Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: Aurora, by Andreas Christensen

Aurora, the sequel to Andreas Christensen's Exodus, is a book that could have been intriguing, that could have been thought-provoking, that could have been entertaining, had the author done some research. As it stands, it is far too implausible to take seriously. There's also the problem that the choice of plot and conflict is misguided. A story about a colony of humans trying to survive on a brand new planet, and the struggles they come across in the process, is intriguing enough to write a novel about, but Christensen instead focuses his conflict on a far less interesting political conflict that boils over from the first book. The conflict in fact feels forced, as the government is not oppressive until the plot requires it. It's unfortunate that the author has little interest in developing the more intriguing parts of the world he has created.

Aurora continues where Exodus left off, with the remainder of humanity on their new home planet trying to survive. At the heart of the conflict is the government, which many people protest is too heavy-handed. Having anticipated this, a group of rebels back on Earth had planted people who could change this political culture. One of these is Thomas Dunn, who is such a shady character it's a wonder that the new president, George Havelar, trusts him, or that Maria Solis, the Latino daughter of Ramon Solis, right hand man of Havelar, would fall in love with him. But I guess the characters are so paper thin it's hard to care anyway.

Other key players include Kenneth Taylor, a psychologist who doesn't really like the way Havelar runs things, but keeps quiet. Tina Hammer was one of the commanders of the flight to the planet, but she has retired from military life in order to build a fishing empire. Greg Hamilton was the lead commander, who joins Tina. Ben Waters was one of thirty or so teenager who was smuggled aboard the Exodus and was lucky enough not to be shipped back to Earth. Each of these characters has some sort of grumblings about the way Havelar runs things, but the problem is it's not very clear what he does that's so problematic. The main issue is that he does not allow expeditions to explore very far on the new world. No reasoning is provided, but the complaints seem more akin to a teenager complaining about too many rules than an adult reaction. They hardly warrant any sort of rebellion. And even when Havelar unveils in secret some plan he has, it doesn't sound crazy or evil, just stupid.

Christensen is far less concerned about survival on a new planet than he is with his political conflict, and that's a shame. His brushing off of potential conflicts based around survival also adds immensely to the implausibility of his world. For example, it isn't until a third of the way into the novel that somebody finally dies. After light-years of travel and over 150 years, only two people have died by the time we reach a third of the way through book two. Human history tells us that whenever people colonize a new land, whether or not it was already populated by other people, lots of people die. They die from disease. They die from the elements. They die by each other. They also die by wildlife. It should be no different with colonizing a new planet. In fact, there's reason to believe survival could be harsher on a new planet. Descriptions of life on the planet show characters living a life of luxury compared to what you would expect. It's true that technology is better, but there are so many unknowns that it's impossible that it took so long for anybody to die, even by accident or human stupidity.

Christensen is not a particularly good writer. I don't mean to say he's a bad writer, but perhaps his talents aren't well-suited to fiction. He doesn't dive into the heads of characters very well, even though chapters are split up by character. One character could easily replace the other. Mantras tell writers to show rather than tell, and while there are fantastic tellers out there, Christensen is not one of them. He may have benefited more from showing his plot unfold rather than tell about it. Events happen and we learn about them after the fact, and this has the affect of making things harder to believe. There's also the issue that the dialogue is poorly organized. A line of dialogue will be followed, without a paragraph break, by a description of a character who is not speaking. Here is an example of the way Christensen writes his dialogue throughout the entire story:

" 'Don't worry about it. And by the way, I'm not that kind of psychologist.' She smiled back at him."

In most stories, this dialogue indicates that the speaker is the "she" in the paragraph, who would be, in this case, Maria Solis. The problem however, is that Kenneth Taylor is actually the speaker. It's true that context makes this easy to figure out, but the way Christensen ignores these rules of writing dialogue breaks the novel's magic. It brings the reader's attention to the fact that they are reading a novel because the reader must re-calibrate their brain to say that no, it's not Maria who is speaking, but Kenneth. It is maddening, and this example is typical of how Christensen writes his dialogue throughout the entire novel.

I can say that at least you won't take up a lot of time with these books. They are over fairly quickly, but you probably won't gain any new understandings of the world or even be particularly entertained. Christensen seems to want to reflect the political climate of our time, but he places this sort of thing in the wrong kind of book. In a book about surviving on an alien planet, it's not unreasonable to want to see humans struggling to survive. And just when things begin getting intense, a deus ex machina is inserted that adds immensely to the implausibility. I just can't find it in me to continue reading this series.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

In its meandering ways, American Gods is an underwhelming behemoth of a novel. Neil Gaiman himself is a god in the fantasy writing world. His writing is magic and he has written some fantastic pieces of fiction, both in novel and graphic novel form. His voice is also a work of art. He deserves a spot up there with Morgan Freeman and Werner Herzog in creating magic with that voice. While reading American Gods, I couldn't help but hear how his voice might pronounce phrases, the way he might pause, or the way he might stress certain words. And yet Neil Gaiman is not a god (and I'm not implying that he thinks he's one, either). While others may treat him as a god whose pen turns everything he writes into gold, he does misfire now and then, and American Gods is one of those misfires.

Halfway into my reading of American Gods, I was puzzled by my inability to appreciate the work as others had. Despite the praise I had both heard and read, I was bored. I wasn't engaged. The humor was lacking or muted. The characters, none of them, were particularly well-drawn. Shadow is a nothing of a character, somebody who has things happen to him and who does what he is told. Shadow is not unlike the main character from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, about whom I also had the same complaint. This work never quite develops a fully coherent plot, nor does it provide itself with much of a purpose. It feels like it should be deep in purpose, but whenever I try to grasp for it, I come up with nothing. Too many of the travels and plot events end up going nowhere.

Perhaps part of my problem was that I didn't care. I didn't care about the gods. I didn't care about Shadow and what happened with his wife. The gods, and Shadow's wife, turn out to be very unlikeable, and I think that's on purpose. But the gods are the biggest problem. Gaiman is probably trying to say something profound by showing all the gods from all over the world who have come to America at some point or another and have been forgotten. The question is, is it bad that they are forgotten? Is this saying something about America? Is there a critique somewhere in there? I mean, there are plenty of gods who are no longer worshiped. Along with the Norse gods like Odin and Loki and Thor, there are the Roman gods such as Zeus and Athena, and the Greek gods. What is Gaiman trying to get at? I couldn't grasp it.

The other problem comes down to the idea that there is a conflict between the new gods and the old gods. The new gods are gods of internet and television and whatnot. How are those gods? Where do you draw the line? Gaiman suggests that where people used to sacrifice living things to gods, people now sacrifice time. So shouldn't everything that we sacrifice time to be a god? I spent a lot of time reading this book. Do books have a god? Do commutes to work have a god? Does work itself have a god? School? Studying? Vehicles? Zoos? Parks? And on the same line as the previous paragraph, is Gaiman providing a critique in this conflict? The problem was that I spent time attempting to see his larger point, and every attempt I made grasped at straws. People may just say I don't get it, and I can't say I disagree with that. I don't get it. When it comes down to a conflict between gods, I didn't care. The gods were not human enough and whatever they were trying to symbolize is not convincing enough.

Gaiman has proven himself to be a great meanderer. The Graveyard Book is an excellent example of his meandering, and in that book it works. It's fascinating the way he creates a world and brings it to life. In American Gods, though, his meandering merely muddles his world. I get a feeling of fatigue, of searching for purpose. Gaiman has also proved that he can write terrific stories with clear plots. Neverwhere played to Gaiman's best strengths with humor, well-developed characters, and villains who were both amusing and terrifying. In American Gods, anytime Gaiman seems to be getting somewhere, the novel gets stuck in a rut. His villains aren't particularly interesting or scary, and his gods are mostly terrible people, too much to care about. Wednesday charms teenage girls into having sex with him and tricks hardworking people out of their money. Another god swallows men with her vagina. The gods seem more like villains than people we should root for, and I wasn't sure what Gaiman wanted his readers to think.

One consistent thing I saw in reviews, is that if this was written by anyone other than Gaiman, such and such a reviewer probably would have enjoyed the novel more. This doesn't make sense except to elevate Gaiman to that status of a god. It's as if to say that he is such a god that an inferior work written by him would be an excellent work written by another, lesser writer. American Gods would have been as meandering as it is no matter who wrote it, but it might not have seen the same praise. But because this is a Gaiman work, there is some enjoyment to be had. There are moments that do work, where the reading is pleasant even if the purpose is unclear. That said, I would still have trouble recommending this to anyone but a Gaiman fan, or a fan of mythology. Others may find themselves thinking Gaiman is overrated, and they would be wrong. This simply is not one of his better works, in my mind.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: Exodus, by Andreas Christensen

It's a terrifying idea: a massive object from space is on a collision course with the Earth. It's terrifying because we could see it coming, but we'd be powerless to stop it. Of course, such Hollywood movies as Deep Impact and Armageddon have imagined ways people could redirect or destroy the comet/meteor. But what if the object was so large that it would be impossible to redirect or destroy it? This is what Andreas Christensen (what a name!) aims to examine in his Exodus trilogy, beginning with his first book, Exodus. The idea isn't original, but it's so fascinating that it's tough to pass by a story that decides to examine it, whether it's a story that you might find on a cheap Syfy movie or a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. As interesting as parts of this book are, it suffers from the marks of an amateur writer. The pacing is off, the character development is poor, and the book just plain suffers from boredom due to repetition and an over-reliance on explaining things.

The prologue introduces a rogue planet that is destined for a collision course with the Earth. Luckily, though, Mars was in the way. Or maybe not so lucky, since the collision with Mars has set the planet in an orbit towards the sun in which it will collide with Earth. Why did nobody notice a rogue planet hurling through the Solar System, you might be wondering? In this version of Christensen's planet Earth, the United States has decided to stop funding NASA because of a terrible tragedy during an expedition to Mars. To make matters worse, the U.S. government had been eroding its basic protections for people, such as the First Amendment, for decades (this takes place in 2070). This is perhaps where Christensen adds something unique, in the addition of a political tyranny of sorts. It's unfortunate that he doesn't fully explain this erosion of rights. It's not clear exactly what is not allowed and what the consequences are for breaking that law. Again, the mark of an amateur author. Maybe Christensen barely knows himself.

Essentially what the conflict boils down to are two things. One, scientists attempt to come up with a way that they can launch a small number of people into a gigantic ship so that they can colonize a distant planet. They only have twelve years before the rogue planet smashes into Earth. I think Christensen is pretty generous here, but in fairness, when all the world's scientists are focused on this problem, I guess it could maybe be possible. The other conflict involves a small number of people who would like to sabotage the plans, politically at least. Not everybody is happy with the direction the United States government was continuing to head, and with the current president in charge of the mission, it seems likely he will attempt to further his regime on this distant planet. So this rogue group wants to get people on board who make sure a better government is in place.

Notice I haven't mention a single name. There are lots of characters, but zero personalities. Tina Hammer, who opens the book, is notable, as Christensen describes her, because she is an African American woman who is a fighter pilot. There's also Maria Solis, a Latino girl whose parents are high up in what is called the Consortium, which seems to be a conglomerate of businesses that have a lot of power and access to government information. Honestly, there are others, including a senator, an FBI agent, a psychologist, and a mix of people chosen to train for the Exodus expedition, but I can hardly remember who's who.

As I said, the solutions to the problem of migrating a population across a massive amount of space is solved rather quickly. Scientists discover a good planet fairly quickly. They solve the problems of speed quickly. They figure out how to create cryogenic sleep rather quickly. Those who've read any Arthur C. Clarke may remember that it took the scientists in Songs from a Distant Earth several centuries to come up with all of this. In fact, Christensen could probably learn a thing or two from Clarke. Human philosophy is often more interesting than a how-to guide in getting us up to space. Christensen's science isn't very specific, not like Andy Weir's in The Martian, but his story does get bogged down too much in mechanics and not enough in humanity. It's amazing how calm people seem to be considering their imminent doom. At the end there is a little bit of chaos, but this doesn't seem to really reflect human behavior in this scenario.

I've begun reading the second book before writing this review, and I will say that Christensen hunkers down and focuses his story a lot better. We get a better look into the characters and motivations and we get much more coherence, rather than a randomly organized set of problems and solutions that Christensen presents here in book one. I considered giving up, but it's a short book, so I finished it. This is tough to recommend though. Serious fans of sci-fi will grow bored with the paper-thin development. Notably, there is a strong lack of any original ideas, with an exception of the political suppression. It's a shame Christensen chose to spend so long on this aspect of the story. Clarke used this sort of story as background in his Songs from Distant Earth, and Christensen proves the wisdom in Clarke's choice by expanding the background story into a full, tedious novel.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review: The Selection, by Kiera Cass

Imagine mixing The Hunger Games, Divergent, a little bit of 1984, Disney Princesses, Jane Austen, and, finally, The Bachelor. What you'll end up with is Kiera Cass's YA dystopia series, The Selection. You have caste sytems, you have romance, you have a love triangle, you have a little bit of violence, you have a society that entertains itself with reality game shows that have real world implications, you have women fighting over one man (sort of), and you have lots of wannabe princesses. There's even a TV host who must be Caesar Flickerman's twin (if you don't remember, he's the host in The Hunger Games). That is to say, you don't have a lot of originality, but who's to say an artist needs to be original? What Cass does is mix known elements from popular YA stories and from pop culture and throws them together in an entertaining, though not entirely unpredictable, manner.

The United States of America does not exist, and in its place is the nation of Ilea. I won't waste your time with the history of Ilea - Cass explains it for you. The USA may not exist, but America is the name of the story's heroine. Out of a caste of 1-8, she's a five, and I don't mean that in a rude way. She literally lives in the fifth caste, which is a caste of artists. You see, each caste has its own way of life. Just as in Divergent characters live in a caste that defines how they behave and what task they perform in life, in The Selection, it's very similar. Only, instead of choosing the caste, one is born into it. Or married into it. And like a Jane Austen novel, the woman can marry up or down, but not the man. This adds a bit of tension because America is in love with Aspen, who is a six, which is not to say how handsome he is, but that he's in a lower caste than America: the servant class. He's hunky and nice and adorable in a Gayle kind of way, minus the hunting of course.

All the way up in the caste of ones is the royal family. When a princess is of marrying age, the royal family basically auctions her off to some powerful family. When a prince is of marrying age, however, they hold a game, much like The Bachelor, called the Selection. Any woman of the right age signs up, answers some questions, takes a picture, and is selected randomly to compete. Or, I should say, "randomly." American signs up, though she is happy with Aspen, because he couldn't live with himself if she didn't have that chance because of him. And then, well, he sort of breaks up with her, and there's some maybe misunderstandings, and, well, she's selected. Along with 35 other women.

Aspen is important because it is a known rule in YA dystopias that there must be a love triangle (okay, maybe Veronica Roth missed that one). It is also known in YA dystopias that the heroine must exert her strong, independent character through some means of violence, preferably the variety where knee connects with groin. If that's not a meet-cute, I don't know what is. To be fair to America, though, she was told that she must not refuse the prince anything he wants, which means, well, you get the picture. So America was prepared to defend herself at all costs, though, gosh, the prince is such a nice guy. The thought never even crossed his mind. If being kneed in the groin doesn't get you interested in a girl, I don't know what will. Well, except maybe being friendzoned. There's nothing like being friendzoned to drive a guy wild about a girl. America admits to Prince Maxon she doesn't want to be his wife, but she doesn't want to leave, either, because she likes the food. And he's instantly smitten.

Now, if this story was written as adult dystopia rather than YA dystopia, there would be some key differences. Cass's setup screams satire, yet she goes the safe and nice route. In an adult version of the story, a lot more fun would be had with the Selection itself. These are 36 women fighting to become the most powerful woman in the country; you might expect a lot more drama between the contestants. Cass misses a huge opportunity when she makes all of her contestants nice to each other. There is one exception, the physically intimidating Celeste, but she's mostly underutilized. In an adult version, the prince may not be the sweet, innocent man he is in Cass's version. Prince Maxon has free rein to exploit these women sexually and doesn't use it? If he was a giant prick instead of such a sweet guy, a little more fun might be had, and possibilities for satire would open up.

As it stands, the main conflict in Cass's story is that America is upset about Aspen dumping her, and that rebels make frequent attacks on the palace and everyone has to hide on occasion. The attacks provide a sense of 1984 - is there really an attack on the palace? Or is it being fabricated to keep the royal family in power and keep the caste system in tact? I don't want to make it sound like I'm ripping on The Selection. It is entertaining, more so than other YA dystopias. It's mostly entertaining in the back and forth between Maxon and America. It's just that, for being a novel about a dystopic world, it has a rather innocent way of understanding how people work. Everyone is nice, nobody fights that hard for the chance at power, and nobody, not even Prince Maxon, is interested in sex. Parents rejoice!