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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The Aeronaut’s Windlass

aeronaut's windlass

(Long absence again! Can’t promise anything. But – here’s a post for now!)

So I wasn’t going read Jim Butcher’s latest, because it’s steampunk and steampunk really isn’t my thing.  But my mom bought it for me – she knows I love Butcher’s work and very kindly always preorders his stuff off Amazon for me – and I’m so glad she did.  I wouldn’t have given it a chance otherwise and it’s certainly worth reading!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes place in an alternate world, where people live on giant, man-made mountains – Spires-, forever under ceilings that cover all the living space.  They travel from place to place via crystal-powered ships (and wear goggles to protect them from the sun.)  The crystals are powered via ether, a magical presence that flows through the world – very much like the Force. The basic premise is that one of the Spires, which struggles economically, has decided that conquering one of the more prosperous Spires (where the heroes reside) is their path to economic success.

Overall, it’s a really fun and light read.  Pure escapism – I was totally absorbed in the book and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  Like most of Butcher’s work, it’s fast-paced with lots of action and a multifaceted plot.  There’s strong hints of plot points that I’m wildly curious about – Butcher introduces a lot and gives a strong base for further books and intrigue – but I know that we can depend on him to follow through and incorporate everything in future books.  I’m super excited about the next book in the series!

In the Dresden Files, Butcher has a definite tendency towards info-dumping, but here it’s actually handled quite well – he reveals things very naturally and the reader has the enjoyable job of puzzling together how the world works.  There are about ten different viewpoints he switches between – maybe more?  Some of them are much more heavily emphasized than others, but though Butcher does it well, if multiple viewpoints are not your thing, this is not your book.  (It’s in third person, not first, if that’s influential.)

My biggest critique is that it’s so fast paced and switches between so many viewpoints that I don’t feel the characters were developed as much as I would’ve liked.   The hardcover was probably 700 pages, so there was a lot of room for worldbuilding and plot development – and the multiple characters’ viewpoints all wound together seamlessly to provide a cohesive plot.  But because there were so many characters, and because Butcher is aiming to develop complex characters with room for growth, there wasn’t quite enough room for character development at the level that I would’ve liked.

That being said, I did enjoy the characters very much! There’s a fair number of female characters, now that I think about it, and they all have important roles to play.  Most importantly, all of the characters whose viewpoint we used were complex and interesting, if not explored in depth.  I want to know their backstory, or see how they develop, or both!  Though a few of the secondary characters tend towards the archetypes – the villains, for instance, are chilling but not terribly original – it’s forgivable in the context of the main characters.

Most of the main characters are late teens, early twenties.  They have a wide variety of strengths and interests and I like that they have lots of room for growth without it actually being a coming-of-age story – the focus is how all the characters weave together, not the growth of one particular character.  Also, in contrast to his previous two series, there is no “Chosen One” (either obvious or implied) in the story and very little room for one to develop. I’m a bit worn out on the chosen character stories, so it’s a nice relief!

My favorite character by far is Captain Grimm, one of the main-main characters.  He’s captain of the Predator, a mysteriously overpowered ship that’s the fastest in the sky.  He’s a good man – not a conflicted good man, but someone who does the right thing because of conviction – but isn’t boring or particularly stereotypical. He longs for freedom, but is not willing to pay any price for it.  Butcher alludes to a mysterious, semi-tragic backstory that I presume will be revealed in the next book or two.

Overall, if you’re into sci-fi/fantasty/steampunk escapism, good world-building, and fast-paced action-packed stories, this is definitely a book I would recommend!  If you’re looking for a deep, introspective read, an in-depth character study, or a totally new take on the sci-fi/steampunk world, this, sadly, probably isn’t your read.

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Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

9780805063325

by: Olivia Judson

This is one of the awesome books I have been reading and talking about in my blog lately.  I am completely and totally in love with this book. It’s 16 kinds of fantastic.

It’s a book, of course, about the evolutionary biology of sex – that is, Judson talks about all the weird and wacky ways that animals reproduce and why scientists think they act like they do.  The format of the book is a huge part of why it’s so amazing –  animals, like fish, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians, write in with their sex-related questions and problems.  And she answers, going off on tangents to explore concepts or similar practices in other animals.  It’s glorious.

Every question and answer is only  a few pages long, making the information easily digestible. Judson does an excellent job of defining science terminology in layman’s terms.  She also – and this is just absolutely superb of her – introduces terms and concepts as they’re relevant, rather than doing a huge info dump at the beginning of the book.  I hate huge info dumps – a lot of science concepts are kind of complicated and people need time to digest them once they’re introduced.  Even if someone picks up the information easily, the terminology is often new and weird and multisyllabic, so introducing a word and allowing the reader to learn it before introducing another new word is a much better tactic than presenting what amounts to a vocabulary list at the beginning of the book.  (I have Strong Feelings about this, guys. Very. Strong. Feelings.)

Anyway, Judson’s presentation of information is smooth and, er, whelming.  It’s generally just enough new information to make the reader feel like they’re learning something new and cool but not enough to make the reader feel lost or unable to keep up.  (Well.  Full disclosure: I am a science person working in the sciences.  So please let me know, readers, if you feel differently!) She’s honest and open throughout – when something is not known, she says so and then proceeds to discuss competing theories that are thought to explain it, noting which theory she most agrees with.

Her vocabulary is quite good, which I don’t know if I liked or disliked.  I liked her precision with words, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like she could have stuck to a more common vernacular since she was already using an extensive scientific vocabulary, which many of her readers were presumably already unfamiliar with.  The tone of the book was light and interesting but sometimes the vocabulary was fighting against the tone. It’s from 2000, so I can safely assume relevant discoveries in the field have been made since then, so some of the gaps in knowledge may have been filled since publication.

Okay.  Now that that’s all out of the way – this book is just fun.  Creatures are weird and they do weird things! It’s fascinating!  I just wanted to quote this book over and over and over – preferably with no context, because the quotes are much more startling that way.  I often found myself laughing at the sheer silliness of animals everywhere.  (There’s an ocean-dwelling species where the female is 200,000x bigger then the male!)

You don’t have to like biology to like this book – it’s not heavy or technical and it doesn’t feel like something you’d read to “improve” yourself.  Rather, it’s wacky facts of animal sex presented with style and wit by Judson.

Judson covers topics like monogamy (everybody cheats), females vs. males (it’s not she-wants-commitment,-he-wants-freedom!), incest (a species gotta do what a species gotta do, y’all), asexualism, homosexuality, sex (like gender here) (also there are species that have more than 2 sexes, which I didn’t know), and so much more.  It’s all in animals – there are no political discussions here – and all based on evidence and research and just really cool information. (I think this information is also important to developing thoughts on some hot-button issues, because people often trying to justify their stances by incorrectly evoking evolutionary biology.   This, however, is not something the author pushes.)

This book is fantastic and I love it!  I would recommend it to anyone who likes nature or animals, or who is interested in sex, or who wants to read something science-y that isn’t scary – this is a great book!  If you have a serious dislike of rodents, if there’s an animal that grosses you out, or if the thought of bugs mating makes you gag a little, than alas and alack!, this may not be the book for you.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

1792by: Douglas Adams

Okay, I know that’s not the actual book cover, but I love Marvin and I love that graphic – so that’s what’s heading this post.   I listened to this instead of reading it – it’s a reread – with Stephen Fry narrating.  It was brilliant.  (With the 2 qualifications: 1) The timing was a little off on some of the chapter changes and 2) Fry pronounces some words very weirdly, probably because he’s British. It was disconcerting for this Texan.)

The first time I read Hitchhiker’s, I liked it a lot but I didn’t fully understand why it was so great.  On rereading it – as an adult rather than a teenager – I found it much funnier.  I’m actually surprised by how much of it is still relevant – and the GooglePlex! How did Adams know?! 

Hearing it narrated was great for the comedy, naturally. Somehow hearing things read aloud makes the comedy easier to understand for me.  I think I laugh more, too – something that I’d read and go, “oh that’s funny” makes me chuckle when I hear it narrated well.

Anyway, for any not in the know out there, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  is a comedic science fiction that more or less follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman who finds himself flying off into space in a series of rather unnerving mishaps.  Dent is ordinary and uninteresting, really.  If he were the main character of a modern fiction, it would be a one exposing how our lives are so mundane and ruled by petty concerns; at the end he would die slightly unsatisfied but never understanding why, making the writer’s point about, to quote one of my art professors, “a vulgar 9-5 job.”   Thankfully, it is Adams who wrote about him and Dent is instead a hilarious counterpoint to the wonders of space, aliens, and technology.  And I like the unabashed preference Dent has for his home life.  It’s funny to think of someone, off on the adventure of a lifetime, longing for their ordinary home on in a small town in the English countryside, certainly, but it’s also, I think, a feeling we all have when off adventuring. Comedy usually has more than a grain of truth

Other main characters include the smart and savvy Trillion, whom I loved and wanted to see more of; Ford Prefect, the congenial alien writer; Zaphod Beeblebox, President of the Galaxy; and, of course, Marvin, the bored and depressed robot.  The nicest thing about the characters is that they all balance each other out both character- and comedy-wise.  Nobody’s overdone but the reader’s never kept too long at any one extreme.

Douglas Adams’ gets his humor from the absurd and obvious.  A famous quote of his, and one that I think exemplifies his humor, is, “The ship hung in the air much in the way bricks don’t.”  He’s got a knack for using obvious observations in absurd ways that make you delight in the unexpected juxtaposition of words and images.  Hitchhiker’s spends a good deal of time satirizing bureaucracy and government (can you really talk about one without the other?), and if you haven’t felt the way his characters feel after a bad experience in a government office, you are probably a saint.  His plot is much less complicated than Terry Prachett’s tend to be, though I think Prachett’s characters are more to my taste.  I liked the droll statements and the “say what?” moments that jolt you out of reading mode into laughing mode; these are mostly found in the narration.  I never got thrown out of the story but I was always surprised and delighted to find myself laughing.

In short, Douglas is truly deserving of his status as the king of sci-fi comedy.  If you like comedy or science fiction, you should definitely give him a shot.  I’m going out on a limb here and saying he has nearly universal appeal; I can’t think of a reason someone would dislike him except for not liking the genres he writes in.  (Well.  If your preferred humor is vulgar or obscene, than he’s probably not for you. So I guess there’s that.)

Archangel

by: Sharon Shinn

I decided to reread Archangel when I ran across it at Barnes and Noble.  I had mixed feelings about it last time which I hoped to resolve.

The book is set in the world of Samaria, where angels and humans live together in harmony guided by Jevoh, the almighty, all-powerful god.  The angels speak to the god for humans, interceding by prayer in the form of song.  The beginning of the book hints the Jevoh is actually the spaceship Jehovah, in orbit around the planet, which is why the flying angels’ voices are able to reach the ship and receive a response whereas the humans’ voices don’t, with a few exceptions.  The people of Samaria don’t know this; they think the god is real.

The premise of the book is really interesting.  The peoples of Samaria have a whole religion based around a ship, which is programmed to respond to song.  Yet there’s a lot of talk about fearing, loving, and respecting the god, and being able to feel the presence of the god inside oneself.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that; on one hand, those who don’t follow the religion of the planet are clearly the bad guys, but on the other hand, the whole religion is based around a ship floating in outer space.  Is it a critique of religion?  Or is the book saying the foundation of the religion is less important than the faith and belief of the followers?  Most of the world exists in a Catholic Church-like hierarchy, but there is a group of nomadic people, the Edori, who believe the god is equally close and listens equally to all. (Although you can conclusively prove they are wrong.)

Throughout the book, there is the implication that morality cannot exist outside of the religion in which the people believe – Jevoh calls most intensely for peace and harmony among the people – but the whole religion is based on a lie.  Is the book saying religion is necessary; that people cannot exist with a punishment-based morality system? Or it is trying to say it is inconsequential what the god is, as long as following its will brings about goodness?  I’m not religious myself, so in one light I think the book is fascinating and in the other, I think it is dead wrong.

There’s also attempted critiques on capitalism and money, but they are inconsistent and not well-developed.

I entirely dislike the two main characters.  The book follows the story of Gabriel, Archangel-to-be, and the woman Jevoh picks for his wife, Rachel.   Gabriel is ruled by pride and a rigid sense of right and wrong.  He is completely unable to compromise or even be diplomatic.  This, in my opinion, makes him a terrible person to lead.  He is trying to rid the world of exploitation, slavery, and inequality, so good, and yet the way he handles it leads to unnecessary conflict.  Were he more flexible in his understanding of the world, the situation could have ended much differently, and for the better.

Rachel is ruled by emotions – driven almost completely by anger, fear, and pride.  Much of the conflicts between them are caused  miscommunication or a refusal to communicate, which is my least favorite plot device in the entire world.  It is not that hard to talk to people!  Though she is strong-willed and independent, she also lacks the ability to compromise, empathize, or communicate and is, again, a terrible person to lead a world.  In fact, together they may be one of the worse ruling couples since Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, although the book doesn’t acknowledge any of their weaknesses as real hindrances to doing their job.

So at the end, I’m still conflicted about this book. It has some interesting things to say about religion, certainly, but I find the main characters, while well-written and -developed, awful.  If you like science fiction dealing with religion, or romances with strong female characters where miscommunication is a central conflict, you should give this book a try.  If you think that adults in positions of power should be able to communicate, or if you don’t like religion playing a leading role in your books, than this may not be the book for you.

Ender’s Game

by: Orson Scott Card

I actually listened to the 20th anniversary edition of this book rather than officially rereading it.   The novel is in 3rd person limited and every character has a different narrator.  With the exception of Valentine’s part, the readers were rather excellent and the voices all pleasant to listen to.  The woman voicing Valentine was a good reader, but she had a very breathy, sensual voice and the way she emoted and stressed words made nearly everything Valentine thought seem either romantic or overly sexual.  It is a bit disturbing to hear a 11 yr old’s thoughts about her older brother being narrated as “Peter had…penetrated her mind” in breathy, excited tones a la Marilyn Monroe.  Also, ew.  The end result, ignoring any incestual implications, was that Valentine sounded like a hysterical 25 yr old woman in a romantic drama rather an an unsure 11 yr old girl in a science fiction adventure for the majority of the novel.  (And one more time, ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.)

If you’ve never read Ender’s Game, it’s the story of Ender Wiggin, born in a future, where mankind has been discovered and attacked by an alien race known as the buggers.  Having already survived two wars against them, Earth fear that it will not survive a third.  In preparation, they select 6 yr old children with the greatest potential and send them off to battle school to become the greatest army the world has ever known; training them to become soldiers and commanders using brutal military tactics.

These children are extraordinarily bright and gifted, so much so that it is easy to forget that they are children.  It is not the areas they excel in that show their age; it is the things they are blind to that truly reveal the tragedy of the situation.They can see and use others’ strengths and weaknesses, certainly, and Valentine and Peter (Ender’s siblings) are masters of manipulating the public in general.  However, with the possible exception of Peter, the – to quote Jeeves – “psychology of the individual” quite escapes them.  They know what to do to manipulate others, but they don’t seem to understand why it works.  With the exception of Peter, they lack both foresight and the ability to think through the implications and nuances of the decisions they make.

As for the characters themselves, Ender is a young boy, destined by birth and training for greatness who is as sympathetic as any football story underdog. Peter, his older brother, is a psychopath, also brilliant, who eludes the understanding of all around him, too cruel for military command (yes, that is actually a thing in real life, too.)  Valentine, his sister, is the exact opposite, brilliant, yet too tenderhearted and empathetic to lead wars.

This book is sexist as hell, if you couldn’t tell from the difference between Peter and Valentine. Its depictions of women are heavily driven by stereotypes.  There are only two female characters and both of them are the wink link, either easily and frequently emotionally manipulated by others or breaking under the strain (emotionally, of course) before anyone else.  Ender’s father’s opinions are an important indicator of current political thought and yet his mother isn’t given a voice on the subject, despite the fact that she was picked to have children that are intellectually superior to the majority of the human race.  What is that nonsense? All the authoritative figures are males, even though it is made clear the women are accepted into military school and trained exactly like the men. Sexism is a huge problem in the science fiction genre as a whole, of course, but it’s especially saddening when it’s so prominent in one of the few scifi books I like.

Ender’s Game is great for complex moral questions.  I can’t explain all of them without spoiling the book, but the questions raised are horrific.  Yet it is easy enough to find a train of thought or belief system that justifies the decisions made.  Would you do what they did, knowing what they know? Would you believe it was the right thing to do?  If not right, was it necessary? I don’t know, myself.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

While I’ve tried to keep the post spoiler-free, I’m not going to do so in the comments for the sake of discussion.  I’d really love to hear others’ thoughts about Ender’s Game, no restriction.  What do you think?

A Confusion of Princes

by: Garth Nix

I was at my friend E’s house for the second time in two weeks and this was on her bookshelf, mocking me.  A Confusion of Princes was such a great name; I decided that I had to read it.  E graciously let me borrow it – and then I realized it was Garth Nix and I absolutely had to read it right then and there.  (Well, not literally. I went back to my place first.)

And then I read and read, and stayed up way too late, and read some more and finally finished it during my lunch break today.  It’s really absorbing!

The biggest downside is it’s a little pat – it could really have done with more pages or the promise of a sequel or something.  I feel like there was more to be explored within the realm of this story than there was.  Honestly, I at first thought it was going to be a trilogy, because so much was getting introduced without being completely and totally fleshed out and I wanted to know more.  But then there was a tidy epilogue and a very neat ending, so no. (Also, Wikipedia informs me it is a stand-alone space opera. Boo, Nix. I want more.)

Anyway, on to the story.  This is a science fiction set far in the future, when Earth is but a distant memory and 300 year old spacecraft are still considered fairly new. The society (galaxies? better part of the universe? Whatever, it’s all the same) is ruled by the Emperor and hier (20 points for the gender neutral pronoun, Nix) Imperial Mind.  The Emperor, an unknown being – hence the gender neutral pronoun – selects millions of Princes to be genetically and technically enhanced as children and raised into power.  They are the military forces, the political parties, and every twenty years one of them goes to the big throne in the sky and becomes the new Emperor.  (Yes, “hier” still make sense in this case.  Read the book; I’m not explaining.)

It’s told in first person, from Prince Khemri’s point of view.  Khemri isn’t here to save the universe or upset the status quo or enact revenge.  Khemri merely wants to be the most powerful person in the universe, the Emperor, and is an entitled, bratty asshole who will do anything to achieve his goals.  Despite all that, Khemri is likeable, if only because he is telling the story in past tense and writer Khemri knows what an ass young Khemri was.  Note, however, that Khemri isn’t ever evil; he’s just very sheltered, much in the way Marie Antoinette didn’t wish the peasants harm so much as have no clue that peasants really existed.

Khemri is the main character in the story and really the only one that’s given enough time to develop properly.   There are other characters, and they are believable, it’s just that they’re not given any time to be well-developed characters.  Now that I’m writing the review, I’m realizing how plot-driven the story is (there’s nothing I can say without giving something away! arg!).

I can say Khemri’s choices aren’t what one would expect from a science fiction novel and he isn’t really much of a hero, or even an anti-hero.  In fact, the more I think about the ending, the more I like it even though I don’t necessarily like Khemri himself. I’m conflicted, you could say. (Want to discuss? Comments are open for spoilers!)

All in all, this was a really good book.  I’m not usually big on plot-driven books but I liked this one, in part because of the quick, easy way the plot moved and partly because I did find the main character sympathetic and wanted to know what happened to him.  Nix really goes all out with the new, space-y world, so be prepared for new nouns from every corner and to have to spend a few seconds here and there putting technologies together.  He does a fantastic job of world building, however, and it wasn’t hard to keep up; I’m just not that fond of being bombarded with made-up words every five sentences.

If you like space odyssies and science fiction, I would definitely give this book a chance.  Especially if you’re looking for a different type of hero, one that chooses what could arguably be either the least or most heroic path to walk.  If you’re not a fan of Nix’s writing (do those people exist?!) or if you’re heavily into character interactions/not a huge fan of plot-driven works, then this, sadly, may not be the book for you.