Tag Archives: novel

Book Review: Pandemonium (Daryl Gregory 2008)

Note: in this review, I avoid specific spoilers beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb. I discuss my reaction to the ending, but none of the specific events.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I chose to read Pandemonium because it was the book club selection for a book club meeting I failed to attend (sigh, moving). I devoured this book in less than 48 hours and I really enjoyed the process of reading it. For two reasons, this book forced me to contemplate the nature of science fiction versus fantasy: 1) because the book explicitly calls out the artificiality of the separation and 2) because I myself strongly tilt towards science fiction.

Pandemonium is set in a world where demonic possessions happen. They come in many flavors; there’s the Captain, who possesses soldiers and performs acts of bravery and there’s the Little Angel, who possesses little girls and releases old people from the pain of the world. Del Pierce was possessed as a child, and now as an adult he suspects that the demon never entirely left him.

Science wants to understand these possessions as much as it wants to understand cancer in our own world. Del wants to be freed of his demon, by science or otherwise. He’s damaged by what he’s endured. He talks to scientists and to their less-scientific groupies. Del’s condition isn’t considered possible by science, and he’s exasperated by the limitations of science. The characters criticize the way the scientific community regards the demonic possessions. It felt like the tired criticisms of our scientific process. Perhaps, as a scientist, I’m over-sensitive to such things.

People separate fantasy and scifi in different ways, and here’s my separation: fantasy is about exceptions to the rules and scifi is about inevitable outcomes of the rules. Harry Potter is an exceptional member of an exceptional class of people. Piers Anthony’s Xanth stories are about the people with the best magical powers. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is about one of many sentient programs that through a unique set of circumstances becomes something more. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain is about the first products of genetic engineering. Both genres often focus on exceptional characters, but in scifi the character is exceptional due to circumstances and in fantasy the character is inherently exceptional in some way that cannot be explained.

In arguing a lack of separation between science fiction and fantasy, Pandemonium has the trappings of fantasy but makes several explicit science fiction references. Early in the book, a character (named Valis) quotes Philip K. Dick and asserts that “you cannot separate science fiction from fantasy.” There are references to AE van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. I made a mental footnote to expect something genre-defying at the end.

After the book argued for the lack of distinction between the genres, the ending didn’t challenge my definition of fantasy. For me, this was a book about demons and possession and the human psyche. Which is fine. But like Chekov’s gun, after a lot of discussion about the blurred lines between two genres, you expect to partake in a book with blurred lines. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel affected by it either. I flew through the book, finished it, and shrugged.

Pandemonium is a lovely read. As a mild scifi snob, I am out of its core audience, and I can’t say how those with different genre sensibilities might feel about it. For me it just felt insubstantial, like a book that will fade from my memory.

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November means NaNoWriMo, but with a Twist for me

It’s November and thus it’s NaNoWriMo. Generally this means you write 50,000 words of a novel. I did that last year. This year I’m doing things a little differently. I’m going to do two 15,000 word stories and 24 illustrations. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words?

As of today, I’m at 7,265 words and 7 illustrations. That’s behind pace, but mostly due to a water polo tournament, which has a way of reducing one’s concentration to jelly for a few days (which is not unrelated to the shortness of this post).

I’m glad I did the traditional NaNoWriMo last year, to prove to myself that I could. But this year is about making the wonderful NaNo collective spirit work for me. I feel really inspired, and really excited about my eventual final product. I have two novel drafts that need reworking, and the prospect of another hulking chunk of words sitting around wasn’t very exciting. With the lower word count, I spend more time editing and creating a tighter first draft. I will come out of this month with something new to be proud of, which to me is the goal at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

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Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.

Blog changes and milestones

This post is my 99th blog post, so obviously the next one will give the big 100. I will be posting that on Monday, in the form of 100 things I find interesting. It should be fun.

I must switch to posting on this blog twice a week instead of three times a week. Work has suddenly sped up a lot, and I need to use my time (slightly) better. But I will still post a long post every Monday, and a shorter one every Wednesday or Thursday. As I approach 100 posts, I can hardly claim any kind of celebrity status, but I appreciate the people who come by and like or comment. Yesterday I reached 50,000 words on my novel draft (that just sounds crazy!). I can tell that forcing myself to sit three times a week and write about something I find interesting and trying to be clear has really improved my writing on demand. To me, it seems that this is a large component to writing a novel: shut up, stop reading writing help sites, and shackle yourself to that desk.

So I shall see you all on Monday, with 100 super awesome facts. I’ll end this post with the first fact of the next:

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue. Perhaps by Monday I will find an additional example I had in mind, where 2 sets of colors are shown. In one set, Westerners can distinguish the different color 99% of the time; in the other, their success is much lower. Cultures in Africa exhibit the reverse ability to distinguish.

More writing progress and uh… yellow flowers

I’ve been slogging away still at the novel draft. Today I crossed 40,000 words, which is definitely the farthest I’ve ever gotten in any attempt. So, big milestone.

But because news of word counts is decidedly dull, I’ll also append some photos of yellow flowers from over the years. It’s only appropriate because my office where I write is make-your-eyes-bleed bright yellow. I have even more yellow flower pics over in my flickr set (as always, fair-use). Have a bright day!

Writing: engineer style!

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I am currently trying to write a novel. It’s a lot of writing, and I have something of a history of starting and stopping projects. So I’m happy to report that I am still on the path and plodding along. Today I reached 23,000 words. I found estimates that trade paperbacks have 200-250 words per page. So that means my progress would fill 93-115 pages of a paperback. That’s kind of fun.

I am a mad procrastinator, but one of the ways I try to motivate myself is to allow certain writing related side activities. And because I am an engineer and a grad student, that distraction right now is…. excel sheets. Yeah. Below is a chart of my day-to-day progress. The slope gives my average words per day, so it can be fun seeing that change. When I reach a hitch, I get to go put my chapter’s word count into the chart and see what my daily word count is and my overall rate. What’s more exciting than fitting data?

writing progress

 

There are some websites I like to use as well when progress fails to appear. Written kitten is super cute. You get a picture of a kitten as a reward every so often. Because I need lots of motivation, I set it to every 100 words. If you need punishment more than reward, writeordie is quite popular. This blog had a decent summary of both.

I suppose this stuff doesn’t make the most exciting reading, but I hear it’s good to post about this stuff. Something about peer pressure? Plus since I’m writing all the time, I have less time to go read nifty things to post about. So, Happy Friday!

Progress and things

Just a quick update today. I made a few changes to the site, and I will make a few more over the next weeks. As I approach 100 posts, I have more content to organize, and more ways to organize it. So now there is a “Fun Science” tab, which lists and categorizes my science posts. Now I’m excited to do some more science posts.

I continue to make great progress on the novel draft (fingers crossed). Yesterday I reached 15,000 words and finished the 10th chapter. I am a fan of short chapters. I first wrote it last summer as a too-long short story. At the time, I intended it to be part of a collection of illustrated short stories. Below is the illustration I had finished for that story.

Happy Friday!

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