Book review: Astounding!

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

(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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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).

View all my reviews

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.

Recommended.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Book review: Annihilation

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While each book of the Southern Reach trilogy has its own feel, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the first book and not pushing through all three to see how it ends (assuming they liked the first book). That said, while I view this as essentially one story split across three books, there’s enough unique in the approach of each to warrant separate reviews.

First, I’m a sucker for concepts like this. It’s simple and grabbed me immediately: Something weird has happened to a stretch of “forgotten coast” that the government is describing as an ecological disaster, but is far weirder than that. An organization called the Southern Reach sets up shop just outside the border of “Area X” to investigate. The first novel picks up about 30 years after the appearance of Area X, with the research team at the Southern Reach sending endless expeditions into the zone, but coming away with nothing to show but riddles, and for many of the expedition members, death.

Annihilation is told from the perspective of a biologist, part of an all-women team sent in as the “twelfth” expedition. None of the members of the team address each other by name, only by profession–the biologist, the surveyor, the psychologist. This detachment is meant to keep the group focused (and more easily malleable by the Southern Reach). The biologist serves as an interesting narrator, combining a cool, aloof attitude with passion for her work and fascination with the things she finds in Area X.

The story, told in the form of a journal kept by the biologist, details how things quickly go sideways for the team. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory and since all three books trade heavily on the mystery and enigma of Area X, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

Suffice to say that by the end of Annihilation, the biologist has seen and gone through a lot. She urges everyone reading the journal to make no attempt to follow her into Area X. The cliffhanger ending all but has TO BE CONTINUED… on the last page.

And it worked. I was intrigued by the mysteries presented and keen to learn more in Book 2. VanderMeer writes with what is at times an almost lyrical style, which complements the strangeness of the setting the story takes place in. There’s also the open question of whether the biologist is a reliable narrator, but no hand is revealed in Annihilation.

Here I can say I would recommend the trilogy to those who love mysteries, especially ones involving fantastic or weird places. For those who love mysteries and even more love to see them neatly solved by story’s end…maybe not so much.

View all my reviews

Book review: And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope

And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope (Dark Collections Book 2)And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope by Ann Christy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Christy’s second collection of six stories covers an eclectic mix of time travel, super powers, far-future doom and alternate history. Some spoilers ahead, so be warned.

“Sedge” puts together a young man and woman on a newly-settled world, each of them not quite fitting their own culture. There is an abrupt tonal shift due to a rather significant event happening right at the end, and I felt it was glossed over a little too readily, but it’s still charming to watch these two flirt on this new world before that happens.

“The Mirroring” is a weird story about a new counselor investigating some very strange self-worth issues some students at a private college are experiencing. A strong (and agreeable) Twilight Zone vibe here.

“Life/Time in the New World.” Alpha male business guy gets frozen for 300 years, pops out of his capsule and continues being an alpha male business guy in the future, which is part paradise, part sneaky Twilight Zone hell. All the pieces are here, but the story felt a bit perfunctory at times, and the character’s growth as an individual almost seems deliberately undercut by the ending.

“Unnatural” imagines an alternate history where Pope John Paul I doesn’t die after only 33 days and basically announces that births as a result of in vitro fertilization are A-OK, resulting in a future where natural birth is…illegal? Again, all the pieces here are put together well, but the basic premise, while a fun “What if?” exercise, doesn’t seem that plausible. Maybe this is just a reflection of the world we live in now.

“Yankari” tells the story of Olisa, an eight year girl in Africa who has some very potent abilities that she struggles to control and use to protect wildlife from poachers. I felt the ending broadened out the story in a way that was unnecessary, but this is still a tight, enjoyable tale of a little girl learning to harness some amazing abilities to do the right thing.

“Lulu Ad Infinitum” is an SF piece about a colony ship that suffers a catastrophic failure, forcing its lone survivor, the titular Lulu, to survive by cloning, then learning to live with, herself. Despite the grim backdrop, the tone remains surprisingly light as Lulu grapples with a possibly untrustworthy AI, the process of raising her clones and more. Christy does an excellent job here with the setting, fleshing it out in satisfying detail.

Overall, even the lesser stories were eminently readable and I enjoyed all six, just some more than others. An easy recommendation if you’re looking for a blast of SF/fantasy variety with a (mostly) hopeful theme.

View all my reviews

Book review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can a story about a murderbot be funny, charming and even a tiny bit touching? Yes, it can.

In the short novel All Systems Red Martha Wells presents a story told from the point of view of a SecUnit–an android designed to protect humans who, in this case, are mapping out an unknown planet on behalf of their corporate masters. Events take a turn for the deadly when a neighboring habitat’s humans are found dead, victims of an unknown assault.

Despite the grim setting, Wells presents the partly-organic and sex organ-free (“If a construct has those it’s a sexbot”) android as a delightfully fretful being that really wants to protect its humans, even if it is kind of afraid of interacting with them (it prefers opaquing its helmet to avoid making eye contact).

The story, such as it is, is really just a stage for the murderbot to act on, and while it gets the opportunity to use its arm-mounted cannons, it spends most of its time consuming serials and other media it’s downloaded, and pondering what–or who–it is and what it wants to be.

It’s not as profound as it sounds. But it is consistently amusing, thanks to SecUnit’s droll telling of the tale.

My only real criticism is minor–the story ends a bit abruptly, setting up the next chapter of The Murderbot Diaries. Otherwise, very much recommended.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Fold

The FoldThe Fold by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d probably average the rating of The Fold to 3.5 stars if I could. Overall it tracks closer to 4, but parts of it bring it down a bit.

This is another “opening a portal to other dimensions maybe isn’t a good idea” story and I’m a sucker for them. The Fold is a quick, snarky romp filled with grouchy scientists, weird cockroaches and quantum donuts.

Anyone looking for a lot of hard science to chew on may be disappointed. The science, such as it is, is deliberately vague, even goofy. The main character is a high school teacher, not a scientist, albeit one with a genius-level IQ and eidetic memory (like photographic memory, but covering all senses, not just sight). Mike Erikson catalogues everything he experiences through metaphorical red and black ants that carry information back and forth, allowing him to essentially treat his mind as a computer with near limitless storage. This comes in incredibly handy as the story unfolds (no pun intended), though Erikson points out the downside to one of the scientists, namely that every horrible thing he witnesses also stays with him as vividly as if just happened.

Erikson is hired by a government friend to check out a secretive government-funded project working on a way to fold space and allow for instant travel over vast distances. Located outside San Diego, the small team of DARPA scientists working on what they call The Albuquerque Door treat Erikson as an interloper, though he assures them he is an impartial observer who would like to see them succeed. They assure him that The Door is very safe.

But things go wrong. Then they go very horribly wrong. Part of the fun in the second half of the novel comes from watching the team grapple with events spiraling out of their control and seeing how they react and adjust (or at least valiantly try to). Without getting into blatant spoilers, the story eventually heads off in a direction that feels more like fantasy, with the science feeling more like magic. It’s a little weird.

The banter between the characters is snappy and the pace never flags. There are no real subplots or distractions from the main event, so it’s an easy read to plow through.

Oddly, perhaps more than any book I’ve read in years, I kept imagining specific actors as the characters. The head of the project, a man named Arthur, brought to mind Morgan Freeman so vividly that I would confidently place a bet on Freeman playing the role in a movie adaptation. Or at least the casting director trying to nab him for the part.

Likewise, the engineer Sasha I saw as Sarah Douglas circa Superman II (1981). I’m not even sure why. The weirdest was probably the inevitable (and, IMO, unnecessary) romantic interest of Jamie, who made me think of Pam from the TV series Archer. Yes, she reminded me of a cartoon character.

The Fold is far from perfect, but the whole thing rolls along so smoothly it’s hard to get upset by what amounts to quibbles. As with most alternate dimension stories, it’s never too wise to spend a lot of time examining the plot, lest you find holes you could squeeze a mirror Earth through.

If you like these kinds of stories and you’re not fussed with the science being a bit flimsy, you’ll find The Fold well worth the ride.

View all my reviews