Charles Stross – Saturn’s Children (2008) | Book Review

Charles Stross Saturn's ChildrenCharles Stross is a name in science fiction that is relatively well-known. It doesn’t have quite the recognition of writers like China Mieville or Neil Gaiman, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of readers whose favorite literary genre is science fiction have at least heard of Stross, even if they haven’t actually read one of his works. Saturn’s Children is our first exposure to Charles Stross’ novels.

The easiest way to describe the impression given by Saturn’s Children is to compare it to a movie. It’s like seeing a wonderful, perfectly edited trailer that makes the film seem like something that absolutely must be experienced, only to find upon going to see the film it is disappointingly clunky and borderline uncomfortable to watch. The idea of a sex bot whose creators are long gone and thus she has to find a new career choice is interesting and amusing, but the novel is so awkward that it is a very unrewarding experience.

It doesn’t help that the main character is forced into strange sexual situations that come across as slightly misogynistic. Early on in the novel, she travels to Mercury aboard a strange travel device that actually has sex with her to keep her calm during the trip. It gives the impression that Stross is trying really hard to write a comedic novel, something like a slightly more eccentric Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but misses the mark by a whole lot. The writing itself is fine, but the novel on the whole feels like a total mess.

Being that Saturn’s Children was actually nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2009, it’s surprising to find the work to be so utterly disappointing. Apparently, the novel is intended as something of a tribute to the work of science fiction legend Robert Heinlein, whose work seems pretty overrated based on what we’ve read of his. Maybe Stross is similarly overpraised, or maybe Saturn’s Children just isn’t his finest hour. Either way, it will be a while before we read anything else of his.

Rating: 1.5 stars (of 5)

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Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (1966) | Book Review

Samuel R. Delany Babel-17Samuel R. Delany is the perfect example of a writer’s writer. Although he won two Hugo Awards, his fame stems mostly from the respect of his fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, as evidenced by his winning four Nebula Awards, including one for this novel, Babel-17.

The novel follows a poet, linguist, polyglot, and code breaker named Rydra Wong, who is tasked with translating Babel-17, thought of previously as a code before Wong discovers that it is actually a language. Not long after the story begins, she gets a crew together with the intention of traveling into space to find the origin of the language in an effort to complete her translation.

Among science fiction heroines, Rydra Wong really is on the top of the pack. She’s perfectly written, with brilliance and real depth that speaks to the quality of Samuel R. Delany’s writing ability. Babel-17 isn’t an action centric novel, but Wong seems always capable of solving every problem using her intellect. To make things more interesting, her work as a poet has made her an intergalactic celebrity, so she is treated differently in the novel than other characters on the strength of her artistic work. It is clear very quickly that she is a lot more than a good poet.

Babel-17 as a novel is a linguistic wonder, as Delany plays with language in a story about interpreting language, in a wonderfully created piece that, despite some occasional pacing issues, is the kind of novel that writers read and think “I wish I had written this.” Getting a digital copy of the novel is nearly impossible without illicit means, but it is well worth finding it in print. One should stop sort of saying that it is one of the all-time classics of the genre, as the plot doesn’t really do much and the narrative is more of a vessel for creative investigation into the nature of linguistics. Babel-17 isn’t really about the story; it’s about the way stories are told. Definitely a worthy, clever read that was deserving of its previous accolades.

Rating: 4 stars (of 5)

Most of Samuel R. Delany‘s work is still available in physical form from Amazon, including Babel-17. Unfortunately, the ebooks are hard to come by outside of the U.K. (where they are released mostly under the SF Masterworks label).