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Showing posts from January, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: A Review

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a novel about endings both big and small. It begins with the last moments of Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor who suffers a fatal heart attack during a production of King Lear and then goes from there to describe the end of the entire world. The “Georgian Flu” wipes out 99% of the human race, as well as many of the characters prior to that collapse. Although the novel orbits around the world created by near total end of the human race, it also circles back to the lives of characters before the Flu, hopping back and forth through time with such regularity it’s impossible to say that the novel is truly “post-apocalyptic.” Much of the novel seems to take place pre-apocalypse. Strange coincidences and relationships unify these narratives as does the sense the novel is concerned with the theme of endings. While the beginning of the book might be considered the beginning of the end, it’s purpose is the same as later sections, to describe a thing a…

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a blistering fast read, a compulsive thriller, and at nearly 400 pages, one of the longest books I’ve ever read basically without pause. I dare you to read this in anything more than three days. Chances are if you get past the first chapter of Mark Watney’s misadventures on the Red Planet you’ll be reading this straight through until the end.



For me, the addictive quality here is placing a hazily drawn but charming pragmatist in a series of life-threatening mishaps and watching him figure out to survive. I’ve read it described as Cast Away meets Apollo 13, and that’s not a bad way of thinking about it. The tone is strictly realistic. Don’t pick up this novel expecting any of the stuff that happens in Hollywood movies about Mars to happen in this story. Really, it’s a very simple tale, well-told, about a man marooned on Mars. Watney is portrayed as a geeky, hyper-competent engineer with a strong survival instinct. He cracks jokes, uses math to solve problem…

After Arisia!

This was my fifth Arisia and as such, kind of a milestone. Five years seeing all of my friends, going to panels, and having great conversations about the genres I love.
So, I had high expectations for 2015 - expectations that were met. 

First off, the three panels I was on, each of them very different from the other. Friday night I got to talk about Speculative Fiction in 2014 with writer Gillian Williams and online book-reviewer Tegan Mannino. I was still shaking out the cobwebs, so to speak, from teaching in the afternoon but I felt happy that I was able to talk about the five or so novels I most cared about from last year, and the dozen or so short stories I most enjoyed. Plus, I collected so many other novels to check out this year that I missed or flat-out never heard of. I will be putting this panel on the must-join for next year. 
Saturday I had my True Detective Panel with Shira Lipkin, John P. Murphy and Steve Sawicki. Everyone was very chill on this panel, very intent on di…

True Detective's Lingering Spell

True Detective is already filming its second season as I write this. It will air on HBO sometime in the summer. I am looking forward to the second season of this show, although I see a lot of wisdom in my wife’s view which is that it can’t possibly be as good as the first season.


The first season of True Detective had a lot going for it. Somehow the show creators, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukugawa, were able to cast two leads with incandescent chemistry and stage presence - Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. To have these talents wrangled together into the same concise project produced something that I haven’t seen since the Wire - a sincere and harrowing look at the underbelly of America. I was obsessed with this show, from pretty much the first maraca rattles of the opening song (Far from Any Road by the Handsome Family) to the final moments of the last episode, the drifting upwards into the infinite spill of cold distant stars.
I spend the better part of this year tracking down …

Trends in Speculative Fiction in 2014

I tried an experiment in 2014. I sought to read enough of speculative fiction published this year (as opposed to three decades ago as was my habit) that I would be able to understand it for myself rather than be told about it at the end of the year. This post is an effort to summarize what I found in short and long fiction in 2014, the themes that I saw repeated and the trends I saw embraced. I’ll start with a topic that seemed to echo from one end of speculative fiction to the other: Lovecraft.




H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy is a complicated subject in speculative fiction. Like many others, I owe a tremendous debt to Lovecraft’s legacy, one that I’m often flummoxed how to acknowledge. I have enjoyed his works, drawn inspiration from his mythologies, and been influenced by his vision of a vast and indifferent universe. The problem is Lovecraft, even in terms of his contemporaries, was an unreformed, unrepentant bigot. What’s worse, his personal biases seeped into his writing in obvious and fr…

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin: A Review

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel written in Chinese by Liu Cixin. It was translated into English by Ken Liu, who I praised in my "What I Read" post a week ago for his talent in fully developing a clever idea (The Clockwork Soldier). The pairing between Ken and Cixin is an inspired because in someways Liu Cixin writes how Ken Liu does, using easily digestible ideas to build up to  enormous conceptual undertakings.



The Three Body problem is a sprawling novel, embracing the story of a Chinese physicist in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in China (Ye Wenjie), a nanomaterials researcher (Wang Miao), a big city cop (Da Shi) investigating a series of murders of high-profile scientists and  the first possible contact with an alien race. The setting is lightly futuristic, with technology and politics perhaps a decade hence. Liu Cixin presents the events of this novel, particularly the first contact, with his own spin. Saying much more would spoil the fun of d…

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: A Review

I prize the ability of fiction to create worlds. When a few dozen words can conjure forth an entire countryside, I’m hooked.  Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer is just such a book. I really can’t throw enough praise at this book. While I placed it second last week in my best-of list, I think that is really a question of degrees. Annihilation burrows into one of my favorite sub-genres of literature, weird fiction, and consumes it from the inside out. This novel incorporates more than a century’s worth of great works from authors such as Machen, Burrows, Dick, and Lovecraft but never slumps into recitation. Annihilation is a clear and original statement, a manifesto of the terrible power of the unknown. Better still, Annihilation is merely the first in a series called the Southern Reach Trilogy. For a book that is deliberately and mischievously obtuse, the fact each book was released within months of each other is an act of unanticipated altruism.




The set-up of the novel establishes, in m…

The Everyday Extremes

There is something about extremes that fascinates me. Not just the extremes that wind up on Discovery channel shows or MSNBC specials, but the absolute limits present for any human endeavor. We like to think that those margins exist out there somewhere, probably very far away affecting the lives of people we will never meet. But sometimes the extreme is the difference of a few miles per hour.



Saturday, I went out into the snow storm that briefly struck Eastern Massachusetts, on the way to guide some friends to my house. Even though the snow had fallen for less than an hour, enough of it covered the roads to create a frictionless layer of slippery snow. The hill leading up to my house is not really steep, but this kind of snow caused my friend’s car to literally slide back down the hill.

So anyway, I carefully go down the hill, all the way into second gear, never letting the speedometer creep above 10 miles per hour. I’ve lived long enough in the northeast to know you don’t mess around w…

A Reaction to Peter Watts' "Echopraxia"

Peter Watts’ Echopraxia is a side-sequel to his previous hard sf horror novel Blindsight. Daniel Bruks, a biologist in the Eastern Oregonian desert, gets stuck in the middle of a war between a fugitive vampire and a cult of rewired post-humans called Bicamerals, ultimately kidnapped by them as they head towards the sun. The goal of post-human and vampire alike is to investigate a possible alien intelligence gaining strength there, to determine if it poses a threat, or offers a weapon for the two sides as they struggle for advantage. Bruks' goal is simple survival.


Reading Watts is a simultaneously bracing and discouraging experience. Bracing because his depiction of the future and the oddities who inhabit it continue to get better and better, his plots more complicated and more involving, his characters less like sock-puppets for his ideas and more like actual human beings (or whatevers).

Discouraging because Watts uses his considerable gifts, artistic and academic, in the service…