Book Review: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

A Darkling Sea

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Darkling Sea is some very weird science fiction, which is ordinarily right in my wheelhouse as a reader. This one didn’t sing for me, though, which I attribute to the fairly limited third person point of view and lean, hard science-focused style of James L. Cambias. This book is pure plot, motivated by action and dialogue, but the emotional arc of the story flatlines early on. For readers who want to see cool aliens and a bunch of action sequences but don’t want to think or feel too hard, it will likely be a fun read. I will say this: bonus point for a great ending.

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Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang


Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Ted Chiang’s sparkling collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I knew I had to pick up this new volume. These stories are also quite good, solidifying Chiang as an important modern voice in science fiction. His writing is spare and efficient, but packs an incredible punch. His concepts are lofty and complex in a way that will satisfy science fiction classicists. Several of these stories will remain in my mind, predominantly because of the way they approach really important ethical ideas. My favorites were…

“Exhalation”: There’s a reason this is the title story. It’s really gorgeous, melding the concept of body and machine in a fascinating way.

“The Lifecyle of Software Objects”: We are on the threshold of a society that will have new ethical problems concerning the human relationship with AI. This story takes that age-old science fiction trope and explores it in a very personal way.

“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”: This story was written for a science fiction short story collection based around objects from an imagined museum exhibit. (I’ve since learned that it’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and I really want to read it.) This story manages to feel historically authentic, be completely heartbreaking, and be a little funny too.

“Omphalos”: The overlap between ardent faith and scientific discovery is one that I find very compelling, and this story explores that idea in a very satisfying way.

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Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood is a writer who we need, for so many reasons, and she proves that yet again in The Testaments. Both satisfying and unnerving, true and false, saccharine and scathing, this book gives fans of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more time to look around Gilead and to imagine how we might act were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. There’s a veil between this dystopian reality and our own which, at times, can feel quite thin. We’re lucky that Atwood is the one pulling the curtain back for us. She is a consummate storyteller, one of the finest of our age.

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Book Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anytime science fiction and literary fiction become one, I lose all sense of time and spin in, captivated. That’s exactly what happened when I read this stunningly beautiful novella. It feels so old and so new at once. It is a war story and a love story. It is about the parallels and tension between nature and machine. It is a philosophical treatise. It is funny, fresh, and packed with lyrical language. But most of all it feels like longing and honors a gentle way of seeing the reality, time, and the role we play within it. It’s a story that honors reckless hope.

As soon as I finished, I handed it off to someone I knew would love it. He gave it back the next day, already finished, and said, “I’m going to buy my own copy and eat it.” That pretty much sums up the impact of this book for the right reader. A new favorite for me.

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Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Parable of the Sower does anarchy and terror very well. The power of Butler’s story comes from the future envisioned here, one that could certainly sprout from the seeds planted by today’s social ills. Her main character’s spare, emotionless narration is a function of the debilitating fear and trauma she has known all her life. I did quibble a bit with her “hyperempathy syndrome” (strictly limited to respond to physical pain), in that it didn’t seem to impact the plot at all and was therefore superfluous. But I really appreciated how this book made me question what would be necessary to survive in a world where our abilities to protect ourselves, provide for ourselves, and feel confident in the future were decimated. Butler presents us with a character who does what she must, at all times, to redefine faith in an era when God has forsaken humanity, in order to teach others how to survive.

**Another note: This cover does nothing at all to suggest the true essence of this story. It’s about an androgynous, badass young woman who is wearing jeans that she took off a corpse as she leads a group through an apocalyptic landscape. Who designed this?! Also, there are several basic errors in editing in this edition–inexcusable, and an insult to Butler’s genius that they did not do a thorough job in making sure the prose was fully represented as intended.

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Book Review: Nnedi Okorafor


Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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Book Review: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Book Review: Endymion by Dan Simmons

Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #3)

Endymion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Book Review: Startide Rising by David Brin

Startide Rising (The Uplift Saga, #2)

Startide Rising by David Brin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Southern Reach, #1-3)Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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:

Annihilation 5/5
Authority 3/5
Acceptance 4/5

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