Category Archives: SciFi Challenge

Filter House by Nisi Shawl

Filter House by Nisi Shawl

Aqueduct Press, Seattle, 2008

Borrowed from the library.

I don’t really know how to describe this collection, other than to say that it is a gentle magical blend of fantasy and science fiction.  Gentle because the stories often have a child at the center, magical because they are woven from past and future using folklore, science and “good medicine”.

The stories range from an urban tale of discovery with a very grown-up 10-year-old as its protagonist to a world building saga with genetically engineered apes used as terra-formers.  There is an African folktale and a story that uses John C. Lilly’s Programming and Metaprogramming  in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments as a possible explanation for Voudon trance states.

In her stories Shawl touches on things a child faces as she grows up.  Themes include independence, identity, self worth, sexuality and gender issues.   All of these stories use their magic to  reveal who we are as humans, right here,  right now.  For  a first collection this book is  a wonder.

From Wallamelon:

Like the lace of a giantess, leaves covered the front of the house front in a pattern of repeating hearts.  Elsewhere in the neighborhood sibling plants, self-sown from those she’d first planted around the perimeter, arched from phone pole to lamp post, encircling her home.  Keeping it safe. So Mercy could return. (Page 45)

From Maggies:

Tata always made it a point, on her return, to give me some treasure found on her excursions.  Something interesting, something different, with a story behind it.  This must have been hard for her.  Far off, over invisible horizons, maggies spread corals around other stations as ours did here.  Aside from this the Nassea was empty of life, void of history .  There were the sludges, various excretory masses of bacteria that accumulated in the presence of certain chemicals.  There were fossilized sludges and other mineral formations.  That was it.  (Page 99)

Nisi Shawl is a Seattle author who writes reviews and columns for The Seattle Times and is on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.  I will keep my eyes open for a reading.  It would be lovely to hear her read one of these stories in person.  Her web site is here.

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Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Fantasy, PoC, SciFi, SciFi Challenge, SpeculativeFiction

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Other Press, New York, 2009

Won in a give-away.

Dorrit Weger has turned 50.  She finds herself in a small, lovely apartment, where every corner, every space, even inside the closet, is in in range of a closed circuit camera.  This is the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material.  As a “dispensable”, unloved and un-needed, Dorrit will live out her final days with others, free of financial worry,  as long as she is willing to undergo certain tests and give up vital organs.

Dorrit misses her boyfriend, she missed her house and her dog, but she has no choice in this decision.  The laws and procedures for how she will live out her life after the age of 50 are part of the social structure.

Holmqvist’s novel, skillfully translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, is a mirror of our possible future.  Cool and calm in language, nothing is overwrought, it all feels like a stroll down the antiseptic white hallways that lead from one space to another in this self-contained community.

The Unit is a subtle, scary book.  With a bit of digging you find  that some  of the “testing” that goes on in the novel  is already happening.  Patients are willing to put themselves in mortal danger for the fees they earn.  It is not hard to imagine a future where those who do not fill societal needs could be put in such situations.   This is speculative fiction at its best.

Other reviews:

1 More Chapter

At Home With Books

My Friend Amy

Prairie Progressive

Did I miss your review?

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Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, New Authors 2010, Random Reading, SciFi Challenge, SpeculativeFiction

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I’m not sure how to describe this book.  Speculative fiction?  Science fiction literature? Genre lines are beginning to blur all over the place.  I stand up and cheer.  Maybe it is because I have read science fiction since I got my first library card and have always been angered by the very high walls separating “genre” fiction from “true” literature.

The Windup Girl takes place in a future very easy to imagine.  Paolo Bacigalupi has a deep understanding of present-day agricultural, biological and genetic science, mixed  with knowledge of corporate greed, peak oil and climate change.  He has created a world humans could  inhabit within the next few centuries.  It is a brutal, plague ridden world,  devastating and frightening in its possibility.  The writing is beautiful.

As they ease around the bare branches of the tree, the khlong taxi’s passengers all make deep wais of respect to the fallen trunk, pressing their palms together and touching them to their foreheads.

Jaidee makes his own wai, then reaches out to touch the wood, letting his fingers slide over the riddled surface as they pass.  Small bore holes speckle it.  If he were to peel away the bark, a fine net of grooves would describe the trees death.  A bo tree.  Sacred. The tree under which  the Buddha attained enlightenment.  And yet they could do nothing to save it.  Not a single varietal of fig survived, despite their best efforts.  The ivory beetles were too much for them.  When the scientists failed, they prayed to Phra Seub Nakhasathien, a last desperate effort, but even the martyr couldn’t save them in the end.  From pages 79/80.

In Bangkok, a city surrounded by huge walls built to keep out the raising sea,  governmental and economic power  is split between two agencies, with bribes and graft rampant and violent confrontations a daily occurrence.  The world has been through expansion and collapse and Thailand is fighting to protect itself from deadly plagues, agricultural devastation and corporate “calorie” men bent on controlling every food source on the planet.  It is hot, there is no oil and the Japanese have perfected genetic engineering.

The story is told from many points of view by characters that are deeply flawed.  Anderson Lake, a corporate calorie man searching for a hidden seed bank.  Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok, top inspector for the Ministry of the Environment.  Emiko, a New Person, dumped by her master when he heads back to Japan.

A women selling Environment Ministry-certified sticks of slice papaya watches her suspiciously.  Emiko forces herself not to panic. She continues down the street with her mincing steps, trying to convince herself that she appears eccentric, rather than genetically transgressive.  Her heart pounds against her ribs.

Too fast.  Slow down.  You have time.  Not so much as you would like, but still, enough to ask questions.  Slowly.  Patiently.  Do not betray yourself.  Do not overheat. From page 103.

And then there is the generipper, Gibbon.

“Everyone dies.”  The doctor waves a dismissal.  “But you die now because you cling to the past.  We should all be windups by now.  It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature.  A generation from now, we could be well-suited for our new environment.  Your children could be the beneficiaries.  Yet you people refuse to adapt.  You cling to some idea of a humanity that evolved in concert with your environment over millenia, and which you now, perversely, refuse to remain in lockstep with.

“Blister rust is our environment.  Cibiscosis.  Genehack weevil.  Cheshires.  They have adapted.  Quibble as you like about whether they evolved naturally or not.  Our environment has changed…”  From page 243.

Bacigalupi’s writing  is intricate and rich,  full of cultural and political detail.  He knows where we are as a species and can envision our possible future.  I am reminded of William Gibson and Ian McDonald.  I am reminded of  Pris in  Bladerunner.

I must warn you, there are terrible scenes of violence and sexual assault in this novel, but none of them are gratuitous. As I struggled through them I understood the reasons why Bacigalupi wrote them.  In the end he offers his readers new possibilities.  I think The Windup Girl is a fantastic book, and that it deserves a Hugo or a Nebula, maybe even both.

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Filed under SciFi, SciFi Challenge, SpeculativeFiction

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

The Year of the Flood is a companion novel to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, published in 2003.  In that first novel we are introduced to a world where mega-corporations have taken control of the entire planet, and genetic and bio engineering have run rampant.

In Oryx and Crake we follow the main character, Jimmy, known as Snowman, as he stumbles through a world devastated by a catastrophic pandemic. It is a world populated by transgenic animals and genetically engineered humans named after their creator, and Jimmy’s best friend, the brilliant Crake.   Through Jimmy’s wandering thoughts and dreams we learn  of  his relationship with Crake, their connection with a woman named Oryx and some of the history of the destroyed environment.  We find that Crake has left Jimmy as a guardian for his genetically engineered  “Crakers”.  At the very end of the book Jimmy stumbles upon people at a campfire, humans like himself, and we are left to imagine what actions Jimmy will take.

The Year of the Flood open in Year 25, and through varied flashback we are given bits of information about the “waterless flood”, a virulent pandemic. This world is much more developed then the one in Oryx and Crake. We hear the voices of several main characters, some carried forward from the first novel.   We learn more about  “God’s Gardeners”, the Corporations and their security arm CorpSeCorps.

The story is mainly told by two women who have survived the “flood”, Toby and Ren.  Through happy accidents they were sequestered away and watch as the flood demolishes most of the people around them.  The world is nasty and violent in the extreme and the two women struggle to survive, all the while hoping to connect with those they have lost.  They struggle to find food and protect themselves from the sun and the weather.  Most of the male characters are not fully developed, they are hollow, egotistical and violent.  The genetically enhanced and modified animals end up surviving and multiplying.  Plant life abounds, buildings fall apart. In the end Toby and Ren do survive, meet up and travel away from the human constructed enclaves, to the sea, where they run into Jimmy, a person out of the past.

I found Atwood’s eco-religious “God’s Gardeners”  fascinating.  There are meditations presented by their leader, Adam One, sprinkled throughout the novel, sounding like sermons given by a dedicated priest,  hymns to saints like Carson and Chico Mendes and Feast Days devoted to animals and trees.  There is even a CD of the hymns. These creations, as well as Atwood’s extrapolations from present day scientific and corporate developments are the bones of this novel, what gave it depth for me.

April Fish – Year Fourteen

Please join me now in a meditation on our Fish brethren.

Dear God, you who created the great and wide Sea, with its creatures innumerable: we pray that You hold in your gaze those who dwell in Your underwater Garden, in which life originated; and we pray that none may vanish from the Earth by Human agency.  Let Love and aid be brought to the Sea Creatures in their present peril and great suffering; which comes to them from the warming of the Sea, and through the dragging of nets and hooks along the bottom of it, and through the slaughtering of all within it, from the Creatures of the shallows to the Creatures of the depths, the Giant Squid included; and remember your Whales, that you created on the fifth day, and set in the Sea to play therein; and help especially the Sharks, that misunderstood and much-persecuted breed.

We hold in our minds the Great Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and the Great Dead Zone in Lake Erie;  and the Great Dead Zone in the Black Sea; and the desolate Grand Banks of Newfoundland, where the Cod once abounded; and the Great Barrier Reef, now dying and bleaching white and breaking apart.

Let the come to Life again; let Love shine upon them and restore them; and let us be forgiven for our oceanic murders; and for our foolishness, when it is the wrong kind of foolishness; for in Your sight, we are all mute and foolish.

Let us sing. From page 196/197.

Atwood has always refused to call The Handmaiden’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood “science fiction”, instead preferring the less genre specific “speculative fiction”.  This has something to do with what is considered “literary” fiction, what will be reviewed by “critics” and short-listed for prizes.  The Year of the Flood is science fiction in my mind, but then so is 1984, Brave New World, A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Road. In the everyday world of  the reader these genre boundaries have begun to blur, and will continue to do so.

I liked both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, but I enjoyed the second novel more because I think Atwood took more time developing her world, got deeper into its reality. I appreciate Atwood’s intelligence, her searing sarcasm and her anger but think these things may sometimes get in her way.  I found depth in the “God’s Gardeners” because she did.

By sheer coincidence I am reading another book that covers lots of the same fictional territory as The Year of the Flood. It is classified as science fiction and I will review it soon.

Other reviews:

A Progressive on the Prairie

Boston Bibliophile

Fantasy Book Critic

Shelf Love



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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Review, SciFi, SciFi Challenge, Uncategorized

The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and0763644900.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Answer

Chaos Walking: Book Two

by Patrick Ness

Candlewick Press, Somerville, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I read the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go,  in January but did not feel competent enough to write a review.  Now I wish I had, I also wish I had read that book again before reading this one.  That said I think the second book of the series is even stronger that the first.


In first book we meet Todd and Viola who are running from and fighting against the forces of Prentisstown.  It is a fast and furious novel with a cliffhanger of an ending.  The Ask and The Answer takes up just were the first book leaves off.

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss.  Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor’s new order. From the  jacket flap.

I do not want to tell too much of the story, because to say anything other than the story continues with Mayor Prentiss, and that there is a force fighting against him,  would give too much away.  Just know that this novel touches on many timely issues.  It is a study of racism and prejudice.  It is a study of trust and love.  But, for me,  it is a mainly a study of war, from every side.  Ness touches on all the rationalizations of war, all the reasoning behind terrorism and torture,  in a way that is honest and extremely direct.  Bad things happen, good people do bad things, and every possible behavior is explained and excused by logical sounding arguments.  Except that it isn’t.

“If you ever see a war,” she says, not looking up from her clipboard, “you’ll learn that war only destroys.  No one escapes from a war.  No one.  Not even the survivors.  You accept things that would appall you at any other time  because life has temporarily lost all meaning.” From page 102.

That is one of the best thoughts about war I have ever read.  I highly recommend this book. I think young adults and adults should read this series. Then they should talk about it, together if possible.

Here is another thought.

War makes monsters of men.

There is more, the ending is another cliffhanger and has left me waiting excitedly for the third book in this series.  Patrick Ness has a fine web site.  It can be found here.

Other reviews:

Bart’s Bookshelf

books i done read

Jenny’s Books

Persnickety Snark

things mean a lot

Wands and Worlds


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Filed under SciFi, SciFi Challenge, Young Adult

Sci-Fi Reading Challenge

sf_chall3 Mish at Stage and Canvas has organized a Sci-Fi Challenge that runs from August 28, 2009 to August 8, 2010.  I’ve decided to join because I love speculative fiction and reading 8 sci-fi books over the next 10 months is something I can handle.  I already have many books that qualify on my to-be-read list.

I know, call me crazy.  I also love the button…

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Filed under Challenges, SciFi, SciFi Challenge