Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of those flawed books that you still can’t help but love. Please note that this review will have spoilers in, so read on at your own peril!

In the future, time travel has been invented, and historians use it to study their areas of interest. One student at Oxford, Kivrin, is about to go back into the Middle Ages. Though going back that far can be dangerous, the head of the history department is on vacation and the professor filling in is cocky and eager to show his worth. Mr. Dunsworthy, another professor in the department, is not so sure about the whole thing but is overruled. Shortly after Kivrin is sent back, however, the technician seeks out Mr. Dunsworthy to try to tell him about something that went wrong, but before he can he collapses from disease. An epidemic soon falls upon London.

Even worse, unbeknownst to them, Kivrin falls ill almost immediately after reaching the medieval ages. Although she is picked up and taken care of, she needs to return to the exact spot she first appeared at a specific date in order to get back to her own time—and she has no idea where that spot is.

Alternating between Kivrin and Mr. Dunsworthy perspectives, The Doomsday Book is an almost perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, and excitement. Willis’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny.

Part of the problem is the length. This very easily could have been edited down from the 600 or so pages that it is, especially the first half of Kivrin’s adventures in the past. No real progress is made during those chapters, and while Willis is skilled enough that you never have to power through, it does drag.

The characters in the past, too, are faulty. Some aren’t developed enough and others get involved in subplots that are never resolved. It turns out that the mistake the technician found was that Kivrin was accidentally sent back to 1348, the year the Black Plague reached England. Ultimately, every character in the past other than Kivrin dies from it. Willis could have meant this to be one of those books where everything is normal until a catastrophic event interrupts daily life, but as it is, she really just sets out the building blocks for subplots (so-and-so likes a married woman?) but then does nothing with them so that it just seems like set up for no reason. Though the Mr. Dunsworthy chapters also suffer from this, they are nowhere near as bad as the medieval ages.

But despite these problems, The Doomsday Book is an irresistible read. Willis is a Grand Master in science fiction and for good reason. It’s a case of where the author is already so skilled that their flaws are even more noticeable than had they come from a lesser writer.

Advertisements

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Warning: There will be tons of spoilers in this review.

Binti is an unfortunate book. I say that because it starts out with such promise. A girl—Binti—gifted at mathematics runs away from her ancestral home in order to attend a prestigious university. Sounds good so far, if a little cliché. While on the spaceship traveling there, aliens attack and kill almost everyone except for Binti and the pilot. Binti survives cunning and perseverance until she discovers the purpose of the raid: the aliens want to take over the ship so that they can do a surprise attack at the university and retrieve something that was stolen from their leader. Binti agrees to be their interpreter, both for her own survival and to try and get the two cultures to understand each other a bit better.

So far, the narrative has stumbled here and there, but for the most part it holds itself together and is an interesting read.

That is, until the ending.

After landing at the university, professors and staff argue about the aliens until finally they come to an agreement: they will give back the items they took, Binti can still attend, and an alien who Binti befriended can also enroll. The whole bit reads like one of those fake “that happened” stories online. The everyone who died on the ship is forgotten. While there is a sequel that may address this, it might be kind of relevant to bring up that massacre again in the book in which it occurred. They were not exactly well-developed, but still. And the mathematical skills that Binti possesses do come up again, but only in the abstract. They come in handy when she’s trying to survive, but it might as well be magic from the way it’s described. While nitpicky, it still is bothersome, especially since I felt there was some real potential for it to be used in interesting ways. The only good thing I can say about this is that it’s short.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

Reviews: Cat Pictures Please & Folding Beijing

Warning, this review has spoilers. I’ve grouped these two “in-depth” reviews together because there really isn’t much to say about them beyond what I’ve already said.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer would have been a quirky, weak winner in another year, but with the puppies, she is by far the best choice this year. The basic premise is that an AI becomes sentient and tries to help people in between viewing cat pictures. The actual plot is episodic, detailing her various attempts to help people, focusing on three. It doesn’t always work out, but no matter what happens, the story never becomes thrilling. The episodic set up prevents real tension from ever building.

Beyond the cute, crowd-pleasing premise (cat pictures have been a big thing on the internet since I first got into it), there isn’t too much here. I can see why this was nominated for the Nebula, but I can also see why it didn’t win.

A worthy winner? I’ve read worse that won Hugos during average years, but it’s not one of the stronger pieces.

As for Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, there isn’t too much else to say because the whole story hinges on the idea of a folding city. Beijing here is split up into three different sections. City 1 is populated by the rich, and they also get the most time awake. City 2 is a step below that, and city 3 is filled with manual workers. Each night, as one city goes to sleep, the city folds up and another (temporarily) takes its place.

There is a story here: a worker from city 3 sneaks into city 2 and then city 1 to deliver a love letter between a bureaucrat and a woman. Capture means at best jail, but if he succeeds he gets the money he needs to send his daughter to a good school. But like I said before, since his daughter hardly ever appears, the plot feels less like a vehicle for excitement than a way to show off this concept.

The disappointing thing is that this concept is indeed a great one: more stories set in this world to flesh it out more would be awesome. I could see this winning or coming in a close second place in a normal year. It’s not perfect, but it is thought-provoking, intriguing, and although the plot has problems, it never truly drags.

2016 Hugo Awards

I will post about these in more comprehensive posts later on, but here’s a few basic thoughts on the 2016 Hugo winners (I’m proud I was able to read all of the winners before the ceremony).

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin for best novel. This was one of the best fantasy books in a while. It’s set in a world with a giant continent that is wracked by natural disasters. Every hundred years or two, a big enough disaster occurs to set off decade-long storms, known as fifth seasons. Magicians have some power over stone but are feared for it. They are kept in check by a society as they learn to control their magical powers. There are three plot lines: a woman mourns the death of her son who her husband killed because he exhibited some magical powers. His wife never revealed to him that she also has control over magic. She sets out to get revenge and runs into some colorful companions. In another, a young girl with magic is found by a member of that society and taken to a school to train. In the last, and imo best, a young woman at the school is taken on a quest with a high level magic user to fix the stone in a city’s harbor. And while there, they find something completely unexpected…

I thought for sure Uprooted was going to win, but I’m really happy it didn’t. The characters there are flat, the magic system makes no sense (and the book hinges on it), and despite setting out to subvert cliches, it has tons of YA ones. And it already won the Nebula…ugh. The Fifth Season was definitely something special (and as an added bonus, Vox Day was kicked out of the SWFA for calling her a subhuman).

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor for best novella. This one was meh. A girl named Binti runs away from her home in order to attend a university on another planet. While in transit, they’re attacked by an alien race and she is left as the only human still alive. What starts as a survival story then quickly becomes a tale about differences in culture. The ending, though, is awful, to the point of ruining what came before it. Not surprised this won, as it was the only non-puppy choice here, but still.

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. Surprisingly, this one was a rabid puppies pick, but it probably would’ve been nominated anyway. Looking at it from a political standpoint, I’m not really sure why they picked it. It’s set in a dystopian future. To avoid overpopulation issues in Beijing, the government has set up a folding system: for 24 hours, city 1, populated by the elite, goes about their days and then sleeps. During that period, the city literally folds up to reveal city 2, and then city 3. Lao Dao is a menial worker in city 3 who dreams of sending his daughter to a better school, but he doesn’t have the money. To finance this, he undertakes a quest to deliver a love letter from a man in city 2 to a woman in city 3. The punishment for being caught would be jail, or worse. The idea here was pretty interesting, but it would’ve been nice to get the characters more fleshed out. His daughter barely makes any appearances, and some of the city 1 characters feel tacked on. Over all, though, it deserves the win.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer for best short story. I already covered this in my post yesterday, but for those moaning about Chuck Tingle, he wound up placing third below no award.

For the full list of winners, see here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/

The 2016 Hugo Award Short Story Nominees

The Hugo awards are tonight and I’ve been reading some of the nominees. I’ve gone through 4 of the nominated short stories and don’t plan on reading the 5th, so here’s my thoughts on those. All of them are Rabid Puppies picks except for Cat Pictures.

Asymmetrical Warfare by S.R. Algernon- A flash fiction piece about a starfish-like race of aliens attacking Earth. They’re surprised that humans don’t regenerate body parts. Although not necessarily bad, there’s little tension throughout the story. It almost seemed like the author was going for some type of twist with the way the aliens learn about people, but…we’re people. We already know what we’re like.

If You Were an Award, My Love by Juan Tabo and S. Harris- Oh god. For those that don’t know, a few years ago a story called If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love won the Nebula award for best short story and was nominated for the Hugo. It’s literally what it sounds like: a lover dreaming up what their man would be like if they were a dinosaur. At the end it turns out the man was beaten into a coma by some intolerant people. Though not exactly science fiction, it worked as a story and, imo, deserved its accolades. For whatever reason, the puppies chose this story to latch on to as “message fiction,” that is, fiction that simply wins awards because of its message. And then there’s this present story. What I just explained is the tip of the iceberg. This story literally won’t make sense unless you’re up on your print genre fiction fandom. Authors are lampooned in ways which won’t make sense if you don’t know them and the “plot” itself reads like an incoherent alt-right rant if you haven’t read the original story. This literally might be the worst thing I have ever read that was professionally published.

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle- Yes, I read it. And after the two above, I was pleasantly surprised. The level of writing isn’t amazing, but I wouldn’t complain if an author with similar prose was nominated for real and not by brigading. And Tingle manages to keep some tension present throughout the story (although in the later parts it is sexual tension…). And with his real world antics, there’s been some rumblings that this might actually take it. As for the gay sex scene…well, I’d rather read that again than If You Were an Award.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer- An actual nominee that was not the result of the puppies! And what’s more, it tells an actual story! An AI becomes sentient and decides that when not looking at cat pictures, it will try to improve the lives of people, an endeavor that turns out harder than it thought. It’s not exactly thrilling but the light tone and somewhat short length (3429 words, Clarkesworld, the site that published it, says at the bottom) ensure that it’s a fun read at all points. Not quite my thing, but at least I could see this definitely being nominated and maybe even taking home the award in a normal year.

The one I didn’t read is Seven Kill Tiger by Charles W. Shao because it seems like it can only be found in an anthology published by Vox Day (the less you know about that asshole, the better. He’s behind the Rabid Puppies.) and I’m not wasting money on that crap. A summary online makes it look like the focus is on a racist Chinese man who goes to Africa. Will he learn the errors of his ways? Considering Vox Day literally called African-American writer N.K. Jemisin (a nominee in the novel category who I’ll get to later) a subhuman, I doubt it!

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve recently been on a scifi/fantasy kick, reading everything I can get my hands on. One contemporary author who kept coming up was John Scalzi, particularly for his “Old Man’s War” series. The titles were a little long, however, and I noticed one of his shorter books, “Redshirts,” had won the Hugo award for Best Novel. Clearly it was a quality work.

Boy, was I wrong.

It starts out interesting. New members of a spaceship crew discover that they are side characters and that members of their kind die on almost every away mission. (For those that don’t know, this is a parody of Star Trek, where nameless crewmembers wearing redshirts almost always died on missions to give the illusion that the main cast was in danger.) It’s been done before, like in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but the setting gives the idea a fresh breath. Scalzi’s humor also helps, as does his impeccable plotting.

Unfortunately, the story takes an…odd turn later on and never quite recovers. I won’t ruin it here but I will say that the twist pretty much ruins the book and unravels the existential fun of the first sections.

This is also a bizarre book in that it tries to be both light entertainment and philosophical, especially at the very end (the book’s full title is actually Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas, which serve as epilogues for certain characters and also attempt to explore the implications of the universe Scalzi created). The book is light entertainment, but deep it is not. The writing is like a giant thing of cotton candy instead of a steak dinner: it goes down easy at first but after a bit you’re wishing for something more substantial, and finally you wish there wasn’t so much (where was the editor on this book? Plenty of conversations should have been cleaned up). It doesn’t help that Redshirts only takes a stab at seriousness towards the end, by which point such tone changes are jarring rather than intriguing. Ultimately, this mish-mash of different ideas hurts the novel more than if Scalzi had just kept things fun.

Fans of Star Trek will eat this up, as will Scalzi’s admirers, but for others, look elsewhere if you’re craving something scifi or want to try out Scalzi. This is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2016 so far. One day I’ll check out Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series, but I need some time before I’m ready to read another by him.