Category Archives: science fiction

An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is a great storyteller so I saved her book, An Acceptable Time, for last. It’s a different kind of wrinkle in time. Polly has moved in with her grandparents, both distinguished scientists, who live in an old farmhouse in New England on land that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It’s a very different world from the Carolina coastal island where her marine biologist parents live with the rest of their large brood. Polly is meant to study sciences and prepare herself for college but empirical science intervenes. She encounters a strange man and a dog in the woods and then an acquaintance from her summer job in Greece. Later she sees a frantic young girl with a long dark braid in her grandparents’ pool house.

When a neighbor, a retired Protestant bishop, brings Ogam stones, with their ancient carved alphabet, to her grandparents’ house, Polly’s story catches his attention. Because he has seen the same people–and traveled back in time just as Polly accidentally has, and suspects there is a tesseract, a fold of time that opens worlds, and that the whole thing has something to do with Druids. It’s very interesting if you like all things Druid. L’Engle circles and circles back to build her case for this opening in time. The charming but completely self-absorbed summer acquaintance inserts himself into Polly’s life.  The scientists are skeptical but they can’t discount independent testimony entirely. Samhain, the Druid holy time when the veil between worlds is thin, is approaching and every attempt to protect Polly from some danger in the time slip, including sending her off on a date with the summer boy, fails.

As Polly becomes enmeshed in a three-thousand-year-old society on the land where the farm now sits, her life is threatened in horrible ways and her trust in people is severely tested. There are brave hearts and blackguards in this tale and Polly will deal with each as she tries to mend hostilities, fractured psyches and an environmental catastrophe that could mark her as a blood sacrifice. The story never condescends to the ancient people in the time travel and, in the end, Polly is no Pollyanna, although I was exasperated by her even-tempered treatment of idiots from time to time. But the science is fun and the adventure is lively and the worlds L’Engle builds are convincing ones.  An Acceptable Time was a good choice for a last book. And now to bed. No more late late late nights finishing the story of the day. Or not too many anyway.

An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)   Madeleine L’Engle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1989

The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson

Here’s the thing about reading a book a day: you get to read a lot of books but when you find one that is brilliant, pure poetry and a ripping story to boot, you cannot savor it and you can’t read it again. Not until late October anyway. And that’s too bad because The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson is brilliant–and beautiful, chilling, wickedly funny and apocalyptic. This is the novel you read after Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is Buddhist, Sartrean and very very dark. It’s a little tale about us and how we eff’d up the world and how we never learn–and aren’t learning now. It has dinosaurs, messages from far space, Robo-sapiens–the next evolution of intelligent life–John Donne, Easter Island and a corporate wasteland. Step in, you’ll feel right at home.

There is no good way to describe what Winterson’s lucid, twisted mind has wrought.  Billie Crusoe lives on the far edge of adventure in a post-World War 3 society that represents the last gasp of a grievously wounded and nearly-dead planet. She has a small farm with fruit trees and animals and a fireplace and a rain barrel. She hasn’t been genetically modified to remain 24, or whatever age she feels is cover-girl perfection for her, and she hasn’t handed her mind over to the machine either, which makes her suspect and eventually prey. Billie works with Spike, the lone Robo-sapiens who is rather spectacular, sagacious and lovable. Corporate scientists from MORE, the corporation that runs what’s left of the West after a nuclear and environmental holocaust, have discovered a Blue Planet that supports the identical abundant life Earth did 65 million years ago. Very large flora and fauna to go with the breathable air, drinkable water, verdant food and treacherous beauty.

But that’s too simple. Just picking up and going to another planet may seem like a wrench but the real scary part is when history repeats itself. Asteroidally speaking, that is. You thought that giant space junk that hit Mexico and wiped out the dinosaurs was an astronomical anomaly? Think again. Humans meddle. Primitive perfection gets blasted into disaster. Everything dies. Even humans. And Robo-sapiens. Or do they? Do we? What if it’s all an endless loop?

Okay, enough spoilers. This is a truly brilliant, poetic, imaginative, comic and horrifying book. Only you already know the story. So read Winterson’s telling of it. Read it twice if you have time.  The Stone Gods is worth repeating.

The Stone Gods   Jeanette Winterson | Harcourt Books  2007

The Keeping Place – Isobelle Carmody

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The fourth volume in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles was going to be my last for a while. I found the first four books at the library so decided to try them–and they are a really good fantasy. This latest one leaves so much hanging that I wish I’d found all eight. In The Keeping Place, war comes to the land and the Misfits reluctantly agree to aid the Rebels in an elaborate plan to take over the Council Lands in a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers. But traitors have infiltrated the Rebels, treachery among the Rebel factions threatens mayhem, Rushton, the lord of Obernewtyn has gone missing, and Elspeth is under pressure to find the machines that destroyed most of earth in the Great White before they can be used again.

That’s the short version. Elspeth is in charge during Rushton’s absence and Obernewtyn’s protection is beginning to unravel. The various guilds are inventing new ways to perform their duties–one has created diving gear to explore an underwater ruin from the Beforetime, another is split in two groups and part of the guild is training itself to be knights and spies. Dragon, the powerful feral child Elspeth found on a previous journey, is still in a deep coma but her tortured dreams transfer to everyone in Obernewtyn and no one can sleep easily. Maruman, the old cat-medium who is devoted to Elspeth and her fated quest, delivers more urgent exhortations to find the clues to the whereabouts of the deadly machines. Ariel, the angelic sadist who left Obernewtyn to join the religious cult, the Herders, appears in Elspeth’s dreams and threatens her life and all she holds dear.

When Elspeth receives disturbing news about Rushton, she knows it is time to act. The Misfits had voted to abstain from any rebellion and pursue a path of peace in their mountains but they are drawn into the battles and into grave danger. Many things don’t seem quite right and suddenly real horrors and betrayal rip apart fragile coalitions and unimaginable depravity comes to light. Elspeth re-connects with Swallow, who is now king of the elite band of gypsies who are indebted to her. She travels the perilous dreampaths to search for clues and to attempt to heal Dragon and bring back Rushton. Her dreams are increasingly troubled, increasingly violent and increasingly real. Being in charge means having the power of life and death and Elspeth is a reluctant but decisive leader.

When a daring move uncovers a major clue to the location of the death machines, the impact is muted by the terrible human tragedy a different search unearths in a Herder cloister. It seems as if many more Misfits will die before Elspeth can disable the system to destroy the planet for good–and those who are left are damaged, possibly beyond repair. So I’m quite curious to see what happens next. Obernewtyn is a complex and well-drawn world full of compelling characters, unexpected plot developments and chilling detail. I’ll have to prowl the YA section to discover 5-8 so I can learn the ultimate fate of a heroine whose journey equals that of any male protagonist in a fantasy/sci-fi fiction.

The Keeping Place: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 4   Isobelle Carmody | Random House   2008

Ashling – Isobelle Carmody

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An ashling is a dream that calls you to a task. That is wisdom from the language of the beasts whom Elspeth can communicate with through a silent mindspeak that is one of her Talents. Elspeth is a Misfit, a human with powerful mental abilities that make her a pariah to the untalented people who rule her world. What is left of earth after a blinding holocaust called the Great White is a poisoned, treacherous, mistrustful and power-mad place in which anyone who is different is at terrible risk. Rather like our own civilization, as a matter of fact.

In Ashling, Isobelle Carmody continues the fantasy saga of Elspeth and a cast of original characters, including a cat who has visions and a horse who styles himself Elspeth’s protector. The Misfits live in a remote mountain compound called Obernewtyn, led by a latent Talent named Rushton who is a direct heir of Obernewtyn estate’s founders. His ancestors include people who ived before the Great White and seemed to know about, and likely possess, some of the Talents. Elspeth is the Seeker, the one selected to find the death machines used centuries before to destroy much of the planet and disable them so they can never be used again. She is not the only one interested in those machines.

But this heroine’s journey is a long and winding road and in Ashling Elspeth saves a gypsy woman about to be burned at the stake by Herders and is sent by a prophecy in a dream to a stronghold of the Council to return the comatose gypsy to her people. The adventures that ensue cost lives and threaten hers, put her in the crosshairs of some extremely nasty people, see one good friend sold into slavery and badly damage the mind of another, and connect Elspeth with a mysterious gypsy who holds her to a mutual pledge of support in the coming wars and rebellions.

The Misfits from Obernewtyn end up traveling to a desert culture to participate in fierce battles with some cruel and hostile rebel factions who regard them as worthless freaks. They fail to win the support of the rebels. But the experience reveals who and what the Misfits are meant to be and shows them there will be no easy solutions to their problems. Elspeth learns that her life is driven by the portent and burdens of her calling but that her challenge is to find the courage to live in-between the dangerous quests. She develops some odd method of healing grievous wounds to her own body, doubtless a useful skill as she seems to get bloodied and battered a lot.

I do think this third book ratchets up the tension nicely and the series is convincing and worth reading. One more book to go of the first four I checked out of the library in a batch. I do want to finish all eight but I’ll probably take a break and read some different novels before I go looking for the remaining Obernewtyn Chronicles.

Ashling: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 3   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  2007

The Farseekers – Isobelle Carmody

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In the second of Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, The Farseekers, Elspeth leaves Obernewtyn on a quest to find a mysterious new Talent, a Misfit so powerful that the hidden community will not survive without it. The stakes are sharply higher in this book, as the ragged band of people with extraordinary mind abilities battles the Herders and guardsmen of a repressive regime, a settlement gathered around a patriarchal figure, Henry Druid, that contains secret Misfits of its own, the violent storms and unpredicatble weather that is the result of the Great White that nearly destroyed the planet, and the treachery of a renegade Misfit with a murderous grudge against Obernewtyn and its inhabitants.

Most of this book is a journey through tainted lands, perilous settlements and the events of deadly prophecies. Elspeth discovers that the beasts, the animals of the Obernewtyn farm and the surrounding countryside and mountains, have minds and abilities as formidable as the humans. In a library buried by ruins and ash for centuries, she finds evidence that the Misfits are an evolution of humans that was underway before the Great White, and not a freak result of the destruction that occurred as a result of the cataclysmic detonations from poisonous weapons. She also finds out that Rushton, the heir of Obernewtyn and the leader of the community there, harbors felings for her that go far beyond collegiality and admiration.

But Elspeth is the Seeker, the one who is fated to find the old machines that caused the Great White and destroy them before they can be used again. She permits herself no thoughts of a personal life while that terrible fate controls her life. The journey to the coast is full of misadventure, heroic rescues, astonishing discoveries, treachery and painful death. Evil is often outwitted but inevitably exacts a high price in suffering. Some appealing characters don’t survive. Other characters are revealed as unexpected allies.

The Obernewtyn Chronicles are an accomplished mix of fantasy and science fiction–with Tolkienesque rhythms and themes, believable characters and enough surprises to keep things interesting.  As I am overwhelmed by too much Real Life right now, and finding hours each day for reading is a challenge, I’ll probably finish the four I have–I might not recommend reading all of them in a marathon but they are entertaining and go quickly. By the time I finish (and I am not hunting for the rest of the books in this series just yet), I’ll be able to knock out a futuristic fantasy of my own. The pattern isn’t hard to discern, a fact that might inspire me to space the books more if I had the time.

The Farseekers: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 2   Isobelle Carmody | Random House  1990

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