Tag Archives: science fiction

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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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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Clovers

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

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“Clovers” by Samira is a science fiction parody about Androxen, mercreatures who live in the Earth’s ocean and procreate with human women. However, despite living in relative secrecy from their human counterparts, increasing interaction brings the Earth’s dire situation to their awareness. The Androxen decide to seek help and send a message out into space to be intercepted by aliens.

This is a creative book interspersed with lots of colourful illustrations that you need a colour eReader to fully appreciate. It is a creative and light-hearted story that casts humanity into relief against two other sentient races. The book is structured like a anthropological text told by the fictional Samira.

At times however, this book can seem a little overwritten. The author relies very heavily on alliteration and the story is sometimes obscured by the wordplay.

A fun spin on the science-fiction genre that is as much about the words as it is the story.

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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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