Tag Archives: science fiction

Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn by Octavia Butler isn’t for everybody. There is tentacle rape. Nobody has ever accused Butler’s work of being easy or light.

This review contains spoilers.

Lilith Iyapo, a Nigerian American, wakes up in an isolation room in an alien spaceship. The aliens – the Oankali – come to her and tell her that nuclear war has destroyed most of life on Earth. The Oankali will restore the planet and teach the survivors how to live on it. In exchange, the humans must mate with them.

Lilith doesn’t trust the Oankali, but she reasons that if she cooperates with them, she can get herself and a group of human beings onto Earth’s surface and then they can run away.

The Oankali seem quite reasonable at first. Jdahya, the first Oankali she meets, is gentle with her and lets her get used to his horrifying appearance at her own pace. The Oankali are pacifist plant-eaters. They have an egalitarian society.

The first sign something is wrong is that Lilith wakes up with a scar on her abdomen. The Oankali cured her cancer. While she was unconscious. Without asking her.

After that it gets so gradually and creepily worse that I often had to stop and ask myself did I really just read that? The worst things the Oankali do are written in such a matter-of-fact tone that they left me wondering whether the Oankali did something wrong. The entire novel is a case of gaslighting for artistic effect.

The Oankali rarely lie, but they are dishonest with Lilith. They tell her they arrived in the solar system just in time to save humanity from extinction by nuclear war. But does “just in time” mean right after, or right before, the bombs dropped? What are the chances that the sight of space aliens with worms for faces caused the U.S. and Soviet militaries to panic?

They show Lilith their families made out of one male, one female, and one third-gender ooloi. The ooloi don’t make sperm or egg but manipulate male and female DNA as part of sex. They tell Lilith they must mate with other intelligent species or go extinct. The ooloi are so good at manipulating DNA that the Oankali can no longer evolve on their own, and must plagiarize genes from other species.

The Oankali don’t tell Lilith what they do with their perverts. What about Oankali who want twosomes, or the same sex, or who don’t want to reproduce? Considering their genetic engineering skills, I suspect the ooloi “fix” them.

If male and female Oankali mated with each other, wouldn’t they be able to make DNA mistakes and evolve? Do they have to rape humanity, or are the ooloi blind to another way? The ooloi insist on ridding humanity of its warlike nature, but they don’t seem too worried about the problems with Oankali nature.

I spent too much of the book rooting for some sort of compromise. I figured even the tentacle rape was a casualty of first contact, eventually the Oanaki would realize that humanity does better when negotiated with than manipulated, and they would back off. The last straw comes after a man Lilith has grown to love dies. An ooloi impregnates her with his sperm and some alien DNA because it’s what she would have wanted. Without asking her. Lilith’s human clan is sent down to Earth without her because she is no longer human enough to live among them.

The Oankali were never interested in compromise. I should have realized that and turned against them many chapters before. The ending left me asking whether Lilith’s clan is a bunch of hairless apes who wouldn’t see reason, or whether Lilith has turned into a monster. Lilith is likely asking herself the same question.

Sphere by Michael Crichton

A black man, a white man, and a white woman all get the power to warp reality to their will. The black man and the white woman can’t handle the power and nearly get the group killed. The white man saves the day by being more emotionally stable than them.

ಠ_ಠ

I don’t think Michael Crichton meant Sphere to come out sounding that way, but his characters are so paper-thin there’s nothing left of them but their stereotypes.

Norman Johnson, professor of psychology, gets called in by the Navy to investigate a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. The downed plane turns out to be a spacecraft. Because of Norman’s previous work on group dynamics, the Navy has given him the job of keeping the crew from freaking out in the face of alien life. Norman and a team of scientists he hand-selected go to a deep-sea habitat to investigate the wreck.

Some of what happens next is spoileriffic. Suffice to say that whoever comes into contact with a certain sphere gets reality-warper powers. It involves time travel.

For the first few chapters, I found Crichton’s prose refreshingly sparse. After a while it gets wooden. Check this out:

Norman suddenly felt overwhelmed. He sat on his bunk, holding the notebook in his hands. Finally he looked at a couple of pages, filled with Ted’s large, enthusiastic scrawl. A photograph fell onto his lap. He turned it over. It was a photo of a red Corvette. And the feelings just overwhelmed him. Norman didn’t know if he was crying for Ted, or crying for himself, because it was clear to him that one by one, they were all dying down here. He was very sad, and very afraid.

Crichton doesn’t explore the implications of the magic sphere in nearly as much depth as he could have. Why aren’t characters inundated with pink elephants when they desperately try not to think about them? Why can’t characters imagine their way out of problems? The only thing the power seems to do is throw monsters at the habitat.

The plot runs on the characters’ terrible decisions. When the Navy learn that a typhoon is bearing down on the site of the wreck, which isn’t going anywhere, they hasten to send the characters to the underwater habitat just in time to trap them down there. When jellyfish of an unknown species swarm the habitat, one of the Navy officers decides it’s time to go for a swim. Somebody rigged the habitat with a deadman’s switch that takes away their only means of escape unless they press a button. On the outside of the habitat.

That’s not even what bugs me the most about this book – it’s the three main characters, Harry Adams, Beth Halperin, and Norman.

Harry isn’t that bad. He’s actually competent, and when his powers get the best of him, it’s because of normal human fears. And it’s gratifying to see him survive.

I like women villains. I know real women can be any one of sex-obsessed, power hungry, manipulative, hysterical (Crichton literally uses this word), incompetent, and bitter. But why is Beth all of these things? And she never misses a chance to mention she’s a woman?

Crichton’s description of her is disturbing:

Beth, with her lack of self-esteem, her deep core of self-hate, had gone inside the sphere, and now she was acting with the power of the sphere, but without stability to her thoughts. Beth saw herself as a victim who struggled against her fate, always unsuccessfully. Beth was victimized by men, victimized by the establishment, victimized by research, victimized by reality. In every case she failed to see how she had done it to herself.

I don’t know what message Crichton is trying to convey here, but I think he had a bone to pick with somebody.

Norman’s a schlub. The problems with the mission are largely his fault – it was his job to pick a team of scientists who would be unlikely to crack under stress. He picks a team of scientists with low stress tolerance who all hate each other. When consequences follow, he doesn’t feel remorse. He just rescues Harry and the hysterical Beth because he can handle the sphere-power better than them.

I think the problem here is that Crichton was trying to write a book about emotions … and he sucks at it. It’s telling that he equated emotions with space aliens in this book. He tried to get into his characters’ heads and instead knocked things over. I was rooting for the giant squid.

Mind of my Mind by Octavia Butler

116254-_uy475_ss475_Wild Seed was my introduction to Octavia Butler’s work. I loved it. My edition contained a large chunk of Mind of my Mind, the next book in the series, which left me eager to learn what becomes of Doro and Anyanwu.

Mind of my Mind takes place in the 1970s or so, about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Both immortals have settled in California. The story focuses on Mary, the latest of Doro’s breeding experiments. As Mary comes into her powers, the experiment gets out of hand.

This book is one of Butler’s early works (her second), and it shows. The book feels unfinished. The narrative skips over great gaps of time in the middle as Mary learns to control her telepathic network and the writing is so spare that it cuts into the bone.

Within that short text, though, Butler raises questions about power and control. The telepaths are a race of people who have to prey on others to survive. Should they exist? If they already exist, what kind of ethics can they hold on to? Is Mary a villain? What about Doro?

The climax of the story was rushed but brought a satisfying closure to the story of Doro and Anyanwu. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a classic one, following in the tradition of Frankenstein.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe main character is a spaceship. And she is hell bent on revenge.

It is not the plot that makes Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie shine – the above is all there is to know about it. Nor is it the setting, which is standard space opera fare. It’s the technical mastery it takes to write a first-person novel from the point of view of an AI hive mind. In some of the early chapters Leckie writes from the first person omniscient. I didn’t even know you could do that. Look:

“Is she coming or not? If she isn’t coming she should say so.”

At that moment Lieutenant Awn was in the bath, and I was attending her. I could have told the lieutenants that Lieutenant Awn would be there soon, but I said nothing, only noted the levels and temperature of the tea in the black glass bowls various lieutenants held, and continued to lay out breakfast plates.

Near my own weapons storage, I cleaned my twenty guns, so I could stow them, along with their ammunition. In each of my lieutenants’ quarters I stripped the linen from their beds. The officers of Amaat, Toren, Etrepa, and Bo were all well into breakfast, chattering, lively. The captain ate with the decade commanders, a quieter, more sober conversation. One of my shuttles approached me, four Bo lieutenants returning from leave, strapped into their seats, unconscious. They would be unhappy when they woke.

Justice of Toren/One Esk Nineteen/Breq has a bizarre sense of identity. In the first half of the book, every other chapter describes the backstory, in which the Justice of Toren is a battleship crewed by dozens of officers and running her software in the brains of hundreds of meat-puppet human bodies. In the present day, the Justice of Toren has all been destroyed save for one puppet body. She still thinks of herself as a spaceship. And she thinks of herself as having already been murdered.

What the hell is Justice of Toren/One Esk Nineteen/Breq? She’s AI software running on a human brain. To make things even weirder, another character points out that it’s probably possible to bring back her body’s original owner (some nameless political prisoner). And her remaining body earns command of a ship, so now she’s a spaceship inside a human inside a spaceship.

A lot of the philosophical parts of the book explore what happens when a mind becomes divided against itself. This doesn’t just apply to the spaceship characters.
On the other hand, there’s so much philosophy in the book that not much happens. Add to that a nonlinear plot, an unreliable narrator, and characters who like to talk around the point in a way that would make Jane Austen proud, and you have yourself a tough read. I recommend looking up all the spoilers online first so you can know what’s going on. Then you can sit back and enjoy the thought experiment.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

A_Fire_Upon_the_Deep.bookcoverA book set in a galaxy with a peculiar quirk of physics: the closer to the galactic core you get, the less intelligence and stock science fiction goodies like faster-than-light travel are possible. A group of explorers punch into the galactic edge, the Transcend, and wake up a five-billion-year-old Blight that likes to eat souls.

A Fire Upon the Deep is two books, really. One book is a space opera in which Ravna Bergensdot and Pham Nuwen race to find a cure for the Blight. The other book is a work of xenofiction in which the only cure for the Blight crash lands on a planet of hive-mind ratdogs.

Space opera just isn’t my bag, so I found myself slogging through those parts to get to the xenofiction parts. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, Ravna and Pham are nice enough, but it’s all stuff you’ve seen before if you have a passing knowledge of science fiction.

But the ratdogs! (They just call themselves people, but a girl who crashes on their planet nicknames them Tines.) There isn’t enough xenofiction out there and the work Vinge has done with the Tines is top notch. Each individual person is made out of four to six creatures that communicate by ultrasound. Vinge thinks through a lot of the implications, like the naming conventions, what happens when two of the major characters get each other pregnant, and what it’s like to see through six pairs of eyes at once.

One of the most interesting parts is the Tines’ relationship with identity. Each group person can accomplish something like immortality by pulling a careful Ship of Theseus. They make themselves bigger by giving birth, and they make new people by splitting in half or splicing together bits of themselves and their friends. They fear becoming unrecognizable like we fear death. Vinge pulled off a work of hard science fiction where souls are very much a part of daily life.

The book’s full of wonderful ideas. None of the characters are especially strong, though the Tine characters make up for it by being so damn cool. The ending relies on a lot of coincidences to get all the characters onto the same stage at the same time. I would have rather Ravna and Pham had landed on the Tines’ world early on and raced to stop the Blight on the ground. Even better if Vinge had dispensed with the space opera entirely and written a book about the Tines’ political intrigues, Watership Down style.

I have a nitpick about Pham Nuwen’s almost but not quite Earth name. He’s clearly supposed to be Pham Nguyen because he’s described as a living fossil (hard vacuum mummification accident), derived from an Asian culture, and nobody can pronounce his last name to save their lives. So why not just call him Pham Nguyen? The slightly-offness of his name makes by brain itch.

The Tines are so cool that this book’s worth reading on their strength alone.

The Martian by Andy Weir

91c4ZDFCn1L._SL1500_Ever gotten a few pages into a book and recognized something you learned about from Kerbal Space Program? I didn’t realize how awesome that would feel until I read The Martian.

Some time in the near future, NASA has organized a manned Mars space program. The first two Ares missions go off without a hitch. On the third, a freak dust storm on the surface of Mars forces the crew to ditch the mission early. An antenna breaks off in the wind and impales astronaut Mark Watney. He goes down and his suit’s vital signs blink out. The rest of the crew don’t have time to recover the body, so they leave.

There’s a problem. Mark Watney’s still alive.

Just … how did Andy Weir manage to make a space disaster thriller hilarious? Watney accepts the fact that he’s probably going to starve to death with surprising aplomb. His mission log entries are the high point of the book. The book’s told in a highly unconventional mix of first person (Watney’s snark), third person (NASA officials, who are freaking out), and omniscient (what’s going on with equipment and unmanned probes). Weir shouldn’t get away with it, but he does because it’s so very entertaining.

You’ll want to read this book if you want to know how a manned mission to Mars would work. Weir’s thought the details through. This book sent me to Wikipedia a lot, and while I don’t understand all of the science, it’s rock-hard. Yet it’s not dry and technical. Weir manages to make nail-biting tension out of Hohmann transfer windows.

If you wanted to know what a mission to Mars would look like, though, you won’t find out here. For example, here’s a description of the Hermes, the spacecraft the Ares crew used to get to Mars:

The Hermes crew enjoyed their scant personal time in an area called “The Rec.” Consisting of a table and barely enough room to seat six, it ranked low in gravity priority. Its position amidships granted it a mere 0.2g.

This is the most extensive description of the Hermes in the book. The Martian surface doesn’t fare much better.

I also have a pet peeve about Vogel’s broken English. His grammar is ridiculously bad for someone who has spent months of mission time and years of training time using English exclusively to communicate. If NASA had caught him saying things like “Very important is thirteen centimeters,” they would have kicked him off the mission.

But that’s a minor point. The Martian is the most entertaining hard science fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Edit: NASA just announced they found evidence of liquid water on Mars. The timing couldn’t be better.

Toasted Crickets

So I’ve been on a hard sci-fi kick lately. And I’ve heard people suggest in a few places that insect protein might make a good meat substitute for people in the future. Curious, I wanted to try them out.

I used this website as a guide: www.insectsarefood.com. It’s a great resource that’s full of reasons people should try eating bugs, recipes, and advice. I wasn’t ready to try eating something that wriggles, but I was okay with eating something that hops, so I went with the crickets. Insects Are Food says that crickets from the pet store are safe to eat.

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They were a lot more expensive that I expected. That’s two bucks’ worth of crickets right there. Here’s another view:

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I’m guessing cost wouldn’t be as much of an issue if you raised the crickets yourself, though.

First, stick the crickets in the freezer for a few hours to kill them. This also preserves them. Once they’re dead, they’re like seafood and don’t keep well.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and boil the crickets for two minutes. Drain.

Sprinkle the crickets on a baking pan. The IAF recipe said to cook them plain, but I added a touch of olive oil.

Toast them in the oven on low heat (250º F) for about an hour. Make sure to check on them!

Here’s what you get:

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They taste like toasted sunflower seeds. And since toasted sunflower seeds are cheaper, easier to find, and don’t require special prep, I was kind of disappointed with the experiment. But hey, insects ARE food. They turned out perfectly edible.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin

13651The Dispossessed is the reason Ursula K. LeGuin became the first person ever to write a book that won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, twice. (Her first twofer was for The Left Hand of Darkness.) She earned it.

The book is circular on a lot of levels. The story deals with a binary system of planets, Urras and Anarres, that orbit the star Tau Ceti. The inhabitants of each planet see the other planet as the moon. Urras is a lush water planet with a capitalist society and a state-socialist society locked in a cold war with each other. (Sound familiar? The book was published in 1974.) Anarres is a desert world inhabited by the descendants of colonists who exiled themselves on the planet to found an anarcho-syndicalist utopia.

I didn’t know anarcho-syndicalism existed until I started reading. It’s sort of like rule by a federation of trade unions. Sort of, but not exactly. The examination of these three societies makes the book a morality play on an epic scale, which shouldn’t work, but it does.

The main character is Shevek, an Anarresti physicist who travels to Urras after the planets have been isolated from each other for 170 years. In alternating chapters the book tells of Shevek’s adventures on Urras and his backstory on Anarres that led to his decision to make the trip. At the end of the book, Shevek returns to Anarres at the same time that he decides to leave Anarres for Urras. Circular.

Often, LeGuin would meet my objections to how Anarresti society would work just after I thought of them.

Me: How does a hermit society like Anarres do physics?

LeGuin: Yes, that’s the problem.

Me: But this isn’t really an anarchy! The government’s just very small and decentralized.

LeGuin: Yes, and it’s getting bigger.

I have some other issues with the text that LeGuin didn’t address. Why don’t Anarresti people work themselves sick, for instance? There’s always too much work to do just to survive in the planet’s harsh climate. Anarresti are taught from childhood that work is the noblest thing a person can do with their time. But it says in the text that they have a six-hour workday. Maybe they don’t take weekends.

Since there’s no central court of justice, rapists and murderers have to face the wrath of their neighbors. Regardless of how comfortable you are with vigilante justice, what if the community is wrong about who did it? What if they are really, truly convinced they have the culprit, and he didn’t do it?

I also don’t think it was entirely sporting of LeGuin to make the capitalist society the worst capitalist society that could possibly exist. A-io is only a few steps away from being a medieval feudal society with spaceships.

But all these are quibbles. The descriptions of place are gorgeous, and this book will make you think. Hard. And that’s the best kind of science fiction.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

enders-game-novel-coverEnder’s Game is a hard book to review. It’s considered one of the classics of the science fiction genre, so what do I have to say about it that hasn’t already been said?

Since the movie of the book came out last November, you probably already know how the story goes. Ender is a super-intelligent child, probably genetically engineered, who’s destined to lead Earth’s military forces against an alien insectoid race. At the age of six, he’s enrolled in Battle School with a bunch of other superkids. The teachers put them through war games that get ever more grueling until everything goes horribly wrong – or horribly right, depending whose side you’re on.

This book was just as hard to read as it is to review. One of the reasons is that Ender’s Game was never really meant to be a novel. Orson Scott Card originally published this story as a short story in 1977, then later beefed it up so he could write the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. It shows in the pacing, which goes by in fits and starts. And the ending is bizarre by a novel’s standards. Throughout the book, Ender makes the same mistake over and over again. He only means to beat his opponent, but he beats him so thoroughly he winds up killing him. At the climax of the story, Ender makes the same mistake, big time. It’s only in the denouement that he starts to change and get better.

But the biggest reason this book was so hard to read is that it’s chillingly real. Orson Scott Card is a skilled writer and he puts you through the hell on earth Ender has to go through. In my edition of Ender’s Game, Card writes in an introduction that the book’s become a manifesto for gifted children. Of course I’m nowhere near as smart as Ender, but I was a gifted child. I knew that same alienation and embarrassment when I’d run circles around my classmates academically, so the book struck close to home. Petra could have been me.

Should Ender’s Game be a manifesto for gifted children? Ender is no role model. Ender commits atrocities, and the book is never totally clear whether Ender’s a monster or just unlucky. Would any bright kid in Ender’s situation have done the same things? Does the book condone this?

I don’t know, but I want to add that I watched the movie at the same time as I read the book. It’s never destined to be classic cinema, but the movie was good. It fixed the pacing issues and lightened the story up a lot. Fine with me. It’s a great way to chase out nightmares after you’ve read the book.

One final note: the book wound up undercutting its own scariness, completely by accident. I couldn’t help snickering every single time one of the characters mentioned the Buggers. *snerk* Buggers!