I been reading a bunch of stuff lately and I figured I’d write some stuff down about it in case anyone was interested. Most of what I’ve been throwing on the Kindle lately has been in the vein of escapist sci-fi, which, you know, maybe it’s easy to forgive a little escapism right about now. I was a little surprised, actually, to find out that I had already read five of the six Hugo novel nominees before the list even came out; I’m generally a few years behind the curve with recent fiction. I generally liked all of the books on that list (the N.K. Jemisin one I haven’t tackled) and I’d firmly recommend any of them as a Kindle sample. Note that the Yoon Ha Lee book is the second entry in a trilogy, though, and would be really confusing to tackle if you go to it before The Ninefox Gambit, which in itself was a bit confusing to me until I realized that it wasn’t so much science fiction as it was “sci-fi with some magic thrown in.” Still a good book!
Anyway, I was thinking recently of sci-fi books with Big Ideas and have been trying to sample the recent literary landscape to see what popped up. I love a book that extrapolates current scientific thinking into something truly epic in scope (e.g. the purpose of the Inhibitors in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space books) or has a great twist at the end (e.g. Ender’s Game). Maybe my favorite of all of these is Robert Sawyer’s Starplex, which I read serialized in Fantasy & Science Fiction maybe 25 years or so ago. In it, humanity has spread to the stars thanks to discovering a network of instant-travel wormholes. Imagine their surprise when stars start popping out of them! Like, whole stars, still burning. In the end they discover that the wormhole network was built by humanity billions of years in the future with the idea that if they sent enough mass back in time that they would be able to halt the expansion of the universe and send it to equilibrium. Now that’s an Idea.
In addition to all the below, I’ve recently re-read all of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (since I had the paperbacks) and enjoyed them again, and I finished off the Culture series by going back to a book I had skipped the first time around (Matter, which starts off with a couple of extended sequences that make the book seem more fantasy-based until you get about a third of the way through). I can’t recommend the Culture stuff highly enough to anyone looking for some smart, well-written sci-fi, and as with The Expanse I’d read the books before the Amazon series gets started. Also pretty much everything that Alastair Reynolds has put out is great, with especial emphasis on that Revelation Space series.
At any rate, these aren’t really going to be book reports or anything; I like going into books without knowing much about them, but I figure almost everyone has the ability to get Kindle samples now whether via an actual Kindle or the phone app, so do your thing if these sound intriguing.
You ever read something and go: “aw yeah, I’m going to find everything else this person has written and read it all?” That’s happened with me a few times before: Kim Stanley Robinson Red Mars, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, the first book of The Expanse (mostly relating to Daniel Abraham’s stuff, which is all pretty fantastic), and over the last couple of years I’ve absorbed pretty much everything Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds have published. I got that itch when I read through this novella about a cyborg security bot trying to protect a group of surveyors on an uninhabited planet.
Martha Wells has probably written more than I’ll be able to get through in any reasonable amount of time, and most of it seems to be fantasy which I’m not the hugest fan of, but I really dug this short book (despite the silly name), and I’ve tracked down some of her other stuff to give that a whirl as well. I already checked out the first novella follow-up that came out, with two more (!) on the way this year. I’m also about halfway through The Death of the Necromancer since it was like three bucks on Kindle and I’m enjoying learning all kinds of old-timey words for carriages and furniture since it’s set in an essentially Victorian-era world except there are sorcerers. Like I said, not the biggest fan of fantasy stuff, but if The Expanse led me to the Dagger and the Coin series, which I loved, I figured I could give this a whirl. I realized after I started it that it was the middle book in a series, which I usually hate doing, but I’m too far in now to stop.
I never read these when they came around; I was reminded of them when this review in the LRB decided to go out of its way to trash Harry Potter en route to saying that the Pullman books were the ne plus ultra of modern YA fantasy. Bold words! I enjoyed the trilogy well enough on the surface level; things move along fairly quickly, there are armored bears and hot air balloons, unexpected deaths and sweeping battles, etc., etc. The notion of a YA fantasy series where the stated goal of one of the major characters is to kill God himself is a pretty bold one, to boot. (I assume some parents got to the more explicit parts of this in the third book and wondered what they were reading to their kids. I remember when I worked in a bookstore a parent asked me if we had anything “like Harry Potter...but without all that witchcraft.” These would not be the books for her.)
It’s an interesting tale and it’s well-told, with a bit of Tolstoy-ish flair to the inner thoughts of the characters, especially Lyra, who comes across as a bit of a Natasha as she wanders through various planes in search of her father. But I have to admit that the amount of symbolism is a bit wearying to interpret after a while. As a play on Paradise Lost (which I admit I’ve never read all the way through), it’s nice to know that Lyra and Will are based on Adam and Eve, but after a while I wasn’t sure what elements of the books were supposed to be religious references or symbols and what was just in there as part of the narrative, to be taken at face value. Like, what’s up with those mulefa? Is the intention craft supposed to be a play on something biblical? I feel like a failure even as a lapsed Catholic to not grok everything that I should be, but whatever; it’s decent reading in the end, but I’m not sure if I’m curious enough to go on to the recent new book he published in the series.
I tweeted about this recently, but you do really probably deserve it to check out a kindle sample of this if you’re at all interested in dark sci-fi. The prologue alone features the end of the world creeping backwards through time to end the world, as malevolent alien forces come to Earth and crucify the entire population on their own bodies, if they aren’t lucky enough to be forced into running into the ocean and drowning themselves. It’s some creepy shit from the get-go and it only twists further down the spiral before wrapping around to a truly weird climax. I would never even consider mixing a police procedural set in rural America with spaceships that time travel on quantum foam, but I guess it's a good thing I'm not Tom Sweterlitsch.
The publisher is really pushing a quote that describes it as “Inception meets True Detective,” which I get as a pithy way of summing up a complicated book, but more than anything it gave me the same kind of creeping dread as House of Leaves did (the “let’s explore a house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside” parts, not the “I banged so many girls I got the clap” parts). Highly recommended and I look forward to trying some more of Sweterlitsch’s stuff, even if he only has one other book available at the moment.
I realize everyone went to Bonerville when this came out, and the eventual reveal of what’s truly going on is pretty interesting, but it’s so stiffly written (or perhaps translated) that I had a difficult time getting through it. I realize a lot of contemporary Chinese writing is couched in code words and such to get by censors, but stylistically this just didn’t do much for me and I doubt I will continue on to the next two books.
This is another one of those books that hits you with a great concept at the outset and just runs with it: a sleeper ship populated entirely by clones is hit with tragedy when they all wake up in fresh bodies, surrounded by the horribly mutilated corpses of the former iterations of their selves. No one has any idea what happened and, in fact, they’re all missing decades of memories. It’s a great setup that I wasn’t aware was influenced by FTL, of all things, until I read the afternotes. Some of the dialogue doesn’t always strike me as true-to-life, but then I guess life would be pretty weird if you were a clone that couldn’t figure out how your body got murdered.
Another good hard-ish sci-fi book that revolves around an intelligent warship that’s ordered to commit a genocide to end a war and then attempts to live out its life as a rescue ship. Will it be able to stick to the straight and narrow life, or will it be drawn back into war against its wishes? Spoilers: there are some great space battle scenes at the end of the book that are well worth making your way through the sometimes meandering storyline that leads up to them. Some of the interpersonal conflicts between the human characters also seem a bit forced, but I liked Trouble Dog and the overall plot well enough to compensate for that.
I’m just now learning that Gareth Powell wrote a book called Ack-Ack Macaque which is described thusly:
Life is good for Ack-Ack Macaque. Every day the cynical, cigar-chomping, hard-drinking monkey climbs into his Spitfire to do battle with the waves of German ninjas parachuting over the gentle fields of Kent. But life is not all the joyous rattle of machine guns and the roar of the engine, as Ack-Ack is about to find out…
Because it is not 1944. It is the 21st century, in a world where France and Germany merged in the late 1950s, where nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, where technology is rapidly changing humanity, and Ack-Ack has lived his whole life in a videogame.
I guess I know what I’m reading next.
This one rotates around another sleeper ship on a journey through the stars, carrying possibly the last remnants of the human race as they head toward a planet they thought had been terraformed to make way for their arrival. The characters enter and exit hypersleep multiple times as they attempt to survive, all while the planet that should be their inheritance is taken over by creatures that are somewhat inhospitable to their arrival. This is probably a little bit longer than it needed to be, and Tchaikovsky might have done a little too good of a job at making the planet’s denizens foreign to a human sensibility, as it’s a little difficult to care about their individual fates. But it’s still another good example of a book with a big scope to it.
And that's what I've been reading! I just started on the last book in the Yoon Ha Lee trilogy, so I have that going for me, and I very seriously just did buy the Ack-Ack Macaque book, so I guess I'm set on reading for a while.