Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson

Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson
(Robopocalypse #2)
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385537093
384 pages, hardcover
Published: 10th June 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

 Any consideration of Wilson’s recent Robogenesis inevitably involves comparison to its predecessor Robopocalypse. I wouldn’t recommend picking up this sequel until you’ve read the first book. If you have read it, your opinion about the first volume won’t necessarily translate over into this middle volume of an apparent trilogy. While keeping many of the basic structural and technological elements of Robopocalypse, Robogenesis tells a different kind of apocalyptic tale, with a very different tone.
Robogenesis opens immediately following the events that close Robopocalypse, with humanity seemingly defeating the robotic leader and instigator of the robot uprising and resulting war in the first book. The reader quickly discovers that the enemy of the first book may not have necessarily been the evil one would think, and as actually implied in the first book, the robotic intelligence may actually have instigated the uprising for the ultimate, long-term benefit and salvation of humanity. In short, a far greater robotic malevolence lurks in the technological background, intent on really destroying humanity.
Starting in on Robogenesis I was delighted to see how the plot was unfolding. Unanswered questions from the previous book (which still could stand well as a stand-alone novel) led me to think there must be much more going on behind the robot uprising historically chronicled in its pages.
Robopocalypse suffered somewhat from a plot that lacked in the unexpected. The general robotic apocalypse plot is hardly new, and the outcome of this particular one, and the survival of key protagonists is certain from the start. By virtue of its construction as a series of recollections, each chapter projects the key events and outcomes to come with biographical/historical introductions that just grated on me.
By pulling a big twist and going into new territory, Wilson makes Robogenesis far more compelling. The general apocalyptic plot here – human survival of devastation and attempts to rebuild from war and a collapse of civilization – is generally familiar, but Wilson really takes it in interesting directions with robotic technology  and action he is so skilled at relating. Even better, the ultimate outcome for the characters and state of the world for the novel’s end is not projected. (Chapters still have the same style as in Robopocalypse with introductions that explain some of what is to come though).
Robopocalypse had a roughly chronological organization with one consistent human narrator (at least in introductions) despite multiple points of view. Robogenesis with its increased complexity is organized more according to point of view character sections, making it less cohesive despite a consistent robotic narrator for introductions. This unfortunately can make the story a bit harder to follow (keep track of details of character and setting, e.g.), particularly if one picks the book up amid significant breaks from reading it.
The greatest strength of Robopocalypse continues to hold true for Robogenesis. The robotic characters are fascinating. With this novel many appear more human – emotional – than the majority of those in the first book, but their personalities both on the ‘good’ side or ‘evil’ side are fascinating. Equally fascinating to science fiction fans (or technology fiction fans more so) is Wilson’s inclusion of relevant robotic science and speculation, presented in action that flows like projected from a camera.
While the scientific background and details in the novel are seriously done here, the overall style of it like Robopocalypse is simple, pulpish entertainment and adventure. Popcorn cinema. Yet, Wilson wrote the first novel with a profound sense of optimism, and even wonder. In Robogenesis Wilson does the reverse. The overt robot-human war of book one has turned to a covert robot presence that actively provokes human-human conflicts in their struggles of apocalyptic recovery. The tone thereby becomes grim and any sense of wonder over the technological abilities of robots and their intelligence turns to elements of absolute horror with human cruelty, gory flesh violently destroyed by machine, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. A bit of this existed in the first novel, but is increased here.
This tone fits the stereotypical atmosphere of ‘middle’ works in a trilogy, particularly those in film – and Wilson’s series and writing are certainly cinematic. Not a surprise, and not inherently a good or bad choice, I found it works well for Robogenesis, but other reader’s may be averse to the negative intensity.
Thus, even with similar structural flaws in how the story is told from my opinion, I found the story of Robogenesis far more enjoyable, and appreciated its dark tone that is likely to turn brighter for the third novel. Yet, while the first novel can be just read on its own, this reads as something that cannot exist without links to Robopocalypse and the third novel to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538081
224 pages, eBook
Published: 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

 “[The] unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood.” sums up Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back rather well. Marie is a young single mother whose existence is defined by her ever-shifting jobs as a restaurant server and is consumed by relationships with fellow employees. Diving in with a brutal power, the novel never relents in the raw emotions of its narrative.
Already unfairly derided by conservative critics for glamorizing an ‘immoral’ sexuality and drug use, Love Me Back is not so banal or simplistic, despite appearances of its plot or protagonist. One wonders whether some of the more vocal critics have even read it. And as usual, these critics would refuse to permit portrayals of reality that they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist.
To me, Marie recalls the suffering saints featured in some of my favorite works from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to Bernanos’/Bresson’s Mouchette to the Dardenne’s Rosetta. The name itself reflects this trait, though here the character has no connection to any religion, just that aspect of devotion that religion can hold. Marie represents the ideal worker in the serving industry. Throughout the novel she is giving herself completely, most obviously in her body, but also through her mind and position of power. She gives herself to society, to individuals, to drugs, not for pleasure, but for the mere reason that she is just so good at it. Almost like this is what she is naturally inclined and meant to be. Paradoxically by losing herself in self-destructive behavior, she is also fulfilling her self purpose or servitude, of giving into the desires and whims of others. She loves them in that she sacrifices everything of herself in their service, and any wish of being loved back seems remote and unattainable.
Tierce does not pain Marie’s existence as glamorous, nor judge the acts of sex, drugs, abortion, or childcare in any way. They just are presented as aspects of her character, and reflect powerfully the actual reality of people all over the world and the jobs that are held in the food service industry. Marie can be seen as a victim at the hands of those around her who take advantage of who she is, yet there is also the sense that victimhood doesn’t fully define her, for she apathetically accepts and even pursues her predicaments.
Short, but perhaps difficult to get through due to the intensity of subject matter, Love Me Back is a complex and finely written literary work that may not be an ‘enjoyable’ read, but certainly is a significant and worthwhile one that will impress in its unflinchingly frank honesty.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538154
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.”
– from Afterwood, by Edith Wharton

While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.

Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.

In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.

The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.

The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.

Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.

The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in  the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.

The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.

I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Doubleday via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

NOTE: Ending 28th July, 5 copies of this book are available to win from Doubleday through the Goodread’s Giveaway Program. Go here to sign up for the giveaway or to add this to your To Read list.

Upcoming Titles of Note

Coming up in Reviews in the next days you will see:

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Tomorrow:
The Supernatural Enhancements,
by Edgar Cantero from Doubleday.
Wow, is this one great fun!

Soon to follow:
– The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
, by Joël Dicker

Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014 Special Edition of Lightspeed Magazine)


Publisher’s Weekly Picks for the week of 14th July 2014:

One of the titles on this enticing list I’ve reviewed (The Hundred-Year House) and one I have on hand to read and review soon (Last Stories & Other Stories). I have my eye on a few others to get at some point, particularly Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts.


Tachyon Publications announces some titles for 2015:

tumblr_static_254099_10150199964603596_2087647_nI noticed news about these upcoming 2015 releases from Tachyon on their
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. Time to catch up on Peter V. Brett’s novels. Above all, collections by Kate Elliott & Hannu Rajaniemi look really intriguing.

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I don’t always notice all news, so if there are new releases or upcoming titles that you are excited about, let us know in comments.

Publishers, if you have any release info/news to share or requests for review, see here.

 

 

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BE255W6
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

For Clark’s writing and its impeccably rendered Gothic atmosphere the book easily deserves four stars, perhaps even garnering five. This is the second book in a row I’ve read that focuses on the sea, the last beside it, and this largely on it, recounting the last surviving members of a once thriving dynasty of New England whalers and one teenage girl’s discovery of that family history. Descriptions of the ocean, the life within it and around it, and the workings of sailing vessels are beautifully conveyed, allowing Clark to truly immerse the reader into this bizarre world of the Rathbone clan.

It surely is a bizarre world. Clark’s rich descriptions of settings and action are rooted in a mixture of Gothic mystique and mythological otherness. Magic fills the pages and envelopes the characters, sometimes merely imagined, sometimes quite real, and sometimes, well the reader can’t be too certain. Everything appears somewhat off-kilter in the novel, where you realize you are reading about a realistic time period, a realistic occupation, yet still filled with that otherworldliness of fable, of fairy tales. Things aren’t necessarily as they first appear, and only with the full revelation of the Rathbone past to the protagonist does the reader also fully grasp some answers behind the many mysteries.

I would expect these aspects to lead me to adore this book. Gothic, dark, mysterious, magical, top-shelf writing… this should have been an adult high-brow dose of John Bellairs. Edward Gorey could have done the little illustrations. This should have blown me away. Yet, it didn’t.

The weaknesses of the novel and the source of my disappointment came from the fact that it is simply dry. Lovely writing is admirable, and in a short story it can pack a punch, but to maintain that intensity over a novel and still keep things moving, still engage the reader in the story – not just the skill of the writing – that takes a lot. There is no humor here, no let up in the seriousness, in the Gothic bleak monotones. Poetic descriptions that dazzle give way to rapid actions that advance the plot amidst shadows of uncertainty. One rereads a passage wondering, ‘wait, did what I think just happen really happen, or did I miss something?’ The mysteries are so grandiose and murky, and the answers are given (at first) so subtly, that one has to pay strict attention, let a small detail fly by. With little let up, this can be exhausting.

This on its own isn’t that big of an issue for me, but it does go hand-in-hand with the weakness I found most hard to move past…the characters are all so lifeless. You do get some thoughts of the protagonist, a good idea of what drives her, and yet many of her actions are just inexplicable, as mysterious as her family’s past. By rendering everything with this atmosphere of magic and mystery, Clark takes away a great deal of humanity in her characters. Some behave like characters from myth, some are not remotely as they appear at first, but for most all of them you never get much sense of their thoughts and motivations. Even as the protagonist learns about her Rathbone ancestors, their story is recounted in a dry historical fashion, learning where they start, where they end up, but little of who they really were. Large numbers of Rathbone offspring in each generation are cast into gender-specific groups with names such as “The Worn Wives” giving them some simple characteristic all in common, but no individuality, no humanity.

To be fair, this characterization makes sense to fit within the mythological or fablistic foundations of the novel. But, unfortunately it also seriously detracts from enjoyment of the story, the plot, and from the reader’s desire to empathize with the characters. Finding a balance between their otherworldliness and their realism is difficult to achieve, and for some readers I’m not sure if Clark has done so here. I imagine that many readers will be blown away by the beautiful prose and atmosphere found in this novel, and others for whom that just won’t be enough to keep their interest. Or you’ll be like me and go for stretches in absolute love and awe with what you read interspersed with stretches of indifference.

Three Stars out of Five

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BH0VSSA
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees” is a captivating, rich novel that delves into both large-scale cultural conflicts and intimate psychology behind human relationships and family. The novel is written a an edited compilation of memoir-like letters from the protagonist Dr. A. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered a source for vastly extended life span while on an anthropological expedition to an isolated Micronesian tribe, and who is now serving a sentence in his advanced years after conviction for sexual assault on children from the tribe who he has adopted through the years. Perina’s obviously biased epistolary recollections are edited by his only remaining friend and support following the conviction, and thus also biased, Dr. Ronald Kubodera.

Yanagihara begins with Perina recounting his childhood and relationship with his twin brother and their parents and then moves onto his schooling and events the lead up to his participation in the life-changing expedition. These early chapters at first seem quite separate from the story of cultural conflict that dominates the central portion of the book and I initially questioned the choice of this extended ‘introduction’. Part of that reaction came from the descriptions provided with the novel and the focus of comparisons to themes found in something like “The Poisonwood Bible”, highlighting cultural clashes between isolated tribes and the ‘civilized’ West. In reality this is only one half of the book’s import, and these early ‘introduction’ chapters leading to the anthropological expedition nicely set up the psychology of Perina, the disfunction of his familial relationships, and the notable absences of sexual encounters or apparent interests during his schooling. All these become immensely important in the final third of the book following the impacts of the expedition on Perina’s career and private life, ultimately leading to the cause of his conviction.

The central third of the book with Perina travelling with an anthropologist to the fictional Micronesian island, his encounters and responses to the alien culture of the isolated tribe, and his gradual discovery of the islander’s profound life spans and the cause are clearly the most exotic and succulent portions of the novel, where Yanagihara’s skilled use of language and colorful description shines. Beyond making the text enjoyable to read, this fact ironically highlights Norton Perina’s inherent unreliability as a narrator of his internal self. Norton frequently comments how he is the scientist with little artistic capability, while his twin, a renowned poet, is the literary talent. Yet the words we read in this letter declare to the reader otherwise.

Perina’s inability to truly understand himself, joined with his extreme arrogance and the results of the announcement of his medical discovery of prolonging life on the Micronesian island and its people lead to the events of the final third of the novel, Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the tribe over a span of decades, their possible betrayal, and his possible guilt. Completed with a powerful ending that unites the two major themes of the novel, Yanagihara manages to keep the reader invested even beyond the closing lines.

The novel is described as being based upon true events, and the obvious source for Perina is Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, an NIH scientist and Nobel Prize winner who investigated the cause of the Kuru disease in Papua New Guinea and thereby helped establish the existence of prions – infectious misfolded proteins (in contrast to the living infectious agents known: bacteria, parasites, and (arguably ‘alive’) viruses). Like his fictional counterpart, Gajdusek adopted many children from the island nation, gave them Western educations, and ultimately was convicted to their sexual abuse, marring his scientific career.

And this brings us to the only flaw I see in this book – the science is poorly rendered and unrealistic. Kuru, like “Mad Cow Disease” and all prion diseases are neurodegenerative. They target the mind and involve protein aggregations and effects much like seen with something like Alzheimers. Rather than staying with prions, Yanagihara chooses to go with the more clichéd concept of seeking eternal life. This does allow display in the novel of scientific and economic greed more than a cure for prion disease might. But, Yanagihara still includes the neurodegeneration and subsequent slowing of the mind as a side effect of the longevity seen in the island tribe. Despite the perfect health of their body and the lack of its aging, their minds do slowly go until they become not unlike ‘vegetables’, or “Dreamers” as Perina dubs them. Their longevity as described in the novel is related to telomeres – the ends of chromosomes. And here is where the novel – for me, a biologist – failed miserably. While telomeres and aging are speculated to be related, it is hard to imagine how preventing aging in most of the body through alteration of telomere maintenance would somehow just not work in the brain, leading to the more prion-like side effects. In fact, it is more likely that a substance that extends overall life span by acting on telomeres would lead to a side effect of cancer, as telomere maintenance has a role in preventing cancer development. The copy I read is an uncorrected proof, so I also can only hope that the novel’s explanation of telomerase (the enzyme that MAINTAINS telomeres – not degrades them) is corrected. The description as it stands in the novel is backwards, and the inhibition of telomerase the text claims would rapidly shorten life, not extend it. Even with that correction, the overall ‘explanation’ is more of a MacGuffin than I would hope for from such an otherwise richly constructed novel.

Despite that flaw, I obviously enjoyed this novel immensely and it is one that would be amenable to rereading one day. Highly recommended for its beauty and the subtle undercurrents beneath the visible cultural reflections.

Four Stars out of Five