Saturn Run

“Trust no one, everything breaks, nothing works as advertised, and if anything can go wrong, it will.” (Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein)


I’ve never written a review that includes a spoiler before, but here, there’s no way around it. The whole book succeeds or fails because Sandford kills off the only likable main character early on: the smart-mouthed, mid-western engineer, Becca Johansson. Part of me admires this decision as an incredibly brave choice. It’s brave because it’s realistic: even important people die on dangerous adventures in space. It’s brave because Sandford doesn’t use the death to turn the whole book into a graphic, GOT-like, character-killing fest. It’s brave because he cuts off the only love story in the book before it gets a chance to gain traction.

Yet, while brave and admirable and utterly unpredictable, the reason why most authors don’t kill off their main-and-only-likable characters is that books falter without them. They’re the keystone to readability. After Becca dies, the plot line moves forward mechanically, without the twist of humor that defines the first three quarters. Sandford and Ctein give the book a realism that most genre fiction lacks, but they sacrifice much of what makes the book compelling in the process. Is realism worth that much?

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 496
Ending: Not satisfying; too much about the greed of politics instead of science or philosophy
Incidental Learning: anthropology, space, engineering
Further Reading: This is part of the realistic science fiction movement that was popularized by The Martian

Never Let Me Go

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him.” (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)

This book has not aged well; It happen sometimes with sci-fi. Science fiction can age marvelously even if the author miss-predicts small details, yet, if the author misses something fundamental, the whole book ages out. I can suspend my disbelief about clones: that’s not the problem. The problem is that the book in no way addresses how the media (social and traditional) would react to the existence of clones harvested for their organs. I find it unbelievable that a clone-capable world would not also be in the information age, which would mean that those clones would be able to tell their story.

Ishiguro writes a completely consistent first person narrative, never for a moment stepping out of the consciousness of a 30-something female clone who calmly accepts her fate and status. Each description, each character, is seen only through her eyes, with her personality, with her unreliability and biases. Ishiguro doesn’t over-explain, but waits to reveal facts as the narrator feels comfortable telling them. This is gorgeously written literary sci-fi and worth reading for that reason, even if it does miss the sci-fi relevancy mark.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288 pages
Ending: understated; acceptance of tragedy
Further Reading: As I try to think of read-alikes, I’m drawn to contemplative literary fiction, as opposed to science fiction, like Willa Cather or The Summer Book.

The Martian

“The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.” (The Martian by Andy Weir)

“As with most of life’s problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.” (The Martian by Andy Weir)

The MartianIf you were to guess the genre of The Martian based on the title, cover, and press, you’d probably think ‘sci-fi’. Yet, you’d be wrong. Science fiction envisions a future based on current trends, scientific discoveries, or blind hope. Science fiction novels focus on atmosphere, create new language, or scare you with their believably. The Martian does none of this. After reading the first few pages, you might take another stab at picking out a genre for this book: survival. Yet, your standard survival genre novel hinges on the reader being scared for the characters’ lives. It is almost impossible to be afraid for the excessively competent, always-optimistic Mark Watney (aka The Martian). So where does that leave us?

The Martian creates its own genre. It is a genre of pure problem solving. Mark is confronted with a problem (i.e. surviving on Mars) and he solves it step by step, letting the reader in on his original, humorous thought process as he plants potatoes, calculates oxygen levels, and plans for every scenario. The sparsely defined outer space setting is merely an excuse for more problems to thoughtfully solve. Unlike any other book or genre, you leave this one with the sense that all of life could be led like this – moving from one solvable problem to the next – if only you yourself could keep the setting and background noise down to a minimum.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 385 pages
Ending: Satisfying, but I wish Weir would’ve gone on to show life back on earth and how this adventure had changed it
Incidental Learning: Science – tons of it, problem solving, outer space, mars, space travel
Further Reading: I’ve heard that the TV show MacGyver might be in this same problem solving genre, but I can’t confirm myself.

Station Eleven

“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.” (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel)

Station Eleven CoverFor those of us who love both literature and science fiction, very few books satisfy both appetites. Science fiction books can be imaginative and have excellent pacing, but rarely are they beautifully written. If you’ve ever wanted to read a post-apocalyptic piece that doesn’t focus on zombies and the end of civilization, but instead focuses on hope and a clearly imagined depopulated world, now is your chance.

I can’t remember the last good genre fiction I read without a romance at its center. Mandel focuses on the relationships between family and friends here instead of the ever-present love triangle. Romantic relationships do occur, but they are usually evaluated in retrospect, and with an eye to how they changed the characters. Mandel also offers another rarely seen phenomenon in genre fiction: the strong, feminine female lead. she gives us Miranda, an artist who repents nothing and loves the symmetry of her day job. The book largely revolves around Miranda, and the objects she owns and creates, but she remains out of sight just enough to leave her mostly a mystery – which is a shame, because I could read whole books about her.

On top of everything, on top of not succumbing to the trendy love triangle, on top of writing a spectacular female lead, on top of her beautiful writing, on top of blending literature with science fiction, Mandel also integrates an imaginary book into her plot, in the modern form of a graphic novel. I am just so thankful that this book exists.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 352 pages
Ending: Beautiful and Hopeful (like the whole book)
Incidental Learning: Symphonies, Lives of Celebrities
Further Reading: The only other genre fiction+literature book I can recall is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – wish is Fantasy+Literature.

Golden Son

“I seize him with my hands, raise him high into the air. But I hurt him no more. I will not demean the moment with cruelty like Karnus or Titus would. My condescension is my weapon. I set Pliny back in the ArchGovernor’s chair. I buff his dragonfly pin. Straighten his hair like a kindly mother. Pat him on his tear-stained cheek and extend my hand…”(Golden Son by Pierce Brown)

Golden SonTake a moment to think about all of the trilogies you’ve read. The first book is strong and fascinating. You can feel the author’s excitement and hope. You wait in anticipation until the next book comes out, only to find out that it is merely a bridge between the beginning and the conclusion. Nothing happens. The author looses confidence. The characters stagnate. The plot gets bulky and clunky. <sigh> I’ve been through this far too often. So, it is with an incredible amount of respect that I say – Golden Son is even better than it’s first book, Red Rising.

Pierce Brown manages to keep the pace up every chapter, all without giving too much away. He lets his characters grow, yet forces them to remain interesting. His world gets bigger and more complicated without becoming unwieldy. He doesn’t let himself repeat the same plot and themes, though he had the opportunity. He is obviously a reader – one who took the time to learn from previous book’s mistakes. Now, I can’t wait to see how he’ll treat the third book. Will he do most genre authors before him have done, force half of the conclusion to be a huge, over-blown battle, or will he keep his focus on the characters? I have the highest hopes for the latter.

Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 464
Ending: Main character takes a big risk, and it seems like it won’t pay off…
Incidental Learning: How it feels to trust a genre author
Further Reading: Can you think of another second book that is better than the first? I can’t. I guess we’re just left with waiting for the third book.

Red Rising

“So this kid is what? A predestined Alexander? A Caesar? A Genghis? A Wiggin?’ I ask. ‘This is slagging nonsense.” (Red Rising by Pierce Brown)

Red Rising CoverThere is nothing better than books within books. Imaginary books, real books. Characters reading them, authors referencing them. All wonderful. This is why, when Pierce Brown references Card’s Ender’s Game (above), I almost die with happiness. Brown not only mentions another beloved sci-fi novel, but actually brings that world into his own, implying that his story could be a potential future of Card’s. With just that one word, he helps me imagine countless scenarios that could connect Ender’s and Darrow’s stories, allowing me to write spin-offs and fan-fictions to my heart’s content. Though the worlds don’t truly connect (Brown later says that his people have never seen aliens), it shows that Brown is one of us – just another reader who grew up on the greats of fantasy and sci-fi.

Red Rising has also been hailed as the next Hunger Games since both books are dystopias with teenaged characters. They are almost similar, except that Pierce Brown is the more reliable author. He is consistent where Collins is not. Collins disappointed her fans by repeating her plots over and over again, not paying attention to her characters, and not valuing her audience. It is always possible that Brown will crash and burn on the second or third book in this trilogy (as many have done before him), but his strong writing makes that seem unlikely. It’s easy to trust an author who builds conflict from the first moment, who isn’t overly protective of his characters, and who doesn’t get bogged down in the details. I have high hopes for the conclusion of this trilogy.
Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBRAvoid
Length: 382
Ending: Hopeful, tense
Incidental Learning: Fate of Ender Wiggins’ world
Further Reading: Read the second book Golden Son immediately.

Infinite Jest

“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility, like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find… that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of a Substance slowly leave the body… That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males… That some people really do look like rodents…” (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

Infinite Jest Cover

Infinite Jest the book is the complete opposite of its subject, Infinite Jest the fatally entertaining film. If the book has a plot, it is that a mysterious entertainment cartridge labeled only with a smiley face is circulating the country; everyone who watches it is so entertained they loose all desire to do anything else with their lives. The book revolves around the family of the man who made the entertainment, the cross-dressing American investigator and wheel-chaired Canadian separatist looking for it, and the hideously deformed/fatally perfect cocaine addict who starred in it. In contrast to the film, reading Infinite Jest is hardly entertaining at all.

The pleasure derived from the work is so far removed from the act of reading it that the pleasure’s origin is hardly recognizable. The reading experience is so unfamiliar, so blocked by extra phrases, pedantic descriptions of drugs and tennis, and laborious endnotes, that your mind is working too hard to grasp its nuances while actually reading. The intense pleasure, the hilarity and brilliance, somehow come after, while your mind is subconsciously sorting through the inanity. You’ll often find that a half-hour session spent reading Infinite Jest will yield only frustration, but later you’ll be struck by an original and perfect thought that you’ll swear came fully formed from your own mind, until you remember that boring book you were reading earlier…

For example, you’ll see a GIF out of the corner of your eye and think ‘Is that Mr. Bouncety Bounce?’ before you realize that Mr. Bouncety Bounce is a disturbing adult dressed like a baby who appears on television only in Infinite Jest.  You’ll make a passing reference to Identification or your Own Personal Daddy and then register that those terms don’t have much meaning to the general populace, but have somehow become part of the way that you think and express yourself. You’ll be reading in a room of crazy people (read: library) who are singing unawares with their headphones on or dancing to no music at all, and you’ll find out that you’re the craziest of them all because you’ve been laughing for three minutes already without even noticing.

The act of reading infinite jest may not be consistently entertaining, it may be a rather poor experience in fact, but you’ll find that your head is a much more interesting, unexpected place to be as a result of the effort. So I can’t make any judgments on the book as a whole now. I am going to wait. I expect my mind will be pulling it together for some time yet.

Recommended Action: I couldn’t say. Read it if you are willing to commit approximately 6 weeks of a reading life to a book that is at once hilarious, disgusting, boring, brilliant, pedantic, and experimental.
Length: 1078  6″x 9.2″ pages in aprox. 10pt font with 100 pages of 6 pt. endnotes.
Ending: So far, outrageously disappointing. Pulls nothing together, resolves nothing, and is, frankly, disgusting. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Incidental Learning: You will learn more than you ever needed to know about recreational drugs, half-way houses, AA, Tennis, physical deformities, and modern art films.
Further Reading: This should probably be prior reading. You should be familiar with Hamlet, obviously, but I also found just having read A Clockwork Orange incredibly helpful – there are similar thematic overtones and Wallace borrows a lot from Burgess’s language and style.