Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. But he’s not alone.

An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.

Except for Robert Neville.

Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”

I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.

Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.

It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.

As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.

To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…

Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.

Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.

Book Review: Generation

In 2001, scientists isolated the gene for regenerating damaged organs from the DNA of a South American flatworm. Within five years, it had been spliced into the chromosomes of a rhesus monkey, transported through the cell walls by a retro-virus denuded of its own genetic material.

In an effort to regrow impaired or elderly tissues, it’s only a matter of time before a scientist will one day modify the DNA of human beings by injecting the gene-carrying virus. Before you consent to treatment, however, you may want to ask yourself a question: what if there came a time when you wanted to die, but couldn’t?

Journalist Hendrix Harrison (known to his friends as “Aitch”) links bodies stolen from a renowned forensic-research lab to Mendel Pharmaceuticals, a highly influential drug company. With the help of entomologist Sarah Wallace, he digs deep into a nightmarish world of grisly clinical trials and viral treatment.

And somebody wants him stopped.

The premise behind William Knight’s Generation is fact-based and all too believable, and that’s partly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s a sci-fi medical thriller with roots firmly planted in reality. It’s also billed as something of a horror novel, and depending on your definition of “horror,” that might be correct. There are no boogeymen or haunted houses, but it’s impossible to deny the grim (and often gruesome) nature of the story.

The most unsettling parts of the book are those dealing with the “treatment” victims. These people are essentially trapped in a state of limbo – their bodies are dead and rotting, but their minds are fully active. You might call them zombies, because “living dead” is pretty much what they are. Caught in a seemingly endless cycle of decay and regrowth, they’re unable to live or die in peace. The situation is both disturbing and incredibly sad, and the reader feels both emotions in equal measure.

The quality of Knight’s writing was what surprised me most. To be honest, I don’t know what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect much. Thankfully, Knight rose above and beyond all that, and I found his prose to be tense, articulate, and most enjoyable.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the development of the main characters. Far from being stale and uninteresting, each was well-rounded and written. Harrison, in particular, was a fun character to tag along with, and if he appears again in any of Knight’s future work, I’d be most gratified.

The story offers a bit of food for thought along with the thrills, and I’m always pleased when a book challenges me in that way. How often do we chase “progress” without regard to its ethical implications? What lines will we try to cross to get what we want? What are the consequences of attempting to “play God?”

I do, however, have one major complaint about Generation; and it has to do with the abrupt and completely gratuitous sex scene that appears near the story’s end. What the heck? Is it a decree of modern fiction-writing that the main characters must fall into bed together at some point? It’s as if Knight suddenly decided to try his hand at erotica. And speaking as someone who was actively engaged by the other aspects of the book, that’s just not cool. The scene is awkward and crass, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise excellent story.

(I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a review.
I was not required to write a positive review.)

Book Review: Ender’s Game

In the futuristic world of Ender’s Game, an alien race has attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed mankind. To prepare for the next encounter, an international Battle School has been established, where the world’s most talented children are drilled in the arts of war. Their early training takes the form of “games”: simulated battles in null-gravity.

Enter Andrew “Ender” Wiggin: a genius among geniuses. His training begins at age six, and when he joins Battle School, his tactical prowess becomes obvious. With humanity’s survival in the balance, everything hinges on Ender’s ability to surmount every challenge he’s given. The authorities are determined to make him or break him. Ender will grow up fast.

As far as science fiction goes, Ender’s Game isn’t good, nor is it great – it’s brilliant. Winner of the Hugo and the Nebula awards, this bestselling novel by Orson Scott Card is a stellar fusion of action and ideas; a story as intellectually challenging as it is relentlessly entertaining.

Card’s prose is of the clear, clean-cut variety, in the tradition of George Orwell, who said that good writing is “like a windowpane.” He doesn’t draw attention to himself as the author; instead, he steps aside and focuses on enveloping the reader in Ender’s world. Crisp dialogue. Taut pacing. Meticulous world-building. Tremendous characterization. What’s not to like about the way this book is written?

The action sequences are absolutely thrilling. In some ways, they reminded me of the zero-gravity combat in Inception (2010), except on a grander and more sophisticated scale. Excitingly-rendered as these sequences are, however, it’s the rendering of the characters that ultimately makes Ender’s Game as good as it is.

This is especially true in the case of Ender himself: since much of the story consists of his own internal dialogue, it’s crucial that we feel a strong emotional connection with him. Card accomplishes this perfectly, making Ender a well-developed and wonderfully sympathetic little hero. We get inside his head, feel him struggle, feel him triumph. We know him. And because of this, his growth in the harsh arena of Battle School is both compelling and painful to watch.

Ender’s Game is home to a multitude of tough and interesting ideas. Exploitation of children. Lost innocence. Abuse of power. Self-sacrifice. Personal responsibility. Family. And the war-time balance between ruthlessness and compassion. You may not agree with everything in the way Card handles these ideas, but he deserves credit for making us grapple with them in the first place.

Of course, Card isn’t touting a distinctly Christian worldview, and readers should keep that in mind. There’s a bit of quasi-religious weirdness at the very end (it’s brief and hardly central to the story), as well as a smattering of crude language, some violence, and quite a few mature themes. Don’t let the hero’s age fool you: this is no children’s book.

Alive in Joburg (Short Film)

Alive in Joburg (2005) is a sci-fi short film directed by Neill Blomkamp. It was filmed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and over the course of its six minute running time, explores apartheid. The visual effects are nifty, and the faux-documentary approach adds another an interesting twist.

The coolest thing about it, however, is that it served as the basis for Blomkamp’s 2009 feature film District 9 – which is quite simply one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made. You can watch the official trailer here.

Book Review: Knox’s Irregulars

Some would consider the pairing of “Christian” with “Sci-Fi” to be a contradiction in terms. Like Aubrey Hansen’s Red Rain, this book proves them dead wrong.

Randal Knox never wanted to be a leader, but as the eldest son of the Prime Minister of New Geneva, he appeared destined for the political arena. Averse to the idea, Randal enlists in the armored infantry, preferring a life in the military to being a political figure.

When the Khlisti – followers of a religion cobbled together from Marxism, Islam, and New age spirituality – seize control of neighboring Abkhenazia, Randal’s world is turned completely upside down. An overwhelming army of zealots cross the border into New Geneva, scattering its small defense force and sending the survivors running for their lives. Randal pulls together a handful of armored infantry and takes shelter in the mountain city of Providence.

But the respite is short-lived. With Providence under the control of Colonal Gregor Tsepashin, Randal Knox faces a choice between hiding safely in the catacombs… and leading his motley crew of fighters in guerilla warfare against the enemy.

Thus is the premise behind J. Wesley Bush’s new novel Knox’s Irregulars – a futuristic military thriller set in the 25th century and laced with science fiction, first-rate adventure, wry humor, and memorable characters. Needless to say, I’m impressed.

I can count on one hand the modern novels I’ve read that smoothly incorporate Christianity into the storyline. Most fail for one of two reasons: either the author hasn’t a clue about what he believes, or he doesn’t know how to communicate it without turning the book into an artistically-deficient soapbox. J. Wesley Bush avoids both these pitfalls.

Christian themes and characters (and a staunch respect for the Calvinist principals of the Reformation) are abundant, but they’re woven in without force – thus lending the story substance without reducing it to platitudinous sermonizing.

The characters – from Randal Knox to Arianne to the mad Belorussian immigrant Lebedev – are three-dimensional and wonderfully-imagined, developing naturally as the story progresses. No stale cardboard cutouts here, and thank goodness for that. Personally, I would’ve appreciated reading a little more about Colonel Tsepashin, but this is a minor complaint: the focus of the book is Knox and his irregulars, and in that regard, Bush’s character-crafting is more than satisfactory.

Best of all is the quality of the writing: it’s smooth, polished, and consistently good throughout. The dialogue is realistic, the pacing is smart, and the sprinkling of wry humor is funny without ever jeopardizing the overall seriousness of the story. Also worth noting are the action sequences, which are crisply written and exciting. Bush’s attention to the technical details – he previously served as an airborne infantryman, military intelligence cryptolinguist, and NGO worker – make his fascinating vision of futuristic warfare all the more believable.

For those wondering about content, there’s not much to be concerned about here. Of course, there’s quite a bit of war violence, as good guys and bad guys alike are annihilated by a plethora of futuristic armaments; and while these sequences are intense, they’re seldom gory. A smattering of mild language is present, and there is some (tasteful) discussion of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Sexuality is nil: the relationship between Randal and Arianne is a sweet one, and while they do share several kisses (which I would’ve preferred they save until marriage), their romance is overall as chaste and lovely a one as you could possibly hope for.

I was initially troubled by the fact that the two primary female characters were serving side-by-side with men in the New Genevan military force. After some consideration, however, I wouldn’t say Bush is endorsing this sort of egalitarianism, but rather merely presenting it as a likely – if less than ideal – scenario. Judging by the state of our present military, I’m inclined to agree that he is (unfortunately) correct.

All in all, I heartily recommend Knox’s Irregulars. As far as I can see, its only real “flaw” is in forcing the reader to wait for future installments of what looks to be a series-in-the-making. I think J. Wesley Bush is to be commended for skillfully taking on the challenge issued by C.S. Lewis decades ago: “We don’t need more Christian writers: we need more good writers, and composers, who are Christian.”