Category Archives: Science Fiction

The most original sci-fi novel I’ve read in years

1

A review of The City and the City, by China Mieville

@@@ (3 out of 5)

You may think “Franz Kafka” as you make your way into the depths of The City and the City. It’s definitely not Charles Dickens! As this novel was a favorite of science fiction fans and won the Hugo Award, I was expecting something a little different from what I got — which was a more than generous dose of confusion. 

I’ll say this for The City and the City: it’s truly original. I’ve never read a science fiction novel quite like this.

Tyador Borlu, a detective on the Extreme Crimes Squad in the tiny nation of Beszel, is confronted with the seemingly unexplainable murder of a young foreign woman. In his usual obsessive fashion, Borlu sets out to follow every clue, no matter how unlikely, to bring the woman’s killer to justice. The path he follows is long and tortuous, taking him in unexpected directions where he faces threats  from powerful forces he barely understands.

Nothing quite out of the ordinary there beyond the other-worldly character of Beszel. But wait.

This seems to be present-day Earth, but it can’t be. A country that exists nowhere on your Earth or mine, Beszel lies somewhere in southeastern Europe — the Balkans, perhaps — and overlaps with another unfamiliar small country, Al Qoma. I say “overlaps” advisedly. This is not a tale of two Jerusalems, or two Berlins. It’s much weirder, and therein lies the rub.

The capital cities of these two, often antagonistic little countries, also called Beszel and Al Qoma, aren’t just adjacent to each other. They somehow overlap, simultaneously occupying the same physical space where their sprawling neighborhoods have grown into one another. A more conventional sci-fi writer would probably explain this as the intersection of alternate universes, but there’s no such reference in The City and the City. Instead, Mieville presents this conundrum as a simple fact of life in the two countries, and his novel explores what lies “between” them. This strange set of circumstances dominates life in both countries.

Originality aside, and admittedly it’s fascinating, The City and the City is a flawed work. Mieville never fully develops his characters, not even Borlu, the protagonist. And the book is confusing at times — not to avoid telegraphing essential elements of the plot but simply because the language is unclear. (It took me forever to understand that the word “Breach,” which represents a key concept in the novel, is both a noun and a verb that simultaneously connotes an act, a condition, a place, and a group of people.) The high hopes I had when I read the first half of this book slowly dissipated as I progressed. At the end, I was unsatisfied — and the news that Mieville may write a series of novels based on Borlu and the unique geography of his surroundings is not enough to humor me. 

The City and the City won several literary awards, including a Hugo for Best Novel, and was nominated for a Nebula Award.

China Mieville is a British author, now 40 years of age, who styles himself as a writer of “weird fiction”. He gravitates to fantasy but has set himself the goal of writing a book in every genre. With The City and the City, he can check the box marked “police procedural”.

1 Comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master

1

A review of Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Great science fiction requires fully fleshed, memorable characters, a beautifully realized alternate reality, and masterful prose. Many sci-fi classics written by authors whose names you may recognize (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke) fall short in some or even all of these dimensions. A young American author named Paolo Bacigalupi puts them to shame with his much more recent writing.

Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards (the top literary prizes in the field, chosen by the fans and the writers respectively). It’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a lot of them. This tour de force was followed by two young adult novels, The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker, both of which I found to be excellent examples of the craft and in no way limited by the author’s intention to write for a young audience.

All three stories are set in a post-apocalyptic world that I gather to be sometime in the 22nd Century. Humankind’s failure to arrest global climate change and our unstoppable addiction to fossil fuels have drowned nearly all the planet’s coastal cities and left most of the human race living hand to mouth in abject penury while a lucky few — in China and the United States — wallow in luxury because they control trade with armies of genetically engineered “half-men” bred for speed, strength, and loyalty.

Ship Breaker relates the story of Nailer, a small, 14- or 15-year-old boy with a homicidal father and a job as head of a crew of children and teenagers who are salvaging copper and other metals — and an occasional gallon of oil — from the derelict oil tankers run aground on beaches along the Gulf Coast. Following one of the killer storms that hit the coast virtually on a weekly basis, Nailer and his boss, a 16-year-old girl named Pima, stumble across a wrecked clipper ship that belongs to one of the trading companies that dominate the planet. Inside, they find a beautiful girl of about Nailer’s age who is clearly a “swank” raised in unimaginable wealth and privilege. The three young people, together with a renegade half-man named Tool, flee the fury of Nailer’s father (who covets the precious salvage on the shipwreck). Thus begins their adventure in search of the swank girl’s father and a secure new life for Nailer.

If you enjoy science fiction, you’ll love this book.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Want to buy a better brain? Better think twice

A review of Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some of the very best science fiction explores the unintended consequences of breakthroughs in technology, and not those that are merely fanciful but advances that can be seen years ahead by observers of contemporary science. Amped is such a book.

Amped ventures into the near future — sometime around 2030, it seems — to depict American society in upheaval over the brain implants installed in half a million of its least fortunate citizens. The implants “amplify” the brains of the elderly and infirm, accident victims, and those with severe mental illness and mental retardation, allowing them to focus clearly and to make the most efficient use possible of their bodies. These “amps” are smarter, quicker, and stronger than the average bear — and the vast majority of Americans don’t like it one bit. They’re especially upset about the few amps who began with superior intelligence and outstanding physical abilities and have been turned into superbeings. Nobody likes a smartypants, it seems.

But this novel is not speculative nonfiction thinly disguised as fiction, with lame dialogue used to “explain” and cardboard characters created for the sole purpose of illustrating different points of view. Amped is, instead, a skillfully written novel of suspense that charges ahead with breakneck speed. In fact, the book can best be described as a thriller, with enough action, suspense, and plot twists to sate the desire of any Hollywood producer.

Amped’s author, Daniel H. Wilson, sports a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, which some consider the epicenter of the field. This is Wilson’s seventh book. His previous works include Robopocalypse (reviewed here) and How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

1 Comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Another great sci-fi novel from one of the most gifted young talents in the field

A review of The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The time is the not-too-distant future, about a century from now. The rising seas have proven to be the most drastic effect of runaway global climate change, with most of the world’s coastal cities now under water up to at least the second story of the towers that dominate them.

The action takes place in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, now part of the Drowned Cities that lie on the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts of what used to be the United States of America. Everywhere in the region, private armies roam about in constant warfare with one another, their ranks dominated by the child soldiers they have forcibly recruited from the area’s surviving population. In the eye-for-an-eye society that has emerged, few live to adulthood.

Most of the world’s population ekes out a primitive living in places such as this. Only the relative few who live within the confines of Island Shanghai, Beijing, Seascape Boston, and a few other cities continue to flourish behind sea-walls, protected from invasion by the genetically enhanced armies ranged around them.

Years ago, the people of China sent a peacekeeping force to the Drowned Cities to forge peace among the warlords’ contending armies. The effort failed. Left behind when the peacekeepers evacuated Washington, DC, was Mahlia, the teenage daughter of a Chinese general and a local woman — a “half-breed,” a “castoff,” a “war maggot.” This is Mahlia’s story.

Not long after her father abandons her and her mother, Mahlia is set upon by soldiers from the Army of God and, simply because she is who she is, her right hand is cut off. A younger boy, hiding nearby, creates enough of a distraction to allow her to escape with her left hand intact. She calls the boy Mouse.

Together, Mahlia and Mouse encounter one of the “half-men” — a monstrous, bioengineered soldier named Tool, a blend of superior human intelligence and body shape with the face of a dog and the strength, speed, cunning, and ruthlessness of the world’s most able predators. Their meeting proves fateful, and is the pivot on which the plot turns in this beautifully written and fully realized post-apocalyptic novel.

Marketed as a book for young readers, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best for fans of any age. The only way in which this novel falls short through adult eyes is that it avoids obvious references to sex. (Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.)

In a relatively short writing career to date, with just five published books to his name at age 40, Paolo Bacigalupi has won every major award in the science fiction field and was a Finalist for a National Book Award. His is an extraordinary talent, with great promise for many more enthralling stories to come.

1 Comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read

A review of The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Once upon a time I read science fiction virtually nonstop. Twice upon a time, actually. First, as a teenager goggle-eyed over the prospects for encountering intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — life perhaps more similar to me than normal humans — and later, in the 1970s, when I actually wrote science fiction (or at least tried to) and even joined the Science Fiction Writers of America. (I’m an associate member to this day.) Of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of science fiction novels I read over all those years, only a few stand out in my memory. I’ll list them in a separate post.

I fully expect The Windup Girl to join them on my list of all-time bests. It’s that good. Like so many of the other truly outstanding sci-fi novels, The Windup Girl won both the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Hugo Award voted by fans.

The action takes place in Bangkok sometime in the 23rd century. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen twenty feet or more, and the city survives only because a visionary Thai king has built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food — and hundreds of millions of people — with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers.

In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”

Emiko, the windup girl, is herself a product of genetic engineering, a “New Person,” a Japanese construct born in a test tube, bred in a creche, and trained to be an obedient secretary, interpreter, and lover to the businessman who buys her. Emiko is now stranded in Thailand by the businessman, who found it more cost-effective to buy a new windup girl back in Japan rather than pay her passage home. She now works as a despised prostitute in a Bangkok brothel.

Emiko is one of a large cast of memorable characters, each a finely rendered portrait of a human being tormented by personal demons, haunted by the ever-present ghosts of Thailand, and caught up in an ugly and unstable system. The others include Anderson Lake, an American calorie man who secretly represents AgriGen, one of the most powerful of the calorie companies; his secretary-manager, Hock Seng, an old Chinese-Malayan business tycoon who barely escaped the ethnic cleansing campaign waged by Malayan “Green Headband” Muslims; Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the celebrity “Tiger of Bangkok,” a fearless commander of the paramilitary “white shirt” troops of the Environment Ministry, charged with enforcing the genetic isolation of their country; Jaidee’s sidekick, Lieutenant Kanya, a humorless woman who fights like a demon; and the warring heads of the country’s two most powerful ministries, Environment and Trade, General Pracha and Akkarat.

Hock Seng’s musings seem to sum up much of what transpires in this brilliant novel:

“All things are transient. Buddha says it is so, and Hock Seng, who didn’t believe in or care about karma or the truths of the dharma when he was young, has come in his old age to understand his grandmother’s religion and its painful truths. Suffering is his lot. Attachment is the source of his suffering. And yet he cannot stop himself from saving and preparing and striving to preserve himself in this life which has turned out so poorly.”

6 Comments

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Stephen King’s 11/22/63: A new take on the JFK assassination

A review of 11/22/63, by Stephen King

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Stephen King has won more wrting awards than I’ve written books — and I’ve written a slew of them. 11/22/63 is his 50th work, but it’s the first I’ve managed to read because I’d always associated him with horror stories, which I loathe. However, within the first few pages of this fascinating book I understood perfectly why King has won so many awards, as I found myself completely engrossed in the story.

As a work of science fiction, 11/22/63 is a fairly straightforward exploration of time travel. King’s protagonist, Jake Epping, 35, is a high school English teacher in a small Maine town when an acquaintance named Al tells him about the window or portal in time in the floor of the storage room in his diner. Al persuades him to step through the portal, which leads directly back to September 9, 1958. No matter how long Jake may stay in the past, only two minutes will have elapsed back home in 2011 when he returns. Al is dying and lures Jake into taking up the mission he himself had recently accepted: returning to 1958 and staying in the past for five years until he can track down and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before that watershed day in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Working from detailed notes about Oswald that Al had accumulated in his own, futile attempt to hold out until 1963, Jake manages to talk himself into changing the history of the world. In the course of his five-year sojourn in the past, most of it in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he meets and falls in love with a librarian at the small-town high school where he teaches to support himself. And that’s about as much of the plot as I can share without spoiling the story.

King has consummate skill both at narrative and at dialogue. His treatment of time travel is the most ingenious I’ve read despite my adolescent years as a sci-fi fan. The story races along, building tension and anticipation and, yes, the fear that embues any competent horror story. The climax and the resolution of the tale are satisfying. It’s a real pleasure to read a consummately clever story by a masterful writer at the peak of his game.

2 Comments

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Outstanding speculative novel about one possible future

A review of Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re imagining ranks of humanoid robots marching in lockstep as they trample on humanity and all else that we’ve created, you’re on the wrong track. This is a science fiction novel, to be sure, and as the title suggests it depicts an apocalyptic future, but it’s a future with a difference. This is a treatment of robots and automation from an entirely different perspective. It’s engaging. And it’s very, very scary.

Daniel H. Wilson is the author of this novel and of an earlier book, How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion.  He comes to his subject matter armed with a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie-Mellon University, frequently cited as the nation’s leader in robotics and artificial intelligence. The speculation in this novel is grounded in a genuine understanding of the world of automata and the possible futures they may create for us.

The book is structured as an oral history of sorts, a succession of vignettes from varying points of view about the origins and the progression of the “New War” between “Rob” and the human race. You can read this book as a straightforward sci-fi thriller — fodder for Hollywood, which indeed will be churning out a Steven Spielberg film of the novel in a year or two. However, it’s also a thought-provoking portrait of what could conceivably happen a few decades down the road when the relentless advance of science and technology takes us to a profound discontinuity: the point at which artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence. There are very, very smart people who have done a lot of thinking about this coming event. Some see the upside. Not everyone, though. Apparently, not Daniel H. Wilson. And not I.

1 Comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Joy for political junkies

A review of Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, by Jeff Greenfield

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

There is a subspecies of the human race that is afflicted, usually from birth, with an insatiable thirst for politics. This book was written for them — and, to this political junkie, what a book it is!

Here we see one perspective on what might have happened had a little known but all too real would-be-assassin succeeded in killing John F. Kennedy in 1960, after the election but even before the Electoral College met to certify his winning the Presidency. With Lyndon Johnson ascending to the White House three years earlier than in reality, we can ponder how different the 60s might have been.

Here, too, we can journey with Robert F. Kennedy through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel the night in June 1968 when he won the California primary — as his brother-in-law tackled Sirhan Sirhan, saving the Senator’s life and giving him a powerful boost in his face-off for the presidential nomination against Hubert Humphrey.

In a third venture into alternate history, we view the changes wrought when President Gerald Ford quickly corrects his historic gaffe denying that Eastern Europe is under Soviet control — and proceeds to win the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter. Ford’s Presidency leads us willy-nilly into the disorienting world of 1980, as Senator Gary Hart jumps into a race against Ronald Reagan . . . and wins.

In Then Everything Changed, we glimpse the past-that-might-have-been through the eyes of Jeff Greenfield, a shrewd political pro turned journalist, whose resume includes a stint as speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy. Both as an insider and as a journalist, Greenfield has had a front-row seat on politics at the highest level in the land for nearly half a century. His speculations are solidly based on the historical record — he researched this book with with impressive thoroughness — and, in many cases, on the thoughts and opinions of key players at the time.

Even the acknowledgements in this book are well worth reading, because it’s there that Greenfield reveals the sources he relied on — and shows just how closely he hewed to the historical record.

Leave a comment

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

A review of Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Imagine the USA 10 or 15 years down the road. The dollar is pegged to the yuan, and a tyrannical right-wing government is in power. The divide between High Net Worth Individuals and Low is a chasm that cannot be spanned. The country is bogged down in a losing war in Venezuela. Everyone carries an “apparat” — an always-online device that broadcasts its carrier’s Male or Female Hotness, health and nutritional benchmarks, and provides access to intimate correspondence. Not only are there no secrets from the government. There are no secrets among the people, either. Even your credit rating hovers brightly in the air above your head when you pass a Credit Pole on the street.

This is the USA Gary Shteyngart creates to showcase the truly sad love story of Lenny Abramov (Russian-American, age 39, depressive reader of books) and Eunice Park (Korean-American, age 24, anorexic, self-obsessed, and cruel shopaholic like all her friends). The tale of their troubled relationship plays out against the backdrop of a city (New York) and a country in the throes of total collapse. It’s not a pretty picture — but it’s extremely funny.

Super Sad True Love Story is Shteyngart’s third novel, and it’s the best of the lot. It follows The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, both brilliantly satirical. All three are characterized by the author’s masterful way with language and his delicious sense of humor.

ISBN-10: 1400066409

ISBN-13: 978-1400066407

ASIN: B0036S4BSA

3 Comments

Filed under Science Fiction, Trade Fiction