Blindsight – Peter Watts

Blindsight is the novel to read if you’re looking for a fast-paced, science-focussed/ hard (but totally accessible) sf novel. Cover image of Blindsight by Peter WattsThis is a great novel to give to someone who is interested in tech but poo-poos the idea of sf. They’ll love it.

♣ Sidenote ♣
What is hard sf? I hate terms that aren’t immediately understandable so I generally don’t distinguish between hard sf and  sf. If a book focuses on magic, mystery or relationships rather than the science, I usually tag it as “space opera.” To be included in the sf category it must focus on science, technology & the scientific method. I must track down the definition from the encyclopaedia of sf….

There are many reasons this book has been nominated for best novel awards (Hugo 2007) and won plaudits. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to finally read it, but here are my top 3 reasons this is one of my favourite sf books of 2010:

  1. The most awesome first contact storyline – a great mix  of scientists, soldiers and vampires  set out to make contact with a species that doesn’t necessary want to meet with us
  2. A crazily imaginative and realistic future – the details behind how vampires could be resurrected from the gene pool and used by governments is frighteningly
  3. Some kick-ass mind f**ks like the Chinese room – what’s that you ask? Read it and find out. (Or read about the thought experiment on Wikipedia.)

“A brilliant piece of work, one that will delight fans of hard science fiction, but will also demonstrate to literary fans that contemporary science fiction is dynamic and fascinating literature that demands to be read.” —The Edmonton Journal

“Watts explores the nature of consciousness in this stimulating hard SF novel, which combines riveting action with a fascinating alien environment. Watts puts a terrifying and original spin on the familiar alien contact story.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Keep exploring

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Death most definite – Trent Jamieson

Cover image of Death most definiteThis book is just good fun. It’s a high-spirited tale of a hostile takeover of Death’s operations in Australia. It’s set in Brisbane – hilarious for anyone who knows the city (and sometimes quite painful as Steve has to traverse the city by bus – truly horrible.)

I feel sorry for Steve, all he wants is to quietly recover from his hangover.

He narrowly misses being shot and ends up on the run with a really hot dead girl. Unfortunately, all his colleagues in the pomping business weren’t so lucky and now he is one of a few pompers left to help souls get through death to the underworld and it’s painful.

Also, there are nasty zombies called stirrers on the rampage, killing people or just making them so depressed they kill themselves. Steve, along with his ghostly sidekick Lissa, have to figure out who’s shutting down Death’s operation in Aus before it goes to hell.

I really enjoyed this book and would encourage anyone to pick it up and give it a go. Thanks to the guys at Brisbane’s Pulp Fiction for the recommendation.

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John Fowles – The Collector

Cover image of The Collector by John FowlesWhat is your worst nightmare? Being held captive by some psychopath?

Well, that’s what John Fowles – one of the great English writers of the 1960s – focuses on in The Collector. You might think this plot line has been done to death, but this classic from 1963 probably invented this now-cliched storyline.

The Californian Literary Review says that:

“The Collector works by stealth, its creepiness slowly crowding you, until the experience of reading the novel becomes almost as claustrophobic as the captivity in which one of the protagonists is held.”

They’re right, this book is creepy, probably because of the way that it is written – just as you think it is all going to be resolved, it starts from the beginning again. The book is split into two halves, it first tells the story from “the collector’s”  point of view, and then his victim, the arty and lovely Miranda.

Frederick is odd, it’s easy now to see the beginnings of a serial killer: he collects butterflies, can’t connect with people and lives with his aunt. All his crazy ideas and fantasies probably would have stayed just that, but as luck would have it he suddenly has the means to collect the one thing he admires most when he wins the football pools.

First edition cover

He comes across an isolated house in the country for sale and he’s not really interested until an outside, underground cellar takes his fancy. He never really plans to take Miranda, but he gets lucky time and time again. Unfortunately, Miranda isn’t lucky at all. Her only hope of escape is by befriending him and playing along with his sick fantasy. We get a glimpse into her despair through diary entries and her attempt to keep herself motivated through re-living her happy days as an inquisitive art student.

The Collector is a fascinating and disturbing insight into what might motivate a lonely, maladjusted young man into kidnapping and destroying the life of the young girl he thinks he loves. It’s also quite a sad read of a young girls’ desperate struggle to survive and her attempt to try to understand her captor. Finally it’s an interesting peek into English life in the early 60s.

This book has also seen some great covers, the butterflies are always well done.

Keep reading:

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The Shining – Stephen King

Cover image of The ShiningI’ll never forget the scene in the movie where the blood comes pouring out of the lifts into the lobby of the evil Overlook Hotel. This movie scared the bejesus out of me for years as a kid, but I only got around to reading it recently.

For horror fans, the book is satisfying scary, it’s a classic ghost yarn from the King of Horror. For those who love the movie, it’s awesome you get more details, more story. Continue reading

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What would make a society burn all its books? Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns.”

Book cover of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyGuy Montag knows this only too well. He’s a fireman, tasked with burning any books that Americans are hiding in this alternative future, for the good of humanity.  In this America, books are forbidden, learning is looked down on and they’re perpetually at war.

Fahrenheit 451 considers what kind of society would allow this to happen. Montag’s America is one full of violence and hate. Stories have no meaning. People are glued to their screens, but can’t articulate what they’ve involved in with their “family” of screens. Children are spoon-fed facts; they’re not allowed to ask why, to question the facts or history. They’re encouraged to drive fast  and murder seems to go unpunished.

Continue reading

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Let’s play ball! Summerland by Michael Chabon

This is on my list as a must-read for young and adult readers.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon creates an incredible fantasy world where an unlikely hero has to save the world … with baseballCover image of Summerland by Michael Chabon

In Summerland, Chabon sets his literary sights on creating an American fairytale, it’s like a modern American version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe featuring the greatest of all American sports, baseball.

Summerland is a place where the sun always shines and it never rains, not in the entire history of Clam Island. It’s where everybody plays baseball. The people of Clam Island are obsessed with baseball, as is Ethan’s dad. But Ethan is hopeless at baseball. He is so bad, he often just stands at the plate and lets the balls go by, much to the despair of his teammates.

But one day it rains in Summerland and everything changes. Ethan is recruited by a bunch of baseball-mad ferishers (American fairies) who want him to save the four worlds … with a baseball team.

Continue reading

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The stuff of nightmares – Malorie Blackman

Cover image of The stuff of nightmares by Malorie BlackmanNightmares are horrific and terrifying, but at least you always wake up. What if the only way to escape Death was by experiencing nightmare after nightmare?

This is a great book for both old and young readers.

Kyle is fourteen and loves to run. He runs miles and miles every morning. Is he running away from his parents’ divorce? What happened to his dad? One day, on a school trip into town, something terrible happens.

The train he and his classmates are riding suddenly and catastrophically derails and is hanging, precariously off the tracks.

His classmates are injured and bleeding, mostly unconscious. Kyle, fading in and out of consciousness himself, seems to be slipping into their dreams. Not only their dreams but their worst nightmares.

This book is a real thriller. The nightmares Kyle experiences range from extreme danger, to murder to post-apocalyptic survival. Each nightmare is like a short story, around a chapter or so. This structure makes the book a real page-turner and gives it an ever accelerating pace. The nightmares are so gripping, because, although disturbing, they all seem realistic, plausible even. Just like the road to hell is paved with good intentions, each nightmare starts off small and innocent and avalanches into something much more sinister. Many of the stories are allegories of parables and myths, like a modern, siren-like Rapunzel and a story on making deals with the Devil. Some of the tales with frighten the pants off you, but mostly they aren’t too scary.

Blackman is a great writer. She excels at showing, not telling her readers what is going on. Her descriptions of objects and scenes draw you in. She uses plain and accessible English, making the book easy to read – the plot and the characters make it hard to put down. I recommend not reading this at night!

From the back cover

It begins with a ride on a train.

But where it ends is on a precipice of horror – dangling on the border between life and death.

It’s a moment when Kyle discovers he’s not the only one in his class who knows about fear.

Not the only one who has nightmares.

And now, as Death stalks the carriages, it’s a moment when nightmares become real.

Nightmares of wars, and a world devastated by chemical weapons. Of a body being slowly stolen, bit by bit. Of monstrous actions and monstrous creatures from old myths. Of jealousy, obsession and a stalker outside your window. Nightmares of everything imaginable.

What will it take for Kyle to finally face his greatest fear?

Author: Malorie Blackman
Title: The Stuff of Nightmares
Publisher: Corgi Children’s
Published: July 2008
Genre: Thriller
Age: 12 and up. Not suitable for younger readers.

This review was published in The Student Standard on the 27 October 2008.

Related content and reviews

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'Fahrenheit 451' has texture

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores.”

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‘Interesting Times’ will make you LOL

The ancient curse goes: “May you live in interesting times.”Cover of Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett - minimalistic/ adult version

This is a classic Pratchett, inspired by China in the early 20th century.

My favourite quotes include:

“Pig’s ear soup, eh? Now what does that tell you about the place, eh?”
Rincewind shrugged, “Very provident people?”
“Some other bugger pinches the pig!”

and

“I know about people who talk about suffering for the common good. It’s never bloody them! When you hear a man shouting “Forward, brave comrades!” you’ll see he’s the one behind the bloody big rock and the one wearing the only really arrow-proof helmet!”

You can read a full synopsis, but you might as well read the book – it’s more fun.

But if you want to get really nerdy I recommend reading the annotations, there are some great titbits in there like:

[p. 61/48] “… possibly the finest lager in the world.”
In our world, the advertising slogan of Carlsberg is: “Probably the best lager in the world”.

and

[p. 56/45] “‘Your Wife is a big hippo’”

Cover of Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett - traditional version

In Interesting Times, much is made of similar sounding words having totally different meanings. Languages such as Chinese and Japanese pay great attention to the pitch and intonation of words, and the same wor

d with a different intonation can indeed have radically different meanings. (Of course not all different meanings are due to intonation — there are other possibilities, such as vowel lengths, and some words just naturally have many different meanings).

Just in case you think Terry is overstating things for comic effect, there is an anecdote told by linguist David Moser, who was learning Chinese, and was practising with some Chinese friends. He was tired, and said “I want to go to sleep now”, but got the intonation wrong, and what he actually said was “I stand by where the elephant urinates”.

Similarly, I am told that the Chinese glyph ‘sento’ can alternatively mean ‘public bath’, ‘residence of a retired emperor’, ‘first scaling the wall of a besieged castle’, ‘fighting together’ or ‘scissors’, while the Japanese ‘kansen’ can mean any of ‘main-line’, ‘warship’, ‘sweat-gland’, ‘infection’, ‘government’, ‘appointed’ and ‘witnessing a battle’.

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Well worth it – The Knife of Never Letting go by Patrick Ness

Recently I read The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. It has one of the best first lines ever:

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.

“Need a poo, Todd.”

Love it. Todd is the only boy in a village of men. He lives in a world where you can hear everything that everyone thinks. And all the animals too. Todd is fast approaching the day when he becomes a man, it’s significant because he is the last one in his village to do so. What are the men holding back?

I heartily recommend this book, especially for young adults. It’ll make you laugh out loud.

There is a great review up on the Guardian today, where it just won the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. The judges call it challenging but not bleak.

Ness said

“This story felt like something that’s got to be really gone for, really shouted out from the rafters, and teenage fiction is where you can do that and still not be shoved into genre. In its most basic form it’s about information overload, the sense that the world is so very, very loud. Then I took the next logical step of what if you couldn’t get away.”

cover image of the knife of never letting go

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