Sci-fi Challenge – Hull Zero Three

Dammit I’m late again. I actually finished this book a week ago but have only just got round to posting this. April’s Sci-fi challenge book was Hull Zero 3 by Greg Bear.

Another ‘proper’ Sci-fi story in that it’s set on a spaceship in space it that’s pretty much where any similarities to what I’ve read before end. A man swims into consciousness being dragged naked and cold by a small girl. The man is Teacher but all he knows is the little girl is desperately trying to help him survive by getting him somewhere warm. As they ‘chase the heat’ words and memories occur to him as they are prompted by new experiences and locations as they make their way through Ship. As these memories surface Teacher becomes aware that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with the mission he thought he was on and Ship appears to be in the process of tearing itself and its inhabitants apart bit by bit. Along the way clues are left to the history of the voyage and what might be happening in various books put together by the people who went before him, a lot of whom appear to be him if the corridor full of mutilated bodies that resemble him is to be believed. Along the way he finds company with other, similarly confused beings and together they fight their way through against the viscous Factors, seemingly manufactured protectors of Ship, or minions of the mysterious Destination Guidance? Things come to a head in the untouched and dark Hull Zero 3

I wasn’t sure about the way this story was written at first, the descriptions of locations seemed maddeningly vague and overly complicated at the same time but then I found that this helped create the atmosphere of chaos that Teacher was going through and as he regained his memories and met up with other Characters the writing style seemed to become smoother. Every character in the story is looking for something, although they’re not sure what and they’re not even sure what side they should be on until they realise that they all hold important parts of the same puzzle and things start clicking into place. The final scenes tie things together nicely but still manage to include a final twist.

I liked it. 3/5


Sci-Fi Challenge – Oryx and Crake

For some reason I’ve never really read any of Atwood’s books. I read the Handmaid’s Tale at school and I remember enjoying it but have pretty much ignored her since. Perhaps it’s a hangover from being ‘forced’ to read an author. A shame really because I found myself enjoying Oryx and Crake as well.

Set in the not too distant future, it is a world where genetic modification is running wild and global warming is having a marked effect on the environment. Science companies house their employees in protected bio-dome compounds and unleash engineered viruses to sabotage each other’s genetic work. It follows the story of Jimmy, now known as Snowman, as he grows up and how he has become the guardian of a group of genetically engineered people called the Crakers. It is told mostly in flashback as Snowman makes his way back to the compound he shared with Oryx and Crake for supplies. Crake is Snowman’s childhood friend (perhaps his only friend) who goes on to become an important geneticist for one of the top companies while Snowman languishes in mediocrity. Oryx is the beautiful woman they both come to love.

As the flashbacks go on the story of Jimmy’s early life, how he became Snowman and almost the sole survivor of some terrible disaster is revealed. How he met Crake, the internet games they played, the porn and snuff sites they watched together, Snowman’s struggle with the disappearance of his mother and her subsequent ‘treason’ and execution, Crake’s rise to the top, Snowman’s disappointing adult life while watching Crake’s success, Crake’s plan to save humanity with his BlyssPluss pill and his devastating revenge when he discovers Oryx and Snowman’s affair.

The Crakers themselves are bred to be perfect beings with no conception of what Crake believes to be mankind’s problems, mainly sex. They have no conception of the love, jealousy, anger or longing that sex generates as the women are engineered to come into heat, mimicking mammals in the wild and have been taught to live off the land by Oryx, protected from the harsh environment the Earth has become by their augmented digestive systems and natural insect repellants bred into their perspiration . They have been left in Snowman’s care by Crake even though Snowman considered himself unequal to the task and looks after them as best he can, telling them stories of how Crake created them and building a mythos around him, saying he receives messages from him through his watch. It is ironic that despite all of Crake’s scientific posturing and dismissal of emotions all through the book he unleashes the end of the world because he cannot bear the thought of the woman he loves being with someone else, leaving that someone to look after his creation as a final revenge.

This book kept me hooked all the way through, the pace slow to start with and building all the way to the end. As each flashback section ended I kept thinking “but what happened?!” each flashback giving a tantalising glimpse of what was coming but never quite revealing it. The ‘realtime’ sections were a nice contrast as well, the sorry state Snowman finds himself in but dealing with it and carrying on for the love of Oryx. He laments the fact that even though the Crakers have no concept of religion they revere Crake as the creator, Oryx the teacher and Snowman only their messenger but he is shocked to find on his return from the compound that they have made an idol of him and are chanting before it ‘to guide him home’ and he realises he is important to them as well. The very end, when the Crakers tell him there are other people have appeared while he has been away hangs in the balance. Will Snowman abandon the Crakers for his own kind or protect them?

Rating –  It’s a great read and all too plausible, especially as when I was halfway through it I read a news story that the go-ahead had been given for tests to take place using wheat that has been engineered to produce its own pesticides. 4/5


Sci-Fi Challenge – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ah, now this is more familiar sci-fi territory for me after last month’s Zoo City. The future (compared to when it was written anyway), colonies on Mars, androids, laser guns. For February’s Not Just For Stormtroopers reading challenge it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war and the only people left are those too poor, too stubborn or too ‘special’ to join the colonies out on Mars. Rick Deckard, being a bounty hunter for the San Francisco police, is possibly a little of the first and some of the second. He lives in an apartment with his wife, an electric sheep on the roof and hunts rogue androids for a living, receiving a $1000 for each one he ‘retires’  to supplement his meagre salary.

It’s a melancholic story. The Earth is effectively dead because of the radioactive fallout, most species of animals are extinct and those that are left are so rare that it is considered a civic duty to keep a pet. If you can’t afford a real one, or yours should die, electric versions are available to save face. It’s a depressing place but your trusty Penfield Mood Organ can solve that with a quick dial to any mood you could want. The fact that police departments have bounty hunters on their books and people need a device to alter their mood tells you what kind of place it is.

Deckard himself is a melancholy character, he wonders if he should have left his wife when he had the chance and obsesses about buying a real animal to replace his electric sheep. His chance comes when the senior bounty hunter is injured by a new type of android and he is tasked with retiring it and the other six in the group. In the process and through the androids and humans he meets he starts questioning himself and whether or not he is a good bounty hunter.

Empathy is a running theme. The androids can not feel empathy for anything, even amongst themselves and this is what gives them away in the test Deckard uses on them. When Deckard tests himself he finds he is capable of empathising with the androids yet he seems detached from his wife and the empathy-based religion, Mercerism, that humans have embraced after the war. As a reader I could feel myself empathising with the androids, especially Pris, who at first seems so scared and vulnerable when discovered by J. R. Isodore that while I was sure she was an android I almost hoped she wasn’t. It isn’t until the scene with the spider that you realise how cold and unfeeling the androids actually are and any sympathy for them dies away. JR is possibly the most empathic character in the story. On the surface a ‘chickenhead’, a human rendered special by the radioactive dust and deemed unsuitable for emigration he is still useful enough to be a driver for one of the electric animal ‘vet’ companies. He finds Pris living in his apartment block and takes pity on her, wanting to look after her. Once he learns the truth about her and the other androids he feels he should protect them all, until they take his spider from him and he lets Deckard do his job. He is the most human out of all of them and he was the one I found myself rooting for as his hopes and fears were the most simple and most honest somehow. He finds a group of friends and wants to look after them, it doesn’t matter to him if they are real people or not.

This is one of those books that managed to suck me in and want to keep reading long past the time I should have closed the book and got on with something else and one I found myself thinking about after I did. How different is Deckard from the androids he hunts really? Does it matter that Mercerism is a fake? How many other public figures are actually androids? It’s a deep and troubling story that has stayed with me for days after I finished reading it.

I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning that this is the book Blade Runner was based on. I’m sure I watched the film when I was younger but I remember very little about it. It is now on order from Amazon so it will be interesting to see how they compare.

Rating – For the effect and the trains of thought it has prompted in me, it couldn’t be much else really – 5/5


Sci Fi Challenge 2012 – Zoo City

Apologies for being late with this, circumstances over the first 6 weeks of this year have not been conducive to reading unfortunately.  I have finally got to the end of Zoo City by Lauren Buekes, the first suggestion in Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s 2012 Sci Fi Challenge, and here’s what I thought of it… (forgive me if it’s a little clunky, I haven’t done this since I was at school!)

Not traditional sci-fi, Zoo City is hard to define. Dystopian maybe? Reviews on Amazon call it ‘cyberpunk’. Either way, set in a crumbling South Africa in the not-too-distant future the story finds us following Zinzi, a young woman who has become a ‘zoo’. One of the many people who have committed crimes and as a result acquired an animal familiar and mystic talent as a very obvious sign of their guilt. Zinzi’s animal is a sloth and her talent is finding things. Scratching a living finding lost personal knick knacks for people in the ghetto area where all the ‘zoos’ have congregated with those too poor to move on she is asked to track down not a lost thing, but a lost person, and promised a handsome reward for it. But things are not as they seem and the search for the missing pop starlet becomes a much darker hunt than the storm drains Zinzi usually finds herself in.

I was vaguely disappointed with this book, but I’m not entirely sure why. I liked the premise of the story, the idea that people have these animals as marks of guilt, how they deal with it and the mystical connotations behind it. The animals through the story seem to be reflections of the characters they are attached to. The writing is good, as the book goes on there are emails and newspaper clippings that give more background to the world the story is set in and the chapter involving the couple who had fallen for an email scam made me genuinely uncomfortable. There are some colourful descriptions, one of my favourites being “The grassy verges on the pavement are more manicured than a porn star’s topiary”. I found Zinzi to be a likeable character, someone who had been doing reasonably well in a former life but got in with the wrong crowd and is now paying the price for it. For me there was the right amount of cynicism, regret and optimism in her and I found myself rooting for her as the story developed. But yet….

But yet, somehow the story isn’t more than the sum of its parts. I found it difficult to get into. I spent the first 7 chapters feeling like I was missing something important, that something was supposed to be being revealed to me bit by bit but I wasn’t quite seeing it. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through that I realised it was a going to be a detective story of sorts and I did have to flip back a couple of times to remind myself of who characters were and how they fitted into things. I didn’t really understand where the animals or the Undertow came from in the first place and what it was exactly that led to Zinzi to be in the position she is, other than it involved a drug problem and the killing of her brother. The heavy power of the magic and symbolism of the animals only seems to be emphasised towards the end. Nothing seems to really tie up.

It may have been the fractured way I read it but it just didn’t gel together in a satisfactory way for me, which is a shame because when I first looked at the description I was looking froward to reading it. Maybe it will stand up better after a second reading but I’m going to have to be feeling very generous to give it that second chance. It’s not a bad story, but I’m not sure how good it is either.


Rating: An absolutely average 2.5/5.


Sci-Fi Challenge

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a cute little photo of a lego storm trooper has appeared in the top left corner of my humble little blog. This is because I have joined in with Curiosity Killed the Bookworm’s 2012 Sci-Fi Challenge. I only found this after randomly following her on Twitter as a #FollowFriday suggestion. The idea is that you read at least one sci-fi book a month and then review it, posting a link to the challenge in the process. This’ll be interesting as I haven’t had to read a book and then write about it since I was at school so I’m having to pay attention.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan, I’ve got all of the original Dune books by Frank Herbert as well as some of the prequels written by his son Brian and Kevin Anderson (although I have started losing patience with them now they are filling in the gaps between the original books. It’s starting to smell of desperation and exploitation to me, and they are not very good if you believe the Amazon reviews), all of the Arthur C. Clarke Space Odyssey books and late last year I discovered Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ novels. But anyone familiar with the genre will recognise I stick firmly to the traditional space and aliens style stuff while the challenge is set to cover all of sci-fi which includes “dystopias, zombie viruses, genetic engineering gone awry, time travel, steampunk, extreme weather, space exploration and, of course, aliens.” so I’m looking forward to being nudged out of my comfort zone.

January’s suggested read is Zoo Story by Lauren Beukes, apparently a cyberpunk story (so I’m trying something new already) which is set in an alternate Johannesburg where criminals are assigned an animal familiar and, through these, acquire mystical and psychic talents. With this obvious sign of guilt they are shunned by polite society and have gravitated together in the slums and ghettos of Zoo City. I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to get into it so far but my Kindle tells me I am only 21% of the way through so I shall give it the benefit of the doubt for now. I’m avoiding reading the reviews that have gone up already so I don’t spoil the story and my own review is actually my own and I’m looking forward to discussing it with everyone.