Shelf Control #282: The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: The Book of Strange New Things
Author: Michel Faber
Published: 2014
Length: 528 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

Marked by the same bravura storytelling and precise language that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is extraordinary, mesmerizing, and replete with emotional complexity and genuine pathos. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the paperback edition in 2015.

Why I want to read it:

I picked up this book after a friend strongly (and repeatedly!) recommended it. I’m always up for good science fiction, and stories about space travel, humanity exploring other planets, first contact with other beings, etc really appeal to me.

That said, this book does strike me as being more “literary” than I’d typically be drawn to, and it’s also over 500 pages, which is a negative for me these days. Maybe because I always feel so behind with my reading, it really takes a lot to make me want to start a book that’s this long.

But, as I said, my friend was pretty insistent at the time that I absolutely needed to read this book. I also have a copy of of The Crimson Petal and the White by the same author, which I’ve also heard raves about.

What do you think? Would you read this book? Have you read anything by this author?

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

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Book Review: The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

Title: The World Gives Way
Author: Marissa Levien
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: June 15, 2021
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In a near-future world on the brink of collapse, a young woman born into servitude must seize her own freedom in this glittering debut with a brilliant twist; perfect for fans of Station Eleven, Karen Thompson Walker, and Naomi Alderman.

In fifty years, Myrra will be free.

Until then, she’s a contract worker. Ever since she was five, her life and labor have belonged to the highest bidder on her contract–butchers, laundries, and now the powerful, secretive Carlyles.

But when one night finds the Carlyles dead, Myrra is suddenly free a lot sooner than she anticipated–and at a cost she never could have imagined. Burdened with the Carlyles’ orphaned daughter and the terrible secret they died to escape, she runs. With time running out, Myrra must come face to face with the truth about her world–and embrace what’s left before it’s too late.

A sweeping novel with a darkly glimmering heart, The World Gives Way is an unforgettable portrait of a world in freefall, and the fierce drive to live even at the end of it all.

Based on the synopsis, I expected a dystopian world of class wars and enforced servitude. And yes, that is what’s going on here, but also…

[SPOILER ALERT FOR BIG REVEAL AT END OF FIRST CHAPTER]

[BUT IS IT REALLY A SPOILER IF YOU FIND OUT IN THE FIRST CHAPTER???]

Here’s the spoiler…

The world is a spaceship.

Yup. This is a science fiction novel, and I had no idea before I picked it up!!

Now that that’s out of the way…

Myrra Dal is indentured to the Carlyle family, thanks to a contract signed by her great-grandmother. It’s a work contract that’s binding for not just the original contract signer, but for generations to follow. Myrra is the last in the chain. There are fifty years left on her contract, and then she’ll be free. Of course, this isn’t really a comfort to Myrra: A woman in her 20s, she doesn’t relish the idea of being old by the time she’s released from the contract, but she has no options. Contracts are completely binding and are enforced by the government’s security bureau, which tracks down those who try to escape. Rumor has it that there are executions, but no one really knows for sure.

And back to that spaceship thing: The world of the The World Gives Way is a huge space ship (which the book refers to as “the world the ship” and people just think of as the world). It’s been traveling for centuries, and is expected to reach their planetary destination within fifty years. It’s implied that the Earth was on its way to becoming uninhabitable when the ship was built and launched, and finding a home on board sounds like it was something available to the privileged and wealthy, plus all the workers needed to support a comfortable lifestyle during the lengthy journey.

When I say that the ship is huge, I really mean it. It’s described as being about the size of Switzerland! Which (I looked up for comparison) is equivalent to about Vermont and New Hampshire combined, or closer to home for me, about the size of the Bay Area. (I absolutely couldn’t grasp the size until I had something more familiar to compare it to.)

The world of the ship includes large cities, resort getaways, mountains, deserts, and seas. It really is a world unto itself. For those who can afford it, there are luxuries and extravagances. For everyone else, there’s work and a daily drudge.

As the novel opens, Myrra’s employer, Imogene Carlyle, summons Myrra to the roof of their penthouse. Imogene intends to jump, and wants Myrra to promise to care for her baby, Charlotte. She tells Myrra a huge secret, known only to the top tier of politicians (such as her husband) and government scientists — there’s a breach in the outer hull of the ship, and despite months of study and efforts, there’s no way to repair it. The ship is doomed, expected to breach completely within the next few months. Imogene and Marcus have decided to end their lives now, leaving Charlotte in Myrra’s care. And then she jumps.

Myrra can’t quite believe what’s happened or what she’s just heard, but after searching Marcus’s office, she’s convinced. Taking money from the Carlyle’s safe, she escapes with Charlotte, heading out on the run in search of temporary freedom, alone with the knowledge of the inescapable end of the world.

From here, we also meet Tobias, a rookie cop with a burdened family history who’s assigned the Myrra Dal runaway case as his big opportunity to prove himself. Since no one knows why the Carlyles committed suicide, or if it might even be murder, Myrra is not only an escaped contract worker but also a suspect in their deaths and the kidnapping of their daughter. Tobias and his older partner are hot on Myrra’s trail, following leads that take them to Palmer, an underwater domed city, and onward from there.

Meanwhile, the world begins to show signs of doom. There are more and more frequent “earthquakes”, causing damage, then city-ending destruction, and other strange phenomena as well. Buildings collapse and people are killed, and finally, the government has no choice but to share the horrible news.

But what good does knowing do when there’s no escape? The world the ship is alone is space, years away from any known destination or safe harbor. As the end nears, all Myrra can do is continue her journey, trying to find some sort of solution for Charlotte, and almost inadvertently looking for a semblance of peace for herself.

The World Gives Way has a sense of inevitability about it. As interspersed chapters tell us, the end is indeed coming. These small interludes, in between the chapters focusing on Myrra and Tobias, show us how different parts of the world experience the end and what happens to the people there. It’s awful, because we know all along that there’s only one way the story can end — the world does in fact give way.

That said, Myrra and Tobias’s parallel and then joined journeys are fascinating and moving to read. Their experiences combine elements of an adventure story — daring escapes, near misses, constant danger, clever ruses — with introspective moments about their lives, their pasts, and their hopes, now shown to be out of reach.

As with other books about the end of the world, it can be a very melancholy read, as we know that no matter how much we might wish otherwise, all the characters we meet are doomed. Still, their journey is powerful and and I was very caught up in seeing how their experiences would change them. Would they find peace? Would they make new discoveries? Would they find a way out for Charlotte? I won’t tell here, but I found the ending sad, satisfying, and oddly right, in its own way.

I will say that my brain could never quite grasp the enormity of the world the ship. How can there be a space ship the size of Switzerland? There are only brief descriptions of the overall shape and design of the container of the world — the ship’s hulls, its cylindrical shape, its rotational access — but my mind just never quite got how there could be an entire world, with geographical features like seas and mountains, inside a ship. (That said, I was fine with reading Discworld, in which the entire world travels through space on the back of a giant turtle… but hey, that’s fantasy!)

Despite not being able to come to terms with the size and features of the ship itself, I did enjoy the attempt to picture it all, and couldn’t help but admire the author’s inventiveness in creating such a strange, weird world. Besides the physical aspects of the world, I thought it was also very clever to create such a stratified society, with the ultra-privileged wealthy few dominating the lives of so many contract workers and free working class people. It’s literally an entire world created to support the privilege of those able to afford a new life on a new planet, and the social structure really is fascinating.

The World Gives Way is a little inconsistent in tone, with its ups and downs of action and emotion, but I did like it very much. It wasn’t what I expected, but it ends up really delivering an engrossing and thought-provoking reading experience.

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Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

Wow. This was a great read!

I had a few worries about starting Project Hail Mary. Even though I loved The Martian, I had to stop and think — was I really in the mood for a novel full of equations and science? Could I see myself sticking with it for 500 pages?

Well, thank goodness I decided to jump in. I loved this book!

Right from the start, the suspense is high. The narrator wakes up, and doesn’t know where — or who — he is. He’s greeted by a robotic voice asking him questions, before he falls back to sleep again. As he becomes more and more alert, he starts to recognize some basics: He’s in some sort of bed, he has tubes and medical monitoring devices all over, and he’s being tended by robotic arms. Once he makes it onto his own two feet and takes out the tubes, he’s able to explore his immediately surroundings — an oddly shaped room with a ladder, and two beds containing corpses.

He can’t make much more progress, because the robotic voice won’t open sealed doors for him until he can identify himself… and he still doesn’t know his own name. But as he looks around, bits and pieces start to come back to him.

Over time, he remembers who he is — Ryland Grace, a junior high school science teacher — and figures out that he’s on a space ship of some sort. But why? He’s just a teacher. Granted, he’s a teacher with a Ph.D. who left academia after a poorly-received paper… but still. Why would he be on a spaceship? And why is he here with two dead people? As he’s overset by grief, he realizes that he cared about these people, and that they were his crewmates, but he still doesn’t know why they’re in space, why he was in what appears to have been a lengthy coma, and what it is he’s supposed to be doing.

The computer finishes its boot process and brings up a screen I’ve never seen before. I can tell it means trouble, because the word “TROUBLE” is in large type across the top.

As the book progresses, Grace’s experiences on the ship, the Hail Mary, are interwoven with his returning memories. Through his memories, we learn that Earth faced an extinction-level event, and that the Hail Mary was sent into space to find a solution. Grace was roped into the project early on as a researcher thanks to his expertise in molecular biology, and through his involvement, we get to see the global scientific community’s desperate race to save the planet, all leading up to the Hail Mary‘s launch.

On the ship, Grace is seeking answers, but first he needs to figure out the questions, such as where he is, what he’s looking for, and what tools his has at his disposal. And the biggest questions too — what problem is he trying to solve, and why him? He’s not an astronaut. He’s a science teacher, gosh darn it! (His avoidance of swear words is a funny running bit throughout the book…)

As in The Martian, author Andy Weir uses very smart people to solve problems with SCIENCE. And also as in The Martian, there were plenty of times when the science whooooooooshed over my head. But that’s okay. Even if I’m not up to speed on measuring gravity and can’t explain relativity and infrared light, I followed enough to stay engaged and intrigued and, I admit it, more than a little impressed.

Finding a spaceship “somewhere outside the Tau Ceti system” is no small task. Imagine being given a rowboat and told to find a toothpick “somewhere in the ocean”. It’s like that, but nowhere as easy.

Ryland Grace is a fun main character, even in the direst of dire straits, so even as he’s panicking or confused or feeling angry or hopeless, he’s always entertaining and never dull. He’s quippy and sarcastic, and when he has an idea, it lets us as readers feel like we’re on the sidelines watching a master in action.

“Coffee.”

The arms dutifully hand me a cup of coffee. It’s kind of cool that the arms will hand me a cup when there’s gravity, but a pouch when there isn’t. I’ll remember this when writing up the Hail Mary‘s Yelp review.

I’m sure plenty of reviews are going to talk about a particular character and how utterly amazing he is… and yes, he is utterly amazing… and I would have been pissed to know much about him in advance or how he fits into the story, so I won’t say anything! But trust me, the story takes a turn I didn’t expect, then builds on it in really fantastic ways, and I loved every moment.

“I am happy. You no die. Let’s save planets!”

Start to finish, Project Hail Mary is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat read with lots of smart science and some unforgettable characters, as well as an ending that… well, I won’t say, but WOW.

I’m over the moon (ha! space joke!) after having read Project Hail Mary. This is going to be THE hot book for May — don’t miss it!

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Shelf Control #220: The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

cropped-flourish-31609_1280-e1421474289435.png

Title: The Last Astronaut
Author: David Wellington
Published: 2019
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

How and when I got it:

I received an ARC from Orbit last summer.

Why I want to read it:

I always love a good space adventure — and throw in women astronauts, especially one trying to save the world — and it all just sounds too perfect for me. My only excuse for not having read this already is that I’ve just had too much else to read, and never got around to it.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

Title: The Last Emperox (The Interdependency, #3)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: April 16, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.

Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.

Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?

Bravo to John Scalzi for this masterful conclusion to an entertaining and exciting sci-fi trilogy! Not every trilogy sticks the landing, but The Last Emperox absolutely does.

The story picks up right after the end of The Consuming Fire, as the Interdependency’s existence is threatened by the collapse of the Flow, the impossible-to-explain time/space stream that connects the various star systems of the empire. The Flow is what allows humankind to survive, since the empire was designed specifically to make each settlement and star system not self-sustaining, but dependent on all the others. As the Flow starts to disappear, the worlds of the Inderdependency will find themselves cut off and lacking vital resources, and unless a solution is found, the people there will be doomed to a slow, inevitable extinction.

As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Emperox Grayland II, the supreme leader of the Interdependency, has already survived a couple of assassination attempts and failed coups, and her future’s not looking too great either. Despite the threat to their very existence, the noble houses can’t seem to stop their endless backstabbing and manipulation, each attempting to grab as much power as possible for themselves, without worrying too much about the fate of the billions of commoners whose lives are at stake.

As always, John Scalzi’s writing is full of snark and snappy dialogue, as well as complex political machinations and intricate science fiction scenarios to drool over. Also, I just get such a kick out of his unique names for characters, including two of my favorites, Senia Fundapellonan and Nadashe Nohamapetan.

(To be clear, Nadashe Nohamapetan is a terrible person. I just love her name.)

My favorite character (although it’s hard to choose) would have to be Kiva Lagos, who is super smart, totally kick-ass, and never met a sentence that wouldn’t be better with a few f-bombs. I love this interchange between her and Senia (who’s speaking first here):

“It’s not a great idea to be too in love with your own cleverness.”

“What are you, my mother?”

“If I were your mother, I’d use the word ‘fuck’ more often.”

“It’s a perfectly good word.”

“Sure,” Senia said. “Maybe not as every other word that comes out of your mouth, though.”

“I don’t even hear myself saying it, half the fucking time.”

Senia patted Kiva. “I know that. You’d hear it if I used it as much as you did.”

“No I wouldn’t.”

“Fucking yes you fucking absolutely fucking would.”

“Now you’re just exaggerating.”

“Not by much.”

I won’t go into plot developments, because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun. I will say, though, that the ending goes in a way I never would have imagined, and it totally threw me for a loop! It’s cool, though, and makes sense, and even though the story comes to a satisfying close, I’d love to get an update on these characters and this world down the road and find out how it all worked out for them in the long run.

The Interdependency is, plain and simple, a great, funny, exciting, intricate sci-fi space opera. I had a blast reading these books. Read all three!

Interested in The Interdependency? Check out my reviews of books 1 & 2:
The Collapsing Empire
The Consuming Fire

Book Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

Title: The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency, #2)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Consuming Fire―the sequel to the 2018 Hugo Award Best Novel finalist and 2018 Locus Award-winning The Collapsing Empire―an epic space-opera novel in the bestselling Interdependency series, from New York Times bestselling author John Scalzi

The Interdependency―humanity’s interstellar empire―is on the verge of collapse. The extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible is disappearing, leaving entire systems and human civilizations stranded.

Emperox Grayland II of the Interdependency is ready to take desperate measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth―or at the very least an opportunity to an ascension to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war. A war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will between spaceships and battlefields.

The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, as are her enemies. Nothing about this will be easy… and all of humanity will be caught in its consuming fire.

If you like scheming and backstabbing, interplanetary exploration, geeky scientists, and kick-ass women, have I got a book for you!

The Consuming Fire is the second book in John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, and it goes ten thousand miles per minute from start to finish. No middle-book doldrums here!

We pick up where we left off at the end of The Collapsing Empire. The Flow is collapsing, meaning that the shortcuts through space-time that allow interplanetary travel are starting to disappear without warning. Planets find themselves completely cut off from the rest of human settlement, and any ships in transit who are unfortunate enough to be caught in a Flow stream when it collapses don’t simply float off into space — they basically just blink out of existence.

How does the Flow work? It’s like a river, except it’s nothing like a river, as the story’s Flow physicists continually remind other characters. So, for mere humans like us (I’m assuming you and I are in this together), just accept the fact that SCIENCE. We wouldn’t understand.

Meanwhile, the people of the Interdependency are crafty and clever and absolutely not to be trusted. Most would (and maybe already have tried to) sell their own grandmothers for a chance at greater power. The leader of the Interdependency, Emperox Grayland II, is a smart, savvy, deceptively calm leader who refuses to bow to the nasty, murderous families who want to unseat her.

There’s plotting and faked deaths and bank fraud, prison assassination attempts (toothbrush and spoon shivs are involved) and space battles, previously undiscovered civilizations, and lots of random hook-ups. The characters are classic Scalzi, smart and full of smart-ass commentary and loads and loads of fun .

The 3rd book in the trilogy, The Last Emperox, was just released, and I’m eagerly waiting for my copy to arrive.

If you enjoy sci-fi with plenty of action and a great sense of humor, then you should absolutely check out this trilogy.

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Title: The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man’s War.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

It’s been a while since I’ve read John Scalzi — about a year and a half, in fact, since I finished his Old Man’s War series. And I gotta say, it’s great to be back!

The Collapsing Empire is the first book in the Interdependency trilogy, which concludes with the upcoming The Last Emperox, to be published in April 2020.

In this trilogy, humanity has left Earth behind and has settled in a vast collection of systems known as the Interdependency, which functions as an empire ruled by hereditary royalty (the Emperox), with a leadership council made up of representatives of the ruling houses (the nobility), the church, and the parliament. The Emperox is the supreme leader and is also the head of the church. Whew. Kind of complicated.

The planets of the Interdependency are far-flung and without (non-existent) faster than light travel, would be completely isolated from one another. But there’s the Flow, a space-time current that, well, flows between the different system and allows for interplanetary commerce and travel. It’s been assumed that the Flow is stable, but a new, secret study shows that it’s collapsing… and once it collapses, the worlds it connects will once again be isolated. And given how interwoven economically the worlds of the Interdependency are, isolation will likely mean the eventual extinction of the human race, as none of these worlds are capable of self-sustenance.

That’s a lot to take in, right? I actually started this book as an audiobook, as I usually love Scalzi audiobooks thanks to (a) the humor and (b) the awesome narration by Wil Wheaton. With The Collapsing Empire, though, I had to switch to print before I even made it through the prologue. There was simply too much detail to take in, and for me at least, absorbing it all merely by listening just wasn’t going to work.

Thankfully, once I switched to print, I definitely got into the flow (ha!) of the story. It’s not terribly long, but the author absolutely packs it full of people, governmental systems, intricate family relationships, backstory on trade and rebellions, and much, much more.

But beyond how much world-building there is to adjust to, there’s the fun of the characters and their craziness. Scalzi books are always funny, and his characters here are not comic, but so clever and snarky that they made me giggle anyway. There ‘s a lot of scheming and manipulation and threats and bribery and intimidation, and it’s all great fun. Not to mention the fact that the story itself is pretty compelling — I’m going to want to get my hands on the next book, The Consuming Fire, just as soon as I can.

While I really enjoyed this book, I think it was perhaps just a little too packed for my taste. I had to stop and reread paragraphs all the time, just to make sure I was absorbing all the points about the government and the planets and the laws and the houses… like I said, it’s a lot.

Do I recommend this book? Definitely! But just be aware that while it’s mostly light-hearted, it’s not actually a light read. Be prepared to put in a bit of effort, and it’ll be fine.

Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Title: The Vanished Birds
Author: Simon Jimenez
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in this captivating debut of connection across space and time.

“This is when your life begins.”

Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.

A boy, broken by his past.

The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.

For both of them, a family.

But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart. 

The Vanished Birds is both lovely and perplexing, a science fiction story about space travel and corporate domination that’s also a deeply personal story about love, identity, and home.

The book opens on what we come to learn is a Resource World owned by the ubiquitous Umbai corporation. At first glance, we’ve arrived in a rural, agricultural community that seems quaint and unsophisticated. The people of the village work in the dhuba fields; their crop is collected once every 15 years by the space travelling ships that carry out trade across the galaxy.

A boy in the village, Kaeda, is seven years old when he sees the ships arrive for the first time, and he’s immediately captivated by their beauty as well as by the mysterious allure of Nia Imani, the ship’s captain.

The trick here, though, is that ships travel through Pocket Space, secret folds through time that allow them to travel faster than the time passing on the planets. The fifteen years in between visits to Kaeda’s world take only eight months on Nia’s ship. The beautiful first chapter of The Vanished Birds traces the strange relationship between Kaeda and Nia, as each of her visits reintroduces her to Kaeda at a different point in his life, from boyhood to youth to adult to elder.

Later, a strange boy arrives in Kaeda’s world, seemingly out of nowhere. Mute, naked, and scarred, he’s taken in by Kaeda, but because it’s clear that he’s from elsewhere, he’s then given into Nia’s care.

The story shifts to Nia and her crew as they travel with the boy, trying to unravel his secrets and keep him safe. From here, the plot expands outward. We meet Fumiko Nakajima, the brilliant scientist who leaves behind her strange upbringing on a dying Earth to become the creator of the interplanetary systems of travel that fuel the next thousand years. And we learn more about the end of Earth, the expansion of Umbai and their tight control, and the different concepts of space travel.

But what really is essential here is the language and the people. The writing in The Vanished Birds is almost poetic at times, filled with unusual imagery and looping writing. The characters are complex, as are their relationships with time and memory.

While we see the unspeakable cruelty of Umbai and the degradation of the lives considered lesser, the exploitation of the Resource Worlds, and the easy dismissal of the value of life, most of science fiction elements are in soft focus. We learn about the methods of travel, the research institutes and their obscene experimentation, but very little of it is explained in great detail. This book is less hard science fiction and much more a meditation on the meaning of it all.

While beautifully written, at times The Vanished Birds frustrated me, as I do tend to gravitate toward a more literal science fiction approach, and occasionally wanted more straight-forward answers and explanations.

Still, this book overall is an unusual and emotionally powerful read. I think it’ll be on my mind for quite some time, from the almost folkloric beginning to the tragic but inevitable end.

Highly recommended.

For more on The Vanished Birds, check out:

Review – The Captain’s Quarters
The Big Idea – from John Scalzi’s Whatever blog
Review – AV Club
Review – Locus Magazine
Review – Tor.com

A novella two-fer: Heartwarming holiday tale and nuns in space

It’s time for another two-fer post — a quick wrap-up of two recent reads. In this case, I borrowed two novellas from the library this week, and while they’re quite different, I definitely enjoyed them both.

 

The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman: Definitely not as Christmas-y as you might think from looking at the cover. This is a sweet (veering close to the edge of overly sentimental) tale of a man having to assess what makes a life valuable, and what it means to trade a life for a life. The prose is clear and simply stated, and there are illustrations throughout that emphasize the loveliness of the small moments that make a life. This is a quick read, and the little hardcover I borrowed from the library would make a really nice gift for fans of the author.

Length: 65 pages
Published: 2017
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather: This science fiction novella is set on board a living ship, the space-voyaging convent Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. The nuns on the ship travel to the outer reaches of the four systems, ministering to the sick and performing rites and rituals, largely independent of government and church politics. I was fascinated by the concept of the ship as a living creature — this novella would be worth reading just for the descriptions of the ship’s biology! The lives of the sisters hold more secrets than is immediately apparent, and their interactions with one isolated colony planet thrust them into the middle of an interstellar power play that is likely to result in devastation.

I really enjoyed the plot of Sisters of the Vast Black. I think I would have liked it even more as a full-length novel. Events seem somewhat rushed in this shorter form, and likewise, I would have preferred a little more time to get to know the characters as individuals. Still, despite these minor quibbles, I heartily recommend this sci-fi adventure. Nuns in space!! Really, what more do you need to know?

Length: 176
Published: 2019
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two quick 4-star reads for the end-of-the-year rush! Check ’em out.

Book Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

When an Earth-like planet is discovered, a team of six teens, along with three veteran astronauts, embark on a twenty-year trip to set up a planet for human colonization—but find that space is more deadly than they ever could have imagined. 

Have you ever hoped you could leave everything behind?
Have you ever dreamt of a better world?
Can a dream sustain a lifetime?

A century ago, an astronomer discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star. She predicted that one day humans would travel there to build a utopia. Today, ten astronauts are leaving everything behind to find it. Four are veterans of the twentieth century’s space-race.

And six are teenagers who’ve trained for this mission most of their lives.

It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years locked in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong.

And something always goes wrong.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is set during our lifetime, but in a world in which space exploration has advanced much further than in our own. There have already been successful human missions to Mars and Europa, and now, the ultimate goal is being frantically pursued.

Terra-Two is an Earth-like planet light years away, uninhabited but with atmosphere, geology, and natural resources suited for human life. With advanced technology, it will be possible for an initial expedition to reach Terra-Two with a 23-year flight.

The UKSA (United Kingdom Space Agency) is leading the way, and they’ve come up with a controversial approach: Train children from the age of 11 or 12 in an intensely competitive learning environment, so that by age 18, when the expedition is ready to launch, there will be a crew with a senior team and a younger generation in training. After all, even if they launch as teens, they’ll be in their 40s by the time they land. And once they land, it will be their role to prepare Terra-Two for the colonists coming after them.

As the book opens, we meet the students at Dalton Academy, the space training institution. They’re all fiercely smart, but motivated by different dreams and goals. There’s the rich pretty boy who’s the all-star athlete, who seems to have the easiest, most cushioned life; the twins, who each have secret dreams and desires motivating them; the beautiful girl who speaks over 20 languages but has her own demons, and more.

When an unexpected tragedy occurs the day before launch, the remaining crew is thrown into tumult, and a last-minute substitute is both elated at his opportunity and miserable over feeling like he’ll never be accepted or be good enough.

The book really gets going once the mission has launched. One striking element is how well we readers get a sense of the practically unbearable claustrophobia and monotony of being stuck in a contained vessel with the same small group of people FOR DECADES. Can you imagine how awful that must be, knowing that these other nine people are the only ones you’ll ever see or interact with for twenty-three years? I don’t know how they could manage to not go completely bonkers. (It’s not a spoiler to say that there are some pretty spectacular meltdowns and conflicts along the way — these are high-strung teens, after all.)

The plot of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is fascinating and thrilling. I’m a sucker for a good space story, and I loved reading about the terror and the challenges of prolonged space flight, as well as the intricate interpersonal relationships that ensue when you have a small group in an enclosed space for such a long time.

I did feel that the book was possibly longer than it needed to be. At 500+ pages, it’s a lot, and sections dragged. Again, I don’t feel it’s a particular spoiler to say that the book does not cover all 23 years, but rather focuses on the lead-up to launch and mainly the first year after that — but it does wrap up in a way that’s both hopeful and satisfying (although one character’s conclusion particularly bothered me, but that’s by intention.)

Is it realistic that a space agency would train teens in this way and then send them into space? Well, maybe not — but even in this book,, we see that this is a controversial program that leads to international inquiries and protests. And because these are teens, despite their advanced training, there are moments of disobedience, rule-breaking, and emotional upset that wouldn’t occur with a more mature crew, yet serve here to create some of the drama between characters that drives the story.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, and by the halfway point, just couldn’t put it down. It’s a great story, very unlike anything else I’ve read lately, and I’m really glad I gave it a chance. If you like stories of space exploration, check this one out!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
Author: Temi Oh
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: August 13 2019
Length: 544 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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