dionysus1999: (tick)
Just finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.   This is a Great Michigan Read selection from the Michigan Humanities Council, so there were lots of copies at my local library.  Emily is a good writer, her prose described as understated in the wiki for this novel.  There's also a certain nostalgia and melancholy that she evokes that works for her subject matter.

Ms. St. John Mandel tells the story of a collection of survivors from the "Georgian Flu", which wipes out most of humanity.  The main characters are part of the Traveling Symphony, a collection of people who travel the post apocalyptic Great Lakes area entertaining the small collections of people that have survived.   The narrative bounces between different viewpoints and times, though unlike other authors, she manages to keep it from getting confusing.  Much of the story is set in the current world prior to the collapse.   The post collapse society part would likely be a short story if told by itself.

This story will slip into you quietly, then wake you in the middle of the night.  There's nothing here all that new, and I have my quibbles about why the Center for Disease Control and their counterparts failed so miserably.  But understated is accurate, and the characters feel like real people.   She adds just the right amount of detail to flesh out her world and characters without bogging down the story.

Anyone who can handle a story that's carved up into chunks of different character perspectives and past/future will love this story.   There are several scenes of violent death and hints of other terrible events, but Emily doesn't glamorize these, sparing the reader the gorier details other authors might revel in.  

I read someone was planning to develop this as a movie.  I think with the right screenplay writers this could also be a good TV series.

Ms. St. John Mandel denies this is science fiction, but I feel it is in the best tradition of speculative fiction.  It feels a bit like a Clifford Simak story, in that much of the story takes place in pastoral scenes, rather than in a tin can in space or some megapolis.  It also evokes Margaret Atwood, though she avoids the creeping doom feeling in much of Ms. Atwood's fiction. 
dionysus1999: (tick)
Sarah and I read the twelve stories in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to each other out loud.   The characters have this way of talking that can be a bit of a challenge to read outloud, they end up sounding a bit like Yoda.

The stories were fun and I'm pretty sure all of them have been adapted for television, as there were none that were completely unfamiliar.   I liked that some of the stories had no "crime" that the police had to intervene in.   I've always appreciated that Holmes was a champion for the less fortunate and was empathic to the situations poor folks find themselves drawn into.  These stories also have some interesting words that definitely are ancient and/or distinctly British.   Gasogene was just one example, for a seltzer bottle.   
dionysus1999: (tick)
There and Back Again is nominally a science fiction novel by Pat Murphy, and her imaginary friend Max Merriwell.  What it really is: a retelling of the Hobbit in space.   It's silly and fun, almost seems like an experiment by the author, and turned out so well she decided to have it published.  While Pat got some of the oddity of traveling near the speed of light right, there is also much that is scientifically improbable/impossible.  

However, if you ever were irritated that there are no female characters in the Hobbit, this does fix that, since the majority of the characters are clones of one woman.   Now a more thorough exploration of the idea of a community of clones and the ramifications of being a twin to everyone around you would have been more interesting from a speculative fiction angle.  Ms. Murphy barely scratches the surface here.  And one could also set a whole novel on the planet that stands in for Lake Town, the inhabitants having descended from a mixed group that included clone members.

While entertaining, unless you're a super fan of the Hobbit and want to read everything even remotely related to it there's not enough here for me to recommend it, other than as a pleasant diversion.   On the other hand, perhaps there is value here I'm dismissing, since I've read plenty of novels which where poorly done rewrites of other novels.  This has the charm of the Hobbit and is well written.
dionysus1999: (tick)
PZ Myers is a cantankerous biologist who has become famous for defending atheism, debating various religious figures and regularly doling out criticism on his blog Pharyngula.    Last I was reading the publishers of a conservative (and free) rag at his university were accusing him of stealing their papers, because some twit thought he smelled something sciency.  Stealing student papers isn't PZ's style, he uses his erudition to criticize the religious to (hopefully) make them think.   Seems like it's conservatives, not wacky liberal biology professors who engage in this type of censorship.

The Happy Atheist is a series of short chapters in which PZ discusses some aspect of religion in regards to atheism.   Parts are scathingly hilarious, others are merely chuckle worthy.    He takes his atheist viewpoint and skewers many sacred cows.  I recommend this book for anyone who is an atheist or anyone who is curious on how atheists view all the religious craziness surrounding them.    PZ does not pull any punches, so if you're easily offended I might recommend skipping this one.   Like him, I don't find coarse language as offensive as the stupidity and justifications that the religious use for their abominable behavior.

The religious are not the only group in PZ's cross-hairs.  He also takes on wishy washy apologists and other scientists who make asses of themselves.   Did you know one scientist thinks God exists in the quantum realm?  Poor Yahweh, he's gone from making the universe to existing in Planck level spaces.   
dionysus1999: (tick)
S picked up Existence by David Brin from our local library for me.   There's at least a book's worth of future prediction and another of examination of the "where's the aliens" Drake equation in this 550 page monster.   The plot starts with an astronaut finding an alien artifact and moves on to explore near future Earth and it's reaction to the discovery that we are not alone.

Packed with exposition, this book will appeal to the classic scifi reader, less so for anyone who finds exhaustive analysis tiring.   I found Brin's solution to avoiding cultural stagnation interesting. 
dionysus1999: (tick)
Decided to track the books I read to 2013 and post brief reviews.  What I finished in January.

Across Realtime is actually a two book omnibus that are loosely bound together by one character who by the second book is very very old.   First book, the Peace War is set in the near future in which a device is created that can trap a section of the world into a "bobble", a silvery sphere which is impenetrable. One faction of humanity controls the technology, basically enforcing peace by exile into one of those bobbles.   Turns out the bad guys didn't know important things about the bobbles.   Marooned in Realtime is set in the far future, though Vinge pulls one character from the first book and another from the same universe who showed up in a prior story.   If you like Vinge you will enjoy these novels.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I listened to on audiobook was enjoyable, though wince-worthy for some of the science that Jules Verne extrapolated on.   Anyone with a geology background will find it annoying, and the main character is a somewhat unsympathetic coward.   The lack of female characters and the chauvinism and racism were annoying, but the story was amusing from a history of science fiction perspective.  If Edwardian adventure stories are your thing, though, it will be right up your alley.   If the idea of characters floating on a petrified wood raft over a lake of lava seems a bit over the top you might want to skip this one.

In an attempt to broaden the authorship of the novels I read I picked up 100,000 Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Dark fantasy is not my favorite genre, but N.K. was able to pull me in anyway with her interesting main character, a "biracial" woman who is summoned by the King to be a possible heir to the throne.   Whenever an author personifies gods they take the risk of a reader not being able to suspend disbelief, like making the gods just super-powered humans.  She does a good job of avoiding those pitfalls, though the one I think she does fall into is the romance angle.  If you're looking for a novel were the main protagonist is not a typical WASP and don't mind some dark fantasy and romantic elements you might like this book.
dionysus1999: (Default)

Finished two audio books recently.   Listened to Treasure Island.  I greatly enjoyed this one.  The reader did a good job.   I hadn't realized just how much of the plot was ripped off by Yellowbeard.  There was no mention of rape in Treasure Island, though, and the jokes about rape are one of things I found unappealing in the movie.

I see from reading the Wiki that Sting and Adam Ant were both considered for the main role.  A shame, either one of them would have added spice to the movie. 

Also listened to Of Mice and Men.  Steinbeck is a good story teller, the characters and plot are interesting.  The only female character isn't sympathetic.  She doesn't even get a name, and Steinbeck indicated she was meant merely as a symbol.  

I also completed Saturn's Children by Charles Stross.   Sexbot in post human world.   Neat to see Stross show off his knowledge of the Solar System.  I wasn't all that engaged with the main character or the plot.   I can't recommend it.
dionysus1999: (Default)
Librivox is a great resource for free audio books.   I love the volunteers for reading public domain works. 

I recently listened to a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories.  I like Lovecraft, but after listening to a bunch of his public domain stories I could come up with a computer program to generate them. 

He liked the words monstrous, gruesome, horrible, unspeakable, weird, terrifying, and grotesque.   He alluded to horrific scenes but tended to shy away from any kind of actual description.   I found it annoying how many times his characters would not describe things because they were either unspeakable or unprintable.    His settings were almost always dark and creepy.    Caves and tombs were the most common.

A few exceptions were based on characters traveling to fantastic lands in their dreams.  Those tended to be fantasies that always ended with the characters going mad after waking up.  He seemed to have strange ideas on mental illness.  People who became mentally ill were always institutionalized, and it was clear they were not expected to recover. 

He also had a disturbing tendency to use racial and cultural characteristics of characters in a negative fashion.  He apparently subscribed to eugenics.   I found it amusing how many times his characters would faint away.  Apparently none of his "heroes" was all that stout of heart. 

Most of the readers of the Lovecraft stories did a good job.  However, several readers had very thick accents, pronouncing "the" as "da", for instance.   It made several stories unintelligible.  One story was made unintentionally funny.  One of the characters was supposed to have a thick New England accent.  Hearing the reader try to reproduce this was amusing. 
dionysus1999: (Default)

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is a real eye opener.   Through mainly biographical information, Egan tells the story of the Dust Bowl through the eyes of the people who lived it.    

I learned the main causes of the Dust Bowl (land mismanagement) and some of the things the country, namely FDR's government, tried fix the situation.    Lots of people died of the dust related conditions.   The dust storms sound like hell on earth.   Not only are they so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face, they also come with terrrible static electricity.   You can't touch someone else during a storm, the charge will literally knock you down.   Cattle would drop dead and when they were cut open their bodies were filled with dust.

Among the interesting facts I learned were that Russian-German immigrants brought winter wheat over from Russia.   The russian thistle, more commonly known as tumbleweed, came along for the ride.    FDR tried to plant a tree belt to combat the fierce winds.   Unfortunately he ignored some of the advice of "Big Hugh" Bennett, founding head of the Soil Conservation Service.  Trees just can't grow in some sections of the plains.   However, many of Bennett's suggestions help to combat the rapid loss of topsoil in our nation.  And many of the trees planted have survived.
dionysus1999: (Default)

I seem to have switched my reading habit for a listening habit lately.  I can listen to a story while doing my strolls during work breaks, and at the gym.   And its easier to listen to a story while eating lunch than reading one.  

I just finished Metatropolis, which I believe is only available on audio download at this time.   I liked both the concept, near future city extrapolation by some top notch authors in a shared world, and the execution of the concept.  John Scalzi was the ringmaster, announcing each story.    I normally don't download audio books, but my mother-in-law gave me an Itunes gift card, and it was only 5.95, not a huge investment if I didn't like it.

In addition to the high quality of the stories, the readers were also excellent.  Three were actors from Battlestar Galactica.  Of the other two, I immediately recognized Scott Brick.   I don't know Stephan Rudnicki, but he has a good reading voice and does a believable Russian accent.     I had a minor quibble about how Jay Lake ended his story, it felt like he rushed through his final scene.  But that didn't detract from the story.   Michael Hogan, Col. Tigh from BSG, was the perfect reader for the story, too.    

dionysus1999: (Default)

Recently finished listening to 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne.    If I wasn't listening to it via Librivox, I suspect I would have given up on the book.  There are interesting adventure-type sections sandwiched in the book.   Unfortunately, their are WAY too many lists.  Lists of fish.  Lists of snails.   Lists of lists.

And eating.   I've never read a book, outside of survival-type plots, where the main character spends so much time describing what he's eating.    Another major character, Ned Land, spends his time pining over not eating land animals.  When he gets a chance to hunt on an island, he slaughters everything he comes in contact with.  And he's supposed to be Canadian, eh!   Never realized how bloodthirsty those Canadians were.

I imagine during the time it was published it was an opus of the scientific knowledge of the ocean world.  He describes a trip to all major seas and even has an interesting section on travel under the ice in Anarctica.  I think his extrapolations regarding submarines were spot on.  While Nemo's sub is powered by sodium, if you substitute nuclear power you have a good precursor to the modern naval submarine.   

There is some lip service to conservation by the main character, Professor Aronnax.   He mentions how manatees, dugongs and seals have been decimated by indescriminate hunting.    But even Captain Nemo allows Ned Land to harpoon a dugong, despite his mentioning they are rare.   There also appeared ot be confusion over whether dolphins and whales were mammals. 
dionysus1999: (Default)

Just finished Elizabeth Bear's Undertow.     Cut for spoilers )
dionysus1999: (Default)

I just finished Food of the Gods.   Another Librivox recording.  This reader was a bit monotone and tended to read a bit fast, like he was in a hurry to finish it.    Fortunately he was understandable.

H. G. Wells tells adventure stories.   His feelings towards science, at least the social ramifications of science on society seem negative.   The novel reads like a cautionary tale on the threat of rapid change on a society. 

The basic plot is that scientists come up with a substance that makes anything that takes it grow.  Huge, like 6-7 times the normal size.   So when a rat eats it (see the bad horror flicks based on this movie) they grow to the size of horses.  And people, too.  

The horror movies only touch on the first book of the three book novel.   The second and third sections deal with the children that are fed the food of the gods.  They make for more interesting story telling, too bad no one's included those sections.  I could definitely see a sci-fi mini-series developed off of this novel.   As a role-playing game setting, FOTG would be interesting as well. 
dionysus1999: (Default)

The first book I downloaded from Librivox was Ben Franklin's autobiography.    I just finished my second download, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

I enjoyed Yankee.  Twain has a rambling style in this book.  He constructed the book as though it was a journal, but much of it seems more like the result of an oral storyteller who keeps diverging into seperate stories.   He had me laughing out loud multiple times.   Apparently making fun of folks from Alabama is at least 150 years old.   

This is apparently one of the first examples of time travel in literature.   Twain doesn't go into a lot of detail on how the time travel occurred.  He uses the backdrop of the sixth century to express his opinions on slavery, feudalism, monarchy, royalty, and catholicism/state religion.   He also spends considerable time on the "gee whiz" of 19th century technology.  Some of the things his character is able to fabricate seem to stretch the bounds of reason.  His Connecticut Yankee definitely has echoes of the prototype American that Dr. Franklin set the standard for.  The reader also gets the idea that Twain put much of his own personality into the character.
dionysus1999: (Default)
I recently finished the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.   Franklin was an amazing man.  He was obviously much smarter than most of us mere mortals.  He taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and German.  He started the first library and one of the first volunteer fire depts.  Founded the first hospital.  Discovered important properties of electricity.  Invented the Franklin stove, bifocals and a glass harmonica.   Started the first newspaper in America.   It could be argued that his political savvy was crucial to the success of the Revolutionary War, since he secured France's assistance.    The French became so enamored of old Ben they created souvenirs that bore images of him.

I learned that one of the big "grudges" at that time was that the big land owners, the Penns, didn't have to pay taxes while everyone else did.  They were also able to veto legislation created by the Pennsylvania assembly.    Franklin was a champion for the common man, advocating self-improvement and defending them against injustice.  He was a good writer and was known as an eloquent orator and persuasive statesman.

Franklin was a Deist and had cordial relations with ministers of various Xian faiths.  He became a leader in the abolition movement towards the end of his life.   A true American hero.
dionysus1999: (Default)

Just finished reading Escapement by Jay Lake.  This is ostensibly the second novel in what he has planned as a trilogy.    I enjoyed the first installment, Mainspring, though I felt it had a few minor flaws.  Mainspring has one main character.  It does a good job of introducing the weird clockwork world Lake has set up.

Escapement has three main viewpoints.   Lake pulls off the three viewpoints in a way that makes each character rich and intriguing.  Two of the characters had bit roles in Mainspring, one is brand new.    An author who creates  a wide variety of character viewpoints runs the risk of creating some characters who are inevitably more interesting than others.   David Brin's Uplift novels, as I have discussed with [livejournal.com profile] sarahmichigan , are an example.  In the Brin novels, some of the characters are just more intriguing, and the reader is tempted to skip chapters to get to the characters they love more than others.    I'm not knocking Brin, I love his books in general, but I think eliminating a few of the viewpoints might have made his novels even better.

The three characters are artfully woven into the novel.   Two meet towards the middle, the last is brought in at the conclusion.   Jay's writing is top notch.  He's able to simulateously be economical with his words while weaving in some beautiful prose.   He even manages to throw in some philosophy through his exploration of the different secret societies that manipulate the characters lives.  That's a mark of an excellent writer.   Two of our characters are women.  Lake proves he can do strong female characters, which were lacking in Mainspring.   Knowing a bit about Jay from his blog, I was left wondering how much his teen heroine was inspired by his own daughter.

The plot takes the characters all over the known world and explores the strange world of the Wall, a vertical cliff that holds the gear that circles the equator.   Lake sets the bar high for great steampunk storytelling. 

I wonder if Jay's playing with numerology.  One viewpoint for the first novel.  Three for this one.     He's working on the third, Tourbillion, now.   How many viewpoints will this one have?   I know I'm looking forward to finding out.


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