Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best reads of 2012

In fact only one actually published this year, the following are the best speculative fiction books I read or re-read in 2012.

Nightwings - Robert Silverberg
Tying together history, spirituality, and the future of humanity, Silverberg’s three novellas collected in Nightwings are gloriously transcendent.

If there is a list of ‘best of’ writers in the world today, Chabon is on it.  Able to take such disparate ideas as Alaska, Jewish culture, detective noir, and mix them in a poignant tale, his audience--and my--praise is deserving.  

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell
Notes taken from the five months Orwell spent living, reporting, and fighting in Spain's civil war, the writer's non-fiction is every bit as sharp and perceptive as his imagined stories.  This book is the primer for the world's political schemes--anarchy, socialism, capitalism and all grades between--in practice.

The Affirmation - Christopher Priest
Using the tropes of sci-fi to full, human effect, Priest examines how mankind perceives the world and the subjectivity inherent.  All too real.

Review of "Thief of Time" by Terry Pratchett

Thief of Time is, according to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett’s 26th official entry into the Discworld series.  Published roughly six months after The Truth and six months before The Last Hero, Thief of Time finds Pratchett in good form, extemporizing on the scientific quest to put time in a bottle versus more transcendental ideologies revolving around passive regard to the great clock of life (pun intended for those who’ve read the book!).

Thief of Time opens at a monastery where the History Monks keep the spindles of time greased and spinning eternally.  Lobsang Lud, a common monk, averts a major disaster one day and earns himself an apprenticeship with the master, Lu-tze.  Meanwhile in Ankh-Morpork, a down-on-his-luck clockmaker, Jeremy Clockson, is commissioned by an Auditor-in-disguise to build the world’s first glass clock, and is not told that the giant mechanism will in fact stop time rather than measure it.  Seeking the stoppage of time to have the time to account for all the matter and molecules in the world, the Auditors send one of their own, Myria Lejean, to ensure Jeremy performs his commission, little knowing the effects and influence of mortal life will have on her.  When Lobsang and Lu-tze learn of the secret plot, they rush to Ankh-Morpork to stop the end of time.  All hell breaking loose—literally and figuratively—when they arrive in town, it seems everyone on the Disc is a stakeholder in the moment.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review of "The Amber Spyglass" by Phillip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the exciting and subversive conclusion to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy.  Lyra and Will having been turned loose in the multiverse described in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass - US) and The Subtle Knife, the time has come to draw their plight to a close—and does the author ever do it in dramatic, fantastical fashion.  But given the wealth of symbolism and subtle digs at contemporary dogma embedded in the underlying narrative of the trilogy, the conclusion is delivered in anything but standard fantasy style.

Of the three books in the series, The Amber Spyglass is the most jam-packed with story.  The action detailed and steady from the first page onward, the wheels of event and character never cease revolving.  The book opens with Will deciding whether to start a rescue action of Lyra, who was kidnapped by Mrs. Coulture and the golden monkey at the end of The Subtle Knife.  But angels visit and try to convince Will to bring the subtle knife to Lord Asriel instead, joining him in his fight with the Authority.  Only at a temporary loss for direction, Will soon enough makes a choice and is on his way, marching toward an inevitable climax.  Where he goes and who he goes with, not to mention Lyra’s fate, are for the reader to find out.  Suffice to say, it’s not always of this world, sees a major revolution unfolding in ways nobody planned, and has moments of happiness and heartbreak to soften the hardest heart.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review of "The Subtle Knife" by Phillip Pullman

The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… trilogy.  Picking up events loosely where Northern Lights/The Golden Compass left off, the novel expands upon the first to include a variety of other worlds.  It also focuses on a new pillar in the series: the boy Will.  While style and theme remain consistent with the first book, readers will find whole new worlds and characters to enjoy.

The Subtle Knife opens with Lyra, having followed Lord Asriel into the gateway he created by killing Roger, entering a place called Citigazze.  Citigazze a strange and eerie city in ruins, Lyra soon stumbles upon a young boy her age named Will Parry. Will, a stranger to the world as well, is seeking a way back to his own world, in addition to his long-lost father.  Husks of human bodies laying about the desolate city, Will and Lyra come upon strange creatures called spectres and are immediately chased, fleeing for their lives.  Coming into the possession of a strange, ultra-sharp knife in the process, the duo soon learn that many more places exist than just Aurora, Citigazze, and Will’s Earth, a father lost among them.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review of "Northern Lights/The Golden Compass" by Phillip Pullman

Begun in 1995 and finished five years later, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… is a trilogy of uniquely imaginative fantasy books written for both teenagers and adults.  A product of post-modern times if ever the phenomenon existed, Pullman’s objective in the trilogy is to invert/subvert a variety of literary conceptions, particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost and C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia.  Naturally drawing the ire of a variety of religious organizations and institutions in the process, the trilogy also attracted critical acclaim, two of the books winning major awards.  The dearth of imagination, daring storytelling, and overall sense of wonder are undoubtedly the reason.  Perhaps most interesting, however, is its originality.

The first book of His Dark Materials... is called Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), which tells the story of Lyra Belacqua and her quest to discover what Dust is.  Lyra existing in a world not our own, a strong steampunk feel permeates the setting of Jordan College where she lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel.  Privy to a conversation she was never supposed to overhear, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon, soon find themselves on the adventure of a lifetime.  Following in the footsteps of her uncle, all manner of witches, armored polar bears, gypsies, hot air balloons, and mystical northern lights aid and chase her into the arctic north.  With the magical and mysterious alethiometer in hand, Lyra needs every bit of her rebellious wit and cleverness if she is to remain one step ahead of Mrs. Coulture and her golden monkey, and draw one step closer to the answers of what exactly her uncle is doing with Dust.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review of "Forever Free" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War and 1997 Forever Peace were huge successes for the author, winning many of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, not to mention garnering him a solid fan base in the process.  Though they share similar sounding titles and a military motif, little else between the two novels resembles the other.  When it was announced in 1999 that Haldeman would be publishing a true sequel to The Forever War entitled Forever Free, the sci-fi community was abuzz: William Mandella was returning.  Opinion in the aftermath could not be more divided.

Forever Free does indeed pick up the life of William Mandella, his wife Marygay, and the two children they've conceived since.  Living on a cold, dreary planet called Middle Finger (a none-too-subtle touch of symbolism by Haldeman), the Mandellas, amidst a larger group of veterans and Taurans, serve as untainted gene pools, kept in isolation for “protective purposes”.  Governed by a genetically perfect version of humanity called the Man, a posthuman group-mind, the Mandellas and others spend their days in bland, domestic rote on Middle Finger, life far from idyllic.  The monotony of the situation drives the Mandellas to plot a daring escape involving a space ship, 10 years subjective time/40,000 years time dilation, and a grand tour of the universe.  Their plans kicking off without a hitch, very soon, however, things start to go awry in ways that seem to defy reality, and getting at the heart of the issue may change the definition of “universe” for all.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Fictionally Interesting” Science Fiction: A Response to Alastair Reynolds

Popular science fiction author Alastair Reynolds recently posted on his blog about a perceived condescension toward recent publications of big concept/abstract sc-fi—you know, space ships, aliens, laser guns, and the like.  Feeling that the large-scale entertainment side of the genre is being overlooked in favor of near-future dystopias, he makes some interesting statements in response. I quote one here:

“SF should not concern itself with writing about the most probable future, it should concern itself with what is the most fictionally interesting - be that probable, possible or downright unlikely.”

Fictionally interesting, hmm, a wide open door if I’ve ever seen one…

Reading Reynolds’ sci-fi, one is not surprised he would state such an opinion.  His novels predominantly retro in style, they utilize many of the genre’s well-worn tropes and are written in a style even he calls transparent.  Upgraded entertainment for a new generation, there is little new or challenging in the books.  In other words, they easily fit into the category of “fictionally interesting” science fiction, but unfortunately few others.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review of "Forever Peace" by Joe Haldeman

Despite the similarities in name, Joe Haldeman’s 1997 Forever Peace shares nothing in common with his huge success, The Forever War, save the military science fiction motif.  Winning its own accolades (the Nebula, Hugo, and John W. Campbell Awards), Forever Peace is a novel less focused on the portent of war and more on the idea of universal understanding.  Not without its share of action, however, readers will find Haldeman back in The Forever War form, the novel containing both depth and entertainment.  

Forever Peace is the story of Julian Class, both scientist and operator of a mechanized robot called a “soldierboy” for the US military.  By jacking in to a device that collectively links operators to their soldierboys, teams are able to carry out covert missions in support of US economic, and by default, political interest.  The only fallback to the device is, when operatives link together for a certain period of time, they transcend to greater heights of human understanding and become passive, no longer interested in violence or war.  The US government’s usage of the soldierboys not always for altruistic purposes, it becomes up to Julian, and his girlfriend Amelia, to spread the word about the system’s abilities to pacify violent inclination and avoid major conflict in the process.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Review of "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1976 The Forever War is one of those rare novels, like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Pohl’s Gateway, that runs away with nearly every major American science fiction award the year it was published.  Winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus, it is undoubtedly a combination of the book’s thematic elements and commentary on contemporary concerns (the Vietnam War) that won the book such high acclaim.  And it is all worth it.  Not the most stylistic or prosaic of novels, The Forever War nevertheless remains one of the best examples of how science fiction is capable of commenting on the human condition in relevant fashion.

The Forever War is the story of William Mandella, a student drafted into an extra-planetary war with the alien Taurans.  Before being sent to the front, Mandella undergoes training of severe duress, a la Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  Though a number of his contemporaries do not survive the training, nothing can prepare them for the experiences of actual combat.  Returning to Earth years subjective time later, but decades, even centuries objective time later due to the dilatory effects of space travel, Mandella finds that what he left behind is not as it was.  And this is only the beginning of his troubles.  Civil hostility and locating gameful employment difficult, Mandella is soon back in the place he left, the military, and more war on the way.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

As a teacher I’m aware there are a variety of criteria for properly implanting knowledge in students’ minds.  It goes without saying that the more of these criteria included in the lesson, the greater the chances the knowledge has of taking root and developing into something greater in the head of the receiver.  Presentation only part of the game, examples need to be consistent with the lesson’s aim.  Writers who attempt moral pieces, face the same situation.  Profound subjects cannot be staged in helium tones if the seriousness of the message is to be fully absorbed and applied.  David Mitchell’s 2004 Cloud Atlas, a stunningly written and magnificently presented work—merits by which it can be appreciated alone—nevertheless falls victim to a juxtaposition of content and intent.

Cloud Atlas is not one, but six independent stories stowed one inside the other, or, as Mitchell himself words it: “In the 1 st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”  Decades between the stories, several threads—names, places, subjects, a birthmark, etc.—wend their way through each of the narratives to create a pictoral whole.  Otherwise, each tile in the mosaic features different characters from differing time periods.  From a notary in the Pacific of the 19th century to a clone in the late 22nd fast food business, each story has an individual theme and tone.

Review of "Life of Pi" by Yann Martell

Not trapped in a zoo, not trapped in a building, not trapped in a cage, but trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger at sea.  How long would you survive?  Would you be able to overcome your fear and try to assuage the situation?  Would the absurdity begin to make you think it all a dream?  Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is such a story.  Playing with itself intra-textually, Martel’s story raises more questions than it answers, in the process telling a tale of survival at sea like has never been told. 

Piscine Molitor Patel, more happily called Pi, is a young boy growing up in Pondicherry, India.  His parents own a zoo, a facet of life that gives pleasure to an existence that is otherwise filled with taunts about his name.  Deciding to move to Canada to better their prospects, one day Pi’s parents pack the animals in a freighter and head out to sea.  They never arrive on Western shores, however. The ship capsizing, Pi is left afloat with only himself, a lifeboat, and a few animals—a hyena, orangutan, zebra, and Bengal tiger included. His adventure has only begun.