Book Review – The Book of Strange New Things

In my experience, there are two major kinds of sci-fi stories to be told. One is an action story. Think Battlefield Earth, Princess of Mars, or Dune. The driving force is the things that happen, the rising tension, potential sabotage, the question of whether or not the protagonist will finally defeat the big bad bugs with their own laser guns or go down in a blaze of glory.

The other kind is a thinking story. Examples here are Speaker for the Dead, or even Frankenstein. In these kinds of books, there isn’t so much action driving the reader on, it’s an intellectual understanding, an investigation into the human condition viewed through an external lens. As such, it may offer elements of introspection that action stories cannot, and should not be asked about.

The Book of Strange New Things falls into the second category. In this story, Michel Faber has transplanted a naïve, if well-intentioned, Christian minister named Peter from some generic English Presbytery to the far-off planet of Oasis. While there, Peter is to be the chaplain to two groups of individuals: the residents of the USIC base on Oasis, and the native Oasans themselves.

This is not an action story. It is a story about relationships: Peter’s relationship with USIC: a for-profit company doing whatever it can to salvage an investment, thus their recruitment of Peter. The relationship between USIC and the Oasans: who is dependent on whom in this situation? Who profits? And at what cost or at what critical threshold? Peter’s relationship to the Oasans, who view him as, not necessarily a savior, but as someone who can finally help them understand the Book of Strange New Things, which, strangely enough to Peter, is the Bible, because, news flash! They already had a chaplain before, and where is he now?

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with his left-behind wife, Beatrice. It is a story about one-dimensional relationships, about one-dimensional communications, about censorship and the internal mental gymnastics we go through (but never actually reveal) when communicating with people we care for. Or don’t.

This is a story about Peter’s relationship with God, or his image of God, or his ideal of God. Peter is a broken man – by his own admission, he comes from a hard life, of drugs, of sex, of lawbreaking. But God cleaned him up, saved him, gave him purpose and a wife and a church, and now God has given him a mission, so he will, by golly, do everything he can for that mission, even if it means he must sacrifice his own self and his prior commitments, and rationality be buggered.

To be honest, I didn’t quite know where this book was going most of the time. A lot remains undefined, like what USIC stands for, how the Oasis environment would have allowed the ecosystem to develop, or even things often described in sci-fi like the “first contact” experience and subsequent information transfer. Many of these are just taken for granted, and, while I suppose the author thinks they aren’t critical to the story, I found myself just confused at times.

In terms of style, I will admit that the initial impression I got was of a very nice, very safe style. Something warm and comforting. You know how you read a book and you often have a narrator in your head, a voice that you hear reading the words to you? [If you don’t, just play along.] For the first 2/3 of this book, I could not hear anything but Winnie the Pooh reading to me. For some reason the tone just struck me as unassuming, a reserved “Oh bother” type of narration. It did change a bit near the latter part, but perhaps that was because I had experienced enough of Peter to start to hear the narrator in a more masculine voice.

Anyway – I’ll give this book 4 of 5 stars. Interesting ideas, good for a read now, one that I didn’t want to stop reading and stayed up late to finish, but not something I’ll read again or buy to have on my bookshelf. Read if you wish; I’d love to have a discussion.

Book Review – Gravity Box and Other Spaces

Mark W. Tiedemann is a St. Louis, Missouri native and current resident. He’s been professionally published in various markets over the years, and had a couple of novels shortlisted for awards.

Stephan James is a Wooster, Ohio native, transplanted to St. Louis through Indiana. He’s been paid only a few dollars from his speculative fiction, despite racking up an impressive rejection catalogue. What audacity would he have to have in order to write a review of a book by a working author?

Well, to be honest, I think anyone can write a review. Isn’t that the point of literature and of storytelling? That we make it accessible to anyone, and we don’t require them to be exactly on par with us in order to have an opinion. Should he take my comments to heart as strongly as his editor’s or his agent’s or his writing group’s? Clearly not. But does that completely disqualify me from judging how I feel when reading these stories? Not at all.

Therefore:

Gravity Box and Other Spaces, by Mark W. Tiedemann

I picked this up from the library based on the title alone, not knowing that Mr. Tiedemann is from St. Louis, so what a happy surprise it was to learn that I’m in pretty close proximity to a man who has made his living from writing the kind of stories I like to read and write. I began to read, then, with earnest.

As stories go, then, the 11 tales within this volume are complete stories. They have characters, in places, doing things. They’re clearly speculative – a pretty even split of fantasy and science fiction themes. No horror, that I could tell. Space travel/time dilation, artificial intelligence, dryads/land spirits, fossil “awakenings”, etc.

I skipped around a bit, so if there was any intended continuity from reading the stories in the order presented I missed it. There are two, “Miller’s Wife” and “Along the Grain”, set in the same world. They have different sets of characters, though, which allows for independence between the two. And in the second, “Along the Grain”, Tiedemann did a good job of not assuming that the reader was familiar with the world. He provided enough details and descriptions that the reader never felt out of place or confused.

Pros:  As above, these feel like full stories. The characters are fully fleshed out, with names, backstories, desires, needs, and flaws. The places are described enough that we get a feel for the setting, without overkill that would otherwise distract from the flo. And these are all character-driving stories, rather than sci- or fae-driven. That is, the stories are about the people in them, not about the technology or the magic of the world. As such, this was a good way to organize these stories.

Cons:   Many of the main characters in these stories “lack agency”, which is just a fancy way of saying they don’t really do much. That is, they may be the main character, but the climax of the tension often does not revolve around such characters and their actions. For example, in “The Disinterred”, Thomas Auerbach is searching for his departed wife. She is with a traveling band of religious fanatics protesting the excavation of dinosaur remains. And yet, at the end of the story, Thomas didn’t really do anything. He went to the dig site, he observed, he argued with a few others, and then just sort of… watched the events unfold around him. It’s hard to feel like he either triumphed or failed in his quest at the end of this story, and at the end of most others.

Perhaps this is why most of these stories were previously unpublished. A few were, with appropriate credits. But maybe the lack of main character power to decide their fate is why the rest were not.

And this may be picking a nit, but I noticed a style convention that eventually rubbed me the wrong way. In almost all of the stories (9 of 11), the first sentence begins with the main character’s name. “Egan Ginger pulled into Saletcroix…” “Bruce held Ro-boy tight against his chest…” “Jen Cable awoke before the alarm sounded.” While it is always better to name characters early, so the reader can begin to picture him or her in the mind sooner, this felt like too much all the time. I would have preferred some variety in how the stories began. Because once I noticed it, I couldn’t not notice it again, and that may have distracted from my reading pleasure.

Favorites:  Because these two had characters taking charge of their situation, I found “Along the Grain” and “Forever and a Day” to be the strongest stories. Their main characters didn’t just watch; they tried. They strove for something. They may have failed, depending on the definition, but at least they didn’t just sit and watch as the world passed them by. For that reason, I would put these two at the top of the collection.

Rating:  Overall, I would give this one 3 of 5 stars. Enjoyable read, but nothing I’ll want to pick up again or have in my permanent collection.

Book Review: Apes and Angels

Warning – spoilers ahead

I browsed through the library haphazardly, not really intent on any specific author, or genre, or title, or length. Ben Bova’s Apes and Angels was displayed on the endcap, quite prominently, and I recognized the name. Plus above it I see “Six-time Hugo Award Winner”, so I think, hmm, he’s a good writer, let’s see what this has to say.

On the dust jacket inside I read about Predecessors and humanity traveling 200 light years to another planet to save them from some death wave of gamma radiation. Intrigued enough, I picked up the book and took it home.

Instantly I found it a quick read. I got to at least page 100 in the first hour or so, which was a relative oddity among what I’ve read recently. I attribute this to what seems rather simplistic writing – much of what happens is rather straight-forward description of action. People talk, then they walk somewhere, they make food and eat it, they have internal dialogue. I feel like the author wasn’t asking me to think too much, as he was spelling everything out, which allowed me to almost skim without worrying that I was missing something. Ultimately this means the pages just sped along. I finished this morning with about the last 180 pages in <2 hours.

The plot? Well, there were things that happened. Brad MacDaniels, the protagonist, does some various things, struggles against the emotional residue from the loss of his family, goes against his superiors time and again with always positive results (unrealistic), and ultimately saves the day. I would have liked to see more actual action, though. There was only one scene, during a flood on Mithra Gamma, in which I felt some tension, some fear for this guy that you’ve spend 300 pages building up in my mind. I wanted more of that, more danger, more real consequence for error. Plus, with a 5-year timeline for the spaceship in orbit, any “deadlines” always seemed rather nebulous and rather unimposing. Perhaps this could be better accentuated with some more pressing demands that ultimately impose greater stakes for the characters.

The characters – are rather shallow, all of them. Brad is the naive, impetuous, internal-demon-battling young adventurer. Felicia is his companion then wife, herself drawn seemingly to simply accentuate him, rather than to provide a full person in her own right, without any kinds of desires or ambition other than for Brad and his body. Kosoff, the scientific research captain, is the big bad wolf, always scheming, always plotting to turn Brad’s discoveries either against Brad or for his own benefit. Even the humanoids of planet Gamma are stock figures,  “intelligent but subservient to religion” that has been done many, many times before. I think Bova missed an opportunity here for greater depth, for character arcs, that would have shown some changes and, ultimately, humanity rather than roboticism.

The premise: Here is where I find the biggest failures of the book. Early on, Brad recognizes that the master computer, Emcee (MC), and the humans have become symbiotes. Neither can exist without the other. Unfortunately, the symbiosis between the predatory beasts of planet Beta and the prey humanoids on planet Gamma is left unidentified. Also left unexplored and unexplained is the parallelism between the Predecessors and the Sky Masters. Predecessors came to Earth, created New Earth and populated it with humanity, and gave those resultant humans vastly advanced technology. Sky Masters came to Mithra system’s Alpha, Beta, and Gamma planets, made vast changes therein (perhaps even so much as radically reorienting their biological systems), and then departed too. Are the Sky Masters the same as the Predecessors? Are either group completely benign, or simply manipulating the Earth system and the Mithra system for their own benefits? And what about the parallels between the interventions of hundreds of thousands of years ago and those that the Earthlings are doing on Alpha, Beta, and Gamma? So many potentials for true sci-fi understanding left unexplored.

Side note – I think that the distractions of the action on planet Alpha are less than helpful. They take up real estate on the page that would be better used to consider the debates listed above, and they don’t really add anything to any characterization or plot elements. Plus, the fact that the humans “save” the planet from destruction that is a million years off is rather flimsy. I think that it would have been better to just presume Alpha was uninhabited an therefore unimportant, devoting those hundred pages or so to the important intellectual debate only touched on above.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It drew me on, it entertained me, it got me thinking (a little bit), but I was left unsatisfied. Like a moderate make-out session that just doesn’t get to the sex part. That’s it? I want more! You tease…

If this were Amazon.com, I’d give it 3 stars. A fun way to pass a few hours, but nothing I’d want to read again. 

For examples of good, intelligent sci-fi I do want to read again, think The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doris Russell, or the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Both of those treat interaction by humans and non-humans in a much more comprehensive, intellectually stimulating way.