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…

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

An SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn. How long can one man survive like this?

A quick note to the reader: if you have not yet read I Am Legend and you are hoping to in the future, I would give this post a wide berth. I have not been particularly coy about plot giveaways and such. I warn you here because there is nothing worse than finding a spoiler whilst trying to use others’ experiences to gauge whether to buy the book or not.

I will try to keep this brief as I am writing this on a train with no mains connection for charging my laptop.

With this first book, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, I had one of my very rare occurrences of seeing the film version before I read the book. To be honest, when I first saw the film in 2007 I was not aware that it was a book to begin with, let alone a 1950’s novel. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am a big J. G. Ballard fan and I was surprised that reading-by-association hadn’t led me to I Am Legend sooner. A friend introduced me to the book, years later, after he had read it. He recommended it and I, I am sad to say, promptly forgot about it; mainly because I had seen the film and was not particularly enthralled.

To use a new twist on an old standard, never judge a book by its film! I found the protagonist Robert Neville much more realistically flawed and human in the book, more in keeping with the ‘average guy wins out’ theme (or doesn’t ultimately, as is ironically the case) that Matheson seemed to have been going for. I am going to try and not keep referring to the film because the book and the film are in completely different territories. Their medium, aims, audiences and eras were completely different, among many other things, so there would be little point doing so in my eyes.

Addressing the ‘vampire’ description of the story, recent popularity of the vampire character in popular fiction has rendered this once classic gothic horror character into a romanticised ideal. I am not saying I am not guilty of reading the romanticised novels myself. I also at the time of reading enjoyed them. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that this novel conforms to the traditional perception of a vampire, meaning that they are a gothic horror genre character, not a heartthrob.

I know I did say I wouldn’t be comparing the book to the film and vice versa, I just want to point out that during the film I was not aware that the infected creatures were intended to be vampires. I can only assume it was an active choice to disassociate the film creatures from being characterised the same as the creatures were in the book.

For this reason, when I was confronted with the blurb beginning “An SF novel about vampires…” I was a little taken aback to say the least. I must admit I rolled my eyes at the idea of combining vampires and apocalypse, thinking, “how could this possibly work in classic sci fi”? But then again I was still labouring under the illusion that the topical heartthrob character would be used. More fool me!

Matheson puts this gothic character in a new setting for my experience; post-apocalypse. It somehow works as a fitting new setting, bringing the character crashing out of gothic castles and Whitby and into 20th century fiction set in the post-apocalyptic 1970s. Matheson seems to be able to pretty much get away with using the vampire character without too much of a stretch of the imagination by associating them with the apocalyptic classic method of a mass pandemic infection.

By following the day-to-day life of Neville, the reader can find a relatable anchor in amongst the vampire-infection-apocalyptic world. I mostly find that the best sci fi and fantasy novels have something to keep the reader grounded, something that the reader can associate with. It just helps the author connect with their readers; making the least believable (and usually the more creatively imagined) features of the novel more believable by association.

We always wonder how we would react in an apocalyptic situation and I think we would all hope we would have at least half the success that Neville has. He is a typical human being, not some almost super human that we would have envied in the pre-apocalyptic life, just happening to have a mastery of combat, inbuilt knowledge of medicine and, naturally, is a survival genius. I think my favourite part of his character is his ability to learn what he needs to know as and when he needs it, not just have the knowledge conveniently previously ingrained as many characters handily do in any genre of novel. This maybe my librarian side coming out but I particularly loved his aptitude for using the library to learn how to firstly do DIY around his house and then to do the some might say more in depth task of curing the world of the infection.

So concludes my chat. My laptop battery is low, I am near my destination and so I must leave.

I am next chatting (I am not calling it reviewing as I am more just letting out my thoughts onto paper at the moment) about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which I would particularly welcome thoughts on as my knowledge on war is not extensive, a personal problem I found whilst reading the novel!

Until then…

Happy reading!