Saturday, June 5, 2010

Book review: Usurper of the Sun

I've been away from the blog for a couple weeks (so sad ...), but I'm back to do something new - a book review! Ok, review might be too strong a word -- perhaps, a book impression is better.

Book: Usurper of the Sun
Author: Housuke Nojiri
Translated by: John Wunderley
Published: 2003 JP/2009 US

Book Summary: The mysterious Builders have brought humanity to the edge of extinction; can they be reasoned with, or must they be destroyed?Aki Shiraishi is a high school student working in the astronomy club and one of the few witnesses to an amazing event—someone is building a tower on the planet Mercury. Soon, the Builders have constructed a ring around the sun, threatening the ecology of Earth with an immense shadow. Aki is inspired to pursue a career in science, and the truth. She must determine the purpose of the ring and the plans of its creators, as the survival of both species—humanity and the alien Builders—hangs in the balance.

Impressions: The novel is one of the staple concepts of sci-fi - a first contact story. However, it's more in the vein of Clarke, as in hard science in a fictional setting, rather than Lucas - fantasy in space. I love sci-fantasy books - warp gates, hundreds of aliens interacting, high adventure across the galaxy ... but, it's not even close to being realistic. And, the concepts that are explored, while possibly important, are extremely broad.

Usurper of the Sun deals deeply with the science surrounding awareness, intelligence, and cognition. While the physics and difficulty of space travel is presented in a highly believable manner (other than the speed of the spacecraft, though they remain sub-light) , the real core of the story is Aki and her passion to understand the aliens that they have dubbed the Builders.

I have to admit, I highly enjoyed the book. Between all the hard science, there was enough adventure to keep the plot moving. I did break down the book into chunks, as the concepts were worth dwelling upon, especially when deal with theories regarding self-awareness and intelligence that I had never been presented with before. To get the most from this book, you really have to open yourself to somewhat high-level conceptual frameworks. I wouldn't say it's difficult to read, however the concepts are more along the level of grad school than high school. However, they're presented well -- you're taught the information through dialogue and example rather than having an info dump or the author just expecting you to just get it.

It's hard to write about an author's style in translation, because you never know if the writing is more like the original author or the translator. Still, the book is well written and easily understandable - I never felt like something was lost in translation. Some of the dialogue had that odd floaty feel that seems unique to Japanese in translation; this may raise the eyebrows of a few readers, but the characters still feel distinct even though it is really just Aki's story.

I'm purposefully not delving into much of the plot other than the summary provided on the back of the book because you really don't know exactly what's going to happen. I had a few good guesses, and I was pretty close. Still, I was served with several surprises. The flow and all the events of the book seemed very natural -- even the extended time span the book covers.

That is, except for one event. One little thing happens in the book that, while it was set up earlier in the novel, still feels a bit like Star Trek -- you know, everything is going bad then suddenly Spock or Data says, "I now have this one piece of never seen before technology that will solve our problems, and it just so happens to be right here in my hand." Like I said, it was mentioned earlier, but that it suddenly works like it supposed to at the very last second feels a bit manipulative, but it didn't ruin the book for me. It was just one small, weak point in a very strong story.

Recommendation: Worth reading - especially for those liking real sci-fi.

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