Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Speculative Fiction”

narfna’s #CBR4 Review #56: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is simultaneously one of the most complex books I’ve ever read and the simplest. Set in an unnamed middle-eastern security state, Alif is the story of a young hacker who has made it his mission in life to protect the internet freedom of anyone who asks for it, and who can pay. He and his hacker friends are in a constant state of war with the State and its enforcer, an amalgam of both man and software, whom they call The Hand (as in, ‘of God’). But when a broken heart spurs Alif to create a dangerous new program, the Hand comes after him and he’s caught up in a chain of events that lead him to become a fugitive, protecting himself, his childhood friend Dina, and a 1000 plus year old book given to him by the girl who broke his heart. The book is The Thousand and One Days, or the Alf Yeom, and its stories belong to the jinn, something Alif realizes only when his adventures lead him to a real-life jinn who calls himself Vikram the Vampire, and then the shit REALLY hits the fan. The Hand wants the book for his own nefarious purposes, but in Alif’s quest to protect it, his life changes in ways he never could have predicted.

Wilson’s non-stop narrative and beautiful prose is both an examination of Alif’s character and an exploration of all things unseen (I’m not going to elaborate on this, because it’s one of the pleasures of the book seeing how Wilson teases this theme throughout the novel).

I had a hard time getting into the story at first, despite Wilson’s way with words. In theory, this should have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. You bring examination of mysticism or fantastic elements into close range of technology and religion in a story and chances are I will lose my damn mind over it (see: Battlestar Galactica, for example). I think part of my problem with this was that the world Wilson was writing about made me uncomfortable, both because it’s intentionally an uncomfortable world that she’s writing about, and because her main character, Alif, is a little bit of a sheltered douchebag at the beginning of the story, and I didn’t really enjoy reading about him. But in retrospect, that’s the point. At the end of the prologue, after a scribe has just finished forcing a jinn to narrate the last of the Alf Yeom for transcription, the jinn leaves the scribe with a warning. He tells the scribe that once he hears the final story, he will become a different person. Even before I’d read the whole book, that line resonated with me. Even though the jinn in the story is being somewhat literal, every experience that we have as human beings changes us in small ways, shaping our thoughts and personalities, and what are stories if not experiences?

There is no paradigm of comparison that I can easily fit this novel into. I’ve never read anything like it. Whether that’s because it’s the first of its kind or because I need to stretch my horizons, I don’t konw. This is not the Middle-Eastern Harry Potter. This is not “The Golden Compass for the Arab Spring,” as Steven Hall is quoted as saying on the blurb on the back of the book. It’s not even close. I would even go so far as to say they’re diametrically opposed to one another. The Golden Compass is about the death of spirituality and innocence, and Alif the Unseen is about its rebirth. Alif the Unseen is about the re-discovery of things ignored, things not believed in, things that are hidden like treasures. This book is about learning to believe again in things that we have hidden from ourselves. Wilson’s book positiviely screams out her belief that there is power in the unseen, both mystically and religiously, and in terms of the people who are made unseen by the domination and tyranny of others. It’s about an ungrateful, spiritually barren young man learning to discover the wonders in his life that were there all along, but he was just to willful to see them. It’s about learning to accept the spiritual, unquantifiable part of life without feeling shame. As one jinn tells Alif, “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”

Plus, it’s full of beautiful passages like this:

“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. I the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”

This is the type of book you come back to, that you re-read over and over again to delve for meaning, and the kind that makes it possible to do so, giving you a different answer every time you ask the same question. This is a book ripe for literary analysis, for inquiring minds to rip it apart and put it back together. I like it more and more the longer I think about it. And yet, as dense as it is, it’s also light and terrificaly readable. It’s scary and thrilling and has magic and genies and shit, and you can totally ignore the thinky parts if you’re inclined to not, you know, using your brain and stuff. It’s a win-win for everybody, really.

The only people I wouldn’t recommend this book to are racists, and fuck those guys anyways.

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #29: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Target: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction

The Long Earth is easier to define by what it isn’t.  It isn’t the epic collaboration that Good Omens was.  It isn’t really sci-fi, or at least not sci-fi that most of us would recognize.  It definitely isn’t comedy.  And it isn’t bad.  I think a lot of readers went into the book expecting another Good Omens, and were disappointed, but the critical thought that went into crafting this off-beat novel is solid and the story is engaging and interesting.  Really, the book is an exercise in concepting; posing a scenario and extrapolating the consequences from as many angles as are relevant.  In that context, The Long Earth is a great success.

Read the rest of the review…

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #26: Iron Council by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s Iron Council (Bas-Lag #3)

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Politics, Bas-Lag

I’ve been having some trouble getting traction on this review.  Not because I don’t know what to say about the book, but because everything I’d say has already been said.  If you go to the Wiki page for Iron Council you’ll find a fantastic summary of the events of the book, along with snippets of some of the better reviews, both positive and negative.  They touch on the book’s overt politics, it’s relatively anemic setting development and the unique perspective China Miéville brings to the fantasy genre.  I’ve been somewhat verbose on these topics in my other reviews of Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels.  But between those and the internet’s surfeit of quality opinion, I’m finding myself without much to say.

What should be said is that Iron Council is an excellent book, in spite of critical opinion.  It is a less than stellar entry in the Bas-Lag sequence of books but it still stands well on its own.  It is also exemplar of Miéville’s literary philosophy and worth reading for that reason alone.  It is probably the most political piece of fantasy you’ll ever read, stuffed to the brim with socialist rhetoric, liberal ideals and a cast of dissidents and nonconformists.  But if you don’t let the message get in the way of the great story and Iron Council will start to feel a whole lot more like Perdido Street Station.

Read the rest of the review…

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #19: Mindstar Rising by Peter F. Hamilton

Target: Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising(The Mandel Files #1)

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Mystery

I haven’t read a lot of Peter F. Hamilton’s work.  He’s generally considered to be one of the better New Space Opera writers out of the U.K.  I enjoyed his Void trilogy when I read them in Cannonball 3, but they didn’t really inspire me to pick up the rest of his cannon.  Rather, it was my commentary on Space Operas itself that spurred me to check out both Hamilton and his contemporary, Ken MacLeod, in a little more depth; particularly their early novels, which I knew almost nothing about.

It is somewhat interesting that we segment out science fiction from regular fiction, when there is really no such thing as a ‘science fiction novel.’  More accurately, science fiction isn’t a real genre, just a setting in which other stories are told.  Mindstar Rising is very much a detective/mystery novel that utilizes a semi-apocalyptic future earth to create unique conflicts.  In the wake of global warming induced ecological collapse and multiple wars, the communist leadership of England is forced from power and the monarchy reinstated.  The country is in shambles and its revitalization lies almost entirely in the hands of the megacorporation Event Horizon and its ailing chairman, Philip Evans.  The company was one of the critical factors in the downfall of the communist regime, and has taken it upon itself to rebuild Great Britain’s failing infrastructure.

Read the rest of the review…

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 18: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ah, this one was so good, you guys!

Thank you Amazon: A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most powerful and most widely read novels of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules.

Margaret Atwood has said of this book, initially published in 1985, that she did not include anything that wasn’t happening somewhere in the world. And it’s the truth; we only need recent memories and present knowledge of current events to connect Atwood’s details to their inspiration. It’s therefore fascinating how criticism of this novel often claims that the ideas here are too radical, and that this would never happen, and that putting forth these ideas is dangerous and intellectually dishonest. I don’t have much of a desire to get into political specifics here in a book review, but in light of such criticism, it becomes even more remarkable how some of the liberties lost in The Handmaid’s Tale (again: published in 1985) seem plucked right out of Supreme Court discussions from 2012. Have we really progressed so little? Are we regressing?

Putting aside feminist themes for a moment, I also want to talk a little bit about Atwood’s writing and voice, which are both at their very strongest in this novel. The struggle of her protagonist, Offred, felt immediately urgent and engrossing, and her inner dialogue did honestly evoke the turmoil, anger, numbness, and myriad other emotions that a woman would feel when she experiences what Offred has endured. The strength of the writing and story were perfectly matched here; The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling, well paced, and full of characters who, even if we only meet them for a short time, are treated with respect and given humanity.

(And now I’m giggling a little to myself, because if my review is to be believed, if we treated each other like Atwood treats her characters, The Handmaid’s Tale probably wouldn’t ring so true as a cautionary tale!)

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #12: Kraken by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s Kraken: An Anatomy

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Metafantasy

If Perdido Street Station was an angry letter from Miéville to the world, reminding us that fantasy didn’t have to be simple or stupid, Kraken is his love letter to his geeky fans.  The book is chockablock with references to the best cult science fiction, fantasy and pop culture memes that make up the vocabulary of nerds everywhere.  What is amazing is that even though Kraken isn’t overtly trying to be one of Miéville’s smart novels, it is still an incredibly witty approach to urban fantasy that anyone will appreciate.  It’s just that geeks will get it a little better.

Read the rest of the review…

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #11: The City & the City by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s The City & the City

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Crime Fiction, Psychological Thriller, Weird Fiction

I don’t really understand how I missed that China Miéville always writes about cities.  Probably because the first book I read of his was Embassytown, which, despite the title, isn’t really about the community of Embassytown.  Every other novel of his is heavily reliant on the social setting of a city and each is colored by the nature of the starring city.  Perdido Street Station is about New Crobuzon, a darker version of our New Yorks and Los Angeles.  The Scar, set in the same world, is defined by the community of liberated slaves and kidnapped victims that populate the floating city of Armada.  In contrast, The City & the City doesn’t explore the title cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma as much as it examines the political and psychological implications of the unique setting of the twin city-states.

Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space.  That’s the entire premise of the book.  At some point in the distant past, a prehistoric culture shattered a city into a patchwork of two nations that exist in the same place but are kept apart by psychological pressure and the mysterious forces of Breach.  The book never makes it clear if there is a supernatural force at work behind this separation or if it is just a case of nationalism taken to an obscene extreme, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.  You need to accept the idea that two people walking down the same street can be in different countries based solely on the clothes that they wear and the way that they walk, or the rest of the book isn’t going to be compelling.

Read the rest of the review…

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #10: The Scar by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s The Scar

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Pirate Adventure, Bas-Lag

The Scar is the second novel set in Miéville’s Bas-Lag universe.  It does follow and relate to the events of Perdido Street Station but only in the most tangential of ways.  None of the same characters are involved and aside for a fragment of an inciting incident and a few expositional rambles, the two stories never intersect.  Miéville brings us back to his bizarre world to explore a new place with new faces and a completely different attitude.  Where Perdido Street Station was a psychological horror novel wrapped up in a fantasy wrapper, The Scar is a swashbuckling pirate yarn that happens to incorporate fantasy elements.  The combination of the genres is less jarring than Perdido, making The Scar a much more accessible read.  In some ways, I really recommend starting here and working your way backwards to the harder novel.  You’re really not missing anything by doing so.

Read the rest of the review…

Read Fofo’s review of Perdido Street Station here

narfna’s #CBR4 Review(s) #17-26: Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

Every few years or so, it becomes necessary for me to do a Y: The Last Man re-read. Now is that time.

I first picked Y up in the summer of 2007 when I happened to wander into my local comic book shop in search of Buffy comics (mind you, I was a comic reading virgin at this point, so Buffy was my gateway drug). After I’d picked up Buffy #1, I wandered up to the counter and struck up a conversation with the boy working there, and as happens in nerd-centered areas of society, we had much in common. So after awhile of chatting and nonsense — mostly Joss Whedon related — I was like, HEY, WHAT ELSE IS GOOD. And he put Vol. 1 of Y: The Last Man into my hands.

Vol. 1 — “Unmanned” (★★★★★)

What would happen if all the men died? All but one, anyway. That’s what Y: The Last Man asks, following in the grand and depressing tradition of Mary Shelley. Yorick Brown and his monkey are seemingly the last males on Earth. He has to learn to live in a world where he’s either the most sought after prize, or the most sought after target. Often it’s both.

I am always and continuously newly surprised every time I come to the Goodreads page for this book. There are so many people who find it offensive or over the top or chauvinist or whatever their other issues are. I just want to shake all of you people. This series is FUN, and certainly you have to suspend a lot of your disbelief to believe something like this is possible, but so what? I love lots of stories that are “unbelievable” because I love what they’re trying to do, and at heart, I love what Y is trying to say about the human condition, even if it depresses the shit out of me (but that’s a story for Vol. 10).

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 2 — “Cycles” (★★★★)

Yorick, Agent 355, and Dr. Mann have to find a way to cross the US without Yorick’s secret being discovered (you know, that he has a wang). Yorick, the foolish romantic that he is, wants to go to Australia to find his girlfriend Beth, but everyone else wants him to help save humanity and stuff. Dr. Mann is the world’s foremost expert on cloning — and even though she blames herself for the manpocalypse (it happened right as her clone-child was being born) — she has agreed to try and find an answer. But following them closely is the cult The Daughters of the Amazon, which Yorick’s sister Hero, in her grief and rage, has joined. The Amazons are led by a crazy bitch named Victoria who is honestly my least favorite part of this entire series. (What is with villains named Victoria being completely awful?)

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 3 — “One Small Step” (★★★★★)

Vol. 3 of Y: The Last Man is split into two parts. The first is the titular One Small Step, which features our protagonists meeting a Russian named Natalya who is desperately trying to reach Kansas for the landing of the International Space Shuttle capsule Soyuz, which contains three astronauts. Two of them are men. They’ve been stuck in space three months longer than they should have been, and they’re about to make an emergency landing at one of the US’s Hot Suites, a safehouse designed to protect its inhabitants from viral or bacterial contaminants. Yorick is extremely pleased that he will no longer be the last man on Earth, as he feels woefully ill-suited to the task. Meanwhile, the Israeli special forces team that is hunting Yorick at the request of his mother, goes a little rogue. The leader, Alter Tse’Elon, decides to keep Yorick for Israel. Alter thinks like a soldier and not like a human being. She is totally annoying. Things escalate from there.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 4 — “Safeword” (★★★★)

Like Vol. 3, Vol. 4 is split into two stories. First is the three issues the volume takes its name from, Safeword. Safeword played much differently for me the first two times I read it, and I wasn’t really sure if it had succeeded in its goal. But we’re always different people when we read things over and over, and I think I finally get what this story was going for, even if it’s not my favorite.

Yorick and Co. have a sick Ampersand on their hands, and so 355 leaves Yorick in the capable hands of her former colleague, 711, while she and Dr. Mann take Ampersand to the hospital. 711 has been in retirement ever since her husband died in the plague. 711 takes it upon herself to cure Yorick of the secret suicidal tendencies he’s been harboring since the day all the men died, and it gets super weird and disturbing (I’m thinking particularly of an image involving a tissue and some flies).

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 5 — “Ring of Truth” (★★★★★)

It’s been two years since an unknown plague (or something) killed all the men on Earth except for Yorick Brown, a young, unemployed escape artist. Vol. 5 is the largest in the series, following three different stories full of the Adventures of Yorick.

In Tongues of Flame, Yorick leaves 355 and Allison sleeping at a YMCA (fittingly enough) to seek confession in a nearby church (he’s still feeling guilty about accidentally killing that girl from the Sons of Arizona). What he finds instead is a beautiful blonde girl named Beth, but she’s not that Beth. She’s a former flight attendant who was up in the air when the plague hit. She had to land the plane, and all but three of the women on board died. She survived but she has a scar running all across her face, and now she takes care of this abandoned church, because where else is she going to go? She doesn’t give Yorick the absolution he was seeking, but maybe she gives him something better. It’s a nice little character piece, and yeah, Yorick finally gets to have some sex.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 6 — “Girl on Girl” (★★★★)

This is probably my least favorite book in the series. Nothing much happens, and the stuff that happens is kind of ridiculous, even for a story predicated on ridiculous things. I mean, pirates, heroin, one-eyed Australians . . . I guess it could just be my own personal hang-ups, but it all feels kind of silly and inconsequential. And the title, Girl on Girl rubs me the wrong way, even if it is a double entendre (literally girls fighting girls, the pirates versus the Australian submarine chicks). Because we’ve also got 355 and Dr. Mann hooking up, and Yorick walking in on them. That moment plays with more significance on re-reads, more for what it says about Yorick than anything else, but it’s kind of abrupt the first time through.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 7 — “Paper Dolls” (★★★★)

I’m still not sure why this volume is called Paper Dolls. In the wake of the Australian submarine fiasco, Yorick and Co. are hitching a ride to Japan on that very submarine, and they’ve picked up a companion: Rose, a “former” Australian Royal Navy spy. I say former because of course she’s still active, and her true mission is to infiltrate Yorick’s group, now whether that’s to protect or to hurt him is still up in the air. Meanwhile, Yorick cannot stand that they are stopped in Australia and he isn’t allowed to get out and look for Beth. It’s taken him three years to get here, so 355 relents and gives him 24 hours on the mainland before the sub is set to leave for Japan. Yorick doesn’t find Beth, although he does find confirmation that she’s alive and headed for Paris, but he does find a tabloid reporter who strips him naked and takes a picture of his wobbly bits to use as front page news.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 8 — “Kimono Dragons” (★★★★)

Yorick, 355, Allison, and Rose have finally reached Japan. Allison and Rose stay in Yokogata to check out Allison’s mother’s old lab, figuring it can’t be a coincidence that Ampersand was brought through here, and 355 and Yorick head to Tokyo to follow his signal. Allison and Rose find Allison’s mother, but Toyota found her first. She stabs Rose through the stomach and takes Allison’s mother hostage, saying she wants Ampersand, and now it’s Allison’s job to find him. Meanwhile, Yorick and 355 get mixed up in the Japanese mafia, which is now being run by a coked up former Canadian pop star named Epiphany who has an unnatural attachment to Ampersand.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 9 — “Motherland”(★★★★)

This is the one where we get all the answers. Vol. 10 is reserved for thematic and emotional cleanup, and Vol. 9 tells us the rest. Turns out Y is not the last man, he’s one of two, and the other is Allison’s father, Dr. Matsumori. He claims that it was his act of cloning Allison — not himself — that brought on the plague . . . and he’s determined to finish the job. Both Matsumori and Toyota are taken care of in the end, but not before 355 is gravely injured. Allison’s mother patches her up, but she won’t be able to have any kids. This doesn’t seem to be an issue until Allison points out that she’s in love with Yorick, and has been for quite some time. But 355 keeps it to herself, and she and Yorick head to Paris to look for Beth, not knowing that Other Beth, Beth, Jr. (Yorick’s daughter), and Hero are also headed there. Allison and Rose stay behind, as it’s now Allison’s duty to mankind to repopulate the Earth with Yorick clones until she can perfect the cure to the plague and bring back other men from the dead, clone-style.

[Review continued here . . .]

Vol. 10 — “Whys and Wherefores” (★★★★)

This is just the saddest fucking thing. I can’t even . . . it gets sadder every fucking time I read it.

Yorick the 17th: So this is it, huh?
Yorick the 1st: What’s that?
Yorick the 17th: You know, growing old. All I have to look forward to is pain and misery . . . and heartbreak.
Yorick the 2st: No. No, first comes boyhood. You get to play with soldiers and spacemen, cowboys and ninjas, pirates and robots. But before you know it, all that comes to an end. And then, Remo Williams, is when the adventure begins.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?

Fucking hell.

[Review continued here . . .]

Individual star ratings are indicated above, but as a whole series, five stars. Excuse me while I go cry into a pillow.

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #09: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Target: China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Weird Fantasy, Psychological Horror, Bas-Lag

From the first convoluted, rambling monologue to the final disturbing image, Perdido Street Station is a novel that tries to get into your head.  The language is dense, the subjects are macabre and the book drips with the some of the most disturbing nightmares to every crawl onto the page.  While the masses still think of fantasy as the bright nostalgia of knights, elves and evil vanquished, Miéville has crafted a world that bypasses our ego and plunges straight into the id, grabbing hold of the brainstem and refusing to let go.

Read the rest of the review…

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