Amy is 5 year old robot. An exact replica–iteration–of her mother, who is in a relationship with a human male. Her parents are restricting her food to raise her slowly at a human child’s pace instead of at a robot’s. But when her grandmother shows up to her kindergarten graduation and threatens her mother, things go haywire. It quickly becomes apparent that the failsafe that makes robots love humans innately and makes them incapable of withstanding seeing violence against humans has failed to activate in Amy. She finds herself full-grown and on the run from humans and her robot aunts alike as she struggles to figure out who she is and what her existence means to humanity.
Artificial Intelligence/Robot books tend to take a bit more to draw me in than say a zombie book. It’s really hard to do AI in a way that is simultaneously scientifically/culturally believable and unique. Frankly, I need a bit more believability in an AI book than in a zombie one, since AI is real science. Plus, the book should examine their cultural place in the world, and that needs to be believable. I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right. It’s enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.
The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator). A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus’ Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help. Clearly, the Second Coming didn’t happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry. As a character says to Amy:
There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you. (location 1944)
This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I’ve seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary. The Von Neumanns originated as a religious experiment, were swiped by the military and the porn industry, and became a part of everyday life. It’s just an awesome origin story for the world that Amy is in.
The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional. Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time. No one is presented as pure evil or good.
The plot is similarly complex. There’s a lot going on in Amy’s world, and none of it is predictable. What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing? Is it a natural progression that it doesn’t work in Amy? What about how Amy’s mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them? Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning? And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann’s? For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them. Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine? The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.
What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting. Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape? Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or “programming”? Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices. Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family? All of these questions lead to some interesting stand-offs, one of which includes my favorite quote of the book:
An iteration isn’t a copy, Mother. It’s just the latest version. I’m your upgrade. That’s why I did what I did. Because I’m just better than you. (location 2581)
All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me. First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn’t jibe with the story for me. I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren’t ones that generally work for me. Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot’s boobs don’t move. This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not. This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously. I’m sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs. Their boobs would bounce, dammit. This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements. It simply wasn’t a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.
Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family. Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you’re an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.
4 out of 5 stars
In near future Michigan, a geneticist is murdered by his pet caline–a new pet created by gene splicing to have all the best characteristics of dogs and cats combined and guaranteed to be docile. His widow doesn’t believe that their beloved pet could possibly have done the killing so she hires private investigator Aidra Scott to prove her innocence. But as Aidra digs deeper into the mystery she finds far more intrigue than the possibility of a framed pet. This intrigue could rock a nation already debating geneticism.
I was intrigued primarily by the idea of calines. As an animal lover I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a caline. While the calines are pulled off well, they are not the focus of the book. This is definitely a near future scifi mystery, and it’s well-done.
The plot is a typical murder mystery with a twist. The pet is possibly framed, and the pet was created in a lab by geneticists. While I had my suspicions about whodunit early on, I must admit I wasn’t entirely right, plus there was an added twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. The plot will definitely keep you reading, even if you’ve read a lot of mysteries.
That said, there was at least one dead-end in the plot that I found frustrating. Aidra goes to visit the fringe group that protests genetic manipulation and gets tossed out on her ass, but we never really find out why the group was so hostile or much else about that angle into the whole thing really. Between that and the twist at the end, I was left wondering if a follow-up novel is intended, although all signs indicate the authors don’t intend to write one. If they don’t, I must say I found that the plot left me hanging a bit.
The main character is a single mother of a young teenage boy. This is different from what we see in a lot of mystery, and I enjoyed the new perspective. The cast was also quite diverse, which is appropriate for the setting. The characters were fairly well-rounded for a mystery novel. One thing that did bug me is that some Britishisms slipped into the American text. Long-time readers know that this is an issue that really bugs this particular reviewer. The authors (M. H. Mead is a pen-name for a pair of writers) try to explain this away by mentioning that Aidra is originally from the UK. While that explains some of her own Britishisms, it doesn’t explain why they sneak into the narration.
Overall, this is a fun scifi mystery. It consists of an interesting germ of an idea with a few plot twists to keep the reader guessing. It could use a few more tweaks, but fans of the mystery genre will enjoy it.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy provided by authors in exchange for my honest review.
When the aliens landed, they ignored humanity. Stopping briefly on their way somewhere else. Leaving behind mysterious random detritus, much like the remains left behind a roadside picnic. Redrick happened to live in one of the towns visited, and as a result has become a stalker. He sneaks into the Zone to gather alien artifacts to sell on the black market. Soon his whole life–and those of everyone in the town–becomes dominated by the Zone.
When I saw that this was Russian scifi from the Soviet era, I knew that I needed to pick it up, if for no other reason than that I’d never seen any before. This new print has been returned to the authors’ original vision, with the heavy edits (really, censorship) removed. It also starts with an introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin. I want to highlight one thing she says about scifi that I think truly illuminates its power.
Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind. (location 22)
Scifi provides an opportunity for writers and readers to remove the shackles of whatever society they are currently living in and imagine the other. I think that’s a very powerful tool, and I commend the Strugatsky brothers for utilizing it in such a way from behind the Iron Curtain. They had to fight for years to get some version of this book published, in spite of being well-known and respected authors. That is a commitment to their art that is truly admirable. Now, on to the review of the actual book.
The germ of the idea is truly brilliant and is immediately clear. This idea of an alien race stopping by for a picnic, essentially, and ignoring humanity like so many ants. It’s so different from the more egotistical interpretation of alien visitations that we usually see. The book was worth the read for that alone. The early scenes are vivid and clearly establish this post-visitation situation where the Zone the aliens landed in is uninhabitable, and the government and scientists are trying to study it while stalkers sneak in (at great risk to their lives) to extract artifacts for the black market. Similarly, the artifacts that the stalkers (and government) find and bring out of the Zone are wonderfully imagined. It is easy to see that the authors probably knew exactly what the aliens used the items for whereas the characters in the book are clueless. Trying to find any use they can for them.
The book though is truly about Redrick. It uses the scifi setting to explore this man who really just wants to escape the rat race and have a comfortable life with his family. He chooses to attempt to be his own boss by being a stalker in the Zone and is repeatedly thrown in prison for it. We never really see him as a whole man, since we only saw him after the Zone. It is as if the presence of the Zone gave him hope, and the repeated failures slowly rob him of his life energy.
My whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling, me, through shit, through jails, through bars…Enough! (location 2295)
In spite of this excellent set-up and interesting character arc, the book didn’t fully satisfy me. I found Redrick difficult to sympathize with. He thinks he is a slave to the system, but really he is choosing to be a slave to money. He could have left the town and the Zone behind multiple times to go live a life with his family, but he doesn’t. I understand others might interpret his freedom of movement differently from me, but that is how I saw his situation. It seems most of his problems come from a love of not just money but a love of wealth. So although I periodically sympathized with what he was saying, I didn’t ultimately sympathize with him.
What I truly found disappointing though was the ending. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that while the rest of the book was realistic scifi, couched in darkness and despair, the ending was surprisingly positive in a deus ex machina manner. It felt like a real cop-out, particularly compared to the rest of the book. Whereas most everything else was innovative, this was generic, ho-hum, and disappointing. While I was still glad to have experienced Redrick’s world, the ending kept the book from truly grasping me or blowing my mind.
Overall, then, this book is an important piece of both Russian and scifi literature. It has enough uniqueness of setting to it to keep the well-versed reader of both genres interested but beware that the main character might not be entirely sympathetic, and the ending is a bit disappointing. Recommended to fans of Russian or scifi literature.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Jack Halloway–disbarred lawyer now contracted prospector on the planet Zarathustra–just wants to collect his massive amount of money from discovering a large sunstone vein. He seems to be doing fairly well at finagling ZaraCorp into giving him the sizable portion of the profits that he totally deserves, but one day some local creatures that he dubs Fuzzies invite themselves into his home. Small and cat-like, only with hands, the Fuzzy family quickly endear themselves to him. When he shows them to his ex-girlfriend, a biologist, she starts to suspect that they are sentient. And sentience would mean a cessation of all mining on the planet. What’s a morally ambiguous guy to do?
I picked this up for three reasons. 1) It was on sale at Audible. 2) I read John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream and found it hilarious. 3) It’s narrated by Wil Wheaton. It is certainly an entertaining read, but I must admit it was not quite up to the level that I was expecting from a Scalzi/Wheaton collaboration.
This book is interestingly a reimagining of a YA series written in the 1960s (starting with Little Fuzzy). I have not read the original but I can tell you that this is not a YA book. It is definitely your more general adult scifi. Scalzi explains this as a tradition in scifi movies and tv shows that he thinks should also be carried out in books.
Scalzi’s writing is humorous, although, with the exception of the first couple of chapters, not to the laugh out loud level found in The Android’s Dream. I particularly enjoy how good he is at giving personality to non-human characters, such as the Fuzzies and Jack’s dog. The first half of the book is hilarious and well-plotted, complete with adorable aliens, a dog who can trigger explosives, and velociraptor-like native creatures to add to the danger factor. The second half of the book, though, falls into this void of courtroom proceedings. I know some people enjoy reading that, but it felt so stark and lacking in life compared to the much more fun first half that included things like the Fuzzies making sandwiches from Jack’s limited Earth supplies. I’m not really a courtroom procedural reader myself, and frankly the two halves of the book almost felt like two separate books entirely. I’m not sure what else could be done, though, since the basic plot is proving the sentience of the Fuzzies, which given the parameters of the world that this takes place in, can basically only happen in the courtroom.
As an animal rights advocate, I appreciated the basic storyline that just because you can’t hear creatures communicating doesn’t mean they don’t have relationships and caring amongst themselves. I wasn’t a fan of the way that sentience was determined with such a human bias or that killing a Fuzzy is only considered truly heinous if it is established that they are sentient. I would have preferred an ultimate conclusion rejecting speciesism, rather than the quite conservative focus on proving the human-like qualities of the Fuzzies.
Wil Wheaton’s narration was great for the first half of the book. It’s Wil Wheaton. If you’re not sure if his acting style is for you, just look up his scenes in The Big Bang Theory. I found his narration very similar to his appearances there. My one complaint is a bit of a spoiler, so consider yourself warned. His voice for Papa Fuzzy really grated on my nerves. It was just so….blech. And not adorable Fuzzy-like. Otherwise though, he’s a good match for Scalzi’s work.
I don’t often comment on the cover, but I must say that I don’t think that this cover does the book justice. I particularly dislike it when a cover tries to draw out an alien creature that frankly comes across as much more adorable within the book. Also, even the background of the planet itself doesn’t look right.
Overall, this is a witty piece of scifi with adorable alien creatures that call to mind websites like Cute Overload. I recommend it to fans of scifi who also enjoy some courtroom proceedings in their reading.
4 out of 5 stars
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books. This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism. Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1953 to 1956. The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:
The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1953)–In the future the entire world runs on the basis of consumerism, and ad men have risen to the top of the heap, above even the president. Courtenay is one of these ad men whose agency is assigned colonizing Venus. Soon, Courtnay finds himself in a battle of minds and more with the Consies–the Conservationists who want to save the people and the planet from consumerism.
More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)–A village idiot finds himself caring for twins with teleportation abilities, a precocious little girl with telekinesis powers, a baby with Down’s Syndrome, and a boy who he found near to death on the street. What they can accomplish together could change the entire world.
The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)–After nuclear war destroyed all cities and broke down society’s ability to depend on technology, the survivors turned to the Amish and Mennonites to learn a new way. Now everyone is following a simple lifestyle religion of one variety or another but there are rumors that somewhere is a place called Bartorstown that still follows the old, sinful ways.
The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (1956)–A married WWII vet with a young daughter discovers that he is shrinking by 1/7 of an inch a day.
This is my second Library of America read, and I think I’m officially addicted. There’s something delightful about burying yourself in a topic or theme of American literature complete with useful notes that are not overwhelming but still give you enough background knowledge to come away with more than just the joy of reading the books but some understanding of the time period and genre. Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I will review the books individually but first I want to say that any Library of America book is always worth your time. Just be sure to choose a topic or author that interests you.
The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
This was my favorite book in the collection by far. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it is basically Mad Men IN SPACE. What is not to love about that?! In addition to that, it can sometimes be difficult to be sucked in by older scifi because even if the theme or ideas it addresses was new in its time, I’m from a later time and have heard it a million times already. This book somehow manages to be unique in spite of all the books about a future awash in consumerism that I’ve read. I think what gives it the unique edge is the dual focus on advertising and the conservationist movement. Also the relationship between the main character and his doctor wife is progressive and refreshing. She is smart, her own person, has her own career and ideas, and she is still depicted in a positive light. Also the idea of a trial marriage is essentially the couple living together before getting married, which was surprising to see in something from the 1950s. It also manages to be witty while addressing hard-hitting issues. It’s the perfect scifi.
5 out of 5 stars
More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
This book in contrast was dull and borderline offensive, repeatedly, throughout. Sturgeon utilizes lyrical prose to the extent that the plot suffers. He gets so caught up in making the language beautiful that the plot gets shoved to the side, and the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is going on. The book is divided into thirds, and the first third is the most confusing of all. Sturgeon repeatedly changes perspectives between different characters with no rhyme, reason, warning, or even signal. There’s not even handy squiggly lines letting you know you’re into a new section. This improves a bit in the final two sections of the book, but only a bit. The borderline offensiveness comes in with three of the characters. There are twin girls who can teleport, and beyond their teleportation skills their most identifiable characteristics are: 1) they never keep their clothes on and 2) they are black. They of course are referred to as “Negro” or “colored” throughout the book, which is better than the baby with Down’s Syndrome who is described as a “mongoloid,” and never even is given a name but is simply referred to as “Baby.” The crux of the idea–that people come together with different psychic abilities as the next step of evolution–is creative and interesting, but the execution is dull and drags.
3 out of 5 stars
The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
It’s not an unheard of idea for a post-apocalyptic society to revert to less technology-laden ways of doing things, but the execution is certainly unique here. Many people are fascinated by Mennonite and Amish culture, and this takes that culture and adapts it to a scifi, post-nuclear future. It is definitely engaging. The plot is strong and consistent. I was particularly impressed with how Brackett shows the passage of time when nothing necessarily happens, such as when the main character spends a few months laying low and helping with the crops. Motivation is clear, and the setting is well-done. I was disappointed though with the very narrowly envisioned role for women. It makes sense that women would be put into traditional roles in the groups modeled after the Mennonites and the Amish, but even the most progressive group presented in the book still seems to think women can only cook and clean. It’s disheartening. The male main characters spend their time striving for knowledge and indeed the point of the book seems to be about the need humans have to acquire knowledge, but it also gives the impression that this should only be embraced in men. The one female character who shows any similar leanings is fairly quickly quashed back to the home. I found this extra disappointing since this is the only book in the collection written by a woman. The rest of the read is enjoyable and imaginative though.
4 out of 5 stars
The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
This book feels the most formulaic of the bunch, perhaps because this trope has made its way so solidly into scifi. Some person finds something about themselves slowly changing and they can’t do anything to stop it. Toss in the ant-sized person, and it struggles to find anything unique to say. I’m no expert, so perhaps this was the first book to have this kind of plot, but the fact remains that there’s nothing that makes this one stick out as special. In fact, as a child of the 90s, I found myself repeatedly thinking that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was more engaging and less fatalistic. I am sure scifi purists would argue in favor of this book. It’s Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame). It has an exciting plot and addresses gender norms and what makes a person feel like a man in an interesting way. But I found it to largely be an average product of its time with an expected plot and the usual nuclear catalyst. I also found the ending to be a bit of a cop-out, particularly since it’s evident that Matheson meant it to be inspirational, and I found myself rather unmoved. It is clearly a classic for a reason–representative of its times, strong plot, interesting themes–but I did not find it to be particularly engaging.
3 out of 5 stars
This is an interesting collection of 1950s scifi that clearly shows what scientific advancements had people thinking and concerned, primarily nuclear war/weapons/power but also the newly highly commercialized culture, as well as possibilities in psychiatry. A couple of the books fall short of being truly entertaining in modern times, but they are still interesting to anyone who enjoys the history of scifi. Additionally, The Long Tomorrow could easily become a sleeper hit today with the current interest in “bonnet” books. Without a doubt, though, the book that stands the test of time the best is The Space Merchants. It is unique, engaging, and has a thought-provoking vision of the future. The collection itself is primarily recommended to scifi fans or those with an interest in 1950s American culture, but The Space Merchants is recommended to all.
4 out of 5 stars
Oscar is a reporter and lands an assignment with Stars and Stripes to go over to Kazakhstan and report on the new war between the US and Russia over resources needed for technology. This is a new kind of warfare. One fought mostly underground, and with the soldiers permanently wearing suits. Plus they’re fighting side-by-side with Genetics–human-looking robots who are all female and all look alike. Oscar started out just wanting a Pulitzer in between his drug addiction, which is easily fueled in Kaz. But Kaz changes people.
It’s been a while since I ventured in military scifi. I usually stick with the more sociological/psych experiment or cyberpunk areas of the genre, but this one just stuck out to me. I think its combination of aspects is just intriguing–a drug addicted journalist, a future war on earth, underground warfare, and robots. It certainly held my attention and flamed my interest in military scifi, plus it wound up counting for the MIA Reading Challenge, which was an added bonus.
Oscar is a well-rounded character. At first he seems flat and frankly like a total douchebag, but that’s because he’s a depressed drug addict. We learn gradually what landed him there and how he grows out of it with time. It’s an interesting character development arc because although many arcs show how war leads to alcoholism or drug addiction, in Oscar’s case although it at first makes his addiction worse, it ultimately helps him beat it. Because he ultimately snaps and realizes that the drugs are not helping the problems. They’re just making them worse. This is so key for anyone struggling with an addiction to realize. Pain in the present to feel better in the future. And McCarthy does an excellent job showing this progression without getting preachy. Sometimes you want to throttle Oscar, but you ultimately come to at least respect him if not like him. I wasn’t expecting such strong characterization in a military scifi, and I really enjoyed it.
The world McCarthy has built is interesting. The war itself is fairly typical–first world countries butting heads over resources in third world countries. But the content of the battles and the fighting methods are futuristic enough to maintain the scifi feel. There are the Genetics of course, and they are used by both sides. It’s interesting that the Americans use only female Genetics, and that is explained later on. There are also different vehicles and weapons that are scary but still seem plausible. Of course there’s also the suits the soldiers permanently wear, the front-line tunnels (the “subterrene”). It all adds up to a plausible future war.
Now, I will say, some of the battle scenes and near misses that Oscar has seem a bit of a stretch. I know odd things happen in war, and anyone can get lucky, but. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually. It seemed sometimes as if McCarthy wrote himself into a corner then had to figure out a way to make his main character survive. Escaping danger is fine, and necessary for the book to continue. But it should seem like a plausible escape. And if you have one that seems miraculous, it seems a bit excessive to me to have more than one.
The audiobook narrator did a fine job, in my opinion. He didn’t add anything to the story but he also didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I will note, however, that he pronounced “corpsman” wrong, saying the “s,” which is supposed to be silent. This only came up a few times and didn’t really bother me, but some readers, particularly ones who have been in the military themselves, might be bothered. Nothing else was mispronounced, and the voices used fit the characters nicely.
Overall, this piece of futuristic military scifi showcases both war and addiction in an engaging manner. Some readers may be off-put by Oscar at first, but stick it out. It takes many interesting turns. Recommended to scifi fans, whether they generally like military scifi or not.
4 out of 5 stars
When the world goes through an apocalypse consisting of virulent strains of the flu, lack of food, and nuclear warfare, one wealthy family manages to survive because they saw it coming. Made up of highly intelligent and highly educated people, such as doctors and scientists, the family creates a 200 bed hospital and uses this as their home base. But there is a serious fertility problem, and how they address it just might change the core of humanity.
I love reading classics of scifi. It’s endlessly fascinating how different people in different times imagine a future (or an apocalypse). This award-winning book had the bonus of being written by a woman, which isn’t always easy to find in older scifi. I also was intrigued by the cloning theme. How would someone in 1977 view something that was, as yet, nowhere near as close to a reality as it is now, with our cloned sheep?
The book starts out incredibly strongly. So strongly, in fact, that I actually had nightmares from it, which never happens to me ever. I am basically a rock of horror and scifi, but this one creeped the bejesus out of me. It’s that creepy combination of incest and cloning. The family are really not people you would want retooling the world. They’re everything that can be (and usually is) bad about the 1%. They’re selfish, self-centered, snobby, and routinely employ nepotism. I found the incest in the first third of the book talking about the first generation of the family to be an interesting metaphor for how the elite can become so backwards and grotesque from sheer isolation. It’s powerful and moving, and a scenario that will remain in my mind.
The second third of the book focuses in on a woman, Molly, from the first generation of clones. This is disturbing in its own way, because they don’t just clone everyone once and have done with it, no. They clone everyone multiple times until there are clusters of the same person at different ages wandering around. They call these clusters “brothers” and “sisters” with the name of the original person as the name of the group, even though the individual ones have their own names. It is profoundly disturbing. This second third looks at the society of clones that the original family unintentionally made. It’s fascinating in its own way and an interesting different way of telling a post-apocalypse story. Often we get only the first generation, but here we get multiple generations.
The last third, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the first two-thirds of the book. Without giving too much away, it looks at a boy who came about by natural methods who gets integrated into the clone society at the age of five. They decide not to clone him and give him brothers for unclear reasons. This last third then looks at his impact on the clone society. I didn’t feel that this worked as well for multiple reasons. For one, it’s almost as if Wilhelm freaked herself out and backed off from the profoundly disturbing story she was telling and went a more conventional direction. That was disappointing. For another, I found it disappointing that she chose to make this game-changer a boy. I expect women scifi authors to be at least a bit cognizant of the need in scifi for more female main characters. In this one, the first third is a man, the second third a woman, and the last third a boy. That is not the best stats from a woman author. I also found certain parts of this to be very boring and slow-moving compared to the first two-thirds. That makes for odd pacing in a book.
Of course, my complaints about the last third backing off, being more conventional, and being rather dull don’t take away from the first two thirds at all. They bring about so many interesting societal questions. For instance, is the incestuous nature of the elite necessarily bad or will it one day save humanity? Will cloning remove something that makes us human, even if they look right? Is it better to cling on to technology at all costs or release it and go back to simpler times? And what about sex? Is monogamy natural and polyamory unnatural? Or is polyamory more welcoming and loving than potentially possessive monogamy? The questions go on and on, which is what is great about scifi.
As for the science itself, it is quite well-done. Wilhelm clearly thought through both keeping a closed-off community alive and cloning and bringing to term embryos. She also put thought into the scientific basis for why clusters of clones would be different from individual humans, touching on psychology and twin studies. I was a bit irritated that she bases the survival of these people on cloning farm animals, when that is not a good use of their limited land resources. Studies have shown many many times that a combination of farming vitamin-rich plants and hunting/gathering are the best use of limited land resources, so this particular element rang a bit of bad science. However, I am not certain how much land usage had been studied in the 1970s, so that could possibly just be a sign of the times.
Now, I did read the audiobook, so I should touch on the narration. Overall, Anna Fields does a very good job. I really enjoyed that they chose a female narrator for a book written by a female author. It let me almost imagine that Kate Wilhelm herself was reading it to me. Fields mostly strikes a good balance of changing voices for different characters without going over the top. The one exception to this is when she narrates children. The voice for that made me cringe, but they mercifully speak only a few times. Mostly, Fields reads smoothly and is easy to follow. She narrates without accidentally putting her own interpretation onto the work, which is ideal for an audiobook.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating classic of scifi. It examines the apocalypse through the lens of the elite, thereby analyzing and critiquing them, but it also looks at possible consequences of cloning and ponders what ultimately makes us human. Although the last third of the book is a bit less creative and more conventional than the first two, it is still a fascinating read. Recommended to scifi fans, particularly those with an interest in group dynamics.
4 out of 5 stars
Jasper can’t believe he’s actually homeless, although a lot more people are homeless now than used to be. But still. He got his BA in sociology. He’s worked hard. How did this happen? He’s living with a tribe of other 20-somethings. They keep hoping things will get better, but somehow they just seem to keep getting worse. The economy doesn’t improve. Home-grown terrorists known as Jumpy-jumps start routinely terrorizing people. Driving anywhere, having dependable food, actual working police forces, they’re all a thing of the past. Not all apocalypses happen overnight.
I actually hesitated over keeping this book on my wishlist, but I’m very glad I did. I found it to be not quite what I was expecting. In a good way.
I think a lot of men in particular will enjoy it, because it kind of reminds me of a Judd Apatow film. There’s this complete and utter loser guy who you entirely hate (and I suspect McIntosh hates too) but who is just so damn funny you keep reading it. A lot of apocalypse books focus in on a strong leader type, but Jasper is actually a coward who just keeps trying to squeak by. On top of that, he claims to be looking for true love, but is actually completely lacking in any understanding of women. One of his “apt” observations, for instance, consists of stating to a guy friend, “Have you noticed that fat women have been getting hotter?” He’s trying to say that the more starvation threatens, the more attracted he is to women who obviously have enough to eat. But he isn’t philosophical about it at all, and that’s kind of hilarious. He also tries to impress a girl at one point by commenting on the fact that she’s reading a book, but he says it in such a way that it’s obvious he himself doesn’t read at all, which is utterly baffling in a world that no longer has electricity or other entertainment. Basically the whole book is laughing at a cowardly dude-bro, and that’s fun.
The apocalypse itself is quite creative. As the title and blurb imply, it’s a slow one. Gradual. Things get bad and just never get better then more things get bad. It’s a creative mix of economics, homegrown terrorist groups, scientists trying to make things better but actually making it worse, and international politics. None of it came across as utterly absurd or ridiculous, which shows that McIntosh did a good job.
There are two scenes that are truly horrific, which of course I loved. There’s a very creative death scene that I think will haunt me for a long time. (Again, that’s a good thing). The plot overall is a bit meandering, but that makes sense since Jasper isn’t the most focused or proactive dude on the planet. I’m a little sad the book ended when it did. I get why McIntosh ended it there, leaving things open-ended for readers, but….I could have read about Jasper much much longer. Yes, he’s a guy I would hate beyond all reason in real life, but I guess that schadenfreude factor is what makes the book so fun.
Now, I did read the audiobook, and I have to say I was very disappointed in the narration by Erik Davies. It does not live up to the content of the book at all. My main problem with him is that he does that awful thing of putting on what he thinks is a woman’s voice every time one of them speaks, but what actually sounds like a small child and nothing like us. I actually had to stop and rewind a couple of times to double-check if I was angry at how the book was portraying women or if the narrator was making it seem like the book was portraying women as childish idiots. Suffice to say, it’s definitely the narration, not the book. Yes, Jasper objectifies women and basically calls any woman who doesn’t fit into his definition of what a woman should be “crazy,” but the whole book is laughing at him, so really the book is showing how ridiculous it is to view women like that. The narrator reading women in this childish voice really messes with that whole presentation. So, definitely don’t get the audiobook.
Overall, then, this is a fun apocalyptic scifi featuring a cowardly loser who is delightful to follow and laugh at. I highly recommend it to scifi fans who also enjoy slacker flicks, but definitely get the print or ebook versions, not the audio.
4 out of 5 stars