Welcome back to the SPSFC. As you may be aware, we are now in the semifinals, meaning a mere 30 books remain in the competition.
As before, our team of judges will read each book to completion (or give it a dreaded DNF rating, and score it somewhere between 0 and 10. These scores will be added together to create a team average. The team average will then be combined with the average score given by the other two teams to have read that book. Spaces in the final are limited, and only the highest scoring books from across the competition will be granted one of the coveted spaces. And remember, if a book has made it this far, it’s because a few people really liked it. Even if it doesn’t go any further in the contest, it must be doing something right.
Today’s review is of The Last Gifts of the Universe, by Rory August. As always, all thoughts below are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my fellow judges.
When I’m reviewing books, I’m essentially looking at two things. The first and foremost is my own personal enjoyment of the book. Books exist to entertain, after all, and if I am not entertained then there is clearly an issue. I am also not such an egomaniac that I believe myself capable of giving wholly objective reviews of a deeply subjective art form. However, I am capable of determining some level of objective quality, which is the second thing I’m looking for in a book. If a book is entertaining, but riddled with typos and plot holes, I’m going to mention it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly able to enjoy trash, but I am also able to recognise it as such. Likewise, I can tell when something is well-written, but simply not to my tastes.
Usually in my reviews, I give priority to my own enjoyment of a book. But when judging the SPSFC, a little more weight has to be given to objective markers of quality. This is, after all, a writing competition. Even if I think a plot is good, if the book is poorly edited, then it gets marked down. On the other hand, if a book makes me want to snore, but is professionally packaged, I acknowledge that saving grace for what it is: A genuine sign of artistic consideration.
This has been a roundabout way of saying that I have a lot of mixed feelings on The Last Gifts of the Universe. There are things about it that bother me on a personal level. First off, there’s an animal companion. I can only assume dear old Pumpkin is based on a real that that the author owns or has owned, because an awful lot of time is given over to describing his magnificence. To be fair, he sounds like a great cat, though I am firmly on the side of characters who believe a cat has no place on this mission. I am glad that Pumpkin doesn’t end up being the emotional punching bag and subsequent crutch that a lot of animals in genre fiction become, so August gets a point from me in that regard. But this is still a book largely governed by emotion. It’s a deep look at grief and the role of hope and optimism in a universe that simply does not care for human frailty. The book does just about everything it can to wring an emotion response out of the reader, to make you care about the characters. Maybe for you it will work, but for me the emotional aspects were a distraction from what I really found interesting.
Part of me wants to be annoyed that August has stumbled into a worldbuilding idea that has rattled in my own head, but mostly I’m just glad someone had the skills to write about it. The Last Gifts of the Universe takes my favourite SF question – why is space so empty – and creates something beautifully dark and bleak. What if we are alone in space, not because no one else is out there, but because everyone else is dead? The only evidence of alien life is in the caches they leave behind – last reminders that yes, they existed. That in itself is a grand concept, and surely enough to provide a long series if the author were so inclined. In this book it’s primarily a means of showing the universality of the human condition. And who better to find the caches than brave spacefaring archaeologists. Pit them against a traditionally ruthless corporation, and you’ve got a simple winning formula.
On a mildly spoilerific note, the larger storyline is largely left unresolved in favour of emotional closure for the main characters (and what a rare male/male sibling relationship it is). I actually think this works for the best. Not simply because it leaves room for sequels, but because the fate-of-the-universe questions are too big to be dealt with neatly in such a short book. Sometimes the question is more interesting than the answer, after all, and a book like this is much better when it leaves you wondering.
Finally, but by no means least, we come to the writing itself. Hands down, it is the best written book I’ve read in either SPSFC. I don’t know what it is about this book, be it prose, editing, or the combined package, but this is one of only a handful that I’ve come across and thought ‘yes, this is a professionally written book.’ Wrap this thing in paper and it wouldn’t be out of place in any good bookshop. It just feels proper. As for the actual writing, even when it was going in about things I’m not interested in, the writing itself is superb. It flows brilliantly, with brevity and wit. There’s a clear authorial voice, but it adds to rather than detracts from the narrative.
At this juncture, I have no problem stating that The Last Gifts of the Universe is my top book of the contest so far. I’m giving it an SPSFC rating of 8.5/10.
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