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Giveaway Winner: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (INTERNATIONAL)

August 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Brightly colored buildingsThe giveaway winner of one ebook version of The Running Game (review) by L. E. Fitzpatrick, courtesy of L. E. Fitzpatrick herself is…….

Comment #1 Amanda Ramsay McNeill!

Amanda, your email as entered in the comment form has been provided to the author who will send along the ebook to you.

Thanks for entering!

Book Review: The Postmortal by Drew Magary (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Green book cover with a grim reaper impaled on his own scythe.Summary:
John Farrell got The Cure before it was legal.  Three painful shots, and now he’ll never age, although he can still be killed by accidents, murder, and disease.  It doesn’t take long before public pressure forces governments to legalize The Cure, in spite of the concerns, sometimes expressed in the form of terrorist acts, of those who believe in natural aging.  Of course, nobody listens, because who wants to age?  But slowly the world starts to change in more ways than becoming increasingly overpopulated.  We’ve reassembled what happened when The Cure was legal through combining John’s blog entries with news articles from his time period, as a cautionary tale.

Review:
I actually bought this when it was released because it sounded so intriguing to me.  A futuristic epistolary novel looking at overpopulation is right up my alley.  Unfortunately, I got so busy that I didn’t have time to read it right away.  I was happy to be able to finally pick it up.  The book presents an interesting dystopia but the storytelling struggles increasingly throughout the book, falling flat at the end.

The book starts out incredibly strong.  Magary strikes the right balance of realistic personal blog entries with snippets of news, twitter/facebook feeds, etc… to tell the early story of The Cure.  The world building doesn’t suffer at all, with a clear near-future established, and John’s character is immediately easy to understand.  The years immediately after The Cure is legalized are similarly well-told, with Magary choosing interesting and realistic consequences to The Cure, including violent anti-Cure extremists, peaceful anti-Cure moderates, bohemian everlasting youth, those who build fortresses around themselves and their families, and even internet trolls who take their trolling out into real life.

The world slowly establishes to the point where it’s clearly too overpopulated, and various governments make various choices about how they’re going to deal with that, and John gets caught up in the control side of the US government’s choices.  It is here, midway through the book, where things stop being so well-written and thought out and stop working quite so well.

First, the parameters of The Cure seem clear early on in the book.  It appears that it cures not just aging but any illness that could be correlated to being the result of aging, such as heart disease.  It is clearly listed out that The Cure protects you from many things but not extreme things like AIDS or being smashed by a safe.  Later on in the book, though, those who have The Cure but have a real age of elderly start having diseases that tend to show up late in life, such as cancer and heart disease.  This shakiness of exactly what The Cure does is a real problem in the book’s world building.  The reader expects one set of parameters but then gets a different one.

Second, although early in the book Magary strikes a great balance of realistic blog entries, news articles, and twitter/facebook feeds, as the book continues on, this balance drops off, and the book reads more and more like a straight-forward first-person narration, with only the occasional news article.  This makes it harder to believe these are real blog entries, particularly as they get more and more unrealistically long as John becomes busier and does more dangerous tasks.

Similarly, as the world becomes more complex, some of the world building choices make less and less sense.  For instance, a certain country chooses to periodically blow up its cities with nuclear bombs in order to control its population. It’s hard to imagine any country dumping nuclear waste into itself just to control population.  Surely even just bombs with less environmental impact would be chosen.  Similarly, a certain type of violent gang becomes rampant across the US but their motivations or reasons for turning so violent and bloody are never examined.  Are they striving to be the only people left? Do they just enjoy causing chaos? Dehumanizing them makes it easy to other them, which in turn makes the dystopic future less frightening, as it’s only the crazy, monstrous people who form into violent gangs.  Some of these limits come from the fact that our main character, whose blog entries we’re reading, isn’t a particularly inquisitive person.  He tumbles along and doesn’t seem to care much about anything, particularly in the final portions of the book.  Yes, he is probably depressed, but even early on he never seems that interested in other viewpoints.  The rare two occasions where we get glimpses into something besides his day-to-day life are once at the behest of his job, and once because his son implores him to come to his church.  In other words, it takes extraordinary circumstances for John, our narrator, to investigate anything other than what is right in front of his face, which makes for a story that’s missing a lot of information about this dystopic future, particularly when we only get John’s perspective for hundreds of years.  The story would probably have been better served by analyzing multiple different people’s blogs.  Perhaps John’s, his son’s mother’s, his son’s, his partner’s at work, a troll’s, etc…. This would have given the same epistolary feel but also more information about the dystopic world and more depth.

Finally, the ending takes a sharp turn into manic pixie dream girl land, that I found incredibly frustrating.  John makes a sudden, completely inexplicable, unrealistic change in personality thanks to a manic pixie dream girl showing up (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope).  Given the whole rest of the book, the ending was completely out of left field, and frankly felt lazy.  A much richer, deeper ending could have been written that went right into the depth and darkness of John’s soul, giving him no miraculous last-minute redemption.  Instead his character does a complete 180 and gives the reader an unexpected, and unearned, ending.

Given all of these complaints, why am I still giving the book three stars?  The world it sets up is awesome.  It’s a dystopia I want to visit again and again.  The first third of the book handles the futuristic, tech-savvy epistolary novel really well, and that’s hard to do.  Finally, most of my complaints have to do with the author not giving me enough, not taking things deep enough, dark enough, not living up to the writing in the first third of his own book.  It’s a sign of a good book to leave me wanting more, and that’s why I’m still happy I read it.  It’s a creative vision of a dystopic future that I hadn’t seen before, and I would love to see more books set in it.  Recommended to fans of dystopias who won’t mind a frustrating ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (Series, #1)

August 12, 2014 4 comments

Brightly colored buildingsSummary:
Rachel is a doctor in the slums outside of London.  It’s not a great place to live, but it’s safer than a lot of the other options available.  She’s also a Reacher with telepathic powers.  Since she was a young girl, she learned to hide her abilities and always know her exits so she could run at any time.  But when two brothers show up, one a wounded Reacher, and tell her a mobster sent them looking for her, she has to decide whether to run again or trust the brothers.

Review:
Near-future dystopias will never cease in their appeal to me, and so I was fairly quick to accept this one when I was choosing ARCs to read for 2014.  The book offers a grim dystopia but far less running than one would imagine from the title.

The book establishes the overall dreary setting of a dystopia fairly quickly.  Rachel’s work at the hospital and commuting home from it is dirty and grimy. Society is clearly barely functioning, a fact that is smoothly and clearly established.  It takes a bit more time to learn more about the over-arching world, and the fact that Rachel is a “Reacher,” a person with some form of telepathic powers.  For some reason, the government is seeking to eradicate all Reachers, whereas the church, which is illegal, views them as angels sent from above, metaphorically speaking.  It’s an interesting world but our view into it is quite narrow, so there’s a lot of questions left unanswered.

Rachel is a good, strong character who is well-rounded in spite of knowing little of her backstory.  The brothers, on the other hand, are kind of annoying and two-dimensional.  They and the general crime lords/corrupt cops feel much more cookie cutter than Rachel does.  In a way, they drag her down.  It’s hard to root for her when she chooses to cast in lots with this bunch.

Similarly, the plot focuses in on what feels more like a standard crime thriller plot, rather than a dystopian one.  It’s a good crime plot, but it’s not a dystopian one.  The title implies a much more dystopian style book, such as Rachel using her powers to outwit the government and start a new colony or something like that.  Instead it feels a bit more like an urban fantasy style crime plot that just so happens to be surrounded by society breaking down, somewhere out there.    I think marketing it as a running game, rather than as the crime mystery plot it really is hinders the book a bit.  Readers who would like an urban fantasy style futuristic crime novel might miss it, because it sounds so dystopian.  The title and summary give the vibe of a Logan’s Run or Maze Runner style book, when that’s not what it is.  What it is is a perfectly good futuristic crime novel, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Overall, this is a quick-moving tale of futuristic crime with a dash of telepathic powers and an easily imagined setting.  Fans of near future, fantasy, and crime will enjoy seeing the three intertwine.  Those looking for more of a scifi or dystopian focus should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: The Second Lives of Honest Men by John R. Cameron

April 19, 2014 1 comment

A pencil drawing of Abraham Lincoln sitting in front of a bookcase.Summary:
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.

Review:
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.

*spoiler*
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.
*end spoiler*

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

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Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Series, #4)

December 17, 2013 1 comment

A bald man's head bowed in prayer.Summary:
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.

Review:
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

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Doctor Mirabilis
Black Easter
The Day After Judgement
The Devil’s Day (books 2 and 3 published as one book)

Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 7, 2013 6 comments

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds.  The book's title and author are printed on the background.Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

Review:
I was always aware of this scifi classic but oddly had managed to never hear any spoilers.  When I saw it available for free on the kindle, I decided I should download it for when a classic scifi mood struck me in the future.  I’m glad I did because it was there and waiting for me when that mood did strike, and it was completely satisfying.  Like when you eat a food you’ve been craving for days.

The structure and writing style are typical for the late 1800s.  An unnamed narrator tells us of a strange person he met who then takes over the narration to tell us about an event that happened to him.  In this case, that second narrator is the Time Traveler.  The Time Traveler then expounds quite eloquently and philosophically on everything that has happened to him.  I enjoy this storytelling method, because it gives space for the narrator of the strange tale to do this philosophical thinking.  It makes sense to think about what you’ve learned when you’re talking about a past event.  The events are exciting, but they don’t happen at such a break-neck speed that the reader doesn’t have time to think on what they might mean.  After reading a lot of more modern dystopias, it was interesting to read a slower paced one.  Both storytelling techniques work well, but it was definitely a nice change of pace for my reading personally.

The dystopia is really enjoyable.  Instead of getting hung up on politics or climate change, the dystopia revolves entirely around evolution.  The Morlock/Eloi split happened because of the ever-increasing gap between the haves (the future Eloi) and the have-nots (the future Morlocks).  The Eloi are childlike in both stature and behavior.  They are the ultimate end result for what happens when people have no responsibilities and everything done for them, which is clearly how Wells sees the then modern-day elite functioning.  The Time Traveler talks about the ultimate evolutionary faults of a living that is too easy at multiple times.

Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. (page 30)

In contrast, the Morlocks live underground in old industrial tunnels.  They are physically strong but have lost their humanity due to a lack of the finer things.  They have no contact with the natural beauty of the world and so have turned into these ape-like, cannibalistic creatures.  The Time Traveler expounds on this:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? (page 50)

I really like that this dystopia is so well thought-out but simultaneously so simple and easy to understand.

The plot itself kept me on the edge of my seat and constantly surprised at what happened.  Although it’s obvious the Time Traveler makes it back from his first voyage, there are other threats and dangers that are sufficient to keep the reader engaged.  The ending actually surprised me as well.

This book has withstood the test of time extremely well.  It has not yet saturated pop culture to the extent that the potential reader is unavoidably spoiled for the details of the plot or the ending.  The dystopia is unique and interesting, in spite of the proliferation of dystopian literature since then.  The philosophical thoughts of the Time Traveler are still applicable to modern society.

Overall, this is a piece of classic scifi that has aged very well.  It simultaneously entertains and challenges the reader.  In addition, it is a short read for a classic, more similar in length to modern fiction.  It is the ideal read for both hard-core scifi fans and those interested in dipping their toe in classic scifi.  Highly recommended!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: the Kindle edition is free

Book Review: The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 15, 2013 Leave a comment

White egg balancing on one side against a red background.Summary:
In the near future world with no war and totalitarian governments there’s an ever-looming threat of starvation thanks to overpopulation and diseases attacking the crops.  The governments have responded with worldwide one child policies and psa campaigns to encourage homosexual relationships.  Englishman, Tristram Foxe, lives in a skyscraper with his wife, Beatrice-Joanna and works as a social studies teacher.  But his advancement suffers both from his status as a person with siblings and as a married man with a child.  When he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with his passing as gay brother who works for the Infertility Bureau, his world falls apart just as the world around him tilts from totalitarian regime to cannibalism and pagan fertility rituals.

Review:
When I picked up this book, the summaries I’d seen were nowhere near as clear or straightforward as the one I just wrote for you.  I’m not sure I would have ever picked it up if I’d had an inkling of an idea as to what I was getting myself into.  All I saw was a dystopian overpopulated future by the same author as A Clockwork Orange (which I know some people loathe, but I think has a lot of interesting things to say).  This book is….very strange, and I honestly am not exactly sure what Burgess himself is saying, although some of the characters say some horrible things.

The first half of the book reads like a treatise by a Quiverfull (Evangelical Christians who believe in having as many children as possible, more info) with some terror of a hyper-liberal future where people are denied their right to choose to have children (funny how they fear that but don’t get that pro-choice is all about protecting a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own reproductive organs but that’s another rant for another day), and people are forced into being gay/lesbian.  I know this sounds like it could be an interesting flip-flop of current times, but it didn’t read that way for me.  It read as a lot of homophobia and yelling about how population control goes against god’s plan and going against god’s plan sends the plagues.  Seriously.  That’s how it reads.  But, I traveled on because this is Anthony Burgess, and characters don’t have to be likeable.  They could be used to show the opposite point.  But that’s not really what happens.  What happens is that this set-up gets ditched for a mad-cap dash through sociology.

The last half of the book is kind of an interesting sociological exploration of how the world moves through the liberal/conservative/military cycle.  It is mad-cap and bizarre, and as a person with a BA in History, I really  enjoyed seeing a country move through those cycles at rapid-fire in a slapstick humor style.  This part of the book felt like an entirely different book in fact.  But I also think only a certain type of person would enjoy it. (Like, oh, Political Science and History majors).

As for character development, there is none.  Everyone ends up pretty much where they started after having lived through the cycles of political change.  It really reminds me a lot of playing Civ or SimCity where you move artificial people around to illustrate greater points.  I enjoyed this alright, but I would have preferred stronger characterizations or at least some growth.

So, is the book a phobic conservative dream of what a liberal society would look like?  I don’t think so.  I think Burgess actually presented each part of the political cycle as awful, including the fall into tribal-feeling paganism.  It sort of felt like the book was saying that someone somewhere will always be unhappy no matter what the political/sociological situation is.  Depressing, huh?  And yes I know it’s dystopian and lot of people think dystopias are innately depressing, but personally I think they can frequently offer a lot of insight and hope for the future.  This just felt a bit defeatist.  With some Quiverfull and homophobic characters to boot.

Overall I’m left feeling decidedly no reaction either way to this book, which is not what I was expecting from Burgess.  I was neither offended nor enlightened and mildly entertained but I could have had the same entertainment from playing Civ on my computer.  I think this book best appeals to readers who also enjoy studying political science or the history of societies, but even they should proceed with the caution that this is decidedly a mad-cap, non character-driven look at those topics.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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