Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summary: Hugo Award Nominees

Congratulations to Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis for winning the 2011 Hugo Award!

It took me a while this time (summer is hard), but I’ve finally finished reading the five novels nominated for this year’s Hugo Award. I’d like to give a general summary of my thoughts before the winner is chosen.  For the convenience of anyone reading this, I'll edit this to indicate which novel won, once the announcement is made.
The Hugo Award is one of the most prestigious science fiction awards.  It was named after Hugo Gernsbeck, the found of the science fiction magazine “Amazing Stories”.  The Hugo awards have been awarded annually since 1955. There are two novels that I would really like to see take the Hugo this year:
My Predicted Winner
Feed by Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire) – I absolutely adored this book.  It featured three 20-something news bloggers in post-zombie-apocalypse America, and their journey covering a presidential campaign.  Not only did it include zombies, it also featured top-notch world-building and engaging characters.  Feed gives the most interesting and complex explanation for the ‘Rising’ that I’ve ever read, and I was impressed with how thoroughly Grant imagined a post-Rising society.  I became very invested in the main characters, bloggers George, Shaun and Buffy, and there was never a point that I felt the story dragged. I did have some issues with the simplicity of the over-arching plot and main villain, but, overall, it was intellectually and emotionally a satisfying book. 

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald – This novel rose above the rest in terms of literary style.  It featured a near-future Istanbul, full of ancient mysteries and developing nanotechnology.  The story followed many characters, all with some physical connection to a certain dervish house.  I thought it was beautifully written, and it was fun to see how the different storylines brushed by each other or intersected throughout the book.  However, having so many characters in the mix gave it something of a slow start, and their stories never really meshed to my satisfaction.
Other Nominees
Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear is an incredibly ambitious dual-novel about time traveling to WWII Britain.  I enjoyed reading it, but I did have some issues in the second half with repetition and weak characterization.  Cryoburn was an interesting story, but I think it works better as the 13th  addition to the Vorkosigan Saga than it does as a stand-alone novel.  N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a book that I actually read before starting this blog, but it was a solid debut novel.  I enjoyed the creative mythology of her world, but certain other aspects, such as the political power struggle, were drawn a little too simply for my taste.
Best of luck to all the Hugo nominees! 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear by Connie Willis
Published: Spectra, 2010
Series: 2nd half of Blackout/All Clear
Awards Won (with Blackout): Nebula Award, Locus SF Award, Hugo Award
Awards Nominated:  John W. Campbell Award
The Book:
In Blackout, award-winning author Connie Willis returned to the time-traveling future of 2060—the setting for several of her most celebrated works—and sent three Oxford historians to World War II England: Michael Davies, intent on observing heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, studying children evacuated from London; and Polly Churchill, posing as a shopgirl in the middle of the Blitz. But when the three become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler’s bombers attempt to pummel London into submission.

Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong.

Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own—to find three missing needles in the haystack of history.” ~barnesandnoble.com

All Clear is much more than the sequel to Blackout. It is more like the second half of the complete novel Blackout/All Clear.  So, if you have not read Blackout, beware that I may give away some plot points in Blackout in my review. This is the final novel in my plan to read all of this year’s Hugo nominees.

My Thoughts:
All Clear picks up right where Blackout stopped.  It jumps right back into the story with little explanation or introduction, so it helps if you have Blackout fresh on your mind.  As in Blackout, the setting is a major strength of All Clear.  I loved reading about the daily lives of the British during WWII, and learning about the country’s different services and projects that contributed to the overall success of the war.  I was especially interested in Operation Fortitude South, the misinformation campaign against Nazi Germany, which is something I knew nothing about prior to reading Blackout/All Clear.  
Since I was so interested in the WWII setting, I found that I much preferred the story when it was about the historians interacting with ‘contemporaries’ of the historical period.  Unfortunately, in All Clear the stories of the ‘contemporaries’ take a back seat to the three historian protagonists.  They found each other near the end of Blackout, and they spend a large part of All Clear together, fretting about how to get back to the future and attempting to avoid contact with all the people they met in this period.  I was constantly wishing to see more of Sir Godfrey, the shelter theatre troupe, the evacuee children and others.
Besides my interest in seeing people living in the historical setting, I also think that many of the minor characters were just more compelling than the protagonists.  The three historical protagonists did significantly differ from each other in some ways.  Mike Davies was impulsive, moody, and tended to act as a protective big brother to the two women.  Merope (known in the past as Eileen) was emotional, optimistic, and actually very cool-headed in a crisis.  Polly was a compulsive liar, very practical about daily life, and tended to panic easily in emergencies.  However, the three of them had very similar thought processes and methods of solving problems, which seemed to keep them from having strong individual voices.  This was less apparent in Blackout, since they spent most of that book separate, each dealing with their own situations.  I tended to look forward to scenes with Alf and Binnie, two badly behaved evacuee children that kind of attached themselves to Eileen in Blackout.  Alf and Binnie were the only historical characters that seemed to get a significant amount of page-time in All Clear. 
Another thing that bothered me in All Clear was the constant use of repetition in the story.  This was also a minor issue in Blackout, but I didn’t feel like it was pronounced enough to merit comment.  In All Clear, certain things happen over and over, and they started to sap the suspense of the story.  People (most commonly Polly) often deliberately lied to each other, ostensibly to protect each other.  This deliberate misinformation often ended up being significant to the plot.  Also, the characters constantly just barely missed each other.  This was actually relevant to the overall plot, but it happened so often that it was just frustrating to read.  It also seemed like there were dozens of scenes of the historians fretting about the retrieval team, checking the drop locations, or writing personal ads to attempt to inform the future of their whereabouts.  The actual text of tons of these coded personal ads were included.  Last of all, many characters were mistakenly assumed dead.  I can see that this would happen sometimes in the confusion of the Blitz, but it occurred so often that I think it made actual deaths have less of an emotional impact.  None of these elements would have been particularly irritating on their own, but they started to wear with frequent use.
The story, as with many of Willis’s time travel novels, was not incredibly surprising.  You could clearly see where things were going, so it was just a matter of waiting until the characters got there.  However, I did think the time travel plot was pretty interesting, and I liked how all the different historical storylines ended up coming together in the end.  I thought the ending was very satisfying, and I am glad that I chose to read Blackout/All Clear.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The second half of Blackout/All Clear jumps right back into the story with very little introduction.  The historical aspects are just as interesting as Blackout, but the historians unfortunately spend much more time with each other and much less with the people contemporary to WWII.  The colorful, interesting minor characters therefore get much less attention than the three similar-minded protagonists.  This led to a significant increase of repetition in the story, which was only slightly present in Blackout.  I don’t think I really needed to read quite so many scenes of the protagonists lying to each other, just barely missing people, checking the drop, fretting about the retrieval team, and writing coded personal ads.  Altogether, though, All Clear gave a very satisfying conclusion to the story begun in Blackout.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Earlier Published as ‘Xenogenesis’ by Doubleday Books(1989), ‘Lilith’s Brood’ published by Grand Central Publishing (2000)

The Book:

“Lilith’s Brood contains three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The trilogy follows the story of humanity’s fate after the entire species is nearly destroyed, along with the planet, in a nuclear war. A relatively small group of survivors are rescued by a powerful alien race called the Oankali.  Masters of the manipulation of life, the Oankali travel through the stars in organic ships, ‘trading’ genetic information with the species they meet.  They’ve determined that the human race will be their next trading partner.

While the human survivors are kept in suspended animation, the Oankali spend centuries painstakingly healing the dying Earth.  It is there that they intend to merge with what remains of humanity, creating a new hybrid species. They awaken Lilith Iyapo to act as teacher and guide to the rest of the recovered humans, and to become one of the first humans to enter the trade--by mating with an Oankali family.  For the trade progress successfully, Humans and Oankali must learn to understand one another. The decisions they make will determine the fate of the Oankali, Humanity, and the new species that they will create together…”  ~Allie

I was originally reading Lilith’s Brood for the June selection of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club.  When I heard Dreams & Speculations, the hosting blog, was going inactive, I set it aside for a week or two to focus on other books. I will not give away any major plot points, but be aware that I will give away a lot of information on the nature of the Oankali relationship with humanity. 

My Thoughts:

The three novels that make up Lilith’s Brood each follow a character that is the first of its kind in some way.  Despite the odd choice of cover art, this is not actually a romance. I don’t even remember any explicit sexual content, though it does often refer to sex.  A lot of the story concerns  ‘mating’ relationships, but it is typically in terms of societal structure and emotional/chemical relationship bonds. While the trilogy was quite long, Butler’s writing style is easy and accessible.  The best way I can think of to review this massive book is by going through each section (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) and discussing what stood out to me of each one as I go.

The first story, Dawn, follows Lilith Iyapo, a human woman who is awakened by the Oankali, centuries after the war that destroyed human civilization.  The Oankali intend to have Lilith teach the other surviving humans and encourage them to embrace coexistence and interbreeding with the Oankali.  She is also tasked with helping them accept the fact that they are intended to be the last generation of pure humanity.  Lilith must find a way to cope with her unwanted role as the mother of a new species and the betrayer of her own. I really enjoyed learning about the Oankali, and seeing how different people responded and related to them. Achieving a peaceful coexistence does not seem like an easy task, even with all the power the Oankali have at their disposal.

The dynamic between the two species makes Lilith’s Brood one of the most interesting alien contact stories I’ve read.  The Oankali are a little too certain about their understanding of humanity and its needs, and that certainty leads to some situations that are very uncomfortable to read. They are very fond of humanity, and they want to help and care for us. They understand the biology of humanity incredibly well, but they can’t really understand our psychology.  As a result, many of their efforts at guidance end up causing great, sometimes irreversible, harm.  Despite their failures, they remain smugly confident that they know what is best for humanity.  I liked how neither humanity nor the aliens were set up as a villain. They are simply two very different species with two very different ways of looking at the world. They both want, essentially, the same thing—to save humanity.  The clash arises from their definition of what that rescue would entail and what means should be used to achieve it.

Adulthood Rites follows Akin, Lilith’s hybrid Oankali-Human son.  He’s the first male hybrid (or ‘construct’) to be born to a human woman.  He spends his childhood struggling to reconcile his Oankali and Human heritage and find his place in the world.  Akin is a hyper-intelligent child, a character type that can often be grating.  In this case, it didn’t bother me very much, possibly due to the fact that Akin was not actually a human child.  I thought he offered an interesting new perspective on Oankali/human relations. 

However, I was a little irritated by the stereotypes surrounding Akin’s story.  The Oankali are wary of Akin, since they are convinced that male humans are particularly dangerous.  I could accept that the Oankali would be more prone to stereotyping than humans, since their species is more homogenized within each social niche.  All of the Oankali (and their human mates) follow very strict biologically defined roles, and they are shaped to these roles through various chemical interactions. While I accept that certain tendencies may be determined by biology in humans, I’ve never been convinced that any particular tendency is universally linked to one gender or the other. Therefore, the Oankali’s generalization that human men tended towards violence and conflict annoyed me.  The generalization did not ruin the story for me, though, as the story itself contained plenty of perfectly decent men, and some dangerous women.

The final story, Imago, features Lilith’s child Jodahs, the first hybrid Human-Oankali ooloi.  Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi.  The male and female are roughly equivalent to the human genders, but they require an ooloi for mating.  The ooloi mixes the genetic contributions of both male and female parents and designs the child.  The ooloi, with their special organs that allow them to manipulate living tissue and genetic information, are the least familiar to humans.  The Oankali do not know what to expect from Jodahs, and he has to find a way to prove to them he is stable, in control, and not a danger to others.  I thought Jodahs story was the most removed from humanity of the three, and I enjoyed seeing the world from his point of view.  I liked how the three novels progressed, with the viewpoint transitioning from completely human in Dawn to almost completely alien in Imago.

My Rating: 4/5

Lilith’s Brood is a broad, ambitious story that follows humanity’s near-death, and their uncertain future with the powerful, well meaning, and manipulative Oankali.  It follows both Lilith Iyapo, a surviving human, and several of her children, Akin and Jodahs, who are prototypes in the creation of a new species.  I loved how creatively alien the Oankali were, and how the misunderstandings and differences between the two species drove a lot of the conflict of the story.  I was a little bothered by the adherence to gender stereotypes and biological determinism.  There are many other topics I did not address, such as my disbelief of what the Oankali call the ‘human contradiction’. Even though I sometimes disagreed with attitudes or beliefs I encountered in Lilith’s Brood, I still found it to be an incredibly interesting story of alien-human contact and coexistence.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1986
Series: Book 2 of the Vorkosigan Saga
The Book:
“Cordelia Naismith, of the democratic, scientifically-oriented Beta Colony, was heading an expedition to an uninhabited planet when disaster struck.  Instead of dealing with dangerous flora or fauna, the surveyors found themselves facing soldiers from the 'barbaric', militaristic society of Barrayar!  After what was meant to be a routine arrest turned deadly, Cordelia was stranded with a gravely injured colleague and the former Barrayaran leader, the infamous “Butcher of Komarr”, Aral Vorkosigan.
As they both learn to see past reputations and stereotypes, both Cordelia and Aral grow to respect, trust, and possibly even love each other.  But as Barrayar is poised to go to war with an ally of Beta Colony, what kind of relationship could the two of them possibly have together?” ~Allie
This is the 2nd book of the Vorkosigan Saga by internal chronology, and the 3rd that I’ve read (after Cryoburn and Falling Free).  In addition to my plan of reading the Vorkosigan Saga in order, Shards of Honor is also part of this month’s pick for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, formerly hosted by the now-inactive Dreams & Speculations blog, and picked up by Calico Reaction.  The actual challenge is the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor which contains both Shards of Honor and the next book in my Vorkosigan Saga reading, Barrayar.
My Thoughts:
Shards of Honor is the story of a romantic relationship, but the story is not what I would consider a conventional romance novel.  The principal leads, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, are not blinded by passion and they don’t really fall into each other’s arms.  Aral and Cordelia are both near middle-age, have established careers, and are aware of the unfortunate incompatibility of their two lives. They deal with their slowly growing relationship with practicality and responsibility.  Cordelia is not about to drop everything to go running after Aral, and Aral, with his horrific reputation, is realistic enough to know he would not be accepted in Cordelia’s world.  Their subdued romance is the thread that winds through all of the other events of the story. I enjoyed watching the circuitous path their lives took towards each other.
 While I did enjoy the plot, there were a few elements that seemed a little contrived.  First of all, there is the initial segment of the book, where Cordelia and Aral end up stranded together on an uninhabited planet. To put it into generic terms, two very different people are stranded in a hostile, isolated environment, where they eventually overcome learned prejudices and become friends/lovers. I feel like I’ve seen this plot device fairly often.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of episodes of Star Trek and at least 2 separate Gundam series that featured it. Admittedly, Bujold doesn’t follow the formula exactly.  A severely brain-damaged man accompanies Cordelia and Aral, and the two of them don’t exactly have the health, time, or energy for a whirlwind romance.   All the same, I thought that the plot choice did make their initial meeting and acquaintance feel a little forced.
The other major situation that left me rolling my eyes (good-naturedly) was Cordelia’s battle against therapists.  At that point in the story, she had been through some truly traumatic experiences, and she had acquired some gut-wrenchingly awful top-secret information.  Even so, her general attitude was, “Therapy is great for other people, but I’m fine!”  I think it would have made sense for Cordelia to genuinely be in need of therapy, but to hold back out of fear of revealing dangerous secrets.  Instead, the situation seemed to be framed as a completely un-traumatized Cordelia being driven to distraction by a handful of well-meaning but destructively overzealous therapists.  While it was mostly played for humor, I would have liked to see a more realistic conflict play the role that this situation ended up serving in the overall story.
While Aral and Cordelia’s relationship tied the book together, there’s a lot more to Shards of Honor than romance and therapists.  It ‘s a space opera, with all the politics, intrigue, and space battles that typically entails.  The pace is very rapid, there’s tons of action, and there’s plenty for both Aral and Cordelia to do.  They’re both very resilient, intelligent, and active characters, and they’re both constantly solving one crisis after another.  It seemed like a very tightly planned book—there was never a point where I felt the story dragged.  The characters weren’t incredibly complex, but they were strong enough to shine through all the battles and political maneuvering.  
My last impression of Shards of Honor is that it feels essentially like a set-up book for adventures to come.  Arguably, I feel this way because I know that this actually is the first book that sets up the universe where the famous Miles Vorkosigan will eventually have his adventures.  So far, I think this is the best place to start the series.  It introduces the reader to the cultures of Barrayar and Beta Colony, with some discussion of Komarr.  It also introduces Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, who will be Miles’s parents, in addition to other characters that I hope to see again.  I feel like the stage is set, many of the main players are introduced, and I am ready to dive into the rest of the saga!        
My Rating: 3.5/5
I think Shards of Honor is a great place to start the Vorkosigan Saga, but I might change my mind after I read the rest!  It introduces two major characters, the Barrayaran Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith from Beta Colony, and seems to give a good introduction to the universe they inhabit.  Aral and Cordelia’s relationship could be considered the main story of the book, but their romance is wound through an interesting tangle of military and political manipulations, space battles, and alien planets.  While a few parts of the plot seem a little contrived and most of the characters aren’t particularly complicated, the fast pace keeps up the tension and excitement throughout.  Shards of Honor was a very entertaining novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Barrayar has in store!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Published: Daw Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award, Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

In a post - apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. After years of enslaving the Okeke people, the Nuru tribe has decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke tribe for good. An Okeke woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different — special — she names her child Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient tongue.

From a young age, stubborn, willful Onyesonwu is trouble. It doesn’t take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu — a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half - breed rejected by both tribes.

But Onye is not the average Ewu. As a child, Onye’s singing attracts owls. By the age of eleven, she can change into a vulture. But these amazing abilities are merely the first glimmers of a remarkable and unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities — soon she can manipulate matter and flesh, or travel beyond into the spiritual world. During an inadvertent visit to this other realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would - be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother’s people, she meets with frustrating prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onyesonwu persists.
Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home on a quest that will be perilous in ways that Onyesonwu can not possibly imagine. For this journey will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately to learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death?” ~barnesandnoble.com

I’m reading Who Fears Death for the book club challenge at Calico Reaction.  Who Fears Death was actually June’s book, but my review is a little late!

My Thoughts:

The world of Who Fears Death felt different than many of the fantasy worlds I’ve read about before.    It is a post-apocalyptic story, but there are only really vague mentions of what exactly happened to the civilization.  The only remains of the previous civilization are in myths, written in the anti-Okeke Great Book, and secret technology hoards.  This confused me a little, since there was still some technology in common use, such as portable GPSs. The communities, different ethnicities, and prejudices were very well thought out.  I liked how it showed the damage that prejudice could do on a massive scale (genocide) as well as a personal scale.  Even Onyesonwu’s closest friends couldn’t quite rid themselves of their ingrained negative ideas about the bi-racial ‘Ewu’, and not adhering to socially accepted gender roles caused difficulty for both men and women. 

These deep-seated prejudices—Nuru against Okeke, men against women, everyone against the Ewu—gave rise to a dangerous and violent world.  The content of the book is difficult at times, as there are descriptions of rape, murder, female circumcision, and so forth.  I don’t think the content is gratuitous, and it is definitely not eroticized, but it is disturbing enough to merit a warning.   
The system of magic in Who Fears Death was more fantastical than many I’ve seen.  There are shape-changing Eshu, the spirit-world ‘wilderness’, spirit dragons and enigmatic traveling Alusi.  While there was some structure to the system, mostly seen through Onyesonwu’s training, the majority of precepts of magic are left vague and unexplained.  For instance, no one ever really explains what determines whether you pass the initiation to become a sorcerer or not.  All the same, it is magic, so I don’t mind a little mystery. 

More problematically, the limits of the magic are never really defined.  There’s a general sense that there are consequences to working magic, but they seem almost random.  For instance, healing someone could have terrible physical consequences for Onye, but killing a lot of people might not bother her at all.  As a result, it was never really clear what situations could or couldn’t be solved by magic.  I think a little more explanation on that count could have given the story a better feeling of internal consistency.  What’s more, a better understanding of what can and can’t ordinarily be accomplished by magic could have increased the sense of risk in Onyesonwu’s high stakes quest.
The stakes are the survival of the Okeke people, who are facing genocide at the hands of the Nuru. The general story is of Onyesonwu’s coming of age and her prophesied quest to rewrite the relationship between the Nuru and Okeke people.  Onye set out with her closest friends and her lover to meet her destiny.  I thought that the questing part of the story leaned a little too much on the prophecy.  None of the characters really planned out how Onyesonwu could succeed, they just assumed that the future would happen as it was foretold.  The major decision they made was to set out traveling.  Past that, they seemed to simply wait for events to unfold on their own, content that Onyesonwu would fulfill her destiny. 

I think that the real strength of Okorafor’s writing is in the descriptions of daily life, rather than the great deeds and magical upheavals.  I really enjoyed the story of Onyesonwu’s early life, the time when she was forging friendships and relationships, learning magic, and coping with her family’s history and current circumstances.  In contrast, the conclusion of the book felt rushed and lacked clarity.  I think that this was to maintain the mystery of the magic, but it just left me confused as to what exactly had happened.

I had mixed feelings about the characters in Who Fears Death.  Onyesonwu is an incredibly powerful, yet flawed, protagonist.  The combination of extreme magical power and her quick-tempered recklessness sometimes leads her to make highly questionable moral choices.  I think that this would be a very different story from someone else’s point of view—a story where Onyesonwu is the unpredictable, vindictive, murderous villainess. However, even though I sometimes disagreed with Onyesonwu’s decisions and actions, I still thought she had a fascinating personality.   

I particularly liked the portrayal of her relationship with Mwita.  They love each other, but that doesn’t mean that they are blind to each other’s faults. Mwita’s bitterness at their relationship’s inversion of traditional gender roles (he’s the healer, she’s the sorcerer) frustrates Onye. On the other hand, Onye’s impetuousness, haphazard training, and general lack of foresight often annoy Mwita.  It was refreshing to read about a romantic relationship where the lovers didn’t spend all of their time drowning in mutual adoration.   Mwita and Onye’s relationship requires effort and constant communication, in addition to love, in order to thrive.

Their traveling companions, Onyesonwu’s female friends and one girl’s boyfriend, seem to lack the depth of the main characters.  I would have been interested to see more of their companions, but it seemed as though they were each primarily defined by their relationship with sex.  One of the girls was molested as a child, one had the libido ‘of a man’, and the couple traveling was described in terms of their relationship troubles.  The other side characters, such as Onye’s parents, the town elders, the traveling Vah people, and the other sorcerers, enriched the world the characters inhabited.   
My Rating: 3.5/5

Who Fears Death was an interesting combination of a post-apocalypse setting and a magic-filled fantasy.  However, as a warning, it does contain some disturbing descriptions of rape, murder, and female circumcision.  I enjoyed the flashy magic, though I was a little bothered by the vagueness of its limits.  The story itself is nothing out of the ordinary—predestined hero goes on a quest to save her people—but the deeply flawed main characters and the desert society were unusual and interesting.  I liked that the romantic relationship between Mwita and Onyesonwu was not one of constant adoration, but a partnership that required effort on both of their parts for its continued success.  The other side characters were not nearly as deeply characterized, but they were still interesting additions to the story.  I tended to prefer the segments about daily life to the pivotal magic scenes, since the latter seemed to often lose a little bit in terms of clarity.  Overall, it is a fantasy story that may feel very familiar, but the setting, the magic, and the characters raise it out of the ordinary.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993
Series: Book 1 of the Parable Series
Award Nominations: Nebula, Locus SF

The Book:

“Amid the breakdown of modern civilization, the more fortunate citizens have sequestered themselves in carefully guarded gated communities.   Outside their walls lies a terrifying world where theft, arson, rape, murder, and even cannibalism are becoming commonplace.  As people grow more desperate for food and shelter, they are growing more willing to accept slavery to get it.  In addition, new drugs are on the market, including one that makes watching fire orgasmic.

Another drug, taken by her late mother, caused the teenage girl Lauren Olamina to inherit ‘hyperempathy’, a psychosomatic disorder that forces her to experience the pain she imagines from witnessing others.  Lauren is lucky to live in a walled community with her father, who is a Christian minister, and the rest of their family.  However, she knows that this haven will not last forever, and she has already begun making plans for the future.  She is also working on the development of “Earthseed”, a religion and philosophy that she is slowly shaping in an attempt to make sense of her reality.   Lauren rises to meet the future not only determined to survive, but determined to create a life worth living.” ~Allie 

This is the first book I’ve ever finished reading by Octavia E. Butler, though I started reading Lilith’s Brood (which is good so far, but very long) at the same time. I’m sort of getting the impression that Butler wrote a lot of fiction about the collapse of human society, but maybe I just chose an odd sampling of her work.

I’d also like to mention that my review rate should be back to normal (2-3 reviews a week) in a week or two.  For the past few weeks I’ve been dealing with a combination of picking some very long novels and some major deadlines at work.  Once I finish reading Lilith’s Brood (I’m at ~50%) and All Clear (I’m at ~25%), I should be back on schedule.

My Thoughts: 

Parable of the Sower feels like a more realistic look at how civilization might collapse than most apocalyptic fiction.  Instead of a nuclear war or a pandemic, Lauren’s world is just slowly getting worse and worse.  The quality of life is plummeting as a result of many factors—an economic depression, government and police forces slowly losing credibility, a rise of crime, disease, and other things.  Despite how bad things are becoming, many people refuse to acknowledge the changing world.  They desperately believe that the current situation is just a rough patch, and that things will go back to normal eventually. In some ways, this was more interesting than an undeniable, cataclysmic event.  The focus was less on the mechanism of destruction, and more on how regular people coped or failed to cope with the changes in their world.

Despite its future setting, Parable of the Sower actually has very few of the common science fiction elements.  The level of technology appears to be similar to our current civilization, with the exception of some new drugs.  One of those resulted in Lauren’s hyperempathy, and another causes people to sexually enjoy burning things and people.  Honestly, I did not really feel like these elements added all that much to the story, since the topics they brought up could have been addressed in other ways.  In contrast to the realism of the rest of the story, the hyperempathy and fire drugs felt a little out of place.  In general, I liked that the characters and their interactions were close enough to modern society to feel familiar and realistic.

The story was related through Lauren’s diary, which also helped to ground the story in daily life and the lives of ordinary people.  I thought that Lauren’s voice seemed very authentic for a teenage girl, particularly at the beginning.  She was perceptive and intelligent, but did not seem unnaturally wise beyond her years. The one drawback of seeing the world through the filter of Lauren’s thoughts and writing is that it created a certain distance from the other characters in the story.  Lauren describes the many people she knows or encounters, but only when their actions or stories are particularly significant to her own life.  Overall, I thought that Lauren was compelling enough as a protagonist that I didn’t really mind not getting quite as deep a picture of her companions.

Reading Lauren’s thoughts about her new religion of “Earthseed” made the theological aspects of the book easier to accept. She started putting Earthseed together when she was an adolescent.  I think this makes a lot of sense, since that is the age that most children begin questioning their parents’ religion.  To Lauren, her father’s religion (Christianity) did not adequately describe her reality or her ideal way of life.  She formed Earthseed as an attempt to explicitly define her own perception of the current world and the way she believed people needed to live in it.  She was trying to get people to let go of the structure of their old, dying civilization, and apply themselves to creating something new.   I think the novel dealt really well with her development of Earthseed and her attempts to convince others of its validity and worth.  I was glad that Lauren’s new religion did not feel like a excuse to preach to the reader, but rather a discussion point to help the characters to cope with their world.

My Rating: 4/5

Parable of the Sower is in some ways a bleak and depressing book, but it also carries with it a message of hope.  The world is always changing, but we can survive and find a worthwhile way of life.  I was a little afraid that it would end up being a rant against current organized religion.  On the contrary, Lauren embraces religion as a way that people make sense of the world.  Her Earthseed is less a rejection of established religion than it is her attempt to define her own experience of reality and share it with others.  Aside from the religious aspects, Parable of the Sower is a compelling survival story set in the middle of the death of our modern civilization.  Lauren’s diary entries keep the story grounded in everyday events and their continuing struggle to survive.