Posts Tagged ‘Recommended Science Fiction’

Humanity was a plague. Locustlike, we ripped holes in the world’s fabric.

About :

Wow. What to say about this book. Well, it’s all about Arslan, a young Asian general from the European-created state of Turkistan, who takes over the world’s military powers without firing a single shot. His methods and reasons remain a mystery from most of the world, but he gradually reveals his vision to two men in small town Illinois, where the modern conqueror makes his capital.

Arslan was just republished by Open Road Integrated Media last month, and that’s how I heard of it, but it was originally published in 1976 to much critical acclaim. Being a fan of Dystopias and occasionally tempted by SF classics of the 70s-80s, I couldn’t resist a classic of the subgenre coming in at only 288 pages. I’m glad I got the chance to read it.

Thoughts :

Two very different, unreliable and extremely well-realized characters narrate the story, telling us details of humanity’s deterioration and of Arslan, the man causing said deterioration. Franklin Bond is a Christian conservative and school principle in the small, rural town where Arslan appears, and he cares very much for all under his responsibility. Therefore, he risks the wrath of the town by enforcing the hated general’s every rule, having quickly determined that a resistance would only survive its initial stages if he kept it a secret from Arslan; he’s all action and no talk. He gets most of the page time, since he helps run everything from food distribution, to the resistance, to the town government itself.

The other narrator, Hunt, is one of Franklin Bond’s sixth graders and only twelve years old when Arslan takes him as a sex slave. Over the course of the book, Hunt grows in and out of physical captivity and learns to play both sides of the conflict over Arslan, whichever offers him the best chance of survival. Though clearly a victim, Hunt’s pretentiousness and love of literature—his ability, as he grows, to express his anguish through poetry, and his pride, which prevents him from addressing it in any other way—make him a strong, complex narrator of indeterminate sexuality whose reactions defy prediction. His quotes from Milton express his situation particularly well:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Hunt’s perspective is just…I had to take breaks from reading it. Anguished is probably the best word for it. Cynical, yes, but also constantly flirting with death of all kinds. It’s awful and beautiful. Hunt’s perspective gets all the psychological depth of Franklin’s perspective plus the benefit of literary allusion and a poetic lens. I don’t normally swear, but literally the only word that can properly express Hunt’s perspective is “mind-effery” lol But it is through Hunt’s perspective that we get the clearest and most in-depth ruminations about Arslan—since Hunt is unable to form a coherent picture of himself, he puts all his energy into defining Arslan to himself and to readers in observations such as the one below:

Confronted unignorably with a phrase he was unsure of, [Arslan] would turn it back, with a straight face, in question, threat, or provocation, to elicit more data. I thought, too, that one reason for his inscrutable looks, his reluctance to show surprise or annoyance or enthusiasm, was a simple fear of betraying misunderstanding by an inappropriate reaction.”

I can’t share anything about Arslan without spoiling the plot, since it relies very much on revelations about his purpose and actions. Although the details of his conquest ultimately feel inadequate and somewhat disappointing, even those aren’t really the focus of this novel—Arslan himself is. And his plan for the world is what makes the novel so interesting. [Highlight to view SPOILERS: Arslan’s concerns seem largely environmental. “To save the world from mankind.” “But man, man is too strong. He fouls and exhausts too rapidly, and nothing checks him for long. There is only one end for such a species: extinction.” ].

But since we can’t get into those details, let’s talk instead about the fascinating and disturbing silence of the women portrayed in Arslan. In the beginning, women are dolls.

I made Luella stay inside, but I stood out on the front steps to watch…I wasn’t about to crawl into a hole.”

I don’t think Franklin Bond meant to make this sound like Luella was crawling into a hole—rather, he was trying to show defiance against the army invading his town. Still, why “make” her stay inside? The general treatment of women is degrading in Arslan, even before the “Dystopian” part happens. Halfway through the book, women become a tool of the enemy (through no fault of their own) or they have simply died of housework.

I constantly wondered about the lack of female presence and agency in Arslan, as I read. Thus it shocked me to find out that M. J. Engh is a woman. BECAUSE ONLY MEN CAN BE SEXIST, RIGHT?! lol. Apparently I’m just sexist like that 😂 Anyway, after further consideration, I found more than meets the eye in the “silence of the women.” It has been argued—successfully, I think—that Engh may have been commenting on the male view of gender roles during the 1970s. It’s hard to say for sure, since this was actually published in the 70s, and not in retrospect, but my personal opinion is that the female silence itself tells of “her” experience. Perhaps their conspicuous silence suggests, “it’s obviously all drudgery and degradation, so much so that nobody was listening to us.” Or perhaps Engh was just trying to appeal to the male reader of the 1970s-80s. That’s also a possibility. At the very least, complete immersion in the unreliable male perspectives undeniably provides food for thought.

Overall :

Full of stunning insights into humanity—or at least into the male half of it, lol. Although the plot falls short in terms of feasibility, the unreliable and fascinating character narratives by far make up for that. I think I would need to read Arslan several more times before I came away with a clear, full picture of Engh’s intent. And Engh’s riveting prose, full to the brim with poetic and historical allusions, gives Arslan a depth that a lesser writer could never have accomplished.

Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 3/5
Plot: 2/5

3.75/5 Stars

Arslan is adult Dystopian fiction authored by M.J. Engh and originally published in 1976. Digitally republished on 18 Apr 18, 2017 by Open Road Integrated Media.

Huge thanks to M. J. Engh, Open Road Integrated Media and Netgalley for this free eARC. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

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CollapsingEmpire-US-UK

The Collapsing Empire is the first in a new space opera series from well-known sci-fi genius John Scalzi, and I’m happy to say that it was a totally fun “first Scalzi” for me!

Thoughts :

By the time I got to sit down with The Collapsing Empire, I’d read enough reviews to understand the main points of the worldbuilding—but even if I hadn’t, Scalzi manages a certain breezy, entertaining way of explaining the impossible. He thunks readers into the middle of a mutiny and interrupts it with the even more drastic problem that the rest of the universe will have to face during the novel: the collapse of the only known method of space travel. The mutinous crew has to deal with the issue right then, or die.

Blamo! Sufficient explanation for the next several chapters without any painful info dumps.

That easy understanding is important, since the really absorbing puzzle of the book turns out to be tracking character agendas that will involve all this delicious worldbuilding.

Here’s a quick summary of said worldbuilding:

Space-age humanity has discovered a unique means of travel across huge stretches of the universe: the Flow. The Flow is an extra-dimensional field that transports spacecraft across distances that would otherwise be impossible, without fast-than-light space travel; naturally, humanity took advantage, using the Flow to build up an empire known as “The Interdependency”—interdependent because each settlement along the flow relies on each other’s resources to survive. But what happens to the Interdependency when the Flow begins to collapse, isolating each individual and dependent member of the body from each other?

That’s the question Scalzi’s cast is determined to answer. Several of the power players aim to profit from the misfortune and others just want to save lives. The major players all come from rich noble houses, overseen by a powerful “emperox.” (Yes, with the rise of the Interdependency came also the return of a caste system, and we learn later about its origins. It’s pretty disturbing. [Highlight to view SPOILER: Monopolies corrupted the government who anesthetized the common man with bunk religion and accepted the proceeds of $ and power without a blink. These elements seem a common enough in sci-fi backstories, which is understandable. Big companies, big government and organized religion all hold a lot of control over the common man, so when they get in bed, bad things happen…]) We meet the faces of three of these houses: the emperox of the universe from the most powerful House of Wu; the shipping queen of the entrepreneurial House of Lagos; and the three power-grabbing siblings of competitive House of Nohamapetan.

We enter the story just prior to the death of the current emperox—and just following the death of that emperox’s heir. This unfortunate double-dip of death leaves Cardenia, the emperox’s unprepared second child, in charge of the universe. Cardenia’s scenes largely consist of info dumps which, though humorous and easily digestible, usually left me eager to get back to the other two houses.

In contrast, Lady Kiva Lagos kept me in fits of mirth throughout the book; this mercantile heroine always manages to swing a profit despite House Nohamapetan’s threats to her product. I thoroughly enjoyed her clever machinations during this first power drama of the Flow’s collapse.

House Nohamapetan’s representatives—three siblings of differing personalities, but one overarching goal of enriching and empowering their house—prove no less enterprising. I almost found myself respecting these proactive backstabbers. Almost. There’s so competent, they even keep lady Kiva on her toes.

All of the female characters, excepting slightly the emperox, do seem to have shades of the exact same personality, which is slightly uninteresting. (One character quirk that most reviewers mention is Lady Kiva’s singular and somewhat repetitive talent for transposing the f-bomb to every purpose. Complimenting someone by saying “She’s smart as ****” or telling her mother “I ****ing love you” are some of the less clever examples of said habit Lol.) But every character has strong motivations that keep things moving along quite nicely, and their motivations clearly mark them out from one another.

Overall :

I really enjoyed The Collapsing Empire. Despite missing the character connections that would make it more meaningful to a character-driven reader like me, I love the political games and the unique setting and I’m totally game for book II. I can’t wait to see how the conflict plays out!

Recommended To :

Although I’m less familiar with sci-fi as some reviewers, I can confidently say that The Collapsing Empire is a rare example of extremely fast-paced and entertaining sci-fi, so I highly recommend it to readers looking for that sort of ride.

 

Characters: 2.5/5
Plot: 4.5/5
Setting: 4.5/5
Writing: 4/5

****4/5 STARS

The Collapsing Empire is adult sci-fi authored by John Scalzi and published March 21st 2017 by Tor Books. 336 pages. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

crosstalk“In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage.” –From the description.

About :

Briddey and her boyfriend of six weeks, Trent, work for a small but competitive mobile phone company that aims to supersede Apple in the business of communication. So when Trent asks Briddey to get an “EED” with him, a brain surgery that allows romantic partners to feel each other’s emotions and, supposedly, to communicate better through emotional bonding, they become the talk of the office. That’s a problem for Briddey, who desperately wants to keep the news from her nosey Irish family. But Trent’s explanation easily melts her into agreement: he wants her to feel how much he loves her when he proposes. So Briddey happily sneaks to her surgery, dodging pesky family and coworkers alike.

But once the surgery is done, she finds that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. She hasn’t emotionally bonded to Trent…

She’s telepathically bonded to someone else. Crosstalk was published September 20th 2016 by Del Rey. Adult sociological sci-fi. Connie Willis has won ten Hugo Awards, six Nebula Awards and more.

Thoughts :

This book is so funny. It’s like Jane Austen + telepathic Twitter. Romantic comedy at its modern greatest. I knew from the beginning that I was going to enjoy the book, but I wasn’t sure how much until around 34%-35%.

We spend the first 30+% with Briddey the vapid executive, as she runs around her office getting lots of gifts from an almost-absentee boyfriend and trying to avoid all the nosy people in her workplace and family long enough to actually get the surgery. The absurdist flavor of the humor (highlighted in conversations about nothing, endless interruptions of Briddey’s agenda and our heroine’s almost blind determination to have the EDD operation despite warnings about unintended consequences) runs consistently throughout the book, but it’s especially present in the beginning, before Briddey experiences any character growth.

The reader’s patience is rewarded around 34-35%, when Briddey starts seeing herself from the perspective of others’ private thoughts. That moment, with its inherent character growth, hooked me on this book. Suddenly, the characters filled out and I really wanted to know how Briddey was going to handle the extrasensory data following her EED.

I love how Connie Willis develops the theories of telepathy—and she manages it in humorous data dumps from one particular character. (This character is a huge part of why I loved the book. That’s as much as I can say without spoilers!) Readers can enjoy this element whether they regularly read in the speculative genre or not; the learning curve, while interesting, is minimal.

I also love the chattiness of the telepathy.

Dawn patrol to Night Fighter, come in, Night Fighter.”

At this moment, the heroine is still learning that her private thoughts are no longer private:

She opened the door. He was leaning against the doorjamb, wearing a hoodie and a pair of baggy pants, his hair a tangled mess.

‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘You look nice, too.'”

Willis takes every opportunity to spin a joke with the mind chatter, but it’s not all lighthearted. When things go wrong, in the mental sphere, Briddey has to develop coping mechanisms, and Willis makes the whole experience very real for the reader using strong, concrete details and imagery. As it turns out, telepathy can seriously mess with your psyche. Willis hones in on the sentiment that no, seriously, you don’t want to know what everyone thinks about you.

It’s a good thing I was already listening to and loving another book when I finished reading Crosstalk because otherwise I’d be in a major book hangover right now. I completely loved Crosstalk.

The only thing I would change is the length of the book. It’s really long for a modern romantic comedy, even if we give Willis extra pages to explore the speculative element. The author includes lots of unnecessary (not irrelevant, but just repetitive) details and conversations. At the same time, these absurdist touches are clearly intentional and part of the charm. It was fun—more than fun—to get so completely caught up in the world and the romance.

And now that I’m finished, I wish I had time to go back and reread the whole thing. I already went back and reread my favorite bits, an indulgence I rarely make time for, these days.

Overall :

A light and absorbing—but not insubstantial—exploration of communication and love in the modern world. Full marks, baby. I’m definitely buying a hard copy of Crosstalk, next book haul. I’ve already recommended it to three people at work.

Recommendations :

Readers who don’t mind a longer romantic comedy. Teens will love this, if they get past the first 30%. There’s no sex and minimal swearing. I’m serious, it’s adorable, give it to young adult readers who enjoy contemporary romance.

*****5/5 STARS

Huge thanks to Connie Willis, Del Rey and Netgalley for the free review copy!

forsaken-skies

“Flying down a wormhole was like throwing yourself into the center of a tornado, one where if you brushed the walls you would be obliterated down to subatomic particles before you even knew it happened.”

So begins Forsaken Skies, the first installment in a new space opera by D. Nolan Clark (a pseudonym for the horror author David Wellington). And if that first line doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will.

Premise:

“You can’t just let drones do their own thinking. They’re not smart enough to know when they’ve got something wrong.”

A mysterious fleet of drones attacks a small colony of religious Separatists on the desolate planet called “Niraya.” No one seems willing to help the Nirayans fight the dangerous drones. But what do the aggressors want, anyway? Who sent them?

And who can stop them?

Published September 2016 by Orbit.

Thoughts :

The beginning of Forsaken Skies is all action and juicy conflict as it brings together the cast of characters.

A naïve pair of Transcendentalists from the victimized planet of Niraya seek military assistance from an ex-navy conman named Maggs; but rather than helping the desperate women, Maggs steals their money and runs. Unluckily for him, the Naval hero and famed commander Lanoe is in town from another planet, trying to chase down a young runaway named Thom. Commander Lanoe captures both men and, after hearing about the attack on the Nirayans, he pulls together all the help he can muster: the two criminals; an ex-rebel-pilot named Valk, who currently works space traffic control on the planet where Lanoe noisily chased down his quarries; and two women from Lanoe’s old squad. One of these squadmates, Ehta, is an ex-pilot-turned-marine with PTSD about flying ships; the other is Lanoe’s old flame and second-in-command, Zhang.

Some of the character arcs blew me away and some of them didn’t. Valk’s arc is particularly fantastic, and I also really enjoyed two of the women’s arcs, especially Ehta’s. On the other hand, two character arcs fell short, for me: (1) after the author hung his hat on the mysterious motivations of the conman, Maggs, during most of the book, that arc ended up falling short, for me; and (2) one of the women serves only as a prop for one of the men’s character arcs before she’s killed off. I suppose she’ll be a Mockingjay for the new fleet of warriors on their next mission.

Still, I enjoyed getting to know most of these characters.

After bringing together the crew, the author slowly and carefully doles out clues to the mystery that drives the plot: who is attacking the barren planet of Niraya—and why? The pacing is perfect and I read along quite happily and willingly, even as the tight, teasing setup transitioned into more plot-specific action.

One specific worldbuilding qualm surfaced as I read: the planets in this universe never seem to go to war. (Unlike modern countries.) Instead, corporations do all the fighting.

The polys always find another reason to fight…because they make money off the fighting.”

That doesn’t make a lot of sense, to me. I don’t think corporations are the main causes of war right now, so why would that change? It seems logical that different planets—like today’s different countries—would find reasons to go to war. Call me a skeptic, but if we can’t manage world peace now, I doubt we’ll be able to manage it in the intergalactic age.

Other than this worldbuilding qualm*, I found the planets, cultures and settings fully-realized and quite entertaining.

So basically, this book was a lot of fun! I was hooked from page one. Line one, even. I did find my mind wandering during certain scenes, like those detailing the religious politics of Niraya, or other scenes that focused primarily on revealing the soul of the commander hero.

But the big reveals, during the final battle, definitely live up to the epic-sized expectations built up during the setup.

Overall :

Readers very familiar with the genre may not find a lot of original stuff here, but I suspect even veterans will find something to like—and readers new to sci-fi are in for a treat! The beginning of the book is so strong, you’ll be hooked before you know it. I really enjoyed Forsaken Skies and am definitely planning to read vol. 2!

Recommended To :

Readers in search of a decent new space opera, especially new readers looking for an exciting introduction to the genre.

Many thanks to D. Nolan Clark, Orbit and Netgalley for my free review copy of Forsaken Skies!

3.5/5 STARS

*In a great interview over at MYLIFEMYBOOKSMYESCAPE, Clark/Wellington expounds upon the planets and the polys: polys have taken over the planets in our galaxy (except for earth) and currently run them to make a profit; but they also keep trying to defeat earth’s navy and ultimately add earth to their list of conquests. So that explains why corporations, not planets, go to war. I still have a hard time thinking that polys would make more money by going to war than through business or trade, but I can certainly see corporations getting behind the push for intergalactic expansion–and even owning planets. Intriguing idea.

Three races fight for dominance in Pliocene Europe.

Premise :

Several million years ago, two factions of a dimorphic alien race took shelter on the most compatible planet: earth.

Fast-forward to the 22nd century, where not all humans are happy with the speed of progress and intergalactic relations with various “exotic” races. Several “misfit” humans portal back to Pliocene Europe to escape their own time. Ironically, these time-traveling refugees of the future must now battle aliens for their very lives in the past, instead of living in peace and harmony with them in their own time.

The saga of the human and alien refugees continues in this second book of the Pliocene Exile.

Adult science fiction, Published 1982. Book I was nominated for the Nebula award in 1981 and a Hugo Award in 1982. It won the 1982 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

What I Liked :

The plot. The plot of book I, The Many Colored Land, is split between setup for the time warp (from “intergalactic age earth” to “Pliocene earth”) and the events following the warp—a short plot of political rebellion that takes place in the world of the Pliocene itself.

But book II is all Pliocene politics, baby, and the power struggles center on racial survival.

The Tanu, the dominant exotic race due to their strong mental powers, continually battle their rivals and sister-race, the Firvulag, who lack the technology and mental powers of the Tanu.

And humans are the slaves.

Because the Tanu struggle to procreate due to earth’s radiation levels (unlike the Firvulag, who are far more numerous), they seek humans with strong mental abilities as mates to carry on their bloodlines and rule the Pliocene empire. As a result, humans with strong mental abilities, such as the madcap trickster Aiken Drum (who always keeps things interesting) or the totally boring but insanely powerful Elizabeth are highly sought after as Tanu mates.

So, basically the premise rocks. The author pulls it off with style and it’s a lot of fun.

What I Didn’t Like :

(1) My lack of connection with the characters was such that whenever they endured some terrible plot twist of fate, my reaction, instead of crying with the characters, was continually, “HAH! Clever twist, author, I gotta hand it to you.” It’s not that the characters were bad; not at all. In fact, for a plot- and milieu-driven book, they were quite good. But I really like to connect with my characters, and I had trouble with that in both books I & II. The main reason is, I think,

(2) that as with book I, I would have preferred fewer perspectives. I like reading from the perspective of a small cast anyway, but these books aren’t large enough to fully explore their 8+ character arcs.

(3) My third complaint is totally subjective and likely connected to my first complaint, above; but it bothers me that love is never a “great power,” in this series. Hatred, madness and power-lust drive the plot, but love (almost) never does. Pliocene lovers (who have no chemistry, btw) tend to find comfort in their love only until they go mad or die.

Love is almost never a powerful plot motivation. Mental powers are the main “force,” in this world.

Which brings me to (4) my fourth and final complaint: I don’t find the speculative element all that…magical. I know, I know, this is sci-fi, not fantasy; but I still like to find myself wishing I could have a go with the superpowers or whatever. I didn’t feel that way about the five great “mental guilds” or “metaphysic clans” that make up a large portion of the speculative element, in this series: Farsensors, Creators, Coercers, psychokinetics (PK), and Redactors.

The mindspeak is almost nauseating, at times. It sounds like baby talk:

Atleast they no make Aiken dance their tune viceversa if anything.
Not toy like Raimobooby.
Nor I Sukeylove if you help.”

I happen to enjoy whimsy more than MIND CRUSHING POWERS! But a different reader might really enjoy the complexity of the mental gymnastics involved.

Overall :

Julian May knows how to tell a good story. This review may have sounded negative, but I’m really just elucidating my own personal reasons for keeping this book at 3.5 stars, despite the incredible thought put into the premise and pageantry.

Recommended To :

Male readers of fantasy and sci-fi at my library seem to love this series. Any plot- or milieu-driven readers would eat this up. I recommend it to teen and adult readers of sci-fi. It will appeal to some fantasy readers, but more to sci-fi readers, I think.

Book III? :

I think I’ll give it a shot. The plot sounds interesting and I like the direction things are going with Aiken Drum…

3.5/5 STARS

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Premise: Anyanwu cannot be killed and Doro cannot die. When Anyanwu is chosen by Doro as his companion, she agrees to his breeding plans only to keep him from hurting her children. But Doro ends up needing more than just Anyanwu’s unusual gene pool to bring new meaning to his 4,000+ years of life. Historical Fantasy published in 1980 by multiple Hugo and Nebula award winning author Octavia E. Butler.

Why I Read This Book? Blame this quote: “[Doro] wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived–alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain. He was killed several times–by disease, by animals, by hostile people. This was a harsh land” (pg. 3).

About:  This book is a love story (although sometimes, I thought it was turning into a hate story) that spans ages of time and two different continents. Because of this, the atmosphere and settings change drastically throughout the course of the novel. But the fantasy component makes this book a power story, also. The long-lived protagonists seek out other people with unusual, inheritable powers (like mind-reading or healing abilities) and work to develop these powers through opposing methods (force vs cultivation). The inherited powers often drive their users mad, and the two protagonists react differently to this eventuality.

Themes: I don’t usually talk about themes, in my book reviews, because who cares? But this novel is so heavy, it would be pointless to write a review without exploring them. It explores some common themes like the redemptive power of love; several specifically African themes, like the brutality and preciousness of life in pre-modern Africa and in the slave trade; it also examines more specifically American themes like race relations throughout our country’s history–but in a unique way, not just from the modern African-American perspective, but from the very powerful, very African perspectives of Doro and Anyanwu; and several more modern themes like the fluidity of gender. They are complex and interesting—Butler does not preach at us, in this novel.

And best of all, she manages all this in a tense, moving narrative.

The Cover & The Atmosphere: That first cover disturbs me, but it does accurately reflect the weirdness of this novel. The story and characters feel ancient, even barbaric. I had trouble relating to Anyanwu and Doro because they were so strong and other-worldly. There is a strong animal presence in them because they lived for centuries in the premodern times where survival was the virtue.

Overall: Read it! Seriously, this book is completely unique.

P.S., Trigger Warnings: There’s some weird sexual stuff in this novel—several historically-realistic depictions of sexually or physically abusive relationships, including incest. It’s really a beautiful story, but just FYI.

*****5/5 STARS