The Uplift War (Uplift Series)

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Uplift War
David Brin, 1987

Hugo Winner - 1988

Premise: The inhabitants of the colony on the damaged planet of Garth know they are in danger. They don’t know why Galactic strife is focused on the species of Earth, but humans, chimps, and alien diplomats prepare to defend their colony from a larger societal struggle they barely understand.

This book is technically a sequel to Startide Rising, but this is a completely separate story taking place very far away from the prior book. The events of the prior book have an impact on this one, but there is no need to read this series in order or in its entirety to comprehend the story.

To recap the setting, these books take place in a future in which the sentient species of Earth (humans plus the genetically modified neo-chimps and neo-dolphins) have recently joined a greater galactic civilization. One of the major principles of this civilization is uplift. A recognized species can “uplift” a pre-sentient species into a spacefaring race, which then enters into indentured servitude to the older patron race until they become fully fledged members of galactic society. Humans are a bit of a scandal because they burst onto the scene apparently without a patron race.

The Uplift War has a lot of the same positive elements as Startide Rising, in different proportions. The portrayal of various Galactic races is more nuanced, as there are major characters of non-earthling species. The Gubru who attack the colony have a fascinating theory of government based on a three-part balance, and it affects everything about their lives, even their sexualities. I loved learning about the empathic, playful Tymbrimi who are sympathetic toward the humans even when they don’t understand them.

The neo-chimps play a much larger role in this book, and I really liked getting more about how they struggle with their place as a young race - what do they keep from their more “primitive” days? What would it be like to look at living members of your species who were at a very different level of sapience, and how much say would you want to have in how your species changed in the next generation?

The story is full of adventure and action, but the star of the book is really the world-building and the character growth. It’s an interesting thought experiment mixed with an environmentalist message. The author’s note at the end states the question outright: “Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last...Some day we may be judged by just how well we served, when alone we were Earth’s caretakers.”

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

World War Z

Monday, June 20, 2016

World War Z
Max Brooks, 2006 (audio edition 2007)

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award

Premise: After the end of the Zombie War, journalist Max Brooks travels around the world to collect the stories of survivors, to keep alive the memory of an unprecedented struggle.

Look, I finished an audiobook! It helps that a) I have a new commute that takes a long time, and b) this book is basically ideal to record as an audiobook. The structure of multiple narrators and interviews is perfect for this full-cast format.

I can also understand both why Hollywood snapped it up for a movie and why the adaptation was reportedly terrible. This would be a fantastic fictional documentary, or a series of short films. It would not work as a single-character adventure vehicle.

I really enjoyed listening to this book, although I went back and forth on how realistic I felt it was. The immediacy and detail of each account was nicely nuanced, and the voices and passion of the narrators suck you into each personal story. I loved how many different cultures and perspectives are represented, although it does occasionally lapse into tropes. (Spoilerish: a blind samurai fighting zombies in the forest... really?)

I did at some point realize how few of the voices were female, which diminished my enjoyment somewhat. This edition was abridged from the book, however, so maybe there is a greater range of voices in the original (or the extended audio!)

The multiple perspectives keep the story from feeling too obvious. As you piece together the narrative, you find a skillful portrayal of global bureaucracy set against individual struggle. I liked the subtle touches, for example, the different slang for zombies used by different characters, and the various terms for different major phases of the war.

I liked each individual story, but by the end of the full book, I barely remembered the beginning. For me, this is one of the main drawbacks of audiobooks - how much longer they take. I might try another one given my commute, but I’m not in a hurry.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Inside Out and Back Again

Monday, June 13, 2016

Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai, 2011

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a middle grade novel

Premise: Hà is just a girl when she must leave her home, her country, and seek a new life in America. Follow her family’s journey through a series of poems chronicling the year 1975.

This was recommended by a friend who is studying children’s literature, and I can see why. It’s approachable and an easy read, but emotionally, culturally, and historically complex.

Lai is writing directly from her own experience, as she fled Vietnam with her mother and siblings at the end of the war. I think the author fully succeeds in her aim to convey the emotional reality of being a child going through that experience.

The narrative voice is shaped by the form, and the short, evocative phrases of the poems make tangible Hà’s ambivalence, her anger or sadness or worry, her hesitancy. They give the book immediacy in all the description of small details as well as a formal quality at times. That rhythm puts me in mind of the ceremonies the book opens and closes on, and the sound of some speakers who learned English as a second language.

Hà goes through a seemingly impossible transition, having to abandon everything and go from being a good student in a culture she loved to a refugee who doesn’t speak the language. She can only report what she observes and feels and knows, but it’s enough for an in-depth picture. I imagine that this book is a good way to talk to children of many backgrounds about what it feels like to be different.

It’s a beautiful little book with a lot of sadness in it, but some hope and optimism as well.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

I Am Livia

Monday, June 6, 2016

I Am Livia
Phyllis T. Smith, 2014

Premise: A retelling of the life of Livia, wife to the first emperor of Rome.

I do love historical semi-fiction about powerful women. Last summer I read and enjoyed (but did not review) The Summer Queen, and it occurs to me how much Livia Drusilla and Eleanor of Aquitaine have in common. Both are daughters of important families who made a young political match. Both later left their first husbands to marry a young war leader: Livia to Octavius Ceasar (later Augustus), and Eleanor to Henry Plantagenet, (aka Henry II, King of England). Both exercised a good deal of political power, whether behind the scenes or in their own right. Both founded a line of kings.

Both this book and The Summer Queen also took a similar approach toward their subjects: everything is based on verifiable history, but the truth of disputed facts is decided in the character’s favor, and unknown motivations or feelings are incorporated, of course. Livia is a figure more maligned by history, and less is known concretely about her, so this book does contain more clear invention than the other.

I actually didn’t realize how much was disputed about Livia, or how important she was. I mostly had a vague recollection of a heartless scheming character in I, Claudius. (The cover of the book is clearly inviting comparison.) Her parents’ politics allied her family and her first husband with the faction which assassinated Julius Ceasar, because of which she spent several years on the run with her young family.

It is hard to know from this distance how she came to marry her former political enemy, Ceasar’s adopted son. That potential contradiction - the tension between political ideals, survival, and affection - is why the possibilities in this story are so intriguing. By all accounts, the Emperor Augustus treated her as a special advisor; she sponsored public works, had clout in the Senate, and pioneered financial independence for some women in Rome. No matter what is true about her, she was certainly remarkable.

This book is an adventure, and a bit of a romance, and an attempt to recreate a lost perspective on a long ago time. I think it succeeds well in all these respects.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Sorcerer to the Crown

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho, 2015

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

Premise: Prunella Gentleman has always been skilled in magic, but teaching young ladies to do advanced thaumaturgy is simply not done. Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe has his own problems to deal with, as there is a problem with England’s magic and none of the (white) magicians believe that he can solve it.

I felt a bit like I was cheating on the Read Harder Challenge once I started to read this. A historical fantasy set in England isn’t exactly stretching out of my comfort zone. However, author Zen Cho is writing from her experience, as a Malaysian-born woman who currently lives in England.

The main characters, Prunella and Zacharias, are potentially powerful in different ways, and they both navigate the line of walking in upper-class circles while being of obviously non-white heritage in Regency London.

Zacharias is African; he was purchased, freed, and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal. Prunella’s father was British, but her mother, who she never knew, was Indian. Her heritage is key to her story, and her attitude and determination are the best part of the book.

The book fits easily in the best modern tradition of historical fiction that doesn’t sugarcoat its history while allowing its characters to conceive of and reach for something better.

I liked how much of the world of magic was implied rather than spelled out, making this an easy and fast read. The cast of characters, particularly female characters, is happily a large and diverse group of intriguing personalities.

My main criticism might be that although it was a fun story, by the end it all felt a bit like introductory material - just set up for a much bigger and better story to come.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Bell Jar

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness

Premise: Esther seems to have everything: talent, ambition, a prestigious summer internship in New York. But her brain is a jerk, as we might say today, and will drag her down.

Similar to Wintergirls, this is a book I recommend, but with reservations. I knew it was about depression, and realized quickly that it is a lightly fictionalized story of Plath’s own experiences with mental health treatment.

I knew The Bell Jar is highly regarded. I didn’t know how vivid, evocative, and painful a picture of depression it paints. I felt like I was walking in a fog for hours after I finished it.

It’s not just about severe clinical depression, but that particularly female intertwining of internal malaise with experiences of systemic and personal sexism. It’s no coincidence that The Bell Jar was first published the same year as The Feminine Mystique.

The combination of self-doubt, contradictory cultural messages, impossible choices, harassment, and mistreatment that many women are still more than passing familiar with doesn’t cause depression, but it doesn’t exactly help.

In that sense, Esther’s story is both universal and specific. Specific in the detailed pictures it draws: the publishing world in New York in a particular era, the experience of residential asylums in the same era, Esther’s personal downward spiral and impetus toward self-harm. Universal in that you easily feel why her depression seems logical to her, why she can’t see any way up from where she is, why she makes the choices she does.

The prose is masterful and moving, and it is for just that reason that today I give this book a big warning sticker. Know yourself, my fellow readers. Know whether you are likely to come through a story like this (knowing that Esther does make it out in the end, though Plath eventually didn’t) feeling empathetic to others, reassured in the reality of the descriptions, or shaken by how much of yourself you can see on the page.

5 Stars - Extremely Effective

Speaker for the Dead

Monday, May 16, 2016

Speaker for the Dead
Orson Scott Card, 1986

Hugo Winner - 1987

Premise: Follows Ender’s Game. Ender and Valentine have traveled the galaxy, time has passed, and now no one knows their connection to history. But a new colony has begun on a planet with an unknown intelligent species, and tragedy will draw Ender there to meet them.

Many celebrated authors have won more than one Hugo Award. But to date, the only other person to win the Best Novel award twice back-to-back is Lois McMaster Bujold (whose work I adore completely).

I addressed in my review of Ender’s Game the difficulty in returning to these books now, in 2016. It gets even harder here.

Because I loved this book.

I think it’s much better than Ender’s Game, although it needs that story as its prequel. It touches on more interesting issues, such as the nature of sentience, understanding across seemingly impossible barriers,and the individual perception of time and how it affects how beings relate to each other.

There is still a lack of imagination shown in how little aspects of human society have changed in thousands of years. To be fair, though, in 1986 it seemed a lot more likely that the Catholic Church could proceed unmoved for a few dozen more centuries. Also, a piece of the plot revolves on the fact that at least in this colony, married couples legally have no private files from each other, not even for work. (It’s framed in a more sexist way than it would actually work out, which is unfortunate.) It just made me think: wow, that is a) terrible for cybersecurity and employment, and b) terrible for people in bad relationships. A bad idea all around, but one that I’ll accept in the (half-closed-minded and handicapped by religion) future society as presented.

The exploration of time and perception almost goes unnoticed under the more overt struggle, but it’s intriguing and delicately done. The questions about alien morality and how humans should respond to sentient species are extremely well done. (Note, though: nothing groundbreaking, see The Snow Queen, Startide Rising and original Star Trek, among other things.)

I found the story moving, even though I find it more heartbreaking that the author has often seemed unable to apply in real life the morals in his fiction about compassion and understanding towards those who are different from you.

5 Conflicted but Honest Stars

Further Reading: