Comedy · Science Fiction

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.)

Romance · Science Fiction


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.

Science Fiction

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?

Science Fiction

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.

Science Fiction

Young Miles

by: Lois McMaster Bujold

Young Miles is this month’s book club pick and to be honest, I’m just not that into it.  I’m nearly 250 pages in and I have no inclination to finish, really.  I keep on trying to, because book club, but as soon as I pick it up, my mind starts wandering and either I start considering a nap or I think of something else that I desperately need to do, like dishes.  I need your opinion – should I finish reading it or do you think that we have incompatible differences? Read on, readers, and let me know what you think in the comments!

The volume I have is apparently 2 novellas and a short story, so there’s approximately 800 pages total.  (Also, I’m nearly 250 pages into the first novella and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near a conclusion, so I’m saying it’s at least 1 novel and 2 additional stories of undetermined type.)

As for why I’m not interested…well, firstly, there’s one female character so far and she’s young, spirited, over-protected, and out on her first adventure.  (She’s basically Jasmine from “Aladdin” but without being bad ass enough to strike out on her own.) Her only redeeming value is she can fight – except the two most prominent male characters spend all their time worrying about her even though it’s made clear she’s a very good fighter. While I don’t need every story I read to feature a female lead, I have a hard time staying involved if all the important characters are male.  (And I don’t mean strong like bad ass mofo here to save the day, just that they need to have a personality and be there for a reason besides love interest! or token female! or damsel in distress!)

Secondly, the characters doesn’t feel that well-developed.  They’re not badly developed, it’s just that they’re blandly predictable.  Miles is the unfortunately physically disadvantaged guy who’s wicked smart and cunning and will end up saving the day using only his brains and force of character! Even though everything was stacked against him!  (Except for the fact that he was born in a position of power and money and given the best of education… does she go into that?)

His bodyguard is an ice-cold soldier with a deep dark secret (that probably drives his sense of honor and obligation)! Also, he’s a sadistic sociopath? Or maybe just a sadist… A nice twist but it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere character wise, as he’s unlikely to use his sadistic torturing abilities against anybody but the bad guy.  I can see tension building between him and Miles – they’ve already had one stand-off on torturing enemies – but I feel like that’s the only tension his soullessness will bring to the book.

I could go on, but the rest of the characters are much less well-developed and really aren’t worth the time.  I did find Tung, an arrogant but brilliant military historian fairly interesting; Lois threw some unexpected twists in with his personality that I really liked.

And I’m just not very into her world-building.  It’s okay but several things I’m just not getting quick enough, so scenes only make sense after the fact, like when I was confused about how they were having a spaceship battle at the refinery. It was only after the battle that I realized the refinery was in space. (This could be because I’ve been intermittently spacing out while reading, rather than a fault in the writing.)

Her writing is good, but, at least in this book, not great and she’s definitely had more than a few choppy scene shifts that were just awkward to read.

I can see where she’s using her world building for political metaphors or to make a point about American politics/society … but it’s just not gripping me or even making me think terribly hard what she’s saying.

Space books aren’t my favorite, anyway, and I think the problem with this book is that to me, nothing is exceptional enough to really grasp my attention.  Everything is okay across the board but there’s nothing about it that’s a major draw to me.

Am I missing something, readers?  Should I go ahead and strive to finish, as it will drastically improve, or do you think that this book and I are, alas, never going to be friends?

Contemporary Literature · Science Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a handmaid in an alternate-future society in which extreme conservative Christians have taken over the society. Women are forbidden to work, read, travel anywhere alone – women are forbidden to have lives, basically.

I’ve read it before, but it’s this month’s book club pick so I reread it. (And then it turns out I can’t make it to book club because of an emergency trip to New Mexico. C’est la vie.)  Atwood classifies her books as speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which is a major point of contention in my book club.  I was looking forward to debating this at the book club – one of our members is offended to no end by that – but I tend to agree with Atwood, if only because I think the intention of her books is to create a world the reader can imagine society creating.  In this case, I would say the telos (Greek for purpose, thank you liberal arts’ education) of the book determines its classification.  That being said, there are a lot of books that could be classified as either science or speculative fiction that are currently classified as science fiction.

The book itself is both fantastic and uncomfortable to read.  Atwood’s style isn’t about subtlety, that’s for sure.  When reading her work, one should be prepared to be made uncomfortable.  She draws a lot of connections between Offred’s treatment in the old society – our society, or at least our society in the 1980s – and the current regime that I didn’t catch the first time I read it.  The heavy-handed treatment of women under the government of Gilead were often a sharper, heavy-handed version of the treatment Offred received from men under Uncle Sam’s rule.

It is a feminist book, certainly, and, for this reading, I was fascinated by her treatment of sexual consent.  There were many grey areas within the book when it came to Offred’s sex life.  Most disturbing, actually, was Offred’s view of her consent.  Of note was Offred’s view of her own ability to consent; for instance, she is given the choice between becoming a Handmaiden, whose duties include having Biblically-approved sex with a specified couple – the Commander and his wife – or being sent out to the Colonies, a radioactive wasteland that shortens one’s life by decades.  However, upon making her decision, she feels she isn’t raped by the Commander because she “consented” to her situation. In another instance, her husband pushes her for sex she doesn’t want or enjoy, yet she doesn’t entertain the thought of verbalizing a refusal to his advances.  Throughout the book, Atwood captures our society’s more disturbing thoughts on gender roles and consent; namely, a woman has very little recourse for outright refusing sex and a man is always grateful to receive sex.   

Mind you, Atwood focuses on other aspects of feminism, conservatism, and the destruction of personal liberties by a totalitarianism regime. Both the men and women are stifled by and suffer from the domineering government.  I just found the issue of consent to be the most thought-provoking this read.

Overall, it’s, of course, a fantastic book.  Be warned, though, Atwood is deliberately hard to read. Her books are written with the intent of exposing the worst of our shared societal notions.  I wouldn’t pick this up for light reading, though her writing style certainly lends to that; rather it’s a book for when I want something meaningful and provocative couched in a world of make-believe.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, should read at least one Margaret Atwood novel.  (Even though I absolutely despise her views on science!)

If you’re looking for a book that challenges your notion of society or examines the need for feminism in a fiction format which requires a suspension of belief, than this is the book for you.  If your ideal sci-fi or speculative fiction is pure escapism material or if you want something that examines the general human condition rather than a very pointed critique of our society, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.