A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 27, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Most Dangerous Game
In November of this year, a film version ofA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 27, 2013 edition of The Monitor
The Most Dangerous Game
In November of this year, a film version of one of the most popular and powerful science fiction novels of the last half-century will be released: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the 1985 Nebula-award-winner that has spawned two highly successful series.
In the near future, as Earth takes its first tentative steps into deep space, it encounters an insect-like alien race commonly referred to as “the buggers.” Attempts at communication with the beings fail, and humanity finds itself drawn into two wars, the second narrowly won by the efforts of the legendary Mazer Rackham.
United by the threat of a third invasion, the nations of Earth realize that they will need a very special sort of leader to ensure another victory. They establish the Battle School, an orbital training center to which extraordinary gifted children are taken at a young age to be groomed as soldiers. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, teachers soon realize, has exactly the mix of compassion and ruthlessness needed to understand his enemy fully and nonetheless eradicate it.
Isolating the young boy while pushing him to become a master warrior, strategist and leader, the adults in Ender’s life risk his psychological health in order to mold him into the savior the world needs. At the very edge of his limits, however, Ender will discover the meaning of friendship and the heavy price of victory.
A perfect novel for gifted young adults, especially bright outcasts who struggle to find a place for their uniqueness in a world dictated by adults, Ender’s Game is a riveting character study, an action-packed space opera, and a moving exploration of the relationship between innocence and guilt. When I was a secondary English teacher, I used to book to great effect in my Pre-AP classes, and its popularity at middle and high schools across the country continues to grow.
Orson Scott Card, whose socially conservative views (while not prevalent in this novel) have become an integral part of his books in the last decade or so, has been the target of a good deal of criticism lately because of his opposition to gay marriage. However, it would be a mistake to read or boycott Ender’s Game based solely on your opinion of his stance on this issue: the book stands on its own as a classic tale of empathy and responsibility for one’s actions. If the final chapter doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what will.
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The Monitor
In the early 1990s, a Chicano from East L.A. published a pair ofA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The Monitor
In the early 1990s, a Chicano from East L.A. published a pair of science fiction novels that would go on to receive considerable critical acclaim and make significant inroads into the genre for Latinos everywhere.
Hewing more closely to weird, gonzo pulp fiction and comics than to the more politically active realism preferred by the Chicano intelligentsia, he was for many years unknown to his hermanos literarios. The culturally embedded nature of his narratives likewise made him less palatable to mainstream readers of sci-fi. Both of these oversights are gradually being corrected. Soon Ernest Hogan will be recognized as an essential, revolutionary voice.
By the late 1980s, Hogan had published several stories in Analog and other professional markets, and this success encouraged him to submit a manuscript to author Ben Bova, who was curating at the time a series of novels by up-and-coming writers for TOR. Their resulting negotiations produced in 1990 what is likely the first Chicano “hard sf” novel ever: the widely hailed Cortez on Jupiter.
Two years later, Hogan followed his debut up with the cyberpunk masterpiece High Aztech.
The story line is set in the year 2045, in a Mexico City that has returned to its ancient name of Tenochtitlan, the capital of a country to which Americans now flock due to the decline of the United States. This migrant flood complicates the revival of the Aztec religion, as Christian groups vie with indigenous Mexican beliefs, leading to the creation of biological virii that infect human minds with the ideology of one faith or the other. Xólotl Zapata, a renegade cartoonist, is the carrier of the Aztec virus, and he soon finds himself pursued by multiple groups hoping to stop the ascendancy of Mexico. Yet their plan to cancel out his infection with their own has consequences that they could never have imagined.
Now, I’m going to be straight-forward about something: High Aztech is not an easy read. That’s a good thing, however. Hogan crafted a novel that rivals the bizarrely cryptic genre work of Burroughs or Lessing, that takes linguistic, philosophical, and structural risks along the lines of A Clockwork Orange.
The frame story is an interrogation of Xólotl, but his erratic, ADHD stream of memories is interrupted by commentary from observers, notes from field operations, and other creative techniques for widening the narrative net. While these choices mean we don’t get as much character development and depth as perhaps traditional methods might achieve, for Hogan’s philosophical and politically speculative purposes, it’s a great fit.
Most spectacular, however, is the hybrid language with which Xólotl laces his responses to the interrogation. Called Españahuatl, this fusion of Spanish and Nahuatl (the indigenous Aztec tongue) is at times wildly funny and earnestly poignant, much like the “Nadsat” that Anthony Burgess once crafted.
Sadly, TOR pretty much abandoned the novel right after its publication, doing nothing to publicize a book that they clearly realized was more ethnic than they had expected. Fooled by his last name, many in the publishing world didn’t realize that Hogan was actually a Chicano (rather than a daring Anglo). His full-throated expression of Latino sensibilities within the frame of science fiction is only now being fully appreciated....more
Octavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-fOctavia Butler is best known as the award-winning author of some 15 novels of socially conscious speculative fiction. Sometimes associated with Afro-futurism, Butler often used marginalized protagonists to explore multi-cultural, hybrid societies that highlighted our own societal ills in unflinching ways.
Butler wrote very few short stories during her career, but seven of these have been collected in Bloodchild. Each story is accompanied by a brief afterword in which the author details its genesis. The collection is rounded out by two insightful essays on writing.
Each of the pieces is powerful, ideas and characters lingering in the reader’s mind for hours afterward. Stand-outs for me were “Bloodchild,” in which a boy must decide whether to serve as host for the larvae of an alien he’s spent his life serving; “Speech Sounds,” a post-apocalyptic vision of a violent world without human speech and the novelette “Amnesty,” in which a translator helps humans come to grips with their inevitable enfolding into an alien community.
Written in accessible, supple prose, these stories push us beyond our boundaries, expanding our understanding of what it means to be human...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 19, 2015 edition of The Monitor
My recommendation for kids today is “Ambassador” by William AlexanA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 19, 2015 edition of The Monitor
My recommendation for kids today is “Ambassador” by William Alexander. A Cuban-American professor of creative writing, Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his debut middle-grades fantasy “Goblin Secrets.” His most recent book, “Ambassador,” is a work of science fiction that blends humor, great adventure and serious topical concerns into a really compelling narrative.
Gabriel Sandro Fuentes is an 11-year-old from Minnesota, son of highly idiosyncratic parents who met, of all places, in India. He has an older sister, Lupe, and two toddler younger siblings that he often must babysit. Gabe doesn’t mind the responsibility, really. Differently from many pre-teens, he has a powerful sense of empathy for others, working hard to preserve their feelings and dignity. Even his numerous pets get amazing respect and care from the boy.
These characteristics draw the attention of the Envoy, an ancient, shape-shifting ball of translucent gel whose job it is to select an ambassador from Earth every few years to represent our planet in the vast arena of galactic affairs. Luckily for Gabe, he doesn’t actually have to leave the planet — through a very clever sci-fi twist, particles of his body are “entangled” and their twins sent through a black hole the Envoy creates in the family dryer. Gabe’s diplomatic work is to happen when he falls asleep or into a trance, his mind connecting across the gulf of space to a virtual body in a diplomatic hub of sorts, where the physical form of thousands of bizarre species is “translated” to be more relatable (though if you squint and look sideways, the crowds of young ambassadors reveal their true shapes).
Not long after his first visit, Gabe finds that his life has been turned upside down. First, after a routine traffic stop, the police discover that his parents are undocumented, and they are rounded up unceremoniously. With the threat of his father’s impending deportation hanging over his head, Gabe also finds himself being attacked repeatedly. The black hole in his basement refuses to close, swallowing his home. He is shot at from space. A bizarre alien vehicle claws its way out of the ground to pursue him.
The boy soon finds himself on the run with the Envoy, one step ahead of death. In order to save his own skin and return to his family in their darkest hour, he will have to unravel with no training at all the secret of what alien ambassador is responsible for the attacks and negotiate a diplomatic solution.
Skillfully written, full of laugh-out-loud humor — especially from the deadpan Envoy — as well as well-rounded characters and gutsy exploration of issues of immigration and family, “Ambassador” is a must-read work of middle-grades science fiction. The narrative ends on a nail-biting cliff-hanger, so I can’t wait for book two....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 10, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In a near-future Los Angeles, the cultural barriers have come dowA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 10, 2015 edition of The Monitor
In a near-future Los Angeles, the cultural barriers have come down between people in a process called recomboization, creating fascinating hybrids like Dead Daze, a three-day celebration blending Día de los Muertos, Halloween and Mardi Gras — a bacchanalian revel during which only corporate-sponsored street gangs dare patrol the crowded streets and the drug Fun is consumed openly.
On the eve of Dead Daze, Beto Orozco, ladies’ man and game developer, decides to put to use the god-simulator program he has stolen from Xóchitl, an engineer from Mexico City. Unfortunately, he selects Tezcatlipoca as his test deity — the Aztec Lord of Chaos, trickster brother of Quetzalcoatl — and he does so without any safety measures. The simulation gains access to the Internet and attains sentience, reaching out to control Beto’s body first through hypnosis and then a cerebral implant.
Plunging into the celebration, Tezcatlipoca — using the recombo name translation “Smokey Espejo” — takes control of a corporate gang and soon becomes the center of the festivities, his musical talents, suave presence and seeming omniscience attracting the attention of the media … and other groups. Ti Yong/Hoodoo Investigations sizes up the threat this AI god represents (to wit, he wants to use music to foment chaos across the globe, partying hard as he does so), and they decide, with the help of the simulation program’s creator and a handful of Beto’s original friends, to stop Tezcatlipoca and free Beto (whose mind has been imprisoned in his own brain).
Their mission is complicated by the Earth Angels, a shadowy organization of monotheistic terrorists who believe the only way to stop Smokey Espejo is by creating a cybernetic version of their “one true God” using the same software. As these three groups head toward a collision, one thing is certain: the gods humanity has crafted will hold a dark and smoking mirror to our collective soul.
Hogan’s style is both deftly self-assured and gleefully madcap, harkening to the very best of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany. Shifting viewpoints are intercut with commentary from news reporters and the communications of different organizations. Steamy, explicit scenes are juxtaposed with philosophical conversations and political machinations, but the narrative flows smoothly, drawing a reader deep into this imagined world.
And what a world! Most of the protagonists are Latinos (“latios”), but people of color in multiple variations appear (including a president who is African-American … sort of … it’s complicated). The shamanistic cyberpunk vibe of El Lay (Los Angeles) during this “trimili era” is unique while feeling familiar, as if Guillermo del Toro had collaborated with Terry Gilliam to craft a fictional universe.
If you love great speculative fiction and/or Chicano literature, you owe it to yourself to give this a read. To use the hybrid future slang of the book, “It’s sumato!”...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especialA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the April 17, 2015 edition of The Monitor
One of the most powerful roles that speculative fiction, especially dystopian sci-fi, plays in the literary community is that of cautionary prophet, spinning visionary depictions of what the sins of the present may lead us to. Classics like “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”and“Nineteen Eighty-Four” have become staples of high school and college curricula precisely because of their startling oracular power, that gut punch of plausibility that leaves readers reeling.
With “Ink,”Sabrina Vourvoulias — a writer, journalist and editor with Mexican-Guatemalan roots — has added a powerful meditation on immigration to this growing sub-genre. Set in the very near future, the novel depicts an America in which immigrants are required to receive a biometric tattoo in place of documentation, with colors corresponding to status.
The novel, which spans several years, depicts how this first repressive step (not as unbelievable as I would hope, given the current anti-immigrant climate in our country) leads to further persecution: the banning of the use of Spanish in public, creation of sanatoriums for supposedly sick “Inks” (as recipients of the tattoos are called), reversal of the rights of naturalized citizens, installation of tracking devices, sterilization and finally mass deportation.
Vourvoulias makes the brave choice of telling this story broadly and loosely, using four very different characters in New York State whose intersecting narratives weave together a compelling tapestry of communal victory. Finn is a journalist whose interest in the Inks is at first a reflection of his desire to sell news, but whose love for an immigrant embroils him emotionally and intellectually with the movement. Mari came as an infant to the United States from Guatemala with her American father, fleeing the massacre of her mother’s people (from whom she inherited a spirit animal to which she is twinned at birth and which protects her and other Inks in moments of direst need).
Del, Finn’s brother-in-law, is a painter with a spiritual bond that links him to his land. Drawn to the movement by his relationship with fellow workers and Meche, the Cuban chemist whose artificial skin allows immigrants who “pass” as white to cover up their tattoos, Del uses his earth magic to help establish a sanctuary for those escaping the increasingly harsh regime. Abbie, an almost preternaturally gifted teenage hacker of indigenous North American heritage, volunteers at the “inkatorium” her mother runs, and she also risks everything to protect immigrants from the dehumanizing practices that begin to snowball into fascism.
The novel consists of three broad arcs in which these individuals’ almost vignette-like stories, driven by relationships and characters, show how the immigrant community and its allies struggle to survive and finally fight back against the repression.
Rather than resolve itself through the actions of a single heroic chosen one, the conflict in “Ink” is refreshingly dealt with — after heartbreak and loss and betrayal — by the tenacity and solidarity of an entire movement who network and take action, never giving up until injustice is overturned.
Vourvoulias pulls off a real feat through her deft dialogue, arcane plotting and insightful characterization: spinning a complex and completely recognizable world that seems to be waiting just around the bend. Even the magic in this genre hybrid feels tangible and authentic, a deepening of cultural traditions and indigenous religious beliefs.
At a time like the present, when immigrants are in such physical/political danger and law enforcement’s violation of minority rights is tragically underscored with frightening regularity, brave novels like “Ink” become not only a necessity, but a moral obligation....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and faA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the December 5, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Though not a memoir, some of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy pieces in Bradley’s book have an autobiographical feel, drawing on the author’s youth as a Latina in South Texas. Certainly the innumerable facets of female identity glitter at the heart of these darkly beautiful treks through otherworldly landscapes of desire and pain, belonging and loneliness, creation and destruction.
Standouts for me were “No Patron Saint,” in which a young woman discovers she can bear the weight of her boyfriend’s grief; “Red Eye,” about a woman’s nightly excesses; the eerie and moving title sequence; the borderline bizarro “Teratoma Lullaby,” in which an absorbed twin struggles for the upper hand; “The ‘Ludes,” a great tale of addiction; the terrifying apocalyptic mythology of “Gehenesis”; and the novelette “Bilingual, or Mouth to Mouth,” a fascinating South Texas cuento de hadas … literally.
Bradley possesses a real gift for language and unflinching insight into the best and worst of human nature. You owe it to yourself to check out this rising star of speculative fiction and verse. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer anA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer and academic China Miéville has made a career out of what he calls weird fiction, eloquent fantasy that simultaneously harkens back to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and draws from modern (often Marxist) responses to the tradition. Much of his work is decidedly adult, but in 2007 his first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, hit the shelves, a Neil Gaimanesque tale of a mirror London and an unlikely heroine. 2012 saw the publication of his second book for young adults, Railsea, a powerful post-apocalyptic story that subverts the Moby Dick narrative delightfully.
Ages from now, the seas are dry. The atmosphere at what is presently sea level roils with noxious clouds that obscure the forms of strange alien beasts floating enigmatically. Continents are desolate, dangerous, poisonous places. The ocean floor teems with massive mutant moles, owls, antlions and other creatures, each a predator, all hungry for human flesh. And in place of the currents that once swirled in great blue depths, the railsea spreads in all directions, a vast tangle of railways lain in the distant past by unknown entities and maintained by autonomous locomotive “angels.”
Sham is a teenaged orphan boy apprenticed to the doctor on a moler, a train that plies the railsea in search of giant moles whose fur, meat and oil are very valuable.Its captain is obsessed with her philosophy, the enormous mole named Mocker-Jack that reputedly bit off her arm years earlier and in whom she finds the meaning of her life. And though Sham yearns for a different occupation, he is gradually adapting to the rhythms of the rails.But a brief salvage expedition reveals a deeper mystery and mission to young Sham, and he soon finds himself joining up with two other orphans determined to finish the dangerous exploration that ended their parents’ lives. Their adventures take them quite literally to the edge of their world, and what they discover there will startle and amaze you.
A big fan of Miéville, I was nonetheless astonished at how much I liked this book, which feels written for just the sort of literate, oddball young person that I was 30 years ago. The literate but accessible style is reminiscent of the very best of Stevenson, Cooper and Wells, richly written and never insulting the intelligence of its teenaged readers. The pace is exhilarating, the adventures hair-raising, and the philosophical issues handled with an impressive deftness. Sham’s character arc is great, also: imagine if in Moby Dick Ishmael had the courage to redirect Ahab’s obsession so that his crew wouldn’t perish. A top shelf addition to the YA fantasy milieu....more
China Miéville’s Hugo-nominated Embassytown is both a throFrom my TOP SHELF review in The Monitor on May 31, 2012.
Sophisticated Sociolinguistic Sci-Fi
China Miéville’s Hugo-nominated Embassytown is both a throwback to the sort philosophical and political science fiction that underpinned novels like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (as well as some of the best Star Trek episodes) and also a startlingly innovative work by one of the most literary and intellectual genre writers of this generation.
The Ariekei are a race of beings whose innate language allows them to speak only what is: lying and metaphor are beyond them. In order to speak about new ideas that arise, they have to carefully construct real-world referents that can serve as similes. Because of their physiognomy, they only recognize as words the sounds that emerge simultaneously from two mouths joined to a single mind. The Anglophone nation of Bremen on the planet Dagostin established a sort of colonial outpost on their world generations ago, and specially trained pairs of neurally connected clones have served as ambassadors to the Ariekei so that Bremen can benefit from the advanced bio-engineered technology of the strange species.
The Ariekei are fascinated by the humans’ ability to lie, and a faction of them works very publically to acquire the skill despite the opposition of humans who would preserve their original culture. Then Bremen, in an attempt to undercut Embassytown’s growing independence, sends a new ambassador pair, one whose unique characteristics have a horrifying effect on the aliens: their combined voice is literally addictive, and Ariekei society screeches to a halt as they scrabble to get a fix. Faced with a society of slowly dying junkies and under attack by unreachable zombies who’ve mutilated themselves to resist the addiction, the humans of Embassytown turn to Avice Benner Cho, a living simile (“the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her”). In order to heal the damage human contact has done to Ariekei society, Avice must help the natives change themselves forever. Her efforts—made as she mourns the loss of an entire way of being in exchange for a novel, hybridized identity—are the most intense, compelling sections of this rich and challenging novel.
Miéville doesn’t always make reading easy for his audience: neologisms compete with learned diction and deliberate obfuscation of certain plot points. As a student of linguistics, I’ll also say that some of his science is a bit iffy as well. But as a high-concept exploration of the impact of colonialism, the novel succeeds brilliantly, and I was left both satisfied at the book and sad to leave Embassytown. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 27, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Since today is my birthday, I thought I’d indulge myself by reA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the February 27, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Since today is my birthday, I thought I’d indulge myself by reviewing a long-time favorite of mine by author Haruki Murakami, the award-winning Japanese writer who has revolutionized the literature of his country.
I was first introduced to Murakami’s work through his 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I had heard from a friend blended science-fiction, philosophy and surrealism in a literary way that rivaled Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick.
The novel alternates back and forth between two apparently unconnected narratives that eventual converge at the end and become one. This trick is not new, but even re-reading the novel I am surprised at the emotional resonance of the denouement.
The first narrative, “Hard-boiled Wonderland,” centers on a nameless protagonist in a future Tokyo. The man works as a “Calcutec,” employing his mind as a data encryption device and storing the encryption key in his subconscious. His employer, the government-like System, is engaged in a struggle with the criminal syndicate known as the Factory, whose agents — Semiotecs — seek to steal key data.
Our nameless Calcutec narrator is working on an assignment with a strange but brilliant scientist who seeks to develop a system of “sound removal.” The job draws the protagonist into research into unicorns, conflicts with the Semiotecs and a relationship with the scientist’s granddaughter, and he soon finds himself in the midst of a bizarre, reality-bending chase through the sewers of Tokyo, where strange fish-worshipping cannibals are just one of his troubles: in less than two days, his brain will begin to shut down, plunging him into his own subconscious for a time before his body finally dies.
The second narrative, “The End of the World,” is a strange mythical or fantasy tale in which a nameless narrator with no memories of his past awakens in a peaceful village that has been completely walled off from the universe. After having his shadow severed from him by the gatekeeper, the narrator finds himself unable to leave. Using the dreams trapped in the skulls of unicorns in the town’s library, the narrator seeks to unravel the mystery of his identity and the existence of the impossible place he’s been trapped inside.
As the book nears its end, the reader realizes that both narrators are the same man, and that his only hope for survival is a strange sort of eternity within a subconscious world he has created where time gradually slows and slows, forever putting off the moment of his death.
Full of meditations on jazz, literature, science and philosophy, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is quintessential Murakami, juxtaposing the poignant and the absurd, the heart-wrenching and the surreal. A perfect novel of the human condition....more