Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Published: Harper Voyager (2016), Self-published (2014)
Series: Book 1 of the Wayfarers
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award & Kitchies: Golden Tentacle Award

The Book:

Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there. But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling.

A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she's left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war. Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.” ~WWEnd.com

I’d heard a lot of positive buzz about this series on the internet, so I decided to check it out. I love space opera in general, so it was a pretty easy sell for me. I’m planning to read A Closed and Common Orbit sometime soon!

My Thoughts:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet does not follow the traditional format of a novel.  Instead, it is more like a television show (e.g., Star Trek, Firefly, Dark Matter ), following episodic adventures that slowly reveal the histories and personalities of the Wayfarer crew.  This approach works for me, both because I generally love these kinds of stories and because the setting and characters of the novel are so interesting.  The Wayfarer has a majority human crew, but humans are a relatively minor species in the galactic community.  I liked how humanity was not in charge or extremely special, but just one of many peoples.  It was neat seeing how the human and alien crew members compromised to create a space to live and work together, whether that involved learning new ways to communicate or handling less than optimal climate control.  Each of them comes from a different background, but they find a way to make the Wayfarer a home.

Since this is more of an episodic/slice-of-life kind of story, there’s not all that much of an overarching plot.  There is the job that initially sets them off on a longer voyage than usual, but the story doesn’t really build up to a climax.  Instead, the culmination of that story feels like another episode.  However, as in many things, it’s not the destination that matters here, but the journey.  As the crew of the Wayfarer stop at different communities and interact with different aliens, the focus shifts from crew member to crew member.  By the end of the novel, I felt like I knew and appreciated each of them.  As is important for a slice-of-life story, it was always a pleasant world to drop back into, just to see what would happen next in their journey.  

Another thing that I enjoyed about this novel was the group dynamics and optimistic atmosphere.  I enjoy stories about groups of people that work together and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Each of the crew is competent at their jobs, and they rely on their skills to face each problem that they meet along the way.  They’re also a close-knit group, and I enjoyed seeing the peace of the community that they created on their ship. They are not merely doing a job together, they are helping to build lives of meaning and purpose for themselves and each other.  They face some very sad events along the way, but it does not overwhelm the story.  These are still people who can accomplish their goals, and who look forward to a brighter future together.  

My Rating: 4/5

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is an entertaining slice-of-life space opera about the crew of a ship called the Wayfarer.  Reminiscent of Firefly and other sci-fi tv shows, the novel introduces details about the main cast through episodic stories.  The journey to the small, angry planet is really the focus, not what will happen once they arrive.  There is not a lot of tension, but the compelling human and alien characters, as well as the interesting universe full of alien cultures, make the story compulsively readable.  I’m looking forward to reading A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers’s next book in this universe!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Published: Tor, 2006
Awards Won: Hugo and Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial and Prometheus Awards

The Book:

“Advances in medicine have rescued the elderly Robert Gu, world-class poet, from death’s door.  While he’s admired by many, the people closest to him know him as an abusive and hateful SOB.  While recovering, he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter Miri, a sunny young teen whom he’d never had the opportunity to wound. He has lost his place in the world, and his sense of how he relates to the people in it.  It’s difficult for him to go back to poetry, so he begins the painful process of trying to learn a new generation of technology through adult remedial education.

One thing that particularly grates on Robert is the lack of physical books in this new age, since most information has been digitized into searchable information.  When he learns from others of his generation that a new technology is going to digitize the library of his old university, destroying the books in the process, he falls into their clandestine scheme to throw a spanner in the works. Things are never simple in an interconnected world, though, and Robert has no way to know how far his actions will reach.” ~Allie

I’m finally coming in on reading the last few Hugo winners!  I’m currently reading Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and then my only remaining unread winner is Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I’ve also read A Shadow Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge years ago, and as far as I can recall, I enjoyed it quite a lot.

My Thoughts:

Rainbows End imagines a fascinating future world filled with new technology.  Connectivity has moved into articles of clothing, and young people can manipulate information and communication with gestures.  I especially enjoyed how technology allowed you to play with perception.  You can transform your surrounding into Middle Earth, but still keep the relevant cues so that you can interact normally in the shared physical reality.  The novel also takes into account the downsides of a highly connected world.  For instance, most work is now about synthesizing information, and non-searchable data structures (like physical books) are neglected.  When most people are interacting through digital avatars, a more literal form of identity theft is also a problem.  Despite the downsides, it’s a very cool world, and one that I was happy to explore.

On the other hand, I was not particularly interested in the abusive jerk of a protagonist, Robert Gu. I’m also not exactly sure why his body was miraculously cured to youth, because it was irrelevant to the story.  Anyway, he has a deeply unpleasant personality, and I sympathized with his family’s dislike of him.  Robert does have a small character arc throughout the book, where he becomes gradually slightly less of an abusive jerk.  This might be a realistic depiction of the extent to which people can actually change, but in fiction it can feel a little unsatisfying. Aside from Robert, though, there were some sympathetic side characters.  His cheerful and intelligent granddaughter Miri was a favorite of mine, as well as his earnest and struggling remedial classmate Juan.  Some of the other elderly also have interesting takes on how to re-integrate into the current society.  For me, there were interesting and likeable characters here, they just weren’t Robert Gu.

Regarding the plot, I think I could best describe it as fitting in the slice-of-life genre.  I’ve seen the novel described as a thriller, but I feel that’s a little misleading.  There is a global conspiracy that may be a threat to the human race, but it’s heavily backgrounded.  The main story is about Robert’s daily life, his work with the remedial education class, and his relationships with his family.  Robert’s big conspiracy is just a plot with his old frenemies to mildly inconvenience the book digitizing/shredding operation.  The implementation of this plot leads to the most action-packed part of the book (which includes a really neat technological riot), but there’s not much narrative payoff from all the chaos.  I enjoyed the page-by-page of seeing life in this interesting future, though, so ultimately I’m happy to have read it.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Rainbows End is a slice-of-life story featuring a jerk protagonist in an interesting future world.  I enjoyed exploring how ubiquitous connectivity affected people’s lives, as well as seeing the clever things that can be accomplished with augmented reality.  The main character, an abusive old man named Robert Gu, has a slight redemption character arc, but it was never enough to really make him likeable for me.  I preferred reading about some of the side characters, such as his granddaughter and his classmates.  There is a big, worldwide conspiracy involved here, but it’s the little, local conspiracies that are the focus of the novel.  This is not my favorite Vinge novel, but I did enjoy exploring its hypothetical future.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Read-Along: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey, Part 3


Welcome to week three of the read-along of James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, book six of The Expanse! This week we’re covering chapters 28-41, and discussion questions were provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow.  Feel free to check out our Goodreads page if you’d like to join this or future read-alongs!  And now, beware of the really serious spoilers below.

1. The side of good takes a hit with the sudden death of Fred Johnson, but it doesn't take long for some to start using it toward their own ends. Dawes, in particular, seems to have kingmaker aspirations that won't wait, despite his grief. What did you make of his actions in these chapters?

I think maybe I read him as much more sympathetic than this question implies.  He realized he made a mistake backing Marco, both because Marco was incompetent and because it was the wrong decision.  He understood Marco was a terrible at everything besides charisma, but he thought he could use him to unify the Belt.  

I think his guilt over betraying Fred, and his grief for his death, have pushed him to side with Holden.  It was interesting seeing him make a case for following Holden, even when he didn’t even like the guy himself.  I think he could be a really useful ally, since he is better at manipulating people than Holden will likely ever be.

2. Filip appears to be sliding further toward realising just where, precisely, he really stands with Marco. Do you think he'll slide the rest of the way there before it's too late to do anything? For that matter, given our general attitudes toward him so far, do you feel more sympathy for him now?

Whenever he feels sad about his father treating him poorly, at least he can warm his heart with the pride of knowing he killed over 15 billion people (note my sarcasm).  I don’t think it really matters at this point whether he turns on his father or not, because I don’t see how he has the ability or opportunity to do anything useful for the opposition. Seeing as he hasn’t really changed at all, my attitude towards him is similarly unchanged.  

3. With Avasarala's massive (and massively ambitious) attack upon the Free Navy underway, plans are already having to be altered - though Captain Pa is altering them because of her conscience, rather than (arguably) out of necessity. Did she do the right thing with the Solano, or do you think it will only come back to bite her?

I guess time will tell, but I think she probably did the right thing.  It’s nice that she considers other Belters human, though she isn’t really willing to extend that courtesy to Inners.  That puts her a notch above Marco.  So yeah, I appreciate that she is trying to do the right thing by the Belters. It will probably come back to bite her, but I hope she can handle it when it does.  

4. It's all on the line now, so I have to ask: Do you have any predictions? Desired outcomes? Possibly any POVs remaining you'd like to see before it's all over?

I hope that the Belters aren’t eradicated, and that Earth reaches some kind of stable equilibrium.  I hope that the “Free Navy” problem is more or less handled in this book, so Marco and company won’t be sticking around. I think we’ve been all over with POVs, so I can’t think of anyone in particular that I still want to see.