The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

The WanderersI have so many things I want to say about this book, but I’m finding it hard to phrase any of those things in ways that won’t give away, you know, all the things I have things to say about. So let me give you a little plot summary up top, and then if you’re intrigued you can go read the book and come back to this.

PLOT SUMMARY: We follow along as three astronauts are selected for a potential future Mars mission, of which the first part is a real-time simulation in the Utah desert. We get to see this simulation mission from the eyes of the astronauts and certain of their family members, and we get to learn not only how the mission works practically but also physically and emotionally for all of these characters. There’s an older American woman who’s a bit past her prime and knows it, along with her daughter who doesn’t really know how to exist outside of her mother’s shadow; a Russian man who’s decided to go through a divorce at the same time as this simulation mission and his son who’s using this time in America to explore his sexual identity; and a young (for an astronaut) Japanese man who seems pretty normal, although he and his wife, some kind of bigwig in companion robotics, have a very strange and superficial relationship.

Kinda cool, right? I thought so! If you think so, stop here. Seriously, stop. Here’s a recommendation for you, so you don’t even have to scroll to the bottom:

Recommendation: For sci-fi fans who like a little existential crisis in their narratives.

Okay, but, seriously. Spoilers ahead!

SPOILERS: Okay, so, the plot up there really is the basic plot of the story, but there’s also this really really weird subplot that had my brain breaking for most of the book. Pretty early on the author starts dropping hints that there’s something weird about this simulation mission. Everything feels really… real. Exceptionally real. Too real. But it’s only hints here and there until near the end, when she kind of drops the act and has one of the characters be like, hey, are we actually secretly in space right now?

Which, of course not, because why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars and not even tell the astronauts they’re going? Why would you secretly send astronauts to Mars for them to stay like two days and then come back? Why would you bother to create an elaborate Mars simulation to put on top of ACTUAL MARS?

But, on the other hand, you could, right? And if you did, wouldn’t that look exactly like this?

SPOILERS WITHIN SPOILERS: You know that movie A Beautiful Mind? I thought this book would end up like that movie, where I was totally on board with the weird government spying shenanigans (or whatever, it’s been a while) and then the movie was like, psych! He’s got a mental illness!, and then I was like, whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

SERIOUSLY ALL THE SPOILERS WHY ARE YOU READING THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS: Except that this book never gets to a whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat. It leaves you hanging. And so instead of being able to be like, oh, book, look how you tricked me, I am now, weeks later, still coming up with conspiracy theories about how they totally did go to Mars, but now they’re dead, or that they totally didn’t go to Mars but this whole thing was an incredibly elaborate psychological experiment about the effects of simulations on humans, or that Mars isn’t even a planet and scientists have been lying to us this whole time. I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE.

I kind of love that the book starts out like it’s going to explore the themes of what’s real and what’s fake and what’s performance and whether we can tell the difference between any of that, even our own realities and such, through the various characters we meet and their inner and outer dramas… and then it’s like eff it, let’s get completely literal here. It’s a serious hit-or-miss move, and I can imagine that it’s going to miss for a lot of people, but it hit me square in the existential feels.

But seriously. Is Mars real? Asking for a friend.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing EmpireGUYS JOHN SCALZI HAS A NEW BOOK OUT! I mean, did. Like three and a half months ago. But I am behind on my reviews, and maybe you are behind on your John Scalzi books, and if so, we can meet together here!

If you’ve read even one John Scalzi book — well, maybe two, there’s one that’s very different and I never finished it — you know the Scalzi oeuvre: One part science fiction, one part snarky humor, and a dash of F-bombs. This first book in a new series follows that formula pretty well, except for the F-bombs. There are a LOT of F-bombs in this book, such that even I, with my mouth resembling a sailor’s, was like, dang, dude, can we dial that back a bit? So. Forewarning.

If you’ve read any of the Old Man’s War series, you’ll be even closer to this new series, which includes much of OMW’s military style and crazy intrigue and crazier subterfuge, but in a whole new universe with new exciting characters to get to know and a fascinating quasi-scientific plot.

On one end of this universe you have the capital of the planetary system, where a new and rather reluctant Emperox is being crowned. She is meant to keep the Interdependency working smoothly, but from the time of her coronation it is obvious that that is going to be rather difficult, what with warring noble houses and also a terrible scientific secret.

On the other end of the Interdependency, at a planet smartly called End, you have the man who discovered this secret, living with his kids and trying to stay under the radar. When a member one of those aforementioned noble houses on End starts doing some odd political machinations that don’t make a lot of sense, the scientist realizes it’s time to send his son to the capital to explain just what exactly is going on with the space highways (vast oversimplification on my part) that rule the system.

In between these places we meet an F-bomb-loving noble-house type who really just wants to sell her dang plants but who gets drawn into the plots on both ends of the system when she takes the scientist’s son aboard her ship.

Put these all together and you have the beautiful space opera brain candy with a little bit of social consciousness thrown in that I love from John Scalzi. It’s super fun, kind of ridiculous, and I already can’t wait for the next in the series.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Arrival (Stories of Your Life and Others)My husband and I went to see Arrival a few months back, and it was so much more awesome than we had anticipated it would be that we started telling all our friends to go see it so we could talk about how awesome it is. Have you seen it? GO SEE IT.

So when, shortly thereafter, it was my turn to pick a book for my online book club, a little lightbulb went off over my head and I picked the short story collection that contains the story that inspired Arrival, “Story of Your Life”. Now I could have some guaranteed people to talk about the story with!

What I didn’t expect was how fascinating the whole collection would be, and how full of science! So much science. And math. And more science. And a little bit of philosophy. And then more science.

So let’s take these stories one at a time. Warning: Ridiculously long post ahead! It’s so long, in fact that I’m going to put my usual end-of-post recommendation up here: READ THIS BOOK. Do it.

Now, the stories!

“Tower of Babylon”
I wasn’t super sure about this story, or the whole book, when I started it. People climbing a tower to get to heaven? Pretty sure I’ve heard that one before. (Note this sentence, as it is a refrain throughout the collection.) But the description of the tower, the journey upward, the idea of people living miles up in the air their entire lives and never knowing the ground… wow. And then when our party reaches the top, and we find out just what is waiting for them at the edge of heaven… totally not what I was expecting. I was way more excited for the rest of the collection after finishing this first story.

“Understand”
Remember that sentence I told you to note? Yep, here it is again. As I started this story, of a man who takes some pills as part of a medical experiment and becomes very very smart very very quickly, I was like, all right, Flowers for Algernon. Let me go get some tissues for the inevitable… wait. Where is this going? Is this a thriller now? How the hell smart can one dude get? IS THERE ANOTHER DUDE OMG. Again, not what I was expecting, and again, super interesting.

“Division By Zero”
This story was a bit harder to read, as it is a little more experimental and abstract in its narrative, but the core concept is still brain-breaking. In this one, a mathematician discovers the terrifying fact that mathematics might not actually work, while meanwhile her husband discovers the terrifying fact that their marriage might not actually work. Sad on multiple levels, this one, if you like yourself some math.

“Story of Your Life”
The big story! The reason for reading this book! And it is just as good as the movie, if you’re of a scientific bent. The movie is definitely more exciting and fast-paced and has higher stakes, but the story, as quiet as it is, explores the same themes of SPOILER FOR THE MOVIE OH NO. I found the story more interesting in that what the movie turns into a twist is made obvious from the beginning of the story, which, when you read the story and see some fancy diagrams, is a weirdly totally meta way of doing the movie, brain explosion! Aah! I don’t want to spoil the story or the movie for you, whichever you happen to consume first, but know that I’m here for you to discuss all the feels you might have about either.

“Seventy-Two Letters”
This was a friend’s favorite story of the collection, due to its lesser focus on math and physics and greater emphasis on the philosophical. Here we have a world where people build golems to take on menial tasks, and a bright young man with aspirations for the lower classes seeks to find just the right word to make golems that will automate enough slightly-less-menial tasks to improve the lives of everyone. Of course, some see his ideas as Taking Our Jobs (TM) and others see them as a way to improve the lives of only the rich, and our fellow gets caught up in politics instead of science, which is never fun.

“The Evolution of Human Science”
A story so short that my book club mates forgot its existence! This three-page story is very short but it still posits a fascinating future world where humans don’t really do science anymore, which, sad face. And, read in the context of this collection, it harkens back, intentionally or not, to “Understand”, which fills in some blanks quite nicely.

“Hell is the Absence of God”
I think this was my favorite story of the collection — it might be tied with “Story of Your Life” but it’s hard to say, since I sort of already knew the latter story. But as a brand-new story, this one was sooooo good. In the world of this story, everyone knows that God is real because His angels show up every once in a while to… I don’t know what their actual purpose is, but the result is that they wreak havoc and kill some people and the remaining living can see whether those souls go up to Heaven or down to Hell. It is also known that Hell is simply, as the title says, the absence of God, as sometimes portals open up and people can see into Hell and it’s just basically like living on Earth except you’re dead. This story covers the lives of a few different people, but the main character is a fellow who loses his wife to Heaven during one of these visitations and is faced with a serious quandary. He wants to be with his wife, but he’s not devout, and only the devout go to heaven. He has the rest of his life to become devout, but are you really devout if you only become so to fulfill a selfish need? Bonus: Try reading this story while also watching The Good Place. You’re welcome.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”
This is another story with an offbeat narrative, this time in the form of the narrative of a documentary film. Said film follows the story of a college campus that wants to make required the process of calliagnosia, a sort of induced beauty-blindness in the brain. People with “calli” see faces just fine but couldn’t tell you if they’re beautiful or ugly or anywhere in between. The documentary crew talks primarily to a woman who has had calli all her life and who is against its requirement so much that she has it turned off and starts to experience the world in an interesting new way. Between this woman and the other characters, the story explores the implications of beauty and a lack of beauty and how people are perceived, and also the concept of what happens when we let people define other people’s behavior, even when it seems to be in everyone’s best interest. The story was written a little earlier than the trigger warning zeitgeist, but it could easily have been written during it. This piece is interesting in itself, but what I find most intriguing is that Chiang turned down a Hugo nomination for it, saying that it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. I want to know how it might have turned out had he had more time!

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping GiantsAfter our previous dispiriting road trip audiobook, Scott and I were in the mood for something a little more engaging. Sleeping Giants came highly recommended by my bookish bestie and so I was thrilled when it came in on Overdrive just before our trip back to Florida. And I’ll tell you this: it is a GREAT road trip listen.

It’s a great audiobook primarily because of the style — like World War Z before it, it’s written as an oral history and narrated by a full cast, bringing some much-appreciated variety to the audio. Here I have to admit that I didn’t terribly much like the main, unnamed narrator and his awkward speech style, but in service of the story I was willing to put up with it.

And what a story it is. It starts with a girl who falls into a hole and lands on a giant hand, as one does, and then that girl grows up and studies physics and ends up, coincidentally (or is it?), on a team studying said giant hand. Soon enough, another giant body part shows up and the military gets involved, and then the unnamed narrator and his shadowy organization get involved and it becomes a whole big thing, looking for giant body parts and figuring out how they fit together.

That’s the big story; the small story is the team that’s working on this body part rescue mission and how they interact with each other. There’s some predictable and predictably sexist love triangle crap, but there’s also a lot of legitimately interesting interactions between the team members.

But let’s be real, the big story is more interesting. Giant body parts! Shadowy organizations! Aliens?! Mutually assured destruction! It is completely crazypants bonkers and delightful. And then, spoilers, there’s a fascinating cliffhanger ending that had better mean there’s another book coming.

Other reviews I’ve seen of this book compare it to World War Z, obviously, and then also The Martian, which I see a little less. I would place this more with The Three Body Problem for its big ideas and its ridiculous science.

It’s not a really good book, but it is really good brain candy and a great way to pass eight and a half hours in a car. If you’re in the market for action, adventure, and excitement, this ought to do the trick.

Weekend Shorts: The Spire and MaddAddam

I bring to you today one comics mini-series and one audiobook, not chosen for their similarities but which are similar nonetheless. Fascinating worlds, interesting characters, and flashbacks abound in both of these stories, and there’s definitely some crossover of themes. Clearly I have a type when it comes to my stories.

The Spire, #1-8, by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
The Spire #1I picked up this series just about a year ago when issue #3 came out, also picking up #2 that day and then waiting a couple weeks for #1 to make its way between stores. I had intended to buy all of them and read them as they came out, but I only did the first part — I couldn’t not own all these amazing covers, but apparently also couldn’t stand waiting for more story. But once I had all eight delightful issues in hand, it was time to binge!

And seriously, wow, this series is good. I came for the artwork, but I stayed for the story. Said story follows Commander Shå of the City Watch (City Watch!), a sort of offshoot of the regular police force comprised of “skews” — a derogatory term for beings who are not quite human and who therefore generally creep polite society out. Shå gets caught up in the investigation of a pretty brutal murder, and then several pretty brutal murders, all of which point back to a strange history between the city and the people and skews who live outside its walls.

It is… I can’t stop saying that it’s really good. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the series, and it’s all intriguing. Besides the murders you have of course the prejudice against skews to work with, Shå’s secret relationship with someone she really shouldn’t be dating, flashbacks to the current ruler’s venture outside the city wall’s, a power trip by a future ruler with ulterior motives, a mysterious and powerful being that some people want to murder, fighting, magic, love… I’m not really sure how all this fits into eight issues but it does, perfectly.

Also, the artwork. I want so many of these covers and pages and panels blown up to ridiculous size and plastered on all my walls. The style and the colors are totally my jam.

I am only sad that that’s the end, but maybe if I’m lucky these guys will pair up again and make something equally fantastic. At the very least, the good thing about comics is that people make SO MANY of them that I’m sure to find either the writer or the artist somewhere else soon!

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddamTrue story: I was absolutely convinced I had read this book already, to the point where I had to page back through my Goodreads “read” list to discover that no, Scott and I had only listened to the first two books in this series on our various road trips. Conveniently, a road trip cropped up shortly thereafter and I downloaded this right quickly.

As a book, it’s great. It takes place right after The Year of the Flood and catches us up on what’s going on with our God’s Gardeners and our Crakers and our Jimmy/Snowman/Snowman-the-Jimmy. It’s not terribly good news, as the Painballers are loose and the pigoons are in fighting form and the Crakers continue to be the most annoying four-year-olds. But, on the plus side, while our friends are dealing with this mess we get to have some more backstory, in the form of flashbacks from Gardener Zeb about his life and that of his brother, Adam One.

Unfortunately, it was kind of a dud road trip book. It was so similar in tone and even story to the others in the series that it was very easy to zone out during the audio, and there wasn’t a lot of really new information to keep our attention. Even in the “fight scenes”, there wasn’t a lot of action going on, and those were few and far between. Scott was willing to let me listen to the book, because I was actually interested in it, but he slept through a lot of it and missed the parts I listened to on my runs and when it came time to summarize what he’d missed it was a lot of, “Well, Zeb told some more stories about Adam One and also there’s this chess piece with drugs in it”, or “Well, the Crakers were annoying and also the pigoons came and made a truce with the humans so they could all go kill some Painballers.” So, lots of nothing with some exciting punctuation.

I still liked it a lot. I love this world that Atwood’s made and I would probably read several more books set in it because there’s still more to know. But it’s definitely a book that should be read when you have lots of time and attention to pay to it.

Weekend Shorts: More Volume Ones

I feel like I read a LOT of Volume Ones these days, and then I just, like, forget to read the rest of the series. And it’s not like I’m reading a lot of terrible series; it’s just that there are so many new ones to try that the good ones still get lost in the shuffle.

But, whatever, here are three more Volume Ones to add to the collection!

Descender, Vol. 1: “Tin Stars”, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender, Vol. 1I read the first couple of issues of this series in my catchup binge a couple of months back, and I was like THIS SERIES HAS A ROBOT BOY YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID. Which still stands, really, but I’m a bit less excited about it now.

These six issues lay out some very interesting backstory with the promise of intrigue and subterfuge, which are things I am a big fan of, in the present. But the intrigue is less about strategy and more about brute force, which gets boring pretty quickly. I’m really not clear what is up with all the people trying to find my Robot Boy, and I’m not sure the book is either, what with all the trips into Backstory Land that are much more interesting than the main story.

I do have the second volume on hand, purchased at half price before I had finished the first one, and so probably maybe someday I will continue on with the series. But there will be dozens of other Volume Ones ahead of it, probably.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls, Vol. 1This one, on the other hand, I’m regretting reading only because the next issue JUST came out and therefore a Volume Two is still in the distant future. Which is appropriate to the content of the book, I suppose.

The first issue promised me aliens in Cleveland, so of course I was all over it, but what we get is even stranger — time travelling teenagers in some kind of war with a different set of time travelling people, with dinosaurs, and Apple products, and I don’t even know what’s going on but man Cliff Chiang’s art is the prettiest.

This volume could almost have fallen into the same “too much brute force” category as Descender, but there’s enough subtle intrigue with the time travelers (and such a smart cliffhanger ending) that I am happily looking forward to more.

Preacher, Book 1, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher, Book 1I guess this isn’t technically a “Volume One”, as it collects a few more issues than the official Preacher, Vol. 1, but it’s got a 1 on the cover so it counts!

I read this because the people at my favorite comics podcast did a show on it and while I usually skip the shows about things I haven’t read, the discussion was interesting enough to keep listening. That sounds like a vote for a series in my book! And then it was free on hoopla, so it was clearly fate.

But, well, I definitely won’t be reading more of this. Not because it’s not interesting, which it is, with its concepts of gods and religions and hate and fear-mongering and all sorts of other fun human stuff. And not because the art’s not gorgeous, which it is, with incredibly detailed drawings and lovely colors.

What it is is that the story and the art are both just too gruesome for me. There’s this crazy scene that I had to show my husband, because I couldn’t be the only one to see it, with a guy whose face has been flayed and, like, tacked back on, and it is objectively a fascinating panel and an intriguing bit of story, but the fact that it’s only marginally weirder and grosser than other bits of the story means this book is just not for me. I’m really wondering how this has been turned into a TV show, but I really don’t think I want to watch it to find out!