After my recent(ish) post about Ninefox Gambit, I mentioned I’d be back to write about some other books. It’s taken a while to actually get back to the “add new post” screen of my blog, but I’m here now.
Slightly awkwardly, before I had a chance to write about Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, they squeezed the sequel out of their brains and into mine via the publishing industry. So I’m going to write about Illuminae and Gemina at the same time.
First things first: Don’t go into either of these books expecting to read straight prose. If you do, you’ll be… well, I don’t know if disappointed is the right word. Let’s go with “surprised” instead.
If these were films, they’d be “found footage” films. As books, they’re presented as a sequence of chat logs, text files, records, computer logfiles and transcripts of interviews or CCTV footage… but occasionally heading off in other directions, leading to some folks describing it as a work of ergodic fiction – that is, fiction where the act of reading it is not passive, but where the layout and typography require active engagement to consume, and are as much a part of the story as the words themselves.
I’m not sure I’d put it completely in that category, but it’s certainly visiting that territory at times. There are large sections when the cadence, typesetting and presentation are as much a part of the story as the voices and characters they represent. It’s with that in mind, I think that these are books which could well lose a great deal as audio-books unless significant effort went in to ensuring that didn’t happen. I’m not sure how they’d pull off that significant effort, or what shape it’d take, but part of me really wants to hear it at some point!
In terms of story, things commence with cataclysmic events at an off-the-books mining colony in a less travelled part of the jump-gate network… leading to an evacuation under fire, running away to board a few remaining ships and escape.
From there, we as readers pick through the aforementioned files, logs and transcripts as our protagonists flee the planet in the hope of making it back to civilisation to spread the word of the sneak attack that has killed a large number of their people.
Illuminae, for the most part, follows a mix of those survivors as they try to keep a couple of overcrowded and damaged ships together and ahead of their pursuers for long enough to get to closest station with a jump gate leading back to civilisation.
Gemina, for the most part, follows related events on that jump station as those responsible for the attack and pursuit attempt to ensure that they are not caught and held accountable. Events run largely parallel to parts of Illuminae, but continue beyond them.
I found both books to be thoroughly enjoyable romps – well presented and fun reads, that spend a lot of their time feeling like the kind of spaceship-eye-candy, guns-and-explosions-in-space science fiction you see on american television. No bad thing – fun, engaging action and entertainment is nothing to be sneered at.
My main complaint would be that the protagonists often feel somewhat hyper-capable – something I’ve often heard of as a criticism of young adult fiction. Which these books are, if you care about such distinctions.
Not all of the characters are flawless. Some have engaging flaws that mark them out as being the “bad-boy” (in a strictly non-gendered sense). But those characters are also hyper-capable, and their flaws are the kind of flaws that everyone else can easily ignore. They’re almost the moral or ethical equivalent of “hollywood homely” from TV Tropes – just like everyone else in hollywood, but with glasses on.
So, that hyper-capability is a minor complaint, and one that, when I noticed it, still passed my “Do I care? Does it get in the way of the book?” test with a pair of “no” answers. The books are fun, they’re well designed and they’re extremely engaging.
After a little bit of initial whittling down, the characters all feel like different people with different voices, even though you’re experiencing them from an even greater remove due to the “found files” conceit. There are possibly a few exceptions to this in Gemina, mostly amongst the mercenary cleanup crew… but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some of the less distinctive ones don’t confuse the text for very long.
All in all, I think I’d say I preferred Illuminae as a book, because I felt it was somewhat more daring and new… and because of some of the parts of it that I can’t work out how to allude to here without spoilers. But I still thoroughly enjoyed Gemina as well – it just didn’t quite resonate with me the same way. The bit of Illuminae I’m conspicuously not mentioning was a well done example of something I tend to enjoy good examples of, whilst bad examples throw me right out of the narrative.
I remained in the narrative, and am pretty sure that the creators of these books share a love for a few things of which I count myself a massive fan.
So, all in all – I’m not the target market (I am happy to say I’m an adult, but I’d be lying if I claimed to be a “young” adult in any way) but I hoovered up these books rapidly and with a sense of engagement and enjoyment. They pulled me in, pulled me along and left me wanting more. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure more is on the way.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers , Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 14 by Peter Clines (although I still don’t know how to enthuse about it without spoiling it) and the audiobook of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (which at the rate I’m going, may well be joined by the upcoming next volume – Waking Gods, due in April).
I feel I would be failing the world if I didn’t write at least something about the film Arrival as well.