Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Book Review: The Passage

It’s the end of the world… again. And Harold Camping has nothing to do with it.

Apocolyptic fiction of any kind greatly interests me. Done well, it can be a superb tool for exploring strong emotional, moral, and philisophical themes. McCarthy’s The Road is a magnificent example of this, showcasing the relationship of a father and son against the backdrop of a ravaged world.

Enter Justin Cronin’s The Passage. It caught my eye last year, and I added it to my list of potential reads for 2011. I eventually discarded it in favor of other books and had all but forgotten it when, out of the blue, a friend recommended it to me. I took his advice, picked up a copy at the library, and bingo! I was hooked. It’s equal parts science-fiction epic, end-of-the-world nightmare, and touching human drama all rolled into a single, 800 page volume of ambitious apocalyptic literature.

When a vampiric bat virus is discovered by expeditionaries in South America, it’s transported to a clandestine government facility in the Colorado mountains. There, a team of scientists soon discover that the virus’ potential benefits are incredible: it has the power to make human beings immortal and virtually indestructible. Thrilled by their findings, they attempt to engineer the virus in hopes of creating the ultimate super-soldier. Meet Project NOAH.

Unfortunately, these profound advances come at a cost no one could have anticipated; and when the virus is injected into the human blood stream, it becomes clear that something is very wrong. The test subjects of the experiment – twelve men who were convicts on death row – transform into a superhuman race of vampire-like creatures called Virals. And when a security breach at the facility where they are held unleashes them on the outside world, all hell breaks loose. A night of chaos and death marks the beginning of a nation, and ultimately of a world, forever changed.

As civilization swiftly crumbles, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a troubled man, haunted by the death of daughter and by his involvement in certain morally-questionable activites. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is refugee from Project NOAH – one of the few to survive. Wolgast determines to protect her from the bloody fallout, but for Amy, escape is only the beginning of a much longer journey – over many miles and many years – towards the time and place where she must finish what never should have begun.

I used the word “literature” intentionally when describing this book. The Passage isn’t some cheap apocalyptic horror novel like those that often litter the bargain section of the bookstore. Rather, it is fascinating, intelligent, and thoughtful piece of fiction with impeccable prose, finely-drawn characters, and a relentless pace. It is, in my opinion, a work of art.

Though the premise of his story sounds similar to others of the same genre, Cronin spins it in an entirely new and interesting way. His writing style is polished, smart, and easy to engage with. I’m not exactly a fan of Stephen King, but I think he summed up the quality of the story well when he said, “Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

One major theme of the book is that of retaining humanity in an inhumane world. The characters – even the ones that don’t play particularly crucial roles – are crafted with care and skill, and the reader feels their struggles, joys, and pains. Amy, in particular, is one of most lifelike little heroines I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and her relationship with the troubled Wolgast is heartfelt without a hint of saccharine sentimentality.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the author’s gritty take on vampires. These are not sparkly, angst-ridden, misunderstood bloodsuckers a la Stephanie Meyer; nor do they resemble Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampires in The Passage are hairless, insect-like killers: super-fast, super-strong, and extraordinarily difficult to destroy. Elements of vampire lore are present, to be sure – the creatures are immortal, drink blood, and mostly hunt at night – but on the whole, Cronin’s interpretation is quite unique.

Surprisingly enough, faith is neither mocked nor ignored in the story. In fact, one of the key characters is a devout Christian, firmly believing (as it turns out, rightly so) that Amy is God’s answer to the terrible catastrophe. Not only that, but Cronin’s narrative closely resembles that of the Fall in Genesis 3: man brazenly pursues his quest for godlike-ness, and consequently unleashes unimaginable evil on the surrounding world – evil that touches everything and everyone, even the generations to come.

This is not say The Passage is entirely or even explicitly Christian, and readers should still exercise caution and biblical discernment. That said, there’s much to think about, and the book is all the richer for it.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Passage is a dark, threatening, and horrific place; it’s not surprising, therefore, that Cronin’s narrative is punctuated by violence. Humans and virals alike are shot, stabbed, maimed, dismembered, and blown apart in a number of vicious encounters; these sequences are never excessively graphic, but jarring nonetheless, and easily unsettled readers should know what they’re getting into.

Sexual content is surprisingly limited, and when it does pop up, it’s brief and easy to skip. More objectionable is the foul language. It’s not as pervasive as, say, Robopocalypse; and thankfully, after the first couple hundred pages or so, the swearing lightens up considerably. Even so, there’s still quite a bit of it and, when it does pop up, it’s generally strong R-rated fare.

All in all, I recommend The Passage, bearing in mind the cautions given and the fact that it’s only for the most mature of readers. Apparently, it’s only the first installment of a proposed trilogy, the second of which will be released next year. Am I looking forward to it? Definitely.

Book Review: Red Rain

Government regulations said they had no choice. Seventeen-year-old Philadelphia must stay on Earth in the hands of complete strangers while her father is sent to Mars to work on a top-priority science project.  When a Martian leader pulls some strings at the last moment and allows her to accompany her father, she knows she must keep her head down or be sent back to Earth. Unfortunately, things seldom go as planned…

When a search for her deceased brother’s belongings causes her to stumble into a hallway that isn’t supposed to exist, Philadelphia is faced with a question she doesn’t want to answer – the choice between returning to Earth or destroying it.

Aubrey’s Hansen’s debut novella Red Rain burst onto the scene in early September to favorable reviews. My interest in the premise – coupled with the fact that I’m fairly well acquainted with the author – compelled me to read the story for myself. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Red Rain takes place in a futuristic dystopia, where Earth is run by a single, worldwide government: “United”. Christians are regarded as outcasts, marked for persecution and discrimination. Most are forced to attend special “re-education” camps. Those who choose to compromise are welcomed back into society; those who don’t are subject to greater hardship than ever. “Assimilated or removed,” as the saying goes.

It’s a superb backdrop for an interesting tale, and Aubrey handles it all quite well. The plot is briskly paced, cutting from one scene to the next with economic precision: kudos to the author for keeping the story on track and not allowing herself to be distracted.

The small cast of characters is well-rounded and memorable, from the young heroine Phillidelphia to the coniving Dr. Nic. The prose is generally tight, clean, and devoid of clutter; and Aubrey demonstrates a remarkable talent for crafting smooth dialogue. There were some lines here and there which came across as a bit melodramatic, and one or two scenes which I thought could’ve used polishing; these, however, are minor complaints when considering the overall excellence of the book.

The primary theme of the book is the danger of compromise, as Phillidelphia is tempted multiple times to renounce her faith and choose the “easier” path. I appreciated Aubrey’s inclusion of this, as it lent the story substance and gravitas that would otherwise have been lacking.

I might add that there is nothing – no indecency, no bloody violence, no cussing – to make this book unsuitable for younger readers. I enjoyed it, and yet I would have no reservation about handing it to my 9-year-old brother. It’s an all ages type of read.

In conclusion, therefore, I highly recommend Red Rain. It’s a fun, clean, and engaging little piece of fiction – the perfect way to spend a quiet afternoon with a cup of tea and your own imagination. Rumor has it there are a couple of sequels in the works. I hope such is the case: Aubrey Hansen has shown us why we should pay attention to her, and I look forward to reading more from her pen.

Book Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a crazy, crazy book. And I mean that in a totally good way.

Seconds before Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic freeway, Arthur Dent is whisked away by his close pal, Ford Prefect, who’s been posing as an out-of-work actor for the last fifteen years… even though he’s really a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And thus begins a wild journey through the galaxy, during which the two friends meet with out-of-this-world adventure and an assortment of zany characters.

If you’ve seen the movie Men In Black (1997), you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say that this book is the literary equivalent of that movie. To quote the School Library Journal, “Very simply, the book is one of the funniest SF spoofs ever written, with hyperbolic ideas folding in on themselves.”

The characters we are introduced to throughout the course of the story are a truly delightful bunch. There’s the hapless protagonist Arthur Dent, who can’t seem to view the demolition of his home planet with the same flippancy that his friend – the intrepid Ford Prefect – does. There’s Zaphod Beeblebrox, a double-headed ex-hippie endowed with extra appendages who also happens to be the President of the Galaxy, and his girlfriend, Trillian (whom Arthur once tried to pick up at a cocktail party on Earth). We also meet Marvin, a paranoid, chronically-depressed android. He’s positively hilarious, though I’m sure he wouldn’t think so.

Adam’s narration of the story is quick-moving and clever, and along the way, he offers plenty of hilarious commentary. For instance, concerning the horrendous poetry of a certain alien races, he writes,

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to the Small Lump of Green Putty I found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intenstine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

Adams then adds,

The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

Content-wise, the book is fairly clean. The author occasionally pokes fun at Christianity (there’s very little he doesn’t poke fun at), and needless to say, his understanding of it is pretty off-base. Some of the dialogue features a smattering of suggestive humor and crude language. Personally, I’d say the book is an appropriate choice for ages 15 and up.

I highly recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s not altogether perfect, but it’s certainly worth your time. It’s science fiction laced with laughs – and I can hardly think of a funnier book I’ve read all year.

Book Review: Robopocalypse

In the near future, robots play a significant part in our everyday lives. They clean our kitchens. They drive our cars. They deliver our mail. They even fight our wars. On the whole, they have made our lives considerably easier.

But our heavy reliance on technology has its cost: at a precise moment, unbeknownst to mankind, all the dazzling machines that run our world will malfunction… and turn against us.

People should know that, at first, the enemy looked like everyday stuff: cars, buildings, phones. Then later, when they started designing themselves, Rob looked familiar but distorted, like people and animals from some other universe, built by some other god.

At first, only a few seemingly unrelated glitches are noticed by humans. Without warning, a domestic robot attacks two restaurant employees, killing one and severely injuring the other. A single mother is unsettled by the new and menacing intelligence of her young daughter’s “smart” doll.  An American soldier stationed in Afghanistan watches a pacification unit go haywire and turn a gun on innocent civilians. An underground “phreaker” living in London hacks into a hidden network – and finds himself facing a cold, cruel, and calculating entity unlike anything he’s faced before.

Yet none of these incidents can prepare humanity for what happens at Zero Hour: united by Archos – a sentient and incredibly powerful AI assuming the guise of a young boy – the machines become fearfully efficient killers, threatening mankind’s very existence.

The robot war has begun.

As one who is a self-avowed sci-fi buff, the premise of Daniel Wilson’s newly released novel Robopocalypse greatly appealed to me. I’m fascinated by stories that deal with  “technology gone awry”, and this one seemed quite promising.

Wilson, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Ph.D. in robotics, does a fairly good job of spinning a believable yarn about man vs. machine. And although certain aspects of the story owe a debt to the Terminator franchise, Wilson’s contribution to the vast catalogue of robo-fiction is a surprisingly fresh one. His writing is crisp and compelling, and the plot itself is, for the most part, very well-concieved.

Unfortunately, these qualities alone do not a good book make.

For one thing, I was expecting a little more substance. The novel purports to be “thought-provoking”, reminiscent of greats like Michael Crichton and Robert Heinlein. In reality, it’s more like a frenetic action thriller with a sci-fi twist. I don’t necessarily have an issue with that; I just think the book claims to be something it isn’t.

Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot was thought-provoking; I didn’t agree with everything in it, but it still left me with something to chew on. Wilson touches upon some significant questions and ideas in the course of his story – but touch is about as deep as he goes. He seems more concerned with gunplay and flashy explosions. Robopocalypse may be imaginative and entertaining, but it’s not particularly thoughtful or stimulating to the brain cells.

Then there’s the lonely Japanese bachelor Mr. Takeo Nomura. This man lives with an android “love bot” named Mikiko, and it is implied that he has an emotional and physical relationship with her. Further, their bond is portrayed in a positive light, as something lovely and admirable. I was troubled by this. God intended human beings to share such love with other human beings, not with machines, no matter how “life-like” are. A relationship like that between Nomura and his android is neither lovely nor admirable: it is twisted, perverted, and far from God’s original design.

Another aspect of the book I did not appreciate was the bad language… and there’s plenty of it. Close to 200 profanities pepper the dialogue, many of them extremely harsh and crude. While I realize the situations in the story are intense, such flagrant and excessive vulgarity is unnecessary. I don’t need to hear your character spout four-letter words to understand he’s in danger.

In conclusion, Robopocalypse was a promising book that failed to deliver all the goods. I personally do not recommend it. There are simply too many better books out there to warrant messing around with this one.

Book Review: The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

It’s the perfect opening line for this book – ominous, cryptic, even slightly humorous (in a dark sort of way). Just the thing to draw the reader in. Because once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Your fate is sealed.  You will be hooked from start to finish as you explore a strange and unsettling new world.

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s classic (but oft overlooked) sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids begins in London, detailing the events following a strange “comet shower” which leaves the majority of humanity stricken blind. Those few with sight must come to grips with this new way of life, as they struggle to survive and rebuild their shattered society.

But there’s more.

Enter the Triffids, a species of genetically altered plant. Their exact origin is a mystery, but people suspected they were the result of biological experi-
mentation in the USSR. They can walk around on their three “legs”. They seem to be able communicate with one another. And they eat flesh. Each one is armed with a poisonous whip-like sting that allows it to kill and
feed on the decomposing carcass of its prey.

Before the cataclysm, the Triffids were a nuisance. Now – with most of mankind rendered helpless – they pose a serious threat; not only to the sightless, but to the sighted as well.

The premise is a tad unorthodox, and to some it may even be laughable. But trust me, once you start reading, the story is anything but laughable. Wyndham infuses his work with well-crafted sense of tension and down-to-earth realism. He makes the implausible sound completely and utterly possible. And that is good sci-fi is all about.

The characters of the story come across as genuine human beings rather than cardboard cutouts, and they’re easy to sympathize with. The protagonist, William Masen, deftly summarizes their shock and dismay at this sudden calamity when he remarks,

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modem city seemed to me…

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”- that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.

Confronted with the need to begin rebuilding society, London-based survivors band together for that very purpose. But when considering the question of how to go about it, there is sharp disagreement and a split develops. Interestingly enough, the reason is a purely ideological one.

One faction argues that “morality” is subject to the times; that “right and wrong” are relative to the sort of world in which one lives. They believe the survivors must adapt their sense of morality in the interest of self-preservation. For instance, if this means that the sacred institution of marriage must be laid aside, and fornication permitted in order to increase the number of pregnancies, so be it. Life must go on.

The other group rejects this humanistic approach, and counters it with an appeal to God’s law. They believe that right and wrong are not mere societal inventions to be altered as man sees fit, but rather objective, God-given values. Tampering with them will only lead to ruin.

None of this is to say that Wyndham is writing from a Christian worldview. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two opposing parties separate, and the author is largely silent on the issue of which worldview he considers correct. (It is interesting to note, however, that the protagonist adheres more to the latter stance than he does to the former, even if he is not a distinctly Christian character.)

The book draws to a close on a hopeful – if rather unsatisfactory – note. Apparently, Wyndham intended to write a follow-up but died before he could do so. Eager readers are left with a cliff-hanger finale. It nearly drove me crazy with frustration. Come to think of it, I may just have to write the sequel myself someday, so I can see how things turn out in the end.

As far as objectionable content goes, Triffids is fairly clean, though I would still only recommend for older readers. The themes dealt with are dark and mature. Mild language is scattered throughout, and there’s some violence, though nothing very graphic. One character is the author of a book with a somewhat questionable title. (Much to her chagrin and the reader’s amusement, she has a bit of trouble living down her subsequent reputation.)

All in all, I highly recommend Wyndham’s book as an intense, thoughtful, superbly written piece of science fiction. It’s worth reading, and if you’re an avid sci-fi buff like I am, you’ll probably wish to visit it more than once.