Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

He, She and It by Marge Piercy
Published: Random House Publishing Group (1993)
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“In the 21st century, the Earth is very nearly ruined.  People live within domes or wraps, and most wear protective clothing to brave the toxic wasteland that the world has become.  Most power resides with massive corporations, “multis,” who expect the indentured employees within their domes to shape their bodies, minds, and cultures to the company ideal. A small fraction of the Earth’s population are able to live in independent “free towns”, through selling their skills and products to multis, instead of themselves. The unlucky rest of humanity lives in the violent, poisonous “Glop”.

Shira Shipman has never embodied the physical or cultural ideal of her multi, and when custody of her young son is given to her ex-husband, she decides her future lies elsewhere.  She returns to her childhood home of Tikva, a Jewish free town, where she has a new job aiding in the development of an illegal cyborg protector, Yod.  As Yod struggles to understand his role in the world, he finds insight in a story of Prague’s Jewish ghetto in 1600, about a famous kabbalist who once created a golem protector.” ~Allie

Marge Piercy’s He, She and It is my final novel for WWEnd’s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  Marge Piercy is a poet and a novelist, and her works range from science fiction to other genres.  I have read that her novels tend to focus on women’s lives, and He, She and It (also published as Body of Glass) is no exception.

My Thoughts:

He, She, and It was a science fiction novel with a strong character focus and an intriguing future setting.  The future world was very bleak and impersonal, except for the more vibrant free town of Tikva.  The free town seemed like an oasis of life in the wasteland of the Earth, with plants, small animals, and humans living freely.  It seemed like Tikva was also more thoroughly described, causing it to stand out vividly against the multis and the Glop.  There was a lot of interesting technology—virons, stimmies, the Net, other computing resources, human development, cyborgs, and more—but the tech was usually described in general, rather than technical, terms.  While most of the tech is still beyond reality these days, I thought it was neat that the story featured a universally available Net, considering it was published in the year that the WWW was declared public domain.

Within this future world, much of the story revolved around the life philosophies of different characters and their relationships with one another. There was quite a lot of romance, but I appreciated that the idealization of romantic love was not supported by the story. The novel began with Shira leaving her husband, whom she married largely because their relationship made sense on paper.  She was not over her childhood sweetheart Gadi, and her love life was soon further complicated by her involvement with the cyborg Yod.  From this point, there were some love polygons that sprang up and collapsed, but a lot of the romance focused on Shira trying to reclaim her passion from the rose-tinted memory of her first love.  I’m not usually much of a fan of romance, but I liked the relatively grounded approach the novel took to the subject.

In terms of non-romantic relationships, those between a parent and a child, or creator and creation, were very central to the story.  There were many examples of these kinds of relationships throughout the story, from close to distant and loving to resentful.  While Shira was influenced by various romances, she was also shaped by her desperate desire to reclaim her young son and her relationships with her mother and grandmother.  Another major topic of the story involved the ethicality of creating life to serve a set purpose, and the problems this could cause. This was shown in biological relationships, where a parent’s unmet expectations poisoned their relationship with their child.  It is also more thoroughly explored through the stories of the 17th century golem and the cyborg. They were both created to be physical protectors, and soon found themselves constrained by their creators and their assigned purpose.  I felt this was a very interesting perspective to take on these kinds of familiar stories of creation. 

While the book is very focused on the characters and their relationships, the story is also pretty exciting.  The ‘present-day’ story mirrors the tale of Rabbi Loew and his golem, and in each story the artificial man is created to protect a Jewish community at a time of great need. In both cases, the threat looming over the community seems certain to end in violence. There are other sources of conflict as well, such as Shira’s determination to recover her son through any means, and the schemes of Shira’s absent, high-profile activist mother.  The more action-filled scenes are well supported by the character building that occurs in the quieter parts of the novel, and I enjoyed both the faster and slower-paced parts of the story.

My Rating: 4/5

He, She and It is a very character-focused science fiction novel set in a wasted Earth that is dominated by multinational corporations.  Most of the novel focuses on relationships between the characters, including those of the romantic variety and parent-child relationships.  Similarly, through the story of the cyborg Yod, and the re-telling of the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem, there is an exploration of the fraught relationship between creator and creation.  The story captured me through its characters, and my investment in the characters made the action-filled scenes feel even more compelling.  This was my last novel for 2013’s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, and I am glad that I was able to wrap up the year with such an excellent novel!  

Monday, December 23, 2013

News: Read-Along of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings

For the first bit of 2014, I'm excited to be joining 9 other bloggers in hosting a read-along of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings! The conclusion of the read-along will nearly coincide with the release of the next book in the Stormlight Archive series, Words of Radiance, which comes out on March 4th.

There's even going to be a giveaway of some copies of both books (see Dab of Darkness for upcoming details), thanks to the generosity of the publisher, Tor.

If you're interested in joining the read-along, just let me or any of the other bloggers on the schedule below know, and you'll be included in the weekly emails of discussion questions.

I've never read anything by Sanderson before, despite hearing his name quite often.  I've been meaning to read his conclusion to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (the rest of which I read years ago), but haven't managed to get around to it yet. I'm looking forward to enjoying the first book of this new series, which I have heard many good things about!

Here is the schedule:

Prelude to Chapter 6 (96 pages), Jan. 1 Dab of Darkness
Chapter 7 – Chapter 13 (91 pages), Jan. 8 Over the Effing Rainbow
Chapter 14 – Chapter 19 (106 pages), Jan. 15 Lynn’s Book Blog
Chapter 20 – Chapter 27 (96 pages), Jan. 22 Lunar Rainbows
Chapter 28 – Chapter 32 (93 pages), Jan. 29 Tethyan Books
Chapter 33 – Chapter 42 (102 pages), Feb. 5 There Were Books Involved
Chapter 43 – Chapter 50  (90 pages), Feb. 12 Coffee, Cookies, & Chili Peppers
Chapter 51 – Chapter 57 (109 pages), Feb. 19
Chapter 58 – Chapter 65 (91 pages), Feb. 26 Musings on Fantasia
Chapter 66 – END (98 pages), March 5 On Starships & Dragonwings

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Published: Lippincott (1959), Easton Press (1994), Gollancz(2013)
Awards Won: Hugo Award

The Book:

“The Flame Deluge has wrecked the world, and the following anti-knowledge cultural backlash has eliminated most of what remained of the previous civilization.  However, out in the desert, in the Monastery of the Blessed Leibowitz, monks are patiently spending their lives to preserve the knowledge of the earlier age, regardless of how little they understand it.

In a story spanning many years, A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the events surrounding the Albertian Order of Leibowitz—through the dark ages that follow nuclear war, through the re-awakening of scientific thought, and through the rest of the destructive cycle of human civilization.” ~Allie

A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel Walter M. Miller, Jr. published in his lifetime, though a sequel (Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman) was completed and published posthumously. 

My Thoughts:

Like a few of the early Hugo winners I’ve been reading lately, A Canticle for Leibowitz, was originally published as three shorter works and then reconstructed into a novel. In this case, the three stories were the stories of three separate eras of post-nuclear-disaster Earth: a dark age, a scientific renaissance, and a new nuclear age.  Each section is a complete story, but the sections are connected by their themes and common history.  I haven’t read the stories in their original short forms, but I have read that they were extensively reworked to make a stronger whole.  I feel that the final product is a really impressive work of long fiction, and that the three stories fit together well in service of a larger, more complex story.

Each of the three stories that comprised the novel took place in a different era and concerned a different cast of characters.  I think that the novel was pretty successful in relating the society of each era, and the cast of characters that reflected the values of that society. The monastery is one constant throughout the centuries, as is an apparently immortal Jewish character, Benjamin, a reference to a myth that might be offensive to some readers.  However, I enjoyed following the stories of Benjamin and the various casts, which included abbots, monks, scientists and others.  Many of the characters were engaging as individuals, and they were often also interesting in terms of the points the author was using their existence, thoughts, and actions to make.

One thing that really surprised me was how the story could run the gamut from very serious to quite funny, without feeling uneven in tone. The content seems quite depressing—it starts with a bleak post-apocalyptic future, and shows a humanity that is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.  There’s also quite a lot of death and tragedy within the stories of individual characters.  However, the darkness of the story is counterbalanced by an occasional lightness and humor. For instance, the first protagonist, a monk-to-be named Francis, was both endearing and comical in his over-earnestness and simple piety.  He considered an ancient shopping list a holy relic, and believed a “fallout” was a kind of demon that had once attacked humanity. I appreciated how these little touches of humor throughout the novel helped to keep the story from feeling too heavy or bleak.       

In addition to being entertaining, A Canticle for Leibowitz was also a complex book, full of many interesting ideas and hidden meanings to uncover. The novel is heavily Catholic, so I have probably missed some allusions or symbols, along with missing some of the meaning of the Latin phrases. However, I really enjoyed the complexity of the representation of religion in the story.  For instance, there was some interesting discussion of the relationship between science and religion, and consideration of the effect of prosperity and its lack on human attitudes.  In terms of the religious symbolism, the last section ended up a little too weird for my tastes, and I’m not sure I ultimately agree with some of the arguments of the novel. Altogether, I think this is a novel that rewards an attentive reader, and would probably benefit from being read more than once.

 My Rating: 4.5/5

A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the development of human civilization after a nuclear war, through a new cycle of growth and destruction.  The three sections of the novel relate three separate stories that are connected through the Monastery and themes of the novel.  Each story has a distinct set of characters that represent their respective eras.  I enjoyed the religious and philosophical ideas, though I may have missed some points due to my outsider’s view of Catholicism.  The seriousness of the story was also pleasantly counterbalanced by light touches of humor.  Overall, A Canticle for Leibowitz delivers a story that is both thoughtful and entertaining, and I can see why this one is considered a classic!      

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight  by Terry Pratchett
Published: HarperCollins, 2010
Series: Discworld, Book 4 of the Tiffany Aching Series
Awards Nominated: Locus YA Award

The Book:

It starts with whispers. Then someone picks up a stone. Finally, the fires begin. When people turn on witches, the innocents suffer. . . .

Tiffany Aching has spent years studying with senior witches, and now she is on her own. As the witch of the Chalk, she performs the bits of witchcraft that aren’t sparkly, aren’t fun, don’t involve any kind of wand, and that people seldom ever hear about: She does the unglamorous work of caring for the needy.

But someone-or something-is igniting fear, inculcating dark thoughts and angry murmurs against witches. Aided by her tiny blue allies, the Wee Free Men, Tiffany must find the source of this unrest and defeat the evil at its root-before it takes her life. Because if Tiffany falls, the whole Chalk falls with her.”

This is currently the final installment of the Tiffany Aching series, set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.  I’ve read the four Tiffany Aching books as parts of different read-alongs this year, and the spoiler-filled discussions from I Shall Wear Midnight can be found here, here, and here.

My Thoughts:

I Shall Wear Midnight takes place when Tiffany is almost 16 years old, and it seems to me that there is more of a noticeable gap to Wintersmith than there is between the previous three novels of the series.  It seems clear that Tiffany is not a child anymore, and the issues she has to deal with this time are more complicated and morally difficult.  For instance, one of the early cases she has to handle involves child abuse and a potential lynching. Given the content, I think this novel is aimed towards an older audience than the previous novels, though I would still consider it young adult reading.

The villain also seems a little more serious this time around, perhaps because his style of evil is more connected to the non-supernatural world.  He is not dangerous because he doesn’t understand humanity, but because he represents the kind of irrational hatred that humans are capable of carrying.  His particular prejudice is against witches, and he spreads hatred and distrust of them wherever he goes.  It was interesting to see how Tiffany had to adjust to being mistrusted, and how she became much more aware of the possible negative interpretations of her actions. I thought the he was probably the most frightening of the villains Tiffany has faced so far, because he is an incarnation of an especially nasty part of human nature.

In the way she deals with the villain this time around, I found the general message around Tiffany to be somewhat surprising.  Instead of stressing the importance of teamwork (a common theme, I think), it was more about how important it is for Tiffany to handle the situation on her own and show that she has confidence in her own abilities.  That’s not to say she doesn’t cooperate with anyone, but it is always clear that she’s the one in charge.  As a young witch just starting her posting, it is important for her to prove that she’s capable of handling the responsibility and the pressure. I think this is a pretty good message for young adults.  Assertiveness and self-confidence can both be very important in life, especially when one is just starting out on a lifelong career.

Of course, I Shall Wear Midnight also has all of the things one would expect in a Pratchett novel: lots of subplots, great humor, and appearances by many different Discworld characters.  Tiffany ends up in Ankh-Morpork at one point during the novel, so some of the Night Watch characters and city witches show up as well.  There’s also some romance involved for a few of the characters, and I enjoyed how well that part of the story came together. The conclusion rushes by a bit quickly, but I appreciated how well everything ties together in the end.  If this is the final novel featuring Tiffany Aching, I think it ends the series on a good note.

My Rating: 4.5/5

In I Shall Wear Midnight Tiffany has grown into a young woman, and the story has matured with her.  It has all the usual charm of a Pratchett novel in terms of subplots, characters, and humor, but the story has grown a bit darker and more adult.  The villain this time, a representation of human prejudice and hatred, is probably the most unsettling that Tiffany has yet faced.  I really enjoyed watching Tiffany Aching mature through these past four books, and I Shall Wear Midnight rounds off the series very nicely.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Published: Doubleday 1967/ Gollancz 1999
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award

The Book:

“A group of humans with impressive technology have colonized an alien planet.  With the ability to reincarnate into new bodies, the original colonists live long lives and populate the world with multitudes of their children. 

However, rather than raise these citizens of the new world to their standard of living, many of the powerful want to maintain their own dominance.  In the guise of shepherding an unready population, they impede the development of technology among their subjects, and tightly control the means of reincarnation.  They model themselves after the Hindu pantheon, and manipulate the population through their enforcement of a system of ‘karma’.

A threat to their control comes from one of the first colonists, a man named Sam.  To many, he is a great religious leader and a legend—the Buddha of this new world—though others see him for a fraud.  For all of those who wish to bring down the Lords of Karma, though, he may be the only hope.” ~Allie

It’s time for some more Zelazny!  I seem to have a bit of a theme with religious science fiction going on, and it will be continued with A Canticle for Leibowitz.

 My Thoughts:

Lord of Light continues many trends I’ve seen in other Zelazny works, though I think this one might be my favorite. As in This Immortal, Zelazny deliberately mixes the feel of science fiction and fantasy in the novel.  On the side of science fiction, there is some justification for the technology and abilities of Sam and the others, and the general setup is of a colonized alien planet.  On the fantasy side, almost none of the technology is explicitly described, and many details of the world and characters’ past adventures are left vague.  The technology is essentially like magic, and the world the humans inhabit has a rich, mostly unexplored history.  The prose and dialogue are also very stylistic, in a kind of archaic, mythological way. 

The style of writing seems to fit well with the focus on Buddhism and Hinduism.  I am not an expert in either religion, but I don’t think that was a barrier to understanding the story.  There is quite a lot of information included, though, so I expect that I missed some allusions or references. Each chapter begins with and excerpt from Hindu or Buddhist literature, along with an excerpt from the legend Sam had built as the Buddha of a new world. There are descriptions of many gods and goddesses, and the native creatures of the planet, energy beings called “Rakasha”, reflect the Hindu Rakshasas. I don’t know how the story would appear to a follower of either faith, but I felt Zelazny treated the religions with respect.  It is made very clear within the story that the Hindu pantheon and the new Buddha are not actually true gods or religious figures, but simply humans using the doctrines to achieve their ends.  In that sense, the story was less about the faiths than it was about how religion can be used as a tool to affect human society for good or evil.        

Many of the numerous characters were a little one-note, but I think that was deliberate.  The members of the pantheon were honing their personalities down to a major characteristic, in order to better personify their chosen deity.  Things could get a little confusing sometimes, as most characters had gathered a number of names over the years, and they occasionally even switched to different bodies.  I enjoyed the discussion about how access to reincarnation technology would affect identity and relationships, but it ran into a little too much gender essentialism for my taste at some points. The main character, Sam, is a pretty standard Zelazny hero.  He’s an intelligent, flawed, immortal super-human (he can control electromagnetic fields).  He also has a sense of humor, is a pretty decent person, and is instrumental to the fate of his world. In the case of Lord of Light, this involves his struggle to defeat the established pantheon and bring technology to the people.

The story begins near the end, but then cuts back to tell the story from the beginning of Sam’s long struggle against the self-appointed gods.  While there is a lot of interesting theological trappings, and entertaining debates on freedom of technology and the effects of reincarnation, I felt like the story was an adventure at heart. There are dramatic fights, battles, betrayals, some romance, and ill-fated gambling with Rakasha. As in several other of Zelazny’s novels, the individual adventures sometimes seemed episodic, but I found them entertaining in themselves as well as in the context of the larger story.

My Rating: 4/5

Lord of Light is pretty well representative of what I think of as Zelazny’s usual kind of story, with a combination of aspects of science fiction and fantasy, an immortal, super-human, but likeable hero, and plenty of exciting adventures. The hero, Sam, is the irreverent founder of Buddhism, a faith that he chose to oppose the self-styled Hindu pantheon that controlled the populace through their monopoly on reincarnation technology.  I enjoyed the focus on Hinduism and Buddhism within the story, though story was less about the religions themselves than about their use by humans.  Overall, Lord of Light is my favorite Zelazny novel so far, though I should warn that it was a little confusing to get into at first!