Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Series: Book 2 (Final Book) of the Parable Series
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
Amid the collapse of modern American society, Lauren Olamina soon had to face the smaller destruction of her parents gated community.  She set out on her own, armed with little more than her newborn ‘Earthseed’ religion and her determination to survive.  In Parable of the Talents, Lauren has formed her first peaceful Earthseed settlement, Acorn, and she is slowly becoming a respected religious leader. In addition to her religious responsibilities, Lauren has become both a wife and a mother.
People are beginning to rebuild the infrastructure of the United States, but things can never return to the way they were before. Tragedy has given rise to a new wave of conservative religious fundamentalism, exemplified by the charismatic sect known as “Christian America”. As religious fervor begins to combine with secular power, Acorn’s future looks anything but secure.  Soon Lauren will be struggling to protect both of her children—her baby daughter Larkin and her budding religion.” ~Allie
Parable of the Talents is a sequel to Parable of the Sower. I think Talents could be read without first reading Sower, but it would be best appreciated after having read the first novel. Sower provides a lot of background into Lauren’s character and to the origin of the Earthseed religion.
My Thoughts:
While Sower was told through the diary of teenage Lauren Olamina, Talents incorporates several viewpoint characters.  There were also numerous non-viewpoint characters, many of which were described almost solely in terms of the trauma they’d experienced and their methods of coping.  I think this was done to show how the current events affected many different people, but I think I would have preferred the story to focus more deeply on a smaller group of characters.
The characters one comes to know most deeply, of course, are the primary narrators. The main narration is through Lauren’s diary as an adult, and the other most notable viewpoint belongs to her estranged daughter.  I think having two very different narrators effectively added depth to the story.  I think it would be easy to see Lauren as simply a courageous figure, but the bitter outsider’s view provided by her daughter highlighted the costs Lauren’s choices exacted from the people around her.
I appreciated the way in which the novel managed to examine the role of religion without feeling as though it were adhering to an agenda.  Christianity takes a lot of criticism throughout the story, but it seems like the specific content of the religion is less relevant than its relationship with power and social structure.  The two religions observed, both with highly charismatic founders, are Earthseed and a new sect called Christian America. Earthseed deals from a position of weakness, while Christian America wields significant political and societal power. 
In such a difficult time, people have turned towards both religions for comfort, hope, and the assurance that their lives have a purpose. In order to attract followers, Lauren had to deliberately cater to those needs.  Some people also used religion to establish hierarchical structure and to justify their own horrific actions.  A large, powerful religion like Christian America was able to do much to improve the state of society and to rebuild the infrastructure that had crumbled.  However, the movement also ended up providing shelter and forgiveness to people who misused its doctrine to support their own illegal and immoral acts. While Earthseed was currently too small and weak to be used in this fashion, Lauren was all too aware that her religion would also begin to change the moment she was gone.  I think Butler wanted to show how religion can be both a powerful productive and destructive force, and how vitally important it is for believers not to turn a blind eye to corruption within their own ranks.
I have to say that Parable of the Talents is a much more depressing story than Parable of the Sower. Lauren’s life is full of personal tragedy, such as the fate of Acorn and her relationships with her only living relatives.  Some of Lauren’s experiences were pretty disturbing, and very difficult to read. The first novel was incredibly bleak, but it had a thread of hope—that Lauren would be able to form her community out in the country and become a force that would help rebuild the United States.  Talents still has a small thread of hope, but I felt like the story was somehow even more brutally realistic.  Such a devastating societal collapse is not something that can be easily fixed or reversed in a single lifetime.  Perhaps Lauren can make a difference, but it may only be for a future she will never see.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Parable of the Talents is a worthy sequel to Parable of the Sower.  The personal stories of Lauren and her daughter fit together wonderfully to show two very different views of the same society.  While parts of the story were painful to read, and it was a pretty depressing story altogether, it was not a story completely devoid of hope.  I enjoyed Talents also as an examination of the role of organized religion in society.  I’ve heard that Butler had planned a third novel in the “Parable” series, but, sadly, she passed away in 2006.  I think her series feels complete with Talents, but I would have loved to see what the final volume would have contained.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
Published: Gollancz (2010), Tor (2011)
Series: Planned as the first book in a trilogy

The Book:

Jean le Flambeur gets up in the morning and has to kill himself before his other self can kill him first. Just another day in the Dilemma Prison. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is a currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turned-singularity lights the night. Meanwhile, investigator Isidore Beautrelet, called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur....

Indeed, in his many lives, the entity called Jean le Flambeur has been a thief, a confidence artist, a posthuman mind-burgler, and more. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his deeds are known throughout the Heterarchy, from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. In his last exploit, he managed the supreme feat of hiding the truth about himself from the one person in the solar system hardest to hide from: himself. Now he has the chance to regain himself in all his power—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed.”

The Quantum Thief  is Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, and it is slated to be the first of a trilogy. I read on Wikipedia that Rajaniemi has said that he had “come up with an outline that had every single idea I could cram into it, because I wanted to be worthy of what had happened," and that outline became the trilogy that opens with The Quantum Thief.  I don’t think he was exaggerating—there are so many creative ideas crammed into just this first novel that they threaten to overwhelm the book.

My Thoughts:
First of all, The Quantum Thief is most certainly not an entry-level science fiction novel.  Rajaniemi fills it will many interesting new ideas, but he also leans on many familiar science fiction concepts (such as mind-uploading).  There’s little description of the more common concepts, but Rajaniemi eventually includes explanations for many of the more original ideas.  The wealth of ideas and creativity was fascinating, but it could also be a little overwhelming at times.  In the beginning of the novel, especially, I felt a little lost by the many unfamiliar terms that were being tossed around.  Unlike many novels with their own vocabulary, the words in The Quantum Thief also often had no quickly recognizable (to an English speaker) linguistic roots to give hints to their meaning (What is gevulot?  What is a gogol?  What is a tzadik?).  Most important terms are eventually explained, but waiting for everything to make sense does require some patience.
Of all the interesting concepts presented in the novel, my favorite parts concerned the society of the Oubliette and the zoku.  The Oubliette had a really original take on functional immortality, mimicking cycles of life by alternating periods of consciousness as a human and as a robot servant of the community.  Oubliette society also has an obsession with levels of privacy, to the extent that the residents actually have a ‘privacy sense’.  The implementation of their privacy measures seems kind of like an extreme extrapolation of social network privacy settings applied to actual consciousness, memories and physical experience.  The zoku clans are based explicitly on gaming communities that survived the period of mind uploading.  From the vocabulary, game mechanics and general structure, I would say it is based explicitly on the MMORPG subculture.  It was fun to see something so familiar in the story, but I highly doubt that this specific kind of MMORPG subculture will last that long. 
Portraying the world of The Quantum Thief seems to be the main focus of the novel, and the plot and characters seemed a little less developed. I spent a lot of time figuring out what exactly was going on, and that’s also a pretty accurate, though simplified, description of the plot.  The story is told through three viewpoint characters, Jean le Flambeur, Isidore Beautrelet, and Mieli.  Flambeur, a first-person narrator, is trying to figure out who he is, and what Mieli and her mysterious backer want from him. Isidore, a third-person narrator, is trying to figure out what Flambeur has planned. Mieli, the Oortian woman who broke Flambeur out of prison, spends most of her time trying to keep up with Flambeur.   I liked the characters, but I think that a lack of information about their personal lives and motivations left me feeling a little detached from them.  Even so, the story, world, and characters were more than exciting enough to keep me interested, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Rajaniemi will go from here.
My Rating: 4/5
The Quantum Thief works well as a standalone novel, but there is still clearly plenty of story and information left for the rest of the trilogy to cover.  In terms of cool concepts and ideas, this is one of the more creative science fiction novels I’ve read in a while.  However, the sheer amount of new information thrown at the reader, along with my sense of detachment from the three narrators, resulted in an occasional feeling of incoherence.  I think that The Quantum Thief is a novel best approached with at least some familiarity with a variety of concepts familiar in science fiction, and a willingness to read through confusing sections in trust that explanations will eventually be forthcoming.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Published:  Quirk Publishing, 2011
Series: Book 1 of its series
Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award

The Book:

“Jacob has always been a loner, but he shares a special bond with his grandfather.  When he was very small, his grandfather told him fantastical stories about a home for children with supernatural abilities.  He also described the terrifying creatures that hunted these children.  Jacob’s grandfather illustrated these stories with strange vintage photographs (included in the novel). 

By the time Jacob was a teenager, he’d learned not to believe in the stories.  Instead, he assumed the monsters were an allusion to the horrors his Jewish grandfather had faced during the Holocaust, and the magic children came from his rosy memories of the Welsh refugee home where he spent part of his childhood.
When tragedy strikes, Jacob is forced to reconsider everything.  Could his grandfather's stories be literally true? The only way to find out will be to make his way to the children’s home of his grandfather's youth.” ~Allie

 I read this novel as a part of Calico Reaction Blog’s Alphabet Soup Challenge.  I have to admit, I had expected this to be a stand-alone novel.  However, it is very clearly the start of a series.  In fact, it is almost a novel of exposition—it is mainly concerned with introducing the premise of the series and setting the stage for future adventures. While the ending concludes a character arc for the protagonist, it is more of a ‘good stopping-place’ than an ending of the central story.

My Thoughts:

The premise of the story is interesting, if not original.  The story, featuring persecuted magical children hunted by soulless hollows and wights, seems to take some influences from various other franchises, such as X-men and the anime BleachMiss Peregrine’s does throw in a few unexpected twists, though, most notably in its use of time travel.  I enjoyed the atmosphere of the beginning of the story, which depicted Jacob’s life with his wealthy family in Florida and his journey to Wales. 
My interest waned a bit as the mysteries were revealed.  I felt that it lost much of its eerie atmosphere, and essentially became a ‘Good vs. Evil’ teenage adventure story.

The photographs scattered throughout the text were a creative touch.  Apparently, these are actual vintage ‘found’ photographs, and some of them are rather bizarre.  The photos represent physical objects Jacob comes across throughout the story, which is an intriguing change from conventional illustration.  However, in a weird streak of redundancy, each picture is also carefully described in the text.  Though I appreciate the creativity of the approach, the photos did not really work for me.  It often felt like the story was forced into odd asides, simply to incorporate the pictures into the text. I wish the pictures had felt more as if they fit into the natural flow of the story.

The story is told from the first-person viewpoint of 16-year-old Jacob.  I found him to be something of a self-absorbed brat with a sense of entitlement. He has a pretty cushy life, but he spends most of his time whining about it*. Despite my annoyance with Jacob, I like that he has a lot of room for personal growth throughout this series.   However, I have some overall issues with the depth and consistency of characterization in this novel.  Jacob and his father both feel fairly well developed, but this does not extend to the rest of the large cast.  The peculiar children are fairly one-note, and no one else is present long enough to make much of an impression. Some characters seem extraneous, though I assume they will become important later in the series. In terms of consistency, the characters’ actions sometimes seemed designed to move the plot along, even at the cost of discarding previously established character traits.

Lastly, I was not altogether convinced of the internal consistency of the novel’s world. As I mentioned, there is time travel involved.  I think time travel is actually really difficult to do well in a novel, and it is crucial to spell out the rules of time travel in your particular fictional world and then to stick to them. In some stories, for instance, history is robust and can’t be changed, in some the tiniest alteration can wildly affect the future, and in others every decision splits off a parallel universe. In Miss Peregrine’s, the different hints we get about the working of time travel do not seem to be consistent with one another.  Of course, this may well be explained in more detail in later installments. 

My Rating: 3/5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has some similarities to popular stories, like X-men, but it has enough of its own quirks to set it apart.  It’s important to note that this is the first novel in what is intended to be a series, and so it mostly sets the stage for future adventures.  The use of photographs as illustrations was interesting, but I too often felt that the story was being contorted to fit the photos.  Jacob is not an altogether sympathetic character, but I think he has plenty of room to grow and mature throughout the series.  I was somewhat bothered by inconsistency in characterization and apparent inconsistencies in the world-building, but these may well be explained away in the sequel.  Overall, it’s an interesting debut novel, but I’m not sure that this will be a series for me.

*Spoiler, example of Jacob’s personality (highlight to read): One example of his general personality is given in the first chapter, at his part-time job in a store his family owns.  He doesn’t want to work there, but he knows his ‘boss’ can’t fire him.  Therefore, he acts as though it is a game to make his coworkers’ lives miserable.  I’m sure many people who’ve worked in retail can vividly imagine this kind of behavior.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Seeker by Jack McDevitt

Seeker by Jack McDevitt
Published: Ace Books, 2005
Series: Book 3 of the Alex Benedict Series
Awards Won: Nebula
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Award

The Book:

"Thousands of years after an entire colony mysteriously disappears, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict comes into possession of a cup that seems to be from the Seeker, one of the colony's ships. Investigating the provenance of the cup, Alex and his assistant Chase follow a deadly trail to the Seeker-strangely adrift in a system barren of habitable worlds. But their discovery raises more questions than it answers, drawing Alex and Chase into the very heart of danger."

Seeker is the third Alex Benedict novel, but I get the sense that this series is mostly episodic.  I haven't read anything by McDevitt before, but I don't believe that any prior reading is required to enjoy Seeker.

My Thoughts:

Seeker is a treasure-hunt detective story set in a star-spanning far-future human civilization.  The two main characters--the brilliant detective Alex Benedict and the narrator, his assistant Chase Kolpath--seemed like sci-fi versions of traditional 'Sherlock' and 'Watson' characters.  The book focused mostly on Chase and her legwork in the hunt for the lost colony, but Alex also turned up fairly often.   I enjoyed following Chase, as she interviewed disparate people and traveled to exotic locations.  However, while the characters Chase came into contact with had very clearly defined personalities, I didn't feel like they had much depth or three-dimensionality.  Overall, Seeker is driven much more by the plot concerning the central mystery than by character motivations.

The story felt very formulaic, but that's not to say it wasn't entertaining.  I was intrigued by the mystery of the Seeker and the search for what became of the lost colony.  The uncovering of the mystery was leisurely-paced and somewhat predictable, but I enjoyed reading about Chase's gradual accumulation of information and her and Alex's developing hypotheses.  The major subplot of the novel concerned a mysterious force that seemed determined to stop--or eliminate-- Alex and Chase.  I thought this storyline felt a bit forced, as if it were added after the fact to generate more physical conflict.  The final resolution of the subplot was underwhelming, and seemed like something I might have expected from a generic thriller or action film.

Given that it was set about 10,000 years in the future, I was also bothered by the similarity of Seeker's human culture to modern America.  From slang, to daily habits, to food and drink, to general social and political attitudes, to socio-economic classes, to character archetypes, it all felt a little too familiar.  It seems like there would be some major shifts in attitudes and societal structure in that much time.  However, I don't mean to imply that the world-building has nothing to offer.  There are a few interesting technological developments and an interesting alien race, the Mutes, that briefly intersect the story.  All the same, the characters seemed like they would feel at home in the U.S. of 2011, which was a little jarring for such a far-future, deep-space society.

My Rating: 3/5

Seeker doesn't break any molds, but it's still an entertaining novel.  The leisurely-paced, intriguing mystery of the lost colony is woven together with a clich├ęd, thriller-like action subplot.  The characters were serviceable for the story, but they weren't ultimately memorable outside of their roles in the investigation.  It was sometimes difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief, since McDevitt's millennia-old space culture was strikingly similar to early 2000s United States.  Even with these complaints, I did enjoy Seeker.  It may not be groundbreaking, but I think reading a book like Seeker is a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon.