The Wednesday Four

Sorry this is late! Doctor’s appointments and leaking upstairs neighbor bathrooms always get in the way (not on the same day, though, and luckily no lasting damage to my bathroom).

Week 24 marked the first 100 days of 45’s regime. I’m currently rereading The Handmaid’s Tale and when I got to the section of the novel where Offred talks about how her world went from normal to an authoritarian regime, what struck me was how insidious it was. One day things seemed normal, and the next day too, but when you look back you see how dramatically things changed, but at the time you barely even noticed until something dramatic (in her case it was a bankcard not working and then losing her job) happens to you. I struggle, sometimes, to keep myself cynical enough to be aware that what’s happening in this country, in the United States, is not normal. In the novel Atwood talks about how humans adapt, how people normalize what’s going on around them because it’s how we survive and much of Offred’s story is about exactly that. And I worry that we, as a country and as individuals, are doing the same thing. That’s why I will continue to share Amy Siskind’s links/commentary as long as she posts them. We need these reminders.

Now, onto my links.

20170417_185736

Taken by me on a walk.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

best01While looking up similar books to Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road (LibraryThing), I stumbled across Karen Lord’s novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. The summary sounded promising: “Now Lord returns with a second novel that exceeds the promise of her first. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.” Thus I picked I up (one of the libraries I work at happens to own a copy, which was even better). That review was, in fact, correct (in spite of my not having read her first novel). The Best of All Possible Worlds is fantastic for many, many reasons.

There are lots of books about space and aliens and the future of the human race. There are lots of books that combine these elements together, some good, some not so much. But The Best of All Possible Worlds does something different, something better. Karen Lord’s novel is centered around a woman, Grace — while she is not our only character to have a voice, she is in mabest02ny ways the main character of the novel. She lives on a planet that is home to refugees from all across the galaxy, most (if not all) of them are some form of human, but they are also very different, very alien. But what Lord does is find a way to tie them all together, to make them find their similarities, instead of their differences.

Grace is works for the government and can speak many languages, which is how she ends up befriending Dllenahkh, who is Sadiri and from a planet that no longer exists. Grace is tasked with helping Dllenahkh and his fellow Sadiris find genetic matches to keep their people from extinction (think of it as similar to when Vulcan is destroyed in the new Star Trek reboot and how the elder Spock, at the end of movie, has decided to devote to helping the popular rebuild). In a way, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very long road trip, as Dllenahkh, Grace and the rest of their assigned crew travel across Grace’s planet.

In way, Lord combines some of the more interesting aspects of Stragate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis into her novel. Grace and Dllenahkh’s travels remind me, in a way, of the Stargate teams traveling to different planets and learning about the people (and discovering that, in many cases, that are not that differbest03ent from themselves). Not only do Grace, Dllenahkh, and their crew find compatible people, they also find out more about the different cultures of the planet and, more significantly, about each other.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a story about people more than anything else. It is about Grace’s relationship with her coworkers, with the people of her planet, and with her family. Grace learns things about herself, about the people in her life, and about the history of her people and all peoples in her galaxy. In many ways The Best of All Possible Worlds is akin to a space opera, but I’ve never read one quite as beautifully written as Lord’s novel.

There is a love story within the novel as well. Grace and Dllenahkh find in each other something they didn’t even know they were looking for. The love story is subtle, it’s gentle, and it’s also really, really satisfying. Which sums up the novel as a whole, actually.

I really loved The Best of All Possible Worlds and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Not every book I read comes easily to me. I don’t mean that it was hard to get a copy of this book, it wasn’t, but I mean that in order to read it, I really had to work at it. Sometimes when you have to work at a book, it’s not necessarily a good one. But, of course, this isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t the case with the first book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (according to Wikipedia and some googling I’ve done, it’s u2333sually referred to as the Three Body trilogy).

Three-Body Problem was translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (an excellent author in his own right). It’s a science fiction novel about aliens, but you don’t really meet the aliens until you get closer to the end of the novel. It’s really the story of two character from two different time periods in China. The beginning of the novel is set during the Cultural Revolution and gives us our first main character, Ye Wenjie. She watches the horrors that befall her father and his fate and black class status follows her throughout her young life. But, because this is a novel, after all, Ye’s scientific background ends up balancing out her father’s black marks on their past. She ends up entangled and then deeply entrenched in looking for alien life.

Our second thread follows that of Wang Miao and is set 40 years in the future (basically, present day China). Wang, like Ye, is a scientist, though they study different sciences. Wang is contacted by a strange group of people and ends up befriending Ye, though he doesn’t know how their stories truly intersect until later. Wang must infiltrate an organization that is bent on world destruction and when he does, what he discovers blows his mind (but that would be spoiling things for me to tell you, so I won’t).

The novel is full of Chinese history (Liu helpfully includes footnotes of his own, in addition to Cixin’s, to make sure Western authors understand what they’re reading and the historical context of the novel), science and computer games — among other things. You do not need to understand physics or Chinese history to enjoy this novel.

We follow Ye and Wang as their lives are intertwined, bringing us to the climax and conclusion of the novel. We discover what really happened to Ye once she started working on a mountain (what saved her from her black status) and we participate (though not directly) with Wang as he explorThreebodyes a computer game that proves to be very important to the story. And, toward the end, we also get to go inside the heads of the aliens.

Cixin Liu’s writing is excellent and I trust Ken Liu’s translation. I didn’t feel like I was reading a translated work. And now I want to return to something I mentioned at the start of this review — this novel was a lot of work to read. Not because it was hard, but because Cixin Liu packed it full. It’s a dense, enthralling read, but it also took me a long time to read it. In many ways, it reminds me of many of Kim Stanely Robinson’s works. Hard reads, but worth the effort — which is exactly how I feel about Three-Body Problem.

If you like science in your science fiction, plus a murder mystery, and mixing of time/story lines, you should read Three-Body Problem. It sets up it’s sequel very nicely, leaving me wanting more, but ends in such a way that I’m not angry there are three books in the series. Instead, I’m just ready for more of this universe that Cixin Liu’s created.

Movie Review: Ex Machina

Note: Spoilers for Ex Machina within this review. Also, there is female nudity in the film, for those who like to know that stuff ahead of time. But, otherwise, please DO NOT read this before seeing the movie. If you have any desire to see it — do that first. Ex Machina is best experienced if you don’t know very much at all about the movie.

I’d heard about Ex Machina and I think I saw a trailer before the movie was even released in the US. I was on the fence about it, a movie about an AI and the AI is an attractive lady? Yeah … But the more I heard about it (it is a very cerebral movie), the more I wanted to see it. But, of course, it still hadn’t been released in anywhere except NY and LA, but eventually it was released everywhere and so, last Thursday afternoon (before I went to see Age of Ultron) I took myself to see Ex Machina. I have no regrets, NONE.

Caleb (left) and Nathan (right)

Caleb (left) and Nathan (right)

As I’ve mentioned before (just recently, in fact), I’m a pretty big fan of AI fiction in all it’s many forms. Which meant that obviously Ex Machina was a movie I needed to see — and I was right. The movie follows the story of Caleb, a computer programmer who wins a lottery to go visit his boss at his massive estate somewhere in the wilds of … the world (we don’t know exactly where and neither does Caleb). Caleb is an orphan and single, which means he has no ties to the outside world. His boss, Nathan, runs a company called Bluebook (it’s like a mashup of Facebook and Google) that is essentially a search engine, which Nathan leverages in the creation of his AI.

While Caleb is a clean cut nice boy and Nathan is his foil, a scruffy, hard drinking, hard working out dude — the center of the story is the AI. Her name is Ava and she is truly the main character — even when she’s not on screen, she’s always there. Before the movie even starts, you know she’s there because you know about her from the previews, press, etc. Ava is the main character, no matter what you might think about the other characters.

We’re meant to identify with Caleb, and perhaps had I been a man, maybe I would’ve more than I did. That’s not to say that I didn’t like him. I found him slightly endearing and a lot of his conversations with Ava and Nathan were interesting and sometimes amusing. I also liked the Caleb was just smart enough that you got comfortable with his character. Nathan is the clear villain, though perhaps it was only clear to me. He’s meant to throw Caleb off balance, and it works — I think there are probably some people who didn’t feel the same way about him that I felt (basically grossed out), which to each their own.

In my review of Age of Ultron, I talked about character agency and while you wouldn’t think that the main character with agency is the AI — you’d be wrong. She is magnificent. Everything she does is for a specific purpose and while Nathan hints at this fact, he does it such a way that only the smartest in the audience (aka not me) can figure it out. Caleb grasps at straws and suffers for that.

Ava wants to escape and when Caleb eventually manages to get Nathan’s key away from him (by getting him drunk enough to basically pass out), he finds the previous versions of Ava and video of one of the women pounding on the glass because she wants to escape. Thus his motivation, and the idea that Ava might actually like him, are all he needs to be manipulated. Ava and Caleb also talk of escape and, looking back, it’s here that you should start to realize that she’s manipulating him (note: I didn’t, not really).

Ava

Ava

I confess that I was whisked away on the idea that Caleb and Ava could be happy together, it seemed like a pleasant fantasy, akin to the characters in the Chobits manga. Of course this was never, ever meant to be. Nathan treats the other AI (though I knew she was an AI from the moment she first showed up on screen, others may not know), Kyoko, as an object — basically a sex object and he treats Ava like an object. Even though he wants Ava to pass the Turing test, he doesn’t treat either Kyoko or Ava as people. And when Caleb discovers this, he is righteously upset (and rightfully so, I would argue). He, along with Ava, plot their escape.

Nothing is ever what it seems, of course, and as Ava tells Caleb early on — he should trust no one. Caleb’s mistake is trusting Ava. Nathan’s mistake is thinking that he had everything under control. What neither man realized is that these objects Nathan created were not objects at all, but in fact women who wanted to survive.

Ava, with the unknowing help of Caleb and the knowing help of Kyoko, attempt to set herself (and perhaps Kyoko) free. When Kyoko shows up in Ava’s room, this is when I knew who I really cared about and it certainly wasn’t Nathan or Caleb. Freedom, at any cost, is the most important thing and Ava’s goal in the end.

I loved the whole movie, but the very best part is the ending sequence. It is not the men that win, it is the women. It is Ava.

Verdict: Go see this movie. GO SEE IT. It’s rated R for nudity and a tiny bit of violence at the end. There’s much to be discussed and some would argue that it’s sexist (they’re not entirely wrong), but there’s so much to this movie that it can be (and is) so many, many things. I cannot recommend it enough.

Book Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

The first Mira Grant book I ever read was Feed. It was before I knew that Mira Grant was the same person as Seanan McGuire. I devoured Feed and the subsequent books in the Newsflesh trilogy and I also read a lot of McGuire’s books (published under her real name). I was really excited when I saw Parasite on my library’s bookshelf and I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s sort of a horror book, but it’s also science fiction (with a heavy dose of science — though how accurate that science is, I’ll leave it up to the scientists).

The story follows the life of Sal, who awakens from a coma after being in a horrific accident. She doesn’t remember anything from before the accident and she spends a lot of her time trying to figure out who she is now (a nicer person than before the accident) and what’s going on with her life (she has health (physical and mental) issues). The reason she’s alive is because of Symbogen, the company who is studying her body (and also paying for her healthcare). Symbogen is the pharmaceutical company that has created a tapeworm that humans ingest — it keeps us healthy (after everything we’ve done to destroy our immune systems).

The heart of Parasite is not the tapeworm or Sal’s life — it is a mystery. While Sal is trying to live her life, people around her are getting a weird sort of sleeping sickness and this is the heart of mystery. What’s really going on at Symbogen, what really happened to Sal, what’s going to happen to all these people who have this tapeworm inside them — and is any of this even connected at all. Grant weaves a fantastic, and often realistic, slightly horror-esque story about what happens when we mess with our bodies.

I loved the novel because the writing is pretty awesome. But I especially loved it because Grant does an exceptional job with her characters and her plot never falls short. Even though this was the first book in the series, it was fantastic in all the right ways. I’d recommend it to people who don’t mind a little horror. It’s not quite a zombie novel (but it kind of is, in a sense), but if you like those you won’t be disappointed. As for the science part of science fiction, I guess hard science fans probably will find problems with it, but if you can look past those, it’s enjoyable. I can’t wait for more.

Friday Links (are all over the place)

Today’s Friday links are brought to you by the first of June, with it’s chilly and rainy weather, along with the dulcet tones of Yoga Lin (I’m currently listening his album Perfect Life).