Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Monday, February 19th, 2024

Looking over my reviews of The Time Machine and The Invisible Man I see that I touted how Wells’s social commentary was flavored by his times, but not overwhelmed by it. I can’t really say the same for Moreau. It’s really about very turn of the 20th century ideas about evolution, savagery, and humanity.

Maybe check out one of those other ones.

Review: Void Black Shadow and Static Ruin

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

This is the second book of Corey White’s trilogy that started with Killing Gravity. It continues to deliver on a well-tuned space opera. I had been away from the characters for several years and fell right into the narrative. I read both Void Black Shadow and Static Ruin back to back. Since I’m not digging too deeply into plot, I’m covering about both here.

I like that though White is clearly writing a space opera, he’s not writing in a world without logic. His evil galactic empire isn’t shaky enough to put all its eggs into one Death Star. And it’s also populated with the sort of punch-the-clock evildoers who wind up working for evil in the real world.

It’s also a world with consequences. While White and his protagonist, Mars, may understand how you wind up as a file clerk for the Empire, they neither excuse or forgive temptation into more nefarious vocations. There’s a “break in to Devil’s Island to break our guy out” trope in here that runs aground on the kinds of terror that runs amok in such places. Those responsible are neither excused nor forgiven, but Mars gets her scars, too.

Evil’s not incompetent either. Mars’s plans do not always go as she expects or as a reader of space opera might expect. Competent foes and real consequences are in play.

I quite like the mix of full-bore planetary-class superpowers and real-world dynamics here. Being able to throw a starship around with your mind has less practical application than one might wish. White brings that home without losing the operatic scope.

The protagonist remains a space witch, though some unpleasant alternatives are put forth as well.

Recommended.

Review: The Best of Richard Matheson

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

Richard Matheson made his name writing short stories and novellas that looked at genre standards with a modern eye. The unexpected turns those took made them both standards in SF magazines of the day and the basis for many a Twilight Zone episode. I saw a collection at the LAPL and decided to have a look.

The man deserves his reputation. The stories are well crafted and clever. It’s easy to see how these stories both delighted readers and inspired later writers to play with different perspectives on old tropes.

They are a product of their time. I wouldn’t want to be a woman in a Matheson world. While I can be frustrated that a writer who can generate sympathy for the Devil would still have Satan’s wife doing the dishes, I still recognize the craft.

Recommended.

Review: The Last Chairlift

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

To get ready to write this review, I looked at my previous Irving reviews, and the review of In One Person covers everything I want to say.

I want to underline that John Irving is one of my favorite novelists. I enjoyed reading this novel. If you like John Irving, you will too. But if you don’t know if you like John Irving, I’d probably point you at The Cider House Rules. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany depending what I know about you.

Review: Wool

Monday, November 27th, 2023

A friend suggested taking a bite of the Silo series, so I read Hugh Howey’s first book, Wool. I confess I was somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed a lot like reading Michael Crichton circa Jurassic Park. The work seemed like the outline for a movie or TV series.

On those terms, it’s pretty good. Howey has a mastery of plot and the clockwork ticks well here. You can see the cliffhangers that would mark advertising breaks, episode transitions, and maybe season caps. I respect the ability to control pace that way. The work of constructing the set-up and pay-offs of those plot beats is considerable and he did it well.

I didn’t get drawn into the characters or setting much, though. He does drop you into a mostly unfamiliar world that seems connected to ours, but exactly how gets slowly and incompletely revealed. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully buy the world as it’s revealed. I feel like I might have been more forgiving if the characters were more fleshed out. They seemed more like sketches.

Again, as a candidate for adaptation, those are opportunities for actors and directors to breathe life into it. Depending on how that happens, the series (Apple TV+ seems to be doing one) could be quite fun.

Review: A Closed And Common Orbit

Friday, October 27th, 2023

After I was so blown away by A Psalm for the Wild-Built I decided to go back To Beck Chambers’s Wayfarers series and see if I was missing something. I didn’t re-read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but I picked up the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Yep, blown away again.

Common is a fun, interesting and engaging piece of SF. It’s a completely character-driven adventure story set in a textured and immersive setting. There’s a compelling theme of how families form even in the absence of biological relationships (or biology at all). It’s all great stuff but what blows me away is how deep and well constructed the whole thing is.

It is an adventure story, but there’s really no MacGuffin or inciting incident related to the adventure. It reads like the plot grows organically from the characters, their revealed history, and their developing relationships. I’m not hedging on the adventure story; this isn’t a story where the only stakes are the emotions of the characters. There are physical risks and consequences. But the characters make the stakes (emotional and physical). And every action they take is utterly believable based on what’s on the pages.

When I take the deeper dive and think about the whys and hows of the story I’m impressed by the intricacy of the character building. SF like Dune is applauded for its world building, but I often find the characters to be subordinate to that world. Chambers builds her setting and characters with the same level of depth and complexity.

It’s also a nice trick to write a book about family where none of the members of that family are capable of procreation. A point that’s never explicitly stated, but is utterly clear on reflection.

I also marvel at the writing. I was worried that I might throw out too many spoilers here because I’d really like to talk about how the characters seem to make much of the plot inevitable in the best ways. Then I tried to explain enough to spoil something and I realized that describing the plot details that show that magic is hard. It’s hard because Chambers has built a complex setting that doesn’t feel complex to me. She doles out just enough exposition to build the relevant world, but it all arrives as things the characters already know. Easy to say and hard to do. The story all felt so natural until I tried to lay it out front to back. Then I realized how many little telling details make the whole setting and plot cohere. It felt like trying to describe a place I’d just lived in for a while to someone who’d never been.

I’ve got a ton more I could say about this book – it’d be a fun book club meeting – but I’ll just mention how much of the book is two episodic, resonant, interleaved timelines that are each exciting in isolation and be done.

A must.

Review: White Trash

Saturday, October 21st, 2023

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash traces American society’s relationship to the poor back to colonial times. She does a great job digging into both the details and long arcs of how America has always been stratified and how that reflects on the folks in each stratum. It’s interesting and important to understand, but I didn’t come away surprised.

It’s well written and well documented. A fine history of an underdocumented angle on American history.

Review: Autonomous

Sunday, July 30th, 2023

I’ve been on a run of reading SF that I really like. The latest is Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. This is a book I could comfortably call a thriller, but it shifts its shape and focus throughout. I could also say its using a imaginary technology to examine ideas of consciousness and intelligence and how those are manipulated, or that it’s a using a dystopian near future world to comment on freedom and duty. It’s all of those at once, and Newitz does a remarkable job keeping all those balls in the air.

Some authors use genre fiction to sugar-coat disruptive ideas in a way that some readers see them and some don’t. Newitz isn’t doing that. The book keeps all its themes in focus throughout, but each of them gets their time at the forefront. If you want to read a thriller about drug pirates vs enforcement agents and not think about the nature of corporate capitalism and personal freedom, you’re going to wind up wanting to skip some chapters.

But, see, here’s the problem with that plan. The thriller is still going on and the characters are still living. When the more philosophical ideas are and front and center they’re not alone, just the most well-lit. You can’t skip the chapter where implications about how incentives and addiction blur in academia and corporate life are front and center because it’s also moving the thriller plot and the character development forward as an integrated whole. Not a lot is happening in the side channel, but what is happening there is crucial.

There’s an argument that Autonomous is about multitasking and is telling by showing. But there’s no shortage of takes on about what this book is about. It covers a lot of thematic ground with elan. If that weren’t enough it’s got a jaw-dropping rate of tossing out provocative ideas both central and tangential to the plot. And the world.

In addition to being so structurally sound, their prose is phenomenal. There are many turns of phrase I’ll be keeping. Newitz consistently lights a fuse in one place that bursts into a laugh-out-loud joke or emotional chord a hundred pages later.

A must.

Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Saturday, July 15th, 2023

I think is one of the best novellas I’ve read, but I also think it’s got a long fuse. I enjoyed reading it and I’ve continued to marvel at how revolutionary and well written it is. If one doesn’t think deeply about it, I can imagine this being a neat, quick SF read. Kind of like what I thought of The Plot – and I liked The Plot. I definitely think it’s worth the time to chew on this book. Becky Chambers doesn’t need my kudos, what with the Hugo and all, but I was quite blown away as the fuse went off.

If you want the joy of discovering the book yourself, stop reading here. I don’t have any plot spoilers in here, but I am going to talk about other aspects of the work that I think might be more fun to discover unprompted.

As I say, when I first read this it felt enjoyable and low stakes. The setting and characters were charming, there was a quest to go on, a sudden unexpected first contact between civilizations separated for an age (the sentient robots humans built and the humans). The sort of SF tropes you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic SF novella. But, like I say, low stakes: personal rather than galactic. Engaging. Fun.

But the cover mentioned a Hugo. And I had this nagging feeling that something was going on that I was missing. So I ruminated. And then the penny dropped.

This is a post-apocalyptic SF novella in which the concept of violence between sentients is completely absent. It’s not just that there is no fighting. The concept of violence never occurs to the protagonist nor is there any indication it occurs to the robot they encounter. No threats. Not even a violent metaphor or joshing punch on the arm. If these societies know that sentients can be violent with one another, I’m guessing it would be the kind of taboo that would excite fundamental revulsion. And at this point I have to guess.

Once I realized that, I thought about how fundamental violence or the threat thereof is to SF and other genre fiction. I cannot think of another SF story in which the idea of violence is completely absent. Just to make that point more strongly, it took me quite some time to characterize the revulsion in the previous paragraph in some way that captured its scope without using a violent word, and I’m not writing genre fiction.

SF invites writers and readers to consider a world fundamentally different than our own and see what that says about ours. This is a big swing at world building.

Before I read this, I would have assumed that you couldn’t write an engaging work without reference to violence committed by sentients. But, I read this and didn’t notice the absence until I ruminated. It is a huge challenge to set for yourself as a writer. That Chambers succeeded gobsmacks me.

The more I’ve thought about it – and I can’t stop thinking about it – the more fundamental ideas are woven in here. Those ideas are all slipped in quietly. But once I see a fuse, I know they light firecracker strings as well as single bombs.

There is more to come in this series (OK, it’s out but I’m slow) and I’m all in. But just chewing on this is well worth it.

A must.

Review: Our Missing Hearts

Tuesday, July 11th, 2023

I have not been able to put Our Missing Hearts in a category. Every time I pick it up and turn it around in my mind, I see a different facet that makes me think of it in a new way that leaves the other interpretations valid. Celeste Ng has crafted a work that holds multitudes and feels tight.

The blurb for the book that I’d roll out to get someone to read it is “In a dystopian near-future a tween receives a cryptic message from his mother who he hasn’t seen in years that spurs him to dangerous action.” Pretty much every word in that sentence has a page of explanation by the end of the book, though.

The dystopian aspects are real, but the people in it are equally real. Lots of dystopian fiction is pollyanna-ish in offering solutions or pedantic in sealing society’s doom. Out Missing Hearts strikes a remarkable balance of showing how people create and resist oppressive states. Understanding how everyone is motivated here doesn’t lighten the load of the dystopia entirely, but it also underscores how decency and compassion are equally inevitable.

Hearts is also very concerned with stories and lore. The stories we tell one another or ourselves. The stories that the powerful tell the ruled. How those stories pass through time. It’s no surprise that librarians are big players.

Ng also walks the walk of storytelling. Her writing is perfectly tuned to what I think she’s trying to do. I often collect memorable passages when I read, but I found the writing here all cohered into a whole. There were lots of excellent phrases and passages, but all of them were part and parcel of the story in ways that removing them diminished their power.

She also seems to take delight in changing the tone and content of story she is telling. If a parent were to pick up Hearts and read the first 50 pages or so, they could easily mistake this for a YA novel. It is not. But I also like the idea that a child could read their first adult novel because a parent failed to get the whole story.

Front to back an excellent novel with significant depth.

Strongly Recommended.