Tag Archives: SpeculativeFiction

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Ballantine Books, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

First off, with all the hype around The Passage I was hesitant, but the blog posts I read had me curious.  Then there was the blurb by Stephen King which I found a bit off-putting.  An epic fantasy?  Come on.

I picked the book up from the library, brought it home and set it beside the books I was reading.  I tried to ignore it, but it was like something alive,  it was whispering at me.  I picked it up, opened the cover and fell in.

This drove me crazy.  The book is good but not that good.  There are parts that move along nicely, and others that bog down.  It’s kind of a rehash/mismash of The Stand, The Road, 28 Days Later and every vampire novel that’s been released in the last five years.  I tried to pick up the other books I was reading but could not stay focused.  I had to get back to The Passage.

The premise, a well-meaning scientist visits the jungle of Bolivia, searching for some virus, some medical miracle.  Much to the scientist’s surprise the military has signed on, giving him plenty of financial backing. They move deeper into the jungle.   People die.  Time passes.  Then you have FBI agents traveling to prisons recruiting death row inmates. Can you see what’s coming?  Experiment gone bad, savage test subjects escape, thirsting for blood and destroying most of the population of North America.  Small group of survivors struggle on.  This goes on for a while.  The book is 766 pages long.

The thing is, Cronin is a decent writer, and the characters he has created, both good and bad, are interesting and intriguing.  I found myself wanting to know what happens to them.  There are many and the story shifts between them all, giving the reader different perspectives.  Sometimes I had to go back and revisit a scene, just to be sure I was following things correctly.

We are given glimpses of a character’s struggles through bits of journals presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period.  The conference takes place at the University of New South Wales in the year 1003 A.V. – After Virus.  I found this bit quite fun, had an interesting time imagining this conference, it’s participants.

Some parts of The Passage work better than others but over a period of 4 days I found it hard to put this book down.  By the end, a cliffhanger if there ever was one, I wanted to know what happens to everyone.  I was distraught, upset.  I didn’t know this chunkster is the first part of a trilogy!

Anyway, I liked The Passage even though a nasty, judgemental part of me said I shouldn’t.  If you are drawn to apocalyptic dystopia fiction you might like it, too.  Here are some samples of Cronin’s writing.

Carter lifts his free hand to the side of the glass and brushed the tips of his fingers against it.  The glass was cool, and sweating with moisture; Carter drew his hand away and rubbed the beads of water between his thumb and fingers, slowly, his eyes focused on this gesture with complete attention.  So intense was his concentration that Wolgast could feel the man’s whole mind opening up to it, taking it in.  It was as if the sensation of cool water on his fingertips was the key to every mystery of his life.   Pages 51-52.

They followed the river, into the afternoon.  They were in the foothills now, leaving the plateau behind.  The land began to rise and thicken with trees-naked, twiglike aspens and huge ancient pines, their trunks wide as houses, towering over their heads.  Beneath their vast canopies, the gound was open and shaded, pillowed with needles.  The air was cold with the dampness of the river.  They moved, as always, without speaking, scanning the trees.  All eyes.
There was no Placerville; it was easy to see what had occurred.  The narrow valley, the river carving through it.  In spring, when the snowpack melted, it would be a raging current.  Like Moab, the town had washed away.  Page 627

There really are some interesting similarities with The Stand, particularly the action that takes place in and around Las Vegas.  Now I feel like I should read King’s novel again, just to compare.  Here are some other reviews of The Passage:

Books and Movies

Boston Bibliophile

Devourer of Books

Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Rhapsody In Books

S. Krishna’s Books


Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Review, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction

Animals by Don LePan

Animals by Don LePan

Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

Sam is deaf and lives during a time when people with disabilities are being abandoned by society.  There is no effort to help the blind and deaf, no system for children born with a chronic  illness.  No one tries to find out what is wrong, Sam is just different, and he is eventually classified as “mongrel”.  His mother, left in dire financial straits, is forced to abandon him, hoping the family she leaves him with will adopt him as a pet.  A pet?

I am not cute.   I  am not a pet.  I am not a mongrel.  I am a child, that’s all.

Animals is told in two parts.  The first part is a manuscript telling Sam’s story, the story of his birth family and his adoptive family, written by Naomi Okun, the girl whose family does take him in.  The second part is an explanation, with abundant footnotes, by someone named Broderick Clark, of this autobiographical manuscript.  LePan has used an interesting structure to deal with a difficult subject, one many of us would just as soon ignore.

This is speculative fiction, fiction that, given the present circumstances, points towards a possible future.  It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

There is no easy way to write about this.  We are in the future.  Due to factory farming and over use of antibiotics there has been a “great extinction”.  All of our domestic animals and pets have died.  There is a lack of protein and people are struggling.  There is a campaign stressing the dangers of soy.  The gap between rich and poor has widened exponentially. The world is edging towards chaos.

As more and more “sub-normal” people are marginalized and de-humanized, some are adopted as  “pets” and some are classified as chattel.  Eventually the chattel are gathered together, their labor is utilized and they become a food source.  Like I said, there is no easy way to write about this.

LaPan claims his main argument is against factory-farming and for the humane treatment of our food animals but I was left with a much broader sense of let’s stop eating meat(and fish), period.  This is a difficult and challenging book.  I feel like I need to put some distance between my first reading and then read it again.

I need to say that over the past few years I have grown closer and closer to becoming a true vegetarian.  There are occasions when I eat chicken or fish, and I am not vegan by any means, but something in me has me turning away from eating flesh.  Maybe it’s my knowledge of factory farms, or my awareness of the growing understanding of animal behavior and animal “consciousness”.  Maybe it’s the Buddhist idea of Ahimsa –  do no harm.  I buy organic when I can.  I eat tofu, legumes and lots of vegetables.  Animals, a deeply disturbing book, only reinforces my thoughts about food, about how we raise and slaughter what we eat.

Now I want to read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.


Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Animals, CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, New Authors 2010, Review, SpeculativeFiction

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

By Amitav Ghosh

Perennial, New York, 2001

Borrowed from the library.

I am an admirer of Amitav Ghosh, but when I learned he had written some kind of sci-fi, speculative fiction novel I wasn’t all that interested.  Until I learned that The Calcutta Chromosome had won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

This book is a wild ride between the past and the future.  Antar, a researcher for the giant International Water Council, works from home using their AVA computer system.  His job?  To sit in front of a monitor and look at every item entered into the IWC inventory from all over the world.  Why?  Just in case there might be something unusual. It’s like sifting through sand on an archeological dig, you never know what you might find.  His identification of an object leads him to India, the impact of  British colonialism and the study of malaria.

Antar uncovers the stories of people from his past, the struggle between India’s ancient wisdom and Western science  and a vast medical conspiracy.  The novel flashes back and forth in time and between characters.  At times it feels like the shards of a broken mirror.  Ghosh’s characteristic use of detail, myth and storytelling hold it all together.

It was mid-July.  The monsoons had set in and the whole of eastern India was awash in rain.  Several of the famously restless rivers of the region had burst their banks and swept across the broad, flat plains.  Those waters, so full of menace to those they nourished, presented and entirely different aspect to a casual spectator in a train, watching from the safety of a tall embankment.  The still waters, lying in great silver sheets under the lowering monsoon skies, presented an enchanting, bewitching spectacle.  Phulboni, raised amidst the hills and forests of Orissa, had never seen anything like this before: this majestic, endless plain mirroring the turbulent heavens.  From page 257.

Just the fact that Antar works for something called the International Water Council is intriguing, fresh water being a finite resource that we are running out of, much like oil.  This alone drew me into reading the book. It is interesting and challenging,  I very much enjoyed it.

I admit it, I love Amitav Ghosh’s writing and his story-telling.  I can not wait for the follow-up to A Sea of Poppies.


Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Arthur C Clarke Award, Fiction, SpeculativeFiction

The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The City by China Mieville

Del Rey,  New York, 2009

I own this one (thanks to students, parents and the blessed gift card).

A Publisher’s Weekly, Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times Best Book of 2009.  The City & The City just won the 2010 Locus Award for best fantasy novel and won the 2010 Arthur C. Clark award in April.

Ever since reading Perdido Street Station and Iron Council I have admired China Mieville’s writing.  When I first heard he’d written a noirish, murder mystery I wasn’t quite sure what that could mean.  I hesitated, finally putting the book on hold at the library.  I waited and waited.   The paperback came out,  I was given a gift card.  I waited no longer.

Wow, this is one of those books I have difficulty writing about…

The story starts with the finding of a body on grounds of an estate in the city of Beszel.  Beszel  feels like an old city somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Inspector Tyador Borlu is called to the scene and finds that to fully investigate this murder, he must travel to Beszel’s neighboring city, Ul Qoma.  But these cities are not just neighbors.  They are intertwined, on top of and crosshatched with each other, and each city’s residents must learn to unsee what they see day-to-day.  There are nationalists and anarchists, politicians, students and archeologists, all wound up in a story that is fast-paced and well written.

There is not much more I can say except to suggest that you read this book.  I don’t really want to tell you more, or maybe I just can’t think of how to write about it.   Even finding bits to quote is difficult.   One thing, it is not an easy book to read,  sometimes the language itself seem to flicker in and out of perception, giving me a kind of vertigo.  Or maybe it was reading it at 2 am that had me dizzy.  In the acknowledgments Mieville offers his gratitude to several authors including Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schultz.  He is wise and gracious to do so.   This is one of the smartest and most entertaining books I have read in quite a while.


Filed under Arthur C Clarke Award, Mystery, Notable Books, SciFi

Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North by Marcel Theroux

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Marcel Theroux is a novelist, TV broadcaster and the oldest son of travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.  This is his fourth novel.

Far North is a dystopian novel set in the not-to-distant future.   The narrator, Makepeace, is the last surviving member of a community of Quakers who originally came from the United States and settled in the Siberian taiga.

My parents never spoke of the past, and me, I never took much interest in it.  The past had nothing to teach me.  The beginning of the world and my birth seemed like the same event.  For me the world began with water dripping off wet sheets in the sunlight.  I was the creator, blinking my eyes to make night and day.  And I was Noah, arranging my chipped hardwood animals in the dust of the arctic summer.  I taught my family language, and I was the first human to set foot in the wilderness at the bottom of our vegetable patch.  From page 105.

Makepeace finds evidence that other communities  may exist, and even thrive, out beyond the city’s ruins.  A refugee emerges from the forest, inspiring Makepeace to open up to human connection  and  to travel from the city to search for others in  the Far North.  It is a empty and eerie place.

I lay down to sleep thinking that as much as I missed what was gone, maybe this was the best thing: for the world to lie fallow for a couple hundred years or more, for the rain to was her clean.  We’d become another layer of her history, a little higher in the soil  than the Romans, and the people that built the pyramids.  Yes Makepeace, I thought, one day your mandible will show up under glass in a museum…
In the long run, the waters recede, the sun rises, and the plants grow.  I’ve never doubted that something will survive of us.  Of course, I won’t make it.  And all those books I’ve saved will end up mulch and bird’s nest, I suppose.  From pages 198/199.

This beautiful, spare novel is filled with surprises.  The story twists and turns like a braided river, and  Makepeace travels on with humor and rugged strength to find a kind of redemption.  The world is wild and desolate and yet filled with quiet beauty.  Theroux is a master storyteller.  I plan on reading his other novels.

Other reviews:

Book Club Classics

A Bookworm’s World

Follow The Thread

Novels Now


Filed under New Authors 2010, Notable Books, SpeculativeFiction

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.

1 Comment

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?


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

42 Challenge for 2010!

The answer is 42.

01.01.2010 – 12.03.2010

Your mission–if you choose to accept it–is to read, watch, listen, and (possibly) review 42 sci-fi related items.
What counts? Short stories, novellas, novels, radio show episodes, television show episodes, movies, graphic novels, comic books, audio books, essays about science fiction, biographies about sci-fi authors, etc. Adapted or abridged works are okay as well.

Even though I failed to review and write about all the sci-fi and speculative fiction I read, the videos I watched and the movies I saw in2009 I am joining this challenge again.  This year I will keep a  list!

The challenge goes along perfectly with this one.


Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Challenges2010, SciFi, 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.


Filed under SciFi, SciFi Challenge, SpeculativeFiction

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


Filed under SciFi, SciFi Challenge, Young Adult