Online Reading Challenge – November Wrap-Up

Greetings Challengers!

I hope you have safely returned from your time travel adventure by now. Time travel can be exciting, but also a little dangerous – one misstep and you put the whole future in jeopardy! Fortunately, at this time (as far as I know), time travel only exists in books and movies. Did you read something great this month? Please let us know in the comments!

My time travel adventure never took off – I failed to find anything that kept my interest. Of course, I threw this month open to any science fiction title, but I still came up short. This month (and year!) has been somewhat distracting!

If you too are still looking for something time-travel-y, check out some Doctor Who episodes (we have both classic and reboot series) which are loads of fun. C, one of our librarians, recommends Stephen King’s 11/22/63 about a man that goes back in time to try and prevent the assissination of John F Kennedy. They also suggest H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, an early classic in the genre.

So, now it’s up to you – what can you recommend for time-traveling/science fiction fun?

Live Long and Evolve by Mohamed A.F. Noor

I am a big science fiction fan. I love books and shows that imagine alternatives and futures for humanity rife with intriguing possibilities and ingenious improvements. My journey into this subset of geekdom has included shows and books like Doctor Who, Star Wars, and of course, Star Trek. In troubled times like these, Star Trek is a particularly appealing franchise for me because of its positive vision of the future: humanity grows out of violence and bigotry, embraces science and diplomacy, and goes forth to understand and befriend the galaxy. Together with a whole host of interesting galactic neighbors, Star Trek’s humanity builds a diverse and cooperative society committed to exploration and discovery. It’s an amazingly attractive vision, but sometimes it begs the question: just how likely is this utopia?

One way of tackling this question is through Mohamed Noor’s Live Long and Evolve: What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Evolution, Genetics, and Life On Other Worlds. This deceptively slim volume is packed with accessible explanations of how genetics, biology, and evolutionary processes work, and it carefully examines examples from across the Star Trek film and television canon. Specifically, Noor examines definitions and origins of life, DNA, reproduction, and various evolutionary processes including natural selection and genetic drift.

What I liked about this book was that it represents good scientific process, a fan’s devotion to the Star Trek franchise, AND an accessible translation of complicated concepts. Each of the six chapters is laid out like a scientific paper: it has an introduction, separate labeled sections on subtopics, and closing thoughts. Not only is this structure good scientific practice, it also makes the topics clearer for non-scientists to understand. In the same way, each topic and concept is explained in clear terms and helpful analogies to be understandable to the layman. Moreover, the author doesn’t lose sight of Star Trek as he explains complicated biology concepts; each chapter and subsection is peppered with references from Star Trek: The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Discovery, and Enterprise.

Predictably, while the author’s love for the franchise is evident, it’s also necessary to explain that the shows often get biological concepts wrong and use terms incorrectly or in misleading ways. I appreciated how gently these errors were pointed out, and that the author also took time to applaud what the various shows got right about scientific concepts. I also thought it was helpful that the reader isn’t obligated to have the entire Star Trek canon memorized; examples are given enough context to understand what is happening in the relevant scenes.

I would definitely recommend this book for lifelong learners interested in biology (or Star Trek), for Star Trek fans who want to know how close the shows get to reality, and for anyone who likes to wonder about humanity’s past and future existence. My only caveat: while this book is a good way to learn about basic scientific ideas, the concepts are still fairly complicated and can require a bit of focus to really grasp.

Online Reading Challenge – November

Hello Challenge Readers!

Welcome to the November Reading Challenge. This month our inspiration movie is Back to the Future!

This beloved film gives us a lot of options for books to read. Obviously, time travel would work, as would alternate histories. I’m also throwing it open to any science fiction title – maybe there’s one on your TBR list, or one that’s a little out of your usual reading choices that you’d like to try. I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I do have some favorites.

Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This is an obvious choice, but it’s a good one. Skip the movie, the book is much better with lots more character development and a deeper emotional impact. It is, in fact, a love story about a man who travels through time (without his consent or control) and the woman that waits for him.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I loved this book, but it might hit a little too close to current events for some (it was written in 2014, long before COVID) In this book, a deadly flu wipes out 99 percent of the human population. The story moves between flashbacks to the “before” and of the survivors struggling in the “after”. Despite this description, the book is full of beauty and joy and community and most important, hope.

Step Back in Time by Ali McNamara is a fun and romantic time travel novel. After Jo-Jo is hit by a car she wakes up in 1963 where everything is different. It happens again and again, sending Jo-Jo to the 1970s, then the 80s and then the 90s. Why is she traveling through time and how will she ever get back to 2013?

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. This one strays a little bit from our film inspiration, but it is an excellent book full with spells and secrets. Agnieszka loves her quiet rural village, but an ever present threat hangs over it – an evil forest known as The Wood. A wizard that lives in the nearby castle keeps it at bay, but in exchange, every 10 years a young woman is recruited from the village to serve as his apprentice. When Agnieszka is chosen, no one is more surprised than she is. For an excellent series of alternate history, read Novik’s Temeraire series starting with His Majesty’s Dragon where dragons are part of the naval fighting forces of the Napoleonic era. No, really. It’s excellent!

I am going to read A Murder in Time by Julie McElwen, the first in a series about Kendra Donovan, an FBI agent that is thrown back in time to 1815 and into the life of a servant where she becomes involved with solving the mystery of a serial killer. Hmmm. Intriguing. I’ll let you know how it goes!

How about you? What will you be reading this month? Let us know in the comments!

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Space.  The corporate-dominated rim is populated by humans, augmented humans, computer systems and constructs.  All of which can communicate via the feed.

A team of scientists exploring a ringed planet has hired a security unit for protection.  SecUnits are armed security constructs with some organic parts.  Armor.  Helmet plate.  Energy weapons built into their forearms.

Humans control the constructs.  They tell them where to go and what to do.  A governor programmed within their code ensures that they follow instructions.

At least that is the plan.  But one SecUnit has managed to hack its governor, making it a rogue.  It does as instructed, because it doesn’t want the humans to discovered that it has free will.  Given the opportunity it will hang out in the cargo hold and pick from the almost 35,000 of hours entertainment it has downloaded.  It just wants to be left alone.

Sure, it will perform its job.  It’s been leased by the Company to the scientists.  It will respond to emergency situations and keep its clients safe.  But it doesn’t really care.  No one really takes its good advice anyway.  Heck, it’s not like it is the one who has the experience protecting people.

“SecUnit” is how the humans refer to it.  But it knows its true name.

Murderbot.

All Systems Red is Book 1 in the Murderbot Diaries series written by Martha Wells.  It received the 2018 Hugo Award.  So far five titles chronicle the escapades of Murderbot.  The sixth is due out in spring 2021.

This title is also available as:

The Outer Worlds Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

2019 has been a good year for AA developers – studios that fall somewhere between small indie teams and big corporate juggernauts in terms of budget and labor power. In September, Spiders released Greedfall, a better BioWare game than BioWare itself has released lately. Now, Obsidian has done something similar with The Outer Worlds – a better Fallout game than Bethesda’s own Fallout 76 (and, for that matter, some might say, better than Fallout 4). Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Obsidian’s output over the years. The studio is responsible for some of my favorite games of all time: Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, the Pillars of Eternity series, Neverwinter Nights 2, Tyranny. Most relevantly to The Outer Worlds, they made Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda, a game that remains many fans’ favorite entry in the Fallout franchise.

Critics, however, were less kind to New Vegas. While there was a strong favorable consensus around the narrative (particularly the level of freedom and player choice), the gameplay was more hit or miss, and the experience was riddled with bugs on release. These technical issues stemmed mainly from the fact that New Vegas was made using Bethesda’s rickety Gamebryo engine, on a tight Bethesda-imposed deadline (the game was made in 18 months; for perspective, Fallout 3 took four years to develop). It seems a tad unfair, then, that Bethesda tied Obsidian’s bonus to the game’s Metacritic score – a benchmark they fell short of by a single point. In light of this history, it’s easy to view The Outer Worlds as Obsidian thumbing their nose at Bethesda. And as I said above, the game does fill the Fallout-shaped void present in gaming since 76 bombed. The Outer Worlds is its own beast, though, not just a reskinned Fallout game, and deserves to be judged on its own merits.

To begin with, let’s get the similarities out of the way. Like the modern Fallout games, The Outer Worlds is a first-person shooter/role-playing game hybrid with an emphasis on exploration and dialogue. As you reconnoiter the world and chat with its inhabitants you’ll quickly find your journal filling up with side quests. You can talk your way out of conflict, sneak around to avoid it, or confront it head-on with ranged or melee weapons. There are locks to pick and computers to hack in order to gain experience, loot, side quests, and lore. When you level up, you’ll be given skill points and perks to distribute as you see fit. You’ll be presented with morally ambiguous decisions to make that will affect the world and how the people in it treat you.

Some people point to the Tactical Time Dilation (TTD) as a similarity, even going so far as to call it knock-off VATS. In my experience, though, the similarities between the two are strictly superficial. VATS in Fallout stops time (halting you and your companions and opponents in your tracks) and allows you to flick between targets, and fire as many shots as you have action points for. TTD, on the other hand, doesn’t stop time, but simply slows it down significantly, allowing you to aim and move freely until the TTD meter depletes. TTD also allows you to analyze your enemies and target different locations to proc various status effects, like knockdown, stagger, blind, and so on. As someone who relies on VATS to get myself through Fallout, I actually prefer TTD – it feels much more fluid.

The most obvious difference is to be found in the setting. Both games take place in the distant future, but Fallout explores a post-nuclear apocalypse America, while The Outer Worlds takes us to a whole new solar system, the Halcyon Colony. Halcyon is under the complete control of the Board, a holding company comprised of executives from the colony’s various founding companies. While both franchises use their settings to critique the structural shortcomings and moral failures of late stage capitalism, the extraterrestrial setting of The Outer Worlds allows for a much greater variety in flora, fauna, terrain, technology, and – perhaps most importantly to those of you who are aesthetically inclined like I am – color palette (I adore the Fallout games but sometimes it’s nice to see colors other than dull browns and greys).

The fact that you traverse an entire solar system means that The Outer Worlds has you visiting, unlike Fallout’s expansive open world (on a single, interconnected map), a variety of separate, enclosed, discrete locations. It’s also a much shorter game than the typical Fallout experience, though of course the actual length varies greatly depending on how much side content you do, how thoroughly you explore, and so on. These changes might be negative for some people, but I actually appreciated them. Obsidian, lacking the overhead of Bethesda, knew they couldn’t match the scope of a Fallout game, so chose instead to opt for quality over quantity. The smaller maps sacrifice breadth for depth, and are filled to the brim with content and details, making them feel incredibly vibrant. The shorter storyline meant the writing was focused and well-paced, holding my interest throughout. Most importantly, it left me wanting more – I can’t wait to make a new character with different skills, experiment with new playstyles, and see how the game responds to different choices.

The Outer Worlds is available at the Davenport Library on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One platforms.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

guest post by Wesley B

I feel sorry for my co-workers that had to catalogue Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. How do you categorize a book that does all it can to resist labels and push boundaries? On the bright side, that means Gideon has something for nearly everyone: space travel for science fiction fans, magic for fantasy fanatics, skeletons and other undead abominations for horror enthusiasts, romance for – well, romance readers. The characters are primarily young adults, but the content and themes transcend the YA label. The cover and content are pulpy, but the prose is literary. There’s plenty of humor, but Muir treats her characters and their problems with the gravity they deserve. After all, the stakes are higher than life and death – they’re life and undeath.

The story is told from the perspective of the eponymous heroine, Gideon Nav, an indentured servant in the Ninth House. It’s Gideon you see on the striking cover, clad in all black, her face covered with skull paint and aviator shades, walking away, sword drawn, from an explosion of skeletons. Her fiery red coif gives the cover a splash of color; similarly, her incandescent personality lends levity to the novel’s gothic, often grotesque proceedings. The book’s opening line, the most memorable I’ve read this year, is a masterclass in narrative table-setting: “In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.” This simple declarative sentence immediately introduced me to Gideon and her world, and had me dying to learn more about them. Even when I was finished reading, that desire stayed with me; unlike many of her fellow authors of genre fiction, Muir never gets bogged down in the expository weeds of worldbuilding, instead letting her colorful characters stay in the driver’s seat as the plot moves propulsively from one scene to the next.

Gideon is a sort of inverted Harry Potter figure, leaving behind a hostile home for a new life in a place filled with wonder, danger, and people who know far more about it than she does. Unlike the boy wizard, however, Gideon isn’t so much called to adventure as dragged on it against her will, when her lifelong frenemy Harrowhark, daughter of the Ninth House’s leaders, foils her escape attempt. In doing so, however, she strikes a bargain with Gideon: if she accompanies Harrow to the First House and serves as her cavalier (essentially a bodyguard/personal assistant), where the aforementioned King Undying (a God-Emperor who should feel familiar to Warhammer 40k fans) is holding tryouts for new Lyctors (basically immortal lieutenants with vast necromantic powers).

Upon arriving at the First House, Harrow and Gideon meet their counterparts from the other seven Houses. My main criticism of Gideon is that it’s difficult to keep track of a dozen-plus characters dumped in your lap all at once, especially when only a few of them are as interesting or well-developed as our heroines. Thankfully, in its second act the book turns into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, culling the cast significantly (plus there’s a handy list of dramatis personae at the front of the book). It’s during this section that Muir fleshes out her world’s magic system, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book. You’d think a book based entirely on necromancy wouldn’t be that varied in the magic department, but you’d be wrong – each House has its own special variety of death magic, from summoning skeletons to siphoning souls. What’s truly impressive, though, is that these differences in magic aren’t merely superficial. Instead, each necromancer’s style of magic reflects their personality.

In the third act, Muir gives readers the climactic action scenes and revelations of mysteries that we expect, and executes both with aplomb. Ultimately, however, what kept me reading was Gideon and Harrow. As they struggle to work together, they learn not just about the secrets of the First House, but about themselves as well. The ending is explosive and intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking, a tearjerker and a cliffhanger all in one. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out next year; in the meantime, I might have to re-read this one.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Guest post by Wesley B.

In the author’s postscript to The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu writes about his special talent: “Scales and existences that far exceeded the bounds of human sensory perception – both macro and micro – and that seemed to be only abstract numbers to others, could take on concrete forms in my mind.” As an English major who struggled just to get through the entry level math and science requirements in school, I find this talent special indeed. However, I think Liu is selling himself short. What’s truly remarkable is his ability to use this talent to write a hard sci-fi novel that not only appeals to a numerically-illiterate person like me, but to get me to share the “ineffable, religious feeling of awe and shock” he experiences.

Of course, as impressive as these talents are, they would not alone be sufficient to hold my interest for 400 pages. Fortunately, Liu has a good grip on plot and character as well. In fact, the way the book begins – with the riotous, bloody “struggle session” of a physicist during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – you could be forgiven for thinking we had made a mistake shelving it in the sci-fi section and you were reading an historical thriller instead. It actually takes quite a while for the book to build up to its primary interstellar conflict. For those of you who are hardcore sci-fi fans, this may seem like a bummer, but rest assured, it’s worth the wait – Liu didn’t become the first Asian to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel for no reason.

And anyway, there’s plenty of value in the lengthy build-up. The book alternates between the perspectives of Ye Wenjie, daughter of the physicist killed in the opening scene and herself a renowned astrophysicist, and Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher. Ye’s scenes take part mostly in the past, and although they serve primarily as exposition and world-building, I still greatly enjoyed them. The Cultural Revolution is a fascinating period in history rife with political intrigue, and seeing how it affects Ye – in terms of both her external circumstances and her inner life – is truly compelling.

Wang’s scenes, meanwhile, take place exclusively in the present, and have a lot more of a narrative drive to them. His sections have an almost Stephen King-like quality to them, both in their unsettling strangeness as well as their power to leave me unable to put the book down. After receiving an unexpected visit from a joint military-police task force (led by Shi Qiang, a vulgar police officer whose gruff exterior belies his Sherlockian powers of observation and detection, and easily my favorite side character in the book), peculiar things begin to happen to him. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot involving numerous shadowy organizations and a truly bizarre virtual reality video game. Eventually, of course, Wang and Ye’s stories converge, leading to a final act that is truly a tour-de-force of storytelling.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Have you heard of Hank Green? Hank is the brother of prolific young adult author John Green. Hank is a genius in his own right though: cocreator of Crash Course, Vlogbrothers, and SciShow. Hank has branched out into fiction now! In his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thinghe has created an intriguing story about a young woman somewhat content in her own peaceful life who becomes an overnight celebrity. Her sudden celebrity is part of a much bigger, stranger, and weirder situation that anyone in the world could possibly comprehend.

April May is stumbling home from work in the wee hours of the morning when she runs into a giant sculpture that seems to have just popped up in the middle of the sidewalk out of nowhere. Delighted – and confused – by this discovery, April does the most logical thing that she can think of: she calls her friend Andy, a local vlogger, and guards this sculpture until he comes with his video equipment. April and Andy decide to make a video with this expertly crafted artwork that she has aptly named Carl. Carl is a glorious piece of craftmanship – a 10-foot-tall Transformer-looking sculpture covered in a suit of samurai armor. After shooting this video, they stumble to their respective homes where Andy uploads the video they shot to YouTube.

Events quickly spiral out of control. The next day April wakes up to a very popular viral video and a rapidly changed life. Andy is understandable overwhelmed as he calls April to report that their Carl isn’t the only Carl. Carls have been discovered in dozens of cities all over the world. They all seemed to have popped up at once with no organization or government claiming ownership of their construction or arrival. April is now considered to be the first person to have had contact with a Carl and thus becomes the center of an immensely intense and ever-growing international media spotlight.

Luckily April has some pretty strong friends and family in her corner. (Whether or not she acknowledges their usefulness is another matter altogether.) These individuals have to fight against April’s growing ego as she believes that she is the only person who could possible figure out the Carl situation. After all, she found the first Carl. April struggles to balance her new fame, old and new relationships, her identity, and concerns over her safety as people quickly realize that the Carls are even more not what the public thinks. April tries to put herself at the forefront of Carl research and becomes even more of the face of the Carl movement as people learn more and more facts about the Carls. People all over the world question the Carls’ existences: why, what, who, etc. April and friends soon realize that the Carls may want something from the people of Earth, but figuring this out may tear them all apart for good.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is an impressive and surprisingly relevant read when compared with today’s society. This book takes on issues of social media fame, conversations, and calls to arms. It also talks in great detail about how the world in general, and also people at an individual level, deal with change, fear, and the uncertainty that change can bring. I really enjoyed the way that Green builds April from a nobody to an immensely popular celebrity. That juxtaposition between her former and current selves was fascinating as it really showed the dehumanization and other-worldly qualities the general public thrusts on people in the public eye.

I enjoyed this book! Check it out and let me know what you thought about it in the comments below.


This book is also available in the following format:

Vox by Christina Dalcher

This book was all over reading lists before it even came out. When Vox was released, the hype grew even bigger. What I discovered when reading reviews of this book was that people either really loved or didn’t like it. I firmly fall in the ‘love it’ category and I hope you all like it as well.

Vox by Christina Dalcher runs in a similar vein of The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of a specific segment of the population being silenced/put into service by a different group. While reading this book, I noticed that I was growing increasingly agitated at the restrictions placed on women.

Jean McLellan is a cognitive linguist. Happily married with four children, Jean lives a pleasant life. Her husband Patrick is the science advisor to the President and seems to have an inside track to what’s happening. With the rise of the ‘Pure’ religious movement, Jean quickly realizes her basic freedoms are starting to be taken away. When the ‘Pure’ movement succeeds in infiltrating the government, Jean knows she’s in trouble.  She saw the signs, but failed to respond appropriately. Women representation in government is decreasing, the ‘pure’ religion is gaining traction, and female freedoms are being lost at an increasing rate. Jean did nothing. Her friends and family warned her and pleaded with her to do something, but Jean continuously believed that America would never go very far. She was wrong.

One day, all women were fitted with a bracelet snapped around their wrist that worked as a word counter. This permanent bracelet limited them to 100 words per day. 100! ALL DAY! That’s it. Don’t even try to go over 100 because each over will result in severe consequences. The ‘pure’ movement controls all. Religion has a higher say than science. As a result, Jean, as a linguist specialist, is very worried about what would happen to women the longer they are silenced and limited to 100 words.

Having somewhat adjusted to this horrible new normal, Jean is startled when she is approached by the President’s men saying her professional services are required. Meeting with the powers that be, Jean is told that the President’s brother has suffered a severe brain injury that impacts his ability to use language. Jean, plus some of her previous work colleagues, are needed to research a way to help him. Obviously Jean leverages her unique skill set to negotiate a deal in her favor. Jean is now in a position to help the female population, but has to do so sneakily. Complications ensue (obviously). Once Jean is reunited with her previous colleagues, they must race against time to solve the problem presented. Jean’s past plays a large role in her decision to behave the way she does with the overall message in the book being: use your voice before they take it away.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis is the second Sci-Fi novel written by Andy Weir. I loved Weir’s first book, The Martian, and also the movie based on it, even though I am not typically a Sci-Fi reader. I thought it was smart and funny, with just the right amount of suspense. That is just how I like my books. Therefore, I was eager to read Artemis. I checked out the audiobook version, read by Rosario Dawson (she’s great!).

The main thing Artemis had in common with The Martian is that the characters are living somewhere other than Earth. Beyond that, they are very different. Artemis is still smartly written, but I didn’t find it quite as funny. Artemis is grittier.

In The Martian, an astronaut named Mark struggles to survive alone on the red planet after a mishap leaves him accidentally abandoned by his research team. I know, it doesn’t sound funny at all. But Mark is a character with a very good sense of humor, despite his dire situation. I rooted for him the entire time. By contrast, Artemis is a futuristic moon colony populated by many humans (some live there, others are just visiting). Artemis’ protagonist, Jasmine, is a young, jaded crook. She starts out as a petty smuggler, but things escalate, intensely and quickly.  Maybe other readers would feel differently, but I kept hoping that she would get busted for her antics. Still, every misstep she takes is entertaining.

A self-described “space nerd,” Weir describes the scientific principles of living in outer space in a way that is pretty easy for a novice to grasp. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like he knows what he’s writing about. I recently read the Moon Base Alpha series by Stuart Gibbs with my 10 year old son, and many things are echoed in those books. For example, EVA (Extravehicular Activity) suits are described almost exactly the same in both books, by the two different authors.

I have since started reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. It is rather amusing to see how Sci-Fi writing has changed over the years. Who knows? This may compel me to read more Sci-Fi / Fantasy as time goes on .