Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished this one, my first Tolstoy, chosen because it’s the shortest novel he wrote. The story is about a nobleman in 1880, Nekhlyudov, who finds himself on a jury. One of the accused is a woman he knew in is past, and who he wronged when he was young. While watching the trial he recalls how he treated her, and blames himself for how her life turned out. He vows to do whatever he can to help her out of her situation, as a way to earn her forgiveness.

The story, while well written and engagingly told, is not so much about the characters, but about the politics of the era. Tolstoy uses the story to rail against the justice system, the church, the rich, the prison system, and the way humans treat each other as if they are objects. There are several very eloquently written rants that feel as if they could have been written about the state of the world today.

While I enjoyed it, I probably only did so because it was preaching to the right choir, and I cheered on all his statements about the world. But for someone else not so into political thoughts, it is pretty light on drama and story.

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The Great Gatsby. Still not sure if I read it.

Well, now I’ve finished it, but I still feel like I haven’t. I had a terrible time trying to pay attention to this one, but I think that was mostly the fault of the narrator. Jake Gyllenhaal (in a trend of having famous actors read classics) gives a dull, monotone reading that would put you to sleep if not for the constant, piercing s-whistles sprinkled throughout.

I already feel I’ll have to give this one yet another try, but next time I’ll be sure to do it in text form.

The parts that I could stay alert for were good, but anything can be boring when read in a tired, simple tone. It reminded me of a ninth grader being forced to read in front of their class, something they have no concept of or interest in understanding. Just words on a page, with no change in pace or rhythm, even when moving from describing a sunset to describing a deadly car crash.

The words will slide right off your brain into oblivion.

 

Death’s End, by Cixin Liu: Mindblowing scope

The final book in the Three Body Trilogy, Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past) does not disappoint. Once again my mind is reeling from the barrage of amazing ideas and concepts that blasted me one after the other after the other as I listened to this book.

I don’t even know where to begin. If you’ve read the first two,  you might wonder how much bigger the ideas could get. Well, they get bigger. The end of the book left me stunned, sitting and thinking about it for quite some time. Yes I’m being vague, because you just have to read it to see.

I’m not even going to go over the plot, or the characters because they don’t matter. That might sound strange, but they really don’t that much. The focus is on all the mind-boggling stuff that happens. There were times when I thought ‘but what is the character feeling about all this? How does it affect them?’ but you know what? If he spent time to describe all that in detail, that would be one less eye-widening idea that would fit into the book.

The only disappointment for me was not ever getting to see what the Tri-Solarans looked like. We learned a lot about them, but no human character ever saw one face to face. It seemed that after dealing with them for the past two books, we should have got at least a glimpse.

Other than that, this was a very satisfying end to a very enjoyable series, and I look forward to the next book of Mr. Liu’s to be translated to English.

The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu

I just finished this sequel to the Three Body Problem, and once again my mind is blown. This book left me with a picture of the universe I never imagined… a dark forest indeed.

The only complaint anyone seems to have about this series is the characters, and though they are more fleshed out in this one, they are still a bit lacking. But in my opinion, this downside is more than made up for by the overflowing fountain of ideas.

SO MUCH happens in these books. So many concepts are introduced and there is such endless imagination, that if the author took the time to have full, well built characters, each chapter could be ballooned into it’s own novel. And I’m not sure if that is even an exaggeration. Nearly every scene is introducing some new idea or concept or unsuspected implementation of an idea, and this seizes my attention more than anything I’ve read in a long time.

My biggest complaint was nothing to do with the story, but with the narrator, as I listened to the audio version. The narrator was fine, but, it was a different narrator than the first novel. The narrators did certain character’s voices in different ways (Da Shi, the detective, most notably) and it was really hard to get used to. I also noticed that they used a different translator, though the writing still felt similar in voice to me. (the third book will return to Ken Liu being translator, and I hope they return to the first narrator as well).

The final book, Death’s End, will be out in the US in April, and I hope I don’t have to wait much longer for the audio version. Really excited for the conclusion of this amazing series!

The Fold, by Peter Clines

I listened to The Fold recently, and while the premise was promising at the start, in the end it ended up being more frustrating and annoying than enjoyable for me.

Our story starts with the protagonist, Mike Ericson, highschool teacher, getting a request from his old friend at DARPA to do a special top secret task. Why would a highschool teacher be needed for this, you ask? Well, it turns out Mike has an eidedic memory, meaning (in the novel, anyway, this has never been demonstrated in real life) that he can recall anything he’s ever seen or read with perfect clarity. Why is someone with this super-power like ability working as a highschool teacher? Because he’s a Mary Sue. More on this later.

Mike’s friend Reggie has been trying to get him to work for him for a decade, but due to Mike’s Mary Sue-ness, he refuses to take any job or do anything with his powers. This time though, he agrees to take a look at the project, because Reggie’s level of secrecy intrigues him. His job is to investigate the ‘project’, whatever it is, and use his super mental abilities to decide of its worth continuing to fund the project.

When he gets to the meeting they’re having, he finds out that the project is run by a group of scientists who are trying to teleport matter. And here is where I first knew I was in for trouble.

The scientists go on to describe their many failed attempts at teleporting matter, leading to the eye-rolling of our protagonist and him whispering things to Reggie like (paraphrasing) “You brought me here for teleportation? Of course it failed, are you an idiot?” This sounds like a reasonable way to react. Except.

The teleporter didn’t fail.

This is what the scientists considered failure: They teleported some test blocks, which dissintigrated to dust immediatly after coming out the other side. They also teleported a dog, which came out the other end inside-out and dead.

Yes, you read that right. They successfully teleported matter, and consider it a failure worth abandoning the project over. As does every government, business, or military entity in this meeting.

What???

I actually had to go back and re-listen to that part before writing this to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding something. But nope, it’s right there. The team of scientists seeking funding for their project SUCCESSFULLY TELEPORTED MATTER THREE SEPARATE TIMES AND CONSIDER THIS A FAILURE AS DOES EVERYONE IN THE ROOM.

Can you imagine what world these people live in where they are not instantly having money shoveled toward them? Where the government isn’t locking down everything until the technology is perfected? Who cares if the matter ‘crumbles to dust’? If you can actually teleport instantly even one atom, you’ve just invented instantaneous communication.

Anyway, the scientists describe how they’ve moved on to another project, where instead of teleporting, they make a portal through space-time between two locations. A door that can be stepped through. They use the tired analogy of folding a piece of paper to shorten the distance between two points to explain how it works.

And, this door works.

Yes, a portal through space and time that works. You can step through one end, and come out the other side in another room a kilometer away. Yet they are still somehow worried about funding. And people are still hesitant to fund them. I don’t know what world this book is based in anymore.

But anyway! Mike observes with his video recorder eyes and so on and there is a bunch of filler and slow lead-up to

SPOILERS START HERE:

us eventually learning that the door they made isn’t actually leading to another room, but to another universe where things are mostly the same, but little things like someone’s hair being a different color or your office being on the opposite side of the hall start cropping up. People think they are having memory problems at first, but really, once you go through the portal, you’re in a different universe and who knows what else is different about the world and your life.

This is a really cool and interesting concept. And I started to realize why the author gave Mike his super memory power–so he’d be able to tell when he’s in a different universe! All kinds of creepy things could happen. It would be unsettling to never know what details of your life were real anymore once you stepped through the door. You’re friends might not know you anymore, plus there is the philosophical weirdness of, say, your wife not ‘really’ being you’re wife (who am I really sleeping with?).

Except it never really went that direction. Mike never goes through the doorway until the very end, and its not even hinted at that he may have ended up in a universe that is not his own. The other characters change from going through, sure, but it’s never a major plot point except to make one of the woman scientists sleep with Mike. She was cold, and now she’s screwing him! What a twist! But our Mary Sue has to get laid.

We also find out that the reason Mike is a school teacher instead of doing literally anything he wants to, is because he ‘wants to be normal’. Yes. It’s the tortured super hero who’s gift is really a curse trope, and it just makes you role your eyes so hard it hurts. He never reads books because he’ll remember everything and become too smart. He purposefully ‘kept himself dumb’ so he could have an easier time interacting with all the ‘normal’ people around him. Are we supposed to like this guy? He’s an asshole, too, and is read that way by the narrator very clearly. Is it some huge temptation for authors to make their leads arrogant dicks? Why?

So Mike has all the benefits of perfect memory, and none of the downsides of being unable to interact with people normally. He has ‘quirks’ which people supposedly find ‘annoying’. Like rattling of strings of facts that aren’t related to anything. That’s supposed to be his fault, I guess.

Anyway, this whole thing with the door leading to other parallel universes that you get stuck in because the odds of you ever returning to your own are so small with an infinity of universes, it’s a pretty cool concept. A lot could be done with it. But guess what the climax of the story is? Think of the least interesting thing you could do with the concept of a portal to parallel universes…

The door opens to a bad universe with monsters who come through, and they shoot the  monsters with guns and have to blow up the door with bombs.

Yep. That’s the climax. Fighting ‘bug men’ who make clicking sounds like the predator. (why do aliens always make clicking sounds these days?)

There’s not much else to say about that.

It’s very clear that the author is a thriller writer, and not a sci fi writer. He went to great pains to avoid even trying to explain the science of anything, which is fine, I’ve done the same in my own work at times. But, some of it is just too ridiculous to accept.

We find out toward the end of the story that the scientists don’t actually understand how the door works. They just built the thing, turned it on and it worked and they’ve been spending the intervening years trying to figure out why it is actually working at all. I liked this idea, and was thinking it was going to turn out that it didn’t actually work at all in their universe, but that someone had built the door in an alternate universe where it DID work, and that door had opened into their universe.

But it turns out that they had input some formula from a mysterious old book written by some Victorian mad scientist, and that is what made the door work. What?

Sigh.

END SPOILERS.

I don’t usually rant this long about any books or movies, but this one was just so close to being interesting and good, and kept letting me down, so I guess it had a bit of an effect on me.

It’s clear the author knows how to write a page turner, so I wouldn’t be surprised if his other non-scifi books were much better. But this one was quite frustrating to read.

I would not recommend it to well versed scifi fans. If you just want an exciting thriller and don’t really care if things make sense, then you may enjoy it.

Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe

I listened to this recently on Audible, and it was not what I expected.

Though this is marketed as a sci-fi, the setting is really more of a medieval/fantasy type world. The prose is also very dramatic, dark and flowery, which seems more fit to a fantasy novel.

The main character being a torturer who lives in a citadel and wears robes and performs rituals is another example how unusual this is for a sci fi novel.

The world, though, is very interesting. You get little hints here and there about what kind of world it might be, and figure out pretty early on that the ‘ancients’ used to fly between the stars and left behind strange devices none of which anyone understands.

It’s such a perfectly balanced handing out of clues and nuggets that I didn’t even realize how interested I was until the book ended, and my main driver for wanting to read the sequel was not curiosity about what happens to any of the characters, but to learn more about the world.

For anyone squeamish about the title, as I was, there is little actual torture in the book–and what there is is not overly descriptive. There are, though, many dark themes and thoughts on death.

Though some of the descriptions and dialogue seemed over-indulgent, it all added to the unique atmosphere of the book. This one is highly recommended by many, and now I can see it is with good reason. The only issue I had with it is that it ended right in the middle of a scene! So go into it knowing your’re going to have to read three books instead of one. Thankfully they are all available already.

Sci-fi and fantasy fans both will want to give this one a look.