Sunday, August 24, 2008

A mini slew of sci-fi: Richard K. Morgan, Nancy Farmer, Mary E. Pearson & M.T. Anderson

I've just been reading some sci-fi, and it has made me want to read more. There's really nothing like good sci-fi for sort of blowing the doors off your cozy, lazy little world view and making you think.

First off were a pair of YA titles recommended over at 7-Imp. I already mentioned The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. At the time I said how you'd never know it was sci-fi to look at it. Well, it is. It's a small story that opens like a bud. You go from knowing nothing beyond what the first-person narrator knows -- that she has awakened from a coma -- to bit by bit piecing together the mysteries around her accident and recovery. Why, you may wonder, do her parents seem to be hiding her? Why is her beloved grandmother treating her like a stranger? Read and find out; to say more would spoil that careful unfurling.

If you're familiar with The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, it might tell you something about The Adoration of Jenna Fox to know that 7-Imp drew comparisons between them. Well, I (shockingly) had never read Nancy Farmer, and this particular book, especially, is hard to miss, since you can barely see the cover through the collection of awards seals it has accrued! It's the story of a boy named Matt growing up in the country of Opium -- the strip of land between the US and what used to be Mexico. You see, a collective of powerful opium farmers brokered a deal with the US government: basically, let us exist, and a) we will not sell our drugs in your country, and b) we will prevent illegal immigrants from crossing your border. So the US has happily turned a blind eye to what is happening inside the land of Opium, and it is not pretty. This is a world of cloning gone awry, and brain implants that can turn humans into a zombie labor force, and it's the story of a boy claiming his own life, in spite of what he is, or what he isn't.

I was especially struck by the depiction late in the book of the devastated Colorado River. Last month we took my niece to see the IMAX movie about the dying Colorado, which is now a mere trickle by the time it reaches Mexico, having been diverted to fill Las Vegas's fountains, among other things.

Feed, by M.T. Anderson makes some creepy understated references to our sick environmental future, too, but in the offhand first-person voice of a teenage boy who has never known anything else. In the world of Feed, you can go to the Moon for spring break, but you can't go to a mountaintop or a beach on Earth. There's nothing left worth seeing. At one point the characters go to visit a "farm" -- and this is no farm with living animals, but miles and miles of cloned meat -- a landscape of meat, like in those awful "Beef -- it's what's for dinner" magazine advertisements that abound right now.

Feed is a creepy book, and like all these others, it points to an exaggerated but not that hard to believe human future. In this case, it's a future in which 80% of Americans have their brains hard-wired as babies with a "feed" so they are on-line all the time. They can talk to their friends the old-fashioned way, or they can chat them, effortlessly sending brain-to-brain text messages. Since they have instant access to any information they might need, school has taken on a whole new meaning -- there's no point learning facts any more. Schools are privately run and geared toward churning out better consumers. In Anderson's vision of this future, the system is absolutely corporate, and advertising drives all. It's a consumer world gone mad, and it's all in your head, all the time. So what happens when one unique young woman decides to f*** with the system? Er, probably nothing good.

[By the way, I don't know if Anderson has ever said so, but I read Violet as an homage to Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 -- bright young girl born into the wrong times; a sort of symbol of what has been lost. And speaking of Fahrenheit 451, if you haven't reread it in the past decade, do. It was written in 1953, for God's sake, and it's scary-prescient. Get this quote from Bradbury about the message of the book: "I wasn't worried about censorship -- I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV." HA! Like that could ever happen. . .]

In any case, I found Feed deeply sad and affecting, and there were so many, many times when I felt the *snick* of ugly truth about our species and the direction we are headed.

Those are all YA titles above, but this one is for grown-ups. I've never read Richard K. Morgan before, but Jim is a fan of the Altered Carbon books, and when Thirteen (a stand-alone title) arrived in the mail, I idly picked it up and started reading. Well. The short opening chapter is like a hand that reaches out and grabs you by the collar. Just try not to continue reading! Not only is it smart, scary, gross, suspenseful, a little sexy, and filled with truth, it is also really really well written.

So, Richard Morgan is one of those writers who's, you know, smarter than you. (I don't mean you personally, but well, most people, including myself.) You know you're in the clutches of a superior intellect, and that superior intellect isn't going to hold your hand and tell you any backstory to ease you into things. You're just dropped into this world, and you have to fend for yourself. It's not that it's a difficult read. But it's not a quick beach-variety read either. You need your brain cells. It's also a fantastic story -- a 22nd-century noir bounty-hunter thriller, if you want to know! Imagine the US has been ripped apart by the Secession of "the Republic" (aka "Jesusland"), and the remaining bits of the country have formed new allegiances. One of the world's great powers is a corporation that controls settlement on Mars, and genetic modification has run rampant, creating new variants of human beings, including the titular "thirteens."

What happens when one highly dangerous "thirteen" returns unexpectedly from internment on Mars to go on a murder spree, and another thirteen, the main character, is hired to hunt him down? I'll tell you what happens: it gets really complex.

{Fans of The Master & Margarita will get a little thrill from the name of a floating city in the book: Bulgakov's Cat. Got to love a writer who references Bulgakov's cat! Makes me want a character with one protruding fang, too.}

I've just learned that Morgan has a fantasy novel coming out in January (it's already out in Britain), and I'm eager to read it. Apparently, these are not going to be Tolkien-variety elves!

I'm happy to get more sci-fi recommendations, if you've got any to give.

Oh, and HERE is an interesting little peek into the sleepaway camp of the literati, at which, if you are a lucky aspiring writer, you may be permitted to schlep pasta for a Great Writer. (Thanks, but no thanks. Give me SCBWI any day!)


Sara said...

I love SF. I used to read way more of it than I do now, and I posted once about my favorites as a kid.

Have you read any of Margo Lanagan's creepy short stories, like the Printz Honor book, Black Juice?

On the adult side, have you read any Nancy Kress? Or Connie Willis?

Anonymous said...

Ah, si-fi. Never exacttly my genre of novels, but someone once told me Maximum Rider was si-fi, which is a wicked awesome book. Hmm, maybe I'll check out some of those reccomendations.

Liana said...

I bought and devoured "The Adoration of Jenna Fox" at your recommendation and LOVED it...and re-read it soon after.
So- I'm very very intrigued by these recommendations, esp. "Feed."

I was wondering, though- I don't know how hard this is to do but- could you possibly put a link on your sidebar to all your book-recommendations or the posts wherein you did that? 'Cause you make a LOT of great recommendations, but sometimes I can't find the posts again.

Anyway- You have great taste!! :)

Amber Lough said...

Awesome book suggestions. I haven't read The Master and Margarita in years...maybe now I would understand it more. I go through sci-fi phases too, where nothing satiates like something unreal. I just read RASH, by Pete Hautman. It's sci-fi in the sense that it happens in the future, but nothing to do with space ships. It's all about the restructuring of the USSA (United States of a Safer America), where there's "a hundred years for every man, woman, and child." Not exactly a chicken in every pot, but close enough.

Anonymous said...

So glad you found Richard Morgan! He's my favorite author, Thirteen is my favorite book, and I just read his new fantasy The Steel Remains. Think you will love it too! Yes, he is smarter than the average - not only that, he actually thinks about things, and brings opposite points of views on issues, all intertwined in a great story.

tone almhjell said...

Yes, I'm ordering 13 now. My summer vacation of 'ordinary' books is over, and it's back to fantasy and sci-fi.

Laini, I was wondering, since my cat hopefully is having kittens in a little while, and the girl I bought her from has a tradition of naming the kittens after characters in a fantasy or sci-fi novel she likes, would you mind if there was a Magpie, a Poppy, a Talon and perhaps a Bellatrix or Snoshti? Depending on what they look like when they arrive, of course. Maybe there's even a Batch. Now, that would be asking for trouble! :)

Afton said...

I just requested these all from my library, except Feed, which I read and found disturbing yet fascinating. I thought it was interesting how all that technology ultimately hindered communication by contributing to the break down of the language. Frightening, however, MT got actual bits of conversation by hanging out in the mall.

I loved Epic by Conor Kostick and Incarceron by Catherine Fisher.

Laini Taylor said...

Afton -- thanks for the recommendations! I will check those out.

Tone -- I would LOVE to have kittens named after my characters! (I would love a pile of kittens in my own home, but my dog would love it more -- and not in a good way)!

Anon -- I'm jealous you already read The Steel Remains!

Amber -- yeah, I need to reread The Master & Margarita too. Been a while.

Liana -- I will dredge up the post I did on YA for adults -- and add to it, and put it in my sidebar. I am going on a crusade to get more adults to read YA, so that will work nicely. So glad you liked Adoration of Jenna Fox!

Jehsyka -- I haven't read the Maximum Ride books, but am curious about them.

Sara -- great list! I loved some of those as a kid too. Sci-fi and fantasy were always in good supply at the Navy px's when I was growing up. I guess sailors like to read em too. Oh, and yes, I love Margo Lanagan, and read one Connie Willis that I was so-so on, have another in the stack that I will try.

Anonymous said...

You can order The Steel Remains at a reasonable price from this site: free shipping, too. And it's worth getting the UK cover - it's beautiful! The gold lettering is much prettier than it looks on the picture.

Anonymous said...

If I keep this up, I'll have to eventually give you my real name!

You wanted other good sci-fi books to read? My favorites (other than Richard Morgan,my favorite author by far and I've read sci-fi since the 50's) Matter by Iain Banks; Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds; oh--that's it. Sort of sci-fi-ish: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami; Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz-Zafon. Notice the lack of American authors...

Other favorite fantasy besides Richard's The Steel Remains: Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon; CJ Cherryh's The Morgaine Trilogy. (finally, an American and a female). Someone made an excellent comment about The Steel Remains: "It's the only fantasy I've read that I've cared about the characters".

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