A Timeless War Story

The Forever War book cover

One of my fellow students in the writing workshop that I attended through work (see previous post) recommended reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. I had heard of this book before, but it had never appealed to me. At his suggestion, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did.

The Forever War takes place in the future where mankind is at war with an alien species. Soldiers travel through wormholes to find and engage the enemy. This travel is essentially time travel into the future. Due to relativity, the soldiers age much more slowly than those left back on earth. By the time they return (if they return), hundreds of years will have passed and their home will likely feel alien.

The book is about how a never-ending war affects soldiers both as they fight that war as well as what happens when they return home. The book was written during the Vietnam War. It does an excellent job of projecting the feelings from that war into the future and generalizing them. I suspect that any veteran of any war could commiserate with the soldiers in this novel on the alienation of war, bureaucratic mindlessness, and returning home to people who just don’t understand what they went through.

Despite how heavy I just made it sound, the story is a personal one. It tells the story of one person as he fights to survive this war and figure out how to live his life through it and after it, should he survive. It is at the same time personal and cosmic in its scope, perhaps even timeless.

An Alarming “What If?”

Upgrade book cover

I have read two of Blake Crouch’s previous novels–Dark Matter and Recursion. I thoroughly enjoyed those, so when Upgrade was released on July 12, I snapped up a copy. While I have to admit that I enjoyed his previous novels more, the subject matter here is closer to reality and thus more alarming.

Upgrade is about bio-engineering, or more accurately, bio-hacking. The main character has his DNA altered in a way that pushes his capabilities beyond those of any other human while making him so different that he questions his future ability to engage with the rest of humanity. In this way, the novel has a passing resemblance to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But rather than embrace this change, he fights against those who changed him against his will.

Before I started reading this novel, I also started reading Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker about the development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. In addition to the history, that book goes into the debate around the ethics of how far the human race should go in directing its own evolution. This novel is the “what if” version of someone taking it upon themselves to actually do this.

In the future of this book, gene editing is illegal and the main character works for the agency that polices such illegal activity. His mother caused a global famine through genetic engineering that resulted in it being outlawed. He deals with guilt from that as well as other family dynamics that surface later in the story. There is also the philosophical dilemma of whether it is right to sacrifice some innocent lives to save an entire species. But mostly, the novel is a thriller of the near future.

While the book succeeds quite well as a thriller that explores contemporary themes in a world that feels very close at hand, it somehow still left me wanting more. Maybe his other books spoiled me for this one by lifting my expectations. Regardless, it is still a top notch novel of speculative fiction by one of the world’s best.

Sci Fi Satire

Made for Love book cover

Like my previous post about The Time Traveler’s Wife, I decided to read Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after learning that it was a new series on HBO Max. Made for Love is a science fiction satire about a woman who is running away from her tech billionaire husband because he wants to test his latest product on her. The story gets weird when she ends up at her father’s house only to discover that he is sharing his home with a lifelike sex doll. And then is becomes absurd. A secondary character is a con man who suddenly finds himself no longer sexually attracted to the beautiful women he scams. His new objects of carnal passion? Dolphins.

I have to admit, I almost didn’t finish this book. Numerous times. I decided to finish it because I was interested in learning how the core story came out. It is the kind of science fiction that I like. What happens when a tech genius pushes things a bit too far and a regular citizen decides not to go along? I was mostly satisfied with that story line and the way in plays out. Unfortunately, I had to wade through the nonsense of the rest of the book to get there.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is entirely well-written. I am sure that fans of absurdist fiction as well as those who appreciate the take-down of overly serious science fiction will greatly appreciate the parts of the book that I didn’t much care for. For me they felt overly forced without adding all that much to what the book says. In the end, it felt like a book that was trying to do two very different things at the same time but only succeeded mildly at both.

I have yet to watch the HBO Max series of Made for Love. I am hoping that I like it better than the book. Since my post about The Time Traveler’s Wife I have watched all the episodes available. I really loved it! I think that book is very difficult to make into a series. They found a way to tell the story and convey the feeling in this very different medium. I highly recommend it!

Excellent Storytelling in Speculative Fiction

Uncanny Magazine Issue 47 cover

I’ve been a subscriber to Uncanny magazine for a little over a year now. I just finished reading issue 47, the July/August 2022 issue. It is the best issue since I started subscribing. Here are my favorite stories from the issue.

Every issue of this magazine uses speculative fiction to address the very human issues of today. Sometimes the stories are challenging and emotional. Sometimes they are just a romp. And more often than you might think, they are both. Each issue is reading. Consider supporting these writers by subscribing.

Masterful Storytelling

The Time Traveler's Wife book review

Not long ago I was surfing through HBO Max looking for something to watch. One of the series it suggested for me was The Time Traveler’s Wife. It looked very interesting to me, so I added it to my list. But I knew this was a book before it became a TV series. As I generally prefer to read the book first, I held off from starting the series.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was a book that I had heard of before. I’d even thought about reading it a few times. The idea of a man who travels involuntarily through time married to a woman who meets him first as a child was mildly interesting to me, but I never got around to reading it. When I asked my partner if she had read it, she had and liked it. She is tough on books; they have to be very good for her to like them more than “meh”. So I decided to read this one. All I can say is WOW!

This is one of my favorite books that I have ever read. I am at a complete loss to how it could even have been written. The author switches between the perspectives of the husband and the wife. The husband jumps around in time so he meets his future wife when he is around forty and she is seven. In chronological time, they don’t meet until he is twenty-eight and she is twenty. So the first time he meets her (chronologically), she knows him but he has never seen her before. And the author does this so easily, keeping the reader connected with the characters and the story the whole time. So beautifully written with such a challenging format to storytelling.

And the book covers the themes of human life — sex, love, illness, children, relationships, jealousy. Each of these themes is addressed in the course of the events of the story. No heavy-handedness. It all feels so natural and real despite the science fiction aspect of the time travel. The reality of the story and its emotions touched me deeply. I laughed out loud, and I cried. I was almost sorry to get to the end of it. And now, I can’t wait to watch the TV series!

Just Read It!

The Anomaly book cover

I subscribe to the blog posts of the author Ozan Varol. He is the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. But this post is not about that book. Each month, Ozan shares with his readers what he has read, watched, and explored that month. One catch. He doesn’t share much about the plots of the movies and books he recommends. He doesn’t like to know much of anything before watching or reading.

In May, he recommended a book that I finished reading recently. It’s called The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier. Here is how he described it on his blog post. “Unputdownable thriller that I finished in 3 days. The less you know about it, the better. If you’re in the mood for a good summer page-turner, do yourself a favor and grab a copy.” That’s it. It was enough to make me borrow it from my library and read it.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I think I enjoyed it better for not knowing much about it before reading it. So I am not going to say much more than that. The characters are three-dimensional and feel like real people. I think that is what keeps the reader turning pages. So if you feel drawn to this book even a little, don’t seek out any more information on it. Just get a copy and start reading!

Living in Time

How to Stop Time book cover

I decided to read How to Stop Time by Matt Haig for two main reasons. First, I had read his previous novels Humans and The Midnight Library and had really enjoyed them both. I loved his humor, his writing style, and his exploration of the deeper ideas and challenges of the human condition. And then I read a review of How to Stop Time that described it in those terms. While it does live up to that billing, at the end I found myself less satisfied with this novel than the previous ones I had read.

The time travel in this book is not the traditional kind. Rather than there being a time machine, the main character has some sort of condition that causes him to age much more slowly. While not exactly immortal, he is four hundred years old in our time but looks only in his forties. The author uses this longevity to explore what it means to live as well as how such a long life might change the perspective of those living it.

Perhaps I am spoiled by the plethora of movies and books that explore the idea of time travel. As a result, I was too primed for that kind of book rather than what this book is. So while I didn’t enjoy it as much as his others, I think this book is right up there with them. In the future, I will try to temper my expectations and simply enjoy what I am reading without so much baggage.

Science Fiction in Translation

The Three-Body Problem book cover

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu. I still struggle with how I feel about it. There is much that I enjoyed and appreciated. It is based on hard science and isn’t a space opera. But about a third of the way through it just sort of bogged down for me. Fortunately it picked up again and I ended up liking the book overall. I can certainly see why it won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015.

Part of what I struggled with was that the translation felt like a translation. The occasional foreignness of the prose was challenging for me. Upon reading the translator’s postscript, I learned that this was on purpose. He wanted the text to reflect as much as possible the original. That means it won’t feel like native English. Perhaps that is what led to the feeling of being immersed in the “Chineseness” of the story, which I liked very much.

The story starts during the Cultural Revolution in China and ends in modern times. It deals with difficult people and difficult times, politics and science, as well as relationships of all sorts. I am grateful that such a unique novel was translated into English so that I could experience something outside of my culture in my favorite genre.

Exploring the Human Condition

Station Eleven book cover

It took me a while to pick a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It is about a flu outbreak that is so virulent and deadly that civilization collapses. Not exactly cheery reading in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally published in 2014, I expect that the concept at the center of the book felt extreme at its release. No more. Reading it left me grateful that humanity has thus far avoided being completely brought to its knees by a microbe.

The story is told primarily through the lives of The Traveling Symphony composed of actors and musicians who travel around Lakes Michigan and Huron performing Shakespeare and classical music. The reader gets a glimpse of how the plague started through the stories of those who later became part of The Traveling Symphony or encountered it. The writing is engaging, drawing you into the experiences and inner lives of the characters.

Slowly, bit by bit, you begin to learn about how some of the characters are connected. The hints at what might come later are part of what drew me to keep reading, as well as characters whose flaws felt real and relatable. In a world where civilization has collapsed, there are no angels. And yet there are a remarkable number of people who seek to make the world a better place. Through her characters the author show the absolute humanity of the people who inhabit this book, filled with both hope and deep disappointment.

If you are looking for an uplifting, feel good read, this book isn’t for you. But if you like stories of authentic people and a somewhat optimistic yet realistic look at the human condition, this book is a winner.

A Contemporary SFF Magazine

Uncanny Magazine No. 45 Cover

I am a huge fan of science fiction. I read many sci fi novels in high school, and recently subscribed to the semi-pro Uncanny Magazine. It publishes every other month and includes short stories, novellas, poetry, and essays on the topics of science fiction and fantasy. The latest issue is number 45, March/April 2022.

In this issue I dogeared five different pieces – two short stories and three essays. Flowerkicker by Stephen Graham Jones (available online April 5) is the story of a couple on a hike up a mountain. She is stopping to view every flower. He wants to get to the top and back before sunset. And they come across something out of the ordinary along the path.

In Requiem for a Dollface by Margaret Dunlap (also available online April 5) a teddy bear seeks the “murderer” of a child’s favorite doll. Upon discovering the perpetrator, he must make a very difficult ethical decision.

The essay Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies by Jo Wu discusses explores cultural prejudice in the foods we eat and how they affect our attitudes toward those who eat differently. I thought the title absurd, not expecting much from the piece. Instead I found it poignant and insightful.

Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative by Rebecca Romney is an essay by a collector of feminist science fiction. She traces the history back before Margaret Atwood to the nineteenth century. I added at least two titles to my “to read” pile after reading it.

Wax Sealed With a Kiss by Elsa Sjunneson (available online April 5) discusses the role of letters in general and love letters in particular throughout history and their use in fiction such as The Screwtape Letters and This is How You Lose the Time War. She even explores how her own letter writing helped her get perspective on her divorce.

I encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary science fiction and fantasy to read and subscribe to this excellent magazine.