Tag Archives: science fiction

Guest Review – Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic book coverRoadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Reviewed by Justin Fassino

With the release of the first trailer for the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s very fine novel Annihilation, I found myself with a desire to delve deeper into that particular kind of mysterious, disturbing science fiction. I enjoyed Annihilation quite a bit, especially the way it stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it, and the creeping dread that crept up the back of my neck when I was.

Far and away the book that most on the internet recommended in the same vein is the 1970s Russian classic Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Having now completed both novels, I can say that, yes, both books share a particular brand of sci-fi: a sterling marriage between Stephen King’s omnipresent weirdness and H.P. Lovecraft’s fear of the cosmic unknown. And both books largely feature a dystopian, empty, cryptic segment of the world largely abandoned by man, but home to unspeakable, inhuman phenomena.

This, however, is mainly where the similarities end. While Annihilation uses Area X as the main locus around which the narrative unfolds (and the main driving force of character interaction and reaction), Roadside Picnic keeps its own arena, called simply the “Zone” by its world’s inhabitants, a nebulous and blurry background device that serves to contextualize its rich character development. In Annihilation, trying to solve the ongoing mystery is part of the experience; in Roadside Picnic, it’s simply a frame through which the multinational cast of characters exert their push and pull on the world around them (and on each other).

Set in a geographically unspecified city, Roadside Picnic follows eight years in the life of Redrick Schuhart, an acerbic, brusque man who begins the novel working for the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. We are immediately informed that, in the years leading up to the novel’s beginning, an alien visitation to Earth creates six “zones”, areas that are wildly and chaotically transformed, full of unseen and illogical hazards, along with troves of alien devices and debris. These zones are extremely treacherous to humans and have unforeseen long-lasting effects on the people who live nearby and study them. Some citizens in the book’s main city of Harmont, Redrick among them, make an illicit living off traveling into the nearby Zone and fishing out these artifacts, selling them on the city’s bubbling black market. These “stalkers”, as the people call them, are at once a major source of economic activity and an illegal sector of society constantly under threat to be purged by the powers that be.

Over the course of the novel, through Red’s eyes, we are introduced to the types of people that live in Harmont, and how they interface with this emerging blend of authoritarian control and capitalist opportunity. While Red is portrayed as the protagonist, there isn’t a real villain in the story. The characters all owe their existence, and indeed core purpose, to the Zone. All have their motivations of varying degrees of legality and virtue, but what is really striking is how nuanced their roles fit the social fabric on display. Some have noble ends they reach through ignoble means, while others are unlikable, brash, and rude, and yet I often found myself rooting for them despite their inherent distastefulness. This dangerous and inexplicable world feels lived in, and as readers we get only a brief snapshot of the inhabitants’ lives; because we’re entering their stories midway through and leaving not long after, we are left to fill in the prominent gaps the story leaves us with, and thus the characters themselves have an authenticity to them without the expectations of elaborate backstory and detail weighing them down. And yet, by the end, there is a definitive understanding of who they are as people.

The book’s setting, too, jumps off the page in vivid detail (though often unpleasantly). There is a run-down, fading quality to the lives of both the people living in Harmont and to the city itself. The Strugatsky’s go out of their way to give a lot of the story’s spotlight to the entropy of this universe, and it drips off every page. The Zone is no less dreary, though equally (if not more) interesting. During Red’s trips to the Zone, we learn of many (though certainly not all) of its peculiarities and inhuman threats. And in learning through those small glimpses, our desire to know more, to figure out what exactly is going on inside, grows. But the authors never give in to the temptation to explain or justify what happens in the Zone. Like the characters, we are given a rough outline and the key building blocks of the rules of the world, but we are left to fill in the huge gaps ourselves. As H.P. Lovecraft is best known for demonstrating, the most fearsome horrors the mind can imagine are almost always more chilling than those overtly described.

I’ve always had a strong interest in pessimistic, melancholy fiction, and Roadside Picnic serves up those mournful feelings frequently. But it’s also a cerebral book, meditative and ironically reflective. Occasionally it stops its march through the muck, turns to the reader, and asks provocative questions on many topics. The act of reading it felt very straightforward, but as I get further distance from it, I find myself thinking more and more about its subtleties and deliberate pacing. Like Annihilation, and though it stands very much on its own, I find myself at quiet moments during the day puzzling over its secrets and captivating ideas; its calculated and bold narrative choices; the uncanny, bizarre portrait of the truly alien phenomena in the Zone; and its non-judgmental, matter-of-fact humanization of the grimy inhabitants of its world.

Book Review – Starflight

Starflight book coverStarflight by Melissa Landers

Solara Brooks needs to restart her life and the best way to do that is find passage to the outer realm where no one will care about the felony tattoos across her fingers. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is to become the indentured servant of her former classmate, Doran Spaulding, the spoiled heir to a fuel fortune. Suddenly, everything changes when Doran is accused of conspiracy and must flee the authorities. Solara tricks him into playing her servant and the two find refuge aboard the Banshee with its rag-tag crew. Starflight is a refreshing YA science fiction space adventure with excellent protagonists and an enjoyable supporting cast. It’s a fast-paced read with engaging plot points. I particularly liked Solara. She was an independent, non-apologetic, yet still feminine character. You’ll have fun with this easy, sci-fi tale.

Book Review – Mooncop

Mooncop book coverMooncop by Tom Gauld

As the lunar colony winds down, the hero, the mooncop, goes about his daily business finding less and less to actually do. He helps an old lady find her lost dog, delivers a wandering automaton back to the museum, but in every panel, more and more of the colony dwindles. Tom Gauld, a cartoonist with the Guardian and New York Times,  writes and illustrates this quirky, short novel in his distinctly start manner. The visuals are drawn in variations of blue and gray and the words are sparse giving the whole book the same melancholy feel that the mooncop seems to be feeling. Still, the story is softly funny and beautifully imaginative science fiction.

Book Review – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet book coverThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers spins a lively space opera in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It takes place aboard the Wayfarer, a hyperspace tunneling ship with a multi-species crew. When the Wayfarer is offered a very lucrative but long and dangerous job, they begin a journey filled with adventure and mishaps that test the limits of the tight-knit family. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a wonderful, spacey read. I picked up this book because the description on the back reminded me of Firefly, which is never a bad thing. And yes, the story and characters have some similarities but Becky Chambers definitely wrote her own unique take on the space opera. A quote on the back says “A rollicking space adventure with a lot of heart” and I think that’s a great way to describe this book.

Book Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency book coverDirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency solves the whole crime and Dirk is on this case involving ghosts, time travel and a mission to save humanity. I’ve been meaning to read this book for awhile since I happen to love The Hitchhiker’s series. This novel does not disappoint. It is thoroughly science fiction comedy and a unique read. Clever, ridiculous, eccentric, in other words, deliciously Douglas Adams.

Book Review – Burning Midnight

Burning Midnight book coverBurning Midnight by Will McIntosh

The brilliantly colored spheres just showed up, hidden around the Earth. “Burn” a pair by touching them to your temples and they improve you. You might get better-looking, faster or be able to speed read. Sully is a sphere dealer at the local flea market and when he meets Hunter, a girl skilled at finding spheres “in the wild,” their lives dramatically alter course. When Sully and Hunter find a Gold sphere, something no one has ever seen before, they draw the ire of sphere mega-store owner and billionaire, Alex Holliday. What started as a quest for rare spheres just to make ends meet, turns into an adventure where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. I devoured Burning Midnight in just one night. It was thoroughly engaging and fast-paced. The science fiction elements are well-written and the world feels real. By the end, I could not put it down until I finished the rollercoaster ride that is Burning Midnight.

Book Review – These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars book coverThese Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Lilac LaRoux, daughter of the richest man in the universe, and Tarver Merendsen, a lowly soldier, would not ordinarily socialize. But, after their luxury spaceliner crashes on an unknown planet, Lilac and Tarver must work together to survive. Told in alternating narration, the readers are allowed to see how Lilac and Tarver must adapt to their situation. Both are complex yet relatable characters. These Broken Stars is a beautifully written sci-fi love story.