2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Contact – Carl Sagan

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Structure: Third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1985

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the discovery of alien life. When radio-telescopes at the Project Argus pick up an unusual signal, she realises that this may be the message everyone has been waiting for.

Well, this was certainly an interesting read. Being written by an actual scientist made it quite different from any other science fiction I’ve read. (I’ve never been so glad to be reading something on my kindle. I had to keep looking up scientific terms.) It was also much less figurative than most novels. It was very focused and very unemotional. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It was very enjoyable but although there was some love interest for Ellie and somethings outside of the science were mentioned but they were not focused on and sometimes it felt like Sagan had forgotten about these elements. It was a little like reading a documentary about something that hadn’t happened yet. It was probably the most level headed novel I’ve ever read.

The story starts in Ellie’s childhood. She is an exceptionally gifted child, already curious about all things science. Sagan takes us through her school and university career as she becomes more and more interested in the possibility of a message from outer space. This leads her to the Argus Project and the unusual signal.

It becomes clear that the signal is the instructions for the building of a machine. Sagan takes the reader through the various arguments against building it – it could be a Trojan horse or it could be a doomsday machine. We get various religious arguments which are all given a respect I would have found it hard to give.

Indeed, this is not a novel about the divide between science and religion but is one in which the two are brought closely together. When the machine is built, the five top scientists from around the world are sent away in it and they are presented with a vision of the person they loved most in the world who explain to them about a universal message that is written in the physics of the universe. Ellie is told to look in pi but other scientists receive slightly different information. This final message brings together science and religion rather than driving them apart. God is given a scientific explanation.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was exciting. It showed what might happen if we received a message from intelligent aliens. (Although given the current governments in charge, I very much doubt such a calm response might occur these days.) Ellie was an engaging main character who neglected her family and lover due to her dedication to science. Sometimes it felt that Sagan neglected elements of the narrative for the same reasons but overall I would definitely recommend.

 

Books Read in 2015 50. The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Madness

Narrative Style: Third person, reported with details from witnesses Unknown

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1897

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: A stranger arrives at a village pub and brings with him all manner of strangeness. At first, the visitor is merely surly and unfriendly but it soon becomes clear that all is not quite right with him and the chaos begins. 

It is one of those things that people are thought to wish for – to be invisible, even for just a day. It is always considered to be a fun concept, one which involves all the mischief you could possibly imagine. It is this idea that Wells explores in The Invisible Man. It quickly becomes apparent that not all of the consequences are pleasant.

The novel begins with the arrival of the Invisible Man at a pub where he means to lodge. He is wrapped up to the eyeballs with scarf, hat and coat hiding the truth of his state. For the reader, there is never any doubt about his identity. The audience is in a position of knowledge compared with the characters and they wonder how the truth will be revealed. Wells slowly peels back the layers from the character until his true state is understood. Chaos ensues and it quickly becomes apparent just how difficult it is to capture what you cannot actually see.

What follows is essentially an extended chase albeit with a pause for the Invisible Man – his name is Griffin, it transpires – to tell his tale. The science of the process is plausible enough and the pause heightens the tension as it begins to seem that being invisible is sending Griffin mad. Wanting to see what the consequences of this madness will be are what keep the reader’s interest.

As with all good horror and science fiction, this is actually a philosophical discussion of what it means to be human. When Griffin becomes invisible he begins to lose what grounds him and attached him to other humans. He descends into megalomania and no rules or laws can hold him. Wells asks the question how far would you go if you had such power and who is to say that we wouldn’t all react in the same way if we had the chance.

There is a moral aspect to this tale as well. Not only is there the idea of absolute power corrupting but also it becomes clear that Griffin was an albino before he became invisible. In becoming invisible, he escapes the unfriendly gaze of those who view him as different and becomes much more powerful than them. A sad story, then of the revenge of one who feels himself bullied.

I really enjoyed this. It is pacy and the narrative voice is like that of a friend passing on the latest urban myth. Did you hear about that invisible man…. This is easily as enjoyable as the excellent 1933 film version if not better.

Books Read in 2015 45. Consider Phlebus – Iain M. Banks

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Genre: Science fiction, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1987

Format: Paperback8935689

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre: Science fiction set in space.

Synopsis: Horza is charged by the Idirans with finding one of the Culture’s minds which, while escaping from its ship, has taken refuge on Schar’s World, a planet that Horza knows well. Nominally on the side of the Idirans, Horza starts the mission optimistically but even his journey to the planet is not straightforward and once he arrives, he realises that finding the mind is the least of his problems. 

There is no doubt that Iain M. Banks has quite an imagination. The space within which this story takes place is exciting and interesting and Banks is clearly fascinated with where technology might take us as a race and how that will effect our humanity. This is most apparent in his descriptions of the Culture, the most advanced race in the book, and in Horza’s objections to them.

The story is action packed and races along like an out of control racing car, leaving the reader little time for breath or even thought. And while I did want to see if they were going to succeed in their mission, it left little space for character development or emotion of any kind.

That was my problem with it. There was little in the way of depth. Horza, a changer, could have been a fascinating character but you never really find out that much about him or his inner life. Even as his relationship with one of his fellow mercenaries develops and she announces that she is pregnant, there is little in the way of emotion developed between them.

There are some grisly moments in this book and that is where some of the best writing is. As in Iain M. Banks other fiction, his warped imagination takes the reader into some very dark places. It was a bit disappointing that in the end, this became merely a gun battle with all the usual cliches.

In the end, I felt about this the way I feel about a lot of big budget science fiction. It looks amazing but it is all surface. It left me feeling a little cold and  empty.

Books Read in 2015 – 24. The Giver – Lois Lowry

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Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from one point of view

Rating 3/5Unknown

Published: 1993

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jonas’s world is perfect. No one is ever hurt or upset. Their roles are carefully chosen and everyone fits right in. Even death has become something to celebrate with the ceremony of release for the old. However, as Jonas discovers when he is given the role of Receiver of Memory, underneath the surface there is pain. But there is also love and passion and colour. Jonas has to decide whether the love is worth the pain.

Reading challenges: eclectic-reader-challenge-2015/- genre: Middle grade / Young Adult adventure

This book is interesting rather than exciting. At first, it seems that there is no problem with Jonas’s world. Everyone is happy because no one can remember or process upset or dissatisfaction. Everyone is the same. There are hints of the extent that the society is controlled – for example when Jonas takes an apple home that should have been eaten as a snack – but it isn’t until Jonas receives his new role at age twelve that the reader gets to see exactly what is missing from this society.

Jonas is to be the new Receiver of Memory. He has to visit The Giver who passes on the memories physically to him. Some of the memories are good – they are of family get togethers and having fun in the snow. Others are painful, memories of war or injury. Most interestingly, it transpires that Jonas’s people cannot see colour so that everyone is literally the same. (It isn’t explained how this has come about but I’m going to assume it was some genetic cleverness that somehow bred out the ability to see colour.) Jonas has already had hints that he can see colour and once he can, the world of his community seems terribly dull.

Quickly Jonas learns that nothing is quite what it seems. He discovers exactly what happens when people are released and realises with horror that some people – himself included – are allowed to lie to everybody else about what actually happens in their jobs or when people are released.

I was quite interested up until this point. The importance of memory – be it good or bad – cannot be doubted and when The Giver and Jonas decide to give some memories back to the community, I thought it would be quite exciting. However, the story just fizzles out from this point onwards and I think Lowry squandered what she created. Jonas runs away, taking with him a small child who is about to be released. They obviously quickly run into trouble away from the community as they have very little food and the weather is not controlled, unlike in the community. Jonas’s death seems inevitable although Lowry makes it into a spiritual experience where Jonas remembered one of the more pleasant memories he had been given.

This left me wondering exactly what point Lowry was trying to make. Obviously, Jonas died because he separated himself from the community so was she suggesting that any regime, however horrible, was better than individualism. It would have been more interesting to see the effect that the memories that were released had on everyone in the community but that is never mentioned.

Ultimately, this was an interesting idea that I feel was underdeveloped and left me with a bit of a sour taste. In the end, I just wasn’t sure what Lowry’s message was and that made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Books Read in 2015 – 16. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut.

Genre: Satire, Metafiction, Science Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person but with interjections by the character of the author. 

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1973

Synopsis: Science Fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, is invited to an arts festival, much to his horror. Little does he realise exactly what events he will cause when he gives the already unbalanced Dwayne Hoover one of his books to read. The book opens with the idea of the catalytic nature of their meeting and then traces their respective journeys to this point. 

This is probably more about science fiction then it is science fiction as the setting is earth in the seventies. However, there are many descriptions of Trout’s books and stories and there is also a commentary on the place of science fiction as a literary genre (e.g. right at the bottom of the cultural heap) and also on the way science fiction should be read. Hoover speed reads one of Trout’s novels and comes to believe that he is the only man on earth with free will and everyone else is a robot. This causes him to go on a violent rampage where he injures Trout, his girlfriend and his son.

The journeys of both Hoover and Trout, up to this point, are exciting and weird in the way that only Vonnegut’s writing is weird. Hoover suffers from echolalia and hallucinates that the ground is melting while Trout cannot remember who he is talking to and is fascinated by the names on the sides of trucks which seem to make no sense to him. They are joined at the Arts festival by the character of Kurt Vonnegut who wears dark glasses and hides in the shadows so as not to unsettle his creations. This allows Vonnegut (the author) to play with the idea of author as the God of his novels. This is meta-fiction as its best with interesting ideas about writing , authorship and characterisation.

The best – and funniest – part of this novel is undoubtedly the tone and style. The novel is a bit like an idiot’s guide to Earth and so things that are obvious are explained as if they are not. Some of the explanations are hilarious and also send up American culture at that time. There is a strong satirical tone throughout. Very enjoyable.

Books Read in 2014 62. Tears in Rain – Rosa Montero

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from different points of view. Largely chronologicalUnknown

Rating 2.5/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Bruna Husky is a technohuman or a replicant. She is also a private detective. One morning, her next door neighbour – also a rep – goes mad and attacks her before plucking out her own eye and dying herself. More stranger murders / suicides start to happen and reps become equally feared and despised. Bruna is called upon to investigate and soon finds herself involved in a conspiracy that goes right to the very top. 

I was offered this as a free kindle book from Amazon when I downloaded some classic sic-fi. There was a choice of four and this seemed the most interesting. Otherwise I don’t think I’d have picked it up. I prefer my Science Fiction to be of the dystopian kind not the robots and aliens kind.

Having said that, this did have dystopian elements. There was certainly a strong moral objective about difference and equality and at first, I thought I would enjoy it more than I did. It was clearly indebted to Bladerunner, both in its choice of heroine and in its landscape but I didn’t mind that. Bladerunner is a great film and there are certainly worse things to base a novel on.

The main problem was the writing was a bit flat. I’m not sure if this is a problem with the translation or also present in the original but there was little in the way of style and the narrative was often slowed down by the leaden prose. There was the misuse of the word literally –  as in she was literally sick everywhere. Oh, I know that the OED have added this use of the word to its definition because it is so widespread but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. There were redundant sentences of the “it really had been a dreadful night” variety which just irritated me. I found that the writing distracted from what could have been a rollicking adventure.

The characters were equally flat. Bruno’s personality was all over the place. She was whatever was required of her by the narrative rather than having any personality of her own. The other characters responded to her and were equally without personality. Some appeared and disappeared without really even touching the narrative and you had to wonder what the point was.

In the end, there were few surprises. It was always obvious who the love interest would end up being, who the bad guy was and what the outcome would be. When I finished, I felt as though a good had idea had been wasted. But maybe that’s not quite what I mean. After all, Bladerunner was the good idea and there is probably no way for that to actually be bettered.

Books Read in 2014 – 50. I am Number Four – Pittacus Lore

Genre: Science fiction, Young Adult

Narrative Style: First Person, ChronologicalI_Am_Number_Four_Cover

Rating 2.5/5

Published: 2010

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: John Smith is number four, one of nine aliens who made their way to earth when their own planet was destroyed by the Mogadorians. These aggressive aliens are chasing down the remaining nine and have already killed numbers 1-3. John knows he is next.

There was good and bad with this book and I really wasn’t sure what to rate it. In the end it was more disappointing then anything so I decided on 2.5/5.

I thought the opening chapter – recounting the death of Three was very exciting and pacy and I was hoping that the rest of the novel would live up to this. Obviously, the pace had to drop a bit so the author could introduce us to John and Henri. However, it did take along time to pick up again. When it did, I enjoyed the battle with the Mogadorians as it was hard to see how the John and his friends could possibly win.

However, even then, I found the plotting clumsy. John suddenly realises what his special power (legacy) will be – just in time to use it to control the beasts the Mogadorians use for fighting. There were hints as to his ability with animals for the reader but John remained resolutely clueless until the crucial moment.

I found the romance between John and Sarah a bit mushy and some of the dialogue was truly terrible. (Not just there – some of the conversations between John and Henri are equally nauseating.) She accepts his alien status very easily – without question really and that didn’t ring true. The ending – which should have been emotional – was merely corny and irritating.

Similarly, Mark, who has been John’s sworn enemy at school, suddenly comes on side. Just in time to fight in fact. It is not satisfactorily explained how he came to be at John’s house at just the right time. He seems to have no trouble with the alien idea either. Sam was more convincing – desperately clinging onto the idea of aliens as an explanation for his father’s disappearance. He was more rounded than the other characters and when he realises that John is an alien, he tries to shoot him. This is at least a reaction of some sort.

Finally, I found the politics of the story a little too straightforward. Aggressive aliens versus peace-loving ones seems a bit of a cliche. The Loriens once almost destroyed their planet (the evolutionary stage that earthlings are at now) but realised in time that they needed to change their ways and live in harmony with the planet. There’s a lesson there and not a very subtle one. It’s an old story and one that is retold here in a clumsy, corny way.

Books Read in 2014 – 42. Chocky by John Wyndham

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Genre: Dystopia
Narrative Style: First person, chronological
Rating 4/5
Published: 1970
Format: Kindle
Synopsis: When Matthew starts to communicate with an unseen being named Chocky, his parents are understandably worried. After all, Matthew is too old for an imaginary friend. Furthermore, Matthew is starting to ask questions that seem to have come from somewhere beyond his own mind. As time passes, they grow more and more concerned and involve outside help. This turns out to be a big mistake.

There were a couple of reasons for choosing to read this book. I could vaguely remember the TV series and was curious to read the book behind it. Secondly, I had been meaning to read more Wyndham since reading The Day of the Triffids a few years ago. So I had high hopes for the book and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This is a really good read and the only thing that stopped it getting five stars is that sometimes it seemed a little old fashioned which is inevitable, I suppose, with this sort of fiction.
The story begins with Matthew’s parents noticing little oddities that are out of place for an eleven year old – like having an imaginary friend. It seems harmless enough and although they are curious, they are not unduly worried, as their son seems happy enough in himself.
However, clues begins to appear that suggest that this is no ordinary imaginary being. Matthew starts to ask questions that are almost beyond his understanding. His teachers complain that he is starting to ask about concepts that are too difficult to explain and he sometimes appeared to be arguing with another being. They decide to seek outside help and it is suggested that Matthew may be possessed by an outside force. Understandably, they find this an unsatisfactory answer and seek help elsewhere.
Events do become more sinister – for example, Matthew rescues his sister from drowning without being able to swim. The press start to become interested and Matthew is sent to an important psychologist who equally has no answers for them.
I must admit that I wished I had no knowledge of the events that were to come as I could remember exactly who Chocky was, However, I could not remember the exact storyline and so when Matthew goes missing near the end of the novel, I was as perplexed as his parents. I also could not remember Chocky’s purpose in using Matthew as a reporter on this world. I was impressed by the ecological reasoning used by Chocky in her disgust at our dependency on fossil fuels that will inevitably disappear. This reads now like a warning still unheeded as we are still desperate for a clean, safe solution to this problem. There was a contrast between Chocky’s altruistic attitude and that of the doctors who want to exploit Matthew’s unusual knowledge.
The narrative is written from the point of view of David, Matthew’s father and was convincing in its curiosity about Chocky and its concern for Matthew. The story is written in a straightforward way but that only made the ending seem more devastating because the reader could believe in its reality. Very enjoyable.

Books Read in 2014 – 11. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Genre: Literary criticism, Science, Science Fiction
narrative style: first person, academic
Rating: 5/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2011

Synopsis: A series of essays from varying points in Atwood’s career covering her views on science fiction and dystopia, the origins of her own ideas, reviews of science fiction that has influenced her and finally some short stories.

This was an excellent read. Atwood is an intelligent commentator on fiction and on culture. She traces the impulse towards utopia and dystopia, in both her own writing and within our culture.
The descriptions of her early reading and the differences between then and now are interestingly examined. It is fascinating to me, a person who has always known a certain level of technology, to imagine what it must have been like pre-television when people listened to the radio so much more. No doubt when space travel first began, it must have seemed so exciting and so beyond what anyone else had done. These days, it seems almost old hat. Atwood shows the same unfailing intelligence when examining her own fictional impulses as others which offers the reader a new insight.
Her reviews of classics such as The Island or Doctor Moreau, Women on the edge of time, 1984 and such like are equally intelligent. In fact, I was made to rethink my position on these books a couple of times because her views were so well thought out. I now have a long list of books that I need to read based on all the books that were mentioned that I hadn’t read.
Finally, tucked away at the end of this book are five short science fiction stories, all of which are filled with Atwood’s trademark sly humour and love of langauage. My favourite of these takes the form of a dinner party conversation about the perils of having your head cryogenically frozen. Atwood really picks the issue apart.
All in all a great read for anyone with an interest in science fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Worlds We’d Never Want to Live In

Top ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are talking about fictional worlds we would not want to live in.

In no particular order:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. This is one of the first dystopia that I read and still ranks as one of the scariest. The humiliations that the handmaid’s go through are almost beyond imagining. Atwood’s nightmare world is frighteningly convincing.

2. 1984 – George Orwell. I read this at school. I am sure that it is at least partly responsible for my own political convictions. It is a shame that things like room 101 and big brother have been stripped of most of their meaning by imbecilic television programmes.

3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I often feel like the savage in this book when I look at modern culture. I feel a little lost and confused when I see the things that people do, watch, listen to, post on social media.

4. Mad Addam series – Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read the third book of this series yet but the first two were really disturbing. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you could really see the roots of reality in this book. Take it as a warning, folks. This is where we could be headed.

5.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick / Bladerunner. It is particularly unsettling not to be able to tell if someone is human or not. Even more frightening is the idea that you might not even know yourself. This one eats at the very heart of the reader.

6. War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells. Oh, I know, the Martians get it in the end but up until that point, there really is no stopping them. I can’t help feeling this is what  it would be like if any aliens found us. Why travel across space and time, if you’ve not already conquered everything nearer at hand?

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. I’ve not read the rest of this series either. I liked the idea of the games and the different sectors more than I liked the way the story played out. You know everyone would watch it, that’s what makes it seem real.

8. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Another early influence on me politically. I imagine I’d be like poor old Boxer. Well-meaning but ultimately useless. I’d soon be carted off to the equivalent of the glue factory.

9. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. This is probably the bleakest book I have ever read. Some unnamed catastrophe has caused society to break down. McCarthy really captures the way that it would go once those rules were gone.

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro. This is another book where I liked the idea better than the execution. Children being bred purely for their organs is a chilling – and not unlikely – idea that gets to the heart of the issues surrounding cloning.