Professor Jacob Wentworth is the last of his kind, the only humanities professor at the university. With his retirement at the end of the year, the humanities department will officially be closed. But when the university’s star genius student, Bryce, takes a liking for Jacob and what he can teach him, Jacob stays on indefinitely. Jacob has refused to ever use the Interface directly. He won’t put in the contacts or earbuds that open up a whole virtual world. He doesn’t want to give the Company that much control over his life. In spite of his tutelage, years later Bryce is working on improving the Interface, making it into a brain implant instead of contacts. But Bryce’s connection with Jacob has done something to him, and he finds himself distracted by building a time machine and not wanting to help the Company anymore. Together they decide to bring Abraham Lincoln to the present, replacing him with a double just moments before his death. Maybe it will take a man out of time to save the future.
When this book was submitted to me during my annual review copy open submissions, I was immediately intrigued by the combination of a dystopian future with time-travel and history. Cameron’s story didn’t disappoint. The book gives a unique flair to the concept of fighting an overpowering dystopian government with the addition of time-travel and a historical figure that makes it engaging and highly readable.
The futuristic setting is both well-imagined and evoked in a non-intrusive, showing not telling way. It is easy to relate to Jacob immediately on his walk to work, and the futuristic elements are introduced gradually. It helps that Jacob is a bit of a luddite, as it gives him a bit of an outsider’s perspective to describe things to the reader. The futuristic tech described in the book is well-imagined. High tech contact lenses are definitely the wave of the future, and jumping from that to a neural interface makes total sense. Cameron also takes into account other elements of the future beyond the science, such as climate, politics, and trends. It’s a fun world to visit in spite of it being a dystopia.
Jacob and Bryce start out a bit two-dimensional but grow to be three-dimensional over the course of the story. The addition of the female biologist who assists them manages to add both diversity and a romance, which is nice. She also much more quickly takes on a three-dimensional quality. Having her and the romance around really kick the whole story up a notch. Abraham Lincoln was probably the most difficult character to handle, since he is obviously based on a real person. He is presented respectfully, yet still as a flawed human being. When he speaks, his words are accessible yet sound just different enough to provide the reader with the consistent cue that he is a man out of time.
The plot mostly works well, moving in a logical, well thought-out manner. The end has a bit of a deus ex machina that is rather disappointing.
A main character is saved from death via time travel, thus making all of the main character “good guys” survive the battle with the Company. Stories about battles of one ideal against another are generally better if at least some casualties are had. I do not count a minor secondary character who dies, since that is akin to killing off a red shirt in Star Trek.
Some readers may be bothered by the level of anti-tech found in the book. The Interface isn’t just bad because the new neural version will give the Company control over people. It also is bad because it supposedly inhibits the development of the users’ brains, rendering them to an elementary level of intelligence. The book also strongly argues the idea that friends in virtual reality aren’t real friends, and that old tech, such as print books, are better. Even television is lauded as better than any virtual reality activity. I’m fine with not agreeing 100% with the protagonists in a story. It’s not necessary for me to enjoy it, and I appreciate seeing their perspective and the freedom fight that follows. However, this perspective may bother some readers, so they should be aware it exists within the story.
Overall, this is a well-written, original take on the idea of fighting a dystopian future with an advisor ripped out of time. The book is weakened a bit by a deus ex machina ending. Some readers may not like or enjoy the anti-tech position of the protagonists. It is still a fun frolic through a richly imagined possible future. Recommended to fans of dystopian scifi and US History.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth. Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah. In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery. They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own. They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah. This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah. Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah. When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy. When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible. This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in. It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.
This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens. It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump. The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful. Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities. May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand. The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society. She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.
The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it. Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice. A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story. In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.
The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional. The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented. I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character. She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia. I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her. She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society. However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp. I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering. I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.
Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile. Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one. Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list. The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging. Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.
4 out of 5 stars
Nobody quite knows what is wrong with Area X, but everyone has their speculations. It’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, and the government has kept precisely what is going on rather hush-hush. The government periodically sends teams in to investigate it. The narrator, a biologist, is part of Team 12. The team is entirely made up of women, based on a supposition that women are less badly effected in Area X than men. The biologist’s husband was part of Team 11. She is curious to know what happened to him but also entirely intrigued by the tunnel her team finds. She insists on calling it a tower. Through her mandatory journal, we slowly discover what may or may not be in Area X.
I picked this book up since it sounded like it would be a mix of scifi and Lovecraft style fantasy, plus it features an entirely female investigative group. Although it is an extremely interesting premise, the actual book does drag a bit.
The biologist narrates in a highly analytical way that is true to her character but also doesn’t lend itself to the building of very much tension. Since the biologist calmly narrates everything, the reader stays calm. She also, frankly, isn’t an interesting person due to this same tendency to view everything through an analytical lens. Imagine if Star Trek was 100% written by a Vulcan, and you can begin to imagine the level of ho-hum.
This narration style could have really worked if the language used was stunningly beautiful. While I think that’s probably what the author was going for, it largely missed for me. While the language was good, there was also nothing particularly special about it. I marked three passages that I enjoyed throughout the whole book. Looking back, two were extremely similar. The passage I found to be the most beautiful is:
That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you. From the outside in. Forcing you to live in its reality. (time 3:15:47)
While pretty, it’s not pretty enough to make up for the rather dull narrator.
Since the story has four women to work with, it probably would have worked better to bounce around between their four narratives. This also would have given the bonus of seeing the mysteries of Area X through multiple sets of eyes, enhancing the tension the mystery, while also giving the opportunity for a variety of narration styles.
The mystery of Area X is definitely intriguing and different from other Lovecraft style fantasies. In particular, the passage describing the terror of seeing the thing that cannot be described was particularly well-written. However, the passages describing the horror in Area X are mostly toward the end of the book and are not as well spaced-out as they could have been to help build the tension. The end of the book is definitely the most interesting and managed to heighten my interest enough that I was curious about the next book in the series.
Overall, this is a unique take on the idea of a scientific investigation of an area invaded by Lovecraft style, fantastical creatures. It features an entirely female investigative crew but unfortunately limits itself to only the narration of one overly analytical and dull biologist. Recommended to big fans of Lovecraft/fantastical invasion style fantasies. To those newly interested in the genre, I recommend checking out Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp first (review), as it is a more universally appealing take on the genre.
3 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist. People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way. But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old. When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution. There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past. For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side. The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred. When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile. Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne. This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.
Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters. People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it. May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it. Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different. The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them. It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves. Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place. These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot. I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly. However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional. I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.
The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well. One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain. This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles. It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go. Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation. My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again. Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests. Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.
Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy. Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters. The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it. This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi. Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.
4 out of 5 stars
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets. The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet. The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line. But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm. Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal. Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.
Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read. First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid. Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else. However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre. The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies. It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test. Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario. The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.
Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned. Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences. People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science. I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade. It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.
All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely. Budrys evokes setting and tensity well. I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film. Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent. He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations. The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended. There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.
Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)
Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed. It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today. A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness. SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering. The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored. Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs. Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.
Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time. He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter. So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.
Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen. He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip. The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book. I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it. In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.
Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal). It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets. One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator. He features both sorts of main character. This intrigued me from the beginning. However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller. For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard. I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair. This really slows the plot down.
On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard. The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot. Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not). I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading. I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir. But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir. The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.
In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot. In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important. When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers. If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals. I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs. Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal. There’s a lot more options in the world than that. Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games. There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art. Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form. I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs. At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.
I also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky. SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable. That’s not how diseases work. Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other. Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless). Think about swine flu. The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1. Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak. This isn’t fiction based in true science.
One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay. He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot. I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper. It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.
Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace. The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.” One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see. Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.
2 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh (Audiobook narrated by Kevin T. Collins, Eileen Stevens, and Ali Ahn)
In the future, you can live forever. But only if you can afford to pay to be medically resurrected and any injuries sustained fixed. The rest put everything they have into freezing insurance, getting cryogenically frozen in the hopes that one day, someday, they might get resurrected. At the very least, they wont’ die. But beautiful women who die too young (and too not filthy rich) get a different sort of a second chance. They get awoken and given the choice of going into the cryogenic dating facility. Men will come through and pay to wake them up and talk to them, and if they fall for them, they’ll pay to have them resurrected and their injuries healed.
In this world, three different, yet intertwined stories are told. There’s Rob. A once-musician who accidentally struck and killed a jogger in the middle of his break-up with his reality star-esque wealthy girlfriend. He proceeds to take out a loan to visit the jogger to apologize but slowly the guilt turns into something more. Then there’s Veronika, a dating coach with a bad case of unrequited love and a need to feel like she’s doing some good in the world. And finally, Mira. A lesbian who was placed into the heterosexual cryogenic dating pool back at the beginning before they bothered to wake the women and ask them if they wanted to be there.
I was immediately intrigued by this book’s premise and then realized I’d already read another scifi book by Will McIntosh and enjoyed it. That book, Soft Apocalypse (review), is actually set in the same universe as this one. Although they’re not a series, technically, Love Minus Eighty takes place a bit in the future after the events described in Soft Apocalypse. I enjoyed the future imagined there, so was happy to return to it once again to see where things have gone since everything fell apart for Earth. And oh my have they taken an interesting turn.
The future is a near dystopic mess of most of the wealth being in the hands of the few. While some people have foregone civilization to live off the land, the rest of the have-nots spend their time in body suits, called systems, that are basically like a full-bodied smartphone. They reminded me a bit of Google Glass. Their systems filter out all the unsightly aspects of where they live, including garbage, and they also block pop-up ads that otherwise accost you on the street. Everyone pours their little bit of money into their systems because without one you fall entirely off the social stratum. This is already creative enough to be intriguing, but then McIntosh tosses in this idea that cryogenics and resurrection has been figured out but only the wealthy can afford to be resurrected and everyone else pours all the rest of their money into freezing insurance. Then we get the cryogenic dating program aka bridesicles, and oh wow. Any scifi reader can see what an interesting setting this is.
On top of this setting, McIntosh weaves three different, yet ultimately intertwined narrators. It’s a narrative structure I enjoy but only when done well, and McIntosh mostly pulls it off. Some things sometimes felt a bit like too much of a coincidence, but for the most part the intertwining made sense. All three narrators have unique voices and perspectives. They are well-rounded with flaws, even Mira, who is frozen a lot of the time, but they also are still likable.
The plot is complex and truly had me on the edge of my seat for the last third of the book. I was rooting for the characters and did not know what would happen. An unpredictable, yet satisfying, ending plays in perfectly with the plot.
I am of two minds about the presence of Mira in the story. On the one hand, I appreciate that McIntosh took the time to think about how the heteronormativity of the bridesicle program could affect a lesbian. On the other hand, it frustrates me that she and her girlfriend have their agency removed and spend most of the story frozen and at the whim of the heterosexual people around them. Having lesbians rescued by the straight folks just kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I sort of wish there had been some modern day queer person who helped them out in some way. That was the other thing that bothered me. The only queer presence was from the past in the form of Mira and her frozen girlfriend. In such a sweeping narrative with so many characters that is also set in a city, it seems odd to me we never encountered another queer character. Particularly when one of the main characters is a dating coach.
The narration of the audiobook was wonderful. Having a different voice for each narrator really helped keep the stories straight, and each of the narrators did a wonderful job bringing their characters to life.
Overall, this book presents a richly imagined near-dystopian scifi future that gets the reader to think about if living afraid of death is truly living. The three-narrator structure lends a complexity to the plot that keeps it engaging and consistently moving forward. One of the plot choices might rub some readers the wrong way, but if the world building and narrative structure appeal, it shouldn’t be much of an issue. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy a city setting and some romance.
4 out of 5 stars
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books. It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole. These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another. Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.
In the not-too-distant future, the heavily populated world is run by corporations instead of governments. The corps keep their workers and people in Compounds where they’ll be safe from the rampant crime in the rest of the world. Supposedly. Those who can’t get jobs at a corp must live in the pleeblands, essentially ghettoes. The pleeblands are haunted by painballers–people who fought their way out of prison in a gladiator-style competition and who are usually now addicted to drugs.
The world isn’t entirely humans and corps, though. There are also a whole slew of new GMO plants and animals, such as rakunks and pigoons. Children can buy bracelets with live fish inside them as wearable pets.
Jimmy works in a corp with Crake. Crake is a genius who the corp allows to create basically whatever he wants. They share a love interest in Oryx, who works with them, caring for the creations Crake makes. Toby lives in the pleeblands, working in fast food restaurants. She is being pursued by a violent stalker, who she is sure will kill her one day. Then she discovers God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that lives on the rooftops of the city gardening, learning all the species of the planet, and preparing for the impending End Times. And the End Times come in the form of a virus released by Crake to destroy humanity and make room for the new breed of humans he has created in his lab–Crakers. Crakers are herbivorous, polyamorous, and turn blue when they are in heat. The pandemic wipes out almost everyone, but not quite. Jimmy is left to care for the Crakers, and Toby survives, reminiscing about how her life has gone. And there are some that Crake gave an immunity drug to. They gather together and attempt to survive, guide the Crakers, and ponder on how things turned out this way.
The future world, prior to the virus outbreak that destroys most human life, is incredibly imaginative and simultaneously realistic. It is by far the strength of the series. Atwood takes real modern day science and intelligently extrapolates how that combined with our evolving culture would affect life on Earth. The change from politicians and nations controlling the world to corporations doing so makes excellent sense. The types of animals those corps create are also logical both within that context and from a scientific perspective. For instance, the mo’hairs are sheep who have had their genetics modified so that their wool is instead human hair to makes wigs out of. How the world works makes sense and is slightly frightening at the same time. It’s a subtle dystopia.
The post-apocalyptic setting is slightly less creative. Only a few humans survive and quickly leave the cities to live in the countryside. Conveniently, at least half of the group of survivors are from the vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who predicted the end times, and so are well prepared for living in the wild. This setting is much staler compared to the pre-apocalypse dystopia. It feels as if the characters are just sitting in a clearing in the woods chatting at each other. This would not be a problem if the characters were rich enough to sustain the plot when the creative world has disappeared. But most of them are not.
Atwood is known for writing richly imagined female characters in scifi settings. Unfortunately, this series is dominated by men, with the women mostly relegated to secondary roles, with the exception of Toby. Toby starts out strong, and the book focusing on her story (The Year of the Flood) is the strongest of the series as well. But in the post-apocalyptic setting, Toby loses all of her vim and three-dimensionality. She becomes a woman obsessed with a man and pining for things she can’t have. The male characters who dominate the story lack anything compelling. Crake reads precisely as a slightly creepy genius. Jimmy is difficult to get to know since he spends most of the series narrating when he is out of his mind from the effects of the apocalypse. And Zeb reads as a muscled thug who comes to his senses when it best suits him. None of these male characters show real breadth or true humanity. They could have carried the story well, although I would still have missed the strong female presence Atwood brings to scifi. However, these men seem more like caricatures of types of men we meet throughout our lives.
The plot is clearly meant to show us how the world could be destroyed and also how new life begins, complete with religious mythology. Some of the plot twists that go with this core of the plot work and others don’t. For the world destroying, the plot approaches it in two ways. There’s telling how the world ends from an outsider, underprivileged perspective of a woman who happens to survive. This aspect of the plot had enough twists and differences, such as Toby’s involvement in the God’s Gardeners cult, that it maintained interest. The plot also tells how the world ends from the perspective of a man caught in a hopeless hetero love triangle with a kind woman and an evil genius. This common trope takes no different plot twists or turns. It is entirely predictable and dull. A bit of a flop. The twists in the final third of the story, how the world begins and the last of the prior world fades out with a murmur, does nothing truly daring. Toby’s romance ends essentially as expected. Loose ends are tied up. And the Crakers take over with a new mythology given to them by a flawed human being. I’m sure this is meant to say something radical, and maybe someday to someone it will, but to the reader who has already read many thinly veiled take-downs of religion and where it comes from in scifi, it was rather ho-hum and long-winded. Particularly when compared to the much shorter and more richly written work by Atwood taking a similar anti-religion stance: The Handmaid’s Tale.
Overall, this is a series with two-thirds of the plot set in a richly imagined and intelligently extrapolated subtle dystopia future. The basic plot of dystopia to apocalypse to post-apocalypse is told slightly non-linearally with some interesting poetic-style writing inserted in-between chapters. Most of the characters feel flat against the rich backdrop, although one female character at first stands out then slowly fades. Recommended to readers interested in a realistic near future dystopia who don’t mind a rather typical plot and two-dimensional characters will enjoy most of the series, although they may enjoy the first two books more than the third.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Source: PaperBackSwap, library, and Audible
A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest. Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet. The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate. While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth. Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.
This is the third book from the collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley, which I will review as a whole at a future date. I was surprised that a book that is fourth in its series was included in the collection. Upon investigation, I discovered that this series isn’t surrounding a certain set of events or characters but instead is multiple books around a similar theme. The theme for the series is each book deals with some aspect of the price of knowledge. So each book works as a standalone as well. There is also some disagreement as to precisely what book is what number in the series. I have chosen to use the number used by GoodReads. I had previously read a scifi book with a Jesuit priest scientist visiting a newly found planet (The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, review) and loved it, so I was excited to see a similar idea executed differently. Unfortunately, I found that this book lacked the nuance and subtlety that made The Sparrow such a lovely read.
Ruiz-Sanchez is a rather two-dimensional character who quickly turns into a bumbling priest trope. Very little attention is paid to his credentials as a scientist within the story, so instead of coming to know Ruiz-Sanchez the scientist, the man, and the priest, we only know him in his priest role. This prevents a connection or even a basic understanding of his rather bizarre concerns. Whereas in The Sparrow, the priest wonders how a new planet can be covered by salvation and has a meaningful crisis of faith, in A Case of Conscience, the priest is just busy seeing demons and Satan and the Anti-Christ everywhere in such a bizarre, unbelievable manner that he may as well be holding an end of the world sign on a street corner. It’s almost impossible to connect with him on this level unless the reader also has a tendency to see illusions of Satan and the end of the world everywhere they look.
The plot is fascinating, although it does jump around a lot. Essentially there’s the part on Lithia, which primarily consists of discourse between the scientists. Then there’s the development of the Lithian child into an adult who doesn’t fit anywhere, since he lacked the social training on Lithia and also is a reptilian humanoid on planet Earth. He then starts to incite rebellion among the youth. Meanwhile, Ruiz-Sanchez is told by the Pope that he committed an act of heresy and he must re-win favor by stopping the Anti-Christ aka the Lithian on Earth. All of the settings are fascinating, and the plot is certainly fast-paced. However, the plot is so far-fetched that it is difficult to properly suspend disbelief for it.
The settings are the strength of the book. Lithia is well-imagined, with uniqueness from Earth in everything from technology to how the Lithians handle child-rearing. The tech involves trees since they lack minerals, and the child-rearing is non-existent. The Lithians are simply birthed then allowed to develop on the planet, similar to turtles on Earth. Earth’s setting is interestingly imagined as well. The fear of nuclear weapons has driven humans to live underground for generations with only the elite living above ground, and the UN working hard to keep it that way. It’s a fun mix of alternate alien civilization and dystopia.
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences. It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created. However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars