Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Yesterday’s Kin

Nancy Kress
Completed 5/27/2019, Reviewed 5/27/2019
5 stars

I loved this novella.  It was quick to capture my attention with a plot about aliens coming to earth with messages of hope and doom and the Earth’s response to them.  It was paced well, and had good character development.  It had the right amounts of alien-ness and humanity.  It’s my first book by Nancy Kress who has won several awards, including a Nebula for Novella for this work. 

The story revolves around Marianne Jenner, a microbiologist who just had a paper published in Nature magazine.  This is a huge deal because she’s a scientist working at a relatively small college.  Suddenly, she is whisked to New York to meet with the aliens who landed in the harbor some two months prior, because of this paper.  She meets them with the Secretary-General of the UN and representatives from China and Russia.  They come in peace, but also have a message of doom.  The Earth is about to pass through a cloud of dangerous spores, spores that the aliens have come across before, and want to work with Earth’s greatest scientists to try to discover a vaccine or a cure for it.  Earth’s response is of course it will help.  At the same time, people’s responses are not that great:  the market swings wildly, death cults form, religions tout the end of the world, suicides increase, and conspiracy theories and anger abound.

Threaded throughout this narrative is a second story line, that of Marianne’s three grown children.  There’s the successful and pleasant ecologist Ryan, the abrasive immigrations officer Elizabeth, and the drug addicted loser Noah.  Interactions with the three not only play a role in Marianne’s life, but also have implications with the relations with the aliens.

I thought the way the stories of the three children weave through the main narrative was brilliantly done.  Marianne and Noah are the main characters, so of course, they are the best developed characters.  Elizabeth is rather one-note, and Ryan is just sort of nice.  But they all work to create a wonderfully dysfunctional family.  If this were a longer novel, I’d bet that Elizabeth and Ryan would have been more fleshed out as well. 

The aliens were very interesting.  They are very human-like, but going beyond that gives too much away in this short piece.  They are much more advanced than us – they have interstellar travel after all – but they are not advanced enough in the biological sciences to conquer this doomsday threat.  It has already wiped out two of their colonies that were in the path of this spore cloud.  There’s nothing that would indicate that they had any nefarious intentions with us, but of course, we as suspicious humans can’t handle that and people rebel.  I really liked the aliens, as well as Kress’ depictions of how we would react to them. 

The biology is very interesting as well.  There’s just enough to make it harder science fiction, but Kress explains it well enough that I didn’t need to be a biologist to follow it. 

I kind of saw the end coming, but I was surprised by the reason why.  I thought it was a wonderful twist.  I give the book five stars out of five because it had me breathless for most of it and I couldn’t wait to get to the end.  I was glad I read this on my day off and could finish it in a few sittings, with breaks for a walk and food. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Word for World is Forest

Ursula Le Guin
Completed 5/27/2019, Reviewed 5/27/2019
3 stars

Completed 12/23/2023, Reviewed 12/28/2023
4 stars (revised - see update at the bottom)

I must not have in been in the right head space to read this novella.  I didn’t find it as praiseworthy as many other reviewers have.  And it won the Hugo for best novella in the early seventies.  I liked the messages of ecological exploitation, colonialism, and militarism.  These messages are still as relevant today as they were back when it was first written.  However, I thought the execution was heavy handed and the morality was awfully black and white for Le Guin. 

The story is part of the Hainish Cycle, that is, the collection of novels and novellas that take place in the same universe where the Hainish civilization seeded the Earth and other planets, and the ansible is an instantaneous communication device across the galaxy.  This one takes place on the planet Athshe.  It’s a mostly water covered planet with several large islands forming an archipelago.  The islands are covered in forests and the home to several million Athsheans.  The Athsheans look like green Ewoks.  In fact, it is speculated that George Lucas stole his idea for them from this book.  Even one of their cities is called Endtor, as in Endor, the moon on which the Ewoks lived.  But enough of that. 

Athshe has been colonized by Terrans for wood harvesting and soybean farm development under the auspices of the military.  The Terrans have enslaved several thousand Athsheans for menial work, although they are called a volunteer labor force.  The Terrans considered them lazy, but in reality, the Athsheans were often in a dream state, a highly significant state of being for them.  Things are relatively copacetic until Captain Davidson rapes and kills one of the female Athsheans, the wife of Selver.  Now introduced to the previously unfamiliar concept of murder, Selver launches an attack on the colony and things escalate from there.

I thought the characters were all rather one dimensional.  There’s definitely good guys and bad guys.  And even though we spend a lot of time in their heads, they don’t come across as fully realized beings.  Selver comes closest to being multidimensional, as does Dr. Lyubov, who studies the Athsheans and worked with Selver to create a translation dictionary.  Captain Davidson is the worst.  He’s basically crazy, operating on an us versus them mentality and them aren’t humans so they can’t possibly be worth anything.  He’s the hardest to take because there is no moral ambiguity.  He’s simply bad and everything that’s wrong with the military-industrial complex. 

I was really surprised I didn’t care for this book more.  It’s well written.  As always, the prose is really wonderful.  It’s lush without being flowery.  The world building is great for such a short book.  And the topics it covers are right up my alley, especially the ecological aspect.  I just really didn’t care for the characters.  I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s average, not a bad read, not a great read.  But for a Le Guin tale, a bit of a disappointment.

This is an update to my review after giving it a reread for Book Club.  I liked it much more this time through.  I think I was in the right head space for something more serious.  Everything I liked about it last time still holds.  And I still think the bad guy was still one dimensional.  However, the impact of the themes of ecology, slavery, and abuse all jived with me.  And Davidson, the bad military captain, reminded me of Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, the commander who says, “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”  Yes, this is basically a morality play, but it is powerful.  It reminds us of all the things that were wrong with the Viet Nam war, and should be a lesson for the present and the future.  

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Kim Stanley Robinson
Completed 5/26/2019, Reviewed 5/26/2019
3 stars

I’m not really a big fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, but I do recognize that his books are really well written.  The prose is usually outstanding and the amount of research and thought that goes into his books is extraordinary.  2312 is no exception.  I was continuously amazed at what he was writing about and how he was writing it.  However, I thought this book was short on plot and character development.  It took a long time to get around to advancing the plot, and I didn’t think it was all that interesting.  The characters were sort of interesting, but not very likeable.  I thought the real point of this book was a love letter to the solar system and positive thoughts on its colonization if we put our minds to it. 

The very basic plot concerns Swan Er Hong, the granddaughter of Alex, the Lion of Mercury.  When Alex dies, Swan is more or less thrust into some of Alex’s roles as a thinker and coordinator of efforts to advance living in the solar system.  However, Alex hardly kept any notes and left little for Swan to research.  Still, Swan becomes embroiled in trying to figure out who is sabotaging cities and operations on the planets.  Wahrum, an ambassador from Saturn and Inspector Jean Genette work with Swan to get to the bottom of this mystery. 

Swan is the main character.  She’s 135 years old.  She’s a hermaphrodite, but uses the she/her pronouns.  Many people are hermaphrodites in the future, and many people live to be well over one hundred years old.  Despite her age, Swan acts very childish in many respects.  I found it rather annoying, particularly in the beginning of the book.  One would almost have guessed she was a teenager by how she reacts to situations.  I found it difficult to like her, let alone identify with her because of her immaturity.  Yet, she’s been a mother and a father, but certainly doesn’t act like she’s ever been a parent. 

Wahrum is also a hermaphrodite and has fathered and mothered children.  He’s a spritely 115-ish.  He’s much more mature than Swan, but the two eventually end up romantically entwined.  But like the plot, this is slow in developing through the novel.

The real relationship in the novel is the romance Robinson has for the solar system.  Most of the book describes the inhabited planets and moons and how they were terraformed and settled.  It’s really good reading.  I found it much more interesting than the plot or the characters.  Robinson also spends time talking about how the Earth has changed with the effects of climate change and the animosity the eleven billion people still living on earth feel toward the spacers, who they consider deserters of the bad situation. 

The book felt very long.  I think this was due to the fact that very few chapters for the first two thirds of the book feel like they advance the plot.  There are a lot of scenes with Swan and Wahrum, but they don’t always have to do with the sabotage story line or their relationship.  Yet, they are very readable.  The form of the book is very interesting, with strange stream of consciousness lists, extracts that seem to come from papers and research adding color to the world building, and “quantum walks” which are also stream of consciousness, but much stranger.  I think those had to do with the AI implanted in Swan’s head.  The form reminded me of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.  In fact, a lot of reviewers claim there are many references to older science fiction authors, particularly Heinlein, though I missed most of those. 

I was going to give this book four stars out of five when I got the end, but I spent most of time reading it thinking it was only a three-star book.  I recognized that I really liked reading the prose and was almost always fascinated by the astronomical and ecological passages.  However, I just couldn’t forgive it for not having such a basic plot and so little character development.  So I settled on three stars.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


Connie Willis
Completed 5/23/2019, Reviewed 5/23/2019
3 stars

I really like Connie Willis.  But I’m not so much of a fanboy to find this book’s pacing to be way too frenetic to maintain the excitement and mystery of the content.  The books of hers I’ve read tend to have a similar theme of people not communicating very well with each other, as well as a lack of boundaries.  This one was no exception.  At first, it was comical, but after a while, it became a little tiresome.  And that’s too bad because overall, I liked the book, but thought it could have better with some slower paced, more intimate moments, and few more people who would stop and listen to each other. 

In the near future, a new medical procedure promises to increase a couple’s empathy with each other.  Briddey, short for Bridget, has been asked to undergo this procedure with her boyfriend of six weeks, in preparation for his proposal to marry her.  She has the procedure, but instead of having any connection with her boyfriend, she ends up having a telepathic link to C.B., a strange genius who works in the subbasement of her offices.   The rest of the book is a madcap romp of trying to keep this power under wraps and to help Briddey understand and control her powers.  Complicating matters are her boundary-less family who constantly call her at work and at home with their problems as well as their criticism of Briddey, her new boyfriend, and this medical procedure.

The main characters of Briddey and C.B. are likeable.  C.B. is a disheveled, untrusted “Hunchback of Notre Dame” of the company, but quickly shows his true colors as a caring, helpful soul whose main intentions are to get Briddey to control her powers.  Briddey is pretty well developed as well, as a sort of hapless victim to her boundary-overstepping family.  The family is so obnoxious, they get to be hard to take after a while, particularly Mary Clare, whose helicopter parenting of her daughter Maeve seems downright pathological.  Maeve is pretty interesting, but at nine, she eventually gets obnoxious herself.  Most of all, Briddey’s boyfriend Trent doesn’t seem to listen to her very well either.  The only person who seems to have any interest in Briddey’s welfare is C.B., and for that I liked him.

The book runs at a furious pace.  That’s good for the first hundred pages or so, but it doesn’t let up.  I would have liked it to have settled down a bit.  When it seems to, it still runs at high speed.  The pacing makes for a fast read.  As a matter of fact, I read this 500 page book in three days while I was home sick, even though I was taking a lot of naps and occasionally couldn’t focus on the story.  When I was lucid, I zoomed through it.  However, this fast pacing makes the book feel like it lacks the heart of her other books, like The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.  And it lacks the worldbuilding of those novels.  Granted, those are time travel novels, so there’s a lot of world to build, whereas this book takes place in the very near future.  The extent of the worldbuilding is references to pop culture, like Jay Z and Beyonce, and Brangelina.  Some of these references are already out of date in the three years since this book’s release.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were supposed to have the medical procedure done to enhance their relationship, but are already broken up in real life. 

Despite my issues with the book, I did enjoy it.  It has Willis’ signature style.  The basic premise is interesting and timely, in this world of too much communication.  I wanted to give the book four stars because it is an easily accessible read, but settled on three out of five because upon reflection, I was annoyed at the minor characters and the pacing a little too often.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Tau Zero

Poul Anderson
Completed 5/19/2019, Reviewed 5/19/2019
3 stars

This book was very hard science fiction.  I understood a lot of it, but I studied some physics and astronomy in college and enjoyed relativity.  I think Anderson did a really good job of explaining the physics in lay terms, but it still might be tough for some people.  And that’s the bright spot of this book, the physics.  The human interaction, on the other hand, is not Anderson’s forte, at least not in this book.  It’s soapy and melodramatic.  The basic plot is good, but the subplots with the characters are lacking.  It made it a bit of a slog to get through because I never found myself caring for any of the characters.

The Lenora Christine is a spaceship carrying fifty people, half men half women, to a possible planet thirty-some-odd light years away for colonization.  If it turns out to be not habitable, they’ll turn around and come back.  The ship has a fusion engine and will approach the speed of light, so much more time will pass on Earth than does on the ship.  Then things go to hell in a handbasket when they pass through a nebula which knocks out their ability to decelerate.  They can’t repair the spaceship without going outside the ship, and doing so is immensely dangerous at the speeds they are travelling.  So, they must continue to accelerate until they reach deep intergalactic space where there is almost no matter with which they can accidently interact.  But because of time dilation, the universe around them is aging.  Besides the technical aspect, the question becomes whether the passengers aboard can cope with the thousands of years passing by them on the outside while only a few pass within.

My biggest problem with the book is the people.  They are very cardboard.  The characters do not feel very real and are not memorable.  Most of the problems that happen to them are interpersonal, which Anderson did not write very well.  There’s a little bit about people not coping well with the trials that afflict them on their journey, but I think these scenes could have been fleshed out more.  And the relationships just reminded me of a soap opera, melodrama without substance. 

I also had to do some willing suspension of disbelief regarding the science.  As they approach the speed of light, they go faster and faster, of course.  But by definition, the speed of light is the limit they can attain if they have no mass.  They can’t go faster.  That means they should be taking more than thirty years to get to their initial destination, not five, which is described in the book.  And later, they continue to accelerate and zip in and out of galaxies.  This is not possible unless they attain some sort of faster than light travel, like the use of wormholes for space dilation.  I had to put all this cognitive dissonance aside and allow for the book’s conceit that approaching the speed of light gets them around superfast. 

But besides this, the plot was well-conceived, that is, being stuck in space accelerating toward the speed of light and the problems that unfold.  The problems kept coming and the people had to cope and figure out ways around it.  I give the book three stars out of five for the plot, but fail to give it anymore because, well, it’s a soap opera aboard a lost ship.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Fold

Peter Clines
Completed 5/11/2019, Reviewed 5/13/2019
4 stars

I read this book after a very dense, intense novel.  Fortunately, it was mostly a fun, exciting mystery about a device that lets you travel several hundred feet in a few steps by folding dimensions, sort of like a wormhole.  However, something is wrong with the device and only one man has the ability to put the pieces together to solve the mystery.  It’s an easy read with lots of dialogue and a little science.  It’s not a profound novel, but it hit me just right at just the right time for me to give it a good review.

The man with the abilities is Mike Erikson.  He’s got an eidetic memory.  He can recall everything he’s ever seen.  He can pull that data and arrange it complex combinations to put pieces of puzzles together.  That’s why his best friend keeps on calling on him to join his projects.  So far, he’s never been able to get Mike to give up his job as a high school teacher to work for him.  This time however, his project is the aforementioned device, called the Albuquerque Door.  He wants Mike to review the project on site and make sure that everything is copacetic, and that all the money being poured into it is not being wasted.  Mike is intrigued and agrees to work on this project on his summer vacation.  It soon becomes evident that something is amiss and nobody on the project is helping Mike get to the bottom of things.

Mike is a very interesting character.  He likens his memory gift to a colony of ants, thousands of individual creatures all working in concert together.  At first the references to the ants are confusing, but it begins to make sense that that’s how he analyzes and compiles all the information in his head.  As a result of being different, he struggled with his gift most of his life, which is why he likes being a teacher rather than being a star researcher on government projects.  He also has trouble with interpersonal relationships, keeping people at a distance. 

The rest of the cast of characters begin a little one note, with everyone hostile towards Mike, thinking he’s there to shut them down.  They soon become more colorful, but why they do adds to the mystery surrounding the Albuquerque Door, as nothing seems to prompt their changes in attitude.  So at first, the characters all bled into each other, but as their personalities diverged, they became more distinct and a lot more fun. 

The mysteries of the Door encompass the first two-thirds of the book.  This is the best part.  It’s fun and exciting and pretty well written.  The last third was a little bizarre for me.  I can’t really explain why because that would be a major spoiler.  Suffice it to say, I found myself not quite as engrossed as I previously had been.  The end, though not a cliffhanger, leaves it open for numerous sequels. 

This is no profound piece of literature.  What it is is an enjoyable, readable romp through the concept of teleportation.  Actually, it’s not quite teleportation, but that’s defined in the book, and I’ll let you read that.  I give the book four stars out of five because I highly enjoyed the book, and wasn’t deterred by the last part.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Devourers

Indra Das
Completed 5/4/2019, Reviewed 5/4/2019
4 stars

This was an unusual novel, billed as a werewolf novel, but it isn’t exactly.  It’s a shape-shifter story which takes place in India now and several hundred years in the past.  It tackles issues of rape, gender-roles, identity, and love.  I was not consumed by this story within a story as I thought I’d be, but it does have glorious prose and its take on the shape-shifter trope feels fresh.  It won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror and was nominated for the Tiptree Award.  Although I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the book, I feel that it is something special and worth a read.

The overarching plot Is about Alok, an Indian college professor who meets a stranger at a circus-like event.  The stranger confesses that he is not human, but something akin to a werewolf.  Alok is intrigued.  The stranger asks him to transcribe scrolls that contain the story of one such man-eating shape-shifter and the woman who he loves.  As Alok types out this story, he becomes obsessed with it and the stranger. 

The inner story is about Fenrir, a taken name based on the giant wolf of Norse Mythology.  He is in a pack of three shape-shifters.  Fenrir, despite having a sexual relationship with his pack mates, falls in love with a human woman.  Rather than having a normal relationship with her, he rapes her.  Love and sex with humans are forbidden by the shape-shifters’ tribes, and the pack breaks up rather violently.  The story then becomes the tale of the journey of the woman with one of the former pack mates, as she seeks her perpetrator and comes to grip with bearing a hybrid child.

As I mentioned at the start, the prose is wonderful.  It makes for an easy read and creates multidimensional characters.  I really liked Alok, who is basically a hapless, lonely, bisexual person struggling to find intimacy among his few friends.  His growing obsession with the stranger is a desperate cry for attention, despite the possibility of danger, assuming the stranger’s tale is real.  The stranger of course is interesting because of the mystery he weaves.  But the real star of the book is the raped woman who despite not trusting anyone since her mother died, and having just experienced this violence against her, comes to trust Fenrir’s pack mate.  Her anger is very real, and at times difficult to read because it is written so well.  The bulk of the story is about her and her journey to find Fenrir. 

There is a lot of violence in the book, and it has a very gritty feel to it.  The devouring of humans by the shape-shifters is very graphic.  There is also a lot of urinating to mark territory.  In general, there’s just a lot of bodily fluids in this book.  It’s hard to stomach at times, as the woman vomits a lot, but it all adds to the very vivid nature of her experience, as well as that of the shape-shifters.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I was going to give it three because I wasn’t that engaged with the book, but looking at it objectively, this is some fine writing and a fairly unique story.  I had to bump it up a star because of this.  The book has some action, but basically, it’s a study of issues and transgressions.  I recommend it to anyone who likes their books a little more philosophical and didactic.