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Book Review of “The Fifth Season”

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Following is my book review of The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.

There are no spoilers in this review. 

This is the first book of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Recently the third book in this series, The Stone Sky, won the Hugo award for best novel, making it the third book in the series to win that award. That’s right, every book in this series has won the Hugo award for best novel, three years in a row. Wow! No author has ever done that before. So yeah, my expectations were pretty much through the roof on this one.

I’m delighted to report that all the hype was all fully deserved, because this was one of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good that I immediately went ahead and got the next one immediately afterward and started on it right away. That’s probably the greatest praise I can bestow upon it because I never, and I mean never, go on to read the second book in series right away. I think the last time that happened was when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy back when I was a teenager.

The plot centers around three different stories involving three different women who all live in an imagined future Earth in which some cataclysmic past event has led to the rise of massive periodic earthquakes (“shakes”) that destroy everything every few thousand years. The periods afterward are called Seasons and can last hundreds or even thousands of years. Humanity has somehow managed to survive through all of this, but life is a much more tribal and brutal affair. 

In this future world, there are people called orogenes who can control the movement of the earth, such as causing or quelling shakes. The book begins with an extended prologue in which a super-powerful orogene causes a massive rift in the planet’s main continent, creating a shake so massive it appears it will bring about the end of the world, or at least of humanity as a species. The three women, one a young child, one a young adult, and one middle aged, all are orogenes. Their stories deal with their struggles to survive in the short term, in a world in which regular people fear and hate them for their powerful abilities, as well as the question of how, or whether, humanity can survive the Rift.

The writing quality of The Fifth Season is absolutely top-notch, on a par with and perhaps even better than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (see my review of American Gods). I reviewed the latter recently and had expected it to serve as the measuring stick against which I compared future writers, but now I’m not sure. One of the characters is written in second person, which is rarely done and very tricky to pull off, but here it is done splendidly. The characters in The Fifth Season are wonderfully developed and as compelling as any I’ve read, and the plot, while at times just the tiniest bit slow for my taste, was very engaging. And the world-building was as grand in scope and as meticulously planned as anything I’ve read.

I think the thing that bothered me the most in the book was the author’s use of words like “rust” as expletives, for example, “What the rust is going on here?” or “Evil earth!” This is probably the only aspect of world-building that didn’t work for me, it just came off as a bit overdone. But when that’s the worst complaint you can come up with, you’re talking about a rusting amazing book (heh heh). Oh, I also thought the cover design was kind of generic, nothing bad but nothing special either. 

Lastly, I need to mention that the performance by narrator Robin Miles (I listened to the audiobook version) was absolutely amazing. Again, I’d thought George Guidall’s reading of American Gods would be my standard-bearer for narration for quite some time, but Ms. Miles found a level 11 on the dial I had not previously been aware existed. Bravo!

I highly encourage everyone to read this book right away, and if you are on Audible definitely opt for that version. I’ll be reporting on the second book in the series, The Obelisk Gate, in next month’s newsletter.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

 

 

Book Review “All Systems Red”

All Systems Red


Book review of All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. There are no spoilers in this review.

This cover captured my attention quite a while ago, but frankly, I wasn’t that enthused about reading a novella. I thought it would get lost in the space between a short story and novel and wind up being unsatisfying. Then I saw it had won the Hugo award for best novella this past year, and decided to take a chance on both it and Binti. But even though Binti disappointed, I’m glad to say that All Systems Red more than met my expectations and has made me a fan of the novella format.

All Systems Red is told from the point-of-view of a security cyborg that has been hired to protect a scientific expedition that is exploring part of a new planet. The story begins with a bang by dropping the reader immediately into a field expedition that goes horribly awry. The cyborg, which we learn has at some point in the past hacked its governor module so that it no longer has to obey commands, nonetheless chooses to do its job and saves one of the research team members, even though the cyborg itself is badly injured in the process. It manages to get both of them, as well as the rest of the team, back to the expedition base, where they recuperate with help from advanced medical technology. 

The cyborg, which has nicknamed itself “Murderbot,” due to an unexplained incident that happened in its past, discovers the base’s main computer provided the team with a map that for some reason had critical information redacted. After another incident involving faulty data, Murderbot and the rest of the scientific team begin to wonder whether someone or something is trying to sabotage their expedition. The rest of the story details their efforts to find out if this is the case, and if so, who or what is behind it.

After reading this book I wondered if I’ve got a thing for first-person point-of-view stories in which the narrator and hero have disgruntled robot/human hybrids because the story was in very reminiscent of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justiceanother a book I really enjoyed. In fact, a promotional blurb from Ms. Leckie appears on the cover of All Systems Red. I say this because when I break apart the various aspects of this story I feel like I should only give it four stars. The writing was good but not exceptional, the plot was nothing new, and there was nothing ground-breaking about the science or technology involved.

Nonetheless, this wound up being one of those “greater than the sum of its parts” books for me. I enjoyed the wry narrative perspective of the Murderbot, particularly its struggles to suppress its human side when dealing with the research team it was hired to protect. I thought the writing and dialog were strong overall if not top-notch, and I thought the narrator, Kevin R. Free, did a solid job as well. I also eventually realized what I’m really a sucker for isn’t cyborg first-person narratives but noir mysteries. You would think this would have been obvious to me since my publishing imprint’s name is Tech Noir Press, but it took me a bit to realize that’s what this book really was — a noir mystery that happens to take place on a different planet in the future. 

I’ll also say that, unlike BintiAll Systems Red definitely stood on its own and was appropriately marketed as a stand-alone novella (it was also published by Tor). However, I find it annoying that the books are priced such that, if you were to pay full price for all four novellas in the series, each of which is only 160 pages, it would cost you $35. Umm, no thanks. Instead, I chose to rent an audiobook copy from my local library through the RBdigital app, and it worked perfectly. 

But regardless of whether you’re as price sensitive as I am or not, I definitely recommend reading this book.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

 

 

Book Review of “Binti”

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor


Book review of Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. There are no spoilers in this review.

I’ve been wanting to read this story for a while, because I love the cover and because this story won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. Also, I’ve never read a novella, so I was curious to see what that format was like. 

The plot involves a young Earth woman from an African ethnic group called the Himba who is remarkably intelligent, particularly in math and science, and is accepted into the top intergalactic university. She is the first person ever from her tribe to be Afrofuturism, but she knows her family will not want her to go, but instead stay and become a master astrolabe-maker like her father. (BTW think of an astrolabe as a much more complicated, futuristic type of smartphone). But Binti desperately wants to go, so much so that she runs away from home to get on the spaceship that will take all of the new students to the school. However, shortly after takeoff, something disastrous happens that puts Binti’s life in jeopardy, and she must navigate a deadly situation not only to stay alive but also avoid an intergalactic war.

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, it was — at first. It started out strong, and I was fully engaged after the inciting incident. Unfortunately, soon afterward the plot lost steam, and by the end, sadly, everything ended with a whimper.

There were three aspects of the main character’s unique African heritage that coincidentally turn out to be integral to the plot working out the way it did, and I found that necessity to be unrealistic, even for a speculative fiction novel. Two of the aspects of the main character — her long, thick, braided hair and her otjize, a soft, cosmetic clay made from the dirt of her homeland — were referenced so many times that I was tired of hearing about them by the end, which is saying a lot for a story that was only 90 pages long. The third, her edan, was a mysterious artifact that turned out to have some sort of magical powers. However, neither the edan’s power,  where it came from or how she came to be in possession of it was explained to a sufficient degree. Perhaps more is Afrofuturism in the two follow up novellas that make up the trilogy, but the result for this story was a deus ex machina resolution to the conflict that felt like a cop-out.

Aside from the issues with the book itself, it bothered me that the publisher, Tor, sold the three novellas as a series. If the first book had stood on its own much more than it did, then I wouldn’t mind it being packaged as a trilogy, but sadly it did not. It felt like what should have been a single novel had been split up into three separate parts to artificially increase revenues.

I  will say that the novella format seems a tricky one to do well, in that you can easily run the risk of introducing a broader scope than a short story format can handle, but wind up not fleshing out the characters and plot details in a satisfactory way. But as you’ll see in my review below of Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red, it can be done well.

Some of my disappointment may stem from having read Dawn, the first volume of Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, a couple of years ago and being completely blown away by it. Binti was similar in several aspects to Dawn, not just in terms of having a black protagonist and an afro-futurist theme, but in many of the storyline details. But given that Binti won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, my expectation was it would be at a quality level similar to Dawn. (As an aside, Dawn wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo back when it came out in 1986, which is a complete joke). Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Butler’s conceptual thinking and writing skill in Dawn amazed me 30 years later, whereas Binti was slightly below the bar of most stories I’ve read over the past few years. I will probably give Ms. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death a try at some point, because I’ve heard great things about it as well, but I’m definitely going to pass on the other two novellas in this particular series.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

 

 

Book Review of “Semiosis”

Semiosis by Sue Burke
Semiosis by Sue Burke

Book review of Semiosis, by Sue Burke. There is one spoiler in this review but it is very small and unimportant. 🙂

This book was recently recommended to me by a friend who knows my predilection for more slow-paced, cerebral science fiction, and he was right on the money. First of all, I love the cover, and I added it to my favorite sci-fi book covers on Pinterest. I was also intrigued to learn it was Ms. Burke’s debut novel, although she’s apparently written quite a few short stories before. 

The plot is not a new one — a small group of people has fled an increasingly uninhabitable climate-changed Earth to make a last-ditch effort at establishing a human civilization on a remote planet. The 50 colonists awake after a 158-year hibernation to find their navigation computer has rerouted them to a different planet that will ostensibly be more amenable to human life. We learn that before the story even started, two of the six landing modules crashed while attempting to reach the planet’s surface, killing 12 of the colonists. Accidents and disease kill a few more, and they are forced to start with only 34 of their original number.

On the positive side for the colonists, the animals and fauna on the planet initially appear to be mostly Earth-like, and there are relatively few predator animals. Working against them, however, is the fact that the gravity is 1/5th greater than Earth’s and there are vicious storms that last for days. Worst of all, they find some of the local vegetation is attempting to kill them by changing the chemicals in the fruit it produces so that it is no longer nourishing but toxic. But in the end, the tiny band of colonists is able to get a foothold in their new environment and make a go of it. The biggest challenge to their survival turns out to be the very thing they left Earth to get away from — their collective inability to get along with each other.

I liked this book a lot overall. My biggest issue with it was how each chapter was told from a different character’s viewpoint. Because each narrator came from a successive generation of colonists (that’s the tiny spoiler I mentioned), you had to mentally shift each chapter to both a new narrative voice and a mostly new set of characters. Normally, I like multiple viewpoints, because it can be fascinating to see the different perspectives people can have toward the same situation. I also appreciate the skill of writers who are able to do this well because it’s not easy, and I’m happy to say Ms. Burke did a good job at this. However, having to relearn a new group of characters each chapter grew a bit tiresome and prevented me from engaging as fully as I wanted to with any of them. As soon as I started to care about someone, they and the people they were interacting with were whisked away and I had to start over. It felt like reading a sequence of short stories grouped together by the common thread of whether the colonists would, over time, be able to overcome their differences and survive.

Luckily, that main thread was an engaging one, and I never got so frustrated by the “one-and-done” narrative chapter format that I wanted to stop reading. The third or fourth chapter also had an intriguing mystery that got me turning pages quickly, so the book didn’t suffer from the “mushy middle” that plagues a lot of novels.

Also, several of the chapters/stories dealt with an alien intelligence that I won’t reveal the nature of here but will suffice it to say that I thought it was quite innovative and cleverly depicted. I thought the writing quality was good although not at the same level as some other books I’ve read recently like Annihilation or American Gods. I expect pretty much every book I read for a long time is not going to measure up to the latter in that respect but I’ll do my best not to hold it against them.

Two other issues I found with Semiosis were that alien life on the colonists’ planet was a) a bit simplistic and b) very similar to Earth’s. Regarding a), for me there wasn’t sufficient breadth and depth given to the description of vegetation and animal life on the planet. In other words, I would have liked a little more world-building. As for b), my personal belief is life on other planets is probably way more bizarre than we could possibly imagine. 

The panspermia hypotheses is often used to argue that life on other planets might be more similar than different to Earth’s, with the idea being that an early common form of life could have spread throughout the galaxy via asteroids or other planetary bodies, and taken root in any planets whose environmental conditions supported its growth. However, this doesn’t address the fact that given the absurd number of planets there are in the universe, many wildly different lifeforms than just the carbon-based ones we’re familiar with could have originated elsewhere and dispersed themselves throughout the universe through similar or even totally different mechanisms.

Even assuming the panspermia hypotheses to be true, early initial mutations would almost certainly result in wildly different outcomes after billions of years of evolution. Granted, much of the animal life on Earth developed bilateral symmetry 600 million years ago and has stuck to that common blueprint ever since. But given the rudimentary nature of the earliest life Earth, going back to the last known common ancestor (LUCA) around 4 billion years ago, it’s hard not to believe small variations in environmental conditions over time wouldn’t result in dramatically different varieties of life down the road. 

Of course, complaining that depictions of life on other planets are too similar to our own is about as long-standing of a criticism of sci-fi books as the genre has been around, so I don’t count this too heavily against Semiosis. But I’ll drop a teaser here and say that one of the things you can look forward to in the sequels of The Infinet is an exploration of what might happen if a certain super-powerful quantum computer decided started developing new life forms without the constraint of pre-existing evolutionary conditions.  🙂

I should also mention that I initially tried the audiobook version but didn’t make it through the second chapter. The first chapter was fine but the narrator’s voice in the second chapter bothered me to the point where I would have quit the book had I not had another option. Fortunately, I was able to get the print version from my local library and continue from there.

Overall this was a solid 4-star story and I recommend it to anyone who likes slower-paced, cerebral science fiction.

Semiosis, by Sue Burke

  

 

Review of “Leviathan Wakes”

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes

Review of Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey.

There are no spoilers in this review.

I've had this book in my shelf for at least two years before finally getting around to reading it. To be honest, the cover of this book put me off. While the pink title certainly stands out, it’s discordant with the rest of the design, which is, frankly, a somewhat generic space opera cover. So every time I looked at it, I’d think, "Meh."

But then I read about a SyFy show called The Expanse based on Leviathan Wakes that had been canceled and subsequently picked up by Amazon. Also, although I'd never heard of James S. A. Corey before, the cover had a complimentary blurb on it from George R. R. Martin. I was curious how someone I’d never heard of had gotten such a big-name recommendation.

So I looked up the author and discovered it’s actually a pen name. The real authors are Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter of whom is a former assistant of...George R. R. Martin. Ahhhhh... 

All that aside, I really liked this book. It's not, as NPR put it, "the science fiction equivalent of ‘A Song of Fire and Ice,’" but nonetheless it's very good. It switches points of view each chapter between two primary characters - Jim Holden, the executive officer (XO) of the ice-hauling space ship Canterbury, and Joe Miller, a detective working for a private security firm on Ceres Station. Ceres is a spaceport and the destination of the Canterbury when it receives a distress call from a ship out in the middle of nowhere. The Canterbury is the only ship remotely in the vicinity, and Holden, going against his commanding officer’s order, has the Canterbury respond to the call. What they find, and the events that follow, lead Earth, the human military colony on Mars, and humans living in the asteroid belt (known as "Belters") to the brink of war. But then, a much bigger problem soon appears. 

This book was solid across the board on plot, character development, world-building, technological concepts, and writing quality. Plot-wise it’s a neo-noir with an unexpectedly dark turn halfway through the book, and Miller was a very effectively done antihero. It was a good page-turner too, with medium-length chapters that always had a twist, interesting question, or small revelation at the end of each one that made you want to keep reading. The ending was satisfying while clearly leaving lots of room for future stories. In fact, it has become a long-running series, with 8 books to date and book 9 currently in development. 

I’ve started watching The Expanse, and so far it’s been a solid adaptation, although I’m only four episodes in so far. There are a few characters that didn’t appear in Leviathan Wakes, but overall it's faithful to the book and the differences are working for me so far. Overall it is definitely a 5-star read. While I think NPR’s assessment was a considerable exaggeration, but I would agree with Mr. Martin’s opinion that Leviathan Wakes is "a really kickass space opera."

Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey

Review of “The Incredibles 2”

There are no spoilers in this review. 

The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies ever, be it animated or live action. The scene when Elastigirl turns herself into a boat while Dash serves as a human propeller and Violet sits in the boat and sulks is the only time I literally couldn't stop laughing while watching a movie in a theater. Like so many other people, I've been wondering why Pixar/Disney has managed to turn out two sequels to both Toy Story and Cars without doing one for The Incredibles after almost a decade and a half. 

In fact, it's been so long they had the main actors (Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, and Samuel Jackson) offer a mea culpa intro before the actual film in which they apologized for the delay but promised that it would be worth the wait. A bold statement to be sure, but if any company could make such a claim, it's Pixar. And after watching it I have to admit, happily, they were right. I can't go into too many details without giving away spoilers, but the film touches on a number of important current themes, including female empowerment and our growing enslavement to our phones and laptop. It manages to make adjustments to the cast of characters from 14-years ago in ways that totally works for the present moment without feeling forced in any way. 

Plot-wise it picks up right where the first movie left off, with the arrival of the Underminer after Dash's track meet. Soon after it makes the central plot twist relative to the first movie to have Elastigirl, rather than Mr. Incredible, take center stage. It does so in a totally believable way while continuing to deliver the emotional impact and technical excellence of its predecessor. Regarding the latter aspect, an early scene involving Elastigirl chasing down a runaway train has yet again steamrolled my expectations for what can be achieved through animation. The wizards at Pixar somehow keep churning out movies on a regular basis while resetting the bar for what's possible every time. 

I won't go so far as to say that Incredibles 2 is better than the first movie, but I will go so far as to say it's 95% as good. If I have any complaint it's that the movie's pace is a bit unrelenting, although never to the point that it distracted me from the story. Also, some new superheroes were a bit dorkier than I would have preferred, but not a big deal. Other than those quibbles I had no complaints. 

One safety disclaimer: if you or any of your children have epilepsy (as one of mine does), you might want to wait to see this movie at home, or perhaps (I hate to say this) avoid it altogether. There are a number of scenes in which full-screen stroboscopic effects are used and I've read some articles saying it has triggered seizures in some viewers, so please be forewarned.

Review of “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

There are no spoilers in this review. 

I'd heard of Neil Gaiman before but had never read anything by him before. What I'd heard was fairly limited; he did something along the lines of dark fantasy, and the people I had talked to about him seemed to either love him or not really care for him. I also knew that he'd recently been on the TV show Big Bang Theory, which elevated my expectations for this book a bit since that show generally gets pretty big-name nerds, er, guest stars. But for the most part I went into listening to the Audible version of this book largely not knowing what to expect.

What I got was one of the best books I've ever read.

The writing in this book was simply fantastic. The bar for the kind of writing I admire had previously come from people like Hugh Howey (Wool) and Justin Cronin (The Passage). Now, however, another tier has been revealed, courtesy of Mr. Gaiman.

The plot, while not the page-turner that another recent favorite of mine (Mistborn) was, was still very engaging. A mysterious character named Shadow gets out of prison after three years, only to find the life he expected to resume with his wife on the outside completely turned upside down. He falls in with a strange man named Wednesday, who seems to know as much or more about Shadow as Shadow knows about himself. Shadow goes on a series of adventures with Wednesday, and encounters a number of strange but compelling characters.

Character development and establishing setting are what Gaiman does best, and several of the characters appeared in vignettes that were tangential to the main story but that did a wonderful job of establishing the overall tone of the book. In fact, a few of the vignettes had some of the most compelling, memorable writing in the book. I'll definitely be referring back to American Gods when I tackle writing my first short story (which I plan on doing soon). Within two or three pages I found myself caring deeply about the characters and what was going to happen to them next. The pacing was extraordinary, unhurried but never feeling too slow to me.

I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for a fair bit of what I guess I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, though, a word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more accurate. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up reading. Fortunately, I persevered. The scene turned out to be the weirdest one, and it came to make some sense later on once more context had been established.

The only negative I have to mention, and it is a mild one, was with the ending, which for me was a bit of a letdown. For some reason, I expected a slam-bam big action finale, but that turned out not to be the case. But it was still a satisfying conclusion, and far, far better than almost any other book I've read with writing this good.

I learned after the fact that American Gods, which came out in 2001, won not only the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards, but also the Locus award for fantasy and the Bram Stoker award for horror. This cross-genre acclaim reflects what I felt while listening to it, namely that it was a textbook example of why the term "speculative fiction" was developed. It's a book that goes outside the bounds of reality but doesn't fit cleanly into any of the standard genres for books of that type. So it makes perfect sense that it won a whole mess of different awards.

Part of what made this book so enjoyable was the spectacular narration by George Guidall. I have only two other audiobooks to compare it against, but even from this tiny sample size I'd have no trouble believing it—his work blew the other two away. It was like being thrown without warning into a show on Broadway when all you'd heard up until that moment were high school musicals. It was so good that after I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next several days on my morning commute. I realized how much I'd looked forward to hearing the next quarter-chapter each time I got in the car. When I read up about him afterward, I learned Mr. Guidall is considered by some to be the king of audiobooks, having narrated over 1,300 of them! I went ahead and ordered Mr. Guidall's version of Don Quixote for my dad's birthday; we'll see if he thinks as much of Mr. Guidall's work as I did.

I'll definitely be reading some more of Mr. Gaiman's novels in the future, with Neverwhere sounding the most interesting at the moment. Apparently, he took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist, starting out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, diving head-first into graphic novels. He helped create the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so I think there are not many literary awards left for him to win at this point.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

“Sleeping Giants” by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

There are no spoilers in this review. 

First of all, I love this book cover! I love the turquoise sidebars, they really catch your eye when you're scanning over a hundred tiny thumbnail images on Amazon. I also love the font. And I love how the design of the covers for the two sequels fit seamlessly with the design of this cover. I love this cover so much I looked up who the designer was. His name is Charles Brock and unsurprisingly he has done a lot of other great covers as well. 

As far as the book itself goes, I will say that I enjoyed it, but didn't love it. It was an interesting concept, but the writing quality just wasn't really there for me. This was another first contact story, done in an epistolary format, in which the entire book is presented through a series of documents. About a year or two ago I read Robopocalypse, which also used this approach. I thought it was done very effectively in that book, lending a "found footage" feel to the story that was entertaining. However, in this case, it didn't work as well. 

Most of the documents were government reports made by an unnamed person working in some shadowy capacity to explore a massive metal hand found buried in the earth near where a young girl accidentally rides her bicycle into the huge hole in which it appears. The girl survives the fall and, in a strange turn of events, two decades later becomes the lead scientist charged with trying to understand what it is. Other characters are pulled in here and there, but eventually, it turns out the secret government operative guy is the real protagonist, not the female scientist. There was a switch in focus from the scientist to other characters which I didn't like because the author had done a good job of developing the scientist's character and not much with the other characters.

The high-level plot was interesting enough, but I felt the author could stand to take some writing tips from Mr. VanderMeer, particularly on how to do settings. Many descriptions of places were very superficial and generic and I didn't feel immersed in scenes like I did in Annihilation. The dialog was effective though, snarky in the style of The Martian. But like I mentioned earlier, I didn't really care about any of the characters outside of the first one all that much. I felt as though the government document-style format served as a crutch, as a means of escaping some of the more difficult aspects of writing a really good story. 

Also, there was one core technical detail that vastly exceeded my threshold for suspension of disbelief, and it kicked me out of the story mentally into "that's totally unrealistic" mode. I never really recovered from that and wound up not being nearly as engaged in the second half of the book as I was in the first half. While there was some interesting action in the middle of the book, the ending was unfortunately even more anticlimactic than in Annihilation

In the end, it was a solid three stars and I'm glad to have read it, but frankly I'm a bit surprised it's done as well as it has (over 700 reviews on Amazon!). Personally, I think it's the cover. 🙂

 

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Here is my spoiler-free review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer.

I had heard a great deal about Annihilation and was very curious to read it. In some ways, the book really delivered. But in others, it fell disappointingly short, particularly the audiobook version. In the end, it wound up being a 4 because of the writing quality. However, when it was over I felt a bit disappointed, that it had the bones to be a 5-star story but somehow missed the mark.

To start with the positive, I thought that overall the writing in this book was very high. I really enjoyed Mr. VanderMeer's description of settings, and the use of introspection on the part of the main character, the biologist. I found the overall concept was really interesting as well. This is a first-contact story, in which the four main characters, all women, were known only as "the biologist," "the psychologist," "the archeologist," and "the surveyor," are sent to investigate a place called "Area X," which only the U.S. government knows about and that has been exhibiting paranormal phenomena for many years. 

The current four-woman team is the twelfth expedition into Area X (which I thought was a rather lame play off of Area 51) to explore the goings-on there. The previous expeditions, by and large, have all met a variety of untimely demises, whether group suicide, killing each other, or mysteriously returning to the outside world as shells of their former selves before dying of cancer a few months later. To be honest I found the basic premise of the book ridiculous, namely that the government would choose to send in only tiny teams of people into an area they knew might be harboring some form of extraterrestrial life. But overall, I thought the book did an excellent job setting the scene and getting the reader curious about what was happening inside Area X, and what would happen to this particular expedition.

However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and unfortunately, this turned out to be a big part of what didn't work for me. I'm still new to audiobooks, having only listened to Wil Wheaton's narration of Ready Player One before this one. I really enjoyed the audio version of RPO, and so was eagerly anticipating Carolyn McCormick's reading of Annihilation. She had narrated the Hunger Games series, and so had great credentials. But whether it was the sound of her voice or the way she read the story, by the time I was halfway through the book I found the narration really getting on my nerves. 

I was also bothered by the frequent interruption of the plot, particularly in the second half, with flashbacks or long introspective asides. Initially, I found the flashbacks non-intrusive and providing helpful context for how the main character got herself involved in the expedition. But over time they provided less and less useful information and just got in the way of the story. I would have skimmed over them had I been reading. Similarly, the main character engaged in near-continuous introspection. At first it was interesting, but later on, when things started happening it seemed an unrealistic way to react and also slowed things down.

Finally, I found the climax to be a bit, well, anticlimactic. It was still cool and brought to mind a couple of my favorite books, Contact and Roadside Picnic. But the subtle ending of Contact didn't deliver the goods for a lot of people (although it did for me) but I had a similar reaction to the ending of this book. 

I'm probably being a bit harsh, but it's because my gut tells me this book had the potential to be awesome, but somehow didn't hit the home run I was looking for. But it was very interesting and engaging story overall, and for much of the book, the writing was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie because I have a feeling it may be one of those relatively rare cases where the movie turns out better than the book.

 

Annihilationby Jeff VanderMeer

Review of “Ready Player One” (Movie)

I'll cut right to the chase: I haven't been this disappointed in a movie in a long time. The picture to the left above, while of the main character, Wade Watts, is also probably what I looked like while watching the movie and realizing most of what I'd been looking forward to about the movie had been unceremoniously thrown out the window. Being a child of the 80s and a pop-culture junkie, I loved the book by Ernest Cline. I recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Wil Wheaton, which I have to say I enjoyed even more than reading the book. So everything was fresh in my mind, and I went into the movie with high expectations. Unfortunately, team Spielberg threw out 80% of the pop-culture nerdiness that was the heart of the book. In its place they plopped a generic Hollywood sci-fi action movie (with admittedly very well done visual and sound effects). 

For those who haven't read the book (no spoilers), 
about 30 years in the future most people in the world spend the bulk of their time in a worldwide virtual environment known as the Oasis. The creator of the game, James Halliday, has died a few years earlier and left three keys hidden in the Oasis. Whoever finds the three keys (and in the book, solves a puzzle in order to pass an associated gate), wins Halliday's fortune of half a trillion dollars and, more importantly, control of the Oasis. A nasty multi-national company is trying to win the game through brute force by assembling an army of gamers and scholars in an effort to win through sheer resource superiority. However, at the time the story starts, no one has managed to find even the first key. 

What I found so disappointing was this was a book that begged for a movie adaptation to adhere to its details as much as possible. While it's always a problem for movies to live up to the expectations of the people who read the book, the entire plot of Ready Player One centered around characters slavishly mining every nugget of 80s trivia, be it video games, movies, TV, or music, in hopes of uncovering clues to the whereabouts of the three keys. (Which is kind of an insane plot when you think about it, as this excellent review by Lili Loofburrow points out). Geeking out on specifics was at the heart of RPO, so it stood to reason that a screenplay should pay careful attention to the details of the book. 

But this movie changed just about everything, and in my opinion, 90% of the changes had nothing to do with the standard challenge of turning a book into a movie. They simply seemed to be changed for change's sake. Spielberg threw out many of the specifics in the book and replaced them with other ones for no particular reason. There were several arcade games in the book that were critical to the plot, including Joust, Tempest, and especially Pac-Man, but none of them showed up in the movie. Also in the book, the protagonist Wade Watts had to re-enact various roles in movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the Oasis in their entirety, but the movie decided to pay an extended homage to The Shining instead. Spielberg may have been trying to pay tribute to Kubrick and arguably his greatest movie, but the pace of it is completely different than the action-blasting scene in RPO they attempted to inject scenes from it into. For me, the result fell completely flat. They also spent next to no time on character development, another thing the book did very well, so I didn't really care about any of the people in the movie. 

If I was Ernest Cline, the author of RPO, I would be frustrated and borderline horrified at this adaptation, particularly when you look at the faithfulness with which Ridley Scott brought another recent breakaway sci-fi bestseller, The Martian, to the big screen. Part of me wants to say the creators of this movie did a marketing bait and switch, in which they knew all of the Gen X people who read the book were lock-ins to come to see it, so they decided to treat our loyalty cheaply and reach for a wider audience by clearing space for later references that Millennials would appreciate. But really, there's not much in terms of more references added to the movie. They just changed stuff for reasons I frankly don't understand, and in the end, produced an inferior result for having mucked around with it. 

Having said all that, if you haven't read the book, the movie version of Ready Player One would probably be fine. I enjoyed I Am Legend because I never read the book but people I talk to who loved the book get apoplectic when you bring the movie version up. But if you read and loved the RPO book, I think you'll wind up feeling they made a mess out of what could have been a fantastic, fun movie you could watch over and over again. Sadly, my recommendation is to skip the movie and go listen to the audiobook version instead, so you can enjoy this story the way it was meant to be experienced.