Review of “A Turn in the South” by V.S. Naipaul

I picked up V.S. Naipaul’s travelogue of the American South in a used bookstore in Charlottesville for a few bucks. It looked interesting, especially in the context of my recent binge of listening to the Bitter Southerner podcast and the associated thinking about the past and changing identity of the South

I loved it.

The writing is beautifully descriptive of the people, landscapes, and buildings that grace the South, yet manages to keep the prose clean and economical as well. Naipaul is clear-eyed about a history steeped in slavery, segregation, and multi-laterial racial resentment; yet while the racial past permeates the lived present, he never lets it detract from or overshadow the beautiful things either. He also doesn’t run from examining ideas and identities for which great care is required to preserve the essential truth, in whole range from nuance to outright contradiction

It had been hot from the beginning, from mid-April, that is, when I had gone south in Howard to see the place he thought of as home; and had been surprised by the colors of the Carolina spring, the new green of trees, the purple flowers of the roadside grass, the yellow-white dogwood blossoms; and had been further surprised by the beauty — in rust, wood-gray, faded green, and Indian red — of abandoned tobacco barns and derelict farmhouses and barns with peaked and spreading corrugated-iron roofs.

A fine piece of writing. It had made me want to not only read the Naipaul’s other works (I had never heard of him before this book), but also to start planning my own road trip around the region, to which I’m a recent transplant and have relatively little exposure.

Review of “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton

Great premise and I love that it’s bio hard science fiction, a sub-genre that I wish there were more of. Especially given recent advances in genetics, neuroscience, and prostheses, I feel as though there are lot of questions related to the intersection of science and society that the genre could be addressing, but isn’t.

The novel was written in the late 60’s, and some aspects of it haven’t aged well. All of the characters with any agency are educated, scientifically-minded, white men, and it was honestly difficult to tell them apart by anything other than their names and blunt descriptions. Counterpoints were Peter Jackson and Officer Willis, who had unique and well-crafted dialogue that I enjoyed reading “aloud in my head” if that makes sense.

The exposition is fairly heavy-handed, with technical (but at least interesting) info dumps roughly every other page. Like many thrillers, this novel is overwhelmingly plot-driven, with little in the way of introspection, reflection, or emotion shown by any of the characters. However, at least the hooks are laid well throughout the story — I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened, and though the ending seemed a little too easily and quickly tied up, the journey was thought-provoking.

I’m glad to have checked off a classic I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. Overall: enjoyable but dated, interesting but hardly enthralling.

3/5 Stars

Review of “Splintered Suns” by Michael Cobley

Despite the high praise on the back cover and intriguing premise, this novel left me feeling kinda meh.

The worldbuilding and the plot were at least interesting enough that I wanted to keep going for awhile, and I did manage to make it through twelve chapters before setting it aside. However, the characters are as flat as a Kiskashin’s sense of humor, and often take actions that don’t seem to be motivated by anything except it would lead to a gosh so cool scene or situation.

While intellectually interesting and many-layered, the plot and side-plots weren’t tightly bound to a cohesive story thread enough for me to become emotionally invested in what was happening. It doesn’t help that the star of the show, Brennan Pike, comes off as a happy-go-lucky cross between Han Solo, a leprechaun, and a cartoon pirate. The dialogue as-written reflects this. So annoying.

Highlights: expansive world-building, huge ancient alien starship, creative meshing of artificial and advanced biological life forms, interesting side plot that takes place inside a mind crystal

Lowlights: somehow manages to be pretty boring overall, despite all of the above

DNF (pg 252 of 483). 3/5 Stars.

Review of “Exit West”, by Mohsin Hamid

Rating: 3/5 stars.

When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.

“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.

She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.

“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.

The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.

I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn’t aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren’t enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.

With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.

That, or perhaps I’m just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface… I’m no pulp reader — lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don’t want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.

Overall, I’m glad this novel exists, and I don’t think I wasted my time reading it… but you won’t find me singing it’s praises or strongly recommending it to friends.

Review of “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved it. Fantastic, mind-blowing ideas and many-layered cultural setting, social systems, and characters. My only complaints are 1) the dialogue comes off as stiff and overly-constructed (which I assume I can attribute to the difficulty of translating from Chinese), and 2) the exposition and plot advancement (especially as we begin to learn more about the Trisolarans) often feels very heavy-handed.

Let’s see how it scores on the Nalin Scale of SciFi Elements that really hook me:

  • Ideas: Excellent
  • Wonder and Awe: Excellent
  • Identity: Excellent
  • Myth/Ritual/Infinity: Very Good (and I suspect the sequels will push even further)

Some of the best science fiction I’ve read in awhile. Will definitely read the sequels.

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VVEV: Reflections on the Collection (No Spoilers)

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

I’ve been posting a review/response to each of the five sections of Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. In this post, I’ll switch gears to some concluding thoughts about VVEV as a whole.

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Response to VVEV: Section V – Concluding Thoughts

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by by Maciej Rebisz.

This is Part 5 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section V of VVEV is entitled Concluding Thoughts, and contains three essays:

  • The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the “Emergency Century, Kim Stanley Robinson, in conversation with James Bell
  • The Practical Economics of Space, Clark A. Miller
  • High Hedonistic and Low Fatalistic, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton

This blog post contains spoilers!

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Response to VVEV: Section IV – Exoplanets

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by by Maciej Rebisz.

This is Part 4 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section IV of VVEV is entitled Exoplanets, and contains one short story and two essays:

  • Shikasta, by Vandana Singh
  • The New Science of Astrobiology, by Sara Imari Walker
  • Negotiating the Values of Space Exploration, by Emma Frow

This blog post contains spoilers!

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Response to VVEV: Section III – Asteroids

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz

This is Part 3 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section III of VVEV is entitled Asteroids, and contains two short stories and two essays:

  • The Use of Things, by Ramez Naam
  • Toward Asteroid Exploration, by Roland Lehoucq
  • Night Shift, by Eileen Gunn
  • Rethinking Risk, by Andrew D. Maynard

This blog post contains spoilers!

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Response to VVEV: Section II – Mars

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebis

This is Part 2 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section II of VVEV is entitled Mars, and contains two short stories and two essays:

  • The Baker of Mars, by Karl Schroeder
  • Exploration Fact and Exploration Fiction, by Lawrence Dritsas
  • Death on Mars, by Madeline Ashby
  • Life on Mars?, by Steve Ruff

This blog post contains spoilers!

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