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Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

Tankborn

An evil and cruel plot involving small children. Alien animals such as the spider-like rat-snake or camel-like drom. Levitating cars. A secret underground rebellion. All these combine to make an intriguing science fiction world. Add in mystery, adventure, romance and action and Tankborn has it all.

Kayla 6982 is a GEN or Genetically Engineered Non-human who was created in a tank. She is the lowest level of the tightly controlled, rigidly stratified society on the planet Loka settled by survivors of a ravaged Earth.  She grew up with an unrelated “nurture mother” and has no control over where she lives, her education,  job, or life. She can be electrically reset (similar to being lobotomized) for the smallest infraction.

Despite her lowly status Kayla is happy living in the Chadi tenements with Tala, her kind but stern nurture mother and her mischievous nurture brother, Jal. But she knows her time there is short, because at the age of fifteen she will receive her Assignment which will determine her future work. Her best friend, Mishalla, has already been Assigned and they may never see each other again as GENs are not allowed to contact each other after they are Assigned. Kayla’s sket (skill set or genetically modified ability) is great arm strength, so she expects to be Assigned to manual labor.

To her surprise, Kayla is Assigned to assist an elderly high-status man, Zul. Before long, she learns that things are not what they seem. Kayla is strongly attracted to Zul’s great-grandson, handsome Devak, although she knows that romance between them is forbidden. The highborn family hide many secrets and Kayla must rethink her world and unlock  the secrets because she, Mishalla, Devak, Zul and dozens of innocent children are in grave danger.

Tankborn is a complete story in itself but Kayla’s story is continued in the trilogy of Awakening (2013) and Rebellion (2014).

Try Tankborn if you like well-imagined dystopias featuring young protagonists like The Hunger Games or Divergent.

Check the WRL catalog for Tankborn.

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shiftToday’s post is written by Tabor.

Shift, written by Hugh Howey, is the prequel to the dystopian novel Wool and recounts the events that created the Silos or the housing that mankind inhabits after a nuclear fallout. It follows the alternating narratives of Donald, a congressman in the 2050s and Troy, a worker from Silo 1 in the 2110s. Donald Keene is a young congressman who has been tasked to design a “just in case” building by Senator Thurman because of his degree in architecture. Along with this proposition, Donald’s past is dredged up when his ex-girlfriend from college is also assigned to the project. During the course of his chapters, Donald struggles with his marriage, his old flame, and the mysterious nature of the project he has been assigned. In the future, Troy, who works in the same building that Donald designed, is attempting to find out the purpose of the Silos while avoiding authoritative superiors. This is the foundation for the story that unravels until it reaches the time frame of Wool and imparts the notion that mankind should not attempt to prolong their mortality.

Along for the journey is another new character named Mission Jones, whose narrative burdens the reader with an idea of the deception that takes place in the Silos. Other characters that the reader knows also appear, such as Jimmy “Solo” Parker, whose origins are explored, and Juliette, who makes a brief but important appearance in the tale.

Even though this story takes place in a world which is alien to our own, it remains accessible through the characters that inhabit it. Along with creating an original world, Howey is also able to construct the challenges and complexities that come along in this world with a flare of empathy. He is able to create characters that are relatable, undeterred by the fact that they exist centuries after us and face entirely different obstacles than our own present ones. This book is not a sterile and uninviting dystopian novel; though the book offers bleak circumstances, it is the characters who bring warmth to the story. Ultimately, the characters allow the reader to hope that the outcome will not be desolate with their desire to discover the truth and uncover the reason for the existence of the Silos.

In order for a reader to start this particular book, they only need to understand that this is a continuing story and finally that it is dystopian. The only issue with Shift, which is previously encountered with its predecessor, is the inability to give a synopsis without inevitably spoiling the plot and events of the novel. Simply, Wool created the equation whereas Shift exposes the “why” factor of the equation, but what these characters do with this information has yet to be answered. It is a masterfully done book that peels away at the surface slowly until the very end of the story. Even then, the core element of the story is not revealed and encourages the reader to continue the journey along with the characters.

Check the WRL catalog for Shift

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we3Positive that the war of the future should not require human casualties, Air Force researchers have been working on machines that will do the fighting in the human’s stead. But these fighters are not purely metal, they are cyborgs: coats of armor attached to implants in an animal. The three original prototypes consist of a dog, a cat, and a rabbit. Named 1, 2, and 3, together they comprise WE3. Each possesses skills that are reflective of their host animal and working together as a team they are dynamic and fearsome. As weapons, they are ruthless and programmable, but also maintain some autonomy.

I had seen this book several times, but was initially turned off by the front picture of the three animals in their mechanical suits. Convinced that it was just another book full of big robot battles and not much depth, I was judging a book by its cover and was completely wrong about the story. For at the heart of the plot, and of the suits, are the three animals. This is horror, but the terror comes not from the copious amounts of blood sprayed around the dark pages or the shock of sudden violent deaths, but rather from the slow-building dismay and revulsion you experience as the contrast between the past lives of the animals as beloved companions and their current weaponized state gains clarity. Three separate Lost Animal posters are scattered through the first part of the book, and the distress over their missing animals by their owners is conveyed in heartbreaking fashion through the personal photos that are attached and especially, in the case of the rabbit, by the childish scrawls of the unhappy young owners.

The innocence of the animals, with their vague memories of a faraway place called “home,” and their strong will to survive and be safe, clash against the efforts of the humans who are convinced that they need to be decommissioned and destroyed. At the back of the story is an examination of the morality of war and the struggle to face the ethics of what science has so ruthlessly created.

Gripping, atmospheric, and unsettling, this is a story which will stay with you for a while after you have read it.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels and horror.

Search the catalog for WE3.

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cinder 2Marissa Meyer reinvents the story of Cinderella as dystopian science fiction in Cinder, the first novel in her series The Lunar Chronicles.

Cinder is a teenage mechanic living and working in New Beijing.  An orphan, she lives with her legal guardian, Adri, and Adri’s daughters, Pearl and Peony.  She doesn’t remember anything about her past or the operation that turned her into a cyborg. Every day, Cinder works in the local market fixing androids and other electronic devices with her trusted android Iko by her side, returning at night to a difficult home life with Adri and Pearl.  Her lone ally in the house is the sweet and gentle Peony.  One day, the handsome Prince Kai comes to Cinder’s booth asking if she can fix an android he calls Nainsi.  An immediate attraction develops between Cinder and Prince Kai, but Cinder refuses to acknowledge her feelings because she’s afraid the prince will reject her once he finds out she’s a cyborg.

Prince Kai is also struggling with a few problems of his own.  His father, the Emperor Rikan, has been stricken with a seemingly incurable plague called letumosis, also referred to as the Blue Fever.  If Rikan dies, Prince Kai will become the Emperor and even more attractive to the Lunar Queen Levana. Before he fell ill, Emperor Rikan and Queen Levana had been negotiating an alliance.  The prince, however, is suspicious of the motives of the queen, a crafty and vain woman who was implicated in the deaths of her sister, Queen Channary, and her niece, Princess Selene, the rightful heir to the queen’s throne.  Prince Kai believes Princess Selene may actually be alive, and he’s desperately searching for any information to confirm his suspicions.

When Emperor Rikan dies of letumosis, Queen Levana travels to New Beijing to discuss the alliance with Prince Kai. Levana’s idea of an alliance includes marriage to Prince Kai, and she uses the threat of war to secure an engagement. Meanwhile, Cinder discovers information that could be useful to Prince Kai while working on Nainsi.  Will Cinder reach Prince Kai before the coronation ball, where he will announce his engagement to Queen Levana?

Cinder is an inventive twist on the classic tale of Cinderella with great characters and fast-paced action. Cinder is an appealing heroine who uses her intelligence and creativity to solve problems.  Prince Kai is a noble hero who tries to stay one step ahead of Queen Levana’s schemes.  The attraction between Cinder and Prince Kai is obvious from their initial meeting, but I liked how Meyer kept the subplot fresh by adding a few unpredictable complications.  Queen Levana is an intriguing villain who uses the power of illusion to manipulate people.  The science fiction elements of the story work really well with the allusions to the fairy tale Cinderella, especially the way Meyer handles Cinder’s preparations for the pivotal coronation ball.  Cinder is full of more characters and storylines than I could comfortably fit into the synopsis, but Meyer adeptly uses these elements to establish the basis for the next book in the series.

The Lunar Chronicles continue with Scarlet and Cress.

Check the WRL catalog for Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress

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returnedA fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Returned

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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Gone-Away WorldIf you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway.  I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.

His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event  has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline.  In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame.  A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.

After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past.  Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life.  This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense.  There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.

This is a dense read.  Expect a challenge.  But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building.  Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape.  Strap in and enjoy!

Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World

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Wool“People, it was suspected, had once lived aboveground.”

At the opening of this postapocalyptic novel, Sheriff Holston is walking up a spiral staircase to his death. For generations, his community has lived and died on the 144 levels of an underground silo, and Holston has just committed a capital crime—asking to go outside. Technically, it’s a suicide. Everyone knows the outside world is a toxic wasteland. Three years ago, on the big-screen monitors that show the surrounding desolation, Holston watched his wife die out there, and now he’s going to join her. Just like all the others who have been pushed out the airlock, he’s given a protective suit. It lasts just long enough for the condemned to do some silo cleaning and maintenance—for one thing, scrubbing the grimy outdoor camera lenses so that folks inside have a nice, unblurred view of your death. Now, why the condemned should care what’s shown on the big screens…that’s what Holston is about to find out.

My brother, who hasn’t read a book in dead-tree format since the invention of the smartphone, insisted that I read Wool, and read it immediately, sending it from his app to my app with a tap and a swipe. In a nutshell, that’s the success story of Wool. At the time author Howey first self-published the story direct to Kindle, Holston’s atmospheric, claustrophobic story was all there was to the Silo universe. But as word-of-mouth reviews drew more and more readers, Howey began to elaborate.

In later, serial-style installments, the search for a new sheriff takes the silo’s mayor and deputy down through the floors of the silo, through hydroponics and the nursery and IT to the mechanical levels. As they descend, readers learn more about how this society works, and doesn’t work, stratified both literally and by an inflexible class structure. With the appointment of a hardworking mechanic, Juliette, as the new sheriff, a longer story arc begins. An outsider from the bottom levels, Juliette shakes up the power struggles of the upper floors. She’s a character that readers rally behind, as she learns more about the factions governing the silo, especially on the IT level, which controls what’s left of the silo’s forgotten history on its closely-guarded servers.

The original, novella-length Kindle releases have been collected in omnibus print editions, starting with Wool and continuing with Shift and Dust. It’s a little bit old-school Twilight Zone, a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Lost, without quite so many characters. With a compelling storyline and characters who you can root for, Wool should appeal to teens as well, and it fits right in with the current YA mania for dystopias. Plus you can get in on the ground floor—see what I did there?—before the inevitable movie.

Check the WRL catalog for Wool.

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AncillaryShe used to be a ship.

Those six words were all it took to bump this science fiction debut to the top of my list. Also, although I try not to read detailed reviews of books until I’ve finished them myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the reviews I wasn’t reading had lots of ALL CAPS and exclamation marks.

So, One Esk—sometimes she calls herself Breq—used to be a ship. The narrator of this twisty space opera is an ancillary: one body, one segment, of a twenty-bodied corps of soldiers that share a single consciousness, tied into the artificial intelligence of an orbiting warship. Her life as a troop carrier, the Justice of Toren, unfolds in flashbacks to the military government of the latest planet annexed by the Radchaii empire and the events that provoke One Esk’s present-day mission of single-minded, and single-bodied, revenge. Who is she now, without her ship or a captain or the other 19 ancillaries, and what is she up to on a frozen backwater planet, following her own agenda?

The narrator’s unusual point of view(s), sometimes individual, sometimes corporate, is (are) the first cool thing about this book. Like a janissary, One Esk serves now in the military of the empire that conquered her people. Her body(ies) are human, but her awareness is not; she judges human emotions by temperature and heartbeat fluctuations and has a lot of trouble figuring out gender. The second cool thing about this book is trying to figure out who is actually male or female and who is referred to as “she” just because One Esk doesn’t feel like dealing with pronouns.

For all her dispassionate narration and history of shooting people, One Esk is a thoughtful and sympathetic character. Deliberately paced and well worth the attention you have to pay, her story reminded me strongly of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Leckie creates a fascinating universe, layered with convincing details of different cultures, classes, and religions, and leaving plenty of big ideas to play with in the next books of what is planned to be a loose trilogy.

Check the WRL catalog for Ancillary Justice.

You can read the first chapter online at Orbit Books.

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x_filesIt may be difficult to believe, but September 10 marked 20 years since the television premiere of The X-Files. For nine seasons, FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) traveled the country investigating cases involving UFOs, the paranormal, and government conspiracies.

Over the course of the series’ run, audiences were introduced to a memorable supporting cast of characters including Mulder and Scully’s supervisor, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and the main villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Although agents John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) were added in the final seasons of the show, The X-Files never strayed too far from the central pairing of Mulder, a firm believer in the unknown and supernatural, and Scully, a rational skeptic.

Instead of reviewing the series as a whole, I thought I’d try a different approach and celebrate the 20th anniversary of The X-Files by reviewing my favorite episode: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’

Originally broadcast during the third season, this episode revolves around author Jose Chung (played to eccentric perfection by Charles Nelson Reilly) who is writing a book about a case investigated by Mulder and Scully involving the possible abduction by aliens of a teenage couple out on a first date. As part of his research, Chung sets out to interview: Mulder and Scully; the couple, Harold and Chrissy; and several local witnesses to the abduction and its aftermath. Mulder is reluctant to participate, but Chung is able to interview Scully, the couple, and the witnesses. Each interviewee gives Chung an entirely different and contradictory account of what happened that night. With each account, the events of that fateful evening become more and more outlandish, culminating in the filming of a video purportedly showing an alien autopsy. A baffled Chung ultimately concludes that, “Truth is as subjective as reality. That will help explain why when people talk about their ‘UFO experiences,’ they always start off with ‘Well, now, I know how crazy this is going to sound… but…’ ”

This episode can best be described as a clever homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon mixed with a hilarious satire of the 1995 alien autopsy video hoax. Unlike most episodes of The X-Files, the tone is definitely more tongue-in-cheek, but the humor serves to underscore Chung’s growing sense of bewilderment as the stories become increasingly unbelievable. By the end of the episode, like Jose Chung, I wasn’t quite sure what really happened that night, but I enjoyed seeing the different accounts of the incident unfold.

Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ is a well-acted episode with a strong narrative structure and great, quotable dialogue. It is a highlight of the third season and worth revisiting by fans looking to commemorate the anniversary of the show.

Fans may also want to check out the two X-Files movies: The X-Files: Fight the Future and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Check the WRL catalog for first season of The X-Files TV series.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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Not the ToyA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and by that I mean 1980, most of us were shocked to find out that (gasp!) Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father and Princess Leia was his sister. Now that spoiler is such a ubiquitous part of culture that I don’t even feel nervous about dropping it on you in the first paragraph, but back then it was kind of mind blowing, especially for those of us who thought Luke and Leia were going to get together despite the attentions of the brooding Han Solo.Gold Bikini

Graphic artist Jeffrey Brown takes the idea a step further, imagining Vader as the struggling parent of the two moppets in two small but wonderful comic collections Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess. The result is precious but droll, a keepsake that would make the perfect Christmas gift for any parent or any Star Wars fan.

In Brown’s imagination, Vader tries to use his Jedi tricks to get Luke to eat his breakfast and go to bed, but young Skywalker is having none of it. He’s even more exasperated when teenage Leia wants to go out in her gold bikini.  Use Your HateHis dark manner and high-blown speech patterns are no match for a child’s inquisitiveness or tantrums. Faced with his children, Vader really isn’t such a bad guy. It’s a testament to the power of the original design of Vader’s dark costume that despite his unchanging mask the reader can see Vader rolling his eyes, giving into frustration, or unable to do anything but smile at the antics of his little ones.

These little books only take a few minutes to flip through, but you’ll want to share them with everyone you know who knows Star Wars. And who doesn’t know Star Wars?

Check the WRL catalog for Darth Vader and Son

Or try Vader’s Little Princess

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cvr9781476727912_9781476727912_hr.JPGIn Matt Haig’s The Humans, the aliens are watching us, and when a Cambridge math professor makes a discovery that will lead to the advance of the violent and unstable human race, they send one of their own to intervene. Professor Andrew Martin is removed and his life subsumed by an alien who is equal parts arrogant and bewildered. This narrating alien is from a collective society (think Star Trek’s Borg and you’ll have the general idea). He doesn’t even have his own name, and so the interpersonal communication and self-motivated actions of humans are largely a mystery to him, but he’s a quick study, especially after a trip to jail for indecent exposure. Besides, the man he’s replacing wasn’t exactly beloved or normal, so while his wife, son, and other contacts notice a difference, they don’t find his eccentric behavior completely unexpected. In fact, they find it an improvement on the old, self-absorbed Andrew Martin.

The alien’s job is to eliminate anyone who might have come in contact with the breakthrough, and driven by his idea of the collective good he at first has no qualms about ending the lives of innocents. Over the course of the book, however, encounters with human pleasures like peanut butter, the Beach Boys, a dog, and (strangest of all) emotions, leave him torn about what to do and baffled by the first strange stirrings of feelings toward others. As one might expect, the results are hilarious in a daft English way, but on a less expected level, the story is also insightful and touching.

I recommend The Humans to science fiction fans, humor lovers, or anyone looking for a fast-paced book that is unusual and diverting.

Check the WRL catalog for The Humans

 

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MrWufflesDrama! Danger!

Aliens invade and then …

encounter the cat.

David Wiesner once again proves that you don’t need words to tell a full and satisfying story.

Mr. Wuffles, as his name suggests, is a cat. He is a handsome beast, black with a white front and white socks. David Wiesner has perfectly captured his cat-arrogance as he moves through the pages with his golden green eyes wondering what’s in it for him. His jeans-wearing, green-shirted owner (who only appears as legs and arms) tries to engage him with new toys, but he stalks off past all the old rejected toys with their price tags still intact.  He finally finds one that engages his interest because it is full of tiny ant-sized green aliens. The appealing nose-less green-faced aliens know they are in mortal danger from Mr. Wuffles so they have to partner with friendly ants and a ladybug to attempt their escape. They communicate with each other in speech bubbles resembling hieroglyphics and with the reader in expressive gestures. They don’t notice the humans at all.

I enjoy reading graphic novels but at forty-mumble I am starting to struggle with the tiny print in some of them. I thought someone should invent large print graphic novels for the chronologically challenged, but realized they already exist and that they are called picture books. Most picture books aren’t interesting to adults on their own merits, unless they are planning to share them with a child. Some picture book authors break this rule frequently such as Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and David Wiesner, with stories on multiple levels and gallery-worthy art. David Wiesner has a talent for turning things around like his award winning Flotsam with its changes in viewpoint.

The title, Mr. Wuffles, sounds positively sappy (which I don’t mind as a secret Reddit Aww viewer), but it isn’t a sappy book. Despite his name, Mr. Wuffles is portrayed as the terrifying hunter that any domestic cat really is to anything smaller than it. Older children will be able to follow this almost wordless story, but SF fans of any age and cat lovers will also get a kick out of it.  My sixteen-year-old loved it. See if you can spot when one of the aliens cries in his hieroglyphic script, “To infinity and beyond!” as he flies away on the back of a ladybug from the approaching killer cat claws.  Mr. Wuffles  raises important questions like,  what would happen if aliens invaded and they were not godzilla-like orders of magnitudes larger than us, but orders of magnitude smaller? What if it already happened? What if they just met the cat, who was only interested in cat things like chasing them and perhaps eating them?

And it may leave you wondering the next time your cat snubs the toys you buy, that maybe it’s because there are aliens under the radiator?

Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Wuffles.

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G8When I started this science fiction series two years ago, I had only one complaint. In the opening scenes of Leviathan Wakes, I was introduced to Juliette Mao, a jiu jitsu-trained racing pilot who had run away from her corporate pig parents and was now kicking her way out of a storage locker on her hijacked ship. “Great!” I thought, “I am so ready to read about this woman’s adventures!” And then she died.

I sighed and continued reading about protagonists Jim Holden (cowboy in space) and Joe Miller (hard-boiled detective in space), and I enjoyed their fast-paced fight against an out-of-control weaponized protomolecule that zombifies biological matter. There were female characters in the background. And there were horrible creatures of both genders, or at least as far as one can tell with zombies. But I missed Julie Mao.

So I am happy to report that as the series goes on, it delivers the one thing I was missing: female characters who are as much fun to read about as the men. As the consequences of the protomolecule destabilize the political and military situation among Mars, Earth, and the outer planets, Caliban’s War introduces exactly the sort of heroine I was jonesing for in a space opera: Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie (Roberta) Draper of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy and the augmented military armor that makes her a juggernaut-class force to be reckoned with. (“Seriously. Get me a gun, I’m a soldier. Get that suit for me, I’m a superhero.”) And the strong female characters don’t just go in with guns blazing. As much as I adored Bobbie (“I don’t use sex as a weapon… I use weapons as weapons”), I was also rooting for Chrisjen Avasarala, a consummate politician who fights her battles with words. Most of them four-letter words. These women are among characters of both gender who are introduced as narrators as the series unfolds, but they’re one of the reasons this series really stands out for me.

By the third installment, Abaddon’s Gate, the protomolecule is possibly the least of humanity’s problems as various entities jockey for power at every level, from planets to individual ships. Vessels from antagonistic governments are converging on an enigmatic structure that has recently assembled itself on the outskirts of the solar system… and if there is a mystery gate to who-knows-where, and traveling through it could have dire and far-reaching consequences, then you know that Jim Holden, interplanetary whistleblower and accidental instigator of wars, is going to fly into it.

Frequent switches between viewpoint characters give the story momentum, and screenplay-ready dialogue lends the series the “blockbuster movie” quality quoted on the cover blurb. The dialogue and the shipboard dynamic aboard Holden’s Rocinante frequently remind me of Firefly; I can hear Zoe and Mal saying these lines. The space battles and chases feel very real, and space isn’t just a painted backdrop to this story. It’s a whole, hostile set of environmental factors and spins and gravities that shape different human cultures and affect the action. All this wrapped up in gorgeous cover art makes for a great summer read. The Expanse series is intended to continue, but Abaddon’s Gate wraps up the story so far pretty neatly, so that the three books already released can stand as a trilogy.

Check the WRL catalog for Leviathan Wakes

Check the WRL catalog for Caliban’s War

Check the WRL catalog for Abaddon’s Gate

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SummerPrinceNever fall in love with someone who has chosen to die.

Palmares Três is a futuristic Brazilian pyramid city, a vivid backdrop for this young adult novel. After global catastrophe in the distant past, humanity has rebuilt pockets of civilization, but with a lingering mistrust of new technology and a twisted political system born out of the times of chaos. Genetic modification has extended lifespans, creating a culture and a political system that doesn’t begin to take you seriously as a mature adult until you’re in your thirties.

And every few years the youth elect, in a spectacle reminiscent of early seasons of American Idol, a Summer King who holds the title for one year before the reigning queen slits his throat in televised public sacrifice. Yes, if you can imagine Ryan Seacrest hosting an Aztec ceremony—and really, it’s not so hard—you’ve got a good handle on politics, Palmares Três style.

The king’s death reinforces his choice of the next queen, but he doesn’t really have a choice. It’s all bloody political theater that plays to the young crowd and reinforces the ruling matriarchs. Until Enki, who is gorgeous and talented, a candidate from the lowest class of Palmares Três society. His wild popularity is probably the first sign that the city’s government might be massively out of touch with its citizens.

June Costas, the narrator, is a young, ambitious artist who is just graduating from street graffiti to installation art that challenges the city rulers. (One of her projects is the body-mod shown on the gorgeous book cover: patterned lights embedded under her skin.) She starts out just another young woman screaming with the crowd, but her art catapults her into the public eye, a complicated relationship with the Summer King, and a whole world of things she did not want to know about how her city is governed and about what it’s like to love someone who plans to die. Even June can’t figure out whether Enki is in this game for a few months of privilege, access to limited-edition body-modifying tech, and fans lining up to be his lovers; whether he truly has a death wish; or whether he’s figured out some new way to serve the city they both love.

This is a serious-minded take on art and politics, acts of rebellion, and using your own life (and) death as a canvas. Johnson writes vivid, sensual prose steeped in Brazilian phrases, dance, and song. Palmares Três culture, at its best and worst, comes to life in lots of little details. The worldbuilding reminded me of Nnedi Okorafor’s alternate Nigeria in The Shadow Speaker, but this book is aimed at older teens and young adults. Although most of the words eventually make sense from context, I admit, I could have used a glossary. But what this book could really use is a playlist—after reading about the ways Palmares Três kids blend music and art and political protest and dance, you’ll really want to queue up a samba.

You can read the first chapter online at NPR.

Check the WRL catalog for The Summer Prince

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lexiconYou aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.

Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.

Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.

Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.

Check the WRL catalog for Lexicon

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windup_girl

Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.

Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?

Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club.  She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.

When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.

Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.

The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.

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