Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Masks of Time - Robert Silverberg [1968]

The Blurb
Enter the crazy '60s, where apocalyptic cults (aptly named Apolcalyptics) run wild and Dr. Leo Garfield is feeling in a bit of a rut because he can't quite find the mechanism to travel through time. (Surprise surprise.) He retreats to the isolated desert home of his former physicist colleague and his smoking hot wife in order to get some much needed R&R. Meanwhile in Italy, a self-proclaimed time-traveler named Vornan-19 appears out of nowhere and creates a buzz. Is he a hoax? Is he a new-age messiah? No one really knows.

Through some windy ways somewhat related to his research, Garfield is selected to be part of a government-sponsored committee to figure out what the deal is with Vornan-19. Of course I won't spoil the ending, but don't expect too much.

The Review
To be fair, I expected Masks to be much worse than it turned out to be. (The '60s seemed like slim pickings for the Nebulas, it seems.) This is not to say I actually think it's good. In fact, of all the other Silverbergs to read, I'd skip this one entirely if possible. Maybe if I lived through the '60s and experienced the 'free love' craze that was going around I'd appreciate the hippie-esque desert scenes and the hook-ups courtesy of the see-through clothes everyone loves wearing, but it all just seemed overdone and over-the-top for me. In fact, some of the scenes felt so gratuitous (e.g. a voyeuristic experience at a brothel) that it took away from the plot.

In either case, I can't really say I was a fan of the way the subject played out either. Sure, time travelers from the future/past have been done, but this novel plods along quite slowly with no real character development. It felt as if Silverberg set up the plot train (Vornan-19 drops in and becomes a worldwide media sensation! Is he a new messiah or a fake?), gives it a shove, and simply ends the book as the train gradually comes to a slow, unsatisfying stop. I can't in good conscience even call it a slow, unsatisfying climax. Just a stop. I've never been more confused emotionally after ending a book in my life. On the one hand, I was glad it ended. On the other, I didn't feel like I was given enough closure.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is the worst Nebula nominee I've read, and one must remember that Silverberg has a great many very good books, but this one is a dud. Considering this was his first actual book, I'm willing to cut Masks a little slack, but Nebula committee: Shame on you!
In closing, Masks is at most a one-time deal.

You'll really want this book (like that one date with the slightly crazy girl you met on OK Cupid) to go really well because it's Silverberg, but it won't. Don't worry; it's not you, it's her.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Passage - Connie Willis [2001]

The Blurb
Joanna is a researcher in a hospital who is trying to understand NDEs, or near-death experiences by administering a combination of drugs that mimic the brain's activity when someone undergoes such an experience. Having to contend with misunderstandings about the nature of her work and a religious fanatic, Joanna is naturally shorthanded when it comes to volunteers for her research. As a result, Joanna decides to put herself under and each time, she ends up in the same place, a place that seems eerily familiar.

Through repeated "visits", she is convinced that she is (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) on the Titanic. As Joanna goes under more and more frequently, the duration of her stay on the ship increases, however she always manages to make it back before the ship goes completely down. Her research partner and friends are convinced she's losing her grip on reality, and it seems like the only person who holds the answers is her old high school English teacher...

The Review
First off, I'd like to apologize for the melodramatic way that blurb ended. If you skip blurbs because you don't like spoilers, minor or otherwise, rest assured, it was melodramatic. Anyway. Passage, while a Nebula nominee, doesn't quite have the same flavor as the most other books that find their way onto this list. Instead, it reads like one of the books you would find in the "Fiction/Literature" sections of a bookstore, rather than "Fantasy/Science Fiction". This is not to knock the book in any way. After many books involving (though I hate to stereotype my favorite genres) mages and spaceships, it was a very nice breath of fresh air. I was honestly surprised as how engaging I found the book, given that it's minimally science fiction-y and that it takes place in an all-too-real present. However, I also do crosswords in my spare time, so the bar for holding my interest is probably pretty low...

Though a bit long, Willis does provide some solidly plausible explanations for the "light at the end of the tunnel" and "angelic choirs" that people seem to experience. The requisite thorn-in-the-side character Mr. Mandrake was delightfully frustrating and spiced the book up nicely. A big minus, at least for me, was that the main focus of the book was death. Perhaps it's because I haven't yet come to grips with my own mortality, but having to think about it for extended periods of time was kind of a downer. BUT if you're okay with that, looking for something thought-provoking and casually paced, Passages just might be for you. If you're looking for ALL ACTION ALL THE TIME, or at the very least space travel, a skip skip skip on this one.

Are you okay contemplating your own mortality for extended periods of time? Are you okay with NO spaceships, NO lasers, NO mages? Perhaps you enjoyed Cloud Atlas, Little, Big, or more "literature"-oriented Nebula nominees? Then this is for you! Otherwise, no.

Just in time for the winter holidays! I personally promise an older scifi book soon! I'll try to pick one with pew! pew! lasers, but there's no guarantees...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell [2004]

The Blurb
A bit hard to describe, Cloud Atlas is made up of 6 narratives, connected in a somewhat marginal way to each other. (Think of the movie, Love, Actually.) The book takes on the structure of: A B C D E F E D C B A. I will attempt to provide short summaries below, so yes, spoilers alert! Feel free to skip.

Narrative A is the journal of a man named Ewing who is aboard a ship on his way home. During the voyage, he falls increasingly ill and is tended to by a fellow shipmate who happens to be a doctor. In addition, he must deal with protecting a young stowaway from the Chatham Islands. This takes place around 1850.

Narrative B comes in the form of a bundle of letters written by a man named Frobisher to his friend Sixsmith, dated from the 1930's. Frobisher is a struggling young musician who goes to a small village in hopes of working for a once-great musician. There, he ends up having an affair with his mentor's wife and having to deal with the man's cantankerous daughter. Narrative A is mentioned in passing as part of a journal he finds in the old musician's home.

Narrative C is a thriller/murder-mystery in which a young woman named Luisa Del Rey investigates the doings of a corrupt nuclear power plant. Sixsmith, now greatly aged in the forty years since he corresponded with Frobisher, worked for the power plant and his work is the evidence Luisa needs to blow this case wide open.

Narrative D concerns a man named Tom Cavendish who has a small publishing company about to go under. Narrative C is a manuscript sent to him in hopes of getting published. Through a set of increasingly bizarre events, he gets trapped in a nursing home and plans an attempt to escape along with two other nursing home "inmates".

Narrative E is set in a future where humans are cloned and used as forms of cheap labor. It is believed that clones are incapable of complex thoughts.  Soonmi, a clone working in a fast food chain, starts to experience a desire to learn new things and gets kidnapped (for her own good) by kindly university administrators where is is housed and educated illegally. This narrative is in the form of an interview between Soomni and a young journalist right before she is about to be executed. Narrative D is a movie she ends starts in her time at the university.

Narrative F is set in a post-apocalyptic future where society has broken up into small town/tribes. The vast majority of people surviving the apocalypse are inbred and have a host of genetic problems. The last of a healthy and scientifically advanced people send a researcher to Zachry's town to observe the people and area. Narrative E is seen by Zachry as a video recording through the researcher's device.

The Review
Having only two narratives of the book that are strictly "science fiction", Cloud Atlas is definitely one of those books you'd find in the Literature section instead of the Science Fiction section. Since this is a science fiction/fantasy blog, I'll be focusing my review on these two sections.

The two main science fiction ideas running through the two narratives are: Will clones be considered fully human in a future clone-filled society? and Shit! We got too greedy playing God and blew up our own world! While he doesn't bring anything new or surprising to the table, Mitchell does excel at world-building, presenting these two narratives cleanly and without much fuss. The narratives felt like they were just the right length. Long enough for me to not feel short-changed (I mean, I did just read through four other non-scifi narratives...and I'm about to do so again), and short enough so that the "artistic-ness" of the entire book didn't start to piss me off. I mean, nested narratives are a cool concept, but cutting off mid-sentence and starting another narrative? Perhaps this is necessary; I found it to be too much. As a result, the book does come across as pretentious at times.

A few points of warning: As mentioned, this book is consisted of six distinct narratives, only two of which are truly science fiction, so if you aren't into historical fiction, thrillers, or the like, this is not for you. The two sections seem like they'd make sense without having read the rest of the book, but it's worth more of your time to skip this one entirely instead of doing that. In addition, Narrative F is written in what Mitchell imagines our language would sound like in a post-apocalyptic society, and it does get a little tiresome by the end.

In short, Mitchell presents the science fiction portions of his book very well, but if you're thinking of reading it just for the scifi, definitely skip this since his presentation of isn't fresh and exciting enough to warrant slogging through hundreds of other pages. You'll just be disappointed. If, however, you're looking for an interesting book structure and don't mind other genres (which Mitchell has a great way with imitating, writing each narrative in a unique voice), give it a shot.

With only two out of six distinct narratives being strictly science fiction, skip it if you don't want to read through a historical fiction or a thriller, among other things. Check it out if you're okay with other genres or just want to read a book with some interesting structure. Very hit or miss.

After a very very long hiatus, we're back! Hopefully this time, in a regular fashion. Once again, I'm creeping my way up to more posts than Daniel. MUAHAHAHA! I've decided to start reviewing more recent books, since it seems like Daniel's got a fair number of classics covered. Thanks for reading, folks!

Monday, December 27, 2010

All Flesh Is Grass - Clifford D. Simak [1965]

In the unremarkable town of Millville, Brad Carter bears witness to the most remarkable event in human history: contact with an alien intelligence. Resembling purple flowers, they have utilized their control over time itself to place a barrier around Millville, preventing access to the outside world. They have come offering humanity their extensive knowledge in exchange for our partnership in their endeavors across time and space. But is anything ever so easy? As Brad tries to learn more about the flowers, nuclear annihilation looms from an increasingly fearful outside world as unrest brews from the terrified citizens within.

All Flesh Is Grass is, at heart, a first contact story with the most unlikely of ambassadors: Brad Carter is a failed insurance and real estate agent in the archetypal small town where nothing ever happens. This backdrop of a dull middle-American town, with all the resident characters you'd expect: the elderly doctor, the beleaguered mayor, the friendly drunk, and others make Brad's plight in dealing with his extraordinary circumstances all the more relatable, and provides additional contrast to the otherworldliness of the aliens. The aliens themselves are rather novel, being hyper-intelligent flowers from a parallel dimension. All these elements come together to form a story that, much like Brad, moves at its own pace, not really in a particular hurry to get from one place to the next. While this may have been done to try to invoke a sense of the mundane world that Brad calls home, it fails to carry the story when it shifts gear into the more fantastical.

Overall, All Flesh Is Grass is a passable novel, and while not excellent, is still certainly worthy of a Nebula nomination. Fans of Simak will recognize his signature style, and it's certainly something different in the first contact sub-genre. Recommended is Asimov's The God's Themselves for another tale of first contact that might not be all it seems.

In Short
All Flesh Is Grass is a unique take on the first contact story that is both familiar and utterly alien at the same time, with sleepy, small-town 1960s America contrasting hyper-intelligent, hive mind flowers.


It seems that even being on break isn't enough to make me overcome laziness. Oh well. Here's a post anyway. I should probably build up a buffer or something so I can immediately retain my lead when Fern posts again. Also, belated season's greetings!

Oh, and I love foreign book covers.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Chthon - Piers Anthony [1967]

The Blurb
Aton Five's chance encounter with the hauntingly beautiful minionette named Malice as a boy comes to define the rest of his youth and adult life. The exact circumstances which lead to Aton's imprisonment in Chthon, an inescapable labyrinthine prison, are muzzy, but the reason for the imprisonment is certain: his love for the minionette. What's unclear is why it's an unpardonable crime to love her. In order to find out, Aton devises an escape from Chthon. Among the many problems he faces are the deadly creatures in the tunnels of Chthon, his fellow prisoners, and of course, the small fact that no one actually knows where Chthon is located. But is the terrible truth Aton learns about Malice worth the years of agony she has caused him? I guess you'll only find out if you read the book! (Or cheat and Google the plot...)

The Review
Yes yes, we're once again back in the sixties, but I promise some more recent books are well on their way to being reviewed!
Now, Chthon is told in a non-linear fashion, but do not despair of the fact that we know Aton escapes successfully within the first two chapters! No surprise is ruined here! In fact, Anthony pulls this technique off beautifully, pulling the tension away from "Will he escape?" and instead turning it into, "Is all his effort going to be worth it?", which (in my opinion) works much better with the obsession he has with Malice. Furthermore, Chthon blends elements of scifi and fantasy quite well together. While Aton's journey takes him across the galaxies, since a good half of the book is set in Chthon with man-eating beasts and the rest of the book has him battling waking dreams of the minionette, the "science fiction" definitely takes a back burner to the fantasy elements in this book, so hardcore scifi lovers, be warned! To sweeten the disappointment some might feel however, I will say this: Chthon has zombies.
I repeat, Chthon has zombies. And yes, he actually calls them that. But I digress.
Now I don't mean to sound sexist, but Chthon also definitely illustrates the difference between male and female scifi/fantasy writers when it comes to romantic subplots. Maybe it's because I'm female, but I'm always left a little unsatisfied with romantic subplot development by male authors. Everything always seems a little abrupt, and Chthon is no different, though I'm willing to allow that it may be because Aton is so obsessed with Malice that, naturally, any other romance must seem hurried and unsatisfying at best. Still, the juicy secrets of the minionette were so worth it (to me, as a reader) that any drawbacks of the romantic subplot are not enough to unrecommend this book.
Since Chthon was written in the sixties, it seems to follow the trend of being on the shorter side in comparison to the newer Nebula nominees. (This might be because they hadn't yet placed a lower word count limit for "Best Novel", perhaps?) The pacing is quick enough, so expect things to be happening all the time, especially near the end where Anthony seems to get frighteningly fast with events, so don't space when reading!

The Recommendations
-Phthor: This is the sequel to Chthon and follows Aton's son, also in the tunnels of Chthon.
-The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee: This doesn't have scifi in it at all, but if you enjoyed the gradual progress of unraveling the secrets surrounding the minionette, this has a very similar thing going on in terms of finding out the true identity of the main character. It's also features battling demons, both internal and external.
-If you're into space opera, hard scifi, or fantasy involving magic, this is probably not for you.

Aton Five is sent to an inescapable prison colony for loving the minionette Malice, and stages an impossible escape in order to find out why loving her has doomed him. More fantasy than scifi, though it has elements of both.


Here is the Nebulog's special Thanksgiving review! (If only because the timing happens to coincide.) Happy Turkey Day to all our readers in the US, and to those of our readers who don't celebrate Thanksgiving, Happy Nebulog Update! Also, Daniel, your lead is getting smaller as I update! Muahahahaha. (Now if I can only maintain this updating.....)