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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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