The Humans

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Matt Haig
Genres: Science Fiction
Pub Date: May 2013 (Read Apr. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about this book. The author definitely provided some interesting social commentary on humans and some of our eccentricities and social norms, but I thought the story was flawed and there were a lot of things that bothered me.

The Humans is a sci-fi novel very reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ writing. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t one of my favs, but I did appreciate some of the humour in this book. The book starts with an alien who has taken over the body of professor Andrew Martin. Martin worked at Cambridge University as a mathematician and had a breakthrough in his work with prime numbers that could have changed everything for humans and greatly accelerated their technological advancements. The aliens are apparently threatened by this and send an unnamed alien to inhabit Martin’s body and destroy all evidence of his discovery (and anyone he might have told).

The alien is confident in his mission, but he quickly becomes baffled by humans and their emotions and begins to develop feelings for Andrew’s wife and son. He had thought the humans were a primitive race and is confused by many of their social norms and customs, but he starts to learn there are more to humans than meets the eye and that their ability to love and care for one another is actually one of their greatest strengths.

Like I said, this did have some interesting social commentary and made me think about how odd we can actually be. Humour is an effective way to highlight shortcomings and I thought the author did this well. But I just got so hung up on some of the inconsistencies in this book that I couldn’t love it. Minor spoilers below.

First of all, why do the aliens care about earth at all? They live a million light years away and I couldn’t understand why they would care if earth started to become more advanced. I kind of pictured things like star trek, but where humans are the primitive species that hasn’t yet progressed enough to be invited to join the federation, so the rest of the galaxy just leaves us to our ignorance. If there’s so many galaxies and other life forms, I don’t see what the big deal would be with earth advancing. We’d probably just accelerate the destruction of the planet knowing humans. So I thought the story was incredibly flawed for this reason.

Second, there were too many inconsistencies in what part of our culture the alien just inherently understood and didn’t understand. He can extrapolate the entire english language from one reading of Cosmo magazine, but he doesn’t understand why it might be imperative that he find himself some clothes so as not to draw attention to himself? Likewise, he knows to hit up a bar to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but he doesn’t understand that infidelity is not an acceptable thing? He read Cosmo! He should know better!

I get the whole not understanding emotions, but I feel like the author was just picking and choosing what would make sense to this alien to try and make the points he wanted to make. I was too frustrated by what was the point of it all to be enamoured with the author’s writing and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that the alien would adapt to earth so quickly. If this alien came from a race without emotions, would he really start to develop emotions so quickly? Wouldn’t he be more like the vulcans and just not understand emotion at all? And don’t get me started on the “advice to a human” chapter. I’m sorry, but this was one giant eye-roll for me. This alien has been on the planet for like 2 weeks, no way he understands complex human emotions or is able to offer any meaningful insight about it that writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists haven’t already observed.

So this wasn’t a win for me, but sci-fi isn’t really my genre. I don’t like being beaten over the head with social commentary and prefer for it to be woven into a story in a more meaningful way. This storytelling was more, ‘I’m going to tell you want’s wrong with humanity and what’s impressive about it’, vs telling me an emotional story that is going to indirectly lead me to the same conclusions. I can understand why some people like this, but overall not for me. Just taking the time to reflect and write this review has already lowered my opinion of this book, but I have a book club meeting about it on Friday, so I’ll see if maybe they can drag me back up on this one. (spoiler: they didn’t)

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The Marrow Thieves

 

 

 

 

 

Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub Date: Apr. 2017 (Read Mar. 2017)

“Sometimes you risk everything for a life worth living, even if you’re not the one that’ll be alive to see it.”

This was a beautiful book! I’m so glad it’s in the Canada Reads shortlist this year because I think it’s unlikely I would have discovered it otherwise and that would have been a shame because the writing is so gorgeous!

The Marrow Thieves is a short novel by Métis author Cherie Dimaline about a dystopian Canada that has been ravaged by climate change and disease and a large portion of the population has been wiped out. In the aftermath, everyone but indigenous peoples have lost the ability to dream. In an attempt to discover why the government starts constructing new schools (that mirror the old residential schools) to study indigenous peoples. It turns out that the ability to dream comes from your bone marrow and the government starts rounding up and experimenting on indigenous peoples to harvest their bone marrow.

Frenchie has slowly lost everyone in his family and finds himself alone in the woods. He follows his family’s plan to head North and eventually runs into other bands of ‘Indians’ who are slowly treking their way North as well and he is adopted into a new family and they travel together. Their group consists of an elder, Minerva; their leader, Miig; and several other young people who have lost their families. Miig tries to preserve the old ways through story-telling and everyone has the opportunity to tell their own ‘coming-to’ story.

I loved the writing in this book and learning everyone’s story – hearing about their struggles and how they came to end up part of this little adoptive family. They all come from different backgrounds and families, but they have retained their ability to dream and their desire to survive in the angry world around them. Miig teaches them how to hunt, cook, fight, and survive in the wild and how to connect back to their original roots.

I really liked this because I thought by telling this horrifying, dystopian story, Dimaline was able to convey some of the horrors that have been committed against indigenous peoples in the past in a way that enabled you to empathize emotionally with them and better understand how they felt. On paper, everyone knows about the residential school systems and the struggles of indigenous peoples to retain their culture, but that part of history feels a degree removed and it’s shameful so I think people generally avoid thinking about it.

It reminded me a little of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, in it’s ability to use exaggeration to convey emotion. The Things They Carried is a book about O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War that is written to read like a memoir, but is actually partially fabricated. O’Brien’s essay about being drafted and his internal debate about whether he would defect to Canada to avoid going to war is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. It reads like non-fiction and is an exaggerated account of O’Brien’s experience, but it is so effective because the exaggeration is what enables to you really feel his despair, frustration, and hopelessness. Dimaline’s horrifying account of the marrow thieves is what enables you to relate and empathize with the persecution of indigenous peoples throughout Canada’s history. I mean, I obviously empathized with them before and thought the residential schools were horrifying, but this book uses science fiction and exaggeration to evoke a much stronger emotional reaction.

Indigenous peoples are obviously incredibly tenacious and this book re-iterated that. It is really a pretty simple story about family, love, and the bonds we build with those around us. Who are we when everything else is stripped away from us? What can we become when faced with adversity, antipathy, and violence? Is family blood or the bonds we build we those we love? I thought this was a thoughtful, well written novel and I would definitely recommend to all Canadians! I read both The Boat People and The Marrow Thieves and while I really liked them both, I think this was my favourite of the two.

The Power

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Naomi Alderman
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Feminist
Read: Feb. 2018

Execution is the key word for The Power. I’ve been dying to read this book since it first came out, but I’ve been seeing it get some mixed reviews and now I can understand why. This book had such a great premise, but I think it was a bit of a miss on the execution, which is so disappointing.

The Power is a dystopian, science fiction novel in which women have developed the power to basically electrocute people and things using their hands. They can take down electrical grids, burn trees and structures, and kill people using the power. The book is told from the point of view of a male historian recounting the events of when women first gained the power. Girls start developing the power at 15 and can awaken it in other women. Their power comes from a skein in their collarbones that all women have, but has never been awakened until now.

As you can imagine, women suddenly developing this power totally flips gender dynamics and this book focuses on the perspectives of 3 women and 1 man from different parts of the world. There’s Margot, an American mayor; Allie, a teenage runaway; Roxy, daughter of a British drug dealer; and Tunde, a Nigerian boy turned reporter. The book definitely had a strong start and I was super into it at the beginning, but I got a bit frustrated as things progressed because I felt like the author lacked an obvious theme or direction. I feel like she had a lot of different ideas and themes and sadly, I thought they were poorly executed and took away from the story. I think she needed a more focused direction.

My biggest struggle is that I just don’t know what the central theme is. Is it that this reversal in gender dynamics just ends up with a reversal of male/female roles? Or that even if women developed the ability to electrocute men, it would still be a huge struggle for them to gain power and men would be just as destructive towards women as they’ve always been? Is the author’s point that power can turn anyone into a monster? That women are just as vicious and oppressive as men have been and don’t deserve power? Or is she just trying to help men better understand the ways they currently harm and hurt women and how obvious these inequalities become through a simple reversal of gender roles?

Maybe I’m too dense to figure it out, but I feel like Naomi Alderman was trying to make all these points, which is why the book fell flat. There are definitely authors out there who can address this many ideas in a novel, but I feel like you need some kind of central theme and that the writing got overwhelmed by the ideas in this book and they just all lacked development. I don’t think the author needed to connect the multiple viewpoints the way that she did in this book. The characters seem to just randomly come across each other and help out each other’s storylines, but I felt that instead it made each individual storyline more disjointed and less impactful.

Disclaimer, the rest of this review contains spoilers. Usually I try and avoid spoilers, but I feel like I need to include them in order to properly discuss this book, so don’t read any further if you’re planning to read this book.

First off, let’s look at some of the things that I liked. I liked the scenes about the Men’s Rights movements and the internet trolls and bombings. They felt very real to me and I had no trouble believing we’d see this kind of backlash if women gained this power. I kind of expected the development of the power to switch gender roles a lot faster than it did, but I felt Alderman’s portrayal of this slow cling to power by men to be very believable. It’s got to be devastating to go from holding all the power to suddenly losing it and becoming oppressed and I have no doubt men would fight back and fight back violently (especially since women were also using violence).

I also liked the uprisings by women and the seedy underside of how some women choose to use their power. I really liked Margot’s story at the beginning, but then I was disappointed to see her basically left out of the second half of the novel. In contrast, I wasn’t really into Tunde’s story at the start, but ending up thinking he had one of the most meaningful storylines by the end of the book.

On the other side, I did not like Allie’s story at all and I only liked a few select parts of Roxy’s story. Allie’s story just felt like a total tangent with the whole religious revolution. I absolutely believe something like this could happen, but I just didn’t think this storyline fit in with the rest of the novel. It reminded me a little bit of the religious zealots in Station Eleven, which is a post-apocalyptic book in which 90% of the world population is killed by one virus. But I think this whole storyline just watered down the themes of the rest of the book and I hated that Roxy got involved because then I just had to read twice as much about it.

I thought Roxy’s story had such a strong start. It was so dark and I couldn’t wait to see where the author would take it, but I really didn’t dig the whole soldier aspect and based on what happened later, didn’t see that point of including it at all. The only other part of Roxy’s story I really liked was the skein removal scene, which was super horrific for an imaginary medical procedure. I felt so bad for Roxy, but it was such a powerful commentary on the lengths men were willing to go to maintain their power

The scenario that plays out in this book could obviously develop in so many different ways and I did like some of the contrasting events that Alderman explores. I thought it was really cool that it was the developing countries where women rose up first to fight back against their oppressors, whereas in America and Great Britain, men did whatever they could to retain power and women did less to fight back and in Margot’s case, actually hid her power. I also liked the contrast between the scene where Darrell first uses Roxy’s power and the other girls rise up against him to protect Jocelyn, whereas in the Romanian jungle, the women were actively hunting down any man, woman, or child who stood in their way and seemed to have no sense of compassion or bond with other women.

I loved Tunde’s story because of that feeling of total powerlessness at the end of the novel. He’s always had an exit plan and then the total despair of being betrayed by those closest to you and watching your life work stolen from you is just devastating. And to then be trapped in the middle of a female revolution with no way to fight back? That had to be so terrifying and I just wanted men to read that to try and understand the oppression and fear so many women feel at the hands of men.

I can see this book being both powerful and dangerous. Powerful because it makes a statement about the inequalities women face and reversing them to affect men can be powerful in helping men to empathize with women. There were so many small but meaningful nuggets at the beginning, like where mothers were talking about how they wouldn’t let their sons out alone on the streets because of the danger of being attacked by women. My disappointment again was that I felt this theme could have been so much more powerful, but I felt like it kind of got lost throughout the novel. On the other side, I can see these ideas being dangerous in that I could see actual MRA’s taking it and saying, “see, look what could happen if we let women have power.”

I struggled with the format of the supposed historian telling this story. I didn’t buy it and I could have done without the whole thing. Why would a historian tell a story like this? I don’t think they would. I thought the letters at the end of the book between the historian and Naomi were fantastic, but again, just so confusing for the execution of this book!

I thought the main theme was going to be that with power, and given a long enough time, women essentially just become men. But in my opinion the actual novel didn’t really support this theme and I was super frustrated that the whole novel covers 10 years of history and then at the end we discover the story is actually being told 5000 years after the fact! The letters at the end totally support the theme that the power just eventually resulted in a total role reversal, but it felt so disjointed because this is not the theme I felt the rest of the novel was promoting.

I wonder if I’m maybe holding this book to a bit of a higher standard because of its relevance to modern day feminism, but I just feel it had so much more potential. In summary, I would give this 3.5 stars because it definitely makes you think a lot, but with more focus and better execution, I really think this could have been a 5 star read, which is why it felt so disappointing.

Thunderhead

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018 (Pub. date: Jan. 9, 2018)

 

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I read Scythe at the end of 2017 and had somewhat mixed feelings on it. I found the first half kind of boring, but the book tackled a lot of complex concepts and themes and it really made me think, so I was interested to keep going with the series, even if I wasn’t totally in love with the writing.

Thunderhead is the sequel to Scythe and they are both set in a world in which humans have perfected technology and achieved immortality. Government has been replaced with an all-knowing “cloud” called the Thunderhead who maintains world order and essentially controls everything. The only thing outside the control of the Thunderhead is the Scythedom. Scythes are people who have been tasked with “gleaning” or killing people in order to somewhat maintain population growth. Scythes are supposed to be humble and just, but over the years the Scythedom has split in to two factions: the new-order scythes who envision a different way of doing things, and the old-guard, who want to maintain the original ideals of the Scythedom.

Scythe introduced us to all the different Scythes and their opinions on the best ways to glean. I liked Scythe because it introduced a lot of ethical issues concepts and it really got me thinking. It was mostly an introduction to the world Shusterman has created and sets us up for a much larger story. Thunderhead delves more into the story of the struggles and conflicts between the two Scythe factions and the fight to keep the Scythedom honest and ethical.

I’m thrilled to get an advanced reader copy of this book, but unfortunately I was disappointed with Thunderhead. The story definitely progresses in this book, but like the first book, I didn’t love the writing and I found it another slow moving story. My copy was 500 pages and I feel like I got a lot of info I didn’t care about. Like in the first book, each chapter is separated by a short note, but instead of excerpts from the Scythes journals, it’s brief thoughts from the Thunderhead. I thought Shusterman introduced some more interesting concepts in these excerpts, but they weren’t really developed any further in the actual plot and I found them less meaningful.

The Thunderhead is supposed to be a perfect artificial intelligence, but it’s terrifying how emotionally sentient it is. It becomes evident that the Thunderhead is just as prone to love and anger as humans, which is terrifying in an all-governing robot. Shusterman explores some ideas about what it might be like to live in a society governed by an all-knowing computer, but I found the main plot of the story, which was the continued clashes between the new order and old guard, to be a bit repetitive. Side note: the synopsis on goodreads is not very accurate. Citra does not risk going deadish to talk to the Thunderhead in this book.

The story still follows Rowan and Citra, but expands to include the viewpoints from other Scythes as well. It was constantly changing viewpoints, which I somewhat liked, but also found distracting. Again, the last 100 pages of the story were very eventful and went in a totally different direction than I was expected, but it wasn’t enough to redeem the first half of the book for me. Overall I found it slow moving and it didn’t make me think as much, which is what I enjoyed most about the first book.

Still a 3-star book though and it ends of a pretty big cliffhanger, so I’ll probably keep going with the series because I do really want to know what’s going to happen.

Scythe

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Read: Dec. 2017

 

Scythe is another one of those 3-star books that is just so hard to rate. It raises a lot of really interesting questions and the second half of the book is pretty great, but the first half is such a snooze-fest!

I didn’t plan to read this series because it sounded pretty dark, but then I got a galley of the second book in the series, Thunderhead, so I decided to give it a go. Scythe is a utopian novel set in a version of the world where we’ve have basically perfected technology and solved all the problems of the world. Humans have reached the pinnacle of medical discovery and figured out how to make themselves immortal, as well as the pinnacle of technological advancements and have created a perfect artificial intelligence called the Thunderhead that now governs the planet. There’s no more sickness, no more poverty, and no more crime.

The only thing that remains outside of the jurisdiction of the Thunderhead is the Scythedom. Once humans obtained immortality, they had to find some way to manage population control, so they selected and trained an elite group of scythes to “glean” (kill) humans in order to maintain the earth’s population relative to the amount of available resources to continue living a comfortable existence. No one but a Scythe can permanently kill a human (if they die any other way they are just revived, Scythes carry out a permanent death). The Scythes are supposed to be live a humble existence separate from the rest of humanity and demonstrate compassion and justice in their gleanings. But over the hundreds of years of the Scythedom, some of them have started developing alternative opinions on the role of Scythes.

This story is about 2 teenagers, Rowan and Citra, who have been selected to apprentice to become Scythes. What I really liked about this book was how much it made me think. It raises some really great themes about living. In a world where we have made ourselves immortal and eliminated all forms of oppression, what really makes life worth living? We can’t really feel pain anymore and all of our accomplishments are meaningless because there’s nothing else left to be discovered or improved. In a world without suffering, can we really understand emotions like happiness and joy? Are these things humans can even experience anymore?

Then there’s the question of who deserves life and death? The Scythes all have their own strategies for “gleaning” and we are slowly introduced to several of them over the course of the novel. Should Scythes try and emulate the kinds of deaths that occurred in the age of mortality and target the same demographics? Should they look for people to “glean” who seem ready to move on or seem to have become stagnant in this life? Or just say ‘to hell with it’ and glean whoever they want? It’s up to Rowan and Citra to determine what kind of Scythes they want to be.

What I didn’t like about this book is that it took so freaking long to get going! I was really intrigued with the concepts, but Rowan and Citra are asked to basically give up their entire lives and to KILL people and it felt like it wasn’t even that big a deal. Where was the emotion? the drama? the angst?! They are 16 years old afterall and they just felt way too mature. I guess that is kind of the point though. They are selected for their maturity and empathy and in this new age where your emotions are constantly monitored and tweaked by “nanites” in your bloodstream, it’s almost impossible to emote in the same way that humans do now.

I get the whole exploration of how to be a Scythe, but I also felt like the whole thing was stupid and should have just been left to the Thunderhead to glean an appropriate percentage of old people every year. Why emulate deaths of the past when you don’t have to anymore? Why have to live in a world where children and young people die? In this world though, you have the option of “turning the corner” and returning your body to any age you want over the age of about 25, so there’s not really old people anymore and even though people are old in mind, they’re still able to have kids whenever they want. So theoretically, you’d still always be gleaning someone’s mother or grandmother, even if you didn’t glean children.

But I’m getting too far into the details. The second half of the book was happening! It has way more action and I found it hard to put down once I got past the halfway point. The plot reminded me a little bit of Hunger Games though. I feel like I’m going to be thinking about this book for awhile, so it’s definitely got that going for it, it was just a more detached kind of writing style. I tend to gravitate towards books that really emote and make me FEEL all the things. This book definitely made me think, but I always felt a degree removed from the characters and it made it a little harder to empathize with them.

Anyways, this is a much longer review than I thought I would write, but it did help me figure out some of my feelings on this book. So let’s call it a 3.5 stars. On to Thunderhead!