Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier

The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier
Published: Tor, 2007
Series: Book 1 of the Bridei Chronicles
The Book:
Bridei is a young nobleman, a fosterling of one of the most powerful druids in the land, Broichan. All of Bridei's memories are of this dark and mysterious man who seems to be training him for a special purpose he will not divulge.

But, everything changes when on one bitter Midwinter Eve Bridei discovers a child on their doorstep—a child abandoned by the fairie folk. In order to avoid the bad luck that seems to come with fairie folk, all counsel the babe's death. But, Bridei follows his instinct and, heedless of the danger, fights to save the child. Broichan, though wary, relents.

As Bridei comes to manhood, and the foundling Tuala blossoms into a beautiful young woman, he begins to feel things he didn't know were possible.  Broichan sees this and feels only danger, for Tuala could be a key part in Bridei's future…or could spell his doom. “
I’m reading  The Dark Mirror as a part of the 2010 Women in Fantasy Book Club hosted over at the blog ‘Jawas Read, too!’.

My Thoughts:
The Dark Mirror is a historical fantasy about the life of Bridei I, a member of the civilization of the Picts in the late 500s.  Marillier’s take on the Picts is based on historical fact, imagination, and educated guesswork.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the geography and beauty of ancient Scotland (the area where the Picts lived), and it seemed that a lot of research went into shaping the civilization into a rich setting for the story. 
While the environment was definitely a strong point of the novel, I felt that the characterization of the protagonists was one of the weaknesses.  The main characters, Tuala and Bridei, are almost entirely perfect.  Due to Bridei’s carefully isolated upbringing, he’s more highly educated and skilled than most anyone else in the kingdom. Despite this, he’s humble, and is careful not to hurt the pride of the older, more experienced men that he outclasses.  I had thought that his isolation in childhood might give him problems integrating socially, but his overwhelming natural charisma takes care of that possible problem.  His ‘flaws’, as stated in the novel, involve being too noble, thinking too much about things, and being too compassionate. Tuala is beautiful and intelligent.  Thanks to Bridei, she is more highly educated than almost any other Pict woman, and she is naturally better at magic than all of the humans.  She is also endlessly humble and kind, despite any hostility she encounters.  I didn’t dislike either of the characters—there’s not much about them to dislike—but I had a hard time really connecting with such faultless people.
Their story is also a little too predictable and conventional for my taste, and it moves at a glacial pace.  Tuala and Bridei are both specially chosen for some great destiny.  They are also star-crossed lovers, since Tuala is one of the hated Good Folk. Most of the major obstacles to their love arise from their self-effacing tendencies and their inability to adequately communicate.  The romance also seems to embrace the idea that love makes people lose their ability to reason.  The book would have been much shorter if either Bridei or Tuala used their carefully honed intellects when thinking about the other’s motivations.  The use of these and other generic romance plot devices made their love story feel a little too obvious and familiar to me.
I also was not particularly drawn to the non-romantic story, which was about Priteni (the Pict civilization) politics, and the protection and unification of the realm.  I had some serious personal issues with the aggressively intolerant attitudes of Bridei’s countrymen, in addition to their extreme “My Country, Right or Wrong” nationalism.  My ideological opposition to the society undercut my ability to be concerned about its continued welfare. I would have liked to see some examination of the common prejudices, and perhaps see some people acknowledge their obvious invalidity.  Given that one of the hated Gaels is a main character in the next book of the series, I’m guessing that this might be still to come.
Though I was not particularly interested in the main plot of the novel, I was drawn to the stories of the side characters.  To me, the most fascinating character was Ferada, the sister of one of Bridei’s friends.  Her lively intelligence led directly to a kind of defensive bitterness.  She was well aware of the limited role of women in their society, and she was constantly reminded of her own powerlessness.  I was highly interested in her struggle to maintain her personal integrity, but disappointed that so little time was dedicated to her.  Other interesting characters included Ana, a royal hostage from another land, and Faolan, a Gaelic bodyguard.  I believe that these characters come more into the spotlight in the subsequent books of the series.
My Rating: 2.5/5
I enjoyed the historical aspects of The Dark Mirror, and Marillier’s descriptions of the ancient Pict civilization.  However, I found the main characters, Tuala and Bridei, far too perfect to be truly interesting.  The plot seemed very unnecessarily slowly paced, given the predictability of the romance and their eventual destiny. Some of the minor characters seemed to have much more interesting stories and personalities, but they were not given enough of the focus to become fully developed.  There were definitely things to enjoy in The Dark Mirror, but they were not enough to make me want to continue with the series.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
Published: William Morrow & Co. ,1991
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Award

The Book:

“The Jubilee Tides will drown the continents of the planet Miranda beneath the weight of her own oceans. But as the once-in-two-centuries cataclysm approaches, an even greater catastrophe threatens this dark and dangerous planet of tale-spinners, conjurers, and shapechangers.

A man from the Bureau of Proscribed Technologies has been sent to investigate. For Gregorian has come, a genius renegade scientist and charismatic bush wizard. With magic and forbidden technology, he plans to remake the rotting, dying world in his own evil image—and to force whom or whatever remains on its diminishing surface toward a terrifying and astonishing confrontation with death and transcendence.” 

I’ve read some of Michael Swanwick’s work before, so I decided to pick up Stations of the Tide when I saw it at a used book sale a while ago.  I ended up mired in a bunch of very long novels this month (most of which I have yet to finish), and I was looking for a short novel to break things up.  It seemed like the perfect time to try out Stations of the Tide. 

My Thoughts:

Stations of the Tide feels as though it is as much a puzzle as it is a story. Michael Swanwick hands his readers all the pieces, and expects them to be able to assemble it into a whole. A number of scenes seem at first to be irrelevant, but they become very important in retrospect.  Similarly, many seemingly minor details and hints are thrown in smoothly, and their importance only becomes clear much later on.  I think that I would need to re-read Stations of the Tide in order to fully appreciate it, since I’m sure there are countless little details I missed the first time through.  It seems to be a book that demands multiple readings.

From the description, I expected the novel to be a mystery and an adventure story, with the bureaucrat chasing Gregorian and his contraband through the drowning planet of Miranda.  While this is the general plot, the way the story unfolded was nothing like I expected.  Whatever Gregorian took is completely unknown, save that it is probably some technology forbidden after the technological disaster of Earth. Furthermore, even if the bureaucrat finds Gregorian, he does not have the authority to do anything but ask Gregorian nicely to return the stolen goods.  Despite these setbacks, the bureaucrat has a methodical, dogged determination to carry out his task.  On Miranda, a deeply occultist world that blurs the line between magic and science, he muddles through a series of experiences that are sometimes dreamlike and sometimes painfully real.  In a way, it reminded me of the film “Waking Life”, as the bureaucrat seemed to drift purposefully, with very little transition, from one person’s story or situation to the next.

The apparent rambling nature of the book, in addition to the abrupt scene changes, made it a little difficult to get into for me.  It didn’t help that most of the characters seemed to be deliberately designed to be unlikeable.  The unnamed bureaucrat protagonist was an unreliable narrator (thanks to some drugs, memory modifications, etc.), and he seemed to have very little personality.  He was mostly focused on pursuing his job to its completion, though he ran into a lot of interesting complications along the way.  Most of the other characters only showed up for a handful of scenes each.  With no characters to care deeply about, the novel seemed to rely heavily on hooking the reader intellectually instead of emotionally.

In the intellectual vein, Stations of the Tide carried a lot of allusions to other work.  The superficial references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were obvious (The Prospero system, the planet Miranda, etc.).  Through the plot and themes, it also seems to echo a bit of Heart of Darkness. Also, there are a number of references to religion.  I assumed that the Jubilee tide is a meant to be seen as a reference to the Jubilee year dictated in Leviticus.  Also, the “Stations of the Tide” seems to echo the “Stations of the Cross”. I’ve actually seen a webpage where someone listed each station and its counterpart in the novel.  Outside of explicit references, there is a general theme of transformation through death that runs through the novel, which calls to mind the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.  When the Jubilee tides come, the wildlife of Miranda transitions to its aquatic form, and Gregorian offers, genuinely or not, to be able to transform humans into aquatic creatures as well.  I think Stations of the Tide offers a lot of material for discussion.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Stations of the Tide was a very interesting novel, though it takes a fair amount of effort on the reader’s part to appreciate it.  I feel like I should read it again to catch all of the details that seemed superfluous, and to see more clearly how all of the events of the novel tie together.  It was very difficult to get into, with an unreliable, unsympathetic narrator, abrupt, disorienting scene changes and very little in the way of explanation to the reader. The novel alludes to various notable works or religious ideas, and I enjoyed seeing how these were incorporated in the story.  Between the references and the unresolved mysteries of the story, there’s plenty to keep one’s mind occupied.  Despite its short length, I would definitely not call this a light read.  It’s a book to pick up if you have time to read carefully and to work out the implications of each scene in reference to the rest.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson

The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson
Published: Bantam Spectra, 2011
Series: sequel to The Native Star
The Book:
There are necessarily a few spoilers in this review of the first book in the series, The Native Star, so continue at your own risk!
Like it or not, Emily has fallen in love with Dreadnought Stanton, a New York Warlock as irresistible as he is insufferable. Newly engaged, she now must brave Dreadnought’s family and the magical elite of the nation’s wealthiest city. Not everyone is pleased with the impending nuptials, especially Emily’s future mother-in-law, a sociopathic socialite. But there are greater challenges still: confining couture, sinister Russian scientists, and a deathless Aztec goddess who dreams of plunging the world into apocalypse. With all they must confront, do Emily and Dreadnought have any hope of a happily-ever-after?”
This is the sequel to The Native Star, M.K. Hobson’s Nebula-nominated first novel.  I was really impressed with The Native Star’s interesting historical-magical world, so I decided to follow the series.  The Hidden Goddess did not quite live up to its predecessor, in my opinion, but that could be due to my disinterest in romance. 
My Thoughts:
While The Native Star was a magical adventure with a dash of romance, The Hidden Goddess is a meandering magical tale of romantic love.  The story revolves around Emily and Stanton, the witch and warlock who fell in love in the previous novel.  Emily, a rural witch, was adopted under mysterious circumstances, and she has no memory of her biological family.  She fell in love with the haughty, high-class warlock Stanton.  She knew that he used to be a sangrimancer (blood magic practitioner), but she believed in his fundamental decency.  The core of the novel concerns Emily and Stanton learning much more about themselves and each other, and having to determine if their relationship (and their lives!) can make it through the challenges ahead.  There are other, more magical plots woven into this, such as the Russian scientists scheme to poison magic and the apocalypse of the obsidian goddess, but even these stories were linked in some way to the topic of romantic love. 
I think that anyone who wished The Native Star had focused more on the Emily and Stanton’s love will find The Hidden Goddess to be a welcome continuation of the story. I’m not much of a romance fan, but my existing interest in the lovers made it easier to be drawn into the story.  Even so, I was occasionally distracted by some of the more clichéd romance elements. There was Stanton’s evil ex, the whole ‘pretty country girl dragged into polite society’ bit, and various misunderstandings due to lack of communication.  It wasn’t enough to put me off the book entirely, though, since I had been looking forward to learning more about their histories and seeing their relationship develop.
While everything in the novel links back neatly to themes of romantic love, the explicit plot in The Hidden Goddess sometimes felt a little meandering.  The Native Star had a clear chase plot, and it was focused around the immediate concern of dealing with the “Native Star” magical artifact.  For the first part of The Hidden Goddess, Emily seems to spend a lot of time either trying to survive ‘high society’ or wandering around.  Her travels are certainly interesting, but her purpose is mostly to make herself scarce as Stanton deals with the aftermath of The Native Star.  The story does become more intense and exciting towards the end, but the novel, as a whole, ended up feeling a little uneven to me.
One minor character that really stole the show for me was Miss Jesczenka, Emily’s ‘social guide’ in New York. Much more than a simple etiquette advisor, Miss Jesczenka is the only female faculty member of the Credomantic (faith magic) Institute.  I was initially impressed that she was able to practice in the field at all, since credomancy is based on the belief of others in your power.  In Stanton’s society, women are treated with, at best, sneering condescension.  Though she was not the main character, her story of coping as a woman in a male-dominated field (and society) really struck a chord with me.
My Rating: 3.5/5
In The Hidden Goddess, featuring the continuing story of Emily Edwards and Dreadnought Stanton, the focus shifts towards romance. While there is a fair bit of magical adventure, including an impending apocalypse and the possible poisoning of all magic, everything ties back in some way to romantic love.   However, the emphasis on romance also led to a number of common romance clichés, and it took quite a while for the magical plot to really take shape.  The first half of the book seemed a little aimless at times, as it followed Emily dealing with problems of etiquette and wandering around.  I don’t think that The Hidden Goddess was as strong of a novel overall as The Native Star, but it was still an entertaining addition to Emily and Stanton’s adventures. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Blackout by Connie Willis

Blackout by Connie Willis
Published: Spectra, 2010
Series: Blackout/All Clear
Awards: Nebula Award, Locus SF Award, Hugo Award
Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Book:
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive. “

I’m reading Blackout (and All Clear, later) as a part of my plan to read all of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.  Rather than feeling like the first book of a series, this is the first half of a story that is split up into Blackout and All Clear.  The lack of resolution at the end of Blackout makes me wonder if the story was split up due to binding considerations (it is over 1000 pages altogether).  I have to admit that I have not yet read All Clear, though, so it’s definitely possible that there is a narrative reason for the split that I won’t understand until the end.

My Thoughts:
Blackout is an incredibly ambitious story and I think Willis has pulled it off amazingly well.  It is very similar in some ways to her previous novels in this Oxford time travel universe, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book.  As in those stories, she portrays the historical period so vividly that it is like getting a history lesson alongside the entertainment.  Even with all the historical detail, though, the book did not come across as dry or difficult.  Through the time traveling Oxford historians, we are shown how the events of WWII affected ordinary people, and how they rose to meet extraordinary challenges. The novel is very focused on the characters, and the particular ways that they cope with their lives.  Through these small-scale stories of individuals, Willis slips in lots of information about life during WWII, without it ever feeling like a tedious infodump or lecture. 
In addition to balancing a wealth of historical detail and expert storytelling, Willis has included a huge cast of characters and locations.  The focus of the novel is on the stories of time traveling historians Polly, Merope, and Michael, observing the London Blitz, evacuee children, and the rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk. Beyond these three situations, though, a few other stories turn up throughout the novel. In the beginning, there is the usual chaotic bustle of future Oxford. There are also some chapters showing historians observing other events, such as the placement of fake tanks to trick the Germans.  Each of these situations is vividly physically described and has a cast of memorable, engaging characters.  I was worried about being able to keep track of everything at the beginning, but Willis’ prose was thankfully clear and easy to digest.  The only complaint I have about the many characters and plots is that, while some of them did merge, they did not all tie together at the end of the novel.  I suppose that’s to be expected, though, since this is only the first half of the story.
The focus is clearly on the everyday lives of the historians and the ‘contemps’, people who actually live in the historical period, but there is also a science fiction mystery element to the story.  Has one of the historians done some small thing that will, despite all their beliefs that it is impossible, alter history in some drastic way? Are the little things they’re starting to notice just due to bad historical recording, and their growing technical problems just a coincidence? Is there just some kind of technical problem at future Oxford?  This mystery is the undercurrent of Merope’s, Michael’s and Polly’s stories, and I am very excited to see how it will turn out.  
My Rating: 4.5/5
Maybe it’s just because I’m used to this style of storytelling from To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, but I actually felt like Blackout went very fast, despite its length.  It’s an impressive novel for the way it balances historical detail with engaging storytelling.  The multitude of characters, settings, and storylines is a little overwhelming at first, but Willis does make everything clear and easy to follow fairly quickly.  The confusing tangle of characters and stories seems to even enhance the sense of chaos in future Oxford as the novel opens.  Through all of the separate stories of historians and their chosen events runs the slow realization that all is not right with time travel and the world.  While the book focuses mostly on the minutiae of daily life, this sci-fi type mystery also gives it a grander scope.  This is clearly the first half of a story, so there is almost no resolution to be had at the end, but it did leave me eager to get my hands on All Clear!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1988
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, Book 1
Awards: Nebula
Nominated: Hugo

The Book:

“Leo Graf was an effective engineer...Safety Regs weren't just the rule book he swore by; he'd helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students—till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn't anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither safe, nor in the rules...

Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies—now all he had to do was teach them to be free. “

I’m finally starting Bujold’s “Vorkosigan Saga” from the very beginning!  Falling Free occurs first in the internal chronology of the series, but it doesn’t feature any of the Vorkosigan family.  Instead this is the origin story of “quaddies”, genetically engineered beings that have two extra arms instead of legs, and are designed to live and work in zero-g.  This seems to be a much better starting place for the series than Cryoburn, if only because it does not assume that the reader is familiar with any people or locations. 

My Thoughts:

Falling Free is a rather simple, straightforward space adventure.  In terms of plot, characterization, and morality, it is much more blunt than I am used to reading from Bujold.  This is not necessarily much of a problem, since I think that it was intended to be a fast, pleasant story about good triumphing over evil.  The blatant moral message is that enslaving people is wrong.  I highly doubt anyone with a shred of decency would disagree.  However, the issue is slightly complicated by the consideration of what constitutes personhood.  The question of what defines a non-human (quaddies are classified as a non-human species) as a person is only addressed lightly in the story, but I think that it a topic worthy of discussion.

The quaddies are designed by a corporation that sees them as very expensive ‘experimental tissue’ instead of people.  Therefore, the company retains rights over their environment, reproduction, and even their lives. The question of their personhood is simplified greatly by the fact that they think and behave exactly like human beings.  Given this, I thought the human staff’s casual acceptance of the quaddies’ predicament was a little hard to swallow. I found myself wondering how the story would have played out if the situation were less clear-cut.  If the quaddies were designed to have the cognitive abilities of an animal, would anyone care about their enslavement?  What if they were given a slightly sub-human level of intelligence?  If either of those situations had been the case, then the untroubled attitudes of most of the human staff would have seemed a little more believable.

Most of the characters are fairly simple, and they fall into easily recognizable roles.  Leo Graf is the reluctant hero.  Even though he risks losing everything he’s ever worked for, he finds himself unable to leave the quaddies to exploitation and possible death.  The villainous Bruce Van Atta and the GalacTech Corporation are unrelentingly evil.  Their abuse of their power over their charges makes the eventual rebellion both necessary and inevitable.  The quaddies themselves are mostly docile and friendly by design, and they are raised in the completely controlled environment of an orbital habitat.  There is a pair of quaddie lovers, Tony and Claire, who found that the corporation didn’t really respect their ideas of love and sexual loyalty.  The most interesting quaddie was Silver, a naïve woman who had been drawn into prostituting herself for information and entertainment from the outer world.  While none of the characters were particularly complex, they fit the tone of the story well.

The story mostly concerned itself with the quaddies realizing their desire for freedom and trying to find a way, with Leo Graf’s help, to acquire it.  It seemed that any time there was a hint of ambiguity about which path was right, the villains (Van Atta and GalacTech) would do something even more horrible, forcing the heroes hands.   I found that a little disappointing, because it seemed to remove the necessity for the heroes to make any truly difficult decisions.  However, there were still enough interesting challenges in the heroes’ way to keep the story exciting.  It was a fun, easy story to read, and I was definitely cheering for Leo Graf and his 1,000 ‘adopted’ quaddies!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Falling Free is was a quick, light, sci-fi adventure novel.  While the premise and the characters are relatively simple, it’s still an exciting story with heroes that are easy to like and villains that are easy to hate. It would have been interesting to have a little more exploration of what constitutes personhood in a non-human species, but that absence didn’t really damage my enjoyment of the story.  I’m guessing the quaddies will show up later in the “Vorkosigan Saga”, and I’m looking forward to possibly seeing how their space-based culture will develop!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Published: Roc, 1992
Nominations: BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
“From the opening line of his breakthrough cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson plunges the reader into a not-too-distant future. It is a world where the Mafia controls pizza delivery, the United States exists as a patchwork of corporate-franchise city-states, and the Internet--incarnate as the Metaverse--looks something like last year's hype would lead you to believe it should. Enter Hiro Protagonist--hacker, samurai swordsman, and pizza-delivery driver.
When his best friend fries his brain on a new designer drug called Snow Crash and his beautiful, brainy ex-girlfriend asks for his help, what's a guy with a name like that to do? He rushes to the rescue. A breakneck-paced 21st-century novel, Snow Crash interweaves everything from Sumerian myth to visions of a postmodern civilization on the brink of collapse. Faster than the speed of television and a whole lot more fun, Snow Crash is the portrayal of a future that is bizarre enough to be plausible.”
This is my second Neal Stephenson book, after reading his dense but fantastic The Diamond Age.  I can certainly see that Snow Crash is a very different book, though it’s still a fun read.  I read Snow Crash as a part of the 2011 book club over at Calico Reaction.
My Thoughts:
Snow Crash did seem kind of like a precursor to The Diamond Age’s scattered narrative style.  The point of view occasionally hopped to minor characters, such as the cyborged guard-dog Fido, or the Kourier Y.T.’s Mom, and there were many different concurrent storylines to enjoy.  However, Snow Crash was not nearly as diffuse, and it was clear in the end how each of these plots tied in together.  The ending itself is nearly as abrupt as in The Diamond Age, and I felt like there was at least some sense of closure on all of the storylines. The writing style in Snow Crash was also much less dense, and it was much more of an action-focused narrative.  This made it seem like a faster read, but it also left most of the characters seeming a little flat.
Even if they lacked depth, the characters are colorful and flashy enough to make for an exciting story.  The main character is the obvious Hiro Protagonist, hacker, master swordfighter, and, briefly, pizza deliveryman.  The secondary protagonist is Y.T. (Yours Truly), a fifteen year old girl skateboarding Kourier.  She delivers packages by magnetically harpooning fast-moving vehicles on the highways, and she ends up forming a loose business partnership with Hiro.  I felt like Y.T. was a more interesting and active character than Hiro.  Y.T. got herself into all kinds of interesting situations through her recklessness and irrational lack of self-preservative fear. Hiro, on the other hand, splits his time between sword-fighting and hanging out online to learn about ancient Sumeria.  They’re both kind of self-consciously ‘badass’, and they mostly behaved like invincible action movie heroes.  The minor characters are no less over-the-top, including the ‘main villain’ Raven, a massive Aleut biker who carries a nuclear warhead in his sidecar.
The story revolves around a fictional drug called ‘Snow Crash’, which is a kind of ancient Sumerian neurolinguistic virus.  I enjoyed the information about ancient Sumerian language, culture and religion and the ideas about programming human minds through language. However, most of this information is imparted through a series of massive info-dumps, as Hiro learns about it from a ‘Librarian’ program. These sections seemed to throw off the pacing of the book, as the story leapt from detailed discussions of ancient Sumerian mythology to flashy action scenes and back again.  While the action was entertaining, as well, it was somewhat cartoonish.  There were tons of flashy, futuristic gadgets and extravagant violence. I’ve read somewhere that Snow Crash came into existence as an idea for a graphic novel, and I think I can see that influence.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the book was its prophetic view of future technology. Snow Crash was written in 1992, when the Internet was just starting to come into common usage for the general public.  He predicted all kinds of trends, such as the move towards mobile computing, and the rise of cell phones.  He also predicted some very specific services.  His application ‘Earth’ is so similar to Google Earth that I wonder if Snow Crash was actually an influence in its development.  He also imagined an online information hub called the Library, to which information could be added by users (like Wikipedia?) and a perpetually existing Internet world through which people navigated using avatars, called the Metaverse (MMOs, Second Life, etc?). 
However, in Stephenson’s society, Earth and the Library were very expensive to access. I found it kind of humorous that people could earn money in Snow Crash by sharing information in the Library, whereas in today’s world millions of people are eager to share information for free.  In reality, I think that more money is to be made in the business of restricting information.  While some of the details in the comparisons I’ve made don’t quite match up, I really enjoyed looking at the similarities and differences between Stephenson’s vision of the future with our actual future.  
My Rating: 4/5
Snow Crash, published in 1992, gives an intriguing vision of the future. While Snow Crash has become pretty dated, I think that Stephenson got enough right, or close to right, to keep discussions of his envisioned future technology interesting.  The story itself is packed with over-the-top characters and cartoonish action sequences.  From master swordsman, hacker, and pizza deliveryman Hiro, to highway skateboarding Y.T., to nuclear warhead-wielding Raven, the characters make up for in height what they lack in depth.  The ideas about ancient Sumerian hackers of human minds and neurolinguistic viruses are farfetched, but interesting.  However, constantly jumping between the high-energy action and quiet discussions of Sumeria led to some uneven pacing.  For the most part, Snow Crash is a fun, clever story that never takes itself too seriously. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Feed by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire)

This review also appears as a guest post on Worlds Without End (WWEnd) is a wonderful site for fans of science fiction and fantasy literature.  It has forums, blogs containing news, reviews, and author interviews, and an extensive database with information on authors, publishers, and novels.  WWEnd follows 10 major SF/F awards, and it boasts many categorized lists of novels that can help introduce readers to new experiences.  Members can create their own 'virtual bookshelves', organize reading lists, and rate and review books they've read.  For these and many other reasons, I recommend WWEnd as a site not to miss for anyone with an interest in science fiction and fantasy.
Feed by Mira Grant
Published: Orbit, 2010
Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

“In 2014, two experimental viruses—a genetically engineered flu strain designed by Dr. Alexander Kellis, intended to act as a cure for the common cold, and a cancer-killing strain of Marburg, known as "Marburg Amberlee"—escaped the lab and combined to form a single airborne pathogen that swept around the world in a matter of days. It cured cancer. It stopped a thousand cold and flu viruses in their tracks.

It raised the dead.

Millions died in the chaos that followed. The summer of 2014 was dubbed "The Rising," and only the lessons learned from a thousand zombie movies allowed mankind to survive. Even then, the world was changed forever. The mainstream media fell, Internet news acquired an undeniable new legitimacy, and the CDC rose to a new level of power.

Set twenty years after the Rising, the Newsflesh trilogy follows a team of bloggers, led by Georgia and Shaun Mason, as they search for the brutal truths behind the infection. Danger, deceit, and betrayal lurk around every corner, as does the hardest question of them all:

When will you rise?
When Senator Peter Ryman of Wisconsin decides to take a team of bloggers along on his run for the White House, Georgia and Shaun Mason are quick to submit their application. They, along with their friend Georgette "Buffy" M. are selected, and view this as the chance to launch their careers to a whole new level...that is, if they can survive the campaign trail.”

I chose to read Feed due to its recent Hugo nomination.   I admit that I set out to read it with a bit of a positive bias.  I’ve never read anything by Seanan McGuire (Mira Grant’s real name) before, but I’m a pretty big fan of zombie apocalypse stories.  I’ve watched zombie apocalypse movies, read other zombie novels, such as World War Z, and comics, and I often play zombie survival video games.  All of this may have slightly skewed my opinion of Feed, but I’m pretty sure that I would have loved it regardless.    

My Thoughts:

Rather than recounting the zombie apocalypse, Feed takes place as the first generation with no memories of a pre-Rising world comes into adulthood.  At this point, zombies are a constant, but manageable, threat.  While there’s certainly some zombie action scattered throughout the book, it’s the human characters that take center stage.  Georgia (George), Shaun and Buffy are 20-something bloggers who are the first non-traditional news media to be included in the coverage of a presidential campaign.  It’s a great opportunity for them, until things take a turn for the dangerous and they begin to uncover potentially deadly secrets.  While the basics of the mystery might be a little bit predictable, I did not feel like that significantly detracted from the draw or emotional effectiveness of the story.  The fascinating characters, complex world-building, and several unforeseen plot twists along the way more than made up for any predictability in the basic structure.

George, Shaun and Buffy intrigued me from the beginning, and I only grew to like them more as the book progressed.  As professional bloggers, they keep themselves under near-constant surveillance, and they each have a carefully cultivated public personality. George, the viewpoint character, is considered a “Newsie” blogger, who reports the news with as little bias as possible.  Her persona is sarcastic, hard-nosed, and aggressive.  Thanks to her ‘retinal-KA’ (a zombie-related eye infection), she always wears sunglasses to protect her permanently dilated eyes from light.  I empathized with her immediately over her eye problems.  As a nearsighted person, I’ve regularly had my eyes dilated, and I can attest to how annoying it is. Her adopted brother Shaun, an “Irwin”, uses his blog to provide thrills to people hiding safe in their homes.  He tries to cultivate a carefree, daredevil attitude, and constantly gets himself into exciting and dangerous situations.  Buffy is a “Fictional”, who has a fondness for writing sappy poetry. She presents herself as friendly, eccentric, and kind of flaky, but she’s also a highly skilled tech who takes care of all the electronics.  We learn more about them, and their styles of blogging, in interesting excerpts from their blog files that are inserted between the chapters.

While these public personae are the first impressions we get of George, Shaun, and Buffy, there’s much more to them than the ‘characters’ they play.  George is an uncompromising reporter, but she’s also a young woman from a troubled home life, who worries about the safety of her thrill-seeking brother.  Shaun might act like an “Irwin”, but he’s also a stickler for safety measures in field situations, and he has an unexpected temper beneath his carefree veneer.  Buffy might seem flighty, but she has depth to her that no one would expect.  Also, none of them have ever really lost anything significant as a result of the zombie uprising.  In this careful, post-Rising world, even though they regularly encounter zombies, they still have the typical youthful sense that disasters are something that happen to other people. I greatly enjoyed slowly growing to know and care about these characters over the course of Senator Ryman’s campaign trail.  Aside from the three of them, there was a multitude of minor characters, such as Senator Ryman, his wife, the latecomer blogger Rick, and other bloggers.  While they are not explored in nearly as much detail, they do enrich the world that George, Shaun, and Buffy inhabit. 

It’s not only the many characters that make the world they inhabit so satisfyingly intricate. Grant goes into great detail describing the post-Rising society, the post-Rising blogosphere, the zombie virus, and how people have changed as a result of it all.  In particular, the explanation of the zombie virus is one of the most thorough and interesting I’ve ever seen. To greatly simplify Grant’s explanation, the Kellis-Amberlee (zombie) virus has actually spread in a dormant state through the entire world.  Upon death or contact with an active virus (e.g., a zombie bite), the virus takes over the living creature, turning it into a zombie.  Not only humans are susceptible to the virus, but also animals with sufficient body mass (anything of a size equal to or greater than that of a large dog). 

Since everyone reanimates after death, it seems like the zombie virus can never be extinguished. Most people are afraid of crowds, afraid of their neighbors, and even afraid of pets.  As a result of this fear, their society is highly, almost obsessively, regulated. Most people live in high security communities, clean blood tests are constantly required when going anywhere, and the idea of burying the dead instead of burning the infectious corpse is regarded with horror.  The threat of zombies is actually pretty blatantly conflated with terrorism, making this a pretty heavy-handed reference to living in a modern-day culture of fear.  I don’t think that Grant ever stepped over the line into sermonizing, though, and she didn’t attempt to force any solutions.  Their fear is certainly shown as reasonable, and the open question is how much they should let it govern their lives.

My Rating: 5/5

Feed ranks among the best of the books I’ve read this year.  I can literally say that it made me laugh and cry, and there was never a point where I was less than intensely interested in the story.  I could tell that a lot of thought went into the construction of the zombie virus and the post-zombie-apocalypse society, and I loved reading the descriptions of both. I found the public personae and private personalities of George, Shaun, and Buffy intriguing, and I quickly found myself deeply emotionally invested in their dangerous adventure.  I think Feed definitely deserves its Hugo recognition, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Deadline, which has just come out!