Book review of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison
This review contains no spoilers.
I didn’t expect much going into this because this short story was originally published 1967 and most of the older sci-fi stories I’ve read in the past few years have disappointed me. Not because their core stories fell short of the mark, but for the dehumanizing ways in which anyone that wasn’t a white male, particularly women, were depicted.
At first, I thought Harlan Ellison’s most famous work had fallen on its face in this regard as well, for the way in which the one female character, Ellen, who is also black, was portrayed. But after reading the "memoir" chapter about the writing of I Have No Mouth..., which at 19 pages was actually longer than the story itself, I realized my initial interpretation was incorrect. Apparently, quite a few readers over the years have made the same mistake, but once you realize the narrator is unreliable (which Mr. Ellison acknowledges he may not have made obvious enough) it becomes clear Ellen is in fact a very noble character.
The story depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which a sentient and omnipotent computer called "AM" has destroyed all of humanity except for five people it chose to keep alive and torture in a variety of ways as a means of amusing itself. Given its brevity, I can’t say any more about the plot without spoiling the whole thing, but suffice it to say it’s totally worth the 20-30 minutes it will take you to read it. I will repeat the opening line here, however, because it had me hooked right from the start.
Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported—hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.
I love this sentence for how it instantly immerses you in the disorientation and terror felt by the characters in the story. I also love it because it has to be the only time in the history of writing when someone used two semicolons and an em dash in the same sentence and got away with it. Seriously, even the ancient Sumerians must have had rules against grammatical structures like that. Nonetheless, whatever editor allowed it to pass inspection did the right thing because it totally works.
Certainly, this wasn’t the first conception of a powerful computer that gains sentience and turns against humanity. However, it is impossible not to think this particular vision didn’t significantly influence many subsequent stories of technological hellscapes such as 2001 and The Terminator. I also think Mr. Ellison must have been influenced himself by contemporary works such as Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, which came out just three years earlier. The AM computer in his story to me seems very much like an R-rated version of IT in the latter.
I always enjoy stories about computers gaining sentience and turning against humanity, but it is one science fiction trope I personally believe is truly fictional. My next book, the sequel to The Infinet, will depict a future in which the real problem is not superintelligent computers that become conscious, but superintelligent computers that don’t become conscious. The latter scenario raises the rather harrowing possibility of…well, you’ll have to wait until the book is published to find out. 😛
Book review of Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
This review contains minor spoilers.
I’d heard about Altered Carbon a couple years ago from a friend who said it was one of her favorite sci-fi books (and she has read quite a few). Then Netflix came out with the series based on it last year and I decided to watch that instead. I didn’t think much of it and almost gave up watching at one point but wound up seeing it through to the end of Season One.
Then I was in LaGuardia airport recently and to my surprise I discovered a very nice independent bookstore in Terminal B called McNally Jackson Books. They had a small but well-curated sci-fi and fantasy section with several books I had on my to-read list, including Altered Carbon. Fortunately, in addition to my friend’s recommendation, I’d recently seen it mentioned on a list of best genetic engineering books on the Best Sci-Fi Books blog. So, I decided to give it a shot.
I am so glad I did because this was one amazing book. It is a perfect fusion of my two favorite sub-genres, cyberpunk and noir. The story is set 400+ years in the future, in a world in which humans have learned how to transfer their consciousness into a small piece of hardware called a cortical stack. A stack can be transferred into any human body through a process given the wonderfully disgusting name of “resleeving.” Or, as in the case of Takashi Kovacs, the man from whose perspective the story is told, it allows people to serve prison sentences decades, even hundreds of years long.
In the prologue, Kovacs and a girlfriend get into a shootout with the police in which their bodies are killed but their stacks remain intact. Then, in chapter one, Kovacs wakes up in a new "sleeve" – but with 117 years still remaining to be served on his sentence. He's been taken off stack early at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, an extremely wealthy and powerful man who wants Kovacs to conduct a special investigation into Bancroft’s own death just a few weeks earlier.
Bancroft has multiple copies of his original body and backups of his stack automatically updated every 48 hours, an arrangement has enabled him to stay alive for more than 350 years. This makes him a “Meth,” a nickname based on the character of Methuselah in the Bible for the elite class of persons who have used this technology to stay alive far beyond the normal human lifespan. Bancroft doesn't buy the police department's conclusion that his death was a suicide, so he offers Kovacs, an ex-soldier and “envoy” with special psychological and physical combat training, the chance to have the rest of his prison sentence commuted in exchange for figuring out who really killed him and why.
This clever premise sets the stage for some wonderful thought experiments about consciousness, identity (including gender identity, since a stack can be plugged into any sleeve, male or female), eternal life, and much more. It does so against the backdrop of a well-paced murder mystery and a very believable and well-constructed world.
The writing in this book is excellent, with fantastic setting descriptions, clever dialog, and some unexpectedly profound observations about humanity. One of the signatures of Mr. Morgan's writing style is his use of vivid, powerfully descriptive verbs. Here's one example.
The fact that this was Mr. Morgan's first novel is astonishing to me. Granted, it took him over a decade to finish it (he taught English as a second language while he wrote it), but this is a more impressive effort than any other first-time breakthrough sci-fi authors I can think of, including Andy Weir’sThe Martian and Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One. Trust me, it's that good.
They only warning I'd give is there is a lot of violence, including one torture scene. You could skip a couple of pages to avoid that scene, but if you skip all the violence there wouldn't be much book left. OK, it's not quite that bad, but there's definitely a lot of shooting and mayhem throughout. There are also a couple of graphic sex scenes but they were tastefully done in my opinion.
I have no idea what the people who did the Netflix series were thinking, but they changed a ton of stuff and added a bunch of stuff, and in my opinion, almost none of it worked. I often wish books that are made into movies had been made as serials so they could have included the extra detail from the book that gets missed. In this case, however, I felt the opposite, where it seemed like the writers were struggling to come up with extra side stories in order to fill 10 episodes. Personally, I think it would have been better to make this a stand-alone movie or at most a four or five episode miniseries.
Anyway, if you love sci-fi mixed with a great noir murder mystery, do yourself a favor and skip the Netflix series and read the book instead.
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
A couple of weeks ago I finally decided I'd had it with WordPress. I'm a user experience designer in my day job, and from the day I started using WordPress three years ago I've been amazed at how difficult it is to use. WordPress now drives more than 30% of the websites in the world, which I find staggering considering what a piece of crap user interface it has. For anyone who manages a WordPress website and is wondering if there is something better, I recommend checking out Weebly. I'm only a couple of weeks into using it, but so far I've been delighted. It has nice themes, an excellent drag-and-drop interface, and allows you to fully customize the design if you so choose. It also has plenty of third-party integrations. I looked at Wix as well but apparently you can't change the theme without losing all of your content, which for me was a non-starter. One thing I know about myself is I will change my mind. :)
I've still got some work to do, primarily around re-posting all of my book reviews, but those should be up in he next few days. I hope you like the new site - feel free to let me know what you think.
Book review of We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
This review contains some minor spoilers.
This book first came to my attention because it was named Audible's best sci-fi book of 2016. Then I learned it was another indie author success story, in which the author, Dennis E. Taylor, couldn't get a traditional publishing deal, so he released it through his agent's publishing imprint. But when he published an audiobook version, it exploded in popularity. So I decided to check out the audiobook for myself.
The plot centers around a guy named Bob, the founder of a successful mid-size software company who is able to retire early after selling his company. Rather comically, however, Bob gets killed in a car accident shortly after he sells his company and before he can enjoy the fruits of all his hard work over the years. However, since he was a science nerd with some extra cash on hand, he paid a company to cryogenically preserve his body in the event of his death, in hopes that technology in the future would be able to bring him back to life.
The preservation succeeds, but not quite as he had intended. Bob is indeed brought back to life 117 years into the future, but as a computer simulation rather than a human. Despite his shock and disorientation at his newfound condition, Bob must quickly adjust to his situation and try to find ways to continue to preserve himself. This proves difficult in a world in which some nations and religions have become increasingly ideologically polarized and many nations now have nuclear weapons. The rest of the book details Bob's quest to survive the ticking time bomb that is Earth and to explore the galaxy.
The tone of the book is very similar to The Martian, equal parts erudite and snarky. It spends a lot of time mocking religion, as well as human beings in general. However, despite the irreverent sense of humor, this is very much a hard sci-fi book, with lots of conceptually interesting stuff like Von Neumann probes, artificial intelligence, the physics of space travel, and more. The author takes the time to explain the more technically challenging stuff for less-technical readers, which probably explains why the book has found as broad of an audience as it has.
I found my interest waning a bit toward the end because it got challenging to keep track of all the characters and what they were doing, but overall it was still a very fun read. The audiobook version was outstanding. Narrator Ray Porter captured the author's sarcastic tone perfectly. I have no doubt this is one of those cases where the audiobook was better than reading it on my own would have been.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
Book review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
This is the most important book that I have ever read.
I realize that probably sounds a tad hyperbolic, but I mean it. This book has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world and the human species. And to add something even more over the top, I believe the ideas in this book represent a new ideology for which there isn’t a name yet, but the understanding and adoption of which is required if humanity is to survive as a species. Those who have read this book will recognize that statement is somewhat ironic given what Sapiens is about, but for those of you who haven’t read it, allow me to explain.
The central thesis of this book is that the ability of humans to tell each other stories and to engage in cooperative activity based on those stories is what distinguishes humanity from all other species on earth and has enabled us to dominate all other sentient life-forms. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, at least until you realize the scope of what Mr. Harari considers a story. He presents a compelling argument that almost everything humans consider to be ‘reality’ is nothing more than collectively shared and agreed-upon stories. Corporations. Nations. Money. Religion. To Mr. Harari, these are all equally fictional concepts with far less objective reality to them than a puff of air.
One of the things I found remarkable about this book was the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which the author breaks down the aforementioned entities and exposes them for what they truly are. He starts by showing how the French car company, Peugeot, is really just an idea, even though various attributes such as the cars themselves, the employees, the offices they work in, and so on, are all real. But what binds them all together is just a jointly agreed-upon cognitive construct. There is no actual physical entity Peugeot that exists in nature.
Similarly, he points out that concepts such as “human rights” which are foundational elements of the United States government are not real. In a somewhat amusing if macabre example, he notes that you cannot cut a human being open and find their human rights inside of them. It’s just an idea. However, the shared belief in that and many other ideas form what we call the United States of America, and are the underpinnings of the coordinated behavior of more than 300 million people who are, by and large, complete strangers.
It would be easy to focus on the author’s brilliance in formulating this idea and explaining in such a simple way literally anybody can understand it. But that would obscure what I think is the most important quality of Mr. Harari’s thesis, and that is its intellectual honesty. While Mr. Harari is a historian by education (he has a PhD from Oxford and is a lecturing professor in history at the University of Jerusalem and Israel), this tone of his book is as frank and dispassionate it is as if his training was in anthropology. He affords humans none of the emotional and intellectual favoritism that most observers of human behavior and history grant their subjects because they themselves are humans with years of indoctrination about our uniqueness and importance. Instead, he regards humanity with the dispassionate eye of an alien from a distant world with no particular concern for us other than an innate curiosity about what makes us tick.
In addition, the simple, matter-of-fact tone of Mr. Harari’s writing belies its tremendous impact. Because the implications of the reduction of almost everything we normally view as comprising our day-to-day reality is staggering when you think about it, particularly with respect to the various ideologies that collectively form the backbone of our civilization. Sapiens implicitly dismisses the assertions of any ideology, be it religious, political, social, or economic, as being the most important, most valid, most approved by God, etc., by noting they are all still human ideas rather than incontrovertible facts of nature.
But anti-establishment thinkers should not jump onto the author’s arguments as evidence that whatever “-isms” currently in vogue are a bunch of malarkey. I’ve listened to several podcasts Mr. Harari has been on, and in them he talks about how many of the stories we have created are positive and lead to good outcomes for us and the world. What he stresses is the fundamental importance of never losing sight of what our stories truly are, and the need to ensure that we adapt our stories so that they serve us and the world and not the other way around. That is, we need to update our stories, or replace them with new ones, to attain better results, rather than slavishly adhering to stories that may have been useful decades, centuries, or even millennia ago, but may not be effective now given the much different technological, environmental, and social conditions in which we find ourselves.
There is a lot more to this book than just this central thesis though. It is a wonderfully succinct distillation of human evolution and civilization, going all the way back to the dawn of humanity 2.5 million years ago. Mr. Harari deftly summarizes millions of years of human evolution in just a few pages, and in a way that you can remember and recount to someone else afterward. One of the most fascinating chapters, called History’s Biggest Fraud, explains how, contrary to popular belief, the Agricultural Revolution that happened around 10,000 years ago was not a great leap forward for humankind, but actually made things worse for us! In the vein of Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, The Selfsh Gene, Harari points out that
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes.
Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo Sapiens to multiply exponentially
This is the case even though human agriculturalists lived under worse conditions than their forager forebears. You’ll have to read the book to learn all the evidence in support of this argument, but it’s knowledge drops like this that left me feeling a lot smarter after reading Sapiens than I did before. As I mentioned at the beginning, this book has fundamentally altered my worldview in many ways, and I’m truly grateful to Mr. Harari for creating such an important and foundational story (ha!).
I joke, but that actually brings up the one area I felt Mr. Harari could have dug into more, and I hope he will in his other writings, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I plan to read very soon. That area is whether some of our knowledge constitutes more than just stories. For example, an opinion about the nature of God is one thing, but the knowledge of the recipe for how to combine specific ratios of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter before applying an open flame to produce an explosion is another. And while it is easy to poke logical and factual holes in stories such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., there are, I believe, fundamental truths to be found in them, even if they are buried under a lot of details that, when regarded from a neutral vantage point, can be seen to be no more than vain human attempts to appear more knowledgeable than we really are.
In an age where human beings are struggling to agree with each other on what things are facts and what things are opinions, it seems risky to me to imply that all knowledge can be deconstructed into just “stories.” This would not only be wrong but dangerous, and that is certainly not Mr. Harari’s intent. But it seems clear that some human knowledge can and should be regarded as immutable natural facts, even if the only verifiable occurrences of them require human actors to instantiate them. It would be a great service, in addition to the one he has already rendered in writing this book, if Mr. Harari could break down the difference for us in the same compelling way he so artfully decomposed corporations, nations, and well, pretty much everything else. I’m not kidding when I say that, were he to do so, he might just save humanity from itself.
Review of The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
There are no spoilers in this review.
I decided to combine my reviews for the remaining two books in N. K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy because for me they are all seamless continuations of a fantastic overall story. As with my review of the first book, The Fifth Season, I really can't say enough good things about the second and third books, or The Broken Earth as a whole series. It's the best series I've read since the Lord of the Rings, and it has proven to me that the sequels in a series can be every bit as good as the first one.
I'm not going to get into the details of the epic challenge the characters in these stories face, as it would reveal too much that I think readers should discover on their own. I will say that it offers a brilliant, incisive commentary on human hubris and our collective attitude toward the Earth. Namely, how most of us treat it as an endless resource to be exploited, rather than something to be cherished and nurtured.
The characters, world-building, and writing quality of the two sequels are every bit as good as in The Fifth Season, which is to say, fantastic. Again, my only quibble is at times the pace gets a bit slow for me. Particularly during action sequences, the characters often have extensive inner monologues that would more appropriate when someone else isn't trying to kill them with a knife or whatever. Of course, I would say the pacing in The Lord of the Rings gets somewhat poky sometimes as well, so I guess no book is perfect.
In the end, I think what resonated for me with these books was the author's view of humanity that I would call objectively pessimistic. Although the world portrayed in these stories is the Earth thousands of years in the future, it is still the Earth, and still the same old humanity, only now struggling to deal with a changed set of natural and technological rules. Jemisin sees this world as still being very much like our own, and she depicts it as she sees it, without enhancement, diminishment or distortion through any obfuscating mythologies. Her epic story is a parable about the consequences down the road if we continue to divorce ourselves from nature by using ever more powerful technology to penetrate its depths and then extract and exploit the riches for no better reasons than to satisfy our curiosity and convenience.
I mustn't forget to add that I listened to the audiobook versions of these books as well, and once again Robin Miles did a splendid job narrating them. Frankly, I'm shocked that she didn't win the Audie award for the best science fiction narration (although I consider this is epic fantasy, not sci-fi). Regardless, I can't recommend the audiobook versions of all three of these stories highly enough.
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 almost never read the other books 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 (see, it doesn't really work). 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!
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 Justice, another 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 Binti, All 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 highly recommend this book.
Review of Leviathan Wakes, by 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."
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 and interesting characters.
Gaiman excels at character development. Several of the ones in this book appeared in vignettes that were only tangentially related to the main story, but which 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 just right, unhurried but never too slow.
What I found most amazing about this book was how deftly Mr. Gaiman captured the essence of the things that go into making up the miasmic concoction that is America. The breadth and depth of the knowledge he demonstrated regarding all things "Americana," from its roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere to its idyllic small towns with a much darker history than its inhabitants care to acknowledge, were profound and moving. It's all the more impressive given he's a British national who'd been living in the U.S. only a few years before American Gods was published in 2001. Apparently, Mr. Gaiman took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist. He started out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, dove head-first into graphic novels. He authored the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so apparently there are not too genre fiction awards left for him to win at this point.
I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for what I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, however. A word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more apt. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up on the book. Fortunately, I persevered, and that particular scene turned out to be by far the weirdest one. It also came to make more sense later on once some additional context had been added.
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 better than most books 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. It should have been considered for whatever the big award for historical fiction is, if it wasn't, because several of the vignettes had fascinating and what seemed to me to be accurate portrayals of life at various points in history, from the dawn of agriculture to modern-day America.
Another big 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. After I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next week on my morning commute, and 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. In the meantime, I highly recommend this story.
Science fiction writer