Contact by Carl Sagan

ContactContact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You need at least a minor background in science to understand the themes and terminology. But it’s worth it.

Contact – the movie – is one of my all-time favourite sci-fi films. It’s a slow burner, and full of political machinations, but the payoff is quite profound. The book is very similar in tone and the story is basically the same, however some events happen to different people, the time period begins some years before the setting of the movie (but spans a greater time period in total), therefore impacting the technology involved in the narrative, some characters are involved less heavily than they were portrayed in the movie, and relationships differ greatly. In my opinion, I think the book has greater realism compared to the movie, simply because it focuses more on the science, the mathematics, and the ingenuity of the people involved in decoding the “message” and building the “machine”.

Eleanor Arroway is a brilliant scientist working on the SETI – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Using radio telescopes, she and her team search the skies for possible transmissions from outer space, from potentially advanced civilisations in the far reaches of the universe. A signal is received containing a questionable message, huge amounts of data in a language unknown to human kind, and completely changes the entire perspective of the people of the world. All the countries of the world put aside their political differences, and for at least a few years are all completely cooperative in trying to work out the mystery of the message, and what the function of the “machine” actually is…

Probably one of the most clever narratives in science fiction that I have read or seen (to date). I don’t know much about radio telescopes and the related technologies, but with google at your side, you can definitely begin to understand more and more of how such a thing would work. I’ve learned a few things reading this book.

Thoroughly enjoyable. I recommend to anyone with even a minor interest in space.

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Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates

Suicide Forest (World's Scariest Places #1)Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun engaging read. Blair Witch in Japan, but with less irritating characters!

Several years back, I watched an episode of a show called “Destination Truth” with Josh Gates going all over the world working out if monsters and stories of hauntings were real. He went and spent the night in Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest, and BOY did they see some weird ****! Nowadays, he’s on a show called Expedition Unknown on the Travel Channel (I like this guy’s style!). Check it out if you can.

Anyway, this book is set in that same forest. A group of friends initially meet up to climb Fuji-san, but bad weather forces them to find something else to do. They join up with another couple who they meet by chance, and decide to camp out in Aokigahara. Great idea! A day or so in, they lose their way, run out of food and water, and one by one the friends start to die.. or did they kill themselves?

A great narrative, characters you don’t mind hanging around with in a dark forest, and a satisfying eventual reveal of what is going on around them in the woods.

Would probably make a better horror film than the original Blair Witch! (Which I don’t dislike, but this is still way ahead).

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Addictive. Loved it. For anyone, like me, who grew up in the 80s/90s and is also a gamer, this is a must read.

The human race barely goes out any more, the real world is poverty-stricken and run down. In most cases all work, school, and leisure takes place in a virtual world – The Oasis. This platform was created by two guys, one of whom – James Halliday – dies, leaving behind an “Easter-Egg Hunt” of epic proportions. The winner of the hunt will win ownership of the entire Oasis system (and billions of dollars). Cue a race to solve all the clues, fight battles, argue over 80s trivia, and the entire life and times of Halliday. Not only are the users in competition with each other, but also against the (typical) evil corporation, who want to win the hunt so that they can gain control of, and monetise, what is currently a free-to-access system.

Wade Watts AKA Parzival is a poor kid who lives with an exploitative aunt, who’s only escape is the school system within the Oasis. When the hunt goes live, he and his online friends both help (and hinder) each other to try and solve the clues. Wade stumbles across an answer to the first clue, putting him top of the “leaderboard”, and subsequently putting a target on his back.

Filled with humour, 80s nostalgia, and references to all those old movies and games that you’ve almost forgotten about, Ready Player One is one hell of a page-turner.

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The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

The Magician's LandThe Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pure escapism. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy of novels. Lev Grossman fuses all of the things I loved about Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and many other Fantasy influences into a new narrative that works when aimed at a more mature reader.

Part “macguffin” hunt, part quest to save an entire world. Some characters remain in the magical world of Fillory (High King and Queen, Eliot and Janet), and worlds in-between, whilst others (mainly Quentin) have to work out how to play their part from Earth. The legacy of the original family to find Fillory, the Chatwins, comes into play with both new and old characters. And it goes to show that relying on “Gods” is not all it’s cracked up to be! In order to get things done, you generally have to take charge yourself and make the hard decisions.

Old locations and characters are re-visited, and although the plot occasionally seemed to run on pure coincidence for it to move forwards, it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story.

The SyFy series (it was/is broadcast on one of the Channel 5 iterations in the UK) is pretty decent, but not as emotionally complex as the book. They’ve modified and blended the story lines, and massively changed some characters (not always for the better). But if they were both identical, I would lose interest in one or the other. I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to my TV-escapism!

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King (The Magicians, #2)The Magician King by Lev Grossman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great adventure. And the back story of Julia, who I felt was a bit of a kindred spirit!

Wow, Julia had it really rough! Compared to Quentin, who’s charmed acceptance into Brakebills University set him on a guided path through his magical journey to Fillory and to then become a King, Julia suffered relentless hardship, rejection, depression, and violence. The missing time from the first book, where we only see the re-emergence of Julia for a very brief moment, is completed within this novel. Quentin, goes on a new adventure in Fillory, but through a series of events ends up back on Earth and has to go to Julia for help. Their quest takes them across the globe to track down friends to help them – and a dragon!

I particularly like how the characters in these books are not just “lucky” to be chosen for an adventure, either on Earth, or in Fillory, but are extraordinarily intelligent human beings who earned their acceptance into Brakebills, or their way up through the ranks of the “Hedge Witches” and beyond. There is some serious geekery on display throughout many of the conversations between Julia’s group of online friends. The story takes you across the majority of 2 worlds, yet the reader never feels lost. I devoured this book in only a couple of days. I couldn’t put it down.

The characters all have very distinct voices and personalities, which is a sign of a good writer. Without having to repeat the name of a character over and over again when their dialogue is written, you just know who is saying what, and it flows so much better.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this series.

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