Science fiction

Charlie Jane Anders’ ‘All The Birds In The Sky’ Is The Harry Potter For Adults You’ve Been Waiting For

all the birds in the sky

And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now.
― Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.
― Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

You know this story, you’ve heard it before a thousand times. In Charlie Jane Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, boy meets girl. Both are outcasts, loners looking for companionship. A connection is formed. But one is a witch, and one is a mad scientist who will someday build a doomsday machine… Wait, what?!?

This is a story you’ve heard before, a thousand times, running headlong into another story you’ve heard before, a thousand times, and devouring it whole. It is coming-of-age, it is falling-into-and-out-of-love, it is science fiction and fantasy and end of the world dystopia. It is all of this smooshed into a delicious sandwich of clever one-liners that never become old, beautifully written moments that dance on that borderline of cheesiness, tropes re-built from the top down. Everything you know about science fiction and fantasy is there, from the very first lines. It is all inside out, it is upside down, and it is endlessly creative.

Patricia Delfine talked to a bird and a tree when she was a small child. Laurence Armstead built a watch allowing him to time travel two seconds into the future. They are both oddities in their school and in the world, one finding solace in nature, and the other with keyboards and screens. They have a brief and fierce adolescent friendship, drawn together by their peculiar talents before they are torn apart by those same gifts.

Fast forward, and Delfine and Armstead run into each other as adults in a near-future San Francisco. The world isn’t a pretty place, and Delfine and Armstead aren’t the prettiest people. He has become a megalomaniac engineer, with millions of dollars behind him, and she has become an aggrandizing witch, using her powers to play with people as she sees fit. Can they come together to save a world that is falling apart?

I can’t speak highly enough of Charlie Jane Anders. If you haven’t read her Hugo-award winning novelette “Six Months, Three Days,” I recommend taking a break from social media to read it. Anders was a co-editor of the science fiction blog i09, and much can be read into All the Birds in the Sky regarding not only society’s struggle between technology and the environment, but also the genre struggle between science fiction and fantasy. It can be a challenge to make a novel this layered and eager also fun and funny to read, but Anders executes this brilliantly. She makes it look easy.

I’ve heard Anders speak on panels twice, and each time she was insightful. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

All the Birds in the Sky on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Lavie Tidhar Imagines A Future City Both Strange and Familiar In ‘Central Station’

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Space was full of questions, life was a sentence always ending in an ellipsis or a question mark. You couldn’t answer everything. You could only believe there were answers at all.
― Lavie Tidhar, Central Station

A robot built for battle, and cast aside at the war’s end, an eerie vision of this country’s homeless veteran problem… A gamer girl who spends much of her time encapsulated in a pod battling in virtual worlds, conflicted because she loves a robot at a time where the Catholic church forbids human/robot love… A gifted child, manufactured like a science experiment, but still undeniably human… And his best friend, who seems to shimmer in and out of the physical world and into the virtual one, where so much of the future takes place… Others, sentient machines who live amongst humans, sometimes pairing with them to create superhuman-like oracles… A vampire who feeds on data from the Conversation, an ever-humming networked buzz of connection.

All of these characters weave in and out of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, a complex and elaborate vision of a future directly extrapolated from our present. Close your eyes, take two deep breaths forward into technology’s advancement, and you are there–with the towering, bustling space port of Central Station bursting through the atmosphere above you, its height creating its own miniature weather systems.

Central Station is Tel Aviv, or was Tel Aviv, but is now a bustling space port, a cultural mecca where creatures human and other have met, bounced off of each other, merged, fought, loved, and formed some sort of life together. Those looking for a plot-driven novel will only find hints of one here, but those seeking a world built from scratch will appreciate the strong foundations and smart implications of this future vision.

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, and sometimes I wonder if Tidhar is trying to see just how unpopular he can become. He is a talented writer who doesn’t seem to make his projects more digestible for a mainstream audience, which is fine, but I would love to see him make it big with something more easily to consume one day. I also need to find a copy of his Man Lies Dreaming next, which like Osama, sounds almost a bit too meta and brilliant for its own good. But Tidhar is one of the few authors who can take these big, uncomfortable ideas and story tropes and pull something brilliant and beautiful and fresh out of them.

My last post was on Berkeley’s Bay Area Book Festival, and this book received a shoutout from the authors on the Subversive Speculative Science Fiction Panel. If you are looking for something simple, look elsewhere. If you want something to make your mind and heart expand and ache, you’ve found your author.

Central Station on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘The Affinities’ Is ‘Divergent’ For Grown Ups

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I loved Robert Charles Wilson’s sci-fi Spin trilogy, about an earth which loses its night sky and what comes after those lights go out. When I heard he had a new novel out called The Affinities, I was super eager to pick it up.

The concept of The Affinities is a little bit Match.com, a little bit socialism. Adam Fisk is an early adopter of Affinity Testing. Thanks to the new field of socionomics, he’s led through a battery of tests which may qualify him for one of twelve Affinity Groups. This isn’t just a dating service, though, or a group of like-minded folks: affinity group members get each other from their first meeting, often live together, hire each other, and (eventually) care for their own much more than they do the rest of society.

Lucky Adam tests into the elite Tau Affinity, and the book skips forward to a world brimming over with the potential of affinities able to work perfectly together, people finely tuned for trust and cooperation, but cooperation with only a slice of humanity. Tau is at war with Het, another prominent affinity, and Adam and his family are caught in the crossfire.

As a lover of Wilson’s previous trilogy, this felt rushed to me. The glossing over of Adam’s nestling into the Tau Affinity, and the global shift as affinities rose from an early phenomena to an over-arching issue, felt like an introduction rather than the first half of a novel. And although other reviewers have noted the obvious parallels with social networking, I couldn’t help but think of the Divergent series and other sci-fi with social testing elements as I read. So, if you love Divergent (hey, no shame in that!) and are looking for a story that takes on some of its issues on a more plausible, understated level, this is your book. And if you haven’t checked out Spin yet, make sure to add it to your list.

The Affinities on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Summer Reads: Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Water Knife’ Will Freak You Out And Make You Thirsty

The Water Knife

I recently moved from California, in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record, to Arizona, a desert state in perpetual drought. Water is on my mind. So Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel The Water Knife, released this week, hit home with me, as it takes place in a Phoenix post-“big daddy drought,” and the city is drowning in constant dust storms. Refugees from Texas live in shanties around Red Cross/China Friendship water pumps.

If you read one book this summer, let it be this one.

After big daddy drought, nothing matters as much as water rights. States are at each other’s throats, closing their own borders and seeking technology to cover rivers and prevent evaporation. The bureaucracies of water management are now militarized. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, led by the fierce boss Catherine Case, is an unapologetic power player, sacrificing suburban sprawl as she cuts off water to outlying areas to save the wealthy epicenter of her city. Rich Chinese and Vegas businessmen live in an enclosed, sustainable arcology that purifies and reuses water, a carefully created ecosystem full of green parks to walk through and lush moisture in the air, for those who can afford to get inside.

Angel Velasquez is Case’s right hand man, salvaged from the gang life and transformed into a water knife, a man who gets things done to keep his city drinking water. Amidst lawsuits and injunctions and national guard troops, Angel is the man you send to bomb out a treatment plant on the Arizona border, before the Zoners send in their own troops. He’s the man who makes sure rivers flow your way, leaving other states dry and thirsty.

And in Phoenix, people are thirsty. We meet reporter Lucy as she throws on her filter mask and grit goggles, and heads out in a blinding dust storm to find out more about the news of a murder she sees on the hashtag #phoenixdownthetubes. There’s Maria, a Texas refugee who’s trying to resist the pull of easy prostitution money for one more day.

Angel, Lucy, and Maria collide in their struggles for survival, and each is memorable, but none stands out more than their landscape. Severe drought brings third world conditions to America in a way that reads both haunting and close to home, with our current drought situations. Today, there is news that water related crimes in California are increasing. Everything we’ve taken for granted, Bacigalupi takes apart.

But Bacigalupi’s message in the book, and in interviews, is that current droughts shouldn’t be a surprise, as we should be planning for them. In The Water Knife, Marc Reisner’s 1986 non-fiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Wateris treasured and handed down as a sort of bible. All the characters marvel at how even in the eighties, people could have seen this coming, known about these limited resources, and not done anything.

I think I’d do a disservice not to mention cli-fi as a growing term, attached to this book and others that address our future as it relates to climate change. Is this a buzz term? I’m not sure. Bacigalupi wrote about this in his review of Welcome to the Greenhouse a few years ago, where he said that the term climate change in relation to fiction makes him squirm, but it is being dropped all over the place. So, think what you will about that. And really enjoy your next glass of cool water, on behalf of these characters!

The Water Knife on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Cadillac Desert on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

John Scalzi’s Lock In Takes the ‘Artificial’ out of AI

In John Scalzi’s novel Lock In, the near-future brings a virus which leaves millions across the U.S. locked-in. Everyone has a child, mother, brother or sister stranded in a body that won’t work, while their mind is still fully active.

With A Vision of Fire, Gillian Anderson Moves From Screen to Page

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X-files fans across the world, rejoice!

With A Vision of Fire, Gillian Anderson has written a science fiction novel including just the right amount of homage to her eerie investigations as Dana Scully. Co-written with Jeff Rovin, the book is the first novel in what promises to be a supernatural and apocalyptic series called EarthEnd.

UN translator Ben contacts child psychiatrist Claire out of desperation–something strange has happened to the Indian ambassador’s daughter. The Indian Ambassador just survived an assassination attempt, and his daughter’s condition is now distracting him from crucial peace talks, as India and Pakistan edge closer to war. Claire, who goes where the trauma takes her, sees the young girl, Maanik, and knows immediately that her bizarre behavior isn’t PTSD. As the world moves towards war, a few young people across the globe seem possessed.

Could it be trauma, ghosts, aliens, seizures, past lives? Is there any difference between a traumatic event that I feel or a traumatic event that you feel? And is all this mystical stuff misplaced in a science fiction novel, as there might really be some sort of global conspiracy seeking contact with an alien race? What is really going on here?

This is a quick read, as you’ll find yourself skimming frantically through pages, looking for solutions. But brace yourself, as this is only the first book of a series, and the conclusion here is a promise for more answers in the next book.

A Vision of Fire on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

There is a ton of salacious news surrounding Anderson out there right now, but here is a link to an interview about the book:

Q&A with Gillian Anderson: Former ‘X-Files’ star talks about her foray into literature as co-author of ‘A Vision of Fire’

Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

 

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If you love taking things apart and seeing how they work, if you had a soldering iron in middle school because you actually needed it for your various hobbies, or if you are obsessed with duct-taping solutions to life’s many problems, The Martian by Andy Weir is the perfect science-based thriller for you.

In Weir’s not-too-distant future, NASA has successfully sent two manned missions to Mars. The Martian focuses on the third Mars mission attempt, which goes badly in the most unpredictable of ways. Mark Watney, astronaut, botanist, and engineer, and protagonist is left behind when a dust storm causes the rest of the crew to evacuate in a blinded tizzy. Watney’s crew mates, thinking he has been mortally wounded, blast off the planet in the agreed-upon getaway craft, unwittingly leaving this single guy stranded on the Red Planet. Thus Watney becomes a sort of Martian himself, trying to frantically use all his knowledge in every clever, jury-rigged Survivorman-esque type trick in the book to stay alive until help can reach him. Sort of like the hardest test he’s ever taken, but hands-on, and often his oxygen, food, or water supply hangs in the balance. Billion dollar NASA-built equipment falls to pieces around him as he tries to push it past its intended use date or break it apart into more appropriate survival gear, and Watney plays genius-level whac-a-mole with complex problems in his struggle to stay alive long enough for rescue.

I confess I’m not a big fan of biology and chemistry myself, which is a bit frightening to realize as they are the basic building blocks of life, right? What can I say, I’m just an arts and letters type of girl. I found The Martian slow to get into as Watney tells his story through journal entries, detailing complex explanations and calculations of the many processes which Watney must depend on to survive, which went right over my head. I’m sure this aspect of the book was a welcome change from the usual thriller for the more skeptical among us, who are constantly bombarded with miraculous feats of survival with no explanation or logic behind them. If you wonder where the science is in much of your science fiction, its right here in The Martian, waiting for you.

Where the book came alive for me (and where my interests usually lie) was in NASA’s reaction to the predicament of this lone man stranded on Mars. Once characters at NASA are introduced, their struggle to balance the constant badgering of the media, and what comes to be the world’s obsession with this single man and his lone struggle for survival, with their own ultimate powerlessness over his situation created a much more interesting story. (Of course, CNN dedicates an entire program each evening to updating people on Watney’s status.)

The premise of The Martian is such an intriguing one that the book is difficult to resist, as the idea of a man being lost on an uninhabitable planet with only science to save him is haunting–there’s power there, as we made it to Mars, and then there’s fear there, as while we made it to Mars, we couldn’t make it back. As a firm grasp of science in the book is what makes the trip to Mars possible, that idea is then twisted when Watney must use those same skills, as an engineer, to harness the resources of a hostile planet and make it habitable. Can science dig us out of the messes we use it to plunge into? Watney, alone on Mars, armed with engineering and botany degrees and the supplies his team abandoned, attempts to answer that question.

The Martian by Andy Weir on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

Ender’s Game – Finally, a movie!

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So there’s a movie!  Ender’s Game, the science fiction book that we all know and love, has finally been adapted for the big screen.  I went and saw it yesterday, and I was bracing myself for the worse.  That being said, I thought Ender’s Game (the movie) was well done.  It stuck to closely to the plot of the book, albeit abbreviating everything madly for time.

Anytime a book I feel strongly about is adapted to the big screen, I’m ready for disappointment as its impossible to translate my personal reading experience into a film (how awesome would that be, though?).  The great thing about reading is each reader’s mind builds our own unique ideas of what the story looks like.  In this sense, books have access to our imaginations in a way I think films don’t.   Movies, while fun, are entertaining in a different way:  unless the creators of the film have a specifically nutty or imaginative vision, it can be a challenge to top a story you have already detailed to your own liking.

With the challenge of book adaptation in mind, I think the movie did a great job of casting and bringing to life some of the book’s characters: especially notable were Bonzo (Moisés Arias), Ender’s battle school enemy, and soft-spoken and small Bean (Aramis Knight), Ender’s sidekick.  Asa Butterfield as Ender does a great job balancing Ender’s insecurity and intelligence, especially through the first half of the movie.  A bit ill-suited for his brief part, I thought, was Jimmy Pinchak, who played Peter.  The visuals are, of course, stunning.  Battle School is viewed from space, with the Battle Room as a gigantic dome looming to the side, and the shot is startling.  The alien planets, and the videos of legendary battles between human and alien ships, are a great reminder for someone who doesn’t go to the movies too often (like me) of how neat today’s special effects can really be.

My main complaint is that this the movie was about 20 minutes too long.  I won’t give anything away here for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I think much of the last bit could have been saved for the next film.  Ender’s Game has sequels and prequels and novellas and spin-off series, and if there isn’t a sequel to the film it would be ironic as the book has just so many follow-ups.  It would also be a shame to not let the other characters (Bean especially pops to mind) have more screen time.

As I’ve mentioned before, Ender’s Game influenced my love of science fiction as a genre when I was young, as it seemed to with so many others.  (Before Orson Scott Card there was perhaps only H.M. Hoover, author of Away Is a Strange Place to Be, a young adult novel read to my rapt 3rd grade class by a librarian–hearing this book may have been the highlight of my mainly unpleasant elementary experience.)  My dad gave me a copy of Ender’s Game that I have lovingly kept even today, now worn, with a cracked binding, banded in a sparky hair band that reveals the book’s era.

I think Ender’s Game helped me see how far an author could really go within a novel.  I’m not sure how old I was when I read it, but I know I had begun moving from Nancy Drew toward Michael Crichton and John Grisham with my sister’s help. Coming from young adult fiction, the very seemingly huge amount of thin pages and hefty total weight of each paperback Crichton novel was daunting.  I remember my sister sitting me down and telling me about Congo, “You can read any amount of pages, the length just doesn’t really matter.  You can read that.” Hence I was able to take on the longer-than-Y.A. Ender’s saga series, and then move on to the rest of the big world of grown-up books.

I do think Ender’s Game has influenced a bunch of science fiction today, and I saw the Ender’s Game movie with a friend who asked me “This is like a Y.A. story right?” as we were walking into the theatre and talking about the book.  Comparing Ender’s Game to the Y.A. stories of today, there is a reminder of how it sort of translates into the same material and how it also sort of doesn’t.  Ender’s Game has a young underdog who struggles with bullies, but while The Hunger Games exudes love and revolution, Ender’s Game weeps manipulation and mourning.  Not as glamorous, by far.   When I was talking to my friend about the book’s sequels as we were walking out of the theatre she asked, “Man are they going to make a movie called Genocide?”  I think that is a very good question.

Epic book of the day – Wool by Hugh Howey.

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When a book features a blurb from Justin Cronin, author of the massive dystopian masterpiece The Passage, I’m ready to read.  Cronin says of Wool, “Howey’s WOOL is an epic feat of imagination.  You will live in this world.”  And he is for serious, as this book is the real thing.

I discovered Wool via an article on Howey’s underground success, and found I could download the first Part in the series for free for my Kindle through Amazon.  The book is broken into small easily consumable parts, short-story length interconnected tales of a future in which humans live in an underground silo.  I read Part One quick, and purchased Parts 1-5 right away.  This is everything that makes scifi worth reading:  the commentary on our social structures; exploration of our weird rituals and lore in societies; the struggles for control over knowledge, material wealth, and power in social systems.  I think this will be the new Hunger Games, a series that gets non-readers reading.  It is simple to understand and draws you in quick.

Wool – Part One blew my mind right away.  It reminded me a bit of how sucked in I was by the first chapter of Ender’s Game, called Third, when I read that for the first time in my childhood.  In the chapter Ender gets his monitor removed and brutally beats Stilson to prevent future bullying.  I thought it was so crazy the way Orson Scott Card drops in Ender’s age near the end – “Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six.”

That first part of Wool was so intriguing that it really brought me back to that Ender’s Game level of interest – I was dropped into this dystopian world, and right away I could see it all happening, all the rituals and beliefs and fears and concerns of these new people made so much sense to me.  I feel like the greatest science fiction I’ve read doesn’t stop to explain itself to the reader, it just lets the story play out while the reader watches from the sidelines and picks things up as the story goes along.

The concept of Wool, humans living in a silo underground, is one that has such a sweeping amount of plot to play with.  I’m always so interested in the myths and rituals and culture that build up in a society not like our own, and what these things say about our own culture.  I love the development of an entire world after ours in dystopian fiction (The Passage does such a great job of this, as does Oryx and Crake), and this book definitely leaves room to create a history of a people.  There are questions of maintaining power and control within the silo, and, without giving too much away, the daunting prospects of the entire world outside the silo’s safety.  And above all this, the constant sense of claustrophobia that comes with containment.

A group of people in an enclosed space always makes for interesting fiction – think of Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  I love cozy mysteries, and some of my favorite cozies take place in enclosed areas.  And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie takes place on an island during a storm, so guests are stranded.  The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny takes place in an isolated monastery, where the monks have little contact with the outside world and must be reached by boat or plane.  Science Fiction as a genre has a great opportunity to play with this tension by building situations where people are stuck together in enclosed spaces.

I’m excited to read the next part in the Wool series, called Shift.  I’m trying to put it off a bit for now, as I know I’ll just compulsively read it once I kindle it and get nothing else done in my life.

Wool – Part One by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com

Wool Omnibus Edition Parts 1-5 by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com

Shift Omnibus Edition Volume 2 by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com