Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Post-Apocalyptic

Book Review: The Dog Stars

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I came across this book in a list of recommended post-apocalyptic fiction, and was pleased to find that it was available as an audiobook from the Phoenix library, so I downloaded it and listened while traveling over the past couple of weeks. The basic premise is pretty standard post-apocalytic fare: A super-flu has swept across the planet, killing 99.7% of people and leading to the collapse of civilization. The main character is a survivor who lives at an old airport with his gun-loving partner Bangley and his old dog Jasper. The main character, Hig, has an old Cessna that he occasionally flies around to scout for hostile gangs or to go visit some nearby survivors. During one flight, he receives a garbled message from a distant airfield, and the main plot has to do with what heppens when he goes to investigate.

This book reminded me a lot of The Road, although not quite so bleak. It uses very stylized writing with lots of sentence fragments and apparently the printed version doesn’t really use quotes either. I think reading it as text might have been pretty challenging and/or annoying; this was a rare case where I think hearing it as an audiobook may have really helped. The book mostly manages to pull off this blatant imitation of Cormac McCarthy because the writing is pretty good once you get through the odd style. There are some very nice poetic descriptions.

Unfortunately the story itself is lacking. It moves very slowly, and then ends abruptly without really feeling (to me) like anything has really been resolved. It’s always a bad sign when I am shocked that a book has ended and have to double check to make sure I didn’t accidentally skip a part of the audiobook.

Also, underneath the literary style of the writing, this story basically boils down to an adolescent boy’s fantasy of what the apocalypse would be like. Hig’s life basically alternates between teaming up with Bangley to kill any “bad guys” intruding on their property, and going up into the mountains with his loyal dog to fish. One of these days I’d like to read a post-apocalyptic novel where the collapse of society doesn’t inevitably lead to roving bands of thugs out to kill each other. From what I’ve seen of major disasters in the real world, they tend to lead people banding together and cooperating to recover rather than giving up on any semblance of decency and descending immediately into rape and murder. Call me crazy, but I’d like to see more post apocalyptic fiction that doesn’t assume that most people are fundamentally terrible.

Anyway, later in the book (spoiler alert! No really, I’m about to give away the rest of the plot in a few sentences!)…

 

…Hig comes across a woman living in seclusion with her father. Of course she is beautiful, and of course she very quickly falls for him, and they go skinny dipping in fresh mountain streams and make love under the stars and then she comes back to live with him. Her dad, a former Navy SEAL, becomes BFFs with Bangley as they bond over being old badass dudes. The End.

All in all, I’m kind of ambivalent about this one. As an audiobook it was ok. I don’t think I would have been able to get through it actually reading it because of the weird style and slow pace. It’s clearly trying to imitate The Road, and has some moments of very nice writing but didn’t have a very satisfying ending and had a weird undercurrent of adolescent male wish fulfillment that makes it hard to really recommend it.

 

 

 

Game Review: Walking Dead: Season 1

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You know that feeling when you get to the end of a great novel? Or when the credits are rolling after an amazing season finale for your favorite TV show? Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling right now after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 1.

I’ve been known to complain on this blog about the lack of a decent story in video games. It’s something that always bothers me because so many games could be so much better if they spent just a little effort on the plot instead of filler content so that they can claim there are 100 hours of gameplay. Thankfully, it looks like at least some game designers are realizing this, and Telltale games seems to be leading the way.

Playing The Walking Dead is not like other games. You don’t have much freedom to move around, the controls are frankly pretty clunky, and the graphics are not amazing (but they are cool looking: making the game look like a comic book is a nice shout out to the source material that also allows them to skimp on graphics). The Walking Dead is more like watching an episode of a TV show. The game is even broken into discrete episodes, complete with credits, “previously on…” and teasers for the next episode. But the difference is that it’s a TV show where instead of yelling impotently at the screen when the characters do something dumb, you actually get to play the role of one of the characters (though if you’re like me you’ll still yell at the non-player characters from time to time…).

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, you play Lee, a former history professor who was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse occurred (the details of your past are revealed gradually, so I won’t say anything more than that). You end up escaping from the crashed cop car and finding a little girl, Clementine, hiding out in her tree fort to get away from the zombies. You take her under your wing and meet up with an assortment of other interesting characters as you try to survive in the zombie infested world. Unlike most games where killing aliens or terrorists or, you know, zombies, is the main attraction, here the best part of the game is just getting to know the characters. They all are well written, often with their own annoying traits but that only serves to make them feel “real”.

Of course, with realistic characters comes conflict. Disagreements about how best to survive, who is in charge, what to do when someone “turns” into a zombie. In every episode, you are faced with a few tough moral decisions, and these decisions have consequences. More often than not, your choices determine who survives the episode, which can be very difficult because the characters are so well developed. (The game does overuse the “who will you save?” decision a bit.) But it’s not all choices like that. Sometimes it’s the choice between fighting someone or talking to them to calm them down, or what to tell Clementine about whether her parents are alive or not, or whether to trust a newcomer to the group. Oh, and usually you only have a second or two to decide. Of course, the choices don’t alter the fundamental backbone of the story too much: the game’s writers would rapidly end up with a million different diverging stories. But even though the game steers you toward what must happen to advance the story, the fact that you get to make decisions that affect not only the current episode, but all subsequent episodes, means that you get really emotionally invested in the game. The Walking Dead game could easily be set up to just watch like a TV show, and it would be a pretty darn good show on its own. But by allowing you, the player, to make choices and get invested in the characters, it ends up being more powerful than just about any TV show I’ve ever watched. Not to give anything away, but the ending of the final episode had a hell of an emotional impact.

The only negative thing I can say about the game is that one of the episodes was very buggy. I had to restart and re-do a few scenes to be able to get through it. Things like this are especially jarring for a game that otherwise sucks you in so thoroughly.

But other than the bugs, I loved this game. It makes me incredibly happy that there are more “seasons” and that Telltale has quite a few other games out there (apparently they have a Game of Thrones series that I’ll have to check out). I really hope the success of games like this that don’t treat plot and characters as an afterthought inspires other developers to follow suit.

 

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road

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The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.

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I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.

 

 

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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There’s no shortage of post-apocalyptic stories out there, but it has been a while since I’ve seen one done this well. The taxonomy of post-apocalyptic fiction is worth its own blog post, but for our current purposes, it can be simplified down to two types: the loud, angry apocalypse, and the quiet, sad apocalypse. Station Eleven falls squarely into the latter camp. It doesn’t tread any new ground: the premise is that a highly contagious and lethal strain of the flu sweeps the world and causes the collapse of civilization in a matter of days, leaving behind isolated groups of survivors struggling to come to terms with their new world. But the strength of this novel is not in an original premise, but in its almost flawless execution.

The story is centered around the events of a night just before the end of the world, when famous actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack onstage while performing as King Lear. From this central event, the novel jumps forward and back in time. It looks ahead to decades after the apocalypse, following the Travelling Symphony, a caravan of musicians and actors with a motto borrowed from an old episode of Star Trek: “Survival is not sufficient”. They roam what use to be Michigan, trying to survive and putting on performances of Shakespeare and classical music. The novel also jumps back in time, providing glimpses of characters’ lives before the apocalypse. The decadence of Hollywood and jet-setting business people contrasting with the “simple” life of the survivors of the end of civilization.

In a less-skilled author’s hands, a novel with so many jumps between characters and times could become confusing or difficult to follow, but that’s not a problem here. This book is very well-written: it’s well above par compared to most genre writing, while avoiding purple prose. Mandel deftly handles the shifts in time, place, and point of view in such a way that they make perfect sense and all build upon each other, weaving together connections between them all. She also manages the impressive feat of making the pre-apocalypse scenes just as interesting, if not more so, than the post-apocalyptic ones.

Station Eleven is the sad, quiet type of post-apocalyptic novel, reflecting poignantly on all the things about modern life that we take for granted, and speculating about the values that people would try to keep alive after the end of the world. Yet for all that, it doesn’t wallow in sadness. The feeling that it evokes is more bittersweet than depressing, and there is a hopeful strain to it.

I highly recommend this novel, whether you are a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, or just a fan of good writing. This is one of those novels I found myself savoring I approached the end because I didn’t want it to be over, and I’m looking forward to reading it again someday.

 

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: 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.

2013 in Review: Books I Read

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It’s the end of the year, and you know what that means: lists! I read a total of 13 books this year, and I thought I’d do a quick run-down here. I’ve fallen behind on my reviews, so this will also serve as a good way to get caught up. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2013, roughly in order of when I finished them:

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Charles C. Mann (Nonfiction – History)

This book is the successor to 1491, which I listened to on the drive to and from Pasadena during MSL primary operations and really enjoyed. 1493 looks at the ramifications of globalization begun by Columbus arriving in the new world and continuing over the next few centuries. I really enjoyed this book too, though it got to be a bit long winded. The most interesting part to me was the discussion of how Spanish control over the extremely productive silver mines in South America had ripple effects all the way around the world, changing the course of history in Japan and China as well as triggering wars in Europe. These two books, 1491 and 1493 have rekindled my interest in history, and are full of interesting historical anecdotes. I liked the books well enough that I went out and bought paper copies to have as references, and as inspiration for future fiction writing.

  • The Winds of War – Herman Wouk (Fiction – History)

Speaking of history, this year I started reading more historical fiction as well. Winds of War is a massive book following the members of a family as they are strewn around the world in the early years of World War 2. Wouk strategically positions his characters in interesting places so the reader gets multiple perspectives on the war. I probably learned more about World War 2 here than I did in school.  Although some of the characters’ travels are improbable and at times it gets a bit soap-operatic, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading its successor.

  • Wildwood – Colin Meloy (Fiction – YA Fantasy)

We picked up this book mostly because it is written by the lead singer of the Decemberists, which is one of our favorite bands. It’s a simple young adult fantasy tale set in a realm of talking animals whose factions are at war in the woods outside Portland, OR. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grip me in a must-turn-the-page sort of way. It is well-edited and structured, following the principle of Chekov’s Gun well and wrapping up neatly. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a younger audience, though some of the animals actually die in the war, so it’s not for very young kids.

  • The Last Days of the Incas – Kim MacQuarrie (Nonfiction – History)

This book was great. I read it before and during a trip to Peru, and it does a great job of making the history of the conquest of the Incas come alive (though actually having visited the key locations also helps!). MacQuarrie scours the historical records, but then takes enough liberties and indulges in enough scene-setting and description that the book reads more like a novel than nonfiction. Although I had the general idea for a novel based on the Incas in mind for years before reading this, this book introduced me to the historical figure of Felipillo, the young Inca boy who served as translator between the Spanish and the Incas. He became the inspiration for one of the main characters in my novel. I highly recommend this book for a readable and fascinating account of the conquest of the Incas.

  • Wool – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This book was probably the best surprise read of the year. I picked it up  on a whim after reading some glowing reviews, not really knowing what to expect, and got completely swept away. I wrote a long review of it here on the blog, so I won’t rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed this book, and rank it among my favorites of the year.

  • Shogun – James Clavell (Fiction – History)

This was my only re-read of the year, but I really enjoyed it the second time around as well. I also wrote a more detailed review on the blog, so take a look. This book is another example of how fiction can do so much more than classroom lectures to make history come alive. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in feudal Japan or any fans of fantasy like the Game of Thrones series with large casts and lots of political intrigue.

  • The Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (Fiction – Fantasy)

I wish I had more good things to say about this one. I read Kay’s book “Under Heaven” a few years ago and enjoyed it pretty well, especially as an example of historical fantasy set it a fictional world that closely mimics our own, so I thought I would try his earlier, more “pure-fantasy” work. Kay was involved in editing Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, so when I saw reviews of “The Summer Tree” saying that it borrowed a lot from Tolkien, I figured I would still give it a chance. The story in the Summer Tree is sort of like The Lion, The With, and The Wardrobe with college kids, mashed up with Lord of the Rings, but it fails to live up to either. At its best, this book has some passages of really lovely prose, but more often it feels very much like an imitation of better books. I can’t recommend this one. If you want a good take on “college kids in a magical setting” check out Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. If you want epic fantasy, either read Tolkien himself, or go with more modern classics like Game of Thrones .

  • The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell (Fiction – History)

After enjoying Winds of War and re-reading Shogun, I was in the mood for more historical fiction, and Bernard Cornwell’s name kept coming up, so I tried this one. The story is set in the mid 9th century and follows Uhtred, the son of a Northumbrian lord who is adopted by Danes (vikings) after they invade and kill his father. There is lots of gruesome and gritty action, interesting characters, and conflicted loyalties as Uhtred grows up and comes to sympathize with the people who killed his family. This book is the perfect gateway book for fans of fantasy who want to get into historical fiction. It reads very much like epic fantasy, except it’s based on real historical events. It’s also refreshing to read something set in the depths of the middle ages rather than toward the end. In this book great castles are houses on mounds of dirt with wooden walls, and a shirt of chainmail is the best armor available. No knights in shining armor and towering fairytale castles here. One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book is learning what places used to be called. London = Lundene, Nottingham = Snotingaham, York = Jorvick. Anyway, I really enjoyed this one, and am planning on starting the second book in the series soon.

  • The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (Fiction – Fantasy)

This is the second book in the Mistborn series, the first of which I read a year or so ago and enjoyed. It took me quite a while to get into this one. One of the problems I run into with the Mistborn books is that the magic system, although interesting, is pretty complicated, so action sequences have to be extremely detailed for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. Especially at the beginning of this book, when Sanderson is trying to get new readers up to speed, the action sequences can lose their urgency and interest as they devolve into tutorials on the magic system. By the end of this book, I was finally drawn in by the several slowly building arcs and enjoyed what appeared to be the climax. Unfortunately, the book keeps going to set up a major cliffhanger for the following book. I follow the Writing Excuses podcast, which is hosted by Sanderson, and he has actually mentioned this ending and discussed a bit why it had to be done, but it still was an ending that left me dissatisfied. I’ll probably read the next book in the series eventually, but this one only worked for me some of the time.

  • Shift – Hugh Howey (Fiction – Sci-fi/post-apocalypse)

This is the prequel to Wool, and so I came in with high hopes. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, Shift is a fine novel, but it didn’t have the addictive qualities of Wool. Whereas I could not put Wool down, Shift I read over a period of months, picking it up now and then but not really getting sucked in. It was very interesting to see how the world introduced in Wool came to be, but I think because I read this one spread over so much time, I lost track of some of the threads and didn’t enjoy it as much as i would have if i had read it faster. All in all, I would still recommend this, but don’t expect the same compulsive readability as Wool.

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon (Fiction – alternate history)

While I was in Pasadena for MSL operations in Fall of 2012, I listened to Chabon’s “Manhood for Amateurs”, a collection of memoir-essays, and really enjoyed them, so I had been wanting to try his fiction for a while. The premise behind this book is weird: what if instead of creating Israel after World War 2, a temporary nation for the Jews was instead created in Alaska? The story itself follows a down-on-his luck detective trying to solve a murder that he has been instructed not to pursue. The prose in this book is awesome, and it’s worth reading just for some of the wonderful descriptions that Chabon uses. You can see why he won a Pulitzer. On the other hand, the plot is not as strong. It feels like Chabon wrote a lot of scenes with weird and interesting characters in this weird and interesting setting, and then toward the end of the book had to scramble to wrap them up into a plot somehow. Still, this one is worth reading just for the prose and the unusual setting. But be prepared to learn a lot of yiddish terms. I found out only after finishing the book that there is a glossary in the back (I was reading as an e-book, so it was not obvious), and there are times it would have been useful…

  • The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie (Fiction – Fantasy)

I had been meaning to read Abercrombie’s books for quite a while. They have been heralded as the peak of “grimdark” fantasy, where the pure good vs evil conflict of stories like Lord of the Rings is replaced with morally gray characters in a nasty, gritty world. Heck, Absercrombie’s twitter handle is @lordgrimdark. The Blade Itself definitely fits this description: all three main characters are anti-heroes in one way or another. You’ve got a former swordsman turned torturer after having his own body ruined in a torture chamber, a veteran barbarian warrior who is trying to be a good person but can’t escape the massacres he committed in his past, and a rich obnoxious self-centered nobleman who is so classist and annoying that he verges on self-parody. In fact, I think this novel succeeds because it knows (and expects the reader to know) exactly what tropes it is trying to subvert and which ones it is shamelessly embracing almost to the point of absurdity. There is a dark humor that runs through the book that saves it from its own grittiness and makes characters that would otherwise be nearly impossible to root for much more likeable. My main complaint is that this book was clearly written with sequels in mind, and ends up feeling like a long introduction to the real story that will be told in future books. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, but the ending of this one was a bit unsatisfying.

  • The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

I started this in 2012, put it down, and then picked it back up again at the end of 2013. I was hoping that, as a collection of the “best of the best”, this would be nothing but great short stories. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Some of the stories in here are great, and had as much or more impact as many novels. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was a particular stand-out that was really excellent. But many of the stories in this collection are not very good. Or at least, they didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not. It’s a nice cross section showing the state of science fiction, but about two thirds of the stories are mediocre if not actively bad. I’m glad I read it because the good stories make it worthwhile, but I almost didn’t finish it because of the many stories that just didn’t connect with me.

 

Book Review: Wool

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One of my favorite things is coming across a new book that I know nothing about and then proceeding to be completely consumed once I start reading, emerging days later blinking and disoriented as I am forced to reintegrate with the real world.

That’s more or less what happened with Wool. My wife and I were on a two week vacation in Peru (which was awesome) and before we left she asked friends for book recommendations. One of them suggested Wool, so we downloaded it on our Kindle and set off on our adventure.

Toward the end of the trip we started reading it in our hotel room (we read books out loud because we are unbearably adorable like that). By that point in the trip we had hit most of the main attractions in Cusco and were quite tired after almost two weeks of being adventurous. I feel a bit guilty admitting this but on our last couple of days we ended up spending hours just sitting in our room reading Wool instead of doing last-minute exploring.

Wool is a collection of five  related stories set in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is forced to live underground in giant “silos”. It is the story of one silo starting to realize that, lurking beneath the life that they take for granted, there are some sinister forces working to maintain the status quo. As the tagline on the cover says, “If the lies don’t kill you, the truth will.”

The first story is really quite sad and dark. At one point in the first story when we took a break from reading, my wife commented on how incredibly sad the story was. But then immediately demanded that I keep reading. Because despite the dark tone, Wool is a masterful example of how to use building dread and suspense to keep readers turning the page.

The premise for the story is nothing particularly new. I was reminded very strongly of the video game Fallout 3, which begins in an underground facility where people have lived for generations to avoid the dangers of a surface world rendered nearly uninhabitable by nuclear war. However, Fallout 3 is a video game and its main concern is with setting up the appropriate ambiance for the world and then getting the player out into the unknown world beyond the door of the Vault. It is a testament to how good Fallout 3 is that a brief encounter with the Vault leaves such a strong impression, but there’s not actually much there.

Wool on the other hand is a wonderful example of science fiction worldbuilding. The action takes place (almost) entirely in the silos and details of the civilization that lives in them are doled out perfectly, making the reader constantly want to know more, but at the same time providing exactly as much information as the reader needs. No awkward info dumps in sight, just a vivid world perfectly revealed.

Of course, the stories are really about the characters and again Wool does a great job. The stories are not sweeping epics, but instead focus closely on a handful of well-drawn characters. I was especially impressed by the careful, skillful, and realistic way in which characters falling in love is dealt with.

The limited scope, both in terms of number of characters and the enclosed, sometimes claustrophobic world in which they live, is a real strength of the stories. There are no wasted words here. The writing is really tight: everything that is mentioned is mentioned for a reason. It all hangs together incredibly well and makes for a really compelling read.

My only nitpick is that the end of the final story comes a bit abruptly. Still, it’s a small nitpick in what is otherwise one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Check it out, especially if you are a fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. you won’t be disappointed.

 

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