book review: the surrogates

The Surrogates is a science fiction mystery set in a future where people can sit in the privacy of their own room and teleoperate a surrogate to go out and interact with the real world for them. When you’re operating the surrogate you’re feeling what it feels and doing what it does, but without exposing your real self to danger.

What makes this book great is how Robert Venditti gets into what this would mean for a world. It turns most of our major crimes into property crimes, since a murder of a surrogate is basically like totalling someone’s car. People took up smoking again because all of the carcinogens accumulate in the surrogate’s body, leaving the real you with lungs pink like the insides of babies.

The story follows a police detective on the trail of a murderer who might be a terrorist, and gets at the heart of what this technology means. There’s an anti-surrogate political group, and a murderer who can do things no one has ever seen before. Also, between each issue in the trade paperback there are news reports or advertisements or academic papers that help to flesh out the world (much like you might remember from Watchmen, though there’s no parallel pirate story going on here), which are done superbly.

Venditti and Wendele did a great job with this book. I know there was a movie version fairly recently but didn’t see it. It seems like it’d be very easy to simplify it too much for the sake of good visuals. If the movie’s worth seeing let me know!

book review: akata witch

Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).

Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.

Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.

It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.

But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.

I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.

book review: the quantum thief

I loved Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief so much. It’s about a thief who gets broken out of an eternal Dilemma Prison (where you enact the Prisoner’s Dilemma with copies of yourself and the rest of the prisoners in adjoining virtual cells forever) in order to steal something very important on Mars. There is also a hotshot young detective being groomed by one of Mars’ vigilantes who thinks he’s working on a case about uploaded soul privates but the truth is much weirder.

The society on Mars is called the Oubliette and it’s all about privacy controls and the access people allow to others. The currency is time until the person’s soul is uploaded into one of the Quiet, the slave machines that keep the world functioning until they get reincarnated. The Oubliette is quite chicly primitive to some of the other cultures in the solar system and it’s all just amazing. The world-building around a cat and mouse detective story was amazing (and very reminiscent of The City & the City). The characters were rakish and severe and outrageous and ultra-competent and awesome.

I highly recommend it if you like China Mieville’s more science-fictiony things or Charles Stross or want to think a bit harder than you would with an Alastair Reynolds book.

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.

book review: the magicians

Mary at WPL recommended Lev Grossman’s The Magicians years ago but I shied away, mainly because I thought it was going to require a deep love of Narnia, which I do not have. It didn’t, though the Narnian parallels are important. (Here the magical world is called Fillory and is a bit different, for story purposes.)

In the novel the main character is a disaffected snotty upperclass teen who loved the Fillory books. He’s about to graduate from high school when he receives a mysterious invitation to attend magic school. He passes the gruelling examination and learns to be a magician in the first part of the book. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan early on. It felt too much like Harry Potter but with more drinking and cussing. Once they’re out of school though, the book really picked up. Then it became a story about figuring out what to do with yourself when you can do anything.

The tedium of learning magic was conveyed really well and there were some very good worldbuilding things. The whole thing built to an appropriate climax, which seemed inevitable even as it wasn’t completely expected. I’d generally recommend this one. There’s a sequel out now, but I’m not rushing to read it, as I liked where this ended.

book review: the city & the city

I’ve already talked a bit about China Mieville’s The City & The City, but here’s the review. Wow. Not that it was mind-blowing in the story. I mean, it was a detective story, there was a mystery and a detective trying to solve it. All right. Cool. In the end the mystery gets solved and we find out who did what and how. Great. If that was all it was I would not be nearly so jazzed about it, but even taken just on that level it’s a good mystery story. I didn’t feel let down when the pieces fell into place (and with this book it’s important that those pieces didn’t “come together”) and the tale was about smart people doing smart things. No idiocy required.

Except.

The world Mieville creates here is a piece of inspired idiotic madness that I hated and loved to fucking pieces. I hated the idiocy of people living right next to each other being forced to “unsee” the things that were right there. But I loved that we’re seeing these cities through the eyes of a person who believes in the boundaries and their importance. It would have been so much easier to do this story from the point of view of a character like the reader, someone who doesn’t get the boundaries between the two cities, who would have to have it explained. But that would have been so unsatisfying in comparison. The way the book is written, you’re gradually introduced to the idea of the two cities because it’s normal. The narrator doesn’t say “This is so weird!” because that’s our role as the reader. By the time we get a tourist character who behaves the way you or I would in this mad city, we’re on the narrator’s side, but we can see ourselves in these interlopers.

This is a book I feel like I’m going to need to take apart to see how he did it so beautifully. Through the whole reading I was thinking “how could this possibly have happened?” and the book stays resolutely away from giving us an answer. Even though archaeologist characters abound. Speculation about the nature of the Cities fuels the whole thing, and even though it couldn’t possibly work in real life, the book states as fact how it does. And he does it in such a way you believe it. So fucking good.

Even though I read it in 2010, this was probably my favourite SF novel from 2009. Although looking at my shelves a bit more closely it was probably only the second SF novel I read published in 2009. (The other was Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, see my review here, which was very good in plausible worldbuilding kind of way but lacked The City & the City’s compelling story.)

book review: shades of grey

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, is a decent little novel about a rule-following Colortocracy. Since the Something That Happened, people can only perceive different amounts of the colour spectrum. This determines your rank in society. Purples are high ranking leaders, Yellows are snitches and spies, et cetera. There are a lot of Rules by which society functions smoothly, and there’s a lot of concern with marrying well to ensure your next generation is a better, purer colour-perceptor so their status is haigher. The hero, Eddie Russett, is an overly curious young adult sent to a new town with his father to learn some humility.

The world-building in this book was the key. The rules of Munsell are funny and nonsensical. Manufacture of spoons is outlawed and have been for hundreds of years. There’s synthetic colour that everyone can see but it’s garish. Greens tend to be jerks because they can perceive so much of the natural world. As a book it all works because the characters all accept it, because that’s how society works. If I were to wear my SF hat that demands some sort of rigour the whole thing would fall apart and I’d be missing the point. By the end it appears that there is an explanation behind the world that Eddie will spend future books trying to solve. That was the most disappointing part of it for me. I’m done for a while with secrets that will be revealed if you just stick with it, be it TV or books. That’s not really a tension I like. But in this book the dialogue is great and absurd and all around it’s a pretty worthwhile read.