Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

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An Arthur C. Clarke winner for 2015, a 2014 National Book Award nominee (lost to Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and having read both I can say that justly ;)), a poetic novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the Traveling Symphony – an orchestra slash Shakespeare troupe – wanders through a dangerous territory reclaimed by wildness, bringing the light of civilization to the places which long have forgotten something like civilization even existed.

Sounds mysterious as well as stilted and full of itself. And to a degree – is, on both accounts. But the most interesting part of Mandel’s novel is the rest, which is neither – namely, the full of life, glittering account of the world before catastrophe.

The world after the Georgia Flu decimated global population is a place of fear and great distances. It’s also a place which has forgotten its past. Only two decades passed from the death throes of the global civilization – cars stopping, planes crashing down, electricity plants going dark, water resources drying up… and all of it just sorrowful side notes to the main theme – the rapid and chaotic death of 99 percent of humanity. But before we see the end, we are allowed to catch a glimpse of the world-that-had-been, rich and colorful and brimming with life, in its last, most triumphant (even if unknowingly) moments. It’s no accident that the most important scenes of Mandel’s book are either the depictions of a theatrical play or a sf comic book. She shows the readers scenes of unreal, ephemeral life, renditions of a nonexistent world, fantasies born entirely in the minds of humans. Juxtaposed with the post-apocalyptic, brutal world they are intended to show the humanity’s ultimate victory, over the deeply rooted bigotry, close-mindedness and cruelty of our species.

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John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

little-big2The last book from my Summer Reads list, winner of the World Fantasy Award, nominated for Hugo, Nebula and Locus for 1982. I actually had it all summer, and started reading it, bit by bit, sometime in September. But it’s a huge book, 538 pages in really small print, and I managed to finish it only recently (a couple of weeks ago, to be precise). In some respects it reminded me, albeit only vaguely, of Tim Powers. There is that similar sense of uncanny in the real world, hidden in plain sight, not mentioned or noticed simply because most people don’t have the necessary apparatus (both physical and mental) to find it out. However, in more respects Little, Big reminded me of Susanna Clarke and her brick of a book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Crowley’s work is similarly meandering and slow, and pacing itself with infinite patience (which I, regrettably, don’t possess :P). But it’s also somehow… accruing, contrary to Clarke’s novel, where things just happen in a given order; accruing not as much in the area of action (there’s almost none), but more in the sphere of sense. It actually builds itself up from the foundations set in the beginning – explaining the inexplicable, casting light on the shadows that seemed impenetrable – which, slowly and incrementally, makes the final result all the more appealing.

As you can see, that long and meandering style is contagious. I will try to keep my sentences short from now on, but I can’t vouch for the success of this endeavor :).

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Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)

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Another book from my summer reading list, and another heavy hitter, winner of Nebula and Hugo awards, a solid presence on many “Best of SF” lists (check here and here, for example; these are just the top of the pile, – if you don’t like them, pick another 😉 the internet is full of lists and Keyes’s book is on most of them). It’s a short book, mere 216 pages in my SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz, but like another recently reviewed classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, it carries a lot of weight. Flowers for Algernon is a SF must-read and a tear-jerker, an intimate, nuanced psychological portrait of a man coming from darkness to light, as the Plato’s quote on the first page slyly suggests. But is he really?

The protagonist of the novel, Charlie Gordon, is a 32-year old with IQ of 68. And yes, the age is important – when the book begins, Charlie’s nearing his 33th birthday. He works at a bakery, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, doing all the simple, menial jobs a person with sub-normal level of IQ can do. What sets him apart from others like him is his drive to knowledge, his willingness to learn. And he gets his chance to become smarter when the local university starts looking for a human subject for their experiment in the area of neurosurgical augmentation of brain functions. The experimental therapy had been successfully tried on animal subjects before and the results were promising enough to induce the scientists into going to the human-testing phase. Charlie becomes the first person to undergo this kind of brain treatment and he’s obligated to document the changes in him in the form of written “Progress Reports”. Flowers for Algernon are constructed as Charlie’s diary, a complete set of the intimate, sometimes painfully honest reports he had been writing throughout the experiment. We witness the changes, minute at first and then accelerating with breathtaking speed, seeing his transformation from a boy in man’s body to an adolescent genius blowing up all possible IQ scales, to a grown, mature man accepting the world as it is. But the changes don’t stop there.

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Joe Abercrombie, Half A King (2014)

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The first installment in the Shattered Sea trilogy, and a bold move from the author called by many “Lord of grimdark” (ugh, I actually wrote it). Why bold? Because Half a King is a YA book. YA is a category with somewhat blurred boundaries, usually containing youths from age 12-15 to early 20s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the traditional theme for YA novels is coming-of-age of the main protagonist. And among the novels often described as YA are such timeless wonders as Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, you can also find there such wastepaper accretions as The Twilight saga… The spread is quite shocking and I’m sorry to say that the quality of YA seems to be lower in our times. I believe that it’s because people often think that writing for young people is easy, that you just need to limit your vocabulary and simplify everything. Well, it’s not easy. And if you think young people like to be talked down to, your memory needs a solid prod. Otherwise you’re in for a nasty surprise.

As you see, the YA bar is set quite high, at least for me. Did the grimdark guru meet the, admittedly high, expectations? Half a King got Locus Award for the Best YA Book in 2015, so it looks like he did. Alas, I cannot fully agree with this verdict. I know, there’s a lot of gushing over this book in the internet, especially from fellow authors on goodreads… I won’t expound on it, at least not this time :P, but it looks to me like a mutual admiration society. Abercrombie takes a risk but plays it safe this time, a bit too safe for my tastes. And I’m not talking about the amounts of blood and gore, there’s plenty of that, but about the plot, worldbuilding and characters. They’re overly simplified and predictable, bereft of suspense and – and I have trouble believing I’m actually writing this – bland.

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Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (1966)

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A surprise. Not a pleasant one, I might add. The first underwhelming, even disappointing Zelazny book I have ever read. Sure, Creatures of Light and Darkness were very… particular, a difficult mix of poetry and prose that read as if the writer was high all the time, but even that book had its moments of greatness and pure reading pleasure. The Dream Master has none. And really awful covers, each and every one of them :P.

The main idea is pretty cool and had served as a basis for the movie Dreamscape which Zelazny wrote an outline for. I would also venture a guess that it thoroughly inspired Nolan’s Inception, even though I found no mention of it in any interview. But the similarities are many, and striking. In not so distant future the humanity grew so far from their origins that mental problems became a new norm. Suicides have become one of the most common cause of death. But with new problems arose new solutions. And thus we a guild of Shapers was born – a fraction of a percent of humanity ultra-stable and psychically strong enough to be able to access others’ dreams and alter their subconscious without grave consequences for themselves.

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Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

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Summer is nearing its inevitable end, and so the time has come to review a second book from my summer reading list, a very famous, classic SF novel, which had inspired countless readers and writers. Its huge intellectual impact and popularity was increased by the Hugo Award for 1960.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is the debut, and the only completed novel by Miller, Jr. (a sequel to A Canticle…, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, had been published posthumously), although he was a prolific writer of short stories. Come to think of it, even A Canticle… can be read as three separate novelettes. It had been originally written this way, as three separate parts, and the division is clear even now. The completed novel consists of three fairly independent parts, closely connected to each other by the main themes and the place of action, but still each part stands firmly on its own.

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