A lot of imagination went into this book, but not enough discipline or storytelling craft. For the majority of the book, the author shoves the first-p...moreA lot of imagination went into this book, but not enough discipline or storytelling craft. For the majority of the book, the author shoves the first-person narrator through inexplicable and astonishing events, and then crams their eventual denouement into a few pages via telling instead of showing, when other characters explain to our befuddled protagonist what was happening.
For most folks, that would probably be enough to shove this down to a one- or two-star rating, but I'm more generous. What really irked me about this book was the complete disdain for the laws of physics. Steampunk is, ideally, a subgenre of science fiction, which means it is supposed to show respect for as much of science as is possible within the bounds of the story. Want time travel? Faster than light travel? Or maybe teleporting "transporters"? Sure; but choose what you're going to mangle and keep it to a minimum. Steampunk in general doesn't deal well with this kind of parsimony, and this one is worse than most.
And how can you have a Victorian England steampunk story that appears to be completely missing railroads?!?
This is pretty vintage for steampunk — in fact, the author gets credit for inventing the term, however, since it was published in 1987. I found the couple that was from the future (kind of) quite entertaining, although the explanation of their origins (another of those annoying "tellings") was disappointing.
Recommended only for steampunk completists. Sorry.
(This was the book of the month for the SciFi and Fantasy Reading Group for April 2013. It was discussed here). (less)
I feel like I should give this a one-star review, but also a three-star review. Ergo, the compromise.
One stars for its personal appeal: I found it bor...moreI feel like I should give this a one-star review, but also a three-star review. Ergo, the compromise.
One stars for its personal appeal: I found it boring. Considering I love pop cog in general, I found this a little surprising. On reflection, I realized this book's appeal (except, perhaps, to comedians and professionals in the cog biz) is theoretical. It is unlikely that any disease will be cured if someone nails the theory of funniness, and the only profound change foreseeable in society at large will be when someone creates a humorbot, which appears to be some ways off. I've read plenty of books that only have theoretical applications, but they help me understand social problems that I find important (such as how the cognition of morality heightens partisanship and reduces the likelihood of our civilization solving some pressing problems).
Three stars for those that do find the theory of humor appealing. Even for them, this is a pretty dry book, I think.
For someone who wants to create jokes or humor, there is plenty of material here that will provoke thought as to where to experiment, and why those approaches are likely to work.
Oh, there is some humor interspersed, of course. There are plenty of examples of what the authors are dissecting, and some of them are good.
Here's a sample from the exploration of one-liners: "Dog for sale: Eats anything and is fond of children." If you get bored of the actual content and skim for the jokes, you'll find better and worse.
So here is the joke I transposed and updated from one of theirs:
An engineering team was demonstrating their voice-synthesis software to their executives, and decided to have some fun. So they built a cardboard robot on stage, hiding the computer within, programmed with a series of jokes making fun of management. On the day of the presentation they watched and enjoyed the mixture of discomfort and ironic amusement among the audience when, to their surprise, someone in a back row seat stood up and started complaining. "Managers play an important role in business! Just because engineers and their managers see the world from a different perspective isn't evidence that managers are stupid — I'm sick and tired of being treated like an idiot just because I've taken a job that isn't as hands-on as the people I'm managing".
The engineering team nervously glanced at each other, until the team manager stood up and apologized: "Uhm, we meant this in good fun, and certainly didn't intend any" —
The manager cut him off: "Quiet — shut up! I'm talking to the robot, not you."
This was actually a blonde joke in the book; I thought I would update it to a group that is more a politically correct target for scorn.(less)
And that's a good thing, 'cause this book is a romp and a hoot, just as Jim Butcher's are.
Quick synopsis: Peter Grant is a rookie in the London constabulary when he discovers, after a grisly murder, that he's interviewing a ghost. This leads to a sudden and welcome career change when his skill is discovered by the force's one-man X-Files division.
This isn't his first outing — and he has penned other stuff, including Doctor Who serials, so Aaronvitch writes better than Butcher did at the beginning of the Dresden series. I think the latest Dresden books are better, but that's probably because Butcher has been developing his world and characters for over a dozen books now.
Sure, there are differences, but I can't imagine anyone familiar with both not agreeing that there are vast similarities. For example, there's this perky blonde cop that serves as an unresolved romantic interest and partner in adventuring. Sound familiar? Oh, and magic and high-tech electronics don't mix. Although I've only read the first in the Rivers of London series (two sequels are out, another due next year), the world seems so congruent with Butcher's that I can even imagine a cross-over, which would be a kick.
Definitely a page-turner, too. I wouldn't recommend starting this the evening before an important day. You'd stand a decent chance of suddenly putting down the completed book and realizing it's dawn.
If you like fantasy and don't mind quite a bit of foul language and the like, this might be a great read. Not quite a life-c...moreExcellent rollicking read.
If you like fantasy and don't mind quite a bit of foul language and the like, this might be a great read. Not quite a life-changing, jaw-dropping five stars, however. The author does a magnificent job of world-building, and his characters are vivid and engaging. Considering that this was the author's first novel, this is especially impressive.
The foul language can be a bit jarring at first, but the action takes place almost exclusively within a strata of society where it is pretty much required — think thieves, pimps, and worse. If you're still ambivalent, check out Nataliya's review. She gives it a five-star rating and so much enthusiasm that any further review on my part is superfluous.
(Book of the month for the SciFi and Fantasy Reading Group. Full details here).(less)
I suspect there are several factors that account for his popularity.
First, not too many authors are doing near-term speculative fiction. The geeks amongst us are especially interested in this topic, since technology is a large determinant of what will happen in the coming decades, and they (well, “we” would be more appropriate) are especially intrigued by that interaction.
Second, his role as a high-profile blogger and co-editor at Boing Boing contributes to this. Dedicated fans of science fiction will know of dozens of other authors, but many of Doctorow’s followers probably aren’t interested in the broader field of science fiction — just the stuff that seems most relevant to their lives that Doctorow specializes in.
Finally, he sucks up to his peeps. Geeks are the heroes in these stories. They are often imperfect, and don’t always get what they want, but they are the center-stage protagonists, aggressively tackling big problems and changing the future, while non-geeks either flounder helplessly or are the enemy to be overcome.
For the Win is appropriate for teens and adults. The extensive discussion of finance and economics is complex enough that only a very precious tween is likely to be patient and interested enough.
And, sadly, that same extensive “discussion” is the burden that yanks this book down towards mediocrity. Yeah, Doctorow is famous for his progressive positions on economic freedom and libertarian intellectual property rules (both of which I agree with), but as part of the background of his story, he felt the need to explain financial derivatives, macroeconomic theory, and justification for labor activism. You’ve all heard that rule that a good author should “show, don’t tell”? Well, he spends page after page telling. It doesn’t help that all of that dross is also frenzily explained in the context to MMORPG economics, which might make it too abstract for many readers to translate into their non-fiction quotidian lives, which is presumably Doctorow’s aim. This is too bad, because at least some of that discussion could have been elided. The wikipedia page on Show, Don’t Tell quotes Hemingway:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.
If Doctorow had trusted his readers’ intelligence, he could have kept that info-dumping to a minimum and kept the story moving at a brisker pace.
Once the reader has received sufficient lecturing, things heat up nicely. Most of the latter portions of the book are quite riveting, although a late lesson in macroeconomics does intrude. Doctorow’s characters are vividly portrayed, although perhaps there are one or two more central players than he really needed. As in most of his books, his speculative vision of our future is also hyperbolic enough to strain credulity — that several game economies would soon rank among among the world’s largest real economies might have seem barely plausible when the staggering growth curve of World of Warcraft seemed to keep it in the public eye, but we’re over that now.
This stands a decent chance of remaining a minor classic, and it is a pretty quick read, so it is recommended to anyone interested in speculative portrayals of the next decade or two, or science fiction completists, or anyone who wants to get a sense at why Doctorow is a Big Name in some circles. For everyone else, read Little Brother and continue here if you discover you have a taste for more. (less)
A brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the science...moreA brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the science we deal with to a magical reality, albeit one a number of glaring inconsistencies. The book was written in the early 1980s, long before today's mash-up of terrorist bogeymen and lurking environmental catastrophe — the cultural nightmares of the time centered on nuclear holocaust, instead, and Boyett's magical apocalypse serves a similar purpose.
The plot structure is a very predictable one — quite derivative of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, as well as numerous others. The fantasy and magic are integral, but unfortunately there's just too much nonsense and silliness.
The natural audience for this would be tweens and impressionable preadolescents whose critical faculties haven't yet developed, but the moderate amount of sex might need to be considered.
The author was only twenty-one when this was published, which is pretty amazing. His relative immaturity explains the juvenile exuberance, the simple story, and the somewhat crudely integrated sex. Sadly, it would have been a better book if he'd only received rejection notices, was forced to put the manuscript in the back of a drawer and returned to it a decade later when he wasn't so impressed with himself.
Wow, very close to being a five-star book. Actually, I'm not even quite sure what is holding me back.
Fleshed out characters, mostly showing a great de...moreWow, very close to being a five-star book. Actually, I'm not even quite sure what is holding me back.
Fleshed out characters, mostly showing a great deal of psychological depth, a wondrously convoluted plot... this was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. The winners of those, back in 1988, were Brin's The Uplift War and Murphy's The Falling Woman, respectively. I've never heard of the latter, and although I enjoyed the former, I think Effinger wrote a better book.
In many ways this book is highly reminiscent of China Miéville'sThe City and the City. Both are detective novels set in a depressing city in, broadly speaking, a similar part of the world, although Miéville's locale is Balkan whilst Effinger is somewhere in the near middle-east (or, perhaps central asia?). Both are very cynical, with corrupt and byzantine politics.
I guess that comparison is what keeps me from giving Effinger that fifth star — while this is a very good read, it isn't at quite the pinnacle of creativity that Miéville achieved. Still, very definitely worth reading.
Between the Strokes of Night deals with the long-term experiences of humanity as a space-faring race. Its central contribution — not a spoiler, since...moreBetween the Strokes of Night deals with the long-term experiences of humanity as a space-faring race. Its central contribution — not a spoiler, since the opens with this exploration — is an intriguing twist on time and space travel, specifically that by adapting the human body to different temperatures, subjective experience can be changed to stretch a human lifespan over many centuries or millennia.
As far as traditional “hard” science fiction goes, Charles Sheffield does a pretty good job of nailing it. That is both good and bad, though. In his introduction, Sheffield makes the point that “if the science in the story is wrong or ridiculous, it’s not science fiction” and while “hard science fiction ought to be hard not because it’s hard to read, but because it’s hard to write,” he still believes that “there’s no reason not to try it the hard way.” The problem here is that Sheffield, like many science fiction traditionalists, don’t grant that endeavor to any sciences but the “hard” sciences (a foolishly misleading term, since the physical sciences are far “easier” in many ways than the others).
The opening of the book provides a painful illustration of why this is a weakness. Even though the story was updated in 2002 (just before the author’s death) to accommodate new developments in cosmology, he left in the hackneyed plot device “nuclear armageddon triggered by nations gone ‘mad’.” Several decades of sociological and psychological research have provided convincing evidence that Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD, of course) worked — and continues to work — splendidly because of self-interested rationality.
While Sheffield’s characters are much more fleshed out than the cardboard characters of much science fiction, they still show very little psychological depth. Effectively absent are anything but superficially-portrayed anxieties, for example. The social interactions of his characters are very close to idealized androids who mimic human emotions without actually needing to rely on human relationships for stability. Over and over again, he has characters head off to a fate with little concern that they are leaving behind family, friends, or any semblance thereof.
If you enjoy science fiction that focuses tightly on getting physics correct and you can ignore implausibilities in other sciences, then this is an excellent book. Even if you find the latter troubling, it is still enjoyable, since Sheffield’s automatons mimic humanity fairly well — far better than many science fiction pioneers.
Meh. Within the first two or three dozen pages I was very strongly tempted to put this down and walk away. NPR had just released their listener-select...moreMeh. Within the first two or three dozen pages I was very strongly tempted to put this down and walk away. NPR had just released their listener-selected list of the best 100 of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and there's lots there I haven't read yet. Vinge's The Snow Queen isn't on the list.
What dragged me down at the very beginning was the overly lyrical style, unoriginal plot set-up and banal characters of her young protagonists. But I glanced at some Goodreads reviews, realized it had won the Hugo Award, and decided to give it another chance.
Once more mature characters started showing up, it got better.
But... (view spoiler)[Those two central adolescents were still gratingly clueless. I mean, the guy was passive-aggressive and blamed everyone else for both life's disappointments and his own stupid decisions, and then turns into a very evil thug... and we're still supposed to like him? And Moon just moons over this idiot and screws over the rest of the world and her own life to "rescue" him. Does that ever work in real life? Isn't this supposed to be "fantasy" because of the setting, not because it's plot is centered on a pathetic juvenile love story gone wrong?
Most of the other characters are better. The cop, Jerusha, was more interesting, but at least as frustrating. She was maneuvered into an untenable position by political forces far beyond her control, but her stupid arrogance led her to fight this unwinnable fight, to her own detriment as well as those around her. She recognized the trap, walked into it eyes wide open, but neglected to notice her choice had horrible repercussions on everyone around her. (hide spoiler)]
I find it difficult to imagine that Vinge intended so many of her characters to actually be repugnant. After all, it isn't as if life isn't full of people like this — but a good novelist would show us the more likely tragic outcomes of these poor choices, whereas Vinge portrays any form of bull-headedness as if it is "strength of will" and will end up winning the day.
So in the end, this turned out to be a lousy romance novel, in which stupid people make stupid decisions, which they follow up with stupid determination, and the stupid author grants them their stupid wishes.
Huh, that came out harsher then I expected.
So I need to balance this with a few pluses.
Uh... well, Vinge writes well. Mostly.
I'm now realizing I'm more disappointed in this than I thought. I actually can't point to anything here that recommends this book. Way too much melodrama, even in the setting. I mean, the planet's seasons are disturbed because its solar system has been captured by a black hole? Hunting poor innocent seals because their blood is the fountain of youth?
This was the science fiction selection for the Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club for the month of July 2011. Visit this link to see all of the discussions, group member reviews, etc.
In the “extras” section at the end of the novel, the author answers some questions. She provides a fairly succinct description of the book:
Why, in the
...moreIn the “extras” section at the end of the novel, the author answers some questions. She provides a fairly succinct description of the book:
Why, in the dedication, do you call The Spiritwalker Trilogy a “mash-up”? A mash-up involves taking songs, or video clips, or bits of disparate media from different sources and “mashing” them up together to make a song of video of program or other content that is a new whole based on a bunch of different parts. So when I call Cold Magic an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troödons” (which were a small, intelligent, and agile species of dinosaur), I’m thinking of the novel as a mash-up of disparate elements. Since I happen to really enjoy mash-ups, it made sense for me to try one.
(For all your real mash-up needs, head over to Party Ben!)
The map in the front shows a Europe recognizable in its general outlines, although the continuing ice age results in a lower sea level, thus England, er, Brigantia?, is attached to the continent via a land bridge. Which is where the action takes place, oddly enough. And many of the peoples of Europe are kinda represented, including the remnants of the Roman Empire. But apparently North America is occupied by those intelligent dinosaur descendants, and “salt ghouls” have overrun parts of Africa.
Anyway, this is an alternate-universe/alternate-history fantasy story, with a huge helping of romance novel. Elliott alludes to this with the “Regency novel” bit, but Jane Austen never got quite this melodramatic. So, what makes it a romance novel, you ask? Well, couples that are clearly purr-fect for each other start off hating one another as the result of an epic misunderstanding. And then their pride keeps them apart even though both recognize that they’re stupid with lust for the other. Oh, and everybody is beautiful. Well, everybody that matters, that is. There are some dowdy servants, but they don’t count, do they? Okay, not a bodice-ripper — we’re probably still Rated G, with only hints of PG-13 in the occasional deep longing for the touch of his lips...
But don’t get me wrong! Unless you really dislike the foregoing, then this is a delightful romp. Not life changing, but Elliott might get this made into a Sci-Fi Channel series (although they’d ruin it, of course).
Oh, the other problem: yet another darn series. Some of the story arcs are just a little bit resolved in this first installment, but most are left dangling big-time. Getting kinda tired of this series shtick. Doesn’t anyone known how to write a standalone novel anymore?
In 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massiv...moreIn 1977, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote Lucifer's Hammer, a novel dealing with the collapse of civilization after the Earth is hit by a massive comet.
When it was written, the world’s major anxiety was nuclear weapons: The possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union (with a much smaller role played by China) would annihilate humanity with a massive exchange of explosions and radiation was a pervasive nightmare. Lucifer's Hammer was a clear response to this anxiety. It allowed the authors the chance to explore many of the likely consequences of nuclear war without triggering the enmity of either the “peace-nik” or “warmonger” crowds. Curiously, it wasn’t until several years later that the “nuclear winter” hypothesis made a cometary impact an even more appropriate stand-in for a massive nuclear exchange.
The book also pointed out that “nature” could mete out punishment far in excess of anything humans could inflict on themselves. We’re relative pikers at creating Extinction Level Events.
Flood, by Stephen Baxter, is a well-intentioned effort to replicate this.
Today, climate change is the fear, whose most visible consequence would be rising sea levels. Baxter takes this latter phenomena and extrapolates a runaway “Flood” scenario to make it much, much worse. As with Lucifer's Hammer, each step of the escalating threat is lovingly detailed, and eventually long stretches of time are elided to show the consequences and resolutions of earlier crises. Both books end with elderly survivors watching the youth of a post-apocalyptic generation with hope, despair and affection.
Unfortunately, Baxter didn’t write a very good book.
The book’s strength is, oddly for a “hard” science fiction effort, in the characters. Each is a well crafted and unique personality. Most are personable enough that we care about their fates, sometimes grudgingly, others are distasteful enough that we also care about their fates, although perhaps with animosity. But our affection or disdain won’t last nearly as long as the book — the end simply takes too long to reach. The first half or so moves adequately fast, when the extent of the disaster is still being revealed, but once we are clued in to the world’s ultimate fate... the details of how individuals react are undoubtedly necessary, but not riveting enough to keep things interesting.
For fans of hard science fiction, perhaps the biggest failure of the book is the wholly manufactured crisis. We’ve been told by trustworthy scientists that a major cometary impact is only a matter of time, so Lucifer's Hammer doesn’t take a huge leap of faith. But after billions of years of peacefully waiting in the Earth’s mantle, why would Baxter’s flood decide to bubble up at all, much less now?
For many others, the problem is simply the length of the book — or at least the perceived length. There are many thousand-page books that stay engaging throughout, which is something this five-hundred page novel did not.
My recommendation: If you want the better apocalyptic story, read the thirty-year-old Lucifer's Hammer. If you really want a plausible depiction of how the world might end after this very implausible disaster, then Baxter’s slow novel is serviceable. (less)
Well, not my usual cup o' tea, but a fun and innovative book, nonetheless.
Takes place in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many — perhaps most — o...moreWell, not my usual cup o' tea, but a fun and innovative book, nonetheless.
Takes place in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many — perhaps most — of the characters are real-world historical individuals, but things are happening here that aren't quite in the history books. Is it "alternative history", like Guy Gavriel Kay'sThe Lions of al-Rassan? (Which, otherwise, it shares no similarity with.) Actually, no: it is our history, just... something is interfering.
Definitely and clearly in the steampunk sub-sub-genre. Time-travel is also in there. Anything more would be a spoiler, and I'd recommend especially staying away from spoilers for this book, since unraveling the mystery is one of the delights of the narrative.
This is apparently a debut novel. This Hodder guy certainly has a wild imagination. As I was getting to the end I was thinking, "Hmmmm, this has indications of a sequel set-up...", and I note that book two of the "Burton & Swinburne" series has been announced for publication later this year.
Despite the four-star review, I think it likely I'll never get to the sequel. I'm sure I'd enjoy it, but there are just too many books waiting to be read.
Fast read, though. I finished it in about seven or eight hours when I should have been sleeping :-)