Armada

May 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

armadaArmada by Ernest Cline

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Yes, yes, this is a blatant rip-off of The Last Starfighter. I think that’s been pointed out often enough that I shouldn’t repeat it, but I don’t want anyone to think I missed it. I don’t see how anyone could, though, since somewhere in the first few chapters, Cline mentions that the whole thing sounds like The Last Starfighter. Had this been some sort of homage or pastiche, I could understand, but no, he just keeps on going with his story like it’s no big deal.

Now, since this is an Ernest Cline novel, it’s chock full of ’80s pop culture references. The thing is, in Ready Player One, they were useful for the story; here, they’re just shoved in. Cline makes sure we know that the main character is obsessing over his dad, who died when he was young, and was himself an ’80s pop culture geek, but it doesn’t ring true that this guy (and his friends!) would be quoting so much from that time. It feels forced and gratuitous, and doesn’t serve any purpose to the story.

To Cline’s credit, he does go outside the Last Starfighter trope and doesn’t make this a straight carbon copy, but not enough to save the story. The characterization is uneven (like RP1, the only important character here is the narrator; everyone else is just there to support him) and even inconsistent, and the storytelling style feels awkward. The main character’s mother didn’t even feel realistic, since she’s the perfect mom for someone of the narrator’s age — hot, cool, and understanding. I don’t want him to go to the other end of the cliche and make her the overbearing stereotype, but somewhere in the middle would be nice. Like I said, though, she’s not important to the story, save to let him keep working at the local game store and playing games during all his available free time.

I get that fiction is wish fulfillment on the part of the author, but there’s a not-so-fine line between wish fulfillment and Mary Sue-ing. I enjoyed the hell out of RP1 when I first read it (though I now view it from the perspective of the other side of Gamergate and Gatekeeping), but I think it’s safe to say that Wade and Zack are stand-ins for Cline. It’s a readable book, but it doesn’t have any staying power, thanks to the poor narrative and the hand-waving (and very sudden) ending. That this was titled Armada: A novel by the author of Ready Player One tells you enough about how the publishers felt was the best way to sell this book.

Started: March 24, 2018
Finished: April 1, 2018

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The Power

May 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

powerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

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I was stoked to read this book. I had heard a lot of good about it leading up to its US release, and when I did finally get it, my wife read it first and loved it. She wanted to re-read it as soon as she finished it. She gave it five stars. She wanted me to hurry up and read it so we could talk about it. So of course I did.

I like the premise of this book. It’s a lofty one, feminist and thoughtful, and I walked away from the book feeling like it was a necessary read. “Necessary”, though, doesn’t mean “Favorite”. I just didn’t love it as much as my wife did.

Part of it could be the simple reason that I’m male. Though I don’t use my position to hold power over others, and though I never use my privilege against others, I can’t deny that it’s never happened simply because I haven’t actively done it. I have a habit of smiling and saying hello to people as I pass them in the hallways at work. Men don’t always respond; women, I noticed, almost always respond with at least a smile. After several months of observing this, it dawned on me that women might feel like they have to respond, thanks to hundreds of years of cultural conditioning where they learned that snubbing a man’s attention could be dangerous. Men, however, have the luxury of receiving or ignoring attention from anyone else without the risk of harm.

The Power takes the idea of women suddenly having the ability to control electricity, and how that simple act begins to shift the balance of power from men to women. Alderman has a good idea here, but I can’t help but feel like her approach is heavy-handed. This idea, written by a different author (like Margaret Atwood, who blurbs the book), could have been a fantastic read. Alderman’s version, though, feels more like a hammer to the temple than a gentle shock to the extremities.

Alderman frames her story through four characters — three women and one man — who approach this shift in power in different ways. One woman becomes a religious leader; another uses her power to wrest control of a family dynasty into her hands; the third woman is a politician who uses the power to rise to her own power, even as she attempts to hide her own abilities. The man, a reporter, documents the shift in power from other countries, but still believes that his privilege will carry him through the shift without harm. Alderman uses him to represent the minority, and shows how limiting and oppressive it can be to be in that position, but wisely uses him to portray the male arrogance that has a hard time going away.

One thing I liked about Alderman’s approach is that she doesn’t create a utopia out of a female-led society. It would have been easy to make the shift in power resolve all the problems, but she instead shows how power can corrupt whoever has that power. We see the same problems arise in the matriarchy as we see now in the patriarchy. I hesitate to call it a dystopian novel, since all it is is a reverse reflection of our current times, but then again, I’m a straight white male; as bad as things get in this society, I’m still in pretty good shape. Maybe to those without the power, our current society is a dystopia.

The book lacks a certain subtlety that could make this a five-star book for me. I didn’t like the religious plot, and I felt like the framing device of the book being a manuscript written by a man sent to the author for review only hammered home some of the points Alderman made through the narrative. It gave her a chance to put in a last dig at the current state of things by asking the author if he considered publishing it under a female name, but I feel like she could have covered that in the story itself. As such, I rate the book 3.5 stars, rounded up to four because this does feel like an important book.

Started: March 18, 2018
Finished: March 29, 2018

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Mandelbrot the Magnificent

May 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Mandelbrot RD4 BLACKMandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska

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What a moving story. It’s semi-biographical, drawing inspiration from the life of Benoit Mandelbrot, who grew up as a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. Ziemska uses as many real details of his life as possible, but also introduces a magical aspect to the story through Mandelbrot’s understanding of mathematics and the Sefirot, an important piece of the Jewish religion.

The story is by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, lyrical and haunting. It’s about mathematics, yes, but it’s also about loneliness, identity, and safety, which is important considering its setting. It also has some effective prose, like this:

“‘God?’ I asked.
“Father shrugged. ‘That’s a simple word used by those who would be terrified if they knew the whole story.'”

The story is a novella, meaning you can read it in one sitting, likely in just an hour or two. Do so. It’s well worth your time.

Started: March 22, 2018
Finished: March 22, 2018

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The Only Harmless Great Thing

May 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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I’m a bit of a sucker for a Tor.com novella. For a while there, I was trying to read all of them, but they’ve released so many of them over the past few years that it’s hard to keep up with them all. I hold out for the ones that get the most buzz, and The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of those novellas.

It’s an odd book, because it takes two historical events — the Radium Girls and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant — and mashes them together. It works remarkably well, but in order to put the two events together, it means that Bolander has the elephants replace the Radium Girls in the factories. It struck me as very odd, and I had a hard time accepting that elephants, of all creatures, would do this kind of work. Bolander makes the elephants intelligent enough for sentience and communication (they communicate with humans through a rudimentary sign language), but still, it was a little too strange for me to accept.

Beyond that, though, the story is excellent. Bolander has a lyrical style that makes the words leap off the page, and she brings amazing life to her characters (human and otherwise), and she makes the reader feel for all of them. It helps that she brings together two tragic stories, predisposing us to be sympathetic to them, but her language makes everything more vivid. Bolander juggles three different stories, in three different timelines, and while one of them felt a little out of place, it served a purpose to the other two.

The buzz this novella is getting is deserved. It’s a well-written story, with realistic characters, and real emotion. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes speculative fiction, or even historical fiction. It’s just going to require a leap of faith with how the author uses the elephants here.

Started: March 3, 2018
Finished: March 3, 2018

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Runtime

May 3, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

runRuntime by S.B. Divya

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At the start of this novella, I felt like I wouldn’t like it. Our main character, Marmeg, lives in a near future, neither dystopic or otherwise, where it’s common for young adults to enhance their bodies with cybernetic implants. To make it clear this is a different time, and that young people set themselves apart from the older generations, Divya has Marmeg and her contemporaries speak in a choppy style, eschewing complete sentences or even complete words as she conveys her thoughts in as few syllables as possible. It reminded me a lot of the junkyard characters from The Walking Dead, and it was difficult to relate to her way of speaking, and as a result, it was difficult to relate to her as a character.

The good news is that this novella overcomes such a shortcoming. The story involves Marmeg entering a race, where the runners adorn themselves with cybernetic suits to help them jump higher, run faster, and endure longer. Marmeg, though, is an unlicensed citizen, and hasn’t grown up with the privileges that licensed citizens have had, so while they have sponsors and teams to help them in this race, Marmeg has put her suit together from junked parts, all by herself. Divya has a lot to say about class divisions here, through Marmeg’s failures and successes.

Runtime starts off slow, but picks up not only when Divya puts Marmeg into the race, but also when she implements the themes of her story. I could have easily abandoned the story early on, due to the dialogue, but I’m glad I stuck with it, as I think this is a story that will linger.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 2, 2018

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The Empire Strikes Back

April 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut

—–empire

Reading a novel that inspired a movie is one thing. You get a lot more detail and background into a story than what winds up on the screen, and it’s usually worthwhile to read a novel after (or before) seeing the movie that was inspired by it. Novelizations are different, though. You usually just get a rehash of the events from the movie, with a few extra scenes thrown in for flavor.

The Empire Strikes Back is first and foremost a novelization. It’s like reading a narrative of a screenplay, which is exactly what it is. By itself, it lacks emotion and connection, since Glut doesn’t delve any more deeply into the characters than the movie does. I would actually expect it to have more emotion, since I already have the characters and events imprinted on my brain, but somehow it still comes across as dry and inactive. Glut’s descriptions are fine, but it’s hard to tell if they’re evocative, again because of my memories of the movie. Events move quickly, and feel emotionless. This was the case with the novelization of Star Wars, too.

Strangely, I don’t remember this being the case with the prequel novelizations. Events moved quickly there, too, but I felt more of a connection with the characters. Is it due to narrative styles changing over nearly forty years, or is it because I’m more familiar with the original trilogy than I am with the prequels? I guess I won’t know for sure until I get to the novelizations of the new trilogy.

This isn’t a book I would recommend, since it doesn’t add anything new to the universe (aside from the fact that Yoda was initially supposed to be blue), and since the movie does such a better job with presenting the characters. It makes me wonder how many people still read novelizations of movies, since I haven’t come across one that does anything better than the movies themselves.

Started: February 7, 2018
Finished: February 11, 2018

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Childhood’s End

April 24, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

endChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

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I’ve read other Clarke classics over the years. Rendezvous with Rama stands out in my mind because it was such a let-down. I remember it being very dry, namely because it felt like Clarke was writing a scientific paper, not a book. I was hesitant going into Childhood’s End, because I didn’t want it to be another experience like that, but I had heard such good things about the book, I couldn’t resist reading it. Unfortunately, this book didn’t connect with me, either.

Childhood’s End begins with the arrival of aliens, much like the beginning of the movie Independence Day, but without the disastrous consequences. Instead, these aliens are benevolent, bringing the societies and cultures of Earth together over hundreds of years. They’re also dictators of sorts, since there are a few things they will not allow, murder and crime being some of those things. The book takes us through the events of their visit, from the beginning to the end, which occurs hundreds of years later.

The story starts out with more character, which helped me think the book wouldn’t be a repeat of Rama, but by the end of the first section of the book, the characterization had fallen apart. Clarke doesn’t give enough time to develop the characters beyond being a device through which to portray how the events would affect people, so it’s hard to get emotionally invested in what’s happening in the story. He makes an effort, by having the Overlords live long enough to bridge the span of time that separates the start of the book from the end (and relativistic time effects help one character return several hundreds of years later), but it never feels genuine. The book is divided into three distinct sections, set in different times, and I couldn’t help but feel like a trilogy of books, one for each section, would have been better. At the very least, it would have given Clarke more time to develop his characters.

The ideas behind the book are interesting, but don’t feel as revolutionary as they likely did in the 1950s when this book was first published. An important part of the story involves the people of Earth having all their needs taken care of at no personal cost, allowing them time to develop significant works of art and technology. It feels like a celebration of communism and socialism, which must have been shocking to its original readers.

Speaking of technological developments, one of the rules the Overlords is that the people of Earth cannot develop interstellar travel. As they tell us several times during the book, the stars do not belong to us. It’s a tiresome refrain, but by the end of the book, we at least know the reason why. Just don’t expect it to be an uplifting conclusion.

Like Clarke’s other works, Childhood’s End is a good idea, wrapped up in a mediocre story. I think this book will wind up being more memorable than Rama, thanks to how its ideas resonated with me at this time in my life, but it’s not a book I feel like I can recommend. Reading a summary of the story on Wikipedia would give you all you need to know about the ideas, without having to trudge through a less-than-impressive story. I guess I can see why it’s considered a classic, but it lacks the timelessness that other classics have.

Started: February 4, 2018
Finished: February 11, 2018

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Razor’s Edge

April 17, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

edgeRazor’s Edge by Martha Wells

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I have a friend who has been pushing me to read Martha Wells, so I was pleased to see that she had contributed a novel to the Star Wars universe. I figured it would give me a chance to see what she can do, without having to put any of my other reading projects on hold, since this was the next book in the chronology. The good news is I’m impressed with what she can do.

This book is the second of a planned trilogy called Rebellion and Empire, each one featuring one of the three central characters from the original movies: Luke, Leia, and Han. Razor’s Edge features Leia, but where Honor Among Thieves was an all-Han novel, Razor’s Edge features all three characters. The story is still Leia’s, though, since the story focuses on Alderaanian pirates and how the destruction of the planet, and Leia’s role in the Rebellion, affect them, before and after they meet her in the story. The events become more involved as the story progresses, but that theme pervades much of the novel, and that’s the how and why this book is Leia’s story.

After finishing the book, though, I didn’t feel that way. I felt like Leia got the shaft here, that she deserved a better story than this one, and that the story was serviceable, but not memorable. It took me some time thinking about the story and its themes before I realized that Leia was the focus here, and that her actions were important. It’s more subtle than what Corey did with Honor Among Thieves, and it also make me think this will be the book I remember most out of this trilogy after months and years have passed.

If this is a sampling of what Martha Wells can do, then I look forward to reading more of her books. Thanks to that friend, I’ve already added more of her books to my to-read stack. Now I just have to work the rest of them into all of my different reading projects.

Started: January 19, 2018
Finished: January 27, 2018

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Binti: The Night Masquerade

April 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

masqueradeBinti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti has been through a lot over the course of her short trilogy. She’s witnessed a brutal mass slaughter on a spaceship, befriended one of the creatures who participated in the slaughter, and then returned home to Earth and her family, only to be ostracized for that friendship and for the transformation she experienced. In The Night Masquerade, she witnesses the continuation of a war she thought concluded. Like most wars, the people she sees menaced most by the war are her family — by blood and otherwise.

I’ve enjoyed this series, but I did myself a disservice by not reading them together at the same time. I lost details between books, and while Okorafor brings those stories back to us, I felt like I was missing too much for too long. This volume doesn’t feel as impactful as either of the first two books in the series did, either because it doesn’t resonate as much with me, or because I’ve forgotten important chunks of the story. It doesn’t help that the author chooses to go from first-person for two-and-a-half books, only to jump out to a third person omniscient voice at the critical point in the story. I can’t see how she could have avoided that jump, but it still feels sloppy. It always does when authors make such a big narrative jump like that.

Still, I rate this book is 3.5 stars, rounded up to four because Okorafor’s language and themes are so significant. I’m interested in reading more by the author, since this brief series has such an impact for so few pages. I would love to see what she can do when given the freedom of a full-length novel.

Started: January 19, 2018
Finished: January 21, 2018

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Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

April 11, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

splinterSplinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster

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So. Here it is. The first book in what would become the Expanded Universe. I don’t think I saw this book when it came out (I would have been six), but man, once I knew about it, it was almost all I could think about. I never got around to reading it, but man, back when this was one of only a few books set in the Star Wars universe, it was huge.

Reading it now, I have to force myself to think about it in terms of its original context. As Foster tells it, the novel is made up of a bare-bones idea Lucas had, which would have been a sequel to the first movie had it bombed, so a lot of the ideas don’t mesh with anything that would come later. Plus, in reading it, I had to remind myself that anyone reading it at the time of its release wouldn’t know if Luke and Leia would survive the story. It was a weird experience overall, but I tried to keep all that in mind as I read it.

The thing is, it’s still not that great a book. Foster didn’t have much to work with, but he still seems to have a gross misunderstanding of the characters of Luke and Leia. Luke is more of a pushover than he was in Star Wars, and Leia goes from being a capable, headstrong woman to a self-involved shrew with no patience. It doesn’t help that Foster includes some misogyny in the way the male characters treat Leia, but that’s not a misunderstanding of character as much as it is just a poor thing to include in the story, even in 1978.

The story centers on Luke and Leia, on their way to a planet to convince them to become part of the Alliance, crash-landing on another planet and getting caught up in a quest for a mysterious, Force-sensitive jewel. It’s fairly standard stuff for the EU, but it feels insubstantial in a lot of ways. I felt that way about The Approaching Storm, too (and if I’m being honest, Splinter doesn’t feel as insubstantial as that novel), but it seems Foster spends a lot of time following Luke and Leia about this planet. The action scenes are fine (if somewhat brief in comparison), but there’s more following that anything else. This book also had the same problem of the narrative feeling somewhat stilted, where I was having to read sentences a few times to parse them.

What I did find interesting is some of the ideas of the EU that were laid down here. Foster makes explicit the Emperor’s xenophobia, which I didn’t think became a thing until Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. I mean, yes, you can watch the original trilogy and assume Palpatine has a thing against non-humans, but I thought the explicit policy wasn’t stated until then. In fact, between this book and the novelization of Star Wars, I’m surprised with how much of the prequels Lucas had in mind while working on these stories.

In the end, I think Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is better read as a curiosity than as a formal entry into the EU. I also think it’s important to keep its context and era in mind when reading it, and expecting it not to match all that we come to know about the Skywalkers and their place in the universe. Afterward, I’d recommend checking out the entry for the book at the Wookiepedia to see how fans have shoehorned the consistency issues back into the canon. At the very least, it’s an entertaining read.

Started: January 15, 2018
Finished: January 17, 2018

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