Embassytown – China Mieville

June 16, 2011

China Mieville again proves what a clever bastard he is in his Science Fiction novel Embassytown. Mieville has stated an interest in writing a book in every genre and this is his first pure science fiction novel. As is the case with all his novels, Mieville is willing to stretch the reader’s vocabulary and doesn’t mind using Psychology as the Science in Science Fiction.
In this case the book revolves around an idea Philosophers have grappled with which suggests that the structure of a language in some way determines how the people that speak that language perceive the universe. Embassytown is a human outpost on the edge of known space on a planet where the dominant civilization is an almost indescribably complex alien life form whose complex language, spoken simultaneously through two mouths, locks them into a particular conception of reality.
Specially bred and trained human pairs, known as the ambassadors, are the only ones that can communicate with the aliens who, because their language determines their reality, cannot conceive of a solo speaker as capable of sentience. If you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and remember the concept of the Ur-Language, you’ll sort of understand how the Aliens work. Through an accident of sorts it is determined that the brains and reality of these aliens can be rewritten if their language is spoken in a particular way.
As is the case with Mieville’s other work, describing how things fit together gets horrifically complicated very fast and when my son asked me to explain what this book was about I felt like throwing up my hands, finally saying “look, you’ll have to read it when you’re about 15 because it involves some complicated ideas”.
This book doesn’t have an awesome moment of revelation like The City and The City does, but in using the idea that a language structure in some ways influences the structure of our own thoughts, Mieville has crafted an Alien species that is both alien in a unique way, and plausible once you grok the mechanics of what makes them alien.
If you’re looking for a book that will stretch your brain, you should check out Embassytown.


Ken MacLeod – Restoration Game

January 8, 2011

I liked Ken MacLeod’s Restoration Game more than I’ve liked The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions. I felt that both those books never fully came into narrative focus, and the plot was a bit listless. I read Restoration Game right through in two sessions. It’s not as enthralling as my favourite MacLeod “Cosmonaut Keep” (which I felt at the time was so good that it got me into trouble for being distracted on my honeymoon) – but Restoration Game moves at a good pace and never gets bogged down (another trilogy I’ve tried to read recently went full throttle in the first book, but I think I’m needing a winch to get past the first few hundred pages of the second book).

The Restoration Game seems to be primarily about a small fictional former soviet administrative region / country that’s down in the Ossetia region and most of the book takes place during the recent tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Part of the plot involves the setup of an MMO where residents of this region / country can meet and plot one of the “color revolutions” that were going through those near Russian former soviet satellite states at the end of the last decade. The title hints that this game is what the book is about and we get a bit of the “programmers setting up a startup project” theme going (at this point I thought the book was going to be all about this MMO and its part in a revolution).

Except the book really isn’t about this game at all. It turns out that there is something hidden away in a secret mountain pass of this micro-state that the Russians haven’t been able to get their hands on even after more than a century of occupation. The closest they got was an expedition where the only thing recovered was a film camera and that when Stalin and Beria saw the film of the thing they freaked the hell out. If the revolution happens, the Americans might succeed in getting to this thing in a way that the Russians weren’t able to after multiple attempts.

So at this point it sounds like a MacGuffin story. Except that it isn’t and that’s were things get a bit Neal Stephenson at the end of Anathem.

I won’t say anything more than to reiterate that I did read it straight through and it is the first book I’ve finished in a while where I thought “oh well, I should go blog about that”.

Peter F Hamilton: Evolutionary Void

October 4, 2010

The Evolutionary Void is the final book in Hamilton’s “Void Trilogy”, and the fifth book in the “Commonwealth” series that started with Pandora’s Star.

The setup is that an alien intelligence has created a device that allows attuned people to go back and reset history in their own personal timeline. If you don’t like how something turns out, you simply go back and reset the Universe. This device exists near the galaxy’s center and in the trilogy only one person, living on a planet close to the center, has figured out the reset trick. Unfortunately the reset trick requires a staggering amount of energy – so much that each use consumes tens of thousands of star systems each time it is used. When humanity finds out about this place where one can just undo any mistake, a large group of them want to go and live there. The problem being that if resetting one person’s life a few times ends up consuming a decent percentage of the matter in the galaxy, you can imagine what the constant resetting of millions of lives will do.

Like the Reality Dysfunction series, the Void Trilogy is let down by its third act. Whereas the Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained duology was tightly paced, the Evolutionary Void is a little listless and the conclusion ends up a little damp. The solution seems to be to have the characters go up to the device and ask it to “turn itself off”, which is a lot like the end of The Naked God where the protagonist asked a hyper-intelligent entity to flick a button and make everything better. There are a lot of pages to read to get to a point where everything is tidied up neatly by another unknowable superintelligence.

One of the charms of the Commonwealth series, for me, was the idea of no-one using spaceflight as all the worlds in human space were interconnected by permanent wormholes and train lines. No one bothered with FTL starships because it was generally easier to travel by train to everywhere that was settled or open a series of wormholes if you wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t a permanent gateway. In the Void trilogy, everyone hoons about with very fast FTL drives – which makes the series feel more like a “generic sci-fi setting” than the more unique “get on at this station, go through the wormhole, get off, change platforms, ride on another train through a wormhole to get to your destination” setting of the earlier books.

Hamilton is an excellent universe builder, and he didn’t really play to his strengths in the Void trilogy.

If you’ve already started this trilogy, you should slog on to the end. If you are new to Hamilton, read Pandora’s Star / Judas Unchained, stop, and then go back to the Reality Dysfunction and Greg Mandel books.

Charles Stross: Fuller Memorandum

October 3, 2010

Let me start by saying I’ve got all of Charlie Stross’ books and I regularly read his blog. I find him entertaining and interesting. I am looking forward to his next book (Rule 34, sequel to Halting State) and will buy it soon after it has been released.

The Fuller Memorandum is the third in the “Laundry” series. Ostensibly the book follows Bob Howard, a public servant in a British government department tasked with fighting paranormal threats foreign and domestic. The prior two books, The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue had a strong dose of sardonic wit and plenty of geeky in-jokes. They were reasonably well paced, put the characters in believable (or unbelievable) jeopardy, and made me smile at their cleverness.

With that said, this most recent book, “The Fuller Memorandum” feels unfinished. This book lacks the polish of some of his other works and the plotting and pace seem vaguely off. The climax didn’t feel entirely climactic. The geekiness was confined to some commentary about how shiny a new iPhone was. It seems to me that it would have been more in character for the geeks working in The Laundry to be going ga-ga and reprogramming an Android phone (or some other phone with a highly customizable and reprogrammable OS). A book released in mid 2010 with Howard using an iPhone for the first time seemed to strike a wrong note. Howard seems like the sort of guy that would take it all matter of fact by this stage. William Gibson did a far better job in Zero History of reflecting the “SmartPhone Zeitgeist” then Stross did – which is kinda surprising because Stross is probably far geekier than Gibson.

It isn’t about the phone, but the approach to the phone is part of the discordant chime that echoes through the novel. The novel doesn’t have the joy in embracing the lead character’s geekiness that the previous two did. There isn’t as much nerdiness in this book. When you take away Bob Howard’s geekiness, but don’t really replace it with anything else, the character becomes more two dimensional and less interesting. Howard also repeatedly made odd and silly mistakes, something that again seemed out of character given previous behavior. It was the repeatedly part that got me. At one point I was thinking “you are kidding, he only realises that he’s up shit creek after not paying attention again?”

Perhaps my ambivalence about Fuller Memorandum also comes from reading China Mieville’s Kraken at about the same time. Both are published at around the same time and there are some thematic similarities between the two books – both involve a groups of British Civil Servants defeating a paranormal induced apocalypse (though in Mieville’s it is a unit of the Metropolitan police and they aren’t the main characters). Mieville’s is far more literary and he brought off the paranormal apocalypse near-miss in “oughties” London with far more panache.

Back to the Future meets Office Space

February 22, 2010

In this novel Time Travel is commonplace and completely mundane. The author doesn’t spend a lot of time geeking out on how the mechanics work, but it seems as though even though time machines are a regular consumer item, the multiverse structures itself in such a way as not to cause continuum destroying paradoxes. The protagonist is an overworked, underpaid consumer time travel machine mechanic, with time machine repair is something you learn at the local community college / TAFE and a profession run out of a garage rather than a high-tech lab. What I really liked about this book is that the plot moves quickly and in unpredictable (though not unbelievable) directions. Little about the book is predictable, which was refreshing because I find the plot setup of many novels leads to a somewhat predictable resolution. Even 95% of the way through Time Machines Repaired While You Wait I wasn’t sure how plot threads would get get tied up. By the end of the book, most plot threads are tied off. Enough is left dangling for the author to bring the hero back in future novels, but the book stands on its merits rather than requiring you to wait for the next installment. If you like the idea of a time travel story mixed with the real life soul destroying reality of KPIs and first level customer support (where the customers can’t find the “any” key on their flux capacitor), you’ll love Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait.

Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals

October 14, 2009

The first person I ever emailed was Terry Pratchett (which subsequently meant that the first email I ever received was from Terry Pratchett). This was back in the dark pre-web internet days when most people didn’t know what a Terry Pratchett was, his email address was reasonably public and you’d get a long detailed answer to any questions you had within a couple of hours depending on the time zone. Over the next decade I got to do cool stuff like go to dinners in small Lygon St restaurants with Terry Pratchett. Then Terry Pratchett became kinda famous and lots and lots of fans in Melbourne wanted to have small group dinners with him which sort of meant that no one could do that anymore.

I miss that Internet.

Anyway – Terry was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. One of the effects of this was that it seriously degraded his ability to type. Unseen Academicals, the latest Discworld Novel, was mostly typed by Terry’s assistant Rob rather than by Terry himself with Terry dictating.

This is sort of evident at the start of the book where the prose doesn’t entirely taste like Pratchett. What I mean by that is that some authors, especially really good ones that you’ve been reading for a couple of decades, have a way of putting together words that transcends just style, but are identifiable in less easily describable ways. The closest that I can get is to say that Pratchett’s writing has a certain texture, taste, smell and color that I’m very familiar with. So while the Pratchett of Strata/Dark Side of the Sun/Color of Magic is quite a different writer to the Pratchett of Small Gods and Nation, there is a continuity of texture, taste, smell and color to the works that belie their common authorship.

This change in the way that the book was created means that the very start of Unseen Academicals reads a little like someone doing an imitation of Pratchett while getting it subtly wrong in hard to identify ways.

Adjust he does though – and within about 50 pages the familiar color, taste, texture and smell are back. That or I’d made the adjustment to the new prose. Unseen Academicals isn’t as deftly written as some of the more recent Discworld novels.

Where Academicals shines is the relationship between Ridcully and Vetinari. These two haven’t really gone toe to toe before and their scenes together are worth the price of admission.
The minor characters enjoy some echoes of what we’ve seen before. Glenda has a touch of the Agnes Nitt about her and she most likely would have ended up a witch if she’d grown up in Lancre rather than suburban Ankh-Morpork. There are similar echoes back to the golem Dorfl and Lobsang Ludd from Thief of Time in the character Nutt. There are many strong Pratchettian themes throughout Unseen Academicals. Pratchett is also more willing than in previous novels to allow a large number of previously significant characters like Vimes, Rincewind, The Luggage and The Librarian to have background non-speaking roles.

I was a bit concerned that there was an element of “the cast taking a bow” in this book given Pratchett’s ongoing medical condition as there were few favourites that didn’t turn up (though I guess Carrot, Nobby and Colon weren’t directly in any “shots” though Nobby sort of was). If Granny Weatherwax had turned up there would have been no doubt that this was what was going on.

Unseen Academicals is tangentially about Soccer. I like all the Discworld Novels. I don’t like this one as much as I like Small Gods but like it more than I like Soul Music and Maskerade.

Gridlinked: The Culture, with Altered Carbon

April 17, 2009

Neal Asher’s Agent Cormac books are what you would get if you mixed Iain Banks Culture novels with Richard K Morgan’s Takashi Kovacs books. The Polity is a Human empire that is run by a series of AIs (they even have really big ships and AI drones). The polity novels I’ve read so far deal with the border (line of polity) between those that are part of the enlightened culture and human settlements on the outside (separatists). So a bit like Special Circumstances in the Banks books. The central character is Agent Ian Cormac, a hard hitting Earth Central Security agent who was for a long time wired into the AI grid (gridlinked) and has lost a bit of his humanity because of it.

I’m in the process of reading the series, having been impressed by the starting novel (I’m reading Line of Polity right now which I’ll review in due course). The violence isn’t as full on as in Richard Morgan’s books, but the main character doesn’t mind busting heads. The universe is reasonably hard SF, which you kinda expect now days with the crop of UK/Irish Sci-Fi writers that seem to be pumping out the best stuff. I won’t go into the plot as it is a little convoluted, but if you’ve found the Culture novels a little dry (though liked the background and idea) you’ll probably get a kick out of Gridlinked. The second novel makes a lot of references back to the first, so it is definitely a series rather than stand alone books with the same characters set in the same universe. There are currently five books in the Agent Cormac series and a couple of others that are set in the “Polity Universe”. I haven’t started on those, but I’ll get to them after I finish what has been published of the Agent Cormac sequence.

Signal to Noise: First Contact with a Twist

April 15, 2009

Signal to Noise is a satirical hard science first contact story. The short of it is that a paranoid hacker genius comes up with a decryption algorithm that when applied to what was thought to be background noise from space actually finds communication traffic. Rather than share this revelation with the world, he sets up his own company and starts trading with aliens for advanced technology. He starts making lots of money. That is when the sharks (both human and alien) start coming out of the woodwork with hostile take over bids and blackmail threats. The moral of the story is that when aliens you meet on the intergalactic internet offer you some really nifty tech in exchange for some “cultural works” like Beatles recordings and Shakespeare, there is probably going to be a big hidden catch.

The style is free flowing. The paranoia is fun rather than oppressive. The protagonist is clearly *way* out of his depth and it is good to see a novel where the human doesn’t get to pull the wool over the eyes of the aliens by coming up with some clever leap of logic. Like I said in a recent Blunty thread – we better hope we don’t run into aliens that are smarter than us. As this novel shows, taking advantage of civilizations that aren’t as clever of yours is like taking candy from a baby.

I haven’t been able to source a copy of the sequel, A Signal Shattered, but would love to read it after enjoying Signal to Noise.

Peter F Hamilton Back Catalog

April 12, 2009

I finally got around to reading a bunch of Peter F Hamilton books that I hadn’t read. I purchased Reality Dysfunction when it came out and have everything in the series (including the handbook and Second Chance at Eden) and also have the TPB of Pandoras Star and Judas Unchained as well as hardbacks of the two released Void books, but hadn’t read any other Hamilton. Partly this was because a work colleague back in 2001 said that the other stuff was a bit rubbish. Anyway, after one of the Cheeseburgers suggested that some of the Hamilton back catalog wasn’t rubbish, I took my Christmas/Birthday gift card and got everything that I didn’t already own.

Fallen Dragon

Of the set, Fallen Dragon reaches the same standard as the Confederation and Commonwealth sagas. I also like the fact that the book starts in a pub in Kuranda and there is a big arse spaceport in Cairns. The blurb on the back is a bit misleading as the main character has no idea what the fallen dragon is (or even that it is called that) until the very end of the book (whereas the blurb makes it sound like he’s heard some legend about a fallen dragon and wants to go look). The book is set a couple of hundred years from now in a galaxy where about 150 planets or so have been settled by starship. Colonization was a corporate rather than government driven affair and turns out to bring no money whatsoever back to Earth, so has pretty much stopped by the time the book starts. Some corporations “buy the debts” of colony companies and essentially go on “asset realization” missions (which are essentially piracy) to the colonies to legally pilfer whatever they can. The main story takes place on a planet that for some reason appears to have a very effective resistance movement. The major character is with the pirates and Hamilton is pretty clever in writing a sympathetic hero who is clearly working for some pretty nasty people. This is a stand alone novel and worth picking up if you haven’t read it.

Mindstar RisingQuantum MurderNano Flower

The Nano-Flower is the next best of the set above, though comes in as the third part of the Greg Mandel trilogy. Mandel is a psionic detective. He has been surgically modified with a “psi” sense that makes him an empath. He also has a bit of precognition. He was in the mindstar brigade, which is basically a bunch of hard hitting military dudes that also have psychic powers – so no soft “Deanna Troi” type empathy here. Each Mandel book stands on its own with only minor references to the previous ones so you could read this one by itself. All books in the trilogy are set in a near future post global warming England which has just thrown off a decade of totalitarian socialist government. Mindstar Rising and A Quantum Murder are reasonably good, though not as un-put-downable as Nano-Flower. The only drawback with Mandel is that he isn’t as well written a character as some of Hamilton’s later ones (which makes sense, the Mandel books are his first three). There are definite hints of future characters (Julia, leader of a hypernational is clearly the template for Ione Saldana in the Confederation books, down to being a really powerful just turned adult teenage girl given the reigns of a powerful organization)

Misspent Youth

The one I wouldn’t recommend is Misspent Youth. Even though it sets up the Commonwealth Universe in terms of rejuvination, this book never really seems to come together all that well. The story revolves around the first person to undergo rejuvination therapy, being altered from having a body in his 70’s to having a body appear in its mid-20’s. The major problem for me was that none of the characters seemed to jell well. The son was perhaps the most understandable, but the main protagonist’s journey was all over the place – mostly into the beds of a whole lot of women who for some reason couldn’t stop jumping him. The plot can be summed up as “old dude gets to be young again and mysteriously turns into Casanova”.  The end is hinted at obliquely throughout the book, but feels more like a non-sequitur. The “what happens after he turns into casanova” isn’t really handled all that well and I put down the book thinking “meh”. Hamilton usually writes a lot of action into his books and this one didn’t have much (unless you count the bonking). So avoid this one unless you are a Hamilton completist.

Evolution’s Shore: Still good, but McDonald before his prime

March 20, 2009

Evolution’s Shore is a different kind of alien invasion story. First of all, most of the story takes place in the urban areas of Kenya and around Mt Kilimanjaro (which is in Tanzania). When I decided on the title of this post, I chose “before his prime” because one of the things that I really like about McDonald’s later work is how immersive it is when it comes to describing a foreign place. This book was written well before Brasyl and River of Gods and at this point (early 1990’s) it seems that McDonald’s “full immersion literary style” hasn’t hit it’s stride. There are certainly hints of it, but because the reader travels through the book looking through the eyes of a young Irish female journalist, they don’t really get the feeling of living on the streets in urban Kenya (the way they get the feeling of living in a future Brazil or India in the other books). The alien invasion takes the form of an infestation called the “Chaga”, a hyper-evolved semi-sentient super-organism that seems to be able to treat DNA like software code, rewriting it as it wants to such a level of sophistication that it can grow working biological replacements for electronic components once it has absorbed an original sample. The infestation’s borders are growing at around 50 feet per day and no matter what is tried, that tide cannot be stopped (there are also similar infestations in Malaysia, Central America and an underwater site in the Indian Ocean). This isn’t a “gung ho kick alien arse” kind of book – but can be thought of as an alien invasion book where the aliens are so alien as to be incomprehensible to us.