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!

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.