Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION: Addictive New Weird!

February 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

Cover art for ANNIHILATION

In Annihilation, we follow journey of the twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. All the members of the previous parties have met strange and unexplained fates – some returned home a shell of their former selves; others died of ravaging illnesses and many were never seen again.

The twelfth expedition party consists of a psychologist, a biologist, and anthropologist, a surveryor and a linguist. The biologist, emotionally disconnected and highly analytical, tells us the story from the pages of her observational journal.

Soon after establishing their base camp, the team comes across an enormous tunnel descending into the earth. Inside this tunnel, the biologist finds evidence that a sentient being is scrawling erudite messages over the walls. Upon closer inspection, the biologist finds that the messages are written in living fungi.
As she leans in to take a sample, the fungi release a stream of spores into the air. After she accidentally inhales one, the biologist begins to monitor herself for any signs of illness or behavioural change. The first effect that she notices, however, is a sudden immunity to the hypnotic instruction that the psychologist is still administering to the surveyor, the anthropologist and the linguist.

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Alternate cover art for ANNIHILATION

Why is the psychologist hypnotising the team? What is her agenda? What is the Southern Reach, and who are they? What do they expect the team to find in Area X that the eleven expeditions before did not? Who, or what, is writing on the walls of the tunnel, and where did it come from? Now that she can see through the psychologist’s façade of natural leadership, the biologist knows that the unknown landscape of Area X is not the only danger she will face on this expedition.

Annihilation is written in epistolary format – that is, as a journal. The biologist, whose name we never learn, consciously refrains from connecting with her fellow explorers in an emotional context in favour of immersing herself in her environment. Much like Dr Caldwell from The Girl with All the Gifts, the biologist is wholly focused on her work. As she recounts events from her life before entering Area X, we begin to see that she has always been this way – almost frightening in her coldness. When her self-preservation instincts kick in, though, she’s downright terrifying.

Annihilation features minimal characterisation, and what we do see is only through the eyes of the nameless biologist. Because she is utterly uninterested in engaging with her fellow explorers, she gives us very little idea of what her companions are actually like. We get the general idea that the psychologist is up to something, that the anthropologist can’t hack it in Area X, and that the surveyor is driven mad, but we spend most of the narrative inside the biologist’s head. As you might be able to guess, this makes for an uncomfortable and somewhat alienating read.
The biologist elaborates on her own past through ruminations on her marriage. A solitary person, the biologist found that she was at constant odds with her outgoing, social husband. As she delves deeper into Area X, she descends into a sort of madness, whereby she ends up pulling her marriage apart.

ANNIHILATION 1

  Annihilation clearly takes its cues from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there are other influences at work here too. The landscape of Area X is a living thing, and it becomes the biologist’s adversary, partner, lover and self.  And let me just clarify, when I say the landscape is alive, I literally mean that it is made of living, breathing tissue. I found this fascinating and quite disturbing, and the glimpses that I got of it were just not enough. As I’m sure you can predict, Vandermeer has taken a leaf out of the Necronomicon here – Annihilation has a distinctly Lovecraftian vibe. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the mysterious being scrawling strange messages inside the Tunnel is a Great Old One, to be honest.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

Cover art for AUTHORITY, to be released in May 2014.

I burned through Annihilation in twenty four hours. I was addicted to the suspense, and the ever-present sense of foreboding that was only heightened by the cliff-hanger ending. Thankfully, Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance in May and September respectively (side note – how great is it that they’re all coming out in one year?). If you’re a fan of horror, suspense, dystopian SF, New Weird or anything vaguely Lovecraftian, I highly recommend you grab your copy ASAP!

I received a proof copy of Annihilation in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Pulp Fiction!

If you’re in Brisbane, buy your copy of Annihilation from Pulp Fiction. Add them on Facebook here, and follow their Twitter here – shoot them a message and they’ll sort you out.

Speaking of which, I have a Twitter also!

 

M. R. Carey’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS: The Next Big Zombie Thing.

January 22, 2014 § 3 Comments

Cover art for The Girl with All the Gifts

Cover art for The Girl with All the Gifts

Ten year-old Melanie wakes fresh every day for her lessons. Sergeant comes to strap her in her wheelchair, making sure to restrain her hands and feet, and she’s taken to the classroom to begin the day’s teachings. Melanie is exceptionally bright, and she adores the days when Miss Justineau takes the class. Because she has never exited the compound in which she lives, Melanie’s exposure to the outside world is limited to the knowledge her teachers can give her. And because she has never known any different, she is unable to recognise that all of the adults around her are deathly afraid of what happens if she ever gets free.

Look, I have to tell you something. A lot of other reviews of this book are withholding this piece of information for fear of posting a dreaded spoiler, but I can tell you with one hundred per cent certainty that knowing this will not change your experience of this book. It’s got too many twists and turns for this small detail to be a spoiler. Right, so: Melanie is a zombie.

Put aside what you think you know about zombie novels. Forget 28 Days Later, and the monkey-borne virus. Put World War Z out of your mind, because it’s too late for the W.H.O to do anything about this outbreak. And don’t even think about assembling your unwanted record collection, a la Shaun of the Dead, because there’s absolutely no point in trying to combat these Walking Dead.

In The Girl with All the Gifts, society as we know it is long dead. What remains is the military run compound in which Melanie and her classmates are housed, and, somewhere out there, the survivalist citadel of Beacon. The rest of the world has been decimated by the “hungries” – the first wave of the zombie epidemic. Like the Boneys of Warm Bodies, the hungries resemble the zombies that we know and fear. So what, then, is Melanie, and why is the military scared of her?

In addition to being an exceptional zombie novel, The Girl with All the Gifts is also a compelling character study. Through the eyes of five very different characters, Carey dissects the new world that has emerged from the husk of humanity’s society, and man, does he do it well.
The five point-of-view characters represent a fascinating cross-section of the post-apocalyptic community: Miss Justineau, kind-hearted and fiercely protective teacher; the adamantly militaristic Sergeant; naïve and innocent Private Gallagher; chilling Dr Caldwell, and of course, Melanie. This eclectic collection of perspectives allows Carey to examine the state of the world from different angles, and in considerable depth.
Carey makes masterful use of the five POV characters to build tension and suspense. I found that he continually tripped up my expectations of a multiple perspective narrative, which made the book all the more surprising. ASOIAF has trained me to expect that when something interesting happens to a character, perspective will smash-cut to one of twenty-something other people. Not so with The Girl with All the Gifts: when something interesting happens, Carey keeps focus on the situation itself, even if he switches character perspective. This makes the book feel quite immediate, and a little bit cinematic.

This is the new zombie.

This is the new zombie. Scared? You should be.

Dr Caldwell, the researcher on base, is a truly chilling character. She is single-mindedly devoted to her life’s research, and genuinely does not seem to care about anything else. She systematically abducted Melanie’s classmates, one by one, so that she may dissect them and glean an understanding of the true nature of the end of the world. She has no issue with restricting life-saving resources from her fellow humans if it means that she can have peace and quiet to conduct her work, and holds onto her life with the sole intent of finding an answer. By the end of the book, it is apparent that her intent is pure selfishness in the guise of utilitarianism – an eerily familiar concept.

The thing is, Caldwell’s efforts amount to nothing anyway. Even after she dedicates her life to finding the answer, the answer has no effect on the outcome of the apocalypse. The fact that she knows this, and continues to single-mindedly seek answers at the expense of her peers, is nothing short of scary.

Where Caldwell is repulsive and alienating, Miss Justineau is wholly relatable. She has honour, and loves hugely, but she also breaks down in the face of overwhelming horror. She rages against the injustice of restraining children, but also recognises the vulnerability of her fellow travellers. At the novel’s conclusion, she accepts the state of the world that has shifted from underneath her. Her comparison to Caldwell makes the latter seem all the more monstrous. The tension between them is palpable!

There are parts of this book that are strikingly gory, but I kind of loved that about it. The violence and gore brings into focus the stark horror of a reality in which unknown monsters rule. That being said, I’m told that my tastes do run toward the bleak…

Too late, Shaun. Your records and cricket bats are no use now.

Too late, Shaun. Your records and cricket bats are no use now.

In an age of interminable trilogies and cliffhanger endings, The Girl with All The Gifts is a true standalone novel. Sure, the frightening world could be explored more in another book, but I was satisfied with the resolved narrative in the end. It does draw the inevitable comparison to Cronin’s The Passage. If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I– I never actually finished The Passage. I’ve tried three times, but I always find that it just drags. I lose motivation to complete the book, can’t be bothered investing in new characters and trying to care about their situations. With a stack of unread books nearly as tall as I am, I’m unlikely to go back to The Passage anytime soon. Unlike The Passage, I could not put The Girl with All the Gifts down. In fact, I am sporting a spectacular bruise on my thigh because I was walking around reading, and ran straight into the corner of my bed.

With the possible exception of Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse, Carey’s apocalypse scenario is one of the best I’ve ever read. He takes our traditional understanding of the zombie myth, turns it upside down, cuts it all up and reassembles it. It is stunningly cool, highly original and quite frightening. In The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey shows us that the end of the world as we know it does not mean that it is the end of the world as a whole – and maybe we should just accept it.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS will be available at PULP FICTION BOOKSELLERS in Brisbane City this week. Call them on (07) 3236 2750 to reserve a copy, or hit them up on Facebook here. 

Are you a fan of zombie books? Check out these too!

– Mira Grant’s Parasite,
– Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant,
– Mur Lafferty’s The Shambling Guide to New York City
 and J T Clay’s The Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Happy reading!

 

Mira Grant’s PARASITE – Best thriller of the year.

November 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

Those little pills contain TAPEWORMS. NOPENOPENOPE.

Want a copy? Click the picture.

I’ve always had a weakness for medical thrillers. Back in high school, I went through a Robin Cook phase, and I’m not even embarrassed to admit that to you all.  When I picked up PARASITE on one of my frequent trips to the bookstore, I was immediately drawn to the concept of medical parasites. Although I didn’t enjoy Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy, I decided to buy it anyway. PARASITE turned out to be the best second chance I ever gave an author.

After a car accident nearly killed her, Sally was reliant on life support. But just as her family were preparing to turn the machines off, Sal opened her eyes and sat up. The genetically modified tapeworm secreting tailored medication, vitamins and minerals in her gut had somehow brought her from a coma to consciousness. Sally Mitchell owes her life to the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard™.
Although she no longer remembers being Sally, Sal learns to walk, talk, eat and clothe herself all over again. Thanks to the Intestinal Bodyguard™, she has a second chance at life.
Sal is the first person whose implant delivered her from a coma. Now that she represents the enormous potential of the Intestinal Bodyguard™ Sal’s body has become highly valuable to the biggest company in the world… and SymboGen won’t let her forget it.
Sal isn’t stupid. She knows that SymboGen track her every move – she is simply too important for them to lose track of. Since her living memory only extends back six years, and given that she’d be dead without her tapeworm, she’s not really in a position to argue. But that doesn’t mean she trusts SymboGen, who have never really been forthcoming about why, exactly, her implant saved her.
At first, it’s a freak incident. A little girl in a shopping centre suddenly goes slack-jawed and loose-limbed, and even her mother’s frantic sobs can’t bring her back to reality. She seems to be sleepwalking, in a slumber so deep it ultimately consumes her. But then there’s another incident, and the “sleepwalker” became violent, lashing out at passers-by who got in his way. Another incident, and then another, until the “sleeping sickness” becomes a worldwide concern.
Nobody can figure out what’s caused it – except that all of the sufferers have SymboGen implants.

Sometimes humanity is the reason we can’t have nice things.

Your health is important. Choose SymboGen.

Click here to visit SymboGen.net.

Sal is such a great character; she’s strong-willed and observant, shrewd, kind and caring. She also represents a fascinating dichotomy – she has an adult understanding of her life, and is treated as an adult by those around her, but can only remember being alive for six years. She is at once mature and naïve, and always dependent on those around her. With a medical doctor for a father, a sceptical parasitologist as a boyfriend, and the CEO of SymboGen as her protector, Sal is at the very epicentre of the sleeping sickness conspiracy. The world at large knows that it’s related to the implant, but Sal’s boyfriend Nathan suspects the company is withholding critical information from the medical community. Uniquely positioned to obtain this information, Sal begins to feel the pressure from all sides. And underneath it all, she’s worried. After all, Sal has an implant too…

Almost unintentionally, PARASITE raises some interesting ethical issues. If you wake up one day and don’t remember who you are, are you someone entirely new? Is there such a thing as cellular memory, and if there isn’t, do you have a right to the relationships and achievements of the person you don’t remember being? On the other hand, SymboGen has much to answer for. There’s no denying the fact their genetically modified Intestinal Bodyguards™ are evidence that the company has no qualms about playing God. But if something that hurts the few can truly benefit the many, is it right to withhold information about its potential danger?

I think what I found most interesting was the exploration of the ethics of the creators of the Intestinal Bodyguard™. A modified tapeworm spliced with the DNA of other organisms, D. Symbogenesis is the brainchild of three parasitologists. Pioneering the idea that parasites are our friends, Dr Steven Banks has fronted up SymboGen since the implant boomed. His mentality is gradually revealed throughout the novel in snippets of his interview entitled “King of the Worms”, published in Rolling Stone. Dr Cale was directly responsible for the final incarnation of the implant. She reveals her thoughts in excerpts of “Can of Worms”, her unpublished autobiography, where she dishes on the truth behind the world’s most important parasite. And the third doctor? Well. His thoughts come in the form of a suicide note.

“If you believed that D. Symbogenesis was the simple, easily controlled organism SymoGen described in their press releases and paperwork, you have been sold a bottle of snake oil.”

Incidentally, this was my reaction when I first Googled "parasite" with the intent to find the cover art.

Incidentally, this was my reaction when I first Googled “parasite” with the intent to find the cover art.

PARASITE is the best thriller I’ve read this year. This is mostly due to the fact that it was absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. I was waiting for it to eventually morph into a zombie novel, but it didn’t even come close.
The concept of people purposely ingesting parasites is a serious skin-crawler, and would probably have made for an interesting book by itself. But combined with cleverly-paced revelations, genre-melding narrative and characters that you can never quite trust, and you’ve got an unpredictable, completely engrossing page-turner.

Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I found PARASITE at Pulp Fiction. Did you know Pulp Fiction supply e-books too? Buy your e-copy of Parasite from Pulp Fiction here, for $11.99, and support my favourite bookstore.

Are you, like me, oddly fascinated by parasites? You’re weird. But we’re in this together. Check out Caustic Soda’s podcast episode on parasites. Be warned, though – Caustic Soda are not for the faint-hearted!

 

Top 5: Scariest Novels for Halloween!

October 22, 2013 § 7 Comments

1. House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski

House of Leaves is the tale of a family whose house is expanding on the inside, but not on the outside. What makes this book so disturbing is not the subject matter exactly, but the convoluted way that the story is told. Danielewski paints a portrait of unravelling sanity, but it’s not like anything you’ve ever experienced before. House of Leaves is a book that must be read in print, as there is simply no way to transcribe its format to an e-reader or tablet. It will have you frantically flipping pages, turning the book upside-down and scribbling notes. You’ll sit down to read a few pages one morning, and the first time you look up from the book, it’ll be midnight. In short, House of Leaves will consume you.

What it looks like in your head when you're trying to read HoL.

What it looks like in your head when you’re trying to read HoL.

2. The Shining and Doctor Sleep – Stephen King

Alright, so it’s a bit of a cop-out to include The Shining in a list of scariest books. The Shining was published in 1977, so surely, it’s a given that it’s one of the top picks for Halloween?
Be that as it may, The Shining deserves special mention this year. Thirty-six years after its publication, Stephen King has released a sequel to his infamous novel – Doctor Sleep. Centring on the son of the protagonist of The Shining, Doctor Sleep is already gathering critical acclaim. I am yet to read it, but I think it will be my go-to on Halloween night!

NOPENOPENOPENOPE.

NOPENOPENOPENOPE.

3. The Descent – Jeff Long

I’m only halfway through The Descent, but I’m calling this one early – this book is scary as hell. Literally. And let me tell you, the 2005 film is but a mere teaser of the horrors that await you in Jeff Long’s original novel. When some unsuspecting hikers are trapped in a cave in remote Tibet, they inadvertently make the biggest discovery in known history. Underneath the surface of the earth is a sub-planet, populated with a species known as “hadals”. The world is rocked by the scientific revelation that should never have been – Hell is a real place, and it is beneath our feet. More detailed review to come, but suffice it to say, since I started this book, I haven’t been sleeping so well…

Well said, Austin, well said.

Well said, Austin, well said.

4. The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris

Although it’s not your traditional spooky Halloween novel, The Silence of the Lambs remains the most frightening novel that I have ever read. I don’t think that there is anything that scares me more than the sheer inescapability of Hannibal Lecter’s will. If he wants something from you, he will find a way to obtain it, and there is very little chance that you will be able to outsmart him in the process. He’s one of the most terrifying characters you will ever encounter. The fact that Hannibal is human (rather than supernatural) makes him all the more monstrous – especially given that he is an amalgamation of real-life serial killers. Side note: The Silence of the Lambs is the exception to the rule that the book is better than the film. In my opinion, the two are equally excellent.

If this scene doesn't scare you, nothing will.

If this scene doesn’t scare you, nothing will.

5. World War Z – Max Brooks

Are you concerned about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse? No? Read World War Z and I guarantee, you will be. This is the story of the breakdown of global society, told through the eyes of the UN Postwar Commision in the form of documents from all over the world. Beginning with “patient zero” in rural China, World War Z tracks the transmission of the virus that rapidly decimates the world’s population. Author and zombie aficionado Max Brooks takes the story of the apocalyptic epidemic and traces the environmental, social and political effect it has on the world. World War Z scared me half to death because it’s all so official. It’s easy to remember that other zombie stories are fiction because they’re told to us in a more familiar format. However, when you read governmental reports and WHO press releases detailing the way the international community is going to cope with the end of the world, the actuality of it begins to affect you.
Now, who’s ready to start planning their zombie apocalypse strategies?

Gotta admit, this scene in the film was AWESOME.

Gotta admit, this scene in the film was AWESOME.

What will you be reading this Halloween? Are you a fan of horror, and do you have any recommendations for the rest of us who only dabble?

Want to order a copy of any of these? Call Pulp Fiction Booksellers on (07) 3236-2750, or visit them here, or add them on Facebook here to keep up to date with new releases in fantasy, sci-fi, mystery and crime!

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

October 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

I buy books frequently and with very little impulse control. I am surrounded by stacks of novels, both at home and at my desk at work. I lend out my novels like I’m donating a kidney – with a wrench of effort, but no hesitation. I reread books whenever I can, because I believe that if you really love something, you can’t let it go. I recommend books to anyone who will listen to me, and sometimes, to those who won’t. I have read hundreds of books – maybe even thousands. I have read across many genres, countless authors, and endless topics.

Sometimes, I come across a book that is such a blinding example of originality that it is shocking; a book with some kind of intangible element I have never come across before. Being a seasoned reader (albeit a young one), I think that this must mean that these books are something special.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of these books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go

After reading Patrick Ness’ recent release, More Than This, I decided to bite the bullet and delve into his prolific trilogy, Chaos Walking. I had a vague idea of what the book was about, but didn’t really know much about why this series was lauded so much more than many of the other dystopian trilogies that have recently populated the YA market.

Todd lives in Prentisstown. There are no women in this place, and therefore no children. Todd is the youngest boy in the community, and in a few short weeks, he will become a man. Prentisstown is an agricultural society, and Todd has been raised by two sheep farmers, Ben and Cillian. He is forever accompanied by his dog Manchee, who he begrudgingly loves.
Prentisstown is a settlement on New World. The colonists of Prentisstown, who are loosely based on the Aamish, established their lives there in order to live a simpler, more wholesome lifestyle. When they landed on New World, the settlers were shocked to find it already inhabited. The indigenous aliens, referred to as the Spackle, launch a biological attack on their invaders. While the settlers are able to decimate any Spackle opposition to their newly claimed land, they find that their culture has been permanently altered by the Spackle’s attack. Animals can now talk, and, more importantly, the settlers of Prentisstown find that their thoughts and emotions are now projected, constantly and involuntarily, for anyone around them to hear. The settlers call this “Noise”.

The Noise has two main effects: firstly, the settlers can’t help but project their own thoughts and feelings at all times; and secondly, that they cannot stop themselves from hearing the Noise of others. This dramatically alters the interactions of the people of Prentisstown.

To tell you any more about the plot might be to give important information away, but I can tell you this: there’s a girl. The first Prentisstown has seen since all the women died, and she brings with her an unexpected silence. There’s a lie, and it’s a big one. There’s a death, and it’s heart-wrenchingly awful. There’s a murderous preacher with the violence only a zealot can truly possess. And there’s a secret…Oh man, is there ever a secret.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is written from Todd’s perspective. Never having been taught to read, Todd has some odd pronunciations and verbal tics. These are a little difficult to get used to at first, but I found that they quickly became quite endearing. Todd is forcibly innocent (a concept you will understand once you finish the book), but he isn’t naïve. It’s impossible to be, when you are constantly in the presence of the most intimate, base thoughts and feelings of everyone you’ve ever known. Ness writes with a simplicity that is both lovely and brutal, a dichotomy which encapsulates Todd’s story in general. Incidentally, I think this passage is beautiful:

Each of us knowing the other.

Each of us knowing the other.

In Todd, Patrick Ness has created a highly original incarnation of the unreliable narrator, and he does this with finesse that many adult novels are lacking. Todd is an interesting mixture of ignorance and worldliness; although he has only ever known the tiny world of Prentisstown, his access to the entire town’s thoughts and memories mean that he has been exposed to concepts and ideals far beyond the reach of his own experience. Trust means something entirely different when you can hear what everyone is thinking.
Also, just as an aside, Todd’s dog, Manchee, is hilarious. Although he can speak, he still has the intellectual and philosophical concerns of a dog. Usually, this manifests itself in him bugging Todd to let him do a poo (which I, being very immature in my sense of humour, find unspeakably funny).

The Knife of Never Letting Go has joined the ranks of Books That Have Made Me Cry on the Bus. I think I can safely say that this book was a much more emotional read than I was expecting. Although it is technically classed as young adult fiction, this is only because the protagonist is young. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction, or sci fi in general, regardless of their fondness (or otherwise) for YA. You might think you’ve read about every kind of dystopia that could possibly eventuate, but Patrick Ness is here to tell you you’re wrong. This book is different, and this author might just be my new favourite.

Tanya, over at The Yeti Says, wrote a letter to The Knife of Never Letting Go. You should check it out here.

Without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – A Further Venture into Science Fiction

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

While I’m only too happy to venture into the never-ending realm of fantasy, I’ve always steered clear of science fiction. I suppose you could say that I’ve dabbled in the genre, in a very broad sense, but my tastes veer more toward futuristic dystopia than sci-fi its purest sense. Something about science fiction intimidates me. I feel as though I don’t have the scientific brain to understand it. But then, what exactly is the true definition of science fiction? And what does it take to enjoy it?

Although I don't read much SF, I do love The X Files...the truth is out there.

Although I don’t read much SF, I do love The X Files. Does that count?

Well, clearly, I am a novice here. So I’ll defer to one of the masters of science fiction to explain the parameters of the genre:

I define science fiction as the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible. Science fiction, again, is the history of ideas, and they’re always ideas that work themselves out and become real and happen in the world.
– Ray Bradbury

I really like this definition because it is enormously broad. It encompasses the potential of science fiction, but also provides a fairly clear parameter – the possible. If there is simply no derivative potential for a concept to eventuate, then it crosses over into fantasy. If there is a real, factual basis for development, even in a fictional context, then it can be classified as science fiction. Of course, as this io9 article showcases, definitions of science fiction are as endless as its subject matter. Being quite new to science fiction, I’ve got a dizzying amount of authors, sub-genres and series to select from. I have read Ender’s Game (which I loved), Dune (which blew my mind), the obligatory Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and an interesting novel called Counting Heads, but in all honesty, I have no idea where to start with sci-fi. So I asked a trusted source for a recommendation of something that could be considered “introductory sci-fi”, and ended up with John Scalzi’s first novel, Old Man’s War.

Old Man’s War is the light-hearted story of John Perry, who signs up to the intergalactic military at the  prescribed age of seventy-five . At once funny and unsettling, this book shattered my expectations of sci-fi.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War

John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

John Perry joins the Colonial Defence Forces because there’s not much left for him on Earth. His son is grown and has his own family, and his beloved wife died a decade ago. When he reaches his seventy-fifth birthday, John ascends to the heavens with his fellow septuagenarians, all of whom are now contractually bound to defend human colonies on planets all over the universe. As they settle into life in outer space, the question on everyone’s mind is how the CDF is going to transform ailing senior citizens into elite soldiers. After proving his capability, John’s consciousness is transferred to an all-new body. His body is now built for fighting, equipped with healing capabilities and a chlorophyll-based immune system. Not to mention the intelligent chip implanted in John’s brain, which he affectionately refers to as Asshole.

Now accustomed to his new body, John is assigned to a platoon and sent out to different planets to fight for humanity’s right to colonise. At first, he’s raring to go, and establishes himself as a superior soldier. But after a while, John finds that the constant destruction he leaves in his wake is getting to him. He starts to question the virtue in conquering the universe at the expense of other intelligent life.

Alternate cover for John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Alternate cover for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

John suffers a nervous breakdown as the might of the CDF begins to overwhelm him. When he is sent with his platoon to defend one of the human colonies, John is prepared for combat. The enemy that he encounters when he arrives, though, is not fearsome foe he had expected. Rather, he is fighting a Lilliputian colony, whose soldiers are little more than an inch tall. The CDF succeeds in defeating this race – by stepping on them.
Alright, it’s not a subtle metaphor. But that’s kind of the point – it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. It takes literally crushing an enemy beneath his boot for John to realise that perhaps humanity has too much power.

Scalzi has a brilliant sense of humour. Nothing about Old Man’s War is taken too seriously, and it’s all the more enjoyable because of it. He has a way with his characters – affectionate and gently mocking. John Perry is a likeable hero – he is loyal to his friends, brave on the battlefield and sensitive to the suffering of others. He’s also quite funny, and the fact that his persistent attempts at humour tend to fall on deaf ears only adds to his charm.

One of my pet hates about speculative fiction of any kind is the dreaded info-dump. When an author deposits enormous chunks of world-building information in the midst of an otherwise compelling narrative, it sets my eye a-twitching. Scalzi, however, delivers relevant scientific information to his characters, rather than directly to his readers. When he introduces a new concept, it’s not only new to us as readers, but to the protagonist as a character. So John seems to bump into other people in the story who are able to explain these things to him. The reader learns along with the character, and so becomes more immersed in the story. While this is a clever device, I will admit that Scalzi does sometimes deploy it a little heavy-handedly, but it’s much better than sitting through awkwardly placed info-dumps.

Overall, Old Man’s War was a really fun read. I finished it over the course of a weekend, and I eagerly purchased its sequel, The Ghost Brigades. It’s got everything – humour, tragedy, old people, toilet humour (an unfortunate weakness of mine), and even a bit of romance. And all of this in space! Who knew sci-fi could incorporate so much. I think it was the perfect introduction to the variety that science fiction can offer, and it’s got me looking forward to my next venture into the unknown.

You can find John Scalzi’s popular blog here.
You can buy Old Man’s War (and you should) here.
If you’re in Brisbane, pay a visit to Pulp Fiction Booksellers, and see what they might recommend for you.

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