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Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

2013/06/28

I first discovered this author’s novels through “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which also deals with dysfunctional families and the impact that one family member can have on an entire community. In this novel, Pandora’s broke jazz musician brother, Edison, comes to visit her family in Iowa, arriving as a marginally mobile obese food addict, promising to depart in two months when a European tour is to commence. The contrast between Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, and her brother’s attitudes towards food are pronounced, and lines are drawn between the two. This comes to a head when Pandora offers to get an apartment with Edison and join him on a rigorous diet to bring him back to a healthy weight.

Shriver does a plot twist at the very end of the book, though many readers will have picked up on threads of it leading up to the end. This does leave me feeling very unsettled about the events leading up to the twist, but it is very well done and emphasizes the point that she makes early in the novel: “Only in retrospect do I appreciate that this ‘doing your bit’ is a deadly misapprehension of the nature of familial ties. Better understanding them now, I find blood relationships rather frightening. What is wonderful about kinship is also what is horrible about it: there is no line in the sand, no natural limit to what these people can reasonably expect of you” (121).

A worthwhile though possibly unsettling read; however, I think previous novels “The Post-Birthday World” and “A Perfectly Good Family” still remain favourites above this one.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

2013/03/21

This is actually a reflection on both “Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion,” which the author has mentioned were indeed intended to be published together, but page count resulted in them being published in separate volumes. As I approach the final quarter of the NPR Reader’s Choice Sci-Fi and Fantasy — now almost two years old! — I’m getting into the books I’ve put off reading for one reason or another. I’m finding that I don’t finish many of these, or if I do, I don’t continue on with the series. However, I ended up reading both of these, though finding a copy of “Fall” was a little tricky.

It’s the 28th century, and the human race has permeated the galaxy using FTL ships and farcasters, a network of instant travel portals, a technology which has allowed humans to colonize dozen of planets. In “Hyperion,” the backstories of the main characters is told by each; they have come together on a mission to the Time Tombs on Hyperion, which is reported to be guarded by a creature called the Shrike, which has a religious following. The travelers collectively (more or less) decide that sharing their stories will help them better understand the situation at hand. The characters are varied — a Catholic priest, a Mars-born soldier, a brain-damaged poet, a Jewish scholar and his Time Tomb afflicted daughter, a private investigator, and a governor formerly of one of the colonized planets. These stories take up the bulk of the first novel, and in “Fall,” having arrived at the Time Tombs, the plot begins to unfold, complicated by the presence of the Shrike, the opening of the Time Tombs, and an attack on the human Hegemony society by the rebellious Ouster society. The CEO of the Hegemony, a woman named Meina Gladstone, is forced to confront and evaluate not only the activities on Hyperion, but the impeding destruction threatened by the Oursters, being advised by a reactive and fearful senate.

I’m not really sure if “like” is the proper word for how I feel about this book — horrified, enthralled, repelled, angered, confused, and frustrated are all true as well. In particular, Father Dure’s torment, Rachel Weintrub’s affliction with backwards aging, and Meina Gladstone’s political turmoil all provoked strong emotional reactions. The fallout of decisions made towards the end of the novel and the impact that these had on the various Hegemony societies was really interesting, especially looking at modern parallels in our current reliance on technologically aided communication and commerce. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth a read.

Data, A Love Story, Amy Webb

2013/03/20

I heard about this book on NPR, and as a twenty-something single woman who has witnessed many numerous online dating adventures (success and unsuccessful) in my friend circle, I was really interested in this story. And as an overthinking, introverted single girl who hasn’t really dabbled much in online dating, I was hoping for some advice, and maybe some funny stories. There is plenty of both in this book!

Amy Webb is an adventurous, well-traveled career woman who, after some failed relationships and disastrous attempts at online dating, decides to thoroughly research the game of online dating with the full force of her journalistic and analytical skills. After starting out with some basic spreadsheets analyzing her online matches and actual dates, she goes all out and creates not only a list of 72 desired qualities, but assigns weights and categories to each quality, establishing a threshold of 750 points before she will consider a potential match. Webb continues in her dedication to figuring out the system by creating male profiles on dating sites in order to learn what appeals to and attracts women, and analyzes the characteristics of the women who are attracted to the men who fit her desired qualities. It’s definitely a roundabout intensive research process, but I found myself interested in the details of her research and her findings.

In the appendix, Webb wraps up by giving some practice application for others wanting to capitalize on her extended research — tips and tricks that make a lot of sense when you think about it. I’m not sure if I’m ready to start applying them myself, but I’d be interested in following up to see how others do. Webb’s story has a happy ending, though I wonder if the book would have been written if the end goal ended up being more elusive.

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

2013/03/11

A lot can happen in three hundred years, and in this science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, worlds are being formed within asteroids, on moons, and on other planets. Swan Er Hong is one who has been instrumental in the transformation and development of these worlds; each one is a delicate and artistic creation, and she is justifiably proud of them. After the sudden death of her grandmother, Alex, a prestigious scientist and researcher, Swan finds herself being approached by colleagues who hint at Alex’s involvement in some important and dangerous research, as well as by inspectors who are investigating the unexpected death. One of Alex’s colleagues, Fitz Wahram, persists in engaging Swan, who is wary, but invites him to tour one of her creations, the city of Terminator, on Mercury. However, a disastrous accident results in their being stranded in the underground tunnels of Mercury, where they are forced to trust one another for survival.

Having recently read “Rendezvoux with Rama,” I found Robinson’s description of world formation fascinating; it provided some context into just how Rama might have been created, and the intensive process that would have gone into such creation. Pages 36-40 in the hardcover edition of “2312” are a prosaically straightforward instruction guide for transforming an asteroid into a customizable enclosed terrarium. Also fascinating are the “extracts” chapters in the book which include quotes from works that are never explained or put into context, but provide an insight into the culture, scientific research, history, and development of the present society. The qubes, or implanted artificial intelligence devices, play an important role in the story, but also serve to point out the downsides of being continually connected and monitored by a computer. I also really liked that Swan Er Hong is an unconventional scientist, a woman who has explored many different fields and engaged in rituals of many cultures — which shocks Warham and others around her, but she remains unswayed by public opinion.

The Taste of Tomorrow, Josh Schonwald

2013/02/22

Food is a very controversial topic these days, but despite all the information within our reach, the choices remain elusive. Organic or grass-fed? Free-range or cage-free? All natural? Genetically modified? Sustainably farmed or wild-caught? In this book, Schonwald travels across the country and around the world to investigate food trends, up-and-coming cuisines, and innovations in production.

The book opens with Schonwald’s imagined scenario of dining out in 2035 — a menu of cultivated meat, fresh rabbit, exotic greens, aquafarmed fish, flavors from Africa and India. In the chapters that follow, he investigates the West’s increasingly voracious hunger for fish, the search for species that strike the magical balance between sustainable cultivation in captivity and flavor that appeals to the American palate; the shift from iceberg to spring mix and the plastic bag which brought fresh and easy salads to the grocery aisles; the laboratories and scientists who seek to develop lab-raised meat; interviewing food futurists and visiting trade shows where cuisines from around the world are showcased by hundreds of vendors.

This book tries to address various food issues from a practical point of view; however, there are definitely things that will make proponents and opponents of GMOs, industrial farming, and food research stop and think, which makes this a valuable read. I found myself disagreeing with some of his conclusions, but respecting the argument and the path that he traveled to make those statements.

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