2010: Odyssey Two – Starry-Eyed Sequel

Before I start this review, a few orders of business must be addressed. First: we have an unwritten rule at The Quill To Live that we don’t review sequels unless we have reviewed previous installments. Look at me, shirking tradition, braving the unknown just like Clarke’s fictional spacefarers! Well, not quite. Though we never reviewed 2001: A Space Odyssey, I did write an essay about its impact on me as a reader. It also made an appearance on our “Best ‘Buts’ of SFF” list. If I had given it a score, it would’ve been a perfect 10. Second order of business: as I mentioned in my love letter to 2001, the novel and movie that sparked this sequel were produced in parallel, rather than in succession. As a result, the book and movie differ on some points, and Clarke, perhaps understanding the widespread impact of the film, chose to favor the movie’s details over his prose treatment. I can’t imagine it will throw too many readers off, and he does mention this in the mass market paperback’s intro letter. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting. 

With those notes out of the way, let’s jump into 2010: Odyssey Two. From this point on, though, beware of 2001 spoilers.

2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey earns its spot among the sci-fi greats. Both a daring sequel to one of the genre’s masterpieces and a resonant story on its own, 2010 is damn near perfect, save for a few standard Clarke faults. For anyone interested in a journey into the unknown mysteries of our solar system and a pioneering expedition into the future of humanity, 2010 is a perfect launchpad. 

Clarke’s successor to his spacefaring masterpiece is…another spacefaring masterpiece. 2010 puts Heywood Floyd front and center, following his supporting role in the early chapters of 2001. Floyd uproots his happy life in Hawaii (his house overlooks the ocean, and dolphins swim up to greet him every day) in favor of a trek toward Jupiter, where the U.S. spaceship Discovery was left derelict after mysterious events involving astronauts Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and supercomputer HAL-9000. Floyd and a few fellow American astronauts are slotted into the crew of the Leonov, a Russian ship destined to head for Jupiter. The team-up between the U.S. and Russia becomes necessary to reach Discovery before other nations try to claim the derelict ship. Their primary opponent is China, who builds a space station shrouded in mystery, then uses it to launch a ship on course for Jupiter. That ship–Tsien— will by all calculations arrive well before the Leonov and allow China to salvage, i.e. steal, Discovery’s remains despite the diplomatic ill will it could generate. 

However, despite the excitement in all of this plot, it is all just the setup. Clarke does a frankly amazing job creating a conflict for the members of Leonov’s crew. As the space race kicks off, the pressure is high and tension is thick. But the sprint to recover Discovery only serves as a springboard into a downright mind-boggling narrative. Clarke’s prose is perfect. There’s no other way I can put it. He keeps one foot firmly planted in real scientific concepts and the other on cosmic hypotheticals with fascinating (sometimes terrifying) implications. The imposing monolith returns, and a few staple characters from 2001 reprise their roles in 2010, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the wonderful reveals Clarke has in store for first time Odyssey-goers.

Clarke’s one-two punch of prose and plot is a difficult combination to beat. After all, there’s a reason one of science fiction’s most lauded awards is named after the guy. His mastery is on full display here, just as it was in 2001. There’s a new surprise on every page, and you’re ushered to them gently by his lyrical descriptions of space and its myriad mysteries. Clarke is a sci-fi treasure, and this book proves it. 

Most readers, even the Clark diehards, would likely agree with my lofty statements about the author’s prose and plots. I’d also say that they’d heartily support my claims that Clarke prefers to let characters take a backseat to those elements. 2010 is no exception. Beyond a few names and roles on the Leonov, there’s little I could tell you about each character in 2010, except for a few iconic returning cast members. If you’re a character-driven reader, Clarke’s not going to satiate your particular palate. But if you can see past the shallow characterization, you’ll be treated to a smorgasbord of hyper-visual science writing that drops you right into the dark vacuum of space. Reading Clarke is like floating through the solar system and understanding all that you see, even if that understanding means accepting that the mysteries of space are incomprehensible to the untrained mind. It’s a delicate, sometimes confusing balance. But for me, Clarke’s shunting of character depth works in 2010’s favor. 

And if you stick with 2010, be prepared for an ending that’ll send goosebumps up your arms. I’ve read this book twice now, and each time I turned the final page with wide eyes and my jaw agape. Every speck of Clarke’s story culminates in a stunning climax, and I believe this to be a near-perfect conclusion. 

To remove my (hopefully obvious) love for the Odyssey series and give an objective opinion on 2010 is admittedly difficult. On the fence about Clarke? My suggestion is to try 2001 and let it serve as a barometer. If you want more after that, rest assured that Clarke delivers tenfold (or should I say 2010-fold?!) in the sequel. And once you close this quick and elegantly written sci-fi tome, you’ll feel in awe of our universe and curious about both the glorious treasures and dangers it may contain. 

If you can’t get enough of the Odyssey series, check out my 2010 Page2Screen conversation with Ian Simmons of KickSeat.com. In our latest episode, we discuss 2010 and it’s film…”adaptation.”

Rating: 2010: Odyssey Two – 9.5/10

-Cole

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

Unconquerable Sun – It Will Brighten Your Day with a Nuclear Radiance

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never read a Kate Elliott book before. I didn’t even realize how prolific a writer she is until someone recently pointed it out to me. While I consider myself pretty adventurous, this definitely feels like a glaring blind spot. Absent literally any other segue, what caught my eyes about this book is it’s marketing tagline “gender-swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” Normally, I don’t care for marketing, but something as simple and high concept as that will reel me in. Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott, is a thrilling and intricate space opera that excels in worldbuilding and character development while delivering a relentlessly paced and heart-pounding plot. 

The book follows Sun, the current presumed heir to the Queen Marshall Eirene of the Republic of Chaonia. She just declared a major victory in a battle with one of the Republic’s oldest enemies, the Phene Empire, and is hoping to be announced as successor. However, her mother Eirene has other plans for her and sends her on a tour of the solar systems within Chaonian control. During this quasi victory parade/media relations tour, someone makes an attempt on Sun’s life, making her think a larger plot is afoot. Meanwhile, Persephone, a daughter of one of the major houses within the Chaonian court, is being roped back into the family’s political games after running away to the military academy. She doesn’t know what they have in store for her, and she wants no part of it as she becomes one of Sun’s Companions. As the intrigue of succession becomes more palpable, the Phene Empire and its sometimes friendly rival, the Yele League, plan for revenge to put the Republic of Chaonia back in its place. 

Let’s get this out of the way. Unconquerable Sun is a blast that glued my eyes to the page every time I opened it back up. Elliott spends an incredible amount of unwasted effort building the world her characters inhabit. She spreads a metric ass-ton of detail through the entire story, and does so with finesse, never bogging down the rest of the story. Elliott leaves no stone unturned as she describes everything from the military impact of a technology that enables interstellar travel, to the cultures that make up the different empires. Elliott adds a weight to the history of these galaxy-spanning empires I rarely experience, let alone find as captivating as the Republic of Chaonia and its struggle for autonomy. If I were to list everything I found cool about this book, it would take up several pages, but even that wouldn’t cover the effort Elliott goes through to make these little details add up and feel relevant to the story being told. 

Speaking of the plot, this book felt like riding a roller coaster while also spinning plates, and Elliott pulls it off. It’s bombastic, and constantly feels like the tension is rising. There are one or two moments of breathing room to allow the reader to digest everything happening, but I never felt that I couldn’t keep track of everything happening. Elliott really covers all the bases in Unconquerable Sun with political intrigue, chase scenes, one-on-one combat sections, epic space battles and powerful character dynamics that drive the emotional arcs of the main characters. On top of all that, the characters are wonderful to read, with more depth than I was expecting for something that already felt filled to the brim. I could lavish the rest of the review about Sun and Persephone and how fun and thoughtful the side characters were, but I’ll just say this: the characters are fantastic top to bottom in the book, and there are too many to really get in-depth about. 

Instead, I want to talk about Elliott’s writing, which is easily my favorite thing about this book, even after everything else I’ve mentioned. Her prose is not particularly flowery, but it is also more fleshed out than functional. Descriptions serve a purpose but add a little whimsy to everything to make it feel fantastical. However, her choice to tell Persephone’s story (and a few other side characters’ stories), through the first person, while telling Sun’s through a third person is absolutely masterful. I don’t know any other way to put it that is less gushing. It lent a human touch to Persephone and the people surrounding Sun while imbuing Sun with this mythic quality. The audience receives no inner monologue from Sun, dispelling any chance at understanding her doubts and fears. The reader is subject specifically to what Sun’s companions see, and what Elliott chooses to express in the third person. Because of that, Sun is an avatar of indomitable will, pure conviction, and ruthless cleverness. She will win, or die trying, and Sun does not try. Not only does Elliott manage to bestow this mythic quality on Sun, she tells you she is doing it, and got me rooting for her like some ecstatic fan all the same. 

Unconquerable Sun is not without fault, but the few issues I had were so inconsequential they were overpowered by everything I already mentioned. The book is through and through a delight to read. The world feels grounded but incredibly rich and new. The characters are enjoyable and easy to relate to, even Sun who always feels slightly distant. I cannot wait for the next book in the series, and I will definitely have to look at Elliott’s other books to fill the void. 

Rating: Unconquerable Sun – 9.5/10 

Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10

Future Tense Fiction – A Variety of Hope and Anxiety

Future Tense Fiction

After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths. 

First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology. 

Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.

Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.

All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense. 

Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10

-Alex

P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you. 

2001: An Odd Space Essay

Nearly two years ago, I sat in Chicago’s beautifully ornate Music Box theatre at the peak of the venue’s 70MM film festival eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to begin. Next to me sat Ian Simmons, a friend, a coworker, and a movie critic/superhero capable of producing three or more podcast reviews per week for his site, Kicking the Seat. Just a few months prior, Ian and I exchanged a few messages about possibly partnering on a podcast series that paired my blog (the now-defunct ColeTries.com, where I posted about my adventures into the unknown and the uncomfortable) with his site. Our first toe-dip into the waters of the collaboration was a viewing of The Fate of the Furious, which we both enjoyed, though for my part (and hopefully Ian’s), not nearly as much as we enjoyed the prospects of our joint interests in storytelling and what makes something “good” or “bad.” Enter Late Screening, a monthly podcast series in which Ian would subject me to a movie I’d never seen before and, by most accounts, should’ve seen long ago. I’m talking classics like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and countless others. We cooked up a list of missed movie opportunities and started scheduling showings.

That first experience led to a cavalcade of horizon-broadening movie-binging that completely changed my outlook as a reader. Game-changing literary or cinematic favorites appear with such irregularity that it’s easy to dismiss new experiences as “not my thing.” On one night I’m tempted to call fateful, 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the film and its prosaic treatment, looked me dead in the eye and overhauled my entire bookish world for the better.

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic fell somewhere within the first few months of our moviegoing calendar, and I distinctly remember sitting in the Music Box’s butt-numbing chair hoping desperately that the film wouldn’t bore my brains out. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, I walked home fueled by an insatiable appetite for fan theories, reviews, any piece of content that would tell me more about 2001. The following day, still jarred by Kubrick’s cinematic journey into deep space and what lies within it, I spoke on the podcast and came to the determination on-air that this was a storytelling masterpiece.

And then I read the book.

Perhaps out of sheer aggravation that I wouldn’t shut up about 2001, my then partner bought me Arthur C. Clarke’s unique prose treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unique is probably an understatement here–Clarke wrote the novel as he and Kubrick developed the film, so neither is a true adaptation of the other. Instead, they exist as slightly different expressions of the same idea. Kubrick’s film boasts incredible scope paired with audiovisual mastery. Clarke’s novel paints a stunning panorama of space’s enormity relative to the human race and somehow makes it entirely relatable.

For me, this one-two punch of near-flawless filmmaking and delectable writing sparked a hunger for a first-class ticket to the massive pantheon of science fiction.

Clarke’s prose in 2001 delicately orbits perfection, often to the point of leaving characterization in its lyrical wake. World-building through resonant and poetic descriptions of space takes control from start to finish. It’s not the best book ever, and it’s not my all-time number one, but it’s damn close. And to me, what matters more is that Clarke’s work left a permanent mark on my bookworm psyche and busted open a page-devouring stargate in the part of my brain that sees a book on a shelf and demands it be read. 2001 ushered me on a personal interstellar maiden voyage into a genre I would previously avoid for no good reason. While Kubrick’s film made a meteoric rise to the top of my favorite movie list, Clarke’s book ignited a completely new reading frontier. I explored other classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to fill the HAL- and Bowman-sized void on my to-read shelves. I’ve plunged headfirst into Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy (thanks to an added push from the rest of the QTL staff).

Immediately after I came down from the interplanetary high of movie and novel alike, I devoured the remainder of the series in a matter of weeks (regretfully in the case of 3001: The Final Odyssey–stay away at all costs).

Like some of my other favorite stories–Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Fables among them–2001: A Space Odyssey provided me with an endlessly chaseable adrenaline rush. I knew the film was special even as I was watching it for the first time, and I knew the book would change me from the first page. And the results are tangible. Ian and I launched a second series, Page2Screen, to showcase and discuss book-movie adaptations. Notably, A Space Odyssey earned a slot on the schedule, and more recently, that same podcast series opened up yet another genre to me with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

My fantasy-filled world opened up to include a pillar of the literary world I was content to leave unexplored. To imagine a world without 2001 feels impossible now, and the series of events that brought me there felt like a story worth telling to fellow readers. If you’ve held off on that off-kilter, unread, unfamiliar book, pick it up. It may be your next game-changer.

The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.

Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.

The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.

The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.

To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.

I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.

The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.

Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10

-Alex

Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

Umbrella

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole