Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Science Fiction (page 1 of 4)

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Classic sci-fi isn’t really “my thing”, but since when has that ever stopped me? Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? comes endlessly recommended to me, and I like the philosophic allusion of its title.

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? - Philip K Dick - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? here.
(Bloggers dream of affiliate links, I can tell you that much – there’s a few on this page, and when you make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was first published back in 1968, but remains popular – largely due to the film adaptation franchise. My edition (SF Masterworks) includes an interesting introduction by Graham Sleight. In it, he poses the question that he says is at the heart of Dick’s dystopian novel: “What is a fake? And, if you can make a fake seem authentic enough, does it matter?”. He wrote that in 2009, long before the time of fake news and alternative facts, and yet it feels more apt than ever.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, where a global nuclear war has left much of Earth uninhabitable thanks to a radioactively polluted atmosphere. Most animal species have gone instinct, or are well on their way. The Powers That Be incentivise humans to move to interplanetary colonies by offering them free personal androids, robot slaves that can do all their dirty work. As the program becomes more popular, the robots become more advanced, to the point where they’re almost indistinguishable from old fashioned flesh-and-blood humans.

As the androids become more human, they start to have human desires – like getting back to Earth where they think they belong, and they can live free from the oppression of their masters. Enter men like Richard Deckhard, bounty hunters who track down these absconders and “retire” them (i.e., shoot them with laser guns).

Dick takes an interesting approach, then, to dystopian science fiction, writing Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? more in the style of detective noir fiction. Deckhard is the hard-boiled world-weary investigator, tempted by selfish motives (sex, owning his own ostrich) but keeping his cool in life-threatening situations.

Speaking of sex: I’ve got to say, even if I knew nothing else about Dick, it’s abundantly clear throughout Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? that he really hates women. Really hates them. Richard Deckhard’s wife is a sad sack, totally pitiable and more of an obstacle to the progression of the plot than anything. The android villainess is a femme fatale, drawing Deckhard away from his purpose and manipulating him with sex. The pages are peppered with really gross descriptions of their physical appearance. Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Other than that, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? isn’t a bad read. I reckon the main reason for its enduring popularity is its layers: there’s so much you can read into it! It’s a novel about the nature of humanity and identity, how we understand our reality, and the basis of morality. Much heavier stuff than I was expecting from a post-nuclear-fall-out novel about shooting robots with laser guns.

I can’t say I’m all that eager to check out the movies, though. There was the 1982 Harrison Ford-led Blade Runner, which departed significantly from the source text, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, which clawed a lot of it back. I only made it about half-way through the trailer for the former before I got bored, so I think I’ll give it a miss. I’ll keep Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? on my shelf, though, and re-visit it next time I’m eager to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of alternative facts.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?:

  • “this… book has drained what little intellectual energy I had. I’m now an even more boring individual.” – JC Christiansen
  • “I do not remember the movie being this stupid.” – M Snow

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Power is a science-fiction utopia… or dystopia, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s a novel for the #MeToo/Time’s Up era. This is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, developed after a period of mentorship with feminist literary icon Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s influence is abundantly clear in the story – it’s almost an homage.

The Power - Naomi Alderman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Power here.
(You have the power to support this site, by making a purchase through an affiliate link – you’ll send a small commission this way, at no cost to you.)

So, here’s the conceit: in The Power, teenage girls develop the ability to release an electric charge from their bodies. Thanks to a long-dormant organ in their collarbones, women are “awakened” to this new power, and suddenly have the capacity to fight back against the patriarchal oppression that has ruled their lives thus far.

They understood their strength, all at once.

The Power (Page 56)

But that’s not all! The Power is also a book within a book, framed as a historical novel written by a man in an alternate future, after the actual events take place. Approximately five thousand years after the power emerges, a male historian writes this story – imagining the experiences of fictional women – to present the radical notion that women weren’t always the dominant sex.

So, yeah. You see what Alderman’s doing there? How it’s a utopian idea – that women develop new strength, that they’re stronger together, using their power strategically to rebel against subjugation – but a dystopian one at the same time. It turns out, unequal distribution of physical strength fucks up all societal structures, regardless of which gender is on top (according to Alderman’s novel, anyway).

The Power is grittier, darker than I expected. I’ve seen it billed as a young adult novel, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Even though a lot of the characters are teenage girls, at least initially, the themes and content are quite mature and might require a bit of perspective to fully grasp. Trigger warning for violence (obviously), sexual abuse, and sexual assault.

Alderman weaves in organised religion in interesting ways. The power of women takes on a spiritual aspect almost straight away. There are characters who have “visions”, characters who invoke powerful religious symbolism to solidify their new position – it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

I think Alderman goes a bit too far, though, in trying to explain the origins of the power. The narrative goes off on a bit of a tangent, about a “Guardian Angel” chemical that was supposedly added to the water supply during WWII to protect against nerve gas attacks. That somehow stimulated these organs that already existed? Or caused them to grow outsized? Or something? There’s quite a bit of extraneous detail about it, either way, and it just feels distracting. As readers, we don’t really need to know the ins and outs of the whys and hows – Alderman should have trusted us to go along with her.

As much as I enjoyed The Power, I will warn you that it’s not subtle. It’s the risk that any writer of feminist utopian/dystopian fiction takes, the “oh, women would be just as bad as men in a matriarchal society” argument that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a MRA slogan. She really hammers home the point, unnecessarily at times (e.g., the novel closes with a female author writing to the male author of the historical fiction book-within-a-book, suggesting that he publish under a woman’s name, in order to be taken seriously).

But you can see why it’s such a tempting idea, and why The Power has been so popular with readers. In June 2017, Alderman won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction, and it was named one of the 10 Best Books Of The Year by The New York Times. Barack Obama also included it in his list of favourite books for that year, which always guarantees a sales bump. I haven’t seen the Amazon Prime adaptation yet, but critics fairly panned it – and I think I got what I needed from the story in the book, as it is.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Power here:

  • “Needs More male empowerment.” – William
  • “Feels like this might be for someone with a vocal fry or someone who says like a lot…. lol idk … Smh” – Mannie
  • “As a duty to my fellow book club members, I ground through it, but if you’re considering it for your book club, do not believe the hype. It’s puke on a page, pretending to be relevant, meaningful, serious art.” – Bookster

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

We all know the booklover who won’t watch the film adaptation of their favourite book because it couldn’t possibly live up to their hopes. But did you know it also happens in reverse? The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favourite films, and I put off reading the book on which it was based for a long, long time. Until now, in fact.

The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Time Traveler’s Wife here.
(No need to travel through time to give this blog a boost: just make a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page!)

Before it was a masterpiece staring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife was Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, first published back in 2003. That makes this year twenty years since its release, high time I got over myself and gave it a go, wouldn’t you say?

It’s basically a Mobius strip romance, with some science fiction and fantasy mixed in. Henry is a librarian with an unsettling genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time at random. The titular wife, Clare, is an artist who lives through time in a linear way, like the rest of us. Henry meets Clare at the beginning of the novel, and he has never seen her before – but she’s seen him many times. In fact, she’s already in love with him.

How? Well, bear with me, because this gets a bit complicated. Future Henry has been travelling back through time since Clare was a little girl. He often finds himself in her backyard, where they talk and eat picnics. Henry has told Clare that, in the future, they’re in love – in fact, she’s his wife. But Present Henry hasn’t started doing that yet, when he first meets Clare, so… who’s to say where the love story really “begins”?

I gave up on trying to keep track of the timeline of their interactions (and I’d suggest you do the same). I focused instead on how old each of the relevant parties were for each encounter – Niffenegger helpfully provides that information at the beginning of each chapter. If it helps going in, The Time Traveler’s Wife seems to roughly follow Clare’s linear experience, living from childhood to old age with no deviations, as most of us do. Henry comes and goes as the plot sees fit.

I probably shouldn’t spend too much time delving into all the logistics of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife – otherwise what would be the point in reading the book? But I will say this: I am so, so glad to read a time travel book that finally addresses the Clothes Issue. Henry can’t take anything with him when he travels through time, so he shows up wherever he’s going naked as the day he was born. It makes for a lot of interesting fodder for the novel, and Henry’s main motivation almost anywhere he goes is finding clothes, food, and somewhere safe to hide.

Yep, time travel ain’t all beer and skittles, but Henry and Clare find ways to make it work for them. For instance, they play the lottery and the stock-market, and make enough for Clare to live comfortably as an artist while Henry’s barely hanging onto a low-paid library job. Thankfully, Niffenegger spares us all the tiresome hand-wringing about the morality of it, too. It’s a good idea, it makes sense to game the system, and there’s too much going on in The Time Traveler’s Wife to worry about the protagonists getting just desserts.

There are a lot of rapid shifts in The Time Traveler’s Wife – in time (duh) but also in tone. One minute, a thirty-something Henry is living in domestic bliss with age-appropriate Clare. Next, he’s helping an adolescent Clare assault the man who tried to rape her on a date. Then, he’s trying to convince a doctor that his time travel is real, not just a schizophrenic delusion. And presto, he’s engaging in a bit of mutual masturbation with his teen self. It’s at times erotic, ridiculous, philosophical, emotive, gross, sweet, poetic, violent – Niffenegger really threw everything at the wall.

If I had to try to distill it, I’d say the two big Problems in The Time Travellers Wife are: (1) the issue of free will, and whether Clare had any choice in their romance, and (2) Clare’s difficulties getting pregnant as a result of Henry’s disorder. Content warning for miscarriage and baby loss – Clare loses pregnancies over and over because the foetuses inherit Henry’s genetic code, causing them to time travel out of her womb. So, yeah, it’s heavy – as well as being sweet and romantic. I told you! Tone shifts!

So, if you’re looking closely at the latter, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be read as a metaphor for the ways in which women have suffered in the patriarchal institution of marriage. Niffenegger said that she wrote the book as an allegory about failed relationships, but I think you could read just about anything into this book if you squint.

I did take a couple of issues with the novel, ones that didn’t seem to pop up in the film. First, there’s this weird side plot about Henry’s ex-lover Ingrid, and her friend Celia. They pop up from time to time, but don’t really seem to do anything to advance the plot…? I have no idea why Niffenegger stuck them in there; maybe she’d promised a couple of besties she’d name characters after them, or something.

Second, Henry and Clare are quite snooty and pretentious, but – and this is key – simultaneously not progressive at all in their politics. They make some noise towards the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife about Marxism and a worker’s rights revolution, but then seem to forget all about it. Plus, they casually drop slurs (not That One, but still) and engage in some pretty harmful stereotyping behaviour. Here’s this bohemian artist and her time-travelling partner who read poetry and go to punk concerts, but there’s absolutely nothing deeper to it than aesthetic. I’m not sure if that was intentional on Niffenegger’s part or not.

Those issues didn’t stop The Time Traveler’s Wife going on to become a best-seller (perhaps I’m the only one who noticed). It got a big boost from Niffenegger’s buddy Scott Turow giving the book a shout-out on NBC’s Today, and then organically from a selection on Richard & Judy’s Book Club in the UK. It was named Amazon’s Book Of The Year in 2003.

In the end, I think the main problem with The Time Traveler’s Wife is exactly what I predicted, and exactly why I resisted reading it: I love the film. It’s like I looked for problems while reading the book because it couldn’t possibly be as good as the movie. The story is just so much smoother on screen, and those tone shifts are evened out, and as a result, the impact is far greater and more devastating. Plus, the ending is better – far less twee! So, read the book if you must, it’s pretty good… but watch the movie if you know what’s good for you.

P.S. No, I haven’t watched the TV series. I probably will, at some point, but see above – I’ll just end up poking holes in it for not being a frame-for-frame recreation of the film.

P.P.S. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming – Niffenegger said on Twitter that it’s called The Other Husband and it’ll be out sometime this year. Stay tuned!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife:

  • “I dreaded every minute until I finally had enough and time traveled to another book selection!” – Kay Kay H.
  • “Clare grows up knowing she will one day marry Henry because grown up Harry from the future told her. Then she meets Henry in his present and tells him they are going to fall in love and get married. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the time travel device, they would be the most boring couple to have an entire novel written about their relationship.” – beth
  • “If you like pretentious, poorly plotted soft porn with shallow, unlikable characters and a touch of pedophilia, this is the book for you. Otherwise give it a pass.” – Lyn Craven
  • “If Lolita met The Notebook, this novel would be the outcome. And that’s not a compliment.” – Carolyn

Under The Skin – Michel Faber

It feels strange that Under The Skin was published more than two decades ago (original pub. date: 2000), perhaps because the premise is so futuristic. It was Michel Faber’s debut novel, and while I don’t remember it making a huge splash at the time, it seems to be having a bit of a resurgence of late. If you’re looking for a sci-fi(ish) read for spooky season, this one’s the money!

Under The Skin - Michel Faber - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Under The Skin here.
(And here’s the skinny: if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.)

My edition of Under The Skin includes an introduction by David Mitchell. He hints at, but doesn’t outright spoil, the big twists of the plot. That’s a great kindness to the reader who reads the introduction first (that’s me!), but unfortunately it means he can’t say much other than “this book is really good, read it to find out why”. I can’t promise the same kindness in this review, so consider yourself warned: Under The Skin spoilers abound…

The story is set on the east coast of northern Scotland. I mention it first, because even though it’s not the focus of the novel, the setting is really beautifully written. Faber manages to bring the cold coast of Scotland to life on the page.

He feeds you the facts of the story gradually. At first, the protagonist – Isserley – seems like a regular woman… albeit, one who gets her kicks having sex with male hitchhikers.

Then, she starts to seem like she might enjoy it a bit too much. Is she a sex addict?

Or maybe she’s murdering them.

Or maybe she’s luring them to a farm so that someone else can murder them.

Wait, what the hell is going on here? (You get the idea.)

Slowly – oh, so slowly – Isserley is revealed to be an extraterrestrial, driving up and down the A9 and picking up lonely himbo hitchhikers for her interplanetary bosses. The “farm” on which she lives is a processing facility. Yes, Under The Skin takes a dramatic Tender Is The Flesh turn, just past half-way through. The aliens are hungry, and Earth is their farm. Gah!

Isserley has been surgically ‘mutilated’, as she puts it, to lure these men to their deaths. She’s been given a magnificent set of breasts (of course), and her spine altered so that she can walk on two legs. In their natural form, she and her comrades are more canine in nature, walking on all fours with a tail for balance, and covered in fur. They consider themselves to be the ‘human beings’, and the people of Earth (which they call vodsels) mere animals.

If you speak passable Dutch, the use of the name vodsel is a spoiler in and of itself, actually – it means “food”. The steaks from the fattened and mutilated vodsels are called voddissin, an expensive delicacy on Isserley’s home planet.

Isserley’s rigorous professionalism and conscientiousness take a hit when she is sexually assaulted by one of the hitchhikers she picks up. And so begins Under The Skin‘s denouement. She becomes disillusioned with her job, especially once she demands to see the processing of the vodsel she captures, and meets a rich boy from her home planet who advocates vehemently for ‘vegetarianism’ (or the alien equivalent, anyhow).

She decides to quit her job, but avoid returning to her home planet (where she faces a life of wretched poverty and deprivation). She wants to stay on Earth, a comparatively bountiful planet with beauty and water and food and all the other things that make life worth living. Faber has one last surprise in store for Under The Skin readers: Isserley’s escape is short-lived. She gets into a car accident with one last hitchhiker, and is forced to self-destruct her vehicle (which will surely kill her in the process) in order to escape detection by the Earth authorities. It sounds gruesome and sad, but it’s actually a surprisingly beautiful ending to a strange and eerie book.

So, as you can see, Faber touches on a lot in Under The Skin. Sexism, factory farming, animal rights, classism, sexual violence, sexual identity, humanity, empathy… It’s bound to make you desperately uncomfortable at times, and maybe second-guess your choice of steak for dinner.

I’ll leave it to the more committed genre readers to comment on its chops as a sci-fi story, but I certainly found myself transported by it. Faber used a lot of the stock-standard sci-fi tropes to make an interesting – if obvious – philosophical point. The first half is creepy as all heck, the second half is like opening a front-facing camera on humanity. I’d say, all told, Under The Skin‘s resurgence is well deserved and well-timed.

P.S. If you’re wondering how it compares to the 2013 movie of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson, apparently it doesn’t. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews would suggest that the director played fast and loose with the idea of ‘adaptation’.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Skin:

  • “It could have had a really decent sci fi ending with warships off the coast, jets flying over, the SAS breaking in, but no. None of that. Just wound up in two pages, and The End.” – Elwood
  • “Just seems like a big chunk was missing from this story. I thought that maybe there was a big message behind the story like a vegan wrote it lol. I dunno it just didn’t appeal to me if thats what Faber was trying to do or even if he wasn’t.” – Erica Paulk
  • “The story unfolds with all the subtlety of a Mike Tyson innuendo and left me laughing out loud at the author’s fustian vegan agenda. It is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling embarrassed for its writer. Enjoy.” – Mark Tristan
  • “Gross and disgusting are really the 2 adjectives that come first to mind. Are we supposed to become vegetarian after reading this? Or is the author suggesting a way to deal with the unemployed?” – Pam Well

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

The Memory Police - Yoko Ogawa - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Memory Police here.
(Don’t forget: if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission.)

The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil
« Older posts