Monday, March 13, 2017

Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters

Set in current time, but as an alternate history. President Lincoln was assassinated before the emancipation, and the civil war resulted in a compromise. This compromise allowed slavery to be a state decision and permanently disallowed federal oversight. In the current year, only 4 states remain as slave states, but as a result, the U.S. is on the outs with the global community, effectively under economic sanctions. Some of the subtle beauty of this novel is in how this reality filters through to language. For example, a passing vehicle is a SA truck - referencing its manufacturing origin of South Africa. Or a Pakistani Wagon. Just dropped clues about the impact of remaining a slave state. The protagonist is Victor, a 'semi-free' black man working for the U.S. Marshalls, charged with tracking down runaway slaves and returning them to their owners. On this particular case, he is working to infiltrate the 'airline' to track a particular man and there are a few things that strike him as odd. While he continues his tracking, he also encounters increasing memories and emotional resistance. Not only is this a fascinating take on an alternate history, it is also a well told story of the internal struggles that one develops when pursuing a profession that is inconsistent with your values.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Shades of Earth

Beth Revis
Book 3 in Across the Universe trilogy

Final installment and we are not disappointed. Elder, Amy, and about 1500 of the Godspeed inhabitants have decided to travel to the surface of Centauri-Earth, in spite of the promised monsters and dire warnings of both Eldest and Orion. When they arrive, they also thaw out the 100 earthborn military and science officers who are earthborn and who are charged with the next phase of the mission. It turns out that Amy's father is the ranking military officer and her mother is the chief biological scientist. And of course there is conflict between the military and Elder of the shipborn. There is racism, there are control issues, there are secrets, and yes, there are monsters. Amy and Elder continue their sleuthing, trying to solve the final of Orion's clues, keep everyone (shipborn and earthborn and alien) safe, and make a home while they are at it. Again, Revis has created a book that is interesting in its own right, fits in with the universe she created, and continues to develop this world into an increasingly deep and rich place.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Scythe

Neal Shusterman

Another home run. Very much in the same vein as the Unwind series, Shusterman creates a crazy world that forces us to explicitly engage with what it means to be human. With Unwind, he deconstructs the physical body, asking the reader to consider where exactly a person exists. In Scythe, we investigating the cultural and individual decisions that provide meaning. The context here is a world that is referred to as post-mortal. Science has developed the technology to heal everything. So we are post-disease and any ill that could possible befall a person can be healed. In addition, what we currently refer to as the cloud has evolved into Thunderhead, a benevolent AI to whom humanity has given responsibility for managing all the technical details of life. Governments are no longer needed. In this world, where there is no death, the system has been developed where Scythes are charged with gleaning the human population as a method of population control. This story follows two young teens who are brought into the Scythe apprenticeship program, where they encounter everything you might expect. In many ways, this is a modern The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I love the politics, the teen struggles with violence, the need for purpose in life, how easy it is to slip into a group, etc. All of these struggles are real struggles that seem obvious in an extreme world, but are also real struggles for anyone living in the world today who is concerned with justice and living a life of integrity. A quick read, and great discussions.

As an aside, this is perhaps the first book that has a benevolent AI overlord. No one is trying to overthrow the AI, and the AI has improved life for everyone. I read recently a critique of our fear of AI by Michael Shermer and how many prominent scientists think an out of control AI is the most certain path to human extinction in our future. One interesting point Shermer posits is the difference between a male AI and a female AI. While many AI dystopian futures are predicated on a warrior AI, intent on domination and control (stereotypical male intent), he suggests that it is equally likely that an AI would develop with stereotypical female intent: nurture, collaboration and sustainability. Fascinating. I would say "equally likely" is only true if we get more women involved in AI development (Computer Science and technical fields). The odds of developing a female AI without female coding is nearly nil.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

She Is Not Invisible

Marcus Sedgwick

A short fiction telling the story of a young blind teen and her 7 year old brother who travel on their own from London to New York in an effort to find their missing father. Told from the perspective of the girl, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, she has a pretty rational/independent/pragmatic approach to navigating the world and second, the missing father is an author who has been obsessed with coincidence over the past couple of years. So we get a nice little mystery to solve as well as a dabbling of metaphysics around coincidence and synchronicity. A very quick/fun read.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Acceptance

Jeff Vandermeer

Book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

I have accepted the fact that this is a bad trilogy. Book 3, I was hoping, would provide some resolution, both in terms of the mystery of what exactly Area X is, and in terms of why we care. I must say that we only find out a bit more about Area X. So the series ends with only vague understandings of what it might be. And I clearly don't care. The motivations are not developed to the point where a reader is truly invested in the characters. I was curious, but not invested. Which leads me to think about why this trilogy showed up on so many 'best book of the year' lists. It was supposed to be a character driven mystery/sci-fi novel. Was it supposed to be commentary on something? Environmentalism? Government control? In-office working relationships? Self-discovery? Or is it supposed to be a character driven, fantasy-mystery? Maybe the fact that I don't know, or couldn't tell, means that I am not the target audience for this trilogy.

Skip


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Authority

Jeff Vandermeer

Book 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

So in book 2, we see the story from the perspective of the Southern Reach, which is a scientific research facility tasked with exploring (and containing) Area X. We are introduced to Control (aka John Rodriguez) who is the newly assigned director of the Southern Reach. Control is basically tasked with solving a mystery, or a series of mysteries. What is going on inside Area X, what is Area X, what happened to the prior director (the psychologist of Book 1), how did the biologist get out of Area X, what happened to her while she was in, etc. I still have a pretty mixed reaction here. Still lots of mystery (which I am not opposed to), but now we are 2/3 of the way through the trilogy and I am not seeing a lot of progress on solving those mysteries. This is beginning to feel like one of those novels/films where, in the last two minutes, everything is resolved with fortuitous facts revealed in the last three minutes. On the other hand, I am at least marginally interested enough to probably read the third installment. Still hesitant.

Wait

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Annihilation

Jeff Vandermeer

Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

A biologist, anthropologist, psychologist and surveyor are the members of the 12th expedition into Area X. That is about all the clarity you will have by time you finish this novel. Area X is said to be a region recovering from an environmental disaster, and the expedition has data acquisition goals to evaluate the changes since the last expedition. But this isn't exactly true. The members don't know how they got to Area X (there were put under hypnosis to "ease the transition"), or even what their goals really are, or what they are even looking for. In fact, this entire novel reads like the introductory first chapter of a potentially good book. I am only sticking with it since the trilogy showed up on a "Best of" list for 2016. But I must say, this first book is basically just a big intro with a question mark.

Wait