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.

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