book review: the eye of the heron

According to an interview in The Paris Review The Eye of the Heron was the first of Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction novels that she felt was doing something radical, politically.

It’s a story of two communities on a colony world, the City and the Town. The City was the first wave of colonists, mostly criminals, few women and strict notions of hierarchy. The Town was made up of peace-loving anarchists who were causing trouble back on earth. Guess which of these groups is the one I was rooting for!

The plot starts when a scouting party returns to the town to say they found a great spot for a new settlement. The Town people talk to the City people to say what they’d like to do but they are accused of rebellion and leaders are imprisoned. The rest of the book is about negotiation and resistance through talking and letting that which does not matter truly slide. It’s quite good as a depiction of how Gandhi-style challenging of hierarchy and power can work. The reeds not the oak and such.

book review: neptune’s brood

Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.

The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.

Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.

Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.

book review: red mars

Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4410885928/ shared under a cc-by-2.0 license

I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.

I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.

The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).

We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.

One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).

The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.

Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.

book review: dark eden

Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.

Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.

The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.

What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.

The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.

All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.

book review: zoe’s tale

I read John Scalzi’s blog but he’s not an author whose books I clamour for on the day of release. This week, though I felt an urge for his non-bloggish writing and got a bunch of books from the library. First up, the YA novel set in the Old Man’s War universe called Zoe’s Tale.

This book is about Zoe, the teenage daughter to two war-heroes turned colonists. She’s got a special relationship with an alien race and is kind of bored with her life on Huckleberry (though there’s a lot of exciting backstory to her life you can read in the other Old Man’s War books about her parents). She and her parents and her alien bodyguards head off to start a new colony. Zoe makes friends, deals with relationship issues and gets embroiled in interstellar politics.

It’s a really interesting book because of what it leaves out. It takes place at the same time as The Last Colony so you read this knowing that yeah you’re missing stuff, or having it summarized because Zoe heard about it secondhand. It had a different feel because of it. You really felt like Zoe was dealing with a world and events out of her control. I liked it a lot.

I was also reading this to see if I could suggest it as a standalone YA novel (I’ve only read the first book in the series and that was a few years ago). I think I can. It doesn’t hit quite the same beats as usual, but it’s different in a good way, and Zoe’s got a good voice and feels funny and real.

book review: monsters of men

Monsters of Men is the concluding book in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. This trilogy was less like three separate books than one story separated into three volumes, which is part of why I preferred this book to the middle book. It actually had an ending.

[Spoilers to follow.]

In this concluding section Todd and Viola have to try and unite humanity against the overwhelming opposition of the aliens they thought they’d killed in the war (before Todd was born). They’re trying to create a peace and Todd is becoming more like the Mayor because he’s learning so much. There’s a lot of Star Wars-esque father issues going on. Viola is hiding her distrust of the new Todd and they’re all growing up and she lets the war get personal while she’s trying to broker a peace. It’s all very dramatic, with one excellent return of a character from early on in the story that I didn’t see coming. And it ends really well.

There’s a new viewpoint character, one of the aliens, which I quite enjoyed. One of the issues with the series is that the first book is told completely from Todd’s perspective, and Viola doesn’t even have a voice for a good chunk of it. In the second book she becomes a viewpoint character. But if a young woman starts the first book, there’s not a lot for her right off the hop. And explaining that Viola is there and everything Todd thinks at first is wrong kind of defeats the purpose of how that book is set up. I don’t know if it’s a huge problem, but the fact that it takes so long to get a kickass female protagonist might turn off some female readers. Just a caution.

book review: the knife of never letting go

In our YA Services class last week, Eric brought up Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go as a YA dystopia that’s much better than The Hunger Games. I borrowed it after class and wasn’t disappointed.

Todd is a month away from his 13th birthday, which is the time in Prentisstown you become a man. The thing is that in Prentisstown there are no women, and he’s the last boy left. Oh and also everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts all the time (it’s called Noise), including animals (Todd’s dog says “Todd!” a lot and “Poo!” – but is still less boring than the sheep who just say “Sheep!”). And Prentisstown is the last outpost left on the planet after the Spackles – the alien inhabitants from before the colonists arrived – caused all of this terribleness with their bioweapons.

But then Todd finds something in the woods whose thoughts he can’t hear, and he learns how misled he’s been.

Ness’ worldbuilding is excellent. There are so many things that make you go “How does that make sense?” but through careful revelations of what Todd didn’t know because he’s still a kid when the book starts that makes the horror of Prentisstown (and of the world in whole) much more gripping. Todd and Viola (the strange thing he found in the woods whose thoughts he couldn’t hear is a girl) engage in this huge voyage and the stakes feel really high. Also, I loved that he doesn’t love his dog from the beginning.

My only complaint is that the ending is so cliffhangery to make you want to read the next book, it’s a little offputting. I mean, I borrowed the next book, but manipulation into reading a trilogy kind of bugs me.

Other than that this is a great read, especially about the effects that violence has on people. No violent act in this book is just a tossaway thing, which I love.