12 January 2018

Murderbot: A Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

There is no better adjective for today but disgusting. The rain gods must surely love Toronto as they have showered down their love for 24 hrs. My kitchen view expands out onto a dreary, grey-soaked winter day, snow banks depressingly vanquished, debris sadly on display all the while the mercury plummets. We have been promised an ice palace by this evening, one that no one wishes to enter, least of all visit by car.  Standing outside my library branch, damp and windswept my thoughts jumbled from the morning argument with child regarding appropriate garments to Murderbots. 

The nominations for 2018's Philip K. Dick award for science fiction novels published in the United States for the previous year were released. A living breathing paradox, my very geeky science fiction proclivities extend not to the conventions, awards and publishing houses that make what I love available. Indeed, Arthur C. Clarke and the tantalizing lists that have come out of The Kitschies have only recently piqued my interests, giving momentum to my recent year's reading piles. Sorry for the dis Hugo, but this girl is just not into you. Yet, here I sit having read one of the nominees, debating whether to continue with my planned review, feeling slightly annoyed that an award has deemed it reading worthy. 

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is an adequately satisfying read for a novella, providing enough world building to enrich the reader's imagination but brief enough to encapsulate a mood fully. Truthfully, the time spent between waiting for the second book of a trilogy to arrive through the library hold system can be a bleak experience. The pull of the first novel is so complete that any book read in the interim can be lost, used mostly as filler. Not so is the case with All Systems Red, the confessions of government SecUnit gone rogue, who darkly refers to himself/herself as Murderbot. 

This is a future in which sentient constructs of synthetic and organic parts exist to fulfill specific societal roles. Not quite a robot, defiantly not human, our Murderbot is in security, owned and hired out to protect the corporation's contractual obligations for myriad of clientele. On an unexplored planet, Murderbot contentedly streams hours of hacked entertainment feeds, successfully convincing the small survey team it works for that it is a focused, professional SecUnit. Things begin to unravel as it becomes clear that someone wishes them all harm. 

The Murderbot Diaries have an Isaac Asimov, 'I, Robot' quality, interlaced with a twang of Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep'. Because it is a novella, information that would normally develop is eluded to, giving All Systems Red a real-time perspective. We meet Murderbot, speculate on his/her existence, and surmise that Murderbot is more than the constructed parts he/she presents to the world. Martha Wells has created a powerfully humane sentient being, alarmingly alien yet complex enough that we want to be his/her friend. I look forward to the movie that hopefully will spawn from this little gem of a book. I have a deep desire to see a meaningfully deep science fiction film, sprinkled with murder and mayhem. 

6 January 2018

Art Installation: A Review of Illuminae, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff

The morning sunbeam that brightened my yoga practise while cheerful was ineffective in bringing warmth. Canada has frozen over as has my toes, little stubborn icicles refusing to believe in green leaves, soft winds. A fan of extreme weather patterns, the -36 wind-chill does little to squash my winter love. If we are going to do this season, might as well do it with gusto. 

The tree continues - ornaments catching my favour attempt to convince me to extend their reign for one more day. January 6th has always been our tree-tossing day. Yet, with the furnace roaring, the hubby playing Zelda and the kid heading back to school on Monday, what harm could a little extended sparkle cause? A diluted Christmas, with barely an attempt to formulate a book list, Santa still left me a little parcel of science fiction wonder under the tree. Gleefully happy that my hubby continues to understand my intense desire to read over the holidays, I cracked open my first book of 2018 on New Year's Day.

And what an adventure, Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff brought me right back to those wonderful feelings of 2012 when I read Leviathan Wakes. We all have those book moments we wish we could relive. Understanding the genius of War and Peace, experiencing the encompassing thrill of Dune, wanting nothing more to live in a peach with James and his insect friends. With every book cover I crack, anticipation rises as I hope for vomit zombies. After all, don't we all just want to curl up during the holidays reading about the coming end of the universe? Maybe, that is just I but to win my heart, gift this girl a good space operatic adventure that throws all the tropes right in my face.

A small illegal mining operation on the planet Kerenza has been violently attacked by the mega corporation Beitech. Our hero Kady, having just broken up with her boyfriend Ezra, watches her world explode. Her transition from survivor, to refuge to conscripted reluctant hero moves at the speed of light. As the last shuttle bay doors close, the beitech battleship Lincoln pursues the small fleet of survivors aboard the freighter Copernicus, science ship Hypatia and their crippled saviour, the battle carrier Alexander. There can be no survivors to report this take-over. Plague virus, psychopathic A.I, a battle cruiser on the hunt smashes us with detail. This is a ride that will not let you go. 

Dare I say, Illuminae is so much more than a science fiction book, it is an art installation. Beitech's crimes against Kerenza are catalogued through hacked emails, medical and classified military reports, sensor arrays, and diagnostics of battlecarrier Alexander's corrupt A.I., AIDEN. Nothing seemingly new, as SF has been doing this technique of world-building since the 60s but the sheer audacity to publish a SF story with the soul of EE. Cummings is bold. Holding Illuminae in your hands, having to turn the pages upside down to read battle text, you feel immersed more effectively than tradition paragraphs. Sheepishly, my first wayward thought as I opened its illustrative pages was it wasn't my thing - dialogue heavy this had to be a pseudo attempt at science fiction. Thankfully, the plot is a grabber. The initial design began to fade to quickly becoming an increasing important element to the dramatics of the book. I prefer my science fiction served up one way: prose. How wrong I was. 

2018 began with a work of art, how exciting this year is turning out to be. 

16 November 2017

Global Warming Made Good: A Review of New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson

Trundling down the street, ineffectively bundled for the sharp Arctic wind that has stolen my city's breath, I am returning a book. Kim Stanley Robinson's ecologically new future behemoth, New York 2140 made a satisfying boom as I dropped it at the library counter. Nary an eyebrow rose, even though the thunk reverberated through the quiet space, ending an intense reading relationship that had enclosed me for nearly two full weeks. Surely a bookmark was in order, some small acknowledgement of my commitment to lugging this beast to the play park, the bath, and the karate dojo. Nothing though, not even a hi-five, it was all so anti-climatic that my time spent felt somewhat lost, never wasted but definitely ill defined.

Global Warming has fulfilled its ultimate destiny, ice caps have melted, and sea levels have risen resulting in two confirmed pulses of global mass destruction. Every species is in crisis - humans ever adaptable have created new waterproofing technology to hold the waters at bay, for now. New York has been baptized Super Venice - an island, existence precariously determinant upon the tides. Lower Manhattan has sunk, streets and avenues now canals with Upper Manhattan home to the ultra-rich, safe behind newly constructed towers that rise ever higher. The 1% continues to flourish all the while the globe strains to find placement in this flooded world.  

Is this science fiction, near future dystopian or a love-letter to New York? New York 2140 is Kim Stanley Robinson's first truly character driven novel. A world-builder, Robinson weaves words to assimilate an atmosphere that few in science fiction properly master. An image from his 2312 novel of Mercury's expansive city, Terminator revolving on tracks around the planet, keeping just shy of the coming deadly sunrise, lives deep in my imagination. The best of generational space odyssey has Aurora top of my list. 

I have always loved Robinson's plot lines, hated his characters. Red Mars, the book that brought SF infamy to his door, sits forlornly on a side-table because my annoyance for the protagonist cannot surpass my general curiosity. Can world building sustain a novel or novels as with Kim Stanley Robinson's catalogue of work? 

New York 2140 worked as an entertaining read because the city became the star. Without the highly developed backdrop, the human elements of the story would lie flat, despite me liking everyone. It is more a question of time relevance. In recent years, the Canadian city I call home experience stretches of snowless winter months, cool summers, and unseasonably hot autumns. Global warming is not my future it is my present. Reading a novel so close to my reality unsettled my complicity. Good science fiction should be unnerving, a talisman of the times, even a beacon for what may come. I internally debate whether New York 2140 is simply an okay book wrapped in glitzy gift wrap or something greater, something ever more complex. 

I am a Kim Stanley Robinson fan, convoluted, but none the less, a fan. His books are remembered years later, a metric that many a book I read fails to accomplish. New York 2140 is easily readable, and undeniably relatable whether you like it, is something I am curious to discover.