Tag Archives: Recommendations

Hopeful Science Fiction: Semiosis

Last June I blogged about my desire to read more hopeful science fiction. Since then I’ve talked about Woman on the Edge of Time and The Lovely Bones. Today I’m back with another suggestion.

If you have recommendations for future instalments of this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

Semiosis

Sue Burke’s Semiosis is a 2018 hard science fiction novel about colonists from Earth who travel to a distant planet in hope of making it their permanent home. The storyline followed the original group of explorers as well as their descendants for several generations. They knew almost nothing about the planet they named Pax  before they arrived there, so preparing in advance for what they were about to experience wasn’t easy.

Nearly every chapter in this book showed how the most recent generation in this timeline adapted to the many challenges they faced while attempting to survive on a planet where RNA, not DNA, was the building block of life. Generally, one chapter was assigned to each new generation as they came of age and began making decisions for their community.

Th experiences of the first generation were promising. The land was covered in vegetation, much of which their scans showed was safe and nutritious for humans. They quickly began attempting to build shelters and adjust to the many differences that came with living in such an alien environment.

Plot-Based, Not Character-Based

As you might have already guessed, this was a plot-based novel. Since each section more or less introduced an entirely new cast of characters (based on how many members of the previous generation had managed to live to see old age), there wasn’t a great deal of time for any one character to steal the spotlight.

I normally have a strong preference for character-based stories, so I did need some time to adjust to the fact that I would only have a short amount of time with any of the fascinating people I met as one generation was slowly replaced by the next.

Given how long it took the original group of immigrants to realize that many of their assumptions about what life on a distant plant would be like were completely wrong, it made sense for the whole adventure to unfold slowly over the courses of multiple lifetimes as new generations built on the knowledge their parents and grandparents had painstakingly put together. No individual human could ever live long enough to gather all of the clues they did over such a long period of time.

However, I would have liked to see more continuity between the generations. I understood why the lifespans were shorter for humans, especially in the beginning, but I spent so little time with the many characters that I didn’t feel like I bonded with any of them. They were there in one scene and then sometimes gone in the next.

Persistence

There are many details about the plot that I can’t share with you without giving away huge spoilers. Needless to say, the characters in this book were surprised over and over again by what life was really like on their new home in just about every way you can imagine. The food obviously didn’t taste anything like food does on Earth. Calibrating what was and wasn’t dangerous on this planet was hard for them, too, as well due to how little they knew about life on it ahead of it.

All of their previous training was useful, but it couldn’t have possibly prepared them for everything they were about to experience. They had no way to contact Earth, leave Pax, or receive any additional supplies, so they had to figure out ways to keep going no matter what happened to them.

The first generation had some really rough experiences due to a string of bad luck and not having the right types of supplies at critical moments. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. There were conversations about ordinary things like unpacking the ship or how to decide when to switch from the food they brought with them to scavenging for a fresh dinner. I especially loved the characters’ contagious excitement at finally getting to explore the land without having any idea what they might find there.

Mixing those moments of grief in with all of the other emotions they experienced was a nice touch. It reminded me a lot of what happens in real life when someone is dealing with a difficult problem but also still has to do totally mundane things like sweep their floor, plan dinner, or take their pet for a walk. Life is hard sometimes, but it still goes on.

This feeling returned once they realized there was an intelligent life form on that planet that all of their previous scans of it had failed to pick up. I couldn’t stop reading once I reached this section, and it only got better from there.

The Big Picture

There are two reasons why I’m recommending this as a hopeful science fiction read.

Number one, we’ve all had days that were so frustrating or painful they felt like they’d never end.

This book could describe a day like that and then zoom out and see how that experience mattered (or didn’t matter) in the longterm. There were questions asked early on that didn’t receive answers until decades or even generations later.

There’s something comforting in seeing that pattern play out over and over again. What doesn’t make sense to us now might make sense years from now. Alternatively, it might fade away and not be meaningful at all after enough time has passed.

Number two, things did improve for the characters over time. The tragedies they experienced were real, but so was the hope they found as they adjusted to the challenges they faced and figured out how to look after themselves long after all of their Earth supplies had run out.

What hopeful science fiction stories have you been reading recently?

Hopeful Science Fiction: The Lovely Bones

This past June I blogged about my desire to read more hopeful science fiction. Last month I reviewed Woman on the Edge of Time as my first selection for this list. Today I’m back with a review of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

If you have recommendations for future instalments of this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

As I mentioned last month, the books I include in this series don’t have to start off in a hopeful place, and I don’t require them to shy away from difficult topics. I’m including a trigger warning for today’s review because The Lovely Bones does begin with a teenage girl being raped and murdered by someone who lived in her neighbourhood.

The story briefly discussed the end of this character’s life without going into any graphic details about it, and I will be talking about it even less than the narrator did. However, I want everyone who reads the rest of this post or check outs this book for themselves to be fully aware of those potentially upsetting references ahead of time.

The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was first published in 2002. The story it told began in the 1970s with the disappearance and violent death of the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old girl named Susie. Her parents and siblings struggled to move on with their lives without knowing for sure what had happened to her, and the main character found it equally difficult to say goodbye to a life that had only just begun for her.

Interestingly enough, the plot had much less to do with how Susie died than what she decided to do with her time after her death.

The afterlife Susie was welcomed into was everything anyone could hope for. There were no harsh judgements awaiting her or anything like that. She was loved, cared for, and reassured in a safe, happy place as she adjusted to the thought of a future she could have never predicted ahead of time.

Yet she still wanted to return to the life she’d once had. This yearning that Susie felt to reconnect with her loved ones was overwhelming at times, and it made her an incredibly sympathetic character. Anyone would have felt the same way in her shoes. I wanted her to find a way back home more than anything, but I couldn’t imagine how the plot could ever bend in that direction.

Grief

One of the things I wish I could change about western culture is the way it reacts to grief. There’s an expectation in many western societies that one should grieve quietly, briefly, and in private. I’d like to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of grief, but it’s not the only way to respond to loss.

The Lovely Bones showed characters who grieved in many different ways. Some of them spent years trying to figure out what happened to Susie. Others moved as far away from the town where Susie had lived as they possibly could or buried themselves in various projects as a way to cope with the past. Even Susie herself had to figure out how to say goodbye to the life she expected to have so she could embrace the (after)life she was experiencing instead.

There’s no shortcut through grief. As hard as it was at times to watch the characters mourn everything they’d lost, I appreciated their realistic responses to the days, weeks, months, years, and decades that followed after the heartbreaking opening scene. These were some of the best portions of the book. I’m not embarrassed to admit that they occasionally brought a tear to my eye.

Acceptance

Pain is unfortunately a part of life for every living thing. While some know more of it than others do, no one that I’ve ever met has been able to escape it entirely.

What The Lovely Bones did exceptionally well was to show how someone can accept what has happened to them without anyone making excuses for the perpetrators or calling those experiences good ones by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s been my experience that some well-meaning people will do both of those things in an attempt to help the person who was hurt begin to heal. They almost always have no idea they’re actually making the problem worse, but it was still refreshing to read about characters who tried to find acceptance without downplaying what happened or pretending like it had some mystical or uplifting purpose that Susie needed to discover in order to move on with her (after)life.

One of the few criticisms I have of this tale has to do with Susie’s multiple attempts to accept what had happened to her. The plot went into a lot of detail about her resistance to this idea early on, but it wasn’t quite as thorough in later chapters once her siblings grew up and began to find their own sense of peace. I can’t say much else about this without giving away spoilers, but the ending would have been even better if the audience could have seen more examples of Susie’s later reactions to this topic.

Hope

The hope in this story arrived gradually. Don’t look too hard for it in the first few scenes or chapters. Just like what often happens in real life, it will take time for everyone to adjust to their new reality and for certain parts of the plot to be set into motion before you begin to realize what will await Susie and everyone who loved her.

You see, hope isn’t something you get one dose of and then are set for life. There’s nothing delicate or whimsical about this emotion.  It also won’t magically appear and make every problem in your life disappear in a puff of smoke. (If only life worked that way!)

To see the true effects of hope over a long period of time, one often has to look at the longterm evolution of a person, memory, idea, or wish. What will happen to this individual in ten years? How does someone live with decades of unanswered questions? What might be waiting for you on the other side of unimaginable grief?

The beauty of this tale comes in how it defines and describes this concept for people who aren’t interested in pat answers or ignoring the types of pain that make hope so meaningful for those who seek it.

Summer Worlds I’d Like to Visit

Last January I blogged about the winter worlds I wish I could visit. Now that we’re well into the month of August and temperates are soaring, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this topic from a summery perspective.

One of the differences between this list and the one I did for winter is how loosely I’m defining a summer world. Some of the places I’ll be mentioning in this post never get cold or snowy at all. Others have seasonal changes that don’t necessarily match up perfectly with Ontario’s yearly weather cycle. A couple of them are places that aren’t so much “worlds” as they are countries (or parts of countries) that really exist.

It’s the presence of hot, often humid weather and everything that comes along with such a forecast that I’m looking for in these tales regardless of where they are set. I hope you’ll understand why I loosened the definition of this label and have a few ideas of your own of summer or summer-like settings that might be interesting to visit.

The Congo

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Caveat: I’d pack plenty of practical items like bug spray and I’d spend very little time with the main characters of this tale.

The setting, though, tickled my imagination. I wish the audience could have seen the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium from the perspective of someone who was born and raised in the Congo. The parts of this struggle that the main characters witnessed were fascinating. They made me wish it were possible to see the beginning of this movement for myself, and they were the highlight of the storyline for me.

The Deep South

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

While I’ve only been to Louisiana once, I did spend about a year of my childhood living in a different southern state. It wasn’t enough time for me to think of myself as a southerner by any means, but it was a period of my life when I developed some of my earliest memories that I am pretty certain are accurate and genuine.

The warm, humid evenings down there are something I’ll never forget. There’s no way to escape them. Like getting through snowstorms up north, you simply have to learn to adjust the rhythms of your day to what the weather is like. Assuming I could avoid the vampires running around there in this universe, it would be interesting to see if my memories of southern evenings are as accurate as I hope they are.

Any River That Huck Finn Paddles Down

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Huck was a character I liked a lot when I was a kid. The thought of a child deciding to leave home and go on an adventure without telling any of the adults in his or her life where they were headed made my heart skip a beat. I didn’t actually catch onto the satirical elements of the plot until I was older, but I do remember being envious of how much freedom this character had to design his own idea of a good time over the summer.

Also, I love bodies of water in almost any form. There are few things more soothing to me than spending time as close to a lake, river, pond, or ocean as possible. The sound of water lapping against the shore (or a seaworthy vessel) can lull me to sleep in minutes.

The House Where Justin’s Dad Lives

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern.

How is that for a vague title? About seven or eight years ago there was a popular Twitter account that quoted all of the odd, funny, and sometimes disturbing things the author’s dad said without necessarily realizing that he was embarrassing his son. Eventually those quotes were compiled into a book.

As someone who has my own fair share of relatives who are known for putting their feet in their mouths over and over again without no signs of learning from their pasts, I’d know exactly how to respond to the cringeworthy stuff Justin’s dad said back in the day (and maybe still does).

 

A Summer That Refuses to End

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

Raise your hand if you feel like this summer is going to last until the end of time.

This book is part of a series that is still on my TBR list, so I can’t give out any specific details about it yet. What I can say is that I, too, feel as though autumn is a decade or two away. It’s funny how some parts of the year speed by while others drag on forever, isn’t it?

What summer or summer-like worlds do you wish you could visit?

What to Read When It’s Hot Outside

Last winter I shared a list of books that I’d recommend checking out when it’s cold outside. All of them were set during the winter because sometimes I like to match the settings in the stories I read to what the weather in Ontario is like at that a particular time of the year.

Now it’s the middle of July.  Instead of having a high temperature of -25 C (-13 F) like we did when I published that post last January, it’s supposed to feel like 40 C (104 F) today including the humidex. I’m lucky enough to have air conditioning, but our home air conditioner does have some trouble keeping up when the weather grows that hot and humid.

Luckily, there’s something about leaping into a good book that helps me forget even the strongest heat wave.

My summer reading preferences tend to veer off into two different directions. I either want to read serious classic literature or lighthearted beach reads that don’t require much analyzing at all. (So much depends on exactly how humid it is outside and how well my brain cells are swimming around in my skull. Ha!)

I have no idea why my brain has made the connection between these two types of stories and summer. All I know is that these were the sections of our local public library I’d often visit first after school let out and I needed something to occupy my time for a few months.

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Summer Sisters was the first Judy Blume tale I read that wasn’t meant for kids. I stumbled across it a couple of decades before I reached the target age range, but I still loved the idea of making a childhood friend who remained with you throughout your life.

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. The friends I made once we finally settled down for good turned out not to be people I had anything in common with at all in adulthood. This gives me a soft spot for people who were able to maintain their childhood friendships twenty, forty, or even sixty years later. It must be incredible to have such a long, rich history with someone like that.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

The first thing I’m going to tell you about this book is that you should never try to fry green tomatoes. My one and only attempt at making this dish did not end deliciously. Fried tomatoes have such an odd texture that I don’t ever want to taste them again.

The storyline itself was well done, though. It was about an unlikely friendship between a sad, middle-aged woman named Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, a lonely nursing home resident. As they got to know each other better, Mrs. Threadgoode began telling Evelyn a complicated story about two friends who grew up together and ran a restaurant in Whistle Stop, Alabama that served coffee and occasionally might have been the scene of a violent crime or two.

Summer makes me feel nostalgic, so reading about what life was like from roughly the early 1900s to the1940s tickled my imagination.

 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Some middle grade books can be just as appealing to adults as they are to their intended audience. If you ask me, this is one of them.

Winnie, the main character, had to decide whether or not to drink water from a spring that had the power to make someone immortal. I loved the descriptions of the water in that spring, especially since Winnie visited it during an uncomfortably warm portion of the year from what I can recall. There’s nothing as refreshing as a glass of cold water on a hot summer day, although I don’t know that I’d be interested in living forever.

 

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Okay, so technically My Sister’s Keeper wasn’t set during the summer. I first read it during such a hot and humid portion of this season that it still feels like a summer read to me.

The dilemma the characters dealt with was one that I thought could have been solved much more quickly than it was. Anna was a young girl who had been conceived specifically to be a donor for an older sibling who had leukaemia. She’s endured numerous medical procedures over the years in order to keep her sister alive, and by the time she turned eleven she’d had enough.

I formed my opinion on the ethics of this (fictional) case almost immediately. That didn’t mean I was any less interested in seeing if Anna could become legally emancipated from her family or what would happen to her sister after Anna was no longer forced to give away parts of her body to her sibling.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

To be perfectly honest with you, I am not a huge fan of Faulkner’s writing style. His descriptions remind me of a few people I know who will take ten minutes to recount a story that could have easily been shared in one or two. My patience for that sort of thing is limited to days when I have all the time in the world to read (or listen) and don’t mind getting lost in a long description of what someone’s wagon looked like before the narrator eventually sees fit to tell me who is riding in that wagon and where they’re going.

Without giving away any spoilers, the journey on said wagon was a deeply emotional one. I simply need to be in the right frame of mind in order to properly enjoy it (and to keep the 15 narrators straight in my mind!)

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

As someone who had mixed feelings about Romeo and Juliet, I sure wasn’t expecting to enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream like I did. There’s something about a warm summer night that makes falling in love – or, in some cases, lust – just a little more appealing than it would be at other times of the year.

If possible, I highly recommend watching this play outdoors on a warm evening. I was lucky enough to do that once, and it made the storyline come alive for me. There was something about feeling the humid air against my skin and hearing crickets chirping in the distance that made me feel like I’d been transported hundreds of years ago to when this story was first performed.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know I’ve talked about this book several times before in previous posts. One of the things I liked most about the earliest scenes were their descriptions of what summer was like in the 1930s before air conditioning was invented. This was a very small part of the plot, of course, but people back then came up with all sorts of inexpensive and inventive ways to remain as cool as possible. I enjoyed reading about their solutions, and they made me very grateful to live in a world where air conditioning exists.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

 Not only is The Bluest Eye set during the summer, I first read it over summer vacation as well. The sharp contrast between the warm setting and the cold descriptions of a young girl who had endured terrible abuse made me very curious to see how it ended. This book does include descriptions of the after-effects of rape, so reader be warned.

Do your reading preferences shift from one season to the next? What genres do you like to read during the hottest part of the year where you live?

Hopeful Science Fiction: Woman on the Edge of Time

Last month, I blogged about my desire to step back from the dystopian genre and read hopeful science fiction instead.

The rules were simple. I didn’t require a story to start out in a hopeful or happy place, but I did want to read scifi that ended that way.

Since then, I’ve started to compile a list of books that fit this description. I’ll be talking about one of them today and plan to gradually blog about the rest in the future. If you have recommendations for this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

Woman on the Edge of Time

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time was first published in 1976. It was about Consuelo Ramos, a woman whose life had been forever changed by poverty, mental illness, prejudice, and violence.

Nothing I’m about to say is a spoiler. All of it was mentioned in the blurb for this book, and there are many plots twists and important details from later chapters that I’ll leave up to you to discover for yourselves.

I should warn you that the beginning of this book was filled with a great deal of pain. Consuelo’s life had been incredibly difficult for many years before the audience met her. She’d made choices that seriously harmed other people, and she’d been on the receiving end of other people’s terrible decisions as well. There were times when it read much more like a dystopia than anything else before the plot veered into other directions.

If you press forward through the dark beginning, though, you’ll begin to see what I’m talking about when I refer to this as a piece of hopeful science fiction.

Shortly before involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital early on in this story, Consuelo began telepathically communicating with Luciente, a person who was living in an utopian society in 2137.

As their unlikely friendship blossomed, Consuelo eventually travelled through time to visit Luciente and see how people lived in the 2100s. It was like nothing Consuelo had ever seen before.

In Luciente’s world, there was no poverty, racism, sexism, or violence. No one ever went hungry or was denied urgent medical treatment due to their lack of ability to pay for it. Everyone was given the opportunity to chart the course of their own lives regardless of who they were or what they’d previously decided to do with their energy and time. As long as it didn’t harm anyone else, you could do virtually anything you desired with your time, from raising a family to making art to experimenting with new ways of growing crops.

This wasn’t the only future world Consuelo visited, however. She later saw a dystopian society where the bodies and minds of poor people were used as a commodity by the wealthy. It was the opposite of the place Luciente lived in every way you could imagine. Roles were rigidly determined by who your parents were, and there was no way to switch from one part of that society to another. A person’s time was never their own. There was always someone looking over your shoulder and telling you what you must do next.

Which Future Will Be Ours?

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this tale was how much time it spent explaining why Consuelo had been chosen to see and interact with these two very different versions of the future of humanity. She wasn’t a passive player in these trips by any means. Her presence made a difference in ways she couldn’t even begin to imagine so long as she was stuck in the psychiatric facility.

As Luciente would tell her over and over again, the decisions Consuelo made in 1976 were going to play a critical role in which version of the future came to pass. The thought of someone as socially marginalized and powerless as Consuelo actually being the key to changing the fate of the entire world tickled my imagination. I’ve almost never seen anything like it before.

Most science fiction and fantasy heroes that I’ve read about have had at least a few advantages in life, whether it’s through being born with special powers or being apprenticed to someone who could teach them the skills they needed to defeat even their most powerful enemies.

The fact that Consuelo was expected to save the world without any magical abilities, mystical objects, all-knowing mentors, trusty sidekicks, or any other real sources of help in her battle made it impossible for me to stop reading. I had to know which version of the future would come to pass and if Consuelo would be able to improve the circumstances of her own life in the 1970s as well.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

With apologies to Emily Dickinson, I loved this story’s approach to the concept of hope.

When I first began researching possibilities for this series, I wondered how easy it would be to find hopeful examples in a genre that has so often assumed the worst case scenario is the one worth writing and thinking about. The dystopian sub-genre has become so popular these days that I knew I’d have to do some digging to find characters who didn’t live in that kind of world.

Since I’m also not the kind of reader who usually seeks out tales that attempt to be hopeful by brushing over – or even simply ignoring-  difficult topics like racism and sexism, my other concern was that I’d be left with stories that were hopeful only for readers who were able to suspend their disbelief and enter an imaginary world where no one ever dealt with serious, real world issues.

The beautiful thing about Woman on the Edge of Time was how it found hope even in the midst of all of the prejudice Consuelo fought against during her life. Her determination to radically improve the future for the sake of every person who had been or will be born was rooted in part in her hope that all forms of bigotry could be vanquished for good if she made the right decisions.

Final Notes

There are so many other things I want to say about this book, but I don’t want to give away spoilers about it for anyone who hasn’t read it before. If you have read it, I’d be happy to discuss it in much greater detail somewhere other than the comment section of this post.

Do keep in mind that this tale has many twists and turns along the way to the final scene. It’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who needs to avoid any references at all to complex topics like abuse or how destructive habits can be passed down from one generation to the next. Consuelo and many of the other characters had many difficult experiences in their lives. This wasn’t the sort of universe where someone swoops in and saves the good guys in the nick of time before anything terrible happened to them.

These characters knew more than their fair share of pain, but all of the hope they found along the way more than made up for it in my mind.

What hopeful science fiction stories have you been reading recently?

 

My Favourite Canadian Books

Happy belated Canada Day! One of the most interesting parts of moving to Canada was getting to read some of the amazing books that have been written by Canadian authors over the years. From what I’ve observed, there seems to be a lot of Canadian literature that isn’t necessarily that well-known in the United States.… Read More

My Favourite LGBT Books

Happy Pride month! Today I thought it would be fun to share some of my favourite LGBT-themed books in honour of all of the Pride festivities that have been and are still going on here in Toronto. Rainbow flags are popping up everywhere, and that’s always a heart-warming thing to see at this time of… Read More

5 Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels About Climate Change That Everyone Should Read

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5 Classic Science Fiction Books That Everyone Should Read

There’s something about the snowy days of January that makes me want to curl up with a classic science fiction novel and not lift my head up again until April. I’m not entirely sure why I have this urge. Maybe it’s because burying my nose in something that was old and often assigned in English… Read More

4 Movies I’m Looking Forward to Watching in 2018

So far, 2018 doesn’t seem to be offering quite as many movies that I’m looking forward to watching as the end of 2017 did. This is a good thing, though, since my to-watch list of movies in general is still quite long and I haven’t actually managed to catch any of the movies in that… Read More