Tag Archives: science fiction

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Where did I get this Advanced Reader's Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Where did I get this Advanced Reader’s Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at the local college, he has a wife he adores and a well-adjusted fifteen-year-old son. If he sometimes feels regret for the research career in quantum physics he abandoned when his then-girlfriend Daniela told him she was pregnant, it’s only a momentary emotion.

Unlike most people, Jason gets to find out what life would have been like if he’d made a different choice. After a masked attacker abducts him on his way home one night, he awakens in an unfamiliar world where he never married or had a child, where his research on quantum superposition has led to a world-changing breakthrough. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the blurb!)

As Jason races to reclaim the life he lost, the implications of each decision he makes take on new and urgent meaning. Part breathless thriller, part SF cautionary tale, Dark Matter manages to create genuine emotional impact while it hurtles toward a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion. It will leave you pondering your own life choices, and where all those other roads might have taken you.

Genre: Science fiction techno-thriller with philosophical implications.

Read it if: You love Michael Crichton’s books but always wished his characters had a little more emotional depth; your favorite ’90s show was Sliders; you like inventive thrillers that demand to be read in one gulp.

Skip it if: You couldn’t care less about Schrodinger’s cat; you only like hard science fiction with all the science-y details fully explained; you categorically reject the concept of the multiverse.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please! I would see this movie in the theater, preferably in IMAX 3-D.



Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Imagine the chance to find a group of like-minded people who welcome you with open arms, people who just get you, who understand what you mean before you even say it. In The Affinities, author Robert Charles Wilson conjures a future in which taking a series of tests offered by the company Inter Alia can open up a whole new world of social harmony. Adam Fisk, unhappy with his unsatisfactory friendships and dysfunctional family, makes the decision to give the testing service a try, with remarkable results.

Adam discovers a social network that offers support and comfort unlike anything he’s experienced before. Others in his affinity group, the Taus, offer him a place to live after his family cuts him off financially, and hire him when he needs a job. He develops a fierce and lasting loyalty to the Taus and works to defend his group against the machinations of their increasingly powerful nemesis, the Hets.

Not everyone who takes the Inter Alia tests is so lucky. Only about 65% of those who try the service are actually assigned to one of the 22 affinity groups named (somewhat randomly) after the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. As the affinities take on greater importance in society, opposition to them also grows. Meanwhile, those who belong to an affinity group increasingly cut themselves off from outsiders, even finding it difficult to communicate with them on the most basic level. Adam loves his fellow Taus, but he never loses his empathy for those outside his group, and this eventually leads to conflict.

I love science fiction that focuses on society and The Affinities is an excellent example of the genre, taking a current societal trend to its potential extreme. People increasingly tend to seek out the company and opinions of others who share their views and outlook on life, but what are the potential consequences of this preference for similarity? What happens when you exclude from your social circle anyone whose perspective differs from your own?

The author resists the temptation to spell out all the specific characteristics that make you a Tau, a Het, or one of the other affinity groups, and in fact doesn’t even describe most of them. That means no chance to guess which affinity you belong to, no sorting yourself into Candor or Abnegation. While the technology to assign people to affinity groups doesn’t yet exist, we’re already sorting ourselves on Facebook, Fox News and Farmers Only.com. Would we jump at the chance to make it scientific? I’m guessing we probably would.

Genre: Social science fiction.

Read it if: You are intrigued by fiction that explores ongoing social trends; you dream of finding people who truly understand you, preferably with the help of an algorithm; you enjoy books like The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Skip it if: You are looking for the next Divergent; you prefer your science fiction more hard than not; you categorically refuse to read books set largely in Canada.

Movie-worthy: Sure, why not.

Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.





Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

Where did I get this book? I read it on my Kindle.

First, some trivia: wrestlers mentioned in passing in this novel, which first appeared in 1966, are named Ruby and Python, just like the two coding languages. Coincidence? Maybe, but it would make sense if computer language developers were inspired by this book considering the subject matter: the eponymous Babel-17 is a uniquely efficient language, unlike any other known to the Alliance. Transmissions in the mysterious language have been detected at the sites of several acts of sabotage. Because the Alliance is at war with an enemy coalition known as the Invaders, they need to quickly and quietly resolve the mystery.

They turn to Rydra Wong, a linguist with an uncanny gift for mastering and comprehending languages. She also happens to be a famous poet and a certified ship’s captain. Rydra wastes no time putting together a crew and, with the full support of the Alliance, she sets out to find the next targeted site and prevent the attack.

As she bonds with her crew, the density of Babel-17 as a language continues to amaze her. In just a few words, the language conveys an extraordinary amount of specific information. It changes the way she perceives the world when she thinks in it. This idea, that the nature of a language can shape the nature of perception, is further explored when Rydra meets a man called Butcher, who lacks any understanding of the words “I” and “you.” Drawn to Butcher, Rydra uncovers the secret truth about Babel-17 and its import for the future of the Alliance.

The future envisioned in Babel-17 combines old-school technology like radio and flashing lights with “discorporate” (i.e., dead) crew fulfilling essential functions on the ship and institutionalized polyamory. Some of these details are interesting, but it’s the language aspect that held my attention. Rydra’s efforts to understand Babel-17 and trace it to its source lead her to finally solve the enigma of her own strange gifts. It’s also kind of awesome that she essentially has rock star status as a poet.

Genre: Science fiction with a xenolinguistic spin.

Read it if: You speak Klingon or Dothraki; you would like to see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis explored in a science fictional setting; you want to read all the books mentioned in Jo Walton’s brilliant novel Among Others.

Skip it if: You only read books from this century, no matter what century they’re set in; you have a worm phobia; you think everyone should just learn English.

Movie-worthy: It’s probably too late for that.


Review: The Bees by Laline Paull

The BeesThe Bees is an amazing feat of imagination, somehow seamlessly combining fairy-tale timelessness and Game of Thrones-worthy power struggles, heart-stopping dystopian suspense and beautifully rendered details straight out of nature. Perhaps most impressive, author Laline Paull creates believable, sympathetic characters that are also, unquestionably, bees.

Yes, nearly all the characters in this book are bees, their elaborate society based in an artificial wooden beehive in an orchard. Each bee is born to serve the hive, behaving according to the motto “Accept, Obey, and Serve,” living for the life-sustaining Devotion of the Queen’s mother love.

When Flora 717 emerges from her cell into the world, she belongs to the lowest order of worker bees, a mute class assigned to sanitation duties. Yet Flora has the power of speech, the first sign that she will not follow the established order of the hive. In fact, her destiny will lead Flora 717 to achieve more than one of her kin should even be able to imagine.

I had heard this book was really good, but my first thought was: bees, really? It could have been a schlocky disaster, an anthropomorphic gimmick, a novelized version of that Pixar movie “A Bug’s Life” only with bees instead of ants. Instead, The Bees is a beautiful, unique, and deeply moving story.

In short, I loved it. And it made me want to start a flower garden.

Genre: Dystopian SF fairy-tale set in nature.

Read it if: You want a truly fresh take on dystopia; you love books that transcend genre; you enjoy stories that take you to worlds you never would have imagined otherwise.

Skip it if: You adamantly insist on human characters; you read Watership Down, Brave New World, and The Year of the Flood, and you didn’t like any of them; when wasps and bees battle, you root for the wasps.

Movie-worthy: Hard to see how that would work, what with all the wordless antenna communication and scent-following. Maybe a truly innovative animated film could pull it off.

Review: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

The Gone-Away WorldThe end of the world has never looked quite like this. In Nick Harkaway’s novel The Gone-Away World, a pipeline filled with a miraculous substance known as FOX is the only thing standing between the last remnants of civilization and the “Stuff,” a mysterious and dangerous threat. The story begins post-catastrophe, as the narrator heads off on a job with his team, then restarts when he is a crying child in a sandbox, at the moment his pivotal friendship with Gonzo Lubitsch begins.

I was a bit disconcerted by the sudden leap backward into childhood, especially when our unnamed hero begins studying gong fu with Master Wu Shenyang, head of the School of the Voiceless Dragon. I didn’t expect this to be the type of book where ninjas might launch a secret attack, and yet, there they were. While this book is filled with what appear to be a series of digressions, these episodes are leading to a point. It wasn’t obvious or predictable, but it shifted the entire story and made everything leading up to it more meaningful in retrospect.

A wacky light-heartedness characterizes the tone throughout much of the novel, yet it was punctuated with moments of real grief and pain. It reminded me of Neal Stephenson with a dash of Jasper Fforde. I most enjoyed the profound existential questions The Gone-Away World raises, even if it did raise them in the context of mimes, ninjas and an entire taxonomy of pencil necks.

Genre: Post-apocalyptic existential fiction.

Read it if: You think you’ve read every possible way the world could end (you haven’t!); you love twists that don’t feel like gimmicks; you prefer the long and winding road to the straight and narrow path.

Skip it if: You have a strong antipathy toward mimes and/or ninjas; you like novels that get to the point; you are uncomfortable with the sense of growing unease that comes with an impending plot twist.

Movie-worthy: I could maybe imagine a Terry Gilliam version of this book, but otherwise it’s hard to picture.



Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just CityIn this strikingly original and thoughtful novel, Jo Walton has brought Plato’s Republic to vivid life. Athene, goddess of wisdom, has decided to create the Republic as an experiment, and has used her powers to summon participants from throughout time to help her carry it out.

Athene, as becomes increasingly clear, is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. She is bound by the laws of Fate and Necessity, so she is only able to bring those people who have prayed to her for the chance to live in Plato’s Republic, however fleeting the prayer.  These devotees become the Masters of the city, and they buy children from slave markets throughout time to populate it.

The story is told from three perspectives: Simmea, a child purchased from slavery who grows to adulthood in the Just City; Maia, a Victorian-era woman whose scholarly talents were wasted in her own time; and Apollo, who has chosen incarnation in a mortal body in order to experience the Just City and better understand the concepts of choice and equal significance.

These latter themes echo throughout the narrative. Apollo is troubled by what happened with Daphne, a nymph he pursued with his usual ardor; rather than give in to his desires, she prayed to Artemis to turn into a tree, and her prayer was granted. Apollo can’t get his mind around that decision, and it becomes clear that he isn’t the only man in the Just City who has difficulty with the concept of choice.

Meanwhile, not all the children of the City are grateful for their rescue from slavery. Simmea thrives, but her friend Kebes nurses his resentment of the Masters at every opportunity. He finds a new source of fuel for his discontent when Athene brings Sokrates to the City. An unwilling participant in the experiment, Sokrates raises questions that no one had previously considered, including the possibility that the worker robots employed to avoid the necessity of slavery might in fact possess sentience.

Although I have never read Plato’s Republic, this extraordinary story made me want to go back and look at the source material. While I may or may not get around to that, I will definitely be on the lookout for the sequel, The Philosopher Kings. Pre-ordering!

Genre: Philosophical science fiction.

Read it if: You’re a sci-fi loving classics major or a mythology loving science fiction fan; you enjoy reading about efforts to create utopia, especially when those efforts inevitably fail; or you loved Jo Walton’s fantastic earlier book Among Others.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about rape, or the exposure of newborn babies with birth defects.

Movie-worthy: Umm. Maybe a Game of Thrones meets Rome type of mini-series, but even then I’m not sure TV could cope with the amount of nudity in this book. Nude wrestling, people. All the time.

Review: Red Rising / Golden Sun by Pierce Brown

Red RisingImmediately after finishing Red Rising by Pierce Brown, I downloaded and read the sequel, Golden Son. What higher praise can there be, really? If the third book was already out, I’d be reading it right now instead of writing this review.

In Red Rising, Darrow is a teenage miner living in the subterranean colonies of Mars. He is a Red, the lowest caste in a hierarchical society. His people mine the helium-3 essential to the creation of a habitable atmosphere on Mars, which they have been told will enable the inhabitants of a dying Earth to settle and survive. The mining operation takes a terrible toll on the Reds; at 16, Darrow is middle-aged, a Helldiver expertly riding a massive drill into the terrifying depths of the planet.

He is also married. His young wife, Eo, believes the Reds should not be treated as they are by the higher Colors, the Grays and the Golds. Her public protest leads to her death, ordered by the ArchGovernor of Mars without the slightest hesitation.

Darrow, crushed by the loss of his wife, soon follows her to the gallows–but his death is not final. He has been recruited by the Sons of Ares, a revolutionary group intent on liberating the Reds from their subjugation. Their plan is bold to the point of madness, and many have previously failed to survive it: they want to make him Gold.

The Golds base their culture on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, especially that of the Spartans, who believed the weak should not survive if society is to be strong. To that end, the brightest Gold children participate in a brutal competition to demonstrate their superiority and earn their place among the Gold elite, the Peerless Scarred.

While Red Rising may bear some thematic resemblance to The Hunger Games, it differs in one very significant respect: Darrow learns to understand the Golds from the inside out, experiencing firsthand the extraordinary challenges and risks of leadership and power. He fails as often as he succeeds, and leaves the Institute scarred in more ways than one.

If Red Rising resembles The Hunger Games, Golden Son is a solar-system wide Game of Thrones. Darrow made loyal friends and allies during his time at the Institute, but his secret makes it impossible for him to truly trust anyone. And the Golds are not big on trust anyway–feuding families hold Golden Songrudges for generations, loyalty can be purchased, power slips away in a single moment of defeat.

Some of the best moments of the book show Darrow struggling to understand how to stay true to his mission and himself, how to trust and how to win the trust of others. Honesty makes him vulnerable, and in the world of the Golds, vulnerability can be fatal.

So many times while I was reading Golden Son, one of my kids would ask me if I was okay. Apparently the successive looks of shock, horror, stunned disbelief, thrilled amazement, etc. on my face led them to believe something was wrong. Absolutely nothing was wrong, until the very end, when I was tempted to throw the book across the room (except it was on my kindle, so that would have been a particularly bad idea.) Not since reading the last page of A Dance with Dragons (Book 5 of the Game of Thrones series A Song of Ice and Fire) have I been so furious that one book was over and the next not yet released. I want to know what happens and I want to know it NOW!

Sigh. Does anyone know when Morning Star is coming out?

Genre: Fast and furious science fiction with a Spartan sensibility and a revolutionary approach to social justice.

Read it if: You love The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, Civilization V, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome, or just fast-paced action-packed yet remarkably philosophical novels.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence (including off-screen rape); you simply cannot believe far future colonists would still be naming their kids Pliny and Pax; or you are annoyed by quotes in Latin. Per aspera ad astra!

Movie-worthy: Yes! Bring it! I want to see this movie!




The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin LiiuI was very excited to read this science fiction novel, originally written in Mandarin and recently published for the first time in English. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) opens with the death of a professor at the hands of teenage Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution. His young daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses the murder and it changes not only her fate, but the future of the world.

In the near future, a scientist working on nanomaterials finds himself caught up in a government investigation into a group known as Frontiers of Science. The scientist, Wang Miao, learns that a number of highly respected scientists have recently committed suicide. The Chinese government, working with the US and Great Britain, wants Wang to infiltrate the suspect group and find out more about their activities.

Although reluctant to get involved, Wang soon learns that his work has made him a target of mysterious forces. While seeking answers, he discovers an online game called Three Body, a virtual reality experience that profoundly engages his mind. Nothing is coincidental in the world of The Three-Body Problem–connections abound and soon a shocking truth is revealed about the nature of the game and the future of the world.

My humanities major brain didn’t always quite track the scientific arguments laid out in this novel, but that didn’t detract at all from the story or the philosophical questions it raises. Would humanity benefit from contact with an advanced civilization? Would first contact divide or unite us? Would we even stand a chance against anyone technologically advanced enough to reach us? Do we deserve a chance in the first place?

The Three-Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy and I will definitely keep an eye out for the next two books. The website mentioned in the book, www.3body.net, exists in real life, with news and updates about the series.

Genre: Physics-themed science fiction that appears to lose nothing in translation

Read it if: You don’t mind an extra helping of science with your science fiction; you are curious about the “bestselling Chinese science fiction novel”; you can’t resist a first contact scenario.

Skip it if: You tend to get headaches from sentences like this–“A ruby-based traveling-wave maser amplified the signals received by the gigantic antenna, and in order to minimize interference, the core of the reception system was immersed in liquid helium at -269 degrees Celsius.”

Movie-worthy: It would make a really cool movie if the special effects were good enough.

Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellBefore this review really gets going, here’s an upfront declaration of love: David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors of all time. I love Cloud Atlas; it would absolutely be on my desert island list of essential reading. So it was with both excitement and trepidation that I awaited the arrival of The Bone Clocks. I avoided reading any reviews so I could form my own impressions, and I’ll try to keep this review relatively spoiler-free so as not to ruin the fun for anyone else.

In The Bone Clocks, a teenage girl named Holly Sykes makes a series of really bad life choices: dating an older man, thinking he loves her, running away from home to move in with him, running even farther when she realizes he’s cheating. It soon becomes clear, however, that Holly’s familiar teenage narrative is strangely intertwined with mysterious forces engaged in a secret and deadly battle. As a child, Holly heard voices in her head and received visits from a woman named Miss Constantin. What she thought was a long-ago hallucination ultimately proves to be a very dangerous reality.

After a jump in time, Holly’s vivid and distinctive voice gives way to a second narrator, Hugo Lamb. At first, this was extremely irritating–I wanted to know what happened to Holly, not what this jerk was up to. As it turns out, Hugo is a complex and fascinating character, a sociopath with a gift for charm, an utterly selfish monster who nevertheless engages in apparently selfless acts–whether for show or to attempt some karmic balancing act. Eventually, Hugo has to make a more lasting choice, between Holly and the dark side; for his sake I wanted him to choose Holly, but for hers, I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t.

Each temporal leap forward brings with it a new narrator and a new perspective–a war journalist torn between his work and his family, a criminally vain author who peaked too soon, an ancient voice in an unfamiliar body– but Holly is the common thread throughout. She is singular, and carries within her the possibility that good can triumph despite long odds.

The lingering question remains as the final chapter ends, in a future where fuel is scarce and connection with the wider world a mere memory: how much of our lives are predestined, decided long ago by a mysterious power or an ancient explosion at the dawn of time? Are our lives scripted or do we have meaningful choices? Can we see what is to come and change it? Or will the forces of savagery and greed inevitably tear away the foundations of society?

I love that Mitchell connected The Bone Clocks to his other novels. Hugo is the cousin of Jason from Black Swan Green; Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plays a pivotal role; and the Prescients, last seen in Cloud Atlas, make a timely appearance. In the world of Mitchell’s novels, everything is connected and one character’s act of kindness or generosity, cruelty or selfish greed, has implications for everyone. That’s just one of the reasons I love his books so much, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

Genre: Literary science-fiction for the ages

Read it if: You are already a David Mitchell fan; you are fascinated by the idea of reincarnation; or you love nothing more than a genre-bending, multiple point-of-view, epic tale of herbivore versus carnivore, epiphyte versus killer parasite.

Skip it if: You hate it when bizarre things introduced in the very beginning of the book aren’t explained until the very end; you dislike morally complex characters; you would prefer not to contemplate human mortality or the future decline of civilization.

Movie-worthy: No comment. I still haven’t worked up the courage to see Cloud Atlas–and I probably never will. Sometimes I just want to remember the book I saw in my head.