Book review: Exhalation

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories continues to demonstrate his ability to take “big idea” science fiction themes like time travel and parallel universes, and relate them at a personal level or present them in ways that are fresh and inventive. Long after reading them I am still lingering over the questions they raise, playing out various “What if?” scenarios in my head.

Two of the nine stories are originals and one, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” is a perfect example of what Chiang does so well. Here, he imagines a near-future where devices called prisms allow people to communicate with others–including themselves–in parallel dimensions. The design of the prisms means each one eventually exhausts itself, forcing any communication to ultimately end. Around this Chiang weaves the stories of several characters caught at crossroads in their lives, hung up on actions or decisions in the past that have kept them from moving forward, and how the prisms help (or hinder) them.

The longest piece is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, a novella which imagines another near-future where “digients”, basically cute-looking AI pets that are capable of learning (and acting) like small children, are made as companions for virtual worlds people can visit.

Over a period of twenty years the main character of Ana Alvarado works to not only keep her digient and others like it alive after the company that created them shuts down, she works with others to get them to evolve past their child-like minds, to learn and become more. Chiang convincingly presents the idea that there is no shortcut available in doing this, that the teaching of the AI is slow and methodical, and has costs on the emotional and mental energy of its teachers. He also manages to create convincing relationships between Ana, her AI robot Jax and others that feels authentic without becoming creepy or weird. The people in the story are flawed, but smart and believable.

The other stories are just as entertaining and thought-provoking. If you enjoy speculative science fiction, this is among the best. Highly recommended.

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Book review: We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is ostensibly a YA science fiction story about a teenage boy who is given the chance to save–or end–the world by the cryptic aliens that abduct him. But it is really about overcoming grief, mental breakdown and the angst of being a teenager.

There is a lot of angst. A lot. A copious amount.

The protagonist is Henry Denton, a young gay man attending high school in the fictional Florida coastal town of Calypso. The story begins just under a year after his boyfriend Jesse committed suicide, leaving no note and no clue as to why he ended his life. Henry is still grappling with the suicide, while also dealing with his loutish older brother and the harassment of others at high school who mock him as “Space Boy” after his brother revealed the alien abductions stories to all.

Henry’s estranged best friend Audrey and the suave but mysterious Diego Vega enter the scene to complicate matters, as does the thuggish Marcus, who alternates between telling Henry he really likes him, and beating him.

Henry also lives in a broken home, his father having abandoned the family years earlier.

Surprisingly, given this backdrop of Everything is Horrible, the fact that Henry is openly gay is treated as not a big deal, and the worst he faces are juvenile taunts from other guys.

There is drama and angst and the beats of the story are predictable–I could almost see the plot structure leap out at me at times–and by the end (minor spoiler) the “Will he press the button to save the world?” plot point is almost forgotten as the real thrust of the story–Henry’s inability to get over Jesse–takes over. This is not a bad thing, but I almost wish the alien part had either been left out altogether or worked in more deeply. It exists in this weird middle space where it just pops in every now and again to remind you it’s there, until it disappears altogether.

This might be author Hutchinson’s way of suggesting that the aliens may have been manufactured in Henry’s mind. I give him credit for leaving me unsure.

I give less credit for the length of the story. For what happens, it felt too long, with too many scenes feeling like repeats, heading toward an inevitable conclusion. And did I mention the angst?

The story is told from the perspective of Henry. Henry mentions Jesse 351 times, which works out to a mention on approximately three out of every four pages of the book. And each mention is accompanied by Jesse wondering if he was responsible for Jesse killing himself and other dark thoughts. Again, Hutchinson has done a good job in capturing the self-loathing, doubting mind of Henry, but there were times I put the book down, wanting to simply get away from the endless angst. It is poured on like so many layers of molasses. But bitter molasses.

In the end, it was almost more a relief to be done with the story. This is not a bad book, by any means, but Henry Denton is the most dour character I have ever come across in some time and while he has an arc, it feels like a significant part of it is squeezed into the very end of the story, making it not feel unearned, exactly, but still unsatisfying.

If you can plow through the angst, there is some nice stuff in here about the value of friendship and love, of being there for someone, of finding the courage to seek help when you need it, but getting to these things at times felt like a chore. This could very much be a me thing, though, so if the general outline of the plot intrigues you, know that Hutchinson writes the characters well, and peppers the story with darkly humorous examples of how the Earth could end, among other things.

Recommended–with reservations.

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Book review: Recursion


Recursion by Blake Crouch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This type of story is catnip to me: high concept present-day science fiction wrapped around a slick, fast-paced action-adventure.

The story asks a simple question: Do our memories determine our reality? What if we could not just revisit memories, but control them, effectively making the past, present and future exist simultaneously? Could our minds cope with multiple timelines occupying them?

This is a story best read without too much knowledge of the specifics before hand, so I’ll simply say I enjoyed watching the main characters of police detective Barry Sutton and neuroscientist Helena Smith interact as they grappled with the very nature of reality. While the nuts and bolts of the depicted science are kind of hand-wavey, it’s perfectly acceptable for the type of story Crouch is telling, which is less about how we might be able to manipulate memory, but whether we should, and what the effects could be.

As with any story that dabbles in time travel, you can pull apart the plot and argue about how things wouldn’t really work this way or that—the characters themselves even have these kinds of conversations—but this is a romp, full of both spectacular disaster and quiet moments that show what it means to be human.

If you like this kind of story, Recursion comes highly recommended.

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Book review: Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer

Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Greg Egan’s Perihelion Summer does a mostly good job of taking a high concept science fiction premise–a black hole comes through our galaxy, possibly imperiling Earth–and marrying it to how it affects a relatively small group of people.

In this case, the people are a team on a custom-built ocean-going aquaculture vessel called the Mandjet. Early on, marine biologist Matt tries to convince his family to come aboard the Mandjet, as initial predictions expect the black hole to cause mega-tsunamis across the globe, wiping out populated coastal areas planet-wide. His family, in Australia, refuses, with his sister insisting they will move inland if the need arises.

Eventually, the trajectory of the black hole is worked out more precisely and in a way, it is even worse, as the black hole will come close enough to pull Earth out of its orbit enough to drastically alter seasons, making them far more extreme, with parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable depending on the time of year.

When this happens, the story shifts gears, becoming more a tale of survival, as the crew of the Mandjet plots a course to Antarctica, now newly habitable compared to the burning hellscape that Australia has become. There is some drama involving Matt trying to rescue his family, and pirates of a sort threatening to disrupt the Mandjet’s journey, along with the flotilla of other ships it is leading south.

Egan does a good job of evoking the horror of a dramatically changed climate, and how people adapt–some better than others. In a way, the short novel is affirming, because most of the people are depicted as willing to help others, to barter and trade for mutual benefit, to take risks for the safety of others, facing adversary with (some) humor and courage.

There are a few aspects that don’t hold up as well, though. I never felt I had a good handle on what type of person Matt is, who comes across as decent and caring, but also nondescript and weirdly flippant. The story also ends on an abrupt, odd note between Matt and his mother. I’m not sure what (if anything) Egan was going for with this, but it left me shrugging.

The overall story, though, is well-constructed, offering a fascinating “What if?” scenario that Roland Emmerich would probably love to turn into a terrible disaster movie. Recommended for anyone into hard science fiction featuring big concepts with some old-fashioned human drama mixed in.

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Book review: Astounding!


Astounding! by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another short, breezy read. The elevator pitch might be “Road trip with my secret alien lover.”

Astounding! tells the story of Carter Evans, the editor of a high quality but money-losing speculative fiction magazine called Astounding! As he prepares the final issue, he drowns his sorrow in booze and meaningless sex with strangers. As opposed to meaningful sex with strangers, I suppose. While more than a little drunk, he writes a personal rejection letter to John Harper, a guy who sends terrible stories to the magazine every month, pleading that they be published. Carter doesn’t intend to send the letter, as it’s quite nasty, but being drunk and all that, off it goes.

He impulsively decides to apologize in person by driving from Seattle to Portland, where he finds John living in a small duplex. John looks like Tab Hunter, and all his furniture and belongings have a similarly vintage style. After the apology is accepted, John invites Carter to spend the night–on the couch–because the drive back to Seattle is long and it’s late. Carter agrees because he finds John super-hot. When they accidentally bump into each other in the narrow hallway as each prepares for bed the inevitable happens, then happens a few more times after that.

The story kicks into high gear when Carter’s friend, Freddie, an author of a Game of Thrones-style bestselling series, convinces Carter to join him and his partner on a RV trip to Yosemite. Carter impulsively gets them to stop in Portland, where they pick up John.

John is very polite and shy and charms everyone and is an alien in disguise. He wanted his stories published to serve as a beacon to his people-electrical beings without bodies–that he was ready to return home after a kind of fact-finding mission.

John and Carter (get it?) fall head over tentacles in love (kidding, there are no tentacles, though they get a mention), and this is complicated by John’s inevitable return home when that last issue of Astounding! hits the newsstands and his alien cohorts arrive to fetch him.

From here there are shenanigans, most of them occurring on the trip in the RV. The heart of the story feels almost like the travelogue of a good friend, recounting activities and meals, doing touristy things, braving the great outdoors where cellphones lose reception, all minus the boring slides (or posts to social media) you are forced to endure.

The arc of the story is predictable, but it’s presented so pleasantly and with such warmth that it feels like snuggling up with whatever favorite thing it is that comforts you. Most of the conflict is of the “breaking hearts” variety, Carter grows as a person, John grows as an alien-inside-a-fake-person and it’s all just kind of sweet.

I did find the ending a bit odd. Without going into spoilers, Carter recalls how he and Freddie define a “pancake part” in a story. It’s a scene that comes after the climax and denouement, being both unnecessary and making the story too long. And the final scene of Astounding! feels exactly like that. Still, it doesn’t detract much from what precedes it.

As expected in a story like this, the science is not exactly rigorous, bending to the needs of the plot, but there is a simple joy in watching a couple fall in love and remain smitten, affected only by external forces that seek to separate them. This is essentially light, romantic fluff with a science fiction twist, so if you’re up for that (with the requisite sex scenes, presented in semi-explicit detail), Astounding! may charm.

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Book review: The Oracle Years

The Oracle YearThe Oracle Year by Charles Soule
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again Goodreads 5-star system fails me, as this is a solid 3.5 star effort for me. But if I have to choose between 3 or 4 stars, I’ll go with 3, because while I enjoyed the ride, there are some flaws in The Oracle Year that bring down the overall experience.

First, I love the premise. An unremarkable bassist in New York named Will Dando has a dream in which 108 predictions over the next year are revealed to him and he uses these predictions to create the persona of The Oracle. He enlists his business and security-savvy friend full-time to create a website that allows people to see a subset of the predictions, along with providing an email address for people to inundate The Oracle with requests for winning lottery numbers and such.

Will Dando’s friend, Hamza, starts orchestrating selling certain predictions by offering 10-minute chunks of time to corporate interests looking to get a leg up on the competition. Soon the pair of friends has amassed literally billions of dollars. But Hamza presses on, saying they need more before they can reach a point where they will be completely secure.

This didn’t strike me as particularly believable, but even if it is, the morality of what Will and Mamza are doing is only treated in a weird, offhand manner. Will is unhappy, but doesn’t stop the pointless accumulation of more money than he could ever use. His friend, Hamza, seems to have no reason to be best friends with an ordinary, struggling musician, but at least has a convincingly obsessive, detail-oriented personality.

This also touches on another issue–Will Dando is not a very interesting person. He is a loner (apart from Hamza and Miko, his wife) and spends most of the story trying to avoid people and relationships. He has no real arc, no growth. He starts out bland and unremarkable, and ends the same, albeit richer and happier. He does create an elaborate system to track and correlate the 108 predictions, to try to see the big picture that binds them all together, but there is nothing to suggest how he has this ability. Most of the novel shows him making bad decisions and treating others poorly, because he can’t keep his inner voice from being an outer one.

The opening of the book also suggests a lighter tone and it bubbles up occasionally, but overall the story is dark, world-ending stuff, and I can’t help but wonder if the cipher-like quality of Will would have been better-served with a more deliberately humorous approach similar to what David Wong uses in John Dies at the End (and related novels).

Also, almost all of the supporting characters are unlikable. The subplot featuring the evangelist Hosiah Branson doesn’t really pay off, except as a late punchline, and could have been cut entirely. The liberal use of fictional countries also undercuts some of the drama, because it starts to feel manufactured for the plot.

And, though this is not something author Charles Soules has any control over, it’s hard to imagine a president acting in a mature manner (the fictional President Green and various staff and associates play key roles as the story unfolds), given the destruction of the office by its present occupant.

On the positive side, I was invested enough to keep going and the effects on the world of predictions destined to come true is played out in interesting, if ultimately bleak, ways. For me, this is an almost irresistible premise, story-wise, a kind of ultimate “What if?” scenario. Overall, then, The Oracle Year is recommended, with some reservations.

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(Don’t) Go Solo

I watched Solo tonight on Netflix so you don’t have to.

Haha, no. It wasn’t that bad. But it really wasn’t very good, either. Here are my thoughts in list form:

  • I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to see this in a theater
  • Aiden Ehrenreich was okay, but really didn’t have much to work with, and didn’t feel at all like the same character Harrison Ford played
  • Not enough Lando
  • Lando’s emotional attachment to L3 (a droid) was kind of weird
  • Never have a character talk about how predictable everyone is in a movie that is predictable
  • Competent special effects but few that had any real “wow” factor
  • The fan service bits weren’t as overbearing as in the prequels, but they were still bad
  • We get it, any band in a Star Wars movie needs to be really weird and alien
  • The movie started out slow, almost dull
  • Han is supposed to be a great pilot, but we are literally never shown this until he is suddenly forced to fly the Falcon
  • The tone was way too dark for a character who is a lovable rogue
  • We don’t need a backstory on the name Solo
  • Bring back the opening title crawl
  • If they still go ahead and make a Boba Fett movie, I will be very cross
  • It ends hinting at a sequel. Ha, fat chance.

Book review: A Bridge of Years

A Bridge of YearsA Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I would actually rate this a strong 3.5 stars if possible.)

Wilson loves to play around with time travel and time paradoxes and A Bridge of Years is one of his earliest efforts, originally published in 1991.

In a few superficial ways it is reminiscent in structure to King’s 11/22/63 (though it’s important to note King’s novel came out 20 years later) in that a young man travels back to the early 60s and then pretty much falls in love with the era (and a woman) and wants to stay there. The specifics of Wilson’s story have a much stronger science fiction flavor than King’s, though Wilson doesn’t go into great detail on how the time travel and other future tech works.

Because it’s time travel there are complications.

I found the protagonist Tom Winter, a 30 year old man coming out of a failed relationship and lost job as rather curious–there is a setup for the inevitable character arc of him finding himself, but that never exactly happens. He learns things about himself, but by the end he has only a vague plan for moving forward (without spoilers–I won’t say where he is at story’s end). In a way it’s anticlimactic, but at the same time I rather liked that it bucked convention, even if it is less viscerally satisfying overall.

The realtor character of Doug “I want to believe in weird shit but have never really seen anything” Archer is entertaining, and serves as a reliable foil to the more conservative Tom.

The purported villain of the piece is another young man named Billy, a soldier thrust from the future into the past and equipped with golden armor that makes him virtually indestructible and fills him with an insatiable appetite to kill. This is easily the most chilling aspect of the story, taking the common concept of fusing a person to machinery not just to augment and enhance their abilities, but to chemically change them to absolutely need to kill. I have no difficulty imagining future governments creating these kinds of soldiers if the technology existed.

Less impressive is how quickly everyone jumps into bed together. I guess causal sex is timeless. :P

Also, unlike King’s million-page behemoth, A Bridge of Years feels a bit too short, leaving the whole 1962 part of the story feeling a bit underdeveloped. We are shown (and told) how Tom comes to want to stay in the past, but it never feels overly convincing. His erstwhile 1962 girlfriend Joyce offers a more nuanced take on the era (obviously having a better feel for living in it), but even she never gets more than sketches.

Still, the sketches are effective and while the ride is short, I did enjoy it. Wilson doesn’t bog down the story with a lot of explanations about how the time travel works, and this is for the best. He lays down a few rules early on, then uses them to buttress the rest of the story.

If you like a good time travel yarn and don’t want to get bogged down in an epic-length adventure, A Bridge of Years is a solid entry in the crowded field of time travel novels.

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Book review: Against the Fall of Night

Against the Fall of NightAgainst the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Early Clarke novels are like comfort food to me. They check off a lot of boxes:

– big, galaxy-spanning ideas set over vast gulfs of time
– smart, confident characters driving the plot forward instead of being manipulated by it
– short!

I don’t mind long novels, but I mind when most novels are long, which is a lot more prevalent now than it was some decades ago when I first started reading by the light filtering into my family’s cave. Early Clarke novels are wonderfully compact and Against the Fall of Night is a fittingly slim volume. Its scenes move quickly, the dialogue is snappy and to the point, there is no interminable world-building that goes on for pages or chapters. Clark sketches out his world in handfuls of sentences, letting the reader fill in the details.

In this novel a young boy living in the last city on Earth millions of years in the future, starts to get a little too curious about what really happened to the planet and begins a quest that will change civilization forever. He also meets another boy who has a giant tame bug as a pet.

Along the way, there are mysteries to be unraveled, authorities to be thwarted, robots to be commanded and technology to be marveled over, but never understood, thanks to the knowledge being lost millennia ago.

As the novel was originally published in 1953, some of the science is a bit wacky, notably a super computer that can take decades to produce an answer–then after printing it out for you, it immediately erases the information as it doesn’t have enough memory to hold everything. While Clarke envisioned a lot, he did not foresee Google.

Today this book might be considered a Young Adult novel, given its youthful protagonist, and it is very much an accessible read. I ate it up like a bag of popcorn, enjoying the sweep of its ideas and the smaller human dramas that played out in the foreground. Recommended for anyone who enjoys early science fiction and is looking for a lighter exploration of big ideas concerning the possible future of humans.

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Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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Book review: Acceptance

Acceptance (Southern Reach, #3)Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Southern Reach trilogy concludes with Acceptance, and it’s not a spoiler to say the title tips the author’s hand a bit.

As with the second book, Acceptance bounces between multiple characters, but here VanderMeer dives fully in, not just shifting perspective, but also switching between first, second and third person, as well as jumping between the onset of Area X 30 years earlier, the present day, and points in-between. Combining all this with the general enigma of Area X could lead to confusion, but VanderMeer keeps things focused. More than that, he begins stitching together different threads, by introducing and following characters hinted at or only briefly mentioned in the earlier books, such as Saul, the lighthouse keeper.

Again, it is difficult to say much without getting into huge spoilers, but what I enjoyed the most about the concluding book was the escalation of events and the contrast with the very ordinary and human characters swept up in Area X in its early days. There is a sense of unease running throughout this part of the story and VanderMeer works that unease well as unlikely alliances are forged in the face of increasing weirdness and the sense among some of the characters that humans can do little to stop the spread of Area X and its effects.

While the trilogy does come to an end of sorts, it also wouldn’t surprise me if VanderMeer returned to Area X at some point. He has created a deep and deeply weird place, and it’s one I would enjoy visiting again. After putting on my safety mask first, of course.

If you enjoy science fiction mysteries crossed with a bit of horror, you’ll likely enjoy the Southern Reach trilogy, but be warned–you will not have all the answers by the end. This is most definitely not a “pull back to reveal the man behind the curtain” type of story.


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Book review: Authority

Authority (Southern Reach, #2)Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy changes gears, switching from the first person perspective of the biologist to third person and switching between several characters, though focusing primarily on John “Control” Rodriguez, the newly-appointed erstwhile director of the Southern Reach. While Annihilation explores deep within Area X itself, Authority focuses on the organization investigating the area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the Southern Reach is as weird and off-kilter as Area X itself, the product of 30 years of mostly fruitless efforts to reveal its mysteries, along with the after-effects of excursions both official and unauthorized.

VanderMeer peels back the layers here, and where Annihilation is steeped in mystery and things out of reach, here things are a lot more pointed, right down to nearly every character having an ironic name. Control is rarely seen to be in any kind of control. The assistant director, Grace, is cold and ruthless. Severance, Control’s mother, is…well, you get the idea.

The strength of this book, for me, comes in two parts. One is the interaction between Control and the biologist (referred to here as Ghost Bird, a name originally applied to her by her late husband) as he tries to wrestle information from her and comes to sympathize with her instead, the other being the increasingly frustrating attempts to understand or, well, control, what is happening in Area X, coupled with the feeling that it could get a lot worse without any notice.

The book ends on another cliffhanger, with the fate of the biologist and Control seemingly intertwined.

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