Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

Read the Review   Goodreads   Buy

There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

Read the Review   Goodreads   Buy

Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

Read the Review   Goodreads   Buy

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. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

Goodreads   Read

The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Read the Review   Goodreads   Buy

Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

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 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.

On Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip”

27 May
PKD's Martian Time-Slip

PKD’s Martian Time-Slip (1964) explores the physics of time travel in the context of the newest human frontier: Mars.

PKD pushed the boundaries of the science fiction genre as it burst onto the literary scene in the ’50s and ’60s. He wrote over 40 novels and over 100 short stories in his relatively brief life, and many of them became household names, not in small part because of the film adaptations they inspired: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the famed classic Blade Runner; time warping stories like The Minority Report and Paycheck; and, of course, the Martian masterpiece starring the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger Total Recall. Philip Kindred Dick passed away over three decades ago, but he still controls the sci-fi genre–both in literature and film–like few others do. His novel Martian Time-Slip combines many of the themes and settings for which he is known: time travel, humanity’s mental capacity, and Mars.

Jack Bohlen is a simple union repair man on Mars. He and his wife Silvia with their son David are pioneers on the desolate, desert planet, roughing it on the cusp of humanity’s efforts of extraterrestrial colonization. In a Wild West fashion, Jack must navigate greedy union bosses, remote governmental tampering, black market ruffians, and mysterious indigenous peoples to stay alive and, maybe more importantly, stay sane. Threatening that sanity is Jack’s connection to a young autistic boy named Manfred Steiner. Jack and Manfred share many qualities, and grow increasingly similar as they spend time in each other’s company. Mars is a dangerous place for those labeled as “mentally ill,” but wealthy union boss Arnie Kott believes people like Manfred have the ability to see through and alter time. Nothing will stop him from harnessing this ability to milk profit from a massive real estate scheme to seduce emigrants to the Martian frontier.

Jack Bohlen doesn't fear the harsh Martian desert. He fears the inevitable crush of human civilization.

Jack Bohlen doesn’t fear the harsh Martian desert. He fears the inevitable crush of human civilization.

Manfred, and other children like him, live in a camp set aside for “anomalous” children. Of all of them, Manfred is singled out as a type of schizophrenic personality who can transcend time and space. PKD focuses on the theory of time travel in relation to our perceptions of “mental illness.” By pedestalizing Manfred and his abilities, Dick debunks theories that support prejudices against “anomalous” people in true sci-fi fashion. Instead of Manfred being “psychotic” or “ill,” it’s everyone else whose psyches are horribly twisted, and Dick uses a frontier environment to showcase the psychosis that is humanity: a selfishness that lives in dire balance with its need for communication and community–a community that must ostracize and marginalize everything Other in order to maintain its “sanity.”

“Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world …”

However, (because there’s always a “however”), in devoting so much book real estate to his obsession with time travel, PKD neglects a prime opportunity to cement the story in its otherworldly setting, and ignores blatant sexism and racism. The women with business sense are called masculine. The women with education are cold and unmotherly. The ideal woman is Silvia Bohlen, a weeping, medicated, clingy, depressed mother who spends the day in bed, pining for her husband. The indigenous humanoid people called Bleekman are treated little better than dogs, and, other than a handful of allusions to invaded Native American tribes, are virtually ignored by the author. Not even the brilliance of Dick’s writing or the astuteness of his social criticism outweighs his negligence and/or inability to be forward-thinking in this respect.

It’s uncomfortable to read sci-fi from five decades ago that didn’t or couldn’t imagine the social progress we’ve made today. It’s angering to imagine futures where we lose what little we’ve gained.

According to IGN, Martian Time-Slip is primed for a film adaptation of its own, penned and directed by Dee Rees, responsible for one of my favorite indie films of all time, Pariah

According to IGN, Martian Time-Slip is primed for a film adaptation of its own, penned and directed by Dee Rees, responsible for one of my favorite indie films of all time, Pariah. Rees, of all people, will be attentive to the racism and misogyny of MTS.

Read it if … you enjoy sci-fi that acts as a foil to history and to current affairs. When PKD wrote this novel, society was globalizing and centralized government was taking over. Martian Time-Slip also makes many allusions to the first American pioneers travelling West, manifesting their white American destiny and disregarding the displacement of indigenous tribes.

Don’t read it if … you’re easily offended. This ’60s era book reads like a ’60s era book, and at times I had to calm myself down. Believe me, I wanted to rant in this review. Dick’s dated prejudices aside, this book also deals with trippy concepts of time and linguistics. MTS, with considerably fewer guns than The Minority Report and the severe lack of head explosions like in Total Recall, is not for the casual reader.

This book is like … The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes for its discussion of the physics of time, Ender’s Game (the whole quintet, actually) by Orson Scott Card for its discussion on human colonization, or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman for its discussion of time and colonization.

The inimitable PKD transformed the sci-fi world in his brief but prolific life.

The inimitable PKD transformed the sci-fi world in his brief but prolific life.

On Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”

12 May
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere takes readers to the mythical land of London Below–a secret world that exists in the shadows and the cracks and in the corner of our eyes.

I read Neil Gaiman for the first time last year. American Gods left me more than a little disappointed after having bought into the Gaiman hype, and, if not for a certain book club I’m in, I may never have read another of his novels again. Gaiman’s re-imagining of London–its myths, landmarks, and seedy underbelly–in his novel Neverwhere is a far cry from American Gods, both in its cleverness and entertainment value. In Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew, a Scottish financial analyst new to London, is minding his own business, has a decent job, is engaged to a lovely if a bit manipulative girlfriend, when he becomes entangled with a mysterious and deadly plot from a world he never knew existed. London Below is the place of people who fell through the cracks. It is a mirror of the London Richard lived in, where Knightsbridge is bridge of total darkness and absolute terror, and Earl’s Court is the court of an actual earl, and at night, Harrod’s turns into an open market full of strange foods, people who speak to rats, and sewer people peddling garbage.Richard’s world is flipped inside-out and upside-down as he follows his new friends through a maze of new dangers and adventure. He must come to terms with his own fears and cowardice if he wants to make it back to London Above in one piece.

Anne Meier's cover art for Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere aptly depicts the mirrored London Richard finds himself lost in.

Anne Meier’s cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere aptly depicts the mirrored London Richard finds himself lost in.

Richard is pulled from his comfortable home and comfortable life when he finds what looks to be an injured homeless girl on the streets. He patches Door up and sends her on her way only to find he has become inextricably entwined with the girl’s journey to avenge her dead family. Door has the magical ability to open any door, even where there wasn’t one before, and her ability is attracting the attention of some dangerous people. Richard and Door, together with their companions the marquis de Carabas and Door’s bodyguard Hunter, set off through the trials and politics of London’s alternate world. But they’re being relentlessly pursued by some of fantasy’s most entertaining villains: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, two sadistic, rat-eating, sociopath assassins, whose strength and evilness surpasses anything human. Gaiman’s combination of goofiness and morbidity fit perfectly in the dank sewers of London Below. His moments of lighthearted wit imbued with cruelty and violence create a unique aura that is all Gaiman’s.

The sewers of London are the perfect setting for Gaiman's sense of humor and sense of horror.

The sewers of London are the perfect setting for Gaiman’s sense of humor and sense of horror.

As with American Gods, though, I found myself enjoying side characters and subplots more than Neverwhere‘s main storyline. Granted, Neverwhere was vastly more interesting and its characters considerably more captivating, believable, three-dimensional, etc., etc., but I love Gaiman’s minor plots. I’m sure he has volumes of notes on characters like Hunter and Islington and the marquis, and all I want from him is more of that. Is that so much to ask? The brilliant thing about Gaiman and his skill that I’m more able to appreciate now that I’ve read two of his books, is his ability to create a full world populated with characters a reader like me wants to know, no matter how briefly the character appears in the book. So, Neil, can we please, please have a spin-off novel about Hunter now?

Read this if … you enjoy fast-paced fantasy that aren’t necessarily light. Read Neverwhere if you’re looking for that book that sits somewhere between the wittiness of Douglas Adams and the deep, gory depression of George R.R. Martin.

Don’t read this if … you aren’t willing to suspend your disbelief. Gaiman specializes in rewrites of history and mythology, and if your wont is to nitpick inconsistencies (like mine was when I read American Gods), then you’re going to have a bad time. Also, don’t read it if you don’t like rats.

This book is like … American Gods, obviously, especially since Gaiman himself compared the two novels. Neverwhere also reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’s A Sudden Wild Magic, which likewise tackles the endlessly entertaining concept of alternate worlds behind the prim veil of contemporary British culture. Also, if you’re one of those Harry Potter fanatics, this will be the novel to help you grow up a little bit while still hanging onto a fun but unexplained magic system.

The inimitable Neil Gaiman is practically a demigod of sci-fi/fantasy, and he makes milk look like a BAMF.

The inimitable Neil Gaiman is practically a demigod of sci-fi/fantasy, and he makes milk look like a BAMF.