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Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

martianIf ever there was a book guaranteed to make you wish you’d paid attention in high school science classes, The Martian is it.

The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.

Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)

However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.

In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian

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Maze RunnerEvoking elements of The Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, even what was good about the silly old Saturday morning show The Land of the Lost, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner isn’t completely original–it couldn’t be in the crowded field of young adult dystopias–but it’s a fun read that deserves the attention of those who love dystopian action fiction.

The protagonist is a teenager who startles awake to find that he is riding some kind of elevator. At the top, he finds himself surrounded by other teenage boys who seem more interested in taunting than helping a new arrival. It turns out that they are the inhabitants of a small clearing they call the Glade. The Gladers (as the residents call themselves–they have developed a whole new argot) have to grow and raise all of the food they eat, supplemented only by a few supplies that arrive, sometimes with a new resident, via the elevator. It’s a tough existence, and one that has created leaders and outsiders, fast friends and bitter rivals among the boys.

They’re trapped in the Glade, which is surrounded by sheer cliffs. During the day, the cliff walls shift via some hidden mechanism, and openings allow a way out of the Glade, but only access a shifting maze that seems to go nowhere. The elite among the boys, called Runners, spend their days dashing through these mazes trying to map them and find a way out. But even the attempt is perilous. The walls shift again at night, trapping anyone who isn’t back by nightfall, when Grievers, biomechanical horrors, come out and sting or destroy anyone who hasn’t returned to the Glade.

As Thomas, the protagonist, slowly emerges from an amnesiac fog he recalls snippets of memory, in particular that the boys are part of some kind of grand experiment. Dashner unspools a twisting plot rapidly after the opening setup, and readers will find it hard to guess what is coming next. The arrival of the next person to the Glade changes all the rules and raises the stakes for Thomas, his friends, and his rivals.

The Maze Runner is followed by The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure in a trilogy. There’s also a movie series under way, which I found good at capturing the details of the terrain, but perhaps less successful at capturing the story’s suspense or character development.

Check the WRL catalog for The Maze Runner

Or try The Maze Runner as an audiobook on CD

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GoodhouseBeing a teenage boy is tough enough but for James Goodhouse it’s a disaster. In an alternate future that readers will find very plausible, he’s a student incarcerated in one of the Goodhouse homes. These “schools” are the compulsory homes of boys whose families have genetic markers that make them supposedly prone to violent behavior. They’re supposed to be places of training and rehabilitation, but due to a cynical system that pits each student against the others in a competition for the perks given to proctors, the only training is in the very antisocial behavior the Goodhouse system is supposed to be combating. The boys are also subjected to medical experimentation.

As if this weren’t bad enough, an element of religious fundamentalism is growing in the world outside the Goodhouses. This movement, nicknamed the Zeroes, believes that even the schools are too good for genetically tainted boys. They’d like to cleanse them right off the earth, setting fires to the Goodhouse homes and committing other acts of terror. James has been relocated from an Iowa Goodhouse, burnt to the ground, a fire from which as far as he knows he was the only survivor.

His new Oregon home brings new challenges, as particularly sadistic proctors have fought their way to the top of the student pile. The best way to get by in a Goodhouse is to stay under the radar, but James is getting attention due to his contacts with Bethany, a forward girl with a quick intellect and a rebellious nature who forms an attachment to James that may save him, but more likely will just get him in big trouble.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its futuristic school setting, and the sad trait shared by both books’ students: they’ve absorbed society’s unfair judgment of them and come to believe that they are, indeed, somehow inferior. But while Never Let Me Go simmers slowly, remaining a sad psychological story played in a minor key, Goodhouse explodes into action, finishing in a dizzying stream of external events that suggest sequels are to come. Peyton Marshall has written a doozy of a first novel, a great pick for those looking for the next step after YA successes like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s  Divergent, or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Readers will enjoy the blend of coming-of-age, dystopia, social justice story, and thriller.

Check the WRL catalog for Goodhouse

 

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Soliloquy to StormtrooperAlas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,

Yet have I taken both uniform and life

From thee. What manner of man wert thou?

A man of infinite jest or cruelty?

 

I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.

The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”William Shakespeares Star Wars

Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.

Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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Love Minus EightyWilliamsburg resident Will McIntosh is on his way to the a-list of science fiction writers, and Love Minus Eighty is a great entry point to his work.

The title refers to the temperature at which “bridesicles” are kept. In the horrifying, but believable, dystopian future McIntosh imagines, the most desirable women are put on ice at the time of their deaths. It’s possible to revive them, but only the wealthiest individuals can afford the expensive procedures required to bring themselves or someone else back to life. So the women are kept in stasis, revived only briefly by a wealthy client who pulls them into brief consciousness for a speed date in which the woman must make a big impression if she hopes to rejoin the living.

We begin the story with Mira, a woman with a lesbian partner who may still be living, forced to pretend to like the creepy but wealthy men who occasionally come to visit. But her poignant tale is an aperitif to the larger story, which follows several characters whose lives have converged. Rob is a musician whose climb into the wealthy world of the haves ends suddenly. In this future, instead of reality television, people follow the “celebrities” of their choice directly through electronic means, and Rob’s girlfriend dumps him viciously and dramatically in a move calculated to gain more followers. Distraught, Rob runs over a jogger. So begins a downward cycle that he decides he can only stop by working a grueling manual job sorting old electronic components until he can save up enough money to thaw Winter out for long enough to apologize to her. When he does, there’s an odd, awkward connection, and Rob begins saving for another encounter. There’s also Veronika, a virtual dating coach who follows her clients electronically, telling them what to say in real time to make themselves more attractive to others. The irony is that Veronika’s love-life is non-existent, consisting almost entirely of fantasies about Nathan, another virtual coach who views her more as a friend and colleague.

The plot is hard to explain briefly, but easy to follow in the book, as McIntosh finds many plausible ways to keep a great set of characters bouncing off of each other in an ever-deepening sequence of plot twists. McIntosh takes our current world, with the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, our obsession with superficial digital culture, and our technological leaps that are often not grounded in adequate forethought or morals, and follows this thread to its “logical” conclusion. The result is terrifying, but only because it is so plausible. When he stirs in some unlikely heroes and a romance blossoming amid the rubble, you’ve got a captivating novel.

If you like this, consider going on to his other novels, Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, and Defenders. In a world of speculative fiction series, McIntosh has written stand-alone novels to date, but with movie options on a couple of his books and his creative mind, he’s an author you’re sure to hear more about in the future.

Check the WRL catalog for Love Minus Eighty

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RedshirtsSometimes it’s entirely a matter of perspective.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited to be assigned to the starship Intrepid, but on his first away mission on an alien world, he discovers that his posting won’t be just glamor and adventure. In fact, given the strange behavior of the ship’s captain, science officer, and few others, he and his fellow new recruits will be lucky if they survive at all.

Yes, this is the story of classic Star Trek told from the perspective of one of the ill-fated red-shirted crew. The names of Kirk, Spock, and their colleagues have been changed, but any reader who knows anything about science fiction television will recognize that Scalzi has made a novel of the old joke that series fans make about anyone in a red shirt being unlikely to survive the episode.

But there’s a deeper wrinkle here. Scalzi takes readers down a metafictional rabbit hole as his characters discover that their lives are based on a television program, and sadly, that it’s not even a particularly well-executed show. They find a way to Earth, where they meet their exact likenesses, the actors in the series . (One hilarious aside describes the disturbing activities of the narcissistic Chekhov equivalent and his actor doppelganger.) Can they end the show without ending themselves? Or is there a way to make life safe for the redshirts? You’ll have to read Scalzi’s book to find out. But that’s not a difficult task: even when it gets philosphical, this is light, funny, frothy reading. You’ll have gulped down the book before you know it.

Check the WRL catalog for Redshirts

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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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