Category Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Confession time: I’ve not read very much classic science fiction. As a kid, I was always more into dragons and wizards than space ships and aliens, and as an adult I find I’m just not often interested in reading books that are older than I am. Still, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the greats, Childhood’s End is one of my partner’s favorite books, and it’s getting a miniseries on SyFy later this year, so I felt like it was time to read this one.

I’m glad I did, although it was many of the things that I expected. It’s somewhat simplistic, the characters are rather shallow, and its politics are dated at best. I can see why Childhood’s End is a classic, though. It’s an excellent novel, a fairly quick read, and has some ideas that stand the test of time really well. This makes it an all around worthwhile read for anyone who really loves science fiction.

So, to start with, I hadn’t realized exactly how old this book was. When I started it, I was thinking it was from the 1960s, but it was actually published in 1953. This explains some of the weirdness early in the book, which almost reads as if it’s about the Cold War and the Space Race, but which couldn’t have been. While 1953 was early in the Cold War, the Space Race wouldn’t start for another two years, although apparently in 1953 Clarke didn’t see humanity making it to space before the mid-70s.

Although I don’t read much sci-fi from this period, I always find it entertaining to see what these older writers thought the future would look like then. The flip side of this, though, is that sometimes they were just dead wrong. For example, in a kind of throwaway mention early in the book, Clarke describes white people in South Africa as an oppressed minority by 1975, and I would love to go back in time and pick his brain about what made him think that. By 1953, South Africa was already five years into the apartheid that wouldn’t end until 1994.

Another interesting, if expected, thing about this book and Clarke’s vision of the future is that, like many of the men who wrote science fiction in the mid 20th century, Clarke seems perfectly capable of imagining a future in which humanity sheds all its puritanical sexual mores, but he didn’t imagine a future where women’s liberation happened. There are only a couple of women in Childhood’s End, and they are barely even characters at all. Maia Boyce’s single trait is being really beautiful. Jean Morrel is somewhat more important, but she’s basically a sort of 1950s housewife whose husband can’t be bothered to be “in love with” until the world is literally ending. Apparently post-1990 publications of the book have made one of the astronauts in the first chapter a woman, but not the copy of the book that I read.

Regarding race, Clarke’s dream of the future is even more frustrating. Like many sort of clueless white dudes, he seemed to think that racial slurs would survive into a post-racism world but that they would somehow just kind of magically lose their negative connotations. Which is just not how language works, and betrays a really weird fantasy, in my opinion, of being able to still be just as racist as ever except no one complains about it anymore.

At the same time, though, perhaps the most important character in Childhood’s End is a black man, Jan Rodricks, who is the only human to see the Overlords’ home world and survives to chronicle the last days of the planet Earth. Jan is written in a way that is non-stereotypical, and by the end of the book one definitely gets the feeling that Jan comes closest of any of the characters in Childhood’s End to being Arthur C. Clarke’s ideal of manhood. While the author may have some ideas about race and gender that seem archaic over sixty years later, he was certainly progressive for his time.

The thing about Childhood’s End, though, is that it’s really not a character-driven book. It doesn’t even have a particularly strong plot. Very little actually happens, and if one were to consider the story Clarke tells in this book against the whole backdrop of time, his portrait of humanity is akin to taking a snapshot of a 90-year-old person just moments before they die. Childhood’s End is a book about ideas, and the characters and story are almost incidental to the big things that Clarke wanted to think about in 1953.

In Childhood’s End, Clarke imagines a utopia, then the dystopia inside it. He dreams up a perfect world, then he picks it apart, and then he tells us that none of it matters anyway. I can’t tell if Childhood’s End is profoundly optimistic about humanity or if it’s deeply pessimistic, but it’s definitely given me some things to think about.

One thing I will say unequivocally, though, is that SyFy is definitely going to screw up the adaptation of it. Which is sad, because Charles Dance will be a perfect Karellan and I hate to see him wasted on whatever the nonsense is that SyFy is going to air with the same title as this lovely book.

Book Review: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

I’m not sure that most people would agree with me that The Philosopher Kings is a fun read, but I enjoyed it at least as well as I did its predecessor, The Just City.  After the rather abrupt and somewhat shocking ending of the previous book, I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

This book returns to the Just City, but after a gap of about twenty years. Since the Last Debate (between Socrates and Athena) things have changed considerably. After transforming Socrates into a gadfly, Athena departed in a huff, taking all but two of the robot Workers with her. Kebes and about a hundred and fifty other people (including several Masters) disappeared with one of the settlement’s two ships. After all this, the remaining people in the city split into more cities, each dedicated to realizing Plato’s Republic in slightly different ways. This went well enough at first, but in later years the cities have begun to fight over the art that was originally brought to the Just City, and there are now frequent battles between cities and works of art are stolen back and forth between them.

The Philosopher Kings begins with one of these art raids in progress, and Simmea (one of the points of view in The Just City) is killed in the fighting. Pytheas could have killed his human body, regained his powers as Apollo, and healed Simmea before she died, but she stopped him. The rest of the book is, ostensibly, about Pytheas’s quest to figure out why Simmea did this. Really, though, The Philosopher Kings picks up where The Just City left off with exploring the answers to the question: What would happen if people actually tried to put Plato’s ideas into practice?

It turns out that all sorts of things could happen, and we get to see several of them in this book. It’s fascinating to see how the different cities that split off from the original one have turned out, and it’s interesting to see what Kebes and his people have done after leaving the island. I like that even though the original city has fractured into smaller groups, even those smaller groups aren’t entirely like-minded.

The new narrator for this book is Simmea’s daughter with Pytheas, Arete (“excellence”), who is fifteen. She’s smart and kind and likable, but she still manages to seem like a fifteen-year-old. It’s nice to read a teen protagonist who isn’t overly precocious and who doesn’t have everything all figured out. Besides Arete, Pytheas returns as an occasional narrator, and it’s clear how much he’s grown up in twenty years. However, Simmea’s death affects him deeply and forces him to go through yet another sort of coming of age in this book. We really get to see how much he depended upon Simmea and how pretty much his entire life was his relationship with her, especially as the children they’ve raised are all adults now except for Arete. For Pytheas, this book is about finding his place in the community outside his own family. Also returning with point of view chapters in The Philosopher Kings is Maia, who is now in her fifties. While few in number, her chapters are by far my favorite parts of the novel.

The only problem that I had with The Philosopher Kings is the way it dealt with rape. While I appreciate that this book didn’t forget Maia’s or Simmea’s rapes in The Just City, Simmea’s rape is used too much as a motivating force for Pytheas and Maia’s rapist, Ikaros, is largely redeemed by the end of the book, in the narrative if not in the eyes of the reader. While I think the intent is not to treat rape lightly–rather, the impression I got was that it’s just one more messy aspect of human interactions that would be better in a more just society–I also think it kind of does treat rape lightly. Ikaros, in particular, is given too much credit, in my opinion, for being a fundamentally decent person, and there are some things he says to Maia in this book that had me absolutely seeing red on her behalf.

Some readers have complained that the book is overly philosophical with too much debating going on, but I, personally, adore the debates between characters. This was a common complaint about The Just City as well, so if you didn’t like that book you probably won’t enjoy this one any more. Another complaint that I’ve seen about this book in particular is that it abruptly and unexpectedly turned into science fiction at the end, but this is also something that appealed to me. Of course, that’s partly because, to my mind, this series has always been science fiction (I mean, robots.), but it’s also because I enjoy heavy handed genre bending of this kind.

With that in mind, I was super thrilled to learn that this isn’t a duology as I originally thought, but a trilogy. The bad news, of course, is that it’s not a six month wait like between the first two books. Per Jo Walton herself, it looks like we can’t expect to see Necessity before mid 2016.

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation is something else.

That said, I wouldn’t say that it was weird, exactly, as it has so much in common with traditional genre work.

It’s science fiction in the sense that it’s about science; in fact, it’s told from the first person point of view of a biologist, ostensibly on a scientific expedition. There’s a lot of scientific-sounding observations and a lot of scientific terminology tossed around. However, most of what the biologist encounters is decidedly not scientific, is indeed almost certainly supernatural or alien in nature, moving Annihilation firmly into the realm of the fantastical.

The biologist might have the mind of a scientist, but she has the soul of a poet. The descriptions of Area X’s environs are full of lush imagery and gorgeous turns of phrase that grant the whole book a sort of dreamlike quality. At times it even slips into what feels like nothing more than stream of consciousness narration, liberal interspersed with the biologists memories from before the expedition and an entire secondary story nestled in there about the biologist’s marriage, a tragic romance if there ever was one.

It’s a mystery in the sense that the reader doesn’t quite know what’s going on, but there’s no explanation in the end, and the biologist (and therefore the reader) finds far more new questions than answers over the course of the book. While reading, I generally felt like I was getting more and more information, but I was left somewhat frustrated at the end even though I felt like the biologist’s story ended in a way that felt just right for her.

Probably the thing Annihilation is most like is the works of Lovecraft and his copycats, but it’s not really horror, either. While there are some horror elements, especially of the psychological kind, I found the book to be more melancholy than anything else, and the biologist’s very detached, clinical style of narration rather dissected her feelings of horror more than it projected them to the reader. I felt like I was reading about horror, not experiencing it.

I suppose I would call Annihilation a work of literary surrealism, which definitely earns it a place under the SF umbrella, but aside from the common comparisons of it to Lovecraft (and those comparisons aren’t truly apt), I’d say it defies ordinary genre classification.

I can’t say that I particularly liked Annihilation, but there are things I loved about it. Its lovely prose and well-though-out structure show the meticulous craft that went into its creation. I don’t think I will be reading the rest of the trilogy, though. Annihilation left me wanting to know more about Area X, but it just wasn’t a very enjoyable read for me. Not enough to make me want to read another two books like it.

Reading Queers Destroy Science Fiction is a great way to celebrate the SCOTUS marriage equality ruling

Last year, Lightspeed invited women to destroy SF; this year the LGBTQ+ community gets their turn. It’s glorious, and it kicked off this month with a massive special issue of Lightspeed.

lightspeed_61_june_2015At over 500 pages (according to my epub of it), Queers Destroy Science Fiction! is a weighty piece of work, and it’s clear that it’s been conceived and crafted with deep caring and exquisite attention to its purpose. Most importantly, a real (and successful!) effort was made to be inclusive of the entire QUILTBAG acronym, and the more than two dozen personal essays included in the issue are must-read content for this reason. If you’re not queer, they offer a great variety of different perspectives to learn from; if you are queer, there’s a multitude of stories to identify with. Either way, if you have a soul something here will speak to you.

The fiction included is well chosen, which is characteristic of the publication in general, and there is a good mix of work included. My favorites, in no particular order except the one I read them in:

  • “Trickier With Each Translation” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam – a bit of a time traveling super hero love story
  • “The Tip of the Tongue” by Felicia Davin – a story about reading and government control that has given me a new nightmare
  • “Plant Children” by Jessica Yang – a sensitively written romance about plants and family
  • “Nothing is Pixels Here” by K.M. Szpara – a story about hard choices
  • “Two by Two” by Tim Susman – a story about the end of the world and how we might face it and who we will face it with
  • “Melioration” by E. Saxey – about the power of words
  • “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs – an astronaut survival story
  • “Bucket LIst Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks  Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind” by Erica L. Satifka – exactly what the title says, but sad and beautiful (I love the conceit of telling a story through a found piece of ephemera.)
  • “A Brief History of Whaling with Remarks Upon Ancient Practices” by Gabby Reed – exactly what the title says, but also sad and beautiful
  • “In the Dawns Between Hours” by Sarah Pinsker – about why or why not and when to use a time machine if you can
  • “Letter From an Artist to a Thousand Future Versions of Her Wife” by JY Yang – another story that is exactly what the title says, but also sad and beautiful (If you can’t tell, sad and beautiful are two of my favorite attributes in short fiction, and I’m also a sucker for clinically descriptive titles.)
  • “CyberFruit Swamp” by Raven Kaldera – definitely the most graphically sexual story in the collection (and be sure to read the author spotlight on Raven Kaldera)
  • “The Sound of His Wings” by Rand B. Lee
  • and “O Happy Day!” by Geoff Ryman – Both of these stories deal with obvious Nazi metaphors and totalitarian futures, but with vastly different approaches and two very different ways of integrating queerness into the narrative.

In nonfiction, aside from the truly wonderful personal essays, there’s also a nice piece on Robert A. Heinlein’s influence and an excellent interview with David Gerrold. This, however, leads to my only real complaint about the issue, which is that the David Gerrold interview is extremely poorly formatted. I thought it might just be the epub version of the magazine,  but it appears that the online version of the interview is similarly difficult to read because with no quotation marks, italics, or block quoting it’s hard to tell what parts of it are David Gerrold’s statements and what parts are Mark Oshiro’s commentary.

At just $3.99, Queers Destroy Science Fiction! is a great value, and I highly recommend purchasing it. Queers Destroy Horror!, a special issue of Nightmare will be out in October, followed by a Queers Destroy Fantasy! issue of Fantasy Magazine in December. And in 2016, Lightspeed will be doing POC Destroy Science Fiction! with guest editor Nalo Hopkinson.

Book Review: The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu

Three-Body-CoverThe Three-Body Problem was first published in Chinese several years ago, and this is the first time it’s been available in English. Translated by Ken Liu (author of The Grace of Kings), it’s highly readable and I honestly hope that this is only the beginning of a huge influx of Chinese SF if this is the sort of wonderful stuff we are missing. Lack of translated works is a problem in general, but it’s especially notable with genre fiction, which is too bad, because literally every culture has its own traditions of speculative fiction and, goodness knows, we could use as many perspectives as we can get.

This book begins during the Cultural Revolution, of which I was sadly ignorant before I read this book. White middle class Mid-Western girls weren’t taught much Asian history to speak of back in the 1990s. Fortunately, there is enough explanation in the book, between the text itself and some very useful footnotes, to help historically illiterate Americans muddle through, although I would suggest reading at least a few Wikipedia articles if you’re as clueless as I was about this part of history. I actually expected to spend a lot more time Googling historical and cultural references than I did, and I probably would have spent a lot less time on it if I didn’t have a tendency to get sucked into Wikipedia for hours at a time. So if the intention of the author and translator was to make the book easily accessible to US readers, I think the footnotes, which were smartly chosen and concisely written, were well done and didn’t distract too much from the story.

The story itself takes some time to unfold, and it’s only towards the end of the book that I felt a real sense of urgency and momentum in the plot–only to find myself waiting for the next book in the trilogy. This would annoy me a lot more if the second book wasn’t coming out so soon (The Dark Forest – July 7, 2015), but as it is I’m just eaten up with anticipation for it.

The characters in The Three-Body Problem were interesting, and I loved Ye Wenjie in particular. Wang Miao was much less fascinating, but was a perfectly serviceable protagonist. The supporting characters were excellent, and I would go learn Chinese immediately if I learned there were any books about the adventures of Shi Qiang.

Something that is maybe not that big a deal in China but that I really appreciated was the overall gender parity. Women are present throughout the book and fill a variety of roles without being reduced to any recognizable stereotypes or boring sci-fi tropes. They felt real, and didn’t seem to be marginalized on account of their gender at all. My only quibble with the treatment of women in the book is that I would have liked to learn a little more about Wang Miao’s wife, who seemed to be completely forgotten about when she wasn’t literally in the room with Wang.

Most SF is as much, or more, about ideas than it is about just telling stories, and The Three-Body Problem is definitely heavy on ideas, but it never feels preachy. It examines a rather ugly part of Chinese history, it talks about environmentalism, and it considers the role of scientific thought in culture.

Ultimately, though, it’s a book about what would happen if we really did make contact with extraterrestrial life, but there’s no happy Star Trek vision of the future here. Humanity can be nasty, and there’s no guarantee that aliens would be any better than we are. I can’t wait to find out how humanity comes to terms with this knowledge in the rest of this series.