Book Review

Review | Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Aurora is a uniquely skilled piece of science fiction. Robinson blends hard science fiction with a distinctive voice and a fascinating premise. As a result, the story flies by quickly, despite what might otherwise be a slog.

Aurora is a story about a colonization expedition sent out from the solar system. After a 170 year journey, the two thousand people aboard the space ship are nearing Tau Ceti, a nearby star system with an earth analogue planet. Their ancestors took off generations ago to colonize the moon they would call Aurora.

But the ship is falling apart, there’s a noticeable regression among the ship’s population, and tension is becoming ever greater. The ship’s population is about to hit the boiling point.

The story is told from the point of view of the ship’s AI. Devi, the chief engineer–in function, if not in name– has slowly been working on the AI’s self-reflective capabilities and charges the AI with telling the expedition’s story. This is one of the most well executed parts of the book. The AI grows over time. So, while the story has a consistently “non-human” feel, and there is an almost overwhelming amount of technical information, there is also a clear growth in the narrative style over the course of the book. It’s a slow growth, but it’s obvious and the ship incorporates certain stylistic changes into the narration. I found it to be very well done and likeable.

The plot is very slow. The story is recounting, after all, a very slow process. Colonization attempts are by their nature slow, especially when you consider the technical aspects of it, which Robinson does. The pacing is also a side-effect of the narrative voice. The AI struggles to convey the same sort of drama that the same story in the hands of a human might. The story may be slow-going at times, occasionally sprinkled with moments of panic, but it’s consistently detailed, extremely rich in thought, and always interesting.

There’s a distance between the narration and the characters. It’s told from a kind of familiar outsider’s perspective. As a result, the story doesn’t convey all of the immediate emotional changes that the characters are going through. Again, this is a limitation of the AI narrator who cannot really speculate outside of themselves. This improves as time goes on and as the AI becomes more advanced. The characters remain at a distance, even those of whom the AI is fond.

The character growth was a bit dissatisfying. The main character is, in a sense, the AI whose philosophical dilemmas are more of the emotional crux of the book. The population takes on a secondary role and suffers for it. Overall, though a weakness, it wasn’t dislikeable. I found that I really liked the development in how the AI presents each character’s growth as the level of reflectiveness in the AI changes.

My biggest complaint about the book is actually the ending. There’s a lot of political strife midway through the book and an internal splintering of the population occurs. This was interesting to say the least, but there’s little follow up on some of the factions post-conflict. I would have liked to see more. Part of this is due to the limitations of the narrator. However, the last 50 or so pages is told from an omniscient point of view and so, the lack of follow up loses its understandability. Additionally, I thought that the parts told by the omniscient point of view didn’t actually add to the story overall; instead, it detracted a bit from some of the better plot points.

Regardless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s fantastic. If you like hard scifi, this is one to blow you away. If you’re more on the emotional-philosophical side of the scifi spectrum, there’s a lot here for you as well.

Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

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Armada

Four years after the release of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s new release, Armada, has been greatly anticipated. It seems like everywhere you go on the Bookternet, Armada has found its way already. The synopsis promises a video-game loving, 80s filled alien invasion.

I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.

I blinked and looked again — but it was still out there, a shiny chrome disc zigzagging around in the sky. My eyes struggled to track the object through a series of increasingly fast, impossibly sharp turns that would have juiced a human being, had there been any aboard. The disc streaked toward the distant horizon… <cut>

I tried to keep my cool. I tried to remain skeptical. I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.

Armada is exactly what I had expected it to be: a fun, fast-paced popcorn* read. It features some funny moments, vivid battle scenes, and a whole lot of video game love.

Armada is set up in a strikingly similar vein to Ready Player One. Teen boy who has spent his life without a strong father figure becomes obsessed with video games. Boy spends a lot of time perfecting seemingly useless video game skills. Chaos erupts, and boy ventures out to use his video game skills to save the world. A series of level-ups and a rag tag group of friends he only knew by usernames are the only thing the boy has on his side. Oh, and don’t forget the romantic subplot.

Armada is a slight refinement on Ready Player One. The “bad guy” gets a bit more dimension, there isn’t a ham-fisted attempt at fulfilling the “dystopia” requirement YA has seemed to have lately, and there is a definite dialing back of the 80s references (though they still come out in abundance).

What’s disappointing is that the book could really have been fantastic, but Cline doesn’t take the story to the next level.

The biggest failing in the story is the lack of character development. Our main character, Zack, is 18 and the story is an action-adventure type; I’m not expecting a lot of deep, emotional growth and life-changing revelations. But, had Cline really taken the time to flesh out Zack’s past and current states, had he given the side characters more depth, the story would have really benefited. He had the space to do it, too. There were easily 50 pages worth of people playing video games that could have been cut without injuring the foreshadowing.

In a similar vein, Zack’s love interest, Lex, could have been a great character. Lex is a rebellious programmer who gets caught up in the alien invasion resistance. She’s a valuable asset in that she’s a skilled hacker and generally pretty decisive. Unfortunately, she mostly serves as a magic fix-all for computer issues. There’s no real look at who she is or what she’s even like. We know she’s willing to go to battle, but we don’t actually see Lex for more than five pages. In those five pages, she meets Zack, kisses him, and basically leaves. She may as well have been an AI or nameless IT-worker. She could have been awesome, but Cline skips all of who she is and about 1,000 opportunities for her to advance the plot.

The story itself is about what I had expected. Aliens are coming to destroy Earth. They’re using drones, so they remain a big mystery. When we do find out a bit more of what the aliens are like, it’s in the last 20 pages. Another chapter or two post-crisis would not have gone amiss here.

While Cline does distinctly tone-down the 80s trivia, there is still the unexplained question: why do ALL of these 15-18 year olds know all of this ridiculously obscure 80s trivia? They were born and reached pubescence in the 2010s, is 80s actually a big deal among teens in 2015? I don’t really think so. Granted, I haven’t been a teen for the better part of a decade, so I can’t say for sure. Given that Cline hasn’t been a teen since about the 1980s, I don’t know that he can say any better than I can.

The story, is though, undoubtedly fun. It’s a YA read that isn’t a total turn-off for the adult crowd and is easily a one-sitting read.  I just wish that there’d been more to it.

*Popcorn read: light, tasty, not very fulfilling in the long run, but very pleasant while it lasts

I received a copy of Armada for free in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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I read Ready Player One to prep for Armada. I’d never picked it up before, though it’s been on my kindle for quite some time and I have had it on audio for almost as long. It was about time.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced adventure story with some fun 80s references. It’s like Spy Kids 3D meets an 80s video arcade. In Cline’s world, virtual reality has taken over. While the world outside becomes increasingly destitute, virtual reality plays an increasingly important role in the distribution of services. Think online high school, but times 1,000. The OASIS (the platform that runs the VR) is huge and its influence seems ever expanding. When the OASIS creator dies, he reveals a secret: he has hidden a series of tests within the OASIS. The player to find and solve all three tests first will win the rights to the OASIS and an enormous fortune.

Wade lives in extreme poverty. He goes to school in the OASIS, because schools in his area IRL are underfunded and unsafe. He lives in a kind of sup-ed up trailer park where trailers are stacked on top of one another 20 stories high. After his parents’ death, he went to live with his aunt who either ignores or abuses him. But he’s holding out hope that his love of OASIS and vigilant study of the creator’s 80’s obsessed life will help him to find the easter egg and get the money to leave his life behind.

Ready Player One is a popcorn read. It’s fun, light-weight and the story flies by. The story is filled with fan-service that makes it easily popular with a crowd that can remember arcades and Sega Genesis. However, I wouldn’t go in expecting fantastic characters or too much world-building. The characters have, generally, some pretty basic motivations and backstories. The relationships are fairly straight-forward. Boy has best friend (username: Aech), boy meets girl online (username: Art3mis), etc… The plot itself is similarly straight-forward.

You are in for a treat if you like obviously bad bad guys with little to no nuance. In fairness, I often like this. The big bad in the book is a group called the Sixers (or Suxors) they’re basically representatives of a company that has put its resources to finding the easter egg, taking over the OASIS, and monetizing it. Be prepped for some ham-fisted moralizing about companies, capitalism, and open sourceiness.

The world inside the OASIS is pretty neat with an interesting minecrafty set up. Outside of the OASIS, you don’t really get a lot of explanation for why the world is in its current state. That, for me, is kind of a bummer, but it’s not really the point of the book, and considering that about 80% happens in OASIS, it’s not too much of a distraction.

Overall, Ready Player One is fun. It’s a vacation, on-an-airplane, get ready to be nostalgic adventure.

As a big bonus: Wil Wheaton narrates it. He’s perfect for the role.

Review: The Fold by Peter Clines

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Peter Clines’ The Fold is about a team of scientists who have created a successful teleportation machine. How, you ask? They have discovered a way to fold space. But, the problem is that they won’t tell anyone how. After one of the scientists shows up no longer knowing who his wife is, the scientists’ patrons decide to send in a third party to make sure everything is as safe as they say it is.

For those of you with an interest in audiobooks, you can check out a clip of the audiobook.

Thanks to Audible for the sound byte!

I should start off by saying I have a complicated relationship with dimension/time travel stories. I say this for every story even remotely like this, because it frames my perspective on most of the construction and plot issues. The story writes off the technology almost entirely. That strikes me as a bit lazy, but better to not do it than to muck it up or give something half-assed.

I really wanted to like this story. It wasn’t terribly original, but that’s not such a big deal. The problem with the whole story for me was two-fold: The presentation of the main character and his abilities was poor and the humor was totally lacking.

The main character is a high school teacher with extraordinary mental abilities. His potentially is woefully underutilized until his best friend gets him involved in the Albuquerque Door (the aforementioned teleportation project). There, he’s sent in to check stuff out, make sure everything is on the up and up. Why was he sent in? He’s got a record breaking IQ and remembers literally everything he’s ever seen. Ok. I’ll bite.

The problem here comes in when the character’s abilities are mentioned every page. The story doesn’t build because it is constantly being brought up. We aren’t being led to conclusions because the character’s abilities are just *soooo* remarkable that he tells us what’s happened.

Compounding the problem, is that the humorous parts are super repetitive. He’s compared to Severus Snape not once, not twice, not three times, but so frequently it’s not worth counting. He’s named Leland, but goes by Mike. Why? Everyone started calling him Mycroft Holmes– Sherlock Holmes’ intelligent but underachieving brother.

It just was eye roll worthy.

I received this for free in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

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* I received a copy of Mother of Eden for free in exchange for an honest review via Blogging for Books

Mother of Eden is the sequel to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (You can read my review of Dark Eden here). It takes place hundreds of years after the end of Dark Eden. Though it can arguably be read on its own, Mother of Eden makes the most sense in the context of a sequel.

The descendents of John Redlantern and his companions have spread over the planet of Eden. The population has become large and fractioned by their beliefs about what the original humans who crash landed on the planet had intended for the race. In particular, the whole planet is fixated on Mother Gela’s ring, long lost, or so they’ve been told.

Starlight Brooking is from Knee Tree. Her family is isolated. They live rustically, but are protected from the politics that has taken over much of Eden. But, Starlight wants more. She’s got a wicked case of wanderlust. On her one big adventure outside of her home, she gets caught up in a whirlwind romance. She leaves for a new area of the planet with new people, technology, and — could it be?– Gela’s ring. When she arrives at New Earth, Starlight finds that politics is a much more complicated beast than she could ever have imagined.

Mother of Eden has a lot going for it. It’s a thought piece on what may happen in a world where some groups of people are highly isolated, when gender stratified societies take hold and collide, and the relationships between mother, children, and power.

Some of the characters are interesting. The contrast between Starlight and her more content sister, Glitterfish, is interesting, and there were a number of complex side characters. The setup of the novel incorporates a wide variety of points of view. Beckett uses this to develop some of the characters very well.

The story uses a very particular linguistic style. This was used pretty successfully in the first novel. It was odd in this installation, however, that the language hadn’t developed in the years that were supposed to have passed. Additionally, it became increasingly difficult for the characters to have distinct voices. Their phrasing and colloquialisms are the same regardless of age, gender, or background. That was odd and made the story a bit muddled. What could have been strong character voices were weakened overall, with the few notable exceptions.

The story was interesting in a thought-provoking way, but the plot seemed secondary as opposed to complementary. The idea of a young woman from an equal, largely agrarian society being thrust into power in a world in which the women have been subjugated and the political structure oppresses the average citizen is interesting. The route she takes afterwards is similarly interesting. However, I found the story to be pretty straightforward overall. I had wanted a more complicated world and interactions that simply wasn’t there.

I enjoyed it, but there was room for improvement.