It's been a long time since I've joined our hero Miles Vorkosigan on one of his interstellar adventures, and it was so good to be back! I sort of quit...moreIt's been a long time since I've joined our hero Miles Vorkosigan on one of his interstellar adventures, and it was so good to be back! I sort of quit reading the Vorkosigan books when Miles got shunted from rogue military leader / secret agent to Imperial Auditor, but not because I was unhappy about the transition. I'd just read like, 10 of the novels in the space of a few weeks and it seemed like a good chance to take a breather. Also, some of the last of those novels were really rather intense! That was about 2 years ago, however, and I've been thinking a lot about my own possible sci-fi hero so I gave the audiobook a listen.
And it was great.
I really love Lois McMaster Bujold. I think she is sometimes a stronger writer in fantasy than in sci-fi (Paladin of Souls is one of the best fantasy books I've ever read), but she's great at sci-fi too. Along with other female writers likeUrsula K. Le Guin and C. J. Cherryh, she really brings a perceptive understanding of human nature and a fresh perspective on the usual issues of sci fi.
A recent review criticized Bujold for writing romances as opposed to sci fi. Well, Komarr (along with a couple of others) is compiled in a compendium called "Miles in Love" so there's some truth to that, I suppose. But I loved it. Half the story is told from the perspective of Ekaterin and deals with her reflections on an unhappy marriage and the place of a woman caught between the patriarchal Barrayaran society and the more liberal-minded planet of Komarr. Are those romantic concerns? Perhaps, but then again no one thinks The Handmaid's Tale is a romance. I'd argue that they are feminist concerns, and in the best sense of the word. Social commentary and inquiry is a feature of sci-fi, not a bug.
In any case, I really loved the writing, the plotting was exquisite as usual, and the characters are well-drawn and interesting. I'm impressed, as always, by how effortless Bujold makes this all seem, and by how much she manages to cram into her books without them ever seeming stuffed or contrived.
I think the genre conventions of young-adult dystopia are pretty-well established by now, and this book is a fun example of t...moreINCLUDES GENERAL SPOILERS
I think the genre conventions of young-adult dystopia are pretty-well established by now, and this book is a fun example of the genre. You've got a young girl (not attractive to herself, but somehow attractive to the people in the book that need to be attracted to her for plot reasons) who leaves her humble origins and becomes more than she knew she could become. Then she teams up with some hot, taller, older dude and they save the world. Good times.
I liked the basic premise of the particular post-apocalyptic world in this one. Basically there are five theories on what went wrong, and so society is divided into 5 groups based on repudiating those mistakes. There's a group of humble ascetics (to combat selfishness) and a group of always-honest loudmouths (to combat dishonest) and a group of egg-heads (to combat ignorance) and a group of Stepford Wives (to combat... meanness?) and a group of juvenile delinquents (to combat fear). It's kind of thin and light as world-building goes, but (much like The Hunger Games) it's enough to tell a fun story. (And, also like Hunger Games, it's really too flimsy for a book but will make a better movie.)
The first half of the novel (more, by length) is all about our heroine leaving the ascetics (I forget their name) and joining the delinquents (I forget their name, too). A totally arbitrary contest to whittle the new recruits down from 20 to 10 provides the main tension during this phase, but the cryptic hints about a conspiracy on the part of the egg-heads to co-opt the delinquents to take out the ascetics provides enough intrigue to keep things going.
And then all of a sudden in the second half the plot just sort of jumps out of nowhere and the pace goes from ponderous to breakneck. That shadowy plot? Yeah... it's happening now. The transition is quite jarring, but the action is fun even if it doesn't really always make sense.
There are several set-piece scenes (one family sacrifices herself, there's a couple of re-unions, and of course a face-off against your mind-controlled lover) that seems rather obvious and formulaic, but they aren't too bad. And then, after apparently hitting a mysterious minimum number of set-piece scenes, the book just basically ends without even an attempt at a resolution. I mean, obviously there's going to be a sequel, but you'd expect some kind of closure to this episode. Not so much, it's like the book contains all of episode 1 (the training) and then 1/2 of episode 2 (the plot).
In any case, it was a light, fun, quick read and there's enough material there that the movie could be quite good. My hopes aren't too high 'cause the book never really even attempts to go for really serious issues the way Suzanne Collins does, but it could be fun.
I wouldn't mind reading the sequels at an airport (which is where I read this one), but I won't really go out of my way to find them, either.(less)
I picked up Monster Hunter International, a self-published first novel from Larry Correia because Hard Magic (and its sequels) were fan-flippin'-tasti...moreI picked up Monster Hunter International, a self-published first novel from Larry Correia because Hard Magic (and its sequels) were fan-flippin'-tastic. Unfortunately, MHI lives up to what you would expect from a self-published first novel.
It is basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy masquerading as a book.
So I guess if you really, really, really like firearms and endless, repetitive firefights and the kind of overly macho quips that are almost bad enough to be good camp (but are written in earnest) you might like this book. It became a best-seller, so apparently that describes a lot of people.
It doesn't describe me.
The really just wasn't anything interesting about the world-creation or the characters in the book. The only spark of interest was between the protagonist and his father, but the father drops out after the first couple of chapters never to return. Everything else is obvious, obvious, obvious. You've got a macho band of brothers doing macho band of brothers antics, a couple of token women fighters being token women fighters, and a completely generic urban fantasy cast of monsters to kill. I guess he borrows very strongly from Lovecraft, which is not 100% cookie-cutter vs. the usual Buffy-inspired modern fantasy villains, but is definitely nothing like "original".
The book can best be described as "We had to go and shoot the thing, and then we went to another place and shot the other things, and then we went to this other place and shot some other things... [you might lose interest here, but it doesn't matter at all] ... to this other place and shot some other things and then weird stuff happened and then the book ended."
Other stuff that's weird: the story has a very, very anti-government tone (mirrored in Correia's real world writing) that seems pretty hilarious given that the private MHI company relies 100% for its existence on government largess. It's always groan-inducing when government contractors talk about the glory of the free-market and disparage welfare queens. That's about the level of cognitive dissonance this book treats you too.
I guess he does make good-guys out of the orcs and obnoxious trailer-trash out of the elves, so maybe that counts as somewhat unusual, but in a very, very long book that's not a lot to go on.
Anyway, there were a couple of interesting plot twists towards the end where Correia's brilliance shown through. The man is, based on his other books, a great writer. This was clearly a learning experience, however, and there's no way I could recommend it to anyone. I am curious to try and read another from the series, but I'll probably skip a few volumes. I know Correai can write, but you wouldn't be able to tell based on this book.(less)
Bridge to Terabithia is a book about two lonely young kids (5th graders) who become friends and found an imaginary playground (Terabithia) in the woods. Written in 1977 it ironically describes a carefree world where kids play on their own in the woods and then cheerfully assists in the decades-long assault on that carefree world by focusing the plot of the book on the death of one of those kids. While swinging on a rope to get to Terabithia the rope snaps, she falls into the pond, and she drowns. See, kids? That's what happens when you play outside.
As far as I can tell (which, admittedly, is not that far) in order to be a serious young-adult novel you have to kill off a protagonist. You have to really revel in it, too. The most contrived and sentimental the better. Therefore, had I known that Code Name Verity won those kinds of awards, I wouldn't have bothered to read it. After reading Bridge to Terabithia and being suitably traumatized at 8 years old, I was subjected to variations on the same damn theme throughout the rest of elementary and middle school. (That and Holocaust books. Nazis and tragic, senseless death pretty much define award-winning young adult literature. And look, this book has both!)
As it was, however, the inevitable death scene is so forcibly and grotesquely jammed into the plot that it still wouldn't have been even mildly surprising if it weren't for the fact that I kept thinking to myself, "Surely the author won't be that obvious." And yet, she was.
The death scene, rendered with macabre melodrama, involves one friend deliberating killing the other. (Euthanasia is another tried-and-true road to awards.) It's especially gratuitous because it just doesn't make any sense given the setup.
Allow me to elaborate. The setup is that you've got a group of French resistance fighters ambushing a bus filled with Gestapo prisoners. One of the protagonists is with the French resistance ambush, the other is a prisoner. Ultimately, when it becomes obvious that the ambush will fail and that the prisoner is going to be raped, the friend mercifully shoots her to put her out of her misery. Here's why this makes no sense:
1. The friend lacks the courage to fire at the Gestapo, but doesn't hesitate to put a bullet in her friend. She doesn't try to shoot a Gestapo agent before or after. During an armed ambush, the only person she even tries to kill is her best friend. 2. She's an amazing marksman who is able to shoot a chain off a prisoner's restraints with a handgun in the dark, but from exactly the same position finds herself incapable of shooting any of the guards who are at the same distance. What's bigger: a chain link or a guard's head? Not to mention torso... 3. The French ambush is described as being a tactical masterwork but is actually infantile to the point of total reader frustration. First they ambush the bus, then they get into a standoff where the wait for over an hour while one of the Gestapo guards goes to get reinforcements. Seriously? What are they waiting for? They should either attack or retreat, not just sit around waiting for more enemy soldiers to show up. When the Gestapo start to execute some of the prisoners one of them shouts that the resistance is getting them all murdered (which is true) but instead of retreating the resistance launches a totally idiotic and uncoordinated attack in which most of them are killed. 4. The protagonist has been horrifically tortured for several weeks while in the Gestapo prison, but for some reason they never raped her. It's like that particular form of torture was held conspicuously in reserve to provide some facade of legitimacy for the friend's decision to execute her erstwhile mate. It's just weird and contrived.
Anyway: it was dumb, dumb, dumb. It gets to the point where you feel like every other element of the book, from the meticulous historical research to the quite excellent writing to the contrived literary mechanics exist only to try and wring as much emotional juice from an arbitrary and foreordained death-scene as possible. It feels cold and manipulative. I'd say "calculating" but, since it misfired so badly, I'll have to go with "miscalculating".
Here's the real tragedy, though. The first half of the novel, which is written through the viewpoint of the character who is later killed, is astonishingly excellent. She is, without reservation, one of my very favorite characters of all time. She has this incredibly amazing mixture of frailty and fierceness that is depicted in an incredibly artful, understated manner. The first half of the book is worth reading for that alone.
The second half, told from the perspective of the other character, is a waste of time. I read up until she killed her friend in the ill-written ambush, and it was a boring slog to that point. Then I quit reading and just asked my wife how it ended, confirming that nothing interesting takes place. After all: once you kill your protagonist you can collect your literary award. The rest is just filler to make the manuscript seem balanced.
So, to sum it up, this is one of my very favorite characters from any book I've ever read crammed into an utterly dreadful stereotype of a YA death-fetish novel.(less)
I stumbled across this quote from David Brin, which I found very interesting: "I hate the whole ubermensch, superman temptation that pervades science...moreI stumbled across this quote from David Brin, which I found very interesting: "I hate the whole ubermensch, superman temptation that pervades science fiction. I believe no protagonist should be so competent, so awe-inspiring, that a committee of 20 really hard-working, intelligent people couldn't do the same thing." It's interesting because I can't think of a more clear violation of that principle than David Brin's first book.
And I don't want to spend too much time bashing the guy. I hope folks are charitable with my first book (if I ever get one published), and so maybe I should have toned down my review of Ancillary Justice.
It's not just the first-novel effect that makes me want to hold my fire a bit when it comes to Sundiver, however, but also the time in which it was written. Frankly, standards were a lot lower for sci fi in late 70's and early 80's. And, by far, one of the most uncomfortable things for me reading the book was realizing how incredibly sexist and privileged the writing was.
I read plenty of Hardy Boys and Tom Swift when I was a young kid, but reading a story with a super-talented, super-rich, super-privileged, omni-competent protagonist as an adult was incredibly jarring. It seemed as though every event in the story was designed to showcase the protagonist's superiority. Unarmed combat? He's the best. Obscure science? He's the smartest. Devious murder mystery? He's the most deductive.
What was even more sickening, however, was the subservient role of the women in the book. The very first female character exists solely for the protagonist to have a sexual conquest. She's pretty, wearing very little clothing, being ogled objectively by the protagonist and of course they are already sleeping together and she wants him to settle down but he thinks she's too clingy. Come on. The inept attempts to make the women seem equal in superficial ways only backfire when they all invariably end up serving no end but the protagonists. The strongest female character--a competent warrior and space officer--ends up breaking down in her office and begging for the protagonist to hold her tight to give her strength. (She also wants him to impregnate her because of how special he is: any woman would be honored to bear his children).
And yes, this is my trying to hold my fire a bit. I don't want to dwell on it, but it really is this bad. There's no getting around it. The only other work I've read by Brin was a collection of his short fiction that I read in high school. I don't remember disliking it. I read Sundiver because it comes before Startide Rising(which earned the Hugo), so I'll give that one a read and I hope it's better. But I'm not optimistic. Sundiver also suffered from the engineer-gives-a-tour effect of making the story depend far too much on some clever scientific speculation (including aliens who shoot laserbeams out of their eyes instead of sonar).
It is, in a word, just like Ringworld. Sexist, privileged, and soulless. Ringworld won the Hugo, however. So that doesn't bode well for the Startide Rising...(less)
Congratulations! Another entrant into my "too-bad-to-finish" collection!
This book doesn't offend reason or human decency like some horrors I've confro...moreCongratulations! Another entrant into my "too-bad-to-finish" collection!
This book doesn't offend reason or human decency like some horrors I've confronted (Red Mars, Ringworld, or Ancillary Justice all come to mind), but it's a dull, utterly lifeless work.
The characters? I. Don't. Care. Mazer Rackham was at least interesting because, you know, Ender's Game, but he only showed up for one of the 9 chapters that I read and then did absolutely nothing of note in it other than pose in front of plot devices that were obviously, obviously going to come back and be used again in obvious, obvious ways.
The plot? Idiotically predictable. How do I know, since I didn't finish? I read the plot summary on Wikipedia. And it's just slavishly predictable. It's like someone wanted you to not have to read the book, because everything you need to know exactly how the story ends is presented in the first few chapters.
Fact: if some random and obnoxious Chinese kids are shown as characters who obviously are not getting out of their village any time soon, then obviously the aliens are going to get to Earth and land conveniently near their village.
Fact: if two absurdly overly-specific military inventions (an anti-grav transport and--I kid you not--an under-ground burrowing thingy) get introduced then those silly devices are going to be combined to surprisingly kill the alien invaders near the aforementioned Chinese village.
Having Mazer actually get sent to China to train the Chinese on the anti-grav transport doohickies was like writing "PLOT" on a wooden plank and then smashing me in the face with it. Enough, already.
Also: B.O.R.I.N.G. It's bad enough that we get long, tedious scenes of nothing happening except the author clumsily manipulating the plot to get people in the right place to see stuff we're supposed to know about, but what really rubs salt in the wound is that interesting things *do* happen. We just don't get to see them. A lone mining ship mounts a desperate attack on the alien ship... but it's off-camera. A coalition of 60 mining vessels try to gang up on it... and we see the battle tersely described on recovered footage dozens of pages after we already know how it ends. I mean, come on, it's like every time the author saw something that could plausibly be exciting they pulled out all the stops to make sure we didn't get anywhere near it!
I say "the author" 'cause the book says it's "Orson Scott Card with..." somebody else I've never heard of. Given that Card is a busy man and wouldn't share headline space unless the other guy did a lot of work (and the incredibly amount of suck crammed into this book) I'm going to assume the other guy wrote it and I'm too lazy to look up his name right now.
Do. Not. Read. This. Book. If you really, really need an Ender fix either re-read one of the originals or check out the graphic novel (that was pretty good!) or the comics or something. This "novel" was just a total waste of space.
Oh, almost forgot, I was listening to it on Audiobook and they splurged for a full cast, but some of the voices are TERRIBLE. The make the little Chinese girl sound even more annoying than her dialogue alone would be, and then there's this guy named "Chubs" who sounds like he's being voiced by a drunk rejected from a Loony Tunes audition. Yuck.(less)
I read this series so quickly that I never had time to read any outside news about how many books were in it, and that really helped me enjoy the book...moreI read this series so quickly that I never had time to read any outside news about how many books were in it, and that really helped me enjoy the books. It's easier for me to predict what is going to happen when I know how much time is left in a work (just like you can identify the bad guy in a police procedure based on how much time is left in the episode), and so not knowing how many books were in the series meant I was never sure what the final conflict was going to be. And the emphasis of the book really shifted dramatically from the first--Hard Magic--to the second--Spellbound.
I really, really liked the introduction of the new character in this book. He was the perfect blend of anti-hero and repentant villain. Bad enough to have a fun and interesting dynamic with the heros, but sympathetic enough to actually care about. His inclusion was vital to keeping the series fresh.
I also really liked Fay's progression in this book (one of the two original protagonists). The way her story and Jake Sullivan's story (the other original protagonist) take such different but complementary paths was really impressive and added a sense of depth.
Finally, the continuing cast of ambiguous and fully-realized characters made this stand out from your average 2-dimensional cast of an action series. Pretty much every single person in this book had a clear and realistic motivation and acted according to that motivation. That may sound really basic--maybe it should be!--but it's actually common for authors to get that wrong. And I, personally, cannot stand reading a novel where it's obvious that the characters are just doing what they have to do so that the plot can unroll.
Instead, this novel has bad guys who are decent and do good things from time to time, and good guys who disagree about what the real threat is or how to meet it. And everything in between. (Jake and Fay are pretty much never wrong.)
There was one odd note for me, however, and that was the love interest for Jake. it just made absolutely no sense whatsoever and felt like a checklist was being checked. It wasn't a major element of the story, however, so I'm not going to make a big issue of it.
In any case: I'm excited to check out the rest of Correia's works now.(less)
I had never heard of Larry Correia (pronounced like "Korea", if you're curious) before one friend recommended I check out Hard Magic. It's always a we...moreI had never heard of Larry Correia (pronounced like "Korea", if you're curious) before one friend recommended I check out Hard Magic. It's always a weird experience when there's a book that I haven't really heard any buzz for at all that I read and it just blows me away. I always assume that if it's that good I'll hear about it from lots of sources. But sometimes, that's just not how it works.
(That's probably especially true because Correia is such a new writer. I think his first novel came out in 2009, and one thing I've learned is that it takes many, many years for an author's reputation to catch up with the quality of their work.)
In any case, Spellbound is a TERRIFIC followup to Hard Magic. It helped that I didn't know how many books were in the series when I read (listened to, actually) this book, so I didn't have a great idea of what to expect based on pacing. That helped keep the action fresh. And the action is definitely a major strength of this book.
Another major strength is the fun alternate history Correia weaves. It continues to be really informed by his Glenn Beck-syle politics (e.g. he hates "progressives" and generally distrusts the government), but the politics are never obvious enough that you'd notice them if you didn't know what to look for. Mostly, it's just really fascinating to see the inter-war era rewritten according to the rules of Correia's new world.
There are some major plot developments that really shift the emphasis on this book, btw. It's a general trend in fantasy / sci-fi: either there's a giant plot arc unveiled in the first book or, especially with new authors, the second book will introduce a bunch of scope-increases over the first book. This falls into the second category, but Correia really commits to the new storylines (e.g. the invention of "the Spellbound") and so it works.
All in all: a great follow-up novel, and I burned through it just as fast as the first in the series.(less)
I became interested in reading Elizabeth Smart's autobiographical account of her kidnapping after her comments about the role that her Mormon faith ha...moreI became interested in reading Elizabeth Smart's autobiographical account of her kidnapping after her comments about the role that her Mormon faith had played in perhaps exacerbating her captivity. Her comment was that the emphasis on purity in her Mormon upbringing 'caused her to feel worthless after she was raped. In My Story, however, she explains that her family's love won out over the original response of shame, and she knew that her mother and father would love her no matter what. That, in part, gave her the strength she needed to endure.
The book was fascinating in a lot of ways. I followed the story of her kidnapping as much, but not more, than everyone else when it happened. So a lot of the details in this book were new to me. It was also obvious that Smart was addressing several issues that have come up since then, sort of answering critics. Why didn't she try to escape earlier? Why didn't she answer police questions when they asked if she was Elizabeth Smart? How could she believe in God after all she had been through? Why didn't she get any formal counseling at all after her experience, and can she really have recovered without it?
Through it all, I was struck by her quiet defiance and invisible strength. I can't imagine surviving her experiences with my psyche intact. She may not have reacted like an action movie hero but, as she explains reasonably, she was a young and naive little girl. The most she could do was retain her spirit. That was her goal, and she accomplished it. Her captors are rotting in prison, and Elizabeth Smart has moved on with her life.
Of course it's hard to believe that she's as past her experiences as she seems to say that she is. When she says "[he will] never control me ever again or make me feel bad ever again, that he no longer exists in my life, and I never have to let him," that sounds more like an aspiration than a fact. But it seems cruel and presumptuous of me to question it, and so I won't. I'm just happy she seems to be happy.
The one thing that hangs in the air once I'm done, alongside my respect for Smart, is the sort of un-addressed question of class. Smart made headlines in no small part because she was such a pretty young girl. She credits her recovery in large part to horseback riding and playing the harp, neither of which are exactly middle class activities. It may seem needlessly political to bring that up, but those are just topics that I have on my mind these days, and so they stood out to me in the last chapter of the book.
There's nothing wrong with having advantages in this life, especially if we use what we've been given to try and help others. That's exactly what Smart has done. The advantages she had in life--most importantly a loving family, but also wealth and good looks--all contributed with her iron resolve to help her survive. And now, as a survivor, she has turned her fame and her energy to the task of helping those who face the horrors of kidnap and sexual slavery without even the meager resources that Smart had.
No one could do more than that.
If you're looking for any graphic details of the captivity, you won't find them here. Smart was raped nearly every day and sometimes more than once a day. That's as graphic as it gets. Instead, the focus of the book is on her mental state as she gradually goes from purely passive victim to sly manipulator who manages to con her captor using his own game and so engineer her own rescue from behind the scenes. It's really an amazing story--and well told--so I recommend this book.(less)
There’s a simple life lesson that I still haven’t really learned, and it is this: being good at making art doesn’t actually mean that you’re any good...moreThere’s a simple life lesson that I still haven’t really learned, and it is this: being good at making art doesn’t actually mean that you’re any good at teaching, explaining, or critiquing art.
The first example of this in my life was comparing a critique of the album “Closer to the Edge” (by the band Yes) with actual interviews of the band itself. The critique, which was written in an email to me from a friend of my father’s who is a music buff and a scholar of the poet Milton, was incredible. It explained the lyrics and musical themes of the album in ways that opened my eyes to its depth, complexity, and brilliance. Listening to the band members try to explain the meaning of their own songs, however, was nothing short of traumatic. They veered between banal and saccharine on the one hand, and flatly incoherent on the other. It didn’t make me stop enjoying their music, but it did make me stop listening to or reading their interviews.
The second example of this was the recommendation given by Jerry Holkins (the writer of web comic Penny-Arcade) for Karen Traviss’s first Star Wars novels. I greatly admire Holkins as a writer. A lot of his blogging lacks polish and refinement (he doesn’t know when to self-edit, or perhaps even what that concept means), but his skill and passion are unmistakable and his voice is incredibly unique. He is, in a way, a hero of mine. (Even though a lot of what he writes is, quite frankly, offensive crap.)
It had been several years since the incident with Yes’s “Closer to the Edge” and I didn’t really connect the two. I just figured if Jerry Holkins was unreservedly endorsing a writer then I had to get on that stat. I went out and bought not one but two of her novels right away.
They were terrible. Not the absolute worst franchise fiction I’ve ever read but, well, if that sounds like a good example of the expression “damning with faint praise” then you’re absolutely right. I forced myself to finish the first one because this was the time before Red Mars and so I still lived by a code of finishing every novel I started. But I didn’t bother to even start the second. There was nothing in novels—not a single thing—that gave me any hope for her future writing.
Well, almost another decade passed before I fell into this trap again. This time the source was John Scalzi. I figured that whereas Holkins is primarily a blogger who was endorsing a sci fi author, John Scalzi actually was a sci fi author himself, so perhaps his endorsement should carry more weight. Based on his praise, the categorization of Ancillary Justice as “space opera”, the premise (which described a sentient ship thousands of years old) and the awesome cover art, I bought it. (Honest admission: if you put a John Harris illustration on a book, I will almost invariably buy it. I'm not saying it's smart, but it's true.)
Well, this is three strikes. I think I’ve finally learned my lesson that the creative skills for making art and the analytic skills for reviewing and criticizing art have about as much in common as plumbing and playing the piano. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as someone who is both a good writer and a good critic. There are probably some good plumbers who can also tickle the ole ivories. I’m just saying that I fully recognize that creating good art doesn’t make you in any way a reliable source for evaluating art.
So what’s wrong with Ancillary Justice? There’s actually one essential problem, but it’s a doozy: nothing the major characters does makes any sense whatsoever.
The entire story is motivated by basically two decisions the protagonist makes, neither of which make the least bit of sense. First, she decides to assassinate someone who has literally thousands of bodies / incarnations spread out over a good chunk of the galaxy using—I kid you not—a handgun. She spends 20 years tracking down the special handgun so that she can go kill this person knowing full well that, while she’ll probably be able to kill one or two bodies, it will have no significance whatsoever.
It’s the stupidest plan ever.
Now, you could invest this hopeless and desperate plan with all kinds of emotional tension of rich existential gravitas, but Ann Leckie doesn't go for that. When confronted by the stupidity of her plan, the protagonist just shrugs. Which sort of makes you, as the reader, want her to get blown up to save you the effort of finishing the book. If she doesn't care: why should you?
Of course “plan” is kind of a generous description of the protagonist's intended course of actions. This isn’t exactly Mission Impossible. Her theory is: 1. Acquire the magical gun and then 2. Gain an audience with the target and then 3. Shoot the target. The problem is that the target is surrounded by a near omniscient AI who easily detects the plan ahead of time (which doesn’t surprise the protagonist) thus compounding the idiocy. It also renders the primary motivation of the first half of the book moot. Why do we care about spending 2 decades tracking down the magical gun that can get past all the sensors if the AI around the target can perfectly easily spot the protagonist herself? In the book, she ends up needing to lay low for months to get that audience, but the station AI identifies her in just 2-3 days. So, once again, it's literally the worst "plan" ever.
If this doesn’t sound like compelling drama, it isn’t.
The second major decision is for the protagonist to save the life of some random dude that she finds in the snow and then keep him around more or less indefinitely despite the fact that he’s an obnoxious spoiled brat, a drug addict, and a lying thief. She also jumps off a bridge to save his life at one point, coming damn near close to killing herself. Didn’t she have some big epic plan to fail at assassinating the villain? Yeah, but sometimes she just does inexplicable stuff because, plot.
A lot of stories struggle with getting their characters to do what the author needs them to do for believable reasons supported by internal motivation. In Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie doesn’t struggle. She doesn’t seem to even try.
Since his recent Hugo win (sadly for Redshirts, which is definitely his worst work), Scalzi has been criticized even more for his politics. I’ve definitely noticed that he’s altered the entire course of the Old Man’s War universe (or at least, chosen to emphasize new aspects of it) in order to convey a much more left-friendly political tone in more recent works (especially The Human Division), but I don’t want to try and get in Scalzi’s head. Maybe he’s pandering, maybe he’s frustrated that he doesn’t get credit for the beliefs he really has, or maybe it’s just the artistic direction he’s going in. I don’t know, but it’s is odd that Ancillary Justice, which he chose to support, is also such an overtly political work.
The political gimmick, and it really is just a gimmick, is that the viewpoint character comes from a future human society that is just off-the-shelf imitation Roman (a common sci fi stereotype) except that they have also totally rejected gender essentialism. That’s basically it.
The rejection is so complete that their language has lost gendered pronouns and so everyone is referred to as “she” by the main character, who is unable to tell male and female human beings apart. Now, linguistically, that’s not actually far fetched. Hungarian, which I speak passably, also has no gendered pronouns. But the reason I dismiss it as pretty banal politics is that there really isn’t any definition to the primary race other than this one really specific detail. (As a corollary, the only modesty taboo they have is that hands should always be covered by gloves which is another strictly non-gendered detail.)
I’m not really sure that this ploy has a real purpose other than to “raise awareness”. Mostly, it just seems like wish fulfillment for a particular kind of feminist that would like to see the eradication of all gender distinctions.
Now, my response might seem reactionary, but here’s the thing: gender can be a legitimate and fascinating topic for science fiction. See: The Left Hand of Darkness. That’s an incredible book, both in general and also for its thoughtful and probing analysis of gender relationships and assumptions. (It’s absolutely not conservative.) I also just finished The Handmaid's Tale, which is also steeped in gender concerns, also fabulously well-written, and which I also loved. So I’m not opposed to either the topic or to a liberal perspective on it. What I’m opposed to is laziness. Those books didn't just raise the issue, they actually delved in. Ancillary Justice just sort of threw this one really extreme plot device at the reader and then walked away. Clearly it's designed to make you, as a reader, reconsider gender but it ended up just being distracting and feeling like a gimmick.
I see there’s a sequel out already or coming out soon. I can’t be bothered to find out which. It wasn’t as painful to read as Red Mars, but that’s about all I can say in its favor.(less)
If you’ve read any of my reviews of the Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, you will know that it is my very favorite series. What you might not know, ho...moreIf you’ve read any of my reviews of the Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, you will know that it is my very favorite series. What you might not know, however, is that as a general rule I deplore fantasy. I admit it: I’m a genre snob. My heart resonates to the thrum of interstellar starship drives, not the roar of dragons.
One unintended consequence of my anti-fantasy bias is that the fantasy I do read tends to be rather incredible. That’s just what happens when you’ve got a high barrier to entry: the stuff that gets through is likely to be really, really good.
I was really skeptical about starting Larry Correia’s Hard Magic because it was fantasy, because it was fantasy in a noir setting (which seemed to close to the hard-boiled/urban fantasy fusion of The Dresden Files), and because I just hadn’t really seen it marketed anywhere else. I decided to give it a try anyway, however, and I’m incredibly glad that I did. It’s one of those rare fantasy novels that makes me temporarily overlook my snobbishness.
So what’s so great about Hard Magic? Well, for starters the magical system is both unique and really interesting. Instead of the traditional division into elements, there’s a more comprehensive system of different magical regions that include things like the ability to heal (or curse/infect), the ability to mess with gravity, the ability to control fire, etc. This makes the magical wielders—most of whom can control only a single kind of magic—very distinct from each other. When a couple of them get into a knock-down, drag-out fight about 1/2 through the book (the first fight with Jake Sullivan and an Iron Guard, if you’ve read the book) the result is one of the absolutely best fight scenes I have ever read in any book in my entire life. It was clever, exciting, and unexpected. I was blown away.
The whole book is chock-full of similar innovations, not just in the magical system but in the plot and themes as well. The story plays with morality in ways that are provocative and interesting and nuanced, but not just the usual “how much bad stuff can I make my protagonist do?” trend that is so common these days. When John Moses Browning executes one of his fellow Knights of the Grimnoir (not gonna say who) I was floored again. It was just such a fresh and unexpected resolution to the conflict of the good guys vs other good guys who cross a line to achieve their ideals.
And yes, John Moses Browning is the John Moses Browning, the early 20th century firearms developer and Mormon who developed the M1911, among many, many others. One of the fun things about this book is seeing a lot of moderately-known historical figures reimagined in a world where magical users started to appear in the 1850s. The alternate history is delightfully done and ads real authenticity and gravitas to the setting.
It also underscores Correia’s status as a Glenn Beck listening Mormon conservative. Don’t worry if that doesn’t describe your politics (it doesn’t describe mine either), because it’s subtle enough that you probably won’t notice. The give away, however, is his treatment of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt: both dismissed as progressives. That’s a linchpin of Glenn Beck’s political ideology, but probably not something that most people would choose to focus on. That, and the inclusion of John Moses Browning as a major character, are pretty strong hints. I followed them up by reading Correai’s blog and—though he never mentions Glenn Beck—he does describe his conversion to Mormonism as a teenager when he moved to Utah.
What makes the book work more than anything else, however, is the protagonists. I can only like a book as much as I like the characters, generally speaking, and the two standouts in this novel (Jake and Faye) are richly imagined, unique, and compelling. The supporting cast is also really vivid, and the kind of dense interpersonal relationships reminded me a lot of the cast of Firefly. It has the same feeling of a family of individualistic outcasts who are bound together by circumstance, ideals, and most of all bonds of loyalty despite differences of opinion and uncomfortable history.
Hard Magic hasn’t displaced Dresden Files for me yet—and I don’t think anything ever could—but it’s definitely impressed me. I’ve already purchased the next two audiobooks.
Audiobook Notes - I listened to Hard Magic using Audible. The narrator, Bronson Pinchot, is really quite good. Some of his accents are a little over-the-top, but there’s no doubt that he gives everything he has to the performance and there’s certainly no lack of variety. (less)
I'm afraid that Margaret Atwood is further solidifying my impression that women write the best sci fi. Maybe that's sexist or reverse-sexist, but afte...moreI'm afraid that Margaret Atwood is further solidifying my impression that women write the best sci fi. Maybe that's sexist or reverse-sexist, but after growing up reading mostly Asimov / Heinlein / etc. as a kid, I'm just struck by how immature those books are in their portrayal of people relative to the work of C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold (for example).
In simple terms, the rich human characterization and depth of the emotional reality in books by these brilliant authors has sort of spoiled me for the superficial stories that originally hooked me into sci fi in the first place.
In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, what we've got is a dystopian, near-future SF book (in fact, there's very little advanced technology in it at all) that hooks you in immediately with the incredibly vivid viewpoint character. It's not an exciting book in the traditional sense of the word, not much emphasis on daring escapes or thrilling heroics, but it was just so real that I couldn't stop reading.
What really sets it apart as sci-fi, and not just a dystopian novel, is the coda at the end in which its revealed that the text so far is a recovered artifact discovered in the farther future and being discussed at a historical conference.
I can't put into words why this was the perfect ending--and it's not much of a spoiler since it doesn't reveal what actually happens in the main narrative--but it has served to keep the entire novel fresh in my mind several weeks later.
Not only was it a page-turner while I was reading, it's the kind of book that just stays with me. (less)
I haven’t read a lot of Sanderson yet, but I did enjoy The Way of Kings. So when I read his Big Idea on John Scalzi’s blog, I was intrigued. Besides:...moreI haven’t read a lot of Sanderson yet, but I did enjoy The Way of Kings. So when I read his Big Idea on John Scalzi’s blog, I was intrigued. Besides: Audible was having a sale.
The premise that Sanderson introduced in his Big Idea piece is simple: what if superpowers corrupted the people who possessed them? We get a world with all super villains, no super heroes. Good starting point. Sanderson also went on a long tangent about the way he had felt that the increasing popularity of geek culture was impinging on his special relationship with the culture, which is a common but muted complaint. He eventually concludes that this reaction is immature, and explains that Steelheart is, in a sense, his penance. In contrast to the exceedingly epic fantasy he is known for, ("Thicker books, more intricate worldbuilding, more sub-plots and hidden allusions relating my books to one another.”) Steelheart is intentionally accessible “like a mainstream movie”. These words are not exactly magic to my ears, but I was intrigued.
So how was it?
It was good, but it wasn’t great. Sanderson may have been shooting for “accessible”, but he overshot and we got shallow.
For starters, the protagonist’s voice was a little too “young adult” for me. His “thing” was really, really bad metaphors which felt just a little bit too much like laziness from the author. Additionally, the protagonists are supposed to be a bunch of super-sophisticated assassins, but they don’t act like it. When the protagonist joins up with them and asks them to help him take down Steelheart (the resident supervillain) despite the fact that he doesn’t actually know Steelheart’s weakness yet, they all act as though the only options are:
1. Attack Steelheart right now. 2. Go away and never attack Steelheart.
The idea of taking the new kid on, showing him the ropes, and doing recon to come back another day is never even discussed. And that feels really forced. Some of the big reveals are also just really, really, really obvious. Some of the themes are also hit a little bit too hard. The protagonist has this line, "I've seen Steelheart bleed, and I'll see him bleed again," and it gets way overused. The other characters make fun of him, but it still feels a bit like (less)
I'm giving this book three stars with the caveat that that's three-stars *for a young adult fantasy novel*, OK? By those standards, it was pretty fun....moreI'm giving this book three stars with the caveat that that's three-stars *for a young adult fantasy novel*, OK? By those standards, it was pretty fun.
And "by those standards" I mean that you should expect an awful lot of silly, angst-ridden miscommunication and immaturity as the driving force behind the plot of this book. If the two characters were willing to talk to each other, well then it wouldn't be a romantic YA novel, right? But still: it'd be neat to have something getting in the way of their love other than themselves, you know?
So what does the book have going for it? Lots of cool ideas. The world creation is really vivid and imaginative, although (like many YA novels) it's also fairly sparse. Still, there were a lot of new details in this story that deepened the sense of reality to this otherworldly realm. I also like that the central theme is serious and solid. It's not just a nihilistic book about two crazy kids looking for love, it takes theme of the circle of violence seriously. Not the most original theme, no, but it gives the book some heft.
The problems for me were two-fold. First, Laini Taylor isn't quite as clever as she thinks she is. There's a big twist at the end of the book that she spends forever building up to and it's like "Duh. We know what happened." So the big reveal is just sort of silly.
What's more, it's also patently engineered to prolong the artificial separation of the two protagonists, and it's more than a little tiresome. What's worse, there's an entirely new character who gets ret-conned right back into the first book as though he'd been there all along just to set up a love triangle. It's like someone told her "Laini, YA novels need a love triangle. Where's your third wheel?" And she was like "No problem, I got this." So now we've got this new character whose sole reason for existence is to hit a checklist on someone's description of 'necessary features for a YA novel'.
Let me put it this way: I probably wouldn't read the next book on my own. I wouldn't have read the first or the second either. But if my wife asks me to, I'll read through it and it will be a fun and fast read. (It helps that I more or less skip entire paragraphs.)(less)
I mentioned in my review of the first book in this series, Hyperion, that cracks started to show around the edges. In this book, the cracks are front...moreI mentioned in my review of the first book in this series, Hyperion, that cracks started to show around the edges. In this book, the cracks are front and center and it's hard to see anything else. Basically all the strengths and weaknesses of the previous book apply, but where it was 90% good before, it's only about 10% good now.
The biggest problem is the characters. They simply don't work outside of their own stories. When they interact with each other, they fall completely flat. This was only a minor footnote to the first book because basically the entire text *was* their stories, but now the stories are over and the characters have to propel the plot forward on their own. And they don't. Not even remotely. Instead, they are transparent puppets being jerked about on obvious strings, making blatantly unmotivated and even contradictory decisions because the plot makes them do it.
There are all kinds of utterly ridiculous coincidences to move people around so that they can get to their scenes on time. In one scene there's a random riot for no particular reason just to force a viewpoint character to flee in a hovercar just that he can end up at some other random point in the city just so that he can continue running on foot just so that he can randomly run into the first unlocked door he finds just so that he can rediscover some 19th century poetry he had read before but then forgotten about it. Really? Really.
Characters are arbitrarily angry or sad, depressed or energized, stupid or smart as necessary. Their characteristics become so completely bland that it's a wonder they even have names anymore. In fact, the viewpoint character is clearly invented solely to provide some explanation for why characters over *here* know what characters over *there* are doing. Not that it actually makes any sense in any case, since the mechanism for the strange instantaeous dream communication not only is never explained, but also changes as need be. First, the character needs to be asleep to know what is going on with his alter ego. Later, he just sort of needs to doze off. Then, he suddenly gets the ability to send as well as receive. Why? Because plot, that's why. There's even two version of this character (maybe 3, it's hard to keep track) just so that he can be killed more than once.
I'm very, very grateful that I read this story because I can easily see myself falling for the same mistakes as a writer. Dan Simmons does excellent work world-building, but at a certain point he appears to have become chained to the idea of fidelity to the specifics of his universe and forgot that the universe exists for the story, not the other way around. More than anything else, however, he made an artistic decision in the first book to have all the sub-stories related by other characters, and he was unwilling to make a clean break in this book. He should have. Plenty of books do multiple viewpoint characters without making up strange, in-world explanations for how this occurs. Simmons won't let go of his peculiar narrative perspective, however, and it warps and distorts everything happening in the story.
Sometimes you just have to let go of a neat, experimental idea for the sake of telling a good story.
So, in case you haven't heard, this is actually J. K. Rowling. I don't think it's really meant to be a surprise because it's written in the "About the...moreSo, in case you haven't heard, this is actually J. K. Rowling. I don't think it's really meant to be a surprise because it's written in the "About the Author" at the back of the book, and also on the back part of the dust jacket.
I haven't read The Casual Vacancy, but I haven't heard anything about it that would make me want to read it either.
This book, however? You should read it.
I don't think there's really any way I would have guessed that this writer was the same woman who had written Harry Potter because it's such a cynical take on humanity next to the idealism of the wizarding world. But it does seem like a lot of the writing might have been influenced by J.K. Rowling's life experiences because money is such a dominating aspect of the story, and especially the way differences between low and high class and the impact of suddenly coming into fame riches on your life and circle of friends. It seems like almost every character in this book is either rich and famous or poor and obscure, but somehow connected to the rich and famous. The perspective is, to say the least, quite jaded.
And yet, despite using words like "cynical" and "jaded", the two protagonists are actually very compelling and quite sympathetic. Comoran Strike is the private eye at the heart of the story. He's an ex-soldier who lost 1/2 of one leg in Afghanistan, and he's the bastard son of an aging rockstar faither who, through surrogates, spends most of the book trying to strong arm his son into paying back a small loan that he used to launch his business. (See what I mean about the jaded view of riches and fame?) His temporary secretary--who realistically morphs into more of a partner--is Robin Ellacott. Like Comoroan, Robin is a fundamentally good and decent person and together the two form a sympathetic duo that form the heart of the story.
But, unlike in Harry Potter, nothing about their relationship is simple or easy. They are attracted to each other, or at least Comoran is attracted to Robin, but Robin gets engaged in her first scene (to Michael) and navigating the excitement she feels for her new job with Michael's latent jealousy is an minor, ongoing tension in the background.
I'll also say that the book is surprisingly deep for a mystery novel. I still haven't thought my way through all the implications of the title (the central murder victim had a nicknam "cuckoo" and was adopted), but even setting that aside the 5 sections of the book are introduced with quotations from sources like Boethius's de Consolatione Philosophiae: Opuscula Theologica, and there are additional classical quotes within the book itself. It's not just literary depth, either, as issues of race vie with class and celebrity for central attention in the book.
But it's a mystery novel. How does it work there?
Admirably well. I was very, very impressed at three key ingredients.
1. There were enough clues that you felt like you were putting the mystery together. (This was the weakest link, because a lot of them didn't come into rather late in the book.) 2. The actual ending was still a surprise. (It was to me, at least, and I'm relatively hard to surprise.) 3. Despite the surprising ending and the clues, the solution to the murder mystery actually fit with the events.
It's really hard to pull all three of these off, but Rowling did. And she did it with sympathetic new characters in a murder mystery that had some real depth to it.
So why just 4 stars? Some of it might just be that murder-mysteries are not my favorite genre, and at times the book felt a bit overly long.
I will say this, however: in The Cuckoo's Calling I think Rowling has proved that she was no 1-trick pony. I don't think she's going to redefine the murder-mystery genre the way she redefined young adult fantasy with Harry Potter, but I do think that if she feels like coming back and writing from Strike/Robin stories she could easily create a lasting new detective series that rivals the best that I've read. Given how quickly this book seems to have followed The Casual Vacacny, I expect and hope that there's more to come.
My wife is a little sad that I'm giving this book only 3 stars. I'd give it 3.5 if I could, but I just can't give it 4.
She immediately asked me how I...moreMy wife is a little sad that I'm giving this book only 3 stars. I'd give it 3.5 if I could, but I just can't give it 4.
She immediately asked me how I thought it compared to Twilight, and I said that I would give Twilight 2 stars. Then I went and checked, and I'd given it 3. I rectified that error. The next comparison she asked about was The Hunger Games, and I said I'd give that 4-stars. Turns out, I only gave it three. And that's probably right, now that I think about it. The movie was just so much better than the book (which is rare) that I think I remember the book better than it was.
Anyway: that should situate this YA book: better than Twilight, but maybe not quite as good as Hunger Games.
What does it have going for it? Really quick writing, a gripping central character, and most of all a really, really nicely-imagined fantasy world. I devoured he book in just a couple of days.
What does it lack? I thought the central mystery wasn't mysterious enough, and at the end of the book I kind of felt like not much had happened. It was basically a prologue, or at least it felt that way, and it had too little plot stretched over too many pages, ("like butter scraped over too much bread").
I also felt that most of the characters just... weren't. The protagonist is strongly written, and so is her friend. But her friend only gets a very minor supporting role (no action at all). And as for the rest of the characters, most of them *could* be interesting, but just aren't. And the love interest? He's so generic he feels like a placeholder, to tell the truth.
I think I'll give the next one a try, but mostly because of how much my wife loves them, and I like to read some of the same things that she reads. For myself? Nah, I'm not really interested to see where this entirely generic story heads, even if the setting is fairly unique in some of the details.(less)
VALIS is one of those books that--even though I liked it a lot--I wouldn't really recommend to most folks. For me, though, the book was insanely fun t...moreVALIS is one of those books that--even though I liked it a lot--I wouldn't really recommend to most folks. For me, though, the book was insanely fun to read.
For starters, Phillip K. Dick plays with narrative and our perceptions of reality the way that no one else (that I've ever read) can. For example, he starts this book with a strong narrative voice describing the protagonist in the third person, before the narrator admits he is the protagonist (a guy named "Horselover Fat") before introducing himself (Phillip K. Dick, by name) as an additional character, and then consolidating all three (the narrator, Horselover Fat, and Phillip K. Dick) into one person, and then shattering the viewpoints again.
And then there's just the topic of the book, which ranges from Christian theology to metaphysics to conspiracy theory without ever distinguishing which is which. It's crazy, but that's kind of the point. It's just so much unlike anything else I've ever read--and hauntingly insightful and compassionate as well, from time to time--that I couldn't stop reading it.
But as for the plot... yeah, I'm not sure what the heck happened in the end of the book. I mean, the events were clear enough, but I haven't figured out how to process them yet. Then again, this is apparently the first in a trilogy (I didn't know that), so maybe it will make sense if I read more?
Probably not. But in any case: Robert Heinlein is definitely no longer the weirdest sci-fi philosopher.(less)
Redirect started strong, got weak enough in the middle that I was debating between 2 and 3 stars as I trudged through, and then got quite strong again...moreRedirect started strong, got weak enough in the middle that I was debating between 2 and 3 stars as I trudged through, and then got quite strong again at the end.
The initial argument of the book is twofold. First: a lot of the psychological interventions to help people (anything from helping first responder deal with traumatic events to keeping kids from getting pregnant) are either useless or counterproductie. We can't know without experimental testing. Second: a particular kind of approach called story-editing that depends on altering the way people construct their own narratives can be surprisingly helpful at solving psychological problem.
As far as story-editing goes, the results really are surprising. For example, if you take students who have done poorly on an early test in college and simply give them the information that lots of people struggle early on then--with that intervention alone--you can significantly improve their subsequent performance on tests, graduation rate, etc. The theory is that you're helping them embrace a growth-narrative ("if I work hard, I can get better") rather than a fixed-narrative ("I must not be good enough.") This research is not entirely new to me (it's one of the major elements of the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children), but Timothy Wilson goes into applications of the technique across a very wide range of fields.
As as the emphasis on experimental design goes: it's a valuable point but Wilson hangs too much from it. He consistently holds out the ideal of controlled drug experimentation without recognizing that human trials of drugs are based on earlier experiments with laboratory animals. There's no such phase with psychological testing; we can't run don't-do-drugs programs experimentally on rats first to make sure that there's no major danger before rolling the program out to high school kids. This makes psychological experimentation fundamentally different from medical experimentation, which complicates his persistent use of medical experiments as the goal standard to which all social psychology should be held. Furthermore, experiments just aren't as magically distinct from observational studies as he would like us to believe. For one thing, he consistently cites experimental studies that illustrate the effectiveness of a certain approach, and then claims credit for story-editing, despite the fact that that last leap (attributing the results to his pet theory) is actually not a necessary result of the science. It's just his interpretation.
This obsession on experimental design leads to the long, boring middle section of the book which is mostly just a literature review of various programs attempting to deal with problems like stopping child abuse, stopping drug abuse, stopping racism, etc. The theme is basically that if an intervention doesn't work it has nothing to do with story-editing, and if it does work Wilson claims it's a story-editing approach (no matter what the original designers may have thought) and claims credit for his "team". As you can imagine, this gets tedious.
The final sections were very interesting, however, because Wilson started talking about racial disparities in American culture, and suggested the first plausible explanation I've ever heard for the persistent discrepancy in achievement scores between white and blacks controversially outlined in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The concept is stereotype threat, which is the idea that if a person is being tested and is aware of the fact that they belong to a group stereotypically expected to do poorly, they will do poorly. If black students take an IQ test, there's a gap between their performance and white performance, but if the same test is described as a "puzzle" (with no references to "test" or "IQ") the gap vanishes. Similarly: elderly adults do worse on memory tests if attention is drawn to their age. Women do worse on math tests if attention is drawn to their gender. Men do not, since there isn't a stereotype of men doing poorly at math, but if you take white men and give them a math test and tell them their scores will be compared with Asian men (stereotypically assumed to be superior at math) then the scores of the white men will fall.
This isn't a new discovery of Wilson (nor does he claim it), but it was news to me. As someone who has really been bothered by The Bell Curve since I studied it in my sophomore English class (we read an article-length treatment, not the whole book, and debated it at length under the guidance of our African American teacher), this was a huge revelation. The follow up is great as well: Wilson talks about a variety of different programs designed to erase the achievement gap along with experimental evidence for which ones are successful and which ones are not. Of course stereotype threat isn't a panacea for all educational problems, for example if you tell someone about stereotype threat it doesn't erase any lag in their ability to read or do math, but it really powerfully emphasizes: 1. That a lot of endemic problems in achievment have to do with perception rather than objective reality. 2. That perceptions can be changed for the better with carefully designed programs.
This section was so interesting and exciting for me, that I revised my ranking from 2 or 3 stars to 4 stars. For the first time in a long time, I feel like there are actually programs that may really help to combat some of the problems with education in our society. Quick fixes? Absolutely not. But practically achievable programs with real results? Yes.(less)
Lexicon is by far one of the most original and well-thought out sci-fi thrillers that I have ever read. The premise is intriguing, thorough, and told...moreLexicon is by far one of the most original and well-thought out sci-fi thrillers that I have ever read. The premise is intriguing, thorough, and told with a really gripping story that combines fast-paced action with real emotional stakes.
There are two drawbacks for me, however. The first is that there was a lot of cursing and graphic depictions of sex. If that doesn't bother you, then you can disregard the warning. But for me (and a lot of the folks I know) this is going to be an issue. I will say that the depictions were not gratuitous, and for that reason I forged ahead, but I know a lot of my friends would want a warning. So: be warned.
The second is that I felt the resolution was something of a let down. It was just a little too simplistic and even sentimental, and in some important ways it didn't fit the beginning of the narrative.
However, with those two caveats out of the way, this book was incredibly engrossing. Some of the plot twists are easy to see coming, but quite a few of the bigger ones were very fresh and original and--rather than just mechanistically moving the plot forward--they really changed the perception of and relationship among the characters. Combined with the really artful exposition this book just felt exceptionally real, especially for a globe-traversing sci-fi conspiracy thriller. (less)
The good: Hyperion is an audacious work of imaginative fiction that, for the most part, delivers. It's clearly inspired by the Cauntebury Tales, as th...moreThe good: Hyperion is an audacious work of imaginative fiction that, for the most part, delivers. It's clearly inspired by the Cauntebury Tales, as the vast majority of the text is actually composed of 6 individual stories told by pilgrims on a common journey. These stories are each excellently told and some of them are quite moving. What's more, they are each completely unique in tone, plot, and almost even genre (from family / medical drama to detective noir) and yet come together to expose an exquisitely crafted world and to drive forward a deeply engrossing plot.
We're in 5-star territory here.
The bad: At the outer edges, cracks begin to appear. For one thing, the narrative occasionally over-steers into melodrama territory and more than once I went from deeply moved to feeling manipulated when the same plot devices were hammered home again and again and again. This is a book that takes itself very, very seriously. The story "The War Lovers" in particular just goes overboard trying to accomplish something that--while interesting as far as theme goes--just doesn't need to be hit quite as hard on every note. There is such a thing as subtlety.
For another thing, the characters as described in the sub-stories are vibrant and alive, but when the storytellers actually interact with each other they become wooden and entirely plot-driven. The writing that is so fluid and effortless within the stories becomes very forced in between the stories, as though the characters are mere puppets re-arranging the set for the next scene.
This sounds bad, but since such a tiny amount of the text is actually given over to these set-changes, it's really not bad. It only becomes a serious problem in the sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. (less)
It's really, really weird to read a book that is completely founded on the conception of our culture as a TV-dominated culture. I'm sure that seemed p...moreIt's really, really weird to read a book that is completely founded on the conception of our culture as a TV-dominated culture. I'm sure that seemed perfectly reasonable in 1984 when Neil Postman was writing the book, but given his historical background it seems odd that he never even considered the idea that would could seem so much an integral fabric of the social universe in the 1980s could fall within decades. For someone with a profound grasp of the sweep of history, he seems to have fundamentally and completely misunderstood the time he was living in, and his dismissive swipes at "personal computers" are painful to read in 2013.
But that's not to say the book isn't worth reading, even now. It absolutely is. Postman's core argument is less about TV and more about the philosophical concept that the medium can dictate the message. Postman talks about the different epistemological stances provided by oral, textual, and finally television-based cultures.
His central claim is that, starting with the telegraph, the nature of "news" was forever altered. Before the advent of rapid, long-distance communication "news" was local and--more than that--it was judged based on practicality. What mattered were the local events and conditions that might have an impact on your life, and that you could possibly in turn influence. But with the telegraph, novelty became the overriding factor, and suddenly what people cared about most was information from far away that had no practical relevance.
As a result, news became radically decontextualized. This decontextualization started with the telegraph but reached a height with TV culture, where individual episodes are designed to be individually entertaining, and where shots last on average only a few seconds at a time. Everything is rapid-fire imagery without any context, meaning, or lasting impression.
Most of all, Postman attacks television commercials for subverting the idea of truth. In a text-based culture the basic unit of meaning is a proposition: an assertion that is supported by facts and reason and which can be assailed by facts and reason. Originally, advertisements did the same thing. They communicated meaning about products to potential users. But, starting with the advent of easily reproduced photographs, advertisers realized that it was much more powerful to bypass logical proposition altogether and appeal directly to human desires and fears. Commercials change the way you think and perceive the world, but you can't argue with them.
And yet behind all of his analyses there lurks the question, how do things look now? In the 1980s TV was dominant, but in the 2010s it is the Internet that reigns supreme. The Internet is fundamentally text-based, but it's a different kind of text. Tweets, for example, are even less contextualized than telegrams. On the other hand, one of Postman's core assertions is the supremacy of geographical proximity. He argued that information lost practical value when Texas and Maine could communicate because Texas and Maine had no business to conduct with one another. But I work from home almost every day now, sharing files and having text- and audio-conversation with coworkers around the world. The reliance on geographic proximity has faded, and so perhaps the practical value of geographically disconnected data has increased?
Something else that's very interesting to think about is the impact of the web on TV. It's widely known that TV is being taken far more seriously as an art form these days. Instead of the episodic content of the 1980s, when every episode had to stand on its own, many of TVs dominant programs today are highly narrative in structure. This is possible in large part because the Internet allows us to keep up even if we miss an episode, not to mention allows like-minded people to share analysis, guesses, and even pro- and amateur criticism. Postman's primary references are the A-Team, but the A-Team is not the same kind of television as The Sopranoes, and this probably largely due to the advent of the Internet.
Then again, is the web really text-based? Or is it truly multi-media? And what would Postman say about a multi-media medium? It looks like I may have snagged an older edition of his book, but the newest one adds only about a dozen pages. I'll be curious to see how thoroughly he has updated it.
In any case, I think this is still a really important work, even if it suffers from being outdated.
(And even if, on a side note, Postman's smug self-satisfaction really does get annoying from time to time. Whether he's mocking Reagan or just illiterate TV-watchers, it's bad form in a work of this tone.)(less)
I keep forgetting to review this book because I keep forgetting that I read it. That should tell you much of an impact it made.
So here's the thing: Ja...moreI keep forgetting to review this book because I keep forgetting that I read it. That should tell you much of an impact it made.
So here's the thing: Jack Campbell (pen name of John G. Hemry) is a retired Navy guy with some moderately cool ideas about sci fi combat. I read (listened to, actually) the entire intro to the series in which he explains the questions that prompted him to write the book. Questions like: What would happen if one of those myths about a sleeping hero who will return to save people actually panned out? That's not a bad premise, as premises go, but the problem is that he ends up spreading what little juice can be wrung from that particular fruit over way, way too many pages.
Even more so, however is the problem that everything in this book is explicitly explained to death. The protagonists internal monologue ensures that no reader--no matter how obtuse--could possibly fail to see exactly what the relevant issues are, what the pros and cons to each position are, and why the captain makes his choice. This is boring on many levels.
First: because a lot of what is explained is really quite obvious so having it explained again is tedious. Whether it's the political ramifications of a decision or the military tactics of a battle, I just kept rolling my eyes and thinking "OK, I get it." Either Jack doesn't think very highly of his audience, or very dense people read military sci-fi. Maybe both?
Second: because everything is explained in such stark terms there is a sense of utter inevitability to every decision. By the time the action takes place, Jack has already explained five ways to Sunday why this particular decision is the only viable option, which completely eradicates any sense of tension and utterly obviates the possibility of surprise.
And then lastly: because nothing happens other than the linear unfolding of a single line of questioning about the central premise. There are hints of a possible subplot involving unknown aliens, and those glimmers are the only moments in the book that piqued my interest, but nothing comes of them in the first book. The protagonist speculates about them in his dry, tedious fashion and then decides that he has other things to think about and that's the end of that. With that sole exception, the book is composed of nothing but a series of obvious obstacles that are presented in single-file to be overcome in as verbose a manner as possible one at a time.
In the end, a good sci fi book needs an ecosystem of interacting ideas, not just a single, solitary premise. This book gets two stars because it doesn't commit egregious crimes against reason and humanity the way Red Mars did, but I can't give it more than 2.(less)
This was one of the most engrossing and provocative books I've ever read in my life, fiction or non-fiction. I liked it so much that I immediately wro...moreThis was one of the most engrossing and provocative books I've ever read in my life, fiction or non-fiction. I liked it so much that I immediately wrote a review for the Mormon blog Times And Seasons. In that review I talked about just one of the implications from the book's main thesis for Mormon theology, but in this review I'll just stick to what is generally applicable. And there's a lot of that.
First of all, the thesis is really, really interesting. According to Grossman and the research he cites, most of what we think we know about combat is wrong. He starts with studies by M.A. Marshal that only 15-20% of American infantry rifleman in World War 2 combat situations actually fired their rifles at the enemy. He then uses a variety of historical research to argue that this number is pretty consistent throughout gunpowder warfare, citing studies by the Prussian military and body counts from the American Civil War. It's a claim that would require a lot of evidence to back it up, and I think that he does.
The reason, Grossman claims, is that there is within all of us a very, very powerful but unrecognized resistance to taking the life of another person. This psychological reaction can be bypassed using indirect killing (such as artillery, which accounts for most of the casualties), but when it comes to face-to-face confrontation, the traditional fight-or-flight model is replaced or at least augmented with two new intra-species reactions: posture or submit.
He then creates a psychological model of combat stress accounting for traditional factors (like fear of death or fear of letting your comrades down) but also the psychological stress required to force oneself to try and kill the enemy and also to bear the brunt of the "wind of hate" when that enemy tries to kill you.
Overall, this description of psychological resistance to killing is incredibly poignant, and is a testament to what is best in human nature. As Grossman writes: We may never understand the nature of this force in man that causes him to so strongly resist killing his fellow man, but we can give praise for it to whatever force we hold responsible for our existence.
The rest of the book is dedicated to a couple of corollaries or consequences of this model. First, Grossman provides a robust analysis of atrocities within war, arguing that they provide a short-term gain for armies that engage them at a significantly higher, long-term cost.
Next, Grossman turns to the ways that modern armies have learned to overcome the resistance to killing using standard operand conditioning techniques. These practices changed the number of rifleman willing to fire at the enemy in combat from 15-20% in World War 2 to 90-95% in Vietnam, but at great cost to the psychological health of soldiers who were deprived of many of the necessary coping mechanisms to deal with the resulting guilt and psychological trauma, such as long, slow troop ship voyages home, unit cohesion, and the thanks of a grateful nation. He argues that it was the veteran's ugly rejection back home (documenting this reaction as more than urban legend) that has caused an unprecedented plague of post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam vets, a condition that tended to arise after they arrived home and was therefore undetected during surveys of troops in the field. This historical analysis of the Vietnam War is as important as it is heartbreaking.
Lastly, Grossman tackles the issue of violence in our society as opposed to warfare. Here I think he stumbles for the first time. His basic premise is that modern entertainment mimics the same conditioning that soldiers go through in boot camp to desensitize them to killing other human beings, but without the safeguards such as respect for authority. He absolutely has a point, but his argument suffers from his lack of expertise. At the history and psychology of war, Grossman is an expert. When it comes to movie culture and video games, however, he is just an average, well-informed citizen. He makes a compelling case that we're failing to recognize an uptick in violence because of the corresponding increase in medical technology (i.e. there are more shootings, but they don't reported as an increase in the homicide rate because the victims survive), but then he also specifically argues that the worst conditioning of our youths comes from video arcades that feature toy guns attached to video games to simulate holding and firing a weapon in the game. The problem with that argument is that video arcades have been dying out and are virtually extinct. If that's the threat: problem solved.
So the book ends on a little bit of a low note, but it still had an incredible and lasting impact on me. It's definitely going on my list of the 5 most important non-fiction books for everyone to read.(less)
The third book in the Expanse series, coming after Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War was a solid conclusion to the trilogy. It was better than the fir...moreThe third book in the Expanse series, coming after Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War was a solid conclusion to the trilogy. It was better than the first, but not quite as good as the second.
One thing that is interesting about this series is that there's a really big back-story that just doesn't seem to matter that much. I don't think I've even mentioned it in the last two reviews. One of the perils of writing big plot setups is that the bigger they get, the easier it is for your characters to get lost in them. This is particularly true of sci fi, where the times (billions of years) and distances (billions of light years) are so vast it's easy for your characters to get lost.
Abaddon's Gate doesn't make that mistake, but it still can't keep both the characters and the plot in focus at the same time. As a result, the characters spend all of their time running around chasing down human-scale problems while the big plot unfolds behind them like a part of the scenery or setting instead of the plot.
I think that's a problem for this series, or at least it will be. The end of the book clearly has a setup for future books and projects, but I just don't really care very much at all about the setting. The characters never really interacted with the major events except to point out that they were so huge that they didn't feel there was much they could do or think about them. So they didn't. As a result, when the action comes to a close and the plot lines are tied up at the end of this book, I don't feel any real connection at all to the universe that was created, even though it was certainly well-crafted.
I don't really feel very well-connected to the characters, either. The overall feel of the setting seemed very reminiscent of Firefly, with a a ragtag crew running around trying to stay out of the way of the bigger political powers, but it didn't reach the emotional depths of Firefly. Sure, there were some nice moments between the crew members, but they were just so lost in the big, all-encompassing plot as opposed to sequestered away in an intimate setting that would have really fostered a focus on the interpersonal relationship.
In short: it's a solid, fast-paced, fun read. But now that it's over, it's slipping out of my memory without leaving much of an impact at all.(less)
I thought Leviathan Wakes was good, but not quite as good as the cover blurbs would indicate. It was a tightly-written, fast paced thriller but some o...moreI thought Leviathan Wakes was good, but not quite as good as the cover blurbs would indicate. It was a tightly-written, fast paced thriller but some of the key characters seemed oddly warped to fit the plot requirements.
Caliban's War, however, was an improvement. The surviving central characters from the first book are all back, but they seemed more naturally written this time around. Better still, a trio of major new characters are introduced, and all of them are more intrinsically interesting and naturally written than the characters from the first book.
In some ways, this book is almost a do-over of the first one. In that book, the plot is primarily driven by one man's determination to find a missing girl. This book also revolves around a man's determination to find a missing girl, but instead of cynical detective hunting for a stranger he has never met but is oddly obsessed with, we have a distraught father willing to do whatever it takes to find his kidnapped little 4-year old girl. This plot element is so stark that I started to wonder if the the third book was going to involve another lost girl, or if there was some kind of intentional theme structure being played with. If there is: I don't get it. All I know is that the tension felt much more real this time around.
So the father is one new character, and he's sympathetic and realistic. So are the other two new characters, a Martian marine and a UN politician. Both of them are multi-faceted and unique women who express strength and power in very, very different ways. I really enjoyed the female-centric cast in a genre (and sub-genre) that is so frequently dominated by male-oriented plots and characters. It didn't feel like political correctness to me. It felt fresh and right for the story. It felt like progress.
Caliban's War also had some of the same unusual twists on standard plot setups. I didn't give them away for the last book, and I won't give them away here, but I definitely enjoyed them.
All in all, Caliban's War was the high point to the series, in my mind.(less)
I picked up Leviathan Wakes because George R. R. Martin said "Interplanetary adventure the way it ought to be written." I'm not a fan of Game of Thron...moreI picked up Leviathan Wakes because George R. R. Martin said "Interplanetary adventure the way it ought to be written." I'm not a fan of Game of Thrones, but I will readily acknowledge that Mr. Martin can write.
I should note, however, that recommendations from favorite authors have not often led me in good directions. I bought not one but twoKaren Traviss Star Wars novels because Jerry Holkins (of Penny-Arcade said they were good. They were not good. They were among the worst novels I've ever read. Well, the first was. I refused to start the second, even though I'd paid for it. Similarly, I picked up Harry Connolly's first novel Child of Fire on the recommendation of Jim Butcher. Butcher is my all-time favorite contemporary writer, but apparently not my all-time favorite contemporary reviewer because I did not enjoy it.
Maybe writers aren't necessarily good readers? Maybe they feel obligated to help out their friends? I don't know. But in any case, Leviathan Wakes was definitely not up to the caliber of Martin's writing.
But it wasn't bad, either.
It follows the conventional forms for a space opera: lots of viewpoint characters, sweeping action across a wide range of settings, lots of travel from point A to point B and on to point C, and an expansive plot involving many different factions with diverse objectives engaged in military conflict. Oh yes: and an ancient evil (maybe?) mystery behind it all. As part of the new wave space opera tradition, however, there's no faster-than-light travel or communication and all the action is confined to the Solar System. (Which, in fairness, is an awfully big place without FTL technology.)
It was a fun book to read, but it never really got very far beyond that. Nothing in it really surprised me. The characters were distinct and well-defined (which is hard to pull off when you have a large cast and a lot of plot exposition to get in the way of introducing them), but somehow not very relatable. I think perhaps Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (the two authors behind the pen name James S. A. Corey) were trying a little too hard to make the characters easy to distinguish and veered slightly into caricature. A forgiveable lapse given their good intentions (and certainly better than the alternative), but still a lapse.
The primary protagonist for this novel, for example, has this bizarre idea that information always needs to be shared. It's very extreme, kind of dominates his character, and is never really very well articulated. It seems as though he's a bit of a puppet for the plot in that respect. One of the other primary protagonists is similar in that he has this bizarre motivation to track down a missing girl that never really makes sense. He's had lots of missing person cases: why does this one bother him so much? The best explanation is that it's necessary for the plot that he become obsessed, because nothing in his character really explains it and the relationship itself is never directly addressed. He apparently loves her, but is it romantic love or patriarchal love? He's old enough to be her father, so you can't really be sure which. And yes, that's sort of a creepy vibe. In addition, it just doesn't fit with the rest of his tough, cynical-cop persona because rather than come across as a soft-spot he's just as pragmatic and unemotional about finding her as about everything else.
In other words: the characters just didn't really make sense.
I will say that there is one exceptionally cool scene near the very end (kind of a riff off of a scene in the first episode of Firefly) that made up for a lot of sins in the book prior to that point, but at the end of the day this was a solid but unexceptional book. I had a hard time putting it down when I was reading it, but once I was done I couldn't really tell you what I'd read or what impact it had had. I can barely remember the plot already.
Still: it at least got me interested enough to read the next two books in the trilogy.(less)
Fuzzy Nation is John Scalzi's reboot of H. Beam Piper's 1962 Hugo-nominated novel Little Fuzzy. Did you know that they were doing "reboots" with books...moreFuzzy Nation is John Scalzi's reboot of H. Beam Piper's 1962 Hugo-nominated novel Little Fuzzy. Did you know that they were doing "reboots" with books now? Neither did I. In this case, "reboot" means that Scalzi took the plot and characters (with permission from the Piper estate) and then stuck the plot within the continuum of his own Old Man's War series.
I didn't know any of that before reading the book, and I haven't read the 1962 original, either. (I'm curious about it now, though). In short: you don't have to know any of this to enjoy the novel, either.
Scalzi is a master of eminently enjoyable and accessible sci fi. He writes the kind of science fiction that genre fans can enjoy (because he frequently revisits and revitalizes old tropes and ploys) but that folks who don't have sci fi as a staple of their literary diet can also easily dig into. Fuzzy Nation is a great example of this.
It's definitely light fare for the most part, with a series of improbable events and coincidences propelling an enjoyable but very linear narrative from captivating start to satisfying happy ending.
The one twist, and the reason that I rated this 4-stars instead of 3, is that Scalzi is not content to just execute a fun and familiar good guys win story. He throws in some wrinkles with his protagonist that percolate throughout the novel and then surface for an unexpected coda that adds a level of depth to the novel. We're not talking Dostoevsky, here, but it adds a little bit of substance to the book, and--although it was fun enough to begin with--the addition is an improvement.(less)
This book is shelved both under "non-fiction" and under "sci fi" because it's a collection of essays about speculative but realistic plans for coloniz...moreThis book is shelved both under "non-fiction" and under "sci fi" because it's a collection of essays about speculative but realistic plans for colonizing our own solar system.
It's a really important book for sci fi fans because the genre of space opera has been redefined in the last 10 years to change the scope from the kind of literally galaxy-wide stories of yesteryear (epitomized by Foundation and its sequels) to similar stories that are set purely within our solar system. Think of Firefly (the TV series) which--despite a lack of scientific concerns--made the interesting decision to set the entire series in a single star system. All the planets, moons, and so forth that you see orbit just one star.
That's the attitude that a lot of series have recently taken. One example is The Unincorporated Man and another is Leviathan Wakes. (These weren't the first of course, but it seems to be more of a trend recently.) Both of these imagine a densely populated solar system with major population centers on Earth, Mars, and additionally Jovian moons and key asteroids throughout the solar system. These books tend to fall under the "hard sf" tradition, meaning that they eschew far-fetched technology like faster-than-light travel (or communication). As a result, our own solar system becomes a much, much bigger place where it can easily takes weeks or months to travel from one major location to the next.
As a general rule I like this trend because it rejects some of the tropes of earlier science fiction that have, over the years, become increasingly impossible to ignore. For example: the single biome planet might not have raised too many eyebrows in Star Wars or Star Trek the Next Generation, but by 1987 the short story "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers" had pretty much buried this conceit. (And that was a big short story: it won the Hugo in 1988.)
(If you're not sure what a "single biome planet" is, think about how in Star Wars Tatooine was the desert planet, Hoth was the ice planet, and Degobab was the swamp planet. Then contrast that with the fact that on planet Earth we have lots of deserts, tundras, and swamps without having to travel to outer space to find them.)
So there's just a trend in sci-fi of sort of revisiting a lot of the assumptions that got a free pass in earlier generations and taking another crack, this time making them more "realistic". I don't think that there's any objective standard of realism that is better than others, but the roles this plays in science fiction is to keep familiar narrative forms fresh. Space opera (which is a sub-genre of sci-fi that involves big, political plots, lots of action, frequently lots of viewpoint characters, and always lots and lots of travel to exotic settings) seems new again when, instead of randomly named star systems, the characters are visiting Eros (a near-earth asteroid) or Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter).
And--if you want to understand that fiction or write some of your own--then this is a great book. It's actually designed as a non-fiction approach to realistic colonization attempts. I'm not sure that will work, because some of the basics still seem unsurmountable to me. If we don't have a thriving colony in Antarctica or under the sea, why would we expect to have a prosperous colonial economy based on settlements on the Moon or Mars? The excitement of going there is higher, yes, but the costs of getting there and living there are also much higher and the real kicker is that, if you grow up at 1/3rd gravity, you're probably never going to be able to come home. Nowhere is that problem really addressed. So, as a manual for colonization, I'm unimpressed. But as a summary of scientifically rigorous ideas for how we might do it: now that is where this book shines.
It's got 4 major sections, including technologies for getting out of Earth's gravitational well (like space elevators), plans for colonizing Mars, Venus, the outer Solar System and even the Oort Cloud, terraforming strategies, and finally a section on speculative methods of travel (none that are faster-than-light). So, for getting a solid grounding on hard sf set in the medium future in the Solar System, this book can't be beat.
That's a pretty narrow target, however, and for that reason I give the book 3 stars.(less)
I got this book for my birthday in May, 2013 but I set it aside initially because I had expected it to be an non-fiction historical account of the lit...moreI got this book for my birthday in May, 2013 but I set it aside initially because I had expected it to be an non-fiction historical account of the literary development of science fiction. Instead, it's a collection of short stories that bridge the gap between science fiction and literary fiction. Which, actually, is a really cool collection. So pretty soon I picked it up and gave it a read.
Now, I'm an avid defender of genre fiction as a general rule. Part of this reflects weakness of character on my part: a lot of the great works strike me as incredibly nourishing to my soul on a page-by-page basis, but don't have enough novelty to attract my attention. That's been true ever since I was a kid: I crave escapism in my fiction.
Part of this, however, reflects what I think is an accurate perception that "art" has become to some extent sterilized as a result of snobbery and specialization. I believe that a lot of works of genre fiction are also works of legitimate artistic merit, such as Dune or Ender's Game.
So what about the stories in this collection? Well, they run the gamut. This was the first time that I'd actually had a chance to read Ursula K. Le Guin's legendary "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". It was brutal to read, and just as powerful as its reputation suggests. Others, like "The Hardened Criminals" (by Jonathan Lethem) struck me as more of a miss than a hit but--and this is important--even the misses were ineresting misses.
It's been a couple of months since I finished the book (I'm catching up on my Goodreads reviews), but some others that stuck with me are:
Descent of Man, by T. C. Boyle
This is the second sci-fi story I've read about the convergence of chimpanzees and humans. In the other one (title escapes me) a scientist moves the consciousness of his dead child into a chimp. In this one, a man finds that he is suddenly unable to compete for the affections of his girl-friend with a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee. It sounds like the stuff of farce, but is told with unrelenting grimness, such as when the viewpoint character eats the brain of a small, live monkey with the his girlfriend and another couple on a double date. Fun? No, but--like I said--it sticks with you.
The Zigguraut, by Gene Wolfe
This was an incredibly odd story about a man living in an isolated cabin when he is visited by his ex-wife, their two children, and--soon thereafter--mysterious, stranded time-travelers. There are heavy undertones of gender relationships and the plot is just slightly surreal, but I haven't thought through it enough to have a coherent idea of what I think it is about.
Salvador, by Lucius Shepard
I think the only reason I remember this one is that I had read it before: it's the story of a young American soldier who is traumatized by combat experiences and hallucinogenic drug use in a fictional near-future war in El Salvador. It's historically interesting, given that it was written in 1984 and so clearly references Vietnam when, in 2013, readers are more likely to pair it with images of Iraq or Afghanistan.
Schwarzschild Radius, by Connie Willis
This was probably my favorite story, and it reminds me very much of Pamela Zoline's legendary 1967 short story "Heat Death of the Universe", in that it contrasts an apparently normal narrative of everyday events (the daily activities of a housewife in "Heat Death" vs. trench warfare from World War I in "Schwarzschild Radius") with a meditation on science (entropy in "Heat Death" and black holes in "Schwarzchild Radius").
There's something existentially satisfying and richly creative in the act of identifying the events of particular individual lives with the abstractions of ultimate scientific reality. I would really encourage everyone to read both short stories.
In any case, I don't recommend this as a "fun" book because (like a lot of the sci-fi that I love) it's not very accessible. But if you're at all interested in science fiction as literature, then this is basically an absolute must-read.(less)