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  • Nicole Hill 9:00 pm on 2016/07/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Sci Fi, ,   

    Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter Is a Thrilling Meditation on What Might Have Been 

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    In his latest novel, Dark Matter, Blake Crouch asks us to imagine we’re fish, swimming in a pond. Within our cozy confines, we can swim all day, and in any direction we please; to us, that pond is the whole universe. All we can’t do is get out of the water. Imagine, however, that someone reaches into the pond and lifts us out. Suddenly, we see trees, and sky, and other ponds, too. “You realize,” Crouch tells us through the words of his main character, Jason, “you’re a part of a much larger and more mysterious reality than you ever dreamed of.”

    Crouch demonstrated the art of the twist in his enormously popular Wayward Pines trilogy, and here, he brings his skill for suspense to a science-driven thriller, and to breathtaking effect. Dark Matter is a meditation on love and life and the paths untaken along the way, and it is simultaneously a taut and tense science fiction thriller.

    By most measures, Jason Dessen leads a solid, pleasant life. He is in good health. He has a good, if not thrilling, job as a physics professor. When he comes home, he finds a good-natured teenage son and a wife he adores.

    Still, he has made sacrifices. Jason’s reminded of this when he meets up with his old college roommate, recently the winner of a major scientific award for his work. Much like his wife, Daniela, who gave up her art career because of a surprise pregnancy, Jason abandoned his own research and altered his career path to accommodate his new, unexpected family. Seeing Ryan’s success—and being needled by Ryan about it—is a tough pill to swallow.

    Could Jason, as Ryan believes, have gone on to do something great? Did he settle when he settled down? What might have been if he’d continued his research, or if Daniela had terminated the pregnancy, or if either of them had made a thousand other choices in life?

    There are, of course, plenty of stories about what might have been. The difference here is Dark Matter’s intensity as a thriller. Not long after his encounter with Ryan, Jason is abducted by a masked assailant, who forces him to drive to an abandoned power plant, where he’s promptly stripped, beaten, and drugged into oblivion.

    When Jason wakes, it’s to unfamiliar faces, in an unfamiliar place. Everyone seems to know him, and all tell him they want to help. But nowhere in the picture is Daniela, or their son, or any semblance of the life Jason knows. To these people, Jason isn’t a married ho-hum college professor; he’s a scientific genius who has made an incredible breakthrough.

    What’s unclear—even more than the mechanics of what has happened—is which life is a dream, and which is reality? Or, in fact, are they both realities, spawned at the divergence of one or several small moments? As Jason struggles to parse these questions, and to find a way back to the family he left behind, he must also confront the parts of himself he has tried hard to ignore.

    Most of us are curious about what our lives would be like if we’d made a different choice, or chosen a different path. We dream about the presumed greatness that passed us by. But given the opportunity to live that other life, we might hesitate. Things in the here and now start to look a little rosier. The opportunity costs escalate when you leapfrog realities. For Jason, confronted with two strong, tactile worlds that claim he belongs in them, the choice to go home is made more difficult. Which is home? And which Jason is the real Jason: the one who built a family, or the one who built a legacy?

    Those moral quandaries, and the accompanying questions of identity and sense of self, share the stage with the science in this fiction, which involve the titular dark matter and more than a few mentions of Schrodinger’s cat. If Crouch, at times, seems to play a little fast and loose with the concepts he’s discussing, it’s in the name of maintaining the suspense and propelling the plot’s pace at a quickening, thickening rate, and because of that, is quickly forgiven.

    The story never flags, and never grows cold. Jason is a sympathetic, flawed narrator, whose problems, exacerbated by unique and technologically mysterious circumstances, will be relatable to anyone who has ever wondered about the direction their life has taken.

    “It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, creates a new world,” Jason says. Disregarding the more speculative points of the novel’s central dilemma, Dark Matter will leave readers wondering about their own ponds, and whether there’s more outside their borders.

  • Frank Smith 3:00 pm on 2015/05/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , epic tales, , , katherine addison, ken liu, nnedi okorafor, saladin ahmed, Sci Fi,   

    7 Recent Sci-Fi and Fantasy Epics For Everyone 

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    Science fiction and fantasy writers outdo everyone else at the bookstore when it comes to doorstop-sized epic narratives. Whether the stories span several generations, focus on the completion of a quest, or just spin a good yarn, the best are the kind any reader can dig into, regardless of their experience with the genres. Here are seven recent releases that take readers deep inside imaginative new worlds.

    The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
    Debut novelist Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a sprawling fantasy novel packed full of political intrigue, gods in disguise, seven islands in disarray, death, taxes, and battlekites. A new emperor has united the seven Dara islands under one rule, but his regime has left many disenfranchised. And then! A prophecy is found in the belly of a fish. A new ruler will rise. The leaders of this revolution are two friends: the easygoing Kuni Garu and the oh-so-serious Mata Zyndu. Character driven with no “big bad” pulling the strings, The Grace of Kings is an innovative blend of Han Dynasty–era politics and epic fantasy.

    The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1, by Kameron Hurley
    Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that “awesome” once described moon landings and cures for disease. “Today, it’s an unexpected feature in an App,” he said. In that respect, the only thing old school about Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is that it is brain-shatteringly awesome. In the brutal world of The Mirror Empire, plant life is sentient, gender roles are not binary (there are five!), and the magic systems of two parallel worlds are ruled by cosmology. As the satellite Oma rises for the first time in several hundred years, it brings with it war and destruction. The Mirror Empire is richly constructed, dense with narrative voices, and defies easy categorization.

    Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
    A top-notch space opera, Ancillary Justice is a tale of betrayal and vengeance that spans an entire galaxy. Breq was once an AI commanding the Justice of Toren, linking her to thousands of soldiers on a starship. But now she’s separated from her duties and trapped in a human body with a singular consciousness. In this future empire where only the female gender is used, Breq wanders the galaxy, encountering different cultures that make her question the nature of her empire’s rule. Ancillary Justice racked up all the awards after its release—deservedly so.

    Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
    A fantasy swashbuckler about a big guy who really just wants a cup of tea and short guy who can handle a sword, Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is a supernatural mystery blending the classical mythology of the Arabian Nights with the pulp flair of Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” stories. In the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, the last, great ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is on the cusp of retirement when an old love’s family is murdered. Joined by his holy warrior companion Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla encounters shapeshifters, despots, thieves, and a plot to unleash a deadly civil war. An absolute delight.

    Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
    Conceived in violence, the young woman Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who fears death,” is a sorcerer who must confront her dead father’s dark wizardry. A quest to save her mother’s people from genocide takes Onyesonwu through the postnuclear African desert where technology has failed and only magic remains. Okorafor’s spellbinding Who Fears Death does not shy from subjects like brutality towards women and tribal warfare, but she also makes time for some super geeky and very cool concepts about how a post-technology world functions. Lagoon, Okorafor’s latest, in which a rapper, a biologist, and a soldier make first contact with an alien ambassador, hits shelves this summer.

    The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
    Writing under the penname Katherine Addison, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor takes the best parts of steampunk and blends them into high fantasy. When the Emperor of Elflands dies in an “accidental” airship crash, along with his three children, his estranged, half-goblin son Maia must take the throne. The socially inept Maia—hey, you’d be socially inept too, if you grew up alone in a marsh—is quickly embroiled in court politics, a conspiracy to have him deposed, marriage negotiations, and a murder mystery. As a welcome counterpoint to the grimdark trend, The Goblin Emperor is a story about a goodhearted kid on his way to becoming a decent ruler as he struggles against the institutions that hold us down.

    Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey
    Under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck come at the space opera at a full burn in Leviathan Wakes. In this first book of The Expanse series, the governments of Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance are teetering toward war, when the diverse crew of the Rocinante and a grizzled detective on Ceres uncover a conspiracy involving a derelict ship and a weird, alien technology that could change the balance of power—think Han Solo at the helm of Serenity in the middle of DS9’s Dominion War. Catch up on the series now; a fifth book is due this summer and a Syfy Channel series is on the way.

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  • John Bardinelli 4:30 pm on 2014/11/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , Sci Fi, , , , wheel of time   

    5 Long Books that Deserve their Own Movie Series 

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    Stephen King's The StandGood books sometimes get turned into movies. And good long books (The Hobbit, I’m looking at you), or good books that are especially action-packed (hey there, Mockingjay) are sometimes turned into multiple movies. Now, it looks like another planned book-to-movie project will be following this trend: Stephen King’s The Stand, released in 1978 and weighing in at 1,152 pages, won’t be made into one movie, it will be made into four. With so many books getting stretched into multiple movies, we want to take a look at a few heavy tomes that would make great blockbuster film series. Grab some popcorn, this is gonna get good.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
    The 1996 novel is long, complex, and nothing short of brilliant. A slightly satirical look at future life in North America, it covers a number of topics in its 1,079 pages, including family life, addiction, child abuse, tennis, and, funnily enough, film theory. The novel packs in over 100 characters and nearly 400 footnotes at the end, just in case there was some scrap of information you didn’t glean from the prose.

    So, where’s the Infinite Jest movie series? Some people hope it never gets made. The book isn’t a casual read by any stretch of the imagination, and just about any attempt to faithfully represent it on the big screen would run the risk of being gimmicky, especially if the filmmakers were sticklers about canon. Even with half a dozen movie sequels greenlit, some poor screenwriter is still going to have to sit down and decide which parts of the story can’t be included. But is it impossible? Probably not. An experimental theater company in Germany once staged a 24-hour stage adaptation of Infinite Jest. I haven’t seen it, but the minute I learn German and have a full calendar day free, I’ll let you guys know.

    Dune, by Frank Herbert
    The sci-fi book to end all sci-fi books. That it hasn’t been turned into a series of movies is something of a miracle/curse, depending how you look at it. David Lynch tried to condense Dune’s 500 pages into a movie back in 1984, but as those haunting memories of Sting in metal underpants constantly remind me, it didn’t go so well. The Sci-Fi Channel (SyFy now) did a miniseries in the early 2000s that covered much of Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune, but it was small budget and didn’t quite capture the philosophical appeal of Herbert’s writing. Then there’s the ill-fated Jodorowsky movie, which, despite its groundbreaking concepts, planned on ditching most of Dune’s events in favor of an interpreted storyline.

    Dune is so perfect for the big screen it hurts. It’s got everything a blockbuster should have, including gigantic otherwordly creatures, family vs. family conflicts, a larger than life villain, a protagonist you can totally identify with, and some great messages about humanity. It’s also got everything a good movie should have, such as complex characters and an incredibly rich mythology to explore. The problem is both length and converting Herbert’s cerebral writing style into something the modern moviegoer can appreciate. Dune movies would be an enormous project requiring a custom-engineered director ghola born from an axlotl tank on Tleilax.

    Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
    Talk about an epic set of fantasy novels. Started in 1990 by Robert Jordan and completed in 2013 by Brandon Sanderson (using notes written by Jordan), Wheel of Time is a staple for just about every fantasy reader. Dump every word from the 14 books in the series into a counting machine and it will spit out a number around 4.4 million, or nearly 12,000 paperback pages. Individual books tend to hover around the 800-page mark, which is several times longer than the average novel.

    The rights to do a Wheel of Time miniseries were purchased by NBC in 2000, but Jordan himself said it probably wouldn’t see the light of day. In 2008 a movie adaptation of The Eye of the World was announced, though as you can probably tell, nothing has come of that announcement so far. That book is 782 pages long, so just one movie might be clipping it short. But hey, at this point, one would be better than none.

    Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
    Picking a long novel by Neal Stephenson is exactly the same as picking any novel by Neal Stephenson: the author certainly isn’t known for his brevity, which is one of the main reasons none of his books have been made into movies. Stephenson has said length was the main obstacle in making movie adaptations of his work, going so far to say it just wasn’t possible to pull it off.

    But if forced to pick just one Stephenson book to see as a big screen series, the 480-page Snow Crash would get my vote. It’s possibly the least complex but most visually friendly novel he’s written, but it’s still got the depth and the cool sci-fi things we don’t want to admit we love but secretly really do. Rat Things, Hiro sword fighting, and the Metaverse? I’m there, no matter how cheesy it ends up being.

    Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
    One of the big sci-fi books from the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human born on Mars who comes back to his home planet and tries to understand life in a post–World War III society. Nothing humans do makes sense to him, and half of the things he does make no sense to humans. The book eventually veers off into free love hippie commune territory that seems a little dated by today’s standards, but in 1961, it was practically revolutionary.

    Filming Stranger in a Strange Land wouldn’t take as many movies as the other items on the list. The uncut edition is about 528 pages long, but the material isn’t as dense, and Valentine’s psychic powers and rise to stardom would make for some great big screen material. The MPAA would have a field day with the sexual content, but hey, if 50 Shades of Grey gets a movie, we can’t grok why Stranger in a Strange Land shouldn’t, too.

    What huge books would you love to see as film series?

  • Jeff Somers 5:00 pm on 2014/11/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , gender, jack l. chalker, , , melissa scott, Sci Fi, , ursula k. le guin   

    5 Intriguing Takes on Gender in Science Fiction 

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    Melissa Scott's Shadow ManScience fiction is a genre of ideas, and a lot of world-building in sci-fi starts with tweaking one small part of our universe and extrapolating from there. Gender seems like one of those unquestioned aspects of existence, until you pause and actually question it—are there just two genders? Do they have specific roles?—so it shouldn’t be surprising that gender often plays a role in science fiction. John Scalzi did something subtly amazing in his most recent novel, Lock In. It’s a great book about a future where a virus has caused a portion of the population to be “locked in,” awake but unable to move or use their bodies in any way. People called Integrators can take on the consciousness of those afflicted, and the story centers on a murder of a locked-in person using one such Integrator.

    So far so intriguing, and the book works wonderfully as a sci-fi procedural. But what makes this book amazing is the fact that the point of view character, Chris, is a consciousness housed in an android body, raised in machine environments with the ability to switch aspects of perception at any moment, and thus has no gender whatsoever. The greatest part of this trick is that Scalzi doesn’t make note of it—he draws no attention to it whatsoever. The reader might notice something slightly off about Chris’s perspective, but it’s often only on a second reading that you’ll notice Chris offers zero gender perspective at all, and that any perceived gender bias most likely comes from a reader’s own experience and expectations.

    Lock In is the most recent in a slow wave of sci-fi novels that explore gender in unexpected and challenging ways. Here are some other notable stops along the way.

    Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
    Any discussion of gender in sci-fi generally starts with this classic 1968 novel. First-time readers in the modern day might not see the big deal, but 46 years ago LeGuin’s concept of a race of people who spend the majority of their time as sexless “potentials” and only take on sexual characteristics (either male or female) once a month for breeding purposes—and who are all referred to as “he” regardless of their nature—was kind of mind-blowing. LeGuin has stated that the book began as a thought experiment about what a society would be without gender, and it sometimes has the stiff feel of experiment. To the modern reader the book can seem much less daring—the POV character is a heterosexual male, and while he forms a deep emotional bond with one of the planet’s inhabitants, sexuality is not explored directly in the book—and LeGuin herself later expressed regret that she defaulted to the pronoun “he” instead of “she,” or some other alternative (such as Spivak pronouns).

    Everything he’s written, by Jack L. Chalker
    It’s hard to pin down a single book from Chalker’s bibliography to discuss gender with. His writing had its limitations, but just about every book he wrote dealt with gender switches and other body modifications. Chalker ultimately viewed physicality as the ultimate determinator; identity in his books had everything to do with the brain chemicals and sexual organs you were wearing at the time, not any sort of “core” or true self. While the gender issues in Chalker’s books were a bit more on the squicky side of things, he’s one of the few sci-fi writers of any era that consistently looked at gender as something other than a fixed binary code of nature. The characters in Chalker’s books often moved from one gender to another (often involuntarily), making their sexual characteristics less important than their actions and reactions.

    Shadow Man, by Melissa Scott
    In this fascinating novel, Scott creates a universe with no less than five genders, caused by a drug given to people to mitigate the deadly effects of faster-than-light travel. On one colonized world that was cut off from the rest of human society, a strict binary gender culture is enforced despite the presence of Fem, Herm, and Mem genders. An explicit exploration of two systems—one where additional genders are forbidden, one where they are rigidly (perhaps too rigidly) supported—is interesting, and refreshingly dealt with straight on, without any winking, wordplay, or copping out.

    Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
    Another obvious choice for this subject, Ancillary Justice again plays with gender in a very straightforward way: the POV character in the book comes from a society without gender, and is forced to interact with a gendered society, referring to everyone they meet as “she” internally and making some occasionally dramatic incorrect guesses about the gender of others. Perhaps the greatest power of the novel in regards to gender is that it isn’t really treated as a subject to be discussed. The genderless society just is, where a lesser writer might have made it the whole point.

    What’s your favorite sci-fi story that tackles gender in interesting ways?

  • Mark Molnar 6:00 pm on 2014/11/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Sci Fi,   

    John Scalzi’s Lock In Is Sci-Fi at Its Most Human 

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    10708400453_78362cc485_cJohn Scalzi made a name for himself writing science-fiction in one of its classic forms: warfare in space. His excellent Old Man’s War series is a thoughtful roller-coaster ride through interstellar firefights against alien civilizations that doesn’t ignore the human element: his characters think and feel and interact realistically, even at the height of their outlandish adventures. It’s epic space opera that maintains an intimate focus on individual growth.

    His latest, Lock In, at first appears to be a step in an entirely different direction. It’s not set in the far-flung future: its world is instantly recognizable as our own, albeit with one large difference. Due to a highly contagious virus and its aftereffects, 1 percent of the population is now physically “locked in,” unable to move or respond to outside stimulus. Fortunately, the afflicted are far from helpless: due to advances in technology, they’re able to communicate and engage with the world through robotic bodies (nicknamed “threeps”) and via “Integrators.” These are humans also affected by the virus, but only to the degree that they can temporarily accept the consciousness of a locked-in person.

    It also seems a different sort of novel for Scalzi in that it trades the tropes of military sci-fi for those of the police procedural. There’s a possible murder, a mystery whose solution has far-reaching implications for everyone, locked in and otherwise. There’s a conspiracy, rife with shady political and corporate figures, and enough clues that readers can puzzle out the culprits alongside the protagonists. The story is a lot of fast-paced fun and a breeze to read, a swiftly paced, thoughtful read for any season.

    It isn’t a departure from Scalzi’s past work, but a deepening exploration of his themes. Many great writers tend to stick with what interests (or even obsesses) them, revisiting pet concepts again and again. The interests that underlined Scalzi’s grand space-opera-from-a-grunt’s-eye perspective are also found in Lock In. What is consciousness? What makes a person a person? Are things like age and gender and race, personal appearance and physical ability really meaningful in terms of identity, or are they transitory factors that could be easily traded out while the person remains the same? Modern society is obsessed with identifiers, understandably but to a fault. Scalzi’s future worlds posit a reality where those sorts of identifiers become meaningless, just props and costumes. It’s a refreshing perspective: wonderfully humanistic, even idealistic. I like looking at the world through his eyes.

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