Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Thinky, scientific, philosophical.

A collection of 10-odd short stories revolving around a few big questions.Ted Chiang’s writing is often compared to one of my favorite TV series, Black Mirror.

Ted Chiang lives up to that reputation, intertwining stories of humans in the backdrop of science and technology. Themes like free will, time travel, religion and science, the future of technology run through the length of the book. Ted manages to keep the plots fresh and interesting, however, the writing feels at times hollow and repetitive.

If you are new to these topics, this book and multitude of perspectives it provides to each topic will be definitely be engaging.

My favorite stories were:
– The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
– The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
– Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
– Exhalation

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Academic, vast, imaginative.

Though this book is set in a science-fiction environment, it is not, inherently, a science fiction story. This book contains 5 inter-connected short stories about politics, societies, and governments, as well as the religion of science. The story is of a Foundation set to preserve scientific knowledge in the backdrop of a crumbling Empire – and the internal and external power struggles that are involved in the protection of this planet. It was a thinker’s book full of fascinating ideas.

However, this book really falls apart in it’s prose and characterisation. While diversity of race was not an issue, I did note that the entire book had exactly one female character, who too, was the sour wife of a political leader. Furthermore, the plot proceeded at a constant pace, the rhythm of the stories and the actions of the main characters felt almost repetitive after a while – so the writing did feel somewhat monotonous.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabelle Allende

Sweeping, beautiful, human.

The single best thing about this book is Allende’s prose. Quickening, slowing, and stopping altogether the pace of time almost seamlessly, she constructs simple yet powerful prose.

The inter-generational progression of character lines combined with constant change in setting, their sufferings and hopes – it is a simple tale about simple people. People separating and people reuniting. Distinct people with different desires and approaches to life. High emotional investment in characters was almost a given – reading the book was like growing up with the characters.

Allende also skillfuly ground her fiction in historical fact: from the Spanish Civil War, the exodus to France, the Winnipeg and Pablo Neruda, to the coup in Chile and the death of Franco – just reading the book acquaints one with political history. She manages also to get the little details right – how three volumes of philospohy books could stop a bullet, the numerous real-life historical figures, and the newspaper rhetoric against refugees (which is alarmingly similar to what we hear today). Finally, the uneasy negotiated tension between the right and the left, the depths of hatred and love between strangers and family members is relentlessly true-to-life.

Inter-generational and set across multiple countries – Chile, Spain, Venezuela, Argentia, America, France, the book deftly and gently telescopes and microscopes into the hearts of people and nations.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Solid, simple, moving.

You do not read this book for the plot – you read it for the writing style and the characters. It is simply Murakami’s prose that holds your attention through what amounts to 300 uneventful pages. Every page was oddly calming and meditating, as he described the ins and outs of the college life, friendships, and relationships of a “ordinary” kid called Toru Wanatabe. What saved this book were it’s last 90 pages – which brought the whole meandering tale to an epic close. From Midori’s letter to Naoko’s death, to his conversation with Reiko, everything about those pages was evocative and poetic.

Without them, I would have to knock off a hypothetical star from the rating. When the book was finished, it left a sort of profound emptiness inside. The beauty of this book isn’t in something tangible – it’s quite literally in the subtext and themes and vibes.

In conclusion, if you find yourself moved by Murakami’s writing style, and have the patience to sit through at least 250 pages of meandering character development, there is legitimately quite a moving and epic payoff in there for you.

Gemina by Amie Kaufman

Cinematic, gorgeous, FUN.

A cracking plot full of twists and turns, and a healthy dose of corporate skepticism and science nerdiness, and perhaps the best execution of the “did he/she really die?” trope. In terms of the plot, I did notice a few striking parallels to the first book in the series. For most of the book, it felt like it was going to be simply a grander, better version of Illuminae, but it really shone in the end, with the alternate reality sequences. Everything from the concept, to it’s beautiful formatting on paper, and just the simple text, really saved this book.

gemina book cover

The book was also surprisingly easy to read, provided that it was full of reports and text logs and surveillance summaries. Most of the characters were a riot, and the writing style (despite the constant death and destruction) alternated between being wisecracky and grandiose. In terms of the sheer science-fiction, it wasn’t as detailed as say Andy Weir’s The Martian, but the authors definitely knew what they were talking about.

The characterisation in this book was somewhat interesting. Our two protagonists Hanna and Niklas, closely resembled Ezra and Kady from the previous book. Kady’s resemblance to Hanna is even explicitly alluded to in the book. The character development in this book was quite straightforward, involving Hanna a stereotypical “station commander’s daughter” and Niklas, a reluctant member of a Russian drug cartel, rising up the occasion and heroically saving the station. We also witnessed a host of side characters, including the Beitech invasion team, and other works onboard the Heimdall station. I felt this was the only place the book was lacking – in moral complexity or emotional frailty. Although the book did have its moments with jasmine corsages and Hanna’s sketches, for the most part it remained focused on the plot – which in the end turned out to be the right choice.

Definitely excited for the next instalment.