Ryan Skardal

RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

Norwegian Wood: Murakami’s breakthrough novel

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Toru Watanabe is just another kid studying drama at university when he falls for his friend Naoko, who is in a relationship with another of Toru’s friends, Kizuki — until Kizuki commits suicide. Emotionally confused because she feels “split in two and playing tag with myself,” Naoko escapes to a mountain retreat, though not before sleeping with Toru. Watanabe pines for Naoko as he passes time in Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Nagasawa likes The Great Gatsby, and he has no trouble finding women to sleep with him — and with Toru, who feels disgusted with himself after these one-night stands. (Nagasawa, by the way, is in a relationship with Hatsumi, who is devoted to Nagasawa even though she seems too nice for him.) In the midst of these split loyalties and the emotional turbulence they cause, Watanabe meets Midori. Though she also has a boyfriend, Midori and Toru hit it off bec... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: Giving thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, American readers! In honor of Ryan, who recently retired from FanLit after eight years of servitude, we're re-running his Thanksgiving column from two years ago. 

Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday. There are no gifts. Instead, we set time aside for family, friends, and good food. And we are invited to consider those things we are grateful for, a reminder to keep things in perspective.

Well, one thing I'm grateful for is science fiction and fantasy stories. They were the first books that appealed to me when I was a young reader. Though I've met readers who dismiss these genres, I would like to think SFF can inspire us to be better people and to live more fully realized lives.

These novels often follow heroes who stand up for others. I'm especially grateful for those who stand up to injustice, bigotry, and bullying, even if it might cost them in the short term. Of all these characters, the best mig... Read More

Killing Commendatore: For long time Murakami readers

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

What is the best way into Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Killing Commendatore (2018)?

This is a late novel from an aging novelist (Murakami is 69 years old) who has perhaps lost the vitality that carried his greatest novels. In fact, I gave up on 2013’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by the end of the first chapter. It seemed like a re-tread, something I could return to later or never. I was therefore pleased when I found that I had once again fallen under the spell of a Murakami novel with Killing Commendatore. The story begins when a talented but mostly bored portrait artist learns that his wife wants a divorce. He travels briefly around Japan before settling in a borrowed mountain home. There, he finds a yearning ... Read More

Blindness: Nobel Prize-winning post-apocalyptic fiction

Blindness by José Saramago

Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, José Saramago’s Blindness is a post-apocalyptic novel about pandemic blindness and the consequent dissolution of a society. Both the novel and the author have received acclaim, and Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I liked Blindness, but I found it overrated.

Many readers will find this novel thoughtful and complex. The hero is a woman who does not lose her sight but nevertheless accompanies her suddenly blind husband when he is sent into quarantine. She is just a regular person, and yet she selflessly cares not only for her husband but also for the strangers in her ward. There is a temptation to simply read her as a straightforward Christ-like figure, until one reads Saramago’s W... Read More

Tool of War: Augmented YA

Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War (2017) is the third entry in a series of futuristic novels in which catastrophic climate change projections have come to pass. The American seaboard is flooded, and the United States government has been overtaken by transnational organizations. The most stunning technological breakthroughs are in gene editing, and elite organizations own “augments,” creatures that are part human and part animal, part slave and part soldier. The main character here, Tool, is the greatest of the augments because he can defy his training and act independently. Who knows what he might be capable of?

Tool of War is also a sort of augment, part YA and part techno-thriller. Unlike the best techno thrillers, this one offers too few info-dumps... Read More

A Wild Sheep Chase: In search of lost things, including a sheep

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

I’ve seen Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase casually described as postmodern, as surreal, and as magic realism. Though it was published in 1982 (and translated into English in 1989), and though the main character is not a private investigator, I nevertheless think of it as a weird private investigator novel. Private investigators are often associated with thrillers, their novels can play with the expectation that the detective will solve the case, and/ or they can create a noir atmosphere that the hero inhabits on the reader’s behalf. A Wild Sheep Chase works mostly like these last two types of private investigator stories.

A wild goose chase is an exercise in futility, but perhaps a wild sheep case is about escaping futil... Read More

I See By My Outfit: From New York to San Francisco by Scooter

I See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle

Published in 1965, Peter S. Beagle’s I See By My Outfit is an American motorscooter travelogue. Beagle and his friend, Phil, ride from New York to St. Louis and then head west to San Francisco.

I was often struck by how different the world was in the 1960s. In many ways, the absence of mass media and the Internet makes America seem smaller, like you truly could find people who would wonder about the mysteries of New York City. Beagle more than once mentions that cops especially monitor them because they look like two bearded menaces. To be honest, I often wondered if he was exaggerating these claims, but perhaps my view of people who ride scooters cross country has been unduly influenced by the movie Dumb... Read More

Raw Spirit: The search for Scotch

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.

It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite detailed, but there is no index.
Read More

A Storm of Swords: Might be the best in the series

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

When George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords (2000) begins, the War of the Five Kings has just ended, and it looks like the Lannisters have won the realm. They control King’s Landing, Westeros’ capital city, as well as the fifteen-year-old King Joffrey. Stannis Baratheon is in retreat, and their remaining foes, the Starks and the Greyjoys, have turned on each other rather than allying against a common enemy. Basically, the bad guys have won, but A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE isn’t over.

Martin highlights that there are still perfectly legitimate threats to the realm, especially the wildlings, the Others, and the giants that are invading from beyond the Wall. Jon Snow is charged with infiltrating the wildling army, an excuse that Martin uses to show off how cool it would be to live in a land that is in perpetual winter. Yes, the un... Read More

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

In World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks provides an oral history of the global conflict against the undead. In the introduction, the narrator explains how this account focuses on the human element rather than just the statistical details of World War Z. The text shifts from the experiences of one survivor to the next.

The history begins in China. Dr. Kwang Jing-shu recalls when he encountered the “Patient Zero,” a child, and the early responses to the child’s illness. The zombie plague spreads across China, and before long human traffickers are explaining in their interviews how they brought the infected to the rest of the world. At first, people do not know what they are dealing with, and they refer to the disease as rabies, and later as “African Rabies.” Israel and South Africa develop strategies for response faster than many other na... Read More

The Cuckoo’s Calling: Rowling makes a break without forgetting her roots

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Early in 2013, a new murder mystery came out. Written by an author named Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling was set in England and featured an army veteran detective with a prosthetic leg (he was injured saving other soldiers in Afghanistan), a strange family and an unusual name; Cormoran Strike. A few months later, through a series of different sources, it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, who wanted to publish her first murder mystery without having it connected in any way to her globally-famous, history-making, best-selling series of YA fantasy best-sellers.

Sorry that whole anonymous thing didn’t work out for you, Ms. Rowling.

Even though there is nothing fantastical or magical about The Cuckoo’s Calling... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: Stranger Things Season 2

We love this VHS-style Blu-Ray set!



Sure, you could wait for October 31st to immerse yourself in the creepily disturbing, to wallow in waves of nostalgia, to set your eyes upon a child’s wonder and fear intermingled, and of course to down mounds of, well, Mounds (and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and M & Ms, and Almond Joys and and and...).

Or you could do what the rest of us are planning on: break open those bags of Halloween candy a few nights early, plop on the couch, and binge-watch season two of Stranger Things which will be released on Netflix tomorrow.

This show has it all -- arcade games, Eggos, and everyone's favorite childhood memory, riding bikes at night. Everything about this show has been unbelievably fun!


So, what are your predictions for the second season of Stranger Things? What do you think will happen in the crazy, um, “upside down” ... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: Thank Kahless, Star Trek is back!

Thank Kahless, Star Trek is back! Now we can obsess over it.

After watching the first two episodes, I was struck by the writers' attempts to mislead the audience. The title of the first episode, "The Vulcan Hello," suggests that it would be about the Vulcan greeting, "live long and prosper," but it was actually about attacking Klingons. The captain we first meet, Georgiou, seems like a central character, but she died by the end of the second episode. I appreciate that the writers are trying to zig when they could zag, but the first thing I said to my father on Sunday was "I bet Michelle Yeoh dies." It had to happen -- why would there be two captains on one show about a first officer? Someone's got to go.
Here are some other predictions.



Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty awful over its first three seasons, as was Voyager Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also happy to poke fun at himself, though I enjoye... Read More

Dragon Teeth: Palaeontologist wars

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

As anyone who reads the dust jacket will realize, Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (2017) is about dinosaur fossils and the obsessed palaeontologists who traveled into the American frontier during the Gilded Age to gently dig them up. Sadly, it’s not about dinosaurs eating people.

William Johnson is a student at Yale. The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, Johnson goes west to win a bet against his rival. He joins Professor Marsh, an eccentric and paranoid man who specializes in the bizarre new science, palaeontology. It turns out that Johnson has entered the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and his nemesis, Edward Cope. Although I spent most of the novel expecting Johnson and his company to end in a gunfight against Sitting Bull and the Sioux, it instead turned into... Read More

The Gods of War: Is Rome worth a life?

The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden

Every reader who starts Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War (2006) already knows that in this novel Caesar crosses the Rubicon, defeats Pompey, meets Cleopatra, and is ultimately betrayed by Marcus Brutus, his best friend. The point of the plot is not what happened but why. Caesar spent his life fighting for the Republic, but he betrayed it. Why? Brutus spent his life fighting for Caesar but chose to murder him. Why? The Gods of War should not work as a novel if it does not excel at character development.

When I began reading, I sadly concluded that the novel would disappoint. The initial chapters do not stand out for their complex characterization. Instead, Iggulden focuses on staging — politics without intrigue and decisions made without emotion... Read More

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.

Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismissing it from their “to read” list. In h... Read More

A Bridge of Years: Time travel to 1962

A Bridge of Years by Robert Charles Wilson

Tom Winter tried to find solace in a bottle when his wife left him. He lost his job and concluded that 1989 was a pretty tough year. Now, Tom is trying to make a go of it in Belltower in the Pacific Northwest. His brother has set him up with a job as a car salesman, and he has bought a house. Life seems pretty mundane, until Tom realizes that the house is a time machine that leads to New York in 1962.

Published in 1991, Robert Charles Wilson’s A Bridge of Years is his first time travel novel, but it’s the third one I’ve read by him. Here, the traveler wanders through a tunnel from one time/location to another. There is no dial for Tom to turn to 11 or to 1924 or to the future. (This is not to say that the tunnels are as limited as Tom’s ability to operate t... Read More

The Field of Swords: Caesar abroad

The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden’s The Field of Swords (2005) follows a Caesar who is no longer young. Though he is still eminently capable and still driven to work day and night in pursuit of glory, he is exhausted rather than energized by his work in Spain. Naturally, the real story begins when he returns to Rome to form an alliance with Pompey and Crassus.

Rome considers itself the greatest city in the world, but, to our eyes, it is consumed by corrupt political intrigue in search of power and recognition, its enemies are tortured and slowly executed in public, and its people are entertained by merciless spectacle. Julius is the hero of this text, but he is not given contemporary attitudes. He enjoys the spectacle, the fame, and the glory of Romeo as much as the mob does.

Ther... Read More

Bios: A rare miss from RCW

Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration by Robert Charles Wilson

Isis is not the M class planet we have been looking for, and upon landing the humans discover that it’s extraordinarily toxic to them. It’s not cheap traveling through space to distant planets, so the scientists will just have to do their best. This is the premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios: A Novel of Planetary Exploration. The scientists initially try to solve this problem with nifty machines and suits, but eventually one of them tries to change people at a genetic level to make them fit the planet, rather than conquering it.

Zoe carries the modified “bloodware,” and she wants to make life work on the new planet. On Earth, she was sexually abused, and though her emotions were “smoothed,” or muted, she is still troubled by t... Read More

The Death of Kings: Julius comes into power and loss

The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden

Julius is a young soldier. He fights in northern Africa, but he is not in command. Still, he is very well trained, is charismatic and trusts his instincts, and he is beginning to learn what it means to command and why he loves everything Rome stands for. He is confident, idealistic, and capable, a potent combination that leads to many victories. By the end of the novel, he will deal with Spartacus and Sulla, pirates, and senators who wish him ill. He will taste true power, love, and loss.

Published in 2004, Conn Iggulden’s The Death of Kings, the second of four entries in the EMPEROR series (after The Gates of Rome), is a work of historical fiction, though it’... Read More

The Perseids and Other Stories: Strange nights in Toronto

The Perseids and Other Stories by Robert Charles Wilson

I’m mostly a sceptic of both short stories and short story collections. When reading short science fiction, I can’t help thinking that if the premise were truly worthwhile, the author would have developed it into a novel — or at least a novella. I’m perhaps revealing my own limitations rather than my preferences. Still, I’ve found that the most common descriptions of short story collections are “mixed bag” or “some are duds.” And because every word counts so much more in shorts, the prose too often is so much more… overwrought. Ironic or not, considering that science fiction is often carried by an interesting premise rather than interesting characters, some part of me still insists that its best ideas be delivered as novels.

So I was pleased to realize that Robe... Read More

Trouble with Lichen: Complications of eternal youth

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham

Published in 1960, John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen tells the story of Diana Brackley, a revolutionary, a feminist, and a scientist.

Diana is considered odd because although she is attractive, she does not want to marry. Instead, she is dedicated to her career in the lab, and it is there that she makes her amazing discovery: a type of lichen that slows the aging process. Diana decides to use the lichen to empower women, and she sets up a beauty clinic that caters to rich and influential women (more often, unfortunately, women who are married to rich and influential men). Her goal is to create a class of powerful women who will shield her project and her dreams against t... Read More

The Chrysalids: Forbidden post-apocalyptic telepaths

The Chrysalids by John Wynhdam

It’s no wonder that David dreams of a distant and wondrous city at night: life in the post-apocalyptic settlement, Waknuk, is difficult. Waknuk’s people are descended from the survivors of the Tribulation, which everyone knows was sent by God to punish the Old People. Though David and his community are lucky to have any land to live on, they must always guard against Deviations — in their crops, in their livestock, and in their children.

Deviations are not made in God’s True Image. Children that, say, have six toes, have the Devil in them, so they are either destroyed or else sent to the Fringes after they are sterilized. Though these exiles may later return as raiders, life in Waknuk is — if not always peaceful — still much better than life in the Badlands.

David Strorm may not care that deeply about Purity and maintaining God’s True Image, but his father, Joseph, cares ... Read More

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: How can one resist?

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is (breathe in) an alternate history science fiction noir police procedural that won plaudits from the literary mainstream as well as several top honors from the science fiction community (breathe out).

There’s a great deal going on, but perhaps it’s best to introduce the setting. In this alternate history, America created a temporary settlement for Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Today, the Sitka Jews are facing Reversion, which means that mill... Read More

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