Category Archives: Fiction – SciFi

Early Riser, by Jasper Fforde

The last two books I reviewed were new novels by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past, and they did not disappoint. It’s even harder when the book is by one of your very favourite authors in the world, and they haven’t released a new book for quite a long time so that you actually miss the announcement of the new book, and then you finally get your hands on it and … well, the expectations for Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser were pretty high, is what I’m saying. I knew it was a stand-alone book unconnected to his other work, and I wasn’t expecting another Thursday Next, but … well, let’s just say this is not my favourite Jasper Fforde novel.

I mean, you’ve got to (I’ve got to) admire a novelist who tries new things and strikes off in bold directions rather than followed tried-and-true paths that have led to bestsellers in the past. In Early Riser, Fforde brings the reader into an alternate-reality version of our world where, for reasons I didn’t fully understand, almost all humans in northern countries hibernate through the long, cold winters. The novel’s main character, a hapless young man called Charlie Worthing, has just signed on to work as a Winter Consul, one of the small group of people who stay awake during the Winter to safeguard the sleeping masses. And from there … it just gets weird.

There’s a lot going on in Early Riser — a lot of premise, a lot of characters (some quite brilliantly drawn) — a lot of different factions competing with one another. They are competing for control of many things (I think): of the half-alive, zombie-like people who have awakened from hibernation with low brain function but the ability to still perform basic tasks, of Morphinex, the drug people rely on for an easy, dreamless sleep, and of a viral dream that a lot of people seem to be sharing during hibernation, that holds the keys to … honestly I can’t even remember what.

It’s confusing, is what I’m saying. Or it was to me. I admire detailed and thoughful worldbuilding, but there’s so much world being built here that I just got lost in the details. It’s a key part of this story that Charlie can’t really tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but I couldn’t even tell who all the guys (and girls) were, much less what side they were on, never mind why.

Jasper Fforde has always been a writer that demands a reader be pretty clever to keep up with him, and I’ve always been up to the challenge and loved his work, but this one … just defeated me. I did stick with it and was kind of engaged by the ending, but had it not been by one of my very favourite writers, I would have given up on it halfway through.

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An Ocean of Minutes, by Thea Lim

oceanofminutesThis is a dystopian novel I could actually cope with (I usually can’t handle dystopia because I’m so afraid of it coming true) because the dystopian future is … in our past? Anyway, this is kind of an alternative version of history where a deadly flu epidemic wipes out much of the population of the US in the early 1980s. But also, in this world there’s time travel, although it operates with a lot of inconvenient limitations. The main character of the novel, Polly, agrees in 1981 to travel to the year 1993 to help rebuild civilization, in exchange for life-saving medical treatment for her dying fiance, Frank.

Frank and Polly agree to meet up in 1993; he will gladly wait 12 years for the woman who saved his life, while for Polly the trip will take only a few hours and she looks forward to a quick reunion with her beloved Frank.

Of course, things don’t work out that way. First of all, Polly gets re-routed to 1998 instead of 1993. Secondly, things are not that great for indentured workers in 1998 and Polly finds it hard to get any information about where Frank might be, 17 years after she said goodbye to him.

Like a lot of literary sci-fi, this is not really a hardcore science fiction novel in that there’s a lot of things about this alternative dystopia and the mechanics of how time travel works there that don’t really make a lot of sense if you examine it too closely. That’s not really what the book is about: it’s about using the flu epidemic, and the resulting dystopia, and the time travel, to explore ideas. Ideas about how we make and remake our culture, about immigration and the lines we draw to divide people into desirable and undesirable groups, and most importantly, about love and what endures over time. The reader may find, as Polly does, that the love that endures is not the one you expected — I can’t say more without spoiling this excellent novel, but it is well worth a read.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green

remarkableYou all know I’m a big fan of YA author John Green, so when his younger brother Hank, better known till now as a YouTube science educator and singer of mostly-novelty songs, wrote a book, I was naturally interested to read it as well. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is quite unlike one of John Green’s books — for one thing, it’s adult, not YA, although I guess if you have an overwhelming urge to cut the literary market up into smaller and smaller segments you could call in New Adult as the main characters are all in their early 20s. Also, it’s probably best classed as sci-fi, although it takes place in a very real and present-day America not in a galaxy far, far away. Hank’s book is not like one of John’s books: it is its own absolutely remarkable thing.

The novel’s first-person narrator, art-school graduate and graphic designer April May, starts out being just a little too cute and quirky for comfort (I mean, she is named April May) but quickly develops from the “quirky artsy girl” stereotype into something much more complex and multilayered. The action of the novel gets going almost immediately when April discovers what she thinks is an enormous piece of street art — a statue of a robot in the middle of a New York sidewalk — and calls her YouTuber friend Andy to come make a video about it in the middle of the night. When April wakes up the next morning to discover that dozens of identical statues have appeared in cities all over the globe and her video has gone viral.

As the mystery of the “Carls” (April called the original statue Carl in her video and the name catches on) grows more complex, so does April’s online fame and her increasingly strained relationship with her public self. This book does a lot of things well, including one thing Hank Green is extremely well-qualified to do: examine the pressures and expectations that are brought to bear on a human being who suddenly becomes larger than life. Sudden fame turns April from a woman into a brand, a symbol, and, eventually, a target for people driven by hate and fear. But April herself is far from a flawless innocent — she is impulsive, shows terrible judgement at times, and finds herself doing frankly cruel things in pursuit of what she increasingly comes to see as a cause.

A meditation on fame in the internet age, an exploration of how humanity might react as a group if faced with something outside our collective experience, a coming of age story, a parable about polarization in today’s political climate — An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is all those things, but mostly it’s a strong, fast-paced story that left me hurrying to finish it and eager for the sequel. The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly — many threads are resolved, but enough are left open to invite the reader into the next chapter of April’s (and, I guess, Carl’s) story.

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