Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

Petra wanted to be a cuentista, a storyteller, just like her abuelita. When she boards the spacecraft with her scientist parents and her little brother, Javier, she comforts herself that at least she can spend the 380 years of their flight in stasis with all of the world’s mythology and stories being downloaded into her brain. When they arrive at their new planet, she will be the cuentista for a whole new civilization. Then, just as she is being strapped into her pod, she finds out that her parents said no to the storytelling download. She will just have the much more practical botany lessons for the whole flight. Her pod fills with gel, her body functions are stopped, and she is supposed to be asleep. But she realizes that she is still conscious, and there is no way to tell the Caretaker that she is not asleep. She can’t call out, wave her hand, or even move her eyes.

Three spaceships are leaving Earth because a great comet is on a collision course with the planet. The survivors are chosen because of their skills that will be useful for a fresh start on a new Goldilocks planet, but some were selected to live out normal lives—working, caring for the stasis pods, reproducing, and dying—just as they would have on Earth. But 380 years is a long time, and people get ideas, and the isolated culture that lands on the planet may bear little resemblance to the ones who boarded the ship long ago.

The Last Cuentista won both the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award this past January. From the title and the cover, I was expecting to dive into a traditional South American story with magical realism, but just a few pages in, we were boarding a spacecraft! Somehow, Higuera’s Latina protagonist was able to transport her Hispanic culture into a futuristic setting. The story is filled with the tension of most sci-fi tales dealing with survival in alien landscapes, but the more Orwellian terror of ruthless power structures is what propels our heroine into action.

Higuera uses both the past and the future to show that, although our history is filled with war and tragedy, human beings have also created art, music, and loving traditions that should not be abandoned. The richness of our past is the foundation for building a beautiful and meaningful future.

Highly recommended for young teen to adult.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Zeno is headed to the library in February, 2020, to work with a group of kids he’s come to love. They’re putting on a play that Zeno translated from the ancient Greek. Seymour is headed to the library, too, to set off a homemade bomb.

Anna lives in Constantinople in 1452 with her seamstress sister who is going blind. Anna is learning to read by deciphering a set of parchments she found while stealing and selling old manuscripts in order to pay for her sister’s treatment. Omeir is outside of Constantinople with the Sultan’s troops. He was conscripted into service with his beloved oxen, helping to build the siegeworks to bring down the city walls.

Konstance is in a spaceship in Mission Year 55 with her family, part of a generational effort to save humanity from an earth that has been destroyed by pollution and to start anew on the planet Beta Oph2. By stepping onto her Perambulator, Konstance can join her friends and their teacher in the huge library in virtual reality. She loves the atlas of Earth and spends whole days inside, walking around whatever country she chooses that day.

Weaving back and forth in time, Doerr divides the sections by inserting passages from the folio of Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Antonius Diogenes, the ancient manuscript that connects all of these stories.

A 622-page novel may seem daunting, but Anthony Doerr, the bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See (reviewed here), makes the pages fly by. Each of the characters is compelling individually, but the growing realization of how these stories set in different times and places weave together is stunning. It is through the tiny details and ordinary days of small, seemingly inconsequential lives that we perceive the greater story of the fall of rich kingdoms, powerful cultures, and even entire planets. Whether the power is held by soulless developers, greedy sultans, or vast corporations, most people are at the mercy of a stranger’s voracious quest for wealth and dominance. Yet, Doerr counterbalances this sad story of mankind’s endless appetite for conquest with a deep love of nature and a gratitude for its endurance and continual rebirth. It is in the sight of an owl, the sprouting of a seed, or the first lungful of fresh air that our souls are touched.

From battlefields to hearths, Doerr’s stories are so fascinating that the reader becomes attached to every character. In each plot thread, someone is absorbed in the satisfying work of scholarly research and storytelling, and the novel is filled with a love for libraries and librarians. This is a book that will appeal to every type of reader, since the author brilliantly combined historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, and science fiction, all in one volume. Set aside some time for this one. It will be THE literary event of the year. The publication date is September 28th.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance copy of this book, with thanks to @simonandschuster and @scribnerbooks. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


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Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Landscape AndersonAfter the Vuvv landed, they took over the Earth, running all of its government and business, employing the inhabitants as actors for the Vuvv’s entertainment. The Vuvvs found traditional Earth tastes charming, and they would pay by the minute to observe 1950s-style romances. They were mad for doo-wop music and still life paintings. Wealthy people worked in Vuvv enterprises, living in artificial cities hovering over the earth. In the meantime, the vast majority of earthlings were unemployed, and adults with master’s degrees were standing in line for the opportunity to work a food cart, even intimidating and beating other applicants into going away.

Adam’s father couldn’t take the strain, so he left his family in desperate straits, which forced his mother to take in boarders. Adam and Chloe quickly fell in love, selling broadcasts of their faux-fifties dates to Vuvv viewers, romantic scenes of necking in convertibles and whispering, “Gee whiz!” to one another. It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off, and now that the lovers can’t stand the sight of one another, their families may starve for lack of income.

Anderson gave an interview about his book at the School Library Journal’s Virtual Teen Conference last month, saying that the idea for this new work came from his realization that we are all busy curating our lives online for the viewing pleasure of our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. We reveal things that would have been incredibly private just a few years ago, receiving validation of our lives by the number of “likes” we garner. By doing so, we relinquish control of our souls to virtual strangers who insist that we behave in socially-approved ways. There are other political messages here, to be sure, but Anderson is posing a question that others have also been asking, and he is aiming it at a generation who has never known another way of living: How do we get off this racetrack, and who are we when we leave?

The deep philosophical questions raised in this title are conveyed in a fast-moving and thoroughly entertaining story for teens and adults. Some strong language.


Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the SkyLaurence—not Larry, never Larry—invented a two-second time machine that he wore on his wrist in school. When he ran away from his parents and boarded a bus to watch a rocket launch, the scientists recognized his genius and never forgot him.

Patricia got lost in the woods while running away from her scary older sister who threatened to kill the injured bird that Patricia was holding. She ended up in the center of the forest, talking to the gigantic, old tree and all the birds in it, who were busy with a parliament meeting at the time.

So, the witch and the tech genius met at school and formed a friendship that was at least partially founded on mutual protection from the school bullies. They parted ways as they grew to adulthood and perfected their skills, and then met again at a critical moment for the future of the planet. Who can say whether the whole plot was concocted by Laurence’s AI invention, CH@NG3M3– or, as it preferred when it attained sentience, Peregrine?

This adult science fiction title just won the 2016 Nebula Award for best novel. It is my favorite type of sci-fi: not the kind with rockets and space (The Martian is a notable exception), but rather a twisty tale of technology gone awry, exploring how our own progress might yield unforeseen consequences. Blend in the fantasy line, further complicating the plot with humanity’s efforts to either conquer or cooperate with nature, add a splash of romance, and you have a winning combination. Anders’ characters are sharply drawn, Laurence and Patricia are both sympathetic, and one wild character in particular was literally fabulous. The pacing was luxuriant in the beginning, and then blockbuster-fast at the conclusion. With strong language and sexual content, this one is not for kids.


Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

scytheIn a world where every disease has been cured and emotions are kept in check by nanites flowing through everyone’s body, governments have been rendered obsolete, and civilization is ordered through the Thunderhead, which grew from what we all know today as “the cloud.” Naturally, babies continue to be born, but no one dies anymore. Even accident victims’ bodies begin healing immediately, and pain is quickly quenched by pain-killing nanites. The world cannot hold that many people, and so the need for “gleaning” is recognized by everyone, and is carried out by Scythes.

Scythes are humans, but they glide through the streets in robes, wearing rings that gather DNA into a database and grant immunity to a gleaned person’s family for a year. They are both revered and feared. Scythes study the history of mortal humanity and try to glean in a widespread, unbiased manner. If they understand that risk-taking personalities died at a younger age than others, they will choose reckless types more often. If a certain habit caused death in the mortal age, they may choose to glean someone with that habit. Otherwise, they try to glean in a carefully random pattern. If they are caught gleaning one ethnic group or geographic area too often, whether through prejudice or laziness, they are disciplined by the Scythedom. Only Scythes are not controlled by the Thunderhead.

Although most people live for hundreds of years without ever knowing someone who dies, Citra and Rowan are teens who witness the gleaning of someone close to them. They are strangers to one another, yet they share unusual qualities that are just what Scythe Faraday has been looking for in a new apprentice. Since there is only space for one apprentice, the two students will train for one year, and then one of them will go back to normal life. At least, that is the plan. As they reluctantly move more deeply into this tight circle of death-dealers, they realize that only one of them will make it out alive. Even in this most honorable calling, there are those who glean and those who slaughter.

Neal Shusterman is a master at blending taut sci-fi adventure plots with deep, philosophical questions. I am never disappointed in anything he writes, but Scythe ranks right up there with Unwind and Challenger Deep as the top of the list. His adult characters range from wise guru to absolute monster, and the narration flips from Rowan’s perspective to Citra’s, keeping the plot rolling right along. The teens’ relationships—with one another, with the adults in their lives, and with their families—add layers of depth to what could have otherwise been techno sci-fi in the hands of a lesser writer. There is so much to discuss in these pages. How would the meaning of life change if there was no death? What does it mean to be human? What is the function of government and authority? How far does loyalty extend? When a task must be accomplished, does it matter how it is done or just that it is done? The list goes on and on. Teens and adults will love this one.

Very highly recommended, and the first of a series!

Disclaimer: This review is based on an advance reader copy of this book, which releases November 22nd. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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More Than This, by Patrick Ness

ImageIt is difficult to review a novel in which the main character dies in the preface without giving it all away. I can tell you, though, that for quite a long time you’ll be thinking “?” and “??,” followed by “Oh! But ?,” until the end, when you’ll be thinking, “Turn the pages faster!!”

Seth does truly drown in the very beginning of the novel, and I can assure you that he does not move toward the gentle light where he sees all of his beloved departed waiting for him. Nor is the book one big flashback. The reader works to discover the truth along with Seth in this sci-fi thriller, and events unfold ever more quickly, running toward a breathless conclusion. Along the way, Seth grapples with the nature of reality, wondering if his present circumstances justify the feeling he has always had, that there must be more than this. If this is the “more,” is it what he expected? Or perhaps the “more” was always in front of him before, but he didn’t see it.

I have had several workshops with one of our human resources counselor types, and she often mentioned that humans tend to “self-medicate” in order to cope with life, whether they actually use drugs or alcohol, or whether it’s food, shopping, Facebook, online games, or any number of activities. The alternative, of course, is to face your pain head-on and deal with it. If you have real pain in your life, do you really want to be fully conscious? There’s a line in a Switchfoot song that goes, “I’m awake in the infinite cold….” Most of us would do anything to avoid being awake in the infinite cold. Seth has to decide if he wants to wake up.

Patrick Ness was born in the United States, but now lives in England. He has won the Carnegie Medal and other prizes in the past, and his writing is always top-notch. I have not read the buzz in Printz Award-watch circles yet, but I do have one misgiving concerning this novel. At one point in the book, I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this movie.” At another point, it was a different movie. Will More Than This be considered derivative? That will be the question, in my opinion.

For those who are just looking for a great read, this is a fun, wild ride. There is sexuality and some profanity, so be forewarned. Recommended for teen and adult sci-fi fans who like to think.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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