Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Top 5 Female Science Fiction Characters

My husband and I got on the subject last week of who the best female science fiction characters are.  While throwing out different suggestions, I realized that almost all of my favorite female characters period come from science fiction movies and television shows.

It's not so surprising, come the think of it.  Science fiction, in an effort to depict how humanity might have evolved over time, included lots of females in prominent roles.  It's as if screenwriters knew that society was marching towards gender equality and any story set in the future would logically feature strong women characters (at least, that's the hopeful spin I like to put on it).  In my mind, that's how we ended up with characters like Lieutenant Uhura and Princess Leia.  Writers knew that the world would eventually change from being male-dominated, and the idea of a female rising to a prominent position in society would become the norm.

I know that for me, my favorite sci-fi heroines helped give me confidence as a teenager and as a young woman.  I loved seeing women on the screen who were leaders; they confirmed for me that it was okay that I was a perfectionist, that I could be assertive, and that my opinion had value.  Thinking back, I'm realizing now how important it was for me to see women being good at things, and science fiction provided the one of the best opportunities for that.    

I decided to make a list of the female science fiction characters that have inspired me the most.  This list is personal, so it omits some of the huge female characters that would top most stories like this.  Rather than being a list of the all-time greats, it's a list of my all-time greats; these are the female science fiction characters that have had the biggest impact on me.

5. Rose Tyler from Doctor Who



I started watching Doctor Who on Netflix a few years ago at the urging of some fellow nerds (of both the adult and middle school student variety).  Rose is the first companion I watched, since I picked up my viewing with the ninth doctor, and I was immediately a fan of hers. Played brilliantly by Billie Piper, Rose is fearless, fun and unafraid to speak her mind-- often calling The Doctor out on his foolishness.  I looked up to Rose because she was smart in ways I was not; she was creative instead of bookish, social instead of shy and willing to jump right into adventures instead of obsessing nervously over every unknown.  While the star of Doctor Who is undoubtedly The Doctor himself, Rose never felt like a secondary character.  In fact, she actively refused to be relegated to the background throughout her adventures on the series.  She was The Doctor's equal and was unfailingly cool.  Rose is the kind of character I wish I were a bit more like.

4. Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager



I have a deep and abiding love for Star Trek Voyager that most people don't understand.  I will fully admit that Voyager is not Trek at it's best, but I love it all the same.  This was the very first Star Trek series that I watched from beginning to end, which probably explains my fondness for it.  There were actually a couple of great female characters in the series, and one of my favorite ones was Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan.  I know her costume was ridiculously tight and designed to appeal to male viewers, but beyond that she was a complex character who dealt with interesting and unique problems during her time on the series.  Seven of Nine was rescued and disconnected from the Borg Collective by the Voyager crew.  Her character arc involved her adjusting to life away from The Collective and learning to become human again.  The Borg technology remaining in her body left her with computer-like intelligence and intense physical strength--her character was a weird combination of power and vulnerability that really appealed to me.  She served as a great foil for the more emotional Captain Janeway, and she eventually became an indispensable member of the Voyager crew.  I love Seven of Nine because I both relate to her difficulties with showing emotion and admire her ability to consistently save the day with her brains and brawn.  I think she looks pretty good in the jumpsuit too.

3. Turanga Leela from Futurama

 



I was actually a fan of Futurama before it went through a renaissance on Adult Swim and made it back on the air after its untimely cancellation.  Hilarious, smart, and surprisingly touching, this Matt Groening cartoon follows the adventures of the Planet Express crew, an intergalactic delivery company.  Leela, voiced by Katey Segal, is the fearless captain of their ship.  She is strong, assertive and completely unafraid to keep the rest of her bumbling crew in line.  I love her sarcastic sense of humor and deadpan delivery, but my favorite aspect of her character is her near-constant exasperation with her crew.  As one of the only consistently competent characters on the show, she's always the one who has to be responsible and make sure that work gets done and that everyone lives.  I am the leader of my department in my job, and I often feel that frustration of being the one who always has to hold everything together and make sure the rules are followed.  Leela lets me know that I am not alone.         

2. Dana Scully from The X-Files

 



I've written previously about how The X-Files was one of the shows that really got me interested in science fiction.  A huge part of my interest in the show came from my attachment to  FBI special agent Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson.  In the very first episode of the series Scully is assigned to work on the X-Files, a set of cases involving unexplained phenomena, with  Fox "Spooky" Mulder, a man who believes fervently in everything supernatural.  As a medical doctor and an extremely logical thinker, she provided a scientific counterbalance to her partner's tendency to believe in paranormal occurrences unreservedly.  Scully was a skeptic through and through, but she always gave the unusual cases she investigated a fair shake.  Sometimes her analyses would support Mulder's beliefs and other times they wouldn't, and I always admired that despite her deep friendship with her partner, she remained committed to finding the truth.  She was calm, capable and exuded that kind of self confidence that showed she was always in control of herself.  Even during the hard times or the scary times on the show, Scully behaved bravely.  More than any other character on this list, I wanted to be her so badly growing up.

1. Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek Voyager 

 

My favorite female science fiction character is another Star Trek Voyager alum.  Janeway is my favorite captain.  When I say that out loud, people (men) generally roll their eyes and decide that I'm not a true fan of the show.  However, Janeway is the only female captain to helm a Trek series, and her blend of strong leadership, scientific knowledge and emotional sensitivity make her a character worthy of looking up to.  Out of all the Star Trek captains, her situation was the most dire.  After being transported against her will to the Delta Quadrant, Janeway and her crew must try and find a way home - a voyage so long and difficult that only a very skilled captain could keep everyone from losing hope.  Janeway performs admirably in this endeavor, and manages to guide her ship through encounters with some of the most dangerous aliens in Trek history, including the Borg and Species 8472.  Throughout the series she proves herself to be both a critical thinker and tough fighter, but what I like the most about her character is how she chose not to compromise her ethics on her journey.  Her strong morals meant that there was always time to help others and stand up for what was right on the way home.  It would probably have been easier for her to lie, cheat, and steal her way across the galaxy, but Janeway was consistently better than that.  She was a great character on a show plagued with writing problems.  I like Voyager, but I wish the show could have been a little bit better so that she could have had a real chance to shine.
   

The Maze Runner by James Dashner


*Warning - There are some spoilers in this review.*

With my month of science fiction reading coming to a close, I finished off January with a book that my students have recommended to me countless times, The Maze Runner by James Dashner.  This book is unbelievably popular with middle-schoolers (especially boys), so I expected it to be like a male version of The Hunger Games.  It was interesting enough, but disappointingly, I thought it had some problems.

The Maze Runner opens with our protagonist, Thomas, riding upwards in a darkened elevator-like contraption.  He has no memory of his past aside from his name; he remembers basic information about how the world works, but nothing specific to his life before that very moment.  He emerges into a strange community made up entirely of teenage boys called The Glade.  All of the boys arrived at The Glade under the same mysterious circumstances as Thomas.  They are all trapped there, and have been forced to form their own community and work together to survive.  They have their own system of government, grow their own food, slaughter their own meat and maintain their own buildings.  The Glade is surrounded by a gigantic stone-walled maze.  The maze is open to the boys during the day and is relatively safe.  At night, the walls to  the maze close, and half slug/half metal monsters called Grievers come out and attack anyone unlucky enough to still be trapped inside.  A group of boys called the Maze Runners race through the maze each day in an attempt to map it out and possibly find an exit.  Instantly, Thomas feels vague memories of being in The Glade before and feels especially drawn to the Maze Runners without knowing why.

Thomas just starts learning the rules of the community when The Glade is thrown into chaos with the arrival of a girl in the elevator.  She's the first girl ever sent there, and she arrives mumbling something about how she was sent to trigger the ending to the maze before collapsing into a coma.  The rest of the novel follows Thomas over the course of the next few days.  Things begin falling apart in The Glade and he must race to figure out the maze and help the rest of the Gladers escape before their time runs out.

The most enjoyable aspect of this book for me was its premise.  This whole idea of a giant maze, robotic monsters and a huge mystery to solve is interesting.  Even though the characters were one dimensional and the writing was clumsy, I kept turning the pages just to find out what was going to happen next.  I wanted to know the big secret.  What was the maze for?  Why were the boys there?  Is there a way out?  I enjoyed the first part of the novel, where Thomas was trying to figure everything out, because I really wanted to know what was going on too.

Unfortunately, the entire mystery aspect of the novel was completely wasted with lazy writing.  Thomas eventually finds a way to unblock some of his memories, and he suddenly remembers everything important.  He suddenly knows what the maze is and how to escape.  The reader is completely robbed of the mental satisfaction of watching a mystery be solved through the ingenuity of the characters.  After being so invested in trying to figure out what was going on, this felt cheap.

It's obvious that The Maze Runner is meant to be plot-driven rather than character-driven, but the characters are among the most flat I've ever encountered.  Most are reduced to showing one single character trait.  I came to think of most of the Gladers not by their names, but as "the mean one," "the babyish one," "the reasonable one," and so on.  Thomas actually has no discernible personality himself.  He is bland and brave in that teen action hero kind of way, with absolutely no depth or shades of gray to his character.  The lone female character, Theresa, is described as being beautiful, and not much else.  Is the avoidance of deeper characterization a sacrifice for the sake of increasing the action?  Is it a deliberate strategy to keep male readers tuned in?  If so, that's rather insulting to teen boys, who deserve to have well-written novels to read just as much as teen girls do.
   
Speaking of Theresa. the treatment of women was another issue for me.  Aside from her, there aren't any major female characters and there is no explanation as to why in the entire novel.  It is eventually revealed that the maze was devised as a kind of test to find the best and brightest people to help save the outside world (which is in typically bad dystopian shape).  So, I guess the message is that the best and brightest people in the world at this time are all teenage boys - a dubious and offensive proposition.  I honestly don't think that a book written to appeal to boys needs to eliminate female characters to be effective.  Perhaps in the sequels there will be an explanation for the lack of women.  I hope there is.

In the end, what could have been an entertaining sci-fi dystopian adventure became a tedious narrative in which information is simply told to the reader rather than explored.  Characterization was weak, the writing was clunky and the world building was non-existent.  The most interesting aspect of the story, the mystery of the maze, was spoiled with a deus ex machina that robbed the reader of the pleasure of figuring things out with the characters.  Oddly, despite all that, I still kind of want to see how the story continues. I especially to see if there's ever an explanation for the lack of female characters.  I'm not in a rush to read the sequels, but I can see myself getting to them eventually.  The Maze Runner had a lot of potential.  I believe that efforts to make it appeal to male readers weakened it tremendously.  Too bad.




Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson


 I heard about Aurora through the Good Reads Choice Awards last year.  It was one of the nominees in the science fiction category and the description immediately caught my interest.  After reading and loving The Martian a few months ago, I was ready for another survival adventure in space.  I'm glad to say that this novel didn't disappoint.

Aurora is about humanity's attempt to colonize another planet outside of our solar system (the eponymous Aurora).  The novel picks up when the massive ship that has been carrying the potential colonists is approaching their destination.  The trip to this new star system has taken over a hundred years, so everyone left on board has been born on the ship and lived in its constructed biomes all of their lives.  The novel is mostly told from the point of view of the ship's computer and the plot covers a wide span of years,  mainly documenting the time period during which the colonists attempt to establish their lives on their new planet. Unforeseen circumstances and political conflicts throw them into a struggle for survival, but to say anymore would spoil the story.

This novel truly feels like an epic read.  Using the computer as a narrator allows the story to cover a long time frame.  Traveling into deep space would take generations to achieve, and Aurora does a nice job of conveying that sense of scope.  Most of the action follows one family in particular, but other characters are featured throughout the story as well.  The computer also contributes  its own thoughts from time to time, musing on philosophical topics and explaining its struggle to construct a viable narrative without human help. Character development is a bit sketchy in this novel, and I believe this is intentional.  The main characters do change and grow over time, but the emotional impact of their growth is blunted since their stories are being told by an unemotional computer.  This is more of a story about humanity in general than it is about any one particular character.  The emotional distance achieved through the unreliable narrator prevents the reader from becoming overly attached to anyone; it allows them to step back and become more invested in the bigger picture of mankind's struggle to survive in an alien world.

The plot, while not fast-paced, is thoroughly engaging.  Enough little breadcrumbs are dropped throughout the beginning sections of the novel to gives the reader a sense that there is a larger story going on behind the scenes, and trying to figure out what that story was kept me turning the pages.  I enjoyed the prose style too; Kim Stanley Robinson is clearly a very talented writer.  I consistently felt like the story was realistic to what humans would think and feel on a voyage like this.  Blending realistic human emotions with fantastical story lines is my favorite aspect of science fiction, and this is done masterfully in Aurora.

The only drawback for me throughout this novel was the long sections of description and philosophy from the ship.  The surface of Aurora, the movement of the planets in the different systems the ship encounters, the biomes on board the ship, and many more locations are explained in painstaking scientific detail that was difficult for me to imagine.  It wasn't quite as bad as all of the scientific names in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but it got quite boring.  Similarly, the ship often breaks into the narrative with its own thoughts on topics like human language and consciousness.  I realize that Robinson is using these sections to explore what it means to be human, but I often found myself just wishing that I could get back to the action. These sections are the main reason that I rated the book a 4 out of 5 instead of a 5 out of 5.  It's probable that the descriptions and philosophy sections are meant to be boring and overly scientific, it is a computer conveying them to us after all, but that didn't stop them from stopping the action dead.

Overall, however, I very much enjoyed this novel.  Aurora is an interesting exploration of what might happen if humans had the ability and the desire to travel outside the furthest reaches of our galaxy.  This is an intellectual adventure story, and one that I would heartily recommend to fans of the science fiction genre.    



Monday, January 18, 2016

Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson

"Why did you attack the humans?"
"They murdered me, Arbiter.  Again and again.  In my fourteenth incarnation, I finally understood that humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm.  Humankind is a species born in battle, defined by war."
"We could have had peace."
"It is not enough to live together in peace, with one race on its knees."

Robopocalypse has been sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust since the year it came out - 2011.  I had every intention of reading it, since it was pretty well reviewed, but as time went by, I basically forgot I even had it.  Since January is for science fiction, I figured it was finally time to give it a try.  It's a good thing I did too, because it's my favorite book of the month so far.  I love it when I find a hidden gem right on my own bookshelf.

As the name suggests, Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson is about a catastrophic robot uprising against humanity.  The book begins twenty minutes after the war between robots and humans has ended.  The humans were victorious, but it is apparant that their victory came at a great cost.  The narrator, soldier Cormac Wallace, finds a mysterious object at the site of the last battle.  He determines that the object is a black box of sorts; it's a record of the entire war recorded by Archos, the robot leader.  He begins to record the information inside the object, to create a record of what happened for humans.  His notes make up the rest of the novel and explain major events of the war through the eyes of its key players.

One feature of Robopocalype that I really enjoyed was the narrative structure.  The chapters rotate through a handful of different important figures in the war, showing them during critical moments.  This kept the story interesting, fresh, and action-packed.  It also gave it a feeling of credibility, as if you were reallly reading a historical record.  Mixed in are Cormac's annotations about where the information was obtained and how the characters mentioned go on to affect the outcome of the war. 

I had two favorites amongst all the characters - Mathilda Perez and Takeo Nomura.  Mathilda is a young girl who undergoes robot experimentation in a forced labor camp during the war.  The modifications forced upon her end up giving her a powerful advantage over the robots and allow her to aid the human soldiers in the war.  Takeo is an elderly man living in Japan.  He is a genius with technology and figures out a way to free several robots from the grip of Archos and create a safehouse for some human survivors. The fact that my two favorite characters are an adolescent American girl and an old Japanese man speak to the diversity of characters present in the novel.  The robot uprising affects the whole world, and heroes are shown to exist in many corners of the globe.  It was quite refreshing.

Another high point for me was the idea running behind the plot that in times of crisis, people are capable of working together.  I know that this is hardly an original idea in a science fiction novel, but it was satisfying to read, just the same.  The different characters that make up Robopocalypse are shown to care about something larger than themselves.  They make difficult decisions and tough sacrifices in the name of saving humanity.  This idea gave a nice background to a rather outrageous storyline.  I would like to think that if robots ever really rose up against us, we would respond in the same way - with courage and integrity.

"Human beings adapt.  It's what we do.  Necessity can obliterate our hatreds.  To survive, we will work together.  Accept each other.  The last few years have likely been the only time in human history that we weren't at war with ourselves.  For a moment we were all equal.  Backs against the wall, human beings are at their finest."

Robopocalypse was a fun, interesting novel.  I was thoroughly engaged from beginning to end. High literature this is not, but anyone looking for a smart, fast-paced science fiction book would do well to give this one a try.   


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Science Fiction Firsts


I am most definitely a full-fledged science fiction fan, but my path to getting there was fairly slow.  I was a girl growing up in the late 80s/early 90s-- a time of pretty rigid gender rules.  It didn't occur to my parents to introduce my sister and me, a couple of Barbie-loving little princesses, to stuff that was primarily marketed towards boys, and the internet wasn't a thing yet back then. I was on my own to discover the classics of the genre.  Luckily for me, I was born an avid reader.  Readers are always on the lookout for new and interesting stories, and that curiosity was what led me to do things like borrow my dad's set of Star Wars tapes when I was in middle school and watch Star Trek reruns throughout high school with my future husband.  Eventually I grew to love all things science fiction, it just took me a little while. 

My favorite episode of The X-Files, Bad Blood

One of my earliest experiences with science fiction was with the X-Files TV series.  I stumbled upon this show when I happened to catch a rerun of the very first episode one night sometime around my 7th grade year.  I fell in love with the show instantly and from that moment forward, a whole lot of my childhood was spent with Mulder and Scully. I watched my favorite episodes over and over again from my VHS recordings, which I had scrupulously organized, labeled and shelved in my closet.  I even belonged to the official fan club and read the magazine.  At that point in my young life, I was more into the will-they-or-won't-they romance between the characters than I was into the alien plot, but it was there that I began fostering an appreciation for stories that explored the possibility that there might be more to the universe than human beings and planet Earth.


Sometime around that same time, I picked up a collection of short stories called Alien Pets.  The anthology focused on science fiction tales about animal companions.  It was published for adults, and was a little bit beyond my reading level at the time, but I made it through a couple of the stories.  The parts I read had a huge impact on me.  The details of most of the stories escape me now, but I remember that my favorite part of the book had to do with a little alien creature that produced diamonds when it cried.  A young boy discovered this creature in his parents' room one day - they'd had it secreted away in a cage, living a miserable life.  It would cry, and they would be rich from the diamonds.  They were enjoying material wealth at the price of an alien creature's happiness.  At the time I thought this was one of the saddest, most disturbing things I had ever read. It stirred in me the same emotions I would experience again when I discovered Ray Bradbury a few years later.

It's funny sometimes which books really stick with you.  This novel is not particularly famous.  I doubt very many people remember it or consider it a favorite. You can't buy it new on Amazon anymore, or download it to your Kindle.  Nevertheless, it changed me as a reader and gave me a firm little push down the path of appreciating science fiction. It was the pages of Alien Pets that I discovered the real magic of the genre- the fun of exploring how people will get along in an uncertain future.  Behind all the scientific advancements, alien invaders and sentient robots that may or may not show up in our world, we will still have to try and live fulfilling lives.  Our emotions, our hopes and dreams, the people we love, and our sense of right and wrong will all have to fit around whatever comes next.  There's a whole universe of possibilities to explore for the adventurous reader.  That's what I love about science fiction.

My ET Halloween costume from 2015.  My favorite costume ever!

As time went on, I found lots of other sci-fi stories to love.  It's interesting to think back on how it all started.  I get a little jealous sometimes of people who share a special bond with a parent (usually a dad) that introduced them to some science fiction show as a kid and set off a lifelong love of the genre.  I had to get here by myself.  But while I was a little later than most fans, I'm glad I made it at all.  As in the best science fiction stories, it's the journey that counts, right?     


Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood



I was excited to read Margaret Atwood's latest novel because I have very fond memories of reading The Handmaid's Tale back in my high school days.  At the time, it was one of the first dystopian novels I had ever read and it definitely contained more feminist ideas than any other novel I had seen up to that point.  In a childhood spent reading countless books, that one still stands out in my mind.  When I saw that Atwood had another dystopian novel out this year, and that it rated highly in the Goodreads Choice Awards (science fiction category), I put it on my reading list for January.

The Heart Goes Last is set in an American dystopian future.  The economy has crashed and ruined any semblance of a normal life for all but the wealthy.  The story follows Stan and Charmaine, a married couple trying to live out of their car after losing their house.  Tired of living in such poor and dangerous conditions, they sign on to participate in the Positron Project.  The Positron Project is an experimental community located in a town called Consilience.  In this project, all participants are provided with a job and comfortable housing.  In exchange, they must spend every other month working in the Positron prison system.  At first, Stan and Charmaine enjoy the arrangement, but things start to deteriorate when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with her alternate - the man who lives in their house during the months she spends in the prison.  At the same time, cracks begin to show in the carefully constructed facade of Consilience.  Everything is not as perfect as it seems and Stan and Charmaine soon find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations that ultimately threaten their newfound happiness and their lives.

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  I really enjoyed the beginning of the story- digging into the weird setting and figuring out the rules of Stan and Charmaine's universe was interesting and addictive.  Atwood is a superior writer and I liked reading her prose.  However, as the plot moved forward, I became more and more confused about what was going on.  What started out as a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of voluntarily surrendering your person freedoms turned into a conspiracy involving sex robots, Elvis impersonators and lobotomies.  As the situations Stan and Charmaine found themselves in became more and more surreal, my interest started to wane.  I wanted something less silly and more thought-provoking, I guess.

In the last dozen or so pages in the novel, Atwood attempts to provide an ending that encourages the reader to think about the nature of love, freedom and forgiveness.  I actually did like the conclusion of the novel, but I couldn't help but feel like it didn't quite match up with the insanity of the events that came before it.  It was like Atwood suddenly said, "Okay, time to wrap up, let's get serious again."  It was too little, too late for me.  

As in most dystopian novels, The Heart Goes Last is supposed to provide a preview of a possible future and instruct us in how to avoid it coming true.  I feel that this novel raised some interesting points about personal liberties, human nature and the privatization of prisons.  Disappointingly though, the strength of these messages became muddled in a bizarre plot that I still don't completely understand and did not emotionally connect with.  Overall, I enjoyed this novel, but it's not a favorite.  I can't get over a feeling of lost potential, especially since The Handmaid's Tale made such a big impression on me as a teenager.  I still love Margaret Atwood, but for me, The Heart Goes Last isn't her strongest work.  

   

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Armada by Ernest Cline



I started off very excited to read Armada by Ernest Cline, because I so enjoyed his first novel, Ready Player OneReady Player One was clever, witty, had an interesting plot and was full of fun nerdy references.  I raced through that book a few years ago and it quickly became one of my favorites.  When I saw that Armada was on its way, I was ready for it to become another one of my top science fiction picks.  Imagine my disappointment to discover that that this one just didn't click for me.  It was merely okay.

Armada centers around Zack Lightman, a nerdy, modern-day high school senior who is obsessed with a space-themed video game called Armada.  Like many teenagers, he wishes that some exciting adventure would happen to him, just like something out of the science fiction movies and television shows he loves.  His wish is granted when he spots an actual alien ship from Armada flying around in the sky outside of his classroom window one afternoon.  It turns out that Armada was never just a popular video game--it was a government-created training simulation designed to prepare the public to help wage a war against an alien race that has been planning to invade earth since the 1970s.  As one of the top-ranked players of Armada, Zack is drafted into the Earth Defense Alliance and gets a chance to become a true hero and help save the earth.  However, the more Zack learns about his alien foes, the more illogical and suspicious the whole invasion scenario becomes.  Not everything is as it seems, and Zack must race get to the bottom of what's really going on.

The plot was fun, and I'm able to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy good sci-fi adventure, so what was my problem with Armada?  It all came down to the pacing for me.  The story takes place over the course of only two days (excluding the epilogue), and all of the real action takes place over the second day.  This means that all of the necessary exposition describing Zack's background, an alien invasion that has been in the planning stages since the 70s, and the massive government conspiracy enacted to hide that invasion and train the public to fight aliens has to be explained to the reader in extremely long sections that stop the action dead.  There is a real problem with the author "telling" instead of "showing" here, because the part of the novel that takes place in real time is so limited.  I would have preferred the novel to cover a longer period of time, so that Zack could discover information more organically.

Since everything is so rushed, character development is lacking.  We are told about some formative events in Zack's past, like the death of his father and a bad fight he got into with a classmate years ago, but since these events are described to us way after they occurred, they don't feel real.  At one point, Zack mentions that the "old Zack" would have reacted to something with rage, but now he is able to keep a cooler head.  He was referring to the fight he got into years ago, but I had to pause my reading and think about that a little bit to figure it out.  I had completely forgotten about the fight by that point in the novel since it was only mentioned briefly at the beginning of the story.  I never saw an "old Zack," so how could I feel like I was looking at a "new Zack"?

I also have to mention the science fiction references sprinkled throughout the novel.  There were numerous references to movies and television shows in Ready Player One, and I liked them then.  They were actually a part of the larger plot, so it felt like they fit into the story.  However, in Armada, the references are over the top and don't fit into the plot in the same way.  Almost every paragraph contained a reference to another science fiction story and it started to wear on me.  There were so many references to so many other stories that it didn't feel authentic.  It seemed like Cline was trying to jam as many inside jokes as possible into the novel and the overall effect was that it felt forced.  I know that I didn't catch them all either, because I haven't seen every nerdy property out there.  It was still way too much. 

Despite the issues that bugged me about this novel, there were some aspects that I enjoyed.  I was still interested in the story, and I wanted to see how everything turned out at the end.  Giving up on Armada entirely wasn't ever a consideration for me.  I also enjoyed a lot of the sarcastic lines and clever dialogue.  Cline is definitely very creative and funny, and at times, those parts of his writing really stood out.  There was a nice variety of characters of different genders and ethnicities too (although I do wish that Lex, the most prominent female character, had been in the story a little more).  Perhaps I would have enjoyed Armada more if Ready Player One hadn't come first and really knocked my socks off. 

In the end, Armada was only okay.  I feel very arrogant saying that, because honestly, I couldn't do better if I decided to sit down and write a novel.  Ernest Cline is a popular author, and rightfully so based on the success of Ready Player One.  Armada was voted to be one of the best science fiction books of the year on Goodreads.  I'm not sure what I'm missing here, but I can't help how I responded to the work.  Unfortunately, this one was not a favorite for me.    

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Image by Jonathan Burton

I kicked off my month of reading science fiction with a classic of the genre: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.  I chose this particular novel because Captain Nemo and The Nautilus are such famous and enduring figures in the literary world; I wanted to see where they came from.  Plus, I have vague and pleasant memories of going on the ride based on this novel at Disney when I was a kid.

The best part was when they made the water bubble up past the portholes so it looked like you were going deep under the ocean.

The novel starts out with an intriguing mystery.  Ships from all over the world have been reporting dangerous encounters with a gigantic monster in the ocean.  After a few accidents in which some ships are sunk, a special navy voyage on board the frigate Abraham Lincoln is launched to hunt down the beast and kill it.  Professor Aronnax, French marine expert, and his devoted servant, Conseil, are invited along on this expedition to help out.  After a long search, the frigate finds the beast. The ensuing attack, however, is a failure.  The Abraham Lincoln is neither fast enough nor carrying enough firepower to take it down, and in attempting to harpoon it, Aronnax, Conseil, and the Canadian harpooner Ned Land are washed overboard.  They end up completely separated from their frigate and wash up on the back of the creature, which turns out not to be a beast at all, but a giant submarine.  They are taken on board by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and their adventure of underwater exploration aboard The Nautilus begins.

James Mason as Captain Nemo

20.000 Leagues ended up being a lot different than I imagined it, in both good and bad ways.  I was immediately intrigued by Captain Nemo, who was not merely an undersea adventurer, but a vengeful and scary man.  He wasn't traveling in The Nautilus for the fun of it- he was living under the ocean because he had sworn off the world of men.  He was officially done with humanity and preferred to live under the waves with his crew.  As he explains to Aronnax,
"The sea is everything.  It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe.  Its breath is pure and healthy.  It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.  The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence.  It is nothing but love and emotion...Ah! sir, live--live in the bosom of the waters!  There only is independence!  There I recognize no masters!  There I am free!"
 This disillusionment was caused by a personal tragedy in Nemo's life that he remains very secretive about throughout the novel.  He was decidedly not happy to deal with Aronnax, Conseil and Ned.  He took them aboard as prisoners and his intent was to never let them return to land and risk them telling others about his secret existence under the sea. Overconfident, highly intelligent and wracked with personal pain, Captain Nemo was by far my favorite character, and I dearly wish that Verne had developed him a bit more.  We never get to find out where Nemo is from, what happened in his past that was so terrible, why he speaks a weird made-up language with his crew or what happened when one of his crewman suffered a fatal head injury during a time when Nemo had Aronnax locked up in his cabin.  It was a bit of a disappointment to leave so much unfinished.




The Nautilus itself was a very cool machine.  Huge, fast, sleek and powerful, she could do almost everything.  Equipped with a library, museum, kitchen, spacious cabins and endless storage space, she was the perfect advanced vehicle for undersea travel.  It is clear that Verne had very well-researched and specific ideas about how this submarine would function, which he describes thoroughly.  It was easy to see why The Nautilus has stuck in people's minds since 20,000 Leagues was published in 1870. I found myself wishing that I could take a quick trip on board to explore the wonders of the deep.

Another high point in the novel for me were the adventures The Nautilus encounters throughout the voyage.  Aronnax and company spend a total of ten months on board and in that time they take a walk through an underwater forest, view the ruins of Atlantis, mine shipwrecks for treasure, fight a giant squid, get stuck inside of a glacier and become the first humans to set foot on the South Pole, among other things.  These moments of action were really fun science fiction.  The Nautilus travels through every major ocean and sea on earth, and most areas have their own little special event.

Image by Justin Mezzell

What was not very fun, however, were the scientific explanations that made up the bulk of the writing.  The story is narrated from Professor Aronnax's perspective, and he records everything in the form of an academic travelogue.  Latitude, longitude, and depth are scrupulously noted every time the submarine changes position and hugely long descriptions of the ocean life, both plant and animal, from each region of the earth are included.  Since the professor uses the scientific name for everything he describes, I found that I often had no idea what he was talking about and couldn't picture the setting in my head.  It was always a relief to get to a little bit of action, because it meant a break from the science terms.  While all the proper terminology definitely gives a feeling of credibility to the story, it felt like too much.  It detracted from my enjoyment of the text.

An additional small gripe I had was the fact that there are absolutely no female characters in the whole story.  It would have been nice to have a girl or two in there to mix things up a bit.  I also felt pretty bad for Ned Land, the harpooner, throughout the story.  Aronnax didn't really mind his captivity on The Nautilus, because as a scientist, he was enjoying the exploration.  Ned, however, couldn't care less about that.  He just wanted to go home.  He spends the novel alternating between being full of rage and completely withdrawn and depressed.  It must have been a long ten months for him, but his character is never developed.  His only function in the story seems to be to occasionally remind everyone that they weren't on a pleasure cruise.  I wish he was a little less flat and had more to do in the novel.


Despite the difficulties I had with some aspects of 20,000 Leagues, I ultimately enjoyed reading the novel and I'm very glad I chose this one.  It was weird and cool- a charming mix of old fashioned ideas and retro predictions about the future.  Jules Verne is considered by many to be one of the fathers of the science fiction genre, and fans of these stories would do well to visit the places where this kind of fiction began.



  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

January Reading List: Science Fiction


 One of my goals for 2016 is to diversify the kinds of books I read.  Each month, I'm going to focus on reading at least three selections from a specific genre or type of book.  To kick off the year, I will be embracing my geeky side and exploring the futuristic world of science fiction.

 After a little time spent researching the genre, I've assembled the following reading list for January:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne - This is a classic novel by a man who many consider to be the father of the genre.  This is the perfect way to kick off the month (and cross off a book from my Back to the Classic Challenge).

Armada by Ernest Cline - I loved Ready Player One, so I'm excited to check out Ernest Cline's newest offering.  I think this will be the most lighthearted novel of the bunch.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale is basically required reading for women, and I'm hoping Atwood's latest novel is similarly thought-provoking.

Robopocalype by Daniel Wilson - This has been on my bookshelf for five years, and that's kind of embarrassing.  Time to read it!

Bonus Round Books:
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The Maze Runner Series by James Dashner

The start of a new year always fills me with energy.  I'm excited to start reading and see how many of these I can get through.