Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Book Rave' Category

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Monday, July 11th, 2016

TRIBE by Sebastian JungerEvolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould used Kipling’s term “just-so stories” to describe explanations of biological forms and functions that sounded good, but didn’t hold up to closer examination. This was on my mind as I finished Sebastian Junger’s latest book, Tribe.

Junger is the author of the excellent and highly recommended War, a narrative of his time as an embedded reporter in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Tribe is a short book by comparison. It looks at human societies and especially the egalitarian social structure of some tribes. It also considers the impact of struggle on group cohesiveness, the experiences of soldiers both at the frontline and after coming home from war, gender roles, and many other things. It’s a quick read, always fascinating, and packed with interesting and provocative anecdotes — but by the end I was suspicious that I’d read something close to a “just-so story.”

Early on, Junger talks about the effect of disasters on human society, using examples of strategic bombing during World War II and a study by Charles Fritz that looked at the way people behave during natural disasters:

Fritz “was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy […] people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community…”

The idea this leads to is that in such situations, innate tribal bonds rise to the surface, and people are more willing to work and sacrifice for the group, rather than working for themselves alone.

Junger follows with a poignant observation: “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.” In other words, we are safe and wealthy enough that we can live in isolation, but that means we’re living in isolation, with the implication that this is an unhappy existence.

The book contains discussions of gender roles, leadership styles, the appeal of tribal social structures, and also the toxic political environment we presently endure:

“People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime […] Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…”

There is a lot here to like and a lot to think about, but for me, romanticizing tribal societies is troubling. As soon as I finished Tribe, I went to look for a counterpoint — I was sure I’d find one — and I did. In response, Ann Marlowe at Tablet, asks “Do We Really Want To Be Members of a Tribe?” and takes a hard look at many points of the book.

Nevertheless, I recommend Tribe — it will give you much to think about.

Book Rave: Too Like The Lightning

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

An amazing novel — likely the best I’ll read this year.

Too Like The Lightning by Ada PalmerThe title is a little awkward and the cover makes it look like generic space fantasy, but there is nothing generic about Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning.

I first looked at this novel out of duty. It’s a science fiction novel by a woman, and that’s something I want to support. So I read the first few pages, posted at Tor.com — and I was hooked. I needed a new audiobook, so I downloaded it in that format. I wasn’t far into it when I began mentally comparing it to Dan Simmons Hyperion. Like that novel, Too Like The Lightning is complex, fascinating, with unique characters drawn in exquisite detail, it’s deeply concerned with political structures, and in many ways it grasps aspects of the genre and reworks them, raising them to a new level.

When I recommend a book here on my blog, I usually say little or nothing about the plot, and I’m going to hold to that this time as well, because working out the plot is part of the intrigue of this book. Suffice to say that it takes place on Earth, a few hundred years in the future, in a diverse and intricately worked-out culture. It focuses on the workings of an aristocracy, treats gender in interesting ways, and offers abundant asides exploring history and philosophy. It is the most erudite work I can remember reading in the science fiction genre. It is very obviously science fiction, and yet it’s one of those novels that could have been published outside the genre — and maybe it should have been. It deserves a large audience.

I listened to Too Like The Lightning as an audiobook. The narrator, Jefferson Mays, is excellent. But as a measure of how much I admired the story, I ordered the hardcover for my shelf when I was only halfway through. The second book in the series is scheduled for a December 2016 release. The publisher is Tor Books.

Links and Recommendations

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

As if you don’t already have enough distractions…

I failed to post here at my blog for almost the entire month of February, so I’m making up for it with a flurry of posts in early March. (If posting regularly is the key to building a blog readership, well, that explains a lot.)

Recommended Audiobooks

Hyperion by Dan SimmonsHyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons:
These are science fiction classics that I loved back when they were originally published, and they are just as amazing today. Instead of re-reading, I listened to the audiobooks and was extremely impressed by the production. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for only about nine months, and early on I got into the habit of listening at a slightly faster than normal speed, usually 1.25x, unless I really wasn’t enjoying a book and then I would shift to 1.5x. But with these books I downshifted to 1.0x because every word is worth hearing. Truly amazing writing, characters, and world building. I’ll be moving on to the next book in the set, Endymion, before too long.

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerThe Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff Vandermeer:
Audible had all three volumes of the Southern Reach trilogy — Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance — in an omnibus edition, available for a ridiculously low one credit, so I decided it was high time I familiarized myself with these much-acclaimed novels. I’m not entirely sure what I expected of the Southern Reach, but I was surprised at what I found. These are “literary” novels. They engage with fine language and description and, especially in the first two books, there is much time spent exploring the odd and troubled pasts of the main characters. At times I found it slow going, and early on I tweeted this:

What kept me going was the truly amazing writing, and a wonderful cast of narrators. As above, I slowed this one down to 1.0x speed, to catch every word, and as the story proceeded, I began to feel I was drawn into a spell of words and insight. I also felt that the quality of my own writing was improving as I continued to listen — a very nice side effect!

Of the three volumes, the third was my favorite. I found it the most engrossing, as some of the mysteries are being worked out. Some reader reviews complained that the ending was too abrupt, but I didn’t find it so. Highly recommended.

Links

• In midFebruary SF Signal published a piece by James Wallace Harris called Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction. I found it to be an interesting look at how the idea of what constitutes “cutting edge” technology shifts over time and how technologically based science fiction responds to that, especially since this is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. James suggests that writers wanting to “extrapolate about the impact of real scientific knowledge … can’t let older science fiction cloud their vision.” I think this is a very important point. The post was surrounded by controversy though, because none of the books cited as examples were written by women. I wish it had been different and that the post had included a more varied list of examples. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting perspective.

• Yesterday Charles Stross published a very entertaining and thought-provoking piece called Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera, in which are listed several hundred “already seen it” tropes from science fiction. To my mind, this list is asking a similar question to that above: what’s new? and what’s left to explore in a literary sense?

• And finally, just for fun… this was making the rounds a few weeks ago, but if you haven’t seen it yet, check it out, and know that we are doomed:

The Revenent — (the novel)

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

The Revenant by Michael PunkeI just finished reading The Revenant, the 2002 novel by Michael Punke which inspired the 2015 movie of the same name. One reviewer described the novel as “plainspoken” and I found this to be true. The style of writing struck me as old fashioned, in that it felt like books written in the fifties and sixties that I’d read as a child. It reads more like a biography than a novel, and a few chapters in I paused to check that it actually was a novel. The narrative voice is omniscient, moving from the head of one character to another without hesitation or transition, and several times moving from one time and place to another without so much as a helpful blank line to cue the reader.

All that said, I found The Revenant to be captivating.

Long before I was interested in science fiction, I had a childhood passion for frontier fiction, and reading The Revenant has been a welcome chance to revisit that — and to discover that I am just as fascinated now by the vast and amazing landscapes of the American West, and by the dangers and the clash of cultures on the American frontier. In short, my love of adventure fiction began early, and I have never outgrown it.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie (I haven’t!), The Revenent is the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who was horribly mauled by a grizzly and then abandoned by his companions when they feared an attack by Arikara warriors was imminent. It depicts a level of strength and endurance that feels almost superhuman to us feeble modern folk, and it depicts in fairly good detail a way of life long gone away. If your reading requires women characters, you won’t be pleased with The Revenent. Women are background elements. I’m not sure that even one ever comes on stage.

This is a short novel and in my opinion well worth reading. From a writer’s perspective, it’s good to be reminded that there are many ways to tell a story, and that the scene-by-scene, show-don’t-tell style of modern novels is not the only option. In the end, it’s the story that matters, and the story told by The Revenent has made this novel a success.

Book Recs & a Link

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

I admit:
It’s happened more than once over the years that I’ve picked up a popular, acclaimed novel in the genre and completely failed to see the appeal. This is a disconcerting experience. It makes me question myself and my place in the field. How can my tastes be so different from the majority? Do I really understand this genre? Is my concept of what makes a good story too out of date or too far afield?

But then I’ll pick up another popular, acclaimed novel, often one I’ve hesitated to read for some reason or other, and discover that it totally works for me — which always makes me happy.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne GilmanSilver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman is the first example. This is a 2015 novel that has received rave reviews, but I hesitated to pick it up in large part because it was described as a “weird Western.” I’d never before heard of “weird Westerns,” but I think of weird fiction in general as the sort of horror that leaves me feeling like I need to clean my brain out; in other words, the sort of horror that I avoid. I’m happy to report Silver on the Road is nothing like that. This is a coming-of-age story of a young woman growing up in a fantastical version of the American West in which magic is commonplace. Early in the story, she makes a decision that will determine the path of her life to come — and that path is far more harrowing than anyone expects. The story does an excellent job of presenting both characters and landscape, and makes a compelling read. It’s the first of a series.

The Nebula awards are voted on by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Prior to the period when books may be nominated for the ballot, SFWA keeps a Nebula Suggested Reading List, with the suggestions made by members. This is not a “long list.” It’s just a list of titles that members feel are worth a look. This year, for the first time, the suggested reading list has been made public and you can find it here. Take a look at it! Notice something? I’m not going to count them up, but I think it’s safe to say there is a large preponderance of fantasy novels near the top of this list. (Come on, science fiction writers! Represent!)

Vicious by VE SchwabHonestly, I’ve begun to feel overwhelmed by the number of fantasy novels out there, and yet so many are so very, very good. I hate to admit it, but fantasy is the real backbone of the genre these days. VE Schwab’s Vicious is an example of why. This is a 2013 novel that, like Silver on the Road, garnered enthusiastic reviews, but as I recall, some of those reviews talked about “superheroes.” Like “weird fiction,” “superhero fiction” is a term that makes me take a step back and look for something else to read. But I was finally inspired to try Vicious and all those enthusiastic reviewers were right — it’s a very good book! That said, it’s not a book for everyone. It’s violent, and pushes the boundaries of antiheroes (hmm…not unlike my Puzzle Land books). It’s also very well written, with intriguing characters, excellent descriptions, good pacing, and a style of nonlinear story telling that I really liked.

So those are my recommended books.

And here’s the promised link:
If you’re a writer, or just interested in the way things work (or don’t work) in Hollywood, check out Matt Wallace’s post over at SF Signal “The Pelecanos Proposition and What it Means to SFF Authors” wherein Matt makes the case that we writers give up control of our work too easily, and that we should do more than just deposit the check on the option. Matt quotes novelist and screenwriter George Pelecanos, who is speaking about writers when he says: “…what a producer told me one time is, ‘We can’t control you guys.’”

Book Rave: City of Stairs

Monday, December 28th, 2015

City-of-Stairs-Robert-Jackson-Bennett-2Best-of-the-year lists and award-nomination lists are fun to talk about and it’s awfully nice to have your work appear on them. But these lists are also valuable reminders that we have diverse tastes and that our reasons for reading — and for choosing what we read — are all very different. And I think it can be interesting to take note of what’s not on these lists.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, some of it 2015 books, and some books from earlier years. Several months ago I posted about Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which was one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times. Ignore the cover. Seriously. And read it. After I finished, I was amazed at how little I’d heard about this book, and that it had not put in an appearance on either the Hugo or Nebula ballots. (It did win the John W. Campbell Memorial award.)

I just finished another 2014 novel, City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett, which is also a terrific book that, in retrospect, I am surprised I didn’t see on 2014 award ballots. (Yes, there were complications with the Hugos, but not with the Nebulas! And it may have been on best-of-the-year lists, last year, I don’t know.)

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Book Rave: Ashley’s War

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Full title: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield

Ashleys War by Gayle Tzemach LemmonAshley’s War, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, is a nonfiction account of the first wave of women in the US Army who volunteered to be part of the “cultural support teams” that accompanied Army Rangers and Green Berets on missions in Afghanistan.

These teams were developed beginning in 2011 because it was felt that women soldiers could interact more effectively with Afghan women, most of whom are forbidden from interacting with men who are not immediate relatives. The program proved successful. Women soldiers came to be seen as a “third gender,” one whose presence didn’t threaten the social status of Afghan men.

But Ashley’s War isn’t about Afghan culture or the politics of war. Instead it’s firmly focused on the stories of the American soldiers who volunteered for this program, and who survived the brief but rigorous training. These women came from diverse backgrounds. Some were regular army, some were National Guard. Some were on their own from a very young age, some came from strong families. Some were from families with traditional military backgrounds, and some were from civilian families. All were athletic and determined, and most joined the military because they wanted to be soldiers, and to experience combat.

As the story develops, it’s fascinating to see these women coming to terms with what it means to be a “strong woman character,” as we so frequently discuss in fiction:

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Book Rave: All The President’s Men

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

All The President's MenYes, I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, and no, I haven’t seen the movie (though I plan to).

All The President’s Men is the nonfiction memoir of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, originally published in 1974. It recounts their investigation of the 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in, and the gradual revelation of scandal surrounding the 1972 presidential election, that ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.

These events took place when I was a child, too young to follow the slowly breaking story in detail, but old enough that nearly all the names in the book are still very familiar to me. I picked up the ebook of the 40th anniversary edition, which happened to be on sale for a ridiculously low price — and I found it fascinating. (more…)

Book Rave: The Flicker Men

Monday, October 12th, 2015

“All realities are constructed in one way or the other, are they not? Either through the work of some will, or arising as an emergent property from a system’s own underlying laws.”

flickermen-KosmatkaTed Kosmatka’s The Flicker Men first came to my attention last summer when the publisher offered to send me a complimentary copy. I failed to follow up on that, but I kept hearing good things about the book, so last week when I was looking for a new audio book, I decided to give it a try.

It took me a little while to get hooked. The opening chapters introduce us to the first-person protagonist, Eric Argus, a young and brilliant quantum physicist struggling with alcoholism and depression, along with a past that’s only gradually revealed. But once Eric latches onto a new project, the book takes off.

The Flicker Men is a philosophical thriller. There is a lot of discussion of quantum theory and its implications, and especially the double-slit experiment. That may sound dry, but in the book, it’s utterly fascinating. It turns out that a lot of readers, myself included, are inspired to do a little outside research on some of these subjects.

Ted is a terrific writer. The story moves at a good pace, and by the standards of modern novels it’s relatively short — a big plus for me as I’ve reached a point where I greatly prefer shorter, more tightly focused books.

The audio book was very well done, but I’m sure The Flicker Men would be just as compelling if I’d been reading instead of listening.

Book Rave: War Dogs by Greg Bear

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

I picked up this book when it came out last fall, but didn’t read it until a few days ago. During the interim, I didn’t hear a lot about it, and what I did hear wasn’t all that enthusiastic, so I was a little ambivalent at the start — but that ambivalence quickly vanished.

War Dogs is told in first person, in the voice of Master Sergeant Venn, a “skyrine” — a marine delivered by orbital drop to the Martian battlefield. So why are humans fighting a war on Mars? Because an enigmatic alien race known as the Gurus insinuated themselves on Earth, got the planet addicted to their highly advanced technology, and then asked us to fight a war for them against another alien race engaged in setting up a beachhead on Mars.
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