Hum by Helen Phillips

I learned about this book from the Summer Reading Guide on the What Should I Read Next? podcast. It won’t be published until August 6. I was able to read it early by getting an advance reader copy from Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

The story is about a mother in a near future where AI robots called “hums” and public surveillance are everywhere. The first part of the book is a depressing litany of the living poor in a high tech world succumbing to climate change and slowly losing jobs to automation. After being let go, the mom gets paid to have a procedure to make her face unrecognizable to facial recognition. She uses the windfall to pay back rent and for a vacation at the Botanical Gardens with her husband and two children. While there, a crisis with her children is the event that sets off the main conflict of the novel.

This tale is well-told and realistically evokes the everyday struggles of the working poor trying to raise a family in a world that seems to keep them down at every turn. Additionally, it explores the struggle of parents to raise their kids to be well-rounded adults with all the distractions that technology affords. Unfortunately, I found the balance of the story to be off a bit too much for me. The bleakness heavily outweighs the message. It reminds me of an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix. It gives me that same vague horror of something that could really happen but never should without the same storytelling punch that series delivers.

My rating 3.5/5

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishigura

I picked up this book because of its themes. I enjoy speculative fiction that explores the ideas of identity and the human condition in general. I particular enjoy it when these themes are explored without giving straightforward answers. Life is complicated and such simple answers don’t generally exist. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro explores these ideas in a fascinating way as one would expect from a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Unfortunately one aspect of the plot ruined for me what was an otherwise wonderful novel.

The book is the story of Kara, an Artificial Friend, a type of robot companion for children. She waits in a store to be purchased and fulfill her purpose. When she finally gets a home, she is companion to a girl who has been “lifted”, who is genetically modified to be smarter. This process is not always successful, and it is unclear if it will be for this girl. She has a boy as a neighbor who she is very close with. We learn about all this in bits and pieces through Klara who tells the story from her perspective. Klara seeks to help all those connected with the girl. And this is the part that spoiled the book for me.

While in the store, Klara gets the idea the Sun (always capitalized in the book) bestows “his special nourishment” on someone to heal them. At a some level this makes a certain kind of sense. After all, Klara is powered by solar energy. On the other hand, it is completely absurd. A robot built on logic and algorithms that thinks the Sun is some kind of god to be bargained with in exchange for healing? Very human but not very robot-like. It just kept pulling me out of the story and making me shake my head. I couldn’t buy into it. Ultimately, this aspect of the story spoiled for me what was an otherwise excellent book exploring what it means to be human and care for another.

My rating: 3/5

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

Speculative fiction is often defined as including the genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I am a fan and reader of all three genres. In the past, I have thought of my favorite was science fiction. More recently I’ve come to see that a specific type of speculative fiction is my favorite. Speculative fiction can generally be described as the literature of “What if?” The author extrapolates on that question, puts their characters in that world, and explores answers to the question raised. That is my favorite type of fiction, no matter the genre.

The Measure, the debut novel by Nikki Erlick, is just such a novel. It asks the question, “What if everyone could know exactly how long they would live?” In the book every adult wakes up one morning with a box at their front door. In it is a string. On the box is a message that states, “Inside is the measure of your life”. The length of the string corresponds to the length of your life. This event changes the world forever.

The book explores why people might choose to look or not to look in their box to see the length of their string. It explores how such knowledge affects personal relationships, politics, who has what jobs, and even fundamental questions of identity. Many times while reading it I was reminded of one my favorite movies, Gattaca. In that movie a person’s place in the world is determined by their genetics instead of a string, but many of the same ideas are explored.

Perhaps what I like most about this book is that is doesn’t provide easy answers to such a deep question. Instead, it explores the question in the context of the vastness of the human experience. In today’s world where everyone thinks they have the answers to every question and is willing to argue about them with anyone and tell them they are wrong, it is refreshing to read a story that has no simple answers and instead explores why different, loving, caring, genuine people might make different decisions given the same question. And ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. Just different ones.

My rating: 5/5

Babel by R. F. Kuang

Babel book cover

This book was one of the biggest published in 2022. I kept hearing people rave about it online and in podcasts. I knew it was about language and colonialism and was a fantasy that takes place in an alternative past. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect when I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. While I did enjoy it, I’m not sure I would rate it quite so highly as so many others.

The main thrust of the world is that England is a world power due to silver, and not just because of its value as a precious metal. When similar words from different languages are engraved on bars of silver, the subtle differences between the words are brought out by the bar. Babel is the name of the tower and school of translation at Oxford. A cohort of an Indian, a Haitian, a Chinese, and an Englishwoman bond over their experience at the school. But as they start to learn the consequences of their school and its work, danger and revolution ensue.

In many ways this book reminded me of Kindred. Like that book, Babel really helps the reader feel what the characters are struggling with, in this case colonialism. And the characters come alive, whether you love them or hate them. Being a bit of a linguist, I also really loved how translation is a central part of the story. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of explication, more telling than showing in some places. That said, I am not sure how else the writer could have shared such a complex topic. But for me the explanations never really interfered with my enjoyment of the story. I was carried along nonetheless. In the end the book was a bit long but still worth the read.

My rating: 3.5/5

Murder in a North America Never Colonized

The Peacekeeper book cover

I was drawn to The Peacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard due to its setting. It takes place in modern time but in a world where the Americas were never colonized by Europeans. The story is about a young man whose mother is murdered by his father when he is a teenager. He spends the rest of his life caring for his sister who was twelve at the time of the murder. He eventually becomes a peacekeeper (what today we would call a policeman) and starts to investigate only the second murder in twenty years in his small town.

Due to what felt like heavy-handed foreshadowing, I suspected the murderer from the beginning. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The world building is amazing. The story takes place among the Great Lakes. There is a map in the front of the book but with East at the top due to world view of the Anishinaabe tribe, the tribe of the main character and the tribe of which the author is an enrolled member. We learn how the criminal justice system in this world is based an restorative justice rather than punishment.

In addition to the culture and cities, we learn also about how communities and families work in this modern indigenous world. And the themes throughout the story touch on and explore these as well. This is more than a simple murder mystery set in an alternative world. It explores what it is like to live in that world and how people living there might deal with what happens around them. I would love to read more stories that take place in this world.