Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion. 

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth. 

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species. 

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

To start off with the explanation people may or may not know – this is a reboot of the 1962 novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, which was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1963. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say how this book matches up with its predecessor, and so am taking it purely on its own merit. This was a fun, easy book to read. Which feels a little strange to say, given all the lawyer talk that had me slow down and take the time to unravel what it all meant for the future of the characters and the fuzzys. Actually, the thing that surprised me most about this book was how much the story depended on legal proceedings. The story reads in a particularly cinematic fashion, and as such, I expected it to end up looking more like an action movie. It still does in a number of ways, but the fact that the central conflict hinges on whether the fuzzys are sentient beings, the ruling of which will affect Zara XXXIII’s legal status, gives the story a very different flavor than what I originally expected. It also casts Jack Holloway’s character in a different light than what one would expect.

Holloway is a smooth-talking, selfish ex-lawyer turned surveyor who gets off on making everyone around him hate his guts. His prime interest is in looking out for himself, even when he’s outwardly doing good deeds. Having recently become a muti-billionaire after the discovery of a vast deposit of sunstones, Holloway has a huge stake in denying the fuzzys’ sentience because otherwise all mining stops and ZaraCorp leave the planet. However, he becomes the fuzzys’ main spokesperson, as well as their ideal of what a “good man” is. It’s really cool to see how his code of ethics both changes and remains the same over the course of story – he still holds his interests above everyone else’s but that also means he holds his pride and sense of right and wrong over everyone else’s as well, which puts him into a unique position to advocate for and defend the fuzzys’ sentience. I will say that I never actually *liked* Holloway, or any of the other characters, really. This was definitely a book that I read for the plot.

It probably says something about nostalgia and certain cultural markers standing the test of time that this particular sixties, sci-fi version of an alien plant colonized by Earth felt very endearing in its familiarity. There’s your all-powerful corporation, dangerous dinosaur-predators, spacecraft, skimmers, various people in their necessary positions to colonize planets, and other typical tropes and trappings. From what I’ve read elsewhere, this story has been updated to reflect more modern arguments concerning the definition of sentience, which is a really cool idea. All things considered, if I had read Little Fuzzy in addition to Fuzzy Nation, I’d most likely pick the latter as my favorite because it retains all of the things that give old sci-fi it’s appeal while being written like a novel from present times.

All in all, this is a fun novel to read. Even with the question of what is sentience, it’s not exactly deep reading, but it’s fast, entertaining, and has a huge amount of delicious tension. Good stuff.

Disclosure – library

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking Trilogy #3)

In the riveting conclusion to the acclaimed dystopian series, a boy and girl caught in the chaos of war face devastating choices that will decide the fate of a world.

As a world-ending war surges around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many. The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most, or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption, or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.

ALL OF THE SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TRILOGY

Oh my god. This book ripped my heart out of my body and put back inside only half-healed. I thought the other books were running me ragged, and in the middle of this book there were moments where it was almost peaceful and quiet. WRONG. Todd and Viola proved how wrong I was, and how much more this book would hurt me over the other two.

Again, the use of Noise as a weapon of war, a controlling agent, and a means of communication and knowledge was excellent. In the previous books, we saw how men struggled with their Noise and eradicating the voices in their heads and we got glimpses of how Prentiss had used it to forge an army. Now, we learn more about the Spackle and see how they use it as a means of uniting everyone under one Noise such that everyone is open to everyone and that is how they are one people. Communication. Knowledge. What does it mean for individuals to be part of a collective consciousness? What does it feel like to know everyone and be known by everyone? Can you have control over the entirety of information, or does it control you? It can bring people closer together and know each other better than ever and it can drive others to the brink of insanity. And then when someone, like Todd, learns to hide his Noise like Prentiss, and hides everything atrocity he’s seen and done, everything he’s scared and ashamed of, he not only shuts off Viola, he shuts off himself. The connection is twofold, the knowing of another and the knowing of yourself.

Todd and Viola. Viola and Todd. These two single-handedly made me fall in love with this entire series. Both of them fight so hard for freedom and for peace, but they’re also fighting to save each other, and sometimes those two fights are thrown into conflict. Multiple characters say this over and over – you shouldn’t make war personal. But it’s tricky. Because in some instances making it personal means you have someone to fight for in order to achieve a better future. But in other cases, making war personal means using it solely to exact revenge without a care to anyone else. But these two… wow. It’s funny because even though they fight like hell to find each other and keep each other alive, their individual approaches are very different. No matter what happens to Todd, he’s still Todd and incapable of killing another person, even taking into account the spackle in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Viola’s the one who’s killed for Todd before and she’s the one who’d kill millions just to keep Todd alive. Yes, romance stuff occurs between the two of them in this book. But I don’t fucking care. You know why? Because their relationship is so much more than that, that that kiss doesn’t even mean much. The way these two know each other, the dependence, the trust, the knowledge that they both want the same future – that’s what makes these two the wonderful people they are. They achieve good things individually, but together, they have the ability to change the world.

Not only do we get those two, but we get the POV of 1017, the spackle Todd imprisoned, brutalized, and whose life he neded up saving. Known as the Return to the rest of the spackle (or the Land, as they call themselves), his situation largely mirror’s Todd’s. Both are being groomed by their respective leaders in their image. But unlike the Speaker, the “leader” of the spackle, the Return has his heart set on revenge of all humans for what they’ve done, especially Todd, and he vows to kill him no matter what. He finds himself in the same situation Todd found himself with Aaron – can he really kill another person? What choices is he going to make and what are those choices going to do to him?

And then there’s the war. The war is as horrific and destructive as any war should be. All of the needless killing, all the posturing and edging ahead, just to prove that one side’s right and the other’s wrong the point that the original reasons why the war is being fought doesn’t matter. It gets to the point that Prentiss and Mistress Coyle are more hilarious than they are threatening because all they care about is beating the other and coming out on top – they’re like little children. There’s this scene where the two of them are “allies” and each are trying to give an inspiring speech to the crowd at the exact same time, causing them to outdo each the other by speaking over the other person and saying the same exact things, just worded differently. It’s so depressing, it’s funny.

All along, it’s been clear that Prentiss isn’t an ordinary, black-and-white villain, and that he believes he’s doing what’s right or what’s inevitable, that war is what men do. But when he starts keeping Todd by his side, there’s the possibility that he can be redeemed. Even though I never fully trusted him to actually change, part of me really wanted to believe Prentiss when he said that Todd was the one making him good again. And that was beautiful. He’s committed so many crimes and maimed and killed so many people, but he’s formed a relationship with Todd. He’s found someone to love. But knowledge can heal or destroy, and in this case it rips him apart. This world was never meant for him, and he was willing to kill to gain control over himself and others, just to make it a more bearable place for him to exist.

I don’t want to give away the ending because it deserves to be read and experienced without being spoiled – it is probably one of the best endings I’ve read. It has everything that makes the entire trilogy so great – Noise, communication, knowledge, choices, connection, and plain old love.  And this time (unlike the other two endings), there’s a little bit of hope. I can say, without any hesitation, that this is one of the best trilogies I have read in my life. Viola and Todd will continue to be in my life and in my heart from here on out and I plan on buying copies of these books as soon as I can and loving them forever and ever.

Disclosure – library

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking Trilogy #2)

Part two of the literary sci-fi thriller follows a boy and a girl who are caught in a warring town where thoughts can be heard — and secrets are never safe.

Reaching the end of their flight in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, while Todd faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?

SPOILERS FOR FIRST BOOK AND THIS BOOK

This book somehow managed to be even more awesome than the first book, which I didn’t even know was possible, but it was. This post is more rambling than usual, but if you’ve read the book it should make sense.

Mayor Prentiss is more front and center as the villain this time, and he’s a really creepy villain. Outwardly, he’s a really ordinary guy who’s a sociable people-type person. But he knows how to manipulate people, how to use honey rather than vinegar to make people believe what he wants them to believe. And his side of the story. But what is his side of the story!? What really happened with the spackle? This book and this series are full of grays; there are no black and whites and it is so unclear what the right thing is, which side to support, who’s the greater threat and the greater villain.

And Davy! He actually became a human being! Gah, Patrick Ness is SO GOOD with characters because the changes are so slow and gradual that if you blink you’ll miss them, but even if he doesn’t fully change sides, he realizes things are wrong. That his father isn’t a good man. And that he’s sorry for what he’s done. And then the dies! Just as he was getting to be a good person! I mean yeah, it made sense story-wise, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t yelling at the book in despair.

I was so happy that Viola was given her own POV because we got to see how awesome she is first-hand.  She’s immediately separated from Todd, just after she knifed a man to death and was shot by Davy and has to figure out her way in this strange new world where Mayor Prentiss is in control. Now the women of the town have congregated to re-form their previous terrorist group, the Answer, to bomb portions of town to force Mayor Prentiss to capitulate and surrender. Except Mistress Coyle is about as ruthless as Mayor Prentiss and willing to sacrifice anyone, no matter who they are, in order to achieve her goals. Viola is caught in the middle, willing to help the women after the horrific things Mayor Prentiss and his soldiers have done, but aware that Mistress Coyle is going too far and desperate to find and save Todd above everything else. Viola is just as confused as Todd as to what the hell is going on, but no matter what she’ll call out anyone, including Mistress Coyle, for being the violence they’ve chosen to inflict. Not only that, but she pushes herself to the breaking point when it comes to doing what needs to be done, and that’s why she’s such an amazing character.

Todd, oh my god Todd. I’m not even sure if I can love him anymore because he does such horrible things. Initially ordered to guard and keep the re-enslaved spackle in line, eventually coming to hate them and treating them as animals, and then shutting off all his feelings so he can learn how to torture people and perform the equivalent of branding on hundreds of people – it’s obscene what he does. But it’s Todd! And he’s hurting so much! The only way he can escape all the pain he’s feeling from knowing he failed at every single attempt he made to resist and escape, battling with doubt over whether Viola has fully joined the Answer and abandoned him completely… it’s difficult stuff. There’s still that gray area because Todd knows exactly how horrible his actions are, continues to do them, but there’s still the reality that he will be punishing himself for the rest of his life for what he’s done, just as when he killed that spackle all the way back in the first book. And that is why Patrick Ness is amazing. Because he had Todd transformed into this world’s version of an SS soldier, but I still cared so fucking much about him and wanted him to find himself again and fight back.

Also why I love Patrick Ness is, of course, Todd and Viola together. I do not have the words to say how amazing their relationship is and all the feelings I have about it. By this point, they have become each other’s conscience and each other’s soul. They continue to look for and find and save each other over and over again. Even when Todd confesses all the atrocious crimes he’s committed, Viola reminds him of what he’d told her after she’d killed Aaron – we all fall down. What matters is if and how we choose to pick ourselves back up again. If one of them dies at the end of the third book, I will be FURIOUS. I WILL OPEN THE GATES OF HELL AND FIRE WILL RAIN UPON THE LAND FROM THE FORCE OF MY WRATH. And holy shit, the war is going to be fearsome and bloody and oh so very conflicting as Todd and Viola figure out what’s the right thing to be fighting for.

Just like the previous book, this one also ends with a humongous cliff-hanger and the belief that there is no hope whatsoever and everyone is going to die. Whether that’ll be the case remains to be seen, but oh my god, this world is going to explode. What the aftermath will look like remains to be seen.

Disclosure – library

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking Trilogy #1)

A dystopian thriller follows a boy and girl on the run from a town where all thoughts can be heard — and the passage to manhood embodies a horrible secret.

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

This is the saddest book I read all last year, and I read some pretty sad books. This is the reason I didn’t start making a list of the best books I’ve read for 2011 until the last minute was because I was waiting for the potential late entry that would make the cut. People, I here present this book.

It’s dystopian, but it’s a very different type of dystopian than what’s currently being published. Rather than taking place on Earth, the story is set on a new planet. Many years ago, colonists from Earth came to settle the land, but in Prentisstown, everything went drastically wrong due to the spackle war and the loss of all the women. Now Mayor Prentiss and his subordinates rule the town using the power of Noise. There might not be fancy technology keeping everyone under surveillance, but there is a pervading fanaticism and ideology keeping all of the men together and solidifying the town via the power of complicity.

I loved the concept of the Noise, the ever-present river of thoughts, dreams, terrors, and lies emanating from men at all times. In the back flap of my copy, it says that Patrick Ness was inspired by the internet and the Information Age and how we’re all inundated with so much information that it’s impressive that we manage to sort through the constant noise of it all. A key feature of a man’s Noise is that it isn’t an exact reflection of himself – it’s still possible (if difficult) to hide your thoughts and lie. But with the arrival of Viola and the emergence of women whom Todd never knew even existed, all of whom have no Noise, he runs headlong into a sense of helplessness and fear. He feels he can’t understand them because, to him, they all sound like pockets of silence. The sorts of questions that arise from this reality – how do you really know someone, how can information and thoughts be utilized or manipulated – run throughout the course of this book. I am curious if in later books a more gendered approach will be taken to the Noise. As of now, it seems like women are seen as enigmas and are incapable of ever being fully understood. I do hope this aspect of Noise is explored, as it’s clear that the division along gender lines is crucial to understanding how and why Noise works and exists.

Todd narrates the story in a semi-illiterate, run-on fashion, and his voice did take a little bit of getting used to. After a while, I grew to love it. There’s no fluff or extra. He gets to the point, describes things as they are in as clear and direct a manner as possible. He’s gruff, but he’s honest and self-aware. And that’s why I fell in love with this character. His whole world has been turned on its head and he’s forced to confront every single thing he thought was true about his existence. He constantly tries to do the right thing and hates himself when he can’t “be a man” and kill his enemies, even though he unreservedly thinks they deserve it. What does it mean to do the right thing, to be an adult, and more importantly, how do you continue to do the right thing after you’ve commmited a crime? There so many threads wrapped up in this story and Tom’s narrative, but it’s told in such a stark, honest, and immediate way.

And then, of course, there’s Manchee and Viola. The former’s relationship with Todd is heartbreaking; Tom didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of a dumb dog in the first place, but Manchee later becomes indispensable, providing companionship, trust, loyalty – pretty much all the usual canine attributes. I’m normally not one for stories about humans and animals bonding to each other, but this one made me want to cry. Thankfully, the bond between Viola and Todd made me want to jump up and down in excitement. Viola herself is a strong, intelligent, and resourceful person. She’s able to see and understand what’s going on in a way that Todd can’t because of all the assumptions he continues to believe in.They form such a good partnership over the course of the book. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been searching for meaningful, non-romantic relationships in my fiction, and this one is a perfect fit. The way they come to depend on and trust each other, how each one sacrifices themselves for the other… it’s great. The best part of the story is when Todd realizes that even though she has no Noise (something that made her untrustworthy and unpredictable for him), he’s learned to read her. Even without Noise, he now knows Viola and who she is. I loved how their journey brought them to this point.  There had better not be romance between the two of them later on. Right now their relationship works perfectly fine without it and I know it’ll continue to work and develop even more without it as well.

The most devastating part of this book is the ending. Not only devastating but infuriating and full of despair. WHYYYYYYYYY? Of course, this just means I have to read the second book immediately, which I will try to do.

What this post boils down to is that I loved this book. I loved Todd, Viola, and Manchee, I loved the writing and how Todd tells his story, I loved the presence and use of Noise and all the dilemmas Todd wrestles with about knowledge, killing, connection, and being an adult. Everything. I loved it.

Disclosure – library

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #1)

Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

SPOILERS

Potentially unknown fact – James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for the author duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. The former has written a number of books already (I recommend reading the Long Price Quartet), and having read his work before is why I picked this book up. I hadn’t read any sci-fi in a long time, not since Embassytown, which was just as clever and intelligent as China Melville’s books usually are, and equally as difficult and obtuse. This book was a good ol’ fashioned space opera (heavy on the space) and it was really good example of the genre. I’m impressed mostly because I managed to stick with a 500+ page science fiction novel filled with terminology and actions I wasn’t familiar with and limited character development and even grow to like and appreciate it a good deal.

Holden and Miller are the only two characters given any attention with regards to character development, and in this case, the development mostly revolved around these two be polar opposites. Holden, an Earther, is the upstanding, virtuous one who always tries to do the right thing, expose criminals, spread the truth, and other similar things. His actions tend to lead to a lot of bad consequences due to a severe lack of foresight. Miller, a Belter, is the noir-style cop who’s been exposed to more seediness and corruption than is good for him and who’s sense of right and wrong is as gray as you can get. Out of these two, Miller is the better drawn of the two, as he’s based off the more recognizable and popular archetype of a private dick. Also, he has a whole lot more at stake, since the overarching conflict of the book involves subjugating the Belt in order to show them whose boss. Although he gets involved in the plot through happenstance, Miller forms an attachment to Julie, the girl he’s assigned to find, and his attachment reflects his downward spiral into destruction in which Julie remains the the one person he feels any sort of connection to. Holden, on the other hand, blends more into the background. There isn’t much to distinguish him as a meaningful protagonist beyond that he happens to be caught in situations outside of his control and receives information that makes him an asset. His primary motivation in all this is mostly revenge and the need to do “what’s right”. I could have done with some more defining characteristics. His sections weren’t a chore to read, but he was definitely less colorful compared to Miller.

Other than those two, characters weren’t given much to work with, though I did appreciate that Amos possessed a very Jayne Cobb-like personality. Even though it’s clear the authors tried to include a balanced cast in terms of gender, race, and background, the book still felt distinctly white, male-centric. I can’t speak as to how meaningful or appropriate the combination of different cultures and languages in the Belt worked (I appreciated the effort to include them all, I personally can’t say if it was done in a good way). Also, I really wished for more prominent female characters besides Julie and Naomi. Julie’s dead after the prologue and we only get to know and see her through Miller’s eyes. Naomi’s main role is to be XO to Holden. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing if the authors hadn’t decided to have Holden start thinking he was in love with her and having it conveniently turn out she was interested in sleeping with him all along, so they start having sex and probably in the next book or so they’re going to say they love each other. Really? Really? Seriously guys, you can do a hell of a lot better than that!

What I really liked was the liminal period in time in which the authors chose to set the book. Humanity has begun its outward reach to the stars, but so far they’ve only made it to Uranus. Earth and Mars are the main superpowers with the asteroids and stations that comprise the Belt serving simultaneously as the frontier and fodder for the two planets in their power games. The Belt is especially intriguing because it’s become a huge melting pot for so many Earth people and cultures. Combined with a space-led life in which the very water, air, and gravity is provided by Earth and Mars, permanently altered body structures, and the emergence of a new slang quickly evolving into its own language, there is a very distinct Belter identity and sense of commonality emerging among the inhabitants. Although the overarching conflict is eventually revealed to be about the protogen, the many divides between and within the Belters, Mars, and Earth are utilized to exacerbate the situation such that it’s obvious that war is in the future. I’m keen on how these relationships will change and grow in the sequels, and I’m especially interested in the future of the Belters.

The protogen was pretty cool. It was a reasonably typical genre kind of alien molecule that took over human bodies and caused them to mutate into new, scary life forms. James S. A. Corey made the protogen worth paying attention to by having the evil guys commit mass genocide of an entire asteroid, turning it into a giant laboratory to see what the protogen would do and creating a new, asteroid-size life form in the process. I wasn’t entirely sold on how the protogen got into the galaxy; the current explanation is that billions of years ago, aliens threw it into space with the intention of having it land on Earth, except it got stuck somewhere around Saturn. Right now, I’m waiting for someone to come with a better explanation and with more evidence to back it up.

When I read sci-fi, there’s always some risk that I will not understand what’s happening or what characters are doing at certain points in the story due to them using and discussing science and technology I don’t really understand. There are a number of those instances in which that was the case. Thankfully, the book stays largely focused on Holden, Miller, and the plot. This book definitely is not one in which a background in science or an interest in space and physics is necessary for enjoying the story, although if you have it, it wouldn’t hurt.

Overall, I am glad I picked up Leviathan Wakes. It’s an exciting, action-packed story that covers a lot of ground and describes a pretty epic conflict. It’s space opera with some science that I nevertheless enjoyed reading due to its action/noir elements. Once we get some better-drawn characters (MORE FEMALES PLEASE), this series is good to go. I most likely will be picking up the next couple of books as they come out.

Disclosure – library

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin — barely of age herself — finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Five years in the writing by one of science fiction’s most honored authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

Spoilers for the end (kinda, sorta, not really)

I was really hoping I’d like this book since it has time travel, the black plague, a cast of characters caring about each other, hope being present even in darkness, that sort of thing. And Connie Willis has won numerous awards for her books – The Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula. However, I was disappointed in what this book had to offer.

First off, this book is way too long. Over and over, characters repeat or make multiple internal monologues about the same exact things – the nature of disease in the Middle Ages, God’s role in tragedy, Kivrin’s time jump – to the point that this book could probably have been a good hundred pages shorter if all those extraneous repetitions had been cut. Another hundred or so could have been chucked if they’d removed all the telephone calls Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor, makes and all the useless interactions he has with unimportant people, like Mrs. Gaddson.

The portions taking place in 2054 were my least favorite parts overall. This book was written right before the advent of the internet, and it shows. (Also apparently in this universe, the device known as the answering machine was never invented.) The characters spend so much time either trying to find each other, get in contact with missing people, or trying to obtain necessary access codes. The slowness at which characters accomplished things or learned information in 2054, when presumably communication technology would be significantly more advanced in the future, was so frustrating! Not to mention that it was glaringly obvious that Kivrin had ended up in 1348. Dunworthy spends all his time in a tizzy over whether Kivrin ends up in the right time or not and being completely unable to decipher Badri’s mumblings when it’s staring him right in the face! I’m not going to blame this book for being written before the internet, but even so, the book could have done with a ton of editing and ruthless chopping of page count.

After a while, every single person in 2054 was getting on my nerves. Dunworthy was so idiotic and Colin just became annoying. And the guy they were constantly looking for, Father Basingame, was never found! Given that his absence is the impetus for all that goes wrong in the book and everyone spends a good deal of time trying to find him and failing it seems reasonable that by the end of the book someone would have found him or talked to him. Apparently not.

The 1348 parts were less aggravating, mostly because it was cool watching Kivrin adapt to the time period and adjust to her unexpected circumstances, mainly being horribly ill in a time with practically no effective medical practice. It was nice reading about her becoming part of the household that took care of her, and Agnes and Rosemund were suitably precocious children. However, again, there were too many repetitions of thoughts, details, and information already repeated multiple times. (And that’s another thing! Dunworthy and Kivrin repeat the same exact internal monologues. Why!?) Once the black plague strikes the village and starts killing off everyone, the book finally starts living up to expectations. There, Connie Willis succeeds at painting the situation as the horrible, helpless tragedy that it is, complete with all the gruesome details about what the black plague does to people. Also, this is where the emotion really shines, as Kivrin has really come to care for the people she’s lived with, particularly Agnes, Rosemund and Father Roche, and no matter how much effort she puts into keeping everyone alive in the face of the plague, people continue to die. As such, the events going on in 2054 can’t even hope to compare.

Also, while I didn’t mind that the mechanisms for how time travel works weren’t explained or discussed in much detail, I did not think time travel overall was utilized as well as it should have been. In this universe, people use time travel solely as a means of studying the past. Why is that? Also, the story revolves more around the malfunctioning of time travel as opposed to the results and consequences of using it. There is some musing on Kivrin’s part about how our understanding of the past differs from the reality and how human decency remains constant across time. Still, no one even considers any of the usual problems or paradoxes that might occur if you mess with time. I personally prefer time travel stories to address those aspects at least somewhat. I’m not a big fan of time travel for time travel’s sake.

The infuriating thing is that there’s a good story hidden amidst all the useless repetitions and excess information. If the writing had been tighter, more attention had been paid to causal explanations, and the characters, particularly the modern ones, been more three-dimensional, this could have been a truly excellent book. The final part was indeed excellent. But I could not get over the way in which the book was written, nor the fact that the material was not handled in a satisfying manner. Obviously a lot of people believed this book, and Connie Willis’ work in general, to be worth the commendations it’s received. To be perfectly frank, I don’t get why.

Disclosure – bought

In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker (The Company #1)

This is the novel that launched the popular series: The Company. Dr. Zeus, Inc., sends its agents back in time to collect and preserve works of art, extinct forms of life, all manner of valuable treasures and documents. It recruits orphans throughout history, transforms them into immortal cyborgs, and trains them to serve The Company. Mendoza the botanist is one such agent. She is sent to sixteenth-century England to collect samples from the garden of sir Walter Iden. But while there, she meets Nicholas Harpole, with whom she falls in love. And that love sounds great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company.

This was such an intelligent book. Everything is done so well. Just… all the different threads connected in a really pleasing way, like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle with a thousand teeny pieces that all fit together in the end to make a wonderfully creative object.  If you can forgive the bad simile, such is this story.

Kage Baker came up with a concept of how time travel works that I really like – events and situations that are known to have happened due to textual or other forms of evidence can’t be tampered with (which is convenient, as this means you can’t accidentally prevent yourself from being born by killing your ancestors). However, anything not committed to the recorded body of historical knowledge is fair game. It’s such an awesome idea, as that’s pretty much how the study of history works. You can only use the evidence you have at hand to reconstruct the past, and anything else that you’re not one hundred percent sure about, you can make educated guesses about or extemporize, but almost anything could have happened in those blank spaces. History, how it’s written, and how it’s manipulated to tell a certain story are all particularly relevant to my interests at this time, as my history junior seminar is all about the history of history as a discipline.

As such, this book (and hopefully the series?) is alternate history science fiction. This particular story takes place in England during Queen Mary’s reign in 1553, and this point in time and location are captured so well. It all felt rich and colorful and textured and alive. The author depicted a period of English history with greater diversity and intersecting political and religious opinions than is normally given credit for. I’m also assuming Kage Baker had a background in English dialect as well as history, for the language the characters used felt particularly authentic (as far as I can tell) without becoming unreadable, which is a problem I have with older, written versions of English. Given Kage Baker’s skill at historical worldbuilding, if all the other books take place in different historical time periods and locations, I will be one happy reader.

I was unsure how I would feel about Mendoza being the protagonist, as she turns into an arrogant brat after the Company turns her into a cyborg. As a result of her Company-given education, she is convinced that all humans are mindless, bloodthirsty monkeys and wants nothing to do with them. But through her assignment to 1550’s England from the Company, she meets Nicholas, has many scintillating, intellectual conversations with him, and falls completely and hopelessly in love him. I was not excpecting there to be as strong a love story as there was in this book, but I greatly enjoyed it. The two of them fall in love with each other because they each love how the other is smart. Romantic/sexual attraction based on intelligence? I love it! Where do I sign up? And because she falls in love, Mendoza undergoes a lot of change as she grudgingly accepts that “mere mortals” might have some redeeming qualities. Not only that, she starts questioning what the Company has turned her into and wonders whether she has any humanity left, or has her immortality changed everything.

Also, Kage Baker is really clever. I knew this already, having read The Anvil of the World, but reading this book reminded me of this fact. She’s always making little, wry observations about humans, societies, and how they work and the silly things each do. This book was able to satisfy both the entertainment and intellectual parts of my brain, and that made me happy.

The only thing I’m confused about is who the man and woman were who bought Mendoza when she was a child, as this event is the catalyst for the entire story. Obviously they weren’t who they claimed to be, but I couldn’t tell if they were from that time period or if they were agents of the Company gone back in time to do their job. It’s left ambiguous enough that I assume this issue might be returned to in later books, maybe? Right now, it just feels like a loose end that wasn’t properly addressed. Also, I’m really excited to read the rest of the books because The Company and their ultimate goal are still shrouded in secrecy. I’m betting by the end, there will be a big showdown between the Company and its agents.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book, and one that made me very happy. Now I need to read the rest of the Company books, which I will attempt to do, somewhere in the midst of all my other reading and schoolwork.

Disclosure – library