Tag Archives: science fiction

Reviews: Riot Baby and The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.

 

riotbabyIn Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.

“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”

This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.

There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.

The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots,  Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.

That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.

 

themaster'stoolswillneverdismantlethemaster'shouseIn The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.

“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).

The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.

But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.

“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: All Systems Red, Follow Me to Ground, All This Could Be Yours

Three recent reads:

I picked up Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, the first book in her Murderbot Diaries series, while working on my Spotlight on Sci-fi post last month. I was simply looking through sci-fi titles on my shelves and picked this one up to glance at the first page and decide when I might be ready to read it- and ended up speeding through the entire story in one sitting the same night.

allsystemsredIn the novella, a part-human part-robot SecUnit is tasked with keeping a group of humans safe on a research mission to an uninhabited planet. The group of scientists works well together and the environment seems relatively safe, so it should be an easy job- Murderbot (as it calls itself) settles in to marathon hours of serial television via its hacked interface. But then the second research group on the planet goes suddenly quiet, throwing Murderbot and its human charges into a fight for survival on a planet that has suddenly become hostile. Of course the humans are going to learn a thing or two about Murderbot in the midst of the emergency- things Murderbot would rather keep to itself.

This is an accessible sci-fi jaunt that paired well with The Martian for me- both are interplanetary survival stories, though the plot and cast are entirely different. There’s some futuristic technology, labelled clearly enough that definitions are hardly needed. There are a few fight scenes and physical challenges for the characters. There’s a bit of commentary on bureaucracy and corruption, and the interesting possibility of technology becoming slavery. For such a brief story, it’s not missing anything I’d expect to see from a book in this genre.

But what I loved most was Murderbot’s character; Wells doesn’t give the SecUnit a gender, which is refreshing, and an easy way for the reader to see him- or herself in the extremely introverted android. It is repulsed when asked to share its emotions, it prefers to cover its face (and body) when in public, it would rather keep its head down and do its job quietly and efficiently and leave again as soon as possible than participate in idle chatter. And, of course, there’s the obsession with serial television. I would’ve followed this character anywhere.

“The HubSystem that controlled their habitat, that they were dependent on for food, shelter, filtered water, and air, was trying to kill them. And in their corner all they had was Murderbot, who just wanted everyone to shut up and leave it alone so it could watch the entertainment feed all day.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was just such an unexpected delight. I’m excited to dive into the rest of the series.

 

Sue Rainsford’s Follow Me to Ground was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and my last read of January.

followmetogroundIn the novel, Ada and her father live on the outskirts of a village, where people come to them for magical cures against their bodily ailments. Ada and “Mr. Fix” are not human, and though their skill is respected the villagers are otherwise wary of them. They make sick humans sleep with a touch or a glance, open them up to see what’s wrong inside (the various maladies appearing differently to their senses than to a modern doctor’s) and burying them in the Ground beside their house, when necessary. It’s an odd life but a fine one, until Ada becomes entangled with a human boy, and the relationship threatens to upset her family, her magic, and the entire village.

The writing is absolutely visceral, playing with the tangible and intangible especially in relation to the human body, adding a firm layer of grit to a brightly colorful world. I can’t possibly do it justice with a description, so here’s a sample:

“It sounded like her spine was shaking and the sound was coming up through her. I’d never heard such a sound, a body trying to ground some portion of itself to dust. / -Why are you trembling, Lorraine? / And then her head snapped back and her mouth opened fully. I could see the large teeth near the root of her tongue gleaming wet and silver where the air had not yet seen the spittle dried. She opened her eyes and they were wide, unseeing. She reached up to me, her square fingers carrying the lightest touch of yellow.”

But despite the captivating language used, the story is in many ways abstract. There is a plot, but the reader must sift for his or her own meaning. Themes drawn from the book will vary. For me, this is a story of a girl whose parent appreciates her and yet also limits her future to one option- following in his footsteps. It’s the story of a girl discovering there is more to her than her parent sees, and reaching for something she wants that he may not want for her. Both make arguably poor, hasty choices as their relationship falters, learning that to love someone and to agree with them are not necessarily the same thing. Even though both are inhuman, a fact that does influence which choices are available to them, there are moments of recognition (or at least insight) for the reader in Ada’s (and her father’s) actions and emotions.

Though I  loved both the surface level of this story for its evocative writing and the buried themes underneath, the predictability of Ada’s relationship with the human boy and the general abstractness of the story made it somewhat difficult for me to keep up momentum while reading. I struggled with it as much as I enjoyed it, though I appreciated what I was left with in the end.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wavered between 3 and 4 here, but ultimately I do think I’ll remember this one favorably. The writing alone would’ve made this worth the read for me, and I did take a little more from the experience than that.

 

And last but not least, Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours, my most recent read and a Tournament of Books contender.

allthiscouldbeyoursIn the novel, a man lies dying in a New Orleans hospital. After a life of criminal and morally reprehensible activity, it’s not exactly a heartfelt reunion as the family gathers (or refuses to gather) from near and far to say their goodbyes and try to close this chapter of their lives. His children may never forgive him, no one may ever understand why his wife stood by him all those years, and every life he’s touched even tangentially may be worse for it. Will his family honor him in death anyway? Or will they consider his death their freedom?

“Her gut told her he should be in jail right now, he really should. If he weren’t dying.”

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this book. On the other hand, it did absolutely nothing at all for me.

This book takes place over the course of a day, Victor’s last day alive. The day is divided by interactions between various family members and other nearby characters on his final day, dipping into each of their perspectives (though never Victor’s). Through these POVs, we also see key moments from each of the characters’ pasts, to gain a complete look at Victor’s life as well as the damage that has radiated out from him. There are certainly interesting moments, and some occasional lines that I found resonant, but ultimately the themes I saw here- that men and power can be a disastrous combination, that the system is as much to blame as any individual, that the patriarchy is a long-standing disease sunk deep into every consciousness it’s touched- just aren’t anything new. The fact that we know from the beginning that Victor is going to die and how his family feels about it left me wondering what I was actually reading for. I never found a satisfactory answer.

But again- there’s nothing wrong with this book. I just wasn’t the right reader for it (and I suspect anyone else who already knows a thing or two about feminism will feel the same). Nevertheless, I want to end on a positive note here by talking about the way this book brings New Orleans to life. All This Could Be Yours touches on the major landmarks of the city, but it also offers an insider’s glimpse into NOLA’s culture. We see the social affects of Katrina, the summer heat, the streetcars, the people. Some of the chapters take place elsewhere, and yet Attenberg manages in under 300 pages to bring this main setting to life, beautifully. The novel’s saving grace.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked bits and pieces, but for the most part I was unfortunately bored. But if you want to read about New Orleans, if you want to read about all the ways the patriarchy has f-ed things up for everyone, if you get on with (plotless) contemporary better than I do, this may be a better fit for you.

 

Have you read any of these books? Are you planning to? Let me know what you think!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Spotlight on: Science Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share what Science Fiction means to me, filling the post with iconic titles and recommendations, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

I know I’ve basically missed January already, which I don’t intend to make a habit, it’s just how it worked out this time. Without further ado…

What is Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)?

In my opinion, this is a genre of fiction that uses real or imagined science to explore unknown aspects or questions from the real world. It can lean toward the speculative, the fantastic, the sociopolitical, the philosophical, and more, but the defining characteristic is that these books attempt to explain their otherworldly aspects with facts and logic drawn from reality. Often, but not always, sci-fi tends toward the futuristic. It endeavors to explain something we don’t yet understand, or suggests that because there are things we don’t yet understand, more is possible than we know or accept. It can deliver a sense of foreboding.

I consider dystopia/utopia a subgenre of science fiction. These books usually have political leanings and are often futuristic, with logical explanations as to how the world might have evolved to reach a certain extreme. They also tend to have themes common among sci-fi books: that humans should be cautious with knowledge we already have, that discovering new scientific knowledge can be dangerous, or that we might be able to accomplish something momentous if humans are able to solve a currently unsolved problem.

I also sometimes consider supernatural and paranormal as subgenres of science fiction (other times as horror, depending on the book’s themes and use of the otherworldly elements). This includes ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc.

 

My History with Sci-Fi

The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1)Early brushes with the genre for me included books like Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, Eoin Colfer’s The Wish List, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Vivian Vande Velde’s Heir Apparent, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, and of course, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (though sci-fi is not the only genre I’d use to categorize this one). My taste has certainly evolved, but these are just a few of the books that kept me interested in dystopia, paranormal, and science fiction in general; in them I can see some of the sci-fi aspects I’m still fascinated with today. They paved the way for the YA icons of my high school years: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (which was published earlier but saw a fresh heyday when the movie was released). The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

YA exploded in popularity and availability around the time I was in jr. high and high school, partially thanks to the phenomenon that was Twilight. Hate it if you want, but that book had a big influence on what was getting published and what was getting read, as did The Hunger Games and Divergent. Dystopia saw such a huge wave of popularity in the 2010’s, and even though that’s died down, it was a big part of what kept me reading science fiction. I’m sure there are many more middle grade and YA options in this genre than I remember being available during my teenagerhood, probably in part because books like The Hunger Games sparked a wider interest, even among adult readers.

CarrieI also started reading Stephen King around this time. Though he’s widely known as a master of the horror genre, a lot of his work is indeed science fiction. As a teen I picked up Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, Hearts in Atlantis, Carrie... King’s writing certainly has its flaws, but he’s a great gateway author, easy enough for younger readers to understand and enjoy. He was actually one of the first “adult fiction” authors I read, who helped convince me I was ready to stop browsing exclusively in the “teen” section at the library. He deals in extraterrestrial life, telekinesis, super powers, time travel, bizarre creatures, and so much more. From these topics, I ventured into:

 

Sci-Fi Classics

FrankensteinBy the time I graduated high school I had a lot better access to books than my small hometown library had afforded. What might have been lacking in my early years, I found in college and beyond. I reached for such titles as:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, one of my all-time favorite books, dealing with mortality and morality. (Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is an excellent recent homage dealing with many of the same themes, also tackling gender issues and robotics.)

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, featuring a group of pre-adolescent boys who attempt to form their own society on a deserted island.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in which a fireman whose job it is to burn books begins to question his conformity.

19841984 by George Orwell, a political critique of government’s increasing ability to see (and thus police) its citizens’ private lives.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, an antiwar narrative following one man’s life through a WWII bombing, time travel, capture by aliens, and more.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which features a dystopian society in which humans are genetically modified prior to birth and assigned careers based on their intelligence level.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, following a scientist who creates a time machine and uses it to discover humanity’s downfall and earth’s dire fate.

even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, though my appreciation for this game-like approach to alien warfare is much higher than my consideration for its anti-Semite author.

 

Modern Sci-Fi Staples and Recommendations

Station ElevenBut as with any genre, science fiction isn’t all stuffy classics. Here’s a look at some popular science fiction I’ve been reading more recently and would not hesitate to recommend to many newcomers and old fans alike: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, an 80’s pop culture and video game fest; Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser, in which most of humanity hibernates through increasingly unbearable earthen winters; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a Shakespeare-focused post-apocalyptic survival tale; Caroline Kepnes’s Providence, the story of a kidnapped boy with a superpower that endangers the girl he loves; Andy Weir’s The Martian, an interplanetary quest to bring a stranded astronaut home from Mars; Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a feminist dystopia in which objectified women rebel against the status quo; Stephen King’s The Outsider, which features a shape-shifting villain who lives off of human fear; All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, following a human/robot whose job is human safety but whose preference is avoiding all human contact in favor of watching serial television (review coming soon).

 

If you’re new to the genre and don’t think reading a lot of science is going to appeal, let me make some recommendations based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below!):

If you like YA: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Wilder Girls by Rory Power

If you like mysteries and thrillers: Recursion by Blake Crouch, The Oracle Year by Charles Soule, Origin by Dan Brown

If you like history: Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H Wilson, The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom MillerThe Clockwork Dynasty

If you like fantasy: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you like supernatural: The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

If you like literary: Severance by Ling Ma, The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

If you like romance: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

If you like comics: Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins

 

Like any other genre, categorization of sci-fi is not determined upon hard rules. You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something sci-fi that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of science fiction will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next in the genre find something that appeals!

 

Sci-Fi on my TBR:

Jurassic ParkI don’t expect my own sci-fi adventures to stop here! These are some other exciting titles I’m hoping to read in the future: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Exhalation by Ted Chiang, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, The Seep by Chana Porter, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh.

 

And just a few extras that aren’t currently on my TBR that you may be familiar with or might want to read: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Dune by Frank Herbert, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

 

Why read science fiction?

I read sci-fi because it makes me look at the real world in a new light. It’s full of big ideas, concepts that I wouldn’t necessarily consider on my own, as well as hope (and yes, fear) for the future. It’s a stretch of imagination on a grand scale that often considers humanity as a whole in a way that character-specific narratives usually do not. It encourages thinking outside the box.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about the genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for sci-fi, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Martian

This was one of those tragic cases of neglecting to read the book before watching the movie, and so I’ve been waiting YEARS to forget enough of the details to pick up Andy Weir’s The Martian– this year, the time finally seemed right.

themartianIn the novel, Mark Watney and 5 other crew members are on a 31-day NASA mission on Mars. When a sudden storm cuts their stay short, Watney is left behind in the evacuation, believed dead. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself in dire circumstances, injured, running out of oxygen, his suit breached, his contact with Earth severed, and the exit spacecraft gone along with all of his colleagues. But Watney isn’t ready to give up. If he can find a way to stretch the crew’s 31 days of supplies for a couple of years and travel to the site of the next Mars mission, maybe he can hitch a ride back home.  And so begins an interplanetary quest for survival.

“The answer is: I don’t know. I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die.”

I hated math and science classes in school. I managed to avoid calculus and chemistry completely in both high school and college so I’m as amazed as the next person that I found a story so rooted in science to be such a good time. I can’t speak at all for the accuracy of the numbers and equations and details in this book, but Weir states in an author’s note that people in the know mostly agree with The Martian‘s accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe that. It turned out to be a slower read than I expected despite the easy-going first person narration and constant threat of death, because I’m not a reader who can skim sentences/passages without comprehending them- I didn’t pull out my calculator to double check Watney’s math, but I did take the time to absorb the information and understand how he was getting from point A to point B. The good news is that The Martian is a science-heavy book written for the layperson, and there’s enough of a narrative behind the technicalities that I can see why this book appeals to science buffs and novices alike.

What worked best for me, essentially, is the puzzle of it. Having already a sense of the basic story line and quickly realizing that the film didn’t capture all the details, what kept my attention in this book was a constant curiosity about how Watney was going to solve each of the problems Mars throws his way. Not enough water? No worries, he’ll make some. Accidentally create a bomb? No worries, he can defuse that. Get stuck in a sandstorm that makes recharging his vital power supply impossible? No worries, he’ll chart his way out just in time. But I would have no idea how to do any of those things, which made his solutions fascinating to discover. Watney’s light tone as a narrator makes this dire situation surprisingly fun, and also prevents the reader from worrying too much about him dying amidst all of these setbacks. Until the final sequence is in motion, The Martian is more a tale of when he’ll escape, not an if. Thus, the method becomes the most interesting element.

Actually, as readable as Watney’s log entries are, the parts of the book that held my attention best were the glimpses of the other characters trying to help Watney, watching him via satellite and worrying about launch deadlines while they have very little communication with him. There isn’t much of a psychological exploration in this book, but most of it comes through in these third-person sections. Here, we can see just how alone Watney is even though it seems all of Earth is following his progress. We see how all of the technology and intelligence available at NASA is limited in its ability to help him and how frustrating that can be. We see leaders and captains making expensive, life-or-death decisions based on how their astronauts may be affected mentally.

” ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ “

But as much as I enjoyed The Martian, it wasn’t quite a perfect read. As one of the laypeople, I appreciated the extent to which the science was painstakingly explained, but it didn’t feel organic to the story. It’s framed as Watney leaving a detailed log so that anyone who might eventually find it will know what happened to him, in case he doesn’t survive. I had some difficulty believing someone with a low level of expertise was going to be the one to find Watney’s log on Mars. Additionally, the simplification goes beyond Watney’s circumstances and personality- we do see other characters and locations in the novel: the rest of Watney’s crew and the high-ups at NASA mainly, and they all have a tendency of speaking to each other in a way that seems redundant to their perspectives, the dialogue obviously aimed toward the reader rather than realistic for the characters.

Even so, these insights into the team working on Earth and in orbit to bring Watney home were largely my favorite parts of the novel, mainly because Watney’s humor didn’t translate as well for me on the page as it originally did in the film.

Image result for the martian filmI remember liking Watney’s personality a lot when I first watched the film (4 or 5 years ago), but it just wasn’t coming across for me in the physical book. (A few people who knew I was reading this suggested the audio, but it’s currently checked out from my library. I’ll still look into that at least to sample it, but wasn’t able to get to it in time to finish reading.) However, after reading the book, I rewatched the film (my second viewing ever), and was less charmed there too. So, perhaps the change was me and not the medium. I found the jokes rather man-ish, repetitive, and often focused on the wonders of duct tape or Watney’s dislike of disco. There’s a bit of a formula to it, every serious moment broken up with an irreverent comment about death, NASA’s safety regulations, or one of his crew members. It didn’t take long for this to feel forced, or at least, predictable. He would’ve gotten along well with my high school science teacher.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

But, humor aside, The Martian is still one of my favorite survival stories, both in print and film. I do think it’s worth experiencing both mediums, but if you only go for one I’ll add that the film goes more for emotional impact while the book goes for impressive scientific depth. You may find yourself more interested in the science than you expect!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I usually don’t go for survival stories, because they seem a bit “if you’ve read one you’ve read them all” to me, but this one is pretty unique. At least, in my experience. Having seen the movie already, I did know the broad strokes of the narrative going in, but I still found myself pleasantly caught up in the minutiae. I’ll definitely be reading Weir’s Artemis at some point because I have a copy, but I’ve seen enough disappointed reviews that I’m not in a hurry to get to it.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Firestarter

(My last belated review from November reading! I’m so close to being caught up again!)

I picked up Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for reading King’s newest release, The Institute. I heard somewhere along the line that the two novels share a key element or two, and I love a good comparison. I’m also just very interested in the fact that King can find such success in using “recycled” content. But this post will be a single, focused review since I’ve only just started The Institute– any comparisons between the two will appear there.

firestarterIn the novel, a man and his daughter are on the run from a top secret government branch known as “the Shop.” Several years previously, Andy met his wife in a paid study where they were both given experimental drugs. Neither can quite be sure whether they hallucinated the events that followed, or actually tapped into a range of psychic abilities as part of the test- some residual power to manipulate the minds of others and close doors without touching them suggests the latter. Even so, they’re both surprised when their daughter Charlie, is born with the ability to start fires with her mind, and only grows stronger with time. The Shop wants to study her badly enough that they’d kill to get their hands on her; they’re not above kidnapping either. But no one understands the pyrokinetic power they’re up against- not even Charlie.

“You sit here and make your plans for controlling a force beyond your comprehension. A force that belongs only to the gods themselves…and to this one little girl.”

Three things to be aware of right off the bat:

  1. This book was published in 1980, and feels very much like a product of its time. Between the mad scientist, the psychedelic drugs, the ease of hitchhiking, the slow spread of information (predating the smart phone era), and the secret government agents destined to stay ahead of the Russians, it’s definitely a throwback.
  2. This book was published during Stephen King’s addiction years. In his own On Writing (and probably elsewhere), he admits that he doesn’t have clear memories of his writing projects from this time, including the entire novel of Cujo, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read Cujo yet, but I have read quite a handful of King’s works, and this is the first one that felt genuinely sloppy to me. It is coherent, but gave me the strong impression that King was riding on his fame and churning out ideas without polishing them.
  3. This book is very obviously one of the main sources of inspiration for the Stranger Things TV show. Charlie is clearly an earlier rendition of Eleven (though with a different power), and the Shop paves the way for the Hawkins Lab. The set-up for the drug experiment is very similar to the set-up of the experiment in Suspicious Minds, the first official Stranger Things novel, which stands as a prequel to the TV series. Many small details match up as well, character traits and motivations, etc. I feel confident in saying that Stranger Things would not exist- or at least, not as it does today- without this novel.

In a nutshell, if you’re interested in science fiction stories from the 80’s, in King’s writing in general, or in Stranger Things, you’re more likely to find this a worthwhile read. Because I was very interested in 2 of those categories and indifferent about the 3rd (80’s sci-fi), I did enjoy the underlying concept and quite a few of the details. That said, I did have some larger issues that are more likely to bother readers who aren’t interested in this book for one of the above reasons.

“Of course, an eighth-grade science book teaches that anything will burn if it gets hot enough. But it is one thing to read such information and quite another to see cinderblocks blazing with blue and yellow flame.”

The first issue I had was with characterization; most of the characters in Firestarter feel like archetypes rather than nuanced people. The assassin was probably the most interesting, though even he turned out to be predictably evil rather than morally gray. Andy, the father, is a typical wrong-place-wrong-time hero who just wants to do the right thing so badly that he’s boring, and Charlie just feels entirely inauthentic as a 9 year old girl: her dialogue is corny and cringe-worthy, her reactions strangely detached, and she’s given no personality- no favorite toys or pastimes, no best friends she misses, no self-expression in her clothes or behavior. It’s like when she’s not in the current scene, she doesn’t exist, and even when she is in scene she’s so transparent that it’s hard to invest in her plight. It’s the situation they’re in rather than the characters themselves that drives the story forward.

And on the topic of momentum, the second main issue I found with this book is that the pacing lags right in the middle. The story starts with Andy and Charlie on the run, which is interesting enough, but there’s a sort of stalemate in the middle of the story between the end of the chase and the big climax. In this pause, King spends hundreds of pages (out of the total 500) just moving his characters into place for the final act. It’s a slow, largely plotless section full of helplessness and prophetic dreams and no one quite sure where they’re going anymore or how they’re going to get there. The concept has lost its novelty by this point, the characters have proven themselves uninteresting, and literally nothing is happening. Even though I knew King was going to end this one with a bang, it was such a struggle getting through that middle section.

Which isn’t to say the book’s all bad. Even though I would not have liked this story if I wasn’t interested in reading for reasons that extended beyond the plot, there are certainly some fun elements. Andy’s power, for one: he can “push” people into believing things- convincing a cab driver that the one-dollar bill in his hand is actually a hundred, for example. The drug experiment he participates in and the Shop itself is fascinating, if you’re into government conspiracies. The increasingly large fires Charlie can set without breaking a sweat add an extra layer of intrigue. And there’s an interesting afterward in which King notes that while he’s not trying to persuade anyone that psychic powers are real, there was actually a time when the government spent time and money trying to discover whether such powers might be harnessed for use.

“Do not fear, you are wrapped snuggly in the arms of Modern Science.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was so fun to see what was clearly a source of inspiration for other creators, and to weigh this early story against some of its notable recent counterparts (Stranger Things and Suspicious Minds). Though the story itself did not quite satisfy me, I did appreciate its premise, and I’m so intrigued to see where King goes with the psychic powers in The Institute. I hope the latter will be a more polished and entertaining work in its own right, but Firestarter has not discouraged me or lowered my expectations. I’ll definitely be reading more from King, and I’m now very much in the mood to rewatch Stranger Things!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: In the Tall Grass (short story and film)

Spooky October continues with more Stephen King for me! I saw a few weeks ago that In the Tall Grass (based on the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) was coming to Netflix in early October, and immediately made plans to read and watch. I didn’t get around to the story before the film arrived, but I had a lot of fun reading and watching on the same day. I’ll share some thoughts on both.

First, the short story. In the Tall Grass seems to be very readily available on ebook and audio, but it is also FREE online at Esquire, where the story was first published in 2012. It’s divided into two parts, but the end of the first part links to the second, so if you’re interested in checking out the story I’ll link the beginning portion here! (Feel free to ignore that Esquire’s purpose seems to be “fiction for men.”)

15825680

In this short story, the narration alternates perspective between a pair of siblings: Becky and Cal. They’re not twins, but are very close. Becky is pregnant, and is on her way to San Diego to give her baby to another family for adoption. Cal is driving her cross country. They make an unplanned stop in Kansas next to a field of tall grass, where they happen to hear a boy calling for help. Assuming that he’s lost and too short to find the road, Cal and Becky decide to wade in and help.

What follows is at first suspenseful, as the siblings realize something isn’t right with the grass and against all odds they seem to be getting lost in it as well. Soon after, the story takes a horrifying turn as the secrets of the grass and their own fates are revealed. Needless to say, there’s a supernatural element involved.

“He looked at his watch and wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped even though it was a self-winder. The grass had stopped it. He felt sure of it.”

The story is quite good. I’ve yet to read anything full-length by Joe Hill (even though I’m sure I’m going to love his work), but I enjoyed this story more than the last five full-length novels I’ve read from Stephen King. It’s readable, sharp, and great at dropping creepy hints for the reader’s imagination to run with. If you like horror or suspense, or just a great short story, I highly recommend checking it out.

If you have any interest in reading the story, I really think the best time for it is prior to watching the Netflix film.

Image result for in the tall grass

In the film, we see at first a faithful adaptation of the written story. Some of the dialogue is word-for-word, the setting is exactly the same, any small variations in the setup are minor and seem mostly to cater to the visual aspect of the new format. But soon the film becomes a whole different beast. This comes down to two main differences:

  1. The film expands upon all of those subtle hints dropped in the story. This means both that some of the grass’s secrets are spoken aloud or clearly depicted for the reader, but it also means the addition of a new character who is only mentioned in the story. Though I thought the story was great for holding back from oversharing, I also thought the film was great for refusing to shy away from the details. I wouldn’t have wanted it the other way around. But I imagine the story would feel quite anticlimactic in its subtlety after seeing the film take everything a step further, which is the main reason I recommend reading first if you’re interested in both mediums.
  2. The cyclical nature of the grass “ritual” is a bit different in the film. In the story, I had the sense that the cycle was a very realistic one, with each victim of the grass paving the way for the next in a chronological line. In the film, a nonlinear timeline creates the cycle rather than hints of past or future victims. Timelines- actually, characters that skip around through time- are not always effective for me, but this layout paves the way for some great characterization tricks, and the brevity of the film keeps the jumping timeline from feeling tedious and ridiculous. A surprising win.

These are the two elements that allow a 60-page short story to become a 1 hr 40 min film- the film essentially turns the basic idea of the story into a long novella or short novel, and it does so without contradicting any part of the written story. They really make for a great set, if you enjoy adaptations and comparisons as much as I do.

Both formats are atmospheric, creepy, and engrossing. You might think from the premise that you know enough to resist being surprised, but there will still be surprises. There’s one pretty gross scene that appears in both formats, though I found the written version of it more gruesome. I spotted the detail of the synopsis that had the most potential to go awry, and knowing in advance helped me get through it, so at the risk of a very mild spoiler (just skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you absolutely don’t want to know) I’ll mention that it has to do with the pregnancy. If you don’t want to read anything weird on that subject, maybe steer clear of this one.

“The grass has things to tell you. You just need to learn to listen.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I didn’t find anything wrong with either, and actually the one gross scene didn’t bother me as much (in the story or film) as the rats in Stephen King’s 1922 (in that story or corresponding Netflix film). I just very rarely give a short story a 5-star rating because I tend to prefer more characterization and exploration than often seem to fit in a short story, and though I thought the film was perfect for October I don’t think it’s going on my all-time favorites list, which are the only movies I would say are 5-stars for me. But I had an excellent time with both formats, and the only nightmare I had after was an unrelated airplane dream.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for a little Stephen King or Joe Hill to pick up this spooky season and don’t want to dive into a doorstopper of a novel, In the Tall Grass is a great shorter option. I think it would also be a good introduction to either author if you’re interested in checking out their work but not sure where to start.

Have you read or watched this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Frankissstein

CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.

My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!

frankisssteinIn the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.

“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”

I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.

The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.

One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.

“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”

The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.

Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.

“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”

Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.

More of my Booker nominee reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, Night Boat to Tangier, and An Orchestra of Minorities.

 

The Literary Elephant