Tag Archives: science fiction book review

Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife” revisited: Considering “Cadillac Desert” and “Collapse”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s a semi-apocalyptic view of water shortages in the not-too-distant future American west. Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t buy into the central crisis of the book—a water crisis severe enough to send states practically to war with one another. Then again, I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, New York, and Virginia; I knew nothing about water scarcity. After The Water Knife piqued my interest, I read two nonfiction books about societal collapse and the history of water rights: Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Water Knife is clearly a call to action. It begs the reader to read Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here). The 1986 Cadillac Desert (with a 1993 addendum) details water-related shenanigans too absurd for science fiction. It details the construction of the LA aqueduct using mules; it reveals the snail darter controversy as a boondoggle of an evil bureaucracy; it details the pissing contest between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you know that our largest desalination plant is far from any coast? The Yuma Desalination Plant on the Colorado River ensures that the water we send on to Mexico satisfies international treaty. Thousands of miles of irrigation makes the water almost toxically saline by the time it reaches the border. It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking farce detailed in Cadillac Desert—is it the river sent over a 2,000 foot mountain to reach southern California? Is it the Teton Dam, which collapsed immediately and eliminated several towns because the engineers chose not to worry about the caves in the rock next to the dam?

I read The Water Knife wondering all the while how plausible its central conflict was. The Water Knife provides none of the lurid water history that Cadillac Desert did, just a strong message to go read that book. Usually I resist exposition in fiction, but The Water Knife ended up feeling ungrounded to me without more education. Its insistent references to Cadillac Desert were an appeal to an authority I lacked any knowledge of. Most of the United States population lives in wet parts of the country without knowledge of water rationing. After reading Cadillac Desert, the lack of detail felt even more disappointing. Many of the tales of that book, especially of the CAP (Central Arizona Project), would have provided easy fodder. Books about Mars colonies explain how colonists find oxygen with some scientific exposition; The Water Knife should have included a little exposition to orient us naive easterners.

Cadillac Desert expounds upon the ecological damage, financial waste, and altogether pointlessness of many western water projects, but it doesn’t speak much of pending disaster. It showed me how absurd and illogical the western water structure is, a point that The Water Knife relies upon. The book I read next contained a vivid reminder of the fragility of the American west. That fragility has ruined lives and cities before.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse details why a variety of civilizations collapsed, including the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Diamond explains how deforestation in the fragile desert ecosystem combined with a drought eventually led to widespread collapse of the civilization. I visited Chaco Canyon three months ago. It’s a strange place—a dozen massive ruins in a remote desert canyon. One can’t help but wonder how or why anyone lived there. Again and again, Diamond details how civilizations over exploit their natural resources, face adversity, and often collapse in the face of that adversity.

I don’t know if I believe that the southwest will collapse into a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the nearish future. As a new transplant to the west, The Water Knife strikes a frightening tone. But like the book about colonists on Mars, it need not be literally possible or true, it tells a fun story and kindles the imagination about the future of the American west. I enjoyed The Water Knife. But I was better able to feel its message after  supplemental nonfiction reading. I think The Water Knife would have affected me more if it supplied more of that information within the book. And to any other reader of The Water Knife patient enough to add another 1000 pages of reading to their list, Cadillac Desert and Collapse are excellent supplementals to The Water Knife.

 

Book review: The Six-Gun Tarot (R.S. Belcher 2013

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters.

Rating: 4/5

I chose to read The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher for two reasons: one, I’ve read more western-based science fiction since I moved west, and two, I met Rod Belcher and heard him speak about the book twice. Belcher was such a pleasant and interesting person that I made note of his book, even though Six-Gun Tarot is more fantasy than I usually read (my friend Stephanie Hunter called the genre “paranormal western”). I really enjoyed Six-Gun Tarot and want to read more in this universe.

Six-Gun Tarot is set in a small 1880’s mining town in Nevada called Golgotha. The reader sees through the eyes of a dozen characters. The cast is refreshingly diverse for a western tale; we meet a teenage boy fleeing his crimes in West Virginia, an American Indian deputy, a death-defying sheriff, a housewife who’s more than she seems, a German butcher with a terrible burden, a Mormon mayor struggling to accept himself, and more. From the get go, you know that Golgotha is abnormal. The deputy is part coyote, the boy has a Chinese talisman; everybody is magic in their own way, and watching them work together was fun. I sometimes find fantasy snobbish: Harry Potter is special and muggles aren’t; Piers Anthony’s Xanthians are just plain better than the mundanes. I suppose the reader is meant to imagine themselves as one of the special ones, but so far I have not discovered magical acumen. Anyways, I felt that Six-Gun Tarot handled this aspect of fantasy well. The characters cared about action, not a sense of personal destiny or power.

Golgotha is one hell of a place; it was my favorite part of the book. The characters casually mention previous disasters; babies getting drained of blood and people going mad. And there’s something just not right up under the mountain… Golgotha feels wonderfully western and weird. It made me think of Carrizozo, one of the haunts of Billy the Kid, or of Tularosa, stuck between mountains and a desert of gypsum. For me, Golgotha was the protagonist. It draws odd people. We learn about its bars and its neighborhoods and its residents. We learn its geography. Belcher’s language really suits the setting. At one point, he describes the sunset as resembling a bruise. The only parts of the book I enjoyed less are the ones set outside of Golgotha.

Basically, Six-Gun Tarot was a fantastically fun read. If you like paranormal, you’ll probably like it. I almost exclusively don’t like paranormal. But great writing and memorable characters and setting can enliven any story. It was fun to enjoy a read outside my normal wheelhouse.

 

Book Review: The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi 2015)

Note: in this review, I avoid spoilers beyond the first few chapters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future American West. Water shortages have reached critical levels; states sabotage and fight one another for water rights. We have three main characters; Angel is a Las Vegas “water knife,” a shadowy figure that does the dirty ground work of securing water rights through any means necessary. Lucy is a high-minded journalist from the northeast that came west to cover the collapse of Phoenix and found herself unable to pull away. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas stuck in the wreckage of Phoenix who schemes to go north. Rumors send Angel to Phoenix, and we get a first row seat to the violence and desperation surrounding water in this dystopian future.

I finished reading The Water Knife over a week ago and I still can’t quite decide what I think of it. I felt the same way after I read Bacigalupi’s Wind-Up Girl, though I now find myself reflecting favorably on that book. Bacigalupi seems to have a knack for leaving some questions unanswered. This is probably a good thing, but it left me unresolved at the end. Both of his books leave you in consideration for a while. His writing style is easy and engaging; both books drew me in quickly with a good balance of action and character development.

My least favorite part of the book is the future dystopian southwest, although it is a critical element of the book. I usually dislike dystopias and find myself remembering an Ursula Le Guin quote from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. —Ursula Le Guin

Bacigalupi’s Water Knife is undeniably extrapolative. And that extrapolation is undeniably cancerous. In history, the path that unfolds always seems richer and more meandering, even when things worsen. I felt unconvinced by a corrupt future where states are nearly at war over water. The book makes numerous mentions of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 1993 nonfiction book about water shortages in the west. Perhaps reading that would provide some of the context I found lacking.

But as a New Mexican with a lawn and garden, and there’s no doubt Bacigalupi meant this work as a cautionary tale. Bacigalupi himself lives in western Colorado. It’s that intention that compensates for the gloomy dystopian aspect—it’s gloomy for a reason. In The Water Knife, Texas fundamentalists called “Merry Perrys” pray that water will simply return. In 20 years, readers may wonder why a Merry Perry, but today’s reader knows he means Rick Perry without any explanation. Until this year, I always lived in places with oppressive humidity and abundant water. The water landscape here is very different, but the attitudes toward water don’t seem much different. After I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary about the dust bowl, I was struck by how early settlers tended the land as they would have any last east or in Europe. The United States, with its European roots, is rooted in a culture that never considers water as a finite resource. In the west, even today, it must be considered as such, and you still see pushback to this rationing in protests against the Bureau of Land Management and in California’s current drought. The Water Knife is meant to be a cancerous extrapolation; it’s the doctor sitting down with the smoker and discussing the future.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, I would recommend The Water Knife to any sci-fi fan. Both books are thinking science fiction, enjoyable but challenging. In both books, the setting is a strong element in the plot. Much as I love distant future space operas, I also love science fiction set in concrete locations with real streets and climates. The commentary on problems in today’s world perhaps diminishes the escapism a bit, but cautionary science fiction is an old subset of the genre that deserves thoughtful revivals like this one.

 

Book Review: Architects of Emortality (Brian Stableford 1999)

Note: in this review, I mostly limit comments to the intro and  first chapter (65 pages in this case).

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Architects of Emortality by Brian Stableford is the fourth book of the Emortality series and my first Stableford book. I am still unclear on the significance of “emortal” versus “immortal”, but otherwise, the book stood alone without reading the first three books. Architects of Emortality is set in the late 2400s. Life can be extended via technology, but for most, 200 years is roughly the limit. Due to a recent technological advancements, the next generation may be immortal, but only those treated before birth can partake. The book opens with a murder and the subsequent investigation of that murder.

Architects of Emortality had interesting world-building and intriguing ideas, but it had three big flaws: 1) the characters were flat and uninteresting, 2) the language was distracting, and 3) the female roles flat-out sucked. Not every sci-fi reader cares as much about character development as I do; if you enjoy big worlds with far-reaching ideas, this may very well be a book you will enjoy. For me, it felt out-of-date though it’s only from 1999.

The book opens with investigator Charlotte Holmes at the scene of Gabriel King’s murder. His murder is unusual; murders are uncommon in this future, and King has been consumed by flowers clean down to the bone. Video shows that a beautiful young woman visited just before the murder, bearing unusual flowers. Holmes, the protagonist, is a young sergeant and assistant to Hal Watson, who investigates from afar using the resources of the web. A minor spoiler: Holmes does nothing but fret about her limits as an investigator; she travels and observes but never acts. Her uselessness fuels complaints #1 and #3, above. Stableford draws attention to the fact that she is Charlotte Holmes by having a Watson. A famously clever investigator’s name suggests that Holmes will be at the center of solving the murder mystery, and that she will be clever. Neither is true. Most of the insights come from Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant flower designer with ties to the murder who travels with Holmes during the investigation. Holmes is an appendage to whom Wilde muses.

Other than Holmes, the only significant woman in the book is the murderess. We learn little about her; she is beautiful and young and acting on the behalf of someone else. All other significant characters are men; they are mostly experts of various kinds. Where Holmes is insecure and a hard-nosed investigator and little else, Oscar Wilde enjoys 19th century literature, designs flowers, and is beautiful, vain, and eccentric. He has opinions about everything, and he likes to make people uncomfortable with those opinions. He is better characterized than Holmes, but still a bit flat. If I imagined a future botanist version based on my thin knowledge of 19th century Oscar Wilde, this Oscar Wilde is about what I’d imagine. But he is still infinitely more rich than Holmes.

That pretty well covers my first and third complaints about the book. Finally, I found the language in this book excessively self-aware, and at times plain obnoxious. Instead of engaging in the story, I was rolling my eyes at word choice. I dog-eared the worst example from about halfway through the book (not a spoiler):

 “I saw it,” Charlotte said wearily. “Was there something significant I should have taken note of?” She knew that she ought not to end sentences with prepositions, but thought that the stress of the situation made the infelicity forgivable.

This occurs immediately after the characters have had a brush with death. Not only is the preposition rule a garbage grammar rule cribbed from Latinwho cares at such a time? The quote above is just the most egregious example of pompous language undercutting the impact of events in the book. Only one line of dialogue earlier she is described as “profoundly shaken.” Also, to describe near-death as “infelicity”… I had to put the book down for a bit.

On a final positive note, the ideas in the book are rich and passionate, which is why I gave it 1.5 instead of 1 stars. These ideas include longevity technology, artistic expression, bio-engineering, what a far-reaching future might look like, and how people might find identity in a far future. It also explored how people handle death, how the media might look in a distant future, what our current tendencies toward oligarchy might lead to, what a crime might be in the future, and what nature might be in the future. Truly, it covers a lot of bases conceptually. But for me, it was on the back of lackluster characters with distracting language. I felt that the author cared far more about the concepts than his vehicles for breathing life into them. The useless female characters also damaged the sense of futurism; an avid fan of classic scifi learns to forgive empty doe-eyed ladies in 60s novels, but in a novel written in 1999 that’s just too much. I won’t be looking for Stableford in my reading future.

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.

Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin 1974)

Rating: 2/5

I first read The Dispossessed in high school. I wasn’t wild about it. But high schoolers lack knowledge of government and people and how we get along together, major topics of the book, so I figured I owed it a reread.

I wasn’t wild about The Dispossessed the second time either. It may be the talkiest modern book I’ve read. With all the talking, I never felt like I emotionally connected with the countries, the characters, or the conflicts. In contrast, Le Guin’s other Hugo and Nebula award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, is structurally similar and is one of my favorite books.

The Dispossessed takes place on a world and an inhabitable moon, the Earthlike Urras the harsher Anarres. Politically, Urras has rich and poor and countries of different political persuasions. Anarres is inhabited by descendants of anarchists from Urras. On Anarres, the people are equal and they struggle together against the harsh climate. They don’t own anything and they are free because of it. The main character is Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres. The book alternates between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and Shevek’s visit to Urras. Shevek is the first person from either world to go to the other. The book contrasts to the two societies using Shevek’s eyes, a man who doesn’t quite fit in on either world.

Much of the book describes the society of anarchist Anarres. People work for the good of society. No one is strictly obligated to, but social shame is applied to those who don’t, those who “egoize”.  Everyone, even the physicists, is expected to spend part of their time laboring for society. Men and women are equal, the intelligent and less intelligent are equal too. The book does discuss where these ideals start to break down, but still, I had trouble believing in the Annaresti society. It felt one-dimensional, like its whole purpose was to be a foil to hedonistic, classist Urras, and moreso, hedonistic classist Earth.

Ultimately, I didn’t believe in the book. All the characters orated on social issues, and I often forgot who was who. I didn’t feel for any of the characters. The two different societies never felt real to me, just exaggerations of two extremes. Neither Urras or Anarres was shocking or insightful to me.

I wonder how the book felt in 1974. Roe vs. Wade happened in 1973. Title IX passed in 1972. A book by a female author about equality and respect was probably a breath of fresh air. Today, to me, maybe the story’s equality read a little too like a fairy tale. Too neat and tidy when we see female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno pilloried for being ugly. There’s a lot of steps in between 1800’s style ownership of women and the ideal of female equality that the book tidily skips over.

Interestingly, The Dispossessed has a similar structure to The Left Hand of Darkness. A man who exists outside two societies visits and contrasts both of them. But for me, Left Hand has so much more feeling. I felt both cultures, and I loved the main characters. In both Left Hand and in The Dispossessed‘s Anarres, the battle against the elements forces a sort of communal behavior. Both books examine gender in society. But for me, The Left Hand of Darkness works, while The Dispossessed doesn’t.

Book Review: Player of Games (Iain M. Banks 1988)

In this review, I avoid spoilers, but since nothing really happens in this book for about 100 pages, that means some of the things I mention do happen a good percentage into the book.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Iain M. Banks Culture series is renowned for its great far future space operas and artificial intelligences. I like space operas and I like artificial intelligences, so I picked Player of Games as one of Iain Banks well-rated books on amazon.

I almost didn’t make it through this book. The main character, Gurgeh, is a professional game player who lives in a wonderful castle on a wonderful world with other people who like games and parties. They live in the Culture, the future civilization of humans (and presumably others) that is mostly controlled by artificial intelligences.

We don’t start the book with the Culture, we start it with Gurgeh. Gurgeh (whose name kept reminding me of Gurgi from The Black Cauldron) is famous across the Culture for the fact he can play basically any game and almost always win. The entire first 75 pages are consumed by Gurgeh’s ennui and partying. I hated these 75 pages.

Then the book picks up. We get to see more of the Culture, and eventually a different civilization called the Azad. The Azad are a barbaric people whose society rotates around a game called Azad. The Culture sends Gurgeh to go play Azad against the Azad.

This isn’t a book for character development or sparkling prose, it’s a book with neat ideas. Azad is neat, the Culture is neat, and the interactions between the two lifestyles was neat. The drones are interesting. I liked the Azad planet Echronedal, which is always on fire.

I really enjoyed the last 200 pages of the book; it was full of fun and interesting things. I want to read more Culture books in the future. But I don’t want to read this one again and I would recommend it only with the caveats above. I didn’t find the posturing and sparring in games that I didn’t know and didn’t mean anything to the protagonist either. But obviously a lot of people loved this book and probably enjoyed the early game play.

The people who recommended Banks to me compared him to Vernor Vinge, whom I love. I can see why people would compare the two, but Player of Games didn’t stack against my favorite Vinge books. We’ll see what I think about future Culture books.