Category Archives: science fiction

Book Review: Beef by Mat Blackwell

BeefBeef by Mat Blackwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Woah!” Continue reading Book Review: Beef by Mat Blackwell

Advertisements

Review: Xenotech First Contact Day by Dave Schroeder

Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association (Xenotech Support, #0)Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association by Dave Schroeder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this short introduction to the Xenotech series. It was quick and fun and it made me laugh. These books would make a good read-aloud book for families because the humor works on both kid and kid-at-heart levels. I am curious how and whether the author will be able to sustain this pace and tone through an entire book series, but he seems to have enough depth of life experience to draw on to make it work. I’d also like to see him take a few more risks and let a darker, more serious side show in his work too (a la Douglas Adams). That would be hard to do in this short intro but would give more depth to longer works. A promising beginning to what looks like a fun series!

View all my reviews

The Literature of our Time?

American WarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Personal Review of American War by Omar El Akkad

I conceived of the original idea for my WIP in 2012. It is a science fiction novel with a young adult protagonist set in the year 2074, and I wrote an early draft during the 2012 NaNoWriMo. At the time of that election, maps of blue and red states divided into different “countries” with humorous labels were being widely distributed on social media.

USCartoonMap

I used to read these and laugh. I lived then, as now and for most of my life, comfortably in a big, wealthy, blue US state. And I didn’t take the whole idea of my country splitting up very seriously. The Federalized USA aspect of my novel was a thought experiment. In real life I believed that the Civil War, and the slave trade that spawned it, was ancient history, a tragedy and a disaster on a scale too horrific to contemplate ever happening again.

Now here I am in 2017, reading and reviewing a book about a second American Civil War. Others have reviewed it more generally and skillfully; this review will be simply a personal opinion, based on my own experiences and ideas.

My first reaction, upon finding out that this book existed was, “oh rats, I didn’t write fast enough.” Not only does it take place in the same time frame as mine, and depict the USA splitting apart, but some of the action takes place in Louisiana (as does mine), and it follows the fortunes of a teenage girl of mixed ethnicity whose father disappears and who is the main viewpoint character (as my novel does). North America is irrevocably changed due to the effects of fossil fuel overuse, climate change, the flooding of the coastal cities and creation of internal refugees (ideas that also play out in my novel). I picked up American War more out of a sense of duty—because if I’m going to write eco-science-fiction, I should know what’s out there and what’s been written on the topic—than out of real excitement. In the back of my mind, I thought, I should finish and publish my own book before it’s too late and *every* book is about this.

As of this writing, American War has gotten a lot of praise, much of it well-deserved. The world building and construction of future history is excellent. The author’s journalistic touch is evident in the immediacy of the storytelling. Like other groundbreaking works of art, this novel does not hew to a standard creative writing format of protagonist/antagonist/try-fail cycles. Its style will probably have wider appeal than most post-apocalyptic science fiction does; it will likely be read in blue-state book groups. The futuristic technology is not particularly interesting, well thought out, or essential to the narrative: the novel is not really science fiction; it’s not a hero’s journey; and it’s not even a tragedy in the literary sense.

My inability to classify it may be at the root of why I found it unsatisfying. Or there may be other reasons: unsympathetic characters, confusing plot points, a limited view of what human beings are capable of, a failure of vision. Or all of the above.

I didn’t like the character of Sarat Chestnut. A mere lack of likability wouldn’t be a problem in a novel, especially for an anti-hero. But for someone so important to this fictional world and the events described therein, Sarat was practically a cipher with no inner life to speak of. She was ostensibly a tween girl, then a teenager, and then a youngish woman made old before her time, but she read more like a man, and not only because she was 6’5”, bald, good at fist fights, and sexually attracted to girls.

I wanted to know what Sarat thought, and felt, about her parents before they were killed. Her relationships with Marcus and with Albert Gaines were more fully realized than any of her family relationships. Today’s burning issues of racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, and religion itself, appear to play little to no role in Sarat’s ideology or motivation. I wanted to know what it was like to be genderqueer then, in the rotting remains of a society that had once recognized same-sex marriage and held celebratory pride parades. I wanted to know why she insisted that they schlep that statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe northward to the refugee camp. Did Sarat ever think about God, or an afterlife, or any big metaphysical questions, even if only to reject the easy answers?

Instead, all I got from Sarat, after she had everything brutally taken from her (but survived herself virtually unscathed), was her inexplicably destroying a bunch of her mentor’s books in his office. Even in the depths of the worst torture the Blues could throw at her, she was never really vulnerable. Where did that strength (or that sheer cussedness) come from? Nothing forged it, nothing fed it, nothing broke it; she simply seemed to have been born with it, and it carried her to her grave. The otherwise superfluous Yuffsy fight scene also seemed to be there to underscore this particular theme by showing Taylor, an old, broken fighter, simply continuing to fight his superior opponent, stubbornly and ineffectually, unto death.

There were other aspects of the book that I thought were just silly: the out-of-control drones, for example. In a real war there would have been much more redundancy built into the system; taking out one server farm wouldn’t have been enough to render the “birds” permanently deaf. More interesting was the implication of psychological warfare—hinted at but not stated outright—that the drones weren’t really deaf or out of the Blues’ control; they were just believed to be. And I could have done without the portentous omniscient 3rd-person narrator butting in at random times to tell me that the Chestnuts never really had to move North in the first place, or that Sarat would never see her brother again.

This is not to say that I thought all the characters were cardboard or the relationships unrealistic. I enjoyed the section told from Benjamin’s point of view the most of the entire book. His relationship with Sarat was genuine and touchingly portrayed, and it provided a bit of relief from the unrelenting darkness of the rest of the narrative. But the conceit that it was told from a 6-year-old’s point of view frayed quickly because he didn’t usually sound like a 6-year-old, and events and conversations were described at which 6-year-old Benjamin would not have been present.

The sentence that “you win the peace with stories,” was underlined in my Kindle version, suggesting that it resonated with a lot of readers. Its implication in context was that the Blues might have won the war by superior military firepower, but they were not winning the peace because they didn’t understand that truism about stories. I waited for that quote to be skillfully dramatized in the novel, and am still waiting. It’s not a spoiler to say that nobody won the peace in this book.

Like The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (which I reviewed here earlier this year), American War serves as a well-done cautionary tale of what could happen to the world if humanity does not change course. Such books may be proliferating in these times, and they reflect our deepest anxieties. But it is my opinion that stories like these can only go so far in helping us win the peace. We also need the optimism of Star Trek, the literature of empathy, characters with rich inner lives, and the faith to imagine something different.

View all my reviews

Thursday Doors: Self-Driving Car

More geeky doors for Thursday Doors!

The Computer History Museum near the Googleplex is a good place to take guests who are visiting for graduation (or anything else). I’m not a computer scientist myself, but I’m the wife of one and my dad, a chemist, has always been an early adopter of computer technology. I think we had one of the earliest IBM PC’s in our home back in 1981.

The museum is comprehensive, from Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs. And I just felt like including this picture of one of the first computer video games, Spacewar,  because it’s cool. Spacewar was developed in 1962 and runs on a machine called a PDP-1.

Spacewar being played on a restored PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View
Spacewar being played on a restored PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View

But, let’s leave the desktop computers for a minute, and move on to computers that move! When we moved to Mountain View, it didn’t take long for us to see self-driving cars motoring around the neighborhood. They always have someone in them, though, who kind of looks like he or she is driving, so it’s not as odd of a sight as it might be.

The museum has one of these cars for visitors to sit in, both doors permanently wide open.

Side Door to Waymo Car

In my in-progress SF novel, set in the year 2074, I write about a patchwork self-driving car usage. Some cities and regions have only self-driving cars. Some are reliant on public transit like subways and trams, and have walkable and bikeable downtown areas. And in that world, for cultures who do use cars, I envision an autopilot option that comes with every vehicle, but that its use is voluntary. Some characters in particular don’t like to use that option, and their attitudes towards transportation serve to reveal more about their character.

Myself, I’m a fan of self-driving cars, at least as long as they’re electric and can be built to run on sustainable technologies. I believe they have the potential to increase safety and decrease traffic congestion. And I’ve never been so enamored of driving that not being at the wheel myself seems disappointing. Actually I quite like the idea of still being able to get around independently when I’m, say, 95, and my vision and reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

The author in the back seat of a Waymo car
Take me home, Jeeves!

Mundane Monday: CITO Events

This past weekend was Earth Day in the United States. There were marches in support of science in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which I agreed with and supported, but didn’t end up going to. I am an introvert and don’t like crowds. Continue reading Mundane Monday: CITO Events

Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

A Gleam of Light (The Survival Trilogy #1)A Gleam of Light by T.J. Wolf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Gleam of Light has many of the elements of a first-rate thriller: a sympathetic protagonist, mystery, conflict, and a fascinating backdrop. It’s clear that a great deal of thought and research has gone into this book. These elements, however, need to be put together differently to keep the reader really turning its pages.

Continue reading Book Review: A Gleam of Light by TJ and ML Wolf

Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Tales From Alternate EarthsTales From Alternate Earths by Daniel M. Bensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this idea for an anthology and even though the premise is popular and often tried, I was intrigued to pick it up and explore the stories. My favorites were “Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon,” which also had the best title and the most imaginative characters, and “The Secret War,” which provided a unique twist to a story I already thought I knew something about.

Continue reading Book Review: Tales From Alternate Earths

Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paolo Bacigalupi is a master of near-future dystopian science fiction. I’ve been dabbling in the genre, and reading this book made me realize that I have a long way to go with respect to world building. In many ways, this book is a textbook for how it should be done. The book is richly drawn, with complex characters, plausible extrapolation of current events, catchy slang, and unexpected twists and turns. With The Water Knife, Bacigalupi is at the top of his imaginative game.

Continue reading Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story

I was going to post this review a couple weeks earlier, but the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia, delayed my finishing it. Leia was barely in this installment, and much of the initial discussion of her cameo focused on the CGI. But even though I haven’t been a real Star Wars geek for many years, Fisher’s death hit me hard. Continue reading Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story

Book Review: The Secret King–Lethao, by Dawn Chapman

The Secret King: LethaoThe Secret King: Lethao by Dawn Chapman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book bears a heavy responsibility. It is part of a larger team enterprise called The Secret King, which has a website, several book titles, a dictionary, audiobooks, 3D artwork, and a created language associated with it. This book, Lethao (named for the home planet), is where it all starts in more ways than one: it introduces the important characters, their conflicts, and their quest. Continue reading Book Review: The Secret King–Lethao, by Dawn Chapman