When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I de...more When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I decided to give it a shot and am very, very glad I did.
Andy Weir’s novel is a rollercoaster ride of an adventure story, the pacing utterly breathtaking from the beginning when the crew of the third manned Mars mission are forced to abandon astronaut Mark Watney during a rushed evacuation, leaving him for dead. The trials Watney faces to survive - initially without any contact from Earth or his crewmates, and assuming they think he is dead - make this utterly gripping but what really carries the book is that, in Mark Watney, Weir has written simply one of the the most engaging characters I have ever read. And he has to be, as 90% of the book is carried by his personal log. Watney is inventive, witty, profane and profoundly human - possibly more upbeat than is realistic for someone abandoned 225 million kilometres from home, but the book is all about striving and surviving against impossible odds, so we can forgive it that.
Weir writes well enough to genuinely make us fear for Watney’s survival as each subsequent mishap occurs, despite that fact we intellectually know he couldn't be cruel enough to write this and have his hero fail (could he?), and the other characters are all drawn excellently within their roles. While (perhaps) I cried out on occasion when some other disaster befell our stranded protagonist, these were certainly not overdone and the solutions by which he progresses always brilliantly inventive yet never stretched credulity by being superhuman, or even by being something on smart, motivated bloke (one of the sort of calibre you’d think would be required to be a Mars explorer) could come up with. I cheered for Mark Watney, and smiled and shook with fear and, regularly, laughed out loud.
All in all, if you haven’t read The Martian yet you really should. (less)
I've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it ha...moreI've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it has taken me so long to get around to it. To follow are reviews of the highlights, although all the stories were excellent.
From the first story, 'Tower of Babylon', I knew I was in for a rare treat. This is simply superb science fiction - told from the point of view of the science and technology of the time. It imagines an impossibly tall tower built of kiln-fired bricks (as sun-dried bricks would, of course, not be strong enough) to reach up to the vault of heaven and thence cut through it to reach Yahweh. Chiang describes the denudation of the land around Babylon as it has been stripped of timber and the chasm around the river from which clay has been mined for bricks, and the wooden platforms high up the spiraling ramp on which vegetables are grown by those who live part way up the tower - necessary as the trek is of several months duration to climb the immense height. He describes passing the orbit of the moon and seeing its pocked face hurtle by, and the immense heat as the orbit of the sun is passed, and the precautions taken against releasing a second deluge by inadvertently broaching one of the great reservoirs that the vault is surmised to contain.
From the view of the science and cosmology of the time, all this is reasonable and logical. Indeed, it treats the technology very much like SF from the early 20th century did (and probably still does) positing the most extremely favourable outcomes beyond the limits of what is actually achievable, in order to tell a good story and reflect back upon the ideas of the society. Just wonderful.
'Understand' is the tale of a man who, following the repair of brain damage by a new drug, realises that his intellect is growing at an exponential rate. Very reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, of course, a very well written classic SF story that deals both with how he deals with the changes but also touches upon the fact that his way is not the only approach.
'Story of Your Life' was probably my favourite. A linguist is called in to help communicate with aliens who have dropped communication devices around the world. Chiang addresses some of the classic SF ideas of alien contact - will we be able to use maths or physics as a common language? will our perceptions simply be too alien to each other to allow meaningful conversation? - and intersperses this with personal memories of the narrator. At first this seems to be purely character building for it's own sake, to give background and context and depth to the character, but about halfway through you realise that the difference in outlooks between the two species, human and extraterrestrial - and therefore how their languages are constructed - which is the thing that is confounding communication, can be bridged, and in doing so this alters the communicators. The story becomes an exploration of how language shapes our perceptions, but also upon humanity and time and loss. It left me in tears.
'72 Letters' is similar to 'Babylon' in that it takes a set of pre-enlightenment 'scientific' ideas and runs with them. In Victorian Britain, progress is based on manipulation of Kaballistic language and the constructs they can be used to animate. Again, a wonderful meshing of ideas with a superb internal consistency, used to propel a gripping tale. I would quite like to see this expanded further.
'Hell Is The Absence of God' posits a world that has proof the Judeo-Christian god exists because his angels regularly make appearances - events which can enact miraculous cures but whose violence usually also results in death and destruction - and because there is evidence of Heaven and Hell - the latter being much like mortal existence except the Hellbound are eternal removed from god, but occasionally visible in their existence. What makes the story brilliant is that it takes a set of rules - god exists, heaven can be reached through unconditional acceptance and love of him, his plan is ineffable - and shows a world that is, in effect, no less confusing and random than the godless world that we inhabit. Chiang intertwines the tales of several people in various levels of acceptance (the word 'belief' hardly seems appropriate) - including a man whose wife is killed during an angelic visitation and a woman who is is born deformed but begins to lose her faith after being healed - that show the human condition does not easily resolve to simplistic answers, no matter how much we may want it to.
The closing story, 'Liking What You See: A Documentary' is as clever as any of the other stories, but explores more deeply, perhaps, than 'Division By Zero' or 'The Evolution of Human Science'. Taking the form of clips and talking heads in a documentary, it explores the impact of a nascent medical technology that, when implemented, blinds the subject to the physical attractiveness of other people. Part of the focus is students at a school where children have had this done from infancy and much of the rest conflict between opposing sides of a culture war, one of which sees this as part of the ongoing movement toward equality and the other as warranted interference, along with non-aligned voices from elsewhere on the spectrum of opinion, and beyond. As well as exploring the "halo effect" (the tendency when you see someone who is attractive to assign to them other favourable characteristics such as intelligence, strength and moral rectitude - and if you don't think you do this, trust me, you do - Chiang also looks at how commercial advertising interests react as well as the more subtle and less concrete ways in which appearance - others and our own - matter to us. What in lesser hands could be an interesting but glib story of a single idea becomes a wonderful thoughtful gem which, like almost all the stories in this collection, will stay with me for a long time to come.(less)
While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly,...more2.5 stars
While I flew through this book and, therefore, obviously enjoyed it, its flaws prevent me from giving it a high rating. Perhaps surprisingly, given the pedigree of some of the authors involved, chief amongst these flaws are some passages of startlingly bad writing. I mean, sentences or paragraphs that I would re-read thinking I must have misread them the first time around they were so badly constructed. I really should have kept notes as there were several. I remember one being something like “They outnumbered our numbers.” Wow, really?
Many of these read like editing problems - or, rather, a lack of editing. Any half-decent editor should surely have picked up these clumsy sentences. I’m not sure how the seven named authors worked together but I suspect that is the major issue, more care being taken in constructing the storyline and making sure the styles matched as closely as possible than actually ensuring the writing works. Perhaps all the glaring faults can be attributed to one of the authors and the others felt unable to cut him out. There was also some glaringly anachronistic language. I know that, unless it were written in Latin, Old French and Mongolian it can hardly be accurate, but some sentences and words just jumped out at me as inappropriate. For instance, there is the constant use of the word “ass” in its modern American meaning, sometimes in quite rapid succession. Again, this is just bad writing; grab a thesaurus and use alternatives: backside, posterior, rump. Actually, I am beginning to suspect that this and the terrible writing may be able to be laid at the door of the same member of the authoriat.
The book actually reads as though it is the write-up of a Roleplaying campaign - albeit rather a dull one - and the descriptions at the back of the dramatis personae, complete with ink line sketches, further reinforces this. (Spotting whether authors are roleplayers is actually something of a hobby of mine; you can often spot the tell-tale signs).
The characters are engaging enough, although not especially well drawn - and some of the shield-brethren have the air of cardboard cut-outs with a single defining characteristic to distinguish them. Again, something that made me think of extras in an RPG.
Not unexpectedly from a book from Neal Stephenson (although I have no way of knowing whether he wrote these particular sections) there is the occasional, sometimes heavy-handed, infodump, but I still felt that the world was under-explained, the setting unclear perhaps because the authors could picture it but failed to get that across to the reader. I couldn’t tell whether this was straight historical fiction, or history with a slant. At times I found myself wishing it was written by Mary Gentle and then, not only would we get her superb writing, but the wonderfully fleshed out reality of the historical setting would be shot through with fantastical anomalies that both enhanced it and made the reader examine it more closely.
All this said, the first volume of this series was an enjoyable read and I will probably continue with the series. The setting seemed to solidify somewhat toward the close, perhaps due to the style becoming more uniform or maybe simply because of to the gradual build up of detail, and I am intrigued to see how the arc of the two stories will intersect. As well as, perhaps, to find out whether the events are broadly historical or introduce elements that would never be found in the most detailed history of that time. (less)
I was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication in...moreI was a regular reader of Interzone magazine back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF on occasion. The publication introduced me to some fine writers, many of whom went on to great things (or were already well-established and I had simply not come across them before).
I stumbled upon it again recently, pleased to find that the magazine is still going - now published by TTA press, having replaced their periodical The Third Alternative, rather than John Clute and David Pringle - and decided, on a whim, to take out a subscription. I’m glad I did.
Although in a smaller, glossier format than it used to be, much is as it was those years ago; a wide range of book reviews, Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn film coverage and the great David Langford’s Ansible Link, a round-up of SF news, gossip and too many obituaries. And, of course, the stories.
I had heard of none of the writers in issue 252 before now, but will definitely be seeking several of them out in the future. The opening main feature, The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson is classic Interzone fodder; a weird, bleak post-apocalypse set story about loss and holding on to hope, little more than a vignette but enough to interest me, along with the interview with Williamson, to interest me in his new novel, The Moon King.
The Mortuaries by Katherine E. K. Duckett is likewise bleak, in a US where despite overpopulation due to the rising sea levels and dwindling resources, the dead are preserved and displayed a la Gunther von Hagens. Deliberate references to Make Room! Make Room! its movie, Soylent Green.
Val Nolan’s Diving Into The Wreck is similarly about preserving the past at the expense of looking toward the future, this time about the search for the lunar module that still sits somewhere in the dusty regolith.
Sleepers by the superbly named Bonnie-Jo Stufflebeam is odd and melancholy (definitely a theme here), the narrator keeping watch over her dying father while strange half-seen creatures run through the night and fascinate and terrify everybody.
The two stand out stories are the barely (if at all) SF A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey about a family dealing with loss and the funny and indescribable Two Truths and a Lie from Oliver Buckram where a relationship that may or may not be with an alien is plotted out over instants taken from a year, each described with the titular two truths and a lie.
As this is the first taste of my return to Interzone I'm not sure whether the downbeat, somber tone struck by the majority of the stories is typical, although I do remember that was often the case before - leavened by glints of hope and humour, to be sure, but Interzone always seemed to revel in its rather bleak reputation. Regardless, I am enjoying again an Interzone reader and am looking forward to the invention and quirkiness and independence that its semi-prozine status always allowed it to cultivate. And I'm sure I shall, once again, discover many great writers herein.(less)
The first of Connelly's Harry Bosch books has a lot going for it, most notably an excellent plot involving murder, banks heists, deception and the Vie...moreThe first of Connelly's Harry Bosch books has a lot going for it, most notably an excellent plot involving murder, banks heists, deception and the Vietnam war. Heironymous 'Harry' Bosch is a middle aged LA homicide detective whose career has gone from glittering to dismal - after being lauded by the press for his work solving high profile cases and having a TV character based on him he has been hounded from the prestigious Robbery Homicide Division to a lower ranking post in Hollywood Homicide by Internal Affairs, who are still looking to complete the job and chase him from the force. This is because he's the classic detective, brilliant but not seen as part of "the Family", something of a loose cannon (he even considers himself to be a bit of a cliché - he listens to jazz, drinks too much and is a loner who can't hold down a long term relationship).
Bosch is, however, an good character with a nice backstory and a decent amount of complexity. The same goes for some of the supporting cast, while others are cardboard cyphers (the two IAD officers, Lewis and Clark, for instance). The writing itself is ok - I do love the way the story unfolds, and the way that Connelly mixes Bosch's internal musings and memories into the narrative on occasion - but often the prose is downright clunky. In particular Connelly writes dialogue like a journalist (which he was); it is more about providing information than character. Indeed, there is hardly any character voice in the dialogues at all (with the possible exception, oddly, of Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar who is only a minor character, the voices are largely interchangeable; Bosch's narrative voice is strong but even that doesn't really carry over into his speech).
But a very strong, engaging thriller with some real substance, which I far prefer to the sort of page-turner thrillers that I finish and find I couldn't give a damn about any of events or characters I'd been reading about for the previous 400 pages (James Patterson and his ilk).
An odd side note. The cover photo on my edition seems to be of a rainy British motorway, which is a bit weird...
This was a tough one to rate. It is my first time reading DeLillo, and I confess that this does make me want to read him more, despite my low rating....more
This was a tough one to rate. It is my first time reading DeLillo, and I confess that this does make me want to read him more, despite my low rating. His writing is beautiful, built of rhythms and allusions, foreshadowings and call-backs. So why did I rate it so low?
From the start there was something in the speech patterns of the characters that annoyed me. Almost every sentence is fragmentary, unfinished. Yes, people speak like this often, but not constantly. At first I thought DeLillo was going for this sort of stilted realism, even though to me it sounded stagey and fake, like an amateur dramatic performance of a Pinter play. In retrospect, though, this style fits in with the style of the rest of the book. Everything about the book hints at more going on than is foregrounded - as should be the case with literature, of course; that is one of the things that raises it above ‘ordinary’ fiction - but I have no idea what. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; ambiguity can be a wonderful tool and I had decided when I finished this book that if the ambiguity stayed with me and made me think and question what I had read I would go back and up my rating, but it hasn’t. I won’t say that it is a novel about nothing - it is about loss, obviously, and communication (or the problem of it) and, no doubt, other things, but it seemed to me a fairly empty exercise. One thing that seemed appropriate was the description of Lauren’s performance as the titular Body Artist. It seemed like one of those avant-garde pieces of performance art that certain cultured people coo over and pretend they see profound meaning in, but is really vapid and pretentious, which seemed a nice parallel for the book itself. (less)