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.

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: Story of Your Life and Other Stories by Ted Chiang

There is almost no one writing like Ted Chiang today. He is famously unprolific, and yet almost every story he publishes receives accolades. Rather than sing vague exultations of him, though, let’s dive into his short story collection.

Tower of Babylon- This was his first published story (the stories here are in order of publication). It went on to win a Nebula award (not that I’m jealous or anything…). It follows a group of miners who ascend the Tower of Babylon. The reason miners are needed high in the sky? This world follows the Babylonian view of the world, so in addition to other bizarre sights, at the top of the tower they run into a stone barrier they need to break through. Probably one of my favorite stories here.

Understand- After a near-fatal drowning, a man is brought back through the use of a drug that makes him super smart. Smarter than the government…although the premise is cliché, Chiang pulls this off by making it less of a thriller and more of a thoughtful piece.

Division by Zero- A woman checks into a mental facility after she disproves a fundamental aspect of mathematics. As a professor, until then, mathematics had been her life. Her husband, meanwhile, has a change of opinion about something… Although it’s not speculative fiction as most people think of the genre, it provides something that had been missing in “Understand,” humanity. The relationship between husband and wife is more compelling than a supercomputer lying in his apartment.

Story of Your Life- The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a largely discredited theory in linguistics that a language shapes the speaker’s perceptions of the world. It still makes for compelling reading, though. Other examples of it in fiction include Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin. I won’t spoil how Chiang handles it, but it’s an original way. The story itself is about a race of aliens who communicate with Earth. Linguists try to learn their language to understand what they’re doing, but the aliens’ motives remain elusive. Peppered throughout are the linguist’s reminisces about her daughter. One of the best here.

The Evolution of Human Sciences- A flash fiction piece. It concerns the idea that one day science might get too technical for anyone untrained to understand–taken to the extreme, of course. This one’s a little rough because beyond there’s little plot, little conflict. It’s just describing a possible future.

Seventy-Two Letters- This takes a myth and a discredited scientific theory and welds them together beautifully. This takes place around the early 1800s in an alternate version of England. Here, golems (like in Jewish lore) work is you discover the right permutation of letters to power them, and that humans have a fixed number of generations during which they can reproduce. In this is a scientist who wishes to improve the lives of the lower class. He quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a guild who does not want him to impinge upon their livelihood and a shadowy organization made up of high society members.

Hell is the Absence of God- What if angels were real and every time they appeared, explosions and miracles occurred, killing some but saving others? That’s the premise here. When a man loses his wife to an angel, he tries to forgive God and love Him so that he can follow her up into heaven, but he hates Him too much for taking away his love. Two other characters going through their own trials fill out this tale. Everyone seems to love this one (it won a number of awards, too) but I was not overly impressed. Sometimes when a writer has a very economical style, they can write a story using too few words, like there should have been more to fill it out. I had that problem here. The idea was thought provoking, but not enough time was spent developing the characters for me to be satisfied.

Liking What You See: A Documentary- It’s a documentary because the story is narrated through a ton of different voices, each one getting their own scenes. The premise is that a college wants to install a device in their students that filters out beauty, that is, they no longer recognize what faces are beautiful and which are ugly. Chiang was nominated for a Hugo award for this story but declined, saying that editorial pressure made him rush the story and it didn’t turn out how he wanted it, and this one did feel a little rougher. Although Chiang tries to give both sides of the issue proper arguments, in my eyes, he failed for the “against” side, the people who want to continue to see beauty and ugliness. Their arguments often come across as manipulative and one-dimensional, and when a story relies on being provoking new ideas rather than being gripping, that sort of thing just doesn’t work. A disappointing way to end the collection.

Over all, this is an amazing collection. Even the “missteps” are just average, not bad. Anyone with even a slight interest in science fiction needs to check out Chiang.

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A few months ago I reviewed “Redshirts” by John Scalzi and disliked it so much I said it would be quite a while before I got convinced to approach his work again. Well, I lied. I picked up “Old Man’s War,” read it all, and…actually liked it. It was a good, fun book.

In the future, old people can register for a draft to fight against alien species all vying for habitable colony planets. These people are given new superhuman bodies allowing them to do a lot more than just relive their old glory days.

The first half, describing one man’s registration and subsequent experiences in training, are surprisingly more riveting than the actual war sections. The problem with these parts is that it they start to blend together: introduce an alien species and their odd quirks, describe problems fighting them, people die, then they figure out how to defeat them for the time being. It often felt like Scalzi was spending the majority of these portions just setting up sequels. It takes quite a while for the actual plot to reveal itself, and when it does, the book picks up again, but still.

As for the characters, the main character is a bit of a Mary Sue. Survives things that literally kill everyone else. After one scene in the training camp I had to put the book down and roll my eyes. He also does something oddly out of character towards the beginning of the book. I won’t spoil it here, but given the main plot of the book, you’d think he would be more conflicted doing a certain act after receiving his new body.

But it’s an interesting book. Does it deserve all the fame? Well, it is a new take on the old military scifi cliché and offers a lot of thrills. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s absolutely worth a read, especially as we approach beach season and people look for a book to read as the waves crash around them.

Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s enigmatic book, “The Einstein Intersection.” Today, I’m going over another one of his New Wave novels–no, not “Dhalgren” (though that will appear on here eventually)–but “Babel-17.” Written when he was just 23 years old, it tied with “Flowers for Algernon” for Best Novel at the Nebulas in 1967.

Even at a young age, Delany writes in a beautiful poetic prose. The world of the book is also fascinating. The premise is that far in the future, during an interstellar war, Earth’s side begins to pick up bizarre radio signals during attacks. They christen this code, or language, as Babel-17, and enlist a genius poet/linguist to crack it. Along the way, she gets an oddball crew of her own to pilot a ship to help her in her quest to solve the mystery.

The problem is just how interesting this world is. Between ghosts, poetry, people genetically modified to resemble dragons, Delany’s world is brimming with life, but at only 180 pages, there’s inadequate time to fully explore everything. I also was a little disappointed with the ending, but for the exact opposite reason. Delaney explains everything about Babel-17 and the attacks and–it’s a bit anti-climatic. A part of me feels like it would have been much better had Delany left a bit more mystery there.

But “Babel-17” is still a hell of a read. It confirmed Delane as one of my favorite writers and is never a chore to read. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is by far Delany at his most tame. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. One of the best I’ve read this year.