Review: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

I’ve just finished reading What If? by Randall Munroe, creator of the popular webcomic xkcd. This book is a compilation of essays from his website where people send him ridiculous hypothetical questions and he attempts to answer them with actual science and logic.
Examples of questions in the book include:

  • How many Legos would it take to build a bridge capable of supporting traffic from New York to London?
  • What would happen if you gathered a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (small furry creature) in one place?
  • What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?
  • If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a few weeks, would the common cold be wiped out?
  • If a woman used her own stem cells to create sperm and impregnate herself, what would be her relationship to the baby?
  • and my personal favorite – If you dialed a random phone number and said “God bless you,” what are the odds that the person who answered the phone had just sneezed?*

This is a great book if you enjoy thinking about random science-y stuff, which I do. Also, an unsurprisingly large number of the answers culminate in the end of human civilization as we know it — there’s a sort of Mythbusters thing going on here where, on occasion, Munroe isn’t satisfied with just strictly answering the question, but then goes on to take the hypothetical situation to its logical extreme until he can get to the point where he’s blown up the Earth. ;)

This is also a great book for reading aloud to kids, although I did pick and choose a bit, as some of the selections involved science that’s just too advanced for my kids right now (ages 11 and 8). But they enjoyed it and took away some great little factoids with which to wow their friends (“Did you know that you could fit the entire human population into Rhode Island?”) and, more than that, I think it makes a really good introduction to the concept of the scientific method and how to approach questions logically. Even when the question itself is absurd, you can still apply the same principles of analytic thought, which I think is a great lesson to learn.

My personal favorite factoid from the book is that if an astronaut on the International Space Station were to listen to the song “I’m Gonna Be” by the Proclaimers (you know, “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more…”) then in the time it takes to hear the whole 3.5 minutes of the song, the astronaut would have traveled almost exactly 1000 miles.

* Mind you, the answer to the sneezing question was a bit unsatisfying; he mostly talked about how researchers calculated the average number of times a person sneezes, and I wished he had gone more into the demographics of who might be answering the phone, whether they would understand English, whether they would be of a religion that considers that use of “god” appropriate, etc….

Gender post #2 and review of The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley Beaulieu

(I originally drafted this post in April 2012, but never finished it. I am posting it now with a few revisions, paring down references to internet kerfuffles that were current at the time but are ancient history now.)

I want to draw some connections between my previous post on gender roles in scifi and the related discussions that are currently all the rage in the SF community. As you may know, in recent years women have been speaking up more and more vocally about the fact that it’s hard to get taken seriously as a woman in the SF community.

The original motivation for this post came from a blog post written by author and blogger Cat Valente in the midst of a kerfuffle in the spring of 2012. The background is that a male author had written a blog post criticizing the nominees for a major award, saying that they all sucked and none of them deserved the award. In Valente’s post on her livejournal, she posits that if a female blogger had written that stuff about the award nominations, she would be receiving death threats and comments like “I hope you get raped” (not hyperbole; this actually happens). Whereas, when a man writes it, you get a lot of people going “hmm, maybe he’s right; let us now engage in some deep soul-searching about the nature, meaning, and purpose of scifi awards.” In other words, female bloggers take a lot more crap for saying controversial things than male bloggers do — especially in a realm like science fiction, which, despite a lot of progress, is still heavily male-dominated.

Okay, Ms. Valente’s post is well-written and thought-provoking and you should read it, but it’s not the point I’m getting at. What caught my eye was one of the comments on her livejournal post, wherein the commenter took issue with Ms. Valente’s reference to Game of Thrones (which, as you know unless you’re seriously living under a rock, is a hugely popular epic-fantasy book series that is now also a tv series). The commenter essentially said that it’s okay for GoT to portray a misogynistic society, because its “setting is loosely analogous to a late Dark Ages historical drama” and therefore any sexism, racism, etc. in the story is okay because it’s realistic for the setting. Ms. Valente calls bullshit on this, pointing out that GoT also includes, for example, dragons. “Authors make choices,” she says, and this is the crux of the point I was trying to make in my previous post: when an author can choose to take the Dark Ages and add dragons, he could just as easily choose to take the Dark Ages and delete misogyny. Let’s not pretend that this is anything other than a choice — and a lazy one at that.

The trouble is that on the face of it, this argument that “because he based his setting on such-and-so actual historical setting, he has to do x and y” seems to make sense. We go, “oh well sure, he wants it to be realistic, that’s valid.” But that’s only because we are mired in a mindset that’s hard to shake.

And really, what’s realism got to do, got to do with it? Are we really concerned about some reader who’s going to be blowing a gasket going, “zomg this is clearly based on the Dark Ages so wtf with the total lack of rape? NEEDS MOAR RAPE!”? (I say this with tongue somewhat in cheek, knowing that in fact there likely would be some rabid crank saying exactly that…but you know what, fuck that guy.) And sure, some of the elements of misogyny that repeatedly occur in fantasy epics are also useful literary devices (the arranged marriage, for example), but that doesn’t mean that an author “has to” include them. He could use some, you know, imagination to come up with something else that would accomplish the same purpose.

All of this leads me into a book I had just finished reading (at the time I read Cat Valente’s post): The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley Beaulieu. I had a lot of issues with this book on purely technical grounds (plot holes, etc.), but it also fails on the gender-roles front.

Plot overview: This book certainly seems to want to be the beginning of a new fantasy epic in the general vein of Game of Thrones. We have a bunch of duchies located on islands, connected by water and air routes as well as something called “the aether” which is a mystical … force? substance? element? … that links the various landmasses together. We also have a mysterious disease that is killing people left and right, and which may or may not be related to a blight that is affecting the crops and causing people to starve. And we have a mysterious young boy who doesn’t talk but who has amazing magical powers; he belongs to an ethnic minority called the Aramahn, who used to own the land but have been forced out of power by the current majority, called “the Landed.” The Aramahn are still tolerated (read: used) by the Landed, because only the Aramahn have the powers to manipulate the elements, which the Landed need in order to fly their airships between islands. Our protagonist, Nikandr, is the son of one of the Dukes, and has been coopted into an arranged marriage with the daughter of another Duke; neither he nor the woman is thrilled about the marriage, especially since Nikandr is engaged in an affair with an Aramahn woman. As the plot progresses, Nikandr forms a mystical bond with the mysterious boy, and they and various other characters run around trying to figure out what is causing the problems in the world, how the boy is connected to it, and what to do about it.

The primary, most puzzling thing to me about this book is the way it puts a particular magical skill/power exclusively into the hands of the women — only they are able to, while submerged in freezing water, commune with the aether and visualize everything that is happening in the land; they can also manipulate it so as to enable airship traffic — and yet somehow this doesn’t give the women any power in the social hierarchy. We still have the land ruled by Dukes, never duchesses; we still have women being used as currency, effectively, via arranged marriages. Casual reference is made to men beating their wives, and to a Duke who rejected the woman he was arranged to marry because she was too ugly. This is precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say that more thought needs to be given to the larger implications of plot elements. It just does not work for me.

The next element that I found irritating is the question of the nobleman’s mistress. We learn that several years ago she decided to settle in a city of the Landed, as part of a big secret plot among her people; so she moves there, and how does she choose to set herself up?…as a prostitute, of course. This is again the kind of thing that requires some thought. On the surface, in the worldview of Epic Fantasy Up Until Now, it makes complete sense. In that worldview, one might even be tempted to say it’s the only thing that makes sense. Being a whore gets her access to influential men who might let fall a secret or two, or might get her into places or situations that could help her. But let’s not kid ourselves; no matter how much agency the character has in the story, she has nevertheless been devalued by making her The Whore. Just as easily she could have been, oh I don’t know, a tailor? How about a swordfighting instructor, the one to whom all the nobles send their sons AND daughters to learn how to wield a blade? And that’s just two perfectly good examples off the top of my head!

Further compounding the problem, Beaulieu takes the eye-rollingly predictable route of having the whore fall in love with one of her clients, and he with her (maybe…kinda). Just by pure coincidence — or so we’re expected to believe — it so happens that the one man she falls for is also the one who has a mystical connection to the aether and will end up being chosen by spirits from the other side. Or something like that. Honestly, I’m not entirely clear on why Nikandr is the one who gets mixed up in all of this (I mean aside from the fact that he’s the protagonist). For the hero of the story, he seems to have surprisingly little agency; he spends most of the book stumbling into and out of situations, being captured and rescued apparently at random. It begins with what appears to be a chance encounter with the mysterious boy; this causes Nikandr to get dragged into the web of plots and counter-plots being woven by the various factions — but if he hadn’t happened to talk to the boy at that point, would any of it have happened? This to me is bad storytelling. There has to be a reason why this guy gets mixed up in it — and, for that matter, why it just so happens that the two women who get involved in the plot are his lover and his wife-to-be.

The next problem is the scene wherein Nikandr’s arranged wife-to-be, Atiana, is trapped with an enemy who has something she needs on a chain around his neck. What tactic does she use to get it away from him? I bet you can guess. Yes, she seduces the enemy and steals the item when he falls into a post-coital stupor. Awful. And although I hate to belabor the point, once again this is the kind of thing that may seem obvious or necessary if you aren’t applying enough imagination. Why couldn’t she, oh I don’t know, challenge the guy to a drinking contest and get him so drunk that he falls over? Or, heck, even just whack him over the head with something and then run like hell.

Aside from the above, the plot holes and technical issues that I referenced earlier marred my enjoyment of the book as well. For example, near the beginning of the book it appears to be winter (a scene takes place in snow), whereafter a few days pass and suddenly there’s reference to the “summer sun,” and then a page or two later it’s snowing again. In one scene a character is described as lying on the ground unconscious while other characters debate what to do; a page later they are all rushing up a mountain together, the guy who was unconscious is barking orders, no reference ever having been made to him rousing. Atiana witnesses another character seeming to be on her deathbed, then recovered but still weak; later, Atiana hears someone mention that the other woman is ill, and expresses surprise, like, “she always seemed so strong.”

But the issues in the previous paragraph are minor, of course, when put in perspective. The overall problems of lack of imagination are what killed this story for me. Now it’s also certainly true that I am not really the target audience for epic fantasy; it isn’t usually my things; its tropes generally bore me to tears. I feel quite sure there are people — even feminists — who could read this book and not be bothered at all by these things. Because, like I said, you do get stuck in the way things are and it can be really hard, even for the most aware of us, to notice them. Like fish noticing water. But the thing is, once you do start to notice it, you notice that it’s everywhere, and then you can’t stop being bothered by it.

Back, with vengeance

I haven’t posted here in quite some time, primarily because this blog got hacked and I didn’t have the time, energy, etc. to deal with it. I believe it has been cleaned up now, though I’d be happier if I had a better idea of how the hack happened. But such is life.

In any case, after a bit of a hiatus from my former frenzied reading schedule, I’ve started reading regularly again, and have recently finished several books / series that I’d like to write about. So (she said, bravely maintaining the pretense that anyone was actually reading this), stay tuned for some new posts pretty soon.

Incidentally, I’m back to the default theme, just in case that was the vector that was used to hack me. This theme is pretty boring though. Will have to rectify it soon.

Review and Comparison: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I recently read the classic scifi novel The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Originally published in the early 1970s, this book follows a young scientist who is conscripted into the military to fight mysterious aliens on distant planets.

I got interested in reading The Forever War (TFW) after hearing John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (OMW) compared to it favorably. OMW is one of my favorite modern scifi books, and after having read TFW, I can see why people compare them. Both stories involve interstellar travel and warfare, and in particular, both involve protagonists who are old men in young men’s bodies. The mechanics, however, are very different. TFW focuses on the time-dilation effects of high-speed interstellar travel; when a spaceship travels at almost the speed of light, many years can elapse in real time while only a short period of time elapses on board the ship (subjective time, from the perspective of the ship’s passengers). Thus by the time William Mandella has finished his military service, he has only experienced a few years of warfare from his point of view, but several hundred years have passed on Earth. By contrast, in OMW, the military recruits people who have lived a long time on Earth. Citizens enlist in the military upon reaching their 75th birthday, and then undergo medical procedures to rejuvenate their bodies. So, whereas William Mandella feels like a young man whose lifetime has spanned many generations, John Perry has the mind of an old man in the body of a young man.

(This central premise of OMW is brilliant in my opinion, and Scalzi does an excellent job of working out the implications. Physical abilities aside, a 75-year-old makes a better soldier than an 18-year-old, because of the difference in life experience, maturity, self-confidence, and so forth. Furthermore, the elderly have less to lose; their spouses are old or dead, friends and siblings the same, their children are grown and living their own lives. Because the military does not reveal the secret of the rejuvenation process until after a person has committed to it — and because enlistees are not allowed to return to Earth, ever again — it becomes a leap of faith, which can only be made by those who still feel like they have some living left to do beyond age 75.)

In both stories, male and female soldiers serve alongside each other; both authors make it clear that a considerable amount of sexual activity goes on among the ranks, though their handling of homosexuality differs markedly. In Haldeman’s tale, same-sex pairings do not occur at all among the first groups of enlisted soldiers; later, as overpopulation becomes a crisis on Earth, homosexuality becomes first accepted, then encouraged, and eventually mandatory. Mandella and his fellow “old-timers” are forced to deal with these enormous societal changes, which happen quickly from their point of view. One has to imagine that these ideas were probably pretty wild in Haldeman’s day. Scalzi, on the other hand, is a product of the 21st century, so his characters are gay or straight or even bisexual with little or no comment. The inclusion of female soldiers alongside the males is similarly handled a bit differently; Haldeman plays it up a bit more, emphasizing the female-ness of certain characters and taking pains to show the reader that having women in the military is totally no big deal. Whereas Scalzi just makes it no big deal by not talking about it, which again is in line with modern sensibilities.

Both stories portray people setting up outposts/colonies on distant planets, and fending off alien incursions against those outposts, as part of humanity’s attempts to branch out from the dangerously overcrowded Earth. But Scalzi portrays a universe filled with vast multitudes of alien species, all fighting against each other for footholds on habitable worlds; in Scalzi’s story (this includes the sequels to OMW) much is already known about most of the alien species, but this forms only a backdrop to the military decisions about how to fight each species; by contrast Haldeman’s story includes only one group of aliens, and the humans know almost nothing about them. When the aliens’ true nature and intentions become known, the story is over.

Both stories focus more on the military strategy than the “science” part of the fiction; Haldeman additionally writes a lot about the process of setting up a habitable structure on a harsh alien world. I found it interesting to note how many tropes of modern scifi — techie concepts that are almost de rigueur nowadays — were absent from Haldeman’s book, since of course he was writing long before those cliches developed. For example, during high-gravity travel, Mandella and his colleagues are enclosed in gel-filled tubes, in total sensory deprivation, unable to communicate with each other or do anything with their brains whatsoever until the ship’s computer decides that the time has come to release them. In fact, much of the actual fighting, aside from in-person combat on planetary surfaces, is done by the shipboard computer and is already finished by the time the soldiers are uncorked; the first thing they do is assess the damage and start in on repairs, rather than joining battle. In Scalzi’s system, unsurprisingly for today, everyone has a computer built into his/her brain, with which they can communicate with each other, play games, watch movies, read books, etc., and presumably the commanding officers could also take part in battles by communicating mentally with the ship’s computer and each other.

Haldeman wrote during the Vietnam War, when American citizens’ trust in government was taking a big hit; Scalzi wrote in post-9/11 America, when ditto. Hence it’s not too surprising that both stories include plot sequences about government coverups, conspiracies, and the like. In the middle section of The Forever War, the surviving soldiers finish their service and return to a much-changed Earth, where they have difficulty fitting back in to society; this seems a pretty clear analogy to the experiences of Vietnam veterans (of which Haldeman was one) upon returning to the US. (Interestingly, when TFW was originally published as a novel — after having been serialized in a magazine — this middle section was removed entirely. Later, the author convinced a publisher to reissue the book with that section reinstated.) In Scalzi’s story, a chance encounter with a different kind of soldier leads the protagonist to become suspicious of the government’s claims about how soldiers are genetically altered, and in the sequels, John Perry goes on to uncover more information about this. Themes of the common soldier being mistrustful of high command are strong in both stories.

So, yes, there are indeed a lot of similarities between the two books. But I certainly wouldn’t lump them together too closely; they also have a lot of differences, and both are excellent reads on their own merits. Haldeman’s style is very much that of his time period, and his first-person narration feels more natural; he writes the way a person would really think or speak. Scalzi’s style is more casual but arguably also more stilted in terms of the first-person narration. I am a big Scalzi fan and have read almost everything he’s ever written, but I must say that I sometimes wonder whether he’s aware that there are other verbs you can use for speaking in addition to “said.” ;) In terms of pure mechanics, his writing style is frankly nothing special, but his gift lies in creating believable characters and interesting situations, and in structuring/pacing his plots so as to keep the reader anxious to know what’s coming next. Haldeman’s writing voice is more graceful, and his story equally engaging, despite an unfortunate tendency to end chapters either in the middle of the action, or with an ominous “little did I know” or “we would find out soon enough” or similar foreshadow-y phrase.

In conclusion, these are both excellent books and you should read them. The Forever War is considered a classic, having received all of the major SF awards and much critical acclaim. Old Man’s War and its sequels (it is a Hitchhiker’s Guide-style “four-book trilogy”) have won and been nominated for a lot of awards as well. And I see on Wikipedia that both of these books are supposedly to be made into movies in the near future; of course, there’s no knowing whether that will actually happen, but I think it has promise in both cases.

Review: Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias

There’s a scene in Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale wherein the protagonist remembers an incident from her earlier life, before the changes to society that take up most of the story. In this flashback, she goes to a convenience store to get something and her debit card doesn’t work. She soon learns that this is happening all over the country: women in America are no longer allowed to spend money on their own, or to work; they are to be financially dependent on their husbands. The protagonist turns to her husband, expecting him to be as shocked and outraged as she is…but he isn’t. He merely says that he’ll take care of her and that it will all blow over. Atwood does an excellent job of portraying the protagonist’s feelings in this moment, when it suddenly hits her that the man she thought she knew and loved, who she thought shared her values and outlook, doesn’t see a problem with her having been fired and denied access to her own money. She realizes that he actually enjoys having this element of control over her, and he truly doesn’t see it as a huge problem. It’s a sinister moment, especially in context, since we know by this point in the story that in fact it didn’t all blow over — that things only got worse for women after that.

I think about this scene often, as a sort of archetypal portrayal of how people can be lulled into huge, damaging changes to society by adjusting to them in increments. There are a lot of parallels in our modern world, of course, but that’s not what I want to talk about right now. Instead I’m using all of this as a lead-in to talk about another book that plies the same motif: Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias. This is a story of persecution of immigrants rather than women, but touches on the same themes of societal change by small steps. It is scheduled for release on October 15th, 2012.

(Disclaimer: I feel I should mention that Ink is published by Crossed Genres Publishing, and that the owners/editors/publishers of CG are my brother and sister-in-law. However, my assessment of the work they publish is not subject to filial obligation. I received an advance reader copy of Ink via the Early Reviewer program at

The ink of the title refers to tattoos that are mandatory for all immigrants in Vourvoulias’s near-future version of America: these identification tattoos are color-coded according to the person’s legal status (temporary resident, permanent resident, naturalized citizen) and are bar-codes that can be scanned, providing detailed information on the person’s immigration status, life history, employment, and so forth. “Ink” is also a general term used to describe any person who has such a tattoo. The story follows a set of characters, some “inks” and some not (curiously, Vourvoulias does not use a generic term for non-inks), as they experience the societal and personal upheaval of the country’s descent into xenophobic bigotry. The action moves back and forth between several characters’ points of view, allowing us to experience the unrest through different eyes: those of a journalist, a “citizen ink,” a teenager whose mother works at an ink detention center, an artist with a mystical/magical connection to the land where he lives. Woven in with the more prosaic story about a society in upheaval, there are fantastical elements to the story, involving spirit animals and magic, closely tied to the mythology of South America. I’m guessing that some might find this part of the story distracting or derailing, but I liked it. I felt that it adds depth to the characterizations, and in illuminating the richness of the cultures, serves to remind us that “ink” or “illegal” does not define a person, a group of people, or an ethnicity.

As I said above, the process of transforming America to a place where only English may be spoken, where non-citizens (and even some naturalized citizens) are routinely harassed and denied the same rights and dignity that white people receive, is described in Ink in a series of “baby steps,” illustrating how even a resistant population can be lulled into acceptance and then complacency when change occurs in small increments (cf. the evolutionary concept of punctuated equilibrium). In the post-9/11 world, the implications are all too clear, and readers of Ink may find themselves wincing at just how very plausible it all is. Vourvoulias does an excellent job of showing how, with each new indignity (shuffling inks to sanitariums, forcibly sterilizing them, taking away their babies to be adopted out), the main characters resist and attempt to rebel, but just as we start to think they might actually get somewhere, the action shifts forward in time and we find that instead the characters have — if reluctantly — accepted the “new reality” and adjusted to it, although they continue to plot, plan, and resist in small ways. (There is some interesting subplot relating to media suppression and creative grassroots networking. When even tweets, blogs, and independent news websites are censored by the government, the underground movements resort to old-fashioned methods of spreading information: pieces of paper taped to walls and strewn around on the streets. One of the major characters, a journalist, struggles repeatedly against official attempts to block him from reporting on the mistreatment of “inks.”)

I found particularly poignant the scenes from the point of view of a teenage girl who, being white and a citizen, is reasonably sheltered from the madness until her mother is put in charge of an “inkatorium,” where inks are locked up on the most flimsy of “medical” grounds. Suddenly confronted by many of the various evils of society, she struggles to put it in perspective and figure out where to stand. In the context of a teenager rebelling against parental values, or the development of a mother-daughter relationship, it’s fairly trite; but that’s okay because that isn’t the story that Vourvoulias is trying to tell in any case. Rather, the teenager provides a “slice-of-life” perspective on the fringes of the social change (not to mention a convenient plot device at certain points). Her progression from disinterested, to interested, to committed, to “collateral damage,” adds further depth to the story.

Repeatedly throughout the narrative, Vourvoulias denies the reader the pleasure of small moments of happiness. When these events do occur in the characters’ lives, she elides over them, referring to them in passing but rarely describing them in detail. This maddening technique keeps the reader on edge and highlights the overall feeling of gloom/darkness that hovers over the story. By the time the novel ends — in bittersweet fashion, with some characters finding happiness, but others dying or losing themselves along the way — the catharsis can only be partial. The reader knows that the damage done to society will take a long time to repair, as will the damage to the surviving characters’ lives and hearts. Though I might quibble with details of the ending itself, I liked the way she left this message clear: no one truly wins in this scenario; racism is neither easy to live with nor easy to fight nor easy to heal from afterward.

Ink is not an easy book to read, precisely because it is so plausible. The setting is near-future-ish enough that one could easily envision many of these events taking place tomorrow — and one is forced to recognize that the xenophobia necessary to make it happen most definitely does exist in modern America. Unless the reader is markedly sheltered, he/she probably has friends, acquaintances, business associates, etc. who could be the characters in the story; their struggles and tribulations hit close to home. The supernatural elements of the story set it apart from our reality somewhat, but not in such a way as to dilute the potency of the rest. Whether you usually read sff or not (although if you don’t, I’m not quite sure what you are doing on this blog), you should give Ink a look.

Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord

Redemption in Indigo is a delightful novel that, while full-length, can be read quickly. I wouldn’t exactly call it popcorn, but it’s the literary equivalent of a comfy armchair with a nice cup of tea on the side table.

Set in an unspecified fantasy land, it’s basically a fairy tale / folk tale in the “gods messing around with human beings’ lives” genre, but manages not to feel cliched or trite. The main character is a woman named Paama, who has fled her gluttonous husband’s house in the city and returned to the village where she grew up. She moves back in with her parents and younger sister, and spends her time cooking glorious food and avoiding the question of what to do about her marriage. Into this setting come several factions of trickster spirits (djombi) who begin meddling in Paama’s life in various ways. As one might expect from this type of story, the human proves more clever, resourceful, compassionate…well, more human than the gods, and so she thwarts their plans and in the end everyone gets what she or he wants or deserves, or occasionally both.

The Amazon summary for this book says that it’s based on a Senegalese folk tale, and while reading it I did get the feeling that it might be a retelling/reimagining of an older story. But since I’m not familiar with the folk tales of Senegal, that didn’t mean much to me so I was able to just experience it for itself. Lord’s “voice” is a pleasure to read and she gives the story a nice conversational style, even interjecting comments like “but you don’t want to hear about that” or “but I’ll tell you that story another time,” or “but I wasn’t there so I can’t be sure.” By making the whole story feel like something you’re being told around a campfire or as a bedtime story, she adds another layer of potential mystery; not only can we not trust the djombi, we can’t even necessary trust the narrator! And it’s all done with gentle humor, so I thoroughly enjoyed the entire thing.

It appears that this is the only novel Karen Lord has had published thus far. I certainly will keep an eye out for anything she might write in the future.

Review: Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and two by Ian McDonald

I finally had the chance to read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, which has been on my want-to-read list for quite a while. Published in 2009, this book won many awards and has appeared on many top-ten type lists.

The story takes place in Thailand in the near future, when global warming has raised ocean levels, forced people to rely on alternative fuel sources (“springpunk”), and depleted the world’s supply of viable seedstock for growing food. The central plot revolves around the efforts of various people — Thai citizens and police, Thai government officials, and foreign businesspeople — to control or affect the agricultural variety and policies. The Thai government has effectively cut itself off from outside food sources in an effort to resist bioterrorism and the influence of organisms that have been genetically engineered to be sterile.

At the opening of this book, I worried that I had been duped, similarly to what I wrote about regarding Robert Sawyer’s Rollback in my review of that book. To wit, although the title The Windup Girl leads one to expect that the book is about a girl, the first few pages introduce at great length several male characters. The windup girl of the title does appear eventually, and becomes one of the primary characters; she is a genetically modified human who was designed to be a sort of assistant/slave/pet/sex-toy and then abandoned by her Japanese master. Although she plays a major part in the story, I’m not sure it entirely merits titling the book after her; it’s a little misleading.

Overall I enjoyed the book: the writing style is fluid and richly descriptive, the plotting/pacing is good, the characters are for the most part well-drawn and engaging. I found the depiction of Thai culture, and the cultures of surrounding countries, very interesting. I don’t know much about that part of the world so I can’t say how true to reality it is, but the author does an excellent job of portraying the richness of Thai culture and heritage, and the ways in which various Thai characters struggle to stay connected to that in the modern world. The book also raises questions about genetic modification — both of plants for food, and of people — which probably represent the main reason that the book got so much attention, because these are compelling topics of interest nowadays. Emiko, the windup girl, is a good example of this: the modifications that were made to her body to make her more attractive to a Japanese audience also make her unsuited to the climate of Thailand, plus she’s basically contraband, so she relies on the protection of a few people to help her with her physical needs and hide her from the authorities. Not surprisingly, this makes her vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. She spends a lot of time trying to figure out where she fits into the world and what she wants out of life, especially as the plot progresses and she begins to discover that her body also has some hidden talents/abilities that she hadn’t been aware of. Particularly ironic is the fact that Emiko seems to be the only character in the story who thinks about these larger questions like “who am I, where do I fit in, what do I want my purpose to be?” The rest of the characters are too busy trying to work their schemes, or to right perceived wrongs, or simply to survive.

Two books that The Windup Girl reminded me of are The Dervish House and River of Gods, both by Ian McDonald. Both of those books, like The Windup Girl, take place in Asian/Eurasian settings — The Dervish House in Istanbul, River of Gods in India. All three books have similar structures and plotting: beginning with a set of apparently unconnected characters going about their business in the same general area, developing plot threads that eventually come together into a larger and more complicated story. The writing styles of the two authors are fairly similar as well. All three stories take place in the near future, incorporating some new technology that doesn’t actually exist yet (in Dervish House there are flying cars and mini-modular robot toys that can be remotely controlled and can change form on the fly; in River of Gods there are self-aware artificial intelligences and virtual realities; in The Windup Girl there are, well, windup girls).

And most interestingly to me, all three of these books develop the theme of ancient cultures and belief systems meeting up with modern technology and attitudes. In all three, the religious heritage of the setting is important to at least one character; all three books include characters who come from a different background/religion, so that themes of differences between belief systems can be explored; all three books mingle technology with the supernatural, “magic,” paranormal phenomena that can’t really be explained. The inherent mysticism of the belief systems of India, Thailand, and Turkey lends itself nicely to these kinds of stories. The incongruity of characters lighting incense and offering sacrifices to the gods while texting on their smartphones (for example) is part of what makes these stories so fascinating — a window onto struggles that are already happening all over our modern earth, as people in many different locations and circumstances are struggling to figure out how the modern can integrate with the traditional.

All three of these books were, for me, the kind that linger in the consciousness well after you’ve finished reading them. Highly recommended — but don’t read them back-to-back; that’s bound to be confusing!

Update to previous post

In my previous post I wrote a review of White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina. I wrote that the story had some promise but was marred in particular by the clunky language, having been translated from Russian by the author’s brother.

I received a comment on my profile from the editor/publisher of this book, saying that based on reviewer feedback they are re-editing the book to clean up the English and fix the translation issues. The editor offered to send me a replacement copy of the book when it is officially published next month. I’ll take her up on that, although I’m not sure I’ll manage to re-read the entire thing, but it should be interesting to see what they’ve done with it.

I just thought I’d mention this here, since I found it an interesting and commendable move by Light Messages Publishing to reach out to the early reviewers in this way. This is, after all, one of the main reasons that publishers provide early-review copies: to get advance feedback on the book, as well as, of course, to drum up interest via reviews.

Review: White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina

This review was originally written for the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina is scheduled for release later this year. It was written in Russian and translated into English by the author’s brother.

I found this book difficult to get into, because the translation from Russian is not very good. Sentence structure is very awkward and clumsy, and in some cases the translator has chosen a word that is simply wrong. For that reason I found it a difficult read.

The story itself is really fairly standard fantasy stuff. We have a magical world with a Duke with two witless sons and a third, who isn’t actually a son but a nephew, and who has magical powers and must go on a quest to save the kingdom. Although some aspects of the magical system, and some of the magical creatures in the forest, are different from what you’ll find in most Western fantasy fiction (the author draws heavily from the Russian folklore of her upbringing), the overall plot outline is very familiar. The hero is a little too perfect; he can solve any puzzle, fight any enemy, perform any magic spell that is needed to advance the plot. The uncle, cousins, and other warriors are two-dimensional at best. Wizards and magi are either good or bad, nothing in between. And so forth.

Things get a bit more interesting once the action moves to the present-day Earth, but even still, it all unfolds a little too conveniently to be believed. Would an ambulance crew really let a mysterious injured man and his friend just hop out of the ambulance and go their merry way without going to the hospital — indeed, without even taking down their names and contact info? That’s just one example. Then a girl comes onto the scene, who conveniently just happens to have access to the guy who has the missing sword. And then we’re to believe that Nik can figure out how to disarm this millionaire’s fancy security system in a matter of minutes. It just doesn’t add up. Additionally, the pacing is erratic and the point-of-view narration switches characters sometimes from one paragraph to the next, which can be quite confusing.

The other thing that really bothered me about this book was the erasure of most of the female characters. At the beginning of the story we learn alllllll about Vraigo and his uncle and three male cousins, but not until several chapters in is there any mention at all of the mother and aunt! And even then it’s just the briefest mention. In the opening scene set during Vraigo’s childhood, the two druid children are presented as being his two best friends and constant companions; yet by the time they reach adulthood, it’s just Vraigo and the boy — the druid sister has been reduced to a harridan who shows up a couple of times to yell at them for getting themselves into danger. Similarly, we don’t even see a hint of Vraigo’s mother until halfway through the book, and then she just pops in to give him a magical amulet and tell him that she’s worried about him, whereafter she disappears completely. Even the young woman in the modern-day section of the story serves only as an object of desire (when first introduced) and later as a plot device. This kind of thing really bothers me, particularly coming from a female author. In the year 2012 I expect better treatment of the female characters in a story like this.

As another LibraryThing reviewer noted, the book comes to a rather inconclusive end. Knowing that this was the first of a trilogy, I certainly didn’t expect all of the plot threads to be neatly tied up, but I did at least expect to end with some sense of closure. That doesn’t really happen here. And in the final analysis, I just didn’t enjoy the book enough to go and seek out the sequel.

Diary of a Murder, by Lee Jackson

I am a fan of Lee Jackson, who posts many fascinating tidbits about life in Victorian London on Twitter @VictorianLondon and on his website I have just finished reading his novel Diary of a Murder (ebook link on Amazon) and enjoyed it very much. (NOTE: link includes my Amazon Affiliates code.)

Not surprisingly, the book takes place in Victorian London, and begins, as such things often do, with the discovery of a corpse. The dead woman’s husband, Jacob Jones, has mysteriously disappeared, which of course propels him to the top of the suspect list. On his desk, police discover his diary, and begin to read it in hopes of clues. The story proceeds in alternating sections: a chunk of the diary, then a scene or two from the police investigation, then more from the diary, and so forth. In short order we meet a fairly standard cast of characters: the mouthy maid, the talkative next-door neighbor, the drunkard father, the kind-hearted and honorable but impoverished maiden. Jacob Jones’s diary takes us into what at first seems like a pretty ordinary middle-class couple’s boring life, but quickly starts to get “interesting” as Jones writes about trying to keep his wife and her family ignorant of his origins, while at the same time trying to help a young woman out of poverty and keep a young coworker from getting himself into trouble.

The author includes plenty of little details about life in London of this era, which I personally find very interesting and feel that they add to the atmosphere of the story. His characters are well-drawn and the plot proceeds nicely. At times, the police officers make reference to parts of the diary that we haven’t read yet — a gimmick that can be annoying, but clever; it points the reader’s attention in directions that may turn out to be red herrings. Meanwhile, the reader can’t be sure how much of the diary’s contents we are supposed to believe; the suspense builds as the police seem to be getting nowhere with their investigation, while the events in the diary are coming closer and closer to the day of the murder. Thus Jackson keeps us guessing, and the pull to find out what really happened is irresistible.

I will admit that I don’t usually have a lot of luck guessing “whodunit” in murder mysteries, and this was no exception. The murderer both is and isn’t who you might have expected it to be — I can say no more without risking spoilers! The story wraps up with several big plot twists, only one of which I had an inkling about; in sum, a very satisfying conclusion, skillfully crafted.

On a side note, the book also deals sensitively with the topic of postpartum depression (which, of course, was not recognized as such in the time period wherein the story takes place). The diary depicts quite poignantly the woman’s despondency and her husband’s feelings of frustration and helplessness with it. Some might find this aspect of the story difficult. Toward the end, a character comments that the murdered woman is better off dead because her depression (again, not called such) would have made the rest of her life miserable. This comment fits the personality of the character who says it, but to modern sensibilities it comes off as a bit shocking. I mention this not as a criticism, merely an observation of how times change. I feel that Jackson did a good job of portraying the contemporary attitude toward depression in general, evoking sympathy for the particular character and in general for women of that era who had to suffer.

In conclusion, this is an excellent murder mystery, and if you like that kind of thing, you should most certainly check it out. As far as I can tell, it is only available in ebook format; but it only costs $3, so it’s quite a good value.