Fiction, Guest Post, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Guest Post: Departure

departureby A.G. Riddle

ISBN 9780062431660

**This is a guest review by my brother Josh Shortt**

Disclaimer: A free review copy of this book was provided by Harper Voyager.

“People who love LOST will like it,” my sister explained as she handed me a copy of Departure. To my ears that sounded like a dare. A dare, as evidenced by the following review, I did not pass up.

The cover art of Departure makes it clear that the story commences in a similar fashion to LOST, with a plane crash in the countryside. The first part of the tale is interested in survival concerns such as assisting the injured, gathering food and supplies, and exploring the environment. As in LOST, the crash provides dual protagonists Nick Stone and Harper Lane a second chance at unsatisfactory lives. The story heads in its own direction in Part II, although many tropes also used in LOST remain in play.

Nick Stone is a natural leader who rises to the occasion to assist other survivors. Underneath this strong exterior is a desperate man who is worried about a potential business proposal. Should he seize the opportunity or pass it up and potentially miss out? Harper Lane is not a natural leader, but is brave in her own right. Harper finds herself torn between writing another biography (financial security) vs. writing her novel (following her dreams). While both choices are business dilemmas, they differ in that Harper’s motivation behind her choice is more clear, while Nick isn’t entirely sure why he is dissatisfied with his life. Harper knows what it is she must do, she is simply reluctant to go through with it.

A.G. Riddle never takes Harper beyond these two obvious choices. An unseen third option that Harper conjures up under pressure could have made her a more satisfying character. Of course, that would entirely change the story. At least Riddle tests Harper’s commitment to her decision and allows us to witness her agonizing over it. At first, Nick doesn’t have much of a choice to make as he first needs to realize what is wrong. Unlike Harper, he does come up with a third solution, but we don’t get to see him come to this conclusion. Instead, his choice is made in between scenes. He simply declares what this choice is at a later time.

Overall, I did not feel the level of empathy towards these characters compared to those in LOST. I did feel some empathy for Harper because she is a fellow writer who humorously avoids her writing. Any writer can relate to that. By avoiding what she is supposed to be doing Harper shares a similarity with Jack from LOST. Jack stubbornly avoids the inevitable for six seasons.This long journey of avoidance emotionally wrecks him. When he finally accepts his destiny, it is one of the most satisfying moments in television and film history. Even though I enjoyed Harper’s sense of humour, I prefer the more emotional approach to character. Such an approach allows you to better appreciate the enormity of the journey a character goes through. Jack might have a sense of humour but he certainly tips closer to the emotional end of the spectrum.Arguably, I may be faulting Riddle’s story for being something that it’s not, and who wants a story that’s an exact clone of another story anyways? The difference is especially apparent in the fact LOST had the luxury of developing its characters over the course of 121 episodes whereas Riddle only has 322 pages.

What Riddle doesn’t clone is his personal philosophy on life and storytelling. He expresses this philosophy by tailoring his characters to the science fiction and dystopian genres, all the while using Harper’s career as a writer to discuss storytelling. Nick and Harper are tailored to the dystopian genre because their problems express anxiety about the future. When they make poor personal choices they “depart” from who they should be and arrive at desolate versions of themselves. Additionally, this anxiety extends to how these personal choices will negatively impact the world at large. The big science fiction concepts are used to explore the impact of those choices. While reading the exposition for these concepts I felt empty and bored. The science results in giant vanity projects for many of the characters. The world that is built from these ideas is not interesting in itself, but the characters get swept up in the scale of the ideas, and seem to think they are more imaginative than they actually are. The fact these vanity projects are named after Greek mythology makes a god complex abundantly obvious. However, as previously mentioned these sci-fi concepts are used to demonstrate how the characters’ poor choices impact the world, which means these sci-fi concepts are ultimately well used. To describe them as uninteresting is to note that vanity projects in science fiction are commonplace, which makes it difficult for them to illicit the surprise and awe they once had. Riddle is wise to recognize that these projects will not solve the characters’ problems, making the emptiness and boredom they illicit strangely appropriate.

Instead, story itself is the solution to the characters’ problems. A common science fiction trope is used as a metaphor for story itself.  Departure makes the argument that story creates self-knowledge for the characters and for the rest of humanity. This self-knowledge grants Nick and Harper new found lucidity to apply to their respective dilemmas. By applying their lucidity they have a chance to vanquish their dystopian anxiety about the future. According to the author’s biography, his own journey inspired that of his characters. The rear flap states that “he spent 10 years starting internet companies before retiring to pursue his true passion: writing fiction.”  This piece of information brings the meta-storytelling of Departure into focus. By understanding himself and pursuing his passions, the author put his own self-knowledge into action. The question is: will Nick and Harper do the same? For Riddle, taking control of one’s own story is self-knowledge well-utilized. If I smiled while reading this book, it was in response to Riddle’s passion for story. Of course, he is preaching to the choir. It is certain that the marketing team was pleased when they saw that the characters share similarities with the author. As demonstrated by the author’s biography, the marketing team didn’t pass up the opportunity to point out those shared characteristics. Allowing the audience “to get to know the talent behind the product” is one of the oldest tricks in the game.

It should be noted that Riddle’s philosophy is not as spiritual as the philosophy of LOST, which marks an important distinction between the two. More specifically, LOST is influenced by the mysticism of Star Wars while Departure feels more like a self-help seminar at times. Mysticism and self-help are both concerned with becoming a part of something bigger than yourself, but mysticism is the more emotionally convincing of the two. After all, story is about feeling everything the character feels. Without that level of empathy it is difficult to believe the story has taken you all the way. The exclusion of mysticism does create a benefit to the story. The benefit is that it allows the tale to maintain the purity of the science fiction genre. Science fiction gives the audience a concrete explanation they can believe in, while mysticism—by its very nature—defies explanation. Many complained that LOST pretended to be science fiction before morphing into science fantasy, despite the fact mysticism was present since the pilot episode. It is safe to say Riddle won’t be facing that particular criticism when it comes to Departure. The absence of mysticism is also apparent in Riddle’s descriptions of the environment. He focuses on man-made structures rather than the natural environment itself (See pp. 68 for a key example). By focusing on these structures he is again granting primacy to science fiction. LOST does have important man-made structures scattered across the Island, but the story and camera do not overlook the environment. In the end, Riddle’s approach may not provide the emotional authenticity of mysticism, but he does achieve the science fiction genre more purely than LOST.

Whenever Story A is compared to Story B it suggests you will like Story A because of the shared similarities to Story B. The comparison creates expectations in the mind of the reader. The reader’s expectations may illicit the curiosity required to pick up the book, but expectations can also prevent the reader from appreciating what the story does well on its own. I repeatedly found my own expectations reminding me that I prefer the mysticism of LOST to the science fiction of Departure. With my preference in mind I was also conscious that I would not appreciate it if Departure had been an absolute clone of LOST. Whether a story veers too far from the comparison or goes its own way can results in a no win situation.  Even though the comparison can create a barrier to enjoyment, a story can surprise with its own unexpected characteristics. I picked up the book with the intention of seeing how well the comparison would hold up, but closed the book appreciating Riddle’s passion for storytelling instead. What makes us enjoy a story isn’t necessarily similar premises, tropes, themes, etc. Admittedly I was entertained enough to finish the book, but if given the opportunity I would not purchase my own copy.

–Josh Shortt

Adaptation, Fiction, Guest Post, Play, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Guest Post: Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily a New Hope

Cover for Ian Doescher's Shakepeare's Star Wars: Verily a New Hope
Cover for Ian Doescher’s Shakepeare’s Star Wars: Verily a New Hope

By Ian Doescher

ISBN 978-1-59474-637-6

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“OBI-WAN:      – True it is,

That these are not the droids for which thou seach’st.

TROOPER:  Aye, these are not the droids for which we search.”

Though, unsurprisingly, this isn’t a text actually written by the Bard himself, Verily a New Hope is exactly what it advertises itself to be: a retelling of the classic George Lucas film in the style of a Shakespearean play. I’ll admit my own personal bias here: something this catered to both my love of literature and science fiction was just too tempting to pass by. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible of a read this was, even for people not exclusively in its target audience. While Verily a New Hope is a great way to introduce readers to the language of Shakespeare by using a familiar plot to make the “prithee”s and “heretofore”s less daunting, it’s also a great vehicle for imagining a rarely-seen overlap between science fiction and theatrical performance. Many of the cinematic action sequences are instead dramatically described by a narrating chorus, and in true Shakespearean fashion, props are minimized and only mentioned in the dialogue rather than the stage direction. A theatrical adaptation of Doescher’s work would be not only viable, but also a really interesting performance in its own right.

As a technical piece of writing, Verily a New Hope is downright impressive. The entire thing is in perfect iambic pentameter – a type of literary form that not even Shakespeare, who is best known for using it, was a consistent master of. And the translation of an action movie into the pacing of a five-act play allowing for scene and costume changes was surprisingly seamless. It’s clear that Doescher really allowed himself to have fun in the construction of his adaptation, throwing in nods to some of the favourite lines for Shakespeare enthusiasts (“Exeunt Han and Chewbacca, pursued by stormtroopers”) while honouring the long-standing fans of the original trilogy  (addressing, if not answering, that long standing question of “who shot first?”). Obviously, in taking a major work of science fiction and pairing it with a major name in literature, a lot of artistic licence needs to be be accepted, and that is certainly the case here. Doescher alters huge chunks of dialogue while trying to stay true to the overall story, which results in some impulsive additions – like a series of lengthy monologues spoken by R2D2 throughout the play.

Unfortunately, the deliberate emphasis that Doescher puts on the moments of fan service he performs in Verily a New Hope are amusing at the start, but very quickly grow old. Rather than trying to stay true to Shakespeare’s tone and style, he often resorts to simply altering famous Shakespearan lines to fit the context of the Star Wars universe (giving Luke lines like “but O, / what light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?”). This is not necessarily a bad thing – it simply shows that Doescher decided to go with the safer route of parody rather than appropriation. Since Verily a New Hope is clearly a light-hearted endeavour from the start, it may be best to see it as such: and enjoyable adventure with a generous dose of Renaissance charm.

Dystopian, Fiction, Guest Post, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Guest Post: Unwind

Cover for Unwind, by Neal ShustermanBy Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1416912057

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“Change? What do you mean by ‘change’? Dying is a little bit more than a ‘change.’ “

“Please, Miss Ward. It’s not dying, and I’m sure everyone here would more comfortable if you didn’t suggest something so blatantly inflammatory. The fact is, 100 percent of you will be alive, just in a divided state.”

After the United States has ravaged itself in a second civil war, this time over reproductive rights, a new medical procedure is put into place by the government: the Unwinding, where parents and guardians can send in their teenagers to be Unwound, their parts redistributed to those in need. Risa Ward, Connor Lassiter, and Levi Calder are all Unwinds being sent to the state facilities for their procedures when they go AWOL and ignite a massive manhunt across America. The story starts as the familiar narrative of teenage rebellion in a dystopian world that now seems to be sweeping bookstores. What is unexpected, however, is the grace with which Unwind dovetails these narratives of resistance with the perpetual vulnerability inherent to every single one of its adolescent characters. Faced with the real and fatal threat of lost bodily autonomy the moment they are caught stepping out of line, the characters are constantly struggling with rebellion and survival on a very personal level even while the book itself remains mindful of the systemic flaws of the larger governmental system they live in.

The timely commentary that Unwind makes about the very real consequences of enforcing self-serving agendas through political reform manages to be unforgettable without having to resort to a firm beating of the book’s morals over the reader’s head. This subtlety is what makes the Unwind‘s climax and end both satisfying and inspirational despite a pointed lack of the grandiosity often associated with novels demanding more palpable social change. For while the commentary is directed at the world structure, and the type of society that would allow something like the Unwinding to both exist and thrive, Shusterman focuses on the individual as a vehicle for its change. More often than not, the characters were narratively rewarded for their acts of humanity and selflessness in the face of suffering, and frequently punished for ambitious and violent acts done with little consideration or follow-through. Through all of this, we as readers are lead to the same realization that the characters must come to terms with: it is the loss of humanity that creates such systemic brutality – not only in the dehumanizing of those it disregards and kills, but also in the inhumane behaviour of selfishness and self-centred ideology.

This novel offers much more than just gritty characters and sharp social commentary, however. The most charming aspect of Unwind is the variety of viewpoints the reader is treated to, from the AWOL Unwinds to those who harbour them to the police and doctors who want to capture them and take them apart. Rather than being overwhelming and confusing, it instead fleshes out an already-compelling world through an unflinching empathizing with all of its inhabitants, not just the sympathetic protagonists. The constant shifting of narrative perspectives also allows Shusterman the refreshing liberty to deny his readers the guarantee of success – or even safety – for any character he uses to populate this easy-to-imagine new America. Clearly demonstrated by an absolutely chilling scene experienced through the eyes of a major character while he is being Unwound, the move keeps readers tense and engaged through its final pages. A very well-written example of a dystopian world done right, Unwind is a compelling and eye-opening read, and one of my favourite books that I’ve picked up this year.

Dystopian, Fiction, Guest Post, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Guest Post: Incarceron

Cover Image for Incarceron by Catherine FisherBy Catherine Fisher

ISBN 978-0-14-241852-9

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“In ancient statues Justice was always blind. But what if it sees, sees everything, and its Eye is cold and without Mercy? Who would be safe from such a gaze? Year by year Incarceron tightened its grip. It made a hell of what should have been Heaven.The Gate is locked; those Outside cannot hear our cries. So, in secret, I began to fashion a key.”

The world of Incarceron is divided into two groups of people: There are those Inside a living, intelligent prison, descendants of criminals locked centuries ago and constantly watched by its unblinking red eyes. Then there are those Outside, bound by the order of a dead King to live in a Period purposefully regressed in technological advancements, in the hopes that the distraction of life in a Renaissance-esque Era will prevent the creation of even more criminals to pollute their world. Claudia is the daughter of Incarceron’s Warden, obsessed with trying to work her way out of an arranged marriage with the prince. Stealing his key to the prison, she finds herself in contact with a boy named Finn, who was born Inside but somehow, impossibly, still has dreams of the stars.

The premise of Incarceron was what immediately caught me: an idea that blended my love for the identity politics of artificial intelligence and the commentary of dystopian worlds. While the world itself was interesting, with its illegal use of advanced technology to successfully sham the simplicity of medieval courts, the actual story fell disappointingly short. The two main characters, Finn and Claudia, are so set on escaping their respective confinements that they spend no time whatsoever actually engaging with these worlds, leaving the passing references to history, culture, politics, and even reasons for Incarceron’s existence vague and unsatisfying. My biggest disappointment was, in fact, Incarceron itself, as the sentient prison was repeatedly presented as clever enough to anticipate the movements and desires of its dwellers, and consciously shift its internal world structure to best attack their anxieties and fears – yet still only capable of holding simplistic and obsessive conversation when it was actually talked to. Fisher is, perhaps, simply laying out the groundwork for Incarceron‘s sequel, Sapphique, titled after a famous hero constantly alluded to in the first book. If that is the case, perhaps the two books would be better read in tandem, as this one can very easily leave readers wanting more, but not necessarily in the satisfying way.

What Incarceron lacks in world structure, however, is made up for in characterization. Claudia is a charming lead entirely because she is clearly not as charming as her appearance hints at all – and not in a loveable, roguish way, either. Trained by her father to have the intelligence and ruthlessness necessary to marry a prince and rule in a royal court, her lack of coyness in her selfishness and acts of manipulation are surprisingly refreshing rather than off-putting. Finn as well, though attempting to remove himself from it, is clearly a product of years surviving in Incarceron, and willingly allows himself to be influenced by his much more ambitious Bondbrother, Kiero. It is their personalities, rather than the physical and social setting, that most effectively capture the grittiness of a dystopian world. I’m hopeful for what Fisher can develop in Sapphique, but for readers looking for a more rewarding dystopian read, I would recommend something like The 5th Wave or Unwind (which I will be reviewing for this upcoming Tuesday).

Fiction, Guest Post, Young Adult

Guest Post: Thirteen Reasons Why

Cover image for Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asherby Jay Asher

ISBN 978-1-59514-188-0

**Shay will be on holidays for the month of July. Guest posts brought to you by Amelia. **

“I look at the shoebox hidden beneath the cloth. Hannah said she made a copy of each of these tapes. But what if she didn’t? Maybe if the tapes stop, if I don’t pass them on, that’s it. It’s over. Nothing happens.

But what if there’s something on these tapes that could hurt me? What if it’s not a trick? Then a second set of tapes will be released. That’s what she said. And everyone will hear what’s on them.

…Who’s willing to test her bluff?”

Clay Jensen receives a shoebox in the mail one day containing a handful of archaic cassette tapes. Recorded on them, it’s explained, are the thirteen reasons why Hannah Baker is now dead. The secrets Hannah shares on her tapes reveal a disheartening and uncomfortably realistic view of high school reputations and teenage rumours, and the long-term affects seemingly small actions, even meant in jest, can have. No punches are pulled when she talks about suicide, rape, and depression – and while the ending hints at being almost hopeful, it is by no means happy. While the narration is from Clay’s perspective, as he listens to the tapes, the story is completely driven by Hannah’s voice even though she herself as a character is not that compelling. Like Clay, I ripped through the story in a single night, but felt oddly detached when I realized that I wasn’t identifying with Hannah enough to mourn by his side.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a book not only about recognizing when those around are in desperate need of someone who cares, but also about realizing that there are people reaching out to you when you feel like you are beyond hope. What makes the last third of the book so wrenching is that the reader must sit with Clay as he listens to Hannah convince herself that her fate is inevitable, and as a result miss the connection that he tried to make because he, like her, went unheard. Because all the major events in the story leading up to Hannah’s death take place before the story as we see it even starts, readers walk into it aware of Clay’s helplessness to change the past, but unprepared for how devastating that helplessness can be.

The most interesting part about the Thirteen Reasons Why is the format. It can be read as plain text in book form, but you can in addition listen along to Hannah’s tapes on YouTube, complete with the clicking of the cassettes and every stop that occurs when Clay has to pause his own listening. The accompanying audio is essential not for capturing Hannah’s voice, but for really driving home the weight of her silence. Nearly all of the events in the book occur because no one involved was willing to speak up or speak out, and while the message is already clear, the added sound of nothing except a whirring tape makes you an uncomfortable accomplice to the same silence. Thirteen Reasons Why is not necessarily an enjoyable read, or even, to some extent, a good book to read, but it is a valuable book to read simply because it ensures none of its readers can comfortably ignore their own silence afterwards.