Shelf Reflections

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

Being a fan of the original novels, I approached this retelling with a little trepidation.  I know that Scalzi is an excellent writer, but would his vision of the fuzzies and their world work for me, either by itself or as compared to the original?  I’m happy to say that it does both, and wonderfully.

While the bones of the original novel remain in this new novel, there are some significant changes.  Jack Holloway was conceived by Piper as an older man, well past his prime.  Scalzi paints Jack as a man in his mid-thirties, and he gives him the background to allow him to actively participate in the fight to prove the fuzzies’s sentience.  This brings a lot more tension to the final scenes in the courtroom, as it allows the main character to be right in the middle of the action.  I enjoyed watching him whip out legal arguments and wield them like weapons.

There’s also a change in the history of the fuzzies themselves.  Without giving anything away, Piper’s novels glossed over something that could be seen as a plot loophole invalidating much of what happens in the first book.  Later authors picked up on this and ran with it.  Scalzi’s change neatly deals with that little problem.  I will admit, however, that after decades of having one story in the back of my head, the change was jarring upon first encountering it.  I soon accepted it, though, and as most readers won’t have read the original novels, I doubt it will be an issue to the majority of readers.

The author weaves in a lot of worldbuilding and little significant details, and he does so with such care that you probably won’t notice what he’s doing.  Several things that seem like “throwaway” details become quite important later on, and it’s a testament to the author’s writing skill that readers likely won’t see what’s coming until it happens.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this story—everything is relevant, and you’ll be amazed at how well it all comes together.

I particularly liked the courtroom scenes where the fuzzies’s sentience is being decided.  This isn’t a dry procedure with hours of bland bits of evidence being presented.  Events in this novel happen quickly, and thus the trial involves bombshell after bombshell without feeling like it’s forced.  This is just damn good plotting at work, and I devoured this sequence with the kind of glee that you get when seeing someone getting a just comeuppance.

I can’t say enough good things about Fuzzy Nation.  Not just a wonderful reboot of a classic series, it stands on its own as a tightly-plotted and deeply engrossing first contact novel.  I recommend picking this one up in hardback, because it’s one you’re going to want to keep in your collection.  I hope that Mr. Scalzi intends to continue with this series, and if he does, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.

This review was originally posted on May 5, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Lock In by John Scalzi

“Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.

A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.

But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.”

My goodness, does this novel have some beefy, chewy issues for readers to ponder. It’s taken me a while to sort through everything in my head to write this review, so let’s see where it goes. This is one of those novels that is going to make you think, and think hard, about a lot of different issues. Many of them may not be ones that you yourself face on a daily basis, if at all, which makes this book doubly valuable.

One on level, you have the explorations of the virtual world where many Hadens spend much of their time. There are some obvious parallels to people today, especially younger ones: there’s a growing concern about how much time we spend “plugged in” and not interacting with real people. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Hadens can’t actually interact in their real bodies, so they need some form of mechanical intervention, but the basic premise remains. You have to wonder what the effects of a purely virtual existence would be.

On another level, you have the very salient question of disability rights. This aspect is a little more overt in the prequel novella Unlocked (which you really should read, preferably before you read the novel, although it’s not necessary), but it definitely carries over to the novel. For example, is it a crime to beat a Haden’s personal transport (a humanoid “robot” controlled by the Haden’s neural network), since the transport feels no pain and therefore neither does the person driving it? What about a personal transport—which can’t eat—taking up a chair in a restaurant?

And this all feeds into the deeper issue of what it means to be human. You can probably anticipate that Hadens come to be treated as less than human, since all the non-locked-in people interact with is the mechanical aid. How tolerant would we be of the stranger, the “other”, when confronted with them and their basic needs? It is this, even more than the technology, which makes this novel science fiction.

Delivering all of this thought-provoking stuff is a smoothly told murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. Everything comes together in a satisfying manner with lots of suspense and plenty of suspects and motives. Chris is a likeable protagonist, and I was especially intrigued by his partner, who has her own demons to conquer.

I can only hope that Scalzi wants to continue to tell stories about Chris and the world he lives in. I want to see him dig deeper into what makes these characters tick, and I definitely want to see how the clash between Haden culture and “mainstream” culture plays out. Locked In is a novel jam-packed with goodness, and I’m going to have to read it again to appreciate all the nuances and deep thoughts that run through the narrative. Make sure to grab this one—you’ll rarely find a science fiction writer as skilled and entertaining as Scalzi.

This review was originally posted on August 28, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Rule 34 by Charles Stross

“Meet Edinburgh Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, head of the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad.  It’s responsible for monitoring the Internet, following trends to determine whether people are engaging in harmless fantasies—or illegal activities.  Usually their job uncovers those operating on the extreme fringes of the run-of-the-mill porn that still, in 2023, abounds in cyberspace.  But occasionally, more disturbing patterns arise…

Three ex-cons have been murdered, in Germany, Italy and Scotland.  The only things they had in common were arrests for spamming—and a taste for unorthodox erotica.  As the first officer on the scene of the most recent death, Liz finds herself rapidly sucked into an international investigation that isn’t asking so much who the killer is as what it is—and if she can’t figure that out, a lot more people are going to die as the homicides go viral…”

I find this book, and its predecessor Halting State, to be among the more unusually compelling books on the shelves.  One reason for this is their use of second person as a narrative voice.  It’s reminiscent of the old text-based computer games—“You go into the house and see a dark hallway”.  Although some people may have trouble adjusting to it, as it’s not often used in novels, those who can adapt to the style will find themselves immersed in the story.  It’s as though once your brain “clicks” over and accepts the narrative “you”, it’s difficult not to project your feelings into the on-page characters.

This is a help, because there is a lot going on in this book.  There are three regular point of view characters, as well as a smattering of others, so readers will get the chance to see the situation from several different angles.  Pay close attention, because Stross scatters hints throughout the story that lead to the payoff at the end!

It’s hard to talk about this novel’s plot without giving away key elements.  Suffice to say, Stross has crafted a story around a scenario that could conceivably happen in our technology-heavy society, and the issues that he raises are ones that we would do well to consider.  There are also issues of privacy that come into play—Liz and the Rule 34 Squad are combing the internet looking for clues that people might be engaged in crimes… or might even be just considering them.  The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but at what point does that segue into “Big Brother”?  There are many such issues wrapped up in this novel.

Ultimately, this is a novel that is not only entertaining, but one that makes you think about tough issues in a way that could challenge your comfort zones.  And that’s a good thing.  Stross doesn’t shy away from the horrors of our plugged-in society, but instead pulls them into the light for a good once-over.  Rule 34 combines hard science fiction with Brave New World and comes up with a solid winner.

This review was originally posted on July 28, 2011.

This review was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Embassytown by China Mieville

Science fiction has a reputation—sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly—of being little more than space opera.  But it’s also true that all science fact must begin as science fiction, and thus the genre is a prime vehicle for exploring ideas and concepts.  China Mieville has previously confined himself mostly to fantasy novels, but with Embassytown, he makes his first foray into true science fiction.  And what a debut!

In the city known as Embassytown, humans live in an uneasy alliance with the Hosts, aliens who speak with two mouths.  Thus, they can only understand paired human ambassadors who have been raised to think and speak as one.  These aliens also have an inability to lie, and an inability to talk about concepts that they haven’t already experienced.  As a result, they need humans to help with their similes, carefully staged scenarios that, once acted out, allow the Hosts to incorporate the concept into their Language.

Avice was turned into a simile while she was a child.  She spends years off planet but returns with her husband, a man intrigued by the nature of Language.  But two events—one taking place at the annual Festival of Lies, and one taking place when an extraordinary new Ambassador arrives—will change the shape of alien/human relations and Language itself forever.

I’ll say up front that I am fascinated with language and how it works.  It’s been an interest of mine since I was in college and took a course in the history of the English language.  Thus, this novel is right up my alley, as it deals in large part with the questions of how language impacts thought and action, and vice versa.

A good chunk of those questions revolve around lies and lying.  I find it amusing that aliens with two mouths represent unwavering truth, as “doublespeak” is a traditional symbol of falsehood.  But with them, a lie produces a kind of cognitive disconnect that they simply can’t handle.  This may sound like a wonderful and innocent way to exist, but Mieville takes it a step further and begins to play with the notion that similes and metaphors are also forms of lying.  Because of this, they’re more difficult for the Hosts to deal with, unless they’ve actually witnessed a scenario that they then use as a linguistic trick.

But this novel has more layers than just this.  Readers are presented with questions about what it means to speak with intent, how far a species can progress without a true symbolic language, and what the consequences of falsehood can lead to.  And what I liked the most was that Mieville doesn’t shove these concepts in your face.  Instead, he just tells his story and weaves in all manner of intriguing ideas and thoughts.  It’s up to readers to ferret them out and take away as much or as little as they can.  While this does make the novel challenging at times, it’s a good kind of challenge.

I’m put in mind of an idea that I read a long time ago.  I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but I think it was in an essay by Jane Yolen.  In it, she asserts that a novel is a dialogue between the reader and the author.  Each will put something into the experience of the words and take away something at the same time.  I think that this concept is gloriously illustrated by this book.  I’m sure there are things that I missed on first reading, and I hope to find some time soon to re-read it and possibly discover more that the author and I can communicate about.

As a science fiction story, the author excels at worldbuilding, and he manages to include little details that are never explored but nevertheless enhance the tale.  On this world, the aliens live in a landscape that is alive—literally.  The buildings, the vehicles, the everyday objects—all are of bio-material and, to a certain degree, alive.  Little animals and insects move through the background.  The Host/human relations are fraught with mystery and uncertainty.  And it’s all wonderful.  You don’t need to know all the answers about these things.  While some novels can’t pull off having unexplained phenomena, Mieville makes it work in this book.  Some of it may just be that the story is compelling enough to make such details negligible, but that’s probably a matter of personal opinion.

My only complaint about Embassytown, and it’s a small one, is that the story takes a little while to really get moving.  I don’t have any idea how Mieville would have moved things along, because what he’s included in the opening chapters is needed for later sections.  I just know that the action takes a bit to get moving and really draw readers into the tale.  My recommendation is to stick with this novel, because the payoff is well worth it.

This novel was recommended to me by the publisher rep at Random House, and his praise was not overstated.  Embassytown is a multilayered work of art.  It challenges readers, pushing them to really think about the language that we as readers find so fascinating.  If a book really is a dialogue between writer and reader, then this conversation is one of the best ones that you’ll have the privilege of participating in.

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2011.

This title was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Martian by Andy Weir

“Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend. As a note, I don’t usually read a lot of hard science fiction, although I do enjoy science in general. I think it’s more that I don’t like when the plot hangs on technology. In this case, there’s a lot of gadgetry and clever manipulation of scientific principles, but the real story hinges on Mark’s ingenuity in figuring out how to leverage his circumstances in his favor.

Now, this does mean that the narration often strays into (or at least comes perilously close to) the “As You Know” trope. The majority of the novel consists of Mark’s log entries during his stay on Mars, and he spends a lot of time explaining what he’s doing, both in scientific jargon and simpler layman’s terms. The folks on the ground trying to help Mark get home have lots of meetings where they do something similar. It’s a little jarring, but the author does provide a rationalization: Mark is keeping the logs for public consumption, figuring that whether he lives or dies, he should leave a complete record of what happened; the NASA people come from fairly specialized backgrounds and often must share information with others who aren’t knowledgeable in that area.

I will say this, though—the science is fascinating. This is basically Robinson Crusoe in space, but with the main character adrift in an environment that’s infinitely more hostile than any desert island. I don’t think that anybody reading this book will have any doubt that Mark will eventually be rescued. The fun lies in the how of the event. We get to see crop growing in an enclosed environment, use of radioactive materials, exploding chemicals, messages spelled out with rocks, and epic cross country treks. You can’t go for too long without reading about some catastrophe that requires Mark’s boundless creativity.

I am going to call the author out on one mistake, however—and it’s a mistake that should not have been made with a character who is a botanist. In one scene, Mark is shown eating raw potatoes. This is a huge no-no, as raw potatoes are indigestible (and much is made of how much caloric intake he needs per day) and, depending on how long they’ve had to grow, mildly toxic. I can’t see someone well-versed in plant life and farm crops being so silly as to eat something that won’t help him survive.

Aside from this, the science seems accurate and is definitely engrossing. I read this book right after finishing a couple of other non-fiction titles, so it provided a good transition back to fiction. All this science does a good job of supporting the narrative and giving Mark plenty of believable ways to survive in Mars’s hostile environment. And one other note: there’s lots of humor here as well. No stuffy NASA-approved dialogues for Mark! He’s crass and honest and highly amusing, even while struggling for his life.

The Martian is a great book on space exploration, and would be ideal for getting your science-loving friends into reading science fiction. I hope Weir writes another novel, because I enjoyed this one and would like to see more.

This review was originally posted on September 17, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

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The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

“When Cat Novak was a young girl, her father brought Finn, an experimental android, to their isolated home. A billion-dollar construct, Finn looks and acts human, but he has no desire to be one. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection.

His primary task now is to tutor Cat. Finn stays with her, becoming her constant companion and friend as she grows into adulthood. But when the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world. As their relationship goes further than anyone intended, they have to face the threat of being separated forever.”

When I picked up this book, I expected to find something with a higher science fiction quotient—after all, the synopsis makes it sound like robot rights are a central issue.  What I got, though, was something far better: a love story that transcends the way we think about what is human and what isn’t.  Of course, it’s impossible not to compare this novel to The Bicentennial Man, but this story comes out ahead in that particular contest.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, the movie was about how many years you live, and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is about how much life you allow into your years.

The love story takes center stage over the other plotlines concerning robot sentience and the state of the world in which this novel takes place.  It still feels like a fully fleshed out setting, though.  In fact, I hope that Clarke writes more in this world, because I would like to have seen a broader picture of the landscape and the people.

Much of the novel is achingly poignant.  As Cat grows up and grows older, her contact with Finn decreases and her life takes a turn for the worse.  Clarke’s writing at these moments is extremely evocative, and I felt genuine sorrow at what Cat goes through.  I wouldn’t necessarily call Cat a completely sympathetic character, as she doesn’t always treat Finn as well as she should, but believe me, you will feel for her by the novel’s end.

This book is a great Valentine’s Day present for the science fiction aficionado in your life.  It hits all the right notes and delivers a tale that is often heartbreaking but always has that element of hope that love will conquer all.  The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a lovely and moving story, and I highly recommend it.

This review was originally posted on February 12, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon

“When you’re studying to be exoveterinarian specializing in exotic, alien life forms, school… is a different kind of animal.

Zenn Scarlett is a resourceful, determined 17-year-old girl working hard to make it through her novice year of exovet training. That means she’s learning to care for alien creatures that are mostly large, generally dangerous and profoundly fascinating. Zenn’s all-important end-of-term tests at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars are coming up, and, she’s feeling confident of acing the exams. But when a series of inexplicable animal escapes and other disturbing events hit the school, Zenn finds herself being blamed for the problems. As if this isn’t enough to deal with, her absent father has abruptly stopped communicating with her; Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, is acting unusually, annoyingly friendly; and, strangest of all: Zenn is worried she’s started sharing the thoughts of the creatures around her. Which is impossible, of course. Nonetheless, she can’t deny what she’s feeling.

Now, with the help of Liam and Hamish, an eight-foot sentient insectoid also training at the clinic, Zenn must learn what’s happened to her father, solve the mystery of who, if anyone, is sabotaging the cloister, and determine if she’s actually sensing the consciousness of her alien patients… or just losing her mind. All without failing her novice year….”

This novel begins with a bang—quite literally—with a scene involving her mother and a disastrous procedure on a massive alien life form. After that, though, the book slows down considerably. Much of what follows is focused on Zenn’s training and the evaluation of her fitness to become an exovet. The author has definitely cooked up some interesting procedures and some intriguing alien animals, but I feel that this part of the story went on too long. Mostly it’s just that there’s not a lot of tension to be found in the mundane activities of taking care of animals.

There’s a secondary story that perhaps should have been pushed into greater prominence: the political situation between Mars and Earth. It’s this conflict that lies at the heart of a lot of what takes place with regards to the clinic and its inhabitants, but it seems like Schoon is too focused on creating weird creatures to give this plotline the time and space that might help it to shine. It also would have made it easier to draw on the question of what constitutes an alien, which was touched on here with thought-provoking results.

That said, Schoon does an excellent job at creating those aliens, especially the more intelligent ones. Zenn has a little cat-like creature called a rikkaset as a pet, and they communicate with each other via sign language. The other notable character is Hamish, a giant insectoid alien who is scrupulously polite and gets some funny moments while trying to understand human culture.

The last third of the book picks up the pace, and eventually dramatic things start happening. It feels a little rushed, given that it starts so late in the story, but Schoon manages to pull things together and make the final chapters memorable. All in all, it makes for a fairly solid story, and I think I would have liked it even more if the pacing had been evened out a little more.

Overall, this is a good novel for teen readers. There are plenty of alien beings, some mystery, some politics, and some adventure—there’s something for everyone. It takes a little while to find its momentum, but it gets its footing eventually and starts turning into a very interesting science fiction saga. Zenn Scarlett has a few hiccups, but the author shows enough promise that I’ll probably pick up the next book when it comes out.

This review was originally posted on July 11, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Passage by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of science fiction’s most inventive authors.  Her novel Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and she has continued to turn out critically acclaimed novels such as Lincoln’s Dreams and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Her latest effort, however, surpasses all expectations.  Tackling the controversial topic of near-death experiences, Passage explores the human mind and soul.

Dr. Joanna Lander researches such NDEs, but finds her work hampered.  The hospital’s biggest sponsor funds her research on the condition that Dr. Maurice Mandrake works there as well.  Mandrake writes popular books on the subject, with titles like Messages from the Other Side.

Predictably, associating with him does not enhance Joanna’s credibility.

Fortunately, another doctor receives funding to work on the NDE’s scientific aspect, and Joanna subsequently teams with this Dr. Wright, hoping to find the experience’s physiological basis.  They duplicate NDEs with drugs and record the images described by patients.

When a lack of volunteers threatens the study, Joanna goes under herself; she sees not the classic tunnel and light, but something strangely familiar.

Joanna repeats the experiment several times, hoping to recognize where she is during the NDE.  Her attempts to make sense of the images lead to an old high school teacher, a little girl waiting for a life-saving heart transplant, and a comatose man.  Meanwhile, Dr. Wright draws closer and closer to the source of the NDEs, a cause that he hopes can teach doctors about the dying brain, and how to keep it alive.

And, just when this novel seems to tidily pull all its threads together, Willis springs the book’s biggest surprise on the reader, and turns the story into a breakneck race against time.

Novels like this are difficult to describe, because they’re so wonderfully complex.  One can only hope that someone options Passage for a movie, because this story could give The Sixth Sense a run for its money.  Every action and movement fleshes out the story’s climax.  You can look back and think “Wow, I should have seen this coming!”  Willis pulls the wool over our eyes by being so entertaining that all the clues slip right by.

Even so, the characters truly bring this story to life.  There’s Mr. Wojakowski, a war veteran participating in the NDE study; Vielle, an ER nurse and Joanna’s best friend; and most of all Maisie, a brave little girl hiding her fear of dying behind an obsession with disasters.  Willis makes us feel something for them–all of them–and for this reason the last 200 pages are an emotional roller coaster.

One last little treat: Willis opens chapters and book sections with quotes ranging from famous peoples’ last words to the space shuttle Challenger’s final transmission.  One section starts with a quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which perfectly describes the story: “Do you think death could possibly be a boat?”

Passage is this month’s best novel, and it provides a great introduction to Willis’s considerable storytelling skill.

This review was originally published on May 17, 2001.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Waste of Space by Gina Damico

“Cram ten hormonal teens into a spaceship and blast off: that’s the premise for the ill-conceived reality show Waste of Space. The kids who are cast know everything about drama—and nothing about the fact that the production is fake. Hidden in a desert warehouse, their spaceship replica is equipped with state-of-the-art special effects dreamed up by the scientists partnering with the shady cable network airing the show. And it’s a hit! Millions of viewers are transfixed. But then, suddenly, all communication is severed. Trapped and paranoid, the kids must figure out what to do when this reality show loses its grip on reality.”

Judging by the chatter online about this book, it seems like you will either love it or hate it.  Me, I loved it.  I will say this, though: in order to appreciate this book, you need to like the kind of wacky, totally over the top humor that you’d see in a Monty Python sketch.  This novel is satire taken, unapologetically, to the extreme, and even if you like the book, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head and saying “Wow” more than once at the sheer audacity of what you’re reading.

And Damico pulls no punches in setting up her little reality show.  Every aspect of it is spoofed to the max and beyond.  I found myself reacting to the book the same way I react to Stephen Colbert laying down a burn on a politician–with an “Oooooh!” of amusement and appreciation.  The one that really stuck in my mind was when the head of the cable channel sponsoring this show describes the “four golden tickets” of casting: disabled, gay, minority, and orphan.  The callousness with which the show plans to exploit these kids is stunning (although I admit that it was funny that the “disabled” kid was picked because he’d lost the tip of one finger), but at the same time, you get a kind of savage amusement at how blatantly the practices of reality shows are called out.  I also loved how the show had to start creating drama when throwing ten teenagers together into a small area didn’t produce enough drama on its own.  The fact that we get to see the thought processes that go on behind the scenes are (one hopes) greatly exaggerated, but they’re still indicative of what we all suspect or know about reality TV–just how unreal it is.

I think one of the allures of this book–and of reality TV in general–is that there is an air of unpredictability.  You may be able to script interactions, but you can’t completely control how the people involved will react.  That’s what gets people to tune in to Survivor and Big Brother year after year: we want to see a train wreck in progress.  And that’s what this novel lampoons all through its first half.  Then, suddenly, the novel takes a hard right and becomes something completely different while still retaining the framework that it started with.  It’s brilliant, because the author is using the exact same techniques that reality shows do in order to hold your interest.  She also uses the aforementioned framework to ensnare you: the entire book is told by someone purporting to be leaking behind the scenes secrets from the show that were never seen on the air.  So, you can add in the air of titillation at finding out something previously unknown to the the mix.

There were a couple of things that I wish the book had done better.  Most notable for me was that the book didn’t quite succeed in trying to show the real people behind the scripted stereotypes.  A few of the characters are successfully shown for who they are outside of the show, but I don’t think it went as far as it could have (and maybe should have).  Also, I had some lingering questions about events during the story that weren’t answered, and although I know that they weren’t meant to be answered, it still left me with a minor feeling of being left hanging.

All things considered, though, I think that this novel has enough to offer to more than overcome those small complaints.  An engaging format, a unique setting, and a plot that’s dialed up to eleven make this one of the most entertaining books so far this year, and definitely one of the most interesting.

This book was a personal purchase.

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