Archive for the 'Science Fiction / Fantasy' Category

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Is it science fiction blasphemy to say something was like Heinlein, but better?

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi.

A whole bunch of people who write better than I do say very nice things about the book on that page, and I’m not going to try to paraphrase them or outdo them. I will say that this book had me laughing, intrigued, and completely hooked by page 15 or so. John Perry’s voice is the perfect balance of age and wisdom and experience and the essential snarkiness of the skeptical, intelligent American. The slow reveal of the reality of the CDF and the politics and science of the universe kept me reading, page after page, ever-curious and enlightened by increments. The arc of the plot — one man finds his second life and learns about the CDF and humanity’s place in the universe — was perfectly balanced with the moral, ethical, and humanistic questions raised by that plot arc. What’s it mean to be human? What, if not your body or your mind, makes you human? Is it your actions? Your culture? Your heritage (there are no minorities in the CDF, after all)? Your society? Your politics? Your love for other beings? The relationships you build with others?

I loved it. I’m still thinking about the ideas it presented, about the dazzlingly plausible speculation about how humanity will interact with the universe, about the startlingly obvious portrayal of how humanity will respond to that interaction, about the scientific ideas it set forward, and about the dialogue and writing that moved all of those things forward so brilliantly.

Plus, the action was fantastic, without overwhelming the rest of the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a war. More than that, though, it’s a book about the people who fight wars, and it’s the portrayal of those people that really makes it shine.

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Y: The Last Man
Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan

Why I liked this book: Y: The Last Man, by Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan, falls neatly into my long history of loving the story that tells us what happens after the world ends. I’m a big fan of The Stand, Alas Babylon, and A Canticle for Liebowitz, also, all of which ask that same question — if we fall prey to disease by the billions, blow up the world, or, again, blow up the world, what happens next? What becomes of the survivors? Y asks those same questions, but with a different perspective. What happens when all the men die? Specifically, it looks at what happens to the government, the military, and all the industries where women are highly underrepresented, and then it asks the best question of all: Why is Yorick still alive? And what happens to the one last man mysteriously walking the earth?

Lots of stuff, is what.

This ongoing story blends the best of the serial comic with serious issues — gender issues, political issues, moral issues — to produce a gripping adventure tale, complex and endearing heroes, and thought-provoking questions and situations.

If you still think comics are just for kids, I dare you to give this one a try. (If you’re in Potsdam, Tim’s Comic and Game can hook you up, as can Amazon and other internet vendors. But support your local comic shop!)

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Title: Slant
Author: Greg Bear
Genre: Fiction (scifi)

Why I liked this book: As a librarian, I’m hyperaware of our continued shift to an information society, an information economy. Speculative fiction that’s set in a future that sees the same shifts I’m aware of is very appealing to me, particularly when it was published in 1998, and seems so very aware of the world we live in now, in 2006 — that prescience is impressive. But Bear’s story is far more than an exploration of just an information society gone awry.

Bear envisions a world in which humanity is almost uniformly ‘therapied’, using nanotechnology and psychological counseling to cure imbalances in brain chemistry, producing a society of happier, healthier, more productive citizens. Those citizens are bombarded with information, from their evolved equivalent of the internet and cable broadcasting — an omnipresent information stream, with billboards customized to each individual’s ‘profile’, ubiquitous handheld communication, computing and media devices, virtual reality entertainment, and endless options for engaging with the information flow around them (if only you can pay!). But Bear’s near-future society isn’t a utopian one; some fundamentalist groups oppose the use of nanotechnology and the unlimited content of the information streams available to citizens, while others rebel against the way that everyone is brought to a forced ‘normal’ state with therapy, and prejudices run amok as people experiment with the options available to them. In essence, the human condition remains the same — discontent, dissatisfaction, and a quest for fulfillment lie underneat the surface of his shiny vision of the future.

Bear is a science fiction master (he’s won both the Nebula and Hugo awards), and has crafted a novel with so many plot threads woven intricately together that it’s very hard to get involved in the book — there’s no sense for the reader of where, exactly, this story is going to go. But when those plots all untangle into one unexpected climax, the effect is staggering. (It’s the kind of writing that prompts me, at the end, to go back and study the book from the beginning, saying to myself, “Oh, he totally set that up in chapter one!”) It’s a book of ideas, taking our present-day trends and extrapolating them forward in an unexpected but entirely convincing way.

I’m still thinking about it, two weeks later — and for me, that’s the sign of a good read!

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Title:Oryx and Crake
Author:Margaret Atwood

Why I liked this book: This futuristic (and dystopian, it almost goes without saying) novel has been quite a big success. Anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale will know that Atwood can imagine her way into interesting futures; and that the ideas underpinning these worlds are usually both disturbing and fascinating.

The tale told here straddles an apocalypse brought on by rampant population growth and technology, especially pharmacology, gone out of control. While the characters are pretty flat, the ideas being played with and the dynamics of the plot make it continuously interesting. Wouldn’t you want the BlyssPluss pill if it were available? It confers protection from sexually transmitted diseases, unlimited libido and sexual stamina, high energy levels, and prolonged youth. There are, it’s true, a few side effects.

But who will control this new world of biotechnological wonders? What would it be like to survive the destruction of our civilization? Could humans, with a few design changes, take a path that would avoid the fate of this world?

If you like speculative fiction, this one’s for you.

Thursday, January 5th, 2006

Title: The Darkness That Comes Before
Author: R. Scott Bakker
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book:

This book took a minute (or, more than a few minutes) to really hook me — it’s not an easy read, and many fantasy novels are really easy reads, so that startled me. It turns out that it starts slow because there’s a huge amount of history and culture and politics and religion to introduce to the reader, and Bakker does a great job of showing and not telling. Which takes time. But with that much worldbuilding, inverted character names, a complicated structure of gods and No-gods, a brand new variety of sorcery, several huge empires and a dozen distinct cultures to master, it took this reader a long time to feel comfortable in the world.

But you know what? It was worth it. This book resembles what you’d get if JRR Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, China Mieville, and Jacqueline Carey sat down and wrote a fantasy novel. Epic scale, a broad cast of damaged characters, a healthy dose of weird, and a plot replete with politics, intrigue, emotion, and religion. I’m hooked.

I read a lot of fantasy, and a lot of it is interesting and fun, but not very good. This is interesting and fun, and it is good, from the worldbuilding, to the characters, to the character development, to the intertwining of plots, to the very strong sense that these are real people moving through a real world. Plus, I’m totally uncertain who the ‘good’ guys are, and I think our antihero might actually be a hero, and that our adversaries might be heroes in their own rights, too.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, give Bakker’s trilogy a look. This, first, volume is out in paperback, the second is still in hardcover, and the third is set to be released soon.

Monday, October 17th, 2005

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: This is the perfect book for a cool autumn night, with the wind blowing ourside your windows and leaves skittering across the sidewalk.

A review on describes The Historian as a “languorous gothic travelogue”, and I can’t argue with that description. This is the most suspenseful and engaging book I’ve ever read in which essentially nothing happens, and it also made me want to visit eastern Europe like nothing else ever has. Kostova’s descriptions are simultaneously subtle and lush, and everyone I’ve talked to about this book agrees that it makes you want to see the sights she describes firsthand — Istanbul, Budapest, the mountains of France, Vlad the Impaler’s Romania.

The book is a series of first-person narratives, starting with a teenage daughter telling her story, linking into her father telling her his story, and then leading to the telling of the father’s academic mentor’s story… and since the father and his mentor are both historians by trade, their narratives lead to the discovery of more ancient narratives. All of those stories, told by academically trained but emotionally involved narrators, slowly build the (startlingly believable) premise that Vlad Ţepeş found a way to cheat death, and did indeed become the Dracula of our legends. The intertwined narratives also tell several very moving human stories, stories of families and friends, stories of relationships begun and relationships torn apart — which build just as much suspense and emotional engagement as the vampire storyline.

Kostova also intentionally builds her narratives around convincing (sometimes authoritative and sometimes fictional) historical research, visiting a multitude of fabulous and fascinating archives and libraries all over Europe (hey, I am a librarian!), all of which add to the sense that this history is real, these stories are real, and that we should all be very careful what we research…

This book may not scare you, and it probably won’t make you believe in vampires, but it left me jumping at small noises and feeling like someone was watching me — perfect for Halloween.

Monday, August 29th, 2005

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Genre: Children’s/YA

Why I liked this book: Tithe is the kind of YA novel that puts the “Adult” in “Young Adult”. Holly Black’s grip on the realities of teenage life – particularly the dark, gritty, growing-up-too-fast side of teenage life – is superb, and her descriptions are sharp and evocative. Equally important, I believed in her characters, fantastic as they are.

Most faerie tales are about the good faeries, about sparkles and joy and light and happy… about the Seelie Court of faeries. Black’s heroine Kaye discovers that she’s linked to the Unseelie Court. There is no joy. There is no light. The sparkles all have a twisted, menacing force behind them. The Court is a scary, scary place — but it can still make a hero out of an unlikely young girl.

This isn’t the sort of book that appeals to everyone — adult or teen — but it’s a tightly written adventure with memorable characters — and some amazingly wicked visions of faeries dancing through the plot.

This book is available at Crumb Library… coming very soon!

Friday, August 19th, 2005

Title: Planet of Exile
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: Ursula Le Guin most clearly embodies, for me, the idea that science fiction is a way to look at our current world, our beliefs, our ethics… and see what happens if you put them into a new environment. She has a skill at weaving character and story together — fascinating characters, and gripping stories — while not losing sight of the bigger ideas of the novel. The New York Times Book Review said it better than I can:

“Le Guin writes in quiet, straightforward sentences about people who feel they are being torn apart by massive forces in society–technological, political, economic–and who fight courageously to remain whole.”

The most recent Le Guin book I’ve read — I’m slowly working my way through all her books — is Planet of Exile. It’s one of her earliest novels, and if she was that good that early in her career… well, I’m anticipating reading more.

Monday, July 25th, 2005

Title:Harry Potter and the half-blood prince
Author:J K Rowling

#6 in the series – we’re almost done! Six hundred-fifty pages as read-aloud is a bit of a chore. I supposed I’m lucky it’s not that bad. Certainly not great literature, but it does have it’s moments, and the plot is cleverly complex. When Harry finally graduates from Hogwarts (if he does – there is some doubt!) what will all the JK Rowling devotees turn to? If the seed of a reader has taken root – who can carp? Maybe next will come Tolstoy, or Mann, or even Henry James!!