Science Fiction: Five Short Reviews

Under The Skin Michael FaberUnder The Skin, by Michael Faber
Literary science fiction that is compulsively creepy and disturbing in all the right ways. Orwellian by way of Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler. More Animal Farm than 1984. I think fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s style of New Weird fiction would have a lot to enjoy here.

It’s a moral story, without particularly taking any one side, mostly just intended to provoke some discussion I imagine. It could easily be interpreted as an animal rights activism novel, but I’m not so sure it actually is. I thouroghly enjoyed Under the Skin; very unnerving and hard to put down.

I read this before watching the film, and loved both. They are as different from one another as they are similar.

 

The Affirmation Christopher PriestThe Affirmation, by Christopher Priest

I genuinely can’t decide if I liked this or not. I certainly enjoyed reading it, but doing so was somewhat like losing my mind. I also have a suspicion that Priest crafted the novel precisely to elicit this effect on the reader, which makes me respect him even more in an odd way. All in all, I’m very confused, but I still enjoyed it.

I have a theory that this book inspired Haruki Murakami to write Sputnik Sweetheart. There are just so many similarities in story, narrative, and theme between the two novels to ignore. Plus, I kind of love the idea of Murakami reading Christopher Priest. Maybe I’ve invented this whole thing.

The closest conclusion I can come to is that The Affirmation is a story about mental illness, or maybe alternate realities, or maybe self identity, or maybe something else entirely. I really don’t know, but it was good and I’d read it again.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Becky ChambersThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

I’ve never read a book quite like this. There wasn’t much of a story at all, but it was still engaging just on the strength of the characters alone. Each chapter felt like a moral-of-the-week episode in a nineties TV series. The overall arc is more about the characters and how their relationships change over time than any actual describable narrative.

That all sounds kind of negative when I read it back, but it’s not meant to be. Mostly I’m just impressed with how well it worked here, because I think something like this would be incredibly difficult to pull off.

It’s a comfort read, like a warm bowl of soup, but with fantastic world-building and great characters. This universe is very lived in, and extremely ripe for more stories in the future.

Chasm City Alastair ReynoldsChasm City, by Alastair Reynolds

“How long would you have to live; how much good would you need to do, to compensate for one act of pure evil you’d committed as a younger man?”

Very, very good. One of those books that I massively enjoy having read, past tense, but ultimately didn’t enjoy while reading. It slogs, and turns its wheels for about 200 pages in the middle, but I see now why it was necessary, and it ultimately pays off in strides.

Strong similarities to Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, except that it didn’t rely on a reveal in the same way, instead slowly telling the reader what is afoot. It’s subtle, but I strongly suspect that it’s intentional. I picked up on it around 1/3 of the way through, and was initially disappointed, thinking that it might be a shocking twist ending that was too obvious and heavy handed. However, my initial assessment of the reality of the situation I thought I comprehended early on, was incomplete and less than half of the true picture.

Ultimately, this novel is about redemption. It’s a personal favorite of mine, and I suggest it to everyone.

Saturn Run John Sandford CteinSaturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein

It’s been a while since I’ve read some good old fashioned hard science fiction. Hard SF novels are a different sort of beast than most novels. I find they usually need to be approached differently and appreciated using a different set of metrics.

It doesn’t have to be the case, but a lot of times hard SF will lose itself in the details, which can be fun if you’re interested in those specific details. Other times, hard SF will sacrifice an ungodly amount of character development for those same details, which is a little less forgivable, but it’s amazing what I can forgive in the narrative department when I’m really into the “hard” part of the science.

Saturn Run, unfortunately, falls victim to both of these pitfalls, but you know what? I don’t care, I’m letting it slide. Different metrics for different books. It describes in detail one of the coolest conceptual heatsinks that I’ve ever come across. It’s not particularly well written in the traditional sense, and the prose is merely passable, but the conceptual stuff here is fascinating, and it’s really fun once it gets going.

I do think the novel nailed the sort of macro decisions that humanity would make in this sort of first contact scenario, but at a micro level the individual characters were not very believable to me. The story also dragged a lot in the middle. I would’ve enjoyed it much more if it were tightened up a little. But, it had a stellar second half and it really stuck the landing. Somebody could come along and adapt this into a fantastically entertaining smart summer blockbuster a la Interstellar.

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This is my first Alastair Reynolds standalone novel. Having previously absorbed everything remotely related to his Revelation Space series over the last few years, I wanted to dip my toes into some of his one-off writing before digging into his newer series work. For some reason this book has been out of print in the US for a few years, making a physical copy a little tedious to come by, but I did eventually find one. Come on ACE, it’s time for a reprint!

Coming from the RS camp, I was surprised with the linearity of this story. The whole thing is written in first person, with two main point of view characters in alternating chapters. Every 6-7 chapters brings a flashback interjection that slowly reveals details and moves everything forward. I suppose adding unnecessary linear complexity to a story that already has so many strange new concepts in it, might’ve been overkill on the reader. As a result, the story flows nicely and was easier to follow than Revelation Space. I’d say this would be a terrific jumping in point if you were interested in checking out Reynolds’ work.

House of Suns is epic in every way the word can be defined. The scale of some of the conceptual elements was so broad that I initially had some difficulty finding a handhold to comprehend them. I felt like it stretched my mind a little bit just reaching for a way to relate. The best Science Fiction always does this for me in some way. It exists in that sweet spot directly between what you currently understand, and what you are capable of understanding. The best stories can be a linchpin, connecting you to your future, slightly more experienced self. I suppose this is true of all fiction, but I find it particularly so with the genres of Speculative Fiction, which are after all, more interested in investigating the “other” than fiction firmly rooted in the realm of realism often is.

The amount of mind-bending concepts Reynolds managed to pack into this novel while maintaining a coherent story is impressive: Star dams, ring worlds, causality, time dilation, artificial intelligence, solar system relocation, ancient technology, the nature of memory, longevity, cloning, wormholes, civilizational “turnover”, etc. It’s simply exploding with these huge ideas, but the story is never sacrificed in favor of them. It churns along, always moving forward.

Reynolds occasionally gets some slack for his character development or lack thereof, each character’s voice tending to just be the author’s voice, etc. So, when I realized that most of the characters in House of Suns were literal clones of the same character, I rolled my eyes a little and thought “Well, I guess that’s one way to get around the criticism.” But, it actually worked very well here.

These clone characters are “shatterlings” with indefinitely long lifespans that have drifted from their source individual, and each other, for 6 million years (epic scale!) and are essentially unique individuals as a result of their differing life experiences. Because they are clones, instead of noticing their similarities, you’re drawn toward their differences. The ways in which they are similar just reinforce the fact that they started from a near identical point. It’s a brilliant way to reframe the reader’s perception regarding character work without actually changing the writer’s approach to characterization. It feels very self-aware, and it’s clever as hell. It’s almost like he’s acknowledging his critics, but saying “See, it’s not necessarily bad, it’s just how you look at it”. Personally, the character work in Reynolds’ books has never bothered me, but if it bothered you, I think you’ll find this one has a refreshingly different take.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but leaves some things open for more. I would absolutely love another novel set in this universe, and the point at which this novel arrives could be seen as a great widening of that universe’s potential scope. It’s ripe for more tales, and I hope we get them. Reynolds has said: “I would like to return to this universe but I have no fixed plans for when that will happen.” Fingers crossed that those plans will materialize soon!