Sunday, May 24, 2015

Seveneves



SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neal Stephenson writes in many different genres - historical fiction (The Baroque Cycle Collection), crime thrillers (Reamde) and cyberpunk (Snow Crash). My favorite of his is Cryptonomicon, which defies classification. Seveneves is pure hard science fiction.

MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

The book begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon by an unknown "agent" leaving it in large chunks. A scientist (clearly based on Neil deGrasse Tyson) determines that the subsequent creation of rocks caused by repeated collisions of the chunks will cause devastating meteor showers, eventually wiping out the earth. He sets the time frame for this at two years. This announcement sets into motion a desperate attempt to save the genomes of earth and its people. They build on the existing International Space Station, and select certain people to be saved by rocketing them there. Part one of the book deals with this effort.

Part two is what happens after the earth is wiped out, and humanity struggles to survive in space. This is where Stephenson explores a lot about politics and human motivations. It's almost exasperating to see humans perpetuate their little 'empire building' power trips, but it certainly seems realistic.

Part three is 5,000 years later, as humanity has spread out in orbit around Earth, and has started terraforming and colonizing the planet once again. This part was less exciting to me, as it seemed to just be an excuse for Stephenson to show off his 'cool' technology ideas. Don't get me wrong, they were cool ideas, but there was only minimal plot to move this section along.

Stephenson writes with great clarity, and the science used in the story is more than plausible. I was riveted by the first two parts of the book, despite all the technobabble. My only quibble with part one was the lack of societal breakdown caused by the impending doom of the world. He had people going to hotels and eating in restaurants during this time. You mean to tell me that housekeepers, chefs, waiters, and dishwashers would keep on going to work, day after day, knowing they'd all be dead in less than two years? There was a bit of unrest around those who were selected to be saved in space, but there was a real lack of the chaos I would expect under the circumstances. Part of this may have been a plot choice - adding additional chaos on earth would have slowed down the main story - but since all the science and politics seemed so realistic, this lack was pretty glaring for me. However, this is a minor quibble, and I would still recommend this to any science fiction fan, or those who like post-apocalyptic fiction.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bucking the Sun



Bucking the SunBucking the Sun by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Ivan Doig's writing! He captures Montana like no other writer I've come across. This book is slightly different than the others I've read in that it's kind of historical fiction. It's set during the depression, when the WPA decided to build a dam on the Missouri River, in northeastern Montana, at Ft. Peck. But in typical Doig style, it's also the story of a family, the Duffs, whose lives are entwined with the building of the dam. The father, Hugh, is a farmer along the river, upstream from the dam site. He's barely eking out a living, but when told he has to move because his farm will be flooded, he doesn't take it well. Part of his enmity toward the dam is the fact that his oldest son, Owen, is one of the primary engineers for the dam, and they have an estranged relationship - probably stemming from the fact that Owen didn't want to be a farmer like his father, and went off to college. The book follows what happens to the family, as they all end up working at the dam site.

The story is told as a sort of flashback/flashforward, centering on the mystery of a naked man and woman found drowned in a truck in the reservoir. It mostly centers on the Duff clan, all of whom end up working at the dam site, in one capacity or another, including Hugh's brother, Darius, a communist/unionist from Scotland, who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the already tangled relationships of the family. Doig's characters are all wonderfully fleshed out. They are all very believable and Doig is able to make them recognizable as typical Montana folk, without being stereotypical. I felt as if I could bump into any of them in any small Montana town. The twists and turns of their relationships lead to the final reveal of the mystery, which is quite plausible.

The characters alone are only part of this book. Dominating and driving the plot is the dam. It's practically another character. It was the largest back-filled earthen dam in the world (may still be), at four miles long. Building it was a major achievement of engineering and manpower. Over 10,000 workers helped to build it. Part of my enjoyment of the book was reading about how it was designed and built, and the obstacles they had to overcome to do so. It was absolutely fascinating and never bogged down the flow of the narrative.

The title of the book comes from a saying that is used to describe what happens when the sun is setting or rising and is just on the horizon and blinds you, but you keep on driving (or doing whatever else you're doing) regardless of the danger. We see this played out explicitly with one of the characters driving back to Ft. Peck one evening, but we also see this metaphorically, as characters are blinded by their fears or desires, yet keep going forward anyway, heedless of what might result. It is this blind progress that causes the conflict among the characters. An apt metaphor, indeed.

I highly recommend this book to anyone from Montana, to history buffs, and to mystery lovers. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Time for the Stars



Time for the StarsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is juvenile science fiction book, from the 1950's (what we'd call Young Adult Fiction, today), so it must be read with that in mind. It is told in the first person, by Tom, one of a pair of identical twins. He and his brother, Pat, are chosen by a non-profit agency to participate in some tests, for an untold purpose. It becomes clear that the tests are to determine the ESP capability of twins. It is discovered that Tom and Pat have very good ESP capability between themselves, and it is finally revealed why they want ESP-enabled twins: for long-range space travel, with one twin on a ship and the other back home on earth, so that they can communicate despite the relativistic differences. (It is determined that ESP does not obey the physical laws of relativity, and is instantaneous, no matter the physical distance, or relative time displacement.0 The rest of the book is about the adventures of the ship, as they seek a habitable planet, and the differences that arise between the twins, as they age at different rates.

This is pretty much a standard science fiction tale from the 50's, without a lot of the cheesy, pro-American rah-rah. Kudos to Heinlein for addressing the issues of relativity - that facet of the book is well-done. But, ESP? Really? I guess that we should cut him some slack for that - back then, lots of people thought ESP was a reality, and could be utilized in various ways. But that was a hard hurdle to clear, for me. Once I accepted that part of the story, the rest of it went as expected - some sibling rivalry, a few "gee whiz" moments with supposedly cool technology, and the usual amount of sexism. At least Heinlein was realistic about the dangers faced on alien planets, and we were not subjected to 'bug-eyed-aliens' on the planets visited. This book is not the usual tripe of "good old American know-how" triumphing over everything, which is refreshing. For that, and for the good treatment of relativistic issues, I give it 3 stars, despite the ESP factor. I think that had I read this when I first discovered science fiction, as a young girl in the 60's, I would have LOVED it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Trigger Warning



Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, Neil. How do you do it? How do you manage to write such amazing stories? Stories full of magic, full of emotion, full of truth. Stories that make you laugh, make you cringe, make you feel. As an aspiring writer myself, when I read your stories I despair - how can I ever hope to write even half was well as you do?

The stories and poems in this collection were almost all previously published. Some I had read before. One, "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" was even published as an illustrated book. But even the ones I had read before were worth reading again. That's the thing about Gaiman - his works are so multi-layered that upon each rereading you will find something new, something that catches you out, that you didn't notice before.

As in every collection, readers will find stories that resonate with them more than others. For me, these were the highlights:
"The Thing About Cassandra" - Quintessential Gaiman. It's all about the power of words to create.
"Down to a Sunless Sea" - Another quintessential Gaiman story. It's a bit creepy, and full of wonderful prose and imagery. Also kind of melancholic.
"Orange" - A delightfully humorous story, told as only the responses to an investigator's questions. A bit cheeky, but it works.
"The Case of Death and Honey" - Did you ever wonder why Sherlock Holmes got into beekeeping after retiring? This story provides the answer.
"An Invocation of Incuriosity" - Another vintage Gaiman story. Wryly humorous, with not a word out of place.
"And Weep, Like Alexander" - See previous.
"Nothing O'Clock" - A wonderful Dr. Who romp, that even non-Whovians will enjoy.
"Black Dog" - A creepy story. The further adventures of Shadow, the protagonist from American Gods. Gaiman at his best.

The stories and poems not listed were all still wonderfully written, and full of imagination and originality. They just didn't quite hit home for me. Nevertheless, they are all worth reading (and rereading).

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.