book review: rocannon’s world

Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.

What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.

Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).

The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.

book review: this is how you die

This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death is a collection of short stories about people who know how they will die as predicted by a Machine. It is, of course, a sequel anthology to Machine of Death (in which I had a story).

Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North and David Malki ! have put together a great collection of stories. As is usual with an anthology some are more to my taste than others. I quite enjoyed the stories that played with the idea of “unkillable” people (who’d all have cancer or something non-violent) and putting them into badass commando roles. My favourite of these was probably Tom Francis’ “Lazarus Fission Reactor Sequence” which also combined some office comedy as part of being a henchman for a supervillain in there too, but the grim science fictiony “Not Applicable” by Kyle Schoenfeld was also pretty great.

Rhiannon Kelly’s “Natural Causes” was my favourite of the more “realistic” stories because of how it dealt with small-town issues of appearances and conformity. And Ryan North’s “Cancer” laid down some real science and feelings.

So yes, this book did feel a bit more diverse than the first one. The stories covered a wider range of settings and people were definitely playing with some more meta-ish concepts surrounding the Machine. You should totally read it. (And if you participated in the Summer 2013 Humble Ebook Bundle you probably have a copy of the first volume to whet your appetite, so go read it first!)

book review: the age of miracles

I don’t think I’m unreasonable in being disappointed in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. The concept of the book is that the planet’s rotation is slowing, and the protagonist is a 12-year-old girl in California just living her life, trying to deal with things like unpopularity and parental infidelity.

One one hand, the book had this science fictional concept of the earth slowing and days lengthening, which is kind of interesting and no more ridiculous than Life As We Knew It‘s moon suddenly getting all up in Earth’s face. But it’s written as if the author had no idea how seasons work. There’s a bit of lip-service to the madness that comes from white nights at extreme latitudes, but the idea that the sun going down at 9pm isn’t a terrifying thing seemed completely foreign to the author. There’s a bit of information tossed in about the earth’s magnetic field, but it was very cursory.

Also, all of the big problems that arise from this global catastrophe are kind of glossed over in simplistic ways. Not just that the 12-year-old protagonist glossed over them because she didn’t get them, but like the author didn’t think it through very hard and just had the idea of monolithic blocks that would react in certain ways across the continent if not the globe.

So it seems to me that the book wasn’t written to be a science fiction book, but a backdrop for this young girl’s story. Fine. I can get behind the idea of a coming of age story in the midst of global crisis. The science and sociology could have been passed off as niggling details to annoy me if the story of the girl was compelling, but I did not find it to be so. There was a boy, and a lack of friends, and death, and a cheating father. It wasn’t terrible, but it felt simplistic and too uninvolving to distract me from the issues I had with the end of the world.

It might be an okay YA book, but I think a lot of readers would be put off by the lack of plot. In any case, Life As We Knew It is a much better YA book in the same vein.

book review: the clockwork rocket

What I love about reading Greg Egan books is reading about creatures that are psychologically very recognizable but physically alien. In other books this comes through reading about robots and software, but The Clockwork Rocket is about a species of blobby aliens living in a universe where different colours of light have different speeds.

On their world there are male and female aliens that I picture as macroscopic amoeba type things. Reproduction means the female splits into four children (two males and two females who are brought up as “co”s brother-sisters but also as future mates), whom the father then raises. Yalda is a female who doesn’t have a co. She grows up on a farm and moves to a city and becomes a scientist and eventually leads an expedition away from their world to try and save it from an impending disaster (by using the weird properties of the speed of light in their universe).

There are digressions exploring the nature of light and toroidal universes in this book. Some people might not like them. I did. I also loved the political explorations of birth-control in a species where having children necessarily means the death of the mother. It’s very much an ideas book, and there are sequels, which I’ll definitely read eventually.

book review: this dark endeavour

Kenneth Oppel’s YA novel This Dark Endeavour is a story of Viktor Frankenstein as a young man. He and his twin brother Konrad live in a castle near Geneva with their cousin Elizabeth. Though they’re identical twins, Konrad is the one who’s better at talking to people and fencing and schoolwork and bravery and all the things that get a young man attention. But when Konrad falls mysteriously ill Viktor and Elizabeth and their friend Henry turn to the forbidden art of alchemy to see if they can help him where the doctors failed.

It’s a good story. It has a clear escalating structure of finding alchemical ingredients, and the jealousy Viktor feels for Konrad is mixed with love enough that you want him to succeed even if you know he’s taking a weird self-absorbed path. Also, there’s passionate teenage declarations of love and melodrama. The weirdest part of the book was the Frankenstein family’s anachronistic liberalism. Early on there’s a scene where the family makes dinner for the servants, which helps make the upper-class family thing feel a bit more relatable for 21st century readers, but felt reductionist to me.

In any case, it worked well as a dark YA adventure story, and had some interesting discussion of alchemy, science and religion. I’ll recommend it.

book review: american elsewhere

Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere is about a little town in New Mexico called Wink. Wink is full of white picket fences and lots of rules, one of the most important of which is “stay inside at night.” Mona Bright has just inherited a house in Wink and the day she arrives is the day of the funeral of one of the town’s oldest residents. Oh, and thrity years ago there was some sort of accident at the lab up on the mesa. And Wink isn’t on any maps (because of that lab and its sensitive government work from decades past).

This all sounds like a pretty standard Stephen King-ish horror novel, and in a lot of ways it is. There’s nothing frighteningly innovative going on with the text. Challenges mount, characters rise to meet them in the face of sanity blasting beings we would go mad to perceive. Occasionally as a reader, you’re a few steps ahead of Mona, which can be annoying as you wait for her to catch up. But Bennett is very good at telling the story. The “seeing something impossible and it wrecks your brain” is described in a way that makes it sound scary rather than just a magic eye or what have you. It’s good neo-Lovecraft.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The viewpoint shifts between a number of characters and even the drug dealers are basically root-for-ably written (apart from one character who is quite vile, but he’s mostly there so Mona can get a high-powered rifle in the final third of the book). If you like Stephen King novels, this is less dark than those (though there’s a lot of death around the climax), but similar. It’s less about mythic resonance than a Tim Powers book, but there’s a lot of shared DNA between them. What I liked best about it was that it was a fairly serious examination of how we (people and pandimensional beings) try to be happy. That probably excludes it from a real Lovecraftian vibe, since by the end the monstrosities are somewhat knowable.

I received my copy of American Elsewhere as an Advance Reading Copy through LibraryThing.com‘s Early Reviewers program.

book review: brain camp

Brain Camp is a comic, written by Susan Kim, about going to camp where terrible experiments are being done on the campers to make them smarter. But at what cost?! It’s drawn by the awesome Faith Erin Hicks and looks great. The story about three kids who figure something weird is going on at camp, is decent but not earth-shaking.

I liked how they used the ensmartening against the camp-runners by the end, and the reason the two main characters have better resistance than most is kind of clever and cute. The reason for the experiments is also a good twist on the basic idea.

In all, a good little story (but no match for the really greatness of something like Hicks’ Friends With Boys).