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!