Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2016. Send feedback to

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2016-12-24)

This is a solid and enjoyable story which also stands out for the interesting perspective of its protagonist.

Vajra Chandrasekera’s review in Strange Horizons explains a parallel between part of the tale and some events in Namibian history, and offers some interesting reflections on Binti’s experiences viewed as “a metaphor for acculturation into empire.”

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland (2016-12-10)

As pointed out in William Sutcliffe’s review in The Independent, the “journal entry” format of the second and third parts occasionally strains credibility. Nevertheless, I found it to be a fitting style, and very effective in building empathy with the characters. The audiobook narration probably helped in that regard - the voice actors give a wonderfully expressive performance.

Religious fundamentalism is a primary topic here, but if the novel is read as a criticism of - or attempt at deep reflection on - such beliefs, it will leave much to be desired. The mind of a “true believer” is only explored in Reg, who is an extreme and idiosyncratic example. Still, the behaviors of Kent (in trying to remain carefully neutral when his brother is accused of involvement with the shooting) and Reg (in using bizarre spiritual logic to declare his son a murderer and to declare that one of his grandsons must be soulless) show how privileging belief over empathy can cause senseless divisions in a family, tragically wasting the opportunity for closeness.

I would focus not on the religious angle, but simply on the characters dealing with trauma. Despite some flaws, it’s engaging and poignant.

"What surprises me about humanity is that in the end such a narrow range of plights defines our moral lives."

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (2016-12-07)

Despite its cosmic scope, the essence of this story is two people with conflicting views on how to wield power. George Orr can remake the whole world with his dreams, but doesn’t want to use this ability at all; William Haber wants to use it to change the world into a better place.

What’s so bad about changing the world? A few concerns seem to be present:

1. our psychological flaws may sabotage our efforts

2. unintended consequences are hard to avoid

3. it is often ambiguous whether a change is an improvement, e.g. when suffering is relieved at the expense of preventing someone from existing

4. we risk a “worsening of the texture of life” as Le Guin puts it - for example, Orr regrets that Haber’s attempt to eliminate racism results in everyone being uniformly gray-skinned

To what extent we should play God may not be a pressing question in our day-to-day lives, but it does confront human society in general as our collective power grows. The Lathe of Heaven is a thoughtful and pleasantly-written musing on that question.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill (2016-12-03)

"It felt like I was doing something terrible when I said oui. But God help me, I wanted to see what was on the other side of that word."

At the outset of this novel it’s unclear whether you should expect anything much to happen. Nouschka Tremblay’s problems - an absent mother and a narcissistic father, a cherished but toxic brother, and a general sense of aimlessness - are not presented in a way that cries out for dramatic resolution, and indeed only partial resolution is given. She experiences many things, but changes only subtly. What makes it so charming to spend time inside Nouschka’s head is O’Neill’s writing: this book is permeated with lovely similes and metaphors and beautifully-worded observations about life.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2016-11-28)

“Story of Your Life” is not my favorite story in this collection, but it’s still really good, and was worth reading even though I had already seen Arrival (which you should see, if you haven’t). The movie delivers its emotional content more effectively, but the story adds some ideas related to science and to free will.

Three stories in this collection are set in universes with alternative physical laws, and all of them are captivating. “Tower of Babylon” imagines a colossal tower built to reach a literal, physical vault of heaven. The ending of this seems inescapably fitting and yet a little disappointing - we are taken to the brink of the unknown only to discover that we have already mapped the limits of creation. “Seventy-Two Letters” explores the implications of certain myths and failed scientific theories being true. “Hell is the Absence of God” considers a world where angelic visitations are commonplace; it’s an interesting meditation on the problem of evil and the relation of faith and certainty. The ending caught me off guard, and the author’s notes on the story are intriguing:

"For me, one of the unsatisfying things about the Book of Job is that, in the end, God rewards Job. Leave aside the question of whether new children can compensate for the loss of his original ones. Why does God restore Job’s fortunes at all? Why the happy ending? One of the basic messages of the book is that virtue isn’t always rewarded; bad things happen to good people. Job ultimately accepts this, demonstrating virtue, and is subsequently rewarded. Doesn’t this undercut the message? It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: if the author were really committed to the idea that virtue isn’t always rewarded, shouldn’t the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?"

“Understanding” is based on a familiar sci-fi concept: an individual developing superhuman intelligence. It’s executed well. Chiang’s computer science background shows in the interesting way his two superintelligent characters battle: they essentially try to hack one another’s minds, and one of them tries to defend himself by creating a virtual machine within his own mind.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary” discusses the inequalities we experience as a result of differences in physical attractiveness. The story offers a compelling picture of what the political controversy around it might look like if a particular technological solution were possible.

The remaining stories, “Division By Zero” and the tiny “The Evolution of Human Science,” are good as well.

Among Others by Jo Walton (2016-11-27)

Fully appreciating Among Others would require a quite extensive knowledge of 70s science fiction and fantasy. I lack that; the literary references and commentary that make up a significant portion of the novel are mostly wasted on me, except to occasionally inspire curiosity.

As other reviewers have noted, it seems like the particular books the protagonist references usually have little to do with what’s happening in the plot anyway (though perhaps there are connections I’m oblivious to). One strange exception is an incident in which Mori's father makes a sexual advance towards her: she normalizes the event in her mind by relating it to certain sci-fi stories. But this thread of story is dropped as quickly as it’s introduced; we never hear about it again, and Mori’s relationship with her father seems unaffected through the remainder of the novel.

The most compelling thing about Mori’s tale is its ambiguity. You can take her account at face value and see a world permeated by the secret operation of magic; or you can see a person using fantasy to cope with grief and suffering. The two possible interpretations are balanced well.

I was pleased that the audiobook was narrated in a Welsh accent, since Mori’s accent is remarked upon in the novel.

"You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand."

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (2016-11-18)

An enjoyable, well-written story with a satisfying if not entirely surprising conclusion. The audio narration by Finty Williams is very pleasant.

I enjoy novels that place different ethical viewpoints in conflict with one another. That's a minor theme here: Justineau's instinctive desire to treat the infected children humanely is pitted against Caldwell's willingness to murder them in her ruthless pursuit of a cure to save humanity. As is often the case, Caldwell is given other negative traits such as vindictiveness and arrogance to go along with her ends-justify-the-means mentality. It is interesting, however, that despite the protagonist Melanie's resentment of Caldwell, she ultimately chooses to cause far more deaths than Caldwell did, to bring about her own vision of the greater good.

Some nice quotes:

" can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them."

"some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment."

Racism in Kansas City by G.S. Griffin (2016-11-16)

An enlightening look at local history that provides helpful context for understanding the present. At <200 pages it doesn't take long to read. Well worth checking out.

The Incal (2016-11-03)

This is visually very interesting, and the highly imaginative world makes it enjoyable to read. The writing is disappointing, though. Most of the characters lack distinguishable personalities, and plot events tend to feel arbitrary.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (2016-10-16)

I like the premise (a Jesuit-run first-contact mission), but the execution was disappointing in some ways. Aside from the protagonist Sandoz, I didn't feel much connection to or interest in most of the characters, and the portions of the novel devoted to the preparation of the mission felt long and somewhat hokey. Likewise, the sections devoted to Sandoz's emotional turmoil after the mission get tedious as they mostly serve only to build up curiosity about what horrible thing might have happened to him.

The novel does ultimately deliver on that build-up in an emotionally striking way. The theological musings scattered throughout are also sometimes fascinating, and the concept for the aliens is intriguing although not explored too deeply.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King (2016-09-18)

I enjoyed the first four books in this series enough to want to see how it ended, but I'm frankly relieved to be done with it. The fifth was OK, but the sixth and seventh were mostly tedious. I did think the ending of this one - excluding the coda - had some satisfying redeeming features, but not enough that I could recommend sticking through it to anyone else.