Tag Archives: science fiction

Book Review: Here & There

Here & There, by Joshua V. Scher

While reading Here & There, I had the feeling that the author was hoping for a movie or TV deal, and wasn’t shocked to find out that the author is also a screen writer. The story is filled with digressions that may work on screen but not in the book.

The novel is a type of “found footage” story: a briefcase filled with original notes annotated by a second narrator and sent yet to a third person. The original writer, Hilary Kahn, was a psychoanalyst for an agency far more secret than the CIA (you know it from all the movies) and analyzing a scientist working for the Department of Defense in the field of teleportation. Reidier (the scientist) and his family disappeared during an important test of his theory, and Kahn was sent surveillance footage and such to analyze the man and help figure out what happened. Her son Danny, a grating self-important hipster, finds her draft report after she disappears and tries to figure out if the story can lead him to her. The science story really sets up much of the suspense here and fails twice: not only is the first big reveal obvious from the start, but the second big reveal never comes. (There’s a medium twist between the two I didn’t anticipate, but it also goes nowhere.)

I didn’t find the science to be difficult – a lot of it iffy but only in the sense that science fiction has to take some liberties, and it’s not like you need to understand quantum physics to accept a claim about teleportation. What was far more difficult was sticking through Danny’s myriad pointless digressions into his drunken escapades, sexual fantasies, and mommy issues. I won’t lie: I started skimming a lot of his commentary, and wouldn’t miss it if it were cut entirely.

Not recommended.

Book Review: The Fire Seekers

The Fire Seekers, by Richard Farr

When his father discovers ancient tablets in the Mediterranean, Daniel Calder’s life slowly unravels. His mother dies under suspicious circumstances on a mountain; his father’s former intern becomes a powerful cult leader; hundreds are disappearing worldwide. The teenager, with the help of his brilliant friend Morag and the powerful Rosko, tries to figure out mysteries in both the past and the present. The characters aren’t particularly interesting or boring; this is about the plot more than anything. The ultimate question is whether the supernatural Architects are real, a myth, or something else entirely.

There are two real parts to this story: the historical puzzles surrounding the origins of civilization, and the present-day mysterious disappearances. The former is significantly more interesting than the latter, with old documents and real-life unexplained phenomena woven into mostly satisfying explanations. (It helps to enjoy ancient history.) The present-day story is less well developed, and moves along in fits and starts, leading up to a final, somewhat muddy showdown.

Most aspects of this book are characterized with the same pattern: occasional brilliance punctuating a lot of average. There are some very insightful or funny lines here:

“[my father] wants to feel close to me, wants to understand me, and wants the easy road to that results, which is me being more like him than I am.”

“I am an Armenian, and therefore I hate everybody. I am also a Christian, and therefore I love everybody. Life is complicated.”

Rather than including more gems of this kind, Farr spends much of the time describing the action scenes (Daniel suffers lots of pain and describes all of it every time) in excruciating, though fortunately skippable, detail.

I haven’t decided if I’ll keep reading the trilogy. If you like books like The Rule of Four or Dan Brown’s work, you might like this.

Book Review: The Ark

The Ark, by Laura Liddell Nolen

Full disclosure: Laura & I went to the same law school and overlapped by a bit, and have met before.

Somehow I keep reading apocalyptic science fiction involving young female protagonists (like Exodus and Zenith and Ticker), and this is probably my favorite of the bunch. Excellently paced, we watch the end of the Earth as humans try to colonize the solar system to stay alive. There is plenty of action and just enough reflection to keep it from being shallow but not so much as to bore.

The story is told from the perspective of Charlotte “Char” Turner, a juvenile delinquent from an otherwise upstanding family. As an asteroid approaches Earth, the powerful and the lucky are leaving earth on shuttles that take them to five arks, large spaceships hosting 100,000 humans on their way to a new home. 19 billion must stay behind to die* in the impact. Char, having a criminal record, isn’t considered for the lottery, but on her final visit her mother slips her a ticket to the last shuttle.

*There’s a bit of a handwave as to why they remain so docile until the end, but it’s forgivable.

The race to the shuttle is interesting, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say she makes it. (You saw the title, right?) On the Ark, the politicians and military who are in charge (and likely to create the most sociopathic society ever) allege a terrorist threat from a group called the Remnant, and Char finds herself in the middle of these power struggles.

There are other characters here, but none are as compelling as Char. In part that’s because the plot moves fastest when Char is out on her own, but in part it’s because she’s just more interesting in this world than anyone else. There are two sequels planned, and I’ll probably buy both to see where she goes.

The prose in The Ark is solid, very similar in style to The Hunger Games. One passage stuck with me in particular for the haunting efficiency with which it shows a catastrophe:

The Pinball struck Africa directly. The mighty continent split apart, creating instant shockwaves that coursed over the surface of the Earth. Australia was underwater within moments, along with ll of Western Europe. Near the poles, the remaining clouds ripped apart, then evaporated as the atmosphere shattered.
Earth no longer existed.

Recommended.

Book Review: The Gemini Effect

The Gemini Effect, by Chuck Grossart
I’ll admit upfront that I read this book on one flight and could not put it down the entire time. It’s incredibly fast-paced; both the narrative and the language just keep moving, and I found it difficult to stop without knowing where it all goes. It’s unfortunate, then, that it ends up being such a disappointment. To explain why, I need spoilers, so that will go below the fold.

Through a series of unfortunate events, a military bioweapon project ends up in a junkyard in Kansas City where it infects (affects?) local rats who become vicious killing machines, desolating the city and infecting other mammals on the way. Apparently light-sensitive, the animals hide at night and are unstoppable during the day. The US government saunters into action (Grossart mercifully limits the time it takes for all characters to know what’s going on) and does what it can to limit the damage.

Recommended for mindless fun, but beware of a very stupid final third.

(spoilers ahead)

Continue reading Book Review: The Gemini Effect

Book Review: Zenith

Zenith, by Julie Bertagna

“The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk.”

I finally got around to reading this sequel to Exodus, and, as the second book in a  teenage-girl-centered futuristic trilogy, it’s predictably mediocre. Mara, our heroine, travels with refugees from the sky cities to a hypothesized island in the north. With the refugees fighting over what to do next, their ship runs through a floating city centered around an oil-rig and attracts its boats as enemies who chase it northward. The island turns out to be a trap, and the pirates are still following them. Some plot ensues.

The city introduces a new character – Tuck – whose point of view fleshes out Mara’s world, and shows us why conflict in this state of nature is omnipresent. That’s perhaps the story’s biggest success (because plot sure isn’t): the state of nature following the decline of civilization, the tribalism that takes over and the hostility that makes life solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. The world of the island is also very interesting and brought to life very well – the setting really deserves a bit more attention than it gets.

Mara herself is not particularly interesting this time around. We’ve had our fill of strong young females thrust into unwanted leadership roles in recent pop culture, and compared to them, Mara is a bland observer with almost zero agency. She makes the book slow down in many parts, thinking about a boy and fretting about her friends and bringing the action to a complete halt. Ultimately, there could have been a lot more here if the heroine could have repeated her performance from Exodus.

Book Review: Exodus

Exodus, by Julie Bertagna

(I read this a while ago but I’m posting today since I just finished the sequel.)

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, though that’s probably a feature of me rather than the book: I often find that science fiction books tend to raise some fascinating issues only to neglect them in favor of rather straightforward storytelling. I’m told commercial publishing likes character-centered fiction, which is what we get, even when the world around them is much more interesting.

This book has that problem. Set in a future in which humans face the loss of land as a result of global warming, a band of refugees sets out to find rumored floating sky cities. This immediately raised interesting questions (“what if there is no place to go after all?”; “if there is, will they welcome newcomers?”; “what if there isn’t room?”) which the book addresses with disappointing superficiality. More precisely, whatever answers there are are simply too easy – the philosophical questions at the heart of the matter deserved more attention, and certainly more balance. Characters opposed to the heroine in some way don’t really get a fair shake. The low point is when the book’s central question – what if you can only save a few out of many? – is one the bad guys have to answer but the good guys conveniently don’t.

On the plus side, the book had pretty good pacing and rarely lags. The prose is clean and moves along quickly, and handles multiple settings well without wasting time. Characterization is very good (approaching Hunger Games in many respects). There are a few flawed sections – the description of superstition in the early folks is incredibly one-dimensional, and the final act gets introduced maybe too fast. However, the writing isn’t holding this book back. [I’m generally not a fan of third-party-limited books that cheat by the occasional dip into the minds of others, but it’s unobtrusive enough here.]

This was certainly good enough to make me read the sequel, but I can’t help thinking that the author could have done much more than she ended up doing.

Follow-up On Terraforming, Part II

Sister of the blog commented on my terraforming thesis that incumbents rejigger the environment to be more suited to people like themselves:

“And that is why in a land of the blind, the one-eyed man is not king.”

That comment, accurate for the most part, reminded of the short story The Country Of The Blind by HG Wells, which explores just such a scenario through a sighted visitor who finds a remote town of blind people. The locals are well-adapted to their environment, and through generations, have adapted their environment to them:

They thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man. His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down.

He would show these people once and for all what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.
“You move not, Bogota,” said the voice.
He laughed noiselessly and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.
“Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed.”
Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped, amazed.

He induced them to let him go a long way up the sloping meadows towards the wall with one complaisant individual, and to him he promised to describe all that happened among the houses. He noted certain goings and comings, but the things that really seemed to signify to these people happened inside of or behind the windowless houses–the only things they took note of to test him by–and of those he could see or tell nothing.

So yes, the blinding of the general population tomorrow would give a huge advantage to the one-eyed men. But not forever.

Tabarrok And Hard Social Science Fiction

I’ve been pondering at length (see parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight) the nature of good and bad narrative writing (in the broader sense that includes TV and movies) and what an exacting audience member such as myself likes and dislikes in such writing. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution weighs in and offers a useful distinction:

Hard science-fiction is science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary science. By analogy, I deem hard social science fiction* to be science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary social science especially economics but also politics, sociology and other fields. Absent specific technology device such as a worm-hole, hard science fiction rejects faster than light travel as little more than fantasy. I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical. Nothing wrong with fantasy as entertainment, of course, just so long as you don’t try to implement it here on earth.

Tabarrok’s take is more policy-oriented, but since I share many of his econo-political views, I don’t mind. More importantly, he’s offered me excellent terminology in the distinction between hard and soft science and social science fiction. Many of my complaints in the posts link above seem to be complaints about pieces of fiction that are soft social sci-fi but claim to be hard social sci-fi. I’ve previously referenced movies that pretend to extend current trends into an inevitably dystopian future as a warning against continuing such trends – recently, the topic is inevitably wealth inequality. I’ve criticized these movies for their lack of verisimilitude, and I think it’s their pretense of realism that bothered me so. Tabarrok’s terminology captures my issues with such writing.

NDT On The Critique of Science In Film

I recently quoted blog-favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed and called him a fellow member of the  “difficult audience,” the group of people (of which I am one) that nitpick movies/TV shows/books for scientific and social-scientific accuracy. His tweets got quite a bit of media attention, and the man himself responded. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is short and worth reading:

What few people recognize is that science experts don’t line up to critique Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Man of Steel or Transformers or The Avengers.  These films offer no premise of portraying a physical reality.  Imagine the absurdity of me critiquing the Lion King:  “Lions can’t talk.  And if they could, they wouldn’t be speaking English.  And Simba would have simply eaten Pumba early in the film.”

The converse is also true.  If a film happens to portray an awesome bit of science when there’s otherwise no premise of scientific accuracy, then I’m first in line to notice.

 

 

 

On Good And Other Writers

I said yesterday that I’d continue my thoughts on good vs bad fiction writing. This has been on my mind as I’ve contemplating a few novel-length projects myself, and I keep running into plotting difficulties. Often I find an easy way to write my way out of those places, but only by doing some of those things that I hate in other people’s writing – coincidences, luck, fortuitous timing, or bad decisions. These things aren’t necessarily bad writing – Charles Dickens loved himself a good coincidence – but they tend to bother me. I often find myself explaining away plot holes in movies, so I am willing to suspend disbelief as much as anyone, but I simply don’t enjoy authors who write themselves into a corner through convenience. TV Tropes, a highly addictive site, lists many of the frequently used such shortcuts in narrative fiction.

I like writing in the least convenient possible world, a rationalist technique that lines up the world against you to make sure your ideas still stand up. Writing in this way means avoiding the fortunate coincidences that let your hero win – your hero should win even with no lucky breaks. (Obviously, luck can be a theme itself, in which case it’s fair game.) I’m always disappointed when a criminal mastermind is undone by a stupid mistake that someone capable of putting his plan together would be unlikely to make – how impressive is a hero who defeats such a bumbling fool? I also hate villains who are undone by their psychological compulsions to defeat the hero a certain way, but that can sometimes be excused as a legitimate point – the kind of person who would put such a plan together would also be likely to have other bad character traits. For a list of silly things supervillains tend to do that ruin the quality of writing, see again TV Tropes: The Evil Overlord Checklist.

I’ve praised Joss Whedon in the past for impressive writing in both “Firefly”/”Serenity” and “Dollhouse,” where he doesn’t stumble into the problems of “Equilibrium” or “Elysium” mentioned above. The difference is that the question Whedon’s staff starts with a defensible premise and seems to ask “what happens if…” Sometimes this “if” is a ludicrous technology as in Dollhouse, but that’s an appropriate way to veer from reality – technological change happens, and it’s interesting to explore what-if scenarios even with unrealistic technology. Bad writing instead picks an intriguing premise (“Crime is legal!”) and barely bother to justify it, even if it is based on unrealistic actions. It’s not useful to to explore what people would do in a world where people do things that people wouldn’t do. Some say that it doesn’t have to be realistic to be fun (true) but then it can’t be expected to be taken seriously. We can’t really draw any conclusions built on such faulty premises, and anyone who thinks they’re making a political statement (like The Purge) is wrong. And you already know that I hate it when people who should not feel good about themselves feel good about themselves.