Tag Archives: science fiction

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

On the advice of a coworker, I put The Hunger Games on my reading list. I noticed that the third book in the series came out not too long ago, and I thought I would give it a shot — it’s a successful series and it came with a recommendation. I’m so glad I did.  The Hunger Games is a remarkable young adult book, and I’m pleased I got the chance to read it.

Suzanne Collins wrote the book in the present tense, which is unusual. It’s not every day that a piece of fiction is written that way. It serves The Hunger Games well, telling the story of Katniss and her entry into The Hunger Games in a spectacular way. Katniss’ journey is a kinetic one — there’s a lot of movement, whether it be benign hunting or the malevolent tracking and frantic running of the actual Games, someone’s always doing something. That’s why I love the choice of present tense for the book. It captures the moment because it is the moment.

The story could be summarized on two levels. The large-scale plot is that of Panem, the capital of the what used to be the United States, and its treatment of the outlying districts it has sovereignty over. At one point in the past, the districts rebelled, but failed in their rebellion. Panem then started The Hunger Games, a competition in which one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen must fight to the death for the amusement of the people in the capital. The citizens of the capital are well-fed and happy, while those who toil in the districts live fairly austere lives.

The small-scale story is of Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her sister when she is selected to be the female representative for District 12, one of the poorer districts. Katniss has experience with hunting, which she did with Gale, a male friend. The male representative for The Hunger Games is Peeta, a baker’s son who has been on the periphery of Katniss’ awareness for a long time. The development of their relationship through the preparation for and the events of The Hunger Games is compelling and complex. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a relationship so well-written and heartbreaking.

If I had to pick a favorite part of The Hunger Games, it would be the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I really want to know what’s going to happen next. There’s little an author wants more than to gain readership, but I suspect if Collins’ other work is of similar quality, a lack of readers is not something she’ll have to worry about.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Zombies have become popular in recent years, featuring in movies, comic books, books, and television shows.  Unlike their main supernatural competitor, the vampire, the quality of works featuring the zombie tend to be (at least to me) more steady in their quality.  World War Z is no exception — it is a creative work that uses the undead in order to make the reader think about topics bigger than the individual — politics, humanity, ethics, and psychology, to name a few.  It’s a piece of fiction that fuels thinking, which makes it better than a lot of other books in the horror genre.

A friend of mine, knowing how much I like to read and how much I enjoy zombies, recommended World War Z to me a couple of months ago.  I said, “Sure, sounds like something I’d enjoy.”  So, while I was down at the library pulling books for that month, I thought I’d grab this too.  I had to think again when I found that, despite my local library system owning four copies of this book, I would have to wait.  In fact, I was fifth in line, and the queue reached a total length of twelve by the time I got my copy.  This told me something — people are reading this.

There is a zombie movement right now, it appears, and I happen to think it’s a masculine backlash to the vampire movement embodied in the Twilight series.  Vampires are, essentially, a romantic creature — it sucks on you, it broods, it’s creepy in a seductive way. Vampires are for romance novels that don’t want to be called romance novels.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you’re into it, you’re into it, but it’s almost exclusively women who are buying those books, watching those movies.

Now, to the zombie.  It is as far away from sexy as possible.  It’s a killing machine, one that keeps on going, requiring significant force to stop.  There’s a lot of weapons used to take them out.  Planning is needed to avoid death by zombie.  They’re a supernatural villain geared specifically for more masculine interests.  I, for one, love the fact that zombies are big right now.  I’ve not read any vampire books in a while, but I’m definitely a bit of a tomboy when it comes to my evil creatures.  I like the apocalyptic theme most zombie stories have.

World War Z definitely has that theme.  There are countries with people having to fall back and protect themselves in castles.  Some people flee to other lands.  There are fights over resources.  Countries use the zombies as an excuse to attack other countries.  Lives change in big ways, and that’s a widespread truth.  You didn’t live through World War Z without being a different person on the other side.

Brooks sets the book up like the transcripts of in-person interviews, and I think that’s genius.  We hear from all sorts of different people, from a doctor who was one of the first to encounter the zombies to a developmentally disabled woman to a man who fought zombies underwater.  We hear all sorts of different stories, through which we are able to construct our own views on what happened.  I personally liked the fact that the book allows for some ambiguity, because I like to think that most people are good, but there’s plenty of room for someone to get the opposite view, as well.

Overall, I think that World War Z is a fantastic book.  Its appeal is not limited to those who are zombie fans, but also to those who are interested in what would happen to the world in case of catastrophic events.  Brooks gives us some possible answers and allows us to form our own.

Rating: 5/5.

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Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The last time I read Ray Bradbury, the book was Fahrenheit 451.  I really liked it, but nothing sparked my interest enough to start reading another of his books.  Spurred by something I read about him recently, I thought I would give another of his books a shot.  I read the description of Dandelion Wine and wondered how the man who wrote a speculative piece of fiction in which books are forbidden would treat the story of a Midwestern boy’s summer.  It turns out that they’re not so different, and he does a fantastic job.

Before I even deal with the overall themes of Dandelion Wine, let me talk about Bradbury’s use of language.  I regret not reading him right along now, after experiencing this book.  His prose is absolutely gorgeous.  The way he goes about describing his characters’ surroundings evokes the feel of a mid-American summer to perfection.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a Midwesterner myself, but I can feel the days, hear the cicadas, and see the layout of the town.  Green Town exists for me in a way that few fictional locations have when attempted by other authors.

Bradbury also has a remarkable way of regulating what he allows us to know of a character’s mind.  Douglas Spaulding, the twelve-year-old protagonist, is a sensitive boy; we know this through his thoughts and his actions.  But there are also things that we are never allowed to know about him, such as the extent of what he saw one particular night, and how those things affect his later behavior and health.  I thought it well-handled, keeping a sense of suspense that serves the plot well.

The story, on its surface, is that of Douglas and his brother, Tom, during the summer of 1928.  Throughout, we follow them on their adventures, but we also see other townsfolk and learn some of their stories, making the book, for all intents and purposes, just as close to a collection of very tightly-related short stories as to a novel.  It’s really quite a nice way for Bradbury to present what he wants to convey, since the story really isn’t a coming-of-age tale; or, rather, it’s the ultimate coming-of-age tale — that of handling the most damaging of losses.

Wound through Douglas’ story are shorter tales of unexpected and sorrowful events, forcing the people of Green Town to adjust to new understandings of life.  A man builds a happiness machine, only to find that people become miserable when they have to leave it.  The cruel disbelief of children crush the self-image of an elderly woman to the point that she denies she ever was anything but an old woman.  The entire town faces with hushed voices the horror of a stalking killer of women.  Friendships are built, then destroyed through moving and deaths.

Bradbury’s whole story is about fleeting existence.  Everything changes, and, overall, everyone dies.  No one is immune, and how one handles that fact determines how they will be able to live their life.  For Douglas, coming to the realization that he, himself, is alive and thus will die, leaves the reader in serious debate as to how he will cope with it.  Bradbury also seems to imply that there are those who become changed by this realization, and that there are others who are either able to take it in stride or never make the mental leap at all.  It appears Tom falls into one of those two latter groups, and it would be interesting to see how Bradbury thinks this changes how the boys experience their lives.

Maybe I’m in a slightly morbid mood, but I found Dandelion Wine beautiful.  It felt true and fresh to me, exposing me to a completely new way of viewing life.  That’s one of the best things a piece of literature can do for someone, and that’s why I like Dandelion Wine so much.

Rating: 5/5.

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Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hears and Three Lions surprised me when it came in to my local library through MeLCat.  Huh, I thought.  This is short. Despite being under two hundred pages, however, Poul Anderson’s first book about Holger Carlsen packs in a good story about both universe travel and traditional medieval European lore.

Our hero, Holger Carlsen, an engineer in World War II-era America and, later, Europe, finds himself back in his homeland of Denmark, assisting the resistance force there.  While trying to get an important scientist to Sweden, Holger finds himself in a shootout with Nazis and passes out.  He awakes to find he’s naked in a forest.  Nearby is a horse, clothing, and gear that suits him perfectly.  How he got there, he has no idea, but it soon is obvious that he’s not in Denmark anymore.

In trying to find out where and when he is, Holger gathers to him a dwarf, a woman who can transform herself into a swan, and a mysterious Saracen who has been seeking him out.  Together, they venture to fight the forces of Chaos and further the goals of Law.

I found this book fairly entertaining.  First of all, Holger’s body knows his life and his training; it’s his mind that gets in the way of him doing things with graceful skill.  The message that you can think yourself out of the knowledge you already possess is a good one, and I think it’s pretty true.  A lot of times, when I’m answering questions at work, it’s not until after the exchange has ended that the best answer comes to me — and then I have to chase the other person down and give them that information.  Learning to trust oneself to do the right thing, if you know you have a firm grip on reality and usually do the right thing, is a great lesson.

Secondly, there were a couple of subplots and small events that were also entertaining.  At one point, one town was suffering from a werewolf attack, which our heroes helped out with.  Not only did it add a little action, but it also filled in some knowledge about magic in this new world that would have otherwise gone unknown.  It helped explain some future events, and why they happened the way they did.

The third thing I thought was nice about this book was how it was solely from Holger’s point of view.  There are several reasons why this is great.  The first is that, sometimes, jumping between characters is annoying.  The second is that it allows us to only see what Holger sees.  While one can sometimes see the action he should take, there are some situations where what he should do — or even what is going on — is obscured.  For example, his swan-maiden friend, Alianora, who is also his love interest, shows some response when Carahue, the Saracen, flirts with her.  Holger, seeing only that a woman he loves might be falling for another man, is distraught.  Only in the end is he clued in to why Alianora acted the way she did.

Also awesome was the flip from a world where science is dominant to one where magic is dominant.  Holger’s knowledge of basic scientific principles save the adventurers several times.  Moreover, the actions he takes that have a scientific basis are seen as miraculous by the people of this other world.  I thought it was a tastefully-done exploration on how two cultures can see both see one another as wondrous.

The only thing that I have a quarrel with is the speech of Hugi, the dwarf, and Alianora, as well as some supporting characters.  It is colloquial.  While I understood most of it, I wasn’t quite sure what type of accent they were meant to have, and so some word spellings were lost on me, and I couldn’t figure them out.  I might spend a bit of time on piecing together something if I have a linguistic interest in it, I don’t want to have to do it in a piece of fiction I read for enjoyment.  I want the characters to be understandable.

Despite the occasional linguistic confusion, I enjoyed Three Hearts and Three Lions.  It’s cute, it’s action-packed, and it’d be a good read for anyone who likes The Chronicles of Prydain.  Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me.  I love alternate history and speculative fiction.  What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix?  Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.

Let’s start off with the good.  I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past.  What challenges they would face?  How would they meet the obstacles facing them?  A fantastic plot, in my opinion.

I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in.  Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating.  His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.

The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare.  I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book.  Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable.  This leads me to my next issue with the book.

The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation.  There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals.  I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift.  There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story.  We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.

Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality.  A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons.  There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so.  We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs.  We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics.  We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics.  And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult.  On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters.  He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book.  That smacks of the unreal to me.

Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket.  We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely.  This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?

The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light.  While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene.  It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans.  Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?

Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read.  I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so.  A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating.  Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited.  As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.

Rating: 1.5/5

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