Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

Southern Reach #3: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 15 April, 2018

I have several friends who read Annihilation in anticipation of the movie, but lacked the stamina and fortitude to continue the series. After they found out that I was reading the second, I became the Designated Reader – in charge of finishing the series, and reporting back with a condensed summary.

All well and good, but the second was such a slog that I wasn’t particularly eager to start to the third. But with an impending move, I wanted to pack up my copy – something I couldn’t do until it had been read, lest I commit myself to not reading it until who knows when.

I liked it much better than AuthorityAuthority, I think, suffered from middle book in a trilogy syndrome – the first book’s job is to set the scene, the third book’s job is to deliver a climax, but the second book is just about moving all the pieces into position. It’s hard to make that interesting. This was made worse by the fact that Authority was so much longer than Annihilation, and chose to focus on a character who just isn’t all that interesting.

This issue is fixed in Acceptance by splitting up the narrative. Now, page time is shared between Control, Ghost Bird, the former director/Psychologist, and the lighthouse keeper. Control still isn’t interesting, but his chapters are spread out, and he’s always in the presence of Ghost Bird, who is a far more interesting character. Good choices, all around.

I really enjoyed the lighthouse keeper’s story. Flashbacks (if that’s what there were – I suspect Area X is meant to have some kind of time looping) aren’t usually a good way to resolve plot mysteries, especially when the device isn’t introduced until the third book, but I just really enjoyed the character of Saul Evans. I would have liked to see a lot more of him, actually. In fact, I think it would have worked well to give him the second book, and have it all be a flashback to S&SB and the beginnings of Area X, and then combine Control’s adventures in the Southern Reach and his journey into Area X with Ghost Bird to make up the third book. Maybe. Or just write Control out entirely and keep only characters who are introduced in Annihilation.

In between Authority and Acceptance, I saw the movie. Other than being about a biologist on a team sent into Area X, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book(s). The hypnotism is almost entirely absent (which makes the Psychologist’s scream of “annihilation” at the end entirely meaningless), and they did the same adaptation change that Stalker did – taking a story that doesn’t actually have a whole lot of action in it and adding in KILLER CROCS and KILLER BEARS and KILLER DOPPLEGANGERS.

But I was surprised by how much of Acceptance they had actually stuck in there. Not a whole lot, since the stories had diverged rather significantly by that point, but more than I was expecting. Particularly as it relates to the Psychologist.

My overview of the whole series would be that it relies a bit too much on the mystery, which wears a little thing in patches. But the narrative tone matches the themes of the story perfectly – the writing is slow, plodding, sometimes a little repetitive. It’s almost hypnotic. The mystery does sustain the first book, but really suffers in the second. The third book reveals just enough answers to feel satisfying, but not so many as to feel cheap. There’s still plenty of room for interpretation.

Some characters, like the Biologist, the lighthouse keeper, the Psychologist, and Lowrie, are very strong and interesting. But I found some, like Control and his whole family, to be utterly tedious. Jackie Severance kept popping up, and I think I was meant to perceive her as a looming menace, but she lacked presence. I never really felt like I got a sense of her as a distinct entity – she always seemed to just be there when the author needed an extra character.

I appreciated some of the looping (Whitby’s mouse, the room with all the journals in the lighthouse, the photograph of the lighthouse keeper), but I would have liked more of that. It seemed, at times, that story elements were only added when writing the second or third book, rather than intended from the beginning. Realising that it’s a gamble to do so, I wish that more of Annihilation‘s mysteries directly related to the events and answers we got later on.

I can’t think of anyone I would recommend these books to, but if you’ve read Annihilation and enjoyed the writing and tone, it’s worth continuing.

Continue reading

Southern Reach #2: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 17 March, 2018

Now out of Area X, the mysterious focus is shifted to the Southern Reach organisation. But while Area X was surreal and freaky, many of the issues at Southern Reach are human – such as inconsistent funding, personal loyalties and resentments, and the backroom politicking of faraway superiors. And while I’ve enjoyed books like that, it just didn’t fit the Lovecraftian tone set by Annihilation.

The other issue I had with the book is that it’s just so looong. Throughout almost the entire thing, the main character just circles the same set of questions without finding answers (or, even, more questions). So while the writing style is good, and the atmosphere is creepy, and characters are interesting, there simply isn’t enough there to sustain interest for that long. Annihilation worked, in part, because it was short. I feel like longer works, if they’re going to keep audiences engaged, need to either provide the occasional dog bone of an answers, or at the very least swap out old questions for fresh ones every so often.

And that, I think, is what my complaint boils down to. I think this would have been a much stronger entry for the series at 3/4 (or even half) the length.

Continue reading

Southern Reach #1: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Read: 5 March, 2018

My spouse started reading this before I did. When he was about halfway through, I asked him how it was going. He replied: “I feel like there’s this guy, right? And he’s got a shovel and this big pile of mystery, and he’s just shovelling the mystery onto me and trying to bury me alive.”

Having now read the book for myself, I have to say that’s fairly accurate.

This book is what you get if Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft had a baby together. A mysterious baby.

There’s the Zone (here called ‘Area X’), that all appears mundane enough except for this feeling of unease and an absence of people. And then there are people – people known only by their function – who are exploring the Zone. So that’s the Stalker part. Then there’s the hidden creatures of unspeakable horror that cannot be described, plus the increasing inability to sort reality from hallucination/hypnotic suggestion/insanity/dream, and that’s the Lovecraft part.

The writing style is emotionally distant and clinical, which fits with the narrator’s character. Still, it’s very compelling. While there isn’t much action, the feeling of unease and suspense is well-maintained, and the book is short enough not to overstay its welcome.

I’m not sure how this story will work drawn out into a trilogy, and I’m even less sure that the mysteries can be solved in a satisfying way (as my spouse put it: “I’m worried this is going to be like Lost all over again”), so I’m a little wary of continuing on. But I did enjoy this one. And I also enjoyed that things decidedly are not wrapped up by the end, which has given the spouse and I plenty to talk about as we spin our own theories for what is really going on.

Continue reading

Vorkosigan Saga #12: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I was very clever and read the “Borders of Infinity” novella before coming back to this book. While the book Borders of Infinity comes next in the chronological order, the novella (which can be found in the book) comes just before Brothers in Arms. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to read them in that order, much of Brothers in Arms is dealing with the aftermath of the story in “Borders of Infinity”, so I do think it’s best to read them in order. What I did was read all the novellas in Borders of Infinity, then come back and read Brothers in Arms, then read the framing device in Borders of Infinity.

It’s probably no surprise that I really loved this one. So far, the Vorkosigan has been a whole lot more hit than miss. I love the dissection of identity and personhood, and I love the exploration of how wartime actions and choices can keep coming back to haunt whole lineages.

We haven’t heard much about Earth so far in the series, so it was interesting to see how Bujold sees the future right here at home.

Continue reading

Vorkosigan Saga #13: Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I recommend reading the third novella, “Borders of Infinity”, before reading Brothers in Arms, as the events in the novella come up quite a bit in that book.

There isn’t too much to the framing device – Miles is back on Barrayar, getting interviewed by security chief Simon Illyan about some recent missions (and the expenses they accrued). As far as I can recall, there’s nothing that gives away key plot points of Brothers in Arms (spoiler: Miles survives), so this book could be read first, even though it comes next chronologically.

It was nice to see Cordelia again, however briefly. Since Barrayar, she’s often been a presence, though usually only off-screen. That said, I can understand Bujold’s choice. Both Cordelia and Aral are rather larger-than-life characters in Miles’s mind, so it makes sense to keep them hidden from the reader to preserve Miles’s perspective.

The Mountains of Mourning

I reviewed this in more detail in Dreaweaver’s Dilemma. It’s still a heart-wrenching novella, in addition to being a really good exploration of Miles in his home environment. It does a lot to show us the tension between the old ways and the new world that Aral (and, to a lesser extent, Miles) is trying to create.

Labyrinth

Despite the questionable romance between a 20-some year old and a sheltered sixteen year old (somewhat mitigated along other power axes), I really dug this story. I loved the exploration of humanity that Bujold did so well in Ethan of Athos, and the way it kept coming up to hammer at Miles, smoothing out his prejudices. I enjoyed seeing more of Bel Thorne, particularly the exploration of its gender fluidity. It reminded me of the romance in LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, where a gender fluid individual shifts presentation to accommodate the preferences of a heterosexual.

I also liked the theme of accessibility. It’s always around when Miles is present, of course, due to his brittle bones, but here we also see someone who requires a mobility aid. It’s just not something that many authors think to include in their stories – even in science fiction, where technology could remove so many barriers to public participation for people with disabilities or physical differences.

Mostly, though, I loved getting to see a quaddie again. I’ve been dying to find out how they’ve been getting on ever since Falling Free, and here we see one – two hundred years later, a product of an ongoing colony. I wish we could have spent more time with her, but it was lovely to get that much.

The Borders of Infinity

I just didn’t click with this one so much. Some of it is just the setting, which I don’t think would have ever worked for me. I didn’t like it in Riddick, I don’t like it here. But, also, because there’s a sort-of-twist ending, Bujold chose to hide a lot of Miles’s thinking from the reader. The joy of reading the Vorkosigan stories is in getting to see all the strategies and counter strategies that Miles comes up with – and if we don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, it just isn’t nearly as fun.

This wasn’t a bad story, by any means, but I do think it’s the weakest of the Vorkosigan stories that I’ve read so far.

Continue reading

Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Read: 18 February, 2018

After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.

Vorkosigan Saga #9: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 22 January, 2018

Like Falling Free, this book is set within the Vorkosigan universe, but isn’t about either Miles or his mother, Cordelia.

I really enjoyed this one. Feminist science fiction tends break with genre conventions in interesting ways, but Ethan of Athos managed even to break with those breaks – first by centring the story on a man, then by using one patriarchal society as the backdrop for exploring an entirely different patriarchy. And, while there are only two important female characters in the book (a minority by a fairly wide margin), and while those women break rather significantly from what North American culture would see as “women’s” roles, the book manages to have a lot to say about how women (and women’s labour) get valued.

One of the most ding-ding moments in the book is when Ethan is talking about the tremendous labour cost of raising an army, and is surprised to find out that – in the outside universe – all that labour is simply unaccounted for. It belongs primarily to women, and is therefore not “productive” labour. On his own world, where there are no women and therefore where parenting is handled exclusively by men, that labour is recognised as such. This fit in beautifully with what feminist economists like Nancy Folbre argue.

I loved Bujold’s vision of human adaptability. While North American culture still disproportionately offloads the labour of parenting onto women, and while so many will straight-facedly argue that it is simply a matter of biology, Bujold presents us with an all-male society where men – absent any other choices – simply step up and become parents. Some, like the main character, Ethan, go well beyond that to be downright nurturing. From the very beginning, Ethan is preoccupied with babies. His whole career is devoted to their creation, his long term goal throughout the novel is to have children of his own, and it is the threat to babies that incites his actions again and again.

The same is the case for Bujold’s concept of sexuality. Absent choices, many people will content themselves with homosexuality regardless of what they would choose if choices were available – as we see in gender-segregated environments like prisons and the military. History has many examples of societies with different conceptions of sexuality – Ancient Greece being the most well-known example. And, of course, Bujold allows for those individuals whose sexuality is less flexible, which on Athos would mean the celibate orders. It’s a vision of sexual fluidity that doesn’t get mentioned much in a culture where homosexuality is always on the defensive.

I’ve been hoping for a glimpse of the Quaddies ever since Falling Free. Now, I guess I’ll be hoping to see what the future holds for Athos.

Continue reading

10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read

A little while ago, EpicStream published its list of 10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read. It’s in a listicle format, so I’ll reproduce it here:

#10: Dune by Frank Herbert
#9: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
#8: Contact by Carl Sagan
#7: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clark
#6: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
#5: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
#4: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
#3: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
#2: 1984 by George Orwell
#1: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This list has the benefit of being entirely composed of books I’ve read, but notice anything strange about it?

Yeah…

Aside from the obvious problem that 1984 barely qualifies as science fiction, this list doesn’t even include Ursula LeGuin or Octavia Butler – who are the usual go-to “diversity” entries for lists written by people who don’t read diversely.

So I thought I’d come up with an alternate list. So here are my 10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read, in no particular order:

  • A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
  • A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
  • Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

With honourable mentions:

  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

These days, there simply is no excuse to come up with such a ridiculously narrow list. Novels from people of all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives are more accessible than ever, and a great many of them are good. We don’t need to be reading the same stuffy handful with the okay writing style and the few thought-provoking ideas, because we are living in a buyer’s market. We can demand excellence, we can demand creativity, and we can demand different.

And little makes me quite so angry as a list, written in this scifi golden age, that trots out the same old slogs all over again. Particularly when the newest blood it sees fit to include is Ready Player One, of all books!

Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Phasma by Kelly Thompson, illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Read: 4 January, 2018

I don’t have a great track record with tie-in comics. I didn’t much like the Mass Effect one I read, and I really didn’t like the last Star Wars one. But this one was on sale for almost the exact amount I needed to get free shipping on an order, so I went for it…

And I actually liked it!

Like with most graphic novels, I was a little disappointed by how fast everything flew by. I wanted a little more time with the characters, more inner dialogue to help me get to know them better, but I think that’s just because novels are my home medium.

And yet, with the space Thompson had, she did a fantastic job of giving me a better sense of Phasma as a character. Phasma, who has been notoriously short-changed in the movies, deserves her own story, and this is a good start. Even better, there are scattered hints of more that have me excited to read the Phasma novel by Delilah Dawson and find out more.*

*Although the artistic choices in what appear to be a flashback have me a bit confused. The figures we see are all dark haired. And while we never see Phasma herself without her mask, the actor Gwendoline Christie is fair haired.

The story itself was a good one, and I loved that Phasma was amoral, rather than evil. She’s here to survive, and survive she will – no matter what. There was nuance there that we don’t often get to see in “dark protagonists” of any gender, but especially women.