Tag Archives: science fiction

Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wonderful modern sci-fi that feels classic — The Things They Carried set in a future where galactic soldiers fight wars with different alien races in every battle. Perhaps the anti-Star Trek: in this book, Earth is stagnated, and while space is widely discovered, every other species is out to get us in an alien-eat-alien world. It’s brutal, and the soldiers have to try to hold tight to their humanity.

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Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Ready Player One were a lasagna, it would be a little bit of meat, a thin layer of noodles, and a lot of cheese. Of course, some people really like cheesy lasagna, and some people haven’t eaten lasagna in a really long time and don’t remember what it’s supposed to be like so they like the first one they try. And that’s okay.
But that doesn’t mean this sci-fi lasagna is “world’s best.”
Anyway, Ready Player One has a clever concept: people in a future in which all the world is enthralled by an immersive alternate reality experience are challenged to complete a virtual-reality 1980’s-themed quest to get a lot of money. One kid with not much going for him discovers the first major clue–and learns about friendship and the meaning of life while tackling the quest.
It sounds kinda like a Lifetime movie. And really, that’s not that far off. Ready Player One’s biggest problem is being in love with references, references to the 1980s (in the U.S.), pop culture, D&D, and most of all, video games. So many references that it sometimes seems like the plot has been redirected just to fit in one more. It’s kinda like that guy from the office who just can’t let the joke alone already–everyone just finds a reason to get lunch somewhere else when he’s around.
I was really excited about this book. It was a sci-fi dystopia! There were video games! It was a best seller! But it turns out it’s mostly a fan-fiction combo of Tron and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are lots of good ideas, but they’re underdeveloped (in favor of more references–gag), and it seems like we spend most of our time in the virtual reality of Oasis not because that’s where the story leads us but because author Ernest Cline didn’t think through all of what his futuristic world looks like. It’s also frustrating that the audience is left out of solving most of the puzzles because of information that is just never revealed to the reader (I mean, how do we know that there is a museum on a planet called Archaid?) and yet the major plot points might as well be written in neon for how obvious they are and how much they telegraph. Especially frustrating is the quite literal deux ex machina just when the protagonist gets in a tight spot. I mean, come on.
As a fan of science fiction dystopias, I was also frustrated that Cline didn’t quite think through the ramifications of his future. I mean, seriously, when the whole world is spending most of their time, in some form or another, in a virtual reality, why on earth would a guy who does that very thing be derided as a basement-dweller who never left his mom’s house? (Answer: he wouldn’t! That’s projecting current stereotypes into an imaginary 50-years in the future. The culture would have changed!) And why would anything in a virtual reality require as de rigour real-time travel? Spawn points are already a thing in our video games. Ain’t got time for that!
If you know what you’re getting—a whole lot of clever/cutesy references to the 1980s wrapped in a light dusting of futurism—Ready Player One is a fun read. Just make sure you know what kind of cheese you like on your pasta.

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Review: InterWorld

InterWorld (InterWorld, #1)InterWorld by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What if Neil Gaiman wrote a sequel to A Wrinkle in Time—what would that look like?”

“InterWorld” is the answer. Well, kind of.

InterWorld seems like a modern spiritual cousin of “A Wrinkle in Time,” except it’s less tightly organized and more definitively a young adult book.

InterWorld follows a boy (Joey Harken) as he discovers he has a special power—he can walk between worlds, parallel worlds, that are similar but not exactly the same as the Earth he knows. And that there are people who want to kill him, and all those like him, for their own nefarious purposes. Joey stumbles into a camp full of all the alternates of himself—the people descended from birds, the robotically enhanced humanoids, the girl Joeys (*gasp*!)—and has to be trained to use his powers to fight back against those who would destroy everything.

But this is a half-Gaiman book, so it’s not light on the tragedy. It’s handled in a very appropriate way, but it could be jarring to those who expect a kids’ book to be nothing but happiness and sunshine.

The story is a little jumpy and it’s hard to get attached to any of the characters besides Joey, but InterWorld has a lot of charm. It would be great for an emerging nerd in middle school, someone who could potentially get more into sci-fi later but is still a developing reader. Someone who feels a little bit like a misfit.

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Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games (Expanse, #5)Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I need you to read this book, because I need more people to talk to about this book.
While the last one in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn, just didn’t quite work for me, I’m 100% on board with Nemesis Games, because hot damn.
It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked early in the series, because it’s largely about adopted family and what it’s like when they’re separated, how the relationship between people who are bonded brothers (crew of a ship) affect each other, think of each other, and change, both with and without their crewmates. So it’s a book that had to come after the reader was already deeply familiar with the characters, their relationships, and what makes them tick.
Oh, and it’s also about an intra-galactic war. And terrorism. And mysteries.
Once again, the duo making up James S.A. Corey did a masterful job weaving disparate stories together to create one beautiful, incredible, unpredictable story arc. This book had me staying up late (thank goodness for holidays!) to read just one more chapter, which became just four more chapters. I kept needing to find out what happened, only to find out maybe they made it out of that scrape but holy hell have things gotten worse!
I also really loved the way this book reveals the backstories of each character without more than a smattering of flashbacks. It’s them, dealing with the present created by their pasts. Plus it is just loaded with such on-point and hilarious one-liners from just about everyone on the crew.
I can’t say enough nice things about this book. Please read it so I can talk about it without spoiling it for you too much!

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Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn (Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This fourth book is different from the rest. Then again, that has been true of all the books in this series so far, but this one might be a little more distinctive. The first, Leviathan Wakes is a murder mystery on a grand scale; Caliban’s War is about grappling with an unknowable alien enemy; Abaddon’s Gate is largely a political intrigue; and then there’s Cibola Burn…which is alternatively a man vs. man and a man vs. nature story. So it’s a little bit different.
Yet again we’re brought along with Captain Holden and his crew as he tries to not screw things up, and we’re again introduced to a new cast of characters to guide us: the well-intentioned but misguided colonist Basia; the clinical and laser-focused scientist Elvi; and the security chief, Havelock, who is most definitely a reflection of our pal Miller from book one.
The writing duo that make up Jame S.A. Corey remain outstanding, as this series knows how to ramp up the problem like none I’ve ever seen. Just when you think you’ve got one disaster big enough to ruin everything, they throw another bomb into the mix. It makes this a harrowing, exciting read, as you try to imagine how anyone could survive that.
My issue with this book is the antagonist. He’s just too mustache-twirling evil, and though he has motivations, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be so staunch in that kind of view. He ends up just being a bigger-than-realistic baddie who I hoped got put out of his misery early on–but of course, he didn’t, and I had to keep suffering through his appearances. Maybe I’m naive to think no one would be like that guy, but I really didn’t want to read about him all the time. I’m seriously disappointed he wasn’t killed by a death-slug (oh yeah, death-slugs are a thing).
The ending feels a little too pat, but then they fix that by adding a short coda from our political hero and war heroes from the prior books. Now we’re talking.
Then again, the character exposition I got for some of the crew of the Rocinante was so fabulous it might have made the whole book worthwhile…
Yet again, this book is a lot of fun and an incredible journey, even if this one wasn’t my favorite.

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‘The Martian’ Movie is Awesome

I loved the book The Martian, so I’ve been really looking forward to seeing the movie. The teaser trailers made it look like thy would be identical, like Ridley Scott really put thought and attention into getting every detail right and making it just like the book. Plus, NASA was on board!

So I was pretty psyched, and as anyone who reads the book first knows, that can be dangerous. Will the movie manage to live up to your imagination?

I think The Martian does it. It is awesome. That’s the number one takeaway here; it makes Mars missions seem attainable, exciting, and totally awe-inspiring in the deeply Biblical/act-of-God sense.

I mean, look at this promo shot from the movie!

The Martian movie was awesome

from i09

That’s just…gorgeous. It is like a stunning sunset at the Grand Canyon, except the whole set is the Grand Canyon. And I cried when I saw the Grand Canyon, so I’m really saying something here when I say this is just incredible and moving.

Matt Damon (despite all the jokes about our willingness to send him into space and save his life repeatedly) just owned the part. He’s perfect for it. For so much of the movie, he is alone, but it doesn’t feel heavy or hard to watch, the way Moon intentionally did. Just like the book, Watley is light-hearted but determined, and it’s ultimately a story about hope.

The movie makes Mars look cool, makes Matt Damon look cool, makes science look like the amazing problem-solver that it is, and makes humanity in general look pretty good.

I don’t think it was a perfect film. Other fans of the book might notice some glaring omissions—I don’t want to be too detailed for risk of spoilers, but at least two whole crises are cut out completely—but I think it makes sense that they were cut. There just wasn’t enough time for the level of detail afforded by the book, and the book could admittedly get to be a little bit challenging because, well, it turns out surviving alone on an inhospitable planet is hard. But where the movie truly shines over the book is in the ending: it’s far more epic and satisfying–though I do deeply miss that beautiful final paragraph from the last page of the book.

In all, I think the movie is really great, but is best as a companion piece: those who haven’t read the book are missing out on a far richer, more nuanced, experience. But seeing Mars on the big screen is really, really cool!

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Review: For Us, The Living

For Us, the Living: A Comedy of CustomsFor Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a novel, this book is pretty weak. But as a literary oddity (Heinlein’s never-before-published first work) and as a font of ideas, it’s incredible.
First, why it’s a crummy novel: there’s not much of a story; many of the characters are sketches; there are long stretches without any action; and characters are unrealistically accepting of bizarre things. I mean surely you’d ask some questions if the man you just met claimed he was from 150 years ago?
But if characters did bother with such fundamental questions, we would miss out on Heinlein’s Tour of the Future Wonders. Which is what most of the book feels like–a showcase of an ideal future, minus robot dogs but with large doses of nudity and acceptance of casual sex.
Heinlein had some really interesting, refreshing ideas for science fiction, particularly when you remember the book was written in 1938. In many ways, he was rather clear-sighted. In others, he would be terribly disappointed in our cultural failure to progress. I for one am looking forward to having my own personal helicopter/jet.
Perhaps the funniest thing Is what Heinlein thought we wouldn’t have accomplished by 2086–landing on the moon, a feat Heinlein would see managed a mere 30 years later. (How awesome it must have been for him to watch the moon landing!)
However, if Heinlein were to pop back in, Wayne’s World-style, I think he’d be disturbed by the fetishization of the Kardashian family’s goings-on; he’d be quite disappointed with our economics; and disgruntled by the populaces’ ongoing appreciation for clothing. Ah well.
“For Us, The Living” is a lovely jaunt down what-if road, but only if you’re up for contemplation. Seek compelling storylines elsewhere.

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To Boldly Go Toward Diversity in Science Fiction

With the sad little white men known as the “Sad Puppies” shitting all over the Hugo awards, diversity in science fiction has been a hot topic of late. And it likely will continue to be a conversation, in literature. But right now I want to talk about another medium, and a body of science fiction that has definitively transformed the cultural landscape for the better. Because it was diverse.

I want to talk about Star Trek, a TV show, several movies, and a long string of spin-off books. Because my friend died, and it’s what they loved.

I’ve written about my love of Star Trek before. But I don’t know that I’ve explained how important it has been in my life. Star Trek was the show that my brother, my dad, and I gathered around to watch most nights growing up (and sometimes mom joined in, too). We predominantly watched Star Trek: Next Generation, but we weren’t choosy and have dabbled in all of them. We didn’t always watch them in order, but that wasn’t important. I can’t even tell you which of the movies I’ve seen, except to say “yes.” I had a crush on Wesley as an awkward teenager, because he was a smart awkward teenager about the same time I was just awkward, so he seemed to have a lot to aspire to.

My parents were the type who didn’t allow us to watch anything they deemed “inappropriate,” and heavily favored those they viewed as “educational.” And Star Trek absolutely fit that bill (lucky for me). I probably didn’t learn that much about actual science, but I learned a great deal about philosophy, about friendship and familial relationships, about hope. And I most certainly learned about acceptance.

Of course we all know it was Star Trek that braved to blast through the color barrier on TV, with the first interracial kiss. But more than that, Star Trek taught that anyone could be accepted. You could have weird spoon indentations on your head, or a tendency to fight at a moment’s notice, or the ability to read emotions and strange marriage rituals, but it wouldn’t matter: Starfleet would find a place for you. You were respected for who and what you were. It may not have always been logical or the easiest choice, but it was Captain Picard’s (and later, Captain Janway’s) prevailing approach. To learn. To welcome those who are friendly and demilitarize or avoid those who aren’t.

I can’t have been the only one who learned tolerance from Star Trek. I know it has inspired others. It inspired my friend, who I first met the first week of college; they performed Hamlet‘s “To Be or Not To Be” speech… in Klingon. They made an impression–not necessarily flattering, but certainly brave and owning their geek pride. And I could respect that.

I’m using the pronoun “they” because, though in college my friend presented as male, some time a few years later they decided/realized they preferred the pronoun “they/their.” They identified not as male, but as “genderfluid.”

Yet again my friend stunned me a bit. I mean, that is a tough thing to wrap your head around, for sure. But I hadn’t been in close touch with this friend for years, and even so they felt the need to reach out, to share this very intimate part of their life, with me. I was touched, and felt guilty for having been so far out of touch. I admired them their brave eccentricity, their self-acceptance, their newfound sense of confidence, of self.

I think Star Trek had a lot to do with that. See, in Star Trek, no one would blink twice at this kind of switch, about the idea that gender is not fixed or biologically determined. Sure, what else is new? We’ve got these furry things that reproduce like mad, let’s go deal with them. The captain’s banging a green alien again, what else is new? We’ve got solar systems to explore, who cares about a stupid pronoun?!

My friend loved Star Trek. I mean, they were fluent in Klingon, of course they loved it! But I can’t help but think, now, that one of the big appeals for them must have been that acceptance of diversity. That dream of a future utopia wherein poverty has been eliminated, where disease can be cured by a flashy light, and where people can be who they are…whoever and whatever that may be.

My friend passed away very suddenly last week. I never got the opportunity to tell them how brave they were. But they reminded me of something important, even now: that diversity in science fiction is absolutely not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. It is perhaps the best thing about science fiction, that we can create safe spaces in which we can explore the possibilities of a bright future.

I hope my friend has found their Nexus.

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Review: Neuromancer

 Neuromancer is undoubtedly an original, at what was once the cutting edge of science fiction, breeding a whole new genre known as cyberpunk, from which much of what we now take for granted was invented. I can see why it’s on many “must-read” sci-fi lists.

But I don’t much care for it.

Despite the reviews saying it’s about a hacker and a big conceptual challenge, the challenge I faced for the full first third of the book was just figuring out what the heck was going on. The main character, Case, is a washed-up drug addict and former “cowboy.” Apparently “cowboy” means “hacker,” but it took a lot of reading to really grok that. Case is pulled into a weird “team” of characters to kill an AI, which supposedly can’t be done, for reasons. I never really did figure out what motivated most of the characters to be willingly on this quest or interact with each other. A lot of imagined jargon is thrown at you from the outset, and I found it so foreign I had no context to help. And because Case is so drug-addled–particularly at the beginning–it’s immensely hard to figure out what is even real.

I really was confused when a brand-new character, a “razor girl”–woman with retractable razor blade claws–meets Case and then a scene later has sex with him. I’m all for characters being bonded and all, but they just met! And she tried to kill him! How is that attraction or flirtation? I almost gave up on the book then, but it’s a classic, so I persevered.

I got it, eventually, fell into the flow of the language and found the story, but I had already lost some of the mystique the book had held from being a first. I just didn’t love it.

However, I can absolutely see its value as literature. It is a definite pioneer of the new, of the future of technology. It tries to comprehend what eventually became the Web, and even though it is conceptually very different from today’s user experience, you can trace the gene pool.

The “matrix” looks an awful lot like Tron or Reboot and it’s an immersive alternate reality, perhaps like some movie in 1999 called, oh, I dunno, The Matrix. Dub step music almost certainly hardens at least partially to this book, as does almost any movie where a guy behind a screen can be a hero.

Neuromancer is an important book…but probably not one I’d read again.

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Thanks to ‘Sad Puppies,’ Hugo Awards Were a Mess

This year’s prestigious Hugo Awards were far more dramatic than usual, and not for any good reason. In case you haven’t been following the hoopla, the long and the short of it is that a group of (white, male) writers who felt that white, male authors’ stories about space marines weren’t getting enough attention through a hissy fit and manipulated the awards to try to get awards for people and stories they deemed more acceptable.

And, it didn’t work: None of the people the self-named “Sad Puppies” put forward won.

Wired has an outstanding article about it: Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, And Why It Matters. You should go read it right now.

Some particularly salient quotes:

“Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?”

It’s crazy that it’s even an argument.

“Not a single Puppy-endorsed candidate took home a rocket. In the five categories that had only Puppy-provided nominees on the ballot—Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Related Work, and Best Editor for Short and for Long Form—voters instead preferred ‘No Award.'”

Honestly, as glad as I am that the rigged votes didn’t result in wins, I feel terrible for those authors. In fact for all the authors on this years’ ballot. It’s hard to know the exact effect of the Sad Puppies’ campaign, and therefore hard to tell which authors had a groundswell of deserved support and how many were picked just because someone didn’t like the other guy (or gal). How terrible that such an incredible award should be tainted. And how sad that so many categories resulted in a “No Award” this year, when I’m sure there are many deserving authors who got either locked out by the manipulated ballot or tainted by the Puppies’ touch.

I sincerely hope the Hugo folks manage to figure out a way to improve the voting process to make this better next year and going forward, but I feel certain that this culture shift (and resulting puppy-pooping) is not going to go away overnight.

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