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.
In an amazing lecture published in The Guardian, Neil Gaiman defends literature, libraries, and everything that’s good in the world:
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. …
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. …
We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Kindred by Octavtia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler is one of very few African-American women who began writing science fiction in the 1970s. This is her first novel. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s not quite as good as The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, her later futuristic dystopian novels.
Kindred is about an African-American woman from the 1970s who is abruptly and suddenly transported to 1819 Maryland. The reasons for this time travel are never quite clear. To me, this seemed somewhat clumsy on Butler’s part, but the novel’s focus is less on the transport itself than on what Dana learns while she is in the antebellum South. She saves the life of a plantation owner’s son and becomes ensconced in that family. The most interesting parts of the book are the explorations of her fraught relationship with the boy whose life she saved as he grows and takes responsibility for his father’s plantation and slaves. Her role in the past is complicated by the fact that she knows this boy is one of her own ancestors, through a child he fathers with a slave woman. Dana also gets to know many of the slaves, and the internal politics of their society are fascinating. There are some brutally violent scenes, of course. It’s a revealing exploration of the twisted psychology of slavery.
Across the Universe by Beth Revis
Across the Universe is set on a spaceship headed to colonize a distant planet. It begins with Amy, a narrator, watching her parents getting cryogenically frozen, and then getting frozen herself. There are chilling descriptions of the time she spends in the deep freeze while fully conscious. The other narrator, Elder, the ship’s leader-in-training, sees Amy in her frozen chamber and kind of falls in love with her. There’s an almost fairy-tale quality to this part of the story. But Amy’s awakening is violent, not romantic, and leads to the discovery of many secrets behind the ship’s leadership.
The society on the ship is organized in a strange way that is gradually revealed, with some really well-plotted exposition. There’s a mystery to solve, and twists at the end that were genuinely satisfying. The unique circumstances and choices of the characters raise questions that are really big and thought-provoking, which is always something I like in a YA novel. There was a near-rape scene that seemed kind of gratuitous. But besides that, the narrative was fairly balanced between the male and female perspectives, with both narrators changing and learning and figuring things out.
I really enjoyed this story, and consider it among the best YA novels I’ve read in a while. I’m glad it’s the beginning of a series and that there seem to be a lot of unresolved questions for the two heroes to deal with. I’m looking forward to reading the next one.