Review – The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is an envoy, a traveler and explorer if you will. He is from the planet Hain and is now a guest, of sorts, on the planet of Winter or Gethen as it’s known by its inhabitants. He is on Winter solely on a mission of discovery, there is no malice in his mission but he finds resistance. The Gethenians are reluctant to believe that he is from another planet even with the physical differences readily visible between him and the Gethenians.

The Gethenians are a genderless race. When, and as needed, they can become either male or female. Genly has trouble with the concept and the individuals on Winter think of him as a freak constantly stuck in the state of kemmer — the time when Gethenians transform to mate. This difference is almost impossible to overcome as Genly, a male of his race, can’t comprehend the idea of kemmer and the switching of genders for mating purposes but yet he is fascinated by a people he can’t understand. When he makes a journey with one Gethenian who becomes a close friend, Estraven, he comes to an understanding of the people even if he finds some of their customs strange.

I had some trouble with this read. Maybe trouble is the wrong word. I felt like I was a bystander. It was like reading a report and in many ways it is. There are reports by Genly and stories of the Gethenians history as well. It’s very unemotional, even the emotional parts of the story felt that way to me.

While I was reading I came across a column by author Joe Walton — Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre.  She talks about a single traveler meeting up with a new culture and the results. It’s a fascinating article. You should read it. It changed the way I was thinking of this book and maybe gave me a better idea of what I was reading. It didn’t change my mind about it but just made me look at it with a new eye toward what the author was trying to accomplish. It’s very effective looking at it in a new light and that helped me appreciate the story more.

In many ways, it’s a look at how we as humans view gender and what it means to be a man or a woman and the expectations — societal and personal — that go with those thoughts. This is a topic I’ve read absolutely nothing about and am speaking only from my own personal point of view. I could understand Genly’s inability to comprehend the idea of becoming another gender during sex. Gender is who we are and how we define ourselves in society. It’s more than a difficult idea to grasp but unlike Genly, I think I would be interested in being able to switch genders to see what other life experiences would be like. I was sort of letdown by an explorer who didn’t seem interested in seeking new experiences. He does try but never gets there and, yes, part of the story is about his shortcomings but he’s certainly more a traveler than an explorer to me.

Science fiction is a means of exploring topics uncomfortable or incomprehensible to us. Looking at this novel from that perspective makes it fascinating, but it doesn’t make me like the book more because of it. It’s almost as if I have a neutral feeling about it. It’s weird because part of this story was wonderfully fascinating in the ideas it was exploring and at other times it felt flat. Considering this is a book about a space traveler I found this funny in a weird sort of way. Shouldn’t everything be fascinating to an explorer? Shouldn’t he want to see and experience everything possible?

Even though I’m feeling neutral in terms of whether or not I like this book, I do think it was worth the read. It’s not my first Le Guin; I read the Earth Sea books many years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness was completely different than I remember those books. It won’t change my opinion of the Earth Sea books but it has made me think differently about Le Guin and that’s refreshing.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula Le Guin

Ace Books

ISBN:9780441478125

3 stars

Review – The Invisible Man

I was looking for something short to read and came across an old beat-up copy of The Invisible Man on our shelves. It seemed like the perfect book — a little science fiction, a compact story, something to read while sitting on the roof enjoying a sunny afternoon.

Griffin, a scientist, invents a machine that uses optics to make things invisible to the naked eye. He tests his machine, and the procedure, on himself. He completes the process but he doesn’t have time to reverse it before he is kicked out of the inn where he’s conducting his experiments by the people of the town who don’t trust him. With no options, and no desire to explain himself or his work, he leaves the inn in his new invisible state. He steals to get what he needs then enlists a man to assist him in getting his notes back from the inn where he abandoned them. When he, and his invisible state, are reported to the authorities, Griffin flips and goes on a bit of a terror spree wanting to get back at the man who betrayed him.

The science fiction aspect of the book is interesting and the explanation believable. Griffin wasn’t a likable character though — he’s arrogant, mean, and capable of murder. I kept wondering what it was that made him that way because I didn’t believe it could have been the invisibility alone. He does tell his story but it doesn’t do anything to help his cause considering he openly talks of murder, setting fire to a place to hide his work, and robbing people. I’m fine with not liking the main character and here Griffin is really just being used as social commentary anyway so I understood the reasoning for it even if he didn’t appeal to me.

Having not read much HG Wells since high school, I was slightly stunned to find I didn’t like this one as much as I thought I would. Don’t misinterpret that, I did like it, just not love it. I’m a person that likes to bond with the main character and here that wasn’t possible. The reader isn’t supposed to like Griffin but even knowing that didn’t help me. For me, he was the cruel scientist bent on revenge not caring about the people he was planning to hurt along the way to get what he wanted.

As I’m writing this review I’m beginning to wonder if I’m experiencing an aversion to Wells’s writing and now I’m thinking of going back to re-read The Time Machine to see what I think of that. Interesting how that happens to me sometimes.

The Invisible Man

By HG Wells

Watermill Press

3.5 stars

Review – Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

There are books that make me feel very sad; Frankenstein is one of those books. It was a strangely profound sadness that for whatever reason, made me wish the book wouldn’t end because I wanted to find a morsel of light in this dark, lonely tale. It was not to happen.

Having been encouraged early on by loving, generous parents, Victor Frankenstein grows up in a happy household in Geneva surrounded by the comforts of home and family. While as a child he was mildly obsessed with old scientific theories, his father encourages him to broaden his thoughts. Right before he is to leave for school in Germany, the first of his life’s tragedies happen — his mother, a beloved figure to him, passes away after nursing his much loved adopted sister, Elizabeth, back to health. He leaves for Germany with a heavy heart. While there, he throws himself into the sciences, exceeds all his expectation with his interest in chemistry and like sciences. It’s this interest though that causes his second tragedy — the creation of a monster with parts culled from places unmentioned. When the monster escapes, his fears all become real and death follows wherever he goes. He falls into a deep depression knowing that whatever he has to do to stop the monster of his creation, he will never be happy and there will never be any solace.

This is not my first time reading this book but parts felt completely new to me. I love when this happens to me while re-reading. It’s like discovering something that you want to share with everyone. That said, Frankenstein is not an easy read. The words flow easily enough but it’s the emotional toll that got me this time. I really, truly, felt so sad while reading that at one point I burst out crying for no reason. To be affected like this by a book I’ve experienced before surprised me.

There is so much to this book but for the sake of those that don’t like spoilers, I won’t mention all that happens. There are moments when reading though that you wonder how much one person can take and if it’s fair for Frankenstein to heap all the blame on himself. While, yes, he created a monster that has crossed the line and taken life, and has held over him another life if he didn’t comply with his wishes, sometimes things in life are not meant to be. The monster is a physical manifestation for everything that has gone wrong for him. The loneliness that comes with the realization for Frankenstein made me want to put the book down. I couldn’t though because I was waiting for some kind of resolution. When it happens, it’s not satisfying at all. There is remorse, for Frankenstein, and in some way for the monster as well, but it didn’t make me feel any better. It only brings on more grief.

Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed you, let’s talk about something else. The monster has no name; he is simply the monster. Frankenstein is the scientist. Why did I need a reminder of that? Huh, the things we forget. I didn’t remember much from the first reading of this (it may well have been shortly after high school) and my memory faded. I was happy to renew it though. Of course, now each time I see a movie based on the book I’m going to be looking for mistakes.

I read this book for the Gender in SFF challenge. Glad I finally found an excuse to pick this one up again. If you like horror, fantasy, and science fiction, read this one. If you shy away from this one because you think I might be gruesome, it’s not. It’s worth a read.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

By Mary Shelley

Signet Classic

ISBN: 0451527712

4.5 stars

Review – Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius

Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius

By Kevin J. Anderson

Titan Books

ISBN: 9780857683427

4 stars

Jules Verne and André Nemo are almost inseparable as young boys. Exploring and testing André’s new inventions are what drives their days, although Andre’s the brave one with Jules usually watching on the sidelines. When André’s father dies in a shipbuilding accident, he takes off on an adventure of his own while Jules stays at home, goes to school, and prepares himself to enter into the family business with his father. Jules always dreamed of being a writer, and having his own adventures like Andre, but he has trouble finding his writing stride. And his writing income is almost as non-existent as his adventurous lifestyle. But when he starts writing about André’s adventures, he finds worlds previously unknown to him are now wide open.

Captain Nemo is a fun imagining of where all of Jules Verne’s tales come from — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, to name a few. Yes, some of it is slightly unbelievable but so are Verne’s tales so I was willing to drift out of reality for this one. There is a love story here as well but it fits nicely in the background without feeling too intrusive. Honestly, I say that because I’m not one for mixing too much romance with my science fiction and fantasy. I agree it has a place but I prefer it fit with the story and not feel tacked on.

Titan Books pitched this one to me around the time I was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I jumped at the chance to read it. I’m glad I had at least a small knowledge of Verne’s writing before reading this one too as Anderson does dig deep on some of his adventures. While I’m familiar with Verne’s books, I’m still working on reading most of them and this book made me want to continue.

Anderson is an author I’ve heard of but haven’t read. I think I now want to take a look at a few of his books though — I found this one entertaining and fun and I hope that’s the kind of author he is overall. He obviously has a good knowledge and appreciation of Verne’s work. He captures the adventurous writing style and keeps the pace going throughout. And even at certain points where you know where the story is going, you want to keep reading to see Anderson’s take on it. A few scenes from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea come to mind here. It’s an homage that works well. If you’re looking for something fun, this one was good.

Review – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Nightshade Books

ISBN: 9781597801584

3.75/4.25 stars

I put off writing this review because, even after several weeks, I don’t know what I think of this book. On some level, it was brilliant but on others it was so sad and disturbing that I almost put the book down because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on. I finished and while I can’t say I enjoyed this book, I was amazed by it.

Anderson Lake is a calorie man in Thailand posing as a factory manager. What he’s really there for is to look for fruits and vegetables thought to have gone extinct that are now reappearing in street markets. His company, AgriGen, wants the seeds. Through another business associate, he meets Emiko, a bioengineered human working as a sex slave at a whorehouse. Their two lives collide as a new bioengineered plague runs amuck in Bangkok, the government begins infighting for power, and a company with the money to buy off the world lands on the shores of Thailand.

There is much more to this story, but in the interest of spoilers, I’ll say no more. As I said above, parts of this book are brilliant — a world running on traded calories, bioengineering corporations releasing plagues, bioengineered humans. It’s dark, scary, and oddly believable. You can buy into the world and the science behind it: engineered foods, humans, and superbugs. But there’s something so dark about it that it was also so depressing and disturbing that I wanted to shower the reek of this book off me at times. These corporations are so money hungry they don’t even think of the people in their way (and in the way is really how these corporations think of people); releasing plagues without thought so they can take over promising a cure for what they themselves unleashed.

Each and every character is on their own. There’s no sense of community anywhere. Even when one character finds himself caring for someone, he pushes the thought away almost horrified by his own feelings. They’re all horrible but it’s the world that made them that way and you see that but still hate the way they interact and don’t. Everything is some exchange. And then there’s Emiko, the bioengineered new human. She’s a sex slave. She’s bound by her genetically engineered DNA to obey. Imagine for yourself how’s she’s treated.

But I have to go back to world building for a moment here. Science fiction and fantasy are all about the worlds. Bacigalupi commands the world in The Windup Girl. He stretches it beyond belief and you see how his would and could be possible. No checks. No balances. The manipulations of science, the shattered lives of people who can’t get out of the way fast enough.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about this book. My husband liked it (that was the reason I read it) but I think you need to go in with an open mind and one that isn’t too easily offended. It’s an interesting take on what would happen in a world were energy trading takes place and science has the ability to change lives at the drop of a hat. If you’re looking for something different, this might work for you.

Review – The Revisionists

The Revisionists

By Matthew Mullen

Mulholland Books

ISBN: 9780316176729

3.5 stars

Time travel can be an iffy subject. How much can you mess with the timeline and keep readers stretching their grasp on reality before it snaps. In The Revisionists, Mullen asks both the reader and his main character to do just that.

Zed is an agent sent back to present day Washington, DC by the Department of Historical Integrity to ensure an event, a catastrophic event involving the death of millions of people, takes place and guarantees his society’s existence and way of life. In his timeframe, all of society’s problems have been solved — there is no hunger, no war, just a happy peace. Or that’s what the leaders in his time want him to believe. He begins questioning the need for his so-called mission wondering if letting people die will in fact lead to the perfect society he lives in.

Lonely and convincing himself it’s research, Zed begins interacting with contemporary individuals finding their lives and problems are not far from his own. Part of his mission is to leave as small a trace as possible of his existence. Zed’s footprint is huge and continues to grow. There are too many openings and far too many people involved for him to walk away unnoticed. Another problem — it seems the Department didn’t do a very good job with his cover identity since individuals keep recognizing him. He wonders if it could be a coincidence or if there is something mentally wrong with him. He knows he should break off all contact with the people he’s now interested in — especially a young Washington lawyer, Tasha, reeling from the death of her brother in Iraq — but he can’t. The circle widens and Zed can’t step back and soon ends up on the CIA, FBI, and a covert intelligence group’s radar.

Mullen plays with the concepts of history and time making for one confusing story but not in a bad way. In a few areas, I had no idea why things were happening, and while some things are tied up neatly, I was left wondering where all this was going but wasn’t that the point? This is a book about a time traveler with questions about his future and how the past plays into it but he has no real answers because he doesn’t understand the implications of his mission anymore than you do. Mullen plays with you. Dangles clues in front of you and doesn’t give you the answers you want. From the perspective of the time traveler, Zed, it’s brilliantly done. You agonize over his questions too with no answers or solutions forthcoming.

Zed’s mission involves stopping people from the future — he calls them hags — who are trying to impede the great conflagration from taking place and hopefully save lives in the process. He wrestles with whether or not it’s right to let these people die so individuals in his time can live as they do. But he also wonders about his time and if it is as truly perfect as he’s been led to believe. Has he been lied to? Zed can’t forget the questions he has and this uncertainty takes a toll on him mentally and physically. Every character in this book struggles with right and wrong and where those lines intersect. While there’s no predicting how someone will react, or what will actually happen if someone who was supposed to die lives, Zed starts taking chances. It’s interesting to see where it leads him and several of the characters.

Mullen creates a captivating theme throughout — do the decisions we make really change anything but our own fate? What you’ll find is that there are no answers but an interesting story full of questions along the way.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  The idea is to give everyone a look inside the book you’re reading.

Play along: Grab your current read; Open to a random page; Share two teaser sentences from that page; Share the title and author so other participants know what you’re reading.

Today’s teaser is from The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen.  It takes place in D.C. and this particular snippet has to do with driving.  It’s why people say we’re the nation’s worst drivers.

“People in D.C. like to drive in the middle of road, Leo had noticed. The narrow side streets lacked lane markers, so each car tended to glide down the center, staying clear of the parallel-parked cars on either side, seemingly confident no other traffic would dare come its way.  Opposing drivers waited until the last possible moment to pull to their own sides.” (page 29)