Category: Reading

No More Book Reviews

No More Book Reviews

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Stacks of books

At least not here. Well, not one at a time.

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the book reviews I’m posting here are more or less just taking up space. If you really want to know what I’m reading or have just read, you can hit me up on Goodreads, or even just wait until the beginning of the year.

Why then, you ask?

Well, I keep all of my book reviews in a single file for easy access, and have done that for the last couple of years. I’m going to turn these into a pdf (probably) for each year since I started keeping track and leave them lying around here somewhere for download.

I’m under no illusions such a file will be extremely popular, or even that anyone will necessarily care at all, but for the benefit of future generations, or someone’s amusement, or something, I thought I’d make them available.

But I’m not going to post individual reviews on my blog anymore. This space will be for mostly writing-related activities, though I expect you’ll find a few opinions on things finding their way in, too.

And I suppose, a book review might happen now and again.

Be well, everyone.

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Book Review: The World Inside

Book Review: The World Inside

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This is an odd little book, less a novel and more a series of interlinked shorts designed to present a strange thought-experiment society. This is a kind of social SF you don’t often see anymore, but the presentation is very “New Wave” which Silverberg drifted in and out of. (My favourite book of his, Across a Billion Years, doesn’t really qualify. I also haven’t read it in at least a couple of decades, so that favoritism may be coloured by nostalgia.)

But it is an odd book, crowded with ideas and sex.

Is it about over population?

Sexual freedom?

Privacy?

Post-scarcity?

Control?

Yes, to all of those.

1000-story buildings with 800,000 or a million people in each, built just far enough apart that their shadows don’t fall on each other and ninety-plus percent of the world is given over to farming and resource extraction to make those buildings possible.

People can have sex with whoever they want, however they want, whenever they want. Men are supposed to bang anyone they like and women are supposed to never refuse. You get married at 12 or 13 and have as many kids as your bodies allow.

There is just this side of no privacy and no one seems concerned, because privacy somehow breeds violence. No locked doors and no separate rooms beyond the one that marks where your living quarters start at the corridor. No barriers other than social constructs. But there’s also almost a complete absence of crime, and people guilty of antisocial behaviours are either corrected with some heavy duty drug therapy or tossed down the chute to provide a few extra watts of power to the urbmon (Urban Monad, i.e. giant skyscraper).

All food, resource, and energy problems appear to have been solved, at least for those who live in the urbmons. There are still a few people who actually have to do the work, though, and they have their own culture outside the walls.

Oh, there’s plenty of control, much of it in social constructs (surprise). In a society that’s supposedly progressive, the gender roles are still pretty rigidly defined, there’s a solid class structure with work you do defined by how high up in the building you live, status is critically important, a variety of min-altering drugs are not just easily available, but encouraged, and people aren’t allowed to leave their own urbmon unless they’re told to move to a new one. Oh, and keep having tons of meaningless sex and making babies.

There are a lot of things in this book.

Overall rating: 3 stars. It’s not a single story and the plot doesn’t hold together because there really isn’t one. The author is painting a picture. This is social SF as thought experiment, a presentation of a conceptual society and what it might mean or do to some of the people who live in it.

Remembering that this is historical SF now, published in 1971, I try to look at it through that lens and find that the concepts presented are really intriguing, but it was still written for a time and consumption and set of social attitudes that isn’t now, so some of the characterization is a little… out of date for me.

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Book Review: The Snow Queen

Book Review: The Snow Queen

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The world and universe being constructed here are interesting. We have clones, an immortality drug, a computer accessible directly by humans who possess the correct gene sequences, faster than light travel, and a galactic empire that fell a thousand years ago taking a lot of secrets with it. But we also have planetary monocultures, a variety of societal attitudes that are clearly from the 1970s and a pace that’s a little on the slow side with the various character lines taking too long to come together for me.

The minor characters are actually more fun than the majors. Particularly Tor (and her robot sidekick Pollux) and Jerusha. Actually, Jerusha is almost a major character, and noting her among my likes is going to make the beginning of the next paragraph a bit odd.

Her circumstances as police chief are a bit disappointing. Not so much her character (because she’s well written and strong), but the characters around her. I think, in 1981, it was a much bigger deal that she was a woman trying to manage in a “man’s job”, coming from a culture that’s inherently sexist. Thirty-six years on, this rings a little hollow, at least so far as western culture goes (note that I’m not saying true equality has been achieved, but it looks a lot closer than it did when this book was written, at least in most parts of the developed world).

The story borrows heavily from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, and there’s definitely a fairy tale feel at times, but there are also lots of similarities to Star Wars: parental issues, collapsed former galactic power, “the force”, hero’s journey, clones, societal control.

There’s a nice twist regarding the mers, which I won’t spoil, but the idea seems a little Dune-like for a while, the harvesting of a supposedly native species for something that basically grants immortality to humans (Water of Life = Spice). Like other things in the book, this feels like Ms. Vinge taking something we might already be familiar with and making it her own.

Overall rating: 3 stars, leaning towards 3.5. I did enjoy the book, but it’s tough, sometimes, reading something so modern and yet so not, which a lot of the now-older Hugo and Nebula winners are.

There are times when I want to give certain things a pass because of when a book was written, but I find it harder and harder to do so because I’m not reading it when it was written but with a gap of years or decades when culture and attitudes have changed. To me, in some ways, this book is railing against a sexism that has shifted considerably, and so the idea that a woman can’t be a police chief (for example) raises an eyebrow now, even if it is still going to be a much tougher slog for her than it would be for an equally qualified man. Still a long way to go, if maybe not quite as long as in 1981. And yet, I recognize that my view is probably narrower than I perceive it to be of how the world really is.

The Snow Queen is a well told, if a little slow-paced, story, but I’m at a point where I have to look at it through an historical lens.

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Book Review: Seveneves

Book Review: Seveneves

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Seveneves is actually two stories.

The first is a sort of end of the world, death by raining moon fragments and saving of the human race by going into space kind of tale. Saving is relative, and by dint of a technology not quite indistinguishable from magic.

The second picks up 5000 years later, when the human race has recovered, and very nearly speciated in several directions.

It’s the second one I really wanted, the exploration of the cultures that resulted from such a difficult beginning. Unfortunately, that was the shorter of the two stories, and a little drier.

Not that the first story was bad, but I would have enjoyed a lot more expansion of the second. Never mind that this was already a 900-page book. I would have been okay with splitting the second story out into a novel of its own.

The first story is a classic pattern of success and setback, rinse and repeat, with victory barely snatched from the jaws of defeat each time, right up until the last “victory”, and that victory is tenuous in the moment. It’s not in the long term, as we move into the second story, but it sure doesn’t feel like a victory at the time. It’s hard to see how the species can possibly recover from such a winnowing down, but we only get the basic intention of how that’s going to happen, not the how itself.

The second story is a little more politically oriented, but the action and the plot are both still there and both still working. After 5000 years of change and growth and history and culture, we still come up with a bit of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. As long as there are people, there will be politics and conflict.

There’s a lot of infodump through the course of the book. Granted there’s a lot of science present, much of it speculative or extrapolative, and needing a lot of explanation. But sometimes, it’s too much. Especially when we’re talking orbital mechanics.

Most stories live or die with their characters, no matter how good the ideas or science might be, and Seveneves has a lot of them to choose from, some I loved, a couple I loved to hate, and a lot of whom just seemed to be there to serve the plot without getting a lot of detail of their own. The ones who got the detail, got a lot of it which was nice, and sometimes came through the eyes of other characters.

The cast is fairly inclusive but mostly on a geek scale, especially in the first half, and in both stories, there are a lot of people who work like hell to be good at their jobs in the ordinary course of events and then work even harder when everything is on the line.

There’s a lot of good balance here, gender-wise, and even some hints beyond just straight binary sexuality, but it never got in the way of the story and Mr. Stephenson was careful to make sure the characters he wanted us to care about were fleshed out. Most of these were women, as one might guess from the title.

Text density sometimes (often) slowed down the action. I know this is one of the things Mr. Stephenson is known for, but a paragraph that goes on for a page or more doesn’t always make me want to press through to the end of the chapter before I have to go do something else or turn out the light.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I enjoyed the book, though, like I said, wish I’d gotten more of the second story than I did. Based on where the first story ended, there was so much that could have been explored both culturally and politically and most of it was barely touched on in the course of the narrative. New things were coming to us almost to the very end of the tale.

If Mr. Stephenson ever returns to this setting, I hope it’s to the later time frame for a deeper look at the cultures that grew up after the hard rain, or maybe to some point critical in that growth.

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Book Review: Existence

Book Review: Existence

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I haven’t read much by David Brin in the past decade or so, which is weird. In my 20s, I loved the Uplift books and pretty much everything else of his I could get my hands on, at least until Earth which I needed two attempts to get through, but did enjoy the second.

Existence is a different kind of book than the Uplift novels, or really anything else I’ve read of his. The idea of Uplift was mentioned in the book, so maybe it could be counted as an alternate future history to his previous work, but the notion of Uplift wasn’t pursued in this reality beyond initial stages. Still, the results of those initial stages helped things work out pretty well for one of the characters.

Fundamentally, this is a theoretical answer to the Fermi Paradox seen through a particular science fictional lens. It’s a minor spoiler to use the phrase “interstellar chain letter”, but how we arrive at that and where the story takes us from there are both fun in the reading.

The inclusion of spectrum characters was cool, though felt a little incomplete to me. Granted that these were mostly extreme examples to draw attention to differences, I think Mr. Brin was effective in showing that the neurotypical way of looking at objective reality is not always the only way.

On the subject of inclusion, it was also nice to see that not just western characters and countries affected by the events in the story. How well those other nationalities were drawn is a question that’s hard to answer, but every character came across as distinct and believable to me. Your mileage may vary, particularly based on personal experience.

Still on the subject of inclusion, I don’t think there were as many female characters as I might have liked, but still more than I may be used to in similar higher concept SF.

And there are other themes present than just the Fermi Paradox, notably a taste of one flavor of what transhumanism might look like, at least in this version of the future, and the idea that technology conquers all.

For the first of these, it’s always interesting to me to see what other people thing the future of human evolution might hold. For the second, the answer to the problems created by misusing one set of technologies isn’t always be answered by another set, though it can be. Sometimes, learning how to use (or not misuse) what you’ve got might be a better initial solution.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I’d like to go four, because I really enjoyed big parts of the book, but I also feel like there are big chunks of story missing, huge jumps in time where interesting stuff must have happened but got glossed over or written off in a sentence or two.

And there are older stories and essays used as building blocks here, which may explain certain things not being followed up on as much as I’d have liked and characters whose stories ended without quite giving me the satisfaction of a completed story with them.

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Book Review: Sacred Cows

Book Review: Sacred Cows

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“Well into the 21st century, our species continues to participate in beliefs and customs that seem more suited to the Bronze Age than the Information Age,” direct from the blurb.

This is sadly, unfortunately, disturbingly true.

Even worse, there are some terribly frightening things presented in this book on how people, in the name of religion or belief or superstition or luck, treat their fellow creatures, and I don’t just mean human beings.

I knew a number of the things Mr. Andrews presents in this short read already, but probably less than half. There are several (and I won’t spoil it for you) I didn’t that I found absolutely hilarious, and several more I wish I still didn’t know.

That he treated everything in an equally humorous and relaxed tone was a nice bonus. Catholicism stands shoulder to shoulder with Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, and Jediism and Dudeism (in which I’m ordained, by the way, and you can be too if you want). Snake handling, e-meters, fortune telling and faith healing are all present. So is the Satanic Panic.

While you cruise through the book, you get the feeling that it was a struggle to keep the book this short. I’m fairly certain the author could have come up with the humour to triple the length. It would still read well and he would still have only scratched the surface of weirdness. Humans, after all, have the tendency to believe some pretty crazy sh!t if you let them.

Overall rating: 3 stars. Why only three? Well, I went into things expecting a humour book, and that’s mostly what I got. But for every scenario, every religion, every belief, every chuckle at every weird belief in the book, I kept having the thought in the back of my mind: “Wait, there are people who actually believe this?” That realization tempered the humour quite a bit.

I might have appreciated a bibliography, though, or at least a reference list to pursue more detail on some of the stranger things presented.

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Book Review: Time Travel: A History

Book Review: Time Travel: A History

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While I enjoyed the book overall, I finished it with an odd sense of disappointment.

It’s filled with references that are aimed directly at me, everything from The Time Machine to Looper to Star Trek and Doctor Who to classical written SF. He references movies, television, novels, and short stories, the majority of which I’m at least passingly familiar with. Time travel is such a SF standard that you can’t blink at Schrodinger’s Cat without having a paradox fall to one side.

But that’s most of the book.

Much of the rest was how the language of time travel has slowly insinuated itself into our culture as a whole. This was both interesting and cool, but it still comes up short for me.

I wanted, needed, thought I was getting, something more. Where was the comparison of the various presentations of temporal mechanics? Where was the treatise on how the notion of time travel affects us as people and as a society? Where was the ranking of paradoxes and the ways around or through them?

Quite likely, I should have taken the title a little more literally. This was very much a history of Time Travel inside the genre with little forays outside of it.

Overall rating: 3 stars. Like I said above, I liked it, but I wanted to like it a lot more. There’s a lot of stuff missing. I was looking for more philosophy in this book, I think, and more science. What I got was a pleasant tour through a lot of familiar SF pop culture territory, but I could get most of that already by going through my own bookshelves or video library or Netflix.

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Book Review: Gemina (Illuminae Files 2)

Book Review: Gemina (Illuminae Files 2)

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Like the first book in the series, I went for the audio version again, and for the same reason. The epistolary format of the book (most of the storytelling is done in terms of letters, reports, chat session transcriptions, and so on) doesn’t lend itself well to reading for me. Had I looked past the format of the printed book, beautiful as it is, I never would have gotten through this book by reading it. But as a full-cast audio production, it works, and, as it turns out, it works pretty well for me.

This is a good spot to apologize in advance if this review turns out to be full of comparisons to the first book, but there are a lot of easy comparisons to draw. In a lot of ways, it’s the same book.

Gemina has a very similar plot to Illuminae. Teen romance with SF trappings, more details on the corporate war, chased by commandoes in a malfunctioning space station instead of by space ships wanting to blow your malfunctioning ship up, and replace the zombies with mind-sucking, hallucinogenic parasites.

I have the same problems with tech in Gemina as I had with it Illuminae. With only a few exceptions, this is all stuff that might be easily available to military today, or even off the shelf. There’s not a lot here to make me believe it takes place in the 26th century other than the technological wizardry of wormhole travel and computers big enough and powerful enough that we can actually manage true AI.

I have a lot of the same problems with the character presentation. These aren’t teenagers from 550 years or so in the future, but people who would be believable in any high school drama today, albeit each with a certain skill or trait ratcheted up to 11.

Again, the censoring of swear words seems ridiculous to me, a strange double standard of current Western society. Plenty of death and destruction to be found here, some of it detailed and gruesome, but I might be offended if someone drops an f-bomb (see what I did there?) and we can’t risk that. We’re supposed to understand that these documents and records are being presented as evidence in a court room, but since when is evidence censored?

And again, it’s the voice acting that carries things. A straight narration wouldn’t have worked very well for this story, and probably would have left me flat. But the full-cast audio succeeds tremendously, and after I was through being irritated at the redacted swear words, it let me sink into the story a lot more than I would have otherwise.

Hanna is not Kady. Nick is not Ezra. That’s both okay and a good thing. I think they’re both built better as characters than the couple in the first book, and the circumstances bringing them together have to work harder to do so.

I liked that AIDAN was back, if in a limited way. He’s a little reformed now, and doing what he’s told, so long as Kady gives the orders, but still a reflection of the scary AI who killed thousands in the first book. A good use of him near the end to follow the story track with slight twists in two different universes. Tough for even him, noting that it was a bit confusing.

The only real issue I had with the story itself was the use of Pascal’s Wager by the incredibly intelligent, psychopathic AI to convince a human to trust him? Asking, “what if you’re wrong” with religious overtones? Pascal’s Wager is a tiny piece of philosophy so riddled with holes it can’t be taken seriously, but somehow it is here, and somehow it’s the thing that wins the argument to let AIDAN do what needs to be done.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. I enjoyed the story, but couldn’t shake the feeling through the whole thing that the story being told was one I’d already enjoyed. I’m hesitant about the third book. I’m worried we’ll get the same book again next time, just with a different teen couple.

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Book Review: The Red Knight

Book Review: The Red Knight

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So, I know I’m going against the overall grain on this one, but this was only okay.

An alternate medieval Europe with an intrusive “wild” and variants on a lot of different European creatures and fey. Mix in some magic and religion that shows some similarities to what we have and most of whose adherents take seriously (although most of them are curiously dismissive of the almost casual blasphemy and dislike of god of the main protagonist), and you have the foundation of a well-built world.

The writing is mostly solid, with just about the right amount of description for me, but occasionally a bit repetitious. “As he approached the ditch, he tried to figure out how to get over the ditch.” I’m making that one up, and the sentences involved are usually longer, but each time it happens, it’s a little jarring.

I also found that there are too many different POVs. Some of them aren’t even really relevant to the story, at best just adding a bit of extra motivation to another minor character’s not very relevant story. Others are very clearly just setups for future stories and don’t really do anything to affect the main story. And a lot of the scenes are very short before we jump to a new character in a new scene.

A side result is that there wasn’t a lot of time spent trying to make me care about most of those characters. While those of both genders were balanced and well-realized—no cardboard cutouts for anyone we spent time in their heads—I didn’t have enough time with most of them to care about what happened to any of them.

One of the more frequent POV characters is probably a fully-realized stereotype of what an actual arrogant knight was supposed to have been back in the dark ages. You’re supposed to hate him, I think, and I did, but to the extent that it was a near thing, after the first couple of scenes with him, to read his scene rather than skip over it and get back to a POV I didn’t actually detest.

I did like that the bad guys weren’t exactly that. The various species standing in for what have become standard tropes had just as much on-screen realization as the human minor characters. Not just faceless members of the evil horde of darkness, but following the Big Bad for reasons, even if those reasons aren’t necessarily human-understandable ones as far as the characters in the book might be concerned.

Battle scenes are filled with realism and often epic in scope, and the magic system is probably a actually system, though we really don’t see enough of it in this first book to understand the basic rules yet, just that there are basic rules and structures the users have to work in.

The book almost has two climaxes, with the second stretching out quite a bit across a whole lot of different characters, and the denouement drags on for a really, really long time. Its clear purpose is to set up major pieces of background for future books in the series.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars. The pace of the story is slow except when they’re fighting, which is a lot. Too many points of view take too long to come together and some of them never do, at least not in this first book of the series. A quarter of the text of the book could probably disappear without any effect on the main story and I think the book would probably be a lot stronger for it.

We’re about to have the fifth book in print, but it seems unlikely at this point that I’ll continue on to the second.

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The Goodreads Rating Scale And Why I Like It

The Goodreads Rating Scale And Why I Like It

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The Goodreads rating scale puts things from one to five stars. Hover over the stars on a books page, and you’ll be shown simple comments from 5 down to 1:

5 – it was amazing

4 – really liked it

3 – liked it

2 – it was okay

1 – didn’t like it

On the surface of things, this seems a bit limiting, especially when it seems to have four levels of positive feedback and only one level of negative. When writing reviews, I sometimes use half marks in between, but the basic scale works.

To add a bit of detail in the way I look at things:

5 – When is this author’s next book due out, dammit?

4 – I’m very much looking forward to the next book, especially if it’s in a series. I can wait, with varying degrees of patience.

3 – I have no issues recommending this as a decent book, but probably won’t bother with the next book in the series if there is one. Life is too short and there are too many potential books I’ll probably love.

2 – Meh. Not something I’ll recommend to anyone else. Seems unlikely I’ll read another book by the same author unless the concept really grabs me. Not following the series any further.

1 – WTF did I just read? Also, all DNFs get 1 star.

And, like I said, I do sometimes use half marks when writing reviews. Those are for a little grey area in between.

4.5 = Fantastic read. Going looking for other works by the author.

3.5 = good without being great. But then I have to decide which way to round when I click the stars for the actual rating.

2.5 = not really that great overall, but had some cool moments/scenes/characters.

1.5 = Managed to finish the book, but I’m really not happy about it.

So I like the scale, even if I feel the need to split the hairs a little finer sometimes, because it does provide enough breadth of rating, mostly, based on how strongly I’d recommend a book, or how I feel about the writing when I get to the end, and it doesn’t get too complicated.

If 3 stars is the mythical average, because it’s in the middle, then you just need to get used to the idea that 3 stars means a good book to the person who wrote the review. Your mileage may vary.

And it should.

Be well, everyone.

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