Tag: must-read

The Martian

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The Martian is one hell of an experience. It feels much more like a documentary of things that actually happened than a fictional story. It is a plausible story that could conceivably take place within the next thirty years. More importantly, it’s a really amazing story.

There are two main forms to the story: Mark Watney’s journal, and scenes from Earth characters’ perspectives. Weir balances both forms of narrative superbly, giving the reader a complete picture while Watney tries to get in touch with NASA and NASA desperately tries to learn more about Watney.

The plot is well structured, and a great example of an organic plot. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars by a freak accident, and has to survive. Every plan he makes, part he scavenges, and decision he makes has to take into account all the necessary variables that surviving alone on Mars entails. None of the challenges he faces are arbitrary. Mark Watney sets out a plan and follows it, but reworks it or scraps it as necessary to adjust to reality. This in particular made the book and character feel like a great anti-venom to the toxic political climate of the current time. The plot is paced extremely well to boot.

While Watney is the man trapped on Mars, the chapters on Earth show the reaction, planning, and work of a wide array of personnel at NASA and JPL. This part is essential, both in terms of plot and in terms of showing how space missions are a group endeavor of thousands of people, rather than solely the work of six astronauts. The chronicles on Earth reads as authentically as the personalities and decisions taken during NASA’s actual space programs such as Gemini or Apollo.

Un Lun Dun

China Mieville's UnLunDunn

Wow.

I know a few people who got English degrees. These acquaintances were endlessly gushing over China Miéville’s works a few years ago. I understand why now, and wish I had gotten around to reading some works of his much earlier, because Un Lun Dun is amazing!

There are three main elements as to why I found it so appealing: the plot structure, the feel of Un Lunn Dunn’s world, and the characters, especially the protagonists from London.

I clicked with the characters far more than I expected to. At first the characters felt a bit flat, but I quickly forgot that and was engaged and following along with the characters. Thinking back on this, much more is shown than told about the characters, and so even though it did not feel like the characters had been fleshed out because we were told less about them than the protagonists, I actually knew a lot more about the characters than I thought I did.

The plot starts off light and ramps up quickly, throwing Zanna and Deeba into the world of Un Lun Dun, where they find themselves drawn into the orbit of an ancient prophecy known to almost all UnLunDuners. This part is delightful, for even as prophecies are a fairly cliché plot device, the various characters’ reaction to meeting the Chosen One is generally delightful and revealing, and the world revealed along the way is eccentrically marvelous. The characters infuse the prophecy with meaning, such that it becomes more than just a sterile outline. UnLunDun is a realm fundamentally similar to yet different from London, and the delight is in how something so fundamentally different can feel so delightfully Londonish. (Note: I’ve not spent much time there, so I probably have a low bar for authenticity.) No matter how surreal or bizarre a scene Mievielle serves up, it is always feels believable, as well as vivid and breathtaking.

And then, as the book jacket says, things begin to go shockingly wrong. And this is where the story roars up to full speed. With the introduction and buildup we have had so far, not only can we dive straight into drama and action and confrontation, but we’re invested in the characters and setting so it’s more meaningful.

Again. UnLunDun. Amazing.

 

The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark - Front and Back Cover.

I am having trouble figuring out how to write about The Speed of Dark, so I will start with the most important part: this book is very good and very powerful. It is literally mind-changing, in that it takes you and puts you into the mind of Lou Arrendale. There are sections written from the viewpoints of other characters, and these sections are important in how they provide context, give us a break from Lou’s viewpoint, and recognize plot in ways that Lou wouldn’t be able to. But these sections aside, the book largely focuses on Lou: how he sees the world and other people, how other people see him, and how he interacts with the world, and all of it is extremely absorbing.

Reading often has an influence on how my mode of thought for a few hours: read a collection of speeches by American presidents, and my thoughts will be longer, wordier, more eloquent. Read a chapter of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and my thoughts will be more clipped, casual, slang-y and strange. After reading The Speed of Dark, my mind would occasionally slip into Lou’s pattern of thought, and it would jerk me back to thinking about the book, how Lou sees the world and what he would make of the situation before me. That is powerful.

It is also worth noting that The Speed of Dark is a novel, not a series of vignettes describing one person’s life. There is a fully fleshed out plot that is believable, gripping, and compelling, with multiple subplots woven into the mix. The question of whether Lou would accept the cure or not had me biting my nails in suspense, and the ending was extraordinarily emotional.

The book shatters preconceptions. Sure, Lou is autistic, but he still has a life, still has a job and hobbies. He does not understand social interactions the same as others do, but he is hardly the picture of inappropriate social behavior, a stereotype often associated with autism. As one character says in the story, Lou manages far better than many people who don’t have a recognized mental disorder. In the end, what matters isn’t how labels apply to people or how people fit into various categories, but who the person is and how they see the world.

That said, The Speed of Dark does take place in the future, with some regulatory and medical developments that constrain the effects of disability. This is one way the book purposefully limits its depiction of autistics to functioning autistics, rather than depicting those who are more severely hindered by autism.

Cover Art Review: I think this cover set the mood for the story pretty well.  It is dark, haunting, and uncertain.

Memory

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Note: click this cover to view it at full size, as artist Emily Irwin has done a fantastic job.

This book was utterly amazing. While this is obviously incredibly subjective, this is definitely the book I have most enjoyed reading in 2015 – 2016 so far.

The first chapter in particular is extraordinarily fantastic. Nagata doesn’t stop to explain things immediately, because she doesn’t need to. The flow is perfect, the world is vivid, and the viewpoint of the main character, Jubilee, and her everyday interactions with the normal facets of her world slowly begin to assemble images of a world profoundly different from anything we, the readers, are accustomed to. For the first few chapters, often I would just stop, dumbfounded, as the story delved into the world and wove something perfectly normal and incomprehensibly different, something that I was never sure was fiction or fantasy or science fiction, and interpretations danced through my mind, changing as Nagata wove out more details.

I highly enjoyed the pace of the story. The world as Jubilee sees it is vivid, detailed, and always fascinating, with a feeling of awe and wonder permeating every discovery they make as they travel across the land to unravel the secrets behind the stranger and the silver. The world, characters, and story are all incredibly well fleshed out and developed together, with a well paced plot driving the entire story onwards.

Obligatory Kindle Note: I read this on a Kindle.