Inside a Silver Box

Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley9780765375223

publication date: 2016
pages: 306
ISBN: 978-0765375223

In this work of speculative fiction, Mosley introduced the Silver Box, a god-like sentient machine that was a prison for its god-like creator and archenemy, Inglo. The Silver Box and its prisoner, after much clashing, ended up on Earth, and the enemy escaped his prison. In order to save the world, two humans – Ronnie, a black ex-convict, and Lorraine, a privileged white woman – were thrown together by the Box to recapture Inglo. Although the book presented this story, it was much more existential than plot-driven.

The plot seemed important to Mosley, but it also was a way for him to discuss many themes. One theme was the interconnectedness of all things, from the violent life of a criminal to the rarefied world of the elite. In this passage, Mosley described that link through the fledgling relationship between Ronnie and Lorraine:

“It’s kinda strange when we’re next to each other, isn’t it?” Lorraine asked.
“Yeah. It feels like the way I did when I was a kid and my mama would hold me.” [Ronnie said.]
“When I close my eyes,” Lorraine said, straining for the right words, “it’s like I’m floating in space and there’s a drummer playing just for me.” . . .
“We got the same blood,” he said. “I mean, probably everybody and everything in the world got the same blood, but somehow you’n me can feel it, ‘specially when we’re next to each other.”

A related theme that the book explored was how, as connected beings, we are all culpable for any bad things that happen. This theme manifested itself differently for the white Lorraine and the black Ronnie. In this passage, Lorraine was confronted with the consequences of her class:

[Ronnie said, “You] run down the street past poor, sick, uneducated, homeless, and hopeless people with yo’ fine ass and your pockets full’a money. I belonged in prison but that don’t make you innocent . . . . It’s easy to find guilt all up and down the streets. But how’s all that no-good shit gonna be there, and here you are so innocent that you don’t have nuthin’ to do with it?”
This thought wasn’t that alien to Lorraine. She had studied original sin and the various interpretations of social and socialist revolutions. She had written a term paper on the paradox of capital punishment. [And] she realized that all of this had been in her head, that she’d never had to answer for the crimes of her culture and her class; nor did she truly believe that she should be held responsible.

Later in the story, Mosley also explored the culpability of Ronnie’s class, to the extent that they were descended from slaves:

Slavery was a terrible thing, Ronnie remembered Jimmy Burkett saying when Ronnie was just a child. . . . But you know the slave play a part in it too.
What you mean? Little Ronnie asked.
In order to be a slave you have to believe that shit, Jimmy said. You got to say yes, sir, and yes, ma’am. If you don’t do that, if you refuse their dominion in your heart, then even though you might die you will never be their slave.

Inside a Silver Box used plot and dialogue to examine Mosley’s ideas about race, gender, class, and technology. It revealed an author who was empathetic and concerned with Americans’ realities.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Journal Of Books
The Future Fire blog
Fantasy Literature blog

S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst9780316201643

publication date: 2013
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-0-316-20164-3

This book was a lot of fun. The physical book that the reader actually held in their hands was a first edition of the 1949 book Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Within that Straka book, were notes in the margins, written by Jen, a college student, and Eric, a graduate student seeking his Ph.D. on Straka and his works. There were also several related papers stuck in the Straka book, like a copy of a telegram sent by Straka in 1924 and a postcard sent from Eric to Jen in 2012. All these different layers of narratives made for an intriguing book. There was also a lot of mystery within the Ship of Theseus story written by Straka, and surrounding Straka’s identity and death, and around Jen and Eric’s relationship and work.

The different narratives within the book gave me a choice as to how I could read it. I thought the best way I would be able to judge the Ship of Theseus text and the Jen and Eric annotations was to read each story separately. So I read Ship of Theseus and it’s footnotes first, without looking at Eric and Jen’s notes or the material stuck in the book. Then, after I read to the end of the text, I read the later notes and material.

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst obviously spent time creating this book, and the effort paid off. The different voices of Eric, Jen, Straka, Straka’s editor, and other characters were all varied and interesting. There were several clues and codes within the book that the reader could investigate and untangle. Also, the added material within the book, like letters, photos, and newspaper clippings was all detailed and well-done. Probably the most exciting part in the book for me was when I turned a page to find a hand-written map drafted on a napkin. As I was unfolding the map, I felt like I really was going on an adventure.

I was impressed by the distinctiveness of the different character voices. For example, here was a passage from Ship of Theseus about its main character, S:

It’s not so much the killing that exhausts S. as it is the planning and rowing and trusting and traveling and stalking and killing and escaping and rowing and sewing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and sailing and writing and planning and rowing and trusting, all the while knowing that Vévoda is hunting him, too. . . .

And here’s a typical passage in the margins between Eric and Jen:

[Eric]: Sometimes I wonder: how much of this am I doing just to get back @ Moody? And Ilsa, too?
[Jen]: You’re doing exactly what you would have been doing. You’re just a little more intense about it.
[Eric]: Apparently I’m allowing you to make rash decisions (which admittedly, benefit me indirectly).
[Jen]: You’re not “allowing” me to do anything.

Although I enjoyed the book, parts of it could be annoying. For example, it’s very nature made it self-indulgent. Doug Dorst was able to write a book and then write notes in the margins commenting on how interesting and well-written the book was. Also, the Ship of Theseus narrative was sometimes excessively stylized.

Overall, it was a fun, intriguing book that left several mysteries unsolved for those readers who want to solve puzzles on their own.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Guardian
Hypable
The Telegraph

Gliese 581

Gliese 581: The Departure by Christine Shuck51r-xcqauvl-_sy346_

publication date: 2016
pages: 183

This SF novel was set in a world 100 years in the future: a world where interstellar space travel was possible and humans colonized the Moon and Mars to deal with crowding on Earth. The book focused on three main plots: a grotesque and devastating plague on Earth, a one-way manned space mission to star system Gliese 581 for the purpose of colonization, and a mysterious, violent incident on board the Gliese 581 spaceship that threatened the entire crew.

One of the best parts of the book was the characters. Shuck introduced varied and multifaceted characters, from a bitter grandmother, to a gay Chinese man with a conservative family, to a medical examiner with a penchant for pedophilia.

The book also created good mystery and suspense. Shuck used flashbacks to weave the three story lines together, which was especially effective when the frantic and tense pace of one story line was interrupted by a more leisurely, but informative, plot point. Shuck also developed a good mystery surrounding the violence on the Gliese 581 spaceship. I found myself searching for clues about the identity and motive of the perpetrator.

Also effective was Shuck’s descriptions of the plague on Earth. She did not shy from graphically depicting what was happening to the human body and mind as the virus made its way through the victim. The passages certainly set me off my lunch.

However, there were a lot of problems with the book. It was unpolished, with a lot of small errors. There were, for example, missing pronouns, rough tense changes, and haphazard comma usage. This all made for garbled or confusing writing, at times. There were also some inconsistencies. Like sometimes people would use paper all the time and other times characters were made fun of for even having paper and not a computer. Or like one character who was described as being a manipulative philanderer, but whenever we witnessed him with a woman he was nothing but kind and unpresumptuous.

Shuck’s writing could also be very preachy. The entire plot seemed crafted to get us to eat less. She also had an obvious opinion about the current agricultural economy:

EcoNu’s test pigs were showing shockingly low reproductive rates. This didn’t sit well with Edith. Nor did the smug speculation that this was a winning strategy. It smacked too much of Monsanto’s death grip on the corn economy early in the century.

Or there was this rant, which came out of nowhere:

Shortly before The Collapse, there had been strong militarization of police in and around major cities. This was done primarily under the guise of the War on Drugs, something that had been abandoned when the country collapsed into civil war, and later not taken up again due to its deeply unpopular legacy. The War on Drugs was now akin to human rights violations in American cultural memory.

These rants and garbled writing hindered an imaginative SF book with complex characters and a serviceable plot:

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Poets of the Dead Society
Amazon
goodreads

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

publication date: 1993
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-446-67550-5

What is it about the Northwest that causes writers to craft dim and dark apocalyptic worlds? Seattlite Octavia E. Butler certainly did just that in Parable of the Sower.

Parable of the Sower presented the story of Lauren Olamina, a young girl living in the western United States in the not-so-distant future. The story began with Lauren living in a working-class gated community in the middle of an economic wasteland, where residents armed themselves against the “street poor” on their commute to work and cities were infiltrated by a new drug – called pyro – that caused the user to start fires and revel in them. The book only hinted at what caused this societal breakdown – was it climate change, income inequality, racial strife? As Lauren grew older and her life crumbled around her, she concentrated on a spiritual set of rules she was creating that she called Earthseed.

Although the plot sounds distinct and suspenseful, it was actually somewhat boring. Terrible things were happening in Lauren’s life, but Butler’s dispassionate writing style meant the whole plot seemed detached and unimportant.

Butler’s style wasn’t necessarily bad, however. The book was written in a diary format from Lauren’s point-of-view. Her unemotional style yielded several stark and impactful sentences. For example, Lauren’s diary entry from Wednesday, August 26, 2026, which contained just one sentence:

Today, my parents had to go downtown to identify the body of my brother Keith.

Additionally, although the book wasn’t necessarily interesting as I was reading it, it was thought-provoking and left me with lingering thoughts and questions. For example, Lauren’s relationship with Earthseed was provocative. Earthseed was a religion she was forming and creating and would perhaps one day be some sort of messiah for. However, she felt like she was just uncovering something that already existed. This implied creation myth imbued Lauren’s every action with a larger-than-life quality.

Butler also raised issues of labor and employment. In a world where labor vastly outweighs employment, what would happen? In Parable, the government and employers wrung as much as possible out of labor. Corporations reverted to the “company town” system, where workers lived, worked, and shopped at the company. Workers were paid in scrip that could only be spent at the company store. It sounds like a preposterous system that would never be allowed because of the human rights abuses that would easily occur. But company towns existed quite unchallenged for decades in the 19th and 20th century, a time when commentators thought of the United States as enlightened.

Butler also addressed the issue of race. Race is not a focus of Parable, but the issue is raised occasionally. I thought Butler handled it more realistically than other dystopian novels in that she did not just sweep it under the rug. Instead, some characters worked together but other characters were more aware of race and more divided by it.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

Badass Book Reviews
Opinions of a Wolf
The Stake

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

publication date: 1971
pages: 175
ISBN: 0-380-79185-4

The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction classic, had me hooked from the first haunted sentence:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

With that line, Le Guin began an exploration of the mind’s ability to change the world and humanity’s capacity for power. The book, set in Portland in the very near future, followed George Orr, a troubled young man who was mandated to visit psychiatrist William Haber. While visiting Dr. Haber, Orr confessed that he believes his dreams have the ability to actually change reality. The remainder of the book focused on Dr. Haber’s attempts to “cure” Orr, often with disastrous results.

The plot of The Lathe of Heaven was the focal point. Le Guin created an imaginative future touched with just enough realism to be compelling. Her plot, although implausible, did not seem impossible. Le Guin used her plot, which was infused with a sense of dread throughout, to reflect on man’s foibles.

Because this was a science fiction book, which usually concentrate on plot or message, I was surprised by how satisfying Le Guin’s characters were. Her characters were well-crafted and beautifully explained. Here is her account of Heather LeLache:

Why hadn’t she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn’t have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul.

There were only a few problems I had with the book. First, my edition, a 1997 Avon Books Trade printing, was riddled with spelling errors. There were so many errors I started to wonder if that was part of the book. Second, the pacing lagged slightly in the second half the book. The third and biggest problem I had with the book was Le Guin’s scattered bouts of preachiness. For example, this statement, which seemingly was placed in the book for no other purpose than its message:

The insistent permissiveness of the late Twentieth Century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late Nineteenth Century.

Despite these minor flaws, The Lathe of Heaven is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book:

SF Signal
Pop Mythology
The Canary

Skin Game and After the Dark

Skin Game and After the Dark by Max Allan Collins

If you ever want to fall down the rabbit hole, start watching James Cameron’s 2000 Fox TV show Dark AngelIf you’re anything like me, you’ll be watching “Max and Logan Dark Angel” music videos on YouTube for two hours the next weekend, after having binge-watched the series and read the sequels.

Dark Angel followed Max Guavara (played by Jessica Alba), a government-engineered fighting machine who escaped her barracks, as she lived, loved, and struggled in a dystopian future Seattle. The series lasted two seasons on Fox. After the series was canceled, Max Allan Collins picked up the torch and authored Skin Game and After the Dark.

The plot of Skin Game picks up where the TV show left off. Max is still living, loving, and struggling, only now she has a few more friends and many more enemies. After the Dark continues Max’s saga and concludes several plot lines from season 2 of the series. I won’t give anything away except to say that most of the conclusions were satisfactory and one of them was an abomination.

The books read like generic SF and any hip-hop or cultural quality found in the show is lost in the books. Also, the dialogue and banter between the characters rarely translated effectively to the books, especially the character of Original Cindy. And do you remember Oriana Fallaci, the figurative language queen?  Collins might be able to unseat her as the monarch of bad metaphor. Collins describes one character, Ames White, as “Leanly muscular, with spiky brown hair, icy blues eyes, and the empathy of a shark.” Although the books were mainly written in an artless, clunky manner, the suspense was quite good. Collins was able to craft mystery without slowing down the plot.

Would I recommend these books to just anybody? No, probably not. But I am unquestionably glad I read them. They finished what the TV series started and satiated my craving to know where my beloved characters ended up.

3/6: more good than bad

P.S. I didn’t want to give anything away in this book review to people who want to watch the TV series so I left the plot discussions intentionally vague and incomplete. If you want to know more about the plots of the books and have seen the show, read these reviews:

World of Entertainment
goodreads