Book – It’s 2026, and one hundred scientists have launched in the Ares to become the first Martian colony. They have plenty of challenges to overcome – the extreme cold and unbreathable air, the time lag in communicating with home, the need to extract water from the local environment, the radiation they’ll be exposed to through Mars’s thin atmosphere. And, of course, each other. Red Mars, the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, follows the colonists through the first thirty-five years of colonization, from the launch and early terraforming through the growing influence of Earth politics and corporations on their new world.
I found the details of the mission interesting, but I was really fascinated by the wonderful characters and all their different points of view. Maya, Frank, and John are in a complicated love triangle; Nadia finds Maya ridiculous but loves her work; Arkady’s on a mission to reform the political structure of the world; Sax is on a mission to reform the biology of Mars. Each section is from a different character’s point of view, so things that seemed reasonable from one angle seem crazy from another, and vice-versa. It’s a fascinating book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.
TV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.
Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.
Book – June Costa is the best artist in Palmares Tres. At least, if she isn’t yet, she’s going to be soon. She and her best friend Gil are wakas – under 30 years old, and therefore almost completely powerless in a society of people who regularly live to two hundred years old and more. And it’s an important year for wakas, because it’s the time in the five-year political cycle when the Summer King is elected. For a year he’ll serve at the side of the Queen, and at the end of his term he’ll die, choosing the new Queen with his last breath. Of course, the game is rigged – it’s not time for a new Queen, so he’ll get to choose from only one candidate. The favorite for the Summer King this year is Enki, a beautiful boy from the lowest strata of Palmares society, and between the three of them, he, June, and Gil will change the world.
I loved all the wonderful science-fictional aspects of this book, from the huge floating cities to the elaborate gene therapies and the biotechnology that gives June so many of the opportunities for her art. I also liked that although it was set far in the future and the culture has changed a lot, there’s still a strong connection with history – June’s father, for instance, was an aficionado of 20th century music. There is the usual YA love triangle, but it’s much less important in this book than in many others. I read this in about a day and a half and I’d strongly recommend it to any science fiction fan.
Book – Lord Peter Wimsey, the famous amateur detective, will do just about anything in the pursuit of an interesting case. This time, he’s gone incognito to take a job at an advertising agency where, several weeks ago, one of the employees had a suspiciously convenient accident on the spiral staircase. He flings himself into the work with gusto – both the investigation, and the writing of advertising copy, at which he proves surprisingly adept.
This is the eighth book starring Lord Peter Wimsey, but it really doesn’t matter; it’s one of the ones you could read in any order. Dorothy Sayers first created Lord Peter in Whose Body? in 1923, where he appears as the usual kind of Golden Age detective, a younger son of the nobility with a useful servant and an unusual hobby. He stands out from the Hercule Poirots and Roderick Alleyns of the genre, though, as he develops in psychological complexity throughout the series. We learn about his shell shock from the War, his reluctance to turn over criminals to the law when it will mean their deaths, and his sensitivity to the double standards faced by women of his era.
Murder Must Advertise is one of my favorites of the series, although I admit it’s probably not the best one – but it’s just so much fun. It’s a delightful peek into the pre–Mad Men era of advertising, which Lord Peter is learning along with the reader. There’s also a wonderful cricket game toward the end of the book. I’ve read it five times now and I still don’t understand cricket, but everyone’s having a marvelous time.
Book – In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of Plato’s Academy is found dead. His teacher Diagoras is convinced the pupil’s death is not as accidental as it appears, and asks the famous Heracles Pontor, the “Decipherer of Enigmas,” to investigate. As the death toll rises, the two men find themselves drawn into the dangerous underworld of the Athenian aristocracy, risking their own lives to solve the riddle of these young men’s deaths.
The Athenian Murders is more a game than a novel. It’s a novel, too – if it weren’t it would be intolerably tedious, like the Greek fiction it’s pretending to be – but the point of it is the game, not the fiction. While Heracles Pontor and his employer are getting into trouble with the Academy and the families of the murdered youths and eventually a rather ominous cult, the really interesting stuff is happening in the footnotes. You see, the novel we are reading is being translated by an unnamed Translator from a transcription by an earlier scholar. And the Translator is sure that this is an eidetic text, in which the original author has hidden images that combine to form a second, hidden meaning. His colleagues tell him he’s going crazy with this obsession, and he starts to believe them – until he’s kidnapped and forced to finish translating both the manuscript and the eidesis.
To tell any more would be to give away the twist, and to do that would be to spoil the whole book. Just know that the mystery, while serviceable, is not really the point here. If you’re as intrigued by the sound of eidesis and mysterious translators as I was, though, give it a try – this is a book that rewards intellectual curiosity.
Book – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.
This a was fun, funny, casual read. And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)
Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.
Book – Bridget used to work as a lawyer; now she stays at home with baby Julia while her computer-programmer husband Mark supports their little family. Bridget and Julia aren’t alone in the house while he’s gone, though. There’s a shadowy figure, a ghost that creeps through the rooms. Mark can’t see the ghost, but Bridget is all too sure it’s real.
A hundred years ago, Rebecca is the daughter of a doctor, and although she’s unsure she chooses to marry a farmer, an old friend, and become a farm wife. She struggles with her new life and fights with her husband almost constantly. Their life together may be interesting, but it’s anything but happy.
While alternating between the stories of Bridget and Rebecca gives some hints about the nature of the ghost that haunts Bridget, it remains a little unclear just what the connection between the two women really is. I found I enjoyed that; I like a little mystery with my scariness. I also liked that neither of the two main characters were really, well, nice. Rebecca is profoundly selfish, while Bridget can’t stop herself from looking down on her friends. That doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable, though – Bridget’s devotion to her daughter is extremely moving, and Rebecca is caught in an impossible situation that’s hard not to empathize with. I was enthralled by both of their stories, and I only wish I could have learned a little bit more about them.
Book – What do Sokrates, the god Apollo, a nineteenth-century spinster, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a ninth-century Libyan slave, Giovanni Mirandola, and an array of twenty-first century robots have in common? They’re all inhabitants of The Just City, Plato’s thought experiment made manifest. Oh, and less than half of them are there of their own free will.
After being spurned by Daphne, Apollo decides to spend some time as a human in an attempt to understand “volition and equal significance,” and his sister Athene suggests that the best place to do so would be in her city. She’s creating Plato’s Republic and filling it with people who prayed to her and wished to live there. Like any utopia, the problems start piling up quickly. Plato thought you could build a civilization starting with ten-year-old children, so they buy more than ten thousand of them out of slavery, even though some of the Masters of the City worry that buying from slavers will make their city unjust before it even begins. Their hard labor is done by robots brought by Athene out of the future, but when Sokrates strikes up a conversation with one it begins to look as though the City has been relying on slavery after all. And of course everyone comes with the flaws of their own histories as well, because Plato was wrong, and a ten-year-old child is not a blank slate.
Fair warning: this book is in large part about consent, and there are several scenes depicting consent and its absence in sexual contexts. But it’s a careful, detailed exploration, tying together many different ideas about free will, virtue, and good intentions. Anyone who’s ever wished for a life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence should find this book fascinating.
Graphic Novel – Agatha Clay is a favorite student of Professor Beetle, the Spark (or Mad Scientist) who runs Beetleburg on behalf of the Baron Klaus Wolfenbach. Agatha is pretty sure she’s no Spark herself – until the day Professor Beetle is accidentally killed when he throws a bomb at the Baron’s son Gilgamesh. Agatha’s life is thrown into chaos when she’s held captive on the Baron’s airship Castle Wolfenbach, a hostage against the good behavior of Moloch von Zinzer, who everyone but Gil believes is the Spark behind the devices Agatha has been building in her sleep. And then there’s the infectious Slaver Wasps, the odd behavior of the Jägermonsters, Gilgamesh’s inconvenient crush, and the bossy and imperious Emperor of All Cats…
Girl Genius is a long-running webcomic, also available in print volumes, whose tagline is “Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” And there’s certainly plenty of all three. Agatha is the best kind of adventure hero – she always runs toward the sound of gunfire. She’s smarter and more capable than she thinks she is, but she gains confidence as the series goes on. My favorite characters, though, are the Jägermonsters, half-human monsters with ridiculous German accents who like fighting, pretty girls, and hats. (“You know how dose plans alvays end. The dirigible is in flames, everybody’s dead, an’ you’ve lost your hat.”) It’s a never-ending series of wacky fun, not to be taken too seriously at all. The Library owns the first ten volumes in print – start with Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank.
Book – No one quite knows what happens in Area X. Cameras don’t work, modern technology breaks down, and all remnants of human civilization are slowly disappearing into the local biosphere. The first expedition reported a pristine Eden; the members of the second expedition all killed themselves; the members of the third expedition all killed each other. The members of the eleventh expedition all died of cancer. One of those was the biologist’s husband, and she’s going to go into Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. Maybe they’ll find some answers.
If you ever watched Lost and thought that the island just wasn’t creepy and weird enough, Annihilation, book one of VanderMeer’s award-winning Southern Reach Trilogy, is for you. The narrator never gives her name, only a biologist’s fascination with the flora and fauna of Area X and a scientist’s dispassionate narration of some extremely weird events. Later books in the trilogy offer some answers, but rest assured – there’s no disappointing explanation lurking in the back of this series.