Science, Fiction, Life

Month: March 2014

Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

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The post-apocalyptic genre usually seems to take an all-or-nothing stance on civilization. Most post-apocalyptic stories either start with the world as it is and progress toward complete breakdown of society, or they skip the first step and begin after the apocalypse is in full swing.

Feed, by Mira Grant (the open pen-name of Seanan McGuire) takes a different approach. It is set in 2040, decades after an unfortunate reaction between virus-based cures for the common cold and cancer created the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which re-animates any mammal greater than 40 lbs as a zombie upon death. But unlike so many other post-apocalyptic stories, society has not completely broken down in Feed. Yes, it has changed drastically, but there are still countries, still governments, and electricity, and technology. There just also happen to be zombies.

I suspect one reason this middle-ground approach is not often taken is that it’s much harder to explore the many ways, large and small, our existing society would change, than it is to burn everything to the ground and start over. Luckily, Feed handles this challenge extremely well. Everything is thought out in great detail, and from a writing perspective, the book is a marvel of making info-dumps palatable. It’s just so interesting to learn how things have changed after the zombie outbreak that I found I didn’t mind the main character taking frequent breaks from the narrative to explain everything from why people don’t eat much meat anymore (large mammals carry the active virus, which will turn you into a zombie), to the landmark court cases related to the outbreak (using zombies or the virus as a weapon is legally considered terrorism), to a thousand other details large and small.

Feed is as much a near-future science fiction story about journalism as it is a post-apocalyptic zombie story. The main characters, Georgia and Shaun Mason, and their friend Buffy, are professional bloggers who are chosen to follow a presidential campaign as part of the press corps. Their reporting is made possible not only by traditional interviews and fact-checking, but a complex web of hidden cameras and microphones and wireless transmitters and encryption. It’s a fascinating speculative look at the future of the internet and reporting. Despite being set in a world that could come across as just a campy horror story, Feed has some important things to say about journalistic integrity, the culture of fear that is such a part of modern cable news, the role of technology and the internet in the near future, and the evolving ideas of privacy and sharing information. The latter is particularly relevant right now given how much the NSA has been in the news lately.

Another thing that I enjoyed was that, unlike many zombie apocalypses, the world of Feed is a world where there were bad zombie movies long before the real zombies arrived on the scene. In fact, the star of bad zombie movies in the Feed universe is revered as a national hero for educating people about how to deal with zombies. Also, Buffy takes her name from “some pre-rising TV show character”.

I listened to Feed as an audiobook, and the main narrator does an excellent job, capturing Georgia’s attitude and voice very well, and doing surprisingly good and distinct voices for the other main characters as well. The narrative voice in the book is full of wit and sarcasm, and it was nice to see it captured so well by the reader. The secondary reader was pretty good too, though not as consistent with his accents and voices.

I don’t have much to criticize about Feed. I guess I would say that it can be a bit verbose at times, and despite the skill with which the info-dumping was done it did sometimes get to be a bit much. And although I understand the narrative purpose behind it, the tedious repetition of security systems and blood-testing that the characters go through got a bit tiresome.  My only other criticism was that the bad guy was a caricature and too obviously bad from the start. All in all though, pretty minor stuff, and I really enjoyed the book.

Bottom line: Feed is a great zombie story and a great near-future sci-fi story. It is, unusually, set in a post apocalyptic world where there is still some semblance of the  world we all know, and the deviations caused by advances in tech and the zombie outbreak are very well-thought out. It’s an exciting read with an emotional and satisfying ending, and the audiobook was very good thanks to a great reader.

 

Book Review: Year of Wonders

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It’s not as if I didn’t know what I was getting into. The subtitle for “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks is “A Novel of the Plague”, and I read some reviews before plunging in, so I was ready for lots of death. I think what threw me off was the title, which seems to promise good things amid the horrors of the plague. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that this novel is lacking in “wonders” and rich in terrible things, above and beyond even the plague.

The premise is this: in 1665 a small town of ~350 people in England is infected by the black plague, and the town rector convinces the people that instead of fleeing to relatives in other towns, they should protect the neighboring villages by quarantining themselves, cutting off all contact with the outside world and dealing with the plague as best they can. The main character is Anna Frith, servant to the rector and his wife, and as the book progresses she becomes close friends with them and learns a great deal about caring for the ill. She grows more confident and skilled even as she is surrounded by loss and grief.

The writing in this book is very good, and the historical details are excellent, touching on everything from herb lore to religion to lead mining. Brooks does an especially good job of introducing the reader to the various characters of the town, which makes it awful to read of their gruesome deaths when they are stuck by the plague. I read plenty of fiction rife with death, but it is rarely delivered in such unflinching detail and it is easy to become numb to it. That is never the case with this book. The writing is so skillful and detailed in its description of burst plague sores and maggoty bodies and entire families wiped out in days that it is difficult to read at times.

With such a dark topic, I had hoped that the “wonders” in the title might allude to moments of joy or comic relief even during the darkest times. But other than a healthy birth here or there, and the friendship between the main characters, scenes not dealing directly with plague victims often dealt with all the other madness that comes when uneducated superstitious people  are subjected to something like plague. Witch hunts leading to unjust murder, Anna’s drunken and abusive father charging exorbitant prices to dig graves for families before the sick person is even dead, death by self-flagellation, men trying to steal a little girl’s rights to her father’s lead mine after her entire family has died, the wealthiest family in town fleeing the plague and leaving their servants homeless and penniless, the book is unrelentingly depressing. Even the backstories of the main characters, from long before the plague strikes, are awful to hear.

 

I’m conflicted because all of these depressing things are told very skillfully. As I said, the writing is very good, and normally I would enjoy a book more for that reason. My main complaint about the writing is the ending. I won’t give it away, but there is a twist at the end that seemed very strange and spoiled what seemed to be the hint of something positive at the end of a long dark tunnel.

So, the bottom line for this book is: it is full of great historical detail and skillful writing, but it is relentlessly depressing. This is not something you read on the beach for a fun bit of escapism. It was even darker than I thought it would be, going in well aware of its subject matter. Still, it’s a vivid and memorable story about the black plague and how it affects the people of a small town, and I will not forget it anytime soon. Despite the depressing nature and strange ending, I would say that it is worth reading. Just go in aware of what you’re getting into, and have something lighthearted at hand to read or watch when you need a break. And be thankful you live in a time with antibiotics.

 

PS – I should also note that I listened to the audiobook, which was read by the author. Sometimes authors reading their own book can be bad, but she was actually a pretty good reader. For just plain narration she sounds a little boring, but she did the emotional inflection of dialogue quite well. Her voice is very similar to that of Anna from Downton Abbey (Joanne Froggatt), and with the main character named Anna, I was constantly picturing the Downton Abbey character.

A Series of Series

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Whenever I finish a book, the next step is deciding what to read next. I’m never short on options, but recently I have been noticing just how many of the books jostling for the next spot on my “to read” list are parts of series. So I thought it would be interesting to actually compile a list of the series that I am currently in the midst of reading. For all of these, I have read at least one book in the series but not all of them (books I have read are in bold), either because the series is not all published (unpublished book titles are in italics), or because I haven’t had time, or because I am not interested in continuing (series name crossed out). I’ve tried to include only novels here, though some of the more massive series (Vorkosigan Saga, Dragonriders of Pern, Dune) are pretty complicated and have sub-series, novellas, collections of short stories, etc.

On the one hand, series are great: if you like a book, there’s more like it! But on the other hand… I would not mind some more standalone fiction. Also, there is always the dreaded series bloat. Game of Thrones certainly suffers from this, and I haven’t even dared delve into the ultimate bloated series, the Wheel of Time, whose author did not even live long enough to finish it. Given that the second massive book in the Stormlight Archive series just debuted at #1 on the NYT bestseller list, and that that series is starting off with a plan for at least 10 books, I’m not holding my breath for the end of multi-book series any time soon. I am, however, going to avoid starting any new series until I’ve made at least some progress on the ones below.

The First Law Series by Joe Abercrombie

  • The Blade Itself
  • Before They are Hanged
  • Last Argument of Kings

The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Falling Free
  • Shards of Honor
  • Barrayar
  • The Warrior’s Apprentice
  • The Vor Game
  • Cetaganda
  • Ethan of Athos
  • Brothers in Arms
  • Mirror Dance
  • Memory
  • Komarr
  • A Civil Campaign
  • Diplomatic Immunity
  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
  • Cryoburn

Chalion Series by Lois McMaster Bujold

  • Curse of Chalion
  • Paladin of Souls
  • The Hallowed Hunt

Asian Saga by James Clavell

  • Shogun
  • Tai-Pan
  • Gai-jin
  • King Rat
  • Noble House
  • Whirlwind

The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell

  • The Last Kingdom
  • The Pale Horseman
  • The Lords of the North
  • Sword Song
  • The Burning Land
  • Death of Kings
  • The Pagan Lord
  • The Empty Throne

The Magicians Series by Lev Grossman

  • The Magicians
  • The Magician King
  • The Magician’s Land

Dune Series by Frank Herbert

  • Dune
  • Dune Messiah
  • Children of Dune
  • God Emperor of Dune
  • Heretics of Dune
  • Chapterhouse: Dune
  • Plus many more by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson…

Silo Series by Hugh Howey

  • Wool
  • Shift
  • Dust

  The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

  • Wolf of the Plains
  • Lords of the Bow
  • Bones of the Hills
  • Empire of Silver
  • Conqueror

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

  • The Gunslinger
  • The Drawing of the Three
  • The Waste Lands
  • Wizard and Glass
  • Wolves of the Calla
  • Song of Susannah
  • The Dark Tower
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole

Warchild Series by Karin Lowachee

  • Warchild
  • Burndive
  • Cagebird

Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel

  • Wolf Hall
  • Bring up the Bodies
  • The Mirror and the Light

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

  • A Game of Thrones
  • A Clash of Kings
  • A Storm of Swords
  • A Feast for Crows
  • A Dance With Dragons
  • The Winds of Winter
  • A Dream of Spring

Dragonriders of Pern Series by Anne McCaffrey

  • Dragonflight
  • Dragonquest
  • The White Dragon
  • Dragonsong
  • Dragonsinger
  • Dragondrums
  • Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern
  • Nerilka’s Story
  • Dragonsdawn
  • Renegades of Pern
  • All the Weyrs of Pern
  • The Dolphins of Pern
  • Red Star Rising
  • The Masterharper of Pern
  • The Skies of Pern
  • Plus many more by McCaffrey’s son

Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy

  • Wildwood
  • Under Wildwood
  • Wildwood Imperium

Bas-Lag Series by China Mieville

  • Perdido Street Station
  • The Scar
  • The Iron Council

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

  • The Final Empire
  • The Well of Ascension
  • The Hero of Ages
  • The Alloy of Law

 Old Man’s War Series by John Scalzi

  • Old Man’s War
  • The Ghost Brigades
  • The Last Colony
  • Zoe’s Tale
  • The Human Division

The Henry Family series by Herman Wouk

  • Winds of War
  • War and Remembrance

Book Review: World War Z

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I love me some post-apocalyptic sci-fi, so I was excited to see this book as an audiobook option at the library, especially when I learned that it was not just a single reader, but a full cast of voice actors. Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting into this. Part of that may be that the version I listened to was abridged, but it may also have something to do with how the story is told.

The idea behind this book is that it is a collection of stories told by survivors of a zombie apocalypse. On its face, this is a pretty cool idea. You get to see the events from many different perspectives, each illuminating how events unfolded in their part of the world. The downside of this is that you already know the ending. People survived and are writing up government reports on the events of the war, so that immediately takes away some of the tension from the stories. Also, there is no main character to follow and root for. So the impetus to keep reading ends up being just “how did they all survive?” and that only goes so far.

Another side effect of this storytelling format is that the stories are supposedly in people’s own words, but the way people talk is quite different from the way a novel is written. I found that a lot of times the stories would feel unnatural because what was supposedly an eyewitness account would end up full of detailed description more suited to novel narration. This might be a case where the audiobook format worked against the story: hearing someone actually speak the words out loud might have sounded more jarring than reading them on the page.

The abridgment was also a problem. It was clear that the story was missing pieces, and I did not realize that I was only minutes away from the ending when it finally came. I’m always puzzled by abridgment. If there were pieces of the story that could be cut, presumably that would happen before publication, and whatever was published is there for a reason.

I should say that despite all these complaints, I did enjoy some parts of the book. Odd as it sounds, I found the higher-level stories that talked about the geopolitics of the war or the logistics of re-starting industry in the wake of the apocalypse more interesting than some of the “small-scale” stories of single characters trying to survive. Brooks does a good job of depicting a truly global apocalypse, something that is often overlooked in the genre in favor of following a small group of survivors. This is a case where the format of World War Z works in its favor. Being able to view the apocalypse from South Africa, and China, and Japan, and Cuba, and the US, etc. was refreshing.

Another thing that I liked was that spread of the disease responsible for the zombies was depicted realistically. It’s not as if one day everyone wakes up and there are zombies. The cases of infection gradually grow more and more common, and by the time it is recognized for the true threat that it is, it is already too widespread to stop it. This struck me as pretty realistic (ignoring the part about the zombies of course).

So, bottom line: it didn’t really work for me, and I’m surprised it has become so popular. The format worked against it in places, and I’m sure the abridgment didn’t help, but there were certain stories that were still pretty interesting, especially when they showed the big picture which is so often lost in post-apocalyptic fiction.

Book Reviews: Before They Are Hanged and Warrior’s Apprentice

I’ve been consuming a lot of fiction recently, but have fallen behind on my reviews. So, let’s get caught back up with some two-for-one reviews, shall we?

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

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This is the second book in the “First Law” series, and I thought it was a bit better than the first book. The first book ended after introducing a bunch of interesting characters but leaving them on the cusp of doing more interesting things. In book two, we see them set off on their respective quests: Colonel West and Dogman and his crew are in the North fighting against Bethod’s invasion, Logan, Luthar, and Ferro are off on a quest led by the mage Bayaz, and Glotka is stuck defending a besieged city in the south. Having multiple POV characters in the same place worked well, allowing them to play off of each other, and I found myself looking forward to the chapters dealing with those characters, and inwardly groaning a bit when I ran into a Glotka chapter. Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie does an admirable job of making a crippled torturer a viable main character, but Glotka’s chapters always seemed more static, while the other characters are off having adventures and also growing and changing in response to those adventures and each other.

There is again lots of blood and gore, which is to be expected, especially with a main character who is a torturer. There are also some instances where traditional fantasy tropes are subverted, but I think overall despite its reputation as being a dark and gritty contrast to traditional fantasy, this series really celebrates the fantasy genre. Especially with the two plot lines following parties of adventurers, I was reminded strongly of Dungeons and Dragons (in the best possible way).

Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This one is also the second book in a series, but I’m afraid I didn’t like it nearly as much as Before They Are Hanged. I really want to like the Vorkosigan saga, which I have heard is such a great space opera series, but so far the first two books (Shards of Honor and The Worrior’s Apprentice) have both failed to impress me. They’re both very readable, but I would say they’re mediocre at best.

I complained in my review of Shard of Honor that the main character was too passive and that things just seemed to happen to her. I think The Warrior’s Apprentice suffers from the opposite problem. The main character is Miles Vorkosigan, a 17 year old son of a noble family who is brilliant but is born with a birth defect which makes him wash out of military training. So he ends up travelling to his mother’s home planet, where he buys a ship to help a guy he doesn’t know, then accepts a deserter as his servant to save him from being reported. To pay for the debt taken on in purchasing the ship, Miles smuggles weapons to a distant planet that is in the throes of civil war. When they arrive at the planet, they are stopped by merceneries, and somehow Miles manages to fight back, capture the merceneries, and within a week has them convinced he is a mercenery and that they now work for him. From there things escalate until Miles is in control of a fleet of ships, a mining colony, hundreds of people, and is negotiating with high ranking military and political officials.

It’s all very exciting and very readable, and Miles is certainly not a passive character, but my problem with the whole book is that I did not buy into the premise: Miles is a stunted 17 year old rich kid. Just because he is clever and wealthy and a good liar, I am supposed to believe that literally every adult he comes into contact with is going to blindly follow him? Even when it makes no sense to do so (for example, the captured merceneries who almost immediately begin working for him against their former employers)?

I found myself contrasting this novel with Ender’s game. In Ender’s game, the main character is also a physically unassuming, very smart boy. But Ender’s Game succeeds where The Warrior’s Apprentice fails in that Ender’s leadership makes sense: it ramps up slower, his genius is much more evident, he doesn’t rely on money, status, or an inexplicably cooperative bodyguard to help him, the people he is leading are for the most part other kids like himself, and his motives are much more clear. On the face of it the premise for Ender’s Game is just as preposterous as The Warrior’s Apprentice (most sci- fi sounds silly when distilled down to a one-line summary) but the execution is just so drastically better that it works while The Warrior’s Apprentice really failed to get me to suspend my disbelief.

I might try another book in the Vorkosigan saga someday. I know that Bujold can write good fiction because The Curse of Chalion was quite good. But I will be taking a break from this series for a while. Two underwhelming books in a row doesn’t make me want to rush to read the rest.

 

 

 

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