Review of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

August 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Seveneves by Neal StephensonSeveneves  
By Neal Stephenson; Read by Mary Robinette Kowal and Will Damron
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 19 May 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 31 hours 55 minutes

Themes: / science fiction / apocalypse / space station / humanity / disaster /

Publisher summary:

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain….

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown…to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

Executive Summary: Another interesting book from Mr. Stephenson, that was somehow a bit too short for me despite its 32 hour duration. This one won’t be for everyone, but I’d put it on par with many of his previous books.

Audio book: This was my first time listening to a book narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal. She’s really excellent. So excellent, that I was pretty disappointed when it changed to Will Damron for Part 3. I’m not sure why they did this. Was Ms. Kowal too busy to finish recording? Was it intentional?

That isn’t to say Mr. Damron is a bad narrator. I just didn’t like him as much as Ms. Kowal, and the change in narration was jarring. If there was any place in the book it was appropriate to change, it was with Part 3, but I think it would have been better suited if they had just stuck with Ms. Kowal.

Full Review
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Stephenson ever since picking up Snow Crash back in college. I haven’t read all of his books, but I’ve enjoyed all but one of those that I have.

I had no idea what this book was about when I volunteered to review it. Much like most of his work, it’s long. The start is a bit slow, and as usual it goes off on tangents and into way more detail than is necessary on things. In some of his books, I’ve enjoyed those tangents and the excess of detail. In others, less so. This one was somewhere in the middle for me.

This is the kind of thing that will turn many readers away early on. I was never bored myself, but I wasn’t really engaged in the book until nearly halfway. In a book this long, that will be too much of a commitment for many. However, I suspect if you enjoy the detail and tangents, you’ll be engaged much sooner.

This book is split into three parts. The first part is essentially a present day disaster story. The second is largely a space opera, and the third is a bit of a post apocalyptic tale.

Many authors might have focused on one aspect of this story. Instead of giving us bits of history that help shaped the world of part 3, we live many of the details in parts 1 and 2. For me personally, I would have liked part 1 to be shorter with more time spent on part 3. Part 2 was my favorite of the book, but that may be because I felt despite being a third of the book, part 3 ended too soon.

I have questions still. A lot of them. Is Mr. Stephenson planning a sequel that will contain some of these answers? I hope so.

This isn’t a case of a long book that abruptly ends though. For me the issue is that Mr. Stephenson did such a good job with the world building that I want more. I felt like there wasn’t enough. I would have happily sacrificed much of the present day (which I found slower anyways), for more time in the future story with the world he created.

Mr. Stephenson doesn’t spend all the time on world building either. He develops several interesting characters that are used to make most of the story character-driven. We have a largely female cast, and somewhat diverse background for most of them.

Overall, while this isn’t my favorite Neal Stephenson book, I really enjoyed it, and I hope we get another book set in the same world that he built in part 3.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Archangel by Marguerite Reed

August 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Archangel by Marguerite ReedArchangel (Book One of the Chronicles of Ubastis)
By Marguerite Reed; Narrated by Dina Pearlman
Audible Studios via Resurrection House
Release date: 17 June 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours, 5 minutes

Themes: / military sci-fi / grief / humanity /

Publisher summary:

The Earth is dying, and our hopes are pinned on Ubastis, an untamed paradise at the edge of colonized space. But such an influx of people threatens the planet’s unstudied ecosystem – a tenuous research colony must complete its analysis, lest humanity abandon one planet only to die on another.

The Ubasti colonists barely get by on their own. To acquire the tools they need, they are relegated to selling whatever they can to outside investors. For xenobiologist Vashti Loren, this means bringing Offworlders on safari to hunt the specimens she and her fellow biologists so desperately need to study.

Haunted by the violent death of her husband, the heroic and celebrated Lasse Undset, Vashti must balance the needs of Ubastis against the swelling crush of settlers. Vashti struggles in her role as one of the few colonists licensed to carry deadly weapons, just as she struggles with her history of using them. And when she discovers a genetically engineered soldier smuggled onto the surface, Vashti must face the nightmare of her husband’s murder all over again. Standing at the threshold of humanity’s greatest hope, she alone understands the darkness of guarding paradise.

I spent a lot of my time while listening to this book confused, which made it all the more surprising when I realized at the end that I’d liked the book, and am fairly intrigued about what will come next. A book spanning multiple topics/thoughts, it was interesting to see how the various topics mostly worked together.

I think this book served in some ways as world-building/scene-setting for future books, which may explain why I was confused at times. This may be seen as a negative, but since I liked the world, it was okay, once I realized that I hadn’t missed anything with the plot (though at times, I was convinced that I had). I also liked the main character, a researcher on the planet of Ubastis but also one of the one people on the planet with a literal license to kill…anything. So while it seemed that the plot may have moved slowly, or that I was sure I was missing things, in the end it worked out okay for me. But others, especially those who listen, might have similar confusion.

It’s hard to describe what the book is “about” since Archangel covers so many topics. The book is set sometime in the future after the Earth has been effectively destroyed/overused by humans. Humans seem to have escaped to space, though it’s not clear that they had to go far to find other places to live. The book mentions a station at L5, which I presume is the L5 Lagrange point that people who’ve studied physics/astrophysics and sci-fi lovers alike will probably recognize. L5 has long been thought of as a place where space colonization might be feasible, so it seems as if it fits and that it’s not some L5 in relation to the world in the book, separate from our own system. Many humans seem to live in space, while a small handful live on Ubastis. Ubastis is a planet that has seen small waves of colonists; the first two waves of colonists were trained primarily as a military would be trained, though the job was to scout areas of the planet and start setup for more colonists in the future, to establish it as its own world. The other aspect of the colonists’ life is to study the planet and understand the resources it has and the balance between the natural ecosystem and those resources–the colonists do not wish to make Ubastis into another Earth, and so immigration to the planet is heavily controlled, only up for discussion once every 10 years. Archangel takes place just prior to one of these votes, and there is a heavy contingent of “off-worlders” lobbying for the strict limits to be lifted, to open immigration to the planet. In the book, human engineering is also not only possibly but heavily used, and most people have some level of genetic modification; most to dull aggression and many for vanity reasons.

The main character, Dr/Commander Lauren Vashti, is a “natural,” a non-genetically modified human. She was one of the people in the second group of colonists to come to the planet. Her husband was one of the leaders of that second group, and the pair are seen in many ways as a literal mother and father (and in the case of her husband, even a saint) of the planet and its resources. Vashti’s husband was killed by a highly-engineered “assault human,” a BEAST, one who was specifically genetically modified to be a soldier of sorts. This brings me to the first of the interleaved topics that the book touches on–motherhood and, to some extent, single motherhood. Vashti spends much of the book seemingly at odds with her dual role on the world. She has a literal daughter, a toddler, but often sees that being a literal mother is incompatible with being a leader, a voice for the planet as a whole. Because of her natural gifts as well as the reverence given to her, Vashti is also a literal mother to many Ubastians (and off-worlders?), as her eggs were frozen and used to create other offspring. There were striking scenes in the book where Vashti’s grief/memories of her husband are interrupted by her daughter, perfectly capturing the issues with motherhood. Later in the book, as she realizes that she is in some way a mother to the planet, similar memories are jarringly interrupted by the politics of the planet, things she must stand up for.

Obviously, another topic in the book is that of genetic engineering and the…sense…in doing so. I won’t go into details, but Vashti being a “natural” woman actually has a fairly important aspect in the plot. In particular, it seems that BEASTs can only really be “controlled” by natural humans, those without genetic modifications. This speaks volumes to the topic of genetic modification in general, but the topic is also touched upon by human nature. Because Vashti is a “natural,” she has a “normal” level of aggression/willingness to kill. It seems that many people have that particular knob turned down. Vashti is looked down upon by outsiders because she is in fact willing to kill to study the fauna native to Ubastis and willing to kill in self defense. It seems that most others find killing repugnant in general, something to be psychologically educated-away/re-educated away. The people of Ubastis (and also the off-worlders, I believe) are vegetarian. In fact, many are Muslim, though it was never really clear to me why it was important that so many were Muslim (the rest seemed to be Christian of some sort).

Another topic commonly dealt with in science fiction is that of resource use/protection of a planet/avoiding a runaway situation like we have on Earth/that eventually dooms Earth in many books…this book is no different. In her role as scientist and “mother” on Ubastis, Vashti preaches for conservation and minimization of the human footprint on the planet. The Earth is looked to as a sign of the worst that can happen.

In all, Archangel is a book about revolution. There are many types of revolution in the story, both personal revolution for Vashti, but other aspects of revolution, too. Once I came to terms with being “confused” every now and then, it was actually a fun read. The narrator, Dina Pearlman, is one whose name is familiar but I can’t find any other books that I’ve listened to that she’s narrated. Her narration had an odd cadence that was particularly difficult to follow at first. I found speeding up the audio playback helped that significantly, though her pacing may also have contributed to my confusion at times. Once I got “used” to it (at the faster playback speed), I got more into the book, but it did take awhile.

This book might not be for everybody–and certainly might not be for everybody in audio form–but as for me, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next on Ubastis.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

April 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Dark Eden by Chris BeckettDark Eden (Dark Eden #1)
By Chris Beckett; Read by Matthew Frow, Jayne Entwistle, Ione Butler, Robert Hook, Heather Wilds, Nicholas Guy Smith, Hannah Curtis, Bruce Mann
Publisher: Random House Audio
Publication Date: 1 April 2014[UNABRIDGED] – 15 hours, 10 minutes
Listen to an excerpt: | MP3 |

Themes: / dark alien world / humanity /  luminescence / space / patois / free love /

Publisher summary:

On the alien, sunless planet they call Eden, the 532 members of the Family shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the Forest lie the mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no man has ever crossed it.

The Oldest among the Family recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross the stars. These ships brought us here, the Oldest say—and the Family must only wait for the travelers to return.

But young John Redlantern will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family and change history. He will abandon the old ways, venture into the Dark…and discover the truth about their world.

Eden is a planet covered in darkness, hosting an abundance of familiarly alien flora and fauna, inhabited by Earth descended humans. The only light occurs naturally, there is no sun in orbit, and there are only the far away cold stars that shine in the sky.

The human settlement is known as the Family. They have not migrated from first landing. The original settlers of Eden could be counted on one hand; the women could be counted with one finger. Now everyone in the Family speaks in a childish patois riddled with repetition.

Dark Eden focuses on the splintering of the Family as one group breaks away from tradition and heads out into unexplored territory. The original society is built upon a matriarchal democracy. As the story evolves, this deteriorates into an oppressive system of patriarchy, under which we witness the first ever murder.

I struggled with this book. It’s billed as being a coming of age/YA story, but sex is treated rather peculiar. In the local patois, sex is known as a “slip” or to have sex, is to have a “slip” and to get slipped, is to, well you can figure it out. Free love is rampant and often public with mild attempts at modesty. Of course there is the issue of necessary incest. While the folks on Eden know it’s not good to slip your sister, daughter, or mother, I get the impression that such slips do occur. Personally, I feel that the attitudes and practice of sex on Eden is pretty true to how it would happen. Morality and modesty are after all cultural and malleable in definition. But the phrases “baby juice” and “juicy juice” carries an awkward juvenile humor that outweighs social commentary. I never knew if I was supposed to laugh at the sophomoric double entendres or simply overlook them. One minute it feels like I’m reading a cleverly written work of SF, the next moment I feel like I’m deciphering the bathroom stalls back in sixth grade. And the thing is, you can’t have it both ways. Rarely does one find Shakespeare in the outhouse.

The other irritations? The patois got old, very quick. The childish rhyming felt strange when place so near to sexual coupling. It just felt weird, as if puppets were having a sex education discussion with an ongoing demonstration. In places, it just felt a little creepy-creepy dirty-sneaky. I also feel the storytelling would have benefitted with some non-patois segments, or just something to break up its relentless monotony. The result of only employing local dialect is that exposition/description is reduced to unfamiliar forms of expression that fail to yield a smooth reading experience. Lastly, the plot mirrors Watership Down and Lord of the Flies too close for comfort. If you add the local-lingo and odd beasty theme of Miéville’s Railsea, Dark Eden loses all of its alien faraway feel. This doesn’t mean the book is bad, it just suggests a lack of originality.

The audiobook is narrated by Matthew Frow, Jayne Entwistle, Ione Butler, Robert Hook, Heather Wilds, Nicholas Guy Smith, Hannah Curtis, and Bruce Mann. I enjoyed the various narrators, each reading a different character. All readers have a heavy English/UK accent, but it still works, most of the time. I usually don’t care much for multiple narrators, but this production does a nice job.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig

August 25, 2013 by · 1 Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Humans by Matt HaigThe Humans
By Matt Haig; Read by Mark Meadows
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: July 2013
ISBN: 9781442366497
[UNABRIDGED] – 8 hours, 11 minutes
Excerpt: |MP3|

Themes: / aliens / ethnography / humanity /

Publisher summary:

“I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist. For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life form of mid-range intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.”

When an extraterrestrial visitor arrives on Earth, his first impressions of the human species are less than positive. Taking the form of Professor Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, the visitor is eager to complete the gruesome task assigned him and hurry back home to the utopian world of his own planet, where everyone enjoys immortality and infinite knowledge.

He is disgusted by the way humans look, what they eat, their capacity for murder and war, and is equally baffled by the concepts of love and family. But as time goes on, he starts to realize there may be more to this weird species than he has been led to believe. Disguised as Martin, he drinks wine, reads poetry, develops an ear for rock music and a taste for peanut butter. Slowly, unexpectedly, he forges bonds with Martin’s family, and in picking up the pieces of the professor’s shattered personal life, he begins to see hope and beauty in the humans’ imperfections and begins to question the mission that brought him there.

This book couldn’t be anything other than fiction, since it is from the perspective of an alien who was sent to earth to hold back dangerous scientific progress, but it has a feeling of ethnography to it from the alien’s perspective. As he becomes an insider, he discovers that what is assumed or known about humans around the universe – their selfishness, their monetary motivation – isn’t accurate. His commentary is more about what it is to be human, and the story was really secondary, in the sense that the story in Among Others is a secondary framework. The stories aren’t the same, but they seem to serve the same purpose.

If you’re looking for a rousing story of alien invasion and infiltration, this isn’t for you. But if you are interested in reflecting on the human condition, this will be right up your alley.

I had the luxury of listening to this entire book in one day. The narrator, Mark Meadows, does a good job of reading and drew me right in, keeping my attention for the entire book. In fact, I hardly thought about him at all, a quality I prefer in my readers!

Posted by Jenny Colvin

Review of Attempting Normal by Marc Maron

June 15, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Attempting NormalAttempting Normal
By Marc Maron; Read by Marc Maron
Publisher: Random House Audio
5 hours, 34 minutes [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: / memoir / comedy / humanity /

Publisher summary:

People make a mess.
 
Marc Maron was a parent-scarred, angst-filled, drug-dabbling, love-starved comedian who dreamed of a simple life: a wife, a home, a sitcom to call his own. But instead he woke up one day to find himself fired from his radio job, surrounded by feral cats, and emotionally and financially annihilated by a divorce from a woman he thought he loved. He tried to heal his broken heart through whatever means he could find—minor-league hoarding, Viagra addiction, accidental racial profiling, cat fancying, flying airplanes with his mind—but nothing seemed to work. It was only when he was stripped down to nothing that he found his way back.
 
Attempting Normal is Marc Maron’s journey through the wilderness of his own mind, a collection of explosively, painfully, addictively funny stories that add up to a moving tale of hope and hopelessness, of failing, flailing, and finding a way. From standup to television to his outrageously popular podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, Marc has always been a genuine original, a disarmingly honest, intensely smart, brutally open comic who finds wisdom in the strangest places. This is his story of the winding, potholed road from madness and obsession and failure to something like normal, the thrillingly comic journey of a sympathetic f***up who’s trying really hard to do better without making a bigger mess. Most of us will relate.

It seems like most people spend all their time cultivating various masks to hide behind, but Marc Maron has made a business out of taking his off, and getting professionals in artistic fields from comedy to film and music to do the same. His trick is to reveal his own flaws and past mistakes and make people feel OK about being human so they can relax and open up too. This is why his WTF podcast is so popular, and why he has such a loyal fan-base, and why his interviews are some of the most interesting out there.

In Attempting Normal, he says that one of the beliefs that shaped his life is that “People want to share but they usually don’t” – because they are afraid they will be judged, or seem weak, or out of fear that others won’t have the capacity to carry the burden of what they have to say. In his book, Maron says, “But all that stuff is what makes us human; more than that, it’s what makes being human interesting and funny. … We’re built to deal with shit. We’re built to deal with death, disease, failure, struggle, heartbreak, problems. … The way we each handle being human is where all the good stories, jokes, art, wisdom, revelations and bullshit come from.”

His book is a collection of autobiographical stories about how he has personally handled being a fallible human. He talks about his mistakes, drug problems, neurotic episodes and failed marriages, and he describes odd encounters with creatures such as hookers, stray cats, comedy road pirates, and Conan O’ Brian. What links all his stories together is that universal story plot: humans, who are really weird, get themselves into shit, deal with it, and climb back out. It’s a book about accepting the darkness and pain, struggling through, and keeping hope. It also has some profound wisdoms: “Bedtime is the worst time to start an argument because all the drama unfolds while you are wearing your underwear. Being angry in your underwear is a hard thing to pull off.”

It’s always awesome to hear people telling their own stories, but Maron’s narration is particularly good as he has beautiful timing and an open, free-flowing style thanks to years of working as a stand-up comic. He also has that hard-edged vulnerability that pro-comedians learn to do so well.

One of the things I appreciate about him, and which comes across heavily in this book, is that he loves the art of comedy not just as a form of entertainment but for its role in society: a way for people and for the culture to release tension. He says comedians are “like all artists, masters of the mathematics of relief.”

I also really dig his empathy for the human condition. He’s a dark character, but he has built up this amazing understanding of humanity that he uses to draw people out in interviews and to reflect on his own experiences. I learned from this book where it comes from: he has an insatiable curiosity for information about human psychology and philosophy, and even though he claims his obsessive collecting of books (from Plato and Spinoza to Hunter S.) is mostly pointless, I think it’s what gives him that ability to see the deeper truths in any situation.

“I can’t read anything with any distance. Every book is a self-help book to me. Just having them makes me feel better. I underline profusely, but I don’t retain much. Reading is like a drug. When I’m reading from these books it feels like I’m thinking what is being read, and that gives me a rush. That is enough. I glean what I can. I finish some of the unfinished thoughts lingering around in my head by adding the thoughts of geniuses, and I build from there.” (Mark Maron)

This isn’t a book about a huge celebrity or particular topic – it’s just an honest and humble conversation about how we’re kinda weird, kinda funny, and in the end only human.

Posted by Marissa van Uden

Review of Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick

May 12, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Vulcan's HammerVulcan’s Hammer
By Philip K. Dick; Performed by Mel Foster
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
6 hours [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: / Humanity / Future / Artificial Intelligence

Publisher summary:

After the twentieth century’s devastating series of wars, the world’s governments banded together into one globe-spanning entity, committed to peace at all costs. Ensuring that peace is the Vulcan supercomputer, responsible for all major decisions. But some people don’t like being taken out of the equation. And others resent the idea that the Vulcan is taking the place of God. As the world grows ever closer to all-out war, one functionary frantically tries to prevent it. But the Vulcan computer has its own plans, plans that might not include humanity at all.

Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1960. The book’s origin however is an expansion of a novella that has been published previously and therefore places this story among some of the author’s very earliest science fiction works.  The book’s central theme of what makes us human versus that of a machine is one that continued into many of Philip K. Dick’s later and more popular novels.

The plot revolves around that of a supercomputer named Vulcan 3 which acts as the world’s leader. Most of the characters (including the main protagonist William Barris,) are Directors of an organization called Unity which represent various regions of the world on behalf of Vulcan. Another more mysterious group that call themselves the Healers appear to be trying to thwart the will of Vulcan 3. Another key character, Father Fields, is from this counter-group.

Narration is handled by Audie award winner Mel Foster whose many other audiobook titles also include Philip K. Dick’s The Zap Gun. I enjoyed his performance of the material here and plan to give his take on The Zap Gun a listen also. I recommend Vulcan’s Hammer as I found interesting the development of a theme which continued into many of the author’s later novels.

Posted by Dan VK

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