Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

Axiom’s End – Ellis’ Beginning

Axioms EndAxiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.

Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.

As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.

First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.

Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.

Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.

If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Axiom’s End 8.5/10
-Alex

Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

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So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew

The Last Astronaut – One Small Step Into… Eh, You Should Figure It Out

I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters. 

The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat. 

After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me. 

The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.

The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.

The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself. 

Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10
-Alex

Children of Time – The Web Of Life Finds A Way

51wkqa3knrlI have a confession to make. Sometimes, I can get a little vain about my ability to think about books. I also have a penchant for wanting to discuss themes in books in a way that shows how smart I think I might be. It’s a frustrating vanity I can’t seem to rid myself of. It reared its ugly head in a big way with a beautiful science fiction standalone titled Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I bought it on impulse one late night last year as it popped up as a “readers also enjoyed.” All I needed were four words: intelligent spiders in space. How could I resist such a notion, especially with an Arthur C. Clarke award and a glowing quote from Peter F. Hamilton? I read it in July 2017, and I have been struggling to put into words ever since how much I love this book. Every time I sit down to write a review, new revelations dawn on me about the book, and nothing gets written. This is my attempt to lure you into its web.

Children of Time begins far into the future, where humanity has begun to terraform planets and spread throughout the stars. A scientist by name of Avrana Kern has decided that, instead of inhabiting some of these created paradises, we should send apes down onto them with an “uplift virus” that will hyper-evolve generations of mammals towards intelligence in order to eventually have a dialogue with someone in an otherwise empty galaxy. Unsurprisingly, there is a large group of people who do not like this idea, and they attack the space station where the scientists are operating. In the chaos, Kern manages to send the virus, but fails in sending the monkeys. The virus, with nothing better to do, finds its way into something else: spiders (portia labiate). From there the story splits into semi-parallel storylines: one told from the perspective of the evolving spiders, the other told by the descendants of humanity who are recovering from the civil war sparked a thousand years ago by Kern’s vision.

Tchaikovsky’s story straddles centuries. We are introduced to a new generation of spiders every few chapters (with each generation showcasing the evolutions gained from the previous spider protagonists). The humans on the other hand manage to stretch their lives by cleverly spanning large chunks of time using cryogenic freezing chambers. He keeps the reader engaged through tight pacing and complex characters built from recognizable archetypes. Additionally, the incredible detail with which he describes the evolution of the spiders would make National Geographic’s best travel and nature writers jealous. Tchaikovsky misses no small details, providing what feels like a historical highlight reel of the spider’s physical and cultural development as the species and society progress.

That is not to say that the human story is boring, but it was harder to get engaged with their storyline. It follows the perspective of Holsten Mason, a historian of sorts who is tasked with witnessing humanity leaving Earth for the last time and document the life it is going to build for itself. The magic of this side of the story is that the constant time jumps that leave the main character, and the reader, disoriented. Every time Mason wakes up, something new has happened or some bit of information is missing, and the reader finds out what has changed alongside the character. Tchaikovsky keeps all of these perspective shifts and leaps fresh with a few tricks that provide insights into the human condition, without beating the reader over the head with them.

The characters on a whole feel organic and lived in. The humans have a touch of desperation to them that not only expresses their fears of the future, but their apprehension towards each other. They are a broken people, the children of a civil war so toxic it poisoned the Earth itself. On the flip side, the spiders feel curious, ambitious and altogether optimistic. They are a new species carving out a space in existence on a not so perfect planet, but without the baggage of history weighing them down. These and other differences are painstakingly highlighted as the novel goes on, showing different ways problems are solved without pointing out direct differences. Tchaikovsky’s use of science fiction trappings is creative and feels organic. Most of the human technology is traditional sci-fi fare, but it has a flair to it that took me aback several times. The humans’ technology feels rigid, decrepit, and built with a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the spiders are clever and flexible in their use of biological technologies. They have access to so much, and they use everything to their fullest ability. Tchaikovsky goes through great lengths to show how both species interact with their environment through use of their resources. Each species feels different and unique, making technology a theme instead of a setting. Humanity feels isolated, paranoid, and defensive, while the spiders are inclusive, challenging, and integrate themselves into the world.

I could go on about this book, peeling back its many layers, and pointing out all the clever devices that Tchaikovsky left as surprises for the readers. I could gush even more about his commentary on power in relation to information, squeal about how the main characters and their roles in society reflect the values those societies hold dear. I could blather on about how the ending is a glorious refutation of stories we as civilized, economically focused, western Europeans have told ourselves about ourselves. I could highlight that accepting and promoting the education, validity, and intelligence of a society’s oppressed groups can bring about greater freedom for everyone is a theme that both the spiders and humans share. Instead, I will say Children of Time is easily one of my favorite books of this year, if not one of my favorite books ever. It is not perfect, even though all I want to do is talk about it. The initial human chapters did nothing for me and felt standard and unexciting until I started looking backwards. It requires a lot of buy in from the reader to feel the nuances and the gears turning while reading. However, every moment of build up is worth it as the payoff is one of the coolest takes on evolution and alien competition I have ever read. The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends you check out Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Rating: Children of Time – 10/10
-Alex