Longer is a strange and fascinating little book with a shadow of a plot underneath many bright starbursts of philosophy. The science fiction setting serves as the backdrop for what is really a four-person drama about the ethics of mortality and what we determine the word “living” to mean. Thought-provoking and uneasy, as much of the best sci-fi happens to be.
As the title suggests, Dark Age plunges us into the darkest waters yet seen in the Red Rising saga. Humor and hope are both at their leanest portions, and in their place brutality and desperation are served. The worlds tear themselves apart in this one. Pierce Brown delivers his normal labyrinthine entanglement of alliances, betrayals, secret, and sieges, this time through an ambitious five perspectives. (Virginia’s perspective was the most rewarding, in my opinion.) Whereas the first trilogy of the saga is about the journey of one man, more than ever the series tips toward the journey of an entire political movement, one that spans nine planets and seems to doom everyone in one way or another. After five books with Darrow, loyal readers can’t help but invest emotionally in these unforgettable characters and feel their losses along with them–some of them, this time, were particularly hard. But I admire how Brown was brave enough to go all the way into the dark with this installment, and to create an absolute powder keg setup that book six will no doubt set off within its first few pages. Looking forward to the next ride.
Come for the art, stay for the story. The imagery and color that Dustin Nguyen uses to create this science fiction world are absolutely stunning. These volumes manage to be disturbing in a beautiful way, with the cute and the grotesque coexisting in harmony. The story by Lemire is slower to start, but really gears up in Volume Two with plenty of surprises and enjoyable suspense. Well-trodden AI vs. human and “lost child” tropes are employed, but it’s a comic, so am I really upset about that? I came for a sense of escape and visual delight, and on that front Descender certainly delivers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.