SF Book Review, Part 12

I’ve fallen way behind on the SF Book Review train. I’ve done a few individual reviews, but I’ve been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. Perhaps part of the reason I haven’t done a SF Book Review lately is that… I’m reading less science fiction. For various reasons, I’ve hit up a bunch of Fantasy, Horror, Crime, and Non-Fiction this year. SF remains my favorite genre, but others keep creeping in the queue, and even this roundup contains stuff that would likely be classified Fantasy. But whatever, here’s some quick thoughts on some books I’ve read recently.

  • Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales – A short novella, the first in a series called the Apollo Quartet. The premise is fantastic. Nine Apollo-era astronauts establish a base on the Moon, only to see the Earth succumb to nuclear war. Stranded, they turn to their experimental “torsion field generator”, a mysterious device stolen from the Nazis after WWII. Also referred to as the “Bell”, it seems that it’s able to transport the Moon base across alternate universes. They’ve got limited supplies, and so far, all attempts at ringing the Bell have only brought them to an alternate universe in which the Earth has still succumbed to nuclear war. Great setup, right? Unfortunately, while Sales does deliver on a lot of that potential, his characters aren’t really too involving. Now, they’ve all been cooped up with each other on a tiny Moon base and their planet has just blown up, so you would expect some irritability from them… It makes sense that these characters would be annoying and short tempered and whatnot, but at the same time, that doesn’t exactly do much to endear them to me either. I just didn’t enjoy spending time with them. Stylistically, Sales knows what he’s doing, though he makes some odd choices. For instance, his dialog does not use quotes or italics or anything that distinguishes dialog from prose. At first, I thought this was just a mistake, something got lost in the translation to ebook format or something, but it’s apparently a deliberate choice on Sales’ part. I’m also not quite sure what to make of the ending. It’s got a bit of an ironic twist, one of those things where the character has no idea what he’s done, but we the reader know things he doesn’t… It’s cleverly constructed, but I don’t really like it. Strangely, I don’t think I’m supposed to like it. So we’ve got some fantastic ideas here, but a narrative that isn’t particularly satisfying. It is very short, so that makes it more palatable, and the ideas are interesting enough that I’m curious to see how the next novella in the series turns out, but I’m hoping for more approachable characters.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King – When all is said and done, I think my favorite of the Dark Tower novels might be the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, which is funny in that it’s also the story that is the least connected to everything else. It’s mostly a flashback to an episode in Roland’s past, a story that informs his character, but which is also pretty much a standalone. This is probably why I like it so much – it’s able to tell a story in an interesting universe without being dependent on the narrative thrust of the series.

    Recently, King has revisited this universe and put together this book, which takes place between the 4th and 5th books in the series. It’s basically another flashback, again mostly independent of the rest of the series. Actually, it’s a really strangely structured book. The bookends are from the series proper, as Roland and his band of Gunslingers make their way across the desert, but as they hunker down in preparation for a big storm that’s been a brewing, Roland tells his crew another story from his youth. However, this story isn’t all that complicated in itself. Basically young Roland and one of his compatriots are sent out to a small town to deal with a little werewolf problem (it’s not referred to directly as such, but that’s what it is), and while he’s there, he tells the titular story, The Wind Through the Keyhole, to a young boy. So it’s a story wrapped in a flashback, bookended by some narrative glue that fits this into the rest of the Dark Tower story. Are all these framing narratives necessary? Probably not, but once you get to the meat of the story, it’s quite good (and the bookends/flashbacks aren’t bad either, just weird that King felt the need to go through all of it). I won’t go into too much detail about the story, but it’s got that strange blend of SF and Fantasy, a mythic bedtime-story quality that has always served the series well. It concerns a young boy and his quest to help his mother. It’s exactly the sort of thing that King excels at, and it’s populated with interesting characters (I particularly liked the tax collector guy, who is played as a sorta villain, but who could probably have his own series where he visits towns to collect taxes while also solving mysteries, or more likely, playing the trickster like he does here). In the end, it’s a welcome addition to the Dark Tower series, if not particularly necessary. It adds some background to the series without really changing much, which I actually rather liked. The Dark Tower universe is an interesting place, so stories like this still work well.

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. – I read this pretty shortly after Fahrenheit 451, which made for an interesting experience in that both books seemingly fear for the destruction of books and knowledge in general. In this case, though, we’ve got a post-apocalyptic setting where most of the books were destroyed immediately after the war. The book is essentially divided up into three sections, each told from the perspective of Catholic priests in a particular Monastery in the desert. The story actually spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself after nuclear war, with the priests being the early guardians of scientific knowledge. This is generally considered to be a classic novel, popular with SF fans but also the general literary community (a rare crossover), and I can see why (even if it hasn’t quite joined the ranks of my favorite SF novels). It has an interesting treatment of religion and one of the themes of the book is about how the Church interacts with the State (especially in the final segment), though in a more general sense, there’s a notion of recurrence and history repeating itself that’s also highlighted. It’s a deliberately paced novel, tackling big themes from small stories, and I’m not entirely sure how happy I am about the ending, but I’m still glad I finally read this. As a Neal Stephenson fan, it’s an interesting read because you can see a lot of this book’s DNA in Stephenson’s Anathem (though that book is much longer and more action packed than this one). In the end, I’m really glad I read this, its very well written, and it has a lot of meaty themes to chew on.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – Another SF classic that has achieved crossover success with mainstream audiences, this is a story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie Gordon who submits to an experimental procedure intended to increase intelligence. The book is comprised entirely of “Progress Reports” written by Charlie, and you can see said progress very quickly as his intelligence improves. I suppose it’s a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own risk, but the story also contains a downward swing in intelligence, and it’s a real heartbreaker when you start to see his grammar deteriorate to earlier levels. It’s a thematically rich story, with much to say about intelligence and relationships, and it’s the most emotionally involving of the books in this post. There’s a sadness to the story that somehow doesn’t lead to despair, which is a neat trick. There’s sadness, but it doesn’t wallow in it, and it’s a great book. This novel is apparently an expanded version of an earlier short story, both winners of Hugo awards and both experiencing crossover success with mainsteeam audiences. Really happy I finally caught up with this one…
  • The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga)The Mongoliad began its life as a serialized story delivered via custom apps on various mobile phones and tablets. I downloaded the app on my phone and played around with it a bit, but I ultimately waited until they started publishing these books before I really read anything significant. It turns out that the story they’re telling is a rather long one, though it’s actually more involving and approachable than I expected from the initial descriptions. Written by a variety of authors, including Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E.D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, the story is set in 1241 as the Mongol Horde was sweeping across Europe. I was expecting this to be something akin to Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle novels, but this wound up being more of an adventurous tale, with more focus on action and intrigue than historical minutiae. It’s actually a lot of fun, though it’s only the first book in the series and it ends at a rather arbitrary place. I was a little disappointed by that, but it seems like the other editions are coming quickly, so I’ll probably pick them up next year. I was surprised at how cohesive the book was considering how many different authors worked on it. A couple of the storylines bog down a bit at times though, which I wonder about. Would a single author have made some of those choices? Probably not. Still, entertaining and fun. I’m curious to see what the next book will hold.

So there you have it. I’ve still got a few books to cover before I’m totally caught up, but this gets me pretty close. I’ve got some extra reading to do here in the last few weeks of the year if I want to hit my goal of 50 books, but if all goes well, I’ll have a end-of-year wrapup coming…