Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse, a science-fiction series penned by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty...moreLeviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse, a science-fiction series penned by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Evenly split between the points-of-view of Joe Miller (an aging, has-been police detective on the asteroid Ceres) and Jim Holden (a handsome and “righteous” former navy officer now serving as XO of an ice-mining vessel), Leviathan Wakes is a riveting book, the sort of adrenaline-charged, politically savvy, intensely human tale that I love to stumble across.
While constraining themselves by the realities of actual physics (there are no force fields or FTL drives in Leviathan Wakes: a few hundred years from now, it takes months to get from place to place in our very claustrophobic, very dangerous solar system), the authors play with the sort of horror tropes that made 80s sci-fi films like Alien and The Thing so viscerally terrifying. The genre-bending goes further, however: though set against a lightly sketched socio-political backdrop (Mars and Earth are nominally allied; the Asteroid Belt is a sort of quasi-independent group of territories; the those living near the outer planets despise those further “down the well), the book is largely a futuristic noir, a hard-boiled “cherchez-la-femme” mystery unraveling itself at the dawn of humanity’s steps beyond the strictures of its sun.
As the surviving crew of the Canterbury struggle to discover who destroyed their ship and why, the broken Miller (feeling freshly emerged from the work of Hammett or Ellroy) sticks to his investigation into the disappearance of the daughter of a wealthy corporate magnate despite every obstacle thrown in his path. Their searches draw them together, and insanity (literally) ensues. Holden and Miller (whose off-kilter bromance is one of the finest written out there) alternatively complement and grate against each other, and the act that pulls their entwined stories apart sets the stage for some really powerful, quality explorations of ethics.
The twist at the final chapters makes Miller’s ultimately the most satisfying strand of the book; since there are two more volumes planned for The Expanse, I am looking forward to seeing how the outlines of system politics are more fully developed and how Holden and his crew continue to grapple with the implications of the frightening discoveries in Leviathan Wakes.
Incredible dialogue. Gritty, real. This is how people actually talk to each other.
Very realistic technology and living spaces. The careful attention paid to how our biology will respond to living in space is also great.
Well thought-out political divisions among humans. Though they were not always as culturally diverse as I might like, their political differences were clear and expertly established.
Exciting battle scenes. These ships kill each other. There are no magical forcefields to protect them from enormous, Teflon-covered balls of metal flung at great velocities.
Two engaging protagonists.
Viscerally disconcerting antagonistic forces.
Nitpicks (and really, these aren't significant enough to detract from one's enjoyment of the book):
Two-dimensional supporting characters. They're cool, but they're not rounded.
Relatively static protagonists (Holden remains righteous; Miller is broken and flawed to the end).
Weak multiculturalism: there is a tendency to marry a first name of one ethnicity with the last name of another as a inefficient shorthand for actual cultural evolution. Everyone feels pretty much American (with a few exceptions). Part of this might be due to the limitations of two white male points of view making up the entire book. We don't get to peer into other groups through a member's eyes (and I'm sorry, though Miller is a Belter, he feels pretty much like a present-day American).
Silly Belter argot: I’m sorry, but there is also a precise science of linguistics that describes how languages in close proximity develop into pidgins and then creoles. Sticking entire phrases in several languages in a sentence is not even remotely realistic as an actual hybrid language. One syntactic system will tend to dominate, and one phonological system will warp the words from the different tongues into nearly unrecognizable form.
Speaking of languages, “Carne Por la Machina” isn’t good Spanish, Portuguese, or any other Romance language I’m familiar with. If it were Spanish, then it would be Carne para la Máquina (meat for the machine). Even if the writers corrected the spelling of *machina, you would have Carne Por la Máquina, which literally means “meat through the machine” or “meat by the machine.” Perhaps they can correct this in future editions. Unless it’s from some hybrid Romance language. That would be cool. But it should be explained, even in a throwaway comment.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of engaging, adventurous science fiction with a realistic, political flair. You won’t be disappointed.
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the August 22, 2013 edition of The Monitor
In 1969, author Ursula K. Le Guin published a watershed science...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the August 22, 2013 edition of The Monitor
In 1969, author Ursula K. Le Guin published a watershed science fiction novel: The Left Hand of Darkness, a philosophical and anthropological tour-de-force that many consider the true start of feminist speculative fiction.
Literary critic Harold Bloom included the book as part of his personal Western canon and said of the book, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.”
Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen (a coalition of human worlds), is sent to the harshly cold planet Winter (or Gethen) to reveal the existence of other planets and to invite the Gethenians to join them. In addition to the nearly invariably frigid weather, on Winter humans are neutral gender for all but two days a month, at which time (depending on the nature of their romantic relationships) they become male or female for purposes of mating.
This lack of sexual dimorphism/dichotomy has implications for culture and international politics on the planet. There is no war, though countries engage in skirmishes and sophisticated spying and manipulation. Technological advancement is slow, with useful machines enduring centuries with little modification.
Genly, after two years in the nation of Karhide, finds his mission endangered by shifting politics, so he heads to a neighboring country, Orgoreyn. Despite initial hints of success, Genly finds himself arrested, tortured and drugged, only to be saved by the very person he thought had first betrayed him: Karhide’s exiled prime minister, Estraven.
Together they must make a deadly trek a thousand miles over glaciers to avoid enemies on every side and bring Winter into the Ekumen. Along the way, the two learn to build a bridge across their mistrust and difference, finding a powerful friendship in their shared sense of duty to humanity as a whole:
Le Guin fully realizes the potential of science fiction to craft a wholly different world — carefully shaping culture, religion, politics and even biology — in order to explore the human condition as only genre fiction affords one the liberty to do. At the heart of this novel, to my mind, is the question of what it means to be human. Le Guin delves deep into the implications of sexuality in a way that few writers have been able.
Le Guin, the daughter of a renowned anthropologist, knits the narrative out of several documents: Genly’s report to the Ekumen, Estraven’s journal and interpolated legends and myths, all crafted with a deft, insightful and literate touch that makes this book a definite classic.(less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 27, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Most Dangerous Game
In November of this year, a film version of...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 27, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Most Dangerous Game
In November of this year, a film version of one of the most popular and powerful science fiction novels of the last half-century will be released: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the 1985 Nebula-award-winner that has spawned two highly successful series.
In the near future, as Earth takes its first tentative steps into deep space, it encounters an insect-like alien race commonly referred to as “the buggers.” Attempts at communication with the beings fail, and humanity finds itself drawn into two wars, the second narrowly won by the efforts of the legendary Mazer Rackham.
United by the threat of a third invasion, the nations of Earth realize that they will need a very special sort of leader to ensure another victory. They establish the Battle School, an orbital training center to which extraordinary gifted children are taken at a young age to be groomed as soldiers. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, teachers soon realize, has exactly the mix of compassion and ruthlessness needed to understand his enemy fully and nonetheless eradicate it.
Isolating the young boy while pushing him to become a master warrior, strategist and leader, the adults in Ender’s life risk his psychological health in order to mold him into the savior the world needs. At the very edge of his limits, however, Ender will discover the meaning of friendship and the heavy price of victory.
A perfect novel for gifted young adults, especially bright outcasts who struggle to find a place for their uniqueness in a world dictated by adults, Ender’s Game is a riveting character study, an action-packed space opera, and a moving exploration of the relationship between innocence and guilt. When I was a secondary English teacher, I used to book to great effect in my Pre-AP classes, and its popularity at middle and high schools across the country continues to grow.
Orson Scott Card, whose socially conservative views (while not prevalent in this novel) have become an integral part of his books in the last decade or so, has been the target of a good deal of criticism lately because of his opposition to gay marriage. However, it would be a mistake to read or boycott Ender’s Game based solely on your opinion of his stance on this issue: the book stands on its own as a classic tale of empathy and responsibility for one’s actions. If the final chapter doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what will.
Top Shelf Review, originally published in the July 12, 2012, edition of The Monitor
Sci-Fi Sequel Delivers the Goods
Caliban’s War is the second book in...moreTop Shelf Review, originally published in the July 12, 2012, edition of The Monitor
Sci-Fi Sequel Delivers the Goods
Caliban’s War is the second book in The Expanse, a science-fiction series penned by James S.A. Corey (nom-de-plume of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The first volume, Leviathan Wakes, was a critical success, nominated for the Hugo award. Rather than succumb to the tendency of sequels either to repeat too slavishly the formula of the original or to deviate too much from what worked, Caliban’s War takes an approach that is both fresh and familiar, broadening the scope of the series and delving more deeply into characters readers love.
About a year after the events of Leviathan Wakes, James Holden and his team are working for the Outer Planets Alliance as enforcers, dealing with pirates and the like. The asteroid Eros, which crashed into Venus with its millions of protomolecule-infected inhabitants, has triggered massive changes to that world: the ancient alien life form is remaking it for a purpose the governments of Earth, Mars and the OPA cannot fathom (though politically each group is positioning itself to dominate the solar system once the crisis has abated). And on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the belt and outer planets, someone has begun kidnapping children with immune deficiency disorders.
Then a protomolecule-monster attacks UN and Martian troops stationed on Ganymede, sending the two sides spinning into a conflict that threatens the stability both of that crucial moon and of human space in general. The sole survivor of this attack, Martian soldier Bobbie Draper, finds herself whisked off to Earth and drawn into an uneasy alliance with Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN official trying desperately to avert a war by careful political wrangling. Holden’s team is sent to Ganymede by the OPA to look into the crisis that is tearing the moon apart; there they fall in with a botanist whose daughter has been abducted, and together they discover the connection between the missing children and the new wave of protomolecule-infected humans. The two narrative threads gradually come together, and the crew of the Rocinante work feverishly to avoid being blasted to bits while helping Avasarala and Bobbie to discover who or what is responsible for the monsters before another world falls to the ancient weapon.
A sort of James Cameron Aliens to the first book’s Ridley Scott Alien, Caliban’s War lets us peer more deeply inside politics in Corey’s lived-in, credible universe. We also become better acquainted with Alex, Amos and Naomi, who evolve into well-rounded individuals in this volume. The pace is non-stop, the storyline compelling, and the twist at the very end is a doozy. Highly recommended for fans of sci-fi. (less)
TOP SHELF REVIEW (originally printed in The Monitor on April 26, 2012):
Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You…
Forget what you think you know about S...moreTOP SHELF REVIEW (originally printed in The Monitor on April 26, 2012):
Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You…
Forget what you think you know about Stephen King. The man hasn’t written a horror novel in decades, and 11/22/63 is not a return to the halcyon days of Salem’s Lot, Carrie and The Shining. Nor should you be put off by the idea of time-travel: King spends very little time on the mechanics of that hoary plot device. Instead, 11/22/63 is a compelling emotional journey, exploring a deep affection for this country—flawed and damaged, but beautiful and full of promise—and the ties that bind people heart to heart.
Jake Epping is a high school English teacher in Maine who moonlights helping adults prepare for the GED. One day Jake’s friend Al, owner of a greasy spoon, appears to have aged 4 years overnight. Al says he doesn’t have much longer to live and he needs the teacher to take over the mission that has aged him so dramatically. For, inexplicably, the restaurant storeroom is a portal to a specific day in 1958, and Al wants his younger friend to spend five years living in the past in order to undo one of the country’s greatest tragedies: the assassination of JFK. After a trial run to stop an event that ruined one of his adult student’s lives, Jake agrees, despite the dangerous lesson he is learning: the past does not want to be changed. It pushes back.
Jake begins a new life as George Amberson, using his knowledge of the future to win money betting on sports events. As he drifts into Texas to begin his surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald, he begins teaching in a small town near Dallas, and the true heart of this novel is revealed. Jake meets a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, a divorcee whose past mirrors the poignantly broken-but-endearing South. He finds himself falling in love, not only with Sadie, but also with the townsfolk, with the dreams of a nation struggling to rise above its mistakes. Tellingly, this thread is more engaging than Jake’s trips to Dallas and Fort Worth, where he spends hours in inner city squalor determining whether Oswald is working alone before killing the gunman.
King has a reputation for fumbling his endings. However, the repercussions of Jake’s choices and the sacrifices required to set the world right are powerfully conceived and written. You will find yourself heartbroken yet uplifted as you turn the last page. (less)
TOP SHELF Review (Original published in The Monitor on May 3, 2012 in a slightly different form.
Brutal Dystopia for Teens
Paolo Bacigalupi has carved...moreTOP SHELF Review (Original published in The Monitor on May 3, 2012 in a slightly different form.
Brutal Dystopia for Teens
Paolo Bacigalupi has carved a niche in the dystopian sub-genre, writing about a future in which ecological disasters have caused economic and social collapse, paring existence down to mere survival. His novel The Windup Girl, his first YA book Ship Breaker, and much of his collection Pump Six and Other Stories share a common world, devastated by global warming and genetic tampering. His newest Young Adult title, The Drowned Cities, is set in that same compelling fictional universe.
The novel centers around two orphans living in the jungles near what is left of Washington, DC, now called the Drowned Cities. Mahlia is a cast-off daughter of one of the Chinese peacekeepers, who tried to end the civil war that has ripped the former US apart, but finally abandoned it. She was captured by the Army of God, whose teen soldiers cut her right hand off, and rescued by Mouse, a boy whose parents were also victims of the war. The two have been living in a small refugee community, assisting a humanitarian doctor. Their precarious existence is forever altered, however, when the soldiers of the United Patriot Front arrive, chasing down Tool, a genetically enhanced human into whom vicious animal traits have been woven to make the perfect fighting machine.
Though Tool slaughters the underage soldiers, he is badly wounded. Mahlia and Mouse are compelled to help him, bringing the wrath of the UPF upon their community. Soon the children must flee through the jungle with Tool, who agrees to help them escape the Drowned Cities in exchange for vital medicines. Unfortunately, Mouse gets lost, falling into the hands of the UPF. Mahlia knows she has little time to free her friend: the decimated armies recruit boys to fight their battles, and it won’t take long to transform Mouse into the same sort of hollow killing machine that robbed Mahlia of her hand. Tool urges Mahlia to abandon Mouse, but she refuses. Seeing the two children are part of a single pack, Tool agrees to accompany her into the very heart of the Drowned Cities to attempt a daring rescue.
As might be expected, The Drowned Cities contains the DNA of many previous YA dystopias, and fans of books like The Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, The Long Walk, and Battle Royale will find much to love. This novel is very dark, however, so I recommend it for mature or older teens: the setting is bleak, the characters largely amoral; there is some profanity, drug use and a pair of sexually suggestive scenes/phrases. But despite the brutal vision of the future it depicts, The Drowned Cities is ultimately concerned with the ability of human beings to find redemption and hope in even the bleakest of conditions, and it is a worthwhile read. Beyond its uplifting ending, the book could potentially open the minds of readers who realize similar scenarios are taking place at this moment across the globe. (less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 27, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Since today is my birthday, I thought I’d indulge myself by re...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 27, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Since today is my birthday, I thought I’d indulge myself by reviewing a long-time favorite of mine by author Haruki Murakami, the award-winning Japanese writer who has revolutionized the literature of his country.
I was first introduced to Murakami’s work through his 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I had heard from a friend blended science-fiction, philosophy and surrealism in a literary way that rivaled Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick.
The novel alternates back and forth between two apparently unconnected narratives that eventual converge at the end and become one. This trick is not new, but even re-reading the novel I am surprised at the emotional resonance of the denouement.
The first narrative, “Hard-boiled Wonderland,” centers on a nameless protagonist in a future Tokyo. The man works as a “Calcutec,” employing his mind as a data encryption device and storing the encryption key in his subconscious. His employer, the government-like System, is engaged in a struggle with the criminal syndicate known as the Factory, whose agents — Semiotecs — seek to steal key data.
Our nameless Calcutec narrator is working on an assignment with a strange but brilliant scientist who seeks to develop a system of “sound removal.” The job draws the protagonist into research into unicorns, conflicts with the Semiotecs and a relationship with the scientist’s granddaughter, and he soon finds himself in the midst of a bizarre, reality-bending chase through the sewers of Tokyo, where strange fish-worshipping cannibals are just one of his troubles: in less than two days, his brain will begin to shut down, plunging him into his own subconscious for a time before his body finally dies.
The second narrative, “The End of the World,” is a strange mythical or fantasy tale in which a nameless narrator with no memories of his past awakens in a peaceful village that has been completely walled off from the universe. After having his shadow severed from him by the gatekeeper, the narrator finds himself unable to leave. Using the dreams trapped in the skulls of unicorns in the town’s library, the narrator seeks to unravel the mystery of his identity and the existence of the impossible place he’s been trapped inside.
As the book nears its end, the reader realizes that both narrators are the same man, and that his only hope for survival is a strange sort of eternity within a subconscious world he has created where time gradually slows and slows, forever putting off the moment of his death.
Full of meditations on jazz, literature, science and philosophy, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is quintessential Murakami, juxtaposing the poignant and the absurd, the heart-wrenching and the surreal. A perfect novel of the human condition.(less)