Category Archives: science fiction

Divergent (Veronica Roth) 2 out of 5

Divergent is supposed to be a tough-girl dystopian adventure following on the heels of Katniss and Katsa.  Tris (our new tough girl) lives in futuristic Chicago, which is divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless.  Abnegation runs the city and does lots of volunteer work, Candor runs the legal system, Erudite is smart (and useless?), Dauntless provides defense (against nobody?), and Amity is kind (and useless?).  Tris’s family belongs to Abnegation, but on choosing day she casts her lot with Dauntless.

I was expecting to like this book because the faction idea sounds fun, and the faction names are badass.  However, the faction names are 90% of what’s good about this book, so maybe we should refrain from reading the book and just write a bunch of fanfic.

The other 10% is that the Dauntless folks travel around Chicago by leaping on and off the El.  The train never stops, and part of Dauntless awesomeness is that they take superhero jumps for fun.

And here we can segue into a spoiler-free discussion of what’s wrong with this book.    First we’ll discuss the worldbuilding failures, and then we’ll move on to the gigantic ethical problem, with a bonus detour to Obvious Villains.

  • First, the worldbuilding: Abnegation does all the work while the other factions appear to be lazy and smart, lazy and kind, lazy and honest, or lazy with a death wish.  The factionless are an untouchable caste, and people keep getting cast out but nobody ever comes back in, so perhaps over time you’d end up with more factionless than factioned.
  • You live with your faction, not your family, and you choose your faction freely.  There must be plenty of not-so-genius Erudite kids who choose Erudite just to stay with their family, etc., so I expected the factions to be more varied than they were.
  • Now back to the trains.  The El trains run 24/7 just for Dauntless trainjumpers, and there’s always a train when they want one.  Which is weird because Dauntless is accepting 10 recruits this year (including the Dauntless-born kids who choose Dauntless), so maybe there are 50 years’ worth of recruits, meaning about 500 total Dauntless.
  • Ms. Roth, your city does not have enough people!
  • Hasn’t anyone in Candor or Erudite pointed out that Dauntless is hogging the world’s most awesome train system while the other four factions jolt along in buses on roads that have only been partially repaired by Abnegation volunteers?
  • Now, ethics.
  • Seriously, this is where Divergent loses one whole star off the top.  The romantic thread of this story follows Tris and her teacher, Four.  At multiple points, characters say that this pairing can’t happen because Four is “too old” for Tris, and then they immediately follow up by saying, “Well, she’s 16 and he’s 18, so grass on the field!”
  • Ahem.  There are 20 initiates and two teachers.  At the end of initiation, 10 will be welcomed by the faction and 10 will be cast into the outer darkness.
  • At one point, Four says that they have to be discreet because people will suspect favoritism.
  • Now why would anyone think that?  Can’t a hot guy just have a conflict-of-interest relationship with a pretty girl he’s evaluating?
  • Now, to the philosophical underpinnings.  Yes, I have problems there, too!
  • First, I have to issue a citation for Obvious Villains.  Ms. Roth, your villains have cold voices, cruel eyes, and no apparent motivation other than greed.  Work harder.
  • Secondly, I can tell that we’re working toward a Grand Realization, spun out painstakingly over the rest of the trilogy, that courage requires selflessness, honesty requires courage, selflessness requires kindness, and everything requires intelligence.  Yes, each of us embodies the attributes of all five factions!  Identifying with one while denying the others falsely partitions our identities.
  • Yes, Ms. Roth.  Yes, it does.  Nobody ever said otherwise…except for you.

When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) 5*

when you reach meI’d heard it was about some time-traveling kids, so I was expecting light adventure fare, not an emotional undertow that takes you out to sea.  In real life, I’ve shelved this next to The Westing Game.

Miranda is a kid in New York in the 1970′s.  Public schools had kids from different economic backgrounds back then, and sixth graders were allowed to leave school grounds for lunch.  It’s true that there are time travel shenanigans, but for the most part, time’s arrow moves only forward: Miranda is growing up.

Like The Hunger Games (where the outermost ring of the story is that readers will inevitably swoon over the love story instead of the social message), time travel in When You Reach Me reaches beyond the page. Miranda’s world — the walks up and down Amsterdam Ave., the lady at the corner store who lets Miranda help after school, the crazy sandwich shop guy, her friend’s yuppie parents, and her best best best friend who has mysteriously rejected her — is the real time travel.  Stead folds space and time and takes us to old New York, and then she folds space and time and makes us twelve years old.

Which means Rebecca Stead has discovered the tesseract.

Ashfall (Mike Mullin) 4*

ashfallAfter last year’s very special week of earthquake + hurricane here in DC, I put together an emergency bag in my hall closet.  It contains my passport, cash, handwritten contact list, a detailed map, a bottle of bleach for water purification (12 drops per gallon, folks), a bigass hunting knife with compass and firesteel in the handle, mylar emergency blankets, hand-powered radio and flashlights, instructions for building a solar oven, and assorted other usefuls.

Sadly, this book has made me realize that I’m going to get killed and eaten by cannibals despite the contents of my hall closet.

Ashfall basically inhabits the world of The Road, except that the characters have names, the cataclysm has a realistic explanation, and the reader has a reason to enjoy the story.  This was one of those books that grew on me as I read it.  Mullin takes care to show humanity in all its postures, and he has a real talent for sketching memorable minor characters.  With just a few telling details, we feel the menace of the escaped convict, the exhaustion of the small-town mayor, the compassionate fury of a rescue worker, and the hard-nosed determination of a gun-toting librarian.

When the entire world has become a trauma ward, it can be hard for any particular loss to stand out, but Ashfall finds the nooks and nuances of grief.  All the characters in the book, even the little kids, know that pragmatism should crowd out grief — that there is simply no time for the soft stuff when survival is at stake — yet grief is as unyielding and indiscriminate as the ash that covers the whole world.  Darla, the smartest and most capable character in this book, never stops moving, but in the grip of grief she becomes a smart and capable person who needs a live rabbit as an emotional crutch.  Yes, she needs a rabbit.  It’s absurd, and it’s believable, and it’s real.

Heat (R. Lee Smith) 3.5*

heatOne of the ladies over at Dear Author, which had delightfully mean things to say about Fifty Shades of Grey, called Heatprobably the best independently published book I have read…this sort of book was [sic] the reason I read indie books. I’m constantly hoping for that one read that will probably never be published by a mainstream publisher, yet is intense and consuming and surpasses all my skeptical misgivings.”

I tried Heat out of curiosity about this intense and consuming thing that could never be published by a mainstream publisher, and I agree that it has a certain je ne sais quoi.  Science fiction and erotica generally don’t mix, but here we have a solidly crafted, well-written novel with levels of graphic sex, violence, and sexual violence usually seen only in Japanese anime.

This is about as hardcore as erotica can get, but I was most shocked to discover that Heat is genuinely character driven.  Smith writes four main characters, each with a distinctive vantage point and spot-on diction.  The stars are Kane and Raven, who have an explosively dangerous Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling power imbalance.  Kane is a criminal from the planet Jota who has come to Earth to harvest human brain chemicals to make drugs.  Like Dr. Lecter, Kane fairly vibrates with self-awareness and maturity, yet you never know when he’s going to eat someone’s face.

Raven, a purple-haired teenage runaway, is probably my favorite of the characters.  She’s a survivor who doesn’t expect the world to hand her anything for free, which is a good thing because Kane’s not a nice guy.  “Even in this light, she could see the look on his face–a look that said he was about to kill everything in sight, ending with things that don’t even die, like rocks and trees, but beginning with her.”

Tagen is the lone cop who has been dispatched to bring Kane to justice.  Kane has been to Earth many times with his loving, criminal father and his loyal, criminal crew of slavers and drug dealers.  Tagen, on the other hand, is working from a 500-year-old briefing file because the Jotan government officially quarantined Earth centuries ago.  Tagen’s not as sexy as Kane (because who, who, who could be as sexy as a young, well-muscled, alien version of Hannibal Lecter whose hormones are in spectacular overdrive?), but his chapters are unexpectedly funny.  Tagen is fluent in Panyol, also known as español, and listens to some English language tapes on the flight over.  Then he keeps trying to speak to humans in Spanish because, hey, it’s what he knows.  Maybe if he just says it slower or louder…

As a newcomer, Tagen has a lot of tourist insights, such as quirking at why the humans’ orbital weapons are all aimed at their own planet.  Smith doesn’t overseason this soup, so it’s fun.

Both Kane and Tagen are blindsided by an unusually hot summer as they land their ships in a national park “with the kind of high-summer insect noise that made sane men butcher their families in their beds.”  Summer, which lasts only 9 days on Jota, triggers the mating season and causes extreme pain unless Jotan boys can get their rocks off.  This novel is erotica, so it dives into scenes of sex, violent sex, and imaginary sex.  The imaginary sex comes from Tagen, who has to actually woo a human female rather than just commandeer them the way Kane does.

So this is where we meet Daria, the main character most like the reader (unless you happen to be a teen prostitute or an alien).  Daria is not especially nice, but as Tagen observes, “Niceness is a quality often at odds with sincerity.”  Witty and resourceful, Daria tries her damnedest to act unfazed by the almost 7-foot tall alien who shows up in her home and demands help in tracking down an alien criminal.  And then it turns out that Daria is pretty damn good at detective work, and Raven is pretty damn good at evading the law, and this is as much a girl show as a guy show.

I’m giving a bonus star because this is exactly the risk-taking kind of book that I would love to see more of, but I’m retracting a star because there’s a pacing slowdown in the middle.  I doubt a NY editor would have made a difference, since I see these pacing problems all the damn time, so I guess I’m glad Smith is getting 70% royalties by going the self-published route.  Any professional would have advised her to change the title of the book, though, because one-word titles have signal-to-noise ratios that make it near-impossible to actually find this book on Amazon.  To say nothing of the cover art.  Here’s the Amazon link if you want to try the sample pages for free.

Hollowland (Amanda Hocking) 4 out of 4

HollowlandFrom the first line onward, Hollowland is a surefooted summer blockbuster that hits every mark.  If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have thought that Amanda Hocking was a professional screenwriter with 20 years of Hollywood experience, not a 26-year-old caregiver at an assisted living facility.  It’s hard to believe that Hollowland and My Blood Approves were written by the same person.  Hocking’s learning curve is something fierce.

The premise is very similar to 28 Days Later: An ultra-contagious pathogen transforms humans into rabid beasts, and the only hope is to quarantine the survivors until the zombies die off naturally.  The story begins as a quarantine zone is being breached, and 19-year-old Remy goes off in search of her little brother.  Along the way, she picks up some interesting companions on a roadtrip odyssey through the shattered United States.

This book is an action movie, and it is a perfect action movie.  The pacing is fantastic, the setting is otherworldly, the characters pack authenticity into very little dialogue, and the fight scenes are awesome.  Remy is one tough girl, and Hocking really gets the self-defense dictum that Everything is a weapon.  If a zombie is after you, and all you have is a bunk bed, then a bunk bed will have to be your weapon.  A can of olives might have to be your weapon.  A chair…dude, it’s your lucky day if you have a chair to throw.

By the way, this  book is free.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) 2*

never let me go cover

If you’ve ever read a science fiction book, this book will bore the pants off you (and not in a good way).

It’s like how The Scarlet Pimpernel was really shocking back  in the day because it had a Fabulous Surprise Twist!  Because the hero was secretly disguised.  As a Jew!  GASP.  I remember reading that wretched book at age 10 and figuring it out the instant the Jew showed up out of plumb fucking nowhere, and then I finished the whole book because there had to be something else because the book was so famous.

Never Let Me Go is exactly the same.  Spoilers below, so you should stop reading unless you’ve read a SF book before or have a 3-digit IQ and will thus figure out the mystery in the first 20 pages anyway.

(SPOILERS START HERE)

They are clones.  For 200 pages, we dance around the “mystery” that Kathy and her whiny little classmates are clones created for organ harvesting.  Unfortunately, the kids are boring as dirt,* so it’s hard for the reader to see them as more than bags of organs either.

Upon reaching their teens, the kids are inexplicably sent out in groups of a dozen or so to live without adult supervision in the Cottages, and they don’t ever consider running away.  If I hadn’t been so entirely disengaged by that point (I  was on an airplane and had to choose between this book or SkyMall), I would’ve been Sassy Gay Friend all over this.  Ishiguro is trying to show us that clones are people, but these kids lack the things that make humans interesting.  In fact, the average dog is more resourceful than these losers, and newborn kittens express more curiosity.

Despite the critical acclaim, this is not a novel of ideas.  Questions that could have made this book interesting, but which Ishiguro did not explore:

  1. The kids are going to be cut to pieces someday, but they go tamely to the slaughter.  As adults they even participate as hospice attendants in the medical complex.  Is this a metaphor for…something?
  2. There’s a total of two (2) activists who care about the treatment of clones.  Where are the rest?  What’s the political climate in England?  Is it set in a V for Vendetta version of fascist England?  The world-building is blank as fresh-fallen snow.
  3. What is life for, if life will end in your 20′s, and you’ve been sterilized since birth, and you have no biological family?  A properly constructed novel would include some moment of realization that Kathy, Tommy, and whats-her-name did have real lives, and that life was worthwhile even if it was short, and that it had always been up to them to fill their lives with meaning, and that lots of meaning could be created other than by procreating.  None of this is articulated.

The only smart bit happens in the first chapter, when Ishiguro introduces the euphemism “completion” for “death,” as in “he knew he was close to completing.”  Do not be fooled.  That’s the height of the good stuff and it’s a long downhill slog.

*Actually, I have a composting bin and could be considered a dirt farmer.  My homegrown, organic dirt is more far interesting than these kids.

Y: The Last Man, Book 1: Unmanned (Brian Vaughan) 4*

Yorick is an out-of-work English major when he suddenly becomes the last man on earth.  A mysterious plague has killed every other Y-chromosome mammal in an instantaneous, blood-spewing way.  Brian Vaughan never once says “Alas, poor Yorick” — he leaves that to the reader.  The whole book grants a lot of respect to the reader’s intelligence.

My favorite moment of the first volume happens right as the disaster hits.  We see freeze-frames from around the world: on the floor of the Tokyo stock exchange, every single worker falls down dead; in the Vatican, a nun kneels over a dead priest; at a women’s soccer game, the players crowd around a fallen referee and spectators spew blood; at mission control, men collapse at their consoles while an audio link asks, “Houston, Houston, do you read?”*

This is the first volume of 10 graphic novels, and I think the arc is going to cover all of Yorick’s family: his mother, a Democratic Congresswoman who is pro-life; his father, a dead Shakespeare professor who named his kids Yorick and Hero; and his sister Hero, who is not at all as meek as the original Hero — she’s an EMT who knows how to use a gun.  Also, Yorick has a pet (male) capuchin monkey named Ampersand.

When I was a wee slip of a girl, I remember reading Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, in which all the women die within about 2 weeks.  At that time, I remember thinking that the structure of society is much more vulnerable if all the women check out than if all the men check out, since having all families become suddenly single-dad households is rougher than single-mom households.

I take that back.  Society crumbles in either scenario.

Y: The Last Man thinks through the aftershocks in pretty cool ways.  For example, the widows of conservative Senators show up demanding their husbands’ seats, since knocking out the Y chromosomes leaves a decidedly smaller and more left-leaning Congress, and no self-respecting Republican lady is going to let a bunch of feminist loonies hijack the country.

Pia Guerra’s artwork is clean and stylish.  Here are Victoria, bitchin’ leader of the Amazon vigilantes, and Alter, a crazy-ass Israeli soldier (“Who wants peace when we have not yet begun to fight?”).

y last man victoria  y last man alter  y last man cover

* Yay!

Top 20

NPR just released a Top 100 list for science fiction and fantasy.  The hideously unreadable-in-every-way Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever clocks in at #58, right before the multi-award-winning Vorkosigan saga at #59.  Sandman is way down at #29, but American Gods is #10?  Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Narnia, and Harry Potter are not on the list at all.  Nor is Octavia Butler. This ranking clearly has an undiagnosed mental health condition.

So here’s my top 20:

1. Tie between Ender’s Game and Dune

3. Speaker for the Dead

4. Brave New World

5. The Handmaid’s Tale

6. Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

7. Voyage of the Dawn Treader

8. Prydain cycle

9. Sandman

10. Nation

11. Spin

12. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

13. The Hunger Games trilogy

14. Westmark trilogy

15. The Dark Is Rising

16. Watership Down

17. 1984

18. The Tiffany Aching books

19. Brightness Falls from the Air

20. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

GRRM hit #5 on NPR’s list, but I just don’t feel right putting him here until he finishes his damn series.  It’s not like Ender’s Game or Dune where the sequels dribble off into wackness but the first two stand alone just fine.  Also, if we count One Hundred Years of Solitude as fantasy, I guess I could find a place for it on my list.

 

Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold) 4*

Really fun, and then as I turned the last page, really sad.  Not because the book is sad, but because this book is thematically the last of the series and I fight that notion.  I just don’t want it to be over.  Ever.

Which is why this book is an incredibly gracious way to end the series.  Bujold, like Pratchett, is getting older.  Miles Vorkosigan is getting older.  Cryoburn takes place on an Asian-populated planet where people cryo-freeze their living instead of burying their dead.  As a result, their society is falling apart.  The local graffiti reads Burn the dead! meaning Stop blocking the door!  It’s a pretty transparent gesture at Japan, where young people can’t get anywhere because the old salarymen refuse to retire.  By the end of the book, Miles is a father of four and his days of going off-script are over.

My favorite Vorkosigan books were about Miles’s heartbreaking adolescence and his wild years as Admiral Naismith, but Cryoburn insists that even fictional characters can’t stay put in any one stage of life.  Unlike Sweet Valley High, there can’t be thirteen Christmases and seven proms.  It’s sad to say good-bye, but at least Bujold is even-handed: Cordelia walked off the stage when Miles was born, and now Miles takes his final bow as well.

Will there ever be another book in this series?  Bujold has written out-of-timeline before, so it’s possible.  In my fantasies, there’s one more book out there for Elli Quinn.

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) 5*

If you haven’t heard, The Hunger Games is the next Harry Potter and has already been on the NYT bestseller list for 130 consecutive weeks.

We cannot be friends if you don’t read this book.  The fact that a series of this quality has been  busting the block gives me faith in the youth of America.  The series is complete, so no need to fear GRRM-ness.

Go read it so we can go into full spoiler mode.  Summer is a time for sangria and book analysis!  I have so much to say I can pretty much write a (slim) book of lit crit.  I already published a long guest post on a public blog (alert: major spoilers of all 3 books).