Armada by Ernest Cline
I picked up this book because I liked Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One. This story has a lot of the same nerdy inspirations, but without the post-apocalyptic darkness and incisive critique of corporate tyranny. This sci-fi novel is about an alien invasion and a far-reaching conspiracy to ready humanity to fight it off through training an army of video gamers to operate drones. The narrator is Zack Lightman, a top gamer recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance to pilot spaceships remotely. Through observing that the real aliens act a little too much like simulations of themselves, he uncovers a conspiracy within the conspiracy and saves planet Earth. It’s fun, sprinkled with lots of pop culture trivia, and structured self-consciously around Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It felt like a novelization of one of the summer blockbusters so frequently referenced–definitely light reading. The ending seemed a little bit open, so that I wondered if there is a sequel in the works.
A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray
The premise of this YA sci-fi fantasy romance is kind of complicated, but if you just go with it, you can enjoy a great love story with some startling plot twists and surprises. Marguerite’s scientist parents have discovered a way to travel between dimensions. When her father is killed, she and one of their research assistants travel to another dimension in pursuit of the killer. They travel to several different versions of reality, each creatively constructed and strange. Marguerite spends most of her time in a version of Russia where the Romanovs survived, and she is one of their descendants. There, she falls in love in a super-romantic, lusciously-described way. There is a love triangle, and then a love triangle within that love triangle, if that makes any sense. I thought the concept and the rules of these alternate dimensions were as plausibly explained as anything in science fiction, and they offer a ton of narrative possibilities and potential for conflict, which is the ultimate purpose of sci-fi complications, in my mind.
I enjoyed Gray’s vampire series, Evernight, but this series is even better. I’m looking forward to picking up the second book in the series.
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
This sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go picks up right after that book’s cliffhanger ending, as both Todd and wounded Viola are captured by the villain, the Mayor. Narration alternates between Todd and Viola, who are separated for most of the story. Todd reluctantly joins the Mayor’s inquisition, while Viola gets taken in by a mostly-female resistance group, whose leader may be just as bad as the Mayor, in her own way. The most interesting thing about the story might be the way it shows how good people can be convinced to become complicit in evil, especially when the pressure is on and a skilled manipulator pulls the right psychological strings. Gender did not seem as prominent an issue in this book as in the first. Instead, the focus was on slavery and colonization, as Todd served as a foreman forcing the alien Spackle to work, and on terrorism, as the Answer bombed strategic sites. The last book in the trilogy is bound to be just as exciting, as war is brewing and a new power enters the arena–the colonists from Viola’s ship.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
This technological dystopia is about a near-future world in which viruses pass from computers to humans, and in which dependence on devices causes language to degenerate. The protagonist is a woman searching for her missing father amid the chaos of this new epidemic. Her father edits a dictionary that is bought out by the Word Exchange, an online service that supplies words to users who can’t remember them. She follows clues and uncovers a conspiracy. Each chapter is introduced with a word and definition, and alternate chapters are narrated by the missing editor’s protegee, who has a crush on his daughter. One cool stylistic effect was the way Graedon portrayed one of the “word flu’s” main symptoms as aphasia. Watching characters’ language fall apart as they sickened was fascinating and full of pathos.
This story was fun, but while the “word flu” worked fine on the level of plot, I didn’t think it worked on a second level of metaphor as well. The danger of contagion and the suggested treatment of isolation seemed wrong on that level: increased engagement seems the way to solve a problem of language and learning. If the point of a dystopia novel is to caution us about problems in our own society, the warning here seems simply to be about the need to unplug periodically. So the book wasn’t very deep, but it was enjoyable.
Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
This book concludes the great Across the Universe series. At the beginning of the novel, Elder and Amy crash-land on the planet that they have traveled lightyears to colonize. While they and their people explore the planet, they’re being killed off in mysterious ways, one by one. There are conflicts between Elder and Amy’s dad, a military commander who has assumed leadership of the Earth-born passengers who were cryogenically frozen. Revis proves that she has the guts to write horrific violence and kill characters and imagine some real human evil. The love story is one of the trilogy’s strengths. I like to see teenage characters who get to have sex without horrible consequences that just turn the story into a morality play, and this qualifies.
Like the other books, the plot depended a bit too heavily on events progressing extremely quickly, and people trusting the wrong people, foolishly withholding information from the right people, and failing to demand to be told everything. I kind of expected part of the ending, but there were definitely surprises. A couple of those surprises seemed a bit far-fetched (which may or may not be fair to say about science fiction) but still, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At the very end Amy really comes into her own and becomes a true leader and a real bad ass, growing through grief and making a change that I love to see a female protagonist make. Now where is the cable series based on these books? I want it in production last year so I can watch it tomorrow.
A Million Suns by Beth Revis
This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.
The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
In this short book of essays and reviews, Margaret Atwood discusses genre, superheroes, mad scientists, and imaginary places. She goes into great detail about how 1984 inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. She coins a new word, ustopia, a combination of utopia and dystopia, because she believes any utopia contains within it the potential for a dystopia, and dystopias are usually utopias gone wrong. She reviews some old Victorian books I’ve never heard of, as well as ones I’ve enjoyed, like Brave New World and Never Let Me Go. Throughout, she references an amazingly wide array of books, movies, comics, and poems, creating connections between many disparate cultural elements. Some of her insights weren’t new to me, like the idea of 1984 and Brave New World representing opposite directions for the future to take. A few of the ideas were ones I’d heard in person when she gave a lecture here in Nashville, like the fact that every atrocity committed in The Handmaid’s Tale is one that has really happened at some point in history. Nevertheless, it’s a fun, smart read, literary criticism for the masses. At the end there are even a few treats in the form of mini-stories about strange and fascinating speculative scenarios.