Diving for pearls with a reviewer

I hadn’t really had much chance to read expansively into science fiction over the past three years. I was up to my eyeballs in Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald… The whole classic crew, who (somewhat miraculously) I still have a soft spot for, despite a lifetime of picking apart and over-analysis. A chance meeting, however, with a book by J. G. Ballard and a copy of I Am Legend being lent by a friend would begin my shift of interest over to the side of SF and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction. I am particularly partial to a bit of hard SF.

I wanted to write a short, quick post about the past year, roughly when I started reviewing and getting deeper into SF. If there are any pearls of wisdom you can take then that’s a happy bonus. Let’s dive:

1. Trying to keep up with review requests is impossible but that’s okay.

I put my details up on a site called http://www.tweetyourbooks.com (Twitter @TweetYourBooks) and it was an incredibly successful way of putting myself out there. I get a lot of traffic from it. When I first began receiving requests, I was rather panicked at the thought of having to reply to every single email. I didn’t want to offend anyone. As I went on, I realised the authors are understanding and there’s nothing to worry about. They get it. And I really appreciate everyone’s requests, it’s encouraging to know there is so much creative writing talent out there. To those authors I have not been able to get back to I’m very sorry, keep on writing and sharing your creativity. To those whose books I am still nursing for review, I apologise. I am getting there. The best tip I can give to help reviewers starting out is to make sure you categorise your email mailbox from the very beginning. This may seem obvious in hindsight but at the time of starting I had no idea how many emails I would get. Keep to a simple method that works for you, don’t over-complicate things. This can be even worse than an unorganised mailbox. Another lesson I learned the hard way.

2. I have enjoyed reviewing!

This may seem like an obvious observation but as I hadn’t done it before who knew what could have happened? I especially enjoyed talking to many authors about their work. I’ve made firm friends through the medium of SF. Twitter is a great platform to get chatting.

3. Have a game plan for fitting in creative moments.

Then again, it’s virtually impossible to ‘plan’ when you’re going to be creatively inspired. I often write at 5am before I go to work, as that’s when I happen to be most spurred on to be creative, just figure out what works for you. For everyone things always happen unexpectedly: meetings; cleaning; laundry; a flat on your car; just life in general. Then, when you have a few minutes you never have the right gear with you (yes, sometimes we all need some particular stationary or notebook we are attached to before we can really let the flow go). My key to mastering this unpredictability of life is an application called Evernote. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s brilliant. Easy to download to all your tech. If I have a spare half an hour on a train, I can write notes on my iPhone then get home, open up my laptop and the notes will be there too. No sending files or waiting ages for each piece of tech to catch up with the sync (which takes seconds, if that). Evernote is useful for everything, no more needing to worry if you brought this list or that list with you, it’ll be with you everywhere. I’m firmly a paper and pen kind of person but Evernote is an indispensable addition. Frankly, I’m not the most high tech of people, there may be better out there than Evernote but it works perfectly for me. Side note: if you’re on O2 you get a year’s free Premium of Evernote. Yes! So you lot on O2 like me, no excuses.

4. Green tea is awesome.

I can’t drink coffee without it sending me to sleep – go figure – so my introduction to green tea was a life saver.

5. Life sometimes gets in the way.

I suppose this depends on the person. A perfectly organised person who quickly settles into routines or had more life experience probably could have handled it better. Me, I was just starting out living alone in my first flat far from home and beginning my first full-time position post-university. I had a lot to prove to myself and I think I was trying to do too much all at once. I had always dreamed of living alone and living life dictated at my own pace. I just hit the ground running a bit faster than I could handle! Saying that, I’ve now found my rhythm and reviewing only adds to this sense of achievement.

An aim that I am putting out there (so you can pull me up on it if I don’t fulfill it!) is that I am going to up my game with the original purpose of this blog: The SF Masterworks collection. I keep looking at the wealth of SF Masterworks copies on my bookshelves and they are just crying out to be read. Those people who have reviewed SF Masterworks, I would love to hear what you thought, add your pearls to the mix. It will add fuel to the reading fire.

Here’s to diving for pearls.

Pearl divers

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Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

Private William Mandella is a reluctant hero in an interstellar war against an unknowable and unconquerable alien enemy, but his greatest test will come when he returns home. Relativity means that for every few months’ tour of duty centuries have passed on Earth, isolating the combatants ever more from the world for whose future they are fighting.

I also thought I would include the blurb comment by British author Peter F. Hamilton as I cannot improve on his apt summary.

Only a writer as skilful as Haldeman could use war’s dark glamour to lure the reader in and then deploy that same fascination to show the effect of this orchestrated barbarism on the human soul. A book about corruption, atrocity, hope, stupidity, and triumph. Throw in faultless advanced military technology, fascinating aliens, and a dangerously believable future Earth, and you have a book that’s near perfect.

First off, an apology. Whilst trying to write about this book I had drawn a complete blank whenever it came to facing my Evernote screen. It could be due to the technical knowledge escaping me a little but this has not been an issue before. My knowledge behind the military background of the plot was and still is distinctly lacking but despite this it somehow did not stop the inexorable pull to read the book cover to cover in the space of a weekend. It is a wonderfully paced book. I am finding the space and time element of this book fascinating. To the point where I am collecting scientific journals from anywhere and everywhere to try and wrap my non-scientifically-apt brain around the concepts, theories and hypotheses. To read it is one thing; to apply what you read is completely another.

In the beginning, I did think “Easy, I’ll write about a series of 73 books I have not read yet” and didn’t anticipate that I am no longer a happy-go-lucky student with acres of time to spare anymore. There goes the days of extensive research you could always find me doing. For this reason I will not be uploading the SF Masterworks books exactly in order, as the book I had planned to read for my next update – Cities In Flight by James Blish – was far chunkier than I was anticipating, so that will be more of an ongoing read. I also want to include some chatter about other books too. As well as keeping up to speed with my ever growing list of review requests; after all, how can you say “no” to reading predominantly brilliant books for free in exchange for a review?

Also, just a note to potential readers of The Forever War; despite my lack of comprehensive knowledge of the subject, I really enjoyed this book. It did not mar the experience in any way. I still very much recommend reading it even if it’s not exactly your usual cup of tea.

I digress.

Where to start with The Forever War? I hadn’t done much background research into the plot of this book before reading (in fact, very little) so I was unknowingly thrown headlong into the life of Private William Mandella, caught in the throes of a complex war-torn interstellar world. The plot starts by following Private William Mandella in the year 1997 during his training with other men and women with IQs over 150 and a certain aptitude for survival. Mandella is a cynical character, making it particularly entertaining to follow his life. I think The Forever War and Andy Weir’s The Martian (a book I am currently in the middle of, I recommend) have the protagonist’s character in common. This character formula in a fantasy based book works so well for me. Sometimes in an unbelievable scenario, a little bit of cynicism and humour can make it more believable in my opinion. It lends the topic stability and honesty, making me as a reader feel like the protagonist is on my side.

Mandella’s particular outlook on life is our guideline for the tone of The Forever War. A cynical attitude to the war by the partakers seems only appropriate as the reasonings for initiating the war seem entirely dictatorial and devoid of sensible reason to me. Do not fear, sense is found later on in the progression of the war, thousands of years later. In exact words, the war is seen as an example of “human stupidity. And shame.” Despite the storyline being rather tragic – it is war after all – the regular snippets of gallows humour more than make up for it.

By following Mandella through the time and space oddity that is the setting of this book, we get to see the span of the entire war despite it taking…hmm…a long time. If somebody would like to supply me with the mathematics of it then you are welcome to do so. My overview will be woefully lacking in the technical. To explain simply, as I understand it, the war is spread through the duration of generations but because of the combination of time, space and speed of travel, Mandella has in fact only aged through one lifetime. It also means that because of a time warp so to speak – those people who have experienced their fair share of live shows, don’t start dancing – when the enemy, the Taurans, pops out of one of these jumps, known as collapsars, they could be from any time period of the war; from highly evolved weapons and tactics of the war’s future, or tragically under-equipped as they were when they first began fighting in the past. Still with me? I had to do a lot of rereading through this time warp explanation section.

Mary-gay Potter is part of this group of elite soldiers we meet in 1997. Incidentally, she is the soldier pictured on the cover of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. As the plot develops she becomes Mandella’s hope, the only link he has with any kind of familiarity. The space and time realities in The Forever War result in Mandella returning from missions after generations have gone by on Earth, even though it has only been months for him. When he returns his world is not a familiar one. Mandella arrives to a new world system, with opposing values and laws each time he completes a mission. Mary-gay provides the only stability in his life. Although this book has a strong affiliation with war and conflict and it seems that much of the plot is set in some sort of war zone, the book’s focus is in fact more about the limbo in between duties and the relationship Mandella has with this every changing society. Personal values, laws, sexual orientation, family planning and lifestyle all take a beating with every tour of duty. The small nuances of daily life that cause these lifestyle changes to make sense for the common man are lost on the soldiers as they are left wondering what was wrong with the original system of living. I think for me the strangest changes throughout the book was the change of perception towards sexual orientation. Not for the reason of what they believed but because of the changeable nature of their decisions.

I wouldn’t call this a romantic novel by any stretch of the imagination but there is enough humanity in there among this world of clones, war and aliens to make the plot relate to the reader – the secret of great SF in my opinion. I also won’t give away the ending…but it did make me burn my toast in my focused concentration of scrabbling to turn the next page.

Happy reading…

REVIEW: Hillel F. Damron, Sex War One

I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for a fair review. Here it is.

I was drawn to the topic of Hillel F. Damron’s Sex War One because a merge of a gender war within science fiction seemed like an intriguing and unusual subject to explore so exclusively together. Sex War One caught my attention and kept it. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be the kind of novel I rave about to all.

Sex War One takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war, where all life is divided into perfect uniform colonies. These colonies are constantly seeking to improve in all things flawed, to the extent that they go against nature. They are aware that good and evil have not yet been eliminated in human nature and they recognise this as a flaw. We follow Underground-Colony B/365 and the Colony-Citizens within. In this world, the emotions and passions that humans naturally hold are gone right along with their individuality; they are qualities that are not understood in this world. There is no concept of love and gone is the natural conceiving of children or natural pregnancy. All babies are produced in labs and selectively bred. Men and women look alike even. So of course all hell breaks loose when our main man D.L. decides to keep and nurture the anomalous baby, Z.Z. who acts differently, thinks differently and looks contrary to the citizens. D.L. takes it upon himself to care for her personally, we can see from early on that this is a decision set up for failure. Z.Z. is nicknamed “the Monster” because of her nonconformity to colony life. D.L. quickly becomes questioned by the Colony-Citizens as soon as he starts treating Z.Z. as anything other than an experiment, the excuse he used to keep her. At the time of course he did believe it was an experiment even in his own thoughts but he quickly realises he has an attachment for the child. I found D.L.’s motivation for keeping the child in the very first place a little confusing considering the rigid and oppressive attitude of the colony and the attitude that has to be kept to by the Colony-Citizen individuals. I do understand that the attachment grew over time and perhaps just morbid curiosity is enough, as it is for most people in reality. This little display of human curiosity by D.L. shows that the Colony is not quite out of the grip of true human nature and warns of events to come. In fact, as soon as Damron described there being no individuality shown in society, alarm bells started ringing. You can’t stifle human individuality without consequences eventually showing themselves.

The depth and appropriateness of this gender conflict theme struck me. With feminism taking off in new directions, equality being an ever questioned premise and sexism debates between both genders being laced into media everywhere, I found this book to be a timely and futuristic epiphany. In our current society the future of gender equality is being questioned, just as it is addressed in this novel. There are so many opinions and arguments for every side of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the subject of gender and it was refreshing for this topic to be explored in a science fiction novel as the purely main topic. In science fiction there is usually some kind of reference to the differences in society, sex and gender because there are an important aspect of human life and so it has to be included. It is what the reader wants to read about, needing a futuristic take in fiction just as there are futuristic takes on weaponry, technology and gadgets.

I found it provoking that the dictatorship, stemmed from this eruption of personal feelings in a stifled society, came from a gender separation. Particularly as we are trying to move away from both matriarchal and patriarchal dominated societies, it really makes you question how equality will be achieved in our own future. Individuality makes all our opinions different. One person’s genius is another person’s fool. Despite best intentions, human nature – complete with human flaws and emotions – means that any search for perfection depends on the perspective of perfection. Damron questions the definition of perfection and where humanity stands in that definition. In Damron’s example of our future, is it the flaws that make us such a powerful species? Z.Z. seems to prove this. The search for the answer to this question, “what is humanity?” in Sex War One leads to matriarchal dictatorship. The maintenance of this ‘perfect’ society was only achieved by each becoming an emotionless being with no individual spirit. There is no passion, no emotion. It is an almost mechanical living.

There are few aspects of the book that smack of dramatised versions of real historical dictatorial events and periods in history. The novel addresses new directions and uses of historical dilemmas and problems; ethnic cleansing, cloning, gender inequality. I thought this was rather clever as the emotions of the reader are transferred from the real historical events to the appropriate similar fictional event in Sex War One. There is also a link back to historical feminist oppression throughout the book that I found interesting. This historical oppression is essentially why N.R. – the antagonist we love to hate – makes the move towards matriarchy that she does. This is her flaw. The description of certain female characters being ‘hysterical’ – an old term that in its original meaning applied only to women showing any displays of emotion. Women who were described as ‘hysterical’ were usually found in a mental asylum very shortly after being told they were emotionally unstable. An element of the book also along the lines of a resurrection of historical female oppression is S.O’s rape. Showing that even in this apparently more advanced matriarchal society, rape is used as a weapon in war. There is a conformity still to the old ways despite the ‘new era’. So, how sustainable is a ‘perfect’ society if the human flaw is still within us?

One theme of the novel that I found unexpectedly rang true was the insistence of the colony that they needed to get away from nature. When I thought about that it occurred to me that yes, the more successful the human race becomes in reality, the further we take ourselves from nature. The more successful we become in almost anything, the more man-made our life that we isolate ourselves with. For me this seems a shame – I do love the bracing outdoors – but it actually worked as a realistic concept for the future in this book through this reasoning. This was the method behind their ‘perfect’ society. Although, this concept was created in the extreme when N.R. takes control. N.R. desires what she calls an “anti-nature”.

I think my only criticism for the book is more of a false expectation, the expectation being that there would be more of a follow up on Z.Z., the outsider child. Z.Z. is an anomaly, different from all the others. She began all of the turmoil, creating the question that follows throughout the book, who is in fact the “Monster”? After the first chapter we don’t hear from her until the last pages of the book. I enjoyed the link from beginning to end and I can see that the mystery of her life is part of the illusion of her ‘outsiderness’. We are only meant to be concerned with the lives of the Colony and the developments there.

So, if you like disruption of the status quo through revolution with futuristic spins on real time issues this is the book for you. Throw in a few characters you love to hate and love to pity and you have Sex War One. For me at least, the overall message gleaned was that reading this book makes you appreciate the individuality we have around today. Without it, we get the plot of Sex War One.

Hugh Howey: Silo Series | Wool Trilogy

I am indeed in the process of finishing a post of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman which was meant to be scheduled next on the list. If you have read it, you will know it is an interesting topic to wrap the brain around let alone write about responsively if – like me – you’re relatively new to true classic sci fi and you have very little military knowledge. So here is another brief post while you wait. The lift music, if you will.
I don’t give away major plot lines but don’t read this if you want to be completely surprised when reading the series. But just a note to take away; the only description of a book you will find that doesn’t give away at even a little something will be the painstakingly selected blurbs on the back of a book.
Three novels: Wool. Shift. Dust.
Although originally nine novellas: [Wool. Proper Gauge. Casting Off. The Unravelling. The Stranded.] [Legacy. Order. Pact.] [Dust.]
I discovered this series by chance as I was trawling through some suggested reading. They spent a couple of months pushed to the back of my mind, gathering dust. I originally didn’t want to commit to a series whilst at the time my concentration was meant to be focused elsewhere. Especially when I saw how satisfactorily chunky the books were.
Eventually, as always, I caved.
To start with, if I was to give a brief description of how these three books worked together for me, I would say this: Wool – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the introduction to Silo life and characters, triggering so many questions that it leaves you scrambling to pick up Shift for answers; Shift is the context and the history for the series, taking its place as a prequel to Wool and Dust; finally Dust, back in the present time, is the action taken from the revelations of Wool and Shift. Not action in the sense of punch ups and wars (although yes these are involved, plus guns, love, blood, betrayal and more) but action meaning the forward progression they make. For living and of how they counter the totalitarian, stifling life that they have been living to create their own future with their own horizons. From the perspective of the men and women being kept in the dark – metaphorically and literally – having a life outside is the ultimate fear and the unrealised dream, stemming from a fear of the unknown and a dream of whispered stories long gone. The outside is poisoned air and dead earth with the only people seeing it for ‘real’ (let’s not get into that can of worms) being so called cleaners who are prisoners locked away for crimes (we won’t open that can either) and are sent out into the dead wilderness outside the Silo in sealed suits (another can), that the poisoned air slowly eats away, to clean the lenses of the video cameras stationed outside. The view from these cameras can be seen from the top floor of the Silo where everyone gathers to watch the cleanings. This is a death sentence for the person sent out there. The ultimate question pondered constantly in the Silo is, “Why do they always clean the lenses?” Even those who swear and scream that they won’t always do in the end, instead of trying to make it away and find any shelter they can to save themselves. These stories and questions are voiced at one’s peril. These whispered stories of the past passed on carefully by word of mouth (words on paper or electronic cost a lot of money for reasons you will find out) are all that remain of their previous lives and society; a previous life that is unveiled throughout the series and eventually answers why they are there.
WOOL:
I recently found out that Wool was first designed be read as a stand-alone story. I can see how the structure reflects a stand-alone more so than the others but I know that if I’d have bought Wool without a follow up being at least in the pipeline, I would have been knocking on Hugh Howey’s door with something to say about that. Wool wastes no time in letting you get attached to the characters and then finding ways to uproot their place in the novel. I must admit, it took me a while to figure out who the main character was finally going to be because there were so many changes happening in a short space of time. It didn’t deter me though. It was interesting to get so many points of view. Which actually worked, I wouldn’t have previously thought that swapping between so many characters so early would work for a reader connection. Turns out it did and well, too. The setting of the novel is an enclosed Silo (admittedly a huge Silo) but with no access to the outside which for obvious reasons doesn’t give much freedom to work with setting-wise, but this also succeeded. It made the idea of ‘outside’ all the more fearful and then once the story progressed, more arcane.
SHIFT:
I think out of the three novels I found Shift the hardest to get into and this is in no way a slight of the novel to discourage others. I am an impatient reader-for-pleasure. I dislike not having the whole plot to read at my fingertips, so if I know it is going to be a series I usually wait until all the books are out before I begin reading. When I finished Wool I didn’t pause for a cup of tea even before picking up Shift. So when I was confronted with no immediate explanation of the loose ends in Wool, I (at first) was impatient with it. But the series has more finesse to it than just neatly giving the reader all the answers. Once you adapt from the fast-paced, who-is-going-to-be-attacked-next? style of plot in the dark Silo of Wool to Shift‘s more subtle beginning in the familiar ‘real world’, it is easy to see that the information you get from Shift truly makes the series what it is. Once I had finished the series I realised just how important the content was; it took the story deeper.
DUST:
Dust is the moment when the many characters’ stories from the different Silos are brought together, their pasts having had influence over each other without realising. Rise of the masses style. This is the culmination of all the conspiracies that have been spoken of in the series, where the answers are given. There is some mystery throughout the series as to whether the outside is poison or not, living or not, even if it is real or not. Perhaps that was just me but I was definitely swinging one way then the other in terms of what I believed from one book to the next.
I haven’t talked about specific characters or events in the books and I might decide to upload something more concise later on. I just want to encourage people to read this series; it’s a little bit special.