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.

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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.

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: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant, is an odd book. It has a fantasy setting, but it’s more literary and slow than any other novel in the genre I’ve read. It has an interesting plot, but it takes a while to puzzle out what’s really going on.

The basic premise is that a fog of forgetfulness has fallen over the land of England–not England as it is now, but rather the England of Arthurian legend. Axl and Beatrice are an old couple living on the outskirts of a town. They are treated poorly by the residents, but no one seems to remember what could have brought this on. They decide to leave in order to go see their son, who they vaguely remember and think is nearby. Along the way, they encounter ogres, knights, and Saxons (who despise the Britons), and gain some companions.

All of this is told in Ishiguro’s typical artful prose, which is neither too purple not too minimal.

But while it does feature some excellent meditations on death and love, the plot itself is a bit lacking. The main story turns out not to revolve around the old couple but rather some of their new friends, and by spending more time with Axl and Beatrice, the plot ends up a lot slower and more underdeveloped than necessary. There’s definitely a good story with them, but it would have been more fit for a short piece or novella than the better part of a novel.

If you haven’t already, definitely read The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his two masterpieces. If you like them, move on to this. Even if you are a big fan of fantasy and want to get acquainted with Ishiguro through this one, I would say hold off and check out his others. This is neither an amazing Ishiguro or fantasy book (although it certainly is worth a read).

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.

Book Review: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

When I studied abroad in Germany, I remember one day stepping into a bookshop (to check out the English section–my German was and still is quite bad) and getting curious to see what translated English authors they had. There were the usual suspects–DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy–and then they had nearly a shelf full of Paul Auster. I vaguely knew the name, but had no idea he was that big. In the years since then, I’ve read up on Auster (though never actually dipped into his books) and am not sure why he is not as popular at home as he is abroad.

“The New York Trilogy” is my first book by him. It’s not a novel but rather three novellas with some odd connections between them. And, despite the name, this is not an “American” book: Auster is after something deeper here. Imagine a more mainstream Beckett with less humor and you’ll have an idea what this book is like.

The first novella, “City of Glass,” is the story of a mystery writer getting mistaken for “Paul Auster,” a detective, and tracking down a recently freed religious lunatic. The next one, “Ghosts,” follows another detective, this one tasked with watching a strange man writing each day. But is he the watcher or the watched? The last one, “Locked In,” features a man detailing his life after his childhood friend disappears and turns out to have left a treasure trove of unpublished literary masterpieces behind him. A current of metafiction runs through all of them tying the works together and exploring books by other authors, like Nathaniel Hawthorne (the childhood friend in the final novella is named Fanshawe, the title of Hawthorne’s first (and later repudiated) work).

Auster’s prose is sparse, but not so much as to be artless. Apparently this has become a problem in his more recent books, but here there are no such troubles.

Those interested in real detective stories, with conclusions and reveals about who really did it, should look elsewhere. Auster is using the conventions of the genre, but…to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say do not go into this expecting any sort of typical narrative arc.

This isn’t a perfect book but it still is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American fiction (or just contemporary fiction in general). Others have said that this is the best place to start with Auster, and while this is the only one of his I’ve read, it did make me want to check out his other works. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of the most acclaimed contemporary American writers, one of the so-called “Bloom Four” (named after the literary critic Harold Bloom; the others are Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, all perennial Nobel candidates). But, of this exclusive group, DeLillo’s work is probably the most uneven. He rose to prominence with the publication of four novels–White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld–and his early and later output has veered from quirky cult classic to “what the hell was he thinking?”

Zero K, his latest novel, is similar to his recent works, such as Cosmopolis and Point Omega, but better (and I say that as one of his few fans who loves Point Omega). It is not so much a plot or character driven book as it is an idea-driven one. Death permeates every page, as do theories about it. Abstract talk about violence and meaning also frequently come up, though never so concretely that DeLillo lays out his own thoughts with clarity.

The book opens with Jeffrey Lockhart narrating as he arrives at a strange facility near Kyrgyzstan to see his stepmother die, or, rather, see her final moments before she is cryogenically frozen so she can awake in a future where she might live longer. Jeffrey’s father, a billionaire businessman who walked out of his wife and son some years ago, plans to join her. The strange futuristic area they’re in creates some unease in our narrator. Its sleek interior is simply too sleek. Displays appear showing news clips of violence, usually silently, though out the halls so that violence and death are always with Jeffrey.

As the novel progresses, we return to America to see more of the narrator’s everyday life. Those hoping for a thrilling plot or even well developed or intriguing characters should look elsewhere, but what would be a death sentence to other writers DeLillo pulls off. The book knows it’s a meditation on death and language’s limitations and doesn’t try to be anything else. Gluing this together is DeLillo’s prose, which is, as always, incredible.

As for flaws, it’s not so much the novel is flawless as it just features flaws that are always present in the author’s books. The dialogue is still stilted as characters talk in the same poetic, abstract manner DeLillo writes in. There is a lack of satisfying resolution. Not much happens. Themes are repeated over and over again. But fans have surely come to expect all this.

This is a novel to be thought about. Once I finished it and started examining the plot, structure, thematic devices, and it became a bit clearer what DeLillo was after (or, at least an interpretation of what he is after), the book went up from three or four stats to a low five out of five.

I would not recommend anyone start DeLillo here, but this is definitely one of his better books. Those who liked White Noise or Underworld but were turned off by a few others works are advised to give him another try with this one. It’s not a masterpiece like those two books, but it’s far from being a mess like some of his others.

Book Review: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre has an odd cumulative effect: the more books you read by him, the more you like him. The novels occupy special places in his body of work, complementing each other. But, other than a few highly acclaimed near-masterpieces (Missing Person, Dora Bruder, and Pedigree), all of these feel incomplete with taken alone, and sometimes even placing them within the context of his other novels is not enough to shake this feeling. Thankfully, In The Café Of Lost Youth belongs in the former category of near-masterpieces.

Those familiar with Modiano, however, might appreciate it more. It deals with all the typical Modiano tropes and themes: a dreamy recollection of years long past, Parisian locales, possible shady dealings, a detective, a mysterious young woman. If Modiano doesn’t click for you, it’s easy to get tired of the same old tricks, but here it works. He varies the formula just enough to make it new.

The novel begins with a typical Modiano narrator, a young student with a literary bent. He describes a café he begins to frequent, the regulars there, and an odd woman who attracts him. But 25 pages in, the point of view switches. There are four different narrators in total, including a passage narrated by the intriguing young woman. This allows Modiano to avoid a pitfall he frequently has trouble with. Too often he is too vague in his endings, not so much not answering questions readers have as not even providing the framework to know which questions to ask. By switching the point of view, he manages to give satisfying solutions to problems one narrator might not know which another reveals, while still evoking the mysterious atmosphere he is so famous for.

And, much like his other novels, this is incredibly short, with around 130 pages in my edition.

Though perhaps not as great as Missing Person or Dora Bruder, this is up there as one of the author’s best. Anyone—fans, those who tried a book and weren’t wowed, newcomers—are all recommended to take a look at this.

Book Review: Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I’ll be sure to post more about Gene Wolfe in the future, as he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. Today’s book is one of his more famous standalone titles. In the early 70s Wolfe had managed to place a bunch of short stories in magazines and publish an infamously bad novel (called Operation Ares, he has done all he can to suppress it) when he wrote a novella entitled “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” He presented at a workshop and an editor liked it so much he offered to publish it if Wolfe expanded it into a novel-length work. This prompted Wolfe to write two more novellas, vaguely linked to the first one, that when combined form a whole bigger than the parts and became Wolfe’s breakout work.

The “novel” or “collection” (whatever you want to call it) takes place on the double worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Saint Anne once bore an indigenous population of aboriginal shape-shifters who were apparently wiped out by the humans, but an in-universe theory states that the first colonists may have been themselves overwhelmed by this species, that then shifted into looking like humans and forgot how to change back.

Against this backdrop are the three stories. The title one is about twin brothers growing up on Saint Croix in their father’s brothel. But things are more than they seem, and gene-splicing and murder bring the story to its exciting conclusion. An anthropologist, John Marsh, appears twice in the story, the first time to ask the narrator’s aunt about her theories (that the natives replaced the humans).

The next story has all the poetry of a myth and it might as well be considered one. “’A Story,’ by John V. Marsh” is ostensibly a reconstruction of an old tale by the indigenous people. This is probably the densest piece and although it can be enjoyed in its own right, patience is required to see how it relates to the other novellas. It is a dreamlike work about the coming of age of a native and the discovery of his long lost twin brother. Though this simple summary does the novella a disservice, to say more would just confuse people; the work needs to be taken as a whole.

The next story, “V.R.T.,” is again about John Marsh. Suspected of being a spy, he is locked away and a sergeant looks through his confiscated journals about his life on the twin planets and about an expedition he took to try to find any remnants of the indigenous population. His guide is a teenager with the initials V.R.T. and claims to be half shape-shifter. On a narrative level, this is the most intricate story here, alternating between descriptions of the sergeant and the various books he reads.

Fifth Head of Cerberus is definitely a book I’ll be returning to, partly because of how great it is, partly because you often have to read Wolfe multiple times in order to really understand what he’s saying. Many of his books are like puzzles. This is one of his more obscure ones, but it’s also one of his most interesting experiments. Just accept that you won’t get everything the first time around (or even the second…or third…), let it wash over you like a Pynchon novel, and you might just find another must-read author.