Thursday, November 11, 2010

Books: April to June

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in a trilogy of young adult novels. It should be right up my alley (which is a reference that seems much more relevant to me now that I've moved to an apartment in an alleyway): the series is set on a world that's been colonised by people from Earth, who have had a nasty conflict with the indigenous species, and as a result been infected with a disease that has given everybody uncontrollable telepathy. Coupled with that, the protagonist is trying to escape from the village he lives in, a village populated only by men, most of whom are homicidal patriarchal fascists.

But the book really bugged me. While the author made me care about the main character, he also stuck strongly to a first person POV coupled with a few 'unreliable narrator' tricks. As a result, I felt cheated by the frequency with which information was withheld that the main character knew (or should know), and annoyed at how often the author had to knock the main character out in order to advance the plot.

I've been on the fence about trilogies for many years now - reluctant to read them because for the most part I think they're padding. At the end of Knife, I decided not to read the next two books in the series: while the main character was trapped, indebted to the men he'd spent the whole book trying to escape - an army of men who'd just taken over the whole planet - I wasn't particularly interested in how he would get out of this situation. I just expected he would, and felt no obligation to read two more books to find out how it happened.

It took a few months, but Jenni changed my mind about this (more to come in the next book review post) ...

Reading Knife also reinforced my hatred of modern dust jackets on books. Sure, the design work that goes into a contemporary book is top notch, but I swear that the blurbs give away plot spoilers up to about page 200. It's infuriating.

Jenni lent me What's the Worst that Could Happen? It's her novel about a super-hero whose power is that she can see the worst case scenario for every course of action. I enjoyed reading it, and quickly saw the potential in it. Jenni blogged about our feedback session.

Then I organised a trans-humanist science-fiction death match. I got out two books from the library, read the first chapter of each and then chose which one to continue.

I chose Newton's Wake by Ken McLeod because its Scottish protagonist seemed to have more of an edge. It's a fairly interesting soap opera about the aftermath of a war with AIs and first contact with a distant colony, but by the end, the story was a little confusing and felt like a failure.

Then, when I switched back to Glasshouse by Charles Stross, I was impressed by how smart it was. Our hero needs to go into the 30th century equivalent of witness protection. He signs up for an experiment to recreate 20th century society, where our social and moral codes are enforced by a points system. Things quickly deteriorate as the experiment's participants decide to play to win (and ignore the fact that there's a darker agenda going on). A great examination of how our culture ticks, and a tight little thriller.

In my last book review, I mentioned that there was a book that scared me. Kindred by Octavia Butler is it. It's the story of an African-American woman from the 1970s who's thrown back in time about 150 years to the Antebellum South. What I realised is that I can watch trashy horror films and read Thomas Ligotti short stories all I like, but this story - about this character who seemed very real and very human, thrust into absolutely the worst environment for her - well, this story didn't feel safe. After the first two chapters, I had no idea where it was going or how far it could go, and I ended up putting it down.

I switched, instead, to The Bohr Maker, a science-fiction novel about nano-technology, that felt ... superficial to me in comparison to Kindred (which I was still thinking about). The story follows two protagonists - well, one of them's mostly just a character who things happen to for the majority of the book, and the other is so unsympathetic that I wouldn't have been unhappy to see him/it fail entirely. Perhaps that's a good technique ... it certainly kept the outcome I wanted the book to have alive and in question for me, but made The Bohr Maker a bit of a tough read

Afterwards, I went back to Kindred, and read another two or three chapters. Just when I thought it was settling into a predictable groove, Butler threw a massive curveball into the situation, one that I found very compelling.

After reading to see how that resolved, I had to decompress for a while. I ripped through Roadside Picnic by Stanislaw Lem. My memories of this have faded now, but I found this a tight, fast read infused with melancholy and a sense of transcendence. Actually: recommended. It felt like good Philip K. Dick.

Finally, I finished Kindred and was satisfied with how it all wrapped up. If you're familiar with the RPG Steal Away Jordan, Kindred is one of the media inspirations for that game.

The Sparrow is a definite contender for the best book I've read this year. It's a first contact story: humanity has picked up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The story follows (and deals with the aftermath of) an expedition funded by Jesuit priests to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music. What struck me most about this story was its sense of humour, the lightness of touch and sense of truth in its characterisations and the way it deals with issues of guilt, celibacy, the nature of God and faith - all wrapped in a vivid writing style. Jenni, Helen R: you might like this one.
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