Tag: Book Review

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: Cibola Burn

Book Review: Cibola Burn

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Book four in The Expanse series, and the one I’ve enjoyed the least so far. I did still enjoy it, but not as much.

This is a different kind of book than we’ve gotten in the series so far, smaller in scope in a lot of ways, but set up for a lot of character development that isn’t realized as well as I would like. For a book that was so focused around Holden and Amos, I should have gotten to know them a lot better, but Amos was totally in a supporting role, and Holden is seen too much through other people’s eyes, mostly a woman who thinks she’s in love with him for a big chunk of the book (she isn’t, but she thinks she is.)

It’s also a book that can’t quite decide what kind of book it is. Science Fiction, certainly, but beyond that? It’s at times an exploration and settlement story, a “natural” disaster, an action adventure, a survival story, a posthuman experience, a rescue, and even a political thriller for a few moments here and there.

On that last, how the UN figures that it has any jurisdiction in another star system is completely beyond me. The characters in the book all seem to buy it, so I have to, but it seems ridiculous on the face of things to me.

The minor characters with their own POV scenes mostly came through better than those I consider the primaries, though none as well as Miller’s former partner, Havelok who shows the most growth of personality and the most change of any character in the book. It helps that I like the directions he grew in, especially considering his starting point.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars, which I’ll likely round up on Goodreads, mostly due to the strength of previous books in the series. This is a bridge book, with a smaller, far more localized scale than previous stories in the series. It hints at larger events to come in the next book, but gets a bit lost in pseudo-natural disasters, blind obedience, and death slugs.

The idea of cloud-dwelling bacteria colonizing our eyes is kind of neat, though.

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Book Review: Proxima

Book Review: Proxima

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So there were things I really liked and things I really hated about this book.

The science works well, from the physical construction of the new world around Proxima Centauri (Per Ardua, named for the RAF motto Per Ardua Ad Astra, through adversity to the stars), is a well-visualized and well thought out world with an interesting population of alien creatures. Back in the solar system, things work just as well, with a good mixture of extrapolated technology and technology indistinguishable from magic that makes hard SF set a couple of centuries in the future work.

And I like several of the characters, two of my favourites (for completely different reasons) being artificial beings. I’d like to know more about Yuri’s past than we eventually get, but the gradual reveal of important bits works for the story.

On the other side of things, and these will take longer, are the things I don’t like.

The story has too many jumps in time, making big gaps in the narrative. This looks like an attempt to skip a lot of supposedly boring bits where nothing really happens to the characters but life. Not a new idea, and it’s been used well in the past, but it doesn’t work for me for some reason.

I find the idea of colonizing another world (in another solar system) the same way the British colonized Australia in the 18th century, with criminals and forced transportees, completely unrealistic. There would be no shortage of volunteers, regardless of the ease of finding people you don’t want to keep around anyway.

The sexual/gender dynamics in the book are disturbing, at least, though that may be at least partially a natural outgrowth of the manner of people the author mostly populated the story with. Misogynistic doesn’t seem to be too strong a word here, though. Women are more or less property, and the violence, abuse and rape allowed to happen indiscriminately on the transport ship under the eyes of the guards and crew is extremely disappointing from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t get any better when the colonists are dropped on the planet.

On the political side of things, we have an escalated version of the Cold War, only with bigger technology and worse potential outcomes. No worry of Mutually Assured Destruction here, though there should have been, and how the destruction comes about is something that everyone involved in the planning should have foreseen. I hate it when a plot hinges on smart people doing stupid things.

Overall rating: not quite 3 stars, but definitely more than 2½. Proxima cliffhangers very well, but I’m not sure I’m keen on where it seems to be leading. No spoilers from me, but looks like it’s going to be a ridiculously overused trope. It was billed as the first book in a trilogy

Part of the problem of this being an incomplete story on its own is the primary storylines being only vaguely related, stretching the definition of vaguely a bit. There are only a couple of points of contact. I’m going to assume things come together more in the second book. Or maybe the third to wrap things up.

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Book Review: A Daughter of No Nation

Book Review: A Daughter of No Nation

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So considering what happened when I read the novel preceding last year’s Aurora Winner, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I didn’t read the book that comes before this one in the series, but I didn’t actually plan it that way, or even think about it. While it’s obvious within a few pages that this is a sequel, you probably don’t need the first book to enjoy this one. It may help with a few little things, but A Daughter of No Nation is fairly self-contained.

Fairly.

There’s an alternate/parallel/future world that may or may not be Earth. People live there. It’s 90% or so ocean. They call it Stormwrack. Sophie’s real parents are from there. She got to travel there and hang out with her half-sister and aunt for a while, having a few adventures. This is easy to figure out from the narrative, and early.

But there’s political and legal fallout from her first visit, actually, from her very existence. Mix this with a mystery and then a conspiracy and a little bit of exploring the world, and you’re holding A Daughter of No Nation.

Sophie tends to be a little on the melodramatic side as well as feeling, by virtue of coming from a technological world, that she knows better than the savages around her. This belief seems to persist no matter how many times, in how many ways, she’s smacked in the face of it.

Enjoyment of the book comes less from Sophie than from the characters around her and the worldbuilding that’s clearly gone into Stormwrack. There’s a whole society here, a collection of societies, and we get tiny pieces of a number of them, personified in other characters. Stormwrack is a big world and this story only just starts to scratch the surface. There are a still a lot of unanswered questions about a lot of things. In fact, most of the questions about the world and its people we started the book with remain unanswered, almost everything beyond the immediate mysteries and conspiracy, plus a few more raised in the course of the story.

Whether fully intended, this has been set up to be a potentially long series.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars, which I’ll probably round up to 3. A lot of things can make a book live or die, but if I don’t enjoy my time with the primary protagonist, I’m probably not going to read further, so I’m fairly unlikely to read the first book in this series or the next.

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Book Review: Age of Myth

Book Review: Age of Myth

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I was a bit worried going in. I quite enjoyed the Ririya Revelations and was worried that Mr. Sullivan is pigeon-holing himself into only writing in a single world with this third series. My other concern was that I was getting another primitive barbarian story with the old “elves are gods” trope as a central facet.

The second piece of that is accurate, although the author takes steps to break down that barrier throughout the book. Whether the author has pigeon-holed himself into a single world remains to be seen, but it’s happened before.

First, the issues I had.

The first third or so of the book is slow, as in pacing. Things don’t happen very quickly and there’s a lot of setup going on. Mr. Sullivan is laying great groundwork for things that are coming later in the story (and probably later in the series), but it’s at the expense of things happening that advance the current story very quickly.

Overall, the plot is a little on the obvious side, very linear and straight forward. There are tense moments and scares, but nothing really twisty.

The elven sorcerers have way too much power. They can literally rearrange the landscape to suit their needs at any given time. The main bad guy, one of those sorcerers and on the verge of considering himself a god, is so clearly the bad guy and so obviously over the top, but no one else seems to even notice, or realize that he doesn’t have the best interest of elven society at heart.

There are some subverted expectations, and good ones. The mystic is a teenage girl, the barbarian hero has got it bad for the chieftan’s widow (I’m not sure if this is an oedipal thing or cougar hunting, but I’m sure more will develop later), and the elves aren’t quite so monolithic a culture as they first appear – plenty of fractures developing while we watch.

And the characters do grow on you, especially Raithe (the barbarian who set everything in motion by killing an elf), and Persephone (the widow), though for completely different reasons.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars. Fun, but I don’t know if I need the next book or not at this point. The basic story is taken care of in this volume, and it’s a happy-ish and satisfying ending for the survivors, while offering reminders that there are still major events to come.

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Book Review: Raising Steam

Book Review: Raising Steam

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Terry Pratchett left us in early 2015. I’ve been saving the last two Discworld novels for a while, savouring the melancholy knowledge that there would never be any new ones. I was delighted to realize recently that I’ve somehow missed one. Saving that one for another day, I finally allowed myself to read the last Moist von Lipwig novel, in which a number of other favourite characters made brief appearances as well. It does take place partially in Anhk-Morpork, after all.

Let me state outright that I very much enjoyed the book. Most of that is to do with the book itself, with a little nostalgia mixed in along with the realization that I’ve never met a Discworld book I didn’t like. So if I offer up a couple of criticisms, which I’m about to, that should be remembered.

First, recognizing that it was necessary to the story, the development of the railroad was a little quick for me, going from the first experimental engine to a track running all the way to Uberwald in a year or so. Or was it less? With all of the other events in the novel, some of which went by very quickly, the building of the railroad itself is almost lost.

There’s an assumption of familiarity with the major characters that isn’t usually present. You don’t usually need a lot of time to establish personalities and objectives for the majors, but you mostly don’t get that time in Raising Steam and we plunge straight in after the establishing shot of “now it’s time for the age of steam”.

And not all of the important characters are as crisp and clean as I’m used to in the Discworld. In particular, Moist and the Patrician. Moist von Lipwig is almost too rushed, too frantic, and it shows even in his internal dialogue, flying though one thing too quickly to get to the next for much of the book. And Lord Vetinari is, well, a bit fuzzy. His wit and personality don’t quite have the edge I’m used to.

At the same time, the plot is a little on the light side, sometimes seeming like a group of barely-connected scenes held together by force of will as Sir Terry tried to get everything he wanted to say in this last mature-audiences Discworld book to be published. And there’s a lot here: technology, change, religion, terrorism, and maturing societies.

All of those are strong through the book. Mr. Pratchett lampoons terrorists throughout as misguided idiots at best and criminally self-serving at worst. In part, they’re the representation of the resistance of change, of all of the people in the modern world digging their heels in over technology, religion, social attitudes, or anything else that might make it better for someone else even if it has no effect on the luddite in question at all. In many ways, the conservative elements in Dwarfish society stand in very well for similar elements in current western societies, just with the added bonus of having a terrorist wing.

Raising Steam also spends quite a bit of time building on Sir Terry’s long running themes of equality and inclusion, which I very much appreciate. Over the course of the series, more and more different species have been integrated into the great melting pot of Ankh-Morpork with ripples spreading out from there. The latest inclusion is the goblins, perhaps the most downtrodden of the Discworld’s sentients. But there are strong emphases on gender equality as well, with a major revelation and shift in Dwarfish society, up to its highest levels. In a similar theme, the interactions between Moist and his wife Adora were some of the most entertaining bits of the book, and I wish we’d seen more of her in the narrative.

Overall rating: 4 stars, and that’s a touch of round up. Aside from the previously mentioned issues, one of the major crises in the plot was solved with a little handwavium and something that there wasn’t actually any ground work laid for. But this is Discworld, and it’s Discworld pushing its way into the modern age, showing us fun and humour and ourselves along the way.

And if the other major characters in the City Watch were present and accounted for, where was Captain Carrot?

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