Apr 242018
 

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Synopsis: A young couple falls in love in a war-torn Middle Eastern country, flees the country, and then falls out of love.

Book Review: There are few things more annoying that someone who’s completely ignorant on a subject walking into a room of knowledgeable people and deciding s/he should show them the proper way to do things. In the cryo community this is usually the person who says “lol, water crystals would shred all your cells when you freeze yourself.” In genre fiction circles it happens every few years when a self-important LitFic author decides to use a touch of magic, or near-future speculation, in a novel, and all the EarthFic’ers gush about how imaginative and unique it is.

I’d heard a lot about Exit West. Apparently it was beloved by the New York Times and all the literati elite, so I had high hopes for it. Of course, that it’s beloved of those people should have been my first warning. Exit West is straight-up boring-ass LitFic, with a flimsy magical element stapled on. I’m of the opinion that if you want to write LitFic but you don’t have the skill to do it, all you have to do is add a genre element and these goons that’ve never read any fantasy because it’s too low-brow for them will excuse all your blundering because they have no idea what makes a good story.

Everything that Exit West tries to do, it does poorly. It “appropriates” (as much as I hate this word, it almost feels right here) a fairy-tale narrative style, without having any idea what makes that style work. It has none of the whimsical lyricism or fairytale logic that a proper fairytale narrative employs. Valente and Hughart know how to make this style a force to be reckoned with. Hamid just uses a detached, head-hopping, omniscient narrator as a shortcut to putting any work into his writing, and tries to hide that by using the vocabulary of fairytale fiction.

It fails horrifically as a genre work because it never once bothers to explore any of the ramifications of the magic portals, besides the one specific aspect needed to make Hamid’s plot work. The reduction of all distances to zero is good for more than just easy border-crossing for refugees. It would be an existential threat to all geography-based states. Too Like The Lightning had damn good speculation about what happens to a world where distance no longer matters. The portals in Exit West should have been replaced by a highly-skilled human smuggler, because that’s literally all they are.

It fails as LitFic as well, because it never bothers to Show anything. The neat trick that LitFic is monomaniacally focused on is to never Tell, only Show, and make the reader feel all the emotions the author is intending only through lovingly detailed action. No one ever says “She felt lonely.” Instead they describe for four pages the protagonist going into her garden, pouring salt on the snails threatening her tomatoes, and then watching them melt slowly while reflecting on her relationship with her husband. And when it’s done right, the reader feels lonely. Exit West does the opposite. It’s a non-stop stream of Tellling. He was lonely. She was a rebel. They talked about leaving. There’s seriously entire chapters without a line of dialog, because Hamid can’t even be bothered to show us two humans interacting. He just gives a quick summary of a conversation. And the result is an absolute failure to connect emotionally with the reader. I don’t care about anyone in the book. I’ve read textbooks that are more engaging.

There is one thing Exit West does very well, and that’s the beautiful analogies that perfectly capture a moment. Things like “Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.” These sorts of things are sprinkled all throughout the text, and they are a delight. Unfortunately they are wasted in a narrative that does nothing with them.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Turnout was high for this book. Telling has an advantage over Showing in that it is fast, and simple. Often one has to use Telling in the interests of saving time and word count. (“She felt lonely” is three words; four pages of text are 1000). Since Exit West is entirely Telling, it is both short, and extremely easy/fast to read. This made it easy for people to race through it.

In addition, the fact that it annoyed so many people got a lot of them to come and vent their frustrations. So we had a fair bit to talk about. However I cannot, in good conscious, recommend that someone waste even a few hours of their life on this. Not Recommended.

Apr 072018
 

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

Synopsis: An indentured military robot and his handler track a pharma-IP pirate across the globe when a reverse-engineered work-productivity drug starts killing people.

Book Review: Yikes, what a shiny mess this is! The novel is so variable in quality and tone, spiking up and diving down in heady rushes, that it feels downright schizophrenic. I need to dive into that, so this review will be a bit long.

On the one hand, there’s some good stuff in here. The robot characters in particular were really interesting. They are convincingly done as minds without human values, where murder and torture don’t elicit even the feeling that they should be difficult or questionable, as long as they’re ordered by an authorized admin. The violence is raw and brutal in its matter-of-factness. There’s a particularly fantastic scene where the military bot is engaged in combat with IP-pirates, guns blazing and blood splattering, while also researching English language usage because he wants to know what his admin meant when he said “I’m not a faggot.” The alternating physical brutality, and curiosity about human relationships and sexuality, makes for amazing juxtaposition.

The novel also highlighted a few things in myself that I now have to ponder. There’s a gender-flip (sorta) midbook. No big deal, gender doesn’t matter, particularly the fake gender of robots. But when I went back to my notes in the first half of the book and found the female character being referred to as “he,” it bothered me. Which I guess means that gender actually does matter, even the fake gender of robots, because why the hell would it bother me if it didn’t really matter? If I hadn’t embraced the gender-classification of this non-human thing and started to associate it with that gender, and then disliked it being misgendered?

It also drew my attention to latent carbon-chauvinism I thought I was free of. When a human who’s been shown to brutally abuse robots is murdered, it took me aback. Like “No, you don’t just go killing humans!” But if that human had been shown to brutally abuse other humans, I woulda been all “Fuck yeah, kill that piece of shit!” So… what’s going on with me, there? I obviously place more moral weight on fictional humans than fictional robots, and that’s worrisome.

But all this is tempered by some serious issues. For starters, in quite a few places the writing is just downright bad. Like, “I’m 14 And This Is Deep” high school fanfic bad. We’re told who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys with basic applause lights like “the keys to this good life are held in the greedy hands of a few corporatons.” And “Was [she] trying to kill herself to make up for what she’d done? Maybe. Probably.” And “maybe […] he would stop asking her to trust him more than she wanted to trust anyone—including herself.” Oh dear lord.

The world and most of the characters in it never come to life either. Everything feels rather flat, and drawn in muted colors, especially at first. In the latter half of the book we start to get some insight into our human character’s personality and backgrounds, and they start to become interesting, but at first they’re just blah. And the world itself doesn’t feel anything like you’d expect. Apparently most of the world lives in slavery most of their lives, but for the most part life seems alright. No one’s that unhappy, society is basically functioning, etc. This has two related effects on our protagonists. Our hero, the pirate, doesn’t feel very heroic. A freedom fighter needs an evil empire to fight against. Lacking that context, she’s just a drug-running criminal. And our villain, the IP-law enforcer, isn’t all that bad. In fact, the novel paints him in a pretty decent light.

Now, I’m all for morally complex characters. I like dark heroes, and I like works that really make you feel the villain’s perspective, and cheer for them. But Autonomous doesn’t do that.

It introduces us to a hero by having her murder someone without much remorse in their introductory scene. It drops a number of hints about her dark, irredeemable past. And then we’re never shown anything bad she did in her past, and she’s painted as a hero for the rest of the novel. She never gets a redemption because it turns out there wasn’t anything she needs redemption from. The novel is OK with that.

It gives us a villain working for the oppressors. He pressures his underling into a deeply disturbing and highly-abusive relationship. The novel doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.

The world is broken and full of slavery, but things are pretty cheerful overall. It feels like a brightly-painted Disney-fied environment. This isn’t done in a southern gothic sort of disturbing way, it just seems we’re not supposed to notice.

I have a theory. Originally, this book was supposed to be much, much darker. It was supposed to be something awesome, like Library at Mount Char, or Best Served Cold. But Newitz was told this would never sell, and if she wanted a contract she’d have to lighten it up, and make it more YA-friendly. So what could have been dark and brooding and great is turned into… this.

I have a second theory. This novel has been rewritten many, many times. Newitz learned a lot during the writing, which is why the latter half is significantly better than the first. It explains why there can be really good writing side by side with really awful drek. But in the churn of all the rewrites and edits, the focus of the story was lost. In the end it feels processed and soulless.

I look forward to Newitz’s next novel, because I think these are problems that can be overcome, particularly with experience. But I don’t think that this novel, as it stands, should have been published. Some gatekeeper was not doing their job, or (per first theory) doing their job very poorly and making the final work worse. And since I can’t recommend something that I don’t think should’ve been published, despite it’s other merits, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Boy, it’s hard to say. This was a pretty quick read, and it did have some great parts. And it certainly gave us a LOT to talk about, which is where theories 1 & 2 from above came from. But most of the discussion didn’t center around the themes the novel attempted to raise, because we were distracted by the disjointed prose/world. Some people liked it more than others, and it’s certainly far from the worst thing out there. But when I think of all the really good novels out there, and extremely limited number of novels one can read in a year, I can’t justify telling a book club this is worth the opportunity cost. While it skates the line, I’m going to tip into the Not Recommended on this one. Mildly, though.

 

Mar 282018
 

This is in regards to “The Stone Sky”, which I just reviewed.

MAJOR spoilers below.

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!

Let’s say that the fate of the world depends on you being in a specific city, at a specific time, about one week from now. Transportation isn’t an issue, you can get there in about an hour. But you have to physically be there, or literally the human race goes extinct. Do you:

A. Make sure you get there at least a day early, so you have plenty of time to check out the city, get situated, and leave a margin of error for any sort of SNAFU that crop up?
or
B. Spend a few days loafing, saying goodbye to all your friends, and the morning of the fateful hour eat a leisurely breakfast where you all screw around and bond for a bit, before leaving at a time that’ll ensure you’ll get to where you need to be with no more than fifteen minutes to spare?

Unless you are a fucking idiot, you go with A. In fact, I can’t think of anyone, even the world’s most fucking idiot, that would go with B, because fate of all of humanity. GET THERE EARLY. And yet, Essun chooses B. And it’s painfully obvious why.

The main source of conflict in the climax is the same source of conflict of every bad RomCom ever — the two protagonists don’t spend five damn minutes to just talk to each other! All the heartache and misunderstanding (and in bad RomComs, the entire plot) evaporates if the two protagonists would just sit down and have a short freakin’ conversation. This is why Essun waits until the last minute to go to the Appointed Location. If she got there any earlier there wouldn’t be time pressure preventing her from talking with her daughter, Nassun would discover she has options other than “kill everyone”, Essun would discover she could gift everyone with infinite life, and there wouldn’t be the Mother vs Daughter conflict that Jemisin wants.

As much as I love everything else Jemisin has done, this is just plain bad writing. There are dozens of ways to force Essun and Nassun into conflict that don’t involve “We don’t have five minutes to share knowledge.” Or, though less satisfying, if we really want to stick with time-pressure, there’s hundreds of reasonable ways to prevent Essun from getting to the Appointed Location until the last minute that don’t require her (and everyone in her entourage) to hold The Idiot Ball for days. None of these options were taken. Instead we get a forced climax that relies on a ridiculous contrivance.

Also, as long as I’m complaining, Nassun’s sudden switch to “Instead of killing everyone, let’s make everyone immortal!” was jarring. This would have been a far better book if she’d been given the “I can make everyone immortal” information right up front, so her role would have been the (Misguided?) Savior, which is entirely believable for someone her age, who has a loving and supportive father at her side at all times. Far better than the Destroyer role she was inelegantly forced into.

To be honest, I’m only harsh on this book because the first one was sooooo good. The Stone Sky is still better than 90% of the stuff out there! It’s mostly out of frustration for seeing awesomeness fall apart in the third book that I complain. But hey, this is not my book, I’m just a reader with his own agenda and opinions. Jemisin may very rightly say “Screw off, this is my book, and I wrote it just how I wanted it. You think you could write a better book? You try it!” Fair enough. I know people who love this book just as much as the first one in the trilogy. But this is my post of mourning, so take it as you will.

Mar 282018
 

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: The conclusion of the 5th Season trilogy. Could be summed up as “A very long and in-depth version of Those Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Book Review: Solid, with great thematic heft, but a disappointing plot.

The thematic arc of this trilogy is fantastic. Novels (or series of novels) often have plot arcs, or character arcs, but it’s unusual to see an arc of progression in a story’s themes. Yet Jemisin pulls off exactly this. At the start of the trilogy, the theme is raw, unmitigated rage. Rage at injustice, rage at exploitation and murder. By the end of the trilogy, the focus has shifted to revenge. To the expression of that rage in physical action. Righting the wrongs, and punishing the monsters. And it asks “when is it enough?” When someone has killed your child, enslaved you, and treated you like an object, when have you gotten enough revenge?

And the answer is always “It’s never enough.” There is no amount of vengeance that can make up for those crimes. The Earth will continue to punish the human race for eons upon eons, because the rage never ends. Our protagonist will continue to murder cities full of the opposite race, and society will continue to murder those of her race, forever, because the cycle of revenge is infinite and all-consuming.

There are two ways to end this cycle. Kill everyone, so there is nothing left. Or put down your vengeance, bury your rage, and embrace forgiveness.

These themes are played out in multiple ways through multiple character’s choices, including opposite paths taken two main POV characters, as well as flashbacks to the First Civilization and the Earth’s reaction to their crimes. It’s is awesome in scope and statement.

Of particular delight to myself was when the First Civilization resurrected the race they genoicided, but with every racial feature grossly exaggerated and their powers raised to super-human levels, so that they could tell themselves “We did the right thing. Look how dangerous these people are. We are not monsters, genocide was the only option.” It’s eye-opening and beautiful.

Unfortunately, the execution on the plot-level fell flat. As predicted (in part IV), Nassun (the protagonist’s daughter) is cast in the role of destroyer of worlds, whereas Essun (the protagonist) is given the “finding community, and through it finding redemption” arc. I feel this was a grave mistake, because Nassun is utterly unconvincing as the destroyer of worlds. She’s 10. She has no believable motivation. We spent a novel with her mother, watching her tortures, and agreeing with her that the world must end. We crowed for justice at the end of 5th Season. Kill them all! If Jemisin wants to give her the Redemption Arc rather than the Destroyer Arc, that’s totally legit. But in that case the Destroyer role must be abandoned, because few other characters could do it convincingly after we saw what Essun has been through. Certainly not a 10 year old girl, who’s been sheltered her whole life and who’s trauma pales in comparison to her mother’s. Every time she said “Until the world burns” I wanted to pat her on the head.

She could have worked as the Savior, the idealistic young person not yet beaten down by the world. But as the jaded destroyer? Not even close. It doesn’t help that she’s never shown as stable in her goals (getting far worse near the end of the book). It feels like Jemisin lost focus, and couldn’t decide on which direction she wanted Nassun, as well as their Mother-Daughter relationship, to take. Maybe her vision for it changed midway through the book, and the edits to alter this didn’t fit well? I dunno. But it was very disappointing.

Also the climax was infuriating and frustrating, for reasons I can only get into in a spoilery post.

I don’t know how to go on this one. Pretty much anyone who’s read the first two books will read this, so does my recommendation matter? And if you like what I like, you should definitely read at least the first book (The 5th Season), because it’s so good. But the frustrations I had with the characters and plot hampered my enjoyment of it so much, that it hindered the exploration of the themes of revenge. After all, no matter how great ones themes are, the way they are explored is with the tools of character and plot, and if those are flawed, even the best thematic aspirations suffer. I would have read this anyway, and I’m sure most people will as well, but in retrospect… I guess Not Recommended. EDIT: To be honest, I’m only harsh on this book because the first one was sooooo good. The Stone Sky is still better than 90% of the stuff out there!

Book Club Review: As with the first two books, this is a great one for book clubs. The strong treatment of the themes gives good avenues for conversation. Not everyone agrees with me about the flaws in the novel, and having issues like that to grouse about also gives the group things to focus on. I was particularly interested to find one member who disliked Jemisin’s use of the term “magic” to refer to the lifeforce that emanates from all living things and binds the universe together, and can be harnessed to transmute things, do useful work, and create raw energy. I found out that they think of “magic” as things that wizards do in fantasy novels, and that this doesn’t qualify, because this could be real(!). Turns out they’re kinda new-agey. It was interesting to find out where people aren’t comfortable using a term like “magic.”

Anyway, Recommended.

Mar 202018
 

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Synopsis: A loner tries to make a living scavenging & smuggling alien artifacts from a restricted zone.

Book Review: Well this was a neat read.

First, the protagonist isn’t a typical, relatable protagonist. He’s abrasive and selfish, and I started out not liking him. But that’s OK, not every protagonist has to be you standard Good-aligned Hero, sometimes it’s nice to break away from all the cliché heroes. And by the time I got to know the world he lives in, I developed sympathy and understanding for him, despite a distinct lack of admiration.

Which brings me to the next interesting aspect – this novel is Soviet AF. All the institutions are maximally Inadequate while still keeping themselves from collapse (though you get the feeling they’ll get there in a few decades). Everyone is only looking out for themselves, and using whatever power they have to advance their own interests regardless of how much it screws the rest of their institution/society/anyone-else. Mid-level bureaucrats collude directly with the criminals they’re supposed to be apprehending (when those criminals have enough money and pull). There’s literally nothing you can count on. It was a heck of an experience to be placed in that world and realize there are still vast swaths of humanity that live like this. Very saddening too.

And the whole concept of humanity trying to reverse-engineer the discarded remnants of incredibly advanced and randomly-deadly technology in a large unpoliceable area, while others try to steal it, made for good plot. It felt very much like a precursor to the Annihilation vision of Area X & The Institute. I dunno if Jeff VanderMeer was directly influenced by this novel, but it’s certainly a fine pedigree if so!

I think the biggest downside is the POV-switch near the middle of the book, which was unnecessary and distracting. In addition, the character we shift to feels far too similar our main protagonist, they’re basically the same person in different situations. The novel drags a bit at this point, I was glad when that chapter was done.

But probably the most interesting thing about this book is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it leaves a major interpretation up to the reader. I know there are people who hate this sort of thing. But I really, really liked it. I was not expecting that at all, and I appreciate the trust the authors put in me to “get it.”

Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a good book for book clubs for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s really short. It comes from the days of novels that averaged 150 pages, and by today’s standards that feels like a walk in the park. People shouldn’t have trouble reading it, which always helps turnout.

It also presents us with a world we can relate to, but from a different enough perspective to get people talking. The view from Soviet Russia is bleak, and it led to disagreements both about the character of our protagonist (we had several readers who considered him a good person!), and reflections on our own institutions. The fact that it was written 40 years ago also reminded us that the past is a different country and got us talking about that (people smoked indoors? and just ashed on the carpet?? OMG)

And the open-ended ending gave us a hell of a hook to talk about. Everyone put forward their own interpretation/prediction of what would follow, and defended it with evidence from the story (mostly having to do with the protagonists character and desires). Of course, only the ones who agreed with me were right. ;) But it was the joy of the discussion that matters. Recommended.

(also of note, this book was the inspiration for the STALKER video game)

Mar 082018
 

Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Synopsis: An amnesiac in the modern world slowly comes to discover he’s a demi-god of a fantasy world.

Book Review: I guess that synopsis is a bit of a spoiler, but not much of one, because it’s basically the same thing that’s on the back-cover blurb of most editions, and the cover art kinda gives this away too. At any rate, it’s something the reader discovers pretty early in the book. And that’s much of the problem with this novel.

For me, the interesting part of this story is Corwin trying to figure out what’s happening and who he is, all while hiding that he doesn’t know these things from the people around him. He has a (correct) suspicion that if they knew, he’d be in great danger. Watching this delicate subterfuge is pretty damn delightful, even if it’s a bit incredible in places, and helped along by his primary adversary being dim-witted and slow. The sense of danger, where every word could be a misstep that gives everything away and he won’t know it until it’s too late, makes for very engaging reading!

Unfortunately it ends pretty quickly. We have a few chapters of that, and then the whole novel reverts to pretty standard fantasy tropes. As a super-powerful magic user and claimant to a recently-vacated throne, Corwin marshals allies, has battles, gets in sword fights, feuds with his brothers, blah blah blah. There’s never a sense of danger again.

Worse, there’s no stakes. Corwin wants the throne, but I don’t care. He’s kinda an asshole. He leads tens of thousands of people into death for no good reason and without any care for their lives. We have no reason to think anything would be better or worse with one of his brothers on the throne, they all just want it because they feel entitled to it.

It’s odd, I first read this book about ten years ago. Either my standards have gone up (possible!), or this book is much better when you don’t know what’s coming next. The lack of knowledge Corwin has focuses the reader’s attention on the unraveling of the mystery, and distracts from all the glaring flaws of this thing. When you already know the mystery’s answer and can focus on things like character and plot, you realize how shabby they are.

I would hesitate to steer people away from this, based on my memories of really enjoying it the first time through. But as luck would have it, I was also rereading Too Like The Lightning (in preparation for my much-delayed first read of Seven Surrenders) as I read Nine Princes. In a way, this review is very much a story of two re-readings. Nine Princes crumbled upon the closer inspection of a reread. Too Like The Lightning only shined ever brighter, as the removal of the work needed to grasp the world-building really lets one focus on the characters and story and find greater depths and delights within them! Having a really good work to compare Nine Princes to lets me say with far less reservation – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s OK. There’s some conversational material here for discussing how the genre has changed over the decades. At the time, this book was a runaway hit, and series were a new thing. We had enough stuff to talk about that it was a successful evening. However, there’s so much good stuff out there, and so little time to read all of it, that it seems like a waste to focus on things that are merely OK. Unless your book club is looking for a discussion about the evolution of popular fantasy in the US (and someone’s ready without further outside research as well) – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I’m way behind. We’ve read another book since that, which I’ll hopefully get out next week, along with some other misc posts. My office is short-staffed at my day job, I’ve resumed production on the Methods of Rationality podcast, I’ve bought a townhome that requires major renovations, and basically I’m out of time-slack. I’m finally chiseling some out on my lunch breaks (which I can take again!), so hopefully there’ll start to be content around this place again soon. ^^

Feb 132018
 

John Dies At The End, by David Wong

Synopsis: Two small-town slackers trip into combating universe-devouring elder beings, with plenty of jaded humor along the way. Kinda a cross between Clerks and Buffy.

Book Review: An odd duck, in that this was originally a web-serial rather than a novel, much like Wool and The Martian. As such, it doesn’t really feel like a cohesive whole. It’s not a single grand arc, inasmuch as it’s a series of related short stories that follow the same characters. This causes it to sag in a few places, but the strength of the individual stories is strong enough to overcome this artifact of its production.

I really liked this novel, and that might be because it’s aimed squarely at my generation. It’s a horror novel that points out the horror of our existence in a universe that is ultimately and inalienably built upon the application of violence. It made me viscerally feel why a greater being would want to destroy this reality, filled with suffering and predation and horrible tiny things tearing at each other for their entire existence. In real life I basically ignore my non-veganism as much as possible, but Wong reminded me how disgusted it would make something better than us when it sees humans digesting the flesh of other sentients.

The novel reacts to this awful state of affairs the way many of us have been for a while now–absurdist acceptance. Because we have no other choice. We embrace jaded humor, acknowledge this sucks, and get on with things anyway. Wubbalubba dub dub. It’s not the soaring transhuman defiance I prefer, nor even the rage-filled lashing out against the unacceptable that also excites me, but it’s not an uncommon reaction. Many readers will probably know David Wong from his stint at Cracked, where he wrote (among other things) one of the first the highly insightful explanation of what Trump provides to the half of the electorate that voted for him. This novel gives the reader a strong emotional taste of what living in Desolate America feels like. The small-town poverty. The grinding hopelessness. The fact that no one cares. What else can you do in the face of that? What difference does an extra World-Eating Horror or two make? It’s a novel of despair, and enduring through it is the only victory you get, even if it’s a shitty one.

It’s also well-written, really neat in several places, and makes you think in several others. Near the end it really threw a wrench in my view of my own sub-culture, in a way that I didn’t expect. It did it in a way that only good speculative fiction can do, by reframing everything you know in an alien context. And it was enjoyable to read throughout, even with some terminology that dates it (and makes me wonder what term we use casually now will become a slur in ten years? “Insane”, maybe?) Recommended!

Book Club Review: A good book for discussion. The social commentary is more buried than I like it, with most of the focus on action and humor, so you gotta dig for the morsels. But that also makes it more readable for people less like me. :) But they are still there. And the overall theme of the novel can get you talking about culture in small-town America, which is interesting, especially if some members of your book club hail from there. You get to learn several new things. Also opinions tended to be a bit scattered, with some people liking this significantly less than others, which leads to multiple views being explored. The biggest drawback is the occasional sagging sections I mentioned above, which can lose some readers. But overall, this went over well. Recommended.

Jan 252018
 

This is still not a proper review like I usually do, because I couldn’t make it to our book club meeting again. A close friend got in a car accident not an hour before book club was to start, and I rushed over to help them and get them to the hospital and all that. They are fine physically, although the financial blow is going to suck. :/ And of course I didn’t get to discuss all the beauty and wonder that is Borne with my homies!

But here’s a few quick things anyway.

Synopsis – in a post-apocalyptic world were humanity is slowly dying out, our protagonist finds a new form of life (“Borne”) that she raises from infancy into adulthood.

Review – Gorgeous. Just fantastic. First, Borne is a Data-type character (overly literal and doesn’t understand how humans work. See also Spock, Anya (from Buffy), Castiel (from Supernatural), etc. I love these sorts of characters, and so this had my heart very quickly.

Secondly, the whole novel was so beautifully written that it was almost a book of poetry. This is what master-class word-smithing looks like. Polished, precise, perfect. And the emotion throughout was heart-breaking. As the humans died out and saw themselves being replaced by the things that come next, the ones that are suited for this world, the bug-eye children and bears and foxes and Bornes… it felt like a story of the old generation dying, and seeing the new generation coming up to take their place. An old woman passing the torch to her young granddaughter. Whose values she can barely recognize as her own. But what can you do? The world isn’t for you anymore. Sooooo pretty.

As usual, VanderMeer doesn’t quite hit the ending. Most (all?) of his novels don’t end in so much as they peter out and kinda grind to a halt. This was no exception. Still, totally worth it. Recommended.

Notes from others – I did briefly chat with a couple members from my book club later on. Not a full-fledged meeting, but there was an interesting counterpoint brought up: The world doesn’t make sense. There was no world-building done, and it shows. To quote:

“We’re told they’re mostly scavengers, but what are they looking for? Nobody hunts or finds canned goods or grows anything; what do they eat? …VanderMeer never even tries to convince me anyone would ever have thought it was a good idea to create a giant man-eating flying bear and a zillion regular-sized poisonous bears, he just wants to have them roaming about.”

etc.

This is all true, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I think there’s a couple reasons why.

First, I’ve come to expect it from VanderMeer. All his novels are equally incoherent, just with various levels of hand-waving, which has gotten progressively thinner. He basically eschewed the handwaving entirely for his latest, and he led me down the path to accepting this via reading his works in published order. Oops. Also, by starting right off with something as ridiculous as a giant, flying bear, and simply having us accept it or not, he smashed through the “this is supposed to make sense” barrier right at the front. So afterwards I was willing to go with basically whatever.

Secondly, this is one of those lyrical works that doesn’t try to build a coherent or realistic world, it just tries to evoke a particular sentiment in the reader. Many of Cat Valente’s works do the same thing, and I love those just as much. Heck, I even enjoyed the most recent Star Wars, and that has so much buffoonery that you have to actively repress your brain in order to not sprain something. I appreciate works that do put in the work of making a coherent universe much more. Perdido Street Station is in my Top 5 books, and Borne is not, and this is part of why. But I guess I don’t always require it to still enjoy the story. You can get away with a lot, for me, by being pretty.

But this may not appeal to rationalists due to the non-care for world building, so use your best judgement there. :)

I can’t give it a book club yay/nay, as I wasn’t there and don’t know how conversation went.

 

Dec 302017
 

I actually had some time to read a few books outside of book club in the past couple months. So here’s a quick review of each. They aren’t the full reviews I normally do, because it just doesn’t feel the same without the book club chiming in. Plus, I don’t know if they’d turn out to be good/bad book club books (I’ve been surprised before, in both directions. Heck, see The Emperor’s Blades most recently for one such example). But here’s a few thoughts!

Europe In Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

It’s been a really long time since I read ugly prose. So long, in fact, that I forgot what it was like. Then I picked up Europe In Autumn. Regardless of it’s other strengths of flaws, the prose in this really is just plain ugly. I don’t need everything to be Cat Valente-style gorgeous, but man, put in some effort to make the words not gross! Everything sentence is flat and just flops there. Descriptions are more often lists of things/characteristics than anything that evokes a visual or an emotion. Maybe it makes me shallow to be turned off by ugly prose, but… ugh.

Also, I couldn’t give two shits about the character or the plot. At first it was neat to see things in my native Polish, and the novelty of that carried me for a while. But by the time we get to the third boring description of a smuggling/infiltration going wrong we still have no reason to care about whether it goes wrong or not. There’s no stakes for the protagonist, it seems like he fell into this line of work because he was bored with his old job, but finds this one just as dreary. If he fails, what does he lose? What does he gain? Are there any consequences for anyone? For the world? Even if there were, do we care? The answer to all of these is “no.” Or it was for me, anyway.

I guess there’s some sort of alternate reality/hidden world thing going on once you get 3/4ths of the way through the book, but I barely made it 25% of the way through. I have no faith that it would be interesting enough to slog through this. Not Recommended.

The Causal Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The final novel in the Quantum Thief trilogy, and a fantastic finish!

I’ve raved about the previous two books in the trilogy, and Causal Angel doesn’t disappoint. The books just keep getting more and more epic, with Quantum Thief being somewhat local, mostly confined to one city, Fractal Prince expanding to cover the fate of the inner system, and Causal Angel tackling the ultimate fate of humanity and the observable universe.

Things keep getting more bombastic too, with ever-larger things exploding ever more frequently, more harrowing escapes, and more personal sacrifices in every book. By the time I was in the last quarter of the book I couldn’t stop reading, and stayed up waaaaay too late.

Also, I know I mentioned this before, but Rajaniemi is our people. The books are transhuman from the very beginning, fully embracing emulated minds and their consequences from page 1, and reference many well-known shibboleths and thought-experiments in the rationalist-sphere. But it’s really hammered home in the third book, where not only does Coherent Extrapolate Volition enter the plot, but much of the conflict (and problem-solving) revolves around the technologically-mediated CEVs of disparate groups competing against or reinforcing each other to drive toward the final conflict/resolution. It’s awesome.

Of course the writing is dense and sometimes I had to go back and reread a page (or two or three) to grasp what was being put down. I don’t think that’s too big a strike against the book, sometimes it’s good to be challenged. :) And it didn’t happen often.

I fully expected to love this, based on the previous two books, and I’m really glad I wasn’t disappointed. Highly Recommended.

Dec 192017
 

The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley

Synopsis: A triple-Chosen One narrative about an assassinated Emperor’s three far-flung children reuniting to save the empire and avenge their father’s death.

Book Review: You know how everyone has a friend that’s writing a fantasy novel that’s just kinda there, but doesn’t do anything? It has characters, they do things, events happen, but ultimately you’re not sure what the point is? This book is that sort of story taken to the absolutely highest limit of quality.

Which is to say, it’s basic as fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know from the very beginning pretty much what’ll happen, and more or less how every scene will end, and what the ultimate character arcs will be.

Which isn’t a necessarily a bad thing. This felt very much like comfort reading to me. It was like rewatching an old favorite episode, and at any time that I was reading it I really enjoyed it. Good times! But whenever I had put it down, I had no desire to pick it up again. There’s just… nothing there to interest me in re-opening it. I did a few times, because it is a book club book, but eventually I stopped. If I had infinite time I’d enjoying finishing this, and the whole series, but I don’t.

At Burning Man, there are a lot of sound camps that play non-stop House. It’s basic as fuck. Straight-up Boots-And-Pants for hours. There’s a place for this, because it’s very easy to dance to. You don’t have to stretch yourself, you can just fall into a groove of movement around energetic people and enjoy sensations.

But you’ll never be challenged by it.

Emperor’s Blades is similar. It’s what you expect, and it’s pleasant. And as I said, it really is among the best possible executions of this type of novel. It does exactly what it wants to do extremely well. The writing is good, the characterization works well, and so forth. It’s just what it wants to do isn’t something I have interest in. Its aspirations aren’t high, and it doesn’t have anything to say, as far as I can tell.

There’s definitely a lot of people who’d like this sort of thing. But for myself – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: We had a super-high turn-out for this, and everyone had strong opinions that they were excited to share. And importantly – they were all over the place! There were people who thought this was trashy but lovable. Those who thought it was well-written and compelling. Those who thought it was bad writing of someone’s D&D campaign. Everyone agreed the giant eagles were awesome. Everyone had some sort of analogy to describe the book.

Since our book club is a Science Fiction And Fantasy book club, some of our readers come for a background that heavily favors one or the other. Those who have not read much Fantasy actually enjoyed this quite a bit, because it was fairly new to them. Only one person really hated it, and everyone else agreed it was easy to read for however long they read it.

Before I went into to the book club meeting, I fully expected to give a ‘not recommended’ rating. There’s nothing being said in here, so what is there to talk about?

Turns out, our reaction to a paragon example of a novel-type that we have differing feelings about. It was an intensely interesting discussion, and quite energetic! You don’t even have to read all that much of it, if you don’t want to. So, surprisingly – Recommended!