Friday, June 29, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, and Among Others by Jo Walton

Sometimes I can go on for awhile (see: the past three and a half years of this blog!).  But sometimes I get more to the point, as in the following three relatively short book reviews.  I really enjoyed all of these books, so the shortness of my reviews should not be taken to reflect my estimation of their quality.  So, in the spirit of getting to the point, here are my reviews of Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, and Among Others by Jo Walton!

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third (and final?) installment of Okorafor's Binti series (see my reviews of the previous books here and here).  The cool thing about the Binti series is that, even though these are novellas (this one might be a short novel), there are enough ideas for a rambling series of massive tomes.  We get a lot of hints about vast histories and fascinating details, but relatively little of it is fully developed.  I see why some people wouldn't like that, but I sometimes enjoy that aesthetic, especially when handled as well as Okorafor handles it.

Picking up directly after the second volume, this one starts with Binti back home on Earth having learned all sorts of new things about home.  I was again a little disappointed we didn't get more traditional space opera set on the interstellar university of Oomza, but --- spoiler alert!  -- we do get back there at the end of the book with all sorts of extraterrestrial weirdness, much to my science fictional delight.

Two major themes of the earlier books continue to be developed in the third book.  First, Binti is a harmonizer, so she raises the question: can tense, violent conflicts be solved nonviolently and with reconciliation for parties with generations-long grudges?  Second, who are we and what do we make of our identities, especially when we all have hybrid, complex identities from various traditions, cultures, and new ideas?  Sure, Binti is an exemplary and especially complex person on both counts, but I think there's more Binti in our DNA than we usually admit.  Fun times.

(Check out my Goodreads review ... if you dare!)

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age by Stanisław Lem

If all you knew of Stanisław Lem was Solaris (or its film versions), you'd think he's a deep and strange SF author, but you'd hardly think he was a funny one.  The Cyberiad is every bit as deep and strange as Solaris, but it's a whole lot funnier.

Lem follows the whimsical adventures of two cyborg constructors, Trurl and Klaupacius.  The subtitle of the book is "Fables for the Cybernetic Age," which is apt in the sense of Clarke's law (that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic).  There are also a lot of jokes, plays on words, and just plain funny made up words (like Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss).  The translator, Michael Kandel, did an amazing job.  I recently learned a couple words of Polish during a trip to Kraków (which included visiting Lem's alma mater, Jagellionian University).  Reading Lem makes me want to learn Polish for real to see how brilliant he must be in the original.

It's hard to really explain this brilliance, and I will say that it might take awhile to settle into Lem's style.  But if you do, you'll be treated to stories of a pirate with a PhD who just wants knowledge, dragons existing as a matter of probability, a computer simulated civilization, an electronic bard's sonnet consisting entirely of math puns, robots with a strange fixation on biological humans, and a machine that can make anything beginning with the letter n.

There's a lot of philosophical depth in all this inspired madness, too: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and so on.  My favorite story is "Altruizine," which involves Trurl and Klaupacius being inspired by a civilization that had reached the Highest Possible Level of Development to try to make everyone in the universe happy.  Is it possible for everyone to be completely happy all the time, or to eliminate all suffering?  What do we mean by happiness and suffering, anyway?  Is empathy always a good thing?  What would a civilization at the Highest Possible Level of Development actually do?  Would they realize that something like the Daoist concept of non-action (wu wei)?  Buddhism isn't mentioned in the story, but given that Buddhism's Third Noble Truth is that there is an end to suffering, I think this story is a good way to put that truth to the test (in a science fictional thought experiment, of course).  Heavy stuff for a comical science fiction book, but then again, as Douglas Adams shows us, maybe that's just what you need to think more deeply.

And best of all, Lem is a lot more fun to read than most philosophers.

(See also my Goodreads review. Or don't.  No big deal.)

Among Others by Jo Walton

As a book that celebrates reading, libraries, books, science fiction, and fantasy, it's no surprise that Jo Walton won a Hugo for Among Others in 2012.  I normally don't care much for YA teenage drama or magical realism with fairies (no judgment if you do, but those things aren't my cups of tea).  But this book had enough other stuff to like and the main character is interesting, and of course she's relatable for bookish SF nerds everywhere (although I've never read quite as fast as she does!).

I feel like I've read enough of her references (especially Le Guin and Delany) to get a lot out of the book, but it also gave me plenty to add to my to-read list (and not having read some of the things doesn't bog down the narrative).  There's even a bit of Plato, much to my philosophical delight, which is no surprise considering Walton's excellent trilogy of Plato-themed SF books (see my reviews of The Just City, The Philosophers Kings, and Necessity).

While there's a lot of nostalgia, I don't feel like the plot is overly reliant on it, nor is it used as a gimmick - the book isn't nostalgia porn (unlike, say Ready Player One, which I didn't care for).  For a book where relatively little happens, I have to say I found it an engaging read.  I recommend it for people whose lives have been shaped by their love of science fiction and fantasy.

(For a good time, read my Goodreads review)

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