The idea of creating a proper utopia, as opposed to portraying an idea that was meant to lead to a utopia and ended up being oppressive/only working for the upper class citizens, is not a new one, but it’s not one I’ve seen around much recently. Part of that is probably that it’s hard to make a society like that interesting; my English teacher Mr. E always used to point out that literature is about things going wrong, that what we are interested in is not happy people, but the conflicts they come into. I would add that we enjoy a happy ending, true, but it needs to be earned, whether by an epic battle or a comic series of misunderstandings and angst.
The problem with News from Gardenia, for me, is partly that. It’s a utopian society, and nothing seems to happen through the entire novel apart from the narrator being transported forward in time — where very conveniently, people immediately recognise what’s happened and sort out said hapless narrator.
The other problem is, well, I didn’t like the POV character. I’m not sure if he’s intended to be on the autism spectrum, as another reviewer suggested, or whether he’s just meant to be the stereotypical insensitive nerd guy, but his attitude to his girlfriend from page one was making me grind my teeth, and it didn’t get better. The writing isn’t good enough to carry that, making me wonder if it’s actually a character voice or the author. Blech.
So in summary, not worth it, sadly. But hey, if anyone wants it, I’m putting it on Bookmooch.
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Paula Byrne
I have never really been a big Austen fan, which along with my relative indifference to Shakespeare and Chaucer when I began my first degree reaaaally made other lit students look at me askance. I still think that those three are pushed upon us to a ridiculous degree, and often its not even their best work that is touted as The Book To Read (for example, I favour Troilus and Criseyde over The Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything over Romeo and Juliet). But anyway, I’ve slowly come to appreciate them a little bit more, which will probably horrify my mother (at least where Austen is concerned). Sorry, Mum.
Paula Byrne’s biography of Jane Austen is quite a common sense one. Instead of looking first to her fiction and then trying to extrapolate out to her life, it looks at the objects that surrounded her or inspired her and teases out things from there. I’m not really a scholar of the period in any sense, so I can’t speak as to the accuracy of it, but it reads well and I appreciated this view of Jane Austen as a practical, witty and determined woman, fully supported by her family and with no doubts about her chosen course in life. It debunks ideas like the picture some people have of her being very sheltered and not in contact with the world, putting us in touch with the politics she would have been aware of and the places she went. It has some nice inserts with some of the objects mentioned pictured in colour.
I’m not keeping this book, but I’m certainly donating it to my library — I know that someone who is more of an Austen fan than me will doubtless appreciate it even more, and I’m willing to bet there’s a member of even our tiny little library who fits the bill.
The British: A Genetic Journey, by Alistair Moffat
I generally enjoy Alistair Moffat’s non-fiction writing (I don’t know if he’s written any fiction), although I don’t agree with his outlook on the Arthurian legends (which he even manages to slot in here). It’s very much popular science, or that’s how it feels with the inserted text boxes of “interesting facts”, but the level isn’t really “complete beginner”. I mean, it talks about mapping population movements via comparing particular unique markers, which must mean single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but it doesn’t really contextualise that much. To me, my classes in genetics and anthropology contemplated this really well. It also talks about mitochondrial DNA and things like that, again without much explanation.
It starts off being general, rather than really a genetic history of the British, because of course, it goes back to the last common ancestors of mankind. It narrows down later on, looking at the various different inflows of new DNA, e.g. to what extent the Romans or the Normans mixed with the people already in Britain. What I was more interested in was the discussion of how Britain’s population got there. I didn’t know, for example, about the land that joined Britain to mainland Europe at one time, Doggerland, so all of that was new to me.
All in all, it didn’t give me many surprises, but it’s pretty up to date (includes stuff about recentish finds like the Denisovans) and, for the British population, pretty comprehensive. I’d have liked a little more about the separate populations of Britain: there are genetic differences, generally, between Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English people, and I’d have been interested to know more about how those groups formed and remained intact.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.
One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).
I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.
Oh, wow. The Universe Versus Alex Woods starts off seeming like it’s gonna be a quirky sort of book: the narration is matter of fact where it possibly shouldn’t be, and the situation Alex is in on the opening pages is an interesting one. Unfortunately for everyone who picked it up on the basis of that, it’s not really the kind of book it turned out to be. I don’t know that I’d call it funny — it’s not laugh out loud funny, anyway; more “wry smiles” funny — and I don’t know that I’d call it heartbreaking, either. It made me cry, but the simplicity of the narrative voice kept it from being maudlin, from dwelling too much on any of the important details, which is what for me made them strike all the more forcefully.
It is the story of an unlikely friendship, that’s definitely true, and it’s a beautiful story from my point of view. It’s fairly apparent from the first chapter, to me, what exactly is going on here: what matters is how we get there, and how much less funny/quirky it seems by the end, and how much more sad and true and beautiful. But if you don’t want to know, don’t read any further in this review.
What was apparent to me from the beginning is that this is a book about an assisted suicide. It didn’t even need to be stated clearly: trying to get back into the country at Dover, the urn of ashes, somehow it all just clicked for me. Possibly because this is an issue that I’ve thought about at great length, forwards and backwards. Because if I were Alex Woods, I’d do exactly the same things, in exactly that order, and I would feel exactly as right about it.
The friendship between the two is the fun and quirky part; the fact that, when Mr. Peterson becomes ill, Alex chooses to take care of him, and then to make sure that he is also allowed to die when he’s ready, and the understanding between the two… This is an idealised version of how this might happen, and the fact that Alex narrates means that we don’t pull up and see this from another character’s point of view — how they might worry about Alex’s reactions, how he might feel — and that might make some people feel that this is a book somehow advocating for euthanasia. Which I think it is, but only in the sense that it makes it clear that to be allowed a choice about how and when we die makes it a lot easier to die — and that for some people ‘how’ and ‘when’ might be very clearly defined, as they are for Mr. Peterson. But I don’t think it advocates euthanasia as the only way. It just emphasises choice, and how very comforting it is to many people to know that they have control over even that last inevitability. It even emphasises choice in smaller matters, like what drugs you take.
If you don’t understand why someone would want assisted suicide, this might help. If you don’t understand why someone would want to help someone commit suicide, I think this would definitely help. And if you already understand both of those things, then it’s still something that articulates all this very clearly, and might just give you words or clarity for yourself in the future.
I am definitely, definitely keeping this book. I will probably lend it to people, and I hope I never need to read it again myself, but I can imagine times when I might want to.
Slow Fall to Dawn is the first book of a trilogy. The basic premise is a sort of feudal clan/guild based system, and we’re following a guild of assassins within it. They have a very specific code, and are completely neutral, but naturally there’s a lot of bad feeling stirred up by a guild of murderers, particularly as they remain neutral (even as that makes them useful to everyone), and the book follows the course of a few events that threaten the stability and perhaps even the existence of the guild.
It’s a short book, and a fast read. There’s some clunky aspects — for example, mentioning something as a minor background point and then bashing you over the head with its relevance in the next chapter. (Although then it didn’t really seem to be that important at all…) But mostly it flows very smoothly and while I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the characters, I understood them and was interested in their conflicts and dilemmas.
The author cleverly avoids issues of it being an unrealistic science fiction future (i.e. one that’s been well outpaced by reality) by having it set after a civilisation collapse. It’s not the sort of SF that feels like fantasy; it does manage to feel like a world, a society, that has progressed and regressed and generally evolved over time.
I actually picked up this book (in the omnibus form) in Belgium, while I was doing a little experiment and only getting books I’d never heard of before, preferably by authors who were new to me too. In this case, I won’t hungrily seek out every book Stephen Leigh might ever have written, but I will happily finish this series.
Dance of the Hag
Dance of the Hag kept my attention well, considering I enjoyed but wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first book. Leigh is a better risk taker than I expected, not willing to take the easy way out, and I was also impressed that he managed to make an impersonal character like the Thane of the first book into someone we worry about personally.
I like the political background, too — it feels as if Leigh spent some serious time thinking about how exactly his society would work, so that while you might not know everything about it, everything works according to the internal logic of it.
It remains a smooth, easy read, and I was surprised (and pleased) that it did actually include a brief (very brief) reference to an LGBT relationship by a main character.
A Quiet of Stone
That was not the ending I wanted. However, it makes perfect sense with the build-up. Leigh doesn’t go for any easy way out, as I already observed: we’ve been building towards this for the whole trilogy, and Leigh takes us there. It’s also a credit to his skill that where I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the first two books, with the third I actually had to make myself finish because I didn’t want to reach the end, which didn’t for a moment seem like it could be a happy one.
So yeah, this series is surprising, interesting, and worth picking up, I think I’d have to say. It’s still a fast read, and it took time to get hooks into me, but once it did, I couldn’t stop reading.
Most people who know me are probably aware that I am very pro-cyborgs. (I even wrote a four-page comic featuring my terrible art and a woman made into a cyborg for my Comics & Graphic Novels class.) The idea fascinates me and given half a chance I’d probably volunteer myself to get wired up. So this book caught my interest immediately, though how exactly Amazon knew to promote it at me, I’m not sure I want to know.
It was published in 2004, so in terms of the technology, it’s a little behind. It talks, for example, about the clunkiness of then-current e-reading technology. I read it on my little Kobo with its e-ink screen — you know, the little device that I actually bought for £24. But in terms of concerns about technology, we haven’t moved much past it. Some of them I was less convinced by (alienation, disembodiment), while others remain a concern, like the “digital divide”.
The main thrust of the book, however, is the theory that we’re already cyborgs, in a sense. Human beings are tool users; we’re not the only ones, but we’re the most sophisticated ones we know of. We’ve had a form of external memory for thousands of years — writing. Though most of us can’t hold numbers in our heads for complicated equations, given a piece of paper, we can work through it and produce the answer. (Given a piece of paper and appropriate time, even I can calculate the heritability of a certain gene in the population, for example, and yet I struggle with remembering how to calculate percentages.) And now, there’s the internet, information at our fingertips. When you grow up with these things, you learn to use them as semi-consciously as you do your own hands: I don’t consciously calculate where the keys are as I’m typing this any more than I consciously calculate how far to lift my hand to turn a door handle.
This aspect of the book hasn’t dated badly. I found it interesting and convincing, and while I don’t share all the author’s ideas about where the links between biology and technology are going, I do agree that the lines are blurring. Perhaps one day we’ll be indistinguishable — after all, our mitochondria began as separate to the cells that were our ancestors.
Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, Simon Baker
Simon Baker’s Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire is a good introduction to Roman history, covering various key points in the history of Rome. Probably not the same key points that someone else would choose, but he makes a decent case for the importance of each stop on the tour. Some people’s reviews say that if you have the most basic grasp of Roman history, this is too simple: I wouldn’t say so. I have a GCSE and an A Level in classical studies, but the effect was a very similar kind of ‘tour’ of Roman history that just picked out different stopping points. So there were some things I didn’t know much about at all.
One thing that is a little disappointing is the transitions between each chapters. It isn’t really made clear how the transitions between the different time periods were made — it goes straight from Constantine, for example, to the attacks on Rome by Alaric, without covering the intervening time at all. Even a little timeline at the start of each chapter would’ve helped.
Still, Simon Baker’s prose is pretty readable and accessible. If you’re not especially interested in the topic, I still wouldn’t recommend this, as despite the six turning points it uses, it’s still a 400 page volume. A Very Brief Introduction it ain’t.
All in all, for me it was okay, but I’ll be donating my copy to the local library rather than keeping it.
If you’re looking for SF must-read novels, I would say to start here (or by exploring the original posts on Tor.com) rather than with something like the “100 Must Read” books I’ve been reviewing recently. They barely scrape above the level of a list: while they include a bit about each book and why it’s worthwhile, Jo Walton is more passionate, more excitable, more like another fan — she doesn’t claim any kind of authority for her choice in books, doesn’t hedge about including one book over another because it was more influential. Those “100 Must Read” books are a reference, a list; this book is a conversation.
It’s rare for a non-fiction book to keep my attention so strongly as this one did. Part of it is, I guess, that various things Jo Walton’s written resonate right through me — and I also know a little of her personal warmth and kindness. While I’ve spoken to a few authors and even trade tweets semi-regularly with a couple, Jo Walton is the only one who makes me feel that she cares about me as a person and not as a fan to be casually courted. So there’s that: I’m utterly and completely biased about her and her work, and there’s some similar stuff going on in our backgrounds (Welshness, for one thing), and even our non-SF tastes like Heyer and Sayers (and casual references to the same, even in the context of talking about SF). So it’s no surprise that I adored this.
It also helps that it’s very easily bite-size. I could read a few entries, then roll off my bed and reluctantly transcribe another few words — or take some of her enthusiasm and interests with me into my slush reading for Lightspeed, or have lunch with my family, or watch a lecture on astrobiology.
It’s the enthusiasm that really makes it, though. She makes me want to hurry up and read all the books, not just the ones she talks about, but all of them. And then reread them. She made me sit up in delight and grin and go yes, me too. Or hey, I want that.
The books may not all be conveniently in print, as the editors of “100 Must Read” books and others of that species try and arrange, but there’s a love of the possibilities of a tiny second-hand bookshop and the charity shop find that had me scrawling down a list of stuff to look for. It’s not a catalogue, a marketing ploy, a competition to be the most well-read — it’s just sharing books and the love of books and our idiosyncrasies about books.
100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, Nick Rennison and Stephen E. Andrews
100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels is, like its fantasy counterpart, pretty predictable in many ways. There are some I hadn’t heard of, but it’s still predominantly from the white male establishment. There is some lip service to the increasing diversity of science fiction in the introduction, but that isn’t really carried through to the books. Flicking through it, I landed on female SF writers only twice in 84 pages.
On the other hand, the introduction is an interesting whip through of the foundations of the SF genre, and there are a fair number of novels here that I hadn’t heard of or hadn’t got round to yet that are now (higher) on my reading list. As long as you realise that it is limited in scope and not a definitive list of the best SF novels out there, it could be a useful resource.