Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Science Fiction (page 1 of 4)

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, and he had a long row to hoe to get it out into the world. He persisted through no fewer than 76 rejections before finally pulling together this manuscript that was accepted by a publisher.

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The novel’s central character, Thursday Next, is a detective in an alternative world (circa 1985). England has been at war with Imperial Russia in the Crimea region for over a century, the occasional time travel wormhole opens up in the countryside, and there’s a whole branch of the police force dedicated to solving literary crimes. That’s where Thursday works, and how she ends up pursuing a super-villain through the pages of Jane Eyre.

This isn’t the kind of sexy morally grey villain you’ll find in your cartoon cover romantasies, though. Acheron Hades is impervious to bullets, can walk through walls, manipulates people into killing themselves, and worse. His schtick in The Eyre Affair is stealing the original manuscripts of classic works (Martin Chuzzlewit and the aforementioned Jane Eyre), and using the technology he stole from Thursday’s uncle to pull key characters out of the story. He holds them to ransom, as readers around the world bemoan the loss of their favourites from the pages.

While all that’s going on, Thursday’s father occasionally stops time in order to visit her and ask about pivotal moments in history – he’s on the run from the Chronoguard, the cops that oversee time travel, and his wife worries that he’s having an affair with a woman a hundred years ago. There’s also an ongoing society-wide debate as to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with door-knockers stopping by to evangelise for their leading theory periodically.

So, yes, The Eyre Affair is a bit kooky – big Terry Pratchett vibes, all throughout. It’s a bit hard to follow, especially at first, though I suspect that’s more my fault than Fforde’s. Seasoned fantasy readers would surely understand the world and follow the plot no problem, but having little experience in the genre myself, I found it all a bit overwhelming.

It’s not just fantasy, though. The Eyre Affair works in elements of science-fiction, mystery, thriller, satire – even romance. It’s like Fforde took an element from each of his 76 rejected manuscripts and cooked it into one. That didn’t really help with the “hard to follow” thing. You don’t realise how much you rely on the tropes of a given genre to understand what’s going on until you read a book that throws the rules out the window.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Eyre Affair was a mixed bag for me. I liked the small details Fforde worked in, like the dodos revived from extinction to be kept as house pets and the character named ‘Jack Schitt’. I didn’t like the gratuitous gun violence and the casual fat phobia and ableism (which probably would’ve flown unchecked twenty years ago when The Eyre Affair was first published, but not so much today). I’d recommend this one to fans of Pratchett (and Douglas Adams, come to that), but tell the average non-fantasy reader that they can probably skip it if they’re short on reading time.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Eyre Affair:

  • “It’s funny, I was just reading an article about how indie authors are ruining the book industry. How about mainstream books that charge too much and they suck?” – MEA
  • “The characters have silly names, the plot is unbelievable and it’s just tedious over all. I will never believe the reviews again.” – pdh
  • “Contrary to other reviewers, this book is NOT Douglas Adams, NOT Jonathan Lethem, NOT Monty Python, NOT Stephen Hawking, NOT gripping, NOT witty, and certainly NOT Bronte. AVOID.” – Mark Malamud
  • “Look, alternate time lines and such don’t faze me; I’m a Trekkie and a Whovian, so you want to stir things up, I say, have at it. This however is just plain silly and pretentious. You still want to read it ’cause you figure you are no doubt smarter than I am? It’s entirely possible, but do your bank account a favor and check it out of the library.” – Peach Blossom Lane

The Anomaly – Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly is one of the pandemic novels you might’ve missed when it came out in 2020. It was published in the original French (L’Anomalie), then translated into English by Adriana Hunter. It’s kind of a sci-fi thriller meets philosophical novel, and it’s a weird one.

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So, as per the blurb: “During a terrifying storm, Air France 006 – inexplicably – duplicates… one plane lands in March, the other doesn’t arrive until June.” Straight off the bat, The Anomaly has some Lost vibes. There’s a plane-related mishap, of course, but also a wide cast of characters, each of whom has an intriguing/troubling back-story. There’s a hit man on board, a translator, a film editor, a traumatised child, a Nigerian hip-hop artist, and so on. The only thing that really connects them all is that they ended up on this plane and it randomly copied itself mid-flight.

I’m going to give you the trigger warnings I wish I’d had before I read The Anomaly: there is a dog death straight away, on page three, without any chance to prepare yourself. That in itself was almost enough to ruin the rest of it for me. There’s also some murder, violence, and child abuse, and I suppose it might also be triggering for anyone who’s afraid of flying. Just so you know!

Anyway, alongside the stories of the passengers runs the story of the scientist charged with figuring out how and why Air France 006 produced an identical copy of itself mid-air. Adrian Miller is a kind-of bumbling statistician who was charged with developing protocols to manage government responses to aircraft incidents post-9/11. He was asked to develop a protocol for what to do if none of the other protocols applied, and he was so sure that such a scenario could never happen, that this “alternative” protocol was “call Adrian Miller”. Sure enough, the situation in The Anomaly sees this protocol put into effect.

There are some fun moments, pithy one liners that jump of the page. I like how le Tellier customised Tolstoy with “All smooth flights are alike. Every turbulent flight is turbulent in its own way,” (page 43). I also got a chuckle out of: “Freedom of thought on the internet is all the more complete now that it’s clear that people have stopped thinking,” (page 301).

Mostly, though, The Anomaly is brain-bending stuff – scientifically, spiritually, and philosophically. le Tellier covers a lot of ground very quickly, rather than focusing on any one aspect of the mystery in depth. One minute, he’s treating Air France 006 as evidence that we’re all living in a simulation, then it’s God sending us a message, then the plane fell through a wormhole… The character I related to most was throughout the whole thing was the baffled President, who just nodded along with what everyone was saying and tried desperately to look like he was keeping up.

It’s a fascinating premise, but The Anomaly never quite achieves lift off, in my view. I would have liked to see one or two characters, and/or one or two of the philosophical questions raised by the conceit, addressed in depth. As it stands, le Tellier took a light, broad strokes approach, which might appeal to others but didn’t really work for me.

le Tellier has announced that a television adaptation is in the works, and fans of Lost should definitely watch that. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rushing out to read The Anomaly first, though. It’s fine, just skippable, and maybe it will be more resonant on screen.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Anomaly:

  • “I’ve wasted enough time with this book; no sense in wasting more time reviewing it.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I’m sorry I bought this book. Just a couple pages into it is a graphic description of a dog hit by a car. I don’t want to read things like that! I don’t care what it contributes to the story. When will novel writers learn that YOU DON”T KILL THE DOG, or any other pet for that matter.” – bethweiser
  • “Lost its excitement midway into story and got confusing of who was who at end because so much of wasted time on scientist that didn’t even solve anything.” – Tmumble

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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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