The Parable of the Sower

The Parable of the Sower book coverI have been meaning to read Octavia Butler for some time. She is an author who I have heard about from several sources and I finally got around to reading one of her books. I started with The Parable of the Sower. I had no idea what it was really about, and I’m sure if I had known, I would probably not have read it at this time. Though I really did enjoy the book despite my reasons for saying I would have put it off a bit longer.

The Parable of the Sower is basically a pre-apocalyptic novel. The events of the story show a fairly realistic degradation of society into the fairly popular apocalyptic scenarios we see today with such shows as The Walking Dead or Mad Max (they did make a new one) or what have you. I honestly envisioned the events of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road taking place a decade or two after this story. But this book isn’t all doom and gloom. It definitely doesn’t shy away from darker material, but uses it only in a realistic way. It doesn’t contain anything simply for shock value and it is overall a compelling read that is excellently written. I kept picking it up despite the need to decompress at times.

This book is part one of a duology titled The Books of Earthseed. Though we see the world slide into chaos through young Lauren’s eyes, we see a resilient character build a community around her beliefs that may shape the future of humanity. The story begins in 2024 and spans about 4 years. This book was published in 1993 when 2024 seemed a long way off. Now, here at the start of 2021, we are close enough that the events of the book seem near impossible (but not entirely, unfortunately). Though the dates within the book began as a solemn foretelling of a potential future, it will soon become a (hopefully) alternate timeline story of what may have been. A future I hope we all avoid. Except, of course, for the part where we have settlements on the moon and Mars.

The second book is titled The Parable of the Talents. I will not be reading the sequel right away for two reasons. The first is that this first book wraps up well and can be read as a standalone novel. The second is that I hope to read something a bit more uplifting before returning to this story. Again, I really did enjoy this book despite the subject matter. I don’t often read end-of-the-world type books though I have read a few and enjoyed them. This one was no exception. If anything, it has encouraged me to read more by Octavia Butler. Her novel Kindred is more well-known and I may try it some time this year.

If you are a fan of these types of books, such as Wanderers by Chuck Wendig or Stephen King’s The Stand, then you will likely enjoy this book as well. If you have never read Octavia Butler, like I had not until now, I suggest trying her books even if you don’t choose to start with this one. I look forward to reading more by her myself.

Happy Reading.

The Best of Gene Wolfe

The Best of Gene Wolfe Book CoverI began The Best of Gene Wolfe a few months ago thinking a book of short stories was the perfect way to keep reading habits while attending a graduate program. I enjoy short story collections and it was a great way to fit in some reading between coursework. This was also a great way to experience more of Wolfe’s work.

I first read Gene Wolfe at the beginning of the year when I read his series The Book of the New Sun, which may be his best known work. His writing is oddly compelling and you get the sense of an entire universe just beyond the words on the page. His writing is unique though I have compared it to writers such as Philip K Dick insofar as his stories leave you with things to think about. His writing, though science/speculative fiction, is incomparable from any I have read (unless I discover a new author whose work can be considered near Wolfe’s).

There are 31 stories in this collection taking up roughly 480 pages. A few run longer at around 40 pages, but most are about 10-15 pages. I enjoyed most of these stories. Some I absolutely loved while others I found a bit underwhelming. My favorite by far is “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” which was reminiscent of the New Sun series.

Each story contains an afterword, just a paragraph, where Gene discusses the story you just read and something about it like how he came up with the idea or how the story influenced his career. One I remember was simply him discussing a view alongside a road and that was one of the main prompts for the story. These afterwords are fun because they are little commentaries by the author that often add a little bit to the story itself even if it ends up being unrelated to the subject matter.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection and I actually read through it a little quicker than I typically do for short story collections of this length. Since this gave me more insight into Wolfe’s work, I feel I can say with more certainty that I am a fan and will continue to read more. If you have yet to discover Wolfe, this may be a great way to determine if you like his style.

Happy Reading.

In Other Worlds

In Other WorldsIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood includes three previously unpublished lectures, several book reviews, and a few miscellaneous discussions. I would state the core theme of this collection, aside from the obvious one of SF, would be Utopia/Dystopia. These are often labeled as sub-genre of SF and Atwood gives them a unifying name of Ustopia as she argues that every dystopia has elements of utopia and vice-versa.

Her lecture “Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia” focuses on these themes and goes in depth into her thoughts on them as well as the history of how they became such a popular way of storytelling. Many people consider her novel The Handmaid’s Tale a dystopia. She neither agrees or disagrees, because she argues that everything within the novel could have been found in the world at the time she wrote it in 1984-85.

As with collections like these, and perhaps one of my favorite parts of reading collections, is that I discover books I had never heard of before and which were influential to authors I respect and admire. There were several in this collection I was glad to discover and have added to my ever-growing to-read list. Interestingly enough, many of the books mentioned in this collection that I hadn’t known were written in the late 1800s. She also has a few, fun sections about H.G. Wells.

Atwood discusses how she first became a fan of SF, which started as a young, voracious reader who would read anything and everything she could when such materials were sparse during the second World War. She often created her own fictional characters and adventures during this time. Thus begins the life of a writer.

There are a few shorter discussions near the end of this collection that comment on the covers of the SF magazine Weird Tales during the 1930s and beyond. She lightly delves into the known history of SF using stereotypical male and female images and plots. Many of which are the stories that failed to endure. Speaking of covers, the cover of this book surprised me a bit. The more I look at it the more confused/intrigued I become.

This book is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin, who has argued that Atwood actively tried to not label her works as SF despite the fact they contain primarily SF elements. I don’t think this is a dig or critique by either author. It seems like they had a large amount of respect for each other. I honestly wonder what type of relationship they had, if they had a personal relationship at all or if it was merely professional. I may look into this at some point as they are both talented authors who have created amazing works while persevering through a time when SF wasn’t considered literature (the argument is still ongoing) and when there were little-to-no women who were writing SF. I believe they have both become larger-than-life figures and an inspiration to many people around the world.

I know collections such as these aren’t usually a typical read for many people, but I think this one would be fun for anyone interested in the subject of SF or are fans of Atwood. The nice thing about collections is the ease of reading. You can pick them up and read one or several and put it down. Perhaps you’ll give this one a try.

Happy Reading.

Beyond Gender: Exploring Ursula K. Le Guin’s Thought Experiment in The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness has been used to progress the discourse on gender and sexuality since its publication over fifty years ago. Many critical responses to the novel center on these topics despite their function as a veil to Le Guin’s original intention. Gender and sexuality are barriers the reader must push beyond to fully understand the novel’s triumph. There is no doubt that this book raises questions and makes us rethink our preconceptions about gender and sexuality, and this confirms one success of Le Guin’s thought experiment, but the primary intention was to go beyond gender and sexuality to reveal a human characteristic. Continue reading

The Book of the New Sun

Books of the New SunThe Book of the New Sun consists of four novels by Gene Wolfe. I bought all four in two volumes after I had added Gene Wolfe to the list of authors whose work I wanted to look into. This tetralogy is considered some of his best work. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know about his work until shortly before he passed away in April of last year, but I’m glad I am no longer ignorant of its existence.

I would normally have written a book recommendation for the first book in the series, but there are several reasons I did not do that for this story. Of course, I would not recommend the series if I did not like it or I didn’t think it held value. I am glad I read the series since I have learned a lot from it. However, this recommendation comes with a few reservations so let’s get started.

First, a very short introduction: The universe of the New Sun is definitely strange and the adventures of the main character, Severian, lead us through it. He is an apprentice in a guild of torturers and faces consequences for showing mercy to a client (as they refer to the prisoners).

We often compare things to better describe them to others, and I think in this case it would be easier for me to describe this story as a comparison or mixture of a few others you may already know. Since reading the first book, I could not help but think of the story as a mixture between The Name of the Wind (TNotW), Alice in Wonderland, and The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A weird combination, I know, but hear me out.

I thought of TNotW for several reasons. The story of the New Sun is told as a recounting of events by the main character, much like in TNofW, and they both include a spurious young man who has many travels and finds himself involved in powers much greater than himself that impact their entire world. New Sun has many fantastical elements as well and the loner-ish main character often has to fend for himself. I liken New Sun to Alice in the way that we as readers are thrown into a strange land where strange things happen seemingly at random. We don’t get a lot of information about the strange world but are given just enough to know what is going on and how things (kind of) work within the rules of that world. The last comparison, to Hitchhiker’s Guide, brings in the science fiction elements and continues the comparison to Alice insofar as the story’s universe is much larger than the glimpses we are given and things seem to happen randomly but often come back around before the story ends. Unlike Alice and Hitchhiker’s Guide, the random events of this story are not whimsical but often lead Severian into dangerous situations.

So, this series is a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, myth, philosophy, and many other areas I’m sure I may have missed or forgotten. I believe this series is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why I was so hesitant to recommend the first book without having read the entire story. Another reason was because it took me several chapters to get adjusted to the style of the book. Yes, it was written as an account by the main character, but the verbiage and structure took some time getting used to. This alone may deter some readers, but if you can get into the story, you will find it is well-written and engaging.

I consider myself well-read, but I learned a lot of new vocabulary from this series. This, for me, is a bonus though I can see some readers viewing it as negative if they need to look up several words per chapter or page. Most of the terms are more archaic. Very few, if any, were made up as part of the fictional world. This being the case, I’m happy to say that I have several new words in my arsenal for my own writing. I think an expanded vocabulary is definitely a positive.

Another reason I was hesitant in recommending the first book alone was because the transition from the first to second book was a little jarring. I think the series should be viewed as one continuous text, which I just discovered it had been written in its entirety before the first book was published. This may explain why each installment doesn’t follow a familiar story path or begin and end in a traditional method. This could also be seen as a negative, which is why I think considering all four books as one volume is an easy way to escape that thought concern.

I did see a few reviews of readers giving up during or after books two or three because they couldn’t continue with the seemingly random events. I had also heard that the fourth book wrapped things up nicely and fits all the pieces together. I would agree that the ending does bring the whole series together, but there is a lot to get through before this ending and many readers may not be committed to doing so. Which is another reason why I’m recommending this as a series instead of a standalone book. I definitely could have used a little more details regarding how the world of Urth worked, and there is a sequel novel title The Urth of the New Sun which I could read, but I think I may save that for another time.

I recommend this series because it is well written and engaging despite the events seeming to be random at first. There were several times where I thought I just had no idea what was happening or I didn’t have enough information to appreciate the story, but at the end of it all I felt satisfied. I was always interested in the events and characters, and I did read all four books fairly quickly. I am also still thinking about the book and what the whole story accomplished. I will definitely be looking into other books by Gene Wolfe in the future.

You may like this series or find it isn’t for you. I enjoyed it and wanted to (hopefully) introduce others to Gene Wolfe if not this particular story. I have entered the camp of those who believe his work has gone overlooked and I’m glad I remedied my own oversight. I look forward to discovering more of his stories. Perhaps you will too.

Happy Reading.