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Book Review: Stinger Stars by Paul Bussard

July 19, 2014 4 comments

Image of what appears to be a golden bird with a glowy bit in it.Summary:
Maria is working on her thesis at a genetics research lab specializing in looking for ways to get human limbs to regenerate.  When the owner’s son brings back a new species from Peru, a tiny worm-like creature with pyramidal tentacles, she discovers that the larger clones made from them are intelligent.  But the owner’s son wants to conduct brutal experiments on them, involving cutting off their appendages, which grow back.  Can Maria strike the balance between life-changing science for humans suffering from disabled or missing limbs and respecting the lives of an intelligent species?

Review:
Near-future books that question where to draw the line in research are a particular favorite of mine.  It’s a gray area in many people’s minds, and scifi lets us explore the myriad possibilities and options at a bit of a distance, which allows for clearer thought.  This book does an admirable job setting up a realistic near-future world to explore this issue, although the characters don’t quite live up to the world-building and story.

The near-future world of genetics research is established both clearly and with subtlety early on in the book.  There are two competing genetics research organizations, and rather than looking into something monstrous or far-flung, they are looking into regenerating limbs.  It’s a logical next-step for a near-future book.  The research labs themselves, as well as how they are run, including the field-work, have a real-world, logical feel to them.

At first I was concerned from the book’s official description that the creatures discovered would be aliens, since alien experimentation would be less of a gray area to explore.  They are not, in fact, aliens, they are a newly discovered species originating on Earth.  The mystery is whether they were always sentient or if something in the modification and cloning process made them sentient.  This makes the conflict of how to use the creatures to help humans without harming them better, because exactly what they are is a bit unclear.  It’s not as simple as if they were simply aliens or some sort of cute, fuzzy creature.  They’re these slightly creepy worm-like things with tentacles, and the conflict is do we still respect these kind of ugly, cloned creatures for their intelligence, or do they need to look cuter or more humanoid to gain that respect?

The plot is complex and keeps the reader guessing.  Even though I was fairly certain things would ultimately end up ok, I wasn’t sure how they were going to get there.  This made it an engaging and quick read.

Unfortunately, the characters are rather weak and two-dimensional.  I never was able to truly connect to any of the characters.  If anything, I connected to the creatures a bit more than the main characters.  There are also a few instances that feel out of character for the small amount of characterization done.  For instance, Maria thinks she can’t date because her family wants her to have an arranged marriage to keep the family Spanish.  This type of arranged marriage situation could definitely happen, but I had a hard time believing that a woman so strong in the sciences, with so much agency for her career and for her grandmother’s well-being would actually even think about not seeing someone she cares for in order to have an arranged marriage.  It felt out of character and simply forced upon her to add conflict.  Similarly, there is an incident that at first is considered a rape and then later brushed off as not a rape.  Without giving anything away, I agree it wasn’t a rape, but I also don’t think the character who at first mistook it for a rape would have made that error in judgment.  It was out of character for their level of intelligence.  This again felt forced to provide extra conflict that wasn’t needed.  The main plot had plenty of interest and conflict to keep the book going without these out-of-character moments.  I also felt the accent written for one of the characters was badly done and distracting.  This character is a scientist with an advanced degree, yet he speaks in an informal, unrealistic accent that primarily consists of him dropping g’s and using a lot of contractions.

In spite of these characterization short-comings, the book still tells a unique near-future genetics research story with a quick-moving, engaging plot.  Recommended to those looking for a scifi-style beach read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

Review:
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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