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On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”

13 Jan
The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among many others.

What better way to start the new year than with a little science fiction escapism? That was my train of thought until I ended up in the beautifully crafted but horrifyingly and perfectly imaginable post-apocalyptic world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. There’s absolutely no point in escaping a bleak 2015 economy and frightening American race riots if the alternative is a tattered world where the masses live in utter poverty, clawing their way from calorie to calorie to keep from starving, and mega-corporations buy their respective ways into the upper echelons of national governments. Come to think of it, those two worlds seem eerily similar. Out of the frying pan, into the sci-fi political commentary. It seems Bacigalupi is onto something with this entertaining, award-winning 2009 novel.

The world of The Windup Girl is ravaged by the folly of genetic tampering, or “genehacking,” and the lethal repercussions of globalization. Massive “calorie companies” flooded the world with a wave of exported food and biological goods, but this was soon followed by a monsoon of viruses, plagues, and epidemics that fractured the world into broken governments and nearly sent the world back to the Dark Ages. Bacigalupi does an admirable job making readers sink under the heavy heat of Bangkok and gag on the odor of gutters filled with human waste and rotting fruit. The oppression of this new urban landscape is felt in the crush of the author’s prose, and makes reading Bacigalupi a comprehensive experience.

Anderson Lake, a calorie man with AgriGen, slogs his way through this fragrant, darkened Bangkok in a covert mission to find agriculture untouched by deadly “blister rust” or devoured by invasive beetles. Anderson’s corporate agenda winds him up in the local political battle between the global-thinking Trade Ministry and the isolationist Environment Ministry, as well as the dangerous squabbling of slum lords and militant faction leaders.

Bacigalupi's Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we're familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is vastly different than the bright, bustling modern version we’re familiar with. Replace all the cars with fascist government officials and all the lights with infectious diseases.

Plans are truly upset when Anderson falls in love with a taboo New Person named Emiko–a genehacked woman who was design by scientist to please men in all ways, shapes, and forms. New People, or “windups” as they are derrogatorily called, are feared and loathed by the general population as abominations, but they make a nice novelty attraction in Bangkok’s underground. Emiko is owned by a club that caters to hypocritical white shirts who hunt windups by day and watch them violated on seedy stages at night.

While Emiko owns the honor of being the title character, she features infrequently on the actual pages. Her situation as the uncanny valley aspect of the this future world adds a necessary complication to an otherwise average political thriller, but Emiko is never fully realized as a character. The role paved out for her is two-dimensional and tired: she is the submissive slave who is pushed too far and finds out she has the power to free herself; she is trapped in a cocoon and finally finds out she can become a beautiful butterfly; and when the rape scenes come around, she is the dominated, eroticized damsel in the distress, waiting for a white knight to tell her about her potential.

ngaw

Anderson Lake chases down the genetic origination of the ngaw fruit (rambutan), but it isn’t Anderson who ends ups unraveling the mystery of Thailand’s genetic success.

If this were a film, it would miserably fail the Bechdel test. And when I say, “miserably fail,” I mean it takes the Bechdel test behind the chemical shed and shoots it in the head. Not only do the female characters of TWG think and talk only about men in the few passages in which they feature, but the few times a woman interacts meaningfully with another woman is when a female colleague rapes Emiko on the stage of a club for the entertainment of their patrons. The first positive (and when I say, “positive,” all I mean is, “not rape”) interaction between two named female characters doesn’t show up until 60% through the book.

The most compelling characters of TWG are the supporting cast members and their subplots, which mostly feel severed from the main body of the plot. Hock Seng, Anderson’s Chinese immigrant assistant, battles the virulent racism in the city while trying to rebuild his life after having witnessed the brutal massacre of all his children and grandchildren. Hock’s character development is a novella of its own.

Almost the entire final third of the book is dedicated to another supporting character, Lieutenant Kanya. Kanya is an orphan-turned-white shirt who works under the tutelage of Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, the most feared officer of the Ministry and the greatest enemy to Trade and globalization. Kanya’s stoic self-sufficiency and her conflicted conscience make her the most interesting and the most human character of the novel. In a world where there are no heroes, only villains, Kanya stands firmly in limbo and is one of the few characters faced with making formative decisions.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra--a pre-warlord Kuvira who smiles way less and really likes the color white.

I imagined Kanya to be a little like Kuvira from Avatar: The Legend of Korra–ferocious, lethally competent, and filled with idealistic conviction.

Since The Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s first departure from the short story form, it’s understandable how the subplots, smaller stories, and side characters felt so vivid and compelling while the primary characters feel flat in a meandering plot. It’s those fascinating subplots and side characters–along with the author’s immersive descriptions–that makes this novel worth reading.

Read It: If your version of sci-fi escapism is a metaphorical punch to the gut, grab a copy of TWG. This novel won’t be your Asimovian philosophical exercise or Herbertian political saga. It’s an exciting mystery in an exciting setting that leads a reader through a series of tragic events toward a larger, more tragic event. If that isn’t enough to entice you to read this, then I have four words for you: genetically modified working girl. No, but really, the believable vision with which Bacigalupi writes and the well-paced plot makes The Windup Girl a fun read.

Don’t Read It: You may want to avoid The Windup Girl if you’re uncomfortable reading rape. I won’t lie: rape plays a large part of plot, and Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from graphic details. I thought the scenes were gratuitous and distracting from a relatively compelling plot, and not everyone wants to read this level of trauma in what would otherwise be an entertaining novel.

Similar Books: Three books come to mind when reading a science fiction novel about our world’s bleak and entirely possible future: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a mutation has castrated the world, and women are objectified for the sake of survival; Mira Grant’s Parasite, a new and award-nominated novel about the mega-corporations ruining life for people with their god complexes and genetic tampering; and Chaeng-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, which shares some prose styles with Bacigalupi’s TWG. Now go forth with these fun reads, and join me in sobbing for the doomed future of humanity!

Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a prolific writer of sci-fi and suspense. The first book of his I read was the young adult novel Ship Breaker.

On William Gibson’s “The Peripheral” and Gibson in Person

25 Nov
The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral by William Gibson was released on October 28, 2014.

Hankering some hardcore sci-fi with a mystery-thriller twist? Want to get wound up in a story of space-time continua and causality? Daring to depress over desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes and creeped out by human mutation? Guess who’s got you covered? That’s right: Stephanie Meye–HAHA, NOPE! William Gibson! In his latest novel The Peripheral, the living legend Willaim Gibson stays true to form in an epic science fiction story about two people separated by time and alternate realities who both must come to terms with the irrevocable consequences of their effect on each other’s universes. Buckle in for another Gibsonian ride through nanobots and Chinese servers with the usual cast of stupefyingly brilliant future people with cool, monosyllabic names.

In some backwater American town in the near-distant future, everything sucks. Flynne Fisher and her ex-Marine brother scrape by on contract jobs playing rich men’s video games where a win equals a paycheck. Stuck in musty, rusting trailers and living off of fabricated, or “fabbed,” food from the one Hefty Mart in town, the Fisher siblings do what they can to take care of the ailing mother and survive to the next day. When Flynne picks up a job from her brother acting as security detail in an eerie new beta game, the Fisher’s lives and the lives of everyone in their podunk town change forever, because the game Flynne plays isn’t a game at all, and the murder she witnesses their isn’t an assemblage of programming and pixels.

The beta game is, in reality, seventy years in the future. The horrific assassination Flynne watched while on the job was a real horrific assassination. As the only one who saw the killer’s face, Flynne becomes an asset to her futuristic contractors and the main target for an unknown power trying to tie up loose ends. Wilf Netherton, a publicist in London and seventy years ahead of Flynne’s time, is just as much of a pawn as the Fishers–just small moving parts in a game played by political, financial giants. Wilf’s involvement with the victim’s sister ties him inextricably to the growing conspiracy. Now, Wilf and Flynne must team up using futuristic technology, which allows Flynne to virtually tap into Wilf’s reality through the use of a peripheral body and a giant virtual reality helmet.

Let virtual reality take you to the future!

Let virtual reality take you to the future! It’s super fuuuuuuuunnnnn! And nothing bad happens there!

In Wilf’s future world, Flynne’s consciousness inhabits and controls an biologically human body like a player controlling a video game character. Wilf and his cohorts show Flynne’s peripheral a world after disaster, a world completely reconstructed by nanotechnology called “assemblers” that picked up the pieces after a near-apocalyptic era called “the Jackpot.” In Wilf’s past, the Jackpot killed off 80% of humanity, but his involvement in Flynne’s world will change it irrevocably and hopefully for the better. There’s always the chance that his tinkering in her alternate reality could cause an apocalypse worse than the Jackpot.

Beneath layers of complexity and Matrix-level reality shifts, The Peripheral is, at heart, a murder mystery, and–once readers fend off the blunt-force trauma Gibson calls prose and claw their way through an intricate plot that spends the first half of the book confusing readers and the second half answering too many questions–they will most likely have some kind of fun reading this. I didn’t get hooked on this book until the introduction of a compelling side character named Ainsley Lowbeer: an androgynous, all-seeing, law-enforcing extension of the state who, in my mind, was like a gun-toting Tilda Swinton, but for other readers, the hook could be the ever-present Gibsonian nanotech or the mob bosses and drug king pins or the government SUVs with tinted, armored windows. There is plenty of fodder for finding the good in this novel, so while I don’t think it comes near to Gibson’s best work, I think The Peripheral is a fine addition to this established author’s résumé and it was well worth the read.

In Wilf's world, nanobots called "assemblers" destroy and build everything.

In Wilf’s world, nanobots called “assemblers” destroy and build everything, even lives. How can Flynne–just a normal gamer from pre-apocalypse America–contend with this kind of technology?

Read this book if … you need your sci-fi fix and you aren’t afraid to work for a it a little. It’s true that Gibson’s prose requires more intellectual labor than your average genre book, even among other similarly academic authors’ works, but The Peripheral still meets all the requirements for an entertaining read.

Don’t read this book if … your version of “enjoying a book” doesn’t involve slogging through unwieldy vernacular. One can’t help but wonder if Gibson uses language to deter any possibility of casual readers, and I don’t blame people for getting discouraged and throwing the book across the coffee shop gently setting the book down and finding something more accessible.

This book is like … the novels of Greg Bear or Philip K. Dick. All three authors construct their worlds as palimpsests over our own, using their sharp minds and visionary fiction to prophesy our future. Their futuristic stories are both alien and familiar–sometimes eerie for how familiar they are. In The Peripheral especially, Gibson presents a military aspect that Bear uses frequently in his novels.

William Gibson

William Gibson irrevocably changed the science fiction genre (whether he likes it or not) with the publication of Neuromancer and the forging of the cyberpunk sub-genre.

 


 

William Gibson, Reading from The Peripheral

On the evening The Peripheral was released, William Gibson spoke at the University Bookstore of Seattle’s University of Washington, reading to and answering the questions of a packed house. The man’s soft voice belies the hardness of his writing and the sharpness of his wit. While it was hard for me to imagine this voice writing the fast-talking hackers and government conspiracies and gruesome deaths by nanobot he’s known to write, I had no trouble imagining it after hearing the sharp, sardonic wit of his Q&A. Watch the video of his Oct. 28, 2014, reading below.

On Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)”

11 Nov

After receiving incredible reception for her first novel Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie very quickly turned out the Imperial Radch sequel Ancillary Sword. I’m guessing she’s just a greedy S.O.B and her Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards weren’t enough for her, because Leckie will most likely rake in a few more with this novel. Ancillary Sword continues the story of Breq, a ship’s artificial intelligence program in a human shell of a body. Once made up of hundreds of bodies that crewed a massive troop carrier, Breq is now a single body with a single mind, and that single mind has set her on a quest for revenge against the empire that destroyed her life. In a similar captivating fashion that made Ancillary Justice such a success, Leckie delivers an entertaining sequel that only serves to make me love Breq and her supporting cast even more.

After uncovering a millennium-old conspiracy that threatens to tear the Imperial Radch apart from the inside, Breq leaves Omaugh Palace on a ship of her own, now the Fleet Captain of Mercy of Kalr with Seivarden as one of her three lieutenants. Breq’s mission is to find and protect the sister of her beloved Lieutenant Awn Elming, over whom she spent much of the first novel lamenting. But when Fleet Captain Breq and her new crew arrive in the Athoek system, they are met with more dangerous conspiracy with an underlying culture of socioeconomic prejudices that stand between our AI hero and her goals. Between the hostile environment, sociopath heiresses, and an emotional baby lieutenant foisted on her by the Lord of the Radch herself, Breq has her work cut out for her. Luckily, she just happens to be the most badass ancillary in the universe.

Athoek Station and the planet below gains its notoriety for the high quality tea it provides to the Radch, an important commodity that separates the “civilized” (the literal translation of “Radchaai”) from the “uncivilized.” Foremost in the industry is Citizen Fosyf Denche who has a near monopoly on the tea plantations planet-side. The station governor and station security head Captain Hetnys seem to be in cahoots with the wealthy Fosyf, and all seem set on disrupting Breq’s plans, ambitious as they are. After all, Breq only wants to save Awn’s sister, bring socioeconomic equality to the universe, and defeat both factions of a warring, multi-system galactic empire, but for some reason, people won’t just let her do it.

On the tea plantations "downwell" on Athoek, the near slave-conditions of the Valskaayans are made clear to Breq.

On the tea plantations “downwell” on Athoek, the slavery conditions of the Valskaayans are made clear to Breq, and the discovery of missing Valskaay transport ships points to something more sinister.

Leckie stutters through an introduction as she brings AJ‘s story line back into focus for the sequel, and then proceeds to spend the majority of the book on a subplot of socioeconomic challenges on Athoek that has tenuous connection to the overarching–and much more captivating–plot of the conspiracy that threatens the Radch’s existence. AS seems to lack the same forethought and sophisticated plot design as AJ, which I attribute entirely to the fact that Leckie churned this sequel out a mere 12 months and six days after the publication of AJ.

Despite the plot structure feeling a tad wobbly, Breq is still a fascinating voice to read, despite the novelty of her nature as an ancillary worn off. Seivarden is still present but takes a back seat to Breq’s new supporting cast, and Breq’s relationship with them, her own unique voice, and the pervasive and captivating sorrow present in everything she does is all enough to keep AS successful. Leckie spends less time on building out the Radch universe, and less time developing the unique personality of Breq, who appears more like a kindly philosopher-king meting out justice and infallible wisdom to the less fortunate humans of Athoek Station, and spends more time with her social commentary and building an argument for socioeconomic equality.

The plot escalates as Fleet Captain Breq begins uncovering a case of bodies missing from storage.

The plot escalates as Fleet Captain Breq begins uncovering a case of bodies missing from storage.

Nevertheless, continuing Breq’s saga and reading the now-familiar cadence of her thoughts were enough to balance the unwieldiness of the plot flow, and there wasn’t anything in this universe that was going to stop me from enjoying more Imperial Radch action. The true tragedy of reading Ancillary Sword is it’s the harbinger of the trilogy’s end.

Rumors has it that the third book doesn’t have to be the end of the Radch, though: apparently someone bought options for a TV adaptation. But this is one book I don’t want to see adapted for any kind of screen. Unless, of course, networks suddenly give the green light to a bunch of beautiful, polyamorous, pansexual, androgynous astronauts being fabulous together, and I honestly don’t think this society is ready for that much fabulousness, which means they’re going to botch it and I’ll be the saddest girl in the world.

Read this book if … you read Ancillary Justice. Read Ancillary Justice if you’re tired of status quo sci-fi and bro-driven hero stories. Ann Leckie flips it upside down with the first installation of the Imperial Radch series, and Ancillary Sword is worth the read if only to immerse one’s self in the universe for another several hundred pages.

Don’t read this book if … you need to feel the g-forces of a spaceship dogfights or smell the singe of laser blasts. AS, like its predecessor, doesn’t get the heart pounding until the end (and then you’ll just about pass out from hyperventilation), and instead relies on its characters and the inherent mystery of the series-arching plot to carry readers through.

This book is like … few other books. I may not be well versed enough in the science fiction genre to compare this book to anything other than its own prequel, Ancillary Justice, because its characters are relatively unique and Leckie discovered a new way to discuss artificial intelligence. I compared the first Imperial Radch novel to Kazuo Ishiguro because of his similar style and penchant for stories of heartbreaking regret. AS is completely different, leaning more toward conspiracy thrillers.

I wanted to know what other beautiful things could come from Ann Leckie's mind. Wish = fulfilled.

I wanted to know what other beautiful things could come from Ann Leckie’s mind. Wish = fulfilled (mostly).

On A. Merritt’s “Dwellers in the Mirage”

28 Oct

On a recent pilgrimage to the great Mecca of independent bookstores–Powell’s in Portland, OR–I raided a whole section dedicated to books with awesomely pulpy covers, and one of the results was A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. There’s just no way I could resist the half-naked Norseman defending a helpless maiden from a shadowy octopus monster. Originally printed in six parts as a serialized novel in the Argosy, this 1932 publication displays everything great about the era’s adventure genre and obsession with science.

Now, forego your judgement of this book by its cover. Iknow it’s difficult, but we can’t blame Merritt for the pulpy, entirely inaccurate depiction of events and characters depicted here. The cover shows some demure blonde being defended by a shielded warrior with rippling muscles. The lovely Evalie is actually dark-skinned with black hair. (Not to mention, Lief dual-wields.) In reality, DitM features a multiracial couple, relatively feminist warrior women, and a Cherokee BFF–progressive for its time, if you ignore what would today be considered racial slurs and sexist epithets.

Lief Langdon is a normal scientist who happens to have a penchant for picking up languages and being beautifully blonde and Norwegian. While on expedition in Mongolia, a strange series of encounters with a reclusive tribe called the Uighar awakens ancient memories in Lief, memories of a great conqueror name Dwayanu, warrior-priest of the almighty Khalk’ru. Lief’s identity wavers as his Dwayanu identity grows stronger and the warrior personality fights its way to take hold of Lief’s body. When Lief and his Cherokee blood-brother Jim become trapped in a strange phenomena they refer to as “the mirage,” Dwayanu takes full control and prepares to fulfill a prophecy to unleash the kraken Khalk’ru and resume his ancient throne as ruler of the land. Lief must struggle to hold onto his identity while battling the seductive wiles of the wolf-communing, witch-woman Lur, evading the deceitful plots of the jealous captain Tibur, avoiding all-out war with the noble Little People, and save his true love Evalie from the clutches of the kraken. All in a day’s work for Lief-Dwayanu.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

If Lur were any more like San from Princess Mononoke, Lief would be done for on page one.

Merritt’s writing is anything but subtle, and the journey Lief takes through the mirage world of Ayjirland is predictable at every turn. Dwellers in the Mirage takes advantage of every familiar adventure trope that would have been common even in 1932, thanks to writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard. None of this has any ill effect on the book’s pure value of entertainment. From sultry seductions to grotesque alien wildlife to brutal battle scenes, DitW has it all and then some. Nothing like a little conspiracy and fulfilled prophecies to spice things up a little, so much so that J.J. Abrams would be the only director who could possibly stomach a film adaptation.

While I have no trouble going with the flow of these prophecies and giant squid god from ancient Mongolia who eats pregnant women, I do have trouble reading the few character-development pet peeves that Merritt employs:

1) People falling in love with other people over a weekend. I get it. It happens. But sometimes authors want it to happen multiple times in a single novel, and I want to just slap some protagonists silly. Get a grip, man! Love takes time and communication!

2) Protagonists being emotionally and intellectually flawless. Lief Langdon is a victim of a kraken-god-driven multiple personality disorder. Every mistake he makes is at the direct hands of an external force. Literally, the devil made him do it. Well, that’s peachy.

Other than that, it’s totally fine. Nothing to see here.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures' mythologies. In DitM, it is the "Dissolver," the greater-than-gods, and the key to Lief's true identity.

The Kraken holds a place in many cultures’ mythologies (and just happens to be my favorite rum). In DitM, it’s called Khalk’ru. It is the “Dissolver,” the “Greater-than-Gods,” and the key to Lief’s true identity.

Read this book if … you revel in the pulpiest of pulpy fantasy stock. This book is loads of fun if you’re a reader who can turn off the baby skeptic inside all of us readers and let the white waters of Nanbu carry you out into Ayjirland. Read Dwellers in the Mirage for some mindless escapism–perfect for a summer read on a beach or while curled up under a blanket, in front of a fire, ignoring all your worldly responsibilities.

Don’t read this book if … you’re too pretentious to be seen carrying books with half-naked, sword-wielding, blonde demigods on the cover. With all its coined, fantastical words, its witchcraft, and its high fantasy swordplay, DitW isn’t a book for everyone. Steer clear if you’re one of those mythological folks who can only read about “real” things. (No, but really, this book is kind of silly.)

This book is like … H. Rider Haggard’s She, and H.G. Wells, especially The Time Machine, and other sci-fi/fantasy novels written my authors who abbreviate one or more of their names. These were probably the books Merritt grew up on.

Abraham-merritt

A. Merritt was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999, among esteemed individuals like Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

On Mira Grant’s “Parasite” (Parasitology #1)

22 Jul
Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira Grant explores a near future in which medical tech giant SymboGen convinces the world to become human hosts to genetically modified tape worms. What could possibly go wrong?

On my list of Most Terrifying Things are such horrors as abused apostrophes and Rush Limbaugh’s hypnotic, bigoted radio voice, but right up there near the top are also zombies and parasites. Author Mira Grant managed to tackle both those subjects in her novel Parasite, the first installation of her Parasitology series, which ends up being closer to a mash-up of Animal Planet’s  Monsters Inside Me and Resident Evil. Not as terrifying as Rush Limbaugh misusing apostrophes, but much more enjoyable.

Grant’s particular brand of terrifying things starts in the mind of Sally Mitchell, a young woman who beats all odds and wakes up from an car accident-induced coma. The only problem is she can’t remember a thing. As Sal develops, her family and friends comment again and again that she’s a completely different person. Gone is the bitchy, selfish, temperamental Sally. Sal is kind and inquisitive, respectful to everyone, and deathly afraid of driving in cars. Sal’s life was saved by a medical miracle: SymboGen’s genetically modified tape worm, D. symbogenesis, which cures everything from pet allergies to cancer. Six years after Sal’s accident, she is relearning the way to be human and navigating her celebrity as the girl whose life was saved by a worm. But when other D. symbogenesis hosts start falling prey to an epidemic of sleepwalking, Sal becomes suspicious and tries to uncover the dangerous secrets of SymboGen.

Tape worm

Tape worms and other parasites are creepily pretty in artful photos like this. They lose their appeal when you imagine them wrapped around your brain.

Sal narrates as a story of her medical miracle evolves into a story of political intrigue, conspiracy, and deadly, sleepwalking, worm-controlled zombie people. Remember that Sal woke up from a coma six years previous and relearned everything that makes a human being human. She makes a point to express her trepidation with the English language, and she often comes across as awkward or clumsy with her speech in dialogue. But her running, first-person monologue is perfectly formed, descriptive, witty at times, and sometimes downright lyrical. This isn’t the voice of someone forced to use an adult brain to learn a brand new language. This is the voice of a snarky, educated, well read author of multiple novels.

It’s a rare case when I wish for a little more distance from a narrator, but the more I learned about Sal, the less I appreciated her. Her intelligent narration made her seem fraudulent when she presented herself as a bumbling, naïve victim in her interactions with other people. The lack of consistency in Sal’s character (in addition to her banality in general) hamper what would have otherwise been an interesting story.

But wait! There’s more. In case Sal’s blasé character profile doesn’t do it, the silly plot progressions could certainly deter a reader from picking up this novel. I can’t get over the fairly silly plot progressions. After a near apocalyptic run-in with sleepwalkers on a highway, Sal is immediately grounded for a week her parents for leaving the house without permission. After Sal learns that the horrifying sleepwalking epidemic are truly sentient, genetically modified tape worms taking over their slaver hosts, a series of cliché revelations ruins it all. At other times, plot holes or straight up plot errors cripple the narrative flow just as the story starts picking up pace.

Goa'uld

As far as icky worms controlling their human hosts go, Parasite is by no means the first to go there. My favorite tummy worms are Stargate: SG-1‘s Goa’uld–the worm babies of an alien race that use humans’ easily repaired bodies as hosts.

A friend of mine enjoyed Grant’s Parasite–a friend whose opinion I respect and whose reading tastes I trust–a friend who was able to overlook what may seem like small criticisms in Grant’s writing style, character development, and plot progressions. My review might be relatively harsh for a novel that is shortlisted for the 2014 Hugo Award, but I stand by my two-star Goodreads rating. For a book that is acclaimed and could beat out such a gem as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for the Hugo, Parasite falls grossly short of my expectations. The novel had some potential, but the execution was poor. Even the concept was disappointingly derivative. I wish the best to Mira Grant, but if Parasite wins the Hugo, I will pout for days and write something inflammatory on Twitter.

Read this book if … you’re a sucker for zombies and morbid apocalyptic novels. Read it if you’re the one who clicks on that link to BuzzFeed’s “10 Grossest Something Something” article. Read it if you’re not going to focus on logic or details, and you’re just along for the ride.

Don’t read this book if … the booming zombie genre gives you a case of  the Disgruntled Sighs. Grant isn’t the first one to make zombies via little bugs in your brain, and Parasite doesn’t try too hard to be original in any other way. Like me, you may get distracted by the flaws in narrative logic, and there isn’t too much to draw your attention back on track.

This book is like … The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which tells a very different story about a woman who is a survivor, a survivor with a terrifying burden that leads to incredible mysteries. Kirby Mazrachi barely survived the vicious attacks of a murderer, and she spends her life trying to exact justice. With a much stronger protagonist and sounder sci-fi themes, The Shining Girls

Mira Grant

Mira Grant, whose actual name is Seanan McGuire, really likes zombies, and probably has a thing for sharp, stabby objects.

What is your favorite kind of zombie? George Romero zombies? Resident Evil zombies? Shaun of the Dead zombies?

On Robert Charles Wilson’s “Spin” (Spin Saga #1)

13 Jun

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi covers, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson's Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi cover art, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Imagine sitting underneath the starry night sky, picking out the constellations you half remember from that one field trip to the planetarium in fourth grade. Imagine its the clearest night with full view of the impossibly massive universe before you. Then imagine the stars die. Not in a slow fade or winking out one by one, but a clean, sudden, silent death that leaves the sky utterly blank. This is the horror that begins Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. This is an apocalypse that doesn’t come with zombies or fire. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes quietly, in one of the most frightening moments in sci-fi.

Tyler Dupree narrates the memory of seeing the stars disappear when he was 12 years old, sitting on a hilltop in October with his best and only friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, twins from the Big House. They are the children and heirs to a genius businessman and an alcoholic mother. Tyler is the son of the Big House’s maid. Across the social divide, the friends experience that night and the subsequent drama in three vastly different manners. The children grow up and learn that the disappearance of the stars wasn’t the only outcome of the “October Event,” or “the Spin” as it would later be dubbed. When a massive, planet-wide shield is erected over Earth’s atmosphere by powers unknown, time itself changed: for every second that passed on Earth, three years passed in the rest of the universe. The aging sun is suddenly approaching its death much sooner than expected, and human beings are forced to find creative ways to survive or cope with what looks like the apocalypse. Diane looks to religious extremism, Jason buries himself in the research of the Hypotheticals–those thought to be responsible for the Spin–and Tyler becomes a doctor and does everything within his power to carry on as if nothing had changed at all, burying his emotions and fear beneath a clinical denial.

"The spin" changed more than the stars. It changed the human experience of time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of Earth's very existence.

“The Spin” changed more than the stars. It changed Earth’s relationship to time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of the world’s very existence.

Throughout the novel, Tyler’s narrative alternates between a chronological retelling of his past–in which he navigates life under the Spin, following the Lawton siblings around, and trying to ignore humankind’s imminent doom–and Tyler’s present, in which he endures a mysterious illness while trying to escape the notice of the tyrannical New Reformasi government. In the chronological narrative, Jason leads a civilian aeronautics organization called Perihelion, whose method for dealing with the Spin is ambitious, creative, and extreme: with billions of years to play with outside of Earth’s atmosphere, humankind attempts to bioengineer and colonize Mars. In one of the most creative solutions to the prospect of extinction that I’ve ever read (in my many, many years of reading about solutions to prospects of extinction), RCW exploits the bizarre nature of the Spin and its impact on humanity’s perception of time. When Jason and Perihelion send payloads of durable bacteria to Mars, they only have to wait a few months before they see the results of evolution, right before their eyes. Mars is terraformed then populated then left to its own devices, and the result is a millennia-old culture of micro-evolved Martian humans.

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians!

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians and red filters! The Perihelion project aims to terraform Mars, taking advantage of the Spin’s alteration of time, in order to save Earth and learn more about the Hypotheticals. The results are beyond anything imaginable.

RCW’s vision for the apocalypse is truer than one might think on just reading the synopsis of Spin. Sure, you may think it’s unlikely that Hypothetical beings play God with time and space without rhyme or reason, and it is. Despite all of his intricate, scientific explanations (of which there are many) of the Spin and the Hypotheticals and Mars and time, RCW shows that he knows something even better than theories of the space-time continuum: he knows human nature. He knows society. He knows how people react when they see their own deaths in the stars, and this knowledge and its portrayal are the compelling components of this novel.

Despite the broad scope RCW gives on society’s reactions to trials and tribulation, the entire novel really takes place in Tyler’s head, and his attempt at objective observation. He applies his distanced view to everything he witnesses, including the events he holds dearest in his memory. He plays the voyeur to the drama of the Lawton siblings and almost idolizes everyone else’s reactions to the Spin, not matter how eccentric or drastic or fearful they might be. On one hand, Tyler’s lack of involvement gives him an historian’s view of events: “It wasn’t the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation.” He is able to comment on the immobilizing fear felt by the generation that grew up with the Spin. It wasn’t the thought of death but the price of salvation that crippled humanity’s ability to be human. As Tyler’s objectivity slips away, and he becomes more human than he’s ever felt before, he trades his coldness for pain, his observation for action, and his idolization for love.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

Read it if … you enjoy speculative fiction–the “what-if” kind of sci-fi. Spin can be a little heady at times. A good handle on moderately sciency language, or at least a respect for the rigorous type of sci-fi writing (i.e. not just lasers and hot cyborg sex), would be handy to have around. This is a great novel to spark some good discussions with your book club or your inner self or your cat, so also make sure you have a good processing method.

Don’t read it if … you’re not emotionally and spiritually stable enough to handle a harrowing fiction of the end of the world. While an actual situation like the Spin is far from realistic, people’s reactions to the concept of their own doom are very real. Riots, pillaging, cults, terrorism, starvation, general chaos are all so human, and if that scares you, steer clear of this book. And maybe go read something a little earthier, like Steinbeck or Austen–books that deal with regular mortality instead of apocalyptic mortality.

This book is like … The Plague by Albert Camus. Camus gives us another view of the apocalypse, albeit on a much smaller scale. A resurgence of the bubonic plague rears its head suddenly and horrifically in the Algerian port of Oran. Dr. Bernard Rieux shares Dr. Tyler Dupree’s bewildered attempt at objectivity, but with very different results. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is another fantastic novel in the sci-fi genre that plays with our understanding of time and its theoretical manipulations. How does one survive and stay human when a year to you is a hundred to the rest of humanity?

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.