Tag Archives: science fiction

Alden Bell — The Reapers Are the Angels

This is a good summary of my experience reading Alden Bell’s The Reapers are the Angels: my boyfriend and I were driving to New Jersey to meet some members of his family at the Cherry Hill Mall. Usually I don’t read in the car when it’s just the two of us, but I’d been reading the book while I was waiting and I was halfway through and I couldn’t put it down. By the time we got there I had about ten pages left, he parked the car and got out but I was still frantically trying to get to the end. “Honey,” he said, “Come on!” “I JUST NEED TO FINISH THIS BOOK OKAY LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” I snapped at him. Then I proceeded to sit in the car until I was done.

If this is a new trend–that is, the Southern Gothic style writing and post apocalyptic setting–then I for one am all for it. Bell does it quite well.

Temple is the fifteen-year-old protagonist of the book, a girl with secrets haunting her and a short lifetime of memories from which she’s running. She’s coming up the country from the South, beginning in Florida, but no matter where she goes, violence seems to follow, driving her on. And that’s not exactly surprising considering that 25 years ago, the dead came back (in the best zombie tradition Bell does not attempt to explain why–they simply are). A blighted world is all that Temple has ever known, from her first years in an orphanage to the last five that she has spent running from her past.

The book is episodic, as Temple moves from one community to another, covering the varying forms of human reaction to adversity: to move freely and hunt, to hole up behind secure doors, to pretend that nothing is happening, and of course, far more monstrous and terrifying fates. Throughout her presence changes the lives of those around her, for better or for worse, due in part to the conflicting forces that drive her: the darkness within and the fact that despite her deadliness, she has a bit of a soft spot in the very depths of her heart.

You might not think that Temple would be an easy character to love, but she is. Equally at home beheading a “meatskin” and appreciating the small beauty of electric fish beneath the moon, she and the characters she encounter have a poetic plainness in the tradition of O’Connor and McCarthy. Even among the horror–still poetically described–the brief moments of beauty, those fish, a sunset, a glass of Coke with ice in it–remind you that though the world may have changed irrecoverably, people remain the same.

This is at once a gripping road novel, a story of the horrors that humans can perpetrate upon each other, and a bit of a coming of age (in the accepting responsibility sense–anyone arguing that Temple is anything but an old soul is quite simply wrong). As I said, it was difficult to put down and finished all too soon. Really a lovely and terrifying book and highly recommended.

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Justin Cronin — The Passage

I’ve been reading a lot about Justin Cronin’s third novel, The Passage, over the last few weeks, and it piqued my curiosity. I’m not normally one for vampire novels, but this sounded like one I could get behind–a huge sprawling epic with shades of Cormac McCarthy? Yes please.

I was actually really pleasantly surprised by this book. The writing was surprisingly good and almost poetic in places, I could definitely see where some of the McCarthy comparisons came in, especially in the descriptions of the landscape. Although it was a little bloated at 800 pages, I still blew through it in a day or so, mostly because once I got hooked on the story, I couldn’t put the damn thing down, even though a lot of the book, since it is the first in a trilogy, is essentially glorified worldbuilding/setup. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the trilogy once it is published. I’d probably even watch the movie version, because you know that isn’t far behind (some of the scenes seemed almost written with it in mind).

The book is divided into several parts; first, the biological thriller in which the virus that would eventually engender the apocalypse is discovered in Bolivia, and developed to unfortunate purposes by the government (of course). Test subjects are selected from death rows all across the country (murders and rapists–GREAT idea). Something goes wrong (of course–how could it not?) In the midst of this, Amy Harper Bellafonte (by the way, I LOVE this name), a six year old orphan, is selected as the thirteenth test subject in a test that may make her immortal but also provide a key to protecting the world…100 years in the future. The second part of the novel, after some gripping interludes describing the fall of civilization as we know it, is 100 years “A.V.” in which a small group of colonists survive hidden behind high walls and bright lights, with their own customs, language, and petty jealousies, cut off from the rest of the world. Things happen, as they do, and a small band, including Peter Jaxon, everyman, Alicia Donadio, supergirl, and Amy, the girl from nowhere, sets off across the Western United States, now a wasteland, heading back to where it all began.

As I said earlier, the book was a little bloated, but still very readable. Once things got swinging it was hard to put down because I HAD to know what happened. There were a number of very suspenseful moments, and even the action scenes, places where I often lose interest in sci-fi novels, were well written.

It was hard to not be freaked out when Cronin described the Gulf of Mexico as a solid oil slick (this book was written far before the current spill of course). Apocalypse fiction is scariest when it’s believable, because you could imagine it happening… and let me tell you, The Passage scared the crap out of me. His “virals” are never described in detail but are still absolutely terrifying despite it. In addition, the sense of absolute dread that pervaded me throughout the entire first few parts of the book was really impressive. I knew what was going to happen, but the atmospheric way in which Cronin gradually built up the suspense really got to me.

There were many cliches, as some other reviewers have mentioned–small child saves the world, vampires, government experiments gone wrong–but somehow, you don’t mind so much when you’re reading them.

So yes–definitely waiting anxiously to find out where Peter and Amy are going, and also to see more of Carter, one of the original Twelve and a weirdly sad, sympathetic character. I’m hoping we’ll find out some more about him… he seems promising, somehow. This was one of the more exciting genre books I’ve read so far this year!

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Michael Shea — The Extra

Set at an unspecified time in the future, The Extra details a Los Angeles in which the poor live down on the ground in a lawless mess called the Zoo, the middle-class live in high rises that aren’t a whole lot better, and the rich live above all of them, separated and safe. And the movies are “live action,” where extras who volunteer to enter the sets risk a 1 in 6 chance of surviving to the end of the film, where they receive rich bonuses. The latest of these films is Alien Hunger, where the APPs (Anti-Personnel Properties, the monsters of the movie) are some of the most terrifying yet. Into this mess, Jool, Curtis, and Japh decide to try their luck, teaming up in hopes of surviving to the end of the film. Into this mess are thrown Kate and Rod, two assistant directors who have annoyed Val Margolian, the godlike and slightly nutty director of this monstrosity.

Sound ridiculous enough for you yet? It only gets more ridiculous from here. A sharp satire (though of what I’m not quite sure… so many targets) with a numerous shift of viewpoints, The Extra combines humor, action, and very colloquial writing. The last was one of my main problems with the book, though, the “future” slang/speaking patterns was a little grating, especially when the book switched so rapidly between jarringly different voices. The pacing was also a little odd; the first half a slow build-up (not quite boring, but at a certain point you kind of just want him to get to it already) and then the second half is just non-stop chaos.

Still, mostly enjoyable, and certainly very readable, it’s possible to blow through this book in an hour or two. Shea has managed to create a somewhat frighteningly plausible scenario, and then presented it in an engaging manner. If you like slapstick, occasionally horrific violence, a fast-paced plot that doesn’t give you much room for a pause, and inventive monsters (both of the APP and human kind) then you’ll probably enjoy The Extra. It won’t be making a permanent space on my shelf, but I’m not sorry I read it.

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Mira Grant — Feed

Taking a brief break from Jane Austen to plow through this one.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not really a huge fan of zombies, either in movies, television, or books. Yes, they’re terrifying, but I don’t like being scared for no particular reason. And if I’m going to enjoy something zombie-related, it’s usually got some kind of a hook–for example I hated the ____ of the Dead movies, but loved Zombieland, partially because of the actors, partially because of the humor. Hated World War Z, but loved The Walking Dead because of the wonderful writing, character development, and the building sense of dread. (Man, for someone who doesn’t like zombies, I do seem to read a lot of it.) And so I picked up Feed with some trepidation–was it just going to be another action zombie book, like the excerpted scenes seemed to make it? The concept was intriguing enough that I gave it a try.

The year is 2039, and the world has been infected by the hybrid Kellis-Amberlee virus since 2014; one virus designed to kill the common cold, one designed to cure cancer, that morphed and reanimated the dead. Yeah. I’m not a science person, so I can’t say how likely that is, but that’s at least an imaginative way to get things going. In the ensuing time, the world has undergone drastic changes: different areas are labeled in “Zones” by safety, anyone entering Level 4 zones must take bleach showers by government mandate, etc etc. Traditional media, slow to respond to the threat, is being gradually replaced by bloggers, who are more mobile, unbound by governmental restrictions, and can get to the bottom of things. The main character, Georgia Mason, her brother Shaun Mason, and their friend Buffy portray the three blogger archetypes: George is a Newsie, reporting the hard facts, her brother is an Irwin or adrenaline junkie who gets off poking zombies, and Buffy is a Fictional writing zombie romances. (Other “types” include “Stewarts”–opinion pieces backed by fact.) They are hired to follow the campaign trail of the Republican presidential candidate and everything goes to hell from there.

I wasn’t sure, as I said, if I would like this book. The writing is a little… I don’t know, I guess it’s just not my style. Grant certainly has a very recognizable voice, and it does have its humorous moments, but the book is very wordy. While the world is well-fleshed out and realized it’s also a little much sometimes; I found myself wishing that she would get on with it. There are little pockets of exposition that are injected in each scene, and while they certainly make George’s world more believable, they also slow down the story. But once that story gets going, this is a pretty fantastic book–tightly plotted, very inventive, with a world that possesses impressive internal consistency. And little things really make the difference for me, like when Grant writes, referring to two men executed for terrorism (and then reanimated), “their bodies were remanded to the government.” What a fantastic way to phrase it–that’s exactly how it would be. Although I don’t like zombies, this isn’t so much a zombie novel as it is a thriller that happens to have zombies in it, and I’ll probably be reading the other two books in the trilogy (man… what is it with authors and trilogies nowadays?)

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Margaret Atwood — Oryx & Crake

Reading Oryx & Crake after reading The Blind Assassin is almost like reading a totally different author. The tones are so completely different that it’s amazing how chameleonic Atwood can be, but then you pick up on little things–for example, the sarcastic, vicious sense of humor, and other small cues like the word “sere” appearing to describe the color of summer in The Blind Assassin and the word “sere” a word learned by Jimmy, the erstwhile hero of Oryx & Crake. Small things but recognizably Atwood. Also unsurprising considering the science fiction content of the stories told in The Blind Assassin, and the science fiction story that Oryx & Crake undoubtedly is. A weird, horrifying, bio-terror story of science fiction, but nevertheless. And still she is recognizably concerned with stories, the stories that we tell ourselves, lulling us into false senses of security even as the world around us turns to shit.

The viciousness with which Atwood shows us the future we are heading towards is impressive, as is the invention necessary to create this horrible sideways world. We meet Jimmy first as the only survivor of some apocalyptic illness, surrounded by subhuman (superhuman?) genetically engineered crowds, and also as a young boy growing up in the Compounds, sealed off from the “pleeblands,” or the shambling, lawless cities occupied by those not smart enough to earn a job at one of the gigantic corporations that own the Compounds. Jimmy’s world is one of genetically engineered pets (a rakunk, a cross between a skunk and a raccoon), of pigoons, gigantic pigs grown to house cloned human organs as they grow. In high school he meets Crake, the sardonic genius with dangerous plans. The inevitability that society goes to hell, and the telegraphed signs that Crake throws out to Jimmy, run in parallel. And throughout the entire thing, Jimmy doesn’t want to believe what’s happening around him. His tragedy is that though he knows what’s going on, and is deeply affected by it, he can’t face it, and it destroys him. Hypocrisy and the stories invented by society to make everyone feel better is a running thread throughout.

It’s hard to enjoy reading a book like this, where you can so clearly see a possible future of our own in it, but it’s certainly gripping reading. For someone who claims that she doesn’t write science fiction, Atwood certainly does it well. The dark humor, nuanced characters, and inventive world-building make Oryx & Crake a fantastic book, if not a particularly uplifting one. Think about it the next time you go out and order some ChickieNobs. I mean, a Double Down.

(Also worth noting: Oryx & Crake is the first in a trilogy. I was rather disappointed with The Year of the Flood but am holding back judgment until the third volume.)

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