Ryan Skardal

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

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 clearl... Read More

This Census Taker: A weird novella

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Reposting to include Ryan's new review:

This Census Taker by China Miéville

This Census Taker is a short novel by China Miéville. It’s almost a novella. The story could be psychological horror, but it’s stranger than that. I just finished rereading some Gene Wolfe, so I may be forgiven for interpreting This Census Taker as “China Miéville does Gene Wolfe.” Even the front flap describes the book as a “poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.” Buckle up, people, and keep your head and arms inside the vehicle at all times. This is Miéville exploring Wolfe country, and you never know what might bite.

The book opens with ... Read More

Humans: A love polygon

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Humans by Robert J. Sawyer

Ponter, the Neanderthal from another dimension, is back on Earth – our Earth.

This time, Ponter has brought nearly a dozen of the most celebrated scientists and intellectuals from his world. Though we humans are a difficult bunch to deal with, the Neanderthals seem determined to make contact work. Thank goodness, since a lone gunman on our side shoots a member of their delegation as soon as he gets the chance. Mary, meanwhile, is recruited into an American think tank that is determined to figure out how the Neanderthals and their technology work.

All of this sounds like a very standard science fiction story about complications related to alien contact. Robert J. Sawyer’s Humans, however, is not overly concerned with the complications between the two worlds. It instead focuses on the growing ... Read More

The Gold Coast: More interesting than exciting

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The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Jim McPherson is unsatisfied with the future. Unable to find steady, well-paid work, Jim mostly spends his time partying and casually hooking up with random women. Jim’s family is of small comfort to him since he spends most family dinners enduring his father’s many complaints about how Jim does nothing useful. Jim does not know it, but his father, a defense contractor, is also deeply frustrated in his career, even if it does provide what appears to be a successful lifestyle to outsiders. Jim only begins to feel as though he is doing something of value when he starts protesting against militarism.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast explores a dystopian future in which the American Dream has been reduced to consumerism... Read More

Oryx and Crake: A scathing condemnation of the world we are creating

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood details an apocalyptic plague, introduces a new species of creatures that have been genetically designed to replace humanity, and the villain is a mad scientist in love. What could be more “SFF” than Oryx and Crake?

Quite a lot, according to Margaret Atwood, who prefers to describe her novel as “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction.” In interviews promoting Oryx and Crake, Atwood explained that everything that takes place in Oryx and Crake is based on trends that we can see today, as opposed to distant planets that have an allegorical connection to our lives. Atwood is “speculating” about where ou... Read More

2010: Odyssey Two: Answers some questions

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Reposting to include Jason's new review:

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

Please note that this review will include spoilers of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we learn that mysterious forces have guided humanity’s evolution. We don’t meet these forces, but we do see their monoliths. The first monolith appears before a group of struggling chimpanzees. When they touch the monolith, they are inspired to use tools. The novel shifts to the twenty-first century, when another monolith is found on the moon. A third and final monolith is found near Jupiter (Saturn in Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, but the location is ret-conned here). Humanity sends several people — two conscious humans, three hum... Read More

The Martian: Being abandoned on Mars is more fun than you’d think

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Reposting to include Kat's new review:

The Martian by Andy Weir

Mars has long had a somewhat cursed reputation in space exploration. Launch failures, midair explosions, crash landings. Probes that missed the planet completely. Probes we’ve never heard from again and still don’t know what happened. By the time of Andy Weir’s The Martian, though, things have been on a better trajectory for some time and humanity has successfully landed several expeditions on Mars. Mark Watney is the engineer/botanist on the third such expedition, Ares 3, which is just coming up on the end of their first week of a month-long stay. Unfortunately, this is where Mars’ checkered past comes roaring back in the form of a sudden huge sandstorm that forces an abort of the mission and a quick exit from the planet. Or, a quick exit for all of the crew but Watney, who through a freak occurren... Read More

Hear the Wind Sing: Murakami’s debut novel

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Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami

First published in 1979, Hear the Wind Sing is Haruki Murakami’s debut novel (or novella, depending upon where one draws the line). An unnamed narrator tells the story of what happened to him over the course of eighteen days when he was a university student. He spends most of his time either drinking beer with his friend, “The Rat,” or else in a confused relationship with a woman.

To be honest, I did not enjoy Hear the Wind Sing, since I prefer to latch onto the plot when reading. The novel is divided into forty chapters, and though a larger narrative loosely ties everything together, Hear the Wind Sing might actually be better read as a series of related vignettes that prod... Read More

Station Eleven: A quiet and lovely post-apocalyptic novel

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.


Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

“Quiet” and “lovely” are not usually words one reaches for when describing a post-apocalyptic novel. Not with the reverted-back-to-savagery cannibals; the road-raging-mohawk-sporting highway warriors; the gleeful told-you-so rat-a-tat of survivalist gunfire, or the annoying mumblespeak “braiiinnnnss” from the shambling zombies. But quiet and lovely are exactly the words I’d use to describe Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel from Emily St. John Mandel that is happily missing all the above and shows the modern world ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a gentle murmur.

Mandel’s chosen method of ending the world is the Georgia Flu, an incredibly virulent bug that wipes out 95+ perce... Read More

The Wild Shore: Are you waiting for America’s rebirth?

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The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s debut novel, The Wild Shore, was first published in 1984 but its story begins decades after nuclear bombs were set off in America’s cities. Now, in 2047, Californian survivors in San Onofre dedicate their days to gathering food and maintaining their shelters rather than filming movies and computer programming.

Hank Fletcher, our narrator, is angry at the world. Unlike some angst-ridden teenagers, Hank has good reason to resent the world as all the other countries of the United Nations have agreed to prevent the American survivors from rebuilding. While the Californians struggle to figure out radios, they are spied upon by satellite. If the survivors show signs of repairing old railroads, patrolling J... Read More

The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye

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Reposting to include Skye's new review:

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore

In his introduction to The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman explains that the best zombie stories feature waves of blood but also come with strong undercurrents of social commentary. If the back of this graphic novel is to be believed, Kirkman will explore how “in a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”

Kirkman mentions George Romero’s zombie movies in his introduction, but his take on the zombie is more than homage to Romero’s movies. While Romero’s zombies often satirize our consumer culture, Kirkman’s undead are presented in contrast to our complacent “lifestyles.” The walking dead literally hunger for life, while most of Kirkman’s readers, it seems, merely endur... Read More

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