Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “science fiction”

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #39: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Target: Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata

Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Expanded Continuity

Having reviewed more than half of Banks’ excellent Culture novels, I’m getting to a point where I’ve run out of things to say.  The Hydrogen Sonata continues the series’ exploration of the galactic metacivilization called the Culture with the same strong storytelling and eye for humor.  The themes Banks is exploring are natural extensions of those we found in Look to Windward and Excession.  Of course, the problem with consistency, even good consistency, is that it is boring to read about.

The Hydrogren Sonata focuses primarily on the problems faced by a society preparing to ‘Sublime.’  If you’re not familiar with Banks’ terminology, Subliming is a process that civilizations, or extremely advanced AIs, undergo to abandon the material world and become creatures of pure energy and thought.  The exact nature of the Sublime realm is appropriately mysterious, but most if not all of the players in galactic civilization see it as a natural step in the evolution of a species.  Of course, removing an entire culture from the universe is far from a simple process.  The Gzilt have spent centuries preparing for the transition, and now, days before they will make the transition, some unexpected problems have cropped up.

Read the rest of the review…

Read Fofo’s reviews of the Culture books

Sophia’s #CBR4 Review #22: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent (2012) is Veronica Roth’s second book in her Divergent trilogy. I had some issues with Roth’s character and plot development in Divergent (2011), but it was still interesting enough that I knew I would finish this series.

And so what do I think of this second novel?

TylerDFC #CBR4 Review 23 #Cloud Atlas by #David Mitchell

As I write this the eagerly anticipated Wachowski siblings/Tom Tykwer film version of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, is still two weeks from premiering.  As such the book has only a precious few more days where it can stand on it’s own and escape comparison with the movie. A hoary old cliche in film criticism is “The book was better .” There are scant few books where the film IS better, and that list is very subjective. My personal list would include Jaws, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner). It’s not that these novels are bad, most are quite good, but the movies do a better job thematically condensing the same material and making for a more intense and emotional experience.  Without having seen the movie, I have a feeling Cloud Atlas is going to fall in to that grouping as well.

Cloud Atlas is an easy book to admire and an enjoyable read, but it’s hard to love it. The six stories that make up the book are not so much interlocked as they are chained together. It begins in the 1800’s on a voyage from New Zealand to San Francisco. Midway through the story the narrative ends abruptly, literally in the middle of a sentence. The next story begins immediately. It is an epistolary using only the letters of a young composer in the 1930’s, Robert Frobisher,  to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. In the letters he mentions finding half of a diary in the home of a famous composer named Ayrs that he has taken a job with. Frobisher, while in an affair with Ayrs’ wife,  becomes obsessed with completing a piece he has called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. From there the book moves to 1979 and a young reporter, Luisa Rey, is investigating safety violations at a nuclear reactor. Her primary source is Rufus Sixsmith. After he is murdered she discovers the letters from Robert Frobisher, and becomes intrigued by the Cloud Atlas Sextet and tries to track it down. This continues to the story of a publisher held against his will in a sinister senior home, a clone in a corporate run future Korea giving a visual affidavit for her part in a revolution, and finally to a far flung future Hawaii where human kind has reverted back to savage and warring tribes after a never explained “Fall”.

Got all that?

The biggest handicap of the book is also it’s greatest gimmick. The first 5 stories are all begun and take up about 30-40 pages before breaking off and starting the next one. The final story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is told in its entirety and then each story is finished in reverse order, ending with the last half of the diary. The problem with this device is that it is difficult to get invested in the characters and what is happening to them. There are hints that these people in each different time are reincarnations of the previous characters. Locations overlap, scenes have echos from story to story, but its never exactly clear what the connections are supposed to be inferred. The last half of the book arrives in a rush as the loop is closed on each story one by one. As the individual narratives end each character finds the missing piece of the next adjoining narrative and ends their tale by watching or reading the next story in the sequence.

By the end there is some expectation of an event that is going to tie the whole thing together. However, as opposed to a narrative finale, Mitchell instead focuses on a thematic one. There are multiple themes that interlock the 6 stories, but the primary one is that in all of these stories a visitor is saved by a native. Each story features a villain who uses their powers, whether they are monetary or authoritarian, to subjugate other characters through violence or subterfuge. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas seems to say that across times and lives the struggle against tyranny in all forms is a human constant. Where the novel falters is in making an impact on the reader when that tyranny overwhelms the heroes. Instead of being emotionally involved I found myself trying to see the narrative tie to what came before and after. Quite honestly this is more of a criticism on me as the reader than on Mitchell. I don’t think he ever set out to tell a “tie every bow” interlocked story but to express a philosophy and use 6 separate stories to underline the similarities between them all.

Structurally, the book runs in to trouble by mixing “reality” with “fiction”. When it is revealed that the publisher is reading a novel about Luisa Rey it calls in to question the reincarnation element in the book. How can a fictional character be the reincarnation of a real one? One theory I have is that this is not about reincarnated souls, but archetypes. Each of the 6 stories is wildly different in setting and tone. A story of treachery on the high seas, a drawing room drama, a corporate corruption thriller, a comedic farce, a science fiction story, and finally the post apocalyptic adventure. Yet each of these characters at the center all share a narrative similarity. These are all strangers in strange lands. Is Mitchell really commenting on the recycled nature of characters in all levels of fiction? That each genre, no matter how maligned, can still be “literature” and all fiction is really telling the same, hopeful story of good triumphing over evil? Cloud Atlas doesn’t really lend itself one way or the other but I think it’s a viable theory.

Cloud Atlas is a dazzling achievement that just doesn’t quite bring the lofty themes and ambitious devices together. Still, I highly recommend it, as there are very few novels quite like it. What you get out of it is likely going to be subjective from reader to reader. This is a very complex book and more schooled readers of literature than myself will likely hit on things I didn’t grasp the first time through. For instance the number 6 in multiple variants repeats over and over throughout the novel. Is this a biblical reference to Genesis and the mythological 6 days it took to create the cosmos? Maybe. I’m sure a second read through will reveal even more connections and thematic ties.

The core of Cloud Atlas is solid and the stories are entertaining but the emotional element was lacking for me. It is for that reason I can’t wait to see how they adapted the book to film and if the filmmakers were able to nail the emotional component while preserving the thematic elements. I’m hopeful that not only will Tykwer and the Wachowskis dazzle us with the narrative acrobats but they will also stick the landing taking Cloud Atlas from a good adaptation to a classic.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #32: The Road to Mars by Eric Idle

My love for Monty Python is pretty boundless, so it’s nearly as hard for me to be objective about Eric Idle’s The Road to Mars as it was for me to look at Simon Pegg’s book objectively.  It’s clearly not great literature, but I went into knowing that and enjoyed it for what it was.

The novel is narrated by a greedy professor who has stumbled upon a manuscript about comedy written by the robot servant of two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby.  Carlton posits that Muscroft and Ashby fit the classic model of comedy duos in which one man, the “white face,” plays the long-suffering straight man, while the “red nose” plays the fool.  Carlton describes his adventures with Muscroft and Ashby as they travel the universe and eventually land a gig on a mega-spaceship.  Things go predictably screwball, and along the way, Idle manages to get a few digs in a John Cleese.  It makes me a bit sad to know that all the Pythons aren’t living happily together somewhere dressing up as women and making dirty jokes, but the novel comes across as light-hearted and mostly funny.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel to everyone, but it’s a good little read for those of us who still miss Monty Python.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #30: Blackout by Connie Willis

My school’s librarian suggested Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog to me last autumn, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I picked up Blackout simply because it was by the same author, even though I knew nothing of the story.  I liked it a great deal, but I wish I’d known it was part one of a two-part novel before I began.  If I didn’t already have a stack of books checked out from the library, I would have gone back immediately to get the second half of this story, so that’s a good sign, but I wish this novel had some sort of resolution.

Blackout, like To Say Nothing of the Dog, is set in Oxford in a future in which time travel is possible but is utilized primarily by historians who travel back in time to witness historic events to see if they really happened as reported in history books.  After some fumbling about with safety procedures, the historians have discovered that history has some built-in methods of protecting itself.  For example, the “drop” that opens when a historian lands in another time and place from his or her own won’t work if someone is around to see it.  Instead, history will divert the historian to another nearby spot or to a slightly different time to keep the contemporaries from witnessing the time traveler.  This process is known as slippage.  Similarly, drops won’t open to allow a historian to back to his/her own time if someone is around to see them, so the time travel gurus have to make sure that drops open periodically (say, every half hour or so on Wednesdays) so that the time traveler has plenty of opportunities to step back into the “net” and return home without being seen.  As Blackout opens, increasing slippage in some drops has caused a bit of concern in Oxford, but historians are still coming and going through time.  The novel focuses on three time travelers in particular, Mike, Eileen, and Polly, who have all gone back to the 1940s.  Eileen (whose real name is Merope) has been working as maid/nanny at a country estate that has taken in London children during the Blitz.  Polly is working as a shop girl in London in order to witness the Blitz first-hand.  As a historian, she has knowledge of all the strikes during the time she’s supposed to be on assignment, so she can stay safe through the mayhem.  Mike poses as an American newspaperman and goes to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk.  Each of the three does something that may have an impact on history, and they each discover, to their horror, that their drops won’t open for them as scheduled.  Hoping to find an open drop, Mike and Eileen both make their way to London and meet up with Polly, only to find that they are trapped in the past.  Together, the three must do their best to survive the Blitz, work to support themselves, and try to find another way back to the future.

The novel is long, but it reads fairly quickly, and I found myself especially fascinated by the descriptions of the Blitz.  I was aware of it, of course, but I don’t think I had ever really thought about what it would mean to live through bombing raids until I read this book.  It felt completely believable in its awfulness, and I was really disappointed to reach the end of the novel only to find that it is a two-parter.  I’m sure I’ll read the second half soon to find out what happens to the characters.

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #78 The Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer Bradley

In Exile’s Song, Margaret Alton returned to the world of her birth, found the love of her life, discovered her hereditary psychic powers knows as laran, defeated a legendary Keeper  and brought  a strange Shadow Matrix back from her adventures in the overworld… permanently bonded into the flesh of her hand.

The Shadow Matrix continues the adventures of Lew Alton’s headstrong daughter and her efforts to find her place in Darkovan society.  Her Federation education and independence had already caused some conservative members of the Comyn council to regard her with distrust, but the fact that she and the Heir to Regis Hastur have fallen in love makes them a very powerful and politically dangerous combination to boot.  Margaret is sent off to learn how to control her powers and Mikhail Lanart-Hastur is sent to examine the unstable, unpredictable offspring of the traditional ruling family.  Both of them end up embroiled in an adventure that will not only change their lives, but potentially change the balance of Power on Darkover forever. Will this put Darkover on an even footing with the Terran Empire?  Will they ever be able to be together or will the other powerful families of Darkover keep them apart?

Read the rest on the BookHoardingDragon’s blog

Malin’s #CBR4 Review #85:Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles

This book is an eight Doctor novel, and requires very little knowledge of the TV show. If you don’t know anything about Doctor Who, the TV series, the audio plays and the many novels written, read the first four paragraphs of this review, and at least some of it will be explained. Fans of the current show should consider checking this book out, you’ll see where current show runner Steven Moffat got a whole bunch of his most well used ideas from (without ever crediting the original author).

The eight Doctor is playing chess with a UNISYC (formerly UNIT) general, when the general suddenly pulls a gun on him. The Doctor is surprised, but the general claims that the only reason no one has ever threatened him this way before, is because the various Earth governments didn’t believe he could be killed, but now they have proof. Intrigued by this, the Doctor handily escapes by diving out a window and into the hovering TARDIS outside.

The Doctor and Sam, his current companion, travel to the rain forests of what used to be Borneo, and crash an exclusive auction, where a mysterious relic is for sale to the highest bidder. Among the bidders are two UNISYC soldiers, a reanimated dead man called Trask, the Time Lord Homunculette and his companion Marie, a conceptual entity known as the Shift (who communicates with the others by rearranging writing in newspapers and the like) and two members of the Faction Paradox (a sort of twisted, evolved Time Lord culture). The auctioneer, Mr. Qixotl, is less than thrilled when the Doctor and Sam turn up (even less so when he realises who the Doctor really is), but to avoid upsetting and alarming the others, he allows them to stay.

Why is the UNISYC general so certain that the Doctor can finally be killed? What is the Relic that all these groups are willing to pay priceless sums to obtain? Who is the mysterious final bidder that Mr. Qixotl is waiting for? Why is he so worried and upset by the Doctor’s arrival at the auction?

The eighth Doctor, of course, only appears on screen in the dreadful TV movie from 1996, but has appeared in many of the novels, and about 70 of the Big Finish audio plays. Based purely on the various audio plays, he’s one of my favourite incarnations of the Doctor. This is one of my husband’s favourite Doctor Who novels, and he read it aloud to me. Like so many other good Doctor Who adventures, whether on TV or in books, it’s a classic “base under siege” novel. A group of people arrive at a location, there is an outside threat, they all have to try to make it out alive, and the Doctor is there to hopefully help them do that (but frequently ends up making whoever threatens the base more aggressive, as he has so many enemies).

I wouldn’t recommend this novel to someone who’s never watched or heard of the series at all, but if you’re a fan of the current series, especially the episodes written by Steven Moffat, then this should almost be required reading. It’s a fun, action packed story, with sections that are genuinely horrifying (at least to me, my husband didn’t seem particularly bothered).

Cross posted from my blog.

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 41: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Plot summary from Amazon:

“By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans.

Emigrées to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in.

Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.”

My enduring impression of Dick is that he is a genius when it comes to visions. The worlds he creates, the stories, the ideological conflicts — all are arresting and immediately engrossing. As a writer though, the words he puts on the page somehow fail (for me anyway) to inspire the kind of electric energy that could bring his books to the next level. That’s how it is with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story that inspired the film Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film before reading this book, you may be surprised, as I was, as to how different the book actually is. Without getting into a detailed description of all of the elements that were changed for the screenplay, I’ll just say that I think Blade Runner did a better job with Dick’s story than Dick did.

I rarely feel this way when it comes to books vs. movie adaptations, but I don’t really think this book is required reading at this point. It’s bizarre: very cold and detached, with all of the tension building to Deckard’s final showdown with the remaining androids, though the final meeting wraps up in a matter of seconds. It’s the ultimate in anti-climatic; I literally blinked and missed it and had to go back and make sure I had really just read the entire encounter in about four sentences. I don’t really have much else to say. It’s a short review for a short book.

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #77 Exile’s Song by Marion Zimmer Bradley

After the Sharra Rebellion cost him a hand and the trust of many of the ruling people of Darkover, Lew Alton left his home planet behind.  His return to Darkover, and the other events that take place in Sharra’s Exile, eventually lead Lew to being appointed to the Terran Imperial Senate as his planet’s representative, leaving Darkover behind yet again… this time with his wife Dio and the young daughter he’s only just begun to know.

Exile’s Song begins with Margaret Alton’s return to Darkover as an adult and an assistant to a renowned musicologist from the Federation University planet, sent to study local music.  Her red hair and fluency in the Darkover language make her an asset to her beloved professor, but also mark her as one of the Comyn, the Laran talented ruling families of Darkover that she knows nothing about.  After the sudden death of her mentor, Margaret Alton find herself embroiled in a web of intrigue and local politic, inheritance and latent psychic abilities that could not only change her entire future, it might also cost her her life!

The rest of the review can be read on the BookHoardingDragon ‘s blog…

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #76 Sharra’s Exile by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This was a summer for rediscovering and rereading the Darkover books in my collection.  Thanks to the Internet, I was able to read a great plot summary for The Heritage of Hastur, one of the novels still missing from my collection despite my best attempts to track down a used copy at a reasonable price.  I wanted to remind myself of the basic plot before I moved on to Sharra’s Exile.

Sharra’s Exile covers a pivotal time in the history of Darkover and the planet’s relationship with the Terran Empire.  The books seems to stand as a bridge between Bradley’s earlier Darkover novels, each written as shorter stories about a world that she loved, and the later, thicker novels that went into much more detail about the vast world and intricate society that she’d created. This novel begins the “modern” era of Darkover.  The planet is no longer the isolated, feudal world that grew from the descendants of a lost Terran Colony.  Sharra’s Exile is about a unique world trying to find a way to belong to something bigger than itself, without losing its own identity.  Various players on both sides of the issue plot for Power above all.  When a legendary force resurfaces from an ancient Matrix Weapon, will it be used against the Terrans to drive them out or will it shake apart the very world from which it was born?

The rest of the review can be found on my BookHoardingDragon Blog

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