Tag Archives: science fiction book review

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.

Book Review: Cyteen (C. J. Cherryh 1988)

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

Rating: 4/5

Cyteen was the winner of the 1989 Hugo Award. It is about neither cyborgs nor teenagers nor cyborg teenagers, despite the name; Cyteen in the name of a planet. Cyteen takes place in the same universe as Downbelow Station (which I reviewed here) in a different culture and time. Like Downbelow Station, this is a book that requires patience up front, but offers great rewards. Cyteen is 750 pages of intricate scheming and counter-scheming, supported by interesting and conflicted characters.

Cyteen is the capital planet of the Union, one of a few major political entities in a future where humans have drifted amongst numerous stars with faster-than-light travel. The economy of Union is largely supported by the production of a cloned working force called “azis”, who are psychologically trained to serve in various capacities. All azis are produced in a research lab/city called Roseune. The book opens with power struggles between the forces of Roseune, the military, and another faction. A murder follows this initial conflict, which weakens the status of Roseune and fundamentally alters the lives of the characters. The continuing power struggles are described through the individuals trying to survive them at Roseune.

My biggest complaint: the book takes too long to develop. The first 20 pages are textbook-style background. Even after that, my progress was slow. It took a while to figure out a lot of the politics, and I didn’t understand what azi were for at least a hundred pages. Additionally, it read slowly, constantly packed with intricacy and detail on each large page of text. I very much enjoyed this book, but it is not light reading. Read this one when you have a solid block of time to set aside.

I would recommend Downbelow Station over Cyteen, although I prefer the characters in Cyteen. Despite a shared universe, the styles of the two books differ substantially. Downbelow Station is a smart space opera, threaded with politics. Cyteen is a personal drama, saturated with politics. If you enjoy hard science fiction and you are patient, you will probably enjoy both of them.

Book Review: Lilith’s Brood (Octavia Butler 2000)

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

 Rating: 4.5/5

Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three novels by Octavia Butler published from 1987 to 1989, gathered together in 2000. The set of three books, also called the Xenogenesis trilogy, is about 750 pages long. They were published as three novels, but I would highly recommend reading them back to back as I did. The world that Butler builds over the three novels is complex. I would have had trouble trying to read the second or third novels after a long gap.

Lilith’s Brood was my first book by Octavia Butler. The writing is incredibly readable; I easily covered 50 pages an hour.  Some science fiction novels dump world-building at the beginning;  it can be something the reader has to fight through. Butler does not do this; she develops the main character first and then the environment from the eyes of the main character. The world she eventually develops is intricate and explained in detail, but by the time she got to it, I was engaged.

The trilogy opens with Lilith, a woman who survived World War III on a now ravaged Earth. She is held alone by aliens called the Oankali. Without going into spoiling detail, the Oankali are extremely alien. All three books develop the Oankali, and they are as much of the world Butler builds as anything. The Oakali want something from Lilith, though she is unsure what. Lilith finds them physically frightening, and is uncertain about her future.

Butler approaches situations from the character’s emotional response, rather than from a technical aspect. The book explores themes of gender, sex, humanity, and community–some pretty hefty topics that sci-fi sometimes skirts, especially at the time of its writing. I rate the book as a 4.5/5 partially because of this novelty and distinctiveness. In many stories, I enjoy rooting for a protagonist or a certain course of events. In this story, I didn’t know what I wanted, which was odd, but not bad. My only real criticism of the story is that, while certain aspects of the world were highly developed, it was hard to imagine living in this world. While I enjoyed reading about this world, I think I would find it profoundly dull. Still, I highly recommend reading this, especially if you haven’t read Butler before.

Book Review: Marooned in Realtime (Vernor Vinge 1986)

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

Rating: 4/5

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge is the far future sequel to The Peace War, set on Earth 50 million years in the future. The Peace War introduced the concept of “bobbling”, a scientific discovery where a spherical bobble, impervious to the laws of physics, can be created. Anything inside the bobble doesn’t experience what happens outside of it; a year can pass outside the bobble, but no time passes inside it. The time length for which a bobble exists can be tuned. This was used to great effect in The Peace War as a mechanism for sequestering weapons. In Marooned in Realtime, the people who were bobbled through various circumstances come together and try to reestablish humanity after it was somehow lost.

If you like other Vinge stuff, you’ll probably like this, and it’s a lot shorter than some of his things. I recommend reading The Peace War first, although I think I like this book slightly better. There are some references back to the characters in the first book and a novella written between the two, which got a little annoying eventually. Also, I am not sure if the ubiquitous bobbles and their governing rules would be totally obvious reading this as a stand alone. It has been several years since I read The Peace War, and though I remembered the basics, I found myself wishing I could remember more clearly.

Overall it was  a solid Vinge book, with good hard scifi and far-flung and fun extrapolations. Vinge is a computer scientist, and he makes the most of this background. Don’t expect to read Vinge for the emotions. His forte is playful futurism and making everything go wrong at once. I read Marooned in Realtime easily in three days, and I’m not the fastest reader. It was easy to get into, and the first book I’ve read off my holiday reading list.

Book Review: The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt 2008)

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

Rating: 5/5

I absolutely adored “The Invention of Everything Else”. I’ve always meant to read more histories and biographies than I do, but sometimes they can be dry. This book, in many ways, is a fictional biography of Tesla, a famously eccentric inventor who first pioneered AC electricity and radio. To learn more about Tesla, check out this awesome Oatmeal cartoon, which has a lot more detail than I’ll include here. The book also has rich and lovely descriptions about historic New York City. And most of all, this book is a romance of eccentric people, whom I feel get far less respect than they deserve. The characters are pigeon-enthusiasts and hoarders and dreamers and inventors.

The book opens with Tesla as a very old man, broke and largely forgotten. He was a brilliant inventor, but not a businessman like Edison. He lives in a dreamlike state, remembering past glories and failures, and seeking his beloved white pigeon (see the Oatmeal cartoon). The other main character of the story is Louisa, a young vibrant woman who works at Tesla’s hotel. She likes to listen to radio dramas and to study people, so she is naturally fascinated by Tesla. Over the book, we learn a lot about Tesla and Louisa as they orbit one another.

The language of this book is wonderful. The descriptive passages evoked touchable images in my head although the descriptions were fairly brief. I could imagine being in bygone New York, and the distractions and wonders of the characters in that setting. The dirtiness of it, and the perpetual motion of it. Here is a quote from the first chapter that captures some of the loveliness of the language:

“Drawer #42. It sticks and creaks with the weather. This is the drawer where I once thought I’d keep all my best ideas. It contains only some cracked peanut shells. It is too dangerous to write my best ideas down. ‘Whoops. Wrong drawer. Whoops.’ I repeat the word. It’s one of my favorites. If it were possible I’d store ‘Whoops’ in the safe by my bed, along with ‘OK’ and ‘Sure thing’ and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.”

If you are a lover of hard science fiction, this one might not be for you. The genre of this book is subtle, with the fantasy element of dreaming maybe most prominent. It seemed like every character in this book took a jump off of something, imagining they could fly. But if you love characters and setting and eccentricity, then you should like it. I loved it, and I really recommend it.

Book Review: The Witling (Vernor Vinge 1976)

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

Rating: 3/5

As far as I can tell, “The Witling” is Vernor Vinge’s second novel, and to some extent, it shows. I enjoyed reading it, but it doesn’t have the depths of Vinge’s later works like “A Fire Upon the Deep” or less-known but also good “The Peace War”. The book is only about 175 pages long; I’m not the fastest reader and I finished in two pretty short sessions, also unlike Vinge’s other novels.

The story opens with two humans who have become marooned on an alien world with human-like inhabitants. Only after being captured do the humans realize that the natives have what we would call supernatural abilities: transporting themselves or objects by will of the mind. The magnitude of this ability varies from person to person; those with the least ability are called witlings. The two humans, with no ability, fall into this category. The prince of the realm also happens to be a witling, which is a great source of shame for him. He is intrigued by the humans, especially the woman. The humans must get off the surface, as all the alien foods naturally contain heavy metals, and continued exposure will be fatal.

Although he provides no supporting science for the abilities of the aliens, Vinge does what I like best in sci-fi–he takes a simple premise and runs far with it. With these abilities, how would you imprison someone? How would you travel the world? Would you even need doors? How would you conduct warfare? These issues come up again and again through the book, and each time they are a delight.

Another interesting point touched upon is body image. The book starts with the human male describing the woman, Yoninne, as ugly and unpleasant, too stocky and temperamental. The aliens, who it’s hinted have a slightly stronger gravity, are stockier, and to them, Yoninne is close enough in build, but different enough to be exotic and tantalizing. I haven’t read much sci-fi of this era that deals with such issues of perception; unfortunately, this thread is not continued throughout the book.

The primary reason I rate “The Witling” as a 3/5 and not higher is because I found the ending unsatisfying. I won’t go into specifics in this review. The action was quite good and fun, but it conceptually bothered me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have read a lot of other works by Vernor Vinge. It’s interesting to see the form of his early, less perfect work, plus it’s a super quick read.

Book review: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress 1993)

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

Rating: 4/5

“Beggars in Spain” is a science fiction novel written in 1993; it was nominated for the top two awards in the field, the Hugo and the Nebula, though it didn’t win either. (“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson won both; it is one of the most detailed hard sf books I’ve read.) “Beggars in Spain” is one of those sf books that can be summarized by a what-if– what-if some people didn’t have to sleep at all? How would society react? What kinds of advantages would they have? How would it affect the personality of such a person?

The novel opens with a wealthy man wishing to procure advantageous genetic alterations for his to-be-conceived child in 2008. Though it is still rare, he wants his child to be sleepless. The children who have the trait have proven to be much smarter and always cheerful. Another child is conceived accidentally who is not sleepless (as a small nitpick, the science in this bit seemed fishy, but I am not familiar with what was known in 1993). Leisha is the sleepless daughter, Alice is the sleeper daughter.

Leisha is of course beautiful and brilliant. Much of the novel rotates around how she relates to sleeper people. The characters in the book didn’t always work for me; Leisha is always cheerful as a sleeper, but this is hard to relate to, and hard to imagine how it would even work. Also there is an injection of almost libertarian politics that I wasn’t sure what I thought of. The politics aren’t preachy and are presented as Leisha’s world-view rather than the author’s. I liked the first half of the novel immensely. I didn’t dislike the second half, but I found it less exciting and engaging. One consistently strong point of this book was the writing: I sometimes have to labor through harder science fiction books, which must belabor the description of complicated mechanical things. This book just flew for me, while still attacking the central question of science fiction: what would happen to people if? So if you are a fan of hard sf and only hard sf, it probably isn’t for you.

“Beggars in Spain” was also one of the most female-dominated sf books I’ve read. Most of the principal characters are female. The book is feminist without caring about it or focusing on it; these characters could just as easily be male but they simply aren’t. It’s feminist not in the sense of women’s rights, but simply having women as protagonists and examining their relationships. I’ve read umpteen scifi books with barely a woman on the pages, so this was a welcome change of pace. Nancy Kress is also one of the few premier female names in science fiction, so it also seemed appropriate.

Overall, I found “Beggars in Spain” a very worthy read. It raised a lot of thoughtful questions that even a week after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about. It never came together in a “wow” moment, as a few sf books do for me, but it was pleasant and easy to read, which is not always the rule in sf. This was the first work I’ve read by Nancy Kress, and based on this book, I want to read more from her.