Posts tagged science fiction
Posts tagged science fiction
Fool’s Run by Patricia McKillip
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: * (1 Star)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)
Age Recommendation: 17+
Review by Rosie
This is the first book of Patricia A. McKillip’s that I didn’t like that much. I still liked the style and the characters, but the plot was minimal even for her, and she lost a lot of the things she’s usually best at. She normally flows several different characters and storylines together in this fabulous tapestry of fairy-tale wonder, but this one fell a little flat. I never quite got my feet under me. I liked the obvious sci-fi bits - the spaceship and the prison - but I just couldn’t get through to the characters and their motivations. I would recommend any of her other books, but leave this one until you already love her and can handle one bad grape in the bunch.
And now that I have said that I will say this: you will never again hear me be anything less than violently enthusiastic about anything Patricia McKillip writes. That one paragraph pained me more than most things I’ve ever written.
Embassytown by China Miéville
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 Stars)
Plot: **** (4 Stars)
Writing: ***** (5 Stars)
Overall: ***** (5 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 17+ unless you’re really into difficult books
Review by Rosie
I have a very hard time telling anyone what Embassytown is about. I have an even harder time telling people why I loved it so much. I usually fall back on the over simplified, “it’s a book about aliens and language.” This is true, but inadequate. Embassytown is one of those rare books that crosses genres from science fiction to urban fantasy to a somewhat philosophical discussion on what language is and is capable of.
The sci-fi part of Embassytown is easy to quantify. Avice Benner Cho, the main protagonist in the story, was born in Embassytown, on a planet at the edge of known space. The planet is inhabited by the Hosts, an enigmatic alien species who coexist peacefully with the human colonists. Avice is one of the few humans capable of remaining awake during faster-than-light travel, and works on spaceships traveling between planets. She returns to her home planet with her new husband, who is fascinated by her stories of the Hosts and wants to study their language.
At this point the book spends a lot of time worldbuilding. We learn about the Hosts, the Ambassadors, and Language. The Hosts speak with two mouths at the same time, which makes it impossible for humans to speak Language. For communication purposes, the humans created the Ambassadors, genetically modified double-bodied humans who share enough of a mind to speak at exactly the same time with the exact same intent. These are the only people who appear sentient to the Hosts.
The best thing about Embassytown is the extremity of the aliens. They are weird. They are really, really strange, and very well-developed. I don’t think I have ever read a book with aliens that are quite so… alien. They just aren’t like humans, in any way. They are so different that we cannot even speak to them.
For them language isn’t just words, it requires a conscious thought behind it. It needs intent in order to have meaning. It is therefore impossible for a Host to think or speak an untruth. In order to have any kind of philosophical discussion, the Hosts must create a new simile, metaphor, or other part of speech. They sometimes recruit humans to become a part of speech. When she was young, Avice became a simile. Since then she has become an indispensable part of speech for the Hosts.
The worldbuilding continues for quite a while, but don’t be discouraged by the slow start. The plot part of the book happens when a new Ambassador, EzRa arrives on the planet. He is something of an experiment, because he started out as two separate people who were artificially joined together to create the mind-meld necessary for speaking Language. Ambassadors are usually created as one single person with two bodies, physically identical in every way, but sharing a mind.
With the arrival of EzRa, everything falls apart. Something about his half-fractured voice is irresistibly addictive to the Hosts. It acts like heroin for them, leaving them nonfunctional when they go into withdrawal. From this point on Embassytown becomes almost too fast-paced to follow. Avice embarks somewhat reluctantly on a quest to save her world from widespread addiction. Unfortunately for everyone, most of the infrastructure (houses, roads, vehicles) is biorigged, half-alive, and addicted. Walls start bleeding, vehicles crash unexpectedly, food production drops off as farmers and farms alike fall prey to the intoxicating sound of EzRa’s voice. It is an apocalypse on a frighteningly huge scale.
Embassytown is the best kind of science fiction. It makes you think. It is an intellectual book, with a fabulous world, a brilliant premise, and near-perfect execution. It’s the kind of book that defies description. You have to read it to understand it. I recommend it to people who love sci-fi, love language, and love stretching their minds to the limit. It’s a difficult book. It doesn’t go where you expect it to. It doesn’t go there in an easy way. I flatter myself that I have read a lot of sci-fi and can predict it pretty well, but I was completely thrown off track by China Mieville’s brilliant writing. Read this book. You won’t regret it.
The God Engines, by John Scalzi
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: ***** (5 Stars)
Writing: **** (4 Stars)
Overall: **** (4 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 14+
Review by Rosie
Dear readers, you may recall that I am a fan of science fiction. You may also have noticed that as yet, we have not reviewed any science fiction. With this review I shall break that trend and dive headfirst into The God Engines, a book about faith, betrayal, and spaceships.
The God Engines is a very small book. It’s really a novella, I suppose, or a long short story. John Scalzi has a very accessible writing style, but doesn’t dumb down his writing at all. Many sci-fi writers fall into the trap of ‘too much exposition,’ where they feel that their machines, or robots, or weird alien species. This frustrates me, because one of the things I love about sci-fi is that I don’t understand everything. I don’t understand the aliens because they’re aliens. That’s the whole point. Scalzi, on the other hand, uses the ‘show don’t tell’ method of writing, which works remarkably well. In the first few pages of this book he shows the reader a snapshot of almost everything important to understanding his world, and he does it without any real fuss.
The title is actually quite literal, and refers to the fact that in Scalzi’s far future universe, spaceships are powered and maintained by captive gods, who are forced to work for the human devotees of whatever god vanquished them. The gods seem to be a cross between an alien species and a god in the traditional sense. They are sustained by the faith of their human followers, which gives them godlike powers. They do appear to have some jurisdiction over the souls of their followers, but they also have a physical - and mortal - body. It is entirely possible to kill a god, and, in fact, nearly everyone knows how to do it. They get tired and need rest, they have likes and dislikes, and they have - (this sentence has ended abruptly to prevent spoilers.)
Scalzi deals with the idea of faith in a very interesting way. Gods require faith in order to become powerful, but there are different degrees of faith. Gods compete to convert each others’ followers, and constantly seek new believers. Their struggle for dominance often includes the mass slaughter of humans, because killing a god’s followers decreases its strength and makes it easier to capture. It’s almost a physical thing, like food, or electricity. It’s what powers the spaceships. If too many people on the spaceship lose faith in their god, then the captive god they have been exploiting can escape its restraints and kill everyone.
I’ve seen The God Engines described as dark fantasy, but I definitely put it in the sci-fi genre. It just happens to have some fantastic elements. It is unquestionably very dark though. There are a few really gruesome scenes, and Scalzi does not hesitate to describe every detail. I’m not especially squeamish, but if this were a movie I would probably have my eyes closed about a third of the time.
There’s an element of Stephen King-esque horror to it that made me not love it right off the bat, but while that element remains in the story, it doesn’t detract from the book. I ended up thinking it was one of the best dark sci-fi books I’d ever read. Scalzi is really good at twists, and this book contains a really excellent one. I won’t give it away, but I will say this: even if you don’t like it at first, don’t give up. Things are not always as they appear. I would also add a word of caution for people who love sci-fi and have never read John Scalzi: this is not representative of his work. The God Engines is very different from everything else he’s written.
Incidentally, he also has a blog, which is very well-written and fun. You can find it here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/.
Young Wizards series by Diane Duane
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ***** (5 stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 11+ (If you’re a precocious reader, start earlier.)
This is going to be a difficult series for me to review, and I’ll tell you why. If I had my way, most of my review would look like this: LASJHGLIUWGHMNO99Q;AURPTGABTAUE’RTYHVAOIUGVHEIRWNVGIUBTHNNUIV’G;EOAIUHAG’RIGBKNHVMGIKFKDOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGREADITALLTHETIMEREADITREADITREADIT!!!!!!!!!1!!!!!!!11!!!!!ONE!!!ONE!!!! For the sake of your eyes and my keyboard however, I will do my best to be coherent.
I don’t actually remember when I first picked up a Diane Duane book. I remember which one it was though, (the fourth) and where it was (the library). Sometimes that happens. I remember exactly how and where I read the first Harry Potter book, too.
Duane’s main characters, Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, each find a mysterious book that tells them the risks and benefits associated with being a wizard. Each accepts, and they soon become friends, allies, and partners in magic. Duane’s approach to magic is immediately appealing. The wizards’ manuals explain to Nita and Kit that at the beginning of creation, the Lone Power (roughly analogous to Lucifer) brought entropy and death into the world. A wizard’s job is nothing more nor less than slowing down the process of entropy in the Universe. Each new wizard must undergo an Ordeal, after which he or she is considered a full practitioner of the Art. The Ordeal often involves a direct confrontation with the Lone One Itself.
The magic in Duane’s world is often difficult, nearly always rewarding, and frequently funny. It can seem nonsensical on occasion, and can lead to very unexpected results. The most compelling thing about it however, is that it feels real. Nita and Kit cannot simply wave a hand and get results. Each piece of magic they do has a price attached. Usually the price is simply that they feel winded or tired after completing a spell, but occasionally it is much higher. They must also learn to speak the wizardly Speech, the language all of creation understands. The studying is considerable, and it is completely self-motivated. At any minute any wizard might find him- or herself placed on assignment, meaning that somewhere in the Universe there is a problem to which they are the answer.
Duane’s wizardry is based on the Oath, which binds each wizard to the service of Life. At first glance this seems sweet, but relatively unimportant. Duane does not leave it alone though. She follows this premise to its logical conclusion, creating - not exactly a religion, but an entire way of life based upon the Oath. The books are not preachy. They do not tell the reader how to live life. Instead they give a picture of what life could be like, if everyone worked selflessly for the benefit of humanity. In the meantime there are aliens, sharks, monsters, and cranky gods, but the central message is about the rejection of negativity.
When Nita and Kit are younger, early in the series, they see the Lone Power as absolutely evil. As they get older however, they begin to see Its side more and more. They can even sympathize with It occasionally. Both of their characters have evolved and changed. The emotional and mental aspects of wizardry become more important, and the flash and bang of their starting years begins to fade. They become more skilled at wizardry, and they start to specialize. The books become more complex and less like childrens’ books. The fifth, and even the fourth book place the series firmly in the realm of Young Adult literature.
If spiritual speculation is not your thing, fear not! You will probably still like this series. Diane Duane is, all else aside, a fantastic science fiction writer. Her magic follows logical rules, and, as a bonus, it integrates into the physical, scientific world without a hitch. Her aliens are fascinating, with habits, appearances, and traditions that are, well, alien. She’s not scared of technology, which is something a lot of fantasy authors seem to shy away from. Nita’s little sister Dairine, who enters the wizardly scene in the third book, actually manages to partly turn her mind into a computer. There are chase scenes, giant bugs, huge battles, and even the Fair Folk. Legends and myths abound for those who like making connections, and Atlantis gets explained. In the fourth book, when Nita and Kit go to Ireland, there is even an extremely bossy and sarcastic kitten. Do you like time travel? It’s there. Do you like alternate universes? Oh boy, you got it! Do you have a soft spot for dogs? Kit’s dog Ponch will be your best friend. Of course, if you prefer cats, you can read the two spin-off books she wrote about the Grand Central Worldgating team - who happen to be feline.
The Young Wizards series really does have it all. The stories are told with a sense of humour that never fails to amuse. The settings are delightfully dated, so if you remember the nineties, get ready! Nita’s forays into the world of miniskirts are a blast from the past. Above all the books are quirky, fun, and charming. The world is well-developed, the plots are exciting, the characters are well-rounded and develop as the series continues, and hard truths are dealt with in a mature, sensible way. Diane Duane is a master of her craft. You should read these books, even if you think you’re too old for them. Trust me, you’re not.
List of Books:
1. So You Want to Be a Wizard
2. Deep Wizardry
3. High Wizardry
4. A Wizard Abroad
5. The Wizard’s Dilemma
6. A Wizard Alone
7. Wizard’s Holiday
8. Wizards at War
9. A Wizard of Mars