Lagoon is a fun, big-thinking read, set in Lagos, Nigeria. The novel attempts to answer the classic science fiction question “What happens when aliens inevitably land on earth?” Nnedi Okafor presents something completely unique in response, that wraps a heavy sense of place around so many different interesting elements: shifting narrative voices, non-human narrators, alien interaction with earth-bound deities, and fundamental questions about what core takeaways an alien race would gain from a small cross-section of humanity in a high stakes situation. The idea of ancient cultural religious figures being represented quite literally in the same story where a technology-based alien organism infiltrates human society was a new and rewarding element. The concept and suspense of the story keep it afloat, though character development is unfortunately a bit on the shallow side. This is clearly a concept-driven narrative rather than a character-driven one. The book really comes alive in third act, and the ending is a good payoff. But… I still have questions.
The final installment in the Hyperion Cantos delivers on every front, succeeding in weaving together the hundreds of mysteries that Simmons scatters seemingly haphazardly everywhere throughout the four book set. This is simply cerebral sci-fi at its best, set at a scope so dizzying that it makes many other complex fantasy universes look like child’s play. Even amid a story that spans the entirety of time and space, though, the novel remains extraordinarily intimate. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that these coexisting features of the writing mirror Simmons’ ultimate point: that every moment in time, every place in the universe, every possible future–all these things do not make the individual human insignificant. Rather, the most personal and private of our emotions may make up the very fabric of reality as we know it, and stretch in significance far beyond what we could ever imagine. An ambitious notion, with an ambitious set of books to accompany it, ending here pretty much perfectly.
**I will also add that I think Simmons’ editor could have been a little more aggressive on some instances of repetitive over-explanation in this particular installment… but I forgive Dan Simmons anyway because this series is stunning, unforgettable, and otherwise without flaw.
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos series continues on in its dazzling way in this, the third novel of four. The two previous books are on my all-time favorites list, so I’ve been waiting a good long time to savor Endymion. While it is, by my estimation, the weakest of the series, that really doesn’t mean much because it’s still ridiculously good. The series is a masterclass in world building, although in Simmons’ case it’s more like universe building. The characters are captivating and the sense of adventure is so solid. It’s everything one could ask for from classic sci-fi–big ideas peppered with aliens, androids, space battles, showdowns, time travel and spaceships with personalities. Raul is a compassionate and charismatic everyman who, despite his multiple death sentences, is very easy to love. Certain scenes (the rainbow shark swarm, the resurrection creches, and the arrival at an empty Qom Riyadh, for instance) were incredibly creepy and real-feeling. There’s some hefty exposition in there–though done well–that is hard to immediately care about in certain sections, but I know it will all come together in book four, which I am going to start reading…. Right. Now.
This book was made for lovers of classic science fiction, which is why I stopped in my tracks after seeing it in a pile of pulled library books and immediately took it home. Sentient space dolphins. Language play with poetry. Warring alien races. Hostile marine environments. Won the Nebula. Won the Hugo. Written in the bizarrely fantastic weird world of 1980s space opera. Yes, please.
This book is everything you think it’s going to be. It’s an adventure on an epic scope. There are tons of characters, most of them dolphin and human spacefaring crewmates, who spin in a delicate dance of heroes, traitors, scoundrels, friends, lovers, scholars, and philosophers. Along the way, there are interesting ideas explored about sentience–what makes someone human and whole? There’s also a clear message of responsibility and respect for our fellow living beings and their potential for intelligences that we may never understand. Is this book without flaw? No. But is it the best of what it promised to be? Quite possibly. It feels very much like a very long Star Trek episode, starring a cast of mostly dolphins, and in the world of space opera, at least in my book, that’s a great thing. 5/5
Being a big fan of VanderMeer’s Borne, I was ready for my journey into Area X, as willing and sharp for the voyage as The Biologist herself. “Yes!” I said, inside my brain, “Rain down 600 pages of Jeff VanderMeer weirdness upon me!” And lo, I was not disappointed.
There’s a large dose of many wonderful things in this trilogy. Stunning and bizarre natural imagery. Deliciously disturbing ideas on psychological and spiritual levels. Characters that subvert archetype. Experimental prose. Endings that deliver satisfaction but still keep their secrets to a degree. Science fiction that feels truly new.
In terms of the overall story shape, I felt like Annihilation hurtled me forward, while Authority was overlong and tedious, with certain bright moments. The closing with Acceptance accelerated again. Ultimately, narrative time spent in the world of Area X itself was the most exciting in comparison to the bits about the crumbling government agency Southern Reach, which ultimately was difficult to really care about. Area X, though, was a delightful playground for the imagination–part fantasy, part horror. The kind of place that horrifies you, but still kinda makes you want to go there anyway.
The story as a whole makes interesting philosophical statements. What makes us human? What does the earth need humans for? What if the earth consumed us as resources rather than the other way around? What would happen to us if time, biology, and sentience lost the rules that we assume will always govern them? Is the loss of sanity in an insane environment a burden or a boon? VanderMeer contemplates these questions nice and up-close, with myriad thoughts, smells, and superb images. Time well spent.
Note: I did read this trilogy as a single installment, since my volume is three-in-one, but my individual ratings for each title are as such:
Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter defies genre. It is moving, disruptive, scary, and cerebral simultaneously. The action shatters into the narrative within the first several pages and just grows in intensity until reaching its nail-biting conclusion. As action-driven as the book is, though, there are indelible moments of imagery and real emotion. It’s really a masterclass in how to tell a darn good story. This riveting novel is also deeply personal, challenging all of us to confront our own darkest selves–this novel throws our human fantasy of revisiting the paths not taken into a scathing, searing light.
John Wyndham’s science fiction parable The Chrysalids remains resonant, despite its 1955 publication date. It’s a quick and somewhat simple read, told from a child’s point of view. The novel’s strength comes from its thorough, unrelenting confrontation with intolerance, seen from the view of an indoctrinated innocent. David knows that if anyone ever finds out his own secret, he and others like him will be branded less than human and hunted down. He also knows that it will only be so long before that inevitably happens. Yet, he still struggles to accept that mutation and difference may not be evil after all. Religious zealotry is a powerful force. What’s the difference between deformity and evolution? Where is the line between mercy and murder? Powerful questions fuel this powerful little book.
Neal Stephenson’s early cyberpunk novel The Diamond Age is… so many things. Ultimately, I feel like it was a thing that I should have been able to appreciate, but couldn’t. It’s a long haul, and blends hard sci-fi, steampunk neo-Victorian culture, children’s literature, dystopian sci-fi, cults, and political upheaval all set in a futuristic China. That was a lot of constant, ultra-developed kitsch that, for me, got in the way of what could have been a more compelling story. One of Stephenson’s strengths is his ability to explain, in a fully realized way, the smallest details of his mind’s creation. However, in this novel I felt it put the book at a disadvantage. The explanations overwhelm the story itself, which is quite frenetic and convoluted in its own right. I admire Stephenson as an author, but this novel was ultimately just not the right match for me.
With Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing this year, I knew it was time for me to read one of her works. She is science fiction royalty, and her Hugo and Nebula-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a masterpiece of classic sci-fi. It is everything 1970’s era science fiction usually is, with its politically intricate societies and chapter segments that present written “artifacts” from alien history. However, this book is so much more–it feels almost as groundbreaking today as it must have been when it was published in 1969. Le Guin approaches the idea of a genderless/gender-shifting society with a graceful hand. Particularly in the third act, her human protagonist Genly Ai needs to re-structure his concept of the gendered body, the gendered mind, sexuality, worth, and honor in order to survive on an alien world. While the first two acts are intellectually interesting and occasionally mired in world-building details, it’s the final third of the book where the heart of the novel truly beats, inviting us to personally encounter these ideas. I found it unforgettable.
Those of us who loved Borne are blessed to have this companion novella from the same world, out of Jeff Vandermeer’s spectacular and strange imagination. The Strange Bird is a troubling, surreal, but ultimately delicate elegy to the world as it once was. The imagery here is, once again, insane. The strange bird is made of all of us. Just lovely.