Tag Archives: science fiction

Schismatrix Plus

Before I start this review, I need to take a moment to explain the concept of RedditGifts. RedditGifts is like a Secret Santa/Kris Kringle where gift exchanges are run year-round. You sign up for an exchange with a particular theme and get matched with a random person either in your own country or overseas. Every year there is a book exchange, and I received this book for the second of the three exchanges I’ve signed up to so far. If you follow this blog at all, you probably know that I like to read lots of different kinds of books. However there are some genres that I really enjoy in particular and one of them is biopunk, a subgenre of science fiction. I’ve reviewed a few other biopunk books on this blog, and my Santa picked up on that and sent me one I had never heard of. I decided to include this on on my five weeks of American literature, and I read this book in Mexico where I was staying near a cenote amongst the mangroves. At night time the whole area was lit up with green light and it had a very strong sci-fi vibe.

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“Schismatrix Plus” by Bruce Sterling is a collection of everything he has ever written about his Shaper/Mechanist universe: a future where humans who now inhabit asteriods in the asteroid belt are divided into warring factions. The Shapers advocate improving the human body through genetic engineering and mental control while the Mechanists seek to augment human bodies and prolong life with cyborg technology and medical advancements. The collection begins with his novel “Schismatrix” which follows Shaper turned sundog (space nomad) Abelard Lindsay as he travels from colony to colony evolving from exile to revolutionary. After that are five short stories that Sterling actually wrote prior to publishing his novel.

I think, first and foremost, this book was not structured correctly. I think that the entire thing would have been a far better experience if the order of the stories was the same as the order of publication rather than the novel followed by the short stories. Sterling kind of launches the reader into his universe, and as it is such a complex concept with lots of factions and outposts and politics and colonies, I felt like the book really took a long time to feel cohesive. The short stories were much easier to follow and each introduced different specific aspects of the Schismatrix, and I think by having them up front, the rest of the book would have made a lot more sense.

I did actually quite enjoy the short stories. “Spider Rose” and “Swarm” in particular both had that snappy unique premise and twisty plot that makes a great short story. I thought given a shorter format, Sterling was really able to succinctly explain the key elements of the Schismatrix universe and develop quick character-driven narratives.

The novel itself I think I enjoyed far less. I wasn’t really sold on Abelard as a character, which was a shame because he is the central character throughout the entire book. Despite originally starting out as a Shaper, he increasingly embraces (sometimes willingly, sometimes not) Mechanist technology and achieves incredible longevity. He is the eyes through which the reader witnesses the several evolutions of Schismatrix society and because he lives for hundreds of years, his character is quite static. The plot device of ‘where we went and what we did there’ is one I’ve criticised other books about before, and the novel felt like a series of vignettes loosely stitched together with the same point of view character. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy the many female characters in the story, especially Kitsune whose lust for power far surpassed any lust for men. I also really enjoyed the ending which had a bit of a “Watership Down” vibe about it.

A creative book, especially the short stories, but the novel itself fell a bit flat. I think he might have done better breaking up the novel into smaller pieces and just having the whole thing as a collection of short stories, each a spotlight on a different aspect of his universe.

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Bender

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I was immediately intrigued by the premise – four love stories that cross through time and space.

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“Bender” by Alexander Rigby is a historical fiction/science fiction hybrid novel about four star-crossed couples whose love is forbidden. During ancient Egyptian times, a pharaoh’s daughter falls for a slave. In Renaissance Italy where homosexuality is punishable by death, two men fall in love. In 1980s USA, two people meet who are already taken. Then, in an Argentina set 200 years from now, two women find themselves in an impossible situation.

Rigby is an elegant writer who fills his pages with rich imagery. This is a well-paced story that keeps you turning your pages to find out the fates of each of the four couples. Rigby’s concept is refreshingly original and thought-provoking. I found myself pondering the meaning of life, love and souls more than once throughout this book. The only thing I found a bit challenging about this book were that some of the stories, namely the ancient Egyptian and futuristic Argentinian stories, hooked me more than others.

A great book for anyone who is into romance, historical fiction or light science fiction.

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The Fifth Season

This book was the Hugo Award winner for best science fiction/fantasy novel this year and was the set book in one of my book clubs. I’ve been trying to read more diversely this year and I have to say, I don’t think I have read any fantasy or science fiction by an African American writer before. This is hardly a surprise: N. K. Jemisin is the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel.

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“The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin is the first book in “The Broken Earth Trilogy”. Set in a land beset with tectonic activity, and ironically called the Stillness, the world is ending. For Essun, the unthinkable has happened: her idyllic family life is shattered and all she can think about now is revenge. For Damaya, her family have given her up to the Fulcrum for who she is: a rogga, an orogene. Someone who can calm the shaking Earth and who must be controlled. For Syenite, it might just be her fault the world ends – whether she wants it to or not.

The thing that stands out about this book is its sheer originality. I’ve read a lot of fantasy books and I have never read a fantasy book like this one. It’s dark, it’s gritty and it’s catastrophic. Boundaries are pushed in every direction. The “magic”, the power to manipulate stone and fault lines, is just so unique I was blown away. The culture of the comms is fascinating and the sheer diversity of the characters is incredible. It’s not really a surprise that this won the Hugo Award. I think there was only one thing that got under my skin about this book and that was that some of the imagery got a little repetitive. It’s a small thing that I’m willing to forgive though for this epic book.

If you’re bored out of your mind with elves and orcs, pick this book up and read it immediately. It’s a deep, evocative read that demands you take your time, and it will linger like aftershocks after you’ve finished it.

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The Mechanical

This book first caught my eye in Dymocks with its almost garish red page edges and its rather steampunk front cover. “The Mechanical” by Ian Tregillis is part alternative history, part steampunk, and all action.

The premise of this book is that the Netherlands, through a mixture of sorcery and science, was able to create a race of mechanical people known pejoratively as “Clakkers”. Through their mechanical slaves, the Netherlands has become a world power. This fact is resented in particular by the French government which has in effect been exiled to Canada. However a spanner gets thrown into the proverbial works when Jax, himself a Clakker, agrees to do a favour for Catholic priest Visser and sets the gears of change in motion. Meanwhile, in Canada, clever spymaster Berenice is trying to unlock the secrets of the Clakkers and with them, the secrets of the Dutch empire.

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“The Mechanical” is a great read, there’s no doubt. The concept is original, the way history is woven with speculation is fantastic and the investigation into the concept of free will is brilliant. There is a lot going on in this book and it is quite fast paced (though there are some areas that drag a little).

However, there was one thing that I just couldn’t get past: the violence. It doesn’t seem like an accident that this book is blood-red with blood-red pages; it is extremely an extremely violent book. I think I was a little shocked because it is incredibly rare for the books I read to be so graphic in their depictions of fights, battles and war. In addition to that, some of the lengths that characters go to in order to explore the idea of free will are also quite disturbing. Even though I could recognise that this book was clever, I could not ignore how uncomfortable it made me feel at times.

If you’re looking for an original, steampunk, sci-fi/fantasy action novel: look no further, this is the one for you. However, if you’re a bit squeamish, maybe consider giving this one a miss.

 

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The Chrysalids

“The Chrysalids” by John Wyndham is one of my favourite science fiction books. I first read it as a kid, and it is surely one of the reasons why I love biopunk and books about genetic mutation so much. I recently came across a new edition of “The Chrysalids” that had been released together with the rest of Wyndham’s works by Penguin Books a couple of years ago. The textured cover and slightly uncomfortable, awkward artwork really capture the spirit of the book and I’m looking forward to collecting the rest of them.

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“The Chrysalids” is about a young boy called David who lives in a god-fearing community in post-apocalyptic America. His particularly zealous father preaches the commonly-held belief that man was made in the image of god, and therefore any deviations from this image are not true humans and are not permitted to live in society or to procreate. This belief extends to livestock and crops, notwithstanding the fact that due to increased radiation, incidence of mutation is very high. After making friends with a young girl who lives in seclusion with her family in the forest and the arrival of his baby sister Petra, David finds himself the keeper of many secrets – not least of which is his own.

I’m reluctant to go into too much more detail about the plot, so I’ll just say that this book is both subtle and evocative, and is a short, well-paced read. Wyndham is a brilliant story-teller and is seamlessly weaves in his commentaries about tolerance, fanaticism, fascism and eugenics. Although it was written in 1955, 60 years on it is still just as relevant and just as readable. This is by far my favourite of Wyndham’s works, and if you’re looking for beautifully-written, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, look no further.

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Neuromancer

Some books are timeless. Some books, it doesn’t matter how long ago they were written, you can pick up and relate to. There are some fantastic examples of science fiction and dystopian novels that were written decades ago if not centuries ago that are still readable today. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” is one of them.

The Harper Voyager classic science fiction and fantasy hardcover edition that I found of “Neuromancer” is simply gorgeous. Just by looking at the cover you can tell that this novel was the origin of the term “The Matrix” and is a seminal work in the genre of cyberpunk. The plot starts out relatively simplely, although it is obsfucated somewhat by Gibson’s technique of hurling the reader bodily into the world he has constructed without any kind of context whatsoever. Case, a drug-addicted and despondant former computer hacker is working in a dystopian Japan as a low-level hustler. No longer able to “jack in” to The Matrix, a virtual reality cyberspace, after being punished for stealing from his previous employers, Case jumps at the opportunity to work for a mysterious man called Armitage and his attractive, bionic assistant Molly. Promising a cure, Armitage instead rigs Case’s body so that he can temporarily reaccess the Matrix for a certain amount of time before he is again disabled, and also so that he can no longer metabolise drugs.

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What follows is a whirlwind; a confusing sequence of events that unfold all over (and, at points, outside of) the world. The longer Case works for Armitage, the more he starts to suspect that there are a number of conspiracies taking place concurrently in the real world as well as in cyberspace. I can’t really explain any further without giving too much away, but it reads a little like a crime thriller with a real cybernetic spin. Case is the quintessential anti-hero and is at once a likeable yet frustrating character.

This book is not an easy read. Although intended a fast-paced novel, it is actually rather slow going. Gibson has an incredible imagination and is able to conjure up all kinds of technologies and societies. Unfortunately, because the book is set out like a thriller, the reader doesn’t really have a lot of time to pause and visualise the world he has created. I found that I had to go back a reread passages again and again because I was missing things. While Gibson is no doubt extremely creative, I found that he wasn’t necessarily the most expressive writer. You get the sense that he can see clearly exactly what the world and the technologies are like, but he’s struggling a bit to find the words to convey exactly what’s going on. Every glimpse into a new thing is snatched and you barely have time to register what it is that you’re looking at before you’re whisked away to the next new thing. I found it really hard to visualise what was going on, which in turn made it hard to immerse myself into the book.

The other part that made it difficult is that this book was first published in 1984, and it shows. Although Gibson has envisioned some pretty spectacular forms of technology, he has appropriated the mediums for hosting information and programs that existed while he was writing to do so. The image of Case running around with a cassette player and “jacking in” to the Matrix by sticking nodes onto his head is at odds with how we understand, access and store data today. Reading it now, you feel a little lost and torn between two times: past and future. Technology has now far surpassed cassettes as a form of data storage, but while we have achieved cyberspace in the form of the internet, we are not quite at the level of being able to access it directly through our consciousnesses. For this book to make sense today, you really have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot. However I can appreciate that when it was written, it must’ve been right on the money.

“Neuromancer” is a super interesting, groundbreaking book that I think just hasn’t aged particularly well. If you’re into sci-fi and cyberpunk, give it a whirl, but do be prepared to be confused.

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The Windup Girl

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, my partner came across this book last year while we were in one of my favourite shops in Melbourne – Minotaur. It had been sitting quietly on the bookshelf until I read Oryx and Crake and discovered the term “biopunk”. I came across it on list after list of recommended biopunk novels and remembered that we already had a copy. I added it to my current “to-read” list, but was so intrigued that I sneaked a read of the first page before regaining my self-control and putting it back in the stack. However I did read enough at that point to tell that the book opens with a scene of one of the main characters, Anderson, bargaining for rare fruit in a dystopian Thai market. I knew at once that this was going to be a book I would enjoy.

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“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi is a biopunk novel set in a future where fossl fuels have been depleted and genetic diversity in plants has been all but decimated. Many species are now extinct, and humans are only barely not one of them. It is set in Bangkok, Thailand – a city struggling to keep the rising ocean at bay but still managing to maintain some semblance of order despite all odds. The book follows a number of different characters from a number of different ethnicities and social strata which gives the reader a multi-faceted experience into Bacigalupi’s world. It also gives a rich insight to civil unrest and ethnic tension in South-East Asia, as well as some very interesting perspectives on the morality of genetic modification.

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To be honest, there was never any chance that I was not going to enjoy this book. I love the genre, and as a graduate in a Bachelors, Masters and Graduate Diploma in Asia-Pacific studies, it is safe to say that I am passionate about the region as well. This is a fast-paced, action-packed book with diverse characters. In fact, one of the most interesting things about it is that none of the characters are particularly likeable, but all of the characters are extremely relateable. Bacigalupi is an enthralling writer and you can just tell from this book that he has been to Thailand, and he kept his eyes and his mind open the entire time. He has an original and quite amusing turn of phrase which makes it even better.

The book canvasses a whole range of issues from morality, the environment, politics, ethnicity, climate change and making money. Bacigalupi injects a real sense of holding back the tide, and as a reader the anxiety and at times the futility experienced by the characters is almost palpable. This book definitely contains some extremely adult themes and some fairly disturbing scenes, so be warned.

This book also inspired me to find some rambutan, a key fruit from the novel, in Canberra to photograph. After the first couple of fruitless (pun intended) days, I put out a public call for assistance and finally managed to find some right at the back of a shop at the Belconnen Markets. While I was looking, I found myself marveling at the sheer diversity of fruit and vegetables we have available here, many of which even I haven’t tried yet, and was filled with a sense of appreciation.

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Anyway, this book is just phenomenal and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in human nature, science fiction, food security, climate change, genetics, ethics, bureaucracy and governance or Thailand. Another fabulous contribution to the biopunk genre.

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