Review: Okorafor’s Who Fears Death

Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for most of my life. I devoured William Gibson in my teens, got deep into new wave in my twenties, and learned the classics in my thirties. I’m not an expert in the genre, by any means, but I’m also reasonably well read.

Lately, something interesting has been happening, not only have we seen an explosion in the popularity of writers of color (and women of color specifically) but I think we’re seeing more and more books like this one, set an place uncommon in science fiction (Africa) and dealing with an uncommon set of genre tropes (here, both high tech gadgets and magic).

This a book about a girl with magical powers and a high tech gadget who uses both and more to fight a dictator in post-apocalyptic Africa. Is this SF? Is it Fantasy? Is it something in-between? Who cares. Its well written, its challenging in its ideas about the future, and it puts front and center voices too rarely heard in SF and its worth a read. But and still, this isn’t a perfect work. The writing is strong, and the plot moves, but I found some of it a the story a bit over done. This is often a criticism I have – I like my poetic touches very light—so other opinions might vary.

If current trends in science fiction is your thing, then this is worth a read. Something is happening here, its worth paying attention to.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate
N.K. Jemisin

This is the follow up to Jemisin’s incredible, mind blowing, the Fifth Season and its good. Very good, even. Jemisin’s prose is top rate, and the story churns forward revealing more about our characters and the world they inhabit, while still keeping up the mystery and allure that made Fifth Season so wonderfully strange.

But its hard to follow up on a classic. I don’t know anything about how Jemisin wrote these books, but the sense I get is Fifth Season was painfully crafted, perhaps over years, every sentence worked to death, then every paragraph, then every chapter, then back again. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t have the same feeling. It’s a damn good book, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have the clock work precision of Fifth Season.

Still and all, if excellent SF/Fantasy is your thing, odds are you’ve already read this. If gorgeously written novels struggling with identity, gender, race, and the nature of relationships interests you, you should get over your genre prejudices and check this one out.

Recommended.

Review: Palmer’s Seven Surrenders

Seven Surrenders
Ada Palmer
The second book in Ada Palmers incredible Terra Ignota series. This one picks off exactly where Too Like the Lightning ended, and moves along at a blistering clip through scores of plot revelations, and extended explorations into the nature of gender, the place of violence in society, the complexities of competing duties, the nature of divinity and more.

I can’t get enough of these books. The world Palmer has built is incredibly complex and nuanced and I fear I’ll never get to see as much of it as I’d like to. The books are overflowing with ideas sometimes, almost too many to keep up with, and the writing is clean, clear, and often funny. If I have a quibble, its that at times it feels rushed. Palmer has so many plot points to tie up that reveals happen at a breakneck speed and not always with the level of pre-work I’d like to see.

Still and all, there is so much here. Including real insights into what the future might look like, and fascinating explorations about how we might view our own history in coming eras.

Recommended (for a certain type of big idea SF loving) enthusiast.

Review: Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl


The Wind Up Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

Global warming, mega corporations bent on world domination, genetically modified food, floods, plagues, mechanical sex slaves. The future in the Wind-Up Girl isn’t very uplifting, but the way Bacigalupi tells this story of a future Thailand beset by environmental disasters, and voracious mutlti-national corporations is incredible. No surprise, I guess. When Bacigalupi isn’t writing science fiction, he’s working on environmental issues. It shows. The nuance with which he walks us through what the world could look like in a 100 years is specific, jarring and compelling. I couldn’t put this one down and it remains one of my favorite science fiction novels of the past decade. Well written and excellently plotted, with carefully constructed characters inhabiting all levels of this future dystopia, it’s a must read if science fiction is your thing.

Recommended.

Review Stephenson’s Diamond Age

Diamond Age: or  a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson

The coming of age story of a poor girl in future in which nanotechnology has revolutionized the way we live. The protagonist, Nell, is a poor girl who accidentally receives a complex toy / educational tool (a sort of interactive book) which gives her insight into a world her class would normally exclude her from.  The book follows both her interactions with the book, and its effects on her life. In a parallel plot, it tracks the downfall of the book’s creator for, essentially, failing to keep the knowledge and gifts associated with the book out of the hands of average people.

It’s a book about class and race in a future, and because its Neal Stephenson, its plot is complex and absorbing and its ideas fascinating and challenging. Without a doubt better than most science fiction, but not my favorite of his works.  In my mind, Stephenson is at his best when he’s getting deep inside the ways technology, real or imagined, effects our world. I didn’t feel like this one has as much of that as some of his other, better, books (Crytonomicon, or Seveneves, for example). Still if imagination science fiction done by a master of the genre is your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?) this is world your time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review – Card’s Enders Game


Enders Game

Orson Scott Card

Super genius boy in distant future is trained to play ever more complex war games until it is eventually revealed to him that (spoiler alert) oh shit, they weren’t games after all.

A book about the ethics of war, the bonds of friendship, and the isolation of the leader. When I read this, I was aware of its status as a classic, but not aware of Card’s horrific views on LGBT issues. Taken as a stand along book, it’s an excellent example of someone taking he confines of so-called “military SF” and doing something new and exciting with it. But taken in conjunction with his hyper reactionary views on gay rights, it reads differently.

I’d be lying if I said this isn’t an excellent book, but is it a necessary book? No. It grapples with serious issues in a thoughtful way (and I should note, isn’t homophobic) but so do many, many other science fiction novels not written homophobes. If I had to do it over again today knowing what I know now, I think I’d skip Enders Game, not because it’s a bad book, but because there are other loads of other books to read not written

Not recommended.

Review: Gibson’s Neuromancer


Neuromancer
William Gibson

I mean, what can you say? The book that presaged the internet age, was pivotal in the creation of the cyberpunk genre, and launched a thousand straight to cable movies. If, like me, you were an awkward kid in the early 1990s, trying to be cool while really being nerdy, you probably read, and fell in love with, this book. Rebel computer wiz takes down evil mega corporations with help from beautiful lady? Cat nip for a teenage science fiction fan. It’s been decades since I read this, but my foggy memories focus on the settings of future japan, the blade runner aesthetics of the place, and the noir-ish elements of the plot.

If science fiction is your thing, you’ve almost certainly read this one. If it isn’t, you might still might enjoy the ride.

Recommended for the enthusiast.