Take a Stop at Station Eleven—

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All I’d heard about Station Eleven was that the setting was post-apocalyptic and people were raving about it. But I thought, don’t we have enough post-apocalypse books already? The answer is No. We do not. After reading Emily St John Mandel’s breakout novel, I can safety say that human ingenuity can almost always find a way to take what’s been beaten like a dead horse (like that phrase) and do some heavy duty necromancy to reanimate the equine corpse (see what I did there?)

A summary is almost unnecessary as the overarching conflict resembles most other books of the genre. A deadly virus with an incubation period of mere hours effectively wipes out 99% of humanity within weeks. Civilization is decimated. Yet life goes on. Now, twenty years later—and here’s where Mandel begins to make this narrative her own—a colorful cast characters who all had the apparent coincidence of crossing paths at theater performance of King Lear just hours before the plague hit are again finding their paths, lives, histories, and humanities intersecting once again.

I’ve said this already, but it’s worth restating the genre similarities in order to point out how well Mandel diverges from them. She’s doing very little different from every other post-apocalyptic book. But she’s doing it tenfold times better. The writing is better, the characterization, the language, the webbing, the tension, the arc, the beautiful intermingled way in which she stitches the tattered lives of humanity together into a tapestry called family. Even now, as I’m on to reading other books, I find myself questioning why certain descriptions and world-building can’t look like Mandel’s does.

This is no doubt augmented by my acute synesthesia, but Station Eleven is one of those books whose pages glitter with color. When not thinking of specific plot points, I see the verdant greens of Michigan forests, the margarine light of fluorescents glaring over a muted stage, the suffocating black of a world in terror, and the bright, warmth—the color of hope.

So stay a while at Station Eleven, your imagination will thank you. 4/5 stars.

 

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Wasn’t Quite Sucked In To This Sargasso

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Recently observing mounds of languishing Andre Norton novels has worked an opposite effect in me. It’s like the sign that says, “Hot: Do not touch!” and my instinct is that I want to touch it. What I mean by this is that I read one of Andre Norton’s novels. Said novel is written under her pseudonym Andrew North and the first installment of the Solar Queen series entitled Sargasso of Space. It might be overstatement to extrapolate an entire analysis of her work through one book but that’s what I’m going to do. But first, a summary.

Dane Thorson has just graduated cadet school and assigned a spot among an old trader ship, the Space Queen, with its ragtag band of explorers. When a fortuitous auction opportunity pops up, the ship’s crew scrounges together just enough cash to “buy” the planet Limbo in the hopes of a lucrative enterprise. Upon arrival of their new purchase, along with several suspicious but well-paying passengers aboard, the Space Queen and her pilots soon discover the planet’s auspices are more than they bargained for. As Limbo contrives to sucking in stray spaceships and crashing them upon its surface, confusion, abduction, and a search for the planet’s nefarious origin ensue.

As an aside, I find the novel’s titular allusion to the Sargasso Sea rather amusing. If you’re unfamiliar with this body of water (or if you haven’t read Jean Rhys novel, or you’re not a Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist), it is the only “sea” in the world whose borders are not dictated by land mass but rather by its own sustained currents and wind. The myth associated with this body of water is that it drags in ships. See the connection? In unfortunate contradistinction is that since the publication of Norton’s novel, this theory has been debunked.

But back to the review.

When looking at Andre Norton’s body of work you have to marvel as how consistently (an understatement) she pumped out novel after novel. Productively speaking, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s like she whipped out her calendar book, called her friends up and said, “Hey guys, can’t do anything this weekend. I’m locking myself in a room with my typewriter for the next 48 hours. But don’t worry, by Monday morning I’ll have completed an entire novel.” To this example, a writing marathon is, in some ways, what the novel read like. I don’t mean rushed. If a sample-size of one book can adequately proxy for the trajectory of her career, I declare: Andre Norton is an excellent story teller! But also: she’s not a great novelist.

Yes, I will explain. If we were sitting around a campfire and someone challenged us to tell a story from scratch, to just start on the spot and make it up as you go, Norton would be the all-time reigning champion. That’s what the narrative felt like. On the spot. Un-outlined. In the moment. Furthermore, if we were sitting around the campfire listening to her tell this story, I’d love it all. I’d be enamored, surprised, and a lot of other good things. But as a novel reader, I’m accustomed to a particular level of depth which was not present in this instance.

I can’t claim I was sucked in, but since the lion’s share of her novels don’t exceed 300 pages, if I need to revisit my theories, it wont take long to affirm or disprove them.

2/5 stars.

Anybody else in the internet world read Norton? Any recommendations for possible future reading?

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Arthur Gallops to a Photo Finish in TH White’s The Once and Future King

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As has been mentioned in previous posts, reviewing five-star books is a task better off eschewed because the most thorough analysis is superseded by the simple proclamation of “just read it!”

While tempted to do that now, I am encumbered with an additional complication after reading TH White’s The Once and Future King. Halfway through, I was unconvinced it deserved five star accolades, but the volume and scope of the novel has continued to wallop me in a delayed fashion and the more I ruminate on it, the more I’m liable to believe it is a five star book after all.

Only a cursory summary is needed as the story encapsulates almost the entirety of the Arthurian Legend starting from Arthur’s boyhood all the way up until his final battle as an aged patriarch. However, perhaps why novel is hitting me in waves is that initially (in all of part one, and half of part two) I was unprepared for the intense, insistent humor. I thought I was going to get the straight and classical telling of King Arthur so little did I know that TH White’s seminal work was a precursor to Mel Brooks’ Monthy Python and an accurately adapted Disney movie in The Sword and the Stone. You’ll understand then, why I was once again not ready for the narrative to turn from whimsical—even downright slapstick—to dark, to somber, and eventually to tragedy. It took a few days for my feelings to congeal.

But what a story! And what else to say?

In lieu of sounding off too long, here ends the review with the original decree: just read it. As feats of contemporary Olympic might are recording down to the millisecond, Arthur’s epic gets the same photo finish treatment: 4.92748/5 stars.

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Far Better Than a Rendezvous with Ramen—

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Studies show that TBHQ, an additive to preserve cheap and processed foods, is indigestible. It’s also found in significant quantities in the college-meal-staple Maruchan Ramen. So while you might not be able to physically stomach the noodles, you’ll be satiated and satisfied by Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. To this reviewer, it’s what was missing from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children as all three (and I’m sure others) explore the possibilities of generational starships.

When an asteroid defense web alerts the world of an abnormal meteor hurtling through the solar system, closer inspection reveals what becomes the first Martian ship sighting. Commander Norton and his crew are dispatched on the Endeavor en route to the starship dubbed Rama, but what they find defies both their expectations and many readers’ expectations as well. The city-sized ship is dark and devoid of sentience—perhaps all its inhabitants having perished on the millenniums-voyage through the stars. But as the Endeavor’s pioneers search deeper into the mystery, the ship slowly comes to life.

Done with Clarke’s characteristically mindboggling visions for extraordinary worlds and how they could exist, Rama is science fiction, adventure, and mystery all packed into a tasty literary lunch.

SPOILER ALERT (you have been warned): The chief reason this novel bucked my expectations in a positive light is two-fold. The first is that narratives of alien encounters are almost universally followed by violence between humanity and the space invaders. Rama had not such conflict. Secondly, novels written by human beings generally (and understandably) choose to focus on humans, our experiences, and our often superior existence. In the case of Rendezvous With Rama, the clever ending—once so much time and room has been given to humans reaffirming their superiority—essentially says that we’re of so little interest to other galactic civilizations that they use our sun as a gas pump before blasting off into the unknowable reaches of space. In other words, we aren’t so special after all.

But the book is special. And reading the book, or eating it, is still a better option than Ramen. 4/5 stars.

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This Review Delivered to You by David Brin’s The Postman

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I talk a lot—at least to myself—about how well or how poorly science fiction novels age. While I think David Brin’s The Postman has its merits, the novel nevertheless teeters on the envelope’s edge of tipping into being obsolete. I acknowledge the possibility that in the advent of a post-apocalyptic world, archaic technology could have a renaissance, but—well, first let me summarize and then I’ll pontificate:

Gordon Krantz is a survivor. Unlucky as he may be, he’s outlasted nuclear war, the disintegration of all radio communications and electronics through EMP shockwaves, and the fall of civilization as we know it only to live as a wanderer in the wilderness of what used to be Oregon. The only semblances of humanity are peoples gathered together in remote colonies or the cutthroat gangs of bloodthirsty “survivalists” who shoot first, rob later, and said robbing includes hacking off a few “flesh trophies” from corpses. After a near-death experience with a band of ruffians, Gordon stumbles upon a long-abandoned and rusted out US Postal Service mail truck. Struck with delusions of grandeur, Gordon sets out to unite the scattered communities via the claim (albeit, a fabrication) that the United States has formed again and their first order of business is to reestablish the postal system. Gordon hopes that if enough people come together beneath his lie, it will become a reality and the Restored United States will be able to fight back against the fanatical “survivalists.”

So, to my earlier point, I add that the novel was bit dated. Reasons for this include such examples as a character referring to a phone book as though it was still top-shelf reference material before the collapse, and to some extent, even the United States Postal Service. The USPS hasn’t been put out to pasture yet, but consider for a moment how many emails you receive in a given year versus how many letters grace your mailbox. Also, consider how you feel about those emails versus those letters. “A letter!? For me!? Whoa!” It’s a novelty, not a staple. The book was released in 1985—right before the techno boom of the nineties so I’m not bashing this particular aspect, only pointing it out. However, I do have this to say in critique:

In theory, I really like the idea. In execution, it fell a bit flat. The hardcopy I read was a book club edition and at 297 pages didn’t strike me as overly slim. I usually think works could be shorter without giving up anything, but in the case of The Postman, I thought it should have been much longer. Character development needed more time—many voices started to sound the same, that is, until they died, but I didn’t have much sympathy for the dead because they we’re developed enough for me to care. The lore of the gruesome “Survivalists” and latecomer “Super Soldiers” also could have been expanded upon. Lastly, there was “The Doomwar” that caused the downfall of the world, and while such a cataclysmic event can be cleverly, and minimally shrouded mystique and legend it is my personal conviction that the only mystery was shallow-ish world building. I’m not trashing this book, but I think there were missed opportunities.

If you’ve been following along, my campaign of reading standalone volumes of well-known authors is not turning out like I’d hoped. In the case of The Postman, it’s not one of Brin’s talked-about novels, and that only means I’ll have to read the first installment of the Uplift War to know if he’s an author worth spending quality time with. Looks like the reading list for 2019 (or in all likelihood, 2020) has already begun.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep this review from being only 2/5 stars.

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I’ve Fallen in Dragon With You?

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I have loosely dubbed 2018 as “year of the big books.” Mostly, these big books are novels which have languished on my shelves because of the long-term commitment they require. I have already accepted that I won’t get through fifty this year as approximately 10-12 of these novels clocking in at an average of 600 pages apiece will surely slow down the pace. That’s about 20-24 standard length books, and closer to 50-60 science fiction novels of the 60s and 70s. All said, this year’s big book enterprise begins with Peter F Hamilton’s standalone novel Fallen Dragon. He’s known for (only) writing tomes, so this isn’t a surprise. He’s also the big kuhana of sci-fi in the UK.

In the far-flung future of the 25th century, interstellar travel is old hat. In fact, its margins have shrunken to the point that only privateers commissioned by some of Earth’s biggest debt collectors can turn a profit which is euphemistically known as “asset realization.” Sergeant Lawrence Newton is one such pirate on a mission to recoup income for his company, Zantiu-Braun. But he has a secretly lucrative motivation as well. Alternatively, Denise Ebourn, a native of the planet where Newton and his gang intend to begin their looting, is plotting to foil him and the rest of the company’s plans. Espionage and intrigue in the ever-pursuit of money and knowledge are sure to ensue.

The narrative rotates primarily between Lawrence and Denise (but quite a many others in limited roles) as they plot, experience, and inhabit the vast universe that Hamilton has founded. In a turn from what I’ve read recently, Hamilton digs into some very hard science. We’re talking page-long paragraphs (sometimes multiple pages) explaining a concept. To some, this is what science-fiction should be (and to those, I say, go you!), but for me, well, sometimes I think the reason I became a writer was so that I could avoid math as much as possible. It makes me tired. So while it’s not my forte, I do endorse writers who can produce it with such aplomb. Also, there’s this: I’m always always always a fan a story over everything else. Anything within a story that gets in the way of the story, for me, is an unwanted distraction. My kind of science fiction novel is where the science is relevant, even necessary, but cannot override the story as the most important feature. A concept where I thought Hamilton excelled in providing science to build up and enhance the story was with the Zantiu-Braun soldier’s combat suits. Also known as “Skin,” these somewhat amphibiously described outfits equip each individual soldier with an almost impenetrable armor, a self-sustaining life-support system, telemetric communication with every other soldier, and all the weapons and ammunition you can shake an alien antenna at. Of course, as with any super-technology, the greatest reader satisfaction comes with learning that technology’s weakness and limitations: How do you kill an invincible soldier? It kept me reading.

While there were several other futuristic advances that I thought Hamilton placed and paced well (colonization, computer software, ecology), I do think the novel could have been about a hundred pages shorter and not lacked anything. There was a solid block of fifty pages of adolescent sensuality reminiscent of Kvothe’s heady romance with Felurian in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. In both places I kept saying, “Enough with the sex already! I get the picture.” But aside from this, the novel is well written, and characterization consistent.

Last year, I started a campaign of reading many standalone novels by various sci-fi/fantasy authors in order to glean an understanding or scope of the individual author’s work and there place in the genre’s as a whole. However, after reading Peter F Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon, the jury is still out. I didn’t love this book, but I enjoyed and appreciated it enough that it means I’ll have to read another by him.

A reasonable endorsement. 3/5 stars.

 

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Zap to the Future

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This will be a brief review of Philip K Dick’s The Zap Gun, and for three consise reasons. The first is that I’m requesting you read the most uncanny scene—by my account—in the book. The second is that I’ve now read two PDK novels (The Zap Gun and Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep?) and liked neither of them. I know there are some serious PDK zealots out there who may disabuse me for such blasphemous talk, so I offer you an alternative: three, recommend a PDK novel you can guarantee I will like.

But back to reason number one. Read the excerpt below and (despite my lukewarm feelings toward Dick’s works so far) I dare you to tell me that science fiction has not, in fact, informed science. The scene, as you will see, is the absolute and unadulterated harbinger of Siri and Alexa.

Reason two: Others have said, and I have also argued, that all science fiction is political. That’s fine. It should be. However—and this is a big however—I do not believe that a political statement should be paramount to the narrative. It should not be the point. Which is also to say that in my admittedly very small sample of PDK’s work, I feel like that’s all he’s doing: “I want to make a politically charged proclamation and I will do so by thinly veiling it in a novel.” Also, the gross adverbs (stickily, draggingly, hyponizedly) about made me scream.

Disagree? Well read The Zap Gun excerpt, enjoy it, and then comment here or on Facebook with your further reading suggestions.

(I’ve cut out some text as noted by ellipses in order to highlight PDK’s prescience).

…Then he happened onto a device resting on a low imitation tarslewood table. It was vaguely familiar and he picked it up, handled it with curiosity. Familiar and yet utterly strange.

The bedroom door was partly open. “What’s this?” he called…”This thing that looks like a human head with no features. The size of a baseball…What’s it do?” he asked, finding no switches.

“It amuses.”

“How?”

…”Say something to it.”…”Ask,” Maren said, “the Orville a question. Ol’ Orville is the rage. People cloister themselves for days with it, doing nothing but asking and getting answers. It replaces religion.”

“There is no religion,” he said, feeling serious. His experiences with the hyper-dimensional realm had disabused him of any dogmatic or devotional faith. If anyone living was qualified to claim knowledge of the “next world” it was he, and as yet he had discovered no transcendent aspect to it.

Maren said, “Then tell it a joke.”

…Here it was, Ol’ Orville, a novelty to fill the vacant time and brains of men and women whose jobs had degenerated into repetitious psychomotor activity on a level that a trained pigeon could better perform. God! His worst expectations were fulfilled!…”What am I?” he asked Ol’ Orville. “Forget my previous queries; just answer that! What have I become?” He squeezed the sphere angrily.

…Ol’ Orville stirred and spoke.

It was uncanny; he blinked as its…verbal response croaked at him, its answer to a question he had already forgotten asking. “Mr. Lars.”

“Yes,” he said, hypnotized.

Ol’ Orville creakily unwound its long-labored-for results. Toy though it was, Ol’ Orville was not facile. Too many components had gone into its make-up for it to be merely glib. “Mr. Lars, you have posed an ontological query. The Indo-European linguistic structure involved defeats a fair analysis; would you rephrase your question?”

After a moment of thought he said, “No, I wouldn’t.”

Ol’ Orville was silent and then it responded, “Mr. Lars, you are a forked radish.”

For the life of him he did not know whether to laugh. “Shakespeare,” he said, speaking to Maren who, now reasonably fully dressed, had joined him, was listening, too. “It’s quoting.”

“Of course. It relies on its enormous data-bank. What did you expect, a brand-new sonnet? It can only retail what it’s been fed. It can only select, not invent.” Genuinely puzzled, Maren said, “I honestly think, Lars, that all kidding aside, you really do not have a technical mind and really do not have any intellectual—”

“Be quiet,” he said. Ol’ Orville had more to offer.

Ol’ Orville whined draggingly, like a slowed-down disc, “You also asked, ‘What have I become?’ You have become an outcast. A wanderer. Homeless. To paraphrase Wagner—”

“Richard Wagner?” Lars asked. “The composer?”

“And dramatist and poet,” Ol’ Orville reminded him.

Maren said practically, nodding. “I paid sixty poscreds for you. Go ahead and blab.”

Ol’ Orville was chewing over a decision—as if it could decide, rather than, as Maren pointed out, merely select from the data installed in its file-banks. Finally it said, “I know what you want. You face a dilemma. You are in a dilemma, now. But you have never articulated it to yourself, never faced it.”

“What in hell is it?” he demanded, baffled.

Ol’ Orville said, “Mr. Lars, you have a terrible fear that one day you will enter your New York office, lie down and enter your trance-state, and revive with no sketches to show. In other words, lose your talent.” Except for Maren’s faintly asthmatic breathing as she smoked her Garcia y Vega cigarillo, the room was silent.

“Gee,” Lars said, mollified. He felt like a small, small boy, as if all the years of adulthood had been ripped away. It was an eerie experience….”Enough,” Lars said, looking at the object.

Ol’ Orville shut up.

 

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