Tag Archives: Ecofiction

Book Review: Muir Woods or Bust, by Ian Woollen

Muir Woods Or BustMuir Woods Or Bust by Ian Woollen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Muir Woods or Bust is a gonzo-esque romp through the near future. More hopeful and humorous than its dystopian cousins, it is like an On the Road for gamers and Science Fiction nerds. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief in the road-trip plot, at first. Even in context it seemed like something out of an earlier time, as if two aging losers–one of them a widely recognizable former TV star–would really be able to get away with all this with zero negative consequences. Still, once it got going, the action and the colorful characters that they encountered kept me turning the (virtual eBook) pages. As the trip unfolded, I also stopped viewing Gil and Doyle as aging losers, which was, of course, the point.

In fact I would have preferred that the road trip started a bit sooner. This novel is one of several that I’ve read lately that uses a book-within-a-book device, and what I’ve learned from that reading is that this device should be used sparingly, if at all. Like the perennial “writing about writing,” it limits your audience and can easily throw the reader out of the story. Here, the author pulls it off reasonably well, only occasionally overdoes it, and although things take a while to get going, he manages to slip the reader some interesting backstory about John Muir in the process. He also balances his writing about Gil’s Muir book with writing about Doyle’s old TV show, Yosemite Yahoos, and Chum’s video game, Phantom Vampire, and all three of these media adventures play a significant role in the plot and themes.

I was also happy to read female characters who were not just there to be hit on by our madcap road-tripping dude protagonists. Gil’s messy relationship with his late wife Melody, and his grief and attempts at healing, are poignantly rendered; as is Chum’s rudderlessness in the wake of his mother’s death. Less successful was the character of Amanda, an unstable and burned out graduate student whose skeevy ex-boyfriend—conveniently for our heroes–just happens to be a tech billionaire. Still, the author demonstrates enough sensitivity for what woman entrepreneurs and creators face in the tech world to make her a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.

The book ends in California, my adopted home, and while the state’s portrayal is an exaggeration like everything else in this story, I recognized it as a place of reckoning, where environmental beauty and human creativity come together in a crazy but wonderful mix. It surprised me how much I had come to care about and even like these characters. And when it was over, like Gil, I felt hopeful that “we’ll find a way,” as a species, to deal with whatever gets thrown at us. After all, what choice do we have?

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Sweetening the Agenda

The Erenwine AgendaThe Erenwine Agenda by Maia Kumari Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Erenwine Agenda is an ambitious eco-fiction romance which wraps a complicated and often contentious topic into an appealing package. The book tells the story of the romance between Amalia Erenwine, an intern at an architectural firm, and Mark Stone, a geologist who works for an energy company that Amalia’s firm is designing a building for. Amalia and Mark express different points of view about fracking and energy policy, and their political differences play out against the backdrop of the 2012 US Presidential election and Hurricane Sandy in New York City. I found it an enjoyable read, even though I wasn’t fully convinced by the author’s environmental or romantic agendas.

The author handled the subjects of fracking and green energy generally in a sensitive manner that didn’t devolve into boredom or preachiness. I especially liked the scene at the church for its characterizations and its presentation of diverse points of view. And I loved her point at the end: that the best solutions to a problem often come indirectly, when you stop pushing for them. The novel provided a blueprint for how people of goodwill can work through tough disagreements and preserve relationships. While this novel takes place in 2012, the contentiousness of the 2016 election makes the message of continuing to talk to each other and look for solutions across the political divide more relevant than ever.

I am only an occasional reader of romance, but as I understand it, the genre has certain conventions that were not evident in this story. Amalia and Mark were both young, hip, nice people, and moderately complex characters, but the story lacked romantic chemistry and sexual tension. Their disagreements with each other at the church discussion came across as off-putting and not particularly intriguing, overshadowed by the more interesting stories told by the other participants. And there were none of the traditional obstacles that keep star-crossed lovers apart—no misunderstandings, dark secrets, or jealous lovers–not even the promise of riches or a change in social station. As a result, it wasn’t important enough to me that these two characters get together at the end for the romance to be able to drive the plot.

In general the pacing was a little off, and the whole book was talky and overly long. It opened with . . . a meeting. Some tension was building for a while as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city, but the storm’s consequences for our hero and heroine were completely benign. I needed to know more about how the characters were feeling about their situation at different points. They needed to be in some danger–physical, emotional, or psychological–but I never felt that urgency or intensity.

I’m also ambivalent about the title. It grew on me as I read the book and came to understand what Amalia’s agenda was and how it evolved. But it didn’t grab me from the start, and it first led me to expect Amalia to be some kind of Jason Bourne-like figure, a la “The Bourne Identity,” but she wasn’t. And naming your geologist Mark Stone . . . Really?

These quibbles aren’t enough to keep me from recommending The Erenwine Agenda as an antidote to the venom in our current political discourse and a way to learn about how communities respond to changing energy needs.

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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.

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Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

The Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games SeriesThe Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games Series by Annis Pratt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book begins with an interesting set-up. I was especially taken with the author’s stated goal in writing the Infinite Games series: to show what happens to a society when its environment is degraded. Her blog, linked here, says that Infinite Games is the story of the Marshlanders’ struggle to create  communities in harmony with nature.  Continue reading Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

Book Review: I Call Myself Earth Girl, by Jan Krause Greene

I Call Myself Earth GirlI Call Myself Earth Girl by Jan Krause Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It has been more than a week since I finished reading this book and I have been struggling with how to review it. It breaks most of the standard rules for fiction–genre, literary, or otherwise–but is surprisingly affecting and effective in its message, in spite or perhaps because of its idiosyncrasies. Continue reading Book Review: I Call Myself Earth Girl, by Jan Krause Greene

Book Review: Oil and Water by PJ Lazos

Oil and  WaterOil and Water by P.J. Lazos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oil and Water has a little bit of everything: big ideas, well-drawn characters, complex family relationships, heroism, plot twists, mystery, comedy, and tragedy. It is the author’s debut novel after her publication of Six Sisters, a collection of novellas. A more ambitious and mature work than Six Sisters, this novel shows the author stretching her wings, taking audacious risks and giving voice to her passions. It is the kind of book that will stay with the reader for years afterwards, and which will likely only improve with re-reading.

Continue reading Book Review: Oil and Water by PJ Lazos