Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
Published: Mulholland Books (2014)

The Book:

“Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies, but this one is unique even by Detroit's standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused. The cops nickname him "Bambi," but as stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?

If you're Detective Versado's over-achieving teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you are the disgraced journalist, Jonno, you do whatever it takes to investigate what may become the most heinous crime story in memory. If you're Thomas Keen, you'll do what you can to keep clean, keep your head down, and try to help the broken and possibly visionary artist obsessed with setting loose The Dream, tearing reality, assembling the city anew.”

I’d been waiting to finish my review of The Shining Girls before I read this, and now I am once again caught up with reading all of Beukes’s novels. I’ve also heard that this one is going to be adapted as a television series.  I’m going to keep an eye out for that!

My Thoughts:

Broken Monsters shares a number of similarities with The Shining Girls (which I reviewed few weeks ago). They’re both serial killer stories with a supernatural twist, and so tend to lean toward thriller and horror genres. They both also have viewpoint chapters from the killer’s perspective.  They are also both set in a major American city, and the culture of the city is a heavy influence (Chicago for The Shining Girls and Detroit for Broken Monsters).  However, the focus and structure of the two novels are quite different. In terms of structure, I felt like Broken Monsters was moving a little bit back toward the style of Moxyland, where there are multiple characters with separate storylines, which intersect at different points.  I liked that there was a lot more going on in the plot besides the central murder mystery, and I think this was a major reason why this book captured my attention so completely.

A major focus of the story involved social media and modern art, and the intersection of the two in terms of presentation, audience and meaning.  I think it is pretty tricky to involve a lot of social media and communication technology, because the trends through which people communicate can change so rapidly.  In relation to the current world, I thought the memes, teenage behavior, and txtspk felt fairly accurate, though I don’t know how gracefully these aspects will age.  For example, will anyone know what Nyan Cat was in ten years, and what will Facebook become? On the other hand, I doubt that the basic idea of the use of social media as a kind of form of performance art and identity construction will change anytime soon.  The creative aspect of social media is seen in both Jonno’s journalism and the risky online activities of Layla and her best friend.  The Detroit modern art scene plays a prominent role as well, and even the murders can be seen as horrific attempts to bring dreams to life. I enjoyed how many of the storylines explored the connections or lack of connections between the artist’s intent, the observer’s perception, and reality.

The focus on social media and art was a major part of what I liked about the novel, but I also enjoyed the characters (though their actions sometimes stressed me out).  I feel like all of the primary characters are ‘broken monsters’ in their own ways.  The killer is a monster, but his murders are more related to mixing dreams and reality than homicidal intent.  The other main characters are less monstrous, but still deeply flawed. For instance, Jonno wrecked his previous relationship and career, and is so desperate to recover them both that his sense of morality has started fraying.  Layla’s problems mostly come from her inexperience and poor decision-making, and her mother struggles to balance her loyalty to the police force with her loyalty to her daughter. TK is probably one of the kindest of the main characters, but he also has a lot of mistakes and heartache in his past.  It was fascinating to watch each of these characters struggle to cope with situations spinning far out of their control, and I ended up staying up far too late one night to see how things would come out in the end.

My Rating: 4/5

Broken Monsters is another of Lauren Beukes’s novels that fall outside of my usual favorite genres (SFF).  Like Shining Girls, it is a horror and thriller about a supernatural-tinged serial killer, but the many viewpoint characters and separate storylines reminded me a little of the style of Moxyland. The post-collapse city of Detroit and its culture plays a large role in the story, and the usage of communication technology feels very contemporary and accurate.  I really enjoyed the role social media, art and ideas of perception vs. intent played throughout various plotlines. In the end, I thought this novel was excellent, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of story Beukes will write next!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Published: Crown Publishers (2014)

The Book:

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone, with no way to even signal Earth that he's alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, and it has a pretty interesting origin.  It was originally posted serially on his blog (which I think is here, though he has another author page here), and it took off in a serious way after he self-published the full novel for Kindle.  Now, it’s a best seller and already has a movie adaptation in the works for later this year!  I originally noticed the novel due to very positive reviews from other bloggers, so I had high expectations from the start.

My Thoughts:

I would highly recommend The Martian for fans of stories of survival in harsh conditions, realistic science, and optimistic, intelligent protagonists.  The events takes place in the near future, where Weir has carefully imagined a potential manned space program to Mars. Though the mission does include some technology that is not currently in existence, the capabilities are clearly explained and internally consistent.  I admit that I did not double-check Mark’s math, but I really enjoyed that the basic math and science were explicitly described.  The novel makes the future where we have a Mars program, and where a man could struggle to survive for years alone on Mars, feel like a plausible extension into the future of our current reality.

While this is a science-based tale of survival, Mark’s personality keeps it from ever getting too dry or grim.  The story is mostly told through Mark’s logs, where his conversational style, optimistic attitude, and good sense of humor keeps things relatively light in the most difficult situations.  A lot of his humor also involves pop culture, as in the following excerpt:

“I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!  …  There are plenty of great candidates: “Life of Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.  But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.” ~p. 223

Things are not always quite so goofy, though, and when things go wrong Mark’s panic (and his use of profanity) comes through just as clearly. Mark also has MacGyver-level resourcefulness and an expertise in botany.  I think his charming personality and intelligence are a large part of why the story works so well— I can’t imagine anyone not rooting for him to make it home alive.

The Martian is a pretty straightforward story, where essentially all of the conflict is external.  Mark faces one crisis after another, but I felt that the different circumstances and details kept the pattern from feeling repetitive.  Everything that happens seems to arise naturally from Mark’s situation and the consequences of his own actions. The precariousness of Mark’s situation kept the tension up, and it was fun to try to figure out what might go wrong next.  The story was well-paced and easy to read, and this was a book that I flew through very quickly. I can see why it was optioned as a movie, since I think this is the sort of novel that would be relatively easy to adapt.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film— maybe I can even review it here as well!

My Rating: 4/5

The Martian is a debut novel that has exploded in popularity, and I’m happy to say that it has lived up to the hype for me.  It’s an entertaining survival story that features an upbeat protagonist and a thoroughly imagined future Mars mission program.  In his log, Mark clearly lays out the science and math behind the problems he faces, as well as his proposed solutions.  Events move along quickly and Mark’s personality from his log entries keep things optimistic and funny.  This was a really fun book, and one that I think could translate well to a movie!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Published: Analog Science Fiction & Fact / HarperPrism (1994)
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

“After a defining experience as a young student, Peter Hobson had a deep interest in determining the exact moment of a person’s death.  His related research made him a wealthy man, but it was his discovery of the soul leaving the human body that made him a true celebrity.

People frequently ask Peter what the afterlife is like, but he really has no idea. With the help of his best friend Sarkar Muhammed, an AI specialist, Peter decides to answer this question by modeling his own mind in three different versions: one is a ‘control’ version, one is meant to simulate immortality, and one is meant to simulate a bodiless afterlife.  However, the copies were recorded just after Peter’s personal life was rocked by an unexpected betrayal, and it appears to have caused one of the simulations to become a killer!”  ~Allie

This is the second novel I’ve read by Robert J. Sawyer, and it’s definitely my favorite of his novels thus far.  I was not a fan of Hominids, but I’m glad I decided to try another of his novels.  This is another audiobook that I listened to during my daily commute!

My Thoughts:

The science of The Terminal Experiment might not have been terribly realistic, but I thought the fictional science elements (including simulated human minds and the detection of the soul) were really fun. The understanding of computers was a little short-term retro, due to the publication date. For instance, I had to laugh a little bit when after recording the entirety of Peter Hobson’s mind, the narrator commented, “Gigabytes of information had been recorded”.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories including electronic simulations of human consciousness, so I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story.  As for the existence of the soul, it was interesting to see how the world would change if it could be scientifically proven that there was some kind of afterlife.  All in all, I thought it was a really cool set of ‘what-ifs’ to build a story around.

I felt like the story was as much a drama as it was a murder mystery. The murder mystery part arrives fairly late in the story, so it is important that the reader be drawn in by the protagonist’s life story.  I initially disliked Peter Hobson, mostly for his contempt and his tendency to generalize dislike of specific people to broad categories of the population.  However, though his own personal narrative often glosses over his shortcomings, I felt like the reader was meant to notice and acknowledge his flaws. Most of the focus of the story is on Peter, and on the variations of his personality.  Other characters, including his wife, her co-workers, and her parents, are seen mostly through Peter’s eyes, and so don’t have the same depth.  One secondary character that I particularly enjoyed, though, was his best friend Sarkar—I think that it is not very common to encounter religious scientists in fiction, and even less common to encounter Muslim scientists.

The murder mystery propelled the plot in the later part of the book, but I didn’t think it was the most interesting part of the story.  It seemed like the consideration of the effects of technology on society fell a bit by the wayside when the murder investigation got underway.  The mystery was also very predictable, so there was not much in the way of a puzzle for the reader.  I still found it pretty exciting, though, to see Peter try to work his way to the solution and keep ‘himself’ from killing again. Peter's story was one that was easy to be drawn into, even through audio. In the end, The Terminal Experiment was an entertaining sci-fi thriller that has brightened my daily travels.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Terminal Experiment is a mind-uploading murder mystery that revolves around the drama of scientist Peter Hobson’s personal life.  Though the science is dated, I thought the central speculative ideas of the story—the proof of existence of a soul and the ability to electronically copy human minds—were really fun.  I would have liked for the story to involve more of how these discoveries could affect society, rather than moving into a predictable mystery plot.  All the same, Peter Hobson, and his three electronic alter-egos were interestingly flawed central characters, and I also enjoyed many of the secondary characters that filled his world, such as his friend Sarkar, the AI specialist.  Overall, I enjoyed The Terminal Experiment, and it has left me feeling more positive about trying out others of Sawyer’s novels in the future!