Edge

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.

Sexing the Cherry: The power of the imagination

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Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Those who have read Jeanette Winterson before may not be surprised by Sexing the Cherry. Those who haven’t, or who have only read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (as I had) may wonder what on earth they have got themselves into. It is a weird story, a surreal experience, and it is meant to be so.

In Sexing the Cherry Winterson celebrates the power of the imagination. Much of the book is the extended flight of fancy of the hero Jordan. He takes the reader to the magical places he visits and introduces us to the characters he meets. These passages read like short stories and are reminiscent of the darkest, most dangerous fairy tales. Winterson also explores the nature of time ... Read More

Doctor Therne: A terrific medical novel by a great adventure fantasist

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Doctor Therne by H. Rider Haggard

Free Kindle version.

Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in English history when the populace vigorously refused to be protected against the smallpox scourge that so often ravaged the countryside. Indeed, to this day in the 21st century, there are still many people around the world who view vaccination against disease an unsafe practice, and refuse to partake of its proven benefits. Back in 1796, when English doctor Edward Jenner first demonstrated the usefulness of introducing cowpox into an individual to prevent smallpox, his discovery was viewed as a great advancement. By the early 1800s, vaccination of this type was widespread, despite the possible dangers of infection. But when Britain passed Vaccination Acts from 1840 - 1853 that made these vaccinations compulsory, well, that's when th... Read More

Version Control: Will probably be my favorite book of 2016

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Version Control by Dexter Palmer

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger... And it is more interesting.” ~Stuart Firestein

Dexter Palmer’s Version Control is my kind of science fiction. I loved every moment of this book. The story is set in the near future and focuses on Rebecca Wright and her small circle of family and friends. Rebecca, who drinks wine at breakfast and works from home as a customer service agent for an online matchmaking company called Lovability, is married to Philip, an ambitious physicist. Early on we realize that the couple has recently suffered a tragedy that affects their relationship. Rebecca’s best friend Kate is a slightly unstable woman who has an on-again off-again relationship with Carson, a postdoc in Philip’s la... Read More

Clay’s Ark: An alien disease transforms a portion of humanity

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Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler

Clay’s Ark (1984) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, but comes third in chronology. It takes place after Wild Seed (1980) and Mind of My Mind (1977), in the post-apocalyptic California desert. Society has collapsed into armed enclaves, marauding ‘car families’, organ hunters, and isolated towns. It’s along the lines of Mad Max, with fuel sources depleted and social infrastructure nonexistent, violent death lurking at any moment, and little room for anything more than survival.

This world is gradually revealed via two storylines, one set in the past and the other in the present. The past story arc is centered on an astronaut n... Read More

Mind of My Mind: The rise of the first Patternmaster

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Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler

Mind of My Mind (1977) was written second in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, and comes second in chronology. However, I think it is less-polished than Wild Seed (1980), which comes earlier in chronology but was written later, after she had more fully developed her ideas about psionic powers, power/control, and telepaths vs. mutes. It’s tough to decide whether readers should approach this series in the order it was written, in order to see Butler’s development as a writer, or by internal chronology, to follow the PATTERNIST story at the expense of uneven writing style/quality.

Mind of My Mind takes place about a century after the events of W... Read More

Wild Seed: Two African immortals battle for supremacy in early America

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Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

Wild Seed (1980) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 5-book PATTERNIST series, but comes first in chronology. The next books, by internal chronology, are Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976). Butler was later unsatisfied with Survivor (1978) and elected to not have it reprinted, so I will focus on the main four volumes. Wild Seed is an origin story set well before later books and can stand on its own. It’s one of those books whose basic plot could be described in just a few paragraphs, but the themes it explores are deep, challenging, and thought-provoking. I’ve read a lot ... Read More

Kindred: A complex exploration of the slave/slaver relationship

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Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred
(1979) is Octavia Butler’s earliest stand-alone novel, and though it features time travel, it’s not really science fiction or fantasy. It’s an exploration of American slavery and its painful legacy from the eyes of a contemporary (well, circa 1976) young black woman named Dana. So don’t expect to learn why she keeps being pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War slave plantation in Maryland every time her ancestor, a white slave owner named Rufus Weylin, finds his life in danger. It’s a plot device that allows the reader to experience all the horrors of being a powerless black female slave in 1815 while retaining a modern perspective. So this book is firmly in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Alice Walker... Read More

Blood Meridian: Luminous, blood-drenched, profound, and confounding

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is a book that almost everyone has heard of, read, or intends to read at some point. It’s been called one of the Great American Novels (and Cormac McCarthy one the Great American Writers), and the greatest Western or most ruthless debunking of the Western myth of Manifest Destiny ever written. Many who have read it are probably at a loss to say whether it is a work of genius or depravity, and it is mind-numbingly violent, lyrical, and profound at the same time.

Opinions on its message and philosophy differ so wildly that I wonder if McCarthy deliberately wrote it to confound all the attempts of literary critics to make sense of it. I, myself, was torn between my appreciation for the absolutely stunning passages of poetic brilliance —... Read More

The Miniaturist: Compelling and mysterious, but ultimately unsatisfying

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Reposting to include Tadiana's new review:

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, was undoubtedly a hit. I bought it because I was in an airport rush and it was winking at me from its bestseller, front row spot on the shelves. The Miniaturist’s popularity does not surprise me. It is an enjoyable read, packed with intertwining mysteries that tease throughout. I imagine a lot of people have fond memories of doll’s houses and were enticed by this aspect of the story, or at least, I was. But despite its potential, the ingredients of intrigue and magic never fully came together in any satisfying way.

The story is that of Nella, a young lady who arrives in Amsterdam in 1686 to begin life as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Things start badly. Her new husb... Read More

The Stargazer’s Sister: A quietly intimate portrait, strongly recommended

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The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown

The Stargazer’s Sister, by Carrie Brown, is a wonderfully realized tale of Caroline Herschel, sister and essential assistant to her famed astronomer brother William. The highly fictionalized account (Brown cops in an afterword to making up events, characters, and shifting chronology) takes us deep into Caroline’s fears and desires throughout her long life, making for a quiet and moving character study.

The first chapter opens with Caroline and Herschel’s departure from Germany for England, where the two would spend most of their adult lives. It’s a nicely concise scene, introducing many of the story’s elements/themes in just a few pages. The stars, astronomy, the unbreakable bond between Caroline and William, as well as William’s primacy in that relationship all make an early appearance:
... 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

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

The Handmaid’s Tale: Just as chilling as 1984, Brave New World, and We

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Reposting to include Stuart's new review.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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.

Margaret Atwood was once, via a review of her work, once taken a bit publicly to task by Ursula K. LeGuin for not wanting her books (specifically The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake Read More

Lord of the Silver Bow: Big, bold, heroic and surprisingly good

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Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell

I tried reading David Gemmell's Lord of the Silver Bow about 9 months before I actually read it. It was heavy, plodding, and confusing. I was looking for a fun story full of action and adventure, and I love history... but, alas, I stopped reading after about 50 pages, and kind of figured that I was simply beyond the age when testosterone-fueled adventures could carry a story. I gave it a second shot, and it turns out, I was wrong. This first in Gemmell's trilogy that retells the story of the Trojan War is enjoyable, fun, and surprisingly deep.

Gemmell's language and themes are audacious and often mythic. The story and themes are soaked in an age of heroism when Gods were considered real, and honor and courage were as coveted as bronze. The dialogue drives big and bold themes, addressed by bigger a... Read More

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: Running to write

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

I have just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for the fifth time. I love this book, and although I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest book ever written, it may be my favorite book ever written.

At the title suggests, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a series of essays and memoirs, mostly centering on running. However, it’s also the story of how Murakami went from running a jazz club in Tokyo to writing novels. Murakami also touches on his love of vinyl albums, his translating the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver into Japanese, and his love of Sam Adams beer. More substantially (for some readers) he shares... Read More

The Terminal Beach: The best of Ballard’s early stories

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The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is best known for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), along with his early novels like The Drowned World (1962), The Crystal World (1964), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975). But many consider his best work to be his huge catalog of short stories, many of which were pivotal in the New Wave SF movement in the late 60s/early 70s. Ballard’s style may have been suited to the short form, as it plays to his strengths (hallucinatory imagery, bizarre concepts, powerful descriptions) and avoid his weaknesses (lack of empathe... Read More

High-Rise: Lord of the Flies in an urban luxury high-rise

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High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

If you had the chance, would you live in a massive, 1,000-unit luxury high-rise with its own supermarket, liquor shop, schools, pools, gyms, etc.? Instead of living in some dreary suburb with boring, prosaic neighbors, why not join an elite group of young and successful professionals, like-minded and sophisticated, with immaculate taste and superb social connections? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to join the elite upper echelons of society? This is the scenario that J.G. Ballard creates in High-Rise (1975), and then proceeds to plunge the reader into a nightmare of barbarity, roving bands of marauding residents, festering piles of garbage and refuse, and a total collapse of social order and morals. It is a deliciously dark fable, one that was spot-on back in ... Read More

Concrete Island: Stranded in modernity like a latter-day Crusoe

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Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

In the early 1970s, J.G. Ballard was busily creating modern fables of mankind’s increasingly urban environment and the alienating effect on the human psyche. Far from humans yearning to return to their agrarian and hunter-gatherer roots, Ballard posited that modern man would begin to adapt to his newly-created environment, but at what price? Ballard’s protagonists in Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975) are modern, urbane creatures, educated and detached, who embrace their technology-centric lifestyles. But when conditions change, their primitive urges and psychopathologies emerge to horrifying effect.

In Concrete Island, a modern-day retel... Read More

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights: Magical Realism with a Folktale Feel

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Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

From the moment I started listening to Salman Rushdie’s new book, Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights, I was enchanted. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not ever having read a Rushdie book before, but his leisurely, indirect storytelling style reminded me of a fairy or folk tale, like the 1001 Nights that Rushdie cleverly takes his title from.

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights tells the story of the jinnia Dunia, her lovers, her countless human/jinn progeny, and their efforts in the war between the worlds of humanity and the jinn, who have entered our realm and begun sowing chaos, violence, and madness. Dunia, who has fallen in love with tw... Read More

Journey to the Center of the Earth: On the Edge

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Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

[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.]

Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur
- And whatever route fortune gives, we shall follow

This IS your great-great-great-grandfather's adventure story, so reader beware. There's a lot of walking, a lot of exposition, and quite frankly, not a lot of action. But keep in mind... this is an original. Our modern day sensibilities expect high action out of our adventure stories: monsters, critters, thrill-a-minute. But in a much different time when society was in a much different state... Read More

The Crystal World: Time and death are defeated as crystallization takes over

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The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

The Crystal World (1966) is J.G. Ballard’s third apocalyptic work in which he destroys civilization, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Drowned World (1962). It seems he likes the elements, having employed floods, draughts, and now crystallization. The process somewhat resembles Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), but there is no ironic humor to be found in this book as far I could tell. In The Drowned World, the flooding of the world was used as a metaphor for diving deep into the collective racial memories of the Triassic-age, when dinosaurs r... Read More

The Drowned World: Diving into the pellucid depths of our racial memories

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The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

The Drowned World (1962) is J.G. Ballard’s best apocalyptic work, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but if you are thinking of an action-packed adventure where a plucky group of survivors clings to decency amid the collapse of civilization, this is the wrong book. Ballard was interested in ‘inner space,’ and while he sometimes adopted SF tropes in his books and short stories, his works most often featured natural disasters, the collapse of civilization, lonely astronauts, grim future urban landscapes, and weird obsessions with technology and mechanization. His main intent was to explore the psychology of human beings trapped in modern urban societies (and what happens when these societies collapse), and most of his protagonists a... Read More

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: On the Edge

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley is a charming character-driven novel that is just the sort I often love. I didn’t quite fall all the way for this one, but I absolutely enjoyed it despite a few niggling complaints and happily recommend it.

The setting is London in the late 1800s, during a time of Fenian bombings that have set the city on edge. Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegrapher out of the Home Office who gets mixed up in the investigations all thanks to an incredibly intricate watch th... Read More

Dawn of the Algorithm: Too many pop references, not enough poetry for me

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Dawn of the Algorithm by Yann Rousselot

Dawn of the Algorithm
is a collection of 33 poems by Yann Rousselot that take a wryly dark look at humanity — mostly our faults — through the lens of science fiction tropes, most pulled from pop culture. We’ve got AIs, giant monsters, depressed T-Rex’s, aliens, and loads of references to anime, science fiction films and fiction. It’s a collection that should have been right up my alley, but though it has its moments, I just didn’t connect with much of it, wanting perhaps a bit more poetry (or at least, my type of poetry, such a thing being so subjective) with my sci-fi.

To begin with the positive, Rousselot has an often sharp wit. Sometimes it comes with a mere chuckle, other times a real bite, or sometimes maybe both, as when he close a poem detailing the end of the world with:
And ever... Read More

Cat’s Cradle: Filled with bitter irony and playful humor

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Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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.

"Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle (1963) is very easy to read but fiendishly difficult to review. It’s basically about two main themes: 1) Some scientists are completely unconcerned with what their research and inventions are used for, as long as they given the opportunity to pursue their own research. 2) Religion is a bunch of lies, but at... Read More