Lifel1k3 is the Real Deal, Not a Cheap Piece of Fugazi

6105kSuTLdLI had never heard of Jay Kristoff before this year, which most book bloggers would take as a sign that I’ve had my head buried under a rock. Along with Amie Kaufman, he wrote the Illuminae Files, a wildly popular series, which may be turned into a movie sometime in the near future.

After reading Kristoff’s Lifel1k3, I’ve succumbed to a full-on case of FOMO and will be reading every last thing he has ever written. It’s just that good. No, it’s better than you might imagine. In fact, if an aspiring author wanted me to suggest something for her to read which hit every note perfectly, which was paced exceptionally well, which asked big questions, and which was thrilling to read from start to finish, I’d hand her a copy of Lifel1k3 without thinking twice.

Frankly, I was surprised that I liked the book so much. Nothing about it is usual for me. I don’t read a lot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and the idea of synthetic lifeforms only interests me in so far as they might be programmed to make coffee or do the particularly disgusting parts of housekeeping like cleaning out the cat box.

Why did I buy a copy? Well, I was in my favorite book store, the scent of fresh paper and ink was heady, and I liked the cover. It looks like a honeycomb and made my mouth water.

What is it about? I’ve heard it described as a mash-up between Romeo and Juliet and The Terminator. That’s fairly accurate, except it doesn’t capture its humor and philosophical earnestness.

The main character is a seventeen year-old girl who is trying to scrape out a living on a junk heap situated in the middle of a radioactive wasteland. All she wants to do is make enough money to buy her grandfather some medicine to ease his suffering and avoid local gangs and religious zealots. Unfortunately, she attracts all the wrong kind of attention when the robot gladiator she built ends up as a smoking pile of spare parts and it looks like she destroyed its opponent with the power of her mind.

A host of fascinating characters accompany Eve on her adventures. There’s Cricket, her cautious robotic sidekick; and Kaiser, a loyal robotic dog. True to their artificial nature, they don’t evolve throughout the course of the novel. Their constancy is a helpful touchstone and is what we end up loving about them.

Lemon Fresh is Eve’s best friend and the fizziest character imaginable. Even when things are at their worst, she hitches up her sassy pants, throws down some eye-popping taunts, and reaffirms her love for her best friend.

“I don’t care who’s after you. Where you’re from or where you’re going. It’s you, me, Crick and Kaiser. No matter what. Rule Number One in the Scrap, remember? Stronger together, together forever.”

Finally, there’s Ezekiel, the impossibly perfect Lifel1k3 who will protect Eve at all costs, but whom she doesn’t trust. If one could imagine the perfect lover, he would be remarkably similar to Ezekiel: dimples, chiseled abs and a penchant for saying the right thing at the right time:

“Deviation’ or whatever you want to call it? That’s just another expression of it. You call it freakish. I call it incredible.” (Translation: you’re perfect because of your faults, not despite them.)

Every romantic on the planet will swoon when he or she reads this line:

“It’s simple to love someone on the days that are easy. But you find out what your love is made of on the days that are hard.”

This rag-tag bunch takes off on a doomed flight, travels through the belly of a sea beast, scrambles through the warrens of a crime-ridden city and races across the desert to rescue Eve’s grandfather and find sanctuary.

There’s scarcely a moment to breathe between one crazy, heart-pounding experience and the next. The pacing makes it nearly impossible to put this book down. If I were to suggest one critique of the book, it would be this: There weren’t enough quiet moments for the reader to look around, absorb everything and get her bearings. I only offer that in a half-hearted fashion, though.

Lifel1k3 poses some deep questions: How real is too real? Is truth really more important than belief? Does one’s past matter as much as one’s present? Is subjugation of any class of beings ever acceptable? If you don’t truly know yourself, can you truly love? Why do villains like chewing tobacco so much?

Kindred by Octavia Butler

“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

60931If you were to hand me Kindred and tell me to shelve it in the appropriate section of the bookstore, I’d be stymied. It defies categorization. While it’s often billed as the first science fiction written by a black woman, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is a novel of rich literary complexity written by a black woman; however, it’s not exactly science fiction. One of its key elements is time travel, but the book provides no pseudo scientific explanation for how that occurs. Kindred is more accurately an amalgamation of fantasy, historical fiction and slave narrative. It’s a unique and powerful story about power.

Dana, the main character, is a 26 year-old woman living in California in 1976. She has a white husband, aspires to be a writer and works degrading jobs to make ends meet. Ironically, she and her fellow temps refer to the staffing agency as the “slave market.”

One day, without any warning, she is thrust back in time to antebellum Maryland. There, she rescues a young white boy from drowning and faces down the barrel of a shotgun. Abruptly, she ends back in her own time and place. Over and over again, she travels back and forth between the two times, each time to rescue the same young man, who she learns is a slaveholder and her distant relative. She grows to understand that she needs to keep him alive long enough to father her great-grandmother.

While I had an academic understanding of how awful the treatment of slaves was, this book made me feel it on a more visceral level. Dana often admits that she, a modern woman, does not have the fortitude to endure what many of the slaves took for granted. You or I might think to ourselves, I’d never put up with that. I’d run away. The book makes it abundantly clear how impossible that would actually seem to a person caught in that world.

Kindred also explores how there can be a strange mixture of love and hate for someone who has absolute control over your life. At times, Dana experienced maternal and sisterly feelings towards the slaveholder. Many other times, she struggled with her revulsion and her need to comply.

Notably, Dana’s mission in the past was not to undermine the oppressive system. She had to endure it, like so many before her. The experience changes her utterly. It complicates her relationship with her white husband, and her family and friends. A piece of her will always be left in the past–as I think is true for anyone with such a traumatic and dehumanizing heritage.

“I began writing about power because I had so little.”

~Octavia E. Butler

Curious about Octavia Butler? Here’s a great piece on her in the Independent. An aunt told her “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately for us, she ignored that advice.