and at times gripping. 

Shori is the main character.  She’s a 52-year-old vampire but looks like an 11-year-old girl.  She’s part African-American and part human.  She was an experiment to give the vampires the ability to exist in the daylight.  The problem is that she has amnesia from a terrible attack on her family that left her badly burned and with broken bones.  She doesn’t know who she is, and barely knows what she is.  However, she finds other parts of her family who help her understand herself.  As her awareness grows, she tries to find out who keeps attacking her family, while building a family of symbionts from who she can feed and maintain support.

Concerning the vampires, they’re not undead humans.  They are a different species from humans.  They call themselves Ina and don’t actually know what they’re origin is.  However, they rely on human blood for survival and do this by creating families of symbionts.  These symbionts could be called Renfields to help better understand their nature.  Though they are not depraved like Renfield, the symbionts do become addicted to their “masters”.  The Ina live sexually segregated because of dominance of the female, although their symbionts can be male or female.  The Ina mate to produce offspring and several generations of one sex live together in family units.

Shori is very interesting.  She looks like a child and is considered an Ina child.  Despite her youth, she is perhaps one of the most adult characters in the book.  She learns quickly what it means to have a symbiont.  It’s not just about sucking blood.  It’s about love and relationship as well as addiction and dominance.   And needless to say, she’s angry and desperate to find out who has been killing her family and is trying to kill her. 

Of course, there is a sexual component to the relationship between the Ina and its symbiont.  Since the symbiont can be a male or female human, the sexuality of the Ina would be seen as bisexual.  Hence the Lammy nomination.  But the obvious bisexuality is not as important to the story as the more latent concept of needing to have multiple symbionts to satisfy the hunger of an Ina. 

The concept of race is also important to the story, as Shori is dark skinned compared to the rest of the gauntly pale Ina.  However, the real racism doesn’t come out until towards the end of the book, which I don’t want to spoil.

I really enjoyed the story.  It’s different take on the vampire myth was interesting.  The attacks on Shori’s family are gripping.  The whole ending is quite intense.  I think this was as good an introduction to Butler’s writing as I could have found.  A lot of her other works are series, so this was a good stand-alone novel.  It makes me want to dive into her other works, though with my TBR pile for the rest of this year, I may have to hold off on her other books until next year.    

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Midnight Riot

aka Rivers of London
Ben Aaronovitch
Completed 9/3/2017, Reviewed 9/3/2017
3 stars

This book was a disappointment.  I was told to expect something like a British version of The Dresden Files.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought I would be getting some urban fantasy which was darkly humorous, or even of the goofy British comedy sort.  Instead, it was a run of the mill police procedural with some fantasy thrown in.  It wasn’t bad, it was simply “meh”.

Peter Grant is a probationary constable who is assigned to a special detail that deals with supernatural crimes, all because he admits to seeing and communicating with a ghost who was a witness to a brutal murder.  He takes to the assignment like a hand to a glove.  The case grows as there are more murders of similar kind.  Mix in some gods, goddesses, water nymphs and an ancient evil and you should have the potential for a very intriguing book.  Alas the parts did not make a terrific whole.

Grant is an okay character.  He takes to his magical assignment a little too eagerly for me.  There wasn’t a lot of time spent on unbelieving.  Maybe it’s because this is England where there are a lot more ghosties, or at least a lot more history for them.  But I would have liked to have seen more initial resistance to the idea that he’s a prime candidate for a supernatural assignment. 

As I say, the parts of this book are better than the whole.  One part worth mentioning is that the gods and goddesses of the River Thames and its tributaries are featured characters.  It is almost reminiscent of “American Gods”, except that the gods are not disappearing.  In fact they are entering a conflict that Grant has an opportunity to be negotiator for.  One of the goddesses, Beverly Brook, who was also described as a water nymph, actually helps him with the murder case.  It’s an interesting way to blend the different aspects of the story together.

Another part of the book that was intriguing was the ancient evil.  I won’t say more because it would be a spoiler.  But it is very creative and surprising.  It makes for an interesting ending. 

So you put all these interesting things together and it should make for something better than a three out of five stars.  There are interesting components and a decent ending, but somehow I did not find myself drawn into this universe.  I was close at times, but never pulled all the way in.  I think my expectations of it were too high.  And I was expecting something a bit more wry.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Out of the Silent Planet

C.S. Lewis
Completed 8/4/2017, reviewed 8/5/2017
2 stars

I never read the Narnia series.  I didn’t even know about it until college.  So needless to say, I haven’t read any Lewis before.  This being my introduction to him, I was pretty disappointed.  I think I expected something really profound.  Instead I thought it was pretty dull.  This book was written in 1938, and science fiction was still in its infancy.  Still I would have expected something a little more interesting, exciting, adventurous, something that had a little life in it.  Instead, most of the book is analogous to a “stare in wonder at the special effects” film.  And the special effects aren’t really that good. 

The plot of the book is that a philologist named Elwin Ransom is kidnapped by two other professors and taken aboard a spaceship that goes to another planet.  He escapes from the professors and finds himself alone, hungry, thirsty, and afraid.  Eventually he meets an indigenous sentient creature, a hrossa.  Being a philologist, i.e., a student of language in written historical sources, he finds a way to communicate with the alien, eventually learning its language.  He becomes part of the hrossa society.  He also meets the two other sentient species of the planet, the seroni and the pfifltriggi.  Eventually, he is urged to leave the group and find Oyarsa, the high spiritual entity of the planet.

The aliens are pretty cool, mostly because they are quite different from earthly animals.  They are not anthropomorphized animals, like so often used in early SF.  I cringingly am reminded of Tigerishka, the cat-like alien from “The Wanderer”.  And there are three sentient species, not just one.  I think this is an interesting construct because what we normally see in SF is that like earth, the planet of other SF books only has one, unless of course, it’s an uplift story. 

The flora of the planet is pretty interesting as well.  However, I found that the descriptive scenes were quite dull.  I was astounded by the lack of adjectives.  The prose had a lot to be desired.  The book being relatively short, I think I expected the prose to be concise and stronger than it was.  The book wants you to look at this planet in wonder.  Instead, the word choices just leave you rather bored. 

There is a theological dialogue at the end of the book between Weston, who is one of Ransom’s abductors, and Oyarsa.  I also found it dull.  I kept waiting for something really profound to happen to tie the book together, but nothing did.  It was like a little theology was thrown in in an attempt to elevate the book above pulp status.   

Needless to say, the book left me nonplused.  I’m still going to give the whole trilogy a try because the third book is “That Hideous Strength”, which was a book I opted not to read for my Fantasy Lit class in college (the other option was The Earthsea Trilogy, which I did read).  I give this book two stars out of five.  It was just too dull for me to appreciate.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Calculating God

Robert J. Sawyer
Completed 7/29/2017, reviewed 7/30/2017
4 stars

An alien appears outside the Royal Ontario Museum and asks, “Take me to a paleontologist.”  It turns out that this alien represents one of two alien races that had extinction events at the same time we had ours on earth.  This is just one of the reasons the two alien races believe that the universe was intelligently designed.  Combine this with the atheist paleontology curator at the museum who is dying of cancer and you come up with a very intriguing mix of morality, science, spirituality, and religion. 

Despite its heavy content, the book is a fairly easy mélange of philosophical discussions.  The discussions between the main character Thomas Jericho and the alien Hollus get fairly intense as well as some of Jericho’s own reflections.  But it is fairly easy to follow.  It is all made much more intense with Jericho’s plight as a cancer victim.  With less than a year to live and as one of the ambassadors to two alien races, he is thrown into an existential crisis.  The basic question is, if there is a god, why does it appear to be indifferent to us. 

Thrown into this mix is a subplot where two fundamentalist Christian terrorists blow up an abortion clinic, killing someone.  They flee to Toronto where they decide to destroy the evil fossils that Hollus is examining with Jericho so that Hollus can be saved.  Of course, just believing in God isn’t enough, you have to be “saved”.  This subplot is sort of clunkily thrown into the story, but it makes an interesting point:  there is a God, but we’ve got it all wrong.  And on top of that, our morality is all screwed up.  For example, why should we need abortion when we have contraception?  This is just one of the topics discussed in the book. 

Ultimately though, the book’s argument comes down to why God only seems to act on the cosmological scale.  It is the argument for intelligent design, but against fundamentalism.  The book is nicely executed in presenting this, but I never felt the proof that the aliens had for the existence of God was ever adquately explained. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  This was another book for my Theology in Genre Fiction reading challenge.  It was right up my alley in the conflict between religion and science.  It seems like people are pretty divided on this book, but I found it interesting and well executed.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Return of the Shadow

JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 7/23/2017, reviewed 7/25/2017
4 stars

This is the sixth volume of the History of Middle Earth (HOME) series and the first of the History of the Lord of the Rings sub-series.  It covers the first several drafts of the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.  I really enjoyed this book.  It was a nice break from the first five volumes which look at the stories that make up The Silmarillion.  I’m sure I liked this book because I’m more familiar with the LOTR than I am with the Silmarillion stories and I’m enjoying the break from them.  Different is good, especially when you’re getting twelve volumes of drafts and notes and research. 

Perhaps the most fun of this book is finding out Tolkien’s original names for the characters.  Frodo was Bingo.  I think everyone is glad this eventually got changed.  Between the song, “And Bingo was his name-o”, and the game, I think the name would have been too distracting.  In actuality, Bingo is named after a family of stuffed bears Tolkien’s children had.  Frodo was one of the companion hobbits.  In addition, Aragorn was a hobbit named Trotter, and Pippin was Marmaduke.  So lots of changes took place between the original drafts and the final addition.

The thing to remember when reading this and keeping in mind all these name changes is that LOTR was a sequel to The Hobbit.  With these early drafts, it’s clear that the Tolkien’s intention was to come up with another adventure for hobbits, not the thousand-page saga of apocalyptic proportions that it turned into.  There’s a lot of hobbit banter, that is, rather silly conversations between the hobbits that amused Tolkien and his son, but would have been remembered today as goofy, less risqué Monty Python-esque absurdities.  Think of Pippin’s silliness multiplied by four.  The story didn’t become serious until the first Black Rider appeared, something that surprised Tolkien himself as he wrote it. 

It’s not until Trotter (the future Aragorn) tells the tale of Beren and Luthien that Tolkien starts to bring in the whole Middle Earth mythology.  Suddenly, LOTR becomes part of the universe of the Silmarillion.  The nature of the Ring grows from just being a simple magic trick to something much more dangerous.  Things come together and soon the drafts transform into the text we are all more familiar with. 

This book doesn’t cover the whole Fellowship of the Ring.  It stops at the Mines of Moria.  Aragorn is still Trotter, and Gimli and Legolas are still not formed either.  It’s only 1939-1940 and Tolkien is still getting stuck.  I think it’s funny that Tolkien sends updates to his publisher that chapters are being completed when he still doesn’t know where the story is really going. 

I’m looking forward to the next three volumes.  As usual, I followed along with Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor and his Mythgard Academy textual analysis of the book.  This makes it much more readable.  I have to admit, some of Christopher Tolkien’s background is very dry, but Olsen’s analysis breathes life into the history of the stories.  I give the book four stars out of five and as usual give the warning that this is pretty much a book for fans like me, a dedicated geek.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Gargoyle

Andrew Davidson
Completed 7/15/2017, reviewed 7/16/2017
5 stars

I found this book while searching the “theology” category on Worlds Without End, for my Theology in Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  I was excited because the library had it, although I was a little suspect:  I found the book in the literature section instead of Fantasy/SF.  What I got was a highly readable, exciting book with an unlikely romance and only a little theological fantasy element.  Nonetheless, I was completely satisfied.

The premise is that the narrator, an actor/director in the porn industry is in a horrific, fiery car crash, leaving him with burns over much of his body.  While undergoing extensive repair therapy in the hospital, he meets Marianne, an escapee from the mental ward who insists they were lovers in a past life.  She’s a sculptress, making grotesques, that is, gargoyles that do not spout water.  Once she leaves the ward, she visits him repeatedly, bringing him stories of their past life as well as other stories of love and devotion.  When it’s time for him to leave the hospital, he moves in with her.  He finds meaning and love amidst the chaos of her artistic, manic, and possibly schizophrenic life. 

The past life is the part of the book that helps categorize it as theological.  Marianne was a German nun in the early 1300s.  She worked in the scriptorium, copying and translating books.  She has a natural gift with languages and works on a translation of the Bible in German and secretly works on a translation of Dante’s Inferno into German as well.  Her work and life is interrupted when a mercenary soldier is brought to the abbey with burns from a fiery arrow.  She is assigned to care for him.  This is the first time Marianne and the narrator meet in the past.  What makes this genre fiction is its ambiguous nature.  Is the past life real or fiction? 

Another aspect of the story that is theological genre fiction is the narrator’s own descent into hell while he detoxes from morphine.  Like the past life, it is unclear whether the trip through his own version on Dante’s Inferno is real or not.  Some things happen that are too uncanny to be simply hallucinations. 

The book is really well researched.  Besides the details of the fourteenth century, there is an amazing amount of detail in the plight of the narrator as a burn victim.  The author covers actual burning experience, the extremely long healing process and the mental and emotional effects on the victim as well.  Some of the writing is so vivid, I felt like I was experiencing it as it happened.  It is intense and downright frightening at times.

For a book that straddles the line of genre fiction, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I questioned whether or not it was fantasy right up to the end.  But the plot and execution of the book was so well done that I didn’t mind.  If anything, it was nice to get away from genre fiction for a little bit.  The only thing I have to say against the book is that the details of the burn victim’s experience may be too intense for some people.  I give the book five out of five stars.  The premise is great, the detail is great, the writing is great.  There are a few plot holes which don’t get wrapped up nicely, but I had such an ecstatic reaction to the book I couldn’t knock points off for this.  I highly recommend this book as long as you think you can handle the intense burn victim details.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit

Becky Chambers
Completed 7/3/2017, reviewed 7/8/2017
5 stars

I’ve read five out of the six nominees for the Hugo award for this year, and this is the first book I loved.  The story is about Lovelace, an AI who gets transferred out of her ship after a complete shutdown and reboot and into her own synthetic body.  Now she must learn to navigate existence as an individual.  With her is Pepper, an engineer with a disturbing past.  As Lovelace’s journey unfolds, we also delve into Pepper’s past, learning about her harsh childhood and her previous experiences with spaceship AI. 

This book is a standalone sequel to Chamber’s previous book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  While Long Way took us on an adventure with the crew of a spaceship, this book follows the spaceship’s AI after being excised from the ship.  The only other character from the previous book is Pepper, who we only met briefly.  Rather than being the continuing adventures of the ship and its crew, this is a side story but in the same universe. 

From the moment I began this book, I loved it.  I found the struggle of Lovey trying to get adjusted to her new body fascinating and heartbreaking.  In the last book, Lovey was in love with one of the crew, but in her reboot, she lost all memory of her relationship.  Now she starts over with a clean slate.  In addition to learning to be an individual, she also has to keep a low profile.  There are a lot of laws about AIs, and moving one into its own body is illegal.  Lovey takes a new name Sidra and tries to assimilate into society as a person, not just an AI.  Fortunately, she has Pepper to help guide her through life.

Pepper is a very interesting and engaging character.  Interspersed between Sidra’s chapters, we follow Pepper’s story.  She started life as a clone, working in a factory-like setting reclaiming discarded electronics.  She escapes and is saved by a shuttle’s AI, Owl.  Through this relationship, we see how she learned about AIs and spaceships.  It gives us an outsider’s perspective on AIs to juxtapose with Sidra’s first person experience.  In addition, the two story lines give us two characters who must learn to find meaning to their existence and a sense of identity. 

What I like about this book is that it is character studies in space.  It’s about relationships without being soapy, yet still has an ending that might just make you shed a tear.  At the same time, it takes place in space without being a space opera.  This was just the book that I needed after reading a couple of dry space operas that I didn’t enjoy.  It’s sweet without being saccharine.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ninefox Gambit

Yoon Ha Lee
Completed 6/25/2017, reviewed 7/1/2017
2 stars

This is another Hugo nominee.  For some reason, I decided to read all the Hugo nominees this year before the award was given out.  Out of all the nominees I’ve read so far, this is my second least favorite, after Too Like the Lightning.  It’s military s.f. with a very complex universe based on mathematics.  Despite having been a math major (over 30 years ago) I missed the whole point of the mathematics.  The book was that complex.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I still recognize that the book was pretty well designed.

Kel Cheris is a captain who is given a chance to redeem herself after misconduct on the battlefield.  She’s assigned to capture a fortress that’s been commandeered by heretics.  To accomplish this she brings back the consciousness of a general Jedao who is one of the greatest generals in history, but also a madman who caused the death of over a million people including his own soldiers.  Can Cheris take back the fortress without becoming Jedao’s next victim?

The world building in this book is pretty phenomenal.  It is based on mathematics, as I mentioned above, and everything has its place and structure, right down to the calendar.  If a heresy arises and something like a day is added to the week, it threatens to warp reality, even to the point of causing weapons to malfunction.  The heretics who took over the fortress have a calendrical heresy that must be put down.  Cheris and Jedao are the ones to do it. 

As much as the world building is impressive, it was also very frustrating for me.  The book plops you down in the middle of the universe, using the concepts and jargon without being introduced to it.  You have to divine it yourself.  I never did.  I never really grasped the whole calendrical heresy concept, leaving me lost in this relatively short book.  I would have occasional moments of clarity, only to be lost a few paragraphs later.  It made the reading of the book a wholly unpleasant experience.

At the same time, I recognize that the book is well formulated.  I won’t say well written, because I believe that if it was, I would have understood it better.  But throughout the book, I was impressed by the author’s word choices.  He used a lot of strong nouns and verbs, making for striking, but inevitably difficult prose.  By the end, I was simply looking at words, not fully grasping what I was reading. 

I give the book two stars out of five.  I think this book is for people who like complex space opera, and who don’t mind waiting a whole book to figure out most of what’s going on.  There’s a part of me that wanted to give this book three stars, acknowledging that it’s an intelligent book, but my own personal experience with it was simply too miserable.   

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fallen Angels

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn
Completed 6/11/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
3 stars

I hate writing reviews so long after reading a book.  Unless I’m actively thinking about a book during that time, I lose so many of my thoughts.  I finished this book a week ago, but I simply didn’t have the time to sit down and collect my thoughts.  Finally, I have the time.  I’ll try my best to convey why I think this book is a three star book.

The premise is pretty interesting.  In the future, environmentalists have gained power in the government and stopped global warming.  Unfortunately, that restarted the ice age that was being held back by the rising temperatures.  The environmentalists are also luddites, eschewing technology in most forms.  They’ve even outlawed science fiction because it condones the use of technology.  The inhabitants of a space station, Freedom, became an independent nation, refusing to return to a country that bans technology.  While they are more or less self-sufficient, they occasionally need nitrogen from the atmosphere to replenish their supply.  To get the essential gas, they send down a ship to scoop it up and return it to the station.

The story opens with one such mission to get nitrogen, but the spaceship is shot down and the two spacemen land on the North Dakota Glacier.  A rag-tag group of science fiction fans from a convention race to the rescue of these fallen angels.  But can they get them back to their space station before the government finds and arrests the angels?

The plot is pretty humorous and by admission of the authors, it is a satire on environmentalist extremism.  On that note, I think the book hasn’t held up well over time.  Environmentalists today are not the luddites that they may have been 30 years ago.  But the satire is still funny despite the aging. 

The best part of the book is the SF convention jokes.  They’re not even jokes, Niven et al. caught the nature of conventions.  From the description of the people to the chaos of the convention, it is a slice of what conventions are really like.  It should be noted that the convention is being done in secret, because of the government’s ban on SF. 

As I mentioned before, the book hasn’t aged well.  For example, fax machines are still in use and cell phones didn’t evolve.  However, it is surprisingly close to the current real world anti-science government that is creating the global warming backlash.  And I don’t think there is any science these days indicating that we are on the brink of a postponed ice age.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s fun, even though some of the parallels to our current government is a little depressing.  It’s dated and the science is dubious.  But most importantly, it’s about the fans of SF being the heroes of their own SF adventure.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Diabols

R.W. Mackelworth
Completed 6/17/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
1 star

This book was a gift.  The giver said here’s some bona fide pulp science fiction from the 60’s.  Enjoy.  Well.  No.  It’s pulp alright, but that’s the best thing that can be said about it.  Even though it was a short book, a novelette perhaps, it dragged on and on.  It was practically incomprehensible.  It was the worst book I’ve read in years.  And a warning, there's a spoiler in this review.

The only reason I can give a plot summary is because there was one on the book’s back cover.  Boraston is a teacher who gets transported into an eerie world where there are these creatures called Diabols.  They are made of light, like shimmering jewels, but their light kills.  Boraston seems to be immune to these death rays, having survived a fire unscathed in his own place and time.  He’s given a mission to transport a group of children across the barrens.  That evolves into destroying the Diabol nests.  In the meantime, he’s trying to save the children after they’ve been captured by the Corps. 

The writing is awful.  The author uses tons of adverbs.  His favorite was “blackly”, as in “The lines separated the sky blackly”.  Yeah, what does that even mean.  I realize adverbs were used more frequently in the past, but they are all over the place and make for very complicated sentences.  There’s almost no character development.  There were only a few characters, but I had a terrible time keeping them distinct.  And there are simply times where the transitions between sentences and paragraphs just don’t make sense.  It’s more like reading a dream.

Oops.  Spoiler.  Aw, what the hell.  The book is so rare, most people aren’t going to read it.  And I would steer anyone away from this book if you had any interest in reading it.  I give this book one star out of five.  Really, it’s half a star, but some of the sites I post to don’t allow for halves.  So if you see this book in a used book store, don’t buy it.  It’s not worth the effort.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer
Completed 6/4/2017 Reviewed 6/5/2017
1 star

Reading this book was one of the most unenjoyable experiences of my literary life.  It made me feel stupid.  It was so complex, I could really only follow one of the plotlines.  The other plotlines lost me by about the hundredth page.  I finished the book, hoping for some clarity.  Little came.  I think the only reason I understood the book as much as I did was because I read lots and lots of reviews for the book and I looked for the cues in the text to reinforce the understanding I got from those reviews.  For my review, I’ll do the best I can conveying the plot summaries.  

The setting is four hundred years in the future when there are no more nations.  People belong to one of seven global organizations which provide a sort of citizenship, but can live anywhere they want.  There are no gender references.  Everyone is referred to by they or them.  However the narrator refers to the characters as he or she depending on the behavioral characteristics of the person, not the physical gender.  For the most part, the gender references are easy to follow.

The main plot, I think, is that there is a thirteen year old “boy”, Bridger, who has the ability to imbue life in inanimate objects, for example a doll or plastic soldiers.  He is being kept and hidden by a powerful family unit, protecting him from the outside world where they fear people will use Bridger’s powers for evil before good.  The story of the boy is being told by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who has been sentenced to walk the earth doing good things for others.  He (I think Mycroft is a he) spends a lot of time with this family.  He  provides a lot of support and holds the trust of Bridger.

The narrator also conveys the other plot, which dominates the book, but I think is supposed to be secondary to Bridger’s story.  This plot is about the theft of a list of the most influential people on Earth.  This list bears great influence and the theft is a society-shattering event.  Considering this took up most of the book, this is what lost me.  This mystery is shrouded in political intrigue, which I found completely boring. 

The form of this book is that it is supposed to be written as a piece of eighteenth century literature, including the narrator speaking to the audience and the audience answering back.  This breaking of the fourth wall was sometimes interesting, but often annoying.  It made the following of the complicated intrigue that much more difficult.

I also didn’t like the prose.  Rather than helping the scene, I often found it distracting and occasionally pompous.  At times it reminded me of Michael Chabon, looking for new similes to use in his descriptions.  Once or twice, you stop and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to describe this” but then after a while, you just feel like Palmer is simply showing off.  For me, there’s a fine line between good and obnoxious prose.  It’s tough to describe where that line is, but this crossed it. 

There are a lot of characters in the book.  Palmer spends a lot of time explaining what they’re wearing.  It was tough to actually imagine the characters because you didn’t know if the character was male or female, so the type of clothing worn often seemed irrelevant.  In addition to the live characters, Palmer brings in several philosophers of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade.  I actually enjoyed some of the philosophy talk.  But even that got to be too much.  I often lost the point of bringing up the philosopher to begin with. 

I give this book one stars out of five.  In my opinion, it is just too complicated a story for me.  Too many characters, too much politics, too many plot lines, and a challenging form.  And I don’t like being made to feel stupid.  I know a lot of people love it or hate it, but apparently enough people loved it to get it a Hugo nomination.  I wouldn’t vote for it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley
Completed 5/27/2017, Reviewed 5/29/2017
5 stars

I first read “Brave New World” in high school.  I thought it was an amazing book.  The cloning, the drug use to cope with issues, and the free love all just blew my mind.  I read it for an English class with the assignment of critiquing a book of our choice.  It was freshman year, and I couldn’t get the book report format out of my head.  I think I got a B on the assignment, but I always remembered that I didn’t do the homework correctly.  Now, forty years later, I’m critiquing books once or twice a week.  And this time I’ve come around full circle to an old friend.

The book is about a future dystopia.  People are no longer born.  They are cloned and decanted.  There is a caste system that creates five different types of people depending on how much oxygen starvation and alcohol immersion the embryos received.  The caste system satisfies the need to have people of different levels performing all the different tasks of modern society, from the uber-privileged to near non-functional.  All people however are conditioned to love their class, to consume as much as possible, and to use a legal drug called soma to cope with unpleasant things.

The plot follows several people who are Alphas, the highest caste, and their misadventures in the dystopia.  Specifically, Bernard and Lenina take a trip to a Zuni reservation, a “savage” land outside their modern world, and find an upper caste woman who was left there 18 years ago, and her naturally born son.  They bring Linda and John back to society.  Everyone wants to meet John the Savage.  He becomes the toast of London. No one wants to meet his mother because she has become old, ugly, and because being a mother is a vile thing in this society.  Of course, a clash of cultures ensues.

This read through, I still find the book to be quite astonishing.  While we don’t clone people, yet, I believe we do a lot of social conditioning that keeps people in their places.  Sometimes I think we might as well have a caste system.  I’m not cricitizing people for what they do, but rather the society at large that treats people of different skill sets poorly, and even more apropos to today’s headlines, people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In other issues brought about in the book, one can liken the use of soma to the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana.  From a different and perhaps a more profound perspective, maybe today’s soma is anti-depressants, government-approved ways to cope with the miseries of life today. 

The one thing I think is different is the free love issue.  While there is promiscuity and always has been, I believe that unlike the book’s government approved attitude toward sex, our society has a veneer of puritan or Victorian mores.  That’s perhaps even worse because it creates a society of shame rather than a healthy attitude toward sex.  But of course, talking about sex is a mine field waiting to happen.  What I do believe about the book is that the laissez-faire attitude reduces the significance sex, which is already reduced by the use of cloning for reproduction.

I would like to have read Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s essay from the 50’s where he compares his predictions in the novel to where modern society had come.  That’s because, as you can see its effect on me, the book draws the reader into comparing it to their time.  I easily forgive the flaws of the book because I’m spending so much time comparing it to what I perceive is society now.

As a book, it holds up very well.  It is still very readable, for the most part.  I have to say I had a hard time with some of the exposition.  Most significantly, the first part of the book is a little dull.  It explains the use of cloning by sending a class of new doctors through the cloning center.  I found it hard to follow at times, not because of the science, but because of the way it was written.  I also found the big exposition at the end a little hard to read.  There it was the philosophy that was tough to get through.  Aside from these two areas, though, the book is an easy read. 

The character development is decent.  I dare say it was easy because so many of the characters are quite shallow and naïve.  Even Bernard, who is ridiculed for looking at life more deeply than everyone else, is still comparatively shallow.  Only John the Savage looks at life deeply, keeping him at odds with everyone else.  And John is naïve as well, but in a different way than that of the society around him.  That is what causes the conflict.

One thing that I find rather amusing at this point is the naming of the characters.  A lot of people are named after communists.  I think it is funny because I can see a society like this be the outcome of capitalism gone mad, the ultimate consumerism, a complete throw-away society, rather than communism.  In fact, it sort of reminds me of the Science Fiction film, “They Live”, where everything has subliminal messages in it to consume. 

I had a tough time deciding how many stars to give this book.  I settled on five because I still believe it is a classic of science fiction.  It forces the reader to reflect on what a utopia is and is not, and what direction society is moving.  As I mentioned earlier, the book makes me overlook its flaws to focus on its relevance.  I do think the book has a few flaws, but it is one of the best dystopian novels of our time.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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