Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: The Twelve

1 For it came to pass that the world was grown wicked, and men had taken war into their hearts, and committed great defilements upon every living thing, so that the world was as a dream of death;

2 And God looked upon His creation with great sadness, for His spirit no longer abided with mankind.  

3 And the Lord said: As in the days of Noah, a great deluge shall sweep over the earth; and this shall be a deluge of blood. The monsters of men’s hearts shall be made flesh, devouring all in their path. And they shall be called Virals.

So begins The Twelve, the second book in Justin Cronin’s trilogy of the apocolypse. Book one, The Passage, plunged us headlong into the fiendish aftermath of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” Now Cronin continues the story: because the end of the world was really just the beginning.

The first part of the book takes us back to Year Zero, when all hell breaks loose. New characters are introduced, old ones are developed, and more light is shed upon the circumstances surrounding the first Viral outbreak. Meanwhile, Cronin gradually brings us back to the current time, 97 AV – five years after the end of The Passage. Mankind’s fight for survival goes on, but the rules have changed. The enemy is evolving… and the future may hold something far worse than the extinction of the human race.

You could say the stakes are high, and you’d be right. In more ways than one. This is, after all, a novel about vampires. Get it? Stakes… vampires… oh, never mind.

The first question we must ask of The Twelve is this: did it live up to its predecessor? And to that I answer, yea and nay. The Passage is still the stronger of the two, by my reckoning – grander in scope, more tightly plotted, and with greater emotional heft. That being said, this sequel is no slacker. Even with its shortcomings, it towers high above the majority of modern fiction, and is, on the whole, a worthy addition to Cronin’s saga.

And speaking of Cronin, the guy is still at the top of his game as a storyteller. His writing is terrific, and he once again exhibits a tremendous (indeed, Clancy-esque) talent for handling large casts of characters. The story itself is a bona fide epic – a sprawling and majestically gritty tale of blood, survival, sacrifice, and adventure. Some have said it can be read as a stand alone novel, but I couldn’t disagree more. This is a sequel, in the truest sense of the word, and the core of its power lies in its connection to the first book. Reading The Twelve without reading The Passage is like reading The Two Towers without reading The Fellowship. In a word: pointless.

I said this was a novel about vampires, but that’s only half true. Vampires (or Virals) do play a significant role, but Cronin’s story is ultimately about the human race and those who fight for its survival. Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Twelve is less about the dead than it is about the living, and its pages are scattered with thought-provoking questions and ideas. You’ll find thrills, and more than a few chills, but you’ll also find quite a bit to think about.

As far as objectionable content goes, The Twelve isn’t much different its predecessor. There’s plenty of violence, a fair amount of strong language, and some mature sexual material. Be sure to take that into account when deciding if you want this book on your shelf (or your child’s shelf). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The City of Mirrors is the final book of the trilogy, and from what I hear, it’s scheduled for release in 2014. I look forward to seeing what Cronin has in store for us. In the meantime…

“All eyes.”

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

As N.D. Wilson says,

Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Book Review: 1984

The year itself has come and gone, but Orwell’s book is still with us. And it’s as terrifying as ever.

The premise is so well known that there’s little need for an in-depth explanation on my part. 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a poor stiff who pursues an illicit love affair in a world of constant war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation and deception. Life in this futuristic hell might be summed up in five simple words:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. 

I have yet to compile my top ten list for fiction read this year; but I can guarantee you this book will be on it. As political fiction and dystopian sci-fi, it is almost without peer – a brilliantly written and thoroughly nightmarish vision of “negative utopia” even more relevant today than when it was written.

Some have called it a satire as well, but that strikes me as rather misleading. Satire is generally humorous, or at the very least, amusing. 1984 is neither. I’ve also heard people interpret it is merely as another indictment of Stalinist savagery. How pitiful. They do not see that it is a warning to us, too.

There is so much discussion-worthy material here that I hardly know where to begin. It’s a book you could write books about. In Orwell’s world,

I saw individuality crushed in favor of mindless dependency on the state.

I saw perpetual war and desensitization to violence.

I saw the indoctrination of young minds, the turning of children against parents.

I saw the rape of language and the destruction of words.

I saw a heavy emphasis on “statistics” and the reduction of man to a number.

I saw the distortion of marriage and the degradation of sex.

I saw the falsification of the past, the disarmament of the people.

I saw worship of the state replace worship of God.

In short, I saw a world that began and ended with man. Where there was nothing outside of man. Where man made his own truth. It really was one hell of a world.

Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of a world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will not grow less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman, No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. (pp. 266-267)

And through all of this, the words of Chesterton kept running through my head:

Once abolish God, and the Government becomes God. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.

From the opening sentence to final four words, 1984 is disturbing and believable. It is disturbing because it is believable. As I read it, I thought, Thank God I’m a Calvinist. What comfort to know that no matter what happens, no matter how badly we mess things up, God still sits upon His holy throne, sovereign and immovable. William Law said it well: “There is no foundation for comfort in the enjoyments of this life, but in the assurance that a wise and good God governeth the world.”

Review: The Evan Gabriel Trilogy

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

The line belongs to Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie Gran Torino, but it would sound equally appropriate coming from Evan Gabriel, the hero of Steve Umstead’s sci-fi trilogy. Any villains reading this review, take note: there are some guys who should be left well enough alone. And Mr. Gabriel is one of them.

Science fiction is, as many of you know, a passion of mine. Give me futuristic gadgets, time travel, alien invasion, chilling dystopias, apocalyptic wastelands, the whole shebang. It can be heavy, it can be light; it can be serious, it can be funny. So long as it’s science fiction you can bet I’ll be interested. Some people may regard it as inferior to other genres, but that’s neither here nor there. As Ray Bradbury puts it, “People who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The first book of the Evan Gabriel Trilogy, Gabriel’s Redemption, serves as a worthy introduction to the title character, a disgraced North American Federation Navy Commander with a chip on his shoulders. When a Special Forces team is placed under his command and dispatched to a distant ice-bound planet, Gabriel sees it as a chance to redeem his name. But of course, things are never as easy as they seem; there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell otherwise.

Book two, Gabriel’s Return, follows our hero as he journeys to the world where he lost his naval command (and his original team) so many years ago: Eden. Facing a well-armed terrorist group, the dangers of the planet itself, and his own haunting memories of the past, his work is clearly cut out.

Events come to a head in Gabriel’s Revenge. Upon returning from Eden, Gabriel finds Mars in a state of political turmoil. Two major dome cities have been seized by some of his most ambitious enemies, and the very existence of the planet is threatened as rival governments argue behind closed doors. I won’t spoil anything for you; suffice it to say, Gabriel is looking for closure, and he won’t let anyone or anything get in his way.

I always approach new authors with a bit of trepidation, but Steve Umstead impressed me from the get-go. His prose is consistent and surprisingly smooth – I never got the feeling that he was still looking for his “voice”. I won’t say the writing is flawless, but two things are certain: 1) the guy knows how to spin a good yarn, and 2) I had fun reading it.

The trilogy’s blend of military action, interstellar travel, and political intrigue struck me as something Tom Clancy might write if he ever did sci-fi. Coming from an ardent Clancy fan, that’s a compliment of the highest order. The pacing throughout is stellar, the characters work well together, and there’s some genuinely great dialogue between them. And let’s not forget the action, because Umstead has that part nailed down tighter than a good metaphor for something nailed down really tight. *cough* If futuristic firefights are your thing, you’ll find some of the best right here, in these books.

Evan Gabriel is, simply put, a great hero. A guy you can actually get behind. His character – battered, bruised, and sometimes barely breathing, as he battles both terrorists and politicians – is one readers can really cheer for. His character arc reminded me ever so slightly of Jason Bourne’s, because at the core of each is a lesson for the ages: mess with a human weapon, and you’re going to wish you hadn’t.

One of the best things about the trilogy, however, is its restraint. Many of today’s writers labor under the impression that explicit sexuality is a necessary ingredient of modern fiction – Umstead is not one of them. Similar moderation is shown in the use of profanity; while I don’t have a problem with language in certain contexts, I do have a problem when it’s used as a crutch, because the author can’t find a way to express himself more creatively than to have his characters spit out the F-word. Kudos to Umstead for proving that dialogue doesn’t automatically require colorful expletives to be engaging.

The entire trilogy is currently available on Amazon for $8.99 (Kindle format). That’s a steal, if you ask me. Pick it up if you have any interest in a fast, furious, and throughly fun ride through the outer reaches of space. You won’t regret it.

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Following doctor’s orders, slow-witted Charlie Gordon begins to record his story through a series of “progris riports.” He wants to better himself – to “get smart” – but with an IQ of 68, he’s not even capable of beating Algernon, the lab mouse, at maze-solving.

But Algernon is no ordinary mouse. Thanks to an experimental brain operation that artificially boosts intelligence, he’s far cleverer than others of his species. So far, this operation has only been performed on animals. Now Charlie volunteers to be the first human subject. “If your smart,” he writes, “you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, the effects of Charlie’s operation begin to show, and his reports improve. But getting smarter brings with it some stinging shocks – like when Charlie figures out that many of his “friends” haven’t been laughing with him, but at him. As his IQ continues to increase, he rises past the human average to genius level and beyond. The irony, of course, is that he’s now just as intellectually alone as the old Charlie ever was – and cruelly aware of the fact. The people who once mocked him for his idiocy now hate him for his brilliance.

It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.

That’s when the lab mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate. And as everyone starts to realize that the effects of the operation might not be permanent after all, Charlie is left wondering how long he has before his own deterioration begins.

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1959 as work of short fiction, and was soon after expanded into a full-length novel. It went on to garner the prestigious Nebula award, and has since been regarded as somewhat of a classic. With good reason.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. The first progress reports have a simple, disarming appeal to them, but as Charlie begins to grow as a character, the story grows with him, gaining considerable depth and complexity. It’s about joy, pain, betrayal, friendship, beauty, wonder, and loss. It’s about the conflict between intellect and emotion; about what is true and what we desire to be true. It’s about one man’s craving for love and human companionship.

Intelligence is one of the the greatest human gifts. But all too often, a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can onlly lead to violence and pain.

In the end, Charlie’s intelligence is his own worst enemy. Whether great or small, it distances him emotionally and psychologically from the people he wants to be close to.

Flowers for Algernon also struggles with the question of what it means to be human. Charlie comes to resent the fact that his doctors view him as one of their creations – an experiment who owes everything, even his humanity, to the great god of science.

It may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things I hate here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig. Nemur’s constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings. How can I make him understand that he did not create me?

Part of the brilliance of the book lies in the writing. And the brilliance of the writing is that it evolves with Charlie’s character, developing (as his understanding increases) from barely literate scribbles into full-fledged epistles. It’s a fascinating and effective technique that lends even greater weight to an already weighty book.

Yet as much as I appreciated Flowers for Algernon, it’s hard to say I enjoyed it. It’s a compelling read, yes, but also a haunting one, with a terrifically painful emotional impact. Charlie’s story isn’t the kind you merely think about; it’s a story you feel.

And oh, how you feel it.

(By way of warning, this book is not for younger readers. Mature themes and sexual content make it something I’d only recommend for ages 17 and up. At least.)