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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

wrongtodaysIt’s about time. Really. In addition to having a wonderfully apt title, Elan Mastai’s first novel All Our Wrong Todays (Dutton Penguin, digital galley) is a wonderfully entertaining and timely tale of alternate realities.

Narrator Tom Barron lives in a 2016 Toronto that resembles the techno-utopia imagined by cheesy SF novels and shows of the 1950s, all flying cars and helpful robots and synthetic food. As every schoolchild knows, this was all made possible by the 1965 invention of the Goettreider Engine, which generates clean energy. Tom’s father, an overbearing research scientist, has finally built the world’s first time machine and plans to send ace chrononaut (time traveler) Penelope Weschler back to 1965 to observe the debut of the Goettreider. But then Tom falls in love with perfection-obsessed Penelope, which leads to disastrous consequences that are further compounded when he travels back to 1965. As every time traveler knows, you don’t mess with things in the past or you risk messing up the timeline and life as we know it  Oh dear. Tom’s arrival in 1965 means the Goettreider Engine fails in spectacular fashion, and when Tom is catapulted back to 2016, he finds himself in our 2016, all fossil-fueled and climate-change challenged.

It’s a clever conceit, that we are living in the dystopia, but Mastai has more tricks to play. Parts of Tom’s life are better in this second 2016. His dad is a happy science teacher, and his literature-loving mom is still alive. He has a sister and a career as successful architect. Still, when Tom starts trying to tell everyone about his time travels, they think he has suffered a head injury and is just talking about the novel he was going to write. Even his new love, bookstore owner Penny, doubts him. To prove he’s not crazy, Tom goes in search of the real-life creator of the Goettreider Engine, journeying to San Francisco and Hong Kong, and eventually back to 1965 again. Oh dear. Messing with that timeline.

All Our Wrong Todays reminded me of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, with its witty tone and provocative ideas. It also wears its knowledge lightly — like The Big Bang Theory — so that even those who’ve forgotten high school physics or aren’t into science fiction can enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s kind of out there, but so much is these days. I was pleased to know that even in alternate realities, people still read Dickens’ Great Expectations. So read All Our Wrong Todays. It’s a good time.

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birdsinskyLots of buzz for All the Birds in the Sky (Tor, library hardcover) for lots of reasons. Author Charlie Jane Anders is editor of ios9.com, the influential SF/fantasy pop culture website, as well as a journalist, performance artist and short story writer. One of her stories, “Six Months, Three Days,” won a Hugo award a couple of years back and is being developed as a TV series for NBC. Word was that Anders’ first SF novel was going to be epic. Or maybe it’s a fantasy novel. How about both?

All the Birds in the Sky turns out to be one of those genre-defying books that mixes a coming-of-age dystopian story with elements of SF, fantasy and magical realism, which is only appropriate as magic and science battle to see which one will save the world — or maybe destroy it.

Patricia and Laurence meet as middle-school misfits, both of them bullied by classmates and misunderstood by truly awful parents. Birds once told nature-loving 6-year-old Patricia that she is a witch, and she believes them, although nothing mysterious happens to her for years. Then she meets techno-geek Laurence, who has invented a two-second time machine and is working on an AI computer project. Both come to the attention of the world’s creepiest guidance counselor whose plans for their future include death and apocalypse, but then Laurence freaks when Patricia tells him about talking to her cat and he’s shipped off to military school before he can make up with her. Patricia is bereft until she’s tapped for a special boarding school where she’ll be trained in both Healing and Trickster magic.

Skip ahead 10 years to near-future-imperfect San Francisco, where water is rationed and both hipsters and techies depend on their super-smart Caddy devices to interpret their emotions and lead them to meet-ups of like-minded people. Patricia, moonlighting as a waitress while doing covert magic missions, runs into Laurence, who is working for a secretive start-up and has a chic girlfriend. And they keep running into each other, until the day Laurence loses an employee during an anti-gravity experiment and calls on Patricia for help. From there, things get really complicated as Anders deftly juggles magic and science, curses and wormholes, earthquakes and colony collapse. People die. Hearts break. Good intentions pave the way to something terrible known as the Unraveling.

Hmmm. All the Birds in the Sky reminded me at times of China Meiville, David Gates, Kelly Link. There’s a bit of Harry Potter and some of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians by way of Dr. Who. It’s uneven at times, and the plot can feel forced. But it’s also smart and arch and wonderfully weird, which is what can happen when you play with fantasy and science fiction. There — up in the sky — is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a high-flying hybrid. It’s super book.

 

 

 

 

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Wildfires out West and floods in Florida. Just more weird weather, or — dum, dum, dum — the end of the world as we know it? In this summer’s most buzzed-about book, The Age of Miracles, first-time novelist Karen Thompson Walker posits an end-days scenario triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it,” begins narrator Julia, a Southern California sixth-grader. She recalls that they were distracted by weather and war, worrying about the wrong things: “the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different  — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”

As far as global castastrophes goes, “the slowing” is a pretty good one. Birds plummet from the sky as gravity shifts. Whales beach themselves. Long days stretch into  white nights. Some plants begin to die, some people sicken, including Julia’s mother, who like many others, begins hoarding canned goods and candles. A period of panic sets in before the government decides society should continue 24/7, even if it means school begins in the middle of the night. The “real-timers” rebel, preferring to stick to circadian rhythms, although they are ostracized by their neighbors. A good many pick up and light out for the territory to establish their own communities.

Apocalypse nigh, of course, is a speculative fiction staple, and dystopia the favorite setting of current YA novels. But The Age of Miracles lacks the vitality of many of those books, such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Walker’s tone is elegiac, her writing elegant as Julia details both the ordinary travails of early adolescence — best friends, first loves, sleepovers, soccer games — and such extraordinary events as raging solar storms and rips in the magnetic field. It’s this counterpoint that makes for an intimate, involving narrative.

“We kids were not as afraid as we should have been,” Julia confesses. “We were too young to be scared, too immersed  in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

How much you enjoy The Age of Miracles will depend on how much you care about Julia’s small world of family and friends — her weary mother, her secretive father, her feisty grandfather, her classmate Seth — and all the little dramas of life going on.

Open Book: I read a digital galley via NetGalley of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House). Soon it will disappear from my Nook, but not from my memory.

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“She was cyborg, and she would never go to the ball.”

Laugh if you want. I admit to a chuckle upon reading that sentence early on in Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s first novel, a YA SF reboot (sorry, couldn’t resist) of the familiar fairy tale. It’s an inventive adventure, but most of the humor is inadvertent. Meyers immerses readers in the future dystopia of New Beijing, whose teeming population is threatened both by the mind-bending residents of the moon, knows as Lunars, and by a dreadful deadly plague.

So, Cinder has more to worry about than going to the ball and dancing with handsome Prince Kai. And it’s not just because her wicked stepmother won’t pay for a party dress for her, like those being fashioned for her stepsisters Pearl and Peony. Nor is it just because Kai doesn’t realize that the pretty, if grease-stained, teen-age mechanic repairing his android has a steel-plated foot and other non-human parts and wiring.

Cinder is cyborg, which means she has no human rights and is thus vulnerable to being drafted as a guinea pig for palace researchers testing for a new plague vaccine. Once drafted, the “volunteers” are never seen again, much like the human plague sufferers who are quarantined and warehoused.

The exception is Kai’s father, the emperor, who is dying in isolated splendor in the palace. Beware evil Lunar Queen Levana, who comes bearing the gift of a possible antidote. She wants to marry Prince Kai in exchange for the secret. Pity her niece Selene didn’t survive girlhood or she could have rightfully assumed the Lunar throne and set free her enslaved people. Now Levana plans on conquering Earth, starting with New Beijing.

Don’t worry. I’m not giving away anything that Meyer doesn’t within the book’s first 50 pages. And the mash-up plot isn’t Cinder’s strong suit, anyway. That would be the world-building, which is just fantastic, from the crowded market streets of New Beijing, with omnipresent net-screens blaring the latest headlines, to the cold palace labs where doctors use holograms to decipher the exact cyborg make-up and biometric engineering of second-class citizens. Then there are the sophisticated androids, although Cinder’s assistant Iko is a little too girly R2D2 for me.

Cinder is the first of four planned volumes of “The Lunar Chronicles,” so, of course, it ends with some cliff-hanging. Hope my nails last until the sequel. Or I maybe I’ll just get some fancy fake ones.

Open Book: I picked up an advance readers edition of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan) at SIBA last fall. It’s just one of several new YA books I’ve been reading. Definitely the best cover.

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Coming soon to this space my take on Justin Cronin’s The Passage, but we are having a helluva thunderstorm and I’m logging off for now….

If the lights go out, it will be so appropriate.

Ok, it’s two hours later, I’m back, and so’s the electricity. Made me think of the residents of First Colony in Cronin’s post-apocalyptic world, tending to their turbines but knowing they’re running on empty and it’s only a matter of time before the lights go out. And when the darkness descends, so will the smokes, the virals, the drinks, the flyers, the jumps, the sticks. Whatever you want to call them. Not vampires, though, as Auntie writes in her diary, remembering the Time Before, long ago when she was Ida Jaxson in Philadelphia, and her daddy “told me no, vampires were something in a made-up story, nice-looking men in suits and capes with good manners, and this here’s real, Ida.”

So real that Cronin spends the first quarter of his 800-page novel detailing how a secret military medical experiment on a dozen death-row inmates gets out of hand, leading to the end of civilization as we know it.  “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.”  (In the new one, the Gulf of Mexico is one massive oil slick. Like that could ever happen).

At the center of both worlds is a little girl named Amy, aka “the  Girl from Nowhere — the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years.”

The Passage covers only about a century, jumping from Year Zero of the virals (who are kind of like vampires, kind of like zombies, kind of like humans) to a hundred years or so later, when the world has been rapidly depopulated by the bloodthirsty, soul-sucking creatures of the night. Most people die, split asunder stem to stern on the spot. Others survive the infection only to succumb years later to bad dreams that get worse on waking.

The Passage has been lauded as an “unconventional vampire story.” Actually, it’s the most conventional of tales, drawing on any number of familiar genres and tropes from science fiction, westerns, horror, adventure, fantasy and world-building. It’s Stephen King’s The Stand meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  meets Mad Max and I Am Legend and The X-Files. It mixes Michael Crichton with Margaret Atwood. It’s mostly harrowing and thrilling, but it’s also digressive, even plodding as Cronin heaps on the many characters’ back stories. But Cronin can really write, and every time I tried to put the book down, the darn thing kept calling me back to its brave weird world. (Cronin quotes Shakespeare and Katherine Anne Porter, among others, at the begining of each of the 11 sections.) I had to find out what was going on with the good FBI agent and the enigmatic nun, and Peter and Michael and Sarah and Lish and Theo and Maus, and Amy, especially, always Amy.

The Passage doesn’t so much end as stop for a pause in the action, which is kind of a let-down cliff-hanger. Two more volumes are in the works. Also a movie. Anyway,  it’s going to take me awhile to catch my breath and stop looking up at trees at night and hoping that fluttering whoosh is the neighborhood owl. Meanwhile, please keep the lights on.

Open Book: I purchased the digital version of  Justin Cronin’s The Passage and read it on Nanook, which is what I call my nook. I had to recharge the battery. There’s irony for you.

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