2012 Sci-Fi Challenge


French original: De la Terre à la Lune
Finnish translation: Maasta kuuhun
Publication year of the original: 1865
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1958
Finnish translator: Edwin Hagfors
Format: print
Page count: 197

My deep dark secret on the SF front: I haven’t read Verne before. Ever since I saw Back to the Future III I’ve wanted to but never had the real urge until now. Sadly, I was somewhat disappointed.

First off, this isn’t an adventure story. The book tells, in a humorous tone, about a bunch of men who build a really big gun with the intent of shooting it to the Moon. The book is also very much “tell not show”. When there’s a chance of doing an info dump, Verne does it all the way. There’s a chapter devoted to info dump about the Moon and the various superstitions about it, another chapter devoted the how much money each country sent to the endeavor, and even a chapter about the geographical differences between Texas and Florida. When characters are introduced, Verne tells about each of them at length down to their cranial dimensions instead of showing their behavior. The characters, all male, are larger than life and inspire action and confidence in their fellow males.

The Gun Club consists mostly of men who had lost a limb or two to the great war machines but they still want to improve the guns. However, to their disappointment, the world has come to a peaceful period without much of a chance of a major war. During this bleak time the Club’s president, Imprey Barbicane, thinks up the idea to shoot at the moon. This idea energizes not only the members of the Club the whole America, and shortly the whole world. Barbicane himself designs the enormous cannon and equally huge projectile. The whole America follows the undertaking.

In addition to the brilliant and charismatic scientist Barbicane, the book has few other characters: T. J. Maston is the Club’s secretary and Barbicane’s loyal follower, Captain Nicholls is Barbicane’s bitter rival (being a metal armor designer while Barbicane designs guns), and the French Michel Ardan who is the first to want to fly to the Moon.

After halfway through the novel, the idea is introduced that people might want to ride in the projectile. First the idea is jeered as impossible but in the end three men, and two dogs, climb into the projectile.

Some of the dialog in the book, if not most of it, is lecturing rather than actually dialog. People lecture to each other about the Moon and even deduce that there must be air on it. The three astronauts even bring seeds and saplings with them to plant them on the Moon.

The book also ends in a cliffhanger.

Sadly, to me this book hadn’t aged well but it could also be Verne’s style which seems to pay meticulous attention to details. I’ve read a bunch of books from H. G. Wells which felt much more modern. Dracula and Frankenstein from the same era were also more enjoyable.

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The upcoming movie made me read this one.

Publication year: 2008
Format: print
Finnish translator: Helene Butzow
Page count: 335
Publisher of the Finnish translation: WSOY

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 where the main industry is coal production. Like all the other men, her father worked in the coal mines but he was also a great singer and a woodsman who could hunt and knew all the edible plants. Unfortunately, he died in a mining accident years ago and it fell on young Katniss to support her mother and younger sister. Now 16 year old Katniss hunts in the nearby forest and is in danger of being killed if the local authorities decide to interfere. So far, they’ve liked the rabbit meat and strawberries too much to care. She hunts with his best friend Gale whose father has also died and who supports several younger siblings. Life is tough but somehow manageable.

It’s time for the Harvest, when two kids between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen to journey into the Capitol and take part in the Hunger game. The game has two participants, a boy and a girl, from each of the 12 Districts and only one of them will survive the brutal game which will be performed in front of cameras for all to see. The wealthier Districts train their candidates, call tributes, to survive the game but District 12 is too poor for that. Only once has candidate from District 12 won.

During the lottery, the unthinkable happens: Katniss’ younger sister is chosen and Katniss volunteers so that Prim doesn’t have to die. She barely knows the other District 12 tribute who is the baker’s son Peeta. They have no choice but to step into the train which will take them to Capitol. Peeta and Katniss have two helpers: Haymitch who is the only tribute from District 12 to win and Effie Trinket from Capital who will teach the two youngsters to perform in front of cameras. Unfortunately, Haymitch is a drunk and Effie seems to be pretty ineffective.

A big part, perhaps the biggest part, of the game isn’t surviving on the arena itself. Before the teenagers are put on the arena to kill each other for viewers’ pleasure, they have to perform for the audience. They have to try to interest rich people enough that they will aid the tributes during the game. This means short interviews and a parade in various costumes. For the viewers, it’s very much a game and nobody seems to care that the contestants are actually dying. The arena is an artificial construct and the game admins control every aspect of it.

The book has excellent pacing; I was barely able to put it down during a stressful work week. The characters are engaging. Katniss might seem brutal at times but she has to be in order to survive. She has to take advantage of every opportunity, every slight edge. Yet, she’s human and can’t help but to be moved by others’ struggles. She has an edge because she’s already an excellent hunter and is used to supporting herself in the wild. She has a temper which she’s learned to keep in check but it also drives her forward in a situation where others might break down. She’s a fighter and she’s learned not to trust anyone. In contrast it was interesting to see that Peeta isn’t a fighter, really. He’s baker’s son and his strengths lie elsewhere.

I was a bit surprised when it turned out that the part set in the arena wasn’t just brutal fighting all the time. There’s that, too, characters dying and killing, but mostly it’s focused on survival: hiding and finding food and water. This was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the things near ending were very convenient, even a cop-out. But I’ve heard enough about the series that I guessed something like that was coming. However, there’s also no hard choices for Katniss during the game and that was a bigger disappointment.

The book has a lot of social commentary. The Hunger game is, of course, a critique of the current day reality TV and also a commentary on the way that the viewers distance themselves from what they see on TV, no matter if they’re watching fiction or a report from real war. There’s also a deep divide between the rich people in Capitol and the District people who die of hunger if they are hurt or too old to work. The District people are forbidden to hunt or forage in the woods around them. (Frankly, I found it unlikely that only two people would be illegal hunters; surely there must have been many more doing it.) Even in the Districts there’s a divide between the merchants who are seen as well off and the poor laborers. This all shows how corrupt the people in power are.

The book ends with an uncertain future for our heroes but not really in a cliffhanger unless you’re a romance reader.

A stand-alone scifi book which is a re-imagining of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. I haven’t read Little Fuzzy but it’s part of the audio book so I will listend it soon.

Publication year: 2011
Format: Audio
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
Running Time: 7 hrs and 19 minutes

Jack Holloway is an independent contractor for ZaraCorps. He and Carl are looking for valuable minerals to mine from a planet without natural intelligent life. The planet does, however, have a lot of various animals, some of them quite dangerous. Jack is a disbarred lawyer who enjoys working all by himself, with Carl. He tends to speak before thinking so he doesn’t really have any friends and has pretty much alienated everyone at ZaraCorps’ local base, even his ex-girlfriend.

Jack has trained Carl, his dog, to set off explosives against ZaraCorps’s regulations and when Carl blows up yet another site, the whole cliff wall collapses. This is against all environmental regulations which ZaraCorps has to follow. Chad Borne, a ZaraCorps’s representative, is furious and fires Jack. However, the collapsed cliff wall has a big stash of sunstones, one of the most highly prized luxury items in the universe. They come from fossilized jellyfish. Because Jack isn’t working for ZaraCorps anymore, technically he owns the find. Borne agrees to give Jack 0,4% of the profits instead of usual 0,05% as a contract prospector.

When Jack returns to his house, which is outside the base, he realizes that a cat like creature has somehow gotten into his house. Except that the cat thing walks on two legs. Jack dubs the creature a fuzzy. Soon, the fuzzy brings more of its kind with it to Jack’s house and Jack decides that they are a family and names them accordingly. The fuzzies seem to be very intelligent. Jack talks about them to his ex-girlfriend Isabelle who is a biologist for the company. She thinks that the fuzzies could be intelligent. If they are, they would be a huge problem for the company because it can mine the planet only so long as there’s no native intelligent life forms on it.

The story is written in a very humorous way in tight third POV. Jack is a witty main character which is a good thing because he isn’t very likable. He seems to enjoy irritating other people, he lies when it suits him, he has no problem undermining his ex’s career, and he’s greedy (well, okay, who wouldn’t be?). Yet because of the humor, this isn’t obvious.

Sometimes he does inexplicable acts of kindness such as feeding the first fuzzy and saving it from Carl. He himself doesn’t know why he did it. Later, we see that he has some morals and lines he doesn’t cross which makes him a bit more palatable.

Most of the secondary characters are corporate employers who want to protect their job or who bully other people because they can. Most of them are quite unlikable. Isabelle is a notable exception to this with her idealistic views of environment and treatment of other people. And Carl is of course a great character, loyal to his master and friendly with others.

Near the start of the book there are a few infodumps. However, they are entertaining to listen to, so they didn’t slow the book down much. We’re told about the human workers on the planet and about the various laws ZaraCorps has to obey. For example, ZaraCorps doesn’t do science as such, just exploitation of the various planets because scientific research doesn’t produce money.

We are told the humans have encountered a few alien species but only two of them have been proven to be intelligent. With both of them the key was that they could talk. I find this fascinating and possibly very human-centric because it’s possible for species to communicate in other ways than speech. Of course, it’s a completely different issue if humans want to give intelligent status to species which doesn’t communicate via speech or how effective such communication would be when building an (advanced) society.

One of the book’s themes is how humans would treat other planets (strip mining) or other species (badly). Then again, people also treat each other miserably. There are glimmers of hope but as a whole it give rather a pessimistic view of the human race as focused on themselves only and on the individual level, getting as much money as they can and the rest of the universe can go to hell.

I enjoyed Wheaton’s narration. He reads quicker than many of the other narrators I’ve listened to so far and sounds very enthusiastic. However, at time it was a bit surreal because I was reading Star Trek books at the same time. 🙂

The third and final book in the trilogy. It’s part on the Sci-Fi Challenge in the Aliens/starships category.

Publication year: 1979
Format: print
Page count: 265
Publisher: DAW

The book starts soon after the startling events at the end of the previous book, Faded Sun: Shon’jir. Sten Duncan has proven to other humans that he has turned fully into a mri and left the human ship orbiting Kutath. He starts a long and painful trek back to the camp.

Meanwhile, the humans don’t know what to think. Admiral Koch commands the three humans ships Flower, Saber, and Santiago. They have followed the mri for long years to their ancient home world Kutath and they’ve seen dead worlds during their journey. The humans are convinced that the mri are the ones who destroyed the worlds. Combined with the forty years of war against the mri, the humans are quite suspicious of them. However, they can also see that the ancient cities on the surface of the planet aren’t inhabited and that the mri are likely a nomadic people living in tents, so they aren’t willing to just destroy the mri. Unlike their allies, the regul.

The regul are a non-violent species who have employed the mri as mercenaries sometimes against the other regul houses and most recently against the humans. However, the humans and the regul have signed a peace treaty and are investigating Kutath more or less together. The regul are in serious trouble: at the start of the journey they had only one mature adult and lots of younglings. The younglings can’t make decisions; they just serve the elders. Because of this biological imperative, the oldest of the younglings have started to mature which is a long and painful process. It matures as a male and a group of three other younglings mature as females. However, they don’t have any elders around to advice them, so they will have to decide what to do on their own, surrounded by the flaky humans and with the threat of the mri.

On the surface of Kutath the last two remaining mri, from the army employed by the regul, have taken over one of the planet bound mri tribes. The tribe resents the fact that the newcomers have killed their kin and tribe leader she’pan, and yet they have to obey the newcomers and trust that their new leader knows what she’s doing. Hlil and Ras are two mri who were very close to Merai, who was killed, and they both have their reservations. Niun, the tribe’s new warrior leader, worries about the distance between him and the tribe, and starts to even fear that someone might assassinate him. However, he fears most that someone will kill Duncan who is an outsider and none of the other mri have ever seen a non-mri before. The non-mri are despised by custom. He’s also afraid that the regul will just wipe out the whole tribe with space ships. However, the new she’pan calls herself the leader of all mri and she has a plan.

This is a satisfying ending to the trilogy. All three cultures clash while they are trying to understand each other. All of the cultures are quite different and they all wonder if they can trust or understand each other. The regul are non-violent, at least against other people; they kill their own younglings casually. The regul also don’t lie and because they remember everything, they don’t have much written records. They find both the mri and the humans quite baffling. The mri cling to their old traditions and notions of honor which have stayed the same even throughout the several millenia which the mercenaries and the planet bound mri have been apart.

There isn’t much violence in the book but there is a lot of tension. The characters are flawed in their own ways which makes them very human, no matter if they are mri or regul or human. We also find out about the history of the mri. Both the humans and the regul realize that this isn’t an isolated incident but likely will decide the fate of the mri, and also the relations between the humans and the regul for years to come.

The first book in the SF Mars trilogy. It’s part of my Sci Fi Challenge as a modern classic.

Publication year: 1992
Format: Audio
Publisher: Recorded Books
Narrator: Richard Ferrone
Running Time: 23 hrs and 52 minutes

Red Mars is a tale of colonization of Mars which is an international effort and so very political. The characters talk about politics, revolutions, various religions and cultures. In other words, it’s not a mystery or a thriller, and it moves quite slowly. It has a lot of characters but to me the most interesting character turned out to be Mars itself.

In 2026, the Ares was sent to Mars with a hundred scientists who would be the first Mars colonists. Fifty men and fifty women journeyed for almost a year to the red planet. About the first half of the book is set on Ares during the journey. People being people, they form cliques, love triangles, and romantic couples. Apparently, most of the selected scientists are single and all of them are over 30, most in their forties and fifties. Still, they form couples and clicks like high schoolers. They also work on simulations and various other things, but they don’t really have much work to do as such. When they get to Mars, they will start building.

The characters themselves feel secondary to the ideas. There is a core group of characters whom we follow but I felt quite detached from them. They have love triangles and cliques which I didn’t feel where necessary at all and made them seem like teenagers instead of people who have already lived half their lives. They also know that they aren’t going to come back and yet nobody seems to miss the people they have had to leave behind; none of them have kids or siblings or even good friends? None had beloved pets?

They are celebrities on Earth. They are interviewed before the journey and during it.

Politics is clear even in how the scientists are selected. There’s a group of Americans who have a leader of their own and a group of Russians with their own leader. They have different living quarters and political views. During the journey, a few scientists question if they are going to go through with the building as they were instructed or try something new. Some also don’t want to change Mars too much while others support a full scale terraforming. Near the end, when other people come to Mars, there’s also the tension between the original one hundred who have already lived without a capitalist system, and the big corporations who want to exploit Mars and humans, as well. Poor people are sent to Mars to work. The originals aren’t happy with that.

Robinson also includes the treatment of women by various cultures. There’s not criticism of the way that Western women have to conform to certain looks and use of make up etc. In Russia, women are apparently hugely overworked; raising children while working full time. Some of the secondary characters are Moslems who have moved to Mars and are apparently keeping their women in their cultural way: illiterate and kept at homes.

… “But it’s slavery, isn’t it?”…

“Isn’t it?” he said, helplessly feeling the words bubble up out of his throat. “Your wives and daughters are powerless, and that is slavery. You may keep them well, and they may be slaves with peculiar and intimate powers over their masters, but the master-slave relationship twists everything to it. So that all these relations are twisted, pressured to the bursting point.”

“The laws are there to read, and to watch in action, and to me it looks like a form of slavery. And, you know, we fought wars to end slavery. And we excluded South Africa from the community of nations for arranging its laws so that the blacks could never live as well as the whites. But you do this all the time. If any men in the world were treated like you treat your women, the U.N. would ostracize that nation. But because it is a matter of women, the men in power look away. They say it is a cultural matter, a religious matter, not to be interfered with. Or it is not called slavery because it is only an exaggeration of how women are treated elsewhere.”

The characters make a point to show later that the Moslem women on Mars have some freedoms but they don’t show it to the outsiders and apparently they are happy to stay that way. However, this book was written in 1992, twenty years ago, and this matter is just as relevant today.

I quite enjoyed the colonization itself, although the repetition and large chunks of descriptions can be a bit tedious. I also enjoyed some of the political and religious debates which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

After the halfway point, a new twist is introduced: a treatment to extend life. I really liked it and the complications it brought.

The book doesn’t really have an ending. It just stops. I’ll likely continue with the series at some point.

I couldn’t resist this one, so my third reading challenge for next year will be 2012 Sci-Fi Challenge hosted by Working for the Mandroid.

Here are the basic rules:

1. The challenge begins January 1, 2012 and runs through December 31, 2012. Books started before January 1 don’t count towards the challenge. Re-reads do count, but a new review must be written. Any format of book counts – hard copy, audiobook, e-book – we’re not picky.

2. A review has to be written and posted for each book in the challenge. If you don’t have a blog, they can be posted on Goodreads, LibraryThing, Amazon, Shelfari, Facebook, anywhere else book reviews are accepted and can be linked to.

3. Any books read for another challenge that fit into a category here can count towards this one. One book, however, cannot fill multiple categories in this challenge. For example, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game technically fits into at least four of the categories. It can only count for one though.

4. A post will be set up on Working for the Mandroid beginning January 1 for participants to add their review links. I personally will put up a post at the end of each month to track my own progress. That’s where you can comment, brag and/or complain about how impossible it is to get through Dune.*

5. At the end of the year, I will put all the people who signed up for the challenge and finished 6 of the 12 categories in a contest for a not yet determined prize. Those who finish all 12 of the categories will be entered into a different, better contest. Additional contests throughout the year might also become available depending on participation of readers and availability of prizes. Note: The more participants, the more likely I can get some science fiction friendly sponsors, the more contests.

The twelve categories and the books I intend to read for them:
YA/MG
Nancy Farmer: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm

Adult
John Scalzi: Fuzzy Nation

Hugo Winner
C. J. Cherryh: Downbelow Station

Science Fiction Classic – Pre-1950s
Jules Verne: From Earth to the Moon

Science Fiction Modern Classic – 1951-1992
Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

Steampunk
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling: Difference Engine

Robots/Cyborgs/Androids
Kage Baker: Mendoza in Hollywood

Spaceships/Aliens
C. J. Cherryh: Faded Sun: Kutath

Time Travel/Alternate History/Parallel Universe
Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair

Apocalyptic/Dystopia/Utopia
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

Cyberpunk
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Mad Scientists/Genetic Testing/Environmental Disaster.
Liz Williams: Bloodmind

A quick look at my TBR conviced me that pretty much the only categories I won’t find in the towering stacks are likely to be YA/MG, Hugo Winners, Cyberpunk, and possibly Robots, so this challenge fits in well with my TBR goals.

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