Category Archives: SciFi

After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

Small Beer Press, East Hampton, 2011

From my TBR pile.

Throughout high school, college and into my young adulthood I read science fiction.  Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Anne McCaffery,  Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Harlen Ellison and many other authors held my attention for a decade or more.  I carried beat-up copies of Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz as I hitch-hiked around New England.  I named my cats Ylla,  Gandalf and Genly (there was, of course, fantasy mixed in).

Then somehow I drifted away.  Once in a while I’d pick up a sci fi book, some I liked, most just didn’t grab me.  Was I growing away from the genre?  Did I feel too “grown-up” to read science fiction?  I don’t really know.

Luckily, in the late eighties, I discovered a bookstore in my neighborhood that was entirely devoted to science fiction and fantasy.  There I found William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, Emma Bull, Neal Stephenson and many others, including Maureen McHugh.  I have never looked back.

After the Apocalypse is a collection of short stories about, well, life after the apocalypse.   But these stories feel real, they ask what such a world would really feel like.  Disasters have happened somewhere else, a dirty bomb in Philly or a massacre at DisneyWorld.  A mad-cow like disease entering the food system through something as innocuous as chicken nuggets.    These stories are about how American people cope, or fail to cope.  Simple, spare and devastating, sometimes even funny, they are filled with the unexpected and completely mundane.  These things could really happen, maybe even have happened.

McHugh is smart, her stories are smart, and the possibilities they hold are utterly frightening.  If you’re paranoid, you might want to skip this one.

Because I don’t read science fiction magazines this is my first time with McHugh’s shorter works.  I love her novels and have now added her first story collection, Mothers & Other Monsters to my wish list.

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Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Science Book Challenge 2012, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction, Thoughts

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Pyr, Amherst, NY, 2011

From my library TBR holds.  This is the first book in the Everness series.

A great young adult novel, the first in a series,  from one of my favorite science fiction authors.

Everett Singh leads a pretty normal life for a fourteen year old until the day his father is kidnapped.

Everett knows his father is a theoretical physicist, working on the Many-Worlds Theory, but when he tries to explain to the police that his father has been kidnapped they brush him off.

“Do you know what the Many Worlds Theory is?” Everett said. He leaned forward across the table. Previous occupants had doodled stars and spirals and cubes and the names of football clubs on the peeling plastic. “Every time the smallest least tiniest thing happens, the universe branches. There’s a universe where it happened, and a universe where it didn’t. Every second, every microsecond every day, there are new universes splitting off from this one. For every possible event in history, there’s a universe, out there somewhere, right beside this one.” Everett lifted a finger and drew a line through the air. “A billion universes, just there now. Every possible universe is out there somewhere. This isn’t something someone made up, this is a proper physical theory. That’s what physics means: real, solid, actual. Does that sound not so important to you? It sounds to me like the biggest thing there is.”

Through clues and an inter-dimensional map left by his father, Everett opens a gate between worlds and finds himself in a London that is at once familiar and terribly strange, dealing with people from that world, his own world and many others worlds.

McDonald does a fabulous job of making a very complex idea understandable for both young adult and adult readers.  There is adventure, drama and the meaning of family wrapped up in this wonderful story and I can’t wait to read more in this series.

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Seed by Rob Ziegler

Seed by Rob Zielger

Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2011

From my library TBR list.  With a recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, I wanted to read this one when I first saw it on the Night Shade Books website.

At the beginning of the 22nd century most of the United States has become a dust bowl, ravaged by violent waves of unpredictable weather.  Migrants, ragged and hungry, travel from place to place, on foot or in rigged-up vehicles,gathering Seed from government depots and hoping to find a place to grow and harvest a crop, enough food to last until the next harvest, never knowing when that will be.  They are swayed by prairie saints and harassed by La Chupacabra, a gang of violent thieves.

Seed is bio-engineered and precious, marked by a tiny barcode.   Made by Satori, a living,  growing animal of a city, controlled by the Designers, and genetically coded to be sterile,  it is the only source of food available, and the Government struggles to control  it.  Satori’s Designers, bio-engineered themselves, have minds of their own and have created modified humans as laborers and security forces.  And there is Tet, a deadly virus slowly spreading through the population.

Ziegler has written a dystopian western, filled with shoot-outs and clipped dialogue.  His use of imminent climate change and terminator technology turns this first novel towards speculative fiction.  It is messy, violent and I found it a quick, disturbing read.

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Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction, TBR Double Dare

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, New York, 2008

From my library hold list.

I have been a Stephenson fan since reading Snow Crash in the early ’90s.  It is one of those books that I return to again and again and it always seems to be several steps ahead of  modern techno-culture.

Anathem is 900+ pages.  Reading it felt taking a step back in time and ending up thousands of years in the future.

On the planet called Ambre,  Fraa Erasmas, a young Avout living in a monastery-like community called a Concent, is happy to take part in rituals he and his cohorts do not really understand.  He spends most of his time in deep dialog with his teachers.  Avouts are intellectuals, removed from society and all technology,  like monks or nuns.  Concents are walled compounds and members are grouped into Maths, based on the study of certain disciplines and on lengths of time.  Members of Maths are allowed to enter society during a yearly 10 day event called an Apert.   Depending on their Math, Avouts take part in this celebration every year,  every ten years,  or every hundred years. Then there are the Millenniums.  The rest of the time Avouts are sequestered in their Concert unless called upon to help the outside world is a matter that requires scientific or theoretical problem solving.

Erasmas’ teacher, Orolo, has discovered a strange ship circling the planet and manages to take pictures of it. This sets off a series of events that has Orolo expelled from his community and the secular and political society calling on members of Concents from all over Ambre to help determine what the ship is and where it comes from.

Simple, huh?  The thing about Stephenson is things are never simple.  I spent the first couple hundred pages flipping back to the glossary, learning what all the terms meant.  Ambre itself seems earth-like but  reversed and regressed.  Concents are intellectual and time is spent discussing mathematics, physics and philosophy.  Thinking is their avocation and the spiritual is intellectual.

Outside, in the Sæcular world, there is commerce, technology and religion, very like our own. We learn that thousands of years of war and peace have developed this divided society.  I am fascinated by Stephensen’s ability to create a world that is so like our own and yet so different.  He states that his inspiration for Anathem comes from the Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 year clock.  Long Now is an organization I have following for several years.

I devoured Anathem over a period of four days and only found a few bits that didn’t quite work for me.   The end feels rushed and left some questions unanswered.  There is no way I can write about Anathem in any way that does it justice.  If you are fascinated by the history of human thought, by philosophy and science, and are a fan of science fiction you will enjoy this book.

Now I think I am ready for Stephenson’s newest novel,  Reamde.   It is over 1,000 pages long.

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Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi

The 2012 Science Fiction Experience – Jan 1st to Feb 29th

I am so ready for this.  Thanks to Carl V. for organizing another great reading event.

In Carl’s own words:

And so I officially welcome you to The 2012 Science Fiction Experience, which runs from January 1st, 2012 through February 29th, 2012. That’s right, we get an extra day this year! Woo-hoo!

The “rules” of the experience are simple: there are none. Remember, this isn’t a challenge. If you would like to join us in reading and discussing any science fiction reading or television viewing or movie watching you do over that time period, please do.

If you chose to blog about your Sci-Fi experience there is a review site here.  I plan on running this event concurrent with the 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge but you can do it any way you want!

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Dune Read-Along Wrap-up

Dune by Frank Herbert

Ace Books, New York, 2009

From my science fiction collection.

A read-along organized by Carl V, Kailana and the Little Red Reviewer.  I finished Dune last week but due to computer malfunctions have not been about to post my response to read-along questions #2 and #3 until now.  I enjoyed the reread and was amazed at how well the book held up for me.  It’s been decades since my first reading, I never read the sequels and I never saw the movie.  I think I might be ready for the film even though I don’t know if I can handle a young Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Antreides.  Be warned, the following contains spoilers.

Dune – Book Two – Questions from Little Red Reviewer

Was Liet’s identity a surprise?  Who do you think he really works for?

No, because I have read the book before.  I do wish I’d been able to get to know Liet/Keyes better.  His impact on the thoughts of the Fremen, on their ideas about changing Dune into a more comfortably “livable” planet, is something I would like to know more about.  I not sure he was actually working for anyone other than himself.   his strong belief in the possibility of changing to environment of Dune led him to join and eventually lead the Fremen to that belief.

What do you think of the Fremen culture?  Is this a culture you think you’d enjoy spending some time with?

I am fascinated by the Fremen and would love to spend time with them but adapting to a planet without water would be extremely difficult for me.  If they were ocean beings, mere people, I would have no problem at all!

What do you think of Count Fenring’s unusual verbal mannerisms?  

I think that mannerism only adds to the idea of Fenring being “a small man, weak looking”.  He is deadly, a killer, and yet his way of speaking makes him appear harmless and rather dull.

This is a far future empire with very little in the way of computerization. Information is often passed down orally, and schools (such as the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit) have formed to train young people in memorization and information processing.  What are you thoughts on a scifi story that is very “low-tech”?  Does that sound like a feasable future? a ridiculous one?

It actually sounds like part of human history.   In ancient times there was something called The Memory Palace taught to students of rhetoric and philosophy.   Author Joshua Foer used the technique to become the 2006 U.S. Memory Champion.   I fear with our increasing reliance on technology we will lose this skill.  At this point the idea of no computers does seem ridiculous.

Dune was written in the 60’s. Does it feel dated to you? How does it compare, writing style-wise, to more contemporary science fiction you’ve read?  

I was surprised at how well this book held up for me.  Herbert took a culture based on empire and feudalism and flung it into the far-future. I read a few contemporary science fiction authors,  Iain Banks is a favorite.  To me  Dune could be a precursor to some of his novels.

Dune – Book Three – Questions from Books Without Any Pictures

1.  What is your reaction to finally learning the identity of Princess Irulan?  Do you think that her convention added to the story?

This was not a surprise to me as I had read Dune before.  I did appreciate her literary accomplishments and the fact that many quotes from her work were included in the novel.  I gained a deeper understanding of Muad’Dib from her writings.

2.  Were you satisfied with the ending?  For those reading for the first time, was it what you expected?

I enjoyed the ending and it certainly leaves open many possibilities for a sequel.

3.  On both Arrakis and Salusa Secundus, ecology plays a major role in shaping both characters and the story itself.  Was this convincing?  Do you think that Paul would have gone through with his threat to destroy the spice, knowing what it would mean for Arrakis?

I find the planet Arrakis to be as much a character in Dune as the human beings and feel that the idea of both planets shaping the story and characters totally convincing.  Humans have always been shaped by where they live, be it the desert or a hive-like megalopolis.  I don’t know if Paul would have destroyed the spice,  I think he knew his threat would be taken seriously and that it would never come to that.  I love the fact that the entire guild was dependent on this one desert planet and the Freman tribes for its survival.

4.  Both Leto and Paul made their decisions on marriage for political reasons.  Do you agree with their choices?

I understand the political and sociological structure of the Empire and the need for these marriages.  That does not mean I agree with these decisions or with the whole idea of Empire.  I don’t.

5.  What was your favorite part in this section of the book?

There are many but here are a few.   Paul being lost in time and becoming aware of his abilities even if he can’t control them. The point when he makes the decision to take The Water of Life, knowing that it could kill him.  Chani and Jessica bringing him back from near death. And of course, the ride on the Maker.

6.  One of the things I noticed in the discussions last week was Herbert’s use of the word “jihad.”  What do you think of Herbert’s message about religion and politics?

The place of religion and politics in Dune could be discussed and argued forever.  I don’t claim to understand his message about religion or politics.  I think he used ideas that were available from human history to build his Empire and it’s cultures and did a brilliant job of it.

Again thanks to Carl V for organizing this read along.  Now that my computer is up and running I hope to visit all the other participants!

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Dune by Frank Herbert – A Read-along

Filled with alien culture, politics, world building and war, Dune by Frank Herbert, is a classic science fiction novel.  I am rereading it as part of a read-along organized by Carl VKailana and The Little Red Reviewer.  We are answering questions posed by our co-hosts.  Be warned, there will be spoilers.

Book One: Dune

1.  Did you see anything in this first section of the book that either you hadn’t seen before or that you had forgotten about, anything that stood out to you?

I had either forgotten or was not aware of the Byzantine layers of diplomatic and political intrigue, so very like our world!

2.  What did you think about the plot device of the early revelation that Yueh was to be the traitor?

I thought this revelation added to the tension and suspense, mainly because none of the characters suspected Yueh of being the traitor.  They suspected everyone else, including Jessica. After all, no one could turn a Suk doctor!

3.  What was your favorite part of this first section?  Which character(s) do you find most interesting and why?

My favorite part is discovering how the Fremen live, their ability to survive in the open desert, the community of the sietch, their culture.  I think Dune, the planet, is my favorite character.  I find Hurbert’s description of the environment and the ecology fascinating and the Fremen’s desire to change their planet very timely.  Who knows how we will live on planet Earth  in 100 years?  500 years?

4.  Did the revelation about the Harkonnen surprise you? Why or why not? Thoughts.

The fact that Jessica and Paul carry Harkonnen blood was a surprise, but knowing the Bene Gesserit predilection for genetic mixing and saving blood lines, it must be a very important part of the dynastic character of the Dune universe.

5.  Finally, please share some overall thoughts on this first section of the book.  Are you finding it difficult to follow? Easy to understand? Engaging? Boring?  Just share what you are thinking thus far.

I am enjoying rereading Dune, finding the political and ecological themes very timely and love the intrigue.

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Spice It Up – A Dune Read-Along

Sometimes there seems to be all sorts of strange psychic things happening through the internetz.  After reading Among Others I made a list of science fiction books I wished to reread, Frank Herbert’s Dune being at the top of the list.  I had misplaced or given away my old copy so I went out and found a used copy, planning to read it over the summer. Then I hear about this.

Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, the wonderful blogger who organizes the Once Upon A Time and R.I.P. challenges, Kailana from The Written Word and the Little Red Reviewer are organizing a Dune Read-Along for July.  I will be joining in.  How about you?  Care for some Spice?

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Embassytown by China Mieville

Embassytown by China Miéville

Ballantine Book, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.

I am always nervous and excited when I open a new China Miéville novel.  I never know what to expect.   It took me a while to immerse myself in this new one, but once there I didn’t come up for air until it was done.  In the beginning I found Embassytown almost impenetrable, like entering a forest thick with undergrowth, but Mieville’s a master and has created a marvel.

Deep space traveler Avice Benner Cho has returned to her home planet Arieka,  a planet colonized by humans and home to the Ariekei, intelligent beings known for their unique language.  This language is so difficult only a few altered human ambassadors can communicate with their Hosts.  When political manoeuvring brings a new ambassador to Embassytown, the fragile connection between humans and Hosts is broken, an event that could mean the end of the city and of its human and alien colonists.  For Avice it means something entirely new.

I admit defeat.  I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure.  I simply don’t know how everything happened.  Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons,  it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.  From page 145.

At first reading Embassytown made me feel the same way.   I had to really pay attention and let it to be what it wanted to be.  This novel allows China Miéville the space to work with language, something he obviously relishes.  Nothing can cause trouble between humans like language. Miscommunication, poor translation, semantics, words taken out of context. Think about all our media, the words we read, see and listen to.  Now think about it in terms of communication between alien life forms. What could alien language be?  Would in be constructed like human language? Use the same kind of grammar? The same figures of speech?  Embassytown asks these and more detailed questions.  Add the byzantine mixture of human bureaucracy and politics along with Mieville’s ideas of our universe and what might be beyond our universe and you have a very fine science fiction tale.

Embassytown may not be as accessible to readers fond of  The City & The City or Kraken, but I hope those readers give it a try.  I loved it.  I am a true Miéville fan.

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Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton

Tor Books, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  I have to thank Nymeth for bringing this one to my attention.

Jo Walton’s epigraph for Among Others:

This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.

Among Others is story of Morwenna, a girl caught between the everyday world and the world of magic.  Having lost her twin sister, suffering multiple injuries in an accident running away from her half-crazed mother, and meeting her father and his family for the first time, Mori finds herself in a private school, an outsider with no desire to be anything else.

Told in a series of diary entries, this is one of the best presentations of a certain time in adolescence, of feeling “alien” amidst “normality”, and of learning to navigate peer-pressure, relationships and social connection that I have read.  


I don’t think I’m like other people.  I mean on some deep fundamental level.  It’s not just being half  a twin and reading a lot and seeing fairies.  It’s not just being outside when their all inside.  I used to be inside.  I think there’s a way I stand aside and look backwards at things when they are happening which isn’t normal.  It’s a thing you need to do for doing magic.  From page 169.

One of the most interesting things about Among Others is the understated part that magic plays.  The reader can choose to believe that magic occurs in Mori’s life or that Mori uses the idea of magic to explain all the chaos and sadness in her life, to protect herself from ugly reality.  Walton pulls this off very subtly.  I was left a bit unbalanced, as if shifting from on foot to the other, not an unpleasant experience.

This novel is a love letter to the outsider, to books,  reading,  science fiction and fantasy.   All I can say is read it.

Other reviews:

Jenny’s Books

Rhapsody in Books

Stainless Steel Droppings

things mean a lot

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Filed under Fantasy, Review, SciFi, Young Adult