Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Where did I get this book? I bought it. It’s a keeper!

Harper is a school nurse when the first cases of Dragonscale appear. The deadly fungal infection spreads rapidly through the population, and the infected have a terrifying tendency to burst into flames. While many seek to ostracize those with Dragonscale, Harper volunteers to work in a hospital dedicated to their care, where her caring and kindness first attract the attention of the titular Fireman, John Rookwood.

When Harper develops the strangely beautiful gold-flecked black markings that herald a Dragonscale infection, her husband Jakob turns on her, convinced she’s responsible for infecting him as well. Fleeing Jakob’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior, Harper, now pregnant, finds refuge with a group of infected who claim to have discovered a way to live with Dragonscale. Instead of spontaneously combusting, they seek communion with each other and with the fungus that has invaded them. Although the Fireman leads Harper to this refuge, he holds himself strangely apart, until events force both John and Harper to choose sides if they want to survive.

In this extraordinary novel, Joe Hill explores the ways that social groups can elevate or destroy us, the heightened sense of connection that can be attained in both communal prayer and communal violence. It was a spectacular read, deeply moving, suspenseful, and ultimately as compassionate as Harper herself.

Genre: Thrilling dystopian SF awesomeness.

Read it if: You love end times books like The Stand, The Road, The Passage, etc.; you love dystopian speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale; you love tense, vivid storytelling.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence and/or profanity; you try to avoid big giant books that temporarily take over your life; or you have a pathological fear of spontaneous combustion.

Movie-worthy: This would make an amazing movie, or maybe even a series. It’s stunningly visual.  David Tennant would be perfect as the Fireman. Someone make this happen!

Best enjoyed with: A nice pot of lapsang souchong for that wood smoke flavor, or alternately, a generous portion of Tennessee Fire whiskey.

Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Where did I get this book? The library.

In this dystopian novel, Chang-Rae Lee depicts a future where economic and class divisions have become formalized in separate communities. The story revolves around Fan, a young tank diver in a fish farm. She is a quiet and hard-working member of her community, B-Mor, where order and family come first. B-Mor is a facilities settlement, established to provide agricultural products to the wealthy Charter villages.

The Charters hold significant power over B-Mor, determining the residents’ access to medical care and the minimum occupancy for their communal residences. A tiny percentage of students pass a test allowing them to leave for a presumably brighter future in the Charters, but ambitions are modest at best for most of the population.

When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears after a mandated medical check-up, Fan slips away from B-Mor. Their love and their fates beyond the boundaries of the settlement become the subject of a communal obsession among those they left behind.

If at this point you are imagining a breathless first-person present narrative featuring a young, action-star heroine on a mission to save her lost love, I’m going to have to stop you right there. This story is told primarily from the collective perspective of the B-Mor residents, a choice that sometimes renders the story frustratingly opaque and emotionally distant.

That being said, Fan’s journey is a compelling one, revealing a landscape marred by inequality and self-interest. Outside the safe walls of the facilities and the Charters lie the counties, where lawlessness and violence prevail. Fan uses her youthful appearance to pass for a child and demonstrates remarkable presence of mind in the face of numerous threats. Somehow she retains a quiet, centered gift for compassion that the world in all its cruelty cannot touch. Whether that will be enough remains uncertain, even in the book’s final pages.

Genre: Literary dystopia.

Read it if: You enjoy speculative fiction by literary novelists; you enjoy dystopias that explore potential outcomes of current societal trends; you like stories that raise more questions than they answer.

Skip it if: You dislike first-person plural narrators; you object to ambiguous endings; or you prefer your dystopias fast-paced and action-packed.

Movie-worthy: Maybe. It would be an unsettling indie film, for sure.


Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it's a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it’s a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

In this near-future dystopia, Stan and Charmaine are a young married couple caught up in the economic collapse of the northeastern United States. Despite working hard and following the rules, they find themselves living in their car, wandering from one unsafe parking lot to another just to stay alive. Charmaine brings in some meager income from her job bartending at a makeshift bar/brothel called Dust; Stan is unemployed and increasingly desperate.

When Charmaine hears about the new planned community of Positron/Consilience, it sounds like a dream come true. Residents receive housing, food, guaranteed employment and complete security. In exchange, they agree to spend every other month living in the community’s prison, wearing orange prison jumpsuits, sleeping in a shared barracks, and working at whatever occupation they are assigned.

Stan and Charmaine jump at the chance, even after Stan’s brother Conor, a criminal who seems to be thriving in the new chaos, warns him against signing up. All seems to be going well until the couple become entangled with their Alternates, the married couple who live in their house while they are in Positron prison and switch places with them monthly. It soon becomes clear that, like Charmaine, Positron/Consilience has some fairly dark stuff going on under that cheerfully innocent exterior.

The Heart Goes Last raises uncomfortable questions about just how much personal liberty people would sacrifice to ensure their own economic safety and security, and just how far those in charge would go when given the chance to exploit a captive population. When the world is all before us, do we really want freedom? Or do we long for a lost paradise of no choice at all?

Genre: Speculative fiction with robot prostitution, Elvis impersonators, and a Doris Day soundtrack.

Read it if: You’re an Atwood fan; you fear that technology will increasingly lead us into the darker crevices of the human imagination; you are interested in the relationship between free will and society.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about language, sexuality, or robot prostitution; you are easily frustrated with everyman protagonists; you were hoping this was the utopia that finally worked out for everyone.

Movie-worthy: To be honest, I was picturing Chris Pratt and Anna Faris as Stan and Charmaine the whole time. You would have to get the right director for this blend of dark and wacky though–maybe the Coen brothers or the Wachowskis.



Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave EggersSharing is caring. Secrets are lies. Privacy is theft.

The Circle, a cautionary tale by Dave Eggers, conjures up a slippery slope from the inane belief that “sharing is caring” to a much more sinister worldview in which failure to share equals a selfish decision to hide what should be commonly held property: the details of your life, from your most meaningless preferences to your most closely guarded secrets.

When Mae Holland first comes to work at the Circle, the world’s preeminent social media company, she is overcome with gratitude. Her college roommate, Annie, has attained an enviably high status at the Circle and rescues Mae from a grim future of dronelike work at a utility company. Mae is eager to prove herself and quickly excels at her work in Customer Experience, answering client queries and keeping her positive feedback numbers impressively high.

Soon, however, Mae learns that there’s more to working at the Circle than just work. To truly succeed, she must share her preferences on everything, all the time. She must join groups, comment on the posts of others, send “zings” that others will enjoy and re-zing. Basically, her life becomes focused around improving the Circle-equivalent of a Klout score.

It can be slightly frustrating to watch Mae’s reaction to the escalating demands of the Circle. She drinks the Kool-Aid big time, and comes to share the Circle’s values in ways that may be hard for the average person to imagine. Yet her acquiescence to Circle culture has the ring of truth; for Mae, a person with self-esteem issues and a sense of having failed to live up to her own potential, answering endless survey questions, sending “smiles” and “frowns” to register her approval or disapproval, and watching her rankings climb as a result provide a tangible sense of accomplishment and validation, however illusory.

Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, attempts to get through to Mae, to get her to tear her eyes away from her many screens and connect with her parents in real time. Unfortunately, he writes her a five-page letter on the subject. TL;DR.

Tension builds as Mae’s star rises and the Circle nears completion. In the meantime, Eggers offers myriad ways that sacrificing privacy could make life more convenient, keep children safe, give individuals the sense that they know everything there is to be known. The reader is left contemplating the optimal balance between privacy and transparency, and wondering what the future holds. Right up until they tweet their review of the book, give it four stars on Goodreads and check their Facebook page for likes.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You enjoy a quick thought-provoking read that will make you question societal trends; you like to kayak but don’t ever tweet about it; you have considered living off the grid and would like additional reasons to add to your list.

Skip it if: You are looking for literary profundity, three-dimensional characters or a scene like in that “1984” Apple ad.

Movie-worthy: Definitely. I could totally see Jason Segel as Mercer, earnestly explaining how he made his antler chandeliers.


Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Spoiler Alert! MaddAddam is the third book in the series that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood, and it would be more or less impossible to discuss it without revealing key plot points of both those novels. If you haven’t read them yet, stop reading now, go immediately to your bookstore/library/e-reader and read them first. Because they are brilliant examples of speculative fiction!

I normally don’t get so crazy with the exclamation points, but this book means a great deal more to me than your average new release. Oryx and Crake ranks among my favorite novels of all time. I loved that The Year of the Flood didn’t pick up where Oryx and Crake left off, with fever-addled Jimmy pointing a gun at what might be the last humans on Earth; instead, it went back to the start, to show the influence of an environmental survivalist group called God’s Gardeners, and how they were uniquely positioned to survive the engineered plague Crake ultimately set loose upon the world.

MaddAddam explores yet more connections between the characters introduced in the previous two novels, but also moves the story forward. Previously, Toby and Ren had set out in search of Amanda, who had been kidnapped and brutally used by two Painballers. When Jimmy wanders deliriously onto the scene, armed and hallucinating, the two strands of the first two novels connect and continue as one.

The remnants of God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddam underground network have formed a small community and, when the bioengineered beings designed and raised by Oryx and Crake follow Toby home, the humans begin to educate them, both intentionally and otherwise, in the ways of humankind. It turns out that Crake’s children have developed in ways their creator could not have predicted, and their interaction with the pre-plague humans will have unanticipated consequences for everyone.

Much of the action in this novel is related by one character telling a story to another. Toby takes over Jimmy’s role as storyteller to the Crakers, attempting to explain the mysteries of human emotions and actions in a mythical context her listeners can comprehend or at least accept. Zeb tells his life story to Toby at her request, partly so she can craft stories for her rapt audience, but mostly because she wants to know everything about him.

In the process, we learn how Zeb and Adam’s horrific childhood and their subsequent escape triggered the events that shaped Crake’s plan. Zeb knew Crake when he was just a very intelligent kid named Glenn, happy to beat him at chess and learn some of Zeb’s extensive hacking skills. Zeb also knew Pilar, long before she instructed Toby on the gifts of the garden.

Atwood skillfully weaves the many threads of these stories, while in the meantime Toby, Zeb and the others try to secure their small community against the Painballers still lurking somewhere beyond their fence line. And always there is the question: where is Adam? Did he survive the plague?

In many ways, Zeb’s relationship with Adam is not unlike Jimmy’s with Crake: both Zeb and Jimmy rely on direction from their leader and neither has a clear idea what the overall goal really is; both Adam and Crake are visionaries, one step ahead of everyone around them. And it is disturbing to realize that both Adam and Crake may have been in agreement that humanity, in its greed, blindness and wanton destruction, had to go in order to save the Earth. Crake may have made it happen, but perhaps Adam chose not to stand in his way.

MaddAddam provides a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the story that began with Oryx and Crake. Hopeful, that is, for the remnant of humanity that remains and the new sentient beings that coexist with them.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You read and loved Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Skip it if: You haven’t read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Go read those first!

Movie-worthy: I’m not sure cinema is ready for this one. Wagging blue penises, for one thing.


Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifeKate Atkinson is without question one of my favorite authors. From the delightfully genre-tripping Effie of Emotionally Weird, to the friends sustaining each other with stories in Not the End of the World, to the incomparable detective Jackson Brodie in Case Histories, Atkinson consistently creates characters who inhabit vivid, gripping narratives that defy categorization.

Life After Life is no exception. In it, Ursula is born and reborn repeatedly, succumbing to the dangers of birth and the pitfalls of childhood. The faintest memories of her other lives occasionally seep through into Ursula’s consciousness, a form of déjà vu that prevents her from making the same fatal mistake the next time around (but not from making new ones.) Worse even than the mistakes that kill her are the mistakes she must live with, especially since we know it didn’t have to be that way.

What was most intriguing and puzzling to me about this concept was its linearity. Ursula’s lives seem to represent a progression toward a particular outcome: killing Adolf Hitler. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s literally the first scene in the book.)

In Lionel Shriver’s book The Post-Birthday World and the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, a woman makes a choice (to cheat or not to cheat, to jump for the train or let it go) and as a result her life splits into two alternate scenarios. Unlike those stories, Life After Life moves forward in a series of loops as Ursula lives her life from start to finish, returning to her birth in order to move on. Are all these lives lived concurrently, with the details bleeding through from one universe to another? Is Ursula’s ability to sense the mistakes of her other lives what makes her special? Or is everyone moving toward some ideal version of life meant only for them, at which point they can rest in a state of infinite nirvana? Or does it never end? I may have closed the book on Life After Life, but the questions it raises are still circling in my head.

Genre: Speculative fiction

Read it if: You love a thought-provoking story that refuses to answer all your questions, or you were a big fan of Choose Your Own Adventure novels as a kid.

Skip it if: You are easily confused, you prefer a clear conclusion, or you frequently tag your tweets with #YOLO.

Movie-worthy: Hard to imagine, but I’d pay to see it!