2010 Books in Translation Science Fiction

The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

  Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

If there is a fine line between love and hate then this book is managing to balance on it! I was completely gripped to the text, but everything about the plot frustrated me. I was inwardly groaning as I read each new development, unable to believe what was happening. I am a big fan of dystopian fiction, but the plot was so farcical that it lacked the scary, thought-provoking response that this genre normally delivers.

The Unit is a state-of-the-art facility to which all childless, singles are sent once they fail to be of use to society. If they aren’t in an important job then all females are sent at the age of 50 and men on their 60th birthday. Whilst in the facility they are well looked after, but over time all their organs are harvested and donated to younger members of the population. They are also subjected to scientific experiments; until after a few years they make their final donation….

My main problem was that the whole idea had so many flaws:

  • Why wouldn’t all the single people just find someone to marry? If I knew I could avoid having all my body parts removed one by one then I wouldn’t be that fussy about who I married!
  • Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill them when they reached the specified age instead of paying for all those fancy facilities?
  • Why were they doing research on the people and then using their organs – surely this would damage the tissues and leave them inappropriate for use in others?

I also had major problems with the plot. I could list lots of examples, but the major ones were:


(highlight to view)

  • Pregnant?!
  • Why did she return after escaping?!

I was almost shouting at the book. I couldn’t believe what was happening!

This book is easy to read and a real page turner. I can’t really fault the controlled, sparse writing and I admit there were a few emotional moments, but I’m afraid the plot wasn’t on my wavelength.

Overall I was so infuriated with this book that I can’t recommend it, but it is a fine line between love and hate…..

The thoughts of other bloggers:

…..a gripping, heart wrenching, thought provoking read. My Friend Amy

… will make you think twice about a whole host of issues, and is a natural for book club discussions. Rhapsody in Books

I fall short of adoration with The Unit, but I sure did like it a great deal. Galley Smith

Did anyone else find the plot frustrating?

1920s Books in Translation Science Fiction

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

 Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown

Five words from the blurb: dystopia, totalitarian, masterpiece, individual, freedom

I hadn’t heard of this book until Michelle recommended it on my Literary Science Fiction post, but I’m so pleased that she bought it to my attention as I feel it is one of the most important dystopian fiction novels ever written.

We was originally written in 1921, but was suppressed in Russia and so first published in English, French and Czech, before finally being published in Russian in 1988. We is recognised to have been the inspiration behind George Orwell’s classic 1984, but on reading it I spotted key ideas that I’d read in many other books.

The plot follows D-503 (everyone is given a unique number, not a name) who lives in a totalitarian society built entierly from glass (so they can be spied on more easily). All aspects of life are controlled to the extent that everyone must get up, work and eat at exactly the same times each day. D-503 begins to have dreams and question the society he lives in. Everything changes when he discovers that there are other humans living outside OneState – haired humans who live free amongst the animals….

The book is very readable and hasn’t dated at all. It is amazing to think that it was written 90 years ago as most of the ideas and fears still hold true for us today. The book was packed with thought-provoking quotes: 

But, my dear readers, you’ll have to do just a little thinking. It helps a lot. Because, you know, all human history, as far back as we know it, is the history of moving from nomadic life to a more settled way of life. So, doesn’t it follow that the most settled form of life (ours) is by the same token the most perfect form of life (ours)?  If people used to wander over the earth from one end to the other, that only happened in prehistoric times, when there were nations and wars and trade discoveries of this and that America. But why do it now? Who needs it?

I was gripped throughout, but have to admit that a few things went over my head. I would have benefited from having a reading guide to explain some of the weirder sections, but I’m sure this is one of those books that gets better with each re-reading.

The only problem with this book was that I didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I was interested to see what would happen to them, but didn’t really care about their fate.

I think it is important for anyone interested in dystopian fiction to read this book, but if you after an emotional response to events then you need to look elsewhere.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I’m glad I read We for the historical and contextual value as a dystopia, but I didn’t love it. Rebecca Reads

….the longer We went on, the more it reminded me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri with its endless blending of colour and dream. Books, Time, and Silence

…one of the weirdest, most disorienting things I’ve ever read. The Zen Leaf

2010 Science Fiction

Finch – Jeff Vandermeer

I loved The City and the City and was craving a book with a similar style. An Internet search led to Finch, another detective story set in an imaginary universe. Its impressive blurb and Vandermeer’s numerous award nominations led me to request the book from the publishers. Unfortunately this book pushed my tolerance of the bizarre to the limit and I ended up being more than a little confused.

Finch is set in a world dominated by fungus. The ‘gray caps’ are fungi with the ability to walk, but the cities are also covered with networks of mushrooms whose spores have the ability to affect people in numerous evil ways. The central character, Finch, is a detective who is asked to investigate the double murder of a gray cap and a human. The research is very different to that of our world and involves everything from seeing the dreams and lives of others by eating their ‘memory bulbs’ to battling with giant mushrooms. It was all too weird for me. I never really understood the physical laws of the universe and my continual confusion meant that I couldn’t connect with the story.

The writing style also took a long time to get used to. The sentences were often clipped and this gave the text a jumpy feel.

When they looked outside, they’d seen a dome-like haze above the north part of the bay. Green-orange discharge like sunspots. They’d just watched it. Watched it and not known what to say. What to do. Barricaded the house. Spent the rest of the night with weapons within reach.

The pace was fast, but the numerous chase scenes held little interest for me. I wish that the plot had been slower so that I’d have a chance to understand the motivations of the characters a little better.

I also think that I was at a disadvantage by not having read Vandermeer’s two previous books set in the same world. Although all three books are independent I’m sure that a greater knowledge of the surroundings would have led me to appreciate the book far more.

Overall this book was too confusing for me – I need my fictional worlds to comply to more basic principles!

Recommended to anyone who wants to read something very different.

Have you found anything similar to The City and the City?

2009 Science Fiction

Paprika – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 Translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

I bought this book because I saw the following phrase on the cover:

A Japanese master to be ranked alongside Haruki Murakami

I hadn’t heard of the author, but I’m afraid I have no self control when I see the word Murakami – I just have to see if it is anywhere near as good as books like Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I’m really pleased with my impulse buy – Paprika is as weird as anything Murakami has written!

Paprika is a science fiction novel, originally published in Japan in 1993. The book focuses on a group of scientists who have invented a machine which allows them to enter the dreams of others. The team use their invention to treat mentally ill patients, particularly those with schizophrenia. Everything goes wrong when one of the devices goes missing and is used as a weapon to turn people insane.

This book is very strange! Much of it is set within peoples’ dreams where anything can happen:

Atsuko was trying hard to vanquish the demons of sleep. “It’s just like a dream. A dream. No. This is a dream.”
Yes, I’m sure it is. ” The reporter suddenly sprouted a cow’s head, which flopped down low in front of her. The weight brought her to her senses with a sharp intake of breath, but the cow’s slobber still hung from her mouth. “Do excuse me. I’ve only eaten one helping of rice porridge this morning.” And she slurped the slobber back into her mouth.

Unfortunately most of the people have violent or sexual dreams and so scenes like the one above are quite rare. The tone is kept light so I didn’t find the book disturbing, but I know this sort of thing isn’t for everyone!

The plot was gripping throughout, but it wasn’t as thought provoking as I’d have liked. The book seemed to focus on the battles between good and evil instead of how much our dreams tell us about ourselves and to what extent we can be manipulated through unconscious thought.

I loved the way Japanese mythology was prevalent throughout this book and the fact that  you could never predict what was going to happen next.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading bizarre Japanese fiction.

Have you read any of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s other books?

1950s Classics Science Fiction

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I hadn’t read any Wyndham before, but everyone seems to talk about him fondly and so I decided that it was time I tried one of his classic science fiction books.

The Day of The Triffids begins with the central character, Bill, waking up in hospital to discover that everyone around him has gone blind. Bill was recovering from an eye operation and so had his eyes covered the previous night when a beautiful green meteor shower appeared in the sky. He had been upset that he’d missed out on the spectacle, but now realises that this is the reason he managed to retain his sight.

Bill heads out into the world and begins the difficult task of trying to survive now that almost everyone is blind. The basic infrastructure has collapsed so even basic things are difficult to achieve. On top of the blindness people also have to deal with large plants that have learnt to walk. These triffids are beginning to hunt people down. I was aware of the killer plants in The Day of the Triffids, but I hadn’t realised that people went blind too. The moment I read this I began to compare the book to Blindness by Jose Saramago (one of my all time favourites), but I think this initially put The Day of the Triffids at a disadvantage. They are very different books and the light, entertaining tone of The Day of the Triffids didn’t have the same impact on me as the darker Saramago novel.

As the book progressed the oppressive nature of the triffids began to creep in. I had initially thought they were quite comical, but I was impressed by the way Wyndham began to make me fear these mythical plants. By the end I was totally convinced by the events of the book: loving the plot, the characters and the many important observations of our society.

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here” – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

This book showed a realistic vision of a society struggling to survive, but all the darker, more gory elements were removed. I can see why it is a classic and why people love reading Wyndham. It is a perfect, cozy disaster story!

Highly recommended.

Which is your favourite John Wyndham book?

I was tempted to watch the recently released BBC adaptation of the book, but most of the reviews are terrible!

Have you seen it? Is it worth watching?

Other Science Fiction

The Best Literary Science Fiction Books?

I’m getting bored of reality. The more books I read, the more it feels as though they are all churning out the same basic stories about love and loss. There are the odd exceptions, but I am increasingly becoming disenchanted with modern literary fiction.

I recently read  The City & The City by China Miéville and found the way it stretched my brain refreshing. I never knew what would happen next and I loved it!

I have always been wary of reading science fiction as I have had many disappointing reads. I blame this entirely on my lack of research. I would never walk into a book shop and just pick the top selling fiction title, so why did I ever imagine the best selling science fiction books would be to my taste? I’m a fan of literary fiction, so I should be looking at literary science fiction if I want to find enjoyable books. I didn’t realise this genre existed until recently, but a brief investigation has turned up lots of books that sound very appealing. I already had a few on my TBR pile thanks to the wonderful world of blogging, but reaching out to science fiction fans has made my list much longer!

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

A few others that caught my eye….

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith

Memory and Dreams by Charles De Lint

The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Many thanks to @ALRutter and @David_Heb for their literary science fiction recommendations on Twitter!

I had a moment of weakness and bought several of the above books – I look forward to letting you know all about them!

Don’t worry I’m not going to switch to becoming a science fiction blog, but I will be including a few more in my reading.

So what do you think?

Do any of these books appeal to you?

Do you know any other wonderful literary science fiction books?