April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Spectacular Speculative Fiction | Adult Books 4 Teens

Aurora_Like “coming-of-age,” speculative fiction is a genre that contains multitudes. In one sense, it is a useful box to put books in—science fiction, fantasy, and horror, specifically. But since, as we’ll see below, each of these genres is elastic, speculative fiction can become an ungainly box. Nevertheless, this column aims to bring together disparate novels that contain a germ of similarity.

Let’s start with two of the most straightforward titles. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and John Scalzi’s The End of Things are both straight-ahead science fiction. The former is perfect for genre newbies, while the latter should be reserved for hardened veterans. Both are sci-fi of the intergalactic variety, and they should benefit from the popularity of movies like The Martian and Star Wars: Episode VII.

In contrast, the next two science fiction novels are far more interested in philosophical questions than in the logistics of space travel. Ian Tregillis’s The Mechanical makes for an interesting pairing with Jo Walton’s The Just City.  In Walton’s novel, the goddess Athene gives the denizens of her Utopian city mechanical servants from the future. It is only when Socrates enters into the mix that anyone (including Athene and Apollo themselves) thinks to consider whether these machines may have thoughts of their own, and it is the vast implications of Socrates’s questions that create the largest cracks in the edifice of Athene’s “just” city. This is one of many ideas that Walton’s novel pursues, but it is the central theme of Tregillis’s novel, which follows Jax, a Clakker—a being quite similar to Walton’s mechanical servants—who has developed free will. Humans have been thinking and worrying about the Singularity since at least 1958 when the term was coined, usually with dread about the consequences for humans—see The Terminator or The Matrix. Walton and Tregillis take the more philosophical approach of wondering what it would be like for the machines themselves if artificial intelligence surpassed human control.

In A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball combines his success as a poet and a novelist in an ambitiously literary take on the dystopian novel. Told in three parts—a relatively straightforward prose narrative, a stream-of-conscious monologue, and a short play—this is a novel without a single identity. Library Journal went so far as to compare it to Kafka’s The Trial and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Teens with a taste for the perversity of that pairing should be right at home.

Smith_BooMoving on from science fiction, next we look at three very different takes on ghosts—still speculative fiction, but speculation about an entirely different realm of life. In Boo, Neil Smith builds an afterlife that is surprisingly mundane; his characters live in a subdivision of heaven called Town, complete with roads, playgrounds, and dorms. What isn’t mundane is his characters’ mission: nothing less than to solve the mystery of their own deaths. They have been killed in a school shooting, but none of the protagonists know who the shooter was, though they believe he or she may be in Town as well. A quirky take on some very serious subjects.

Cat Winters’s The Uninvited and Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts turn their ghost stories more toward the genre’s creepy origins, although neither is scary enough to put off horror neophytes. Winters should be familiar to teen readers from her Morris-nominated In the Shadow of Blackbirds (Abrams, 2014). Her first adult novel is set in the same period as her debut YA—1918 America, reeling from World War I and the Spanish flu. In this new novel, Winters’s protagonist has the ability to see ghosts, but only before another death.

Tremblay’s ghosts are not seen but felt in the apparent possession of Marjorie Barrett, whose parents allow her exorcism to be filmed by a TV crew, with disastrous results. The author offers a triple view of the events surrounding this exorcism: the thoughts of Marjorie’s sister Merry at the time, Merry’s reflections on the events as an adult, and the views of a young blogger re-investigating the story. This is a self-consciously meta-fictional horror story, with references to several classic horror movies and books and a twist taken right out of one in particular. As our reviewer notes, it’s a great starting point for new fans of the genre, if for no other reason than the wonderful collection of references to other great works.

BAll A Cure for SuicideBALL, Jesse. A Cure for Suicide. 240p. Pantheon. 2015. Tr $23.95. ISBN 9781101870129.
A nameless young woman, known as the examiner, enters a house where a nameless young man sleeps. His role is that of the claimant. When he awakes, he knows nothing of how to live. The examiner’s task is to teach him everything from the function of a chair to distinguishing strangers within the course 20.5 days. In lines spare as poetry, this section of the story unfolds in hypnotic progression; readers know little more than the hapless claimant. Why is this painting important? What is behind the claimant’s recurring nightmares? Is the examiner’s purpose for good or evil? There are jarring hints that the claimants are “processed” over and over until they are human shells. But before readers can come to a conclusion, the entire narrative switches course. In the second part, in one long rush of words, the young man who will become the claimant is telling his story to an interlocutor, who will determine if he qualifies for a cure for suicide. In contrast to the first section, this tale is circuitous and tangled, interrupted constantly by the young man’s sorrowful recriminations. The final segment brings readers back to the examiners and the original claimant. An older examiner offers an explanation of sorts in the form of a short play before ending on a satisfyingly surreal note. VERDICT Teens who enjoy innovative dystopian literature, such as David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (Random, 2014), will appreciate this dark, clever tale.–Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library, TN

ROBINSON, Kim. Aurora. 480p. Hachette/Orbit. 2015. Tr $26. ISBN 9780316098106.
Freya knows nothing except life on the ship. She and her family have been traveling through space for generations, heading to Aurora, a new sun, and a new life. They are close to arrival, which is fortunate because supplies are running out. But Aurora isn’t the saving grace it was hoped to be—the landing crews have to deal with strong winds and worse. The ship community must decide what to do—attempt life on Aurora? Head to another inhabitable planet or see if the struggling ship can make it back to Earth? Freya may not be a chief engineer like her mother, but she has the ability to unite her people, and the ship itself believes in her. With the recent success of Andy Weir’s The Martian (Crown, 2014), space fiction is in the limelight, and this epic by a well-respected author won’t disappoint fans seeking an apocalyptic adventure. The idea that a dying Earth will send ships to space to save humanity isn’t a new plotline, but Robinson develops an artificially intelligent spaceship that becomes an important parental figure to Freya. Her world might end soon, and readers will root for a life-saving miracle. VERDICT A natural introduction to adult science fiction for teens.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

Scalzi_The_End_of_All_Things_SCALZI, John. End of All Things. 384p. Tor. 2015. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780765376077.
The latest book by Scalzi is set in the universe of The Old Man’s War (Tor, 2005) but works well as a stand-alone. Four interrelated novellas, each with a different narrator, tell the story of a conflict among Earth, the Colonial Union (the descendants of Earth, who left to find other habitable planets), and the Conclave (the union of the other intelligent species who joined together in defense against the Colonial Union). It soon transpires that there is yet another group at work in the universe—the Equilibrium—and it isn’t immediately obvious what their motives or goals are. This is straight-up military/political science fiction. Scalzi, as always, is adept at presenting his stories not as black-and-white conflicts but rather as complex tales shrouded in shades of gray. Three of the narrators are CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) soldiers, and one is a Conclave diplomat, and each has a slightly different take on the events at the center of the tale. VERDICT This is not a book for sci-fi newbies, but teen fans who enjoy action-packed science fiction with plenty to think about will want to sink their teeth into this one.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library

SMITH, Neil. Boo. 310p. Vintage/Anchor. 2015. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780804171366.
Topics readers have come across before—school shootings, fictional representations of the afterlife, murder mysteries—come together in this wildly imaginative read. When 13-year-old Oliver dies at school, he’s not that surprised. He had a hole in his heart, which he figured would kill him one day. He is surprised to discover what the afterlife has in store. He gets to inhabit a subdivision of heaven called Town where only 13-year-olds live. The denizens stay 13 for about 50 years, after which they disappear—to who knows where. Oliver is just getting the lay of the land when Johnny, a kid he knew from school, shows up. Johnny tells Oliver it wasn’t his holey heart that killed him. They were both shot at school, and he thinks that the shooter is in Town, too. With the help of their friends, they go searching for the killer. Debut author Smith builds a world in Town—with rules and its own internal logic in which readers will become completely immersed. Oliver and Johnny are flawed, leaving teens constantly wondering if one or both of them are unreliable. There are also clever details—some that will be obvious to teens, such as Oliver and Johnny’s dorm being named for Frank and Joe Hardy, but others are more subtle. Subsequent reads will likely turn up even more layers of foreshadowing. A wholly satisfying if not wholly happy ending makes this a total package. VERDICT A fascinating read for any teen or adult willing to suspend disbelief and enter Town.–Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library

Tregillis_mechanicalTREGILLIS, Ian. The Mechanical. 480p. (The Alchemy Wars: Bk. 1). Hachette/Orbit. 2015. pap. $17. ISBN 9780316248006.
In this alternate history set in the early 20th century, the Dutch have created Clakkers, mechanical servants and warriors who take care of all the tasks humans are unwilling to do. When the mechanical Jax loses the gear that compels him to follow orders, he is eager to protect his newfound free will. However, there are a range of opinions about the legality and ethics surrounding these creatures, who are essentially slaves to the human race. Philosophical thinkers will appreciate the questions about humanity. What gives someone or something a soul? How is a machine different from a human or a clock? Fans of action will not be disappointed when Clakkers and humans with different views come to blows. There is also enough spying, devious motivation, and treachery to please those who enjoy political intrigue. Teens will identify with the struggle of the Clakkers who have their free will seized by their owners, particularly with Jax, who is a very sympathetic character. With complex concepts and challenging vocabulary, this is a selection to give teens who have graduated from young adult steampunk titles like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (S. & S., 2009) and Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” (HarperCollins). VERDICT With no shortage of philosophy, action, and political intrigue, this title will appeal to fans of speculative fiction looking to start a new series.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Tremblay_A Head Full of Ghosts_TREMBLAY, Paul. A Head Full of Ghosts. 304p. Morrow. 2015. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062363237.
A creepy but not too creepy title. Young Marjorie Barrett is possessed by a demon, and her family decides to allow a TV crew to film them and the possession episodes, with an exorcism to be the series finale. Not surprisingly, this goes very, very badly.  The novel’s narrator is Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry, who tells the story from her current perspective as a 23-year-old adult and from her point of view at eight years old, as the events at the Barrett house transpired. And then there’s Karen, a blogger rewatching the TV series while live blogging about the episodes. What actually happened in the Barrett household and whether or not Marjorie was possessed are discussed by all three narrators—readers will have to decide if any of them is reliable. One of the more interesting moments in the work occurs in Merry’s apartment when she meets with a reporter to discuss the possession and the reporter sees shelves of classic possession books and DVDs, except for one glaring omission (the missing title, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, should give readers a heads-up about what’s really going on). The horror here is less graphic than in The Exorcist or The Omen, and will appeal to readers who aren’t sure how deeply into the genre they want to go. Merry’s bookshelves will provide a great bibliography for next reads. VERDICT The questions surrounding what possession is (and is not) as well as how television crews can manipulate reality will intrigue readers.–Laura Pearle, Milton Academy, MA

Winters_uninvitedWINTERS, Cat. The Uninvited. 368p. Morrow. 2015. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780062347336.
In October 1918, with too many young men dying in the world war, and with devastating casualties from the Spanish influenza pandemic, 25-year-old Ivy Rowan encounters the ghost of her older brother Billy—one of the “uninvited” she and her mother have always had the power to see just before someone dies. Barely recovering from the flu and hearing a disturbance in the kitchen, Ivy discovers that her father and younger brother have just murdered a local German immigrant to avenge Billy’s death. Driven by the anger and guilt she feels on their behalf, Ivy moves into town and into the arms of the murdered man’s brother, Daniel. They rebuild Daniel’s home and store that had been destroyed during the attack. Finding a room to rent with a war widow, Ivy begins driving an ambulance each night to transport influenza-stricken victims from certain death in impoverished areas to better health care. It is only later, upon discovering answers to a mystery that Daniel has been hiding, that Ivy must face up to certain truths about him and herself. This ghost story blurs the line between life and death and leaves readers to wonder just where that line begins. VERDICT There’s much to like here for teens: an earnest young woman who wants to do right by those who her family has wronged while participating for the first time in the many opportunities that life can offer.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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