Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie; The Martian by Andy Weir

I listened to 2 science fiction audiobooks recently: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and The Martian by Andy Weir. Reviews of both below:
Ann Leckie has been hailed as an extraordinary new voice in science fiction. In a genre dominated by male writers, a largely male readership and a male perspective, Leckie's novel, Ancillary Justice, about a genderless society has been seen as a useful corrective. In a remarkable achievement the book won all the major science fiction awards this year: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Locus Award. This unification of all the belts will undoubtedly bring in many readers who don't normally bother with the genre. Ancillary Justice is space opera that deals with the consequences of a fairly benign hegemonic civilization taking over a world that dared to oppose them. Told from the perspective of a ship AI in a human body (the book never explained why the ships needed frail human bodies when robot technology was so advanced) it's a novel about guilt and regret with a unique view of gender tropes as a main subtheme. Female pronouns are used throughout Ancillary Justice and all the main characters are described as being female (although this isn't really the case). I think it's great that the major sci-fi award giving bodies are finally recognising the talent of female writers, writers who challenge the conventions of dull male sci-fi with its explosions and star ships and the like. The promotion and recognition of female sci fi writers is a long over due corrective in what is often a bit of a boys club. There's only slight problem with all this and that is the fact that Ancillary Justice, alas, isn't that interesting a book. Yes its Iain Banks style intelligent space opera but the story is a little slow even for me (& I dig slow), the characters are weak, the ideas have a recycled feel to them. If you've read a lot of sci-fi you'll probably recall that Ursula Le Guin was doing gender politics 40 years ago in the classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. If Ancillary Justice is as sophisticated and philosophical as science fiction gets in 2014 then the intellectual side of the genre is in big trouble. Fortunately this is only my opinion and judging by the reviews on Amazon the book has MANY fans who love it, so if you're at all interested you should probably check it out for yourself.
The Martian by Andy Weir is a different kettle of fish. It's the story of an astronaut on Mars who - through a series of disastrous accidents - is abandoned on the planet by the rest of his crew and must somehow survive without food or water or communication equipment with Earth. Reading like a Mars based version of Ron Howard's Apollo 13 meets the Mythbusters The Martian is an extended series of hard sci-fi engineering problems converted into drama. I mean this not as a criticism but as a compliment. The fact that Mars is an impossibly difficult environment for any human to live on makes every single mistake or accident a potentially fatal one. The Martian is an exciting book and is a classic of what is known as hard science fiction for people who appreciate the beauty of mathematics, engineering and...botany. Yes, botany. The scenes where our stranded Crusoe attempts to grow potatoes (so he won't starve to death) is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. The fact that Weir tells this story with humour, wit, irony and a brisk economy made this a very enjoyable listen indeed.