Ryan Skardal

RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

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 temp... Read More

Never Let Me Go: A quiet exploration of the human condition

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Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

[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.]

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.

That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.

Ther... Read More

The Lathe of Heaven: Dreaming of Utopia

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

When George Orr sleeps, he sometimes has “effective” dreams that alter reality. Believing that he has no right to effect such changes, George begins taking drugs to suppress the dreams. As the drugs lose their efficacy, George ups the dosage, exceeding legal limits. George is caught and ordered to choose between therapy and asylum. He chooses therapy and is sent to Dr. William Haber. When Haber realizes that George is not crazy and that these “effective” dreams indeed change reality, the psychiatrist decides to make the world a better place.

And why not? Overpopulated, polluted, radioactive, and starving – humanity’s near future is an age of terrible consequences. The world could use a dreamer, figures Haber, so he hypnotizes George to shape the future.

By t... Read More

Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven

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Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar (writer) & Steve McNiven (illustrator)

Logan, a grizzled west coast farmer whose only joy is his wife and two children, knows that the rent is due. He doesn’t have the dough, and when the cannibalistic Hulk Gang arrives, he will suffer a beating – if he’s lucky.

What if… all of the villains teamed up to defeat the heroes and then took over the country? Written in 2009, Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan was not released as a “What If…?” adventure, but it might as well have been. The heroes were wiped out long ago, and Logan, who has sworn to never do violence again, takes his beating to protect his family.

Hawkeye, now equal parts blind samurai and archer, hopes there might still be a bit of Wolverine left in the old farmer. He offers to pay Logan to drive with him in the Spider-... Read More

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: In search of lost things, including a cat

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

At first glance, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada, a legal assistant who has given up his job in the hope of finding a more fulfilling purpose. Though happily married, his cat, Noboru Wataya, has gone missing. If a missing cat sounds too straightforward for a novel often described as the masterpiece of a man who is often mentioned as a dark horse to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, there’s a lot to unpack in this summary. Also, Toru is about to learn that his brother-in-law defiles women and his own marriage with Kumiko is in serious trouble.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be interpreted along several lines, but perhaps our struggle to form meaningful rel... Read More

A Clash of Kings: No one will escape

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Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Renly Baratheon explains, “I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient…” Renly’s only problem, besides arrogance, is that he has no legal claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros — excepting the strength of his army. Luckily for Renly, Westeros’ leaders no longer seem to require any legitimacy beyond the power of their armies and the ruthlessness of their bannermen. Perhaps the laws of the realm were always a whitewash, but now even Sansa Stark has begun to realize that the laws of the state are twisted to strengthen the powerful rather than enforced to protect the powerless.

In a realm like this, it should come as no surprise that Renly is only one of many ... Read More

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (2016) is an edited transcript of several conversations between Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and Seiji Ozawa, the conductor.

I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of m... Read More

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: A companion book from the series’ halfway point

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The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a companion for readers of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME novels. Although I enjoyed the ~14 (15, if New Spring is included or fewer if the final three novels are counted as one, the way Jordan intended) WOT novels, I don’t recommend this companion. Here’s why.

The book is written from the point of view of fictional historians from within Randland, but the device doesn’t work. It seems odd that many characters of little renown are mentioned in a history of Randland. Prominent characters from the se... Read More

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.

The unique relationship betwee... Read More

The Book of Imaginary Beings: Would make a great gift

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The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969) introduces readers to the origins and characteristics of creatures like the Chimera, the Chinese Dragon, the Jinn, and the Western Dragon. Although I am hardly a scholar when it comes to monsters and imaginary beings, I was still impressed by how many of 155 creatures included here were entirely new to me.

This book might seem limited to some twenty-first century readers, so let’s acknowledge these concerns (if only to get them out of the way). First of all, there is no entry on the demogorgan because this book was published decades ago. Second, many of the creatures listed here have longer entries on Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s article about the Read More

Last Year: Time travel tourism

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Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Jesse Cullum works security at the City of Futurity – in fact, he just saved President Ulysses S. Grant from an assassination attempt, though he lost his Oakleys in the process.

The science fiction premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year (2016), is outlined in its opening scene. Oakleys are sunglasses that come from our time, but Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most important generals in the American Civil War. How can both exist in the same place? Well, in this novel, a “mirror” allows people to travel back in time, but to a specific point in the past — and it will produce a different a future. The people who travel back are tourists, and the City of Futurity, run by August Kemp, makes money from the past’s weal... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving!

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them



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 might be Harry Potter, who stands up for himself and his friends and who endures the taunts of bullies. In an interview, Read More

Green Mars: Revenge of the lab rats

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Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

It took me about 200 pages to get into Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (1994), the first sequel to Red Mars, and even after I connected with it I found myself working through slow patches. Although the inside cover of the edition I read describes KSR’s novels as “thrilling,” I would describe this novel as dense, philosophical, purposeful, detailed… Well, a lot of words come to mind before I’d mention a fast pace.

When Green Mars begins, the surviving members of the First Hundred live in hiding on Mars. Earth, meanwhile, suffers from overpopulation, inequality, political instability, and many ecological pr... Read More

The Last Days of New Paris: Surrealism comes for us all

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Reposting to include Marion's new review.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Putting it simply, China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) is a “China Miéville” story. For many readers, that’s sufficient information to begin reading.

But here are some additional details, just in case. The Last Days of New Paris is a novella length alternate history in which the Nazis and the resistance fight to control Paris. Something weird is going on in this timeline: surreal creatures called “manifs” wander the streets of Paris after an S-Blast took the surreal creatures out of the artworks and into the world. The ... Read More

Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

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Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if w... Read More

A Slip of the Keyboard: Too comprehensive, or not comprehensive enough

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A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.

The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck... Read More

Gentlemen of the Road: Swashbuckling historical fiction

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Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (2007) is a swashbuckling historical fiction about a pair of Jewish vagabonds in 10th century Khazaria. Amran is a large Abyssinian, while Zelikman is a somber doctor who explains that he does not save the lives of his patients — he only “prolongs their futility.” We meet our heroes in the midst of a con game and the two rogues soon find themselves in the middle of a royal plot.

Though Gentlemen of the Road is a pretty straightforward historical fiction — there are no sorcerers — there is still plenty here for fantasy fans to enjoy. Chabon’s heroes, for example, strongly recall Frit... Read More

A Man Without a Country: Essays from the GWB Years

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A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country collects essays about living in George W. Bush’s America. Published in 2005, these essays were written after America invaded Iraq in order to defeat terrorism, to find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction, and to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.

Briefly summarized, Vonnegut is critical of the state of America, which has been hijacked by psychopaths, and let’s not forget the state of the world, which has been destroyed by a century of fossil fuel emissions that produced nothing more than transportation. He’s not especially glad that so many nuclear weapons remain, either. He defends the arts, humanism, and, generally speaking, compassion and mercy. He regu... Read More

The Visible Man: Spying on Others

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The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

Therapist Victoria Vick has taken on a new client, Y___. He has a suit that renders him invisible, though he doesn’t like that term, and he uses the suit to watch people when they think they are alone. He feels guilt, but he also thinks that his guilt is illogical. So, he has come to Vick for therapy.

Why should Y___ feel guilt when his project of observing people is so important? Watching people who do not know they are being watched has become his life’s work, and there is no doubting Y___’s dedication to observing others. He has studied yoga to the point that he can remain still for hours at a time. Though careful to avoid addiction, Y___ takes stimulants so that he can maintain his surveillance for days if necessary. He has also devised numerous ways to get into people’s homes unobserved.

The central conflict in Chuck... Read More

Once Upon a Time in the North: Lee Scoresby meets Iorek Byrnison

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Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

Lee Scoresby, a young Texan aeronaut, and his dæmon, Hester the rabbit, land their balloon in Novy Odense, a frontier harbor in the North. Lee is all but broke, so he goes into town looking for business. There’s no work for an aeronaut, but there is a lot of trouble waiting for an honorable man. Naturally, Lee and Hester wind up in the middle of it.

It turns out that the Larsen Manganese, a mining company, has allied with Ivan Demitrovich Poliakov, a mayoral candidate, as part of their scheme to control of the North. The company’s guards are throwing their weight around Novy Odense, which disrupts honest trade, while Poliakov incites hate against the bears, including one Iorek Byrnison, which distracts from the Northern takeover. Lee winds up siding with the bears and businessmen, even if it means risking a gunfight against Poliakov an... Read More

Thoughtful Thursday: In Honor of To-Read Lists

I dedicate a lot of time to reading, and I have reading routines, but perhaps the most important of them is maintaining a to-read list.

My to-read list exists in two places: my phone and my laptop. If someone recommends a book to me in conversation, I immediately take out my phone to add another author/ title, e.g. "Wilson/ Comstock." The to-read list on my phone is random, disordered, and disorganized, but every few weeks, I'll open it and transfer its author/ titles to a master file on my computer. This master list is alphabetized by the author's surname, and it sometimes contains a parenthetical explanation of why I want to read it, too. Though the list is long, I keep the entries concise.

It would be nice to liken my to-read list to a garden, except that mine never stops growing. I suppose I could check its growt... Read More

The Lucky Strike: A useful primer to Robinson’s style and themes

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The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Lucky Strike collects a short story and an essay about alternate history by Kim Stanley Robinson. At the end, readers are treated to an interview with the author. It is part of a larger series of publications that highlight “outspoken authors.”

“The Lucky Strike,” the short story, is an alternate history about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this world, however, Frank January chooses to drop the bomb early so as to minimize human casualties. He hopes that the Japanese will surrender when they realize the destructive power of atomic bombs.

It is difficult to discuss the text without spoilers, so what follows is full of them:

Begin highlighting here to read the spoiler... Read More

Red Mars: This is where we start again

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Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

When the First Hundred arrive on Mars, they find a beautiful red planet that’s all but untouched by humanity. What should they paint on this amazing canvas?

The question turns out to be very political, and the discussion of politics in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars perhaps begins with ecology. The relationship between people and their environment is introduced when the Martian settlers consider whether they should change the red planet to suit human needs. Ann Clayborne maintains that they should change Mars as little as possible. After all, science is about observation. Sax Russell, on the other hand, argues that “science is creation” and that they should begin terraforming Mars as rapidly as possible because it “adds life, the most... Read More

Foundation: Psychohistory is a brilliant sci-fi concept

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Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon is remembered for combining principles from psychology and history into “psychohistory,” a discipline that projects humanity’s course for thousands of years into the future. Psychohistory cannot very accurately predict the actions of individuals, but large groups are less random in their behavior. Unfortunately, Seldon’s calculations predict that the Galactic Empire will soon fall—and its dissolution will give way to thousands of years of barbarism.

Seldon is not cynical: he turns his attention to manipulating a course of events that will condense the coming Dark Ages and give rise to a reborn empire. Seldon sets up a Foundation on Terminus, and dies hoping that he’s done enough to save the galaxy. Will his gambit succeed?

Foundation is usually classified as a novel, but it was originally published as a serie... Read More

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Gunslinger’s Fairytale

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Reposting to include Jana's new review:

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Stephen King’s latest, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is a DARK TOWER novel. The cover assures readers that they can read this novel even if they have not read the rest of the series, which is probably true, but the already converted will be interested to know that The Wind Through the Keyhole is something like the 4.5th book in the series. While King may not (cannot?) offer any revelations here that will significantly alter the course of the series, he does offer readers another chance to join Roland and his posse of gunslingers as they make their way toward the Dark Tower.

Mid-World has “moved on.” Although the world is desolate, its language continues to thrive and evolve since King clear... Read More

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