“The Sun, noticing there were so many children in the one place, was pouring in his nourishment through the wide windows of the Open Plan.”
— Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
I can still call up my strong emotional reaction to Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” At the very least, it told a story I’ll never forget. Looking back at my review, I may have as influenced by the movie as by the book, and wonder what my reaction would have been had I never seen the movie.
[Never Let Me Go] is, technically, a science fiction story, but not in the sense that it is any sort of future adventure. Rather, it is the story of a present-day England in some nearby alternate continuum, where certain advances in medical science have been achieved. The science is backdrop; the story focuses on three characters who were raised together in a sort of boarding school, following them through their brief lives. I saw the movie a couple of months ago and though it was sad, loved it. The book is even sadder. The narrator, Kathy, is a level-headed young woman who, though she knows her destiny all along, gradually comes to understand it fully, finally facing the shocking and utter bleakness of it. I’m sorry, I really don’t want to give the storyline away, but Ishiguro’s central conceit is shocking, thought-provoking, and really, really sad. My one reservation? The novel is drawn out and repetitive, unlike the movie, which tells the story far more efficiently while losing none of the emotional impact. My advice to you? See the movie first. If you’re still intrigued, read the book.
Similarities to “Never Let Me Go” abound in “Klara and the Sun.” Sadness for sure. The slow reveal of bleak, shocking insights into society in a possible future. Klara, a level-headed sentient artificial intelligence in a manufactured body designed to appear human, an “artificial friend” meant to provide companionship to children raised in isolation, helping them learn social skills in addition to providing basic babysitting and protective services, is manufactured to serve mankind in a way that differs only slightly from the way Kathy was bred to serve in “Never Let Me Go.”
The most thought-provoking aspect of this novel is Klara’s interaction with humans and the world around her, from her propensity to sensory overload, when her vision becomes faceted like a fly’s, to her self-learned conception of a higher power, one that can intercede in daily life and addressed through dialog or prayer, to her problems with spatial relationships and misinterpretation of things and events humans intuitively understand and take for granted. You would have to be a pretty cold fish not to want to hug Klara.
I rated “Klara and the Sun” higher than I did “Never Let Me Go.” It’s a tighter narrative, not as repetitive. I don’t see “young adult” listed in the categories readers group this novel under. Well, I’m adding it: Klara is child-like, the humans she interacts with are primarily teenagers, and the story revolves around growing up and the changes that brings to both Klara and her human friends. I’m certain my reaction to this novel as seen through a YA frame influenced my four-star rating; should I re-read “Never Let Me Go” as YA my rating of it will probably rise as well.
The publisher’s blurb for “Klara and the Sun” ends with “What does it mean to love?” I’ll add “What does it mean to be?”
“There’s a right thing to do,” Holden said.
“You don’t have a right thing, friend,” Miller said. “You’ve got a whole plateful of maybe a little less wrong.”
— James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes
Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1)
by James S.A. Corey
My original review (from 2012):
Rating: 3.5 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed this example of good old-fashioned space opera. It’s set in a distant enough future that mankind has spread through the solar system, inhabiting the Moon, several asteroids, Mars and its moons, and some of the moons of the gas giant planets. There are three major political alliances, all at odds with each other: the Earth and Moon, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (aka the Belters). Although Mars is being terraformed, it is centuries away from being able to sustain human life on its own, and of course inhabitants of the Belt and various moons depend on constant resupply to stay alive. The story itself is quite dramatic, involving the discovery of a hostile alien lifeform capable of wiping out — or drastically changing the very cellular structure of — humanity, and a growing war between the three factions. One plucky space freighter crew is at the center of the action, and they will remind you of the crew of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s seminal movie, Alien. Need I say more? The story will grab you by the nape of the neck and pull you along.
On a second reading, with the first eight books and five seasons of The Expanse book and television series behind me, I’ve revised my rating of “Leviathan Wakes” upward to 4.5 stars.
I grew up on science fiction and can recall few novels that can compare to “Leviathan Wakes” in terms of thorough, detailed, realistic world-building, nor very many with such well-developed, memorable characters. I never even mentioned Miller the first time around … he turns out to be a far more substantial character than I remembered, certainly so early on when he’s in his natural environment on Ceres, where we see sides of him that are never explored or acknowledged in the television series. In many ways, “Leviathan Wakes” is Miller’s book.
Dare I say this is, hands down, the best science fiction I’ve read? For sure, it’s the best science fiction I’ve ever seen on television. Once the sixth and final TV season airs, I will wind up owning (and obsessively re-watching) the complete box set. I already own the first eight books, with the ninth and final novel, “Leviathan Falls,” on pre-order. I may, if I’m diligent, finish re-reading the first eight by the time the ninth comes out in November.
What other series of novels have I re-read in its entirety? The twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. What other television series have I re-watched from beginning to end? Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Justified. The Expanse is in exalted company!
“The only conspiracy that exists is the conspiracy of incompetence.”
— C.J. Box, Nowhere To Run
Nowhere To Run (Joe Pickett #10)
by C.J. Box
I’m reading C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, which are set in a mountainous, sparsely-populated corner of Wyoming and feature a fish & game warden who finds himself and his family threatened by bad men intent on raping the West. They’re great reads, engrossing and impossible to put down, and I’m devouring the series.
It’s a struggle to write meaningful reviews of individual novels in a series. Unless I have something urgent to say about individual Joe Pickett novels, I’ll repeat what I said about “Open Season,” the first novel in the series:
As much as I enjoy reading Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories, Jack is a superhero, a figure of fantasy. When Jack Reacher gets even, people die … but not before a righteous ass-kicking. While C.J. Box brings on Reacheresque tension and villainy, when it comes to his human and relatable hero Joe Pickett, it’s more a matter of luck. Joe prevails, a believable form of getting even. But don’t worry. Asses do get kicked, in satisfying ways. I really like this Pickett guy. He makes mistakes, and plenty of them. He worries about money. He trusts people he shouldn’t. He’s a regular Joe. I really like the depictions of Wyoming, a state I lived in as a teenager and remember fondly. Joe, at least in this first novel, has an almost-too-perfect family, but there are tensions, and I sense troubled teenage years ahead for his daughter Sheridan. Granted that everything in this novel is fiction, it feels real and true.
The story in “Nowhere to Run,” though as exciting as the earlier Joe Pickett novels, seems short — it’s an exceptionally quick read. I’m not saying I felt short-changed, not exactly, but I do wish there had been more of it.
The treks through Wyoming’s Sierra Madre range are outstandingly described; the plot and motivations of the characters are believable; the conflicts between Joe’s values and beliefs and those of Nate and the fugitive Grim brothers, along with the mixed resolution of the end, is thought-provoking and more realistic than the resolution of most mystery-thrillers. Joe’s family situation (particularly growing problems with foster daughter April) is barely touched upon; I wanted more. The novel feels incomplete to me, but it’s still a compelling read.
“The first time we met he shot me in the head with an electric staple gun, but our relationship has evolved in the subsequent months.”
— Ben H. Winters, World of Trouble
World of Trouble (The Last Policeman #3)
by Ben H. Winters
I’ve finished the third and final book in Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series, “World of Trouble.” Here’s some of what I said after reading the first novel, “The Last Policeman”:
The SF angle [of the Last Policeman novels] is that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and will impact in a few months, ending human life on the planet. Meanwhile, life goes on for the citizens of Concord, New Hampshire. Life goes on for Hank Palace, a newly-promoted detective sergeant, in particular. Along with a small subset of the population, he remains dedicated to his job, because what else is there? While others quit work to tick items off their bucket lists, go on benders for the duration, or merely kill themselves rather than face the apocalypse, he perseveres. […]
As a police procedural — Detective Palace slowly unravels a murder everyone else wants to brush off as just another “hanger,” or suicide — it […] meets muster. I thought some of the big revelations that come Detective Palace’s way were too easy, too contrived, and I got a bit impatient with Palace’s habit of mentally kicking himself for not seeing the big picture sooner, but those are minor niggles.
In “World of Trouble,” the third and final Last Policeman story, Hank Palace bicycles to Ohio to find and rescue his sister Nico from the clutches of the cult she’s fallen into. With him goes Cortez, the criminal hoarder he encountered in the second book. The story ends on the morning of the day the asteroid will impact Earth in a mass extinction event, but since these stories are really about Hank Palace and his mental illness, the end of the world, while inching ever closer, is always never quite here.
Mental illness? That’s how I finally adjusted my thinking about the obsessive-compulsive and delusional Hank Palace. Otherwise I’d have been unable, out of sheer frustration, to go on reading. Why is Hank trying to dust for fingerprints on the last bloody day of the world’s existence? Because he’s fucking crazy, is why. And so is Cortez! And Nico! From this perspective (which may not be the one Ben Winters had in mind), the stories seem richer and more nuanced.
Did I enjoy the series? Very much, and I may read some of Winters’ other work now.
“The Metropolitan Police Service is still, despite what people think, a working-class organisation and as such rejects totally the notion of an officer class. That is why every newly minted constable, regardless of their educational background, has to spend a two-year probationary period as an ordinary plod on the streets. This is because nothing builds character like being abused, spat at and vomited by members of the public.”
— Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London
Rivers of London (Rivers of London #1)
by Ben Aaronovitch
I picked this up on the strong recommendation of a friend. She’s pointed me toward many a good read over the years, but I usually ignore her when she touts fantasy novels. She’s fond of the genre; I am not.
“Rivers of London” is fantasy with a mystery-slash-police procedural theme, enlivened by an engaging protagonist and good writing. It will appeal to readers (such as my friend) with an intimate, pedestrian’s knowledge of London and those acquainted with its historical rivers. I won’t say the writing didn’t pull me along, but after a strong start the story gradually lost its hold on me and I wound up finishing the book out of a sense of obligation. Looking at reader comments on Goodreads, I see others saying similar things, and note that I am not alone.
“Yeah, good luck with that. Trying to get humans not to touch dangerous things was a full-time job.”
— Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry
Fugitive Telemetry (Murderbot Diaries #6)
by Martha Wells
From my review of “All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1)”:
I was delighted with this introduction to the Murderbot. I generally don’t expect much of novellas, but this one is meaty and fulfilling. There’s a lot of gee whiz science fiction here, on an alien planet no less, along with interesting world-building about future human societies, but true to the series title, “The Murderbot Diaries,” it’s told on a chatty, personal level by the very human Murderbot itself, and though it would wince at my praise, Murderbot is a first-rate story-teller. Based on this first read, I expect the overall Murderbot series to be a great, fun experience.
As nearly every reviewer has noted, “Fugitive Telemetry” is a closed-room mystery, set somewhere in time between the stories told in the fourth and fifth installments. It’s set on Preservation Station, a spaceport familiar to fans of the series.
Murderbot normally hacks into friendly and hostile electronic systems, tracing any activity that leaves an electronic trail. He could solve the crime at the center of this story instantly, but instead is artificially hamstrung by an agreement with station authorities to stay out of their surveillance and command systems. This was an irritating level of contrivance. In any case, Murderbot’s stab at “shoe leather” cop work lasts a nanosecond before he finds not-quite-cheating ways of prying into the station’s systems, and by the end of the story he’s back to his normal methods of accomplishing things.
I did not enjoy this installment in the saga nearly as much as earlier ones. I thought some of Murderbot’s pithy observations of humans felt recycled. “Fugitive Telemetry,” if not filler, is filleresque.
I have not been thinking of the Murderbot series as young adult science fiction, but now the novelty’s wearing off I see it’s as YA as it gets. I’m fond of YA and will continue reading, but I want more meat in my sci-fi … good thing I have The Expanse series on my Kindle.
“It was a mistake to believe that other people were not living as deeply as you were. Besides, you were not even living that deeply.”
— Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
No One Is Talking About This
by Patricia Lockwood
Did not finish; no rating.
I admire Patricia Lockwood but couldn’t engage with her “Twitter novel.” It seemed more a collection of social media memes than anything profound, and the trouble with social media memes is that they become dated the minute you write them down.
© 2021, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.