Tuesday, December 29, 2015

S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

I was looking for something to read around the house and found a book my wife bought, but did not read.  I guess that's not free by any stretch of the imagination.  It's also not speculative fiction.  The main credited author, J. J. Abrams, is a speculative fiction director so that's as close as this comes to being SF.  And while I think libraries have probably purchased this book, part of its "thing" is that it has a lot of loose inserts.  Don't think it would survive one reading in a public library. Not even available in Kindle form--though I think you could almost pull it off.

There is a consistent way in which this book is not what it seems.  Let's start with a "meta" element--the authorship.  J. J. Abrams "conceived" S., but Doug Dorst seems to have done most of the writing.  It's a very elaborate project, including a website (eotvoswheel.com) with more "source" material. The presentation of the book itself is a tribute to the printed volume (see above).  The real story is in the margins, handwritten.  Physically it's an impressive product.

So how is it as a reading experience?  Well, interesting--the setup here is that you have a volume stolen from a school library and heavily annotated by a devotee of the author.  This author supposedly has a set of literary scholars interested in him, as his life was quite mysterious.  There's an in-joke here, in that the book itself is a kind of turgid adventure/philosophy novel--critics would study it but it's not popular.  And you get the idea that these scholars were maybe wasting their energy.  But the story in the margins is quite lively--a love story with intrigue and implied danger.

The format makes the book a very long read. You have the main story, which you really can't just skip since the annotators are using passages to make points.  And the margin story is nonlinear, which makes one slow down and sometimes reread.  I was intrigued for awhile and stayed with it, but found myself getting tired about halfway through.

In the end, it's an OK story wrapped around a bad novel.  The badness of the novel is intentional, the OKness of the story perhaps not as much.  Really it's about the production, an homage to print.  This is how we know the bound volume will never go away, even for simpler books. 

In the end, I give this four stars.  Three for the book, and another one for the production.  It's a beautiful thing.  Some books are worth owning, even for a biblio scrounge like me.   

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling is first in a series--it's been reviewed in Entertainment Weekly (actually the review is for the second one, but they do say to go read the first) and gets a comparison to The Hunger Games, though it is backhanded.

I think this book is better off if the comparison is not made.  It's a solid fantasy novel featuring a strong female lead--the audience clearly is the same as The Hunger Games.  Otherwise, it's more of a good fun read than a message piece.  It makes an interesting contrast with one of this year's multiple award nominees, The Goblin Emperor.  Both feature young protagonists living in exile, then thrust into leadership and danger unprepared.  But The Goblin Emperor's empire is a relatively peaceful and prosperous realm, while The Tearling is a deeply troubled kingdom in need of a savior.  The Goblin Emperor ends up to be the more unusual of the stories, though I would say both are very well written.

The Queen of the Tearling pushes a lot of YA teen girl buttons--concern over physical appearance, a kingdom in danger, a dashing and dangerous romantic interest, and untapped inner strength.  They're all done very well, with good pacing and plenty of action.  It was a fun book, I can easily give it 3 stars and recommend it.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurdly Hypothetical Questions

The core of almost all hard science fiction is to start with a premise that is not currently, or ever, possible (what if we could travel faster than light?  Fly at will?  Visualize the Internet in our heads?), but to then keep the rest of scientific knowledge the same and speculate about what happens in a story.

By this definition, Randall Munroe's What If? is very close to science fiction.  All it is lacking is the story.  It should be required reading for anyone considering writing science fiction, since it's basically a book of premises.  But I don't really think I would have to tell an SF writer that, I'm quite sure they have all read it by now. 

If you are at all interested in science and are reading this, you have heard of xkcd. Munroe has been drawing this comic for many years, starting as a NASA engineer.  He has made enough fame and fortune off this work to kick the NASA gig and write full time.  In What If?, he takes his readers' most elaborate and interesting hypothetical questions and tries to answer them with as much accurate science as possible.  He is thoroughly and amazingly successful at this--it's clever and interesting all the way through.  It's written in short chapters so you can consume it in little bites, and this is actually a pretty good way to read it.  I've been reading bits and pieces off and on for several months.

Munroe has a clean, clear, humorous writing style that will last forever.  If he wrote a novel, it would read a lot like Andy Weir's The Martian, for similar reasons--they are both engineers that obsess over the facts and just relate them straight out.  Maybe Munroe will try it sometime.  I loved it and give it my most utterly rare 5 star review as required reading.  If for some reason you have procrastinated, go get it now.