Tag Archives: science fiction

Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody

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Our accommodating library had the first four of the Obernewtyn Chronicles sitting on a YA shelf and they looked interesting so I checked out all of them for the rare experience of reading a series in order without gaps as the author struggled with writer’s block, etc. etc. Obernewtyn, the first story, was good. Isobelle Carmody has created a believable and ominous world that exists after some devastating event that sounds like nuclear catastrophe. Nevermind that nuclear catastrophe seems rather old-fashioned in the looming  armageddon of planetary meltdown, Obernewtyn is plenty dark and creepy.

Elspeth is a Misfit, someone who might be a mutant derivative of the holocaust known as the Great White–or just a gifted person with paranormal powers and hypersensitive intuition. We are given to believe her powers are freaky but she keeps them well-hidden because discovery could mean exile or fiery death. Her brother Jes is better at masking whatever talents he has–even from Elspeth. He is favored by the Guardians and other functionaries of the authoritarian regime that runs what’s left of civilization. And it’s not too civilized. Both siblings are Orphans; their parents were incinerated for sedition. 

Elspeth’s precarious existence is upended, maybe fatally, when she is marked as a Misfit and sent to Obernewtyn, a fearful place of dark legend in the mountains. She pretends to be injured by some tainted water and not a congenital Misfit but her strategy endangers her brother and his girlfriend who are left behind. And when Elspeth arrives at Obernewtyn, what she finds is more horrible and dangerous than rumor or imagination supplied.

Carmody has merged the commonplace rythms of farm life with the conventions of a prison-like boarding school and the menace of a dire plot to find a lost map that could re-awaken the terrors of the Great White. The compound and its labyrinthine estate house and impenetrable maze are straight out of classic murder mystery. The quasi-science seems a bit dated in a world where CERN announcements about finding the god particle are heralded with global champagne toasts and broadcast live worldwide. But there are strong, likable (and repulsive) characters, excellent pacing, enough surprises and decent tension. Many of those jammed together SF words like “the Beforetime” and “soldierguards” but I’m not going after them as I may resort to that hoary old trick when I ever get around to writing my own YA dystopian fiction so I will say it isn’t a problem.

It didn’t take forever to read the book, although that is not a complaint. Carmody writes fluently and her story moves well. Obernewtyn was engaging enough to keep me up until 2:30 finishing it and I think I’ll attempt the other three volumes in order to see what happens in this twisted world of blackened landscapes and snowblind mountains.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  1987 

The Fear Index – Robert Harris

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The Fear Index is a sci-fi thriller—or maybe not so sci-fi. The plot revolves around the hedge fund algorithm developed by a brilliant former CERN physicist who runs a phenomenally successful hedge fund based in Geneva. Dr. Alex Hoffmann’s brainchild, VIXAL-4, scans astonishing amounts of Internet data including the “fear index,” a measure of the volatility of market fluctuations in response to fear trigger words in the media. The fear index is an excellent tool for predicting gains and losses in the market. The computer program is so advanced that it is a kind of artificial intelligence that continually becomes more efficient—you can see where this is going.

Anyway, an odd and near-deadly break-in at the Hoffmann gated estate results in Hoffmann’s head taking a serious bashing and an almost retired cop poking around in his personal and hedge fund business. Hoffmann saw the assailant and now he glimpses the man everywhere, and is afraid he may be going crazy. A first edition of a Darwin book arrives at his home although he claims not to have purchased it. In the book is an early photograph of a test subject that looks uncannily like the attacker. The Amsterdam bookseller’s records show Hoffmann emailed an order and transferred funds from a personal bank account he didn’t know he had in the Cayman Islands.

With a headful of stitches and a doctor’s futile admonition to remain in the hospital under observation for 24 hours, Hoffmann goes to the office with his partner, the charming and voluble public “face” of the firm, Hugo Quarry. The two partners are scheduled to present their latest software iteration to favored investors in hopes of raising a billion or so for increased investment. Gabrielle, Hoffman’s wife, collects pieces from her studio at home for the opening of her first gallery exhibit and worries about what is happening to her marriage and her life. When Hoffmann finally makes it to the champagne launch at the gallery, an anonymous buyer wires funds to acquire every single piece of Gabrielle’s work, unheard of and highly suspect for an emerging artist. She confronts Hoffmann, who denies it, and is furious.

And so it goes. Stranger and stranger occurrences pile up over the day as the market and the hedge fund both begin to act oddly. The fund unloads shares of an airline that looks healthy hours before a catastrophic plane crash that sends its stocks plummeting. The algorithm steadily erodes the “hedge” that protects the fund from devastating losses but the fund is making multiple millions of dollars and Quarry is loathe to override the computer system to decrease risk. Hoffmann takes off in search of his assailant and Gabrielle is confronted with shocking secrets about the man she has been married to for seven years.

The Fear Index is a very taut, anxiety-producing novel with a very accessible amount of detail about how investing and markets work. It operates in the land of the ethers—extremely high wealth, extremely high risk, way out there science and a boatload of people at various stops on the autism spectrum. You can read it in one sitting and you might because it is hard to put down. As the financial world spins out of control and Hoffmann grows ever more paranoid, the evil mastermind of the international threat becomes harder to pin down. Harris’s book is scary—you may not have personal billions at risk but, in the world of VIXAL-4, your whole world is at risk of implosion and there isn’t a single thing you could ever do to prevent it.     

The Fear Index   Robert Harris | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

The Lighthouse Land – Adrian McKinty

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The Lighthouse Land is a science fiction first-of-series by Adrian McKinty that is probably tagged as a YA novel. It’s not in the angst and sex tradition of formula Young Adult lit so it will work for younger children, too, and I enjoyed it—one of those ageless stories that are just great escapist reading.

Jamie O’Neill hasn’t spoken since the cancer specialists removed his left arm, saving his life, and his father decamped from Manhattan to the West Coast to live with his girlfriend. His mom moved the two of them to a ratty Harlem apartment with cheapo rent, spotty heat, a resident bully and holes in the ceiling, to make ends meet. Ends don’t often meet—the medical bills aren’t covered by insurance and dear old dad is a deadbeat with a new house and a new wife. So Jamie has nothing at all to say.

Then mom inherits a tiny island off the coast of Ireland with an ancient lighthouse, a half-submerged causeway to the mainland, a title and a modest trust. Jamie bids farewell to his elderly chess partner and good friend from the local library, Thaddeus, and the adventure begins. It’s a real adventure. Their new cottage is safe, solid and comfortable; the lighthouse is a thousand-year-old ruin that predates the Vikings; a friend from the regional high school is a math whiz and a cool guy; and Thaddeus has given Jamie a laptop that speaks typed conversations aloud so he can communicate better until he finds his voice again.

All would be well in this new adventure, until the boys discover a secret room at the top of the lighthouse tower with a strange golden device that might be the fabled magical Salmon—and it is, of course, and it is also a port key that opens a wormhole to another planet in a galaxy with two moons and a civilization in peril. Jamie, the future Laird of Muck Island, is a descendent of the Ui Neills, the last of the Irish kings. On a clandestine visit to the distant land, he discovers that the daughter of a local leader has been waiting in a lighthouse on a coastal island for the legendary Ui Niells to return to help her people deflect a raid from barbarians who arrive in massive ships made of glaciers.

The Lighthouse Land is a great quest with all the requisite strategic planning, hopeless lack of battle technology to defeat the invaders, kids on their own facing down enormous peril, the beginnings of a love interest, time running out (not to mention the inexplicable battery on the wormhole-creating Salmon), outrageous attempts to frighten and defeat the iceship marauders, and a few strange tokens of an endangered world with odd animals and appealing, human-like people. Jamie and his friend Ramsay are in as much danger as the people they are trying to save. More to come in this saga—it’s a trilogy—and I suspect the second and third books will be as entertaining to read.       

The Lighthouse Land (Lighthouse Trilogy)    Adrian McKinty | Amulet Books   2007

Embassytown – China Mieville

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Embassytown by China Miéville is a real mindbender. I’ve read other works of his and found it possible to slip inside his challenging constructions fairly quickly. Not this time. Embassytown is science fiction at the edge of the known universe. All the trappings of the genre are there—but shaken, shifted and synthesized into something so original that it requires new maps.

Avice Benner Cho is a human raised in a protected colony on a planet at the far reaches of explored space. She lives in a futuristic civilization in which children are raised in pods by surrogate parents, time is measured in kilohours, the space between planets is known as the immer and odd-looking indigenous creatures, the Hosts, allow the human outpost. They are advanced, sentient, hoofed and winged life forms who communicate with their guests through specially-engineered humans, identical clone pairs called ambassadors. The aliens—strange word as Arieka is their planet after all—are Ariekei and their communication is unique. They can only speak the truth—there is no concept of falsehood or ability to lie in their intelligence or culture. Avice can’t speak their language—called Language in the book—but she is a part of it. As a child she was made into a simile, a bit of grammar that allows the Ariekei and the ambassadors to converse.

Language, how it shapes a civilization and how it can be subverted, is the center of the story. The ambassadors are two speakers who function as one to mimic the Ariekei idiom, which is set in tiny, italicized typography as a word over a word in the text. They speak doublespeak, literally and symbolically. Betrayal triggers the unraveling of relations and there are layers of betrayal that go far beyond language.

Avice leaves Arieka and travels for years throughout space but eventually returns to Embassytown, just as it is on the cusp of cataclysmic change. She has to sift through competing loyalties to her husband, her lovers, her native culture, authority that is untrustworthy, aliens who are more like her than she can imagine. There is a cascading series of calamities that brings Embassytown and its environs to the brink of annihilation—and Avice is the key to eventual salvation or devastation.

The novel is a surprisingly gripping read. I say surprisingly because Miéville is so deeply enmeshed in this world that the language he creates to describe it to us is abstruse, the concept is bewildering and events refuse to sort themselves out neatly. You surrender your ticket and hang on for dear life because you can’t see where the plot is going, although it’s a great ride. This was a tough book to read in a day—many of the terms are invented and resist deciphering. The future society portrayed has moved beyond conventional assumptions of gender-determined behavior so social interaction is not predictable. There are no shortcuts, no comfortable context from which to draw clues. My strategy was to glide over the incomprehensible bits, searching for the overall sense of the story, and let meaning reveal itself as it would. That worked pretty well. It was mesmerizing to follow a story that zigged just when it might have zagged and never allowed me to hazard a guess about what would happen next. Honestly, I was kept busy enough trying to figure out what was happening in the scene I was reading.

There are more accessible Miéville books but, while Embassytown is not for the easily daunted or the faint of heart, I liked it. I would recommend to it intelligent friends who enjoy engaging with a work of literature from time to time. Engage: to cross weapons; to enter into conflict; to attract and hold fast.

Embassytown   China Miéville | Del Rey  2011

And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — Charles J. Shields

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Kurt Vonnegut was a Midwesterner in a riches-to-rags family who traveled far and wide but never escaped his roots. Charles J. Shields chronicles Vonnegut’s episodic life, triumphs and tragedies, in And So it Goes, a thorough biography that benefits from Vonnegut’s cooperation and access to scores of letters and interviews that fill in the picture. Sadly, Shields only managed a coupe of interviews before the accident that ended Vonnegut’s life at 84.

The Indianapolis Vonnegut family was prominent and moderately wealthy until the Depression wiped out their investments and left them scrambling to salvage a formerly comfortable life. Vonnegut missed the heyday of his family’s wealth—he was the youngest of three children—and he always felt he missed his parents’ attention and approval as well. His mother never adjusted to life without maids, luncheons, travel and society events and ended up committing suicide. His father never achieved the distinction as an architect that was the family heritage. Neither parent had much time for Kurt; what attention they did pay to their children was lavished mostly on his brilliant older brother, a precocious scientist.

Kurt had a talent for writing but agreed to major in science as a concession to family pressure to measure up. He was a serious college journalist but not a dedicated student—eventually he enlisted in the Army in World War II rather than be drafted. It was his personal misfortune and literary bonanza to be a prisoner of war in the firebombing of Dresden, waiting out the carnage that leveled the city in an underground meat locker called Slaughterhouse-5. When he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, his most celebrated novel, many years later, he created a meta-fiction to deal with the fact that he had not witnessed the carnage—he had been underground the whole time. The aftermath seared itself into his memory, though, and his many months as a starving prisoner turned him from a class-clown, zany character into a more sober and pacifist adult.

Marriage to his college-age crush took both of them to the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and a fellowship where they studied until Jane became pregnant with their first child. Vonnegut never completed his thesis—his first topic was not approved and his first effort was rejected–and left the university without a degree. That began decades of scrambling to be a successful freelance writer, interspersed with stints of working in public relations for General Electric and taking pick-up teaching jobs to feed his growing family. He and Jane settled on Cape Cod where they added his sister’s four boys to their own three kids after she and her husband died within weeks of each other. It was a generous gesture but unconsidered. The Vonnegut house was messy, uncontrolled chaos. Jane shouldered the burden of daily care, feeding and bill-paying while Vonnegut holed up in his study, chain-smoking and collecting rejections. Throughout her life, she supported his dreams about writing and served as a first reader and critic of his work.

Kurt Vonnegut might never have written his novels if friends in high places in publishing hadn’t taken him on. Magazine articles kept the menagerie going and kept Vonnegut’s vision of himself as a successful writer alive. His earliest books garnered some critical notice, some mixed reactions and underwhelming sales. But he persevered and found an audience, a raconteur’s talent for teaching and, in time, the fame he hungered for. Along the way he began a love affair and lifelong friendship with a woman he met while teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, drifted in and out of depressions, paid sporadic attention to the kids, wrote some plays and met the photographer Jill Krementz, who would become his second wife.

Krementz is an irredeemable monster in this biography. She squired Vonnegut around New York’s artsy haute monde and took over his life. Late in their marriage, she changed the locks on his Manhattan townhouse, determined who was allowed to visit, monitored his friendships and harangued him about his personal habits, writing and everything else that met with her disapproval. Meanwhile, Vonnegut, reacting to the reception of his work by a large, college-age audience, developed a marketable persona that became his public face. The clean-shaven Midwesterner let his hair grow, sported a bushy moustache and began to resemble more and more the Mark Twain character he was compared to.

And So It Goes punctures the hot air balloons of fame that lift up a celebrated writer and deliver him to the literary pantheon. Vonnegut was a flawed man and a flawed writer. He left wreckage and a lot of colorful anecdotes in his wake. But he was also beloved, by fans, the friends he didn’t alienate, his family and his students—not always and not blindly. His story is a good story, if not a happy one. He told it, very thinly disguised, in all of his books. Shields has untangled the timeline and fleshed it out for us. The biography made me want to go back and re-read a few of the books to connect the writer with the work that embodies his sense of humor, despair at the human condition and quirky vision.

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life   Charles J. Shields | Henry Holt and Company  2011