Category Archives: sci-fi

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

the-power-by-naomi-alderman

I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

station eleven by emily st john mandel

STATION ELEVEN opens with a performance of King Lear and is rich with reminders that, whilst we may live in a more technologically advanced world, humankind has not changed much since 1616, nor does it look set to change much in the future. In this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are still programmed to survive, to strive and to build connections with others.

Playing King Lear is Arthur Leander and his story holds together the various plot lines that make up STATION ELEVEN. Set partly in a present on the verge of being destroyed by a deadly flu virus, and partly in a post Apocalyptic future, it is unexpectedly gentle, beautiful and uplifting. Kirsten, a young girl on stage with Leander, survives the epidemic and joins with a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, who traverse a sparsely populated landscape performing for the inhabitants of far flung pockets of new settlements. She carries with her a sci-fi comic containing exquisite drawings of a new planet that’s hiding in a black hole in space. The planet is called Station Eleven and the artist is Miranda, Leander’s ex-wife, who succumbs to the flu lying on a beach watching the sunset blaze and reflecting on her assumptions about what the world would always be like. The only other copy of her comic ever made also survives the apocalypse in tact, given by Leander to his son and left by the boy in an airport terminal where one survivor has set up a museum of relics from the pre-collapse world. The drawings immortalise Leander, fulfilling his desire as an actor not just to be seen but to be remembered albeit not in the way he imagined when comparing himself to the old movie stars whose films are watched over and over

Memory is a theme that Mandel comes back to time and again throughout the novel. It’s the lens through which survival is viewed and elevates STATION ELEVEN  above your typical book about societal collapse. It references all we know – or think we know – about what happens in these situations: one character stockpiles bottled water and food, admitting he’s seen enough disaster movies to know how the script plays out. And there’s the obligatory lawlessness, feral gangs and the horror of clogged up highways and bodies rotting behind every closed door. Many survivors bear tattoos of arrows on their bodies to mark the number of people they have killed. But by setting the sections that concern the future in Year Twenty, where cars have been reduced to rusted exoskeletons on flat tires, Mandel can concentrate far more on the process of rebuilding and remembering. In STATION ELEVEN hell is no longer other people, it’s  the absence of the people you long for. It explores the notion that memories can be both a blessing and a burden –  on whether those who were too little to remember life before have it easier or worse –  and reflects on what longing for the past does to our ability to build a future.

Purpose, and the role it plays in what we know as civilisation, is also a key theme – both as in human endeavour and as in the sort that often manifests itself in religion. So there are some who believe they have been spared death from the flu because they are the chosen ones – they form a cult, led my a ranting, raving Lear tribute act,  that lives by a set of rules that are just about as far distant from the notion of civilisation as it’s possible to be. In contrast, collective purpose and responsibility create the conditions in which art and beauty can be appreciated once again – a new culture emerges, forged from what was best about the old world and important in the new. A culture that rejects the frivolity and dream like unreality of sending rockets into space and pressing a button to talk to someone hundreds of thousands of miles away, opting instead, at least in the short term, to value the more immediate satisfactions of being fed, loved and able to think about a future with possibilities.

With just the right balance between profundity and the every day, between drama and reflection, and between the stories of individual characters and the wider implications of their behaviour, Mandel has written a thought provoking and unforgettable novel. One that forces us to consider what really matters – are we really so busy that there’s no time to write the full version of thx? – and to confront the human condition head on, in all it’s glorious complexity, as something worth inhabiting with every fibre of our being. Scrawled on one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans are the words survival is insufficient. When (not if) society as we know it collapses, I hope someone remembers that and, if I am still around, I hereby declare my intention to set up a band of players that creates something beautiful and moving that will help banish the dark.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for helping and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons, whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading an commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

 

 

 

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GOLD FAME CITRUS by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus by claire vaye watkins

Luz and Ray live in a California where water has all but run out.  They are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion when they “find” a child, Ig, and decide to head east where water is rumoured to be in relatively plentiful supply. But in a world where the state hands out coca cola rations and a shape shifting super dune called Amargosa is slowly engulfing every small American town in its path, such a journey is neither safe nor straightforward. Ray’s status as an army deserter doesn’t help matters, nor do rumours of people never being allowed to leave forced evacuation camps. Nevertheless they set out to make the journey and are instantly confronted with yet more evidence of the environmental ruin that’s overtaken America – caved in highways, forests of dessicated yucca plants and the most intense heat imaginable. When their car breaks down, Ray leaves Ig and Luz in its shelter to go in search of help but never returns. They, however, are found by members of a wandering community who track the super dune and have adapted to live in its environs, dowsing for water, growing their own food and scavenging from the ruins that Amargosa leaves in its wake.

This community – and in particular matriarchal Dallas – nurse Luz and Ig back from severe sun stroke and give them a home. A grieving Luz soon grows to rely more and more on the community leader, Levi, both for his homegrown brute root that evens out the knots in life and to reflect her sense of self as a good mother, a good person. But nobody matters to Levi more than the Amargosa and the power it has given him- to curate, direct and enjoy his gift for being a charlatan.

Watkins mainly tells her story by way of a straightforward linear narrative but every so often she goes off piste, with varying degrees of success. In one instance she breaks off to present a guide to the new species that have evolved in the deserts surrounding Amargosa, which is both clever and poignant. At another point she zooms out and describes the way those flying over the super dune are intoxicated by its presence and the destruction it reaps – I felt this section worked less well and I found myself skipping pages at this point. However, her writing is always searing, unsettling and unusual, and never more so than when she’s describing the (lost) natural world. So we get, “The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.” Sitting in Levi’s geodome, Luz reflects that every home is a mausoleum, a wax museum, thanks to “ferns on throw pillows coated in formaldehyde; poppies on petrochemical dinner plates; boxes and bags of bulk pulp stuffs emblazoned with plant imagery”.  Watkins does tender and beautiful – when Luz and Levi find a long abandoned swimming pool, being submerged in the green water is “like being in an angel’s inner ear” – and savage parody with equal confidence. There’s a genius extended riff on TV viewing that gives us reality shows such as Embalming with the Stars, Sixteen with HIV, Midgets in Middle Management, as well as Laughing Gas, “a raunch-com about dentists innovating a myriad of ways to violate their unconscious patients”.

As a commentary on fame and celebrity culture, this book is many layered. For example, Luz is Baby Dunn, poster child for the state’s conservation movement, and has lived her life in the shadow of headlines such as “Every Swimming Pool in California to Be Drained Before Baby Dunn Is Old Enough to Take Swimming Lessons” and “Without Evacs Baby Dunn Will Die of Thirst by 24”. Her instantly recognisable face prompts Levi to cook up a scheme to protect the super dune and his community from annihilation by the authorities but, like so much in this novel (deliberately and otherwise), what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

As dystopian literature, GOLD FAME CITRUS is far more realistic than the other books I’ve read in this genre (there’s a passage for example detailing what’s happened to the food supply: “the beef gray…pears grimy…hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust…raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts”). And yet I didn’t like it nearly as much.  For starters, there’s barely an iota of hope that’s survived the environmental crises engulfing Los Angeles and, rather than rising to the challenges they face (whether that’s an oppressive state or the reality of an ever dwindling water table), the book’s characters are self indulgent, irresponsible and thoughtless. I wanted heroes and was sorely disappointed.  Despite their names, Luz and Ray are no shining lights come to save the world. What’s more, Luz is defined almost entirely by her dependence on men, as are the other women in the book, and the cliche of the charismatic male who has everyone in his sexual thrall is tired and boring, even when satirical as it is here. Add in the fact that Luz is Latina, passive and shallow, whilst the (white) men are supposedly deep and masterful, and you have a whole host of other things that grate.

There’s some real gems in here, in particular Watkin’s ability to convey foreboding, fear and desperation. She’s clearly a talented writer and I am even prepared to forgive her for the rather abrupt ending to this book. But overall, despite much promise and potential, ultimately it left me as frustrated and unfulfilled as gold, fame and citrus are wont to do. A mirage in the desert, this book shimmers and entices but fails to really deliver.

 

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ALIVE: BOOK ONE OF THE GENERATIONS TRILOGY by Scott Sigler

alive by scott sigler

This book opens quite promisingly, with teenagers waking on their 12th birthdays trapped in what they think are coffins. On breaking free they realise they are actually much older than they thought and recall very little about their lives to date. It goes downhill from there. The teenagers, led by Em, explore their surroundings and find lots of empty rooms full of skulls, bodies in various states of decomposition, other coffins, marble pedestals and crumbling pillars. After what seems an interminably long time they find some other teenagers, join forces with them and then find a room that’s home to a garden, some pigs (and some obvious attempts to channel LORD OF THE FLIES) and some fruit trees. Here they get the chance to drink and eat before doing some more exploring, which brings them face to face with what they think are monsters but are actually incredibly old people. They find out they are on a space ship (not trapped in a vast pyramid as it seemed to me), a thousand years worth of travel away from earth and headed for life on a new planet. The teens also learn that they are replicas of the very old people, their bodies and minds destined to be taken over when the time is right.

Some relatively interesting considerations about memory, human survival instinct, gender differences and similarities, our inherent squeamishness about death, religion, and the nature of leadership and power, don’t quite distract from the fact ALIVE is a little like the environment into which the Birthday children, as they dub themselves, are born: confusing, limiting and repetitive. “I don’t need memories to know right from wrong”, says Em at one point. Well, I don’t need my memories of much better other books of this genre to know I am unlikely to bother with books 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

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PANDEMONIUM & REQUIEM: DELIRIUM TRILOGY by Lauren Oliver

pandemonium by lauren oliverrequiem by lauren oliver

I read DELIRIUM some time ago and wasn’t overly impressed. These two books complete the trilogy and are much better and edgier. “The animals are on the other side of the fence: monsters wearing uniforms. They speak softly, tell lies, and smile as they’re slitting your throat”.

Central protagonist Lena has grown up overnight after losing her first love, Alex, as the pair escaped to the Wilds in a bid to avoid the Cure, a compulsory procedure supposed to protect everyone from amor deliria nervosa – otherwise known as love. In the Wilds she’s taken in by Invalids who are part of a resistance movement and, after they nurse her back to full strength, is sent back amongst the Cured to gather information that will help those fighting for the right to love. She is sent specifically to spy on the members of deliria-free America (DFA), an evangelical political group who want to quell public unrest by administering the Cure at an ever younger age. When one of the DFA’s rallies comes under attack, Lena ends up following Julian, the son of one of DFA’s key figures, then being captured alongside him by mercenary inhabitants of the Wilds. The connection they make as the pair try to escape persuades him that falling in love isn’t the curse he’s been raised to believe and Julian decides to join Lena and the rest of the resistance fighters. In the final book, we pick up the story of Lena’s former best friend, Hanna, who is supposed to marry one of the DFA’s rising stars and this thread gives us a new insight into life after the Cure and the political struggle to control an increasingly fractured and unhappy society.  Lena’s cousin Grace makes a reappearance towards the very end too, as a symbol of innocence and a potentially better future.  She is also proof that, despite what is claimed for the Cure, the past is more than a “the barest impression on sparkling glass”, and choice means embracing and learning from what’s gone before, rather than letting it bury you.

There’s much about freedom and choice woven into the different stories Oliver gives us and some stand out lines, including about the power to choose the wrong thing and how that’s beautiful. It’s an idea picked up at the end of the book, which feels much less extreme than some of these kinds of trilogies. Lena knows true rage and despair, at one point promising, “If you take, we will take back. Steal from us, and we will rob you blind. When you squeeze, we will hit.” But as the books draw to a close, we understand how she has been changed irrevocably by the loss and suffering she has both seen and endured. She learns that hatred “will feed you and at the same time turn you to rot”. And now she  talks about tearing down walls and living together, rather than destroying those who have caused  misery. In fact the books very consciously identify reconciliation as the key to a peaceful future:

“Take down the walls. Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verses of terror and tightness. Otherwise you may never know hell, but you will not find heaven either. You will not know fresh air and flying.”

Lena’s emotional journey is just as gripping as her political one. She struggles to accept the loss of Alex, and her feelings of guilt at surviving are compounded when she starts to fall for someone else. The soppy self indulgent teen who irritated me in DELIRIUM has been replaced by someone far stronger and in control though and this keeps the story from subsiding into mush. She is reunited with the mother she once thought was dead, and, when the streets of her hometown of Portland become a battleground between the resistance and the DFA, Lena makes a series of brave decisions that mark her out as no ordinary young woman. As one of the lines from a forbidden text reminds her “He who jumps may fall, but he may also fly”. She takes risks without being reckless and this grounds the book amidst plenty of action and adventure. No doubt the film makers who buy the rights to bring this series to the screen will have a field day with the number of explosions that happen, and there’s plenty of hand to hand combat, apocalyptic flooding, bombing and trekking underground too.

Exciting, thoughtful and as addictive as amor deliria nervosa, these books are five star young adult fiction.

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THE MAZE RUNNER; THE SCORCH TRIALS; THE DEATH CURE; THE KILL ORDER by James Dashner

the maze runner trilogy by james dashner

I saw a trailer for THE SCORCH TRIALS and this piqued my interest in the books. They are OK but I don’t think I’ll bother going to see the films. The premise is that most of the human race has been infected by something called The Flare, which was unleashed in a government experiment and slowly eats away at your brain, turning you mad. Those who appear immune are part of a programme to develop a cure, which entails putting them through various trials to see how they react and rebuild various pathways in people’s brains.

Things I liked about the series:

  • In common with much of this genre of fiction, there’s a powerful sense of right and wrong in the big picture, but the grey areas are explored too, by the way individuals respond and relate to events and the world around them.
  • There are strong, well developed female characters who provide more than just love interest for the main protagonist, Thomas. He in turn is sensitive, caring and complex, as are several of the other boys in the books.
  • Each novel has a distinct landscape that gives it a very different feel to the others in the series (much like eg HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy) and those landscape are vivid and very visual.
  • The endless double-crossing, twists and manipulation – the reader is always at the same disadvantage as Thomas, including about his own role in initiating the trials, and that keeps things interesting.
  • Alec, a central character in THE KILL ORDER, who is by the far the most interesting and likeable across the entire series.

Things I liked less:

  • The ending is far too abrupt – or at least it was when reading on my Kindle and not realising that THE KILL ORDER, which is really just a novella, was tacked on the end. The conclusion of THE DEATH CURE is also hugely idealistic and unsatisfying, even for a fan of happy, idealistic endings, like myself, with no real political resolution to the issues of control and corruption that have been centre stage through much of the series.
  • The whole series feels like it’s written with a franchise in mind – from the  grand sets, which are pitch perfect for the big screen, to the extra books, which don’t really add that much in terms of plot and could just have been woven into the original trilogy.
  • The Grievers, automated slugs who wield spikes and shears, and can administer stings that bring on disturbing symptoms not dissimilar to taking large quantities of acid. They make this list not because of their inherent unpleasantness but because I felt they were superfluous and because I prefer my baddies to be human.

The plot is far too complicated to reprise in any detail but overall it works, it’s convincing and gripped me for a few weeks. Credit where credit’s due, Dashner has started with a compelling idea and turned it into a story that’s entertaining and asks all the right questions. There’s just one problem: I read every one of these new young adult trilogies in the expectation it will match up to THE HUNGER GAMES and I am repeatedly disappointed when it doesn’t.

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WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey; THREE by Sarah Lotz; THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood; THE HOURGLASS FACTORY by Lucy Ribchester; BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo; THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

So the last several weeks have been dominated by general election campaigning and that’s meant no blogging – though I’ve still managed to read plenty. Here’s a quick run down just for the record:

wool trilogy by hugh howey

WOOL TRILOGY by Hugh Howey. By far and away the best of its kind I’ve read in a while. A dangerous visionary triggers Armageddon and a mass experiment that sees the creation of several communities living in underground silos, with only a very few individuals entrusted with the knowledge that they are not the only survivors. Regular “cleanings” are used to eradicate anyone who comes too close to discovering the truth or asking awkward questions. But one day someone survives a cleaning – a tough mechanic made sheriff called Jules – setting in motion a chain of events that forces her and others to question everything they think they know. Howey has created a dystopian future that is credible, detailed and deeply disturbing. He’s ruthless in his disposal of key characters and brutally honest in his assessment of both the best and worst of human nature. Jules is easily the main attraction though. No selfless hero, she nevertheless possesses something most of her peers have abandoned – hope. It drives her to take huge personal risks, endure extreme physical hardship and inspire others.  It also made this the perfect book for the desolate political climate in which I was reading it.

three by sarah lotz

THREE by Sarah Lotz – four planes crash simultaneously, killing all but 3 children who survive against seemingly impossible odds and one woman, Pamela May Todd, who clings onto life just long enough to record a message on her mobile phone. Told by way of interviews, transcripts of voice recordings by their family members, newspaper articles and webchats, this is the story of how the world races to explain what’s happened. Religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, paranormal specialists and alien take over experts abound. Gripping and attention grabbing, this was the perfect read at a time when not much succeeded in distracting me.

the one that got away by simon wood

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Simon Wood. Zoe Sutton and her friend are abducted by a psychopath who hangs his victims from a hook, brands and whips them for perceived misdemeanours. Zoe manages to escape but cannot remember what happened, just that she abandoned her friend. Now working as a security guard in a shopping mall, she’s rebuilt a life of sorts, although it’s marked by guilt, erratic bouts of aggression and a determination to push friends and families away. When her abductor strikes again, Zoe is determined to track him down and find out the truth about the night which haunts her. This book seriously got under my skin with tension that builds from page one towards a brutal finale.

the hourglass factory by lucy ribchester

THE HOURGLASS FACTOR by Lucy Ribchester. The Suffragettes provide the backdrop for this unusual crime novel that involves an underground plot to blow up Parliament, corset fetishists, a trapeze artist, snake charmer and an ambitious young woman journalist called Frankie. Ribchester perfectly combines sinister and strange to great effect and I really enjoyed her clever plot, some laugh out loud moments and a good dose of feminist politics thrown in to boot.

blood on snow by jo nesbo

BLOOD ON SNOW by Joe Nesbo. This is not a patch on Nesbo’s other books. Centre stage is a contract killer who, though fascinating, falls far short of the glorious Harry Hole. He’s been ordered to take out his boss’s wife but ends up falling for her instead. There’s drug gangs, the stench of fish and  hiding out in coffins. But despite a double bluff I didn’t see coming, there’s a real absence of the wonderful twists, turns and blind alleys Nesbo usually does so well. It helped pass the time but only just…

the angel's game by carlos ruiz zafon

THE ANGEL’S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This Faustian novel is epic fable full of gothic horror. Zafon populates his twisted and surreal Barcelona landscape with menacing characters that are warped by their dark secrets. At its heart is frustrated novelist David Martin, whose craving for recognition sees him abandon any sense of morality and of reality. He weaves a tale worthy of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, yet, unlike that narrator, Martin himself seems unsure what’s truth and what’s fiction. Clever, atmospheric and self aware, THE ANGEL’S GAME  is a book of two halves – the latter being where the plot really gets going but also, sadly, where some of what makes the first half so special gets lost. A tribute to the power of storytelling, with Dickens’ Great Expectations as a key reference point, it gets a little lost in all those winding dark Spanish streets and, for me at least, failed to completely live up to its promise.

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