Book review: To Hold Up the Sky

To Hold Up the Sky

To Hold Up the Sky,
by Cixin Liu
Various translators
from the Chinese

Tor Books
336 pages
Science Fiction


Buy the book on my Bookshop

I discovered Cixin Liu a couple of years ago and was totally blown away by Supernova Era.
This time, I would like to present the latest collection of his science-fiction short stories: To Hold Up the Sky.

I don’t often read short stories, as they often feel like unfinished pieces to me, but there are a few impressive exceptions. Click to continue reading

Book review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary,
by Andy Weir
Ballantine Books
496 pages
Science Fiction


Buy the book

Like some other readers, awed by The Martian, I was very disappointed by Andy Weir’s next novel: Artemis.
Still, remembering my pleasure reading his previous scifi novel, I decided to give him another chance and requested Project Hail Mary.

I was still a bit hesitant though, as I didn’t know the expression included in the title and was afraid it would be dealing with religion. But for all of you knowledgeable in American football, the reference is obvious.
Anyway, forget all hesitations, this is again the fruit of a great writer!
And don’t let the number of pages discourage you, you will go through them at the speed of light 😉 Click to continue reading

The Andromeda Strain: read-along, last discussion, on Day 4 and Day 5

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain,
by Michael Crichton,
Science Fiction/Thriller

Today is the last post of my buddy read with Julie Anna.
In case you missed our previous posts, you can find them by clicking on these links:

Pre-read discussion
Day 1 and Day 2
Day 3

And today, here are our answers to my questions on Day 4 and Day 5:

1. What did you think about how the suspense is handled by the author, especially in Day 4 and 5?

Julie Anna
Days 4 and 5 actually didn’t go how I expected them to! I made the assumption that the strain would spread outside the town and be deadly and contagious, so after seeing what actually happened with the strain it wasn’t as suspenseful as I expected it to be? That’s all on me because of my expectations, but at the same time, I feel like the emphasis was so much so on the process of figuring things out that it wasn’t as suspenseful. The only exception I would say was at the countdown part – that was the most suspenseful part for me! But then with the ending you do feel that kind of relief when you do find out what happens to the strain as it spreads. Overall, I found that the book leaned more towards science than suspense towards the end, but I don’t mind that much at all.

I had actually problems with the way suspense was handled throughout the book. Earlier on, with a few hints here and there, you know most survived. It is to be expected if it’s science-fiction and not horror, but still, I prefer when I don’t know for sure until the end.
You are right that the countdown part was super suspenseful. But I remember reflecting when I got there, wow, finally some serious suspense, but we are already at 96% of the book! It was so suspenseful that for a few minutes, I did forget that the outcome was going to be ok.

2. How did you like the scientific explanations in this last part?

Julie Anna
I liked the emphasis on using simulations in this part to determine explanations and next steps! Where I went to school the surrounding area’s employers were in aerospace defense and so simulations like these were a big part of my curriculum. And while I didn’t go in that industry itself, the exposure we got to that in these parts (and throughout the book) were really cool for me to revisit. Computing is my most familiar topic when it comes to what’s discussed in this book, so I can’t help but be a bit excited when I get to see the applications, especially to see how they were used several decades ago when we had so little bandwidth to work with!

Beside the mutation part, I did enjoy these as well. It is also part of the author’s style to really focus on serious science, to make it sound as close as possible to reality.

3. What was your reaction to the nature of the strain and how it worked?

Julie Anna
It definitely wasn’t how I expected it to work! I really wasn’t sure how the survivors, well, survived, but we got to see a lot of figuring this out in Day 4 which I really enjoyed. And while I couldn’t quite guess this one and wanted to, I let that aspect go and enjoyed the journey. I particularly enjoyed the problem solving process and how they figured this one out, especially with the tools they used to get there.

Yes, that was a pretty cool explanation. And it totally makes sense when you remember that Crichton studied medicine.
I was struck at one point that one of the possible explanations they were considering was that “the organism acted by causing damage to blood vessels… if our organism attacks vessel walls”, which is basically what Covid19 does, attacking their lining. Spooky!

4. Do you agree with Churchill’s definition of genius?

Julie Anna
This was an interesting quote for sure! It reminds me of the comparison between book-smart and street-smart when people compare intelligence. I think that genius can be defined in so many ways and as a range of skills, if that’s the word? And I think that the ability to handle information in such a manner that Churchill states is a part of that equation. It might not be the complete definition in my mind, but I do think it’s a big part of it.

For those who forgot that part, “true genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information”. Who knows actually if Churchill really said that? Anyway, I also think that a genius would definitely have that trait, plus others.

5. How did you like the ending of the book?

Julie Anna
Again, it wasn’t quite what I was expected! I suppose I thought we were in for a really dark ending. I was hoping for a bit more exploration of topics we didn’t get to see as much, but at the same time, I like how the book pretty much stuck to the internal processes of figuring out the contagion all the way to the end. The ending also made me wonder how many potential dangers are out there that government agencies handle without the average citizen’s knowledge.

I found the ending rather anticlimactic (that’s another problem of the suspense handling): no one needs to do anything, just a mutation, and the problem is over.
The very last chapter indeed highlights how little we really know about big stuff happening. And maybe it’s better we don’t know. I wonder sometimes how heads of states can even sleep!

6. What are your final thoughts on how Crichton handled the topic of an epidemic?

Julie Anna
I feel like I was expecting more from the side of what the average person dealt with in an epidemic (since I expected this to spread really badly), so it was cool to see it from the perspective of working to stop it. Even though this book is older, it felt like such a timely read and gave us an idea of what the process looks like to understand new strains of contagious diseases and how scientists identify them and develop solutions. I thought it was interesting to have our current experiences with a pandemic combined with a profession neither of us are in, and relating that back to what we know!

Yes, focusing on the scientific side was really neat. I enjoyed that, even if it means the book is poorer as for character development.
But like you, I was expecting more about the spread, epidemic, and possibly a pandemic situation, though I am sure I would not have had that expectation before Covid-19!!

7. Was there anything you wish was explored that wasn’t?

Julie Anna
Although I said I liked the perspectives we had, I do wish we got to see things more from the side of an average citizen. However, this is also because I expected the strain to become deadly past Piedmont. I know I keep on going back and forth on this as well, because it would have been really interesting, however, tapping into the emotional side could have made it way too much subject matter for one book.

I think I would have enjoyed it more if the solution had been brought by something the scientists had to do. The experiments and research explained what it was and how it worked, but they didn’t need to do anything special for the problem to go away.
Though of course in real life, I wish that would be the case with Covid-19!

8. Are you going to watch the movie now?

Julie Anna
I feel like I always intend to watch film adaptations but never do (I’m a bit fidgety when it comes to TV and movies!). But I am really curious to see how they adapted this, especially considering how detail-heavy this book is. If I had to guess, I’m assuming the adaptation has some big differences compared to the book!

OMG, you have to watch it, I did yesterday night! I highly recommend also you watch it on DVD, I’m sure you can find it at your library or through inter-library loan, should be free through your library, because it has awesome interviews, including one by Crichton himself.
I was struck at how close they are to the book, including most of the dialogs. The only difference is the very end: looks like they didn’t like the simple solution more than I did, because in the movie, the solution does come from something the scientists do.
The countdown is also crazy suspenseful.
All the scientific part is awesome! And remember they did all this before what we can do with computers now! Nicely explained in the interviews.

9. Daniel H. Wilson wrote a sequel. Do you feel like reading it?

Julie Anna
I feel a similar way to this that I do to the sequel for Before the Coffee Gets Cold. I am satisfied with what I’ve read, but I’m also curious with what the direction the sequel will take. I’m also curious about Wilson’s writing style and how it will compare to Crichton’s. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about!

Rereading the end, it does make sense to have a sequel.
When I wrote the question, I was not really thinking reading it, because the name Daniel H. Wilson was not ringing a bell. Then I realized he is the author of Robopocalypse, which was very popular a few years ago – what, already ten years ago?! ( I haven’t read it yet!)
So now, I may give it a shot.

10. Are you planning on reading more books by Crichton?

Julie Anna
Definitely! I have my copy of Jurassic Park / The Lost World that will be next for me, and after that I’d love to see what else he’s written. I’m also curious to see how the level of detail in this book compares to his other writing, or if he’s experimented quite a bit with his writing over the course of his career.

Yes, I want to try some of his other books. In the interview after the movie, I discovered that he also wrote a lot under other pen names (because as a student  in medicine, he was afraid his teachers would take him less seriously if they discovered he was writing novels!!) They are more thrillers, and they do sound good. It would definitely be interesting to see how he handles other genres.

11. What will be your next science-fiction read?

Julie Anna
One of my Instagram friends kindly gave me their copy of War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, so that will likely be my very next sci-fi read. I also have a lot of unread sci-fi classics on my shelf by Asimov, Wells, and Bradbury that I’d love to read next. And in terms of what I don’t own, I’d love to check out the books by Okorafor and Liu you mentioned earlier!

Liu Cixin, yes! Amazing author. I have still to read his The Three-Body Problem, so I may read this one soon.
I actually just finished today reading Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, that I started reading while reading The Andromeda Strain. I know, not my smartest move to read two scifi at the same time, though it was fun sometimes to make comparisons. Now, if you like a LOT of technical details, go for it! There are even more than in The Martian, if I recall correctly.  BUT the plot, twists, and character development are fabulous. I can’t wait to see that one made into a movie, it begs for it.

As for Asimov, I loved a lot I, Robot (ignore the awful movie), but was so so disappointed by Foundation.
Bradbury has some awesome ones, including The Martian Chronicles. I recently read Killer, Come Back to Me: The Crime Stories of Ray Bradbury (published August 18, 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers). Yes, he originally was a mystery writer! Near the end of the collection, you see how he slowly switched to scifi, and some stories in there were really fabulous.
Ad I also need to try Wells!!

12. Oops, I wanted to revisit the question, and I forgot to ask you, Julie Anna: would you consider this book a classic? Why, or why not?

Thanks so much Julie Anna for this buddy read experience. Definitely very enriching, and I have the feeling it will not be the last 😉