‘Armada’ by Ernest Cline

Armada-by-Ernest-ClineThe Armada is coming. An Armada of aliens that is – from a videogame, that main character Zack Lightman and his friends play nightly. Has Zack gone insane?

This is how Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada begins as we delve into the very confused and tormented mind of eighteen-year-old Zack Lightman. The high school senior, like many high school seniors, is entirely unsure of what he wants to do with his future, and knows only what he loves. In Zack’s case, this is playing videogames, particularly Armada. In Armada Zack fights, along with his friends online, to save Earth from the Sobrukai, an alien clan of octopus-like creatures yearning to take over Earth and extinguish humanity.

When Zack looks out of the window of his classroom and sees a ship that looks exactly like a Sobrukai ship from Armada, he begins to wonder if he is losing his mind, like he suspects his late father did. From here the plot unravels into an intricate conspiracy theory about the intention behind numerous science fiction films, books and videogames, luring the reader into the book with a hook that makes you question your own reality.

The typical trope of “regular boy becomes hero” is what moves Armada forward, but Cline uses this trope in such a way that he imbues it with a fresh and unique aura. Though Zack’s story echoes so many other science fiction hero narratives, particularly that of Luke Skywalker, the setting and contemporary references make the plot so palpable that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. Cline is continually referencing not only popular videogames and science fiction characters that only the ultimate geek will pick up on, but he also weaves classic rock references into nearly every chapter calling out the old school rock nerds as well with his laugh out loud comments.

There are also certain points where the plot seems overly contrived, but once you step back and realize that all novels are in fact contrived and there’s sometimes no way around bridging the gaps in a story except by making certain things happen that need to happen, you can move past this hiccup. Plus, Cline’s characters give such weight to Armada, that you can easily overlook these seemingly forced spots and keep going with fervor.

Overall, Armada is by far one of the most engaging reads of 2015. The characters, plot, references and tone of Armada propel you into this near futuristic world with a gusto that results in absolute immersion. After the success of his first novel, Ready Player One, Cline has done it again, creating a fascinating world that seems so real, you will begin to question your own sanity.

Released by Crown Publishing on July 14, 2015, Armada is available at your local bookstore.

Read more science fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The book of Strange New ThingsWhat makes us human: love, compassion, faith? What happens when we are stripped of human contact with the people we love most, when we are encouraged to flout compassion in favor of rationality, when faith is all that is left for us and we aren’t sure we even want or can muster an ounce of pure belief? These are only a few of the questions Michel Faber addresses in his latest novel The Book of Strange New Things. A literary adventure into the speculative world of aliens, religion, and relationships, Faber paints a reality peopled with the unexpected, the unsavory, and the utterly flawed.

Peter Leigh is a pastor recruited by the USIC, a government corporation that has recently taken over NASA as well as other large corporations and sectors, to act as a missionary on a newly colonized planet Oasis. Peter is forced to leave behind his wife, Bea, who the USIC will not allow to accompany him on the undertaking even though all of their missionary work has been done as a team in the past. In leaving Bea, Peter feels that he’s not only left the better part of himself behind, but that he is failing in his pastoral duties without Bea’s scrutiny and levelheadedness.

Upon entering the Oasan atmosphere, Peter befriends the USIC staff as well as the native Oasan people the latter of who hunger for his knowledge of Christianity. Apart from Peter’s day-to-day action, we are also privy to a series of letters, epistles as Peter calls them, between himself and Bea. At first they are affectionate and filled with the mundane conversation of everyday life that the couple were used to having prior to their separation. As the gap of time between their last moments together widens though, the physical gap of the distance between them becomes more palpable, and the metaphysical connection that they once thought so strong is deeply shaken. Peter becomes more distanced and distracted by his mission as Bea becomes wrapped up in the world around her which she describes to Peter as being in a steep decline.

Peter becomes a frustrating character that despite or perhaps in light of his understanding and calmness shifts into an almost vapid husband. Though he claims to love his wife, his letters to her lack the emotion he wishes to portray, and the words that come out on paper betray his idealistic notions of love amidst a world so far away from Bea’s problems. Similarly, it is hard for the reader to sympathize with Bea, since all we have of her in terms of contact are her letters to Peter. We know she is suffering, that things are going badly on Earth, and that she is not getting the emotional support that she needs from Peter, but we also see her lack of understanding for her husband’s issues on a planet that she can’t even conceive of. Both lovers are caught in their own worlds, unable to understand, sympathize or support one another in the way that they used to, and they are forced to question if their love can survive despite these obstacles.

Throughout the arc of Peter and Bea’s relationship, we see the strains and constraints that love is capable of, and perhaps the limits of its power. Peter’s fidelity to his wife comes into question as he begins to fantasize about other women in a St. Augustine-esque fashion, feeling immediate guilt for what he sees as the inherently male reactions to a woman’s body and sexuality.

A book that explores all angles of humanity in a way that forces you to question your own ethics, morals and understanding of the natural ways of the world, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is an adventure into the depths of the human soul.

Released by Hogarth, you can find The Book of Strange New Things at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The Martian, written by Andy Weir.

The Martian by Andy Weir.

The title, the cover, the very concept of The Martian gives the illusion that its pages will be peopled with green aliens, intergalactic war, and other typical science-fiction paraphernalia. Andy Weir, though, writes The Martian not as some wild and fancifully romantic sci-fi novel, but as an engineer would write a book: entirely precise, absolutely plausible, and with zero fluff tolerated. And so it is that Weir sets the stage for his main character Mark Watney’s abandonment on Mars.

The novel begins in the aftermath of a freak accident that both nearly kills astronaut Watney, and proves to save his life. Watney comes to consciousness, and reflecting on his situation opens the book with the infamous first words: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Now it’s up to Watney to survive what would appear to be a death sentence with only his engineering and botany skills to help. As the novel progresses though, we see that it is also his positivity and perseverance that pull him along. These attributes, coupled with his very base human urges and desires, are what make Watney a character you find yourself rooting for more and more.

Watney is not the only character whose mind we are granted access to though. NASA Mission Director Venkat Kapoor, satellite engineer Mindy Park, and even members of Watney’s crew make their way into the novel to break up the journal entries that lead us into Watney’s character.

Watney’s account, most especially, tends to be pretty dense with technical content allowing for people like me (non-engineering minded readers) to occasionally gloss the text, glass over, or lose a visual of what’s going on. As a technical writer and editor, I’m familiar with reading just this kind of content, and I am equally familiar with employing all of the above techniques to get through it. However, for the average person who hasn’t taken a chemistry class in 10 plus years, Watney’s technicality and specificity can be a bit burdensome. For those like my scientifically minded engineering colleagues, the book is not only a breeze, but an accomplishment among a genre often riddled with improbabilities and unrealistic scenarios.

One of the most engaging aspects about The Martian, is Weir’s deep knowledge and wild imagination that he in turn imparts upon Watney and the book’s other characters. Whether you understand every concept or action, the book refuses to tip to the side of boring or burdensome as it might threaten to for some readers.

It might help that the characters are so endearing and engaging despite their, at times, despicable demeanors. Though raw and unkempt, Weir’s characters are all too human and thereby more relatable than the sometimes contrived characters of genre fiction novels. Weir isn’t trying to do anything with these characters except to make them who they are, and he does a superb job of compelling readers to find sympathy for and relate to even the most obnoxious of characters.

Most importantly, Weir’s cast speaks directly to the themes and intentions underlying his book. As he notes in the afterword, Weir’s goal is to show that humanity is not doomed to complacency or selfishness. When Watney gets trapped on Mars, every person at NASA, in China, and on earth is not only rooting for him, but pooling their collective resources to get him home. Weir invokes a sense of comradery among the human race, which (whether it is true of the humanity outside of his novel or not) invokes the ideal that humans have “a fundamental desire to help one another.” Though Weir may arguably be romanticizing this theme to a certain degree, it is definitely a quality that we busy, bustling, self-absorbed humans could use a reminder about once in a while.

The perfect marriage of technical and narrative writing, The Martian makes a perfect read for say a book club where you have engineers and book nerds in one place.

Though recently acquired by Broadway Books and Crown Publishing, divisions of Random House LLC, Weir is the poster child for self-publishing success. Originally released as an e-book in 2011 and sold for 99 cents, Weir’s novel was not only picked up by a major publisher, but a movie is already in the works. Staring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film is slated for release in September 2015. Even though Weir assisted in writing the screenplay, read The Martian before you see the film so that you can experience Weir’s unique writing style, enrapturing characters, and insanely plausible scenarios just as they are meant to be experienced.

If this book review peaked your interest, pick up a copy of The Martian at your local book store.

Read more science fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.