The Life of the World to Come

I’ve been staggering my Company reads, because I’m all too quickly running out of them!

The Life of the World to Come is book number five out of a total of nine. Four more books! Just four! What else will I read when I’m done (ok that is a silly question, for there is so much more to read, even by the wonderful late Kage Baker herself).

Let’s have a quick look at that cover, shall we? Now that is an example of a really bad one. I would never pick up a book with a cover like that! It’s rather cheesy and pretending to be futuristic. And really doesn’t reflect the book – or the series – well at all.

And back to the book. Baker has finally brought us to Zeus. Or rather, the three eccentric men who work for Dr Zeus and created the tall dark hero who keeps appearing in Baker’s earlier books and charming the pants off of our dear botanist Mendoza (re: In the Garden of Iden, Mendoza in Hollywood). So while it opens with Mendoza, still exiled in Back Way Back, this fifth book is more about Alec Checkerfield, an Earl and not-quite-human. Fascinating fellow, yes. But could we get more from Mendoza, please?

So in this, the fifth book, more about the world at large is revealed, secrets are uncovered, and there are hints of erm, well, The Life of the World to Come.


The thing about being a parent is that weekends are no longing about the doing nothing. Because the feeding, diapering, soothing, playing, they still go on. Of course the husband is around more and he can handle more of that while I do other things, but there are always things to do. Things that are easier to do when there’s someone else to watch wee reader. Like tidying up and making freezer meals.

I know I’m stating the obvious here but I guess that it wasn’t all that obvious to me before wee reader arrived some 5.5 months ago! It’s just amazing how he’s changed our lives, our routines, our own bedtimes and eating schedules.

So it’s taken me a while to write this review – a whole week to be exact. And I have to warn you, it’s a terrible one. Partly because my mind is elsewhere. But also because I’m just not sure about this book.

For I was so sure that Chocky was a reread.

In secondary school in Singapore, we did John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (not Day of the Triffids as I originally recalled it as!) as part of our literature class. I remember quite enjoying it and heading to the school library with my classmate to check out Wyndham’s other books. We borrowed what we could and savored them all. I was so sure that Chocky was part of that collection. Now I’m not. Or perhaps it was something that didn’t stick in my teenaged mind?

It’s not going to stick in my mind today either, unfortunately.

Anyway here’s the synopsis from Good Reads:

Matthew, they thought, was just going through a phase of talking to himself. And, like many parents, they waited for him to get over it, but it started to get worse. Mathew’s conversations with himself grew more and more intense – it was like listening to one end of a telephone conversation while someone argued, cajoled and reasoned with another person you couldn’t hear. Then Matthew started doing things he couldn’t do before, like counting in binary-code mathematics. So he told them about Chocky – the person who lived in his head.

After reading that I thought, hey, creepy kid, that’s rather RIP-ish, no? And I guess it kinda was, especially when I thought of how I would feel if that were my boy. Well, except I wasn’t creeped out. I read this with a sense of detachment, I didn’t care for Matthew, plus his parents just irritated me. And when I finally finished it, I just wasn’t up to writing a review of it. Obviously that’s not going to encourage anyone to read this book! However because of my fond memories of really enjoying Wyndham’s work those years back, I’m going o give him another try. Perhaps revisit Day of the Triffids and see how that stands up.

The Dazzle of Day

Quakers! Quakers in Space!

Hmm…those words really need an old-school horror film, or in more modern times,  Mars Attacks kind of font. So imagine ‘Quakers in Space!’ in this font:

Ok now that’s over with, I have to start all over. Because this is not a weird, spacey space colony pulp fiction type of book. I’m sorry if I misled you but come on, when do I ever get to say, “Quakers in Space!”?

Molly Gloss has written an intriguing, quiet book that speaks volumes in The Dazzle of Day. This is a very international book. Escaping from a dying Earth, Quakers from various countries (they speak Esperanto!) have found themselves a home on board the Dusty Miller, a self-sustaining but ageing spaceship. A crew has been sent out to explore a frozen planet as a possible future home. Bjoro is among the crew, and the planet isn’t something he’s prepared for:

“He had thought in the filmcards he had studied of unbounded landscapes, of storms and snows and seas, there remained no surprises. It hadn’t occurred to him, the vast depth of the third dimension. He hadn’t thought he would fear the sky.”

The funny thing about The Dazzle of Day is that nothing seems to be happening, although things are actually happening. The crew crashes on the frozen planet, someone dies when out working on the sail, all major events that are but a sideline to the relationships, to the tales of the daily lives of these Quakers, such as Bjoro’s wife Joko and son Cejo, these people who work the fields, who cook in the kitchen houses, who take part in meetings and discuss their future on this frozen planet, who look after their families and each other.

“For 175 years they had gone on talking and thinking and making ready for leaving this world. They had lived for 175 years in a kind of suspended state, a continual waiting for change, but it was a balanced and deep-grounded condition, an equilibrium. They knew their world, root and branch, knew its history and its economies. The human life of the Miller and the life of its soil and its plants and animals revolved together, in a society that was well-considered, a community that was sustaining. Some people thought they had lived for 175 years in a world that was a kind of Eden.”

But there are no answers. Or at least the book doesn’t leave us with any firm ones.

The Dazzle of Day is a book best described in opposites. There is an ending, but it is not really the end. It is a story of beginnings and endings. The words are quiet, but also full of strength and understanding.

Molly Gloss’s novels

  • Outside the Gates. 1986.
  • The Jump-Off Creek. 1989.
  • The Dazzle of Day. Macmillan. 1998.
  • Wild Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2000.
  • The Hearts of Horses. 2007.

The first two reads of the year!

And on January 3, I finally finished reading two books. They were started last year, but eh, I’m counting them as my first 2011 reads anyway. The two books were relatively good starts to my supposedly more diversified reading year. One part of a science fiction series, the other a book of non-fiction. And both were by women. However, they were both by Americans – not that I have anything against Americans! It’s just that I’m hoping 2011 to be more of a world literature year. But the year has just begun!

Back to the books. Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives was quite an insightful read. Paul, a science writer, considers her own pregnancy (her second) as she researches fetal development. The book is divided into the nine months of the story of gestation, and explores topics such as stress, depression, environmental toxins, alcohol use, BPA in plastic etc, using interviews with experts as well as various historical and current research anecdotes.

I’m in the third trimester (!) and already know some of the information that Paul provides, and I often wished she would delve a little deeper into the research, such as the bits about stress (apparently fewer boys are born after stressful periods, such as September 11). I did enjoy reading about the dilemmas she faced during her pregnancy, such as trying to decide what to buy at a supermarket upon realising that she’s pregnant (of course, she is in Whole Foods, which I only stepped into once last year – I’m more of a Trader Joes/Asian supermarket kind of shopper). When I first found out that I was pregnant, I went into a bit of a panic mode about eating – especially since a couple weeks before that, I had plenty of alcohol and raw oysters to celebrate my birthday! I worried about having to give up my favourite prosciutto and sashimi. And oh… beer and wine! (I did have some of an alcohol-free beer at a restaurant last month though, and it was quite enjoyable!).

Reading this book made me feel guilty. Paul reads about how exercise can help fetal development and promptly hops into a gym and onto a treadmill. And she even attends meditation classes! As I continued to sink into the couch, hot chocolate in one hand, book in the other, I wondered if I should get up and start moving and my heart pumping. Then I figured it was probably too late for that (I was already in my pyjamas) but this book had that kind of effect on me. I was either pointing out some excerpt to the husband, or wondering what I was doing wrong during my own pregnancy. And then I finished the book, and while I enjoyed parts of it, I realised that it was making me a little nervous, and that I already had enough on my mind – and as long as I’m eating healthy enough, putting in some exercise, getting enough sleep and fresh air etc, I’m sure things will be ok! So I put it out of my mind and went straight to finishing the last third of the other book.

The Graveyard Game is the fourth book in Kage Baker’s Company series and follows the third book very closely. I can’t quite talk about book 4 without revealing the plot of book 3, so please stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers!!

At the end of book 3, Mendoza in Hollywood, Mendoza vanishes, essentially banished by the Company, Zeus Incorporated. However, the book is very much about her, although she is absent. Joseph, her ‘maker’ and her friend Lewis are the main characters of this book, and they are trying to find Mendoza as well as solve the mystery of her engaging English friend (who led her astray in book 4 and possibly was the same man – an immortal? – who led her astray during her first outing in book 1). The book is set largely in California and spans from 1996 to 2281 (it may sound a bit of a stretch but is well-paced). Baker reveals a little bit more about the Company in this book, delving now into the darker side of the Company.

An intriguing, fun read, as always. I really do admire how Baker continues to make the story interesting, and only gradually reveals the backgrounds of the immortals and the Company. Oh and I love how the immortals get high on theobromos i.e. chocolate in Ghiradelli Square! An awesome start to a reading year.

Mendoza in Hollywood

And so it’s come to Book Three of Kage Baker’s The Company series (see the full list here). In Book Two, Sky Coyote, I watched the world (well at least California) unfold through the eyes of Joseph, the veteran. And now it’s back to Mendoza, the ‘young’ (relatively speaking of course, since they are immortals), headstrong operative who specialises in collecting extinct and unique plants. This time she’s in Hollywood, or at least what will eventually become Hollywood. The Hollywood that Mendoza finds herself in is currently an expanse of wilderness, and she and the other operatives (Facilitator Porfirio, Anthropologist Oscar, Zoologist Einar, Ornithologist Juan Bautista, and the Anthropologist Imarte) live at a stagecoach inn in the Cahuenga Pass which is first plagued by non-stop rain and then by drought.

Life in the pass is comfortable enough, except for the never changing daily rations of steak and frijoles. It’s not particularly exciting though, except for the occasional bandits who shoot at them. The operatives pass their time watching old movies (there is one particularly long part on D. W. Griffin’s movie Intolerance, more significant perhaps, if I had actually some kind of inkling about this film). Juan Bautista adopts birds, Imarte enjoys her disguise as the inn’s woman of “easy virtue”, Oscar is determined to sell a pie safe to a local, Einar is a huge film buff. And Mendoza, well, she has dreams, bad dreams which feature Nicholas Harpole, the mortal man she loved in England on her first ever assignment.

However, as the drought continues, Mendoza finds herself with little to do as there are few, if any, plants around. That is, until British agent Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax arrives at the inn. He’s a spitting image of Nicholas Harpole and Mendoza, smitten and with nothing else to do, helps him in his task of trying to ensure British rule in the Americas.

So yeah, we’re kinda back to Book One again, where Mendoza has fallen headfirst and can’t see reason to do otherwise but help Edward. I’ll just leave it at that.

Baker really builds the plot rather slowly in this book. We don’t actually get to Edward until the last… third or so of the book. But the other operatives at the inn make for rather entertaining and unique characters, more so than in the other books, which tended to focus on Mendoza and Joseph. Baker continues to leave bits and pieces of clues about The Company for the reader (like, what exactly is Chrome?) but the operatives are for me the key interest of this series, and I’m wondering if the focus will be back on Joseph the next book around. I’m looking forward to seeing what time and what country Baker will take the reader in the next book. It is called The Graveyard Game, so I am quite curious.

In the Garden of Iden

Sleep just gets in the way of my reading. If I didn’t have to sleep I would’ve finished this book in a day. But sleep got the better of me and I had to reluctantly put the book down on Tuesday night and doze off. But I gleefully picked up where I left off the next day and devoured the rest of the book. Yeah, I think it’s going to be pretty obvious when I say that I pretty much liked this book.

Now the problem is, how does one go about describing it? The easy way would be to say that it’s a good mix of science fiction and historical fiction. But a description like that wouldn’t really attract me. So let’s see… perhaps a more attractive way would be to describe it as immortals sent back in time… to Elizabethan England!

Ok it really is more complex than that. Little Mendoza is rescued from Spanish Inquisitors by  the Company (called Dr Zeus, Inc) and recruited as one of their immortal agents (there’s a lot of surgery involved). Her job – to travel back in time to collect botanical specimens that have become extinct. And her first task is in 1553 England, in the garden of Sir Walter Iden, with two other operatives, Joseph, who poses as her father, and Nef, who plays her duenna. Iden’s secretary Nicholas is suspicious of these Spanish visitors, and Mendoza is more or less tasked to distract him, although one can easily guess what will happen with her and the tall secretary with the nice face.

The idea behind the Company is quite fascinating. It invents time travel (although one can only travel back in time) and  immortality, and discovers that recorded history cannot be changed, and the implications?: “You can’t loot the future, but you can loot the past.” This applies not just to monetary assets but also art and supposedly extinct species. And the orders from collectors, sentimentalists etc started coming in. But what of the immortals? They are taught that:

“no nation, creed or race was any better or worse than another; all were flawed, all were equally doomed to suffering, mostly because they couldn’t see that they were all alike. They did enjoy killing one another and frequently came up with ingenious excuses for doing so on a large scale – religious, economic theories, ethnic pride – but we couldn’t condemn them for it, as it was in their mortal natures and they were too stupid to know any better.

No, our job was to protect them from their own butchery, and (better still) to protect the other inhabitants of the Earth from the destruction wreaked by human nature.”

Our young and spunky narrator, Mendoza, is only 19 when she begins her first task but the rest of the series promises more from her. And will probably probe more into the issues of morality, human nature, immortality.

Baker is a great storyteller, and I breathlessly turned page after page, wanting to read more. Her Elizabethan England is vividly described, using rather clever methods (involving radio broadcasts from operatives on scene, for example), and the way the operatives blend their futuristic lives and technology into the 16th century is quite fascinating. The first thing I did after finishing the book was to request book 2 of The Company series, Sky Coyote . Can’t wait!

The Windup Girl

“Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly coloured pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.”

And with this passage, Bacigalupi takes the reader into this version of Bangkok that sounds very much like the Thai capital of today, yet hints of something a little different.

The Windup Girl reminded me of the documentary Food, Inc. (and the bioengineered soy beans that Monsanto produces) and the short-lived TV series Better Off Ted (Ted works for Veridian Dynamics, a massive corporation that does everything, such as growing cowless meat and weaponizing pumpkins. Yes, pumpkins). For Bacigalupi’s bleak world is one where oil is long gone and calories are the indication of wealth, where seed corporations in Iowa reign and pour forth plagues to destroy  foods competing with their ‘genehacked’ sterile versions.

Anderson Lake is the AgriGen representative in Thailand who’s looking for the hidden seed bank in Thailand. His right-hand man is Hock Seng, a Chinese Malayan refugee. (I’m a bit puzzled by the use of Malaya, as this is not a term used today. Singapore used to be part of Malaya but split – politically that is – with the peninsula (Malaysia) to become its own little nation (albeit reluctantly at the time). Anyway besides the Malaya/Malaysia discrepancy (then again, arguably this is an alternate universe where anything can happen), the author gets quite a bit about Malaya(sia?) right. “He misses Hainan chicken and laksa asam and good sweet kopi and roti canai.“)

Emiko is the windup girl, one of the New People. An artificial human. Respected in Japan but treated pretty much like an animal by her new owner in Bangkok.

“In Japan she was a wonder. Here, she is nothing but a windup. The men laugh at her strange gait and make faces of disgust that she exists at all. She is a creature forbidden to them.”

Bacigalupi said in an interview with SciFi Wire: “I had no idea how complex I was making the book when I started out. But I knew I wanted to create a very multi-layered, lived-in version of future Bangkok, with some outsider perspectives and some insider perspectives, so that the conflicts would be humanized. I didn’t want paperboard people fighting simple and obvious wars. I wanted the future to feel as complex as the present currently seems. Well, that, and there were a few characters who I created and loved so much that I couldn’t resist giving them more time on stage.”

Indeed, there is so much going on in this book. It is complex, it is dirty, it fills the senses (and then makes you choke on all the sweat, dust and rottenness swirling around). You feel uneasy but can’t stop reading. And it is quite satisfying. Bacigalupi has written a very ambitious first novel and I cannot wait to read more of his works – he also has a YA novel and a book of short stories out. More please!

PS: Night Shade Books has a link to Windup Stories, two stories from the world of Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl.

The Sparrow

Oh what an absolutely wrenching, gut-wrenching read.

How could I not have read this sooner? When will my request for the sequel, Children of God , come in? Should I read the sequel? What if it doesn’t live up to the first book?

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but forgive me, I only just finished this book last night and I was floored by it. And I had blissfully ignored all the reviews on Google Reader that were about this book, so I had absolutely no expectations, except for the fact that it is considered a masterpiece and is on many lists which I can’t recall at the moment, so excited I am about writing this review. Ok perhaps that does count as some sort of expectations about this book.

Because I had picked it up several times at the library in my old neighbourhood. And put it back on the shelves because of two very different reasons. One, a very valid one, is that that very copy was a rather old, slightly tattered book. I don’t expect pristine copies of library books but this one looked like it ought to have been retired years ago. Two, perhaps not so valid, is that it involved religion, and Jesuits, and I’m never all that comfortable with reading fiction that has religion as a centerpiece. (I grew up in what Singapore calls a ‘freethinker’ household. In other words, my parents are not religious, although both sets of grandparents are/were Buddhist/Taoist and many of my relatives are Christians or Catholics, as is my husband). So when a book has a Jesuit priest as a central character, I kind of hesitate. But the writing and the interesting premise just sucked me in.

Because right from the start, you already know that something terrible has happened. Father Emilio Sandoz has returned from somewhere, a wreck, both mentally and physically. He is the sole survivor of an expedition to the planet Rakhat, And we don’t quite know what has happened. The narrative switches from 2016, when the discovery of these extraterrestrials is just beginning, and 2059 and its aftermath.

Russell makes you fall for this motley crew, as she explores their friendships and kinship. It’s hard not to get sucked in. But it’s even harder when you know that something bad happened to the rest of them.

And yeah there’s also the planet Rakhat and its inhabitants and while they are very fascinating, this book was for me about the humans and the way they developed and discovered themselves and each other, and yes, about faith. In an interview with Bookslut, Russell talks about religion and SF, which kind of made me understand where she’s coming from a little better:

“Well, as Stan Schmidt once said, human beings have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past they were called angels and demons and elves and trolls. Folk tales and science fiction are often about what it means to be human in a large and terrifying and beautiful universe, so naturally they overlap a good deal. As for religion, well, the great monotheistic world religions address the same concern. And if God is real, and the ruler of the universe, then logically that sovereignty must extend to other worlds and their inhabitants. That’s a perfect set up for SF.”

I know those two words Science+Fiction can often make people back away in… fear, horror, but I do think The Sparrow would make for a great introduction to SF. It’s very well-paced, challenging, totally engrossing and thoughtful. Highly recommended.

This is my final read for the Sci-Fi Challenge, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Read: The City & The City by China Mieville

I was breathless. I couldn’t stop reading The City & The City although dinnertime was nearing. The sky was already dark but I was just glued to the pages.

The City & The City was quite a surprise for me. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for the Nebula Prize and that it was written by China Mieville, whose Un Lun Dun I had quite enjoyed. So I was ready for an interesting, entertaining read but it turned out to be not just that but was also gritty, exciting and quite clever.

The City starts out like a crime novel. There’s a dead woman in the European city of Besźel. At first the police, led by Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, think she’s a prostitute but something doesn’t add up. Borlu gets an anonymous phone call from someone in Ul Qoma, which makes things very tricky for Borlu as Ul Qoma is the other city, the one to be unseen.

Mieville reveals information about the two cities in bits and pieces. A hint here, a hint there. All rather subtly.The information crept up on me like a fog, and then I realised that I was enveloped, absorbed in this fascinating world of two cities, like and unlike, that Mieville has created.

“Who hasn’t done that at times? There were gasrooms I shouldt see, chambers dangling ads, tethered by skeletal metal frames. On the steet at least one of the passersby – I could tell by the clothes, the colours, the walk – was not in Beszel, and I watched him anyway.”

Then there’s the mysterious Breach and Orciny.

“As if that were not mystery enough and as if two crosshatched countries were insufficient, bards invented that third, the pretend-existing Orciny. On top floors, in ignorable Roman-style townhouses, in the first wattle-and-daub dwellings, taking up the intricately conjoined and disjointed spaces allotted in the split or the coagulation of the tribes, the tiny third city Orciny ensconced, secreted between the two brasher city-states. A community of imaginary overlords, exiles perhaps, in most stories machinating and making things, so, ruling with a subtle and absolute grip. Orciny was where the Illuminati lived. That sort of thing.”

Despite the weirdness and darkness of it, I very much enjoyed being in Mieville’s cities. I liked how he balanced the uniqueness of these cities with the murder mystery, never letting the explanation of one overpower the other. It was a great read.

Book provided by my library

This is my sixth read for the Sci-fi Challenge.

Read: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

I am always reluctant to write about classics. I don’t think I’d have any more insights to add that have already been said. But I felt compelled to write about Childhood’s End which was my first ever read from Clarke but definitely not my last.

Not too long ago, I watched the first episode of V (mostly because of the actresses Morena Baccarin from Firefly and Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost – but I didn’t quite like Venough to continue watching). When reading Childhood’s End, I was reminded of the part in V where the spaceships appeared over the cities across the world and Anna’s (played by Baccarin) face appears and she gives a little speech about coming in peace etc. For the Overlords of Childhood’s End appear in this fashion and the Supervisor, whose name is Karellen, sends out a broadcast (an audio one that is) about helping humanity.

After which, “the nations of Earth knew that their days of precarious sovereignty had ended. Local, internal governments would still retain their powers, but in the wider field of international affairs the supreme decisions had passed from human hands. Argument – protests – all were futile.”

The humans do not get to see their Overlords. Karellen does ‘meet’ with United Nations Secretary-General Rikki Stormgren, but they are separated by one-way glass that doesn’t allow Stormgren to see him. But the Overlords eventually agree to reveal themselves in 50 years.

Under the rule of the Overlords, earth becomes a utopia of sorts, it becomes “One World”: “Ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanishes with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men.”

It is quite fascinating. For armed forces are abolished, the necessities of life are free, people work 20 hours a week and professional athletes are extinct as there are now too many brilliant amateurs (people obviously have a lot of leisure time). But not everyone is happy, for innovation, science, creativity has been stifled, leaving many to wonder: “among all the distractions and diversions of a planet which now seemed well on the way to becoming one vast playground, there were some who still found time to repeat an ancient and never-answered question, ‘Where do we go from here?'”

Unfortunately, they don’t have that long to wonder. This is a story of the end of humanity.

Childhood’s End is fascinating, thought-provoking, depressing and at the end, a bit creepy. I don’t think I’ve done this book much justice with this kind-of review. But I’m looking forward to reading more from Clarke. Recommendations anyone?

Source: Library