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review 2017-03-17 01:17
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer
Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.

 

Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.

 

Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.

 

The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.

 

Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?

 

Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-01-14 17:03
The Unseen World, by Liz Moore
The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I'll mark), but I'll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the '80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father's identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father's past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.

 

Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:

I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father's lab mate and later Ada's guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.

 

I liked how David's choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David's history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston's boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she's letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.

 

My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she's immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she's likely operating at above grade level.

 

Non-spoilery elements I wasn't crazy about:

Liston's sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada's growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don't see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.

 

Though the mystery and reveal of David's identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos...).

 

Ada's one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she's unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it's a familiar type that's come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.

 

In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada's whole world). She should trust her readers more.

 

SPOILERS below:

 

Returning to an item from above, the revelation of David's queerness and work history in government put his choices in raising Ada in much-needed context. His mistrust of authority, his emphasis on education and thinking for oneself, his near sequestering of Ada, all come to feel less like strictness and eccentricity and more like sane choices.

 

My biggest gripe is the last chapter and epilogue. The former reminds me of Harry Potter's epilogue where we're given a predictable Happily Ever After of the sort some readers like or require; I would have preferred the story end with the section in 2009. The latter is an unnecessary "twist" that suddenly puts the novel in SF territory; it reminded me of the end of the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can guess the intent--another "child" brought up uniquely, an objective observer to give the story context (e.g. people make mistakes, hurt each other, etc.), but suddenly learning the story's been told by an A.I. is too much of a rug-puller. Still, it wasn't awful enough to sour my enjoyment of the rest.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-05-06 22:56
He, She, It, and I
He, She and It - Marge Piercy

I wish I'd been able to read this book when I was assigned it for a graduate class on speculative fiction and utopias/dystopias. It's a rich novel with so much to discuss. As it is, I can imagine I'll only touch on some of the issues the book explores (see my long list of tags) and my reactions as I read.

 

First, this is the only speculative novel I've read with a Jewish protagonist and characters, steeped in Jewish culture. Woven together with Shira's story and her evolving relationship with Yod, the cyborg, is a story Shira's grandmother, Malkah, tells to Yod about the Jewish ghetto in Prague circa 1600, and the Golem created to defend those living there. At first I was thrown by the story and how it was being told, but after the first such chapter I got it. Obviously, Yod's and the Golem's stories parallel one another in essential ways. Primarily, both explore the question of "humanity" and personhood often raised by SF when androids or cyborgs are involved. I never get tired of this topic.

 

The novel was published in the early '90s, and so much is dead-on when it comes to our present and probable future--corporations running the world and determining culture; poverty and violence; the role of the internet; the destruction of the environment. The only "futuristic" bit that feels dated (if that makes sense) is the virtual reality-style raid, and that's only because people have been trying to make VR a thing for so long, and predicting it will be, despite it never catching on.

 

I loved the novel's representations of sexuality and gender, and it's clearly feminist, without being polemic. In its depiction of Tikva, the Jewish "free town" that exists beyond the corporate enclaves and "Glop" (megalopolis), socialism rises as the more humane and diverse system as compared to the rampant capitalism that rules most of the world.

 

Malkah and the Golem, Joseph, are the most interesting characters to me, and Nili grew on me as well, as she does with Shira. I sometimes struggled with Shira; she can be self-pitying and not always self-aware, though her journey involves coming into her own as a thinker and worker (however, she only comes to trust in herself when she learns she was deliberately not promoted; her stasis had nothing to do with a lack of skill--in other words, validation from others plays a strong role in her own sense of self, which is natural but dangerous). I also never liked Gadi, Shira's childhood love, which made it tougher for me to in turn like Shira.

 

My only other issue was with the pacing at the end, where for a moment it seems Shira is about to make a disastrous mistake before she quickly comes to her senses. I suppose this is meant as a contrast to the Maharal's way of dealing with Joseph, and a final show of growth for Shira. However, it comes and goes so fast, it felt melodramatic or heavy-handed.

 

If you like SF at all, or are eager for interesting female characters, or, like me, are maybe developing a deep fascination with A.I., this is a different and engrossing novel.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-01-14 15:56
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Here's a book I wish I would have read years ago, maybe college-age. Certainly I might have changed my mind about some things sooner rather than later. I might have recognized rape culture for what it is and my role in it.

 

As it is, The Handmaid's Tale is still revolutionary. It's still applicable; its dangers are still real. There are even some dangers that have only grown since the book was published in 1985, such as the way computers and the internet could very easily be used to deny rights and identities.

 

One of the story's traits that emerged as unique and notable to me was the protagonist's less than heroic journey. She is not a rebel; she takes stupid risks, but even those are just like the personal risks her predecessor likely took. She is an ordinary woman and likely thinks and acts just as most of us would in her position.There's something both identifiable about that also potentially unsympathetic. We've grown accustomed to heroines who make big moves, who are courageous for those big moves, like Katniss Everdeen. We go harder on people like us because we know we'd make the same mistakes, fail to make the big moves.

 

Offred's story is presented as a historical document, but we only learn the probable details of its telling at the end of her story. It's simultaneously funny and infuriating to see how her tale is being presented, by male scholars at a conference set in the future, when Gilead is in the past and a part of history. We don't learn Offred's exact fate, only the possibilities. We learn who her Commander was likely to be, which adds a layer of comprehension and contempt. The scholar reminds his audience to be conscious of the present context in interpreting and understanding history. This complicates the story's telling, for the fictional scholars and for us as readers, even if Offred's story and world are a fiction.

 

I have to mention also the writing and structure. It's obvious Atwood is also a poet, but her language never becomes overbearing in its lyricism, filtered through Offred's perspective. The structure impressed me with its shifting between past and present just at the right times. The "historical notes" at the end indicate that the scholars ordered the telling of events, as the story was found recorded on a set of cassette tapes. I love that little addition. It's Offred's story but has been assembled by men (in a book written by a woman).

 

The structure works also in the impressions it creates regarding the male characters, especially the narrator's husband, Luke (we never learn Offred's real name). He isn't very layered (purposely), but my thinking of him changed from the beloved to the reality that he's just another man in certain ways, too. There's an implication that inside every man there's the desire for total possession of women.

 

I underlined sentences in this book as well as circled some sets of pages. It's smart, suspenseful, and wonderfully written. I'm glad I FINALLY read it.

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review 2014-11-21 21:41
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer

I'm marking this "finished," though I'm just over halfway through, because I'm finished with it. I read a sample before buying, and it intrigued me, but as I continued to read, the structure of the book, the characters, and the writing itself were all a disappointment. Judging from the other reviews I peeked at, it won't get any better and isn't worth finishing to resolve the mystery. Perhaps that's because it's the first part in a trilogy, perhaps not.

 

This book wants to be weird, atmospheric, and creepy, but it's only boring and cliche, sorry to say.

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