Friday, August 08, 2014

Future Tension: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of my Sci-Fi Summer

What's your vision of the future? Will aliens colonize earth? Will Earth colonize them?  Will civilization as we know it survive rising sea levels? Will languages exist as we understand them? What mighty empires will rise and fall and rise again? This summer I have been furiously reading through a lengthy list of recommended sci-fi, dystopian, and futurist reads and I'm declaring winners and losers here, on this blog, today.  First, the Good:
The Girl in the Road was awesome.  Imagine a world suffering the predicted effects of climate change (rising sea levels, crop failures, extreme storms, etc.). Now add to that a not-too-distant future imagined with mostly appropriately advanced technology (no improbable leaps in A.I. but a little genetic silliness), and the global hegemony has shifted east to Mumbai. A young woman being pursued by a mysterious little girl goes on the run to hunt down her parents' killer in Ethiopia via "the Trail", a long and seemingly mythical  hydro-electric project spanning the Arabian Sea from India to east Africa. The Girl in the Road is pretty terrific magical realism set against a well-constructed, believable future backdrop. It was so different from anything I've read in the genre. I would recommend it to any lovers of sci-fi/fantasy and to readers who say they "don't read science fiction".
The Man with the Compound Eyes, another from the realm of magical realism, was a beautifully written and imaginative story.  Originally published in Taiwan, the book is set in another not-too-distant future impacted by a changing environment.  A grieving professor is preparing for her suicide as her seaside home is gradually consumed by the sea. A young member of the fictional Wayo Wayo tribe is cast off his South Pacific island home according to tradition. Their lives intersect when a swirling garbage vortex washes ashore. Are you hooked yet? 
The Bees is my most recommended book of the year and so far not a single person has given me the stink-eye after reading it--yet. When I saw it come in I was skeptical, I'll admit.  I mean, a bee narrative?  Yes, a bee narrative! I haven't connected with an anthropomorphic bug protagonist in such a visceral way since Charlotte's Web. This book, quite frankly, should have been silly.  Flora 717 is a big awkward sanitation worker bee who dares to bee (I'm sorry) more than her prescribed station in life. One jacket blurb (clearly written by someone who has only heard of books in passing) declared it "The Handmaid's Tale meets The Hunger Games."  No it isn't. I don't particularly care for the "[book] meets [other book]" reviews anyway. They are lazy and do a disservice to the books, especially considering how completely well thought out The Bees is. Maybe what we need are review reviews?
Now for the BAD (and my sassiest review to date on this blog so brace yourselves): California is a little bit of Oryx and Crake, On Such a Full Sea, The Dog Stars, and The Road but WAY less thoughtful than any of those books. The characters are shallow and one dimensional, which seems to be on purpose but it's hard to say, and if the author were better she might have pulled off a sort of Ira Levin does Beverly Hills, 90210: the post apocalyptic years. Sadly, she did not. This book was really disappointing, an incredibly naive story about dull people whining in the wilderness. Recommended instead are: Oryx and CrakeOn Such a Full SeaThe Dog Stars, and The Road. 
The Girl with all the Gifts was a pretty average zombie story, which could be forgivable, but I was promised so much more! It was not "thrilling", "gripping", "haunting" or "heartbreaking". Sometimes it seems like reviewers go into a book deciding they're going to like it no matter what. While still moderately satisfying in the way zombie stories usually are, all of the characters were such dull caricatures and the Girl was really annoying. The incredibly silly final act required the reader to suspend an awful lot of disbelief too, though I won't spoil the "twist" for those still determined to read it. If you're hoping for the World War Z, Zone One, or even The Strain of 2014, shuffle past this one. I still say Black Moon, though not technically a zombie story with a capital Zed, is the most satisfying zombie novel of the year.

Finally, the UGLY: The Martian by Andy Weir. Why Ugly? Because 1) I could only bring myself to give it three stars on Goodreads but I liked it. 2)  I winced through every line of dialogue but couldn't put it down and read it in two sittings. And 3)  the astronaut was so obnoxious that I was rooting for Mars, then recommended it to my 16 year old brother who L-O-V-E-D it and asked for more. The science is super cool, the astronaut is a dumb frat boy stereotype (who became an astronaut somehow), and the scary space action is non-stop even when it's, well, stopped. The basics: Guy goes to Mars, gets stranded, keep a detailed scientific log peppered with "that's what she said" jokes.  And it's really fun.

Summer Reading 2014 has come to an end. Get some closure at the big finale party at the main library this Saturday, August 9th from 10-1.  Party like it's 2114!

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