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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

ender's gameSet in the distant future, humanity is at war with an alien species whose presence threatens the future. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is¬†a child genius, a product of a¬†government agency that breeds young soldiers to aid the war effort. At a young age, Ender is sent to Battle School, and the trials that await him are more than just mock¬†battle games, but also involve trials of a psychological and interpersonal nature.

I know so many people who like this book, and to those that do: I’m sorry. I see the merits of this book and can understand why people like this. It is about children¬†with substance, personalities, and intelligence, and because they are children, they are manipulated, pressured, exhausted and treated with little dignity by¬†those who call themselves adults. Intertwined with a narrative about war, this book is underpinning the notion of power, misconceptions, and how society assigns power to whom based on these social constructions that we take for granted.

Card also explores the effect of war on people, and the boundaries and limits of the human mind. As a promising candidate for the war, Ender is pushed, pressured, and tested. He is shaped and essentially groomed to become a leader, which is a fate that is inevitable even if Ender does not want it. Essentially, Ender is manipulated beyond help and he becomes a pawn and an ideological symbol that is trapped, powerless, and helpless; it was a sad revelation for Ender, and I liked how Card explored his fall into despair, and I appreciated how this contrasted with his resolution in the end.

So, the one and a half¬†stars… I can appreciate the narratives in¬†Ender’s Game and I tried to do this book justice by searching for them (hence +0.5 star), but to be bloody honest, I found Ender’s Game¬†boring. So boring.¬†So boring that I wanted to give up half way, but I pushed myself through it.

I found¬†Ender’s Game¬†to be¬†incredibly repetitive (especially the mock battles). Though each mock battle was different from each other, in the sense that there were new tactics or new methods of deception or it was with a different team, but they did not feel inherently different. It was painful to read these over and over again, and I know the constant mock battles were supposed to wear Ender down, were they supposed to wear the reader¬†down¬†too? (Because if so, Card succeeded.)¬†Also, I won’t elaborate but Card reminds us incessantly and relentlessly that Ender is Good (with a capital and bolded G).

The character development felt stale. As new characters were introduced, all of them showed so much promise to be interesting, complex characters, especially Bean and Petra. However, as the plot progressed, I felt that all of the secondary characters’ development was compromised for Ender’s alienation. All the characters regressed to one-dimensional characters that just become names in a book but not whole, developed characters. I will probably forget these secondary characters as time passes.

I found it boring. I could not care for it. I would be lying to myself if I said I liked it. I do not like Ender’s Game.¬†I find it completely baffling that people hail this as one of the best science-fiction novels of all time. It numbs my mind trying to¬†understand why.

P.S. Also, Card’s chauvinistic view of women left a bad taste in my mouth. However, as there are many arguments out there already, that is all I’ll say on the matter.

Rating: 1.5/5

Book Information:
Book Name: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction

 

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Cinder by Marissa Meyer

cinderI had a lot of apprehensions about this book. When I saw¬†New Beijing¬†and Linh Cinder¬†and¬†Marissa Meyer,¬†I had the knee-jerk reaction that I’m sure most Asian people would empathize with: ‘oh no, they’re going to butcher my culture for the sake of a retelling, and it will unleash a swarm of weeaboos’.

Imagine my surprise when Marissa Meyer did not do an utterly terrible job of retelling Cinderella. (Perhaps my expectations have stooped so low?) Given the cesspit of authors who disrespectfully use¬†my culture to make themselves or their stories appear ‘cool’, ‘cultured’ or ‘exotic’ (ew?), well, Cinder¬†is a minor transgressor. Apart from the use of honourifics, integration of ‘Chinese culture’ (which were a bit stereotypical, but not blatantly so) into the setting, and very strange sounding Chinese names, Meyer doesn’t¬†explore other elements of Chinese culture. Is that bad? It’s disappointing, but¬†at this point, I’d rather she didn’t at all than butcher it completely.

Cinder¬†takes place in a futuristic¬†New Beijing, where cyborgs are second-class citizens¬†and a monarchy rules the Eastern Commonwealth empire. Cinder is a cyborg, a gifted mechanic who finds herself caught in the middle of an¬†intergalactic power struggle, a plague epidemic, and has also caught the eye of the Emperor’s son, Prince Kai.

The reason why I liked Cinder more than I thought it would was because it was enjoyable. It was an easy read meant for easy consumption, with just enough intensity, intrigue and tension to keep me reading. Cinder is what you expect it to be: a fun book for people who enjoy retellings with an imaginative setting, interwoven with science-fiction-esque elements.

In saying that though, I was¬†disappointed with some elements of this¬†book. Coupled with the extremely predictable ‘plot-twist’, Cinder’s character development¬†was boring and unoriginal. Yes, she is independent and sarcastic and fiesty, but beyond that, she has no essence. Cinder’s character development is¬†born from the¬†superficial cry for¬†‘strong female characters’. The ‘strong female character’ trope has created a portrayal of women that is reductive and simplistic (and often very Eurocentric, i.e. ‘strong female characters’ are loud, assertive, have no respect for authority, reckless), to the extent that audiences reject women who do not meet the ‘strong female character’ ideal and writers are writing women to be characters that embody all those traits ‚ÄĒ and that‚Äôs it. They are simplistic and lack any sort of development out of fear that they will be labelled as weak.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I do enjoy seeing these characters in the media, and I’d choose that portrayal over sexist portrayals any day – but women are so much more complex than that. We are much more than sarcastic, fiesty, loud, etc. Excellent female characters cannot be reduced to ticks on a simple checklist. Excellent female characters are ones that have depth – even if they do not possess ‘strong’ qualities. Yes, we need strong characters, yes we need strong women, but we also need women with a variety of backgrounds, histories, ideas, attitudes and personalities. We need characters that we can empathize with, we need characters so that we can see ourselves (past, present of future) in them, and we need characters that inspire us. My favourite characters were the ones that did all these things ‚ÄĒ not because they were strong specifically – but because they reminded us of our humanness.

But I digress. Another issue I had with Cinder¬†was that Meyer doesn’t illuminate on several plot points that require readers to take on by faith; two big questions for me were: what is¬†Cinder’s condition as a cyborg (I was confused as to what cyborg meant by the end of the book), and what are the Lunars and how did they get there? Perhaps these are questions to be explored in the subsequent books, but the fact that these core plot point are never explained without acknowledgement of these questions, it conveys poor, shallow storytelling, not mystery.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked¬†Cinder well enough. As I’ve emphasized, it’s the sort¬†of book that is nice and comforting (I read this when I was sick and it kept me company). It is not a book¬†that will take up the cracks and corners of your mind, but it is the sort of book that you can read in the small gaps of your day.¬†As Cinder¬†is¬†the first of¬†The Lunar Chronicles¬†series, I do believe that it has potential still. In the future, I will pick up¬†Scarlet,¬†the second book of the series, and hope that Meyer develops her characters, the setting, and the plot maintains its momentum.

Rating: 3/5

Book Information
Book Name: Cinder
Book Series: The Lunar Chronicles #1
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick

androidsIn a future where artificial intelligence is possible, the elephant in the room is where androids would stand in society. Where would they place in our social stratification? What would be their role in human culture, politics and philosophy? Phillip K. Dick had an idea, and quite frankly, it is sad but likely.

Set in 1992 (or 2021 for later editions), the world¬†is a radioactive wasteland, caused by a devastating World War that has destroyed most of the world. In an attempt to preserve human life, humans have expanded to off-world colonies. With life sparse on Earth, animals are now valuable commodities and have become signifiers of wealth and social status. Protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter on Earth, whose job is to ‘retire’ – or terminate – fugitive androids that have assumed human identities.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?¬†is as riveting and provocative as its title.¬†Dick explores a multitude of ideas, such as an android’s place in a human world, morality, human nature, consciousness, sentience, empathy, how signifiers of status are arbitrary and socially constructed, and among other things that I may not have picked up. All of these themes are relevant, and it is the ambiguity and its¬†narrative style that makes it so effective.¬†Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?¬†is not a meditation, but Dick shows us a glimpse of a world where these constructs¬†exist. In that sense,¬†Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?¬†is not a book where all of its contents and intricacies are immediately visible to the reader – the reader has¬†to engage with the themes and sometimes be the person to go further and ask the questions.

Something¬†that really captured my attention was the question of¬†what makes us human? It is a question that has been asked time and time again by countless authors, writers and philosophers, but Dick answers it like how Ghost in the Shell answers it (e.g. not at all, which gives it its permanence). People reading this will come to answer this question – or be stumped by this question – when we learn more of the androids and their motivations. What distinguishes us as human and them as robot? Is it the instinct of survival, our molecular makeup, our ability to empathize, our consciousness, or our sentience? What is life? What is sentience? (I’ve fucked myself up with these questions.) Maybe when I read more philosophy I’ll be able to answer this question, but for now this question will hang¬†in the back of my mind.

For a short read,¬†Do Androids Dream of Sheep¬†says and asks much. I now see why Dick’s work was iconic and I wish I had read this sooner. So do yourself a favour: if you read this book in high school and you didn’t like it, read it again; and if you haven’t read this book, read it.

And now to schedule a time to force myself to watch Blade Runner.

Rating: 4/5 

Book Information:
Book Name: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Phillip K. Dick
Publisher: Del Rey

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The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde

soul of manNB: This isn’t a comprehensive review – I think a compilation of annotation and notes would be more appropriate.

Oscar Wilde writes beautifully, and in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, it shows. In this essay, Wilde critiques capitalism, advocates for enlightenment and ‘individualism’, and expresses disdain for how the public dictates Art and what is ‘popular’ –

… the artist can fashion a beautiful thing;and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.

Though I do not agree with anarchism (but given what happened to him, I cannot blame him for having this world view) and some of his arguments, Oscar Wilde offers an interesting perspective on the potential of human flourishing under socialism. Wilde talks a great deal of ‘individualism’ – a term which, I think, means self-actualization – which is greatly inhibited under capitalism.

It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such … Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.

Wilde is not saying that work is bad and we should all hand in our resignations tomorrow, but he is saying that manual labour, where you are the appendage of the machine, prevents us from living life and experiencing its beauty, to create, and to understand ourselves and realizing our inherent talents. Wilde saw freedom as freedom to become who we are, and become the best we can be.

Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that assoon as man has invented the machine to do his work, he began to starve.

Poetic.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information:
Book Name: The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Author: Oscar Wilde

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Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

monsters of menIn the book summary, the blurb promises that¬†Monsters of Men¬†is a ‘heart-stopping novel about power, survival, and the devastating realities of war.‘ And wow, did it keep its promise.

The series is imaginative, thought-provoking, insightful and sophisticated in writing, even if it is aimed at a young audience. As I’ve said before in my reviews for The Knife of Never Letting Go¬†and The Ask and the Answer, Ness makes heavy themes of politics, power, revolution, war and justice accessible without minimizing (too much) the complexities and intricacies of such topics. As a standalone book, however, though¬†I liked¬†The Ask and the Answer¬†marginally better (and that’s because¬†The Ask and the Answer¬†delves into topics that interest me more), Monsters of Men¬†is a satisfying conclusion that offers a thoughtful and whole-feeling ending.

Something I loved about¬†Monsters of Men¬†was how Ness explores the personal and social implications¬†war has on people. We see its effects on individuals – namely our protagonists Viola and Todd – as well as the innocents caught in the middle. However, what¬†Monsters of Men¬†does that sets it apart from typical novels about war is that it explores the perspective of the Other (namely, the Spackle). Such narratives are so important, because more often than not the Other is dehumanized and objectified with rhetoric and ideology to justify war and conflicts. So I truly loved the fact that Ness gave readers an opportunity to see and understand the¬†perspective of the Spackle – on that note, the Spackle’s perspective is incredibly interesting and I do detect¬†some individualism vs. collectivism undertones. Perhaps Ness is offering subtle social commentary.

There are many things that can be discussed about in¬†Monsters of Men, so I will cut it short and say:¬†read it.¬†It’s a truly fantastic novel that asks the important questions, and it explores difficult but necessary themes¬†that are written with so much simplicity and sophistication. The characters grow so much (and you come to love them¬†despite¬†their flaws), and the trilogy builds with such intensity that it’s so difficult to put down. Honestly, I loved this book, I loved this series – probably one of my all-time favourites – and I am now a proud owner of the trilogy (my bookshelf and I are happy). The ending is something of contest (some may argue it as anti-climatic), but how it wraps together in its final moments, I believe, really underpins an important message of this trilogy: violence¬†and war¬†blind us to reality.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Monsters of Men
Book Series: Chaos Walking #3
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Walker & Company

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The Stranger by Albert Camus

the strangerI never intended to read¬†The Stranger;¬†it was one of those books you discover by accident and spontaneously decide to read it without giving it much thought. What’s more is that¬†I read this book after New Years¬†and¬†I was running on three hours sleep, but for some reason the summer heat made me more¬†thoughtful, and thus made me appreciate this novel more.¬†For me,¬†The Stranger¬†was a reading experience that involved a series of¬†haphazard moments, and in a way, this is similar to the¬†experience of¬†Meursault, the protagonist of¬†The Stranger.

The Stranger¬†follows the unorthodox life of Meursault. He is detached, apathetic, strange, but above all, he is different, because his way of thinking and being deviates from what we call¬†‘normal’. Meursault is what we could call a social deviant.

It’s important to note that the point of this novel is not that Meursault is a social deviant — the point is that many would¬†perceive and label Meursault¬†as such. As the book is told from the perspective of Meursault, the reader is able to tap into his psyche – we see the world as how he sees it, and though it is often strange and devoid of¬†something¬†(I will elaborate on this later), his perspective on things still makes sense to some degree. However, it is necessary to empathize with those who perceive¬†Meursault, to see¬†how they perceive him.¬†That is where the message of this novel lies: the essence of this book is how we, social beings with social conventions¬†and moral systems, will manipulate and dictate images¬†so that it aligns with how we perceive or understand the world.¬†Meursault’s critics therefore, in a hopeless attempt to make sense of his actions, distort his being and impose their distortions on Meursault.

Which leads to the question of why Meursault’s critics did this in the first place. It’s undeniable – from the prose and the actions of the character – that Meursault lacks¬†something.¬†And I think this delves into the question of what it means to be human. Meursault lacks certain characteristics that we would typically characterize as being human – to show remorse, to show emotion, or even to fight for one’s survival and dignity.

Regardless of what people¬†measure¬†the idea of¬†‘be human’, at the end of the day, such is defined by¬†socio-cultural standards, values, and people. What it means to ‘be human’ is ultimately defined by us, and imposed by us for our need to feel comfortable – people who are different or resist these ideals are alienated, marginalized and ostracized. Though this does not justify Mersault’s actions, because they still had a devastating effect,¬†The Stranger¬†calls into question of why we have constructs such as ‘humanity’ and how they may serve to suppress otherness, especially the kind that we cannot understand.

Do I empathize with Meursault? A little, but only because The Stranger was written from his perspective. However, I have to admit that if I watched the events of The Stranger unfold in front of my eyes, I would be terrified of Meursault Рthe fact that he would appear calculative and resigned, that his emotions Рor lack of Рbetray nothing but instead paint a more mysterious, unintelligible picture, and the fact that we cannot understand him. We fear these people or entities of this nature, and I think a purpose of this book is to scrutinize this tendency.

One of the key parts of the novel is at the end, namely the¬†discussion between the priest and Meursault, and is a great example of Camus’s absurdism (which is a very interesting area of philosophy; one that I’m interested in reading more about).¬†The Stranger may be a slow book, but it’s short length and succinct writing makes it a¬†book that can be appreciated more after a second read. Furthermore,¬†The Stranger¬†is a type of book where different themes and ideas will emerge for different people. The Stranger¬†is an easy and relaxing read, but also raises the good kind of questions: questions that provoke, and questions¬†that call for¬†discussion¬†rather than answers.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Publisher: Vintage International

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If I Stay by Gayle Forman

if i stayDeep down, I know this book is emotionally manipulative and cliche-ridden, but I decided upon finishing it that I don’t care. This book moved me because I think it tried to appeal to my inner teenager — you know, the girl who loved sad, doomed things because of its terrible but inherent¬†nature (oh heck, I still love that stuff). However, if one can overlook the convenient magical realism or the Near Death Clairvoyance trope, then perhaps you may see¬†that, for all its flaws,¬†If I Stay¬†by Gayle Forman is still beautifully written and, at times, moving.

Seventeen year old Mia has a bright future ahead of her; she’s a talented cello player with promise, has a fun-loving, rebellious but close family and a boyfriend who is her opposite but loves music as fiercely as she does. Faced with the decision to leave her family and friends to pursue her music, one day after a catastrophic car accident, Mia is left with only one decision: does she stay?

The thing about this book was that it managed to elicit an array of feelings. What¬†If I Stay¬†succeeds¬†in is that it’s an exploration of life and death, and, with the former, the idea of possibilities and¬†what if’s. Books about life and death often come as¬†a loaded gun;¬†it is inevitable that we, readers who engage with these narratives, use¬†our personal human experiences as a lens¬†that shape our perceptions and how we make sense of things. In saying this, it is because of this that reviewing¬†If I Stay¬†objectively is a difficult task; in a way, my innermost, child-like feelings have intertwined with the novel’s narrative and ideas, so in a weird way I have become a little defensive of the themes in this book.

Regardless, If I Stay was thought-provoking in an existential way. It made me reflect on the things that had happened in my life, and it reminded me of my moments of grief, of love lost, and feelings of what could have been (which is something that I tend to dwell on in my low moments). As Mia the protagonist reflects on the life that she has lived and weighs on her choice Рto live and to stay, or to let go РI found myself reflecting on my own life. The end result was that If I Stay made me sad; not a bawl-my-eyes-out sort of sad, but in a melancholic, pensive sadness that made me think of the people I used to love (and in turn, used to love me).

If I Stay¬†may be ‘overrated’, but I think it is widely-liked¬†with good reason – it¬†isn’t original in idea nor the best of its genre or theme, but it is its subtleties and meditation on life – which is actually kind of beautiful, even if it is a little simplistic and reductive of the complexity of human experience – that succeed in touching so many people. There are weaknesses in this story – namely the characters and its unashamed use of cliches – but¬†If I Stay¬†is poignant (in a nice, refreshing way), wonderful in its own way, and ultimately, full of different kinds of love and life that is worth¬†thinking about.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: If I Stay
Book Series: If I Stay #1
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers