science fiction

Book Review - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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You may know of this book because of its popular 1982 film adaptation, Blade Runner. However, if you're unfamiliar with it then you should know that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the most well-known and critically-acclaimed of Philip K. Dick's novels. It's a classic science fiction piece that was first published in 1968. Set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, lifeforms on Earth have been severely impacted by a global nuclear conflict, dubbed "World War Terminus". Unfortunately, most animal species are either endangered or completely extinct due to ongoing radiation poisoning from the fallout of the war. Therefore, owning an animal has become a status symbol that indicates one's position in life as well as a signaling to others of one's empathy toward animals, which is highly revered by the remaining human population. Only the wealthy can afford real animals—the poor have to resort to purchasing artificial (yet realistic-looking) electric animals.

The main plot follows our protagonist Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with killing ("retiring") six androids who have escaped from Mars. These fugitive androids are the brand-new Nexus-6 model, which were recently made illegal on Earth because they went violently rogue while off-world. A subplot follows John Isidore, who possesses a low IQ and is therefore sentenced to live the rest of his lonely life on Earth while more intelligent people are allowed to emigrate to the off-world colonies. Isidore finds a much-needed sense of community with the androids and decides to help them evade their pending retirement. The novel explores the concept of what it is to be human, contrasting that experience with androids who are unable to feel empathy toward others.

The overall story is captivating and entertaining, the characters are fully-baked with believable personalities, and the overall atmosphere is tinged with just the right amount of darkness, paranoia, and confusion. Absent from this book—yet common in PKD's novels—is the use of psychoactive drugs. However, a device called the "Penfield mood organ" is capable of inducing any feeling or emotion in the user such as "a fresh attitude towards one's job", "the desire to watch television, no matter what is on" or "self-accusatory depression". This device is only mentioned in the beginning of the book, but it serves as a worthy replacement for the psychoactive drugs that normally accompany a PKD story.

This was my second reading of this book; I listened to the audiobook version this time around. And I also watched the film Blade Runner recently, so that was fresh in my mind during this reading. The first time I read this book (which was more than ten years ago), I was impressed but admittedly a bit lost and confused. Even though I didn't fully "get it" at the time, I knew that it was considered to be one of PKD's finest books so I ended up rating it with 4/5 stars at that time. However, having a better understanding of the plot this time, I feel that it is worth the full 5 stars. Not only that—I can tell that I'll be re-reading this book over and over again for the rest of my life. That's because even after this most recent reading, I know that I glossed over a fair amount of the story—leaving plenty more in store for when I return. I'd definitely recommend this book to science fiction fans and general fiction fans alike. If you're first getting into PKD, you can't go wrong with this book. And if you're looking for more after you finish this one, you should check out The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner DarklyUbik, and my personal favorite—The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Bon voyage, my friends.

5/5 stars. 244 pages.

Book Review - Eye in the Sky

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This is one of Philip K Dick's earliest novels (his ninth, in fact), originally published in 1955. As such, it makes for compelling fiction with a science fiction-like twist, but may not be classified strictly as "science fiction". It takes place in the then near-future year of 1957, when eight people are involved in a tragic lab accident that transports them through time and space to a multitude of various worlds and states of consciousness.

The worlds are eventually revealed to be solipsistic manifestations of the inner worlds of some of the book's main characters. Each one embodies the secretly-held thoughts of its creator, trapping the group inside a unique universe with its own set of ethics, rules, and scientific principles. The central protagonist, Jack Hamilton, figures out what is going on and helps the group travel through each world—by the skin of their teeth, mind you.

Although I wouldn't advise a PKD novice to read this as their first book of his to check out, it is a solid novel. The characters are well-fleshed out, the plot is fairly engaging, and the writing makes for a quick and easy read. I am very glad to have finished this one, and I doubt I will return anytime soon. But maybe I will.

3/5 stars. 243 pages.

Book Review - Armada

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Having read Ernest Cline’s engrossingly-thrilling debut novel Ready Player One several years ago, my expectations were quite high for Armada. It’s difficult to write a spoiler-free review of either book because detailing the plots will undoubtedly ruin the books for some readers, but at its core, Armada is essentially a book about video gamer nerds defending the human race against an alien invasion.

Similar to Cline’s masterpiece, Ready Player One, Armada engages the reader early on—throwing nostalgic pop culture references left and right, introducing compelling characters, and crafting a page turn-inducing plot. Without getting into spoiler-level detail about the book, it’s safe to say that the book will appeal to general nerds, music-lovers, video gamers, and military supporters (or battle aficionados) alike.

With that said, I don’t think that Armada is the same level of quality as Ready Player One (which still remains one of my favorite science fiction novels to date). The plot isn’t as captivating or mind-bending, the characters are somewhat predictable and aren’t as relatable, and the pop culture references got to be a bit too repetitive for my taste. When it comes down to it, Armada is a pretty solid book, but it isn’t one that I’d consider purchasing for my bookshelf (whereas Ready Player One definitely deserves a spot) or even re-reading again.

Cline is clearly a gifted writer and I am going to look forward to following his work into the future. He does have a spot on a very short list of modern, living science fiction authors that I am reading. I’m hoping that he will keep creating content that speaks to me, unlike some other authors that seem to burn too brightly in the beginning of their career and flame out. Only time will tell. Until now, I would advise reading Ready Player One before giving Armada a read, but if you enjoyed the debut novel, you’ll probably enjoy the second book as well.

4/5 stars. 349 pages.

Weekend Thoughts - 10.1.16

Image  by  Rafael Vianna Croffi , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

Image by Rafael Vianna Croffi, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Happy Saturday y'all! Below, I have rounded up some things for you to think about this weekend:

1. In honor of Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 1), here is an article showing the most-challenged books of 2001 and 2015 and some commentary on what that means about our society's greatest fears. Interestingly, 15 years ago our banned books focused on strong language, sexual content, and drugs, whereas nowadays the concerns are more about transgender issues, homosexuality and religious reasons. It's an interesting list of books, including the fact that the Harry Potter books were most-challenged in 2001 (they were believed to be involved with cults and Satanism, apparently), although they have been accepted as normal now. It's worth perusing the list to see if your next favorite book may currently be (or formerly been) a commonly-banned book!

2. One of the techniques that was used during World War I was to paint military vessels with dazzle camouflage, which made it challenging for the enemies to obtain an accurate read on the vessel's distance, speed, and direction of travel. An artist created a disorienting psychedelic dazzle camouflage room that blurs the boundaries between the dazzle camouflaged-person and the room. It's pretty trippy; I'd like to experience it in person.

3. Apple announced some new products a few weeks ago during their September 2016 Keynote, and among the new goodies that were introduced were AirPods, a pair of wireless headphones built with a proprietary wireless "W1" chip. One of the primary methods of interacting with the AirPods is to speak to them using the Siri assistant technology. This article argues that AirPods are precisely the best place to use Siri, comparing the combination of technologies to the movie Her, in which the main character (and the rest of society) begins interacting with in-ear virtual assistants on a near-constant basis. It's a well-written, thought-provoking article that also references Jane, the artificial sentience in the Ender's Game series book Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card. Seriously, this article combines a lot of my favorite things—Apple, Her, and the Ender's Game books. Well done, and an excellent sneak peek into our likely future personal (and societal) relationships with artificial intelligences.

That's all for this week's edition of Weekend Thoughts. Until next week, keep thinking wilder.

Book Review - The Crack in Space

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This is a fairly representative sample of Philip K Dick’s paranoia-fueled alternate universes at its best. The Crack in Space was published in 1966 and is an expanded version of the novella Cantata 140, which was published in 1964. Both are based on the short story Prominent Author.

The novel is set on Earth in the year 2080. The planet struggles with overpopulation when a portal to a parallel version of Earth is discovered, hidden within a vehicle known as a Jiffi-scuttler. There are a lot of moving parts to the story, and it can be a bit difficult to keep them all in mind while reading.

For one, it is an election year (how appropriate for me to read this in 2016), and one of the candidates believes that the alter-Earth can be utilized for moving 70 million people known as "bibs", who have been cryogenically frozen until the overpopulation problem has been resolved, to colonize the planet. However, it is later discovered that this alter-Earth is not uninhabited.

Since I don’t want to give to much of the plot away, I will leave the description of the novel at that.

I found the book to be extremely enjoyable to read. I hesitate to say that it’s one of Dick’s finest works, because there are some truly amazing pieces that I have read along with even more that I have yet to get to. But when it comes down to it, this particular novel really nails the paranoid explanation of alternate realities that Dick was excellent at creating and expressing in some of his novels. It verges on the line of being classified as a horror novel, rather than just a science fiction novel, because a lot of the book strikes a chord similar to that of HP Lovecraft—something utterly wrong and horrible has happened, but it isn’t clearly defined.

At any rate, I’d highly suggest giving this one a read. I’m not sure if I’d rate this in my “Top Ten” Philip K Dick novel’s list yet, but it seems to be a worthy contender at this point.

4/5 stars. 188 pages.