Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Rain Never Came

Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.

Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.

There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.

A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.

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Doomsday Book

A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book a very long time ago. Perhaps just before I started writing this blog! This copy has a pretty understated and uninspiring front cover, and despite the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, it has gathered dust on my shelf for years. I’ve recently reorganised my bookshelves so I now have a shelf dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, and finally it was this book’s turn.

20180721_131041-641834144.jpg “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis is a one of those books that is both science fiction and historical fiction: a time travel book. Set in the mid-2050s in Oxford England, the book is about a student of Medieval history called Kivrin who is to be the first person to travel back in time to the 1300s for historical research. Aghast, her professor Mr Dunworthy tries to talk her out of it, but Kivrin has the firm support of the acting Head of the History Faculty and the expedition is to go ahead. However, while Dunworthy frets about the margin of error and whether Kivrin did arrive in the correct year, both in the 14th Centry and in present day Oxford, there are far, far bigger problems.

This is an absolutely engrossing book. Willis is an incredibly skilled writer who is brilliant at creating and maintaining tension. The book flips back and fourth between Kivrin in the 1300s and Dunworthy in the 2050s, and no matter which part I was reading about, I was on the edge of my seat. Willis drops hints and suggestions throughout the book and keeps you guessing right until the very end about what is going to happen. I was also really surprised to find out that she is not actually English. She really captured that peculiar brand of British humour that combines the absurd with the chaotic and uses a lapse in otherwise very good manners to comedic effect. However, I wouldn’t consider this a particularly humourous book and the darker and more tragic parts of this book really underline Willis’ flexibility as a writer.

I think there was only one single tiny thing that got under my skin about this book and that is Willis’ tendency to repeat facts and dialogue in order to ensure that the audience appreciates their significance. While I think that this is a good technique to make sure that your audience is picking up what you’re putting down, it did occasionally feel a little heavy-handed.

Anyway, it really was no surprise that this book won so many awards. It is a cracking story and I am really inspired now to read more books by Willis, including more in this series about time-travelling historians.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

Following the very sad news that Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, my feminist fantasy book club decided to commemorate her by reading one of her books. Le Guin was the first woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel for this book, so expectations were pretty high.

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“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novel about a man called Genly Ai who has been sent to a frozen planet called Gethen as an envoy. The plot is quite complex, but essentially, Ai comes from a confederation of planets called the Ekumen and has been living on Gethen for some time learning about the planet’s humanoid inhabitants and their peculiar culture. The Genthenians only have one sex: each person goes through a sexual cycle with the potential to be either male or female at its peak. Ai has been working towards a meeting with the “King” in a country called Karhide so he can issue an invitation for Gethen to join the Ekumen. However, Ai’s efforts are undone when he fails to understand the subtle messages communicated by the Prime Minister Estreven.

Not unlike “Orlando“, this book was clearly groundbreaking when it was first released. The edition that I have has an introduction written by China Miéville, who praises the novel and its ability to reveal something new on each rereading. Published in 1969, 50 years ago next year, it certainly was a very unique premise. This is a very complex novel that explores what a society would be like with not quite no gender, but if everyone could experience either gender. The politics and the cultural differences between countries on a Genthen are done cleverly but subtlety, and I think they require a lot of concentration to pick up on the nuances of Genthenian people. Le Guin conjures a palpably icy world, nicknamed Winter by Ai, and the later chapters traversing through a white wasteland read almost like a journal of Antarctic explorers.

However, this book is not easy to read. To begin with, and this is the biggest criticism that Miéville alludes to and Le Guin herself acknowledges in her own introduction, the way gender is handled in this book feels clunky. I think the significance of the fact that each person on this world essentially is at once both male and female is lost because of the Le Guin’s choice of pronouns. I understand that in 1969, gender neutral pronouns in English weren’t really a thing, but given their prevalence across languages around the world I’m not quite sure that holds up. I understand that historically, he has been used in English to be gender neutral, but I think in this case it’s just confusing.

I think that even though it’s such a critical element of the story, the androgyny of the Genthenians simply is not centralised enough in the storytelling. Ai is the lens through which we observe this world. However, so much of the description is on the political structures and the weather, I felt like I was constantly searching for a foothold to understand what Le Guin’s imagined people were like and what their culture was. I appreciate that an inability to understand them and the way gender influenced their culture was a key issue for Ai and his mission, but I think such a fascinating idea should really have been done a bit more justice and have been given a bit more airtime.

I think the other problem I have with this book is a problem that I often have with older science fiction. The writing style is often quite cold, and relationships and emotions are often stated to exist rather than shown or felt to exist. Maybe this as well was exacerbated by Ai and his unreliable narration, but later in the book I felt like all of a sudden a relationship was there just because Ai said so, not because it had really been established.

I honestly could go on and on about this book, there really is so much in there to unpack and maybe one day I’ll have to read it again and see if, like Miéville, I can discover more on a second reading. I think this book really has a lot of important and interesting things to say, and was one of the first books to say them, but it is a difficult book to read and does feel impenetrable at times.

 

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The Power

Content warning: gender, sexuality, sexual assault

A lot of people have been talking about this book. Friends, bookshops, Obama. It was the most recent book for the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, so naturally I had to give it a go.

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“The Power” by Naomi Alderman is speculative fiction about what would happen if women worldwide suddenly discovered that they had the power to create electricity. This new ability drastically shifts the global power balance between men and women. The story follows the journey of four main characters. There is Roxy, the plucky English girl with huge power whose family is embedded in the criminal underground. There is Allie, an American girl who escapes her abusive adopted family and finds a calling. There is Margot, the ambitious American politician and mother. Then, there is Tunde, the Nigerian journalist who watches and tells the world what he sees.

This book could have been fantastic. It had all the elements for an incredibly interesting and creative story. I really liked the way that Alderman conceived the way that the power worked. I liked the touch of the archaeological interludes with illustrations and artefacts. I liked the diverse cast of characters. Probably my favourite part about this book was the characters. I found Roxy and Allie’s friendship fascinating, and at times actually quite romantic, and was disappointed when Alderman decided to keep it strictly platonic. I found the tension between Margot and her daughter Jocelyn whose own power was faulty to be really interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more on that. Tunde was a great male lens through which to experience the changing world.

It was fast-paced and Alderman is an engaging writer, but ultimately this book is really a series of missed opportunities.

First of all, Alderman’s vision of a world turned upside down by providing women with physical power felt so limited. Alderman suggests that if this were to happen, the result would basically be a mirror image of the world today. Women would start to be responsible for all the crimes that men today are responsible for. Men would be afraid to walk alone at night. Women hungry for power would ascend political ranks purely for self-interest. Surprisingly, I found this world vision much harder to believe than the idea that women would suddenly develop the ability to shock other people. I can see how Alderman wanted to throw gender inequality into sharp relief but the result was that it made inequality seem like it was a question of physical strength rather than a question of thousands of years of social and cultural attitudes. It would have been much more interesting to depict a world that was fundamentally different to ours rather than a world that was simply the reverse.

Then, of course, were the missed opportunities. Here you have a book about gender, all the women have the power to give electric shocks, all of the men don’t, you then have a female character whose power is faulty and you have a male character who is able to use the power and you don’t write about the LGBTIQ implications that that might have?! I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t take the obvious next step and comment on, at a bare minimum, the implications for intersex people in her new world. None of the women seemed to be queer. There were no trans characters. It’s 2018, we all know that sex, gender and sexuality aren’t black and white and I couldn’t believe that Alderman didn’t say anything about Margot’s daughter Jocelyn’s difficulty with her power and the implications that that might have had on her sex or her gender identity.

The other thing I couldn’t understand either is how you can apparently have swathes of women rampaging across the world having (sometimes non-consensual) sex with men but have absolutely no discussion whatsoever of pregnancy, children and motherhood (except in relation to the mothers or existing motherhood of the main characters). There was so much focus on the power as the singular biological difference that completely governed behaviour, yet no focus on the actual biological difference between the male and female sexes that arguably does have the biggest impact on our lives: the ability to have children. I just couldn’t understand how this consideration was absent on the narrative and the only time children were mentioned in this story it was utterly abhorrent.

Instead, the story focuses on Middle-Eastern war, American politics and British gangs. Alderman clearly views the Middle East and South Asia as the worst places in the world for women, and so she makes them equally the worst places in the world for men. I think this choice, and in particular the scene in India, really showed a lack of imagination and sensitivity.

There is so much going on in this book, despite some of the missed opportunities I listed above, and one thing that I felt I could have done without was the voice in Allie/Eve’s head. The somewhat motherly, sassy voice that encourages Allie’s rise to spiritual power, I really didn’t think it added much at all. If it was designed as a mechanism to make Allie seem like an unreliable narrator by suggesting that she experienced auditory hallucinations, it could have been done much more realistically and sensitively towards people who do experience that particular mental health issue (especially given Allie’s trauma). If it truly was intended to be a spiritual voice, I don’t think it achieved that either.

Anyway, I could continue but this review has really gotten quite long. I think that this is probably going to be a pretty divisive book. Some people are going to enjoy it, and some will be annoyed by it. For me, I think if you have such a good idea, why not be brave and push the boundaries a bit?

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Saga Volume 8

I’ve been reading the “Saga” series for some time now, and have been reviewing them as they come out on this blog. If you’re not up to date, you might want to go back a step or two so you aren’t dealing with spoilers.

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“Saga Volume 8” by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples picks up where the previous volume of the graphic novel series left off. Hazel’s mother Alana, who is pregnant with a second forbidden mixed-race baby that has died in utero, visits a town on a remote planet called Abortion Town with Prince Robot IV pretending that the child is theirs. When they are refused entry, Alana and Marko have to put their faith in the “doctor” in the Badlands who may be able to help.

I’ve said in previous reviews that I’ve been enjoying these comics a bit less, and I think part of the problem is that each one has a lot of hard-hitting social issues that are tackled but there isn’t a lot of overarching narrative. I felt like this one tackled the tricky issues of abortion and transgender identity in an interesting way. As always, the animal side-kicks are on point. However, it’s really hard to see where this is going. Are we just going to be following Hazel’s entire childhood, or are we going to actually get to Hazel as an adult? Is this a comment on the broader socio-political issues of Alana and Marko’s respective planets?

Am I enjoying this as much as I did at the beginning? No, honestly, I’m not. Will I keep reading them? Definitely yes.

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Terra Nullius

I’m doing something a little bit different today and I’m reviewing out of sequence. This was not the book that I read after “Joe Cinque’s Consolation“. This is a book that I read just this week, and I think that today, 26 January, is the right day to review it. I’ve just come home from a rally and I’m ready to dive in.

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This photo was taken at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy during the Invasion Day march on 26 January 2018 and this artwork is from one of the box planters there.

“Terra Nullius” by Noongar woman and author Claire G. Coleman is a novel set deep in the bush. Jacky, a Native, has absconded from the Settler farm he works on as an unpaid servant and is running for his life. Sister Bagra runs her school for Natives with an iron fist, but word of her approach to discipline has reached the Church and a senior representative is on his way to investigate. Esperance is a free Native, evading the Settlers with her Grandfather and community by moving camp deeper and deeper into the desert. However, the constant moving is taking its toll and Esperance fears that the Settlers will eventually catch up with them.

Honestly, the less I say about this book the better. This is really one of those kinds of books where you should really dive in cold and experience it fresh. Coleman is a wildly creative and clever writer, and this book is brilliantly crafted and exceptionally well-researched. Coleman draws upon the massacres and the Frontier Wars, as well as colonial accounts of invasion, settlement and occupation to create a story both familiar and unique.

This is a book that facilitates deep empathy and I feel like on this day, if there is any book you should pick up and read, give this one a try.

image of AWW badge for 2018

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The Three-Body Problem

I’ve been saving this book to read for ages because I knew, I just KNEW, it was going to be good. I have a soft spot for science fiction, but one thing that really bugs me about science fiction is how American it always is. For some reason, first contact with extra-terrestrials always seems to happen in America and, considering it’s a big wide world out there, I’ve always found it a bit hard to believe that only America has the technology, the wherewithal, the interest in making that first contact. So when I found out that a Chinese science fiction novel won the Hugo award, I knew that I would have to read this book.

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“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated into English by Ken Liu, is a science fiction novel that begins in China during the cultural revolution. It is the first in a series of three books called “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. Ye Winjie, an astrophysics graduate, watches her father be beaten to death by Red Guards. After she is sent to Inner Mongolia to join a labour, an incident occurs that puts her life and future at risk. However, she is thrown a lifeline when she is given the opportunity to join a mysterious military communications centre. There’s only one catch: she will have to stay there the rest of the life. Decades later, a nanotechnology researcher called Wang Miao is asked to assist in the investigation of the deaths of several scientists. After experiencing some inexplicable disturbances in his vision, he decides to relax by playing a game he has seen others play: a virtual reality game called Three Body.

This book is the best science fiction novel I have read in a very long time. It is simply superb. If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll enjoy this – I promise you. Cixin Liu is a genius, the science in this book is fascinating, the writing is great (with plenty of helpful but unobtrusive footnotes from the translator) and I found myself whispering “Wow.” after every chapter I finished.

I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese fiction recently, and there are two themes that I almost always notice. One – the stories often centre in some way on the Cultural Revolution. Two – the writing is excellent. I think the only people who would not enjoy this book are people who are not frequent readers of the science fiction genre. Some may think that the characters aren’t interesting or developed enough, but personally I think that the author has kept the characters a little out of focus so that it’s easier for people to relate to them, and also so that the thrust of the story is front and centre.

This book was excellent. It’s up there with the top three books I’ve read this year. I can’t wait to read the rest in the series. I’ve already mailed it to the next person insisting they read it. It was unbelievably refreshing and I can’t recommend it enough.

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