April 7th, 2004

just Chris

book review: Mark Budz's Clade

Book recommendation:

Clade by Mark Budz

This book lives in the same, refreshing new sub-genre as Syne Mitchell's The Changeling Plague, which (in my opinion) is the natural evolution of cyberpunk. Both of these novels envision a future where biologicals determine who we are and what we become in the way that cyberpunk postulated integrated circuits and weblife, or that the Heinlein-Asimov future postulated rocketships and other hard-engineering feats. Those biologicals might be benign or downright terrifying, designed to heal or murder, but they will change how we live and even who we are.

This is both interesting and important, I think, to where SF is going, because this is where science is headed, as well. Both novels view the world from the perspective of regular people, or even antisocials, which is where "cyberpunk" got its "punk." In fact, the back cover of Clade has a quote from Kevin J. Anderson, who suggests this new genre be called "biopunk." I feel it's important to recognize such new directions, if indeed this is a new movement in the genre.

On the other hand -- perhaps I'm just not longer a young 'un -- I was less interested in the punks of Clade than the DNA hackers of The Changeling Plague. In particular, I got a bit irritated with Budz (as narrator) using curse words; I expect his characters to do so, but it distracted me when the non-character narrator did. I also felt he used a bit too much exposition as dialogue, but it was interesting. I love the (scary) idea of social engineering via pheremone-emitting plants which create the title's "clades," locales which make their inhabitants happy with life and unable to move up or even move laterally in class. Fascinating stuff.

I would be interested to hear what others think of this book, or these two books, or this movement in SF. You can see my response to The Changeling Plague here:

http://www.livejournal.com/users/mckitterick/31527.html

Oh, I forgot to mention one thing: If Varley's cover was bad, ohmigod is Budz's cover a travesty. It shows an aircar flying over a city of steel and glass. Mind you, the world of Clade is full of plants. Bio-engineered plants everywhere, affecting everything, not a sterile world as depicted by the cover.

Best,
Chris

P.S. -- Lawrence SF Interest Group folks: How about getting together to discuss some of these books I'm recommending? I intend to start posting my reviews of all the books I recommend that I've been reading for the Campbell Award (more about the Award here: http://www.ku.edu/~sfcenter/campbell.htm ).

just Chris

book review: John Varley's Red Thunder

Book recommendation:

Red Thunder by John Varley

I absolutely loved Varley's Red Thunder, and told Kij that it is one of my favorite books I've read in a long time. I knew while reading it that some people might not feel it is as award-worthy as other, perhaps more-literary, novels, but I can't help but believe books such as this are vital to the health of SF.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Four 18-21 year-olds, a down-on-his-luck ex-astronaut, and his brain-damaged but genius cousin need to build a spaceship and fly to Mars in 60 days so the USA can be there first and they can rescue a doomed NASA mission. The physics is fun but never really described: something about creating bubbles in multiple dimensions to create a near-limitless power source. But after those quibbles, everything else is sheer pleasure. The characters are all slightly criminal but completely moral and likeable, and each is broken in a unique way (a couple are truly heartbreaking), so Varley makes the reader really root for them. The plot is fast-paced and fun, and even though you're pretty sure nothing will really go wrong for our heroes, those pages keep turning. This feels like a Heinlein juvenile for a new generation, just the sort of thing that would have sent me into the garage to build my next rocket as a kid. Yet there are adult situations aplenty, so I suspect Ace was afraid to market it as young-adult. The marketing of this book boggles me. Why the Cold-War thriller cover art and font? It's not really a YA novel -- though the family issues should speak to young people -- but neither is it a Cold-War thriller.

I think this book's value lies in its human-ness, humor, and honesty. I was moved by the family love shared by a few of the characters, I laughed during just about every page, and got teary on a number of occasions. I also admire Varley for writing something so brazenly dream-fulfilling to everyone who grew up believing our future is among the stars, yet have seen us step farther and farther from that future. Books like this are why readers like me got started reading SF. Though conservative parents might be aghast at their teens reading this book, every young person should read it. In a genre becoming less and less accessible to new readers, Varley delivers a wonderful novel any new reader, age 14 to 144 can love, and long-time SF readers can read with great pleasure and even nostalgia, though it is a thorougly modern book in theme, setting, and character.

I hope you read this book. Remember how you felt when you first read SF, when anything seemed possible and regular folk could build a rocketship in their garage. I believe Red Thunder can deliver that same joy to a new generation.

Best,
Chris

just Chris

book review: Justina Robson's Natural History

Book recommendation:

Natural History by Justina Robson

Robson's Natural History is an intriguing look into one possible future for our species. Though the title might be ironic, I think it contains multiple layers: Intelligence becomes its own force for evolution, transforming out of the natural world into something new but different... but doesn't intelligence arise from natural beings? I recommend this book with only minor hesitation, I think because it feels a bit cold or distant. Perhaps that's the best tone, though. Filled with memorable characters that develop the touching story.

Best,
Chris
just Chris

book review: Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

Book recommendation:

Charles Stross's Singularity Sky

This novel is an inventive, thoughtful adventure. It's dressed up like space opera, but is really an anarcho-political-evolution comedy about human colonization and the threats we might face -- the greatest being ourselves. This would be a laugh riot if made into a movie, but it is less so in the written word; still, it's a great pleasure and exciting romp. It has a bit of clumsy pacing and writing (for example, I noticed one passage switched perspective without changing scenes, Stross's usual narrative tactic), but it's a pleasure and a breath of fresh air. Good stuff!

Best,
Chris
just Chris

book review: Jack McDevitt's Omega

Book recommendation:

Omega by Jack McDevitt

I love McDevitt's work and have ever since The Engines of God. Omega is the latest in a series of novels that follow our heroine, Priscilla Hutchins, following (in order) The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi. In this book, the adventure is a new one and the stakes keep rising -- we finally get to see the horrific omega clouds in action, and see intelligence battling the untimate form of anti-intelligence, or anti-life.

McDevitt's characters are some of the most human you'll find, and his books always feel like they should be next year's Hollywood blockbusters. The fact that they aren't only goes to show that Hollywood just doesn't get SF. These are wonderful books and I highly recommend you read 'em all, start to finish!

Best,
Chris
just Chris

book review: Jack McDevitt's Chindi

Book recommendation:

Chindi by Jack McDevitt

I had to post this after posting about Omega:

Chindi is a novel about the kinds of people who explore the unknown, who push the boundaries of the human world. The true believers and fanatics fund and design their missions, and other brave souls go along for various reasons: It's a job, one of their best friends or loved ones are going, or they just think it'll be an adventure. George and Nick are the fanatics, and without them, humanity never would have discovered the interestellar, alien communications network, the various rising and fallen civilizations, the retreat, the chindi, or their own lost vessel. So heroics arise naturally, because if someone needs saving and A) it's your job, or B) it's someone you care about, you just do it.

So it's also a novel about what people will do for one another, even those they've just met but with whom they have gone through adventures.

Again, this feel like the script for a movie Hollywood should make. McDevitt's novels are always full of great dialogue, daring rescues, and awe-inspiring settings. But this feels like more of a novel than the last one. In fact, after having read this, I saw some things I missed last time around: How the humans involved in the dramatic rescue operation were a metaphor for how Hawk race rescued many of the Deepsix natives.

Another thing that McDevitt always does so well is give us insight into what it means to be human; perhaps more specifically, how humans treat one another, how we become better people through our interactions with worthy others. And I always end up marking a few passages that seem to really stand out, such as these:

"[talking in hyperspace] had taught Hutch a long time back about the vagaries of human conversation, the things that really mattered, which were not at all the words, or even the tones, but rather the moment-to-moment reactions people had to one another, the sudden glitter of understanding in the eyes, the raised hand that accompanied a request for additional explanation, the signal of approval or dismay or affection that a given phrase might induce."

"Embrace your life, find what it is you love, and pursue it with all your soul. For if you do not, when you come to die, you will find that you have not lived."

Good stuff.

Finally, any book that makes me spend the wee hours of the morning after having finished it writing story notes and ideas has got to be good! I finished this novel at 3:30am (it's a page-turner) and couldn't get to bed until after four because I was full of revision ideas (for my own work) inspired by this book.

Definitely worth reading!

Best,
Chris
just Chris

random sentence meme

infected by bobhowe

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

She was an explorer and a pioneer at the high art of terraforming, and her techniques in building living worlds were still the standard, and her name didn't even need 'Chamberlain' attached to it.

-Sister Alice by Robert Reed. Oh, now I suppose I should post that review, too...

Chris
just Chris

book review: Robert Reed's Sister Alice

Book recommendation:

Sister Alice by Robert Reed

I just finished Robert Reed's Sister Alice, and I am very much impressed. (Note that both Orbit, in paperback, and Tor, in hardcover, submitted this book for the Campbell Award.) Here is a novel that stimulates thought and conversation -- I found myself discussing it with Kij, thinking it through out loud even though she hadn't read it. It inspires one to pondering the Big Questions.

In many ways, this could have been written as fantasy rather than SF, but it would have lost a lot of its threat and realism, if you can call it that. This is a story about gods and about humanity, and what it means when a simple, though good-hearted, human child (well, a child in terms of immortals) is prematurely granted god-like powers in order to save the universe (no, really). These powers (called "talents") are never really explained, nor is the mechanism for just about anything in the book, which is why it feels like fantasy. But of course such millions-of-years advanced technology would appear as magic. How could we understand its workings? So I never felt cheated.

An important line is this: "We are nothing but talents, really. We are genius and power and focus and skills beyond number [...] In every consequential way, [our bodies] are nothing... nothing but clothes donned for the narrowest of occasions..." Is this not also true of us primitive humans? If you strip away the things we do and how we think and our innate talents, who are we? But is a creature who is almost entirely comprised of add-on talents still a human? A creature who can off-handedly destroy inhabited worlds and create universes -- is that still human?

-spoiler alert-
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