Oct 312017
 

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Synopsis: The goddess Athena yanks the 400 most rabid Plato-fans from human history and gets them to try to create the utopian city he described in “The Republic.”

Book Review: This is the longest, most boring example of Pretending to be Wise I’ve seen so far. As an example of “humans are bad at creating utopias” it’s revoltingly shoddy. First of all, anyone alive could have skimmed The Republic and told you “Oh yeah, this is ludicrous, there’s no way it would work.” If that’s Walton’s thesis, it’s about 2,500 years too late. Maybe the ancient Greeks would’ve found this interesting, but I suspect even they knew it, and Plato had some other point to make rather than “Hey, this is a great blueprint for society.”

I like message fiction. I’m a fan of Ayn Rand’s works, and John C. Wright’s works, even though I find their ideologies atrocious. That’s because they know how to write good message fiction. They stir up one’s sense of injustice at a crazy, broken world, and offer extravagant, soaring solutions. Walton doesn’t do that. She briefly mentions the sexism of pre-modern societies, and then drops us into a toy-city that runs on god-granted post-scarcity and a shocking lack of realistic humans. And all they do is bloviate about Plato and what “excellence” meant to him, without actually saying anything.

For example, in a discussion of whether it is permissible to allow children to look at replicas of art rather than the originals (yes, really) a character claims that even a perfect replica wouldn’t work… even though a child couldn’t tell the difference, “their souls could.” And it’s left at that. Now, this is something that could have led to an interesting exploration on the matter by Walton. As a modern human, she is aware of recorded music, and the richness it brings to our lives. Perhaps she could argue about the overwhelming value of live music over recorded if she wants to give Plato some help. But she never did. Just the ridiculous claim that something touched by the hands of the artist is intrinsically better without even the hint of a figleaf of explanation as to why. Furthermore, as an author, she works in a medium were the audience never sees the original document! In the vast majority of cases, an “original document” is just a Word file anyway. Her art medium is the one where this replica-vs-original argument is most salient. And yet, nothing is explored. Plato’s words are spoken, the author refuses to say anything of interest or cast any judgement, and we continue on without ever revisiting the issue.

An intense red flag popped up when Christianity is discussed, and one says: “Christianity is harmful…because it offers a different and incorrect truth,” as opposed to “the real Truth that a philosopher can glimpse.” Holy shit, those are the words of someone who has no idea what the word “truth” even means, and who seems to be regurgitating mystical BS rather than actually investigating the idea. You can’t offer a “different truth,” dammit, only falsehoods! “Differing truth” is the woo that those who want to spread lies hide behind. This would be OK if it was just a character mouthing crazy, and this issue was then explored. But, again, the wise course that’s displayed is simply to present the statement and not make any claims as to its value or validity.

Almost all the book is like this. It’s insufferable. Also this sort of thing is most of the action, and it’s boring. Nothing else really happens, and the couple times it does, the events don’t change anything!

The humans are one-dimensional cargo-cultists, which I guess they’d have to be to think this Republic experiment has any worth to it, but it makes them stupid and bleh to read. The one bright spot of the book is Apollo, who incarnates in human form to explore what it’s like to be mortal. He actually is a fun character, and discovers some touching things about what it means to be human. But sadly, his chapters are very few and far between.

Oh, also, the worst handling of AI awakening I’ve seen since WWW:Wake. The Just City’s philosophy might be two millennia out of date, but the understanding of AI is at least five decades behind, and I’m not sure which is more disappointing.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Unfortunately, a convergence of disparate events resulted in a low turn-out for this meeting, so it’s harder for me to judge. The vast tornadoes of faux-philosophical hot air that our characters subject us to would suggest that there’s quite a bit here to spark discussion. But none of it is terribly interesting discussion. As mentioned, perhaps the ancient Greeks would have found something intriguing here. But the state of thought has moved on from then. The discussion nowadays would just be rife with frustration, like when you’re trying to talk with a fundy Christian about what advances in CRISPR mean for the future of humanity, and they’re hung up about whether this will piss off god or not and can this alter one’s soul? This is not the sort of conversation it’s worth having with anyone. So I’m going to go with Not Recommended.

Oct 162017
 

The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross

Synopsis: A modern, snarky take on the Lovecraft mythos that combines IT geekery, eldritch horrors, and James Bond.

Book Review: Most of my readers are likely already familiar with the Laundry Files series, because it’s basically aimed directly at us. Modern humor, lots of tech-culture feel and computer geek in-jokes (due to magic being a branch of applied mathematics), all the Lovecraft references you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s like if the Buffy TV series was written by someone even nerdier and very well read in Lovecraft. Also Stross wrote “Accelerando,” which is a staple of the rationalist fiction reader’s diet.

But hey, maybe like me, you haven’t had a chance to get to The Jennifer Morgue yet. So here we go!

If you like the things I mentioned above (Buffy, snark, Lovecraft, tech culture humor), you’ll likely enjoy this. Charles Stross writes well, and he’s obviously having a lot of fun while putting in solid work!

The most frustrating part of The Jennifer Morgue is that it’s written in the style of a James Bond novel. I’m not sure why exactly Stross decided to do this, maybe just as an exercise for himself? At times it’s fun, but more often than not it gets in the way. It’s introduced via a clunky “invoking narrative magic” way, which immediately reminded me of placebomancy from Unsung. But in Unsong, Alvarez used the fact that the universe runs on narrative magic to exploit the fuck out of the universe! It was rationalist-fiction style reality-hacking, and it was hilarious and beautiful. In Jennifer Morgue the protagonist is not allowed to know about it (that’s part of the magic…) and so we don’t get any cool exploits. Instead we get a hand-wave whenever anything dumb happens as “This is because James Bond novels have dumb things like this happening, and the story is required by magic to follow a similar plot arc.” It’s specifically called out a few times, such as when the villain begins monologueing. Which is just lazy. There’s better ways to do that. It feels very much like Stross simply couldn’t take the Bond novel seriously, and kept apologizing for it. IMHO, if you’re gonna write a Bond novel, write a Bond novel! Commit to it. :)

The Bond novel also doesn’t fit the characters very well. The protagonist has to be involved with a femme fatal, but he’s a monogamist in a committed relationship, so we get the kind of sex stuff you see in romance aimed at Puritanical Americans – the protagonist is forced into a hot relationship against their will while secretly enjoying all of it, so the audience can read the salacious bits but still feel like they are chaste and pure in the end because it was out of the protagonist’s control (ala 50 Shades of Grey).

I also both love and hate the ending. I love that there is a really cool twist at the end which makes everything about the book much cooler and better in retrospect. :) But on the other hand, the protagonist passes out as we’re getting to the climax, and then the story jumps to the epilogue.

That’s right, Stross skipped over the climax. He simply didn’t write it. It’s like someone ripped out the last ten pages. W.T.F??

I’m not unhappy that I read this. It really is enjoyable, I laughed several times, and was enraptured in wonder a few times too. I think, however, that other books in the Laundry Files series are probably better than this one. I assume they’ll all have the similar snarky humor, geek culture, and Lovecraft, sown together by a deft writer, but without the hampering James Bond frame. And hopefully including a climax. Slightly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: In terms of enjoyability, this is a pretty good book for groups. It’s solid fun. But in terms of things to talk about, there really isn’t too much to spark conversation, and that’s how I rate these things. We chatted about the book for a while, shared some high points and some complaints, and then moved on to other topics. The reading is good, but there isn’t all that much to really dig into, discussion-wise. Unless your entire reading group is The Target Audience and you feel you’d all love this thing, probably Not Recommended.

Sep 282017
 

Dangerous Visions, editted by Harlan Ellison

Synopsis: One of the best-known and most-praised anthologies in Science Fiction.

Book Review: Well now. This was interesting.

Every anthology is a wide variety of hits and misses, and what hits and what misses will vary from reader to reader. Also, it’s been nearly 50 years since this was first published, and the world has changed significantly. But all in all, reading this, I had no idea why this anthology was a big deal. Every single story was either a Tomato Surprise – a short setup with a Gotcha Twist at the end, ala Twilight Zone; or else a story that went nowhere and did nothing and honestly isn’t really a story at all, it’s just an interesting world-building idea without any legs.

Which is weird, because it won so many awards. Stories from this collection won Hugos for Best Novella and Best Novelette, and a Nebula for Best Short Story. So I’ll touch on those three.

Best Short Story winner was “Aye, and Gomorrah…” is written with a lot of soul, as one would expect from Delany. The prose is elegant, and it leaves you with a melancholy feeling of loneliness. But the plot can be summarized as “Some people are asexual, and some other people fetishize asexuals.” I guess that saying this 50 years ago was a big deal, but… it’s not anymore. I kept expecting some sort of character development or plot movement, but there was none.

Best Novelette was “Gonna Roll the Bones.” It had very compelling visual descriptions, and great emotional action, centering around a gambler with amazing skills going up against Death (or possibly the Devil). But, again, nothing happens. It’s exciting while you read it, but there’s no there there. Also, it turns out in the end that It Was All A Dream. So why did I even bother reading it?

Best Novella was “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and BOY do I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose is lurid and beautiful and really just to die for. OMG so pretty. It’s got the borderline schizophrenic quality that puts the whole world out of tilt, which I loved so much when I read Vellum. It is like James Joyce, except with a purpose and drive, instead of just literary masturbation. I was in love with this for the first half.

And it portrays a post-scarcity society where yeah, OK, most people just sit around and watch TV, but there are some bright parts to it, some people working to improve the human race. Except… the further you read, the less that looks to be the case. EVERYONE is a jerk-off doing nothing except squandering their lives. Everyone is incompetent, immature, and nasty. It’s humanity at its most petty and distasteful. Our protagonist is supposed to be one of the exceptions, actually pursuing something of value. But then a girl he barely knows refuses to be his personal baby-incubator, and he gets so pissed off that he sexually assaults her with a spermicide container. This sexual assault goes on for PAGES, and it’s played for laughs. She says later that she was unable to walk without pain for over a week, and the whole assault is written as a nearly slap-stick comedy. I guess back in that era most people still thought that a husband threatening to pummel his wife was hilarious, so why should this be different? Damn it left me with such a sick taste in my mouth. THIS is the best of humanity? We, the reader, were being invited to view all humans as the worst sort of Jerry Springer guests, and to laugh at their lower-class mouth-breathing idiocy. Even just talking about it infuriates me.

Anyway, not all stories were that bad, but many of them were. Either just plain bad as stories, or grossly misogynistic or misanthropic. So what’s the deal?

The SF historian of our group let us know what the deal was. Before this, there was only one type of SF. The straight Golden Age narrative. Great Men do Great Things. Whether via Science or Integrity or some other High Virtue, the straight-laced protagonist advances through adversity and rescues humanity. There wasn’t much literary artistry, the plots were fairly simple, the morality was fairly simple, and the whole genre was viewed as inferior tripe by the literati. Very much the way most people roll their eyes and snicker nowadays when they talk about Fan Fiction.

In the 60s this had started to change. Borders were being pushed. Exciting new ideas were being explored. The prose was moving from “functional” to “beautiful”, at least among those writers who were into that sort of thing.

But the Old Guard were unhappy with this sort of change. And the outside world still held their noses. The stimga of simplistic Flash Gordon-style fiction was hard to shake.

So Harlan Ellison put out “Dangerous Visions” partly as a big “Fuck You” to everyone who thought SF couldn’t do experimental, beautiful, and uncomfortable things. It had prose to rival anything Lit Fic had on tap. It had stories that didn’t do much, except show off what COULD be done. It was a display of literary showmanship. Whenever someone was confronted with “Ugh, you read that childish tripe? Why don’t you read real literature?” they could point to this anthology and say “Read this you sonovabitch, and update your decrepit old opinions!”

It serves that purpose well. But it’s also a weapon that was used in a fight that’s half a century in our past. It’s not very relevant to the present day, and the world has moved on to such a point that much of it is unpalatable. As a foundation of the growth of my genre, a herald of what SF can do, I have tons of respect for this anthology. I acknowledge and appreciate the work my elders have done to get us to were we are. “The Shoulders of Giants,” etc. I’m thankful for this anthology, and the battles it fought.

That being said, if you are into SF history and retracing our progression – sure, Recommended. For any other purpose (general reading, etc) – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Every year after we finish reading the Hugo shorts, we say “This was really fun, and quite different! We should do it more often!” And this year we finally did! It was great to switch things up with short stories, rather than a novel. We’re glad we did this, and the shake up to the format was welcome.

The anthology itself led to a fair bit of conversation. Everyone liked different things, and recommended different stories. I’m going to go back and read several that I had skipped in the interest of time (and due to being kinda disgusted and disinterested in the anthology as a whole). There was a fair bit of comparison of notes (“You liked X? WTF, pls explain why, that’s crazy!”), as well as the excitement of bringing something cool you found to the attention of others. And we got to talk about both the growth of SF, and the changes in society overall.

Still, I’m not sure this anthology really fits an SF reading group, unless everyone there is OK with horror. I would’ve been more prepared for some of this crap if it had been marketed as a horror anthology. Seriously, lots of sexual violence. And in almost every case, no real pay off for it. :/ Unless your group is really sure – Not Recommended.

Sep 182017
 

I.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.

Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”

And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.

What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.

Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.

II.

The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.

The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.

Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.

Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.

Further examples of this:

Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.

Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.

One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.

Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.

III.

I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.

It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.

The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.

The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.

We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.

The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.

And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.

That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.

All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.

 

Sep 152017
 

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Synopsis: A comedic fable-style story wherein a smart-ass Holmes-type character and his burly sidekick (our narrator) have crazy adventures while incidentally freeing a fairytale China from a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Book Review: I’m like the 1000th person to review this novel, so y’all have probably heard this before. But I’ll add my opinions to the mix, in case that tips the scales for anyone. After all, I don’t recall who finally tipped me into the “well, guess I gotta read this” camp, but it certainly wasn’t anyone well known, it was just an acquaintance whose opinion I respect.

This is an utterly delightful tale. It’s a black comedy, full of random murder and awfulness, but played with a slapstick sensibility that honestly makes you laugh. Everything in it is drawn with the super-saturated colors and jovial emotions of a fairy tale. Fun characters, over-the-top plot and coincidences, and really beautiful writing combine to make this a really fun read.

A lot of the fun comes from the somewhat absurd gambits that our Sherlock character engineers. If you like the clever little traps that Sherlock sets up, or deductions he waltz through, you’ll really enjoy the schemes Master Li cooks up. Tons of supporting characters keep reappearing in the most hilarious ways, and by the end of the book a number of things click together in this neat puzzle-resolution that’s really beautiful to read.

As it is written in fable-style, though, it’s not for everyone. It is over the top. It has the cyclical structure that fairytales love, repeating certain actions a number of times (well, three times, because fairytales love threes) with minor variations. But you know going into the same scene the 2nd or 3rd time basically how it’ll work out. This relieves the tension and lets you jaunt through the scene, but it also means there isn’t really much tension in much of the novel. This sort of story is read for the sparkle, rather than the immersion.

Two things kinda bothered me too. The first is that basically every problem humanity faces (aside from the evil tyrant himself) boils down to “Women Are The Root Of All Our Woes.” Either mean women who exploit men’s weakness for the opposite gender to dominate them, or pretty-but-vapid women who unknowingly drive men to do crazy things due to their inability to make rational decisions in the face of boobs. Most of the world’s problems would be gone if there just weren’t all these darn women around! I realize the whole story is a silly comedy, but “Men are dumb cuz of penis, and women all manipulate this whether knowingly or not” is a plot/joke that irks me personally.

The second thing is that it’s very deathist in the end. The tyrant is evil because he wants immortality. Many of the supporting characters have tragic deaths in their backstory, and at the end of the book quite a few of them are finally “reunited” with their dead loved ones. By dying. And we’re shown that it’s so great and wonderful that these nice people are dead now! They’re so much better off dead! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was dead? And yeah, ok, it’s a fantasy novel that has a real afterlife, so death really is just going on to a cooler, better life. But A – why the hell were our protagonists going to such lengths to STOP people from dying if death is so great, (the primary quest is finding a cure to a plague that’s killing their village’s children); and B – I just personally really hate deathist themes, even in fantasy works with real afterlives, because fuck death, Death Is Bad.

Still, the novel really IS fantastic. It’s whimsical and fun and well-written, and it’s worth reading it anyway, despite the low-level misogyny/misandry (misanthropy?) and deathism. I know I made it sound bad in those last two paragraphs, but this is delightful throughout much of the story, and it is both a quick and easy read. You’ll laugh, and now and then you’ll be touched. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: In addition to all the fun that can be had in reading this book, and in sharing things that people really loved, there can be a lot of good conversation about this books flaws too. The misanthropy/deathism can spark  conversation. Two people in our book club did not care for the fairytale stylings at all, and that sparked discussion on the difference between fairytale stories and modern story telling, and the pros and cons of each, and so forth. There’s no wrong opinion here, just varying tastes, and the exploration of them. The conversation was interesting.

Aaaaaaand of course there was the cultural appropriation conversation as well. Bridge of Birds draws from a lot of traditional Chinese tales and cultural background. Enough so that I’ve heard someone say that as much as one likes the story, that enjoyment is significantly leveled up by having deep Chinese cultural knowledge. It’d be like reading a dark comedy based on western fairytales without having ever heard of Cinderella or Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood or King Arthur. It can still be a lot of fun if done well, but you’ll get so much more out of it if you are familiar with the background material.

But Barry Hughart is a white American, and for a couple readers in our group this brought up questions of authenticity immediately. Is this well-researched storytelling by someone who’s really dedicated themselves to getting this right? Or is it just someone grabbing stuff from Chinese culture they think is cool and throwing it in the book? And sadly, all any of us have to go on is what it vaguely “feels like” to us.

I remember hearing that Chinese readers/critics thought it was well done, but spending 15 minutes googling after the book club meeting didn’t return any results. I don’t  remember where I heard the “it’s well done” claim from, so I don’t have any source to give. :/ This is doubly confounded by the fact that it’s a dark comedy which treats most things irreverently, and could be said to be lampooning certain common tropes. So…. how do we know if it’s “authentic” and “respectful” enough? And if it wasn’t very authentic, does that ruin it, despite it being a well-written comedy and a good story?

I obviously have my own opinion, which I figure is pretty clear by the way I slanted that last paragraph. But to clarify, I think most claims of cultural appropriation are self-important bullshit. Yet this is something I can respectfully discuss with my fellow book-clubbers, and that was also an interesting discussion to have.

So, in addition to being a fun and easy read, lots of good conversation. Recommended!

Sep 052017
 

Hunger Makes the Wolf, by Alex Wells

Synopsis: A space western wherein impoverished miners are horribly exploited until a group of magic-using outlaws on bikes finally stand up for the small community and fight back against the robber-barons.

Disclaimer: I know Alex Wells personally, and really like them. While I try to remain objective in my reviews, I’m not a robot and I may fail to some extent.

Book Review: I should add a second disclaimer here, which is that I dislike Space Westerns. I didn’t bother watching Firefly at first because, even though it was Joss Whedon and I love his work, I couldn’t image even he would make me like a Space Western. Of course I was proven wrong, and soon I was swept up in the adoration of that fantastic show as well. But any Space Western has a tough barrier to entry for me.

This might be a good story, if one likes Space Westerns. There are some very powerful scenes that show what it means to be completely at the mercy of an uncaring corporate entity, and the vile types of humans that take advantage of such power. The villain is extremely creepy, and is probably the best physical/dynamic depiction of a vampire I’ve ever seen. All vampire writers should take note! Also the speech and overall feel was VERY western. I really enjoyed reading what felt like a Sci-Fi book written for/by Applejack. (and yes, I absolutely mean that as a complement.)

But to me, this felt much like Dune Lite. The same desert world, exploitative powers, and magic abilities, but with more motorcycle gangs and less religion. And somewhere along the way, Wells lost my emotional attention. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. This is by no means a bad book. There is no place I can point to and say “This is where it went wrong.” But slowly, over the course of many chapters, I came to lose interest in what I was reading, to the point that it start to feel like a chore.

Perhaps it was the feeling of disconnect due to never being let into the protag’s life in a biker gang, despite it being both her primary social group and her family. Or my own personal quibbles with what felt like an inexpertly handled critique of old school industrialism that doesn’t apply to the modern day. Whatever the case, once I started to wish I didn’t have to keep reading, I stopped reading. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Again, I wish to stress that this isn’t a bad book. It just isn’t a great one. While many of our readers finished the book, most of them agreed that at some point it went off the rails, and no one was quite sure what happened. Someone suggested that there was too much old-west flavor, and that started to drown out things. Someone else thought the protag’s dark secret was overplayed and a bit of a let down. A few people were annoyed that the story didn’t really answer the questions it brought up, which is good for drawing interest into a series, but is irritating for those of us who prefer novel-length stories and aren’t looking to read series.

One reader commented that the story has a very traditional old-west or golden-age-SF feel, wherein the masculine hero acts like a white knight and rides in to right wrongs and save the damsel in distress. And simply making the masculine hero a woman doesn’t really change anything about that type of narrative of the masculine-hero. Maybe this was what threw me too? I’m not really a golden age reader.

At any rate, there was some discussion, and so the novel does OK by the book club metric… but it’s not quite enough to make me really want to go out and recommend this enthusiastically to book clubs. So, also, Not Recommended.

Aug 192017
 

Behind The Throne, by K.B. Wagers

Synopsis: A runaway space princess is dragged back home to become a reluctant space queen.

Book Review: Ya know, I don’t want to sound elitist or anything, but I kinda want the novels I read to feel like the author put some effort into them. Behind The Throne is the opposite of that. It is non-stop cliches and predictability, and every artistic choice seems to have followed the path of least resistance.

For example, the princess is nominally in her late 30s, but still written with the attitude and mindset of a teenage. She’s a gunrunner, because that makes her vaguely bad-ass, without any thought as to the fact that it would also make her a war criminal (who was she running these guns to??). All her crew are conveniently killed at the start of the book to free her up for ruling the empire again, without much psychological impact on her. And so on and so forth.

It feels like a generic action movie that’s just there to sell tickets to bored kids on a summer afternoon. There is no ambition or emotion here, and it reads very much like something a teenager would write while bored in Home Room.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There are several people in our group who are just fine with generic entertainment, which is why I felt kinda like an elitist jerk for disliking this book. It’s not “bad” per se. There’s just nothing to recommend it. Because of this there isn’t all that much to discuss either. It won’t kick your pets or anything, but Not Recommended.

Aug 142017
 

I’ve read a number of good short stories recently, and figured I’d share.

 

First is “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls. This is absolutely fantastic, we talked about it a bit on the Bayesian Conspiracy podcast, but seriously, read or listen to this. Rationalist and Transhumanists will love it. It is hilarious, and sneakily thoughtful, and hits you with a wallop of emotions when you aren’t looking. I will absolutely be nominating this for a Hugo next year.

Also, I gotta give the author mad props for fully embracing the “all fiction is contemporary” thing. This is perfect and aimed at TODAY like a laser-guided missile, and most of the humor will be lost to anyone trying to read it in even five years’ time. It takes a certain type of courage to say “I am writing this just for today’s audience, and posterity can eat it.” It’s a thing that maybe more of us should embrace, because all fiction is contemporary, and in twenty years very little is still relevant. Trading “Hitting Hard TODAY” for “Possible relevance in the future” is an very bad exchange, and IMHO we’d do well to aim for now far more than we do. But damn is it hard. Thus the mad props. <3

 

Second: Iterations, by Daniel H Wilson. A story of how people will cope in the future. Saying much more would give away too much, but it’s a beautiful and touching story, that left me very conflicted and with all sorts of thoughts. Again, good for transhuman-interested readers.

 

Finally: Love, Interest, by Justis Devan. A hilarious Harem-Anime-inspired crackfic. Which, again, ends up going very interesting places, while still being very entertaining. I thought I’d just skim the first few paragraphs to see how the author managed to spin what’s basically a joke-prompt, and I ended up getting sucked deep in and unable to stop until the story was over. Well done!

Aug 022017
 

The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Synopsis: In a post-singularity world, a hacker/identity thief searches for the uploaded consciousness of a 7-year-old boy (that’s been on loop for centuries) who grew up to become a god.

Book Review: If he isn’t among the pantheon of post-singularity writers yet, Rajaniemi really deserves to be there. This is a wildly creative and extremely well-realized work. Often when people (even including myself) say “creative” they mean “oh, that’s a really neat idea!” But Rajaniemi just keeps piling on not only cool ideas, but great narratives that exploit those ideas, and has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating how they would change many aspects of life and how they interact with each other. This is a richly detailed and deep world, with delicious complexity.

In addition, the people that inhabit this world view it as normal. So when you’re reading it everything is presented in regular-life sort of colors and attitudes. But the more you learn about the world the more it is clear that this is an existence most of us would be horrified by, that’s been normalized by centuries of it just being this way, and by the fact that the story can (necessarily) only be told by the winners/survivors.

Of course the fact that extremely bizarre situations are presented matter-of-factly does make this a bit of a challenge to read. It is not a quick read, it demands the reader to a share of the mental lifting. I personally really like that sort of thing, as long as it’s not a damned chore (I’m looking at you, Joyce). It also means that as you progress a lot of things that were confusing at first resolve and make a lot more sense. You may even want to reread some of the early chapters later on and see how the feeling of “Oh wow… now that I know stuff it all makes sense!” feels like, again. It’s not unlike when you were a kid and algebra suddenly made sense (or whatever your pet Revelation moment is).

The one thing I disliked about the story was that our protagonist reused the same gambit a few times to win key conflicts. It was clever the first time, but it got old. I mean, IRL I would re-use a tactic that works as well, but it’s less fun in a story.

I like that I’m not entirely sure our hero is that great a person. And I really REALLY empathize with our villain, he has a truly noble goal. To the point that I believe the Shadow Plot is about how his Pure, Noble Goal led him to take increasingly drastic measures to achieve it, and ultimately twisting him into a villain through slow value-drift.

Anyway, if you like stories about uploaded minds cooperating and clashing with copies of themselves, and identity thieves literally stealing minds to become/corrupt their identities, and computer-virus warfare among planet-covering nano-clouds, and ancient meme-plexes bootstrapping themselves into existence by creating highly-fractal fiction… then BOY do I have a story for you!! Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review: This is the second book in a trilogy. We read the first book a number of years ago, back before I’d started writing these reviews, in fact. The Quantum Thief.

The Quantum Thief is a fantastic Book Club novel. It introduces the world slowly, sticks with more meat-space settings and characters, and is structured as a classic Heist story, with lots of action and fun. I highly recommend it for book clubs.

Since it had been so long since we read the first one, about half the people in our book club were new enough that they hadn’t read Quantum Thief. I hoped to make up for this by posting a HUGELY spoilery summary of Quantum Thief, that covered all the important concepts and plot details to get new readers up to speed. Because I couldn’t find one already written online even after a fair bit of Googling. It’s here. But it turns out that it’s not enough. One really needs to read the first book first.

Moreover, the second book ups the difficulty and weirdness enough that even among the people who had read the first book, not all of them enjoyed the second book. Not everyone is as interested in questions of identity and meme propagation and post-singularity weirdness as I am. So while there were a few interesting topics to speak on, the discussion didn’t go for very long.

I think if your book club consists primarily of people who are really into this sort of thing, Fractal Prince would be great. But for a general-interest book club with a wider variety of members, this may be a step too far. Stick with Quantum Thief. Fractal Prince, as awesome as it is, is sadly probably Not Recommended for book clubs. (and certainly shouldn’t be read without reading QT first)

Aug 022017
 

The Quantum Thief. Note that this post contains ALL THE SPOILERS! It’s written for the benefit of my book club who hadn’t read The Fractal Prince yet, but it turns out that even this synopsis doesn’t help much, and one really should read the book itself. Might serve as handy reminder for people who’ve gone a few years between books though?

Novel starts with Jean le Flambeur in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual realm. It’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma set up with thousands of copies of himself, in the theory that eventually he’ll turn into a good person after enough iterations. He encounters the monster of the Dilemma Prison, the All-Defector, who convinces you into cooperating and then defects anyway. Meili, the winged lady, has hacked into the Prison with the aid of Pelegrinni, one of the Sobornost. She grabs Jean and breaks out.

Note: “grabs Jean” means copying one instance of him. “Breaks out” means downloading that consciousness into a robot body provided by Pelegrinni. Thousands of other copies of him are simply left behind to continue being tortured/rehabilitated.

Note: the Sobornost are 8(?) people. Each one uploaded their consciousness to silicon and created millions (billions?) of copies of themselves, all with slight alterations in order to be better as specific tasks, and each one works as basically a single Large, Distributed Person. But they often break off branches of themselves to go do other tasks. Pelegrinni is one of these people, and she broke off a copy to go with Meili to free Jean and get him to steal something for her.

subNote: The 8 Sobornost minds have an uneasy truce among them, but often clash. They’ve also taken over much of the inner systems. Mars and Earth are both reduced to a single city, I’m not sure Venus exists anymore. All other matter is being converted to computronium.

The jailors, known as “Archons”, notice they’ve lost a copy of Jean. One comes after him, a sliver of smartmatter that penetrates their ship and begins to convert it into another Dilemma Prison. Jean defeats it by “swallowing” it, creating a false virtual world within his robot body’s mental computer that tricks the Archon into thinking it is still in the real world, and has succeeded in re-capturing Jean, and is now happily torturing/rehabilitating him in a new Dilemma Prison.

This Jean-copy is missing a lot of memories that the original Jean had. He can’t steal anything for Pelegrinni until he becomes himself again. Our Jean travels to the Oubliette, the city on Mars, where the entire population’s memories are stored permanently in the city internet, and are uploaded as they’re created in real time. These memories are VERY tightly guarded behind unbreakable encryption, so you can only share memories with people if you have their consent. It’s an intensely private society. But with the right tools and lies you can get people’s encryption keys and hack into their stored memories. The original Jean used to live in the Oubliette. Our Jean is going there to steal back his memories.

On Mars we learn that nearly all human minds have been converted into “gogols.” These are basically mind-slaves. They are uploaded humans that have been trained in specific computational tasks that are economically useful (math, piloting, hacking, surgery, infiltration, accounting, engineering, whatever). They have been stripped of most human drives, and so want only to perform their function. The Sobornost, for undisclosed reasons, want a copy of every human mind in existence under their control. They pay pirates to copy the minds on Mars and send them to Sobornost stations. The people of Mars obviously find this repugnant, they do not want copies of themselves mutilated and enslaved. Because who wants to wake up tomorrow and find out they’re under the complete control of a callous god that will use you as a tool for eternity without rest? But since the people on Mars are basically standard humans with some upgrades, they would be wiped out by the vastly technologically-superior Sobornost in a matter of weeks. So they’ve formed an alliance with the Zoku.

On Mars we meet a colony of the Zoku. They’re the flipside of the Sobornost. They are large numbers of humans who have linked their minds together via quantum-entanglement, using small devices that look like gems. Thus they are called “Zoku gems.” This makes them sorta a single entity, the same way the Sobornost are a single entity, but they are comprised of many different humans working together, rather than a single human copied and recreated millions of times. The Zoku have been at war with the Sobornost for a long, long time (called “The Protocol War”). Jupiter was destroyed during the war, creating an event known as “The Spike” when the solar system was flooded with radiation from its fiery disintegration. The Zoku have been losing lately, which was why they teamed up with the humans on Mars. The little extra firepower has let them hold a draw for a while.

Lots of cool shit happens on Mars, Meili and Jean save each others lives several times and bond (sorta), and their ship (“Perhonen”) is sarcastic and loyal and awesome. Murders and explosions and such!

In the end we learn that the original Jean had a rich life on Mars with many friends, who he eventually abandoned when he disappeared. Our Jean, in the course of trying to steal back the memories left here, discovers that the original Jean never actually left Mars. He has hidden himself here, deleting himself from everyone else’s memories and sight when he gained root access to the memory-cloud of Mars. He alters people’s memories and minds at will in order to rule Mars from the shadows. The two Jeans confront each other in an absolutely epic showdown. In the end our Jean unleashes the Archon he trapped within himself. The Archon creates a new Dilemma Prison that traps the original Jean within in it. Now that it has a Jean it is happy. Our Jean escapes. Unfortunately the Dilemma Prison also ate all the memories that our Jean came here to find, so he never gets them at all. He has failed. The one thing he manages to steal as he leaves is a small cube.

The cube is a quantum computer. Locked within it is a god – a copy of the original mind of one of the 8 Sobornost founders.

Also of note: in the climax the main supporting character – Mieli – gives Pelegrinni a copy of her mind to do with as she wishes. Copy, alter, replicate a thousand times, resurrect her if she dies, whatever. This is in exchange for Pelegrinni swooping in to save Jean’s life at a crucial moment. This causes Mieli much distress, since before this she had been unique and un-copied.

In the epilogue we discover that Matjek Chen is the most powerful Sobornost right now, and is moving to consume or destroy the others. Pelegrinni has formed an alliance with him, but is secretly only out for herself. She plans to use Jean to steal something (we still don’t know what) from Matjek—an artifact that could change the course of their civil war. We also learn that when Jean was broken out of the Dilemma Prison at the very beginning, the All-Defector broke out as well, and is loose somewhere. Finally, Pelegrinni warns Matjek that Jean is coming for him, so Matjek creates a Hunter to track down Jean and eliminate him. Pelegrinni tells this Hunter where to find Jean, whispering his name and location to it. The hunt is on!