Book Challenge, March 2016: Of Space and Boring Male Nerds

This month started out rough (very rough), but I enjoyed myself overall. The first couple of books were essentially homages to popular culture, though one was far more successful at being worth my time. The last four were all about space, artificial intelligence, cultural differences and the importance of found family.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline (29th of February – 2nd of March): I had heard many positive things about this book, which is perhaps why I’m about to be on the mean side of critical. The writing is poor, and I’m not just referring to the paper-thin plot or weak characterization. There were times when I wondered if the author had angered his editor in some way and this book was the end result. I suffered through entire paragraphs focused on descriptions that tended to be little more than lists of “cool, nerdy things”. In one memorable occasion instead of choosing to write something along the lines of “there was every single console ever built in that room, even the rare xyz” I was treated to a Wikipedia list of consoles (or computers? I zoned out).

The book in general speaks to my least favorite part of nerd culture: the accumulation of obscure knowledge. In fact the very premise of the book -a rich genius decides to leave his fortune to the person who best knows the same nerdy things rich genius likes- is an exercise in narcissistic nostalgia. Beyond the laughably tacked-on message about “real” experiences, you get the feeling that the actual message is: someone will reward you and think you’re cool if you know geek trivia. Apart from the above, you should also factor in low-key misogyny, body shaming, and a few moments of excruciatingly embarrassing “cultural insensitivity” into my reasons for hating this book. I would recommend you avoid it, even though it has a very groovy cover.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – David Wong (2nd of March – 4th of March): Futuristic Violence is a fun, blockbuster action adventure. There is enough substance to make things interesting and the enemy is toxic masculinity on steroids. Sorry, juice. The author plays around pleasantly with tropes and character archetypes, sometimes reveling in them and other times turning them on their head. It is a fast, exciting read, whose characters really ought to get at least a season on Netflix with Kat Dennings as the protagonist. Also Black Scott is by far one of my favorite background characters in recent memory.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy – Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice: 4th of March – 10th of March, Ancillary Sword: 10th of March – 17th of March, Ancillary Mercy: 17th of March – 21st of March): I expected a far angrier, grittier, more violent story and I am extremely glad I did not get it, even though this was perhaps the series I was most excited about. The world building was excellent and the characters all flew off the page. Apart from the exploration of what it mans to be sentient, to have personal identity and autonomy that is present in all AI stories, the books also touch upon substance abuse, the abuse of power, social injustice, classism, racism, and slavery.

The first book is slightly disconcerting because of how faithfully the author has tried to describe another consciousness, a single character with several points of view thanks to the magic of AI technology. The second and third books are about what all military stories should focus on. Not violence and heroism, but instead administrative drama, protocol, doing the least amount of harm, handling strange foreign dignitaries, and tea. If I have to fault the books for anything it is that they don’t transition from one to the next as smoothly as they could have, since the “previously on” period is slightly too pronounced. All in all, it is a warm, clever, and funny story about an empire and a civilization far removed from our own, yet achingly familiar. And that’s what good sci-fi is all about.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (22nd of March – 29th of March): A lovely road trip set in space. It’s a comfortable, mellow book given that the end destination is the titular volatile area, in the sense that, while everyone in the crew gets their moment in the spotlight and you end up caring for every single one, there’s no unnecessary drama. It’s a pleasant exploration of the world, with its different cultures and alien races, as well as of the characters and their personal journeys. Even when it becomes painful due to past or present events, because there is an aura of wholesome goodness about it. I don’t really know how else to describe it.

Challenge Status: 18/50 books read

Tune in next month for my take on The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, which I’m right in the middle of and enjoying immensely.

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