Category Archives: Science Fiction

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.