This novel, about a PhD student who ends up getting pregnant in the worst of circumstances, caught my attention with its apocalyptic premise (a virus...moreThis novel, about a PhD student who ends up getting pregnant in the worst of circumstances, caught my attention with its apocalyptic premise (a virus that affects blonde-haired women and turns them into zombies!). It kept me with its strong characters and its pace, but it didn’t quite satisfy me at all the levels I wanted.
Last week, I reviewed Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, a great plot-driven science-fiction novel concerning the day the robots take over.
His next boo...moreLast week, I reviewed Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, a great plot-driven science-fiction novel concerning the day the robots take over.
His next book, Amped, became available right after I finished with Robopocalypse, so I got to reading it right away.
In Amped, humans are now separated in two groups: those with neural implants, or “amps”, meant to solve neurological problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADD and ADHD, etc. However, some people have now started to get amps as elective surgery, basically overclocking their brain and become smarter in the process.
Owen, the main character, describes his encounter with such an elective neural implant in his third grade class:
Eight years ago a little kid named Samantha Blex missed a week of class. In the first photos on the news, you could see Sam was a little cross-eyed. She smiled a lot through her kid-sized purple eyeglasses. Cute. The kid was all slobber and grubby fingers and grins. Had a habit of putting blocks in her mouth.
That’s why, when Samantha walked back into school after her weeklong hiatus, a lot of the other kids’ parents were scared. Terrified is more like it. A textbook case of fight or flight, with a serious lean towards fight.
See, Sam wasn’t cross-eyed when she came back to class. She didn’t put blocks in her mouth anymore, either. In fact, Samantha Blex pretty quickly demonstrated that she was now the smartest kid in third grade. After a few breathless rounds of testing, Sam turned out to be in the top-hundredth percentile on citywide intelligence test.
The kid had one hell of a week away.
The book begins the day a judgement is passed where Amps are forbidden to enter in contractual relationships with “Pure” humans. The argument is thus: if regular people cannot enter in contracts with mentally challenged people because they can easily manipulate or defraud them, then Amps are in the same situation of power over regular, un-amped humans. Therefore, they should not be allowed to make contracts with people.
This effectively removes any claim to citizenship Amps might have: they cannot rent or buy homes, have jobs or get access to the justice system. They all become nobodies, a little like illegal immigrants.
As you can imagine, a resistance builds, and an almost-civil war ensues.
The structure of Amped is more linear that than of Robopocalypse. It follows Owen, an amp himself (he believes it’s medical, for epilepsy) who ends up living on the run. He witnesses the cruelty of Pure behaviour against Amps, he joins a rebel group, and eventually uncovers a plot that was meant to create a civil war all along.
I didn’t quite get attached to Owen as much as I did the cast of Robopocalypse. The story itself is excellent, featuring technology just advanced enough to be eerily believable. But Owen himself didn’t quite get me. He was a bit whiny, even though he ends up being like super-hero strong at the end. His development was believable, but he just wasn’t sympathetic enough to grasp me.
The plot, however, is gripping. I was most fascinated with the imagined breakdown of society and the racist/essentialist overtones. It was another form of us vs. them, not based on race or gender or origin but rather on the choice to use or not to use a technological device. The bad guys are really bad, and the novel uncovers the deviousness and the dangers of essentialist rhetoric and of religious-like following of political figures.
It was, essentially, an allegory on one (or all) of these things: racism, anti-immigration, homophobia and religious essentialism. Interestingly, the people being rejected, Amps, are inherently stronger than Pures: they are smarter, often stronger and have better control of their bodies and of their minds. Yet, they cannot fight the force of a movement backed up by law. The book did a great job of illustrating the dangers of rejecting a part of humanity because of an inherent characteristic (inherited or chosen). And as a warning, it worked strongly on me.
The writing is, again, very visual. The details are neat and easily imaginable. I could see the trailer camp park, imagine the old stone houses with ivy devouring their walls, and picture the speed and agility of military Amps. It would make a great movie or short TV series. Wilson has a great ability to let us picture his scenes, both static and moving, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he started writing scripts.
It’s a fast read, so even though you don’t end up caring so much about Owen, I know you will care about seeing how the conflict between Pures and Amps develops.(less)
Ever since I heard Daniel H. Wilson in an interview onQ, I’ve wanted to read Robopocalypse. I finally got my hands on a copy from the library.
It was d...moreEver since I heard Daniel H. Wilson in an interview onQ, I’ve wanted to read Robopocalypse. I finally got my hands on a copy from the library.
It was definitely worth the wait.
The robots have become self-aware. They are now out to kill us… or most of us.
The book follows a group of characters mostly involved in the fight against Archos, the artificial intelligence behind the robot uprising. Most important is Cormac Wallace, the rebel who finds the recordings that are described in the novel.
Imagine waking up one day to find that your smart car wants to run you over, or your domestic robot strangle you to death. Technology has its own mind now… and it doesn’t like working for you.
This is the world of Robopocalypse… and maybe our own, soon.
I read this book in at most 3 sittings. I couldn’t put it down. I especially appreciated the echoes of Asimov towards the end (for some reason I remember what I read but barely if at all understood when I was 14 years old… maybe it’s time to revisit the Foundation series?)
The plot was gripping. We know from the beginning that the humans win… but how did they manage? The book answers that question, not totally, but with an excellent sense of how people can connect together despite distance, racial and philosophical differences.
However, I had a few issues with the voice developed through the book. The only distinguishable voices were those of Cormac and Lonnie Wayne Blanton. It’s mostly Cormac Wallace narrating and commenting on some of the recordings, and so I found a little blandness in the voice where multiple characters are involved. It’s not bad, but it was just a bit annoying. At times, I even wondered if Cormac really had access to some elements of the scenes. Although it’s all supposed to be described from an observer point of view, unless otherwise specified, sometimes the third-person POV took over and my suspension of disbelief dropped a bit. But it shouldn’t stop you from reading the book at all.
Here’s an excerpt describing the birth of Archos:
“Archos?” asks the face. The man’s voice echoes in the empty lab. “Archos? Are you there? Is that you?”
The glasses reflect a glimmer of light from the computer screen. The man’s eyes widen, as though he sees something indescribably beautiful. He glances back at a laptop open on a table behind him. The desktop image on the laptop is of the scientist and a boy, playing in a park.
“You chose to appear as my son?” he asks.
The high-pitched voice of a young boy echoes out of the darkness.
“Did you create me?” it asks.
This entire chapter is rightfully creepy, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
One of the most fascinating and unusual elements of this novel (considering it is a technology-focused science-fiction work) is the interest in the link between nature and robotics. At one point, a year after the robot takeover, nature is taking control of the environment again, and far from disrupting this balance, as humans do, the robots take advantage and even accelerate it. It is both disturbing (the robots eventually start building nature-inspired machines to access difficult landscape) and hopeful (if only we gave up a little bit of our dependency to technology, the planet could repair itself).
The book also illustrates the counter-intuitive notion that in the case of a robot takeover, cities might actually be safer than the countryside, because nature can be just as lethal as technology. And given that most of us have forgotten how to survive in the wild, it’s not very surprising when you think about it.
But what really shines in this book is humanity. Human resilience and human creativity and human unpredictability. In the face of an apocalypse that we ourselves created, we are able to adapt and fight back. A lot is lost, but a few important things are gained.
I really enjoyed reading Robopocalypse. It was definitely a page-turner with an eerie sense of impending doom, and yet a hopeful ending. But we will only survive if we learn some really hard lessons.(less)
This is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the hero...moreThis is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the heroine, spends most of the book disabled by PTSD and medication. Even though the final heroic act is hers again, it’s hard to see her as the strong character in this last installment. She spends most of her time in a medical haze, or crying, or hiding in a closet.
Katniss, now living in discreet, long-lost District 13, has to deal with the trauma of two Hunger Games and the weight of the liberation of Panem on her shoulders. Through her actions in the first book, she has become a symbol of rebellion used to rally the Districts against the Capitol. Much less happens in this third book than in the first two. There are a few battle scenes, and the final one, but otherwise, this book is much more introspective than the other two.
But at the same time, this book is among the strongest example of the mental and physical consequences of war and violence on people. It is introspective because Katniss has reached her breaking point. She is exhausted, emotionally and physically, and cannot sustain more trauma. So the book becomes not so much about the liberation of Panem, but about Katniss’ eventual, slow liberation from PTSD.
The end, although satisfying on a character level, left me wanting on the world-level. We don’t know what has happened to Panem, in the end. Is is better for Katniss’ intervention, or has it remained the same? I think we’re supposed to make a link between Katniss’ and Panem’s healing, but it’s not as obvious as it should be.
These books are rough. Brutal. They don’t pull punches and describe war and violence without euphemisms. It’s refreshing, in a sense, because it stands in stark contrast with the official-speak so condemned by George Orwell, back in the day. Collins, I’m sure, sees teenagers as able to handle the truth. She doesn’t sugar-coat the horrifying acts of violence in both Games and the war.
Although the books do live up to their hype, somehow, they don’t live up to their potential. The world of Panem deserved much more development than it did. Maybe it’s the fan of complex fictional social systems, à la Middlemarch, in me speaking, but I do think that the world of Panem could have been the site for a much deeper critique of the current state of power and capitalism. It’s dystopian–we get it. But how did it become that way? What happened between now and then that the site of American power moved to possibly Colorado (I suspect Denver) and its social structure turned back to medieval times? I’ve read a lot of anticipatory science-fiction that gave enough information to infer how the world might crumble. Not so with The Hunger Games.
All in all, it was a mostly satisfying read. It took me 3 days to read all of them, which makes them a quick and entertaining read. And I must admit I did cry at the end (or that might have been how tired and sick I felt. You’ll never know, hah :p). My desire for a more complex world aside, considering the audience, I thought they were excellent examples of what the best YA literature can do.(less)
Given the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bi...moreGiven the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bit more in depth, and still includes everyone’s favourite part, another round of Hunger Games.
The book begins as Katniss and Peeta get ready to go on the customary Panem-wide winner’s tour. They are paraded throughout the country to, mostly, twist the knife into the wound of all the losing districts. But she also realizes that her act of defiance against the Capitol has spurred a spirit of rebellion in Panem. Ambivalent as to her involvement and desire to be part of such a difficult entreprise, Katniss is ready to move on to a more peaceful and wealthy life in her District. But a forced wedding between herself and Peeta forces her to remain in the spotlight, until the new round of Hunger Games are announced, with all the rules changed. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in the Games, once again.
In Catching Fire, the main focus is Katniss’ growing anxiety at her feelings for both Peeta and Gale. Collins artfully captures the flightiness of teenage desire, which remains constant despite a world torn by trauma and pseudo-slavery. In this second round, the rules of the game also change drastically, increasing Katniss’ sense of loss of control over her life.
Although there is less attention given to the actual Games in this book, we are given ample time to see Katniss suffer from PTSD. I think that Collins’ depiction of the effect of PTSD on teenagers, which she deepens in Mockingjay, is the highlight of this book. Katniss’ heroic act from The Hunger Games takes its toll, and Collins has no problem depicting her heroine as capable of breaking down and being weak.
The writing also gets better in Catching Fire. Collins shows a stronger mastery of the craft and, while still addressing teenagers, is capable of drawing in adults on her own merits. The senselessness of violence and the consequences of repeated trauma are definitely major concerns of Catching Fire.
My only gripe with this book: I wish I had learned more about Panem society. Collins kind of opens up the topic by providing an interesting description of one district, and then drops it completely. We do learn from other districts through their competitors in the Games, but it really isn’t the same. Somehow I was expecting something a bit more complex, but Collins decided to keep the focus on Katniss herself rather than expand the world she so convincingly sketches, even if lightly.(less)
It didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make th...moreIt didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make this book in a page-turner.
We meet Katniss as she prepares for hunting in the woods, which is illegal but widely accepted by the authorities of the district, as they also gain from it. Katniss is responsible for her mother and her little sister, Prim, since her mother suffered a breakdown after the death of her father. She hunts with Gale, her best friend, and they share skills and resources to feed both their families.
The book begins a few days before the Reaping. We get Katniss’ point of view as she reflects on the consequences of the reaping and its injustice. At their core, the Hunger Games are a version of Roman gladiator shows: a way to control the outer provinces and provide entertainment to a blasé, luxurious capital population. In the book, the history of the Hunger Games begins with a war, after which the Hunger Games are implemented to “remind” the people, every year, of the Capitol’s power over them. Attendance to the reaping is mandatory, and so is watching the Games. Think “Gladiator” meets “Big Brother” in a dictatorship.
I felt instant sympathy for Katniss. In a world where living illegally is the only way to eat enough, where social injustice is rampant (and in fact institutionalized) and where children are held hostage against rebellion, her struggle to act morally despite the cruelty around her is heroic.
As soon as the Games start, the plot picks up its pace and keeps you turning the pages all the way to the end. Her true/fake love affair with Peeta, which keeps both of them alive, is particularly fraught with teenage anxiety around relationships and desire. But ultimately, this is about survival. Who do you live for? What are you willing to do to survive?
The writing, despite its slight faults, is gripping and evocative. Collins has a way to describe horrific scenes in a way that retains the violence, but maintains respect for the human victims. The book left me hungry for more.(less)
In translation theory, there are two main factions: the "naturalizers" and the "foreignizers" The naturalizers think that literature should be transla...moreIn translation theory, there are two main factions: the "naturalizers" and the "foreignizers" The naturalizers think that literature should be translated in a language that feels natural to the reader, as if it had been written originally in their language. The foreignizers, on the other hand, think that the best way to honour a text is to keep the translation as close to the source language as the target language will allow. In other words, the first group would have the English sound English, while the second would have English sound as Chinese as it can.
The Fat Years is definitely a case of foreignization, and I think the bad reviews of this book don't really take into account that this was written in Chinese. Not only is there the strange rhythm and sound of Chinese echoing through the English, but Western readers are probably also unaccustomed to the foreign structure of a Chinese text.
I don't know much about Chinese narrative structure--all that I know is that it's different, very different, from our Western conception of a story. Despite the definite Western influences of this novel (mystery narrative, science-fiction), the novel feels as foreign as, I expect, visiting Beijing would.
Yes, it has a lot of exposition and not much action. Yes, the last part of the novel, the long speech by He Dongsheng, seems to go on forever and ever. But there's a pleasure in reading this--a pleasure of, somehow, listening to another tongue, another culture, and hearing it in English in your head.
The Fat Years is the story of Taiwan-born writer Lo Chen who, one day, sees an old female friend, an ex-judge and now career activist Little Xi, who doesn't seem to be as happy as he is. Because everyone in Beijing is very happy. She, and another old friend, tell him that there's a month missing in China: 28 days in 2011 that disappeared from collective memory, and that only a few of them can remember. Chen's doubts are aroused, and he seems to lose the happiness that he sees all around him. There begins a quest to find the missing month, among political intrigue, elite ultranationalist student shenanigans, underground Christian churches and, eventually, love. It's the conflict between choosing to live "in a counterfeit paradise or a real hell". Which one would you choose?
This is definitely a novel for the intellectual-minded. Koonchung presents a lot of political and economic analysis--either to educate the Western reader or to wake up the Chinese one, I'm not really sure. But, according to the translator, it's not that farfetched, except for a few details. If you know nothing about China, you'll be illuminated. If you know a little, or a lot, you'll probably find the point of view interesting.
The Fat Years asks a lot of difficult questions that even Westerners should grapple with. How much freedom do we really have? Is the government really working in our interest? Is democracy a political system doomed to failure because it cannot achieve anything "big"?
If you like non-stop action, stay away from this book. You'll get bored. However, if you enjoy a text that plays with high political stakes and isn't afraid to call a dog a dog, I strongly suggest you grab a copy. (less)
I did not expect to like this book that much. I started it months ago only to abandon it to Game of Thrones; it's only when I picked it up again and g...moreI did not expect to like this book that much. I started it months ago only to abandon it to Game of Thrones; it's only when I picked it up again and gave it the attention it deserved that I got hooked.
Let's not shirk the reality: Cryptonomicon is a big sprawling thing of a book. It has three main characters and a flurry of minor ones which become hard to keep track of at first. But eventually, every piece of the puzzle moves in place and everything makes sense.
This is the ultimate geek novel. It's about people who probably weren't very popular in high school but whose smarts put them ahead of the game as soon as appearances lose their importance. It's also about your typical WWII hero... or maybe not that typical.
Despite its length, the book is full of action. Not a chapter goes on without some major plot point happening. This is one thing I appreciated about this book: it keeps you on your toes. I always wanted to read on to know what was going to happen. I found Stephenson's peculiar mix of fate and pure chance quite attractive. I don't especially enjoy stories where everything is fated; for example, the seemingly meaningless "Lavender Rose Waterhouse" (at least meaningless to those who wrote it) begins a quest that has a lot in common with destiny, and yet isn't quite fate.
To be honest, I found Randy, the main character, a bit infuriating. He's smart, yes, but he just coasts along the story for a very, very long time, letting himself be lead around by Avi and the Shaftoes. It's only when he finally decides to act that his character really shows. And that's very late in a very big book.
I loved this novel. But just a warning: only pick it up if you have a lot of time on your hands or a lot of reading stamina. Because this isn't the overnight reading kind.(less)