Peculiar and fascinating Soviet sci-fi from the 1970s, Roadside Picnic posits an interesting first-contact problem: what if visitors from elsewhere caPeculiar and fascinating Soviet sci-fi from the 1970s, Roadside Picnic posits an interesting first-contact problem: what if visitors from elsewhere came to Earth but didn't care to stay, leaving behind only a number of unearthly, poisonous "zones" littered with a bunch of eldritch, alien crap? How would humanity deal with that?
Not well, as it turns out. Also predictably, hilariously, fallibly . . . humanly. That is if you're the Strugatsky brothers, and your "hero" is Red, a professional "stalker." Red retrieves artifacts and alien tech (which nobody really understands anyway) from the zone to feed both the scientific community and the black market. The job has its share of dark glamour and badassery, but Red's getting tired of the life, with the constant risk to himself, his partners, and even his daughter, who seems to be mutating as a side-effect of the invasion that never was. So when Red gets one last shot at the big payoff, the one that will make it all worthwhile . . . well, you know the rest.
However, sometimes the best stories come from new twists on the old. Built around that classic "last big job" plotline is a dazzling world of weirdness populated by clever, memorable characters who swear, drink, joke, lust, cry and wax philosophic by turns. They also make bad decisions, struggle for survival and drink some more. (Apparently, the Stugatskys' sometimes coarse naturalism defied contemporary Soviet sci-fi's high literary and moral requirements, hanging up the book's publication for years.) But Roadside Picnic does carry moral weight, while delivering a narrative both fast-paced and slyly satirical. I'd say it's a little Vonnegutian, if that's a word. (It is now.) Good stuff. 4.5 stars.
(Side note: Roadside Picnic makes an interesting book pairing with Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, if you enjoyed that. Similar subjects in wildly different styles. Anyhoo . . .)
I hadn't reread "AtMoM"* in years, and it turns out, remembered less than I thought. Oh, the majesty of those uncanny ruins half-submerged in ice! Oh,I hadn't reread "AtMoM"* in years, and it turns out, remembered less than I thought. Oh, the majesty of those uncanny ruins half-submerged in ice! Oh, the screeching of the benighted penguins: "tikili-li!" Close encounters with a shoggoth! But seriously, sometimes old HPL does go on (and on), however "AtMoM" is a masterpiece of narrative tension.
*As I noted earlier, I'm actually reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, but "AtMoM" is pretty much a novella, so I'm crediting a full book for it. If you are a fan, you need to check out this beautiful edition; in addition to maps and original "Weird Tales" illustrations, it also includes quite a number of restored sentences, some of which add significantly to the feel of the stories....more
"I can't believe you just quoted a Steve Miller tune to the leader of an alien race."
Scalzi says, in his Author's Note, that Agent to the Stars was hi"I can't believe you just quoted a Steve Miller tune to the leader of an alien race."
Scalzi says, in his Author's Note, that Agent to the Stars was his "practice novel," a revelation that makes me squirm with jealousy. Rarely is a first novel so well fleshed out, or a first contact story so goofily appealing. AttS, while not a deep work of literature, is full of snappy dialogue and memorable characters and is the perfect choice for a a breezy, quirky summer read. I honestly laughed, even snorted, out loud. Couldn't ask for more....more
This is the second Christianity-themed book by Michael Faber I've read this year. (The other was The Fire Gospel, which was far more cynical). I am baThis is the second Christianity-themed book by Michael Faber I've read this year. (The other was The Fire Gospel, which was far more cynical). I am basically a devout agnostic, because it's as arrogant to assume you know there's nothing as it is to assume you know there's something. So why do these tales fascinate me? In the case of The Book of Strange New Things, maybe it's because Faber's story gives the reader access to the mind of a true believer -- not a blathering fundamentalist, mind you, just a decent man who has found real joy in religion after an early life of excess. Sometimes I envy the ease and succor genuine faith seems to give . . . but Faber deftly shows how that comfort and safety can sometimes be woefully misleading.
When Peter, a minister happily married to Bea, the woman who "saved" him, agrees to take on the open-ended position of chaplain for a corporation settlement and the nearby indigenous beings on the distant planet Oasis, he and his wife are both thrilled and terrified: thrilled he will be spreading God's word to new worlds, terrified of the months-long separation ahead. Arriving on Oasis, Peter is astonished and excited by the devout nature of the local, "alien," populace. Already prepared by the previous chaplain (now AWOL), many have rechristened themselves "Jesus Lover," followed by a number. (For example Peter's first interaction is with Jesus Lover One. Jesus Lover Five becomes a good friend. Etc.) So ecstatic are these "Oasans" to learn more of what they call "The Book of Strange New Things," they welcome him warmly and begin building him a church, which Peter makes his home between short visits to the base. He feels blessed to be granted such a perfect opportunity to do God's work. He's also more comfortable with the small, peaceful locals than most of the cynical humans back at base.
But there are deeper issues hiding under his blithe good works. Does Peter's new flock truly understand the teachings of Christ? How can he know what they make of his sermons, try as he does to make the metaphors clear for them? And will his email-only relationship with Bea, who is unexpectedly pregnant and sending alarming news of chaos on planet Earth daily, survive this mission? Less gut-punchingly painful than The Sparrow, another good-intentions-gone-wrong tale you should read if you haven't, The Book of Strange New Things is most concerned with the things we take for granted, and the small misunderstandings in communication that can easily grow into gulfs.
I hope I haven't given the impression this book is a downer -- it's really not. The indigenous culture Faber imagines is genuinely compelling and wonderful, as is his depiction of a faith not imperious or crazed, but warm and accepting. Not exactly action-packed, but truly thoughtful speculative fiction.
I thought I was tired of apocalypse fiction, and kind of felt that way for about the first 200 pages of The 5th Wave. Though the writing is excel4.5/5
I thought I was tired of apocalypse fiction, and kind of felt that way for about the first 200 pages of The 5th Wave. Though the writing is excellent, I just wasn't seeing anything particularly new in the story itself: "plucky young heroes coming of age while fighting totalitarianism/supernatural apocalypse/alien invasion/etc." has kind of become the go-to plot in YA fiction.
But then Rick Yancey proved me wrong, with the kind of plot twist you really don't see coming, and the remainder of the novel kicked into overdrive. Intricate plotting, and maybe most importantly, vivid, descriptive writing that carries the reader along for every excruciating inch of the ride -- The 5th Wave kept me riveted far too late into the night.
Personally, I prefer Yancey's Monstrumologist series, but then I'm a whore for period gore. But so far, anything he writes is a welcome addition to my shelves. The 5th Wave series will have a reserved space. ...more
This book started out as a 2.5 and performed the unusual feat of raising itself to a 3.5 by the time I finished it. 99 Brief Scenes From The End Of ThThis book started out as a 2.5 and performed the unusual feat of raising itself to a 3.5 by the time I finished it. 99 Brief Scenes From The End Of The World was stealthy, sneak-up-on-you-good, despite some important flaws, and I'm glad I stuck with it.
The bad news first: Right out of the box I was irritated that the structure of the book was not as implied by the title. I expected something more like David Eagleman's strange and wonderful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, only with splatterrific zombie gore. So, when characters and locales began to make repeat appearances, I had to revise my expectation (99 unique pieces of flash-fiction), to reading what is better described as a novel with 99 chapters. These are not always "brief scenes," and some are really filler-y, not strictly necessary to the story as a whole. It seems to me that a final round of edits could have pulled this all together into a tight, suspenseful novel not reliant on the random titular number for its structure.
The good news: Grim's book does have a number of things going for it, and despite my irritation I found it impossible to put down. First and foremost, Grim -- a talented, descriptive writer -- does good character work. Once I finally got to know the core survivors, I cared about their fate(s), and admired the way his craft allows their singular stories eventually dovetail. Some of the global-picture characters (the foaming-at-the mouth US President, or the morality-challenged leaders of a Japanese science/weapons lab) certainly might have been excised or toned down. Though I suppose they serve to give us a window into the global situation, I found that the struggle for survival (and sanity) of the everyday citizens was more tethered in realism, and gave me more to sink my teeth into.
Speaking of which . . . absolutely key to this particular genre is the splatter, and Grim pours forth an endless stream of surprisingly innovative mayhem. The man knows his gore, and and has a million ways to spill it. in fact, a couple of unbelievably disgusting scenes really worked their way under my skin -- and I eat dinner while watching "The Walking Dead," so do the math. Grim also conceives an unusual twist on the now-standard zombie/rage virus trope (tiny spoiler: it's neither one!) whichmight allow a continuance of the story . . . something challenging to achieve when writing about an extinction-level event.
Because the unexpected twist piqued my interest, and because it takes a lot to actually gross me out, I not only upgraded this book to "liked a lot" status; I'll happily read any follow-up work Grim gets out there. ...more
Likely King's best novel in many years, UtD grabs you at the first page and never lets up, with a propulsive narrative that is both as disturbing as yLikely King's best novel in many years, UtD grabs you at the first page and never lets up, with a propulsive narrative that is both as disturbing as you might expect, and even more so. Everything you need to know is right there in the title: the town of Chester's Mill, Maine has become cut off from the world by a mysterious transparent "dome" which appears out of nowhere on a crisp fall day. No one can leave, and no one can enter. The town is on its own.
Less a traditional "horror" story (though there's plenty of gruesome moments), and more a hostage situation on a grand scale, UtD is most effective when showcasing the evil men (and all the other inhabitants of beleaguered Chester's Mill) can do when traditional moral structures collapse around them, when the world shrinks and becomes alien and full of menace, when any idea of a sympathetic, or even rational, god has gone the way of fresh supplies . . . and fresh air.
Along the way the reader meets a cast of characters roughly the size of a small Maine town; chief among them the corrupt Selectman who views the crisis as a golden opportunity; the adolescent whiz-kids intent on helping to solve it; the Revelations-spewing meth addict who runs the town's Christian (and only) radio station; the overtaxed PA who becomes the town's de-facto doctor; and leading the cast, a former soldier on the drift, who manages to just miss his opportunity to get out while the getting is good.
With strongly delineated heroes -- flawed though they may be -- to root for, and plenty of despicable self-proclaimed "good guys" to hiss at (small-town cops and elected officials take rather a drubbing, as do unchristian Christians), UtD takes an inexplicable disaster and puts a human face on the toll it exacts. I won't say any more than this -- when I was halfway through the book, I couldn't imagine any way things could get worse for Chester's Mill. Fortunately, good old Uncle Steve's imagination is a long way from running dry.
On one hand, I wish I could convince everyone I know that Mieville is the best science/weird fiction writer working today; on the other I'm kind of glOn one hand, I wish I could convince everyone I know that Mieville is the best science/weird fiction writer working today; on the other I'm kind of gleeful to have encountered his alien genius before he really does become the next big thing (at least among smartypants nerds). He is a writer always testing the boundaries of genre, and Embassytown is likely the most “literary” book he’s written so far . . . though perhaps not the most immediately accessible. Prepare for a novel that both blows your mind and gives it an excellent workout.
You know you're entering heady territory when a novel's epigram is a quote from Walter Benjamin: “The word must communicate something (other than itself).” (Although it might equally be another, quite different, quote: “Gifts must affect the receiver to the point of shock.” I'll let you work that one out as you read the book.)
In Embassytown, Mieville continues to showcase his deft world-building skills on the planet Arieka, a crucial node in the interstellar shipping lanes. Here, human colonists coexist in a state of mutual disconnection with a culture so physically and intellectually alien from our own that communication is nearly impossible, only achieved by a select few “Ambassadors,” genetically altered and rigorously trained for the task. Though the main thrust of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue, be aware that a significant amount of time is spent pondering the brain-bursting concepts of linguistic and semiotic construction. For example: the native Ariekei are unable to communicate or conceive of anything but that which is is literally true – they are incapable of a lie, and must construct elaborate, surreal tableaux in order to formulate even simple similes or metaphors. (Our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is herself a simile, having as a child participated in the creation of the unpleasantly loaded phrase "the girl who ate what was given her.") But what might change for the Ariekei -- and us -- when a communication breakthrough occurs?
In Embassytown, Mieville has mostly jettisoned his tendency to revel in the minutia of the grotesque, as he does in the Bas-Lag novels. Instead he works in simple, elegant prose to consider and illustrate evolution and destabilization of the ways in which thinking beings communicate -- constructing meaning (and misunderstanding) from sounds and other signifiers, and constructing civilizations from those meanings. (Now that sentence gave me flashbacks to grad school . . .) With his latest book, Mieville once again defies genre expectations, raising the bar for thoughtful, challenging science fiction.