Tag Archives: sci-fi

Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

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Based on the lyrics of Neil Peart and the Rush album of the same name

I am as die-hard of a Rush fan as one can be. I know their whole history, have all their albums, know a huge chunk of their songs note-by-note, and as a life-long drummer I worship at the altar of Neil Peart. Their 2012 album Clockwork Angels followed their excellent record Snakes and Arrows and continues Rush’s long tested style of fusing traditional hard rock with the funkier elements of old-school prog rock. My wife and I were lucky enough to see Rush live in Halifax in 2013 (it was my son’s first concert, as my wife was very pregnant at the time). This was a fantastic album, the musicality was aggressive and highly complex and the lyrics married Jules Verne-esque imagery and socio-political themes. The album was masterful, and I think their best since Signals (bold statement, but I stand by it).

I didn’t know that a “novelization” of this record existed until the publisher, ECW Press, held a twitter contest to win a signed copy of the hardcover book. I assumed Neil Peart authored it, but it was only based on his lyrics, Kevin J. Anderson was the actual author of the novel (all I know about him is that he’s written numerous Star Trek and Star Wars novels). Clockwork Angels may be unique; I cannot find any references to another album being adapted into a novel. My expectations were not high. And that was a good thing.

This novel was steampunk through-and-through. It’s the first such novel I’ve read and it is a genre that I’m not overly familiar with. Essentially, it’s reminiscent of what hard sci-fi from the Victorian Era would have looked like (H.G. Wells’ The Time-Machine could be considered a precursor). So what can I say…this is a genre novel, by someone who writes Star Trek and Star Wars fiction, based on a prog rock album… Clockwork Angels wasn’t a bad book, it was ok, but it’s better described as airport reading and it certainly isn’t a classic.

My biggest issue with this book is whether or not I’m supposed to take it seriously or not. Rush has a real self-deprecating sense of humour. If that is the case with this book, it makes the story a little better. Every few pages, Anderson managed to jam in some Rush lyrics or song titles, so this produced a lot of groan moments. The story also dragged a little bit. The novel portion of the book runs 290 pages (the volume also includes all of the album lyrics and an afterword by Peart – the best part of the book), but the story could have easily been told in a 100 page novella.

This book wasn’t all bad though. Anderson played with some interesting themes, like despotism and the classic coming-of-age story; he also did a great job of capturing the imagery of Peart’s lyrics. The author’s strength is how he writes action scenes; these were very vivid and really capture the moment (much the same way Michael Bay movies are really good at making things go boom). The highlight of the book has to be the actual physical book itself. The page design is beautiful, each chapter starts with a page that looks like parchment, and the novel is filled with incredibly eye-pleasing illustrations by Hugh Syme, the Juno-winning artist who designs all of Rush’s record covers.

If you’re into steampunk or just looking for a book that doesn’t require a whole lot of deep thought then this may be a book for you. If you’re a hardcore Rush fan, like myself, than I would recommend you read this simply for the novelty of experiencing the adaptation of an album into a book (I really think, despite what Peart says in his afterword, that Rush fans are really the sole target for this novel). If you fit neither of these categories, you’d be safe to skip this and move on.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Selected for Canada Reads 2005

Whenever I sit down to read a Margaret Atwood book, I know I’m in for a good time. One of my favorite authors, this literary icon’s skill has developed to the point of being one of the true living masters of English letters. I still remember when Oryx and Crake was released; it was 2003 and was the first year I really started following the Canadian Literature scene. Despite not having read it, it was my pick to win the Giller – it didn’t. This novel was essentially the runner up of the year – it was shortlisted for the Giller, the GG, the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin, and came in second when it was on Canada Reads in 2005. I really wanted to read this book when it hit the shelves, but I was a university student, was poor, and couldn’t afford to shell out $30 for a hardcover book. So two years later when the economical $10.95 mass market paperback was released, I picked it up. But, for some reason, it just sat on the shelf and I never actually read it. This past week, I felt it was finally time to knock this book off the to-read shelf. Oryx and Crake is in the same class as the best work by Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke and is, without a doubt, one of the best sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels I have ever read. This is a novel that could only be written by a master writer like Margaret Atwood; she creates an entirely unique world of the future that answers every detail, down to diet, a reader may be looking for. Additionally, the story is grounded in perfectly plausible scientific principles.

There are really two levels to a good reading of Oryx and Crake, one is the social/environmental level and the other is human level. These two thematic threads are very intertwined and complement each other – one doesn’t work without the other.

On the social/environmental level, which deals with the heavier scientific elements of the story, Atwood delivers a conceptual punch without an overtly didactic tone. As I was reading this novel, what impressed me was just how logical the story’s conclusions were. I’m not an anti-GMO flag waver, for the most part the idea of GMOs is grossly misunderstood, but genetic modifications is only a step away from genetic engineering – which is a much more controversial notion. Oryx and Crake traces genetic engineering to its ultimate conclusion if left unfettered – the creation of a being that will replace humanity.

On the human level, this novel has so much going on. On its most fundamental level, this is a coming-of-age story. We see Jimmy develop from a young overachiever, into a university-aged slacker, and eventually into Snowman, where he sheds his old identity to live up to his ultimate role – guardian of the Crakers and possibly the last remnant of his species. The allegory and metaphor is just staggering. Finally, this book explores other human notions such as personal and scientific ethics, class divisions and social cleavages, and the roots and origins of theological belief.

Genre-wise, Oryx and Crake crosses the boundaries of sci-fi, dystopias, and the post-apocalyptic. There are obvious elements of sci-fi (gene-splicing, genetic engineering, etc); the world of Jimmy’s youth is an unmistakable dystopia (lack of governments, hermetically sealed cities holding in the poor masses, large corporations controlling and manipulating the masses at will); and finally, the post-apocalyptic nature of the novel is self-evident. Atwood clearly demonstrates that a dystopia will almost always eventually lead to an apocalypse like event.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of academic articles have been written on this novel – in fields as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, political science, biomedical ethics, and linguistics. It is an absolute aberration for a novel this young to have this much critical attention. Oryx and Crake along with its two sequels (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam – which I’ll be reading in short order) is being developed into an HBO mini-series by Darren Aronofsky. And, even though it didn’t win any, this novel turned up on the nomination list of pretty much every major award for which it was eligible. So, I think that my assertion that this book is a true masterpiece is not an understatement. Atwood has created a world from scratch and created characters that are unforgettable. Oryx and Crake is an important book and a must read for everyone.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Winner of the 2004 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work

Nominated for the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award

New York Times Notable Book ~ 2003

Los Angeles Times “Best of the Best” ~ 2003

Economist Best Book of the Year ~ 2003

Newsday Favorite Book of the Year ~ 2003

William Gibson is a very important writer; he is a pioneer of contemporary sci-fi sub-genres steampunk and cyber-punk, he has coined many terms in popular culture – most notably “cyberspace”, and he was one of the first writers to really integrate our current techno-society into science-fiction, if not fiction in general. Gibson immigrated to Canada in his youth to avoid the Vietnam War draft, although he admits it had more to do with living the 60s counter-culture lifestyle as he wasn’t actually drafted. Gibson is one of those writers who is required reading for those interested in variety of literary topics: sci-fi, contemporary CanLit, and the literature of draft-dodgers. Pattern Recognition is my first William Gibson novel and it was also his first novel to gain mainstream attention and climb up the big bestseller lists. This particular title landed on my shelf because it was on the longlist for Canada Reads 2011.

This is the story of Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an unusual sensitivity to trademarks and logos. She removes all labels and identifying corporate symbols from her clothes and avoids direct contact with them. As the novel progresses, we are drawn into her hunt for the “footage,” a series of mysterious film clips posted online that represent the absolute pinnacle of artistic beauty. Cayce’s employer, Hubertus Bigend, offers her the full use of his company’s unlimited resources to find the “maker” of these clips for an unspecified purpose. This journey takes her and the supporting cast to London, Paris, Tokyo, Russia and, most importantly, deep into the online world.

Pattern Recognition is not a sci-fi novel per se, but it certainly has a sci-fi feel to it. The movement of the story, tone, and characters are very reminiscent of sci-fi, but, really, there is nothing in this book that is implausible for its time. I would argue though, that this is sci-fi, but it is soft, rather than hard sci-fi. It’s steeped in the social sciences rather than hard sciences like physics and engineering. This story plays with psychology, psychiatry, human behavior, sociology, and even criminology.

It’s been two days since I’ve finished this novel and I still can’t really give a definitive answer as to what I thought of it. There were parts and elements that I greatly enjoyed and others that almost made me put the book away. The quality of writing is very literary and the characters are well developed; as I thought about it, I would have to say pacing was the biggest frustration. I have the pocket paperback edition and it clocks in at 367 pages – so it is not a huge book. As I read it though I would alternate feeling like the book was way too long and other points where I felt too much was happening too fast and details were being lost. This is very apparent in the last 15% or so of the novel; it felt like Gibson was about to default on his deadline and needed to wrap things up quick. The book’s concluding chapters left you felling like you had just spent the last week trying to untangle a ball of yarn, then you got frustrated and asked your wife to do it, she then untangles it in about 10 seconds and says “you saw how I did that right?.” The last 35 pages were way too much story in too short a time.

Pattern Recognition, despite my criticisms, was an interesting read. It’s ahead of its time (2003) in many ways by looking at the concept of viral videos, exploring living in a post-9/11 world, examining online personas and virtual lives, and the seemingly never ending push of global corporatism. Overall though, Pattern Recognition just gets a “meh.”

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Winner of the 1998 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest

Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel

Shortlisted for the 1998 Philip K. Dick Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2008

Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most prominent science-fiction writers. She has been shortlisted for and won several prestigious international sci-fi awards. Brown Girl in the Ring is Hopkinson’s first novel, which was released through a contest where the winner received a publication agreement. The story revolves around a Toronto of the not-to-distant future that has been abandoned by government and police and overrun by gangs and drug addicts hooked on a substance called buff. This novel is a cross between a typical sci-fi and fantasy story; there are many scenes that lean heavily on Caribbean religious beliefs and spirits.

The book starts out very fast and is very intriguing. In the opening chapters the way the history of how Toronto fell into utter decay is very well done; it is given through newspaper headlines that another derelict is using for an artistic piece. Unfortunately the book slows to an almost unbearable pace after the opening 30 pages. The ensuing 120 pages or so are very richly described and detailed but the forward momentum of the novel simply grinds to a halt; once you get past this point the novel progresses at a speed which almost overwhelms the reader. The central characters, Ti-Jeanne, Mami, Rudy, Tony, and Mi-Jeanne, all weave a complex family and community steeped in the culture of their Caribbean roots. The pacing aside, Brown Girl in the Ring is an interesting book. It plays around quite a bit stereotypes, i.e. the good-for-nothing-boyfriend that the girl still loves, the wise old grandmother, and the evil crime boss out only for himself; but the characters themselves are not the memorable part of book. For me, what I will remember, is the idea of Toronto collapsed in on itself and the vivid descriptions of the city. Hopkinson uses real street names and places in the book very effectively, including the CN Tower for the final showdown.

All-in-all this was a decent read. I do not read a lot of sci-fi but it is a genre I enjoy. I have always had a lot of admiration for the writers of this type of work; it is one thing to create a story out of nothing that is of this world, but to create this universe without boundaries whether it is told through a scientific or spiritual lens is amazing to me. The imagination this would require is far beyond what I think I could muster for my own writings. One thing that should be mentioned as well in speaking about this book is the power of the CBC Canada Reads competition. Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 show and introduced Hopkinson, who herself was an advocate for Whylah Falls on the 2002 show, to a whole new set of readers, including myself. This being her first novel I am positive that her other works will continue to improve and I look forward to picking up one of her many other pieces.

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