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Tag: Speculative fiction Page 2 of 7

Review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Not sure when, how or why I stumbled on The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter but at some point I put it on the wish list.  Anticipating some long car trips for work, I recently downloaded it via Overdrive and listened to it on audio book while traveling around Ohio.

Gut reaction: interesting but sort of meandering; a giant thought experiment with some intriguing characters and a good hook but that never quite gets beyond a desultory pace or energy. Despite the “bombshell” at the end, not sure I have the energy to tackle the second book.

I should perhaps offer the caveat that I don’t believe I had read any of the author’s previous works and that science fiction is not something I read a lot of or seek out.  I enjoy imaginative and speculative fiction, however, and felt like this was in that ballpark.

FWIW, Adam Roberts seems to think there is more Baxter than Pratchett:

The Long Earth reads much more like a Baxter novel than a Pratchett one. It’s not very funny, for one thing – discounting some wry dialogue and one not-very-successful stab at a comic character (a deceased Tibetan monk who has been reincarnated as a superintelligent drinks dispenser). Instead our hero, Joshua, explores stepwise for a million earths or so, the whole journey rendered with a characteristically Baxteresque mix of big-scale imagination and scientific rigour. The resulting novel is a surprisingly gentle piece of work. Something Wicked, or at least Something Worrying, is sweeping in from the further reaches of the long earth, driving frightened steppers before it like refugees; but it’s a long time before we become aware of this, and not much is made of it. Otherwise human settlement upon the alternate earths is rural and low-tech (steppers cannot carry iron with them, for unexplained reasons) and almost entirely free of crime, rapine and nastiness. Lacking the pressures of overpopulation and with infinite natural resources to draw on, people just seem to get along with one another. Indeed, I’m tempted to call The Long Earth an exercise in utopian writing; an unfashionable mode nowadays, when grim-and-gritty dystopias rule the publishing roost.

I am not big on dystopian fiction so I too enjoyed the style.  The set-up and concept (Stepping, tech driven and “natural”, across worlds, etc.) was fascinating and sucked you in.  The philosophical questions raised are interesting to think about.

But once Joshua and Lobsang embark on their adventure it fell into a lot of dialog and slow moving plot.  Even the interesting bits about natural steppers and what might be causing the “trolls” and “elves” to flee too often get caught up in slow moving discussing between characters.  At the end the tension ratcheted up and things got interesting but I guess I just expected a little more heft or depth.

The AV Club review gets at this:

The story is filled with dozens of huge philosophical, scientific, and social questions, but it ends up short on answers. It lacks a strong plot, and asks, “What does it all mean?” and “What’s going to happen to humanity?” several times over its course, then ends with a promise of sequels. That promise is welcome, but The Long Earth suffers slightly from its own overpacked potential: It promises a satisfying meal, and delivers a tasty appetizer.

It was interesting but after over 11 hours of listening I thought I would be further along or come away with more.  Instead I was left wondering whether it would be worth continuing the series.

The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

I have followed John Scalzi online in various forms for quite some time but I have never actually “read” any of his books (I am not a big reader of science fiction).  My only other interaction with his fiction is The God Engines, an audio-book and longish novella I picked up at Half Price Books.

Interestingly enough, The Dispatcher is also an audio-book (which is available for free on Audible during the month of October).  This novella, however was developed in collaboration with Audible, with Zachary Quinto as the narrator,  and was released before the print book (coming out in 2017).

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone – 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don’t know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.

Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher – a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death’s crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.

It’s a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it’s too late…before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

Once I downloaded it, I put in the rotation right away as it iwas just a couple of hours of listening. It was an entertaining and well done novella. Scalzi/Quinto drop you into the story and keep you interested from the start. It has an interesting hook and some well done twists. For such a short story, the characters were developed and seemed quite believable in their actions and motivations.  Quinto brings this cast of characters to life.

Part urban fantasy, part police procedural, part mystery.  Definitely worth a listen.  And if you hurry you can get it for free!

Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson

Daminificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson is a novel based on “The Tower of David” in the center of Caracas, Venezuela. The half-completed tower was occupied by thousands of homeless people during the 2007 housing crisis in that city. Wilson uses the occupation as inspiration to write about a group of damnificados (vagabonds and misfits) who take over the tower and fight to keep their hold on the tower.

Wilson masterfully tells of the struggle between the poor and the powerful (Torres brothers) with a little bit of magic.  The damnificados by all rights should have been wiped out by the Torres brothers’ armies – including guns and tanks. But with a combination of ingenuity and help from some wolves and the earth opening to swallow the tanks, the damnificados are able to survive two different assaults.

As part of his tapestry, Wilson discusses the history of the “trash wars” where damnificados fought each other to death and how those wars influenced their situation in the tower. Although it is pure fiction and part fantasy, it is an easy read that you do not want to put down.

Wilson includes a cast of characters that the reader can sympathize with – including Nacho, Chinaman, two German twins, and many more. The main character in the story, Nacho, is an unlikely hero – he is extremely intelligent and well-read with serious physical disabilities. Despite those disabilities, he adroitly leads the damnificados through many trials.

The book is worth the read.

Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things
I had The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber on my wish list for quite a while.  Genre defying story with a faith/religious thread? Sign me up.  I actually grabbed a hardback for a couple of bucks at a library sale but hadn’t made time to read it. So I decided to go the audio route and listen to it on my daily commute.

I am somewhat torn as to my reaction. I really enjoyed it for about 75% but then it felt like it was dragging a bit.

But no sooner had I begun to feel that, it cranked up the tension and I stayed up late to finish it.  I finished it in hardback, however, as I didn’t have the patience to wait for my next car trip once I got close to the ending.

In the same way, I am not sure what to make of the book’s approach to faith and Christianity. Most of the book reads like a rather fair and sympathetic perspective on the life of a missionary and perhaps a commentary on modern Western culture.

But the end seems to undercut that or at least call it into question. I am not sure I have the energy to read it again, so I will have to leave my reaction ambiguous.

Instead, I will offer a few quotes from other reviews.

Jason Sheehan at NPR offers this praise:

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

But then this:

Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters.

M John Harrison at the Guardian:

This is a big novel – partly because it has to construct and explain its unhomely setting, partly because it has such a lot of religious, linguistic, philosophical and political freight to deliver – but the reader is pulled through it at some pace by the gothic sense of anxiety that pervades and taints every element.

Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion.

[…]

It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face.

Hannah McGill in the Independent:

Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things, Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not – say – an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof – and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.

[…]

But this novel most potently concerns itself with matters at once more quotidian and more challenging than these. It is as much about the minor failures of communication that can erode marital intimacy as it is about contacting other beings, and as much about the existential terror inherent in putative parenthood as it is about travel to far-off worlds. As the once-inseparable Peter and Beatrice, now worlds apart, struggle to comprehend one another’s day-to-day lives, Faber lets a devastating possibility shuffle to the fore: every relationship is long-distance, and every person a strange new planet. The methods whereby we try to minimise difference, meanwhile, are themselves unstable – language most palpably so.

I guess I am more on the positive (some nearly gushing) reviews spectrum than I am on the negative. But, perhaps because I am not all that knowledgeable about science fiction or speculative fiction, I can’t quite see the profound and literary masterpiece some have found.

But it was different and I very much enjoyed the journey.

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars (View all my reviews)

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

I am sure you are all tired of hearing about my reading funk, my lack of mojo, and whatever other poor clichés and terms I can throw at you.  While in said funk, I tried to break out by reading something a little out of the ordinary.  In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell fits the bill. Although it does have some elements which are in my wheelhouse (archetypes, mythology, etc.)

In the House Upon the DirtIn this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
 
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

My reaction? Hard to pin down.

Mythic, experimental, fabulist, biblical, there is a lot going on here. And of much of the novel I could appreciate it. But by the end I just wanted to find my way out and some closure. 2/3 of the way through and 300 pages seemed twice that. Some great language, descriptions and archetypal structures but didn’t work for me as a whole.

There is my 30 second review.  But in the name of fair representation (and laziness) allow me to offer some quote from other reviewers to give some perspective.

Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe:

Bell isn’t much interested in psychological realism. His characters are primal and terrifying, driven by elemental forces — pride, anger, hunger — that they can’t really understand, let alone control. Eventually, the narrator learns that he is part of a larger, more timeless narrative: “upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, always there were two that appeared, and always the two made a single child.” The bear was once like the wife: a woman who came to this strange land in order to escape her old life. And the squid was once a whale and before that a man, always a “legion of possibility, a thousand shapes all wanting only to be made more.” Bell’s characters, that is to say, live in the world of archetype and myth, where recurrence and transformation predominate.

Michael Schaub at NPR:

It’s hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable. While he’s been compared to authors like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, his style is very much his own, lacking any obvious antecedent. In the House contains passages far scarier than most mainstream horror novels, but Bell writes with a warmth, a humanity that renders the scenes gut-wrenching on an emotional level. Characters in fairy tales are often stand-ins for ideas, props used to illustrate a moral. Bell does a superb job of avoiding this trap, though; he writes about the family with both a clear sense of empathy and an expert novelist’s unblinking eye.

Bell’s novel isn’t just a joy to read, it’s also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years.

Carmen Machado in the LA Review of Books:

As the characters unhinge, the madness of the narrative, combined with the arch Biblical language, becomes dizzying. The most fascinating element of the plot — namely, the deficiencies of gender essentialism, and its human consequences — is buried underneath the noise of magic. The reader will want to follow the rope of the relationship through the novel, and will at times feel utterly abandoned in a world with few, if any, rules. In the end, the problem might be as simple as the text running too long — what is 300 pages could have easily been half that.

 […]

I am supportive of Bell’s career and a fan of much of his work, but I found this particular project to be messy and ultimately unsatisfying. Had I been reading the book for pleasure, I would have begun with great enthusiasm, but likely not made it to the end. That being said,  if the reader is willing to wander in the wilderness for a while, the central ideas that are so compelling early on in the text do return. The madness quiets, and the ending is interesting, though perhaps it is too little, too late.

Adam Langer in the New York Times:

Early readers of this book have compared Mr. Bell’s work to that of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but though the author delves deep into the world of fabulism, he lacks both Calvino’s playfulness and Borges’s economy; he may be striving for fairy-tale wisdom and simplicity, but he does so at a novel’s length. You keep hoping for respite from the relentless claustrophobia of its narrator’s perspective — some flash of humor, some sympathetic character, some original insight. And yet, for the most part, these remain elusive. Mr. Bell does an admirable job of attempting to engender within his readers the same sort of alienation his couple experiences, removing them from well-known surroundings, taking them to a seemingly alien land. But throughout, the territory remains stubbornly familiar; one wonders whether a more conventional and concise treatment of this topic might have been equally if not more effective.

Obviously, I am more in the Machado & Langer then the Domestico & Schaub camp but hopefully these give you a flavor and some perspective.

An interesting experiment and with some worthwhile prose but something that didn’t quite come together for me. I might check out some of Bell’s short story work to see if that is a better fit.

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