Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

Asymptote: April 2018

The cover of the April 2018 issue of Asymptote. A blue ink drawing of an urban landscape and a red ink drawing of a jungle landscape intersect, like a Venn diagram, in a purple tree with a bird sitting in its branches.
Image courtesy Asymptote

One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote.  It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!

Since I also think that short-form writing  is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!

Anyway, my favorites from the April 2018 issue!

There were two short stories I enjoyed a lot, Taklamakan Misdelivery (part of their special feature focusing on Korean literature) and Tick Constellations (part of the issue’s regular offerings).

As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunions made me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind how No Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.

And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).

My Real Children: Book Review

I decided that I’m no longer bound by space and time when it comes to book club reads. In other words, I don’t have to wait for a respective book’s month, or even read them in order! Which is why I dug into My Real Children last week, even though it’s not on the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club docket until June.

Cover of "My Real Children" by  Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Patrician Cowan is living out the end of her life in a care facility for dementia patients. Unlike most dementia patients, however, she also remembers two lives. Which one is the truth? Which children are her real children?

Content warning: Some scenes of emotional abuse; a couple of uncomfortable, coercive sex scenes

Recommended audience: Alternative history fans, actual history buffs, people who are anxious over the life choices they’ve made, readers looking for LGBTQ+ historical commentary

In-depth thoughts: My Real Children takes a very personal, intimate look at history and chaos theory. Walton gives us two (alternate?) lives of Patricia Cowan, with different spouses and different struggles and different triumphs.

Of course, it’s not just Patricia’s life that’s different between the two. History also takes two different tracks (though both are different from history as it tracked in our world). Walton sets up a delicious little tension there that’s never entirely resolved: did Patricia’s choices in any way affect larger world events? Or did those larger world events have any effect on her? Another author might have been tempted to draw a line between Patricia’s choices and world events (like Charles Wallace body-hopping through different people in A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but Walton just leaves those differences there.

While My Real Children is put out by Tor, an imprint famous for fantasy and science fiction, I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction myself. (I was actually surprised to see it was a Tor book!) But maybe that’s because I already comfortably half-accept the idea of there being alternate reality versions of myself leading different versions of my life. There’s no attempt to explain why those lifetimes are converging in Patricia’s memory, or why she’s drifting between two timelines (it’s most certainly not a metaphor for dementia; she has dementia in both lifetimes, unrelated to the timelines crossing); it’s simply a narrative device that shows how differently things can turn out on the micro- and macro-scale.

Whether or not you want to consider it “proper” science fiction, My Real Children is a great option for ESL students: no weird alien races, no futuristic technological terms, no fantastical elements to try and keep straight. It’s simply two alternate histories that readers may already be familiar with, side by side.

Book Review: The Power

I first heard of The Power thanks to the half-dozen book bloggers I follow. A while ago, I started using GoodReads’ “to-read” function as a storehouse for all of the books I heard about that sounded really cool but that I would otherwise forget after a couple days. Then the universe aligned: I received a free copy of The Power from a New Year’s book club exchange buddy, and then my feminist science fiction club decided on it for February’s book.

The UK edition of "The Power" by Naomi Alderman, featuring a geometric Art Deco design in black red, and white.

Author: Naomi Alderman

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.93

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: One day, women around the world develop the power to produce electricity out of nowhere. Everything changes.

Content warning: There are some gruesome scenes of violence and sexual assault throughout.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans

In-depth thoughts: The Power posits that if you gave women the ability to produce electricity out of nowhere thereby making them all walking weapons, within less than a decade you’ll see an entire global culture shift. That’s really the point that the book turns on, and how much you enjoy the book is probably based on how much you buy into Alderman’s thesis. Less central to the story is that it’s pure power (hah, hah) that drives sexual objectification and sexual entitlement. Still, if you disagree with Alderman’s implied stance on this, there will be moments of characterization that fall flat for you.

Speaking of characterization, this is another book with an ensemble cast, a total of five major perspective characters (plus asides here and there). I’m not entirely convinced that all of those characters were entirely necessary to the story. And while Alderman included a graceful nod to the complexities of biological sex with how inconsistently the physiological source of the power manifests (i.e. some men have semi-developed skeins, and some women don’t have skeins as developed as other women), the absence of any trans characters or an examination of what this development would mean for them is notable.

Despite these issues, The Power is a quick and snappy read with a lot to say about women, sex, and power (hah, hah) in society. Grounded as it is in real life (as opposed to distant post-apocalyptic futures or even more distant space-faring ones with dozens of new alien races and languages), The Power is a solid choice for EFL students who are also sci-fi fans.

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

It’s time for another book from the Austin-based feminist science fiction book club!

Image courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

Author: Becky Chambers

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating:  4.18 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: A young woman trying to escape her past joins the ragtag crew of The Wayfarer, a ship that creates artificial wormholes for interstellar travel.

Recommended audience: Fans of FireflySerenity, Babylon 5, and/or Farscape.

In-depth thoughts: I was incredibly frustrated with this book because it had a lot of great ideas about alien linguistics and cultures that were hampered down by a writing style that I would describe as “aggressively twee.”

From an editorial perspective, there is a lot of redundancy through showing and telling (rather than showing, not telling). That kind of writing is a symptom of two things. Either 1) you don’t have enough faith in your own writing and story-telling ability to get the point across “between the lines” or 2) you don’t have enough faith in your reader’s ability to infer. Maybe even both.

If you were to go through my previous reviews, you’ll see that I’ve mentioned (more than once!) that a particular book went over my head in parts, or completely, which impacted my ability to enjoy it. The other side of the spectrum isn’t good either, and the balance is different for different people. For my taste, this leans far too heavily on “let’s explain everything.”

From an EFL perspective, however, this might be a perk rather than a drawback. Repetition ensures that the reader has lots of chances to put pieces together, especially in a science fiction novel. A genre that necessarily creates new words, sometimes even new languages, can sometimes be hard to read and understand in a language that you’re not entirely fluent in.

Review: Karen Memory

I mentioned having reading to do for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club during my vacation in Austin, and how I finally tackled The Dispossessed maybe a decade after I first tried to read it. The other book on the docket for book club was Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. I finished it in July, but you’re reading this in August, after feminist science fiction book club, because book club gets first dibs on my thoughts!

Cover of Elizabeth Bear's "Karen Memory."
Image courtesy Tor

Author: Elizabeth Bear

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars

Language scaling: C2

Plot summary: In a nutshell, Karen Memory is a steampunk Wild West version of Jack the Ripper set in the Pacific Northwest, with international espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans

In-depth thoughts: The back of the book features the same summary I just shared above, more or less, and I habitually re-read the backs of books as I read, and even still I was waiting for this to turn into a feminist steampunk version of “Johnny Mnemonic.” Should I have expected that? Obviously not. Was I letting myself get tripped up by the title? Yes, probably. Still, I have to admit to being just slightly disappointed in the book not delivering what I had promised myself it would be.

Elizabeth Bear’s writing is fantastic. Karen has a distinct voice that’s just a lot of fun to read, and the book is worth it for that. This is the first book I’ve read by Bear and I’ll have to find more in the future. But there were a few things that tripped me up, which is why I didn’t give it a higher rating. (I suppose it’s nitpicking to expect the correct dates on radium watch dial painting in a novel that is very clearly a fantastical alternate universe, but it’s my job to be a nitpicker, so I’ll let it bother me.)

A more salient point for EFL readers is that while Bear’s writing and Karen’s voice are distinctive and stylistic, they may be too stylistic for many EFL readers. Karen’s voice employs non-standard grammar and slightly antiquated vocabulary that I can see as being confusing or off-putting (hence such a high language grading). But if you’re a very committed steampunk fan, it’s well worth the effort it might take to adjust to the language.

Book Review: The Dispossessed

I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies

Image courtesy Penguin Classics

In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.

Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.

While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.

Or maybe it’s just realism. #bleak

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

 

A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.

Book Review: Snowfall

Author: Andy Coombs

Genre: Horror

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average Goodreads rating: 4 stars (mine is the only rating!)

Language scaling: High beginner / low intermediate (A2/B1)

Plot summary: Fourteen-year-old Reka and her family try to escape a natural disaster in New Zealand.

Recommended audience: This book is from a larger Swedish series (Polar Fish) written for younger ELLs (target audience: 12 and up) and published by the Natur och Kultur foundation here in Sweden. That said, the text is entirely in English, so there’s nothing particular here for Swedish ELLs.

In-depth thoughts: The English in Snowfall (and in the rest of the Polar Fish books) is quite simple, so intermediate and advanced learners might not find it particularly challenging. But the story was still quite good; even as an adult native English speaker I was engaged (and didn’t even see the plot twist coming). This is a great choice for a young learner with a penchant for horror movies and scary stories. (Though there is some salty language at one point.)

This is one of many middle grade/young adult English novels I picked up for a song at a library sale, and one of a few different ELL/young reader-specific series represented. Polar Fish in particular seems to be a little old and discontinued, but you can still find the books here and there.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

Author: Mary Doria Russell

Genre: Science fiction

My GoodReads Rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads Rating: 4.17 stars

Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)

Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.

Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children

In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.

As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!

That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.

Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.