Sirantha Jax is a rarity, a jumper: she's a carrier of the J-gene, enabling her to navigate grimspace and take spaceships with her through a pilot, drSirantha Jax is a rarity, a jumper: she's a carrier of the J-gene, enabling her to navigate grimspace and take spaceships with her through a pilot, dramatically decreasing the amount of time it takes to travel the galaxy. Jumping shortens her life expectancy but she's highly prized by the Corp - an arm of the mighty Conglomerate. She's also the only survivor of the disastrous crash of the Matins IV which killed her pilot and lover, Kai, as well as over 80 dignitaries on their way to meeting. She can't remember what happened but the Corp thinks it's her fault; they have her locked up and undergoing dream therapy - which she knows will make her insane sooner or later.
When a stranger comes to her cell with an offer of escape, it's not a hard choice, even though it means leaving everything she knows behind. The stranger, a man called March, wants her help in breaking the Corp's monopoly on interstellar travel by creating a new breed of jumper.
While at first glance Grimspace seems to be one cliché after another, it somehow reads fresh - perhaps because of the narrator, Jax. Jax is a mix of tough and vulnerable, a spoilt girl who doesn't even realise it until one too many are hurt because of her. She can fight dirty and has a smart mouth, but she also cares; battling her upbringing, her commiseration and her desire to live by her own rules for the first time in her life, she's a mess of grief, loneliness, anger, confusion and guilt. And she reads very much alive. We get right in her head and it's not a bad place to be.
Aside from Jax being a great but troubled heroine/protagonist, we also have March, who makes for a wonderful love interest/hero/bad boy character. Again, he's not an original character, but he is raw and touchable and very very appealing. At times acerbic and seemingly heartless, it takes Jax a while to figure him out. In the meantime, she has some fun messing with him: he's psy, and can read her mind. As her pilot, it makes jumping through grimspace even more intense and exciting than it normally is.
There's also, on March's ship, Dina the butch mechanic (yeah I hear you groan), Saul the doctor, and Loras, a non-human humanoid with a talent for languages and possibly more. The plot takes them to a non-human inhabited world (inhabited by amphibians), and an outpost run by a pirate, among other places. I liked the way the plot was often hijacked and went in a different direction - made it hard to predict what was going to happen, and added surprises, excitement and tension.
I do, however, have to add Ann Aguirre to my (thankfully short) list of authors who commit the big crime (in the grammar world) of using the comma splice. Dear lord semicolons are NOT that difficult to use!! The comma splice is so painful it makes me wince every time I come across it (Patrick Rothfuss, you're on this list too mate - it's my only complaint). Please, use a semicolon, a colon, a full stop, a dash, brackets, ANYTHING but a bloody comma! (And you'd think the comma was the easy mark to get the hang of, wouldn't you?!) Come on Aguirre, I know you know how to use the semicolon because there are some beautiful examples of it here.
Now that I've got that off my chest, I'll wrap up this review.
My only other, ah, "issue" is that Jax, who is thirty-three, reads more like a twenty-year-old, at most. There's a spunky, immature, stubborn, adolescent side to her that makes it hard to see her as a mature woman. Maybe that's not fair - it's not like you can't be sarcastic and a twit at any age over 25, hardly that. But as the narrator, she sounds like a teenager a lot of the time. I kept forgetting she wasn't. (The illustration on the cover doesn't help; she doesn't look much older than 17.) Her somewhat sheltered existence pre-crash probably adds to this, as she has no training beyond navigating grimspace and knows little about the "real world", despite having made first contact with several alien life-forms on newly discovered planets. But it's a small quibble.
Grimspace is a quick, fun, exciting read, with some amazing chemistry between Jaz and March, some none-so-obvious plotting, and the feeling of spiralling through space at dizzying speed (heightened by the use of the present tense, which creates a totally NOW feeling, and a measure of unpredictability). There's even a critique of human society, human privilege, as Jax faces her social conditioning.
I loved it, regardless of the clichés (or maybe even because of them?), and I'm definitely picking up the next book, Wanderlust tomorrow....more
Apparently a classic of the sci-fi cannon, I'd never heard of this book until it came up on a book club here. It took me a long time to read only becaApparently a classic of the sci-fi cannon, I'd never heard of this book until it came up on a book club here. It took me a long time to read only because of lack of time, and a rather annoying trait the author has that I'll go into later.
This is one of those books that tells us more about the period it was written in than anything else, so it's important to note that it was first published in 1961 and later again in 1968 - when moon fever was running high and people seemed to have high expectations for human achievement.
Events are set in an undisclosed future but the older characters seem to remember the first moon landing, so I wouldn't be surprised if Heinlein was thinking of it being set around about now. With a mix of very daggy technology like "stereo tanks" (TVs) and large, clumsy listening devices, alongside hover crafts and spaceships to Mars, the scope of the setting is hampered by a 50s' imagination.
Stranger in a Strange Land is about Michael "Mike" Smith, the "Man from Mars", offspring of two of scientists on board the original mission to Mars, who was raised by Martians. He is more Martian than human, especially in his thinking and outlook and philosophy, when he is brought back to Earth. Heir to a shitload of money care of his parents' heritage, it's unsurprising that the bigshots on Earth are wanting to keep him locked up tight. A nurse at the hospital where he is first kept, Jill, offers him a glass of water and in that one action becomes a "water brother" - the highest accolade for Mike. She rescues him from the politicians with the help of her journalist friend Ben and takes him to the home of a grumpy, reclusive man, Dr Jubal Harshaw, who lives with three young women who serve as secretaries - Anne, Miriam and Dorcas - and two men who take care of the property - Duke and Larry.
Mike's particular talents slowly reveal: he can vanish things, including people, if he recognises there is a "wrongness" in them; he can withdraw from his own body and shut down his body so there is no heartbeat; he can teleport and think telepathically; he can absorb books in minutes and regulate his own body, making it muscular and mature at will; and so on. All of this can be done with understanding of the Martian language, which Jill starts to learn.
He's completely ignorant of human ways, of human concepts - things like jealousy, possessiveness etc. are all alien to him. He doesn't understand religions and he has never laughed.
After months on the road with just Jill, learning and "grokking", he finally knows why humans laugh and how to do it himself, and gets the human condition. It leads him to start his own "church", though it's more of a way of life open to people of all religious denominations, with free love and open mindedness, and abilities gained through mastery of the Martian language. With Mike set up as a new Messiah, a prophet, there's only one logical conclusion for this story.
As a story, Stranger in a Strange Land is enjoyable and original. Yet, as a story, it's also bogged down with sermons, with Heinlein's opinions, and a very out-of-date mentality. It reads very 60s and 70s, though it was written before then. Not as far-sighted as it would like to be! It's especially noticeable in the relations between men and women, which have that faintly liberated tinge that's all really lip service, and a great deal of sexist language. Which is ironic, really, considering Mike's free love cult. There's also an affectionate insult for a Muslim character who's nicknamed "Stinky" that I couldn't help but be offended by.
It does make it hard to read, though, when you come across lines like this, as spoken by Jill very matter-of-factly: "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault." (p304) While today the statistics are more like "nine of ten times, a woman's rapist is someone she knows", the idea that it's "partly her fault" is still considered true by way too many people. To hear this come out of Jill's mouth makes it especially awful.
Another example is Jubal saying: "Pipe down, Anne. Close your mouth, Dorcas. This is not a time when women have the vote." (p382) Granted, they ignored him and did what they wanted anyway, but there're a lot of these flippant, dismissive remarks all through the book. Product of its times, sure: just not at all futuristic.
Then we come to the proselytizing, which the book is rife with. Today, reading this book, the opinions shared are very "yes, so?" - old hat, in other words. Though it is fun to read the rants, the set-up is cringe-worthy. Jubal is the main lecturer, and the characters around him serve as props. There are a great many "Huh?"s from educated and knowledgeable people so that Jubal can share his abundant wisdom. One "huh?" is okay, but when each long paragraph of Jubal is responded to with a "huh?" it gets a bit silly. Frankly, it's bad writing. It reminded me somewhat of The Da Vinci Code, which also uses characters to expound the author's theories on religion etc. at great length.
While these things did at times make it harder to read the book, essentially the book is easy to read and often quite fun too. Jubal's sermons (and when Jubal isn't around, other characters fill the role, like Ben and Sam) can be a bit heavy-handed and obvious but a lot of it I agree with, so it wasn't rubbing me up the wrong way. Mike is a challenging character to write, because in order to write a naive, ignorant character to this extent, you need to be incredibly self-aware. Heinlein has fairly good success here, and Mike's growth, maturation, development and resolutions fit the character and work. He has charisma and is definitely intriguing; yet because he lacks the human flaws, he's also somewhat unapproachable and alien: a good balance to achieve....more
Sometime in the future, the Earth has met the fate we are only now prophesying: the ocean has risen, the coastal cities have disappeared, all manner oSometime in the future, the Earth has met the fate we are only now prophesying: the ocean has risen, the coastal cities have disappeared, all manner of environmental disasters have occurred. In North America, the survivors created Panem, a Capitol city in the Rockies with 13 outlying Districts, each focusing on producing a different product for the Capitol: gems, coal, agriculture, fishing etc.
In Katniss' district, District 12, they mine coal. It's one of the poorest districts, a district that never stands a chance in the Hunger Games because the children are so starving. Since her father died in a mining accident when she was twelve, Katniss has hunted illegally in the forest, developing a formidable skill with the bow and arrow to bring fresh meat back to the town to trade for things for her family: her mother and her little sister Prim.
Now sixteen, Katniss finds herself in a nightmare predicament: against all odds, her twelve-year-old sister Prim has been selected as a tribute for the Hunger Games. After a rebellion amongst the Districts against the Capitol was ferociously put down years ago, the city instigated the Hunger Games as a deathly reminder that the working people of the Districts live by the Capitol's whim. The people of the Capitol treat the Games like the year's best entertainment, and are giddy with excitement to watch twenty-four children aged from 12 to 18 - a boy and girl from each District - kill each other before the cameras, and the victor is celebrated like a hero. In the Districts, winning the Hunger Games brings fame and food to your district, and the winner is set for life.
But Prim is only twelve, and aside from having her mother's knack at healing, has no survival skills. Katniss doesn't hesitate for a moment before volunteering to take her place.
Let the Hunger Games begin.
The YA field is ideal for exploring post-apocalyptic worlds and the changing, often brutal nature of humanity - I think because its readers, typically 13+, are at the age where they too are changing and discovering themselves as independent people. What more intense, vivid way is there to explore the great philosophical questions of human nature in an entertaining and gripping way than through post-apocalyptic fiction? In times of crisis and chaos and our own worst nightmares, we discover what we're made of.
The Hunger Games is a wonderful new addition to the canon. Leaning more toward sci-fi than fantasy with its advanced technology, it resurrects the horror people can inflict on each other that was so well captured in the short story "The Lottery"; the cruelty of pitting innocent children against each other that was so vividly brought to life in Battle Royale (not a YA book but one which is most similar to this); and the survival instincts and honour that can come to the surface when faced with a kill-or-be-killed scenario, which reminded me of one of my favourite series, John Marsden's Tomorrow series. I'm sure you can think of many more too.
Narrated by Katniss, it's a good guess that she survives (though I wouldn't have been surprised to have that expectation turned on me), since she does narrate in the present tense. That in itself is a somewhat unusual choice and I'm not entirely sure it worked here. Present tense is generally used to create more tension, a stronger feeling of "now" and of an unpredictable future - everything you need in the Hunger Games. Perhaps it was the incorrect use of the past tense "lay" instead of the present tense "lie" that cropped up constantly that jarred me? It certainly annoyed me! No, it was because, somehow, it read more like Katniss telling a story long after it had happened. I can't quite put my finger on how this could be, but it lacked the tension that other books using present tense have managed to capture, which was a bit disappointing.
The Hunger Games themselves were riveting, much like the grisly slaughter of Battle Royale but less gory. There were a couple of scenes that I wished I weren't eating breakfast over, but most of the deaths happen "off screen", as it were. What's more compelling is the class divide that gapes as wide as the jaws of Hell, the prejudice and persecution and the politics behind it all - I'm sure this will be more fully explored in the next books in the series.
I was a bit disappointed that the initial cause of the problems in this world, the environmental degradation and, ultimately, destruction, wasn't explored further - nor were the handy technological advances seen in the Capitol. Granted, it's not the focal point of the story, merely helps set up the premise, but I find the lack of personal responsibility and this assumption that someone will invent the technology to make everything better that I hear all around me today, is reflected between the lines of this novel. Things just magically appear in the Capitol, and isn't that our dream? To have the best our intellect can give us without any consequence? Yet, this book is all about consequences, just of a different sort of action. So this isn't a quibble about the story; it just made me think of the many flaws in our own world that, even after this particular "apocalypse", are still being repeated.
Katniss herself is a great protagonist, with spunk, survival skills that make us look helpless (few people know what's edible in the wild and what isn't, who aren't botanists, or what leaves draw pus from wounds etc.), and conflicting emotions that are no less familiar for the situation she's in. The scene with Rue and the bread from District 11 made me cry, but it was the memory Katniss retells of Peeta giving her the bread when they were children that won me over.
Like many new fans of Collins, I'll be eagerly waiting the second book in the series, Catching Fire, due out 1st September 2009....more
Seattle, 1879. Fifteen years ago a clever and talented inventor created a machine dubbed the Boneshaker, designed to mine for gold in the Yukon. InsteSeattle, 1879. Fifteen years ago a clever and talented inventor created a machine dubbed the Boneshaker, designed to mine for gold in the Yukon. Instead, he tunnelled under the city right into the banking district, causing whole sections of the city to cave in. After looting the banks he drove the machine back through the tunnels and into the basement of his fancy home, and was never seen again, leaving his pregnant wife with the stigma of Leviticus Blue's escapade.
Not only did the boneshaker destroy parts of the city, but from the underground tunnel came a gas, a gas that killed people or turned them into the walking dead, driven to attack and consume the living. In an effort to stop the gas from spreading further inland, the city built a giant wall around the contamination site, while the survivors stayed on in the outlying suburbs.
Now fifteen, the son of Leviticus and Briar Blue (now using her maiden name, Wilkes), Zeke, wants to turn his father into a hero instead of a widely-hated mad scientist. Zeke makes his way into the walled city, determined to find his parents' old house on the hill and discover something that will redeem Levi Blue in the eyes and minds of the population of Seattle. When she learns what he has done, Briar - a hardened, taciturn woman who slaves away at the water mains and endures endless "blue" taunts - follows him in, determined to rescue him. But finding Zeke in a city of zombies and other perils isn't easy, and when she encounters the folks who live in sealed tunnels under the city she learns of the mysterious inventor, Dr Minnericht, whose clever inventions have helped the people survive, even though they all think he's really Levi Blue, returned to the city he helped destroy.
This book came highly recommended by friends, and I want to say that I hope my review doesn't put you off reading it if you were so inclined before, but the sad truth is that I didn't really enjoy this book. I can't recommend it, but neither will I not recommend it. If that makes sense.
I love the premise. Colonial city beset by noxious gas, zombies and zeppelins. Sort of. Priest apparently took liberties with the city and with American history - I wouldn't have noticed if she hadn't pointed it out, somewhat defensively, in her Note at the back, and I don't care that she did - and added to the historical period a more inventive mechanical technology and nifty airships. The steampunk aspect is grimy, dirty, sooty, fiddly, weird and wonderful - all the things you would want from steampunk.
Then there's the horror blend - the zombies. They make the old city into a danger zone, a place of risk and death that the gas alone can't manage so spectacularly. The zombies are more visible, and definitely more audible. The trouble is, zombies have always bored me. I don't even find them very scary. They're mindless, and have only one goal; therefore they are predictable, and it's unpredictability that makes a character truly terrifying. Sure, one scratch and you lose your mind and become a walking corpse bent on eating human flesh, but that just somehow doesn't give me chills. I'm not saying I wouldn't be terrified if chased down a street by zombies, but I used to get scared in any game that involved being chased. Zombies just aren't clever. They might be hard to kill, but they're not hard to outsmart.
That's not what I had trouble with in this book, though. The trouble - or part of it - is Priest's writing style. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, she doesn't have bad grammar or use awkward sentences. It's more that it's the kind of style I expect - and get - when I read paranormal romance and even some fantasy - a simplistic style that wears on me and makes my eyes glaze over. It's not what I want when reading science fiction or speculative fiction. It was disappointing. Simplistic. The characters fell flat for me, their dialogue bored me (and there's lots of dialogue). Zeke was a realistically annoying and petulant fifteen year old who did mature somewhat by the end of the book; it still made me tired of hearing him whine and always try to have the last word - and really, how stupid is he to go off into the blighted walled city in the first place? Briar should have been the ideal protagonist, being a tough woman in a hard world who's come a long way from the pretty, young trophy wife of Leviticus Blue. But she has no personality.
The bond between mother and son was a brittle, thin thing, but it was realistic for the characters and their history and the adventure of the novel definitely made them closer. Briar thawed too, but I still found her empty. Both Briar and Zeke take turns offering perspective in their individual chapters, and both have the kind of inner introspective, wondering voices that bugs me in pulp fiction. The characters of Briar and Zeke are just so self-indulgent and into analysing every little thing, that I struggled to keep reading.
First of all, [Zeke] had little patience for being told what to do by anyone, much less a stranger who appeared to be inebriated and looking to become further inebriated at the nearest opportunity. Second, he had deep-seated doubts as to why this man who'd initially greeted him with threats of bodily harm might be moved to help. Zeke didn't trust Rudy, and he didn't believe much of what Rudy had told him.
And furthermore, he didn't like him. (p.94)
(Ah, the ubiquitous, standalone climactic sentence. When overused, as the trend is in genre fiction these days, it quickly becomes aggravating and one of my big pet peeves.)
Someone behind Briar gave her back a friendly pat. It startled her, but there was nothing salacious about the gesture so she didn't flinch away from it. Besides, this was more friendly human contact than she'd had in years, and the pleasantness of it smoothed the keen, guilty edge of her sorrow. (p.190)
See what I mean? There's nothing actually wrong with the writing (except for the too-free use of climactic standalone sentences); it just is too much like the mindless, formulaic writing that pervades genre fiction and makes me more and more jaded. I've become quite snobby about this because of some truly terrible books that I've read, and any similarity just makes my lip curl.
Then there's the plot, and the narrative. It's slow, and painstaking. A single scene can take pages while the protagonist overthinks everything, and everyone's every arm movement and eyebrow twitch are noted. I love detail in books and generally prefer it to books with not enough detail (though the writing style plays a big part - sometimes less is definitely more) - but somehow the detail here was not the kind that engages me. I can't tell if it's the details themselves or the way they're shared. Many of the descriptions I had a hard time following, and picturing: the words used or the way things were described, I'm not sure but either way I was often confused. There were some details that weren't explained - or they were but I didn't notice. Like, where does the inner city get the coal that they need to keep the furnaces going constantly? As far as the rest of the city goes, no one knows that anyone still lives inside the wall. And why? Why are the "Chinamen" there, and why do they take the responsibility of keeping the bellows going? Why did Rudy kill one of them? Did anyone else notice that Briar and Zeke go for what amounts to two or three days without eating or drinking anything beyond a bit of water and a fig (or was it a date?)? Or sleeping? Or toilet breaks for that matter? These questions are some of the ones that bothered me, and the map didn't actually helped because it seemed like the characters were going all over the place for no real reason.
On the other, more positive hand, the Seattle of Boneshaker is pretty fleshed out, solid and tangible (the walled-off part, anyway). The writing is clear, clean, and the plot is headed is a firm direction, even if it does take forever to get there. The truth of Leviticus Blue is a tad predictable, but Minnericht was the scariest thing about the story. The typeface is a lovely dirty brown colour on off-white paper that ties in perfectly, and there are some really nice details. I liked some of the minor characters better than the two main protagonists. And it was refreshing reading a steampunk novel not set in Victorian London.
By the end, though, I was just relieved to have finished it. The sequels are already out, Clementine and Dreadnought, but I'm not planning on reading it. The characters, the city, the problem of the gas and the zombies, just didn't engage me enough to care about them and want to hear how the larger story is resolved. I'm probably the only person who didn't love this book, and no doubt my complaints don't make sense or seem ludicrous; the truth is, I haven't been looking forward to writing this review and it's been weeks since I finished it, but this is what stands out for me. It might be more enjoyable for people who haven't read a lot of pulp fiction, or those who love that style. ...more
There are a few rare books - like The Chrysalids - where I've said in my review: If there's one book you should definitely read this year, it's thisThere are a few rare books - like The Chrysalids - where I've said in my review: If there's one book you should definitely read this year, it's this one. That's my strongest, most enthusiastic endorsement, brimming with excitement and the need to share a piece of genius with as many people as possible, and it's very much the case for Beckett's Genesis.
Fourteen-year-old Anaximander has been studying hard for several years with her tutor, Pericles, for her examination to get into the prestigious Academy, to be one of those who help guide the nation. For her exam, she has focused on her most prominent interest: Adam Forde, a rebel and a hero from an age long gone, in 2075 when the country was a Plato's republic of philosopher-rulers, soldiers, technicians and labourers, the population divided at birth into rigid class lines, all after closing its borders - literally - to the rest of the world as the only place free of the plague that decimated other countries in the 2050s.
Her exam is four hours long, and the three stone-faced examiners are intimidating and exacting. But Anax is well prepared, and she knows her subject matter so well, that she's modestly confident.
Over the course of the exam, we learn through their questions and answers how the new republic was established, and what Adam Forde's role in it was. But with every detail we learn, more and more questions arise, because we, the readers, lack Anax's context, her knowledge of the present. Is it the same country? Is this society still in place or have things changed? We begin with zero knowledge, and must build an understanding of this futuristic world bit by bit. Or rather, we think we know, and we work on our defaults, picturing and understanding things in the only way we can, only to have these details constantly confounded, dismantled, leaving us to scrabble around for a new understanding to fit the new knowledge, upon which we build more - like a house of cards, there is every danger that a foundation card will collapse and bring the whole lot down. This is not a work of "fluff" - it is easy to read but it is not a lazy read. You the reader will be actively involved, every step of the way, in putting this story together. And I love that.
There are plenty of times where I'm happy to just sit back and let a story tell itself, to let it reveal itself at its own pace and in its own words. But always I want to participate in the story at some level: I can't read and not think. Genesis is the antithesis of the thinking novel. It will make you think, yes, but it will also make you involved, make you participate. You are an active reader, and that's important because it's a deeply philosophical story that's intensely thought-provoking and mentally absorbing, and the one thing missing from the experience for me is a group discussion at the end of it. (This novel would be perfect for high school English students.)
For such a short novel, there is a LOT going on here, and it's a very clever, unique and original story. Aside from creating a futuristic, post-apocalyptic dystopian society (home of Adam Forde), as well as sketching in Anax's own world (which we're unsure, for most the book, of the exact connection or why Forde is seen as a hero), it also delves into philosophy - especially the nature of being, but also the idea of an ideal society - and history. As a history (and English) teacher, I love a work of fiction that gets across how nuanced history is, how unfixed it is. Likewise, I get so angry when I read a book, especially a YA novel, or watch a movie or TV show that, simply out of laziness perhaps, perpetuates the stereotype of the bad History class and teacher, where students are lectured endlessly about famous events and expected to memorise dates and names. That is not what history is about at all! If you've ever had a secondary school teacher who did that, you deserve an apology. Not to mention that it puts people off history, the subject, and gives them the idea that's its boring and even alienating. Such a shame.
But I digress. The society that Adam Forde grew up in is indeed based on Plato's Republic - and funnily enough was set up by a guy (a rich businessman) named Plato, though whether he assumed this name in sheer ironic arrogance is up to the reader to infer. I never did finish that book, but I read over half, enough to recognise the inspiration. And like with any utopian society, it quickly becomes a dystopia.
The problem facing the Council of Philosophers was inevitable. In its beginnings, The Republic had planted the seeds of its own destruction. Plato's first dictum, which opens The Republican Charter, reads as follows:
It is only in the State that the People may find their full expression. For the people are the State, and the State is the People.
The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth.
The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.
The founders believed that by removing the child from the family, and the partners from each other, they could break down the usual loyalties, and replace them with loyalty towards the state. But there were many unintended effects. The people were forced to live in large single sex communes. They ate, played, slept and worked together and they talked to one another. The Republic had established an incubator for new ideas. Although The Republic could control the information pumped into the communes, it could not control the way information changed shape inside the heads of the women and men that it visited. [pp65-6]
With the threat of the plague outside its mighty fence and over the ocean receding, The Republic sought to create a new threat, and used Adam Forde to do it. It didn't work, and for his reduced sentence he is used instead in a new robot project: to work with Art, an android that thinks and develops its own mind through interacting with others. Having spent all its time so far with the one Philosopher who designed it, its creator decided to use Adam as Art's new full-time companion.
From there we get to what the book is ostensibly all about: the question of what makes a human, a human, and whether a robot can ever be treated equally, with a soul. The conversations - arguments I should say - between Adam and Art are the real meat of Genesis, though certainly not the only part of the book that makes you think. The one flaw in it is the connection between The Republic and the drive to build a real working robot, or android. I don't know whether I somehow missed it or if indeed it wasn't fully explained, but I wasn't sure where this ambition came from or what it had to do with The Republic. But it's a small side issue.
In western culture, there has long been a philosophical debate about artificial intelligence, resulting in many famous movies and books. You'd think that after so much discourse on the topic, there wouldn't be anything more to add - but in fact, since there's no answer or solution to the possible ethical dilemma, there is endless room for musing. Beckett would have to have written one of the most original and hard-hitting takes on the matter in the last, oh I don't know, twenty years? There have been some fantasy novels come out in the last few years that also explore, or make use of, this subject-matter (e.g. The Windup Girl, The Alchemy of Stone), but nothing like this. However, if you enjoyed this, or you're interested in the topic, I absolutely have to recommend I, Robot by Isaac Asimov - it's really, really good.
There is much that is insightful in this novel, and going back to the concept of ideas, I want to leave you with this quote from Art, speaking to Adam, in his argument as to why he's just as, if not more so, alive as Adam:
'You people pride yourselves on creating the world of Ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Idea enters the brain from outside. It rearranges the furniture to make it more to its liking. It finds other Ideas already in residence, and picks fights or forms alliances. The alliances build new structures, to defend themselves against intruders. And then, whenever the opportunity arises, the Idea sends out its shock troops in search of new brains to infect. The successful Idea travels from mind to mind, claiming new territory, mutating as it goes. It's a jungle out there, Adam. Many ideas are lost. Only the strongest survive.
You take pride in your Ideas, as if they are products, but they are parasites. Why imagine evolution could only be applied to the physical? Evolution has no respect for the medium. Which came first, the mind or the Idea of the mind? Have you never wondered that before? They arrived together. The mind is an Idea. That's the lesson to be learned, but I fear it is beyond you. It is your weakness as a person to see yourself as the centre.' [pp121-2]
In the end - and without giving anything away - we find that Anax's society has solved the problem that faced The Republic, and it is sad, truly sad. Leaving us with what is not said, an Idea of what makes us human, or what makes humans different, if not better. Beckett cleverly reveals a truth without directly saying a single word - the answer to Art and Adam's debate is the very ending of the book. Genesis is pure genius, in that regard.
At the end, though, I was left with some unanswered questions - questions that weren't answered probably because they weren't relevant, and wouldn't have fit into Anax's exam. I still wonder, like: what happened to Eve? And what is the state of the rest of the world, now? If such details could have been incorporated, it would have solidified the world-building even more.
On a final note, be careful what reviews you read. At a glance, I can say that there are some that give away too much, including the twist ending - yes, there is a twist, I knew that going in so I will pass that much along; it was ever-present in my mind and I had several theories, one of which was the true one, but I didn't get too distracted figuring it out, and the real ending was the real surprise for me. I first heard of this book through Bree (All the Books I Can Read), and I have to really thank her for her great review, which led me to read this terrific book.
Go on, get it, read it, what are you waiting for?...more
Merlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging frMerlin wakes up in a helicopter that has crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead, there's a metal collar around her neck with a broken chain hanging from it, and her memories are patchy and impersonal. Not to mention that these memories - memories of the world as we know it - do not match the world in which she finds herself: asphalt roads almost disappeared beneath grass, crumbling buildings and skyscrapers swallowed up by vigorous forest. It is silent and deserted, and Merlin wanders lost and confused until she meets Ford, a young man who looks nothing like the people in her memories.
So begins Scatterlings, one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors. It's fantasy with, I guess, a sci-fi bent, and philosophical underpinings. I love the twist at the end. Ok, it's not a "twist" like in Fight Club, but it's a perfect resolution to the mystery of Merlin.
I was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, whicI was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, which is a devastating ice world, and avoiding High Summer, so hot it kills everything in its path, West of January is highly original and superbly written. Not only is the world divided into Months and Days, each a particular climate steadily moving west, but the inhabitants are very segregated, each following the same patterns every cycle, never learning from the previous one (that often ends in disaster) because they do not pass their knowledge down.
Knobil is born into the savage herder race, where family groups of several women and their children belong to one dominant male, slowly making their way across the grasslands with their huge stupid beasts that must be constantly walked. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he is obviously the child of an Angel, a group of men of various races who live in Heaven, hoarding knowledge, and travel in their chariots trying to prevent disaster every cycle by getting different groups through the passes or around water to safety.
When he reaches puberty he avoids his destiny - being sent out with one of his many sisters, who he may trade with a girl from another herd to start his own - by falling in with an Angel. This starts his own awakening, and his determination to reach Heaven and become an angel, something he must do alone. This goal loses its importance when he is taken in by the sea folk and starts fathering children left right and centre. When the sea begins to dry up as High Summer approaches, he looks for passage south for his adopted family but is caught by Ants. Ants, miners who use captives as slaves to mine in the temperate southern parts of the world, are brutal, and Knobil spends several years merely surviving.
He is sold, because of his blond hair and blue eyes, to the traders, whose men are small and crafty and the women are huge and stupid, but doesn't find out why until it is too late. His adventures continue, but I don't want to give everything away!
In the course of his journeys, Knobil examines and confronts stereotypes, elitism, and learns not only the history of people on this strange planet but also that things are transient, and changeable....more
Genly Ai is an envoy, a messenger from the Ekumen, a community of worlds peacefully trading with each other. The young man is an envoy to a new worldGenly Ai is an envoy, a messenger from the Ekumen, a community of worlds peacefully trading with each other. The young man is an envoy to a new world they call Winter, which the inhabitants call Gethen. Even as a world among many different worlds, Gethen is unique. Still locked in its Ice Age, the people are what could be a long-abandoned experiment: they are asexual, neither male nor female, but both female and male. Every twenty-six days they individually enter a state called "kemmer", during which they take on either a male or female sexual role, their bodies changing to allow them to mate and have children.
The rest of the time, they are non-sexual. Ai likens them, at times, to eunuchs, and finds them disturbing, while they consider him to be a pervert, permanently locked in kemmer.
Having landed his ship in the kingdom of Karhide, Genly Ai is taken under the wing of the prime minister, Lord Estraven, only to be seemingly betrayed by him when he finally meets the king, Argaven. Estraven himself is branded a traitor and flees to the neighbouring - and, in a way, more advanced - country of Orgoreyn, a land of bureaucrats. Finding Argaven disinclined to welcome a treaty with the Ekumen, Ai journeys to Orgoreyn, where Estraven - his one real ally - has paved the way for him.
But like Argaven, the bureaucrats of Orgota are too afraid to take the plunge, many fearing it's a hoax and they'll lose face with Karhide. Instead, they have Ai arrested and sent to a "voluntary farm", a kind of concentration camp from which only one person would even care to rescue him from: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. In this deadly cold world, a world of contradictions and obscurities, a land stripped bare by the glaciers and blizzards, Ai's own perceptions are subtly altered, his understandings and assumptions of people are confronted, by the unique puzzle of a genderless people.
I first read this while living in Japan, about six years ago, and while I couldn't articulate exactly what my problems with the book were at the time, I was left feeling decidedly bothered, disappointed and even angered a bit. I find that my emotional response and reader's response to the book hasn't changed at all, this second time around. I can only hope that, this time, I can articulate why I find it so disappointing and, dare I say it, unworthy.
This isn't a review I was looking forward to writing. It would be so much easier if, like so many other people, I loved this book. But I don't and I can't. When you dislike a popular book, a canonised book - a "masterpiece" and an "instant classic", according to other reviewers - naturally part of you wonders whether you're just not getting it, whether you're not bright enough or clued-in enough, or whether you're placing unnecessary or unfair demands and expectations on it. But really, I don't think so. The downside of any book bearing the hefty label of "classic" is that it's going to be more closely scrutinised than other books, and readers will come to it with some naturally high expectations. While any understanding of any text can be improved upon by study and dialogue, initial impressions and a "layman's" analysis is still perfectly valid.
I have several, inter-connected problems with this book. While there are some elements I like, that fascinate me, overall I find the effort disappointing.
The big draw for this book is the "bisexual" aspect of Gethen's human population, the unusual nature of their bodies, their ability to be both mother and father in a single lifetime. While this is indeed a fascinating concept and a premise that makes you eager for insight, Le Guin just never manages to really come to grips with it.
We are a society, a species, that is hugely influenced by gender. So when you remove such an integral part of our various cultures, our understanding of life and sin and the rest of it, it is hard for us to imagine what could possibly be left - especially when you remove, along with it, the ever-present sexual tension and sexual awareness that infuses all our relationships, conversations, interactions. Le Guin envisages a people who know no war, who work and change slowly and carefully, who are at times beset by the (negative and clichéd) traits of women but none of the strength and decisiveness of men - a bland people who don't seem to make friends or have a sense of humour or play (all things that could be attributed to life on a harsh, inhospitable planet - except that, the opposite could happen just as easily).
Le Guin perfectly captured a very different people and attitude and way of speaking and interacting, but shied away from some of the bigger questions and from really delving into this, into what this creates. I would have expected this, if she had presented a profound issue/question/analysis of our own society or attitudes and left it to her readers to think about, but this is a very empty book, and the nature of the human population on Gethen is handled in a vague, offhand manner.
Yes, this is speculative fiction; yes, it's a product of its times and was, I'm sure, "groundbreaking" at that time; and yes, you need to take that into consideration - that's too obvious to need pointing out. But I find it worrying that so many books - "classics" - escape a closer, rational inspection simply because they are such treasures, and any critique is easily dismissed as a product of its times. I would think that less is truly learned from a text by simply accepting it as it is, by not analysing and critiquing it. No book, not the Bible or the Koran or Lord of the bloody Rings, is untouchable, and human minds grow stagnant by not questioning.
My problem is this: Le Guin has created a sexless people, for all intents and purposes, who are neither female nor male, but uses the terms "he", "man" etc. to capture and identify them. These are powerful pronouns and nouns. The old argument that "man" (or "Man") meant all people, both genders, is complete crap. It never did and never will. It bespeaks to the more powerful gender, the one in control. It is naturally selective and singular, and historically comes from a highly patriarchal society. All obvious points.
Now, this is my own paradox of sorts: does Le Guin achieve more by having Genly Ai and all the people of Gethen use "he", "brother", "man" etc., or would taking the Fantasy route and using a newly made-up, local word be more telling, more disorientating, more profound? I lean towards the latter, though part of the problem is that I really, honestly, do not know what Le Guin was trying to achieve with this book. If it is meant to show us the narrow confines of our own language, attitudes, labelling system, well, okay, but it's weak. Ai is from a future well in advance of our own, and it's disheartening to hear so much gender bias coming from him. But I can't tell if it's Ai, or Le Guin (or the 60s).
The end result is that, despite many reminders that they are genderless, using "he" etc. firmly settles the idea in my mind that this is a society of men - the ultimate society, in a way, a society that has got rid of women once and for all since the one thing above all others that women and women alone can do - childbirth - is no longer the provenance of women. Yes, this creates a fascinating study, but it is unsatisfactorily studied and throughout it the use of "man" etc. shackles it, enslaves it, as does Ai, who attributes all Gethenian weaknesses to their "feminine" side.
The English language has great potential and great flexibility, but in some words it is completely short-sighted and inflexible. The gender-specific pronouns are perfect examples of this. They are horribly confining, and we've yet to create a asexual alternative. I wonder whether this book would have been more deserving of its "masterpiece" status if it had taken that extra step, and truly confronted sexual stereotypes and our whole way of thinking - even though it is narrated by Ai.
It would have been far more interesting to see what a truly genderless society could achieve (or not) when they are not obsessing about sex all the time. Sex invades and defines so much of what we do, say, wear, think etc., that removing it presents an amazing opportunity to strip away this major aspect and, well, see what's left.
Parts of the story are also told by Estraven, through his journal entries. Getting this insight into the mind of a Gethenian would have provided an amazing opportunity to explore a non-gendered mind - but sadly we learn little that's new (though it's interesting to see how he perceives Genly).
This is my disappointment: I am not made to think or question, by this novel. My perception of my own society is not confronted; I learn nothing new about it. "It is a novel of ideas", they say, and yes it is. But with so much focus on the planet itself, so much time spent describing the ice-bound world and how to survive in it, as interesting as that is, you can't help but feel that whatever idea Le Guin was trying to explore became completely lost in the wilderness. A profound idea, unexploited. Leaving behind a book that struggles to have anything interesting to say.
Plotwise, there's little, but there are moments that never fail to grab me: the work prison Ai is sent to, and the return to Karhide and the ensuing tragedy, which I had completely forgotten about and so was taken by surprise - the first and only time in the novel that I felt truly emotionally engaged.
The only other thing I'll take the time to mention, is that the prose does a weird thing at the beginning. Ai is reporting his experiences as Envoy, but begins his tale is a very odd present-tense. This switches to past tense abruptly, for no apparent reason, and while it took me a few paragraphs to notice, it left me with a weird feeling like I'd eaten something bad. ...more
Wow. The movie was pretty full-on, the book perhaps more so (the book came first). I finished reading it last night and it's still revolving around inWow. The movie was pretty full-on, the book perhaps more so (the book came first). I finished reading it last night and it's still revolving around in my head.
The gist of the plot is this: in an alternate present-day Japan, 50 grade 10 classes from across the country are forced into the Program, a Government-run initiative designed to subdue the population. The students in these classes are gassed while on a "study trip", and wake up in isolated locations - in this story, a tiny island - with collars around their necks, and are ordered to kill each other.
There are 42 students in Shirowai Junior High School Class B. Some of them are playing the game. No one can trust anyone. And there can only be one survivor. Each student is given a bag, containing water, bread, map, flashlight and a weapon. Weapons range from all-out machine guns to a fork. Let no one say the perverted government in this story doesn't have a sense of humour! While officials place bets on who will win, the students must avoid the Forbidden Zones, or else their collars will explode, each other, and the deadline. If no one dies within 24 hours, everyone's collar will explode.
The novel follows the students as they hide around the island, keeping track of the body count - or, rather, of those who remain - at the end of each chapter. The hero is Shuya Nanahara, who is determined to keep Noriko alive, first for the sake of his best friend who had a crush on her, who was the first to die, and later because he falls in love with her. They are helped by Shogo, who, in a truly sick twist, was the previous year's winner. Because he was so badly injured, he fell behind and had to repeat a year at another school, putting him once more at risk of being in the Program all over again. But this time, Shogo has a plan, and if Shuya and Noriko can bring themselves to trust him, they just might be able to beat the system.
This is one violent book! While the movie was pretty gory too, we are getting pretty desensitised to graphic scenes of violence these days, but it is less usual to come across them in books. It is not sexually graphic at all, though some of the things that happened to a few of the characters when they were younger is sickening to read about. But this book isn't really about violence. It's about how we respond to unlikely, terrifying situations. It's about our humanity, our efforts to think well of others, our trust issues, and love.
I recommend this book to anyone who was affected by Lord of the Flies (it has similar themes), and anyone not easily sickened by gory scenes. There were only one or two scenes that made me really grimace, most just made my heart clench for the characters' dire situations. What I love about these kinds of stories is the trapped feeling. It reminds of the movie Cube. (Watch it with a friend, I watched it alone and had a great deal of trouble sleeping afterwards!) In that movie, a seemingly random group of people are trapped within a giant, moving cube, containing smaller cubes all linked on every side, top and bottom. Some are death traps. The really scary thing about the entire concept is that, there is no reason behind it. It's completely - what's the word - it's slipped my mind, but I want to say that although there is a shadowy figure behind it all, there's no point. Although Takami has gone to the effort of making the Program slightly logical - to its creators, anyway - the movie was perhaps more effective for making it seem completely arbitrary.
Anyway, this isn't everyone's cup-of-tea, and it would have benefited from a good proof-reader (it's riddled with typos and grammatical errors, small enough to read over), but if you're interested in the darker, psychological side of things, this is one truly fascinating "experiment"....more
Aimed at the adult science fiction crowd, as opposed to the Young Adult Twilight fanbase, The Host isn't about science or where the human race is headAimed at the adult science fiction crowd, as opposed to the Young Adult Twilight fanbase, The Host isn't about science or where the human race is headed, but about what it means to be human, here and now.
Earth has been quietly, non-aggressively conquered by a kind, pacifist species unable to lie or deceive, who go by different names on different planets in different languages. Here they call themselves "souls", while the rebel humans who have slipped through the net call them "parasites". They are silvery, ribbon-like sentient creatures small enough to hold in two hands, covered in feathery antennae. Inserted into the back of a host body's skull, they take over a host's mind and motor functions to the point that the host's mind is completely subsumed: in effect, killing them.
That is, until Earth, where the hosts fight back.
Wanderer has lived full life cycles on nine other planets - a record among her kind - before taking a human host, a young woman called Melanie. Unfortunately, Melanie's not going away without a fight, and on top of the gamut of new and intense human emotions Wanderer must contend with, she also struggles to take complete control of her host and find the memories Melanie's keeping from her - memories of her brother Jamie and the man she loves, Jared. They'd managed to elude the alien takeover, until Melanie was caught. As Wanderer gradually gets to know and understand Melanie, she dreams more and more of Jared and Jamie until she finds herself ruled by Melanie's desire to find them, a desire stronger than the need to keep them safe from the parasites.
While the story is very different from Twilight, the writing is much the same, and there are certain qualities in the characters that are becoming almost Meyer trademarks. I can already hear the same complaints and criticisms as I've read regarding the other series, but I'm not sure what these people are expecting - highbrow literature? The earth to move beneath their feet? Some people are never happy, and will often read a book determined to hate it. With one book they complain that something was mentioned and then seemingly forgotten, in another that something was repeated too many times. Personally, I didn't have a problem with the repetition in Twilight and I don't have a problem with it here.
I think the first readjustment to my assumptions was with the alien race and Wanderer in particular. When I read about the book last year, I assumed the aliens are aggressive and cruel and the humans would be portrayed as humane and vulnerable. That's how it usually goes, after all, though I don't care for it. The opposite is true here however: the humans are portrayed as greedy, deceitful and violent - which we are, pretty much, especially when cornered - while the souls are kindly, generous, non-suspicious, terrified of humans and - apart from the Seekers - couldn't harm a fly. Especially Wanderer. It's not easy having a pacifist as your main character and narrator, especially one who's easily scared. But Wanderer has her moments of strength too, and resourcefulness, as well as her moral dilemma which is what really carries the story.
Regarding the other characters, I really didn't like Jared, and Wanderer's attraction to him is one of the weakest points of the story. The point is made that she loves him because her body, Melanie's body, loves him and responds to him, and her mind too in a way. But it just didn't gel for me, probably because he doesn't come across well. His own dilemma - that the woman he loves is trapped inside a body ruled by an alien - gives him some excuse, but really, what's this thing Meyer has about women loving men who treat them horribly? Edward was pretty mean to Bella in the beginning, remember? Anyway, I liked Ian early on and it was pretty frustrating, the way Wanderer treated him etc.
The themes of the novel are pretty obvious, and definitely well-meaning, but still interesting. Questions of whether humans deserve to live on when we are so cruel to each other, and waste resources etc. The souls don't even use money, they take only what they need, and treat everyone with the same kindness. This raises the age-old issue of individuality, which is often the victim - and the ace up humans' collective sleeve - in such stories. The same theme was explored in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies/Pretties/Specials trilogy, for example.
Definitely one of the things I liked about this book was the conflict between Melanie and Wanderer, having two minds in one body with one more dominant than the other. It reminded me of Annon and Riane in Eric van Lustbader's Pearl Saga, a boy in a girl's body whose individual identities are slowly merging yet still conflicting - written so well, I think Lustbader created a whole new gender. It's simpler here because they're both female, but other problems arise because of it - like loving the same man, or of Wanderer wanting to respond to Ian but unable to because her host body lusts after another man. Among other things ;)
Because I didn't like the characters as much as I did in Meyer's Twilight series, I didn't fall in love with this book. It's an oft-times exciting story, with moments of tension and uncertainty, but I would have liked to understand the souls more - I didn't really understand where they came from or how they came to be, it's kind of like the chicken-or-the-egg: if souls can't survive without host bodies, how did they come to be? How did they get inside their first hosts? - and it was a tad bit heavy-handed on the moralising. Not enough to annoy me, but it's there nonetheless.
In short, if you enjoyed the Twilight series, you'll probably enjoy this because it means Meyer's style won't aggravate you; if, on the other hand, you didn't enjoy them, and you have bitched and moaned about her writing style like so many other people, I'd rather you didn't read The Host, not 'cause your criticisms will be wrong, but because you're missing the story. I should know, I've bitched and moaned about books I don't like often enough before. But I don't usually go on and read more books by the same author, unless I'm hoping they'll have improved. And I think Meyer's writing is improving, but it is what it is: simple, unadorned, reflective, introspective (but not too much), and clear. Even the repetition is necessary, which I think is true of Twilight as well....more
Three hundred years after an apocalyptic-sized disaster that reshaped the world, Tally is about to turn 16 and pretty. In her contained, isolated, selThree hundred years after an apocalyptic-sized disaster that reshaped the world, Tally is about to turn 16 and pretty. In her contained, isolated, self-sufficient city - just like all the other contained, isolated, self-sufficient cities - the operation to make her pretty will be intensive, extreme and, as far as she and everyone else alive is concerned, absolutely worth it. Once she's pretty, she'll go to live across the river in New Pretty Town and party the nights away, loved by all.
It's a shock to her, then, to find that her friend Shay doesn't want to be pretty, and doesn't think she's ugly now. Of course she's ugly - everyone's ugly before the operation. But Shay runs away to the mysterious, secretive Smoke where her friend David awaits, leaving Tally a set of cryptic directions in case she changes her mind and decides to go too. But Tally has no intention of running away: turning pretty is all she wants, so she can be with her friend Peris again across the river, and be noticed and listened to because beautiful people cannot be ignored.
But on the day of her own operation, she is taken instead to Special Circumstances, where cruel pretties with lethal reflexes bring her to Dr. Cable. They want to know about Shay and the Smoke and where it is located, but Tally keeps her promise not to tell. Even when Dr. Cable tells her she won't get the operation and be turned pretty until she does what they ask, she does not yield. Not until Peris unexpectedly visits her in Uglyville, and reminds her of the promise she made him, that she would be with him again, a promise that predates the one she made Shay. Latching onto this ray of hope - for she doesn't want to stay ugly the rest of her life - Tally is sent to spy for Special Circumstances and give them the location of the Smoke by sending a transmission via a heart pendant given her by Dr. Cable.
When she arrives, though, it's not that simple. Yes, the people are all ugly, and that takes a while to get used to. But there's something else about them, something sharp and clear at odds with the vacuousness of all the pretties she's ever known, including her own parents. And then there's David, who was born in the Smoke and is definitely not pretty ... but who teaches her that she's beautiful because of who she is, not what she looks like.
I really enjoyed this book. It reminded me a lot of Isobelle Carmody's books, her heroines especially, and also Ellie from John Marsden's Tomorrow series, and a host of others. She's a quick thinker, afraid yet brave, resourceful and caring, faced with a choice no one at sixteen would want to have to make. The writing style is clear and descriptive without wasting a word, the characters deftly portrayed. While the themes and messages of the book may not be subtle - nor are they meant to be, since we're talking about the structure of their world here - there are depths to the concept, and nothing's black-and-white. There are also little digs about our own lifestyle (we are the "Rusties" in the book - because what's left of our cities are just rusty ruins), about how we clear-fell forests and waste resources and genetically modify plants. The entire concept could have fallen flat on its face for being too contrived and as superficial as the operation itself, but Westerfeld holds it all together with a great heroine in Tally, a dark sci-fi underworld beneath the glitter and party fun, and an examination into what price we really want to pay for the things we hold most dear....more
I rarely really enjoy reading science fiction (the movies are another matter), but - most likely because of the refreshingly unpretentious and clear pI rarely really enjoy reading science fiction (the movies are another matter), but - most likely because of the refreshingly unpretentious and clear prose, which did take me by surprise - this book was almost a joy to read. I say "almost" purely because it's still science fiction, and for many reasons that are too long-winded to go into here, I prefer fantasy.
It's nice, though, to have Card (in his 1991 introduction) refer to this clarity of style, and actually encourage his readers to read Ender's Game any which way they please. In his own words:
I designed Ender's Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn't have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my little novel to be dispicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability. (p.xix)
Ok, so he loves to toot his own horn (and did he "design" it that way or was he just not able to write anything more elaborate? ouch, snarky Shannon!), but since I really don't like wanky, pretentious writing, I appreciate the unadorned prose of Ender's Game. It's no Neuromancer, that's for sure *grimace*.
Quick Summary - a few spoilers Ender's Game is set sometime in the future, when the world is divided up differently and yet united under various pacts and hegemonies to face the threat of the "buggers" - an insect-like alien race with a hive mind that attacked, and was repulsed. Now, after a successful defeat in the Second Invasion 70 years before, the powers that be are feeling the strain of finding the person to lead their own invasion force, sent to the buggers' home world after the Second Invasion. The starships will be in place in a matter of years, and their one hope is 6 year old Ender Wiggin, one of many genius children who have been monitored for the right qualities for years. Sent to Battle School with all the other geniuses (mostly boys), he is isolated and pushed to extremes no other student is, all to find out if he is the one, and if he is, to have him ready by the time the starships reach the buggers' home world. Training is done in null gravity in the battlerooms, "armies" against each other, and Ender excels at the game. But with Ender's level of genius he quickly attracts hatred and hostility from some of the others students. His own efforts to beat the game draw him closer to his biggest fear: that he will be just like his older brother Peter, who would have been here in his place if it weren't for the fact that he's a sadistic kid who relishes torturing others.
------------------------------------------ That this book is about children trained to be soldiers and skilled killers didn't really shock me - it happens in the real world often enough, and in a much more hellish way, as I learned from reading A Long Way Gone. But it's still a pretty horrible thing to do, brought on by sheer desperation it's true, but the things these children endure are things most adults would crumble under. They think and speak like adults, and I really needed the reminders of their ages. Ender is only 11 when the war with the buggers finally ends. But there is definitely something poignant and utterly tragic about the loss of innocence - if these kids with their higher intellects and greater-than-usual understanding and awareness were ever innocent - and childhood. One of the kids, a little 6 year old boy called Bean, helped drive this home:
He felt terrible. At first he thought he felt bad because he was afraid of leading an army, but it wasn't true. He knew he'd make a good commander. He felt himself wanting to cry. He hadn't cried since the first few days of homesickness after he got here. He tried to put a name on the feeling that put a lump in his throat and made him sob silently, however much he tried to hold it down. He bit down on his hand to stop the feeling, to replace it with pain. It didn't help. He would never see Ender again.
Once he named the feeling, he could control it. He lay back and forced himself to go through the relaxing routine until he didn't feel like crying anymore. Then he drifted off to sleep. His hand was near his mouth. It lay on his pillow hesitantly, as if Bean couldn't decide whether to bite his nails or suck on his fingertips. His forehead was creased and furrowed. His breathing was quick and light. He was a soldier, and if anyone had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn't have known what they meant. (p.224)
However, it's less the human condition and more a sort of anthropological perspective of human attitudes and alien race relations that interests me. The notion of superiority, of the right to live and survive no matter the costs to the enemy, of judging other species' intellect by their ability to think like us and see us the way we see ourselves - this is what really fascinates me. From the time the European settlers arrived in Australia and decided the Aborigines were barely human because they couldn't say a tree was "a tree" and didn't understand that taking a sheep was stealing, to the idea that because the buggers look like insects they don't have feelings, or reasoning. Remember the aliens in Independence Day? I mean, aside from that movie being just another propaganda film for the Greatness of America (it smacks of insecurity that some people feel the need to reinforce this myth, but oh well), the aliens were, well, alien - and once reduced to the unknowable Other, gone is the human conscience in destroying them.
Because Ender studies the buggers' strategies and tactics, to understand them, he feels compassion for them. He wants to understand them completely, but nothing is really known about them. It isn't until the end of the book that we find out more, as does Ender, and the real enemy becomes us rather than the buggers, for being so stubborn and self-righteous and superior, that we sought to destroy destroy destroy before finding out anything about what we were destroying. Which is, classically, what humans are best at: destroying. Much easier than creating. Kill first, ask questions later kind of attitude. Do we even deserve another planet to colonise when we don't even know how to look after this one? Well, a question for another day, though I make no effort to hide my own cynacism and contempt.
This book is considered a science fiction classic and the vast majority of people who have read it have loved it and studied the crap out of it. There are some negative reviews of course, and one I read here on Goodreads made several very good points, notably that the characters are rather one-dimensional ("cardboard cut-outs" was the expression he used), which I thought was quite accurate - there really wasn't much character development, especially with Ender of all people; and that there was a "creepy pedophile vibe", with all the references to naked little boys, and the scene in which a naked, wet and soapy Ender fights an older boy in the showers. Hmm. Now I'm going to have trouble shaking that one off! Someone else who also gave it 1 star made a crack at the Introduction and Card's smugness (and he is very pleased with himself, and doesn't mind telling us), and that he "feels it necessary to rant about Fantasy and how derivative it is compared to Science Fiction" - I must have missed that part, but isn't it so much more fun to read negative reviews than positive ones? As long as you've already read it, that is ;)
I actually marked pages in this book, passages that resonated with me while I was reading it, but now when I go back to them and read it again, I see nothing special, and I can't remember why I committed the crime of dog-earing a page. Anyway, while the book didn't amaze me or show me anything new, and I saw the "twist" coming and, to be honest, was rather disappointed that the buggers and the war were actually real and the whole Battle Game thing wasn't just some sick, cruel scientific experiment (might have made for a more interesting book?), Ender's Game was a surprisingly fun read (must be all the games, I thought they were kinda fun), and plot-wise it was well written despite several unanswered questions that could be called plot-holes if they had been more important. I just have one more quote from Card, because I absolutely agree with it and he puts it so well:
Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody's dazzling language - or at least I hope that's not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we known are not "true" because we're hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself. (p.xxiv-v)...more
In the year 2198 Superintendant Shan Frankland is looking forward to calling it quits in the Environmental Hazards unit, retiring and finally growingIn the year 2198 Superintendant Shan Frankland is looking forward to calling it quits in the Environmental Hazards unit, retiring and finally growing those contraband, non-genetically-modified tomato seeds her father cultivated.
One government minister has other plans for her, though. She is sent to the far reaches of space, a trip that takes 75 years, on a mission that she knows nothing about because it is submerged in her brain, waiting to be released gradually once triggered. She joins a group of 7 assorted scientists, all sponsored by major corporations, and 7 marines, and has been given authority over them all. They reach the colony of Constantine on Cavanagh's Star, expecting to find the humans who had reached it over a century before to be all dead.
They aren't. They're a deeply Christian colony, and by having to provide everything for themselves wear undyed hemp clothes, toil every day to grow their own food on this strange orange and blue planet, and all with the permission of the peacekeeping race that live on the neighbouring planet, the Wess'har.
The Wess'har are matriarchal, abrupt, frank, always honest (they simply cannot lie), never negotiate and mean exactly what they say. They're supremely advanced in their technology, and seek only to maintain a balance. The planet which the colony of Constantine is on, Bezer'ej, is the home of the bezeri, squid-like beings that live far beneath the sea. They asked the Wess'har for help from the isenj, beings which bear similarity to humans for their over-populations, their smothering of the land in blank grey buildings. Needing more room, they located to Bezer'ej only to be wiped out by the Wess'har. Completely. The planet was restored as if they had never been, the pollution was dealt with, and now only the human colony of Constantine lives on the surface alongside a Wess'har temporary city, for defense. The isenj consider the planet theirs still, and now there are new humans coming. The scientists want to collect as many samples as they can, all for the profit of the pharmaceutical etc. companies back home, but the main condition of being allowed to land at all is that they do not remove or take anything.
To complicate matters even further, the planet's guardian, a Wess'har called Aras, is host to parasitic organisms called C'naatat which make him live forever, heal all wounds and adapt his body constantly by borrowing and experimenting with the genes of other creatures. It's something the humans and isenj would kill to get their hands on, since it brings immortality. Aras looks more human than Wess'har by the time Shan arrives, but he is still alien. Yet she finds more in common with him and his philosophy than with the gethes, as Aras calls humans: carrion-eaters.
The various races are on a collision-course for open warfare, with the isenj and humans equally greedy and arrogant, the Wess'har implacable in their will and ability to destroy them. And between them all rests a fragile planet of strange creatures and struggling populations.
Those of you who know me know that I don't read much sci-fi. There's very little of it that I like, and some of it I've hated (Neuromancer anyone?) so much that it's biased me against most of it. See, I'm more of a Farscape girl than a Star Trek/Stargate/Battlestar Galactica/blah blah blah kinda girl. I hate the whole "we're human, we're superior, let's travel the universe and help the poor little aliens cause they can't help themselves" shite. Those of you who know me even better will also be aware that I don't hold the human species in very high regard, and I certainly don't consider us the most important organism on this planet. Since we seem to be the only sentient creatures on this planet, we have quite a responsibility towards it. There's a lot I love and respect about humans, but there's just so much that disappoints.
So you could say that City of Pearl is right up my alley. Ouch.
I love fiction with a conscience. Is that the right way to put it? With principles, maybe. Although it is set far in the future, it's more of a warning finger wagging at our own situation. The genetically-modified soy and wheat and canola, the corporations who own copyright of seed so that farmers have to always buy buy buy, the experiments on animals in the name of research... Although I'm a now-and-then meat-eater, I don't believe in injecting animals with hormones, steroids etc. or in the methods used to kill them. Did you know they hang chickens upside-down and electrocute them so that their feathers fall out? Sometimes this doesn't even kill them. So no, I don't have a terribly high opinion of humans, since the crap outweighs the good stuff.
On the other hand, you can quite easily read this book as simply well-written speculative fiction. The characters are realistic, the aliens are alien and think differently, the plot is extremely tight and well-paced, and Aras is so wonderfully charismatic and enigmatic, I think I'm a little bit in love. He's just so lonely! And I'm only human... :) I doesn't have a definite ending, so I'm hoping Traviss is writing more about Shan and Aras.
I eagerly recommend this to anyone who likes sci-fi, and even those who don't. It makes me interested in looking for more sci-fi that isn't just about big ships with big guns fighting over galactic space. So if you can think of any that's not like that, or as pretentious as Neuromancer (I'm sorry, I really didn't like it. I didn't even finish it), I'd be happy to check it out....more