I expected the book to come as billed: "An intricately intertwined set of narratives hiding a shocking family mystery." Instead it was 1. Snippets of...moreI expected the book to come as billed: "An intricately intertwined set of narratives hiding a shocking family mystery." Instead it was 1. Snippets of an interesting science fiction story, told by unknown lovers, padded with 2. An excruciating story of two young, insipid, girls and their coming of age. The beginning of the lives of the girls was interesting to develop setting and character, and their adulthood (the end of the time described in this part) was predictable, but at least relevant. However, for the middle 300 pages, this becomes an interminably long day-by-day description of everything that they ate and wore. In addition, because these girls are so completely insipid we are treated to the details of how they hate absolutely everything and aspire to nothing, which is a little less than endearing. However, this is still not the most insufferable of the three parts, because the remainder of the book is 3. The nominal framing device. Less a story on its own and more to remind us how "clever" Atwood is in her prose style, this framing device seems to consist of determining how many ways the narrator can find to remind us that she's old and her heart bothers her. She goes to eat donuts. She reads the graffiti on bathroom stalls. She has chest pain, a lot. She tries to do her laundry. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Even without much in the way of plot (that which there is having been telegraphed 300 pages in advance), this book could have had literary merit if the characters had been at all interesting. But instead Laura and Iris are the most frustrating characters known to my literary world. For example, Iris complains bitterly about getting married away to a rich man, for which one may have sympathy, had she not spent the proceeding 100 pages explaining how she wanted to be rich and she expected to marry money to get there. Laura is flighty and "spiritual," and disobedient, in such ways as to be maximally irritating but accomplish nothing. However, if Laura ever directly told anyone anything there wouldn't really be a book, so there is that.
The other most frustrating part of this book is the "unknown lovers" framing device for the Blind Assassin story. It is obvious to the reader who the unknown lovers are; however the characterization in this segment is so drastically different from that of the others (in that the female protagonist of this section, unlike every other female character in this book, has opinions, expresses them and acts on her will.) It is unclear whether this is done in a futile attempt to obscure the identity of the unknown lovers, or because the story is being told by an unreliable narrator (which makes little sense, given the final identity.)
Addendum, 12/11 - having finished Oryx & Crake it feels nothing short of criminal that Margaret Atwood spent time writing this book when she is clearly capable of so much more. (less)
Wow. Oryx and Crake is a masterpiece of literature. I almost didn't read it because of my disappointment in The Blind Assassin, which I mention not to...moreWow. Oryx and Crake is a masterpiece of literature. I almost didn't read it because of my disappointment in The Blind Assassin, which I mention not to further disparage but rather because I'm the third person I've spoken to who feels similarly, and I would hate for anyone else to miss out.
Oryx and Crake is phenomenal. Yes, it hits on the major tropes of our time: commercialization, corporate ownership (of ideas, culture, people), isolation via computers and instant gratification and, of course, genetic engineering. And in all of those areas, Atwood draws apt, occasionally chill-worthy parallels. Even without agreeing with all of her conclusions, the skill is evident. But nearly all of those points have been made by roughly a trillion other dystopic fantasy novels and reading it yet another time, even if superlatively done, would not be worth it in and of itself.
Rather, where Atwood shines is the novel's treatment of existential questions: how easy it is to exterminate a species, a language, a culture, an idea. How irrevocable extinguishing something can be. And yet, underneath that, the converse: how honed the survival mechanism is. How a single organism still carrying a philosophy can seed it universally until it is impossible to extricate. These ideas are so fascinating that I spent probably hours with Oryx and Crake propped on my lap thinking about the implications.
The other existential theme is what the nature of humanity really is and what can be sanitized to make a better world versus what are the qualities that are necessary to call a being actually human. Atwood's handling of these themes is unapproached by any other modern novel, making Oryx and Crake a must-read for everyone.(less)
I don't really understand how Neal Stephenson is a bestselling New York Times author. Is there really that large of an audience for a 900+ page book t...moreI don't really understand how Neal Stephenson is a bestselling New York Times author. Is there really that large of an audience for a 900+ page book that sandwiches a narrative of Greek philosophy, quantum mechanics and astronomy with a time line at the beginning and an ending of 50 pages of glossary and mathematical problems?
That's not to say I didn't like Anathem, although, having said that, in large part I liked it because I had the time to memorize entries from the glossary (you grow out of needing it around page 400 or so), to look up quantum mechanics, google philosophers and work out a proof of the Pythagorean theorem. This is a book to be read on vacation.
I loved Anathem. It's one of the few books that really begins on a small scale and then gradually scales up to epic scale problems, while entertaining the reader along the way. Similarly, it is one of the few books in which the author tries to posit scientific and philosophic hypotheses while still remaining an entertaining work of fiction and without becoming preachy or (unlike many of Stephenson's other works) an unreadable information dump. His science is entertaining and while it is bettered by outside knowledge, he explains his points in such detail that outside knowledge is not necessary. Stephenson is respectful of quantum mechanics, in contrast to myriad "science" fiction novels that throw around Everett and quantum mechanics as excuses for all manner of convenient magic.
That's not to say that I had no complaints: whole sections of the book drag, particularly because they seem to be rehashing what the reader already has either been told explicitly or intuited and many plans made by characters seem to ultimately go nowhere. More grievous is the closing arc, which has an unfinished feel. After 850 pages of having every action described to the minute detail, the last few pages feel like they're in outline form. Time jumps, plots are dropped, key points are ultimately only intimated and never explained outright. All of these are fine narrative devices but are in stark contrast to the rest of the book and therefore feel unfinished.(less)
I'm usually very deliberate about my book rankings. I think about what I like and what I didn't like and assign and deduct points to come up with a fi...moreI'm usually very deliberate about my book rankings. I think about what I like and what I didn't like and assign and deduct points to come up with a final opinion. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is NOT that kind of book. T.S. Spivet gets five stars for the room-feeling of the book. Yes, it deserves them for introducing concepts such as room-feelings, for its unique approach, and for its gutsy nature. Yes, it deserves high recognition for depicting the portrait of the scientist as a young man - the coming of age of one young scientist from a obsessive prodigy who values science above all else into a nuanced adult who seeks to be a part of the world as well as depict it. It is amazing to me that I have never even heard of another book focusing on the development of a scientific mindset within a character in a way that is nuanced and treats science respectfully, rather than a foil for robotic rationalism or an idol for intelligence. Larsen uses every single trope of a conventional coming of age story, which adds to the power.
12 is such a perfect age for a child protagonist. Larsen depicts the emergent adulthood of a 12 year old almost perfectly (there are a few stumbles). Like a true tween, T.S. at times acts like an adult and at others acts like a toddler, with very few in between moments. It's rare to capture the true granular nature of coming of age, where childhood falls away chunk-by-chunk and memes of adult life settle in, rather than as a linear progression.
But despite all of that, the best thing about T.S. Spivet is simply a ton of fun. We're having a bad week at work. Everyone is cranky. Usually, the worse of a mood I'm in, the less I read (and the more I use pure escapism that doesn't require reflection) But even after long, cranky calls, all I wanted to do was read about T.S. I laughed out loud at points on his reflection on adulthood, science and cross-country travel. I flipped through to find my favorite illustrations. I smiled when he name-checked Paul Ekman (a Duchenne smile, of course.) Pure enjoyment.
There are a lot of criticisms that one could level at T.S. Spivet: it is a pretentious novel, built on a schtick. In fact, built on a ton of schticks. It's like someone got a deal on schticks: there's the child protagonist, who is a prodigy, and may also have an autistic spectrum disorder, the maps/illustrations, secret societies, a book-within-a-book, just to name in a few. Luckily, I am a sucker for pretentious novels built on schticks, so it is going to go right next to Special Topics in Calamity Physics on my shelf.
More bitingly, there are several narrative threads in T.S. Spivet that never satisfyingly come together on the level of the plot: the Emma thread, the Mother as a Writer and Mother but Not as a Scientist thread, the Wormhole thread and to be honest, the Layton is Dead thread. They are all tied up from a thematic level, but I would have liked more literal closure.(less)
Richard Powers' writing prowess is a delight. So while I have complaints that strike to the heart of the novel, they seemed trivial in the face of the...moreRichard Powers' writing prowess is a delight. So while I have complaints that strike to the heart of the novel, they seemed trivial in the face of the most powerful prose I've read in a long time. Generosity is one of the tightest novels I've ever read. Every sentence is honed to perfection - imagery, flow, scanning, and purpose in the overall story. His commentary is both timely on the matters of genetic engineering, the growing expanse of the internet and culture globalization and timeless on the matters of what it truly means to be happy and what we should be searching for in life, any way. The research is also impeccable, down to the percentage of the human genome that is patented as of his writing.
The flaws? The first is the title, and overall the theme of "generosity" - I know that Powers is using it for the wordplay potential, in that Genetics and Generosity share a Latin root; however, Congeniality might be a better bang for the same pun-based buck. Nowhere does he show that Thassa is generous, despite her label of "Miss Generosity." In fact, the primary flaw is that he does not really show Thassa, the congenitally happy woman, to be much of anything at all. So while other characters run about fawning over her, the reader is still struggling to "get it."
In a lesser writers hands, these flaws would be fatal. In Powers' case it's merely an annoyance, in an otherwise superb novel.(less)
I was really excited about Blackout: a new Connie Willis novel set in the Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog world, focused on Willis' favorite p...moreI was really excited about Blackout: a new Connie Willis novel set in the Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog world, focused on Willis' favorite period in history: the Blitz.
And Blackout is good. It focuses on the stories of three main historians as they travel to different parts of England during 1940 and encounter time travel hitches. Along the way, there are typical Willis flares -- cute, yet annoying children; lovable & brave young women with lots of pluck; comedies of errors and confused details; despair redeemed only by having friends to cling to. Her characters are lovable, her comedy is gold, her prose is affecting. It is pure Willis.
And yet. It feels sacrilegious, and maybe I'll go back and revise the three stars once All Clear comes out, but I just didn't love Blackout. The pacing felt a little slow, like I was reading the same day in the life over and over. I resent having to buy two books to get one story and Blackout ended just as it was getting to the point in the plot that I wanted to read. The whole thing feels like a historical set up for a great scifi story, rather than the story itself. (less)
Just another Connie Willis book doing what Connie Willis does best: romantic comedy for the rest of us with some mixed in science fiction, comedy of e...moreJust another Connie Willis book doing what Connie Willis does best: romantic comedy for the rest of us with some mixed in science fiction, comedy of errors and authority figures that don't listen.(less)
Rocannon's World is interesting. LeGuin maintains a fairy tale quality of sorts while setting the story in a high science-fiction world, complete with...moreRocannon's World is interesting. LeGuin maintains a fairy tale quality of sorts while setting the story in a high science-fiction world, complete with FTL ships and ansibles. The combination is almost dream-like and provocative, but unfortunately falls into LeGuin's most common flaw -- a slowness that makes the book hard to want to pick up and difficult to concentrate once you have.(less)
What an uneven collection. It's not even just the wide variation of quality (although there IS a wide variation in quality), but it seems like the sto...moreWhat an uneven collection. It's not even just the wide variation of quality (although there IS a wide variation in quality), but it seems like the stories chosen have only a glancing association with the ostensible theme. This is particularly notable given the hubris expressed in the introduction that this will be the ur-collection of modern faery tales (Klima goes as far as to imply that it is the ONLY collection of this sort, which is laughable, given that not only are almost all of these stories pulled from other, similar, anthologies, but the vast majority of them have been published in one of the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling anthologies.) Its also poorly organized, with adjacent stories doing nothing to build or communicate with each other and some stories on the same faery tale are close to each other, while others aren't. The theme is also poorly defined, with some stories being modern interpretations of faery tales, some being retellings without a change in setting, and yet others seem to come from a universe where the words "faery tale" have no meaning.
All of that notwithstanding, there are some excellent stories: -Wil McCarthy's He Died That Day, in Thirty Years is one of those rare pieces: a sci-fi short story that actually is satisfying. It stood on it's own and yet was clearly related to Alice in Wonderland. It was rich and provocative and wholly original. Perhaps particularly remarkable is how every little detail of the story was rich with information.
-Michelle West's The Rose Garden was something that I wanted to hate. I hate Beauty and the Best as the exemplar of the Bad Boy genre -- that horribly insidious, misogynist trope by which women should cleave to cruel, angry men and by their love covert them into some sort of paragon. But The Rose Garden, while not being a full inversion, was raw and honest about its intentions. And, I'm a sucker for platonic romance, so...
-Robert J. Howe's Pinocchio's Diary is terrifying, brutal, and an absolutely fascinating retelling. I loved his exploration of "realness" and bullying and othering. This is faery tale telling at it's best -- using a tale familiar to all of us, to tell a moral familiar to all of us, but to also tell a story that feels real and visceral and to twist it into something new that has a new moral.
There are also some completely AWFUL stories -Howard Waldrop's The Sawing Boys is completely impenetrable. You see it's a modern twist on the faery tale in which a bunch of Yiddish gangsters are finally thwarted by a Klezmer band playing construction equipment. No? No hint of recognition? Maybe it will help if they only speak in roaring twenties slang, which is converted into Pig Latin such that you both have to decrypt every utterance and then further deduce it's meaning based on the glossary at the end of the story? No? Yeah, me neither. Also, apparently Yiddish is the new black in faery tales, as it also seems to infiltrate Leslie What's The Emperor's New (and Improved) Clothes for no clear reason, too.
-Gregory Maguire's The Seven Stage a Comeback, which unfortunately starts this collection, may work as a play, but as written media is completely god-awful. It's impossible to keep the dwarfs straight, as they have no names; only numbers, therefore there is no character development evident.
The rest is mostly pretty cliched and unmemorable. (I do love Neil Gaiman's The Troll Bridge, but I've already read it in a different collection, so it doesn't count)(less)
Wow. I usually hate hard sci-fi. But this was captivating -- Butler taps into ideas about what makes us humans, at a core, biological level. As a pare...moreWow. I usually hate hard sci-fi. But this was captivating -- Butler taps into ideas about what makes us humans, at a core, biological level. As a parent, the concept of what we desire for our offspring - the desire for sameness in our offspring competing with a desire for the greatness beyond what one could desire for oneself was very compelling. (less)
This is a book that I would have absolutely loved as a high school student. I wished I were a high school student while I was reading it. Digesting it...moreThis is a book that I would have absolutely loved as a high school student. I wished I were a high school student while I was reading it. Digesting it in huge chunks at a time. Hanging out in the study hall area before school, debating and quoting and dissecting with four or five other nerds who were reading it simultaneously. (That's how I've read most of the science fiction that I've really loved in my life. It's the best way to do it.)
The problem with classic science fiction is that science fiction is a genre that eats it own and constantly regenerates ideas. So was Neal Stephenson's Anathem a complete homage? Yes, in many important ways. And certainly, it was influenced by Canticle, which proceeded it by 30+ years. But I read Anathem first, so Canticle comes off looking the derivative one. I feel bad, because I know it's historically inaccurate, but I'm just kind of over post-apocalyptic-humanity-is-doomed-to-repeat-its-own-mistakes-and-perpetually-destroy-itself.
There were a few tropes I loved - most notably the dilemma of is a species technologically generated by humans to replicate humans less than human? However, that was really only considered for a sentence or two. (less)
Much of this is pedestrian YA, but the part that really struck me was the reality TV aspect. Collins excels in this area - exploring what it is like f...moreMuch of this is pedestrian YA, but the part that really struck me was the reality TV aspect. Collins excels in this area - exploring what it is like for her characters to be in life or death situations, but have to focus on how the TV audience will react and how that affects the situation. The concept is novel and really has room for exploring private vs. public self. I'm definitely going to finish off the series(less)
Much of what I have to say about Redshirts has been already said, and better, by other reviewers: the core of the novel is a fun, scifi-ish, meta-ish...moreMuch of what I have to say about Redshirts has been already said, and better, by other reviewers: the core of the novel is a fun, scifi-ish, meta-ish romp that is of decent quality, whereas the novel really comes into its own in the three codas, which are each beautiful and existential meditations. I have only two complaints: Scalzi tags his conversations way too much ("she said") and it particularly bugs when listening to the audiobook. Wheaton, who is an exceptional narrator -- full of verve and hitting exactly the right cynical tone -- uses exactly the same cadence for every tag and it almost sounds rhythmic in this way that is very distracting. The second complaint is that the conceit of the books was well known a priori, and yet the majority of the book is spent leading the reader to it and describing it -- I would have rather spent more time with the characters -- and more fun, satirical romps through SciFiVerse.(less)