Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Borne

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Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

The Vine That Ate the South

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Have you ever had the most awful week? There must be a big, black rain cloud over my and my family member’s heads right now. So, when in doubt, read something really wacky. I have talked about my local indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, on here before. They publish some really off-the-wall sci-fi/fantasy as well as some hard hitting family dramas and political novels. Basically, they publish a mixed bag of really unique authors and their work. Nobody is paying me to sing their praises; I just genuinely like the company and what they put out. Enter The Vine That Ate the South, one of those off-the-wall sci-fi novels I mentioned.

As the title suggests, there is a vine that is eating the southern United States (there really is too– look up the kudzu vine). Specifically, the novel takes place somewhere in western Kentucky. Our unnamed protagonist sets out to find the rumored heart of the vine, also known as “The Deadening.” Since the protagonist is a bit unsure of how to proceed by himself, he enlists the help of Carver Canute, a rather strange local with a thick southern accent and a pig-greased pompadour who has been to The Deadening before. Together, the narrator/protagonist and Carver venture through the Kentucky wilderness, finding everything from vampires to albino panthers to some just plain crazy hillbillies.

I have read some bizarre books before, but in my opinion, all of the craziness must have a point or else it will not be as enjoyable to me. Is there a point then? Kind of. There’s an adventure with a destination, but along the way Wilkes throws many Southern U.S. folktales and philosophical passages our way. If you aren’t familiar with the folktales, you might be confused. Even if you are familiar with them (or are happy to go along for the ride if you don’t), you might wonder what the point of encountering some of them are because the encounters do not always directly or obviously connect to the overall plot/journey. I enjoyed the nods to references I knew, but I also questioned the point of some encounters in the whole scope of the novel. Maybe there wasn’t a point sometimes, at least compared to a more traditional adventure story plot, but it could have been the author simply wanting to have fun and push some of the folklore of the south into the hands of readers unfamiliar with it. As someone from a state that is also considered very rural, agricultural, backward, and a bit hillbilly, I can appreciate wanting to share the things unique to my area with a wider audience.

Writing-wise, I enjoyed the book. The author is good at describing the weird and wild scenes. There are also some really beautiful lines that talk about nature and more philosophical topics. The novel is in first-person perspective, and the narrator has a very casual, conversational tone. I have to commend the writer’s ability to translate the local dialect into the text. As someone who has lived in Kentucky, I can say that I know a few people who sound just like Carver Canute. The characters are also well written. Carver is weird but entertaining, has great lines, and is very memorable. The narrator never shares his name, but he references his past here and there throughout the novel. You can get a good sense of the kind of person he is without needing a name. I could relate to him a bit because of these references, so I found that even as a female reader, it was easy to insert myself into the book.

The final verdict is four out five stars from me. It was a wild, fun ride that gave me equal amounts escapism and stuff to think about it. I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for bizarre science fiction, folklore, or fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s work. Vandermeer actually has praise for this novel on its cover, so I think it will hit the mark for his fans who are in the mood for something more indie in style.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Annihilation

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These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Binti

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Apparently this is the year of sci-fi for me. It isn’t a genre I often reach for because I simply like other genres more. I’ve never been that interested in books about space travel and advanced technology. Give me swords and sorcery any day, but at least I am aware of the fact I should branch out!

Binti has been accepted into the most prestigious school in the galaxy, Oomza University. But Binti is Himba, and her people simply do not leave Earth. Binti sneaks away in the night to leave for her new school because she knows her family will disapprove. As she travels through the stars to her new life, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race with a long history of war with some humans on Earth.

Binti tells her story in first-person perspective, so it is very easy to get to know her. She is a headstrong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful girl who takes her fate into her own hands. She clearly loves her family and has pride in her people’s traditions. As Binti travels to her new school, she sees humans from different cultures. Her ways are strange to the majority, so she faces some “curiosity” from other people which is really just discrimination. The themes of ignorance breeding hate and listening/learning leading to understanding of differences are touched on a few times even in this short (~100 page) first novella of the series. The other major theme is fitting in and finding yourself in a very different world from what you know, which is actually very easy to relate to for any young person going off to college– across the galaxy or across the country.

It is hard to not recommend such a quick and compelling read. I enjoyed this first novella in the series, but I am unsure if I will continue it soon. I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading a hard copy, and I would say that the audiobook was a good experience. I prefer reading the hard copy of fantasy/sci-fi books that contain author-created words so that I can see how the words are spelled instead of only hearing them, but I had no trouble with that issue in this audiobook because there were so few unfamiliar words. I gave Binti three or three and a half stars out of five. I am intrigued by the novella and the author’s writing and creativity, so I may continue the series or read more from the author in the future.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction · Short Story Collections

Invisible Planets

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I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.

I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.

If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.

I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.

Chen Qiufan:¬†“The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”

Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions¬† and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.

Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”

Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.

Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”

“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.

Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”

Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.

Tang Fei: “Call Girl”

“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.

Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.

Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”

Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.