Tag Archives: science fiction

The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey

Review (Amazon): 

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: slow to get going but worth it in the end

We get introduced to ten-year-old Melanie on page 1. She is in a classroom, different than we are used to, but we only slowly get introduced to what exactly is different. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, although they do have other teachers from time to time. They live in a compound to keep away from the hungries (aka zombies). The children live in cells and get wheeled into the classroom Hannibal Lector style each day, all strapped in and ready to learn. Occasionally the students leave by the hand of Doctor Caldwell and never come back, and they haven’t gotten any new students in a while.

One day the Sergeant comes in and has an issue with Miss Justineau getting “too attached” to the children, and he suggests that they aren’t even children. To demonstrate, he spits on his arm and holds it near one of the children who starts chomping and biting at him (still restrained) and so do the children near him. Melanie is very confused about what is happening.

We cut to Dr. Caldwell for a bit to determine that the children are not actually children (after she has dissected her latest two). They have a fungal parasite of some sort that Dr. Caldwell is crudely investigating. After the Breakdown, most high tech equipment is incredibly difficult to come by.

Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are have very different ideas on how to interact with the children. Miss Justineau treats the children like normal children (at least as much as she can) whereas Dr. Caldwell and the Sergeant treat them worse than animals. But they all ended up in the compound under the same circumstances. They are trying to determine why some of the children that they have been finding are not mindless zombies like the other hungries, but instead can learn and reason and generally go beyond the mindless behaviors of the others. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are there to teach and observe. Dr. Caldwell is there to help create scientific revelations about the parasite to hopefully protect the other humans, and the Sergeant is there to protect all the humans in the compound both from the children, but also from the packs of hungries as well as the Junkers (bands of humans who sort of “Mad Max” about in the outside) who could attack at any time.

Dr. Caldwell requests that Miss Justineau provide a list of 1/2 the class to be dissected, and Miss Justineau is understandably having a hard time with it. Not just because she has become close to the students but she also understands how losing half the class will affect the dynamics. So she holds off on providing the list. In response, Dr. Caldwell decides to start with Melanie. Sergeant Parks gets her, and takes her in to Dr. Selkirk and Dr. Caldwell.

When Melanie doesn’t come to class, Miss Justineau realizes that something is up. She confronts Sergeant Parks who tells her where Melanie has been taken. Luckily Miss Justineau arrives just in time. She confronts Dr. Caldwell and the two break into an argument followed by a physical fight. In the midst of it, the evacuation siren goes off, and hungries break into the window. Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau make it out, but Dr. Selkirk does not. No one knows in the chaos what happened to Melanie so Miss Justineau goes out to find her. Instead she runs into a pack of Junkers. Luckily Melanie reappears and attacks them with full force.

Melanie, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell find Sergeant Parks and one of his soldiers, Kieran Gallagher. They get into a Hummer and leave Beacon. Melanie is faced with existential challenges after killing the Junker. Justineau and Caldwell are at complete odds except that they both want Melanie to live (for different reasons) so they are able to keep Parks from killing her. Off they go to an unknown location. They stave off a few groups of hungries, and then they eventually find the Rosalind Franklin. It’s a huge armored mobile laboratory that Dr Caldwell is very familiar with. As we learn, she was fully trained on the unit, but didn’t end up making the final cut for the mission (and she’s been holding a grudge for the last twenty years). There are no humans or food inside, but all the scientific equipment is intact.

Melanie asks to speak to Parks alone, and when they reconvene after assessing what Rosalind Franklin does and doesn’t have, Melanie is gone. The generator needs to be fixed, so Parks starts on that while Justineau and Gallagher look for food. Before they leave, Justineau asks Parks where Melanie went. She was going crazy inside in close quarters with all the humans. All their e-blocker had worn off, so Parks let her go outside. He figures she can take care of herself. Justineau and Gallagher take off. They only see a few hungries. Most of them have died and have sprouted seeds for the fungus. Eventually they find a storage unit beside a convenience store that hasn’t been looted, and they take all they can back to the RF.

While everyone else is out, we learn that Dr. Caldwell has blood poisoning from the injuries she sustained during the original hungry attack. She’s trying to do what she can in terms of research before she dies. She tells Parks that it doesn’t really matter anyway. When the fungus took over the planet, it was in a juvenile form. Now it’s sprouting into an adult form and pollinating. And when it does, she doesn’t think there will be anything left.

When Justineau and Gallagher return, it’s late but Melanie hasn’t returned. So despite Parks’ arguments, Justineau decides to set off a flare. Melanie knows where the RF is; she just hasn’t wanted to return. She has spent the day looping around bigger and bigger circles until she finds something interesting–some others like her. When she returns to RF, she tells the adults that there are others out there–junkers, she says. Parks doesn’t believe her story. He believes she saw something which scared her, but it wasn’t Junkers. Justineau talks to Melanie who finally gives up the true story. She didn’t want to tell everyone because she was worried that Caldwell and Parks would round all the children up and dissect them. When everyone reconvenes, they realize that Gallagher is missing.

Unfortunately by the time Melanie, Justineau and Parks find Gallagher, the hungry children have already gotten to him, and tricked him to his death. Melanie insists that he should be honored, and as they are lighting his funeral pyre, they hear the engines of RF in the distance. Caldwell has left without them. She doesn’t get far before the hungry children encircle her. She’s trying to figure out how to capture one to dissect it before she dies. She opens the door locks and manages to close the door quickly enough to squash one. She doesn’t hurt his head though, but she needs to get the airlock fully shut because she is being shot at through the gap by the other children. She manages to get as far away as she can until she is stopped by a 40 ft high tower of the fungus for as long as she can see. She decides to dissect the head, and when Parks, Justineau, and Melanie finally find her, she won’t let them in. She’s too close to a breakthrough.

Parks sends Melanie on an exhibition to determine whether there’s a way around the fungus. There’s not. The 2 humans find a place to stay for the night. Dr. Caldwell is able to dissect the brain in peace and finds the answer she’s looking for. Once she’s done, she sees someone outside–a search party, she thinks. She goes out of RF and when she returns, Melanie is inside and wants to know the truth. The original hungries are because the fungus completely took over the bodies and then utilized them to hatch seed pods. Melanie and others like her are second generation hungries where the fungus doesn’t attack and feed on the brains.

Parks and Justineau are attacked where they are sleeping. Melanie hears shots fired on the walkie talkies and arrives to help as much as she can. Unfortunately Parks is bitten by the hungries, but she and Miss Justineau make it out unscathed. The 3 return to RF where Melanie decides to blast the fungus wall with the flame throwers. She’s outside with Parks as little bits of ash begin floating to the ground. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before he becomes a hungry, and she agrees. But first she explains to him that it’s not ash, it’s fungus seeds. The flame thrower has opened all of the seed pods. She now knows that the original people will become hungries, but the second generation will be like her. They can end the war between the humans, the hungries, and the junkers, and create a new species. When Melanie returns to Miss Justineau, she explains again what has happened, and the book ends with Melanie introducing the hungry kids to their new teacher!

Verdict: 4 Stars

I thought the book was really creative. I am not typically super interested in zombie stories, and I’ve found that a lot of the post-apocalyptic ones are a bit overplayed at this point. So this was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a bit slow at points, but it pays off in the end.

 

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Review (Amazon): Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: fun

I’ve had this book on my list for quite a while so I’m glad I was actually able to squeeze it into my schedule. I enjoyed it a lot even though it was quite a bit different than I was expecting. It’s a dystopian novel, sure, but it’s really more of a people drama (aka literary fiction) set in the future.

The book jumps back and forth between pre-flu and post-flu. The connection between the two times is Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor who in his later days became a stage actor. The book begins with his last performance in King Lear. He has a heart attack and dies on stage. Arthur’s friend Clark is in charge of calling his ex-wives (all 3) to let them know. That same night, the Georgia flu pandemic arrives in Toronto killing most in its wake.

Post-flu time is measured in years starting with 1. The book starts its story in year 20. By this time, most of the chaos has died down, and people tend to live in towns. Kristen Raymonde is part of The Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the Great Lakes area doing Shakespeare performances. Kristen had been on stage and part of the production the night that Arthur died. She was only 8 at the time of the flu so her memory is very hazy regarding anything pre-flu. She does remember Arthur and she always looks for details about him in magazines and newspapers that she finds when they check abandoned buildings for supplies. They go in her pack with her paperweight and Station Eleven comic book that Arthur had given her.

The Symphony arrives in a town that they went to two years prior, and where they left two of their members so that they could have their baby. When they return, they find that the town has changed dramatically and their members have left. When they finally find someone who can tell them where they went, the answer is Severn City, a city in an old airport. They do their performance followed by a speech by the prophet there, and then decide to get out of the strange religious city while they still can. A little ways away, they realize they have a stowaway. A small girl from St. Deborah by the Water was promised to be the prophet’s next wife.

Interspersed with the post-flu “current time” storyline are stories about Arthur. We learn that he was from a small island in British Columbia, moving away to Toronto as soon as he could, but he drops out of college and enrolls in acting classes. He’s good friends with Clark, and they stay friends until Arthur’s death even though they both know they grew apart years before. Arthur’s mother calls him one day to tell him about another girl from their island who just moved to Toronto. She’s seventeen and just enrolled in art school. Arthur agrees to meet with her for lunch, and then waits 7 years before contacting her again. At this point, he is 36 and she is 24 and they very much hit it off. Miranda is in a dead end relationship with an artist who isn’t selling, and she is supporting him. She goes back to her place after dinner and drinks with Arthur where her boyfriend physically abuses her. She shows up at Arthur’s door with her suitcase and the rest is history…until it isn’t.

Miranda is an artsy sort, not used to the pomp and circumstance that Arthur is now used to. They have a house in Hollywood and a Pomeranian and host dinner parties. Miranda likes to draw, and she has a story that she has been working on for years. It’s about Dr. Eleven. Eventually at one of the dinner parties, Miranda realizes that Arthur is having an affair with a woman Elizabeth. She spills the beans to the paparazzo outside who eventually will be the EMT who performs CPR on a dying Arthur. Miranda and Arthur divorce and he marries Elizabeth. They have a son, Tyler, but eventually they also divorce.

Back in current time, the Symphony are heading towards Severn City to find the members they left. Severn City is also where Clark lives. Clark was on a flight with Elizabeth (Arthur’s second wife) and Arthur’s son as one of the last flights before the flu fully hit and they detoured to Severn City. Elizabeth had a hard time coping with the post-flu world, and eventually she and Tyler leave with a religious cult, believing that there must have been a religious reason for the people who were killed and who were spared. Clark remains and is the curator of the Museum of Civilization–an assortment of newspapers, cell phones, high heels etc. within Severn City as it grows into a decent running operation.

En route to the old airport, the Symphony members begin disappearing at their stops. Kristen and August are out one time and when they return, the caravan and the rest of the members have vanished. Kristen and August are terrified at this point, but they continue to head in the direction of the City. They don’t see any signs that the caravan has gone by without them, and eventually they encounter why. The Prophet has been following them because he wants the girl who stowed away. He and his followers are trained assassins and can sneak silently. Luckily Kristen and August are well trained too. They kill the men and free their friend Sayid who  explains a bit more about what is going on. Unfortunately Sayid is hurt so the Prophet easily catches up with the three of them. The Prophet, whose dog is named Luli (the dog in Station Eleven), begins quoting Station Eleven, and Kristen continues the quote which distracts him. Meanwhile, one of his men kills him because he is sick of living the way that he is, but then knowing nothing else, he also kills himself.

They manage to get back to Severn City and reunite with most of the troupe (unfortunately one of Kristen’s best friends and former love interest was killed by the Prophet). They find the two members who had been left years prior, and in general things are good. Kristen meets Clark who knows her by a newspaper interview he read of hers from a few years prior and talks to her about Arthur. They realize that the Prophet was actually Arthur’s son Tyler, but they aren’t sure what ever happened to Elizabeth. Before Kristen leaves to return to the road with the symphony, Clark takes her up to the air traffic control tower. From there, they can see a town in the far distance which has lights! Before leaving, Kristen leaves Clark one of her issues of  Station Eleven for his Museum, and she promises that she will return and switch out the copies so that one is always with her and the other in the museum.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book was a fun easy read and the world in the story was easy to get lost in. But I was expecting more science fiction and less people drama. I wanted to know more about the civilization and the science. I really enjoyed the section about when Clark and Elizabeth landed in the airport and how they got started rebuilding civilization, and I wanted more. I don’t know whether the book plans for a sequel, but having the Symphony go to the town with the electricity would be a really interesting idea!

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Midnight Robber – Nalo Hopkinson

img_3699-1Review (Amazon): It’s Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. To young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival-until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgiveable crime.

Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen’s legendary powers can save her life . . . and set her free.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: original

I can’t recall where I got this recommendation, but it didn’t disappoint. It’s a book that is both futuristic and sci-fi but at the same time almost Medieval feeling. It is also written by a black author and has only black (Caribbean) characters. I only mention this because as a white person, I do tend to read books by white authors about white characters, and I have been trying to remedy this at least somewhat.

The main character, Tan-Tan, starts out this story as a young girl of 7. She lives on Toussaint with her mother Ione and her father Antonio. Both of her parents are sad scoundrels. Antonio is the mayor and spends much time away from his family both working and philandering. Ione eventually becomes sad and lonely and gets into some philandering of her own. Of course to Antonio, only he is allowed to have fun on the side, so he gets furious with Ione. The planet is governed by “Granny Nanny” a sort of implant which provides internet-like capability for all on Toussaint. However, Antonio gets acquainted with a group who evades the overrule of Granny Nanny. When he eventually decides to challenge Ione’s lover, a virile young man, to a duel, he solicits the help of this group to get him some contraband. He wins the fight due to the poison, however, he ends up killing the man in the process. It is discovered that he has cheated to win the fight, and he is sentenced to trial. The man who Antonio had been working with reaches out to Tan-Tan to give her a package to deliver to Antonio. She smuggles away into the trunk of the car which is escorting her father to jail, however Granny Nanny alerts everyone where she is. Still, she is placed in the jail cell with her father until her mother is able to get her. While in there, she give Antonio the package, which will allow him to flee to New Half-Way Tree. New Half-Way Tree is like the (ancient) Australia of Toussaint–it is an uncivilized natural planet where prisoners are sent. Selfish Antonio takes little Tan-Tan with him there because he doesn’t want Ione to get to keep her.

They arrive in Halfway Tree, and are greeted by a creature named Chichibud, who manages to transport them to the nearest human village (barely as Antonio very nearly got them killed by being a selfish prick) where there is a strict penal system a la Hammurabi. While in this town of Junjuh, Tan-Tan meets her half-sister who with her mother is there because of Antonio and his terrible ways. Antonio eventually remarries a woman named Janisette, and the two of them drunkenly fight all the time. Starting at age 9, Antonio begins raping and assaulting Tan-Tan because she’s so beautiful just like her mother. Awful. The story skips ahead a bit and Tan-Tan is about to have her coming of age (16th birthday) party. She and her friend Melonhead are planning to run away to a town called Sweet Pone, where things are better (and she can escape her terrible father and step-mother). Her father drunkenly catches her outside talking to Melonhead, takes her inside and beats and rapes her. As he is raping her, she pulls out her new birthday present, a knife, and kills him. Chichibud somehow finds her, stuck under her dead father, and helps her escape. They are chased into the woods by the sheriff’s dogs, but Chichibud’s wife is a bird, and she is able to help them escape by climbing into a tree. In the Douen culture, Chichibud tells Tan-Tan, “When you take one life, you must give back two.”

The next part of the story is very interesting and creative. Tan-Tan begins living with Chichibud and his family in their giant tree (a whole village lived there). Douen and Tall People (humans) have never fully existed together, and certainly a human has never lived with a douen family before. It is a struggle to understand their customs and to find something to eat as Tan-Tan doesn’t want to eat grubs and worms. Eventually she starts sort of getting the hang of things, and makes a friendship with Abetifa, Chichibud’s daughter. At this point, she realizes that she is pregnant, from her father, and tries to locate a human town where she can have an abortion (difficult concept for the Douen who are egg-layers). When they locate the nearby town, it’s a terrible place. They don’t even have a doctor. Tan-Tan decides to be her own hero and begins spreading fear, but also respect of “the robber queen” through the village with various visits, causing people to start thinking twice before doing terrible things. However, with this, the rumor of the robber queen manages to make its way back to Junjuh where Janisette has been awaiting word of Tan-Tan. She appears in a broken down old car (a car is a rare sighting on New Half-Way Tree) with a gun. She sees where Tan-Tan runs to, and follows her to the tree. The Douen are too nervous to stay, so in one night, they destroy their tree and move to a new home. They leave Abefita and Tan-Tan to find their own way. (Abefita can eventually join them, but she is on a period of growth and learning typical of their species).

The two adolescents begin wandering around the woods, learning from each other, and scoping out human villages. Tan-Tan continues playing Robber Queen in the towns they find, and she enjoys finding out that her reputation precedes her. Eventually they find the town of Sweet Pone, and Tan-Tan is surprised to find that Melonhead is there, and he has been waiting for her all this time. Tan-Tan assumed that he wanted nothing to do with her after she murdered her father, so she is very surprised by this. Melonhead is the town’s tailor, and he convinces Tan-Tan to stay for Carnival even making her a Robber Queen costume like she had a child. She is conflicted. She wants to stay with Melonhead and be with other humans, but she has been on the run for so long and Abefita is her friend. She doesn’t know what to do. While out at Carnival though, Janisette arrives in a tank (uh, ok?) and threatens her. Tan-Tan stands up for herself in front of everyone, and calls Janisette out for knowing what Antonio was doing to her and not stopping it. Janisette is defeated and leaves, and Tan-Tan takes Melonhead back to the woods to Abefita because her baby is about to come. When he is born, she names him Tubman, and realizes that she has saved two lives, just like the Douen said.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

I like the fantasy and sci-fi aspects of this book. I even like the phonetic Caribbean language. I didn’t write about them but there are few interlude sections of fables that were very curious and foreign to me which I also enjoyed. I just really hated that the “coming of age” story had to involve a rape and a baby born out of that incestual rape. It just feels cheap. It feels like the trope of female superheroes. Male superheroes just become (or are born) superheroes. The women have to overcome some great tragedy, typically rape, to be a superhero. Is that just shitty real life? Maybe, but if I’m looking for a story to escape real life, I don’t want that to be the premise.

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The House of the Scorpion – Nancy Farmer

Review (Amazon): Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.
His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium–a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster–except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: OK

One of the categories which wasn’t chosen in book club this year was surprisingly the young adult category. So when we had a mix-up in months, we decided to add a young adult book to our year, and this book was chosen. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it did not live up to expectations.

On the plus side, it was a light read, and it had a different setting and plot (although similar) than a lot of the YA I’ve recently read. On the negative though, I didn’t feel like any of the characters were well-developed and I felt like the plot was full of holes.

Matteo Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, the dictator of Opium, named aptly as it’s used to grow poppies and thereby Opium. It’s a country which developed because El Patrón, a drug dealer, advised both the USA and Mexico to set up a country where any illegal would be turned into a Farmer and there was an agreement to not sell the opium in either country. Because that seems reasonable that the USA and Mexico would be like “yeah OK this drug dealer seems to have a good idea”.

Matt grew up hidden by El Patrón’s cook until he got out one day to play with some children he saw outside. When he was caught, he was treated worse than an animal (since he was a clone), stuck in a room with sawdust like a chicken coop and abandoned. Eventually his nurse and his only friend (Maria), rescue him. El Patrón is furious that someone would treat Matt this way, and the nurse who was in charge of him is turned into an eejit like the rest of the farmhands. The eejits have implants in their brains so that they are under complete control. They work until told otherwise. Most clones are also eejits since they will eventually be harvested for parts, but El Patrón did not want Matt to have the procedure done. Matt is also given a body guard, Tam Lin.

Matt turns out to be very bright, going to eschool (since no one would want to teach a clone) and learning how to play music. He goes about mostly unnoticed since people completely ignore him. He and Maria develop a friendship. She doesn’t live at the house with him, but her father is an important person to El Patrón so she comes around often.

As he grows older, he begins to understand further what is going on within the household and with himself, and eventually when El Patrón has had another heart attack, he and Maria try to flee. Unfortunately they get caught by Maria’s sister who takes Maria back to the convent, and Matt is taken to the hospital where El Patrón tells Matt that he is only to be used for his heart which he is going to give to El Patrón. Celia pipes up to say that she has been slowly poisoning Matt with arsenic just so that he can no longer be an organ donor. Tam Lin is instructed to take care of Matt but instead, he gives Matt supplies and allows Matt to escape.

Matt gets caught at the border and sent to some sort of juvenile detention center. (This is where the book really derailed for me). The prisoners are governed by older boys who it turns out are just high all the time. The front of the whole camp is that they harvest plankton, but in reality, they are trafficking drugs. For whom and why, it never says. Eventually Matt and a few of his new friends from the camp escape (after Matt and another boy are deposited in the whale bone pile (also unexplained and really bizarre) and end up in the town where Maria is at the convent.

They make their way to the convent/hospital (I was really confused by this point) and Maria and her mother are there. (This is odd because Maria learned that her mother was still alive only recently from a book of Matt’s and she presumably lived in California, but here she just mysteriously appeared). She is interested to know about the center where Matt came from because apparently people have been trying to shut down the drug trade business for years but didn’t have enough evidence to arrest them or something (despite the entire premise of building the country of Opium being that the drugs were going to be sent out of North America). Annnnyway, Maria’s mom tells Matt that Opium has been on a complete lock down for months and that he needs to go figure out what’s going on. Since he and El Patrón have identical genetics, he shouldn’t have a problem getting in.

OK no problem, he gets back into Opium to find out that El Patrón died and during his wake, Tam Lin brings out some wine which El Patrón had wanted to have at his funeral. Tam Lin instructed another of the guards to not drink it, however he and everyone else did, and everyone died. The end. Not really, but it gets even more unrealistic. Now because Matt is technically El Patrón, he becomes the new ruler of Opium. Um, what? The book ends with him speculating about how he can disable the eejits and fix the country.

Verdict: 3 stars

This book has excellent reviews on Amazon, but frankly I don’t know if I read the same book as those people. I was sorely disappointed. Some of the ideas were good, but it did not feel like the book was thought through, and it felt as though the ending was rushed and too coincidental (never resolve a plot with a coincidence; it always feels disingenuous.) There is a sequel to this book, written many years after the original, but I don’t think I care enough to read it.

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The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

 Summary (Amazon): STORIES CANNOT BE TOLD IN JUST ONE LIFETIME.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. “I nearly missed you, Doctor August,” she says. “I need to send a message.”

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

My review (major spoilers!):

Executive summary: creative

This book is SO good. I thought it was really creative, and I hope that this author puts out more stuff (Claire North is a pen name for Catherine Webb).

As you can probably guess from the title, there’s a reason why Harry August has had 15 lives. He cannot die. Every time he lives out his life, he is reborn into the exact same situation where he began with all the memories from his previous lives. His biological father raped (coerced?) his mother and Harry was born in the women’s bathroom of a train station in Northern England. His mother died during childbirth. Each life, Harry ended up being adopted by some close relatives who could not have children, and in general treated Harry just fine.

During his fourth life, he realizes that there are others like him (unfortunately too late) and upon starting life #5, The Cronus Club (made up of other ouroborons like Harry) begin to take him out of each of his lives early under the guise of special scholarships and the like so that his 100+ year old mind doesn’t have to sit through middle school over and over again. The Cronus Club operates in a sort of pay it forward type of way in that a scholarship fund of sorts is set up (they do a lot of betting on horses and the like since they know who will win) and older members are responsible for pulling out new members at the correct age when they are reborn.

Throughout lives 5-11, Harry learns and learns and learns. He travels, learns seemingly every language there is, and meets a variety of other oudoboron. They all spend their lives differently. Some prefer to engage in very risky behavior like fighting in wars. Others prefer to maximize their fun since there’s no consequences. Harry in general is fairly straight laced. He loves to learn. Sometimes he marries, other times he doesn’t. He typically lands in some sort of science-related field.

Nearing his “death” at life number 11, he is visited by a young oudoboron (he always dies for a similar reason at approximately the same time, but the only thing that is always exactly the same in every life is his birth) who passes along a message. “The world is ending, as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

He doesn’t really think too much of it because really, what does that mean? So he spends his twelfth life doing a lot of research. And he finds that technology is indeed speeding up. Following some leads to Russia, he finds a man who he had met in life #5 when he was a professor. The man, during that life, was a student named Vincent Rankis, who had big ideas even then and even bigger ideas now. Scientific curiosity convinces Harry  to join Vincent on his mission to develop a quantum mirror–something which would allow comprehension of the entire universe.  During this time, he discovers that Vincent is a mnemonic, a oudoboron who never forgets (this is quite rare as most of the others eventually begin to forget their early lives). It turns out that Harry, too, is a mnemonic, but he does not reveal this detail to Vincent.

Eventually Harry realizes that he and Vincent are the cause of the message that he received at his death bed. He decides to take a few days away from the lab (he hasn’t left in 10 years) and finds the Leningrad Cronus Club is gone. He tracks down the tomb of the one woman from there who he knew, and finds a cryptic message saying that her death was violent and unexpected (members of the Cronus Club always left messages and clues for each other throughout time). Harry knows in his mind who was behind this (Vincent) and is conflicted as to what to do. He decides to return, and Vincent confirms the suspicion. He doesn’t like the Cronus Clubs because in his mind, they don’t do anything new or different, just live the same lives over and over.

Harry decides to flee, but Vincent foils it. He restrains Harry and questions and tortures him about his point of origin. (The only way to truly kill a oudoboron is to prevent them from being born, and the only way that you can do that is to know where the person is born and who his/her mother is.) Harry refuses to give in. He convinces the main torturer to bring him poison, and Harry manages to take enough to not be able to recover. In his slow death, Vincent decides to perform a Forgetting on Harry. (This is an uncommon thing performed on oudoborons when they have had a particularly traumatizing event.) When he awakes, he realizes that the treatment didn’t work, but it doesn’t matter, Vincent has him killed.

When Harry awakes in life #13, he still remembers everything from the previous lives. And he knows that he needs to find Vincent. At six, he sends a letter, as he always does, to the London Cronus Club to save him, but no one appears. He sneaks away to find that the London Cronus Club no longer exists. Eventually when he is older, he finds out that the Cronus Club ceased to exist in 1909 due to lack of new members. Harry suspects that Victor had done a mass forgetting and heads to Vienna and proves it. He becomes a professional criminal both trying to trace Vincent and also trying to glean any information from remaining Cronus Clubs. Eventually he finds one in Beijing and learns that the forgettings began in 1965 and the pre-birth killings started no earlier than 1896 and accelerated in 1931 (presumably when Vincent can help) which gives him a good timeline to find Vincent. The Beijing Club provides a name of the original person and Harry sets off. When he finds her, he is devastated to find the woman who originally saved him so many lives ago. He initiates a forgetting on her, but never encounters Vincent. It will have to wait until life #14.

In life #14, technology is so far advanced in this life, he knows that the Vincent has been hard at work for the last few years. He makes an ally with an oudoboron whose live begins a few decades before his to help carry out the mission of stopping Vincent. Harry randomly meets Vincent at a colleague’s house, and must pretend not to know him (he should have forgotten). Vincent eventually contacts Harry and begins to get Harry to work for him. Harry does to learn about Vincent’s past. Harry is good at pretending not to remember even during particularly difficult time when Vincent marries Jenny–one of Harry’s wives from a  former life (and the one who he loved the most and told his secret to…and then she left him.) Harry dies earlier in this life, and before he dies, Vincent performs another forgetting. Again, it does not work.

His two other oudoboron acquaintances help him early in life #15 knowing that Vincent must be stopped. They suggest a forgetting but Harry knows it won’t work. So they begin on a plan. At sixteen, Vincent finds Harry at school, and it’s then obvious that Harry is being tracked until he eventually bumps into Vincent again in 1941 during the war. Again Harry pretends that the forgetting has worked, and again Vincent keeps Harry close, having him help with the research. Vincent is very close this time to completing his quantum mirror. Luckily Harry sabotages him from completing it despite his knowledge. Harry and Vincent both begin to die from radiation poisoning from being too close to the mirror for too long. Harry is dying more quickly and as he is dying, Vincent tells him everything. He tells his mother’s name, when he was born, and Harry has already figured out where he was born. Vincent performs yet another forgetting, and yet again it does not work. He checks himself out of the hospital, contacts his allies, and writes Vincent a letter. The game is over.

Verdict: 4.5 Stars

I thought this book was awesome. It’s a creative story set in a really great time period of modern history (which is important because it’s relived over and over). There are few stories that seem not to follow a predictable idea, and this was one. It integrated science and mystery with human drama. (Particularly in the last few lives, Harry struggled with being friends with Vincent while also knowing that he had to destroy him.) There were also sociological bits such as the fact that Harry continued to kill a serial killer in every life (even before the man had made his first kill). It was fascinating and I would definitely recommend it.

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The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

  Summary (Amazon):  Anderson Lake is AgriGen’s Calorie Man, sent to work undercover as a factory manager in Thailand while combing Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. Emiko is not human; she is an engineered being, grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in this chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits and forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly-acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

In this brand new edition celebrating the book’s reception into the canon of celebrated modern science fiction, accompanying the text are two novelettes exploring the dystopian world of The Windup Girl, the Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Also included is an exclusive Q&A with the author describing his writing process, the political climate into which his debut novel was published, and the future of science fiction.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: terrible

I had a really hard time getting into this book. I found it to be boring, mostly unoriginal and terribly sexist. How it won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards is beyond me. I also found the plot to be overly convoluted while at the same time almost completely pointless. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

It’s a post-apocalyptic book set in Thailand. It has a lot of the stereotypical post-apocalyptic book premises–no oil, no cars, genetically engineered humans. But its main focus is on food. Huge food companies (i.e. Montesanto) have taken over and are controlling the food by genetically engineered blights and other things. OK that’s slightly different, but it’s still just a twist on starvation which other sci-fi books explore for one calamity or another.

The main character of the book, Anderson Lake, is a “calorie man” (not a windup girl as you would expect by the title). He owns some sort of factory which is on the surface producing a kink-spring to help increase energy potential. In actuality, Anderson is there to figure out where the Thai seedbank is because it is supposed to be the main one with a lot of genetic material. Presumably he will take this back to Iowa with him (which obviously is where the huge food companies are based). Which completely makes NO SENSE in a post-apocalyptic future where there are no cars.

Anderson meets “the windup girl” Emiko in a sex club. She’s some sort of Japanese new person (genetically engineered by misogynistic assholes to be the perfect little woman). And when her former boss abandoned her, he didn’t mulch her like apparently he was supposed to. So now she gets raped at a sex club on a daily basis (and is described in vivid detail in the book). Yes, this is the character the book was named for.

Emiko feeds Anderson information about the seed bank and he eventually lets her hideout at his place after she killed everyone who gang-raped her, including the regent to the child queen. Seems OK but she’s been his personal sex toy in the story for a while by this point.

At some point in the story, it is revealed that the manager of Anderson’s factory (Hock Seng) is trying to steal the kink spring design and sell it to basically obtain the equivalent of citizenship. Hock Seng is a refugee who in his former life was an executive. A bunch of stuff happens which I don’t really remember and some people from the factory start to die from some sort of genetic algae plague. Hock Seng and some girl who works there cover up the deaths and they leave.

At the same time as the main story is happening, there’s a separate, just as uninteresting, side story happening about the political unrest in Thailand which culminates after the death of the queen’s regent. I won’t even discuss it because frankly, it came off as completely hollow and I don’t really remember it.

In the end, Anderson ends up dying from the plague that originated from his factory (Bye, Felicia), and Emiko teams up with a different renegade scientist from one of the big food companies and his lady boy. The scientist tells Emiko that he will use her DNA to create a new race of better new people who will actually be able to breed.

The end.

Verdict: 2 stars

I rarely come away from books feeling as though they were a complete waste of time. This one was it. I would not recommend it at all.

 

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