Scifi by Asimov and a Transgendered Search for Identify – Wait a Minute – Isaac Asimov? #scifi #sciencefiction #bookreview #genderequality

cover Robots of DawnIsaac Asimov, a giant of early 20th Century science fiction, is often criticized for awkward writing with flat characters. Could his book The Robots of Dawn, and in particular a sex scene in the story (Asimov? sex?) have helped a trans preteen find his way?

This is a great article and you should read it in its entirety. What riveted the author about Asimov’s character was:

Bailey’s desires and fantasies effortlessly become reality: Without his asking for it, sex came to him exactly as he imagined it because he was a smart masculine detective guy. I wanted that pleasure and ease and wordless understanding between the object of my desire and myself…
The phrase I now have for it is gender dysphoria—I shunned any experience that sought to tie me to my female body, and in turn escaped that body by mapping my sexual fantasies onto those of cisgender, heterosexual men, in scifi, in pornography, and beyond.

Asimov’s story focuses on a case of roboticide. There are, of course, robots with positronic brainpaths (Mr. Data, here’s your creator.) But he set his story on a planet where sex is casual and monogamy nonexistent. Well, Asimov is also known for writing for adolescent boys. And his story opened up new possibilities for at least one youngster.

I’ve never read the book and headed to Amazon to find over 200 reviews and a 4.5 star rating. Readers love the robot mystery, and also note some elements that didn’t age well over the decades.

  • Fascinating take on culture clashes and assumptions made–even while it remains blind to some of the assumptions of the time period in which it was written.
  • The sex scenes were written in an odd way, I thought, showing that the character (as well as the author perhaps?) was not comfortable
  • There doesn’t seem to be any ethnic diversity
  • This book dragged on and on. I bought it for my 14 year old and found it was really inappropriate.

Even the writer who found the book transformative as a preteen says, “When I re-read The Robots of Dawn now, passages that I absorbed uncritically at the time are transformed into stumbling blocks… a fantasy world that had no place for me or anyone like me.”

I’ve found some of Asimov’s other work to be dated. I have fond memories of some of his books and have avoided re-reading them exactly because I don’t want to spoil the memories.

I’m intrigued. The book resonated for a particular person at a particular point in his young life. What do you think? Should I read Robots of Dawn? Will you read it?

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Teens Battle to the Death in Ruthless Dystopian Games – Latest Big Hit Contribution to the Genre #review #bookreview #dystopia #scifi

Teen Dystopian BookRed Rising is in the scifi/fantasy dystopian genre – the sort where teenagers fight and kill each other in “games.”  Like other stories in this genre, adults are generally corrupt or ineffective. The genre favors medieval sorts of weapons with flashes of high-tech and high-fashion. The main character must win the game to maneuver into a position to topple the evil society. You may think this has become predictable stuff, but Red Rising by Pierce Brown is phenomenally popular.

The story delivers all the requirements of the genre, and grandly. The underdog hero, Darrow, is a Red slave in a society of many rigid classes ruled by the Golds. He chooses to join the game to give meaning to his murdered wife’s death, bravely suffers a dreadful preparation, and doesn’t really know what he’s getting into. There’s lots of violence and suffering by all involved, more than any one of us could endure because the characters are supermen and superwomen.

Darrow repeatedly ruminates about his lost love, which drives him and makes him unwilling to settle merely for revenge. He feels guilt over some of the terrible things he must do to win and sometimes suffers consequences. He makes and loses friends and enemies. The story is well done and doesn’t devolves into merely a video game plot.

At one point I was getting a little tired of the violence, and laughed out loud when a character said that he was getting tired of the game. How about that – an author who can read my mind.

What others are saying
There are always some negative reviews. Darrow’s ruminations strike some as “rehashing” and “tedious.” Others noted this is more of a fantasy than hard science fiction (though the scifi genre has been stretched into fantasy forever.) The book is set on Mars but there’s only one grim element that says “Mars” to me – the planet’s been terraformed, so the story could have been set almost anywhere.

Others disliked similarities to previous popular dystopias. “I am very bothered, and even distracted… because it is following The Hunger Games in 2008 and Divergent in 2011 and Red Rising came out in 2014 which wholesale loots plots and character arcs from the previous two books.” Joel De Gan.

The comparison wouldn’t bother the author – the Amazon description brags about the similarity to Ender and Katniss.

My bottom line.
I’ve read enough stories in this genre lately, and that may blunt my opinion. I’ve read that scifi is always about us today, so they make me wonder – do teens and twenty-somethings see school as an arbitrary game imposed on them by callous adults? And the real world on the other side of school as grim and rigged?

Red Rising is well done and if you’re looking for this sort of story, you’ll love it.

Believable Misery in Dystopian Novel, Earthseed #review #bookreview #dystopia #dystopian #sciencefiction

dystopian novel of near-futureWhatever happened in this dystopian world, it happened quickly. Old people remember the “good old days” but only a few children learn to read and write. Huddled in small enclaves, remnants of our current, doomed America hang on to whatever jobs exist, grow as much food as possible, and try to defend themselves. As with many dystopias, fighting and killing your dangerous fellow citizens is central.

There is no villain in the story, not unless you count the starving, desperate, and murderously drug-crazed mobs as a character. The hero is Lauren, a young woman who sees the end of her fragile safety approaching. When the mob breaks into her walled neighborhood, she flees. Walking north on highways now empty of cars but full of escapees on foot, she meets a few allies and many enemies.

Horrific events fill the story, but they are kept at a distance. There’s plenty of blood and action alternating with endurance and misery, but Lauren only hears about some attacks and sees others from a distance, or in the aftermath. Even when she’s directly involved, the format of the book blunts the gore. Lauren is writing in her journal, after the events she describes. This may make the book acceptable for younger readers than I’d think otherwise. The ending is anti-climactic, fitting the tone of the story.

Lauren is unusual in two ways. First, she is developing a new religion, Earthseed, based on the idea that God is Change. Chapters open with quotes from her Books of the Living. These quotes are short, repetitive, and not especially interesting. The point is more that she continues to write and think, less what she specifically writes.

Secondly, Lauren is hyper-empathic. She feels the physical pain of conscious people around her. While she suffers the results several times during the story, this remarkable trait doesn’t drive the plot or change what happens. Since this is the first of two books, maybe Earthseed and hyper-empathy are important to the second book. They’re bits of interesting background here.

What others say
Maybe I’ve just overdosed on dystopias, but I didn’t like it as much as most reviewers. With loads of reviews on Amazon and 4.5 stars, Earthseed is popular.

Here’s one testament to the book’s significance: “Had to read it for school. Reads quickly and doesn’t get boring, aside from the first two chapters or so.”

For one reviewer, it replaces 1984 as the iconic tale of where today’s world is taking us. Terrifyingly believable, a story that does not assume everyone is white. (Lauren and many of her allies are people of color.)

Development of Earthseed is gripping. This opinion puzzled me, since I thought Earthseed wasn’t a driver for the story. Maybe I missed something.

“We chose Parable of the Sower for our book club reading and it sparked engaging & thoughtful conversations.” I could see myself enjoying such a discussion about this story.

Negative reviews warned the book is not appropriate for younger readers. Pure dystopian that is weighed down with abject hopelessness.

Quick, easy read… almost seemed like a good movie script. Funny – Amazon lists that as a critical review.

Review of Earthseed Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

David Beat Goliath – the Reason Why is Not What You Think #review #bookreview #history #bible

Surprise - moral of the story not what you think“David and Goliath” teaches a lesson, but not the lesson you expect. Modern readers misunderstand the story and have the original message wrong. That is so cool, I’m reviewing this non-fiction book for my news post.

We think of David as a hopeless underdog facing an unbeatable foe, saved only by divine intervention. “No one in ancient times would have doubted David’s tactical advantage once it was known he was an expert in slinging.”

Ancient soldiers using slingshots were as formidable as archers. Goliath was a sitting duck, a heavily armored infantry warrior. There was no way he could chase down and engage David.

What we commonly think of as strengths and weaknesses can be very different in reality, and the underdog wins more often than we expect. This book covers varying subjects such as children of wealthy parents, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, primary school class sizes, deterring crime, and girls’ basketball. Gladwell offers individual stories and adds research to generalize his points. What you think you know ain’t so – delightful.

Advantages may make someone stronger for a while, until getting “more” becomes a weakness. The once-stronger side focuses on what worked in the past and how things “should” be done, blind to the challenge that confronts them in the present.

Consider “wars over the last two hundred years – how often do you think the [more powerful] side wins? Most of us would put that number at close to 100 percent… [but] just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins.”

Children of wealthy parents can be less self-sufficient than their peers.

There is an optimum class size for elementary school but Americans obsess over reducing class sizes: “77 percent of Americans think that it makes more sense to… lower class sizes than to raise [good] teachers’ salaries. Do you know how few things 77 percent of Americans agree on?”

“Cracking down” on criminals and insurgents often makes the problem worse. For people to obey an authority, they must feel that the authority is fair. “What matters in deterrence is what matters to offenders.” When legitimacy is lost, offenders become willing to bear extreme forms of punishment. For example, “a reasonable assessment of the research to date is that [extreme] sentence severity has no effect on the level of crime in society.”

Personally, I believe that what really happens in the world is vital to pursuing what should happen. We’re wasting time and money while defeating our own goals.

This short book offers an important argument: the upside Surprise - the story's moral not what you thinkdown “U” of strength and weakness. Advantages that strengthen you for a while can top out and become liabilities.

Before you double-down on an action, think about this and consider what the evidence tells you.

BTW, Goliath may have suffered acromegaly: speculation on the diseases of historical figures is always intriguing. I found the story of David and Goliath surprisingly interesting and fun; much better than the “favorite Bible stories for children” sort of idea I had before.

PS: I read a digital version of Gladwell’s book. After the cover and title pages is a “welcome” with links to “Begin Reading.” The table of contents, and copyright page come after the text. Since on-line retailers offer previews starting at page one, this arrangement gives the reader the maximum preview of text, and placing typical front-matter at the end is no inconvenience in an ebook. Ebooks are evolving and I enjoy the format.

Fascinating Premise is an Excuse to Pit Ancient Armies in Battle #review #bookreview #scifi

Earth shattered through timeSegments of the Earth are suddenly transmorgified into their own past – “a patchwork of eras, from prehistory to 2037, each with its own indigenous inhabitants.” Two small groups of “moderns” from 2037 briefly make contact and agree to meet in the only place where a technological signal has been detected – Babylon. Along the way they meet Victorian era British soldiers and two famous ancient armies led by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

What I thought of the story
The book claims Clarke’s Space Odyssey series as its inspiration – a time odyssey instead of a space odyssey. I guess that’s why it opens with furry pre-human hominids. They only appear occasionally and don’t add much to the story, but are interesting.

Once the premise is established and the weird world explored a bit, the book slows down. Its main purpose is to show us what it would be like to live in the ruling courts of Alexander and Genghis. Very smelly among other things.

When two rulers dedicated to world conquest meet, it’s not much of a spoiler to say mayhem ensues. Personally, I’m not a big fan of battles and began skipping entire chapters. The book ends in a mystical, alien sort of way which allows a narrator (not a character) to provide a glimpse of what’s going on.

I liked parts of the book and skipped other parts, so that averages out to an “okay” rating from me.

What others are saying
As you’d expect from a legandary author, Time’s Eye has a high sales rank on Amazon – roughly top 7% in its time travel category on Kindle. (Amazon is  hiding the detailed data that lets me calculate a rank, but I can still estimate.) From 109 reviews it gets 3.7 stars, which isn’t bad.

Readers who disliked the book found the middle with its long trudge to Babylon boring. Others called it “entertaining” and “interesting if not compelling,” while some say they’re going straight off to buy the rest of the trilogy.

About the hardcover book
I’m always a little skeptical when a book’s description starts by telling me how famous the authors are. Here’s the pitch:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke is a living legend, a writer whose name has been synonymous with science fiction for more than fifty years… a genuine visionary. If Clarke has an heir among today’s science fiction writers, it is award-winning author Stephen Baxter… [who] demonstrated dazzling gifts of imagination and intellect, along with a rare ability to bring the most cerebral science dramatically to life. Now these two champions of humanism and scientific speculation have combined their talents in a novel sure to be one of the most talked-about of the year, a 2001 for the new millennium.

I guess that’s inevitable when a publisher has a living legend in its stable.

I read an old hardcover edition from 2004 which included a CD with two of Baxter’s novels (downloadable pdf files that I haven’t read yet, but I reviewed another of his books here.) If you buy a used copy be sure to ask if the CD is included.

There was also a pdf on how the book was created (which includes author biographies and lists of works). From these notes and wikipedia I get the impression that Clarke developed the outline for the book and Baxter wrote it. Maybe that applies to all three of the books in the trilogy, since the last was published in December 2007 and Clarke (who had been ill for years) died three months later. A sad day.

Interstellar Colonization or Soap Opera? Not the usual mashup #scifi #space #interstellar #review #bookreview

arkwrightArkwright – the name of a pivotal character and a wonderful title – is a story based on interstellar travel that is rooted in real physics, limited by the speed of light. No warp drives here. Author Allen Steele divides the story into four “books” plus one “interlude,” each separated by at least a generation. While the interstellar project spans the whole story, each “book” stands alone.

Book One, the first third of the story, follows a science fiction writer who gets rich and uses his money to create a private foundation dedicated to interstellar travel. This section is set in the world of 20th century scifi, though it could really be set in another industry, and – considering the money the writer must accumulate – probably should be. If you read classic scifi the name-dropping will be fun, but the famous names are only background noise.

The characters’ various relationship issues are featured but don’t follow through the entire story.

My favorite quote comes from a character complaining about science fiction stories.

Everyone who writes about space travel gets it wrong… the people who write it either pay no attention to science or simply get it wrong…if you want to distinguish yourself from all the other fellows who are writing science fiction… get the science right.

Steele embraces this advice and offers his fascinating premise for getting space travel right. It’s a grand idea backed up with awesome technology, which I won’t spoil here. This doesn’t mean the rest of the story’s science is ho-hum. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and especially bioengineering and terraforming exceed our current abilities, but don’t seem to violate getting the science right. There’s even a bibliography if you’d like to check for yourself.

Relationships and hook-ups are featured (Sex mostly occurs “off-screen”)
Given Steele’s nod to the early 20th century’s Golden Age of scifi, which is often considered short on characterization, it seems odd that he spends most of his writing on relationships. Discussions of the starship are fairly short and often feel incidental. This seems doubly odd since the book’s description calls Steele a “highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration.” I would have liked more from his space travel expertise.

If you’re keen to follow the starship plot, you can skip Book One and Book Three. There’s enough recap in the other sections that you won’t miss anything – perhaps this reflects the story’s beginnings as a serial.

Steele has a habit of shifting back and forth in time as he writes, using flashbacks or a structure where a character tells you the outcome and then goes back to relate the events. I got used to the style easily enough. It does result in characters “telling” their story which is a supposed no-no for modern fiction where “show, don’t tell” is the writing tip.

What others say
Arkwright has an Amazon Sellers Rank in the top 16% of its category of Hard Science Fiction – that’s a popular book. There are 65 customer reviews that average 3 1/2 stars – not bad. Complaints reflect my review – too much soap opera instead of the starship promised in the description.

Even reviewers giving the book 5 stars note that the “science fiction doesn’t start until well into the book,” but if they liked the cross-generational family dramas, they liked the book.

What is Hard Science Fiction?
Since both fans and critics notice the emphasis on relationships, it makes me wonder about the Hard Science Fiction category. Certainly the notion that hard science fiction is mostly about detailed technology is wrong. How many technical terms must authors throw in – or replace with common English – to gain or shed the category?

In my own series about a colony on Mars, I try to get the science

Join the first colonists https://books2read.com/u/bQZp1eright. Settlers have technical training to keep their life support equipment and robotics operating (the robots are rather cool if I do say so myself). Some have relevant university degrees, but they’re people, not walking technical manuals. Their mission is more like the real-life Mars One and less like NASA. They face danger, have conflicts, and explore the Red Planet as they try to build a home on Mars. Some of my readers today may step foot on Mars tomorrow – or morrowsol as Martians say – and will be able to tell me how well I did.

Reviewers who have commented on categories, though, call Glory on Mars hard science fiction, so I followed their lead and added that category on Amazon.

Subscribe to my readers’ club and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Check out all four of the On Mars books, post reviews, and let me know: are they hard science fiction?

Frontier Mine on the Moon – Crater by Homer Hickam #scifi #sciencefiction #review #bookreview

craterCrater Trueblood is an up-right, low-key teenage hero. He is born and raised on the Moon with an unworthy best friend, a crush on a girl he only argues with, and – soon after the story begins – a new job he can’t seem to get right. He also has a gillie – a fascinating “biological machine” that sits on his shoulder (even the shoulder of his space suit) and runs his communications. At first gillie seemed to be simply an odd detail in Crater’s life, but as the story progresses, gillie becomes more significant and I enjoyed him – it – whatever.

Hickam’s whole story is like the gillie. It starts as an idea about mining Helium-3 to sell to an energy-starved Earth (if you care about how Helium-3 is used, read Hickman’s science-based note at the end) – a nifty look at the characters, dangers, and technologies involved in a Wild West sort of mining colony. Then Crater joins a convoy on a dangerous journey across the lunar surface to retrieve a package for the mine boss, and the story expands. There are dangers, big and small, along the way, and several groups of lunar inhabitants, including some humans who have been genetically tweaked to be very different from normal people.

Hickam’s writing style is straightforward and sparse and he weaves in facts about the Moon.

At the end of the story, Crater has achieved a lot but is uncertain about his future. Hickam leaves other loose ends that will lead into the next book in the Helium-3 series. A few of the unexplained elements are important, like the motivation of the bad guys and the welfare of friends, but since the main plot line is resolved, I thought the ending worked.

The standard writing bugaboo of “show, don’t tell” get’s ignored a few times –

First step about to fall - NASA

First step about to fall – NASA

sometimes as straight “telling” but there is also a side trip with tourists to Tranquility Base, the first lunar landing site. Since that trip is tangential to the main story, it’s close to a “telling.” But it was short and interesting – there’s a factoid about the fate of Neil Armstrong’s first footprint on the Moon that I must look up sometime to confirm.

I had a couple issues with the book. My Epub version had quite a few places where a new paragraph began in an odd place – like the middle of a sentence or in a block of dialog. While I noticed this, it didn’t interfere with my reading, so no big deal.

Towards the end, Hickam uses a technique I happen to dislike. After allowing me to ride along inside Crater’s head, privy to his thoughts and feelings, a character tells him something that Hickam won’t share with me. I realize this adds suspense for some readers, but it just annoys me. Especially since the story would have worked just fine if Crater had been left in the dark until Hickam was willing to tell us readers, too. And then he did it a second time! Sheesh.

Crater has a four star rating on Amazon, with 117 reviews. I guess not many readers are bothered by the trick of keeping secrets from the reader. I only noticed one negative review that specifically mentioned it. Some reviewers thought it started too slow. Others noted it was “geared towards a younger crowd,” and I do think younger tween readers will enjoy it (though there is death and destruction), as well as older readers who simply want a light read. Some reviewers noted the book reflects conservative ideas about society and Christian Values, but I think those themes are included with a light touch.

On balance Crater is a pleasant summer read.