Although this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really...moreAlthough this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really worth reading. If you’re curious about my review of that one, see here.
Think of Tale of the Troika as kind of a twisted Lewis Carroll-esque fantasy of the Soviet bureaucracy, but not nearly as good as Lewis Carroll would have done.
Luckily it is short, because it is hit and miss, with the emphasis on miss. Still, there are some delightful sections. The argument between the bedbug and abominable snowman about whether the human race was any better than other species is probably the highlight, but there are others scattered amidst the dross.
Near the end, there was one paragraph that will ring true for anyone tired of the attack on science common in the United States today. Is evolution true? Is climate change happening? The Soviets knew the power of ideological denial.
“How’s he on perjury?” Feofil asked the goat. “Never,” she replied. “He always believes every word he says.” “Really, what is a lie?” said Farfurkis. “A lie is a denial or a distortion of a fact. But what is a fact? Can we speak of facts in our increasingly complex life? A fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by witnesses. But eyewitnesses can be prejudiced, self-interested, or simply ignorant. Or, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by documents. But documents can be forged or tampered with. Or finally, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is determined by me personally. However, my sensations can be dulled or even completely deceived under certain circumstances. Thus, it is evident that a fact is something ephemeral, nebulous, and unverifiable, and the elimination of the concept becomes necessary. But in that case falsehood and truth become primitive concepts, indefinable through any other general categories. There exist only the Great Truth and its antipode, the Great Lie. The Great Truth is so great and its validity so obvious to any normal man, such as myself, that it is totally futile to try to refute or distort it, that is, to lie.”
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)
Quite a hoot, even for someone at the edge of the target audience. I never got into the gaming that is at the heart of this book, but I could still en...moreQuite a hoot, even for someone at the edge of the target audience. I never got into the gaming that is at the heart of this book, but I could still enjoy the geekery, and appreciate the absurdity of a disturbed but extraordinarily creative person warping society until everyone was obsessed with the decade he grew up in.
Luckily, the 80s really was a pretty nice decade. Well, once you forget that we were (rationally) as worried then about nuclear armageddon as folks are about terrorism (irrationally) these days.
I wasn't surprised to discover that book brought a pretty sweet advance and was quickly optioned for a movie. The author definitely parlayed the decade into his own little fortune.
I stole a quick description of the movie for you:
Here's the plot of Ready Player One: A teenager named Wade Watts escapes his bleak surrounds by logging in to the OASIS, a globally networked virtual utopia where users can lead idyllic alternate lives (sounds like Second Life). When the game's eccentric billionaire creator dies, he offers up his vast fortune as the grand prize in an elaborate treasure hunt. Watts is pitted against powerful corporate foes and ruthless competitors who'll do anything, in the OASIS and real world, to reach the treasure first. It's described as Willy Wonka, The Matrix, and Avatar all rolled into one, which actually sounds kind of awesome.
It really is too derivative to be worth four stars, but is too fun to be worth only three. You'd also have to add in the book Daemon and probably half a dozen others to get the full list of "where have I seen that before?". Even the quest nature of the story is astonishingly hackneyed.
But if you more-or-less grew up more-or-less in the eighties, you'll probably very much enjoy this. (less)
This is a good sci-fi thriller, set in a society that has mostly collapsed into a tiny minority of haves and a great...more'Sokay, but nothing too wonderful.
This is a good sci-fi thriller, set in a society that has mostly collapsed into a tiny minority of haves and a great multitude of desperately poor have-nots. In other words, one of the most common dystopia patterns. Peter Watts uses this (primarily as the background and subtext) for his dystopias, which are much more innovative.
In The Electric Church, one of those have-nots is our protagonist, an assassin-for-hire who gets tangled up in sociopolitics far beyond his depth. Hijinks ensue.
My hard-SF bullshit detector was sounding loud klaxons the whole novel, but since Somers' didn't bill this as a hard-SF novel, that really isn't fair. But the socioeconomics and the technology were both whack. Not quite as bad as Matthew Reilly's stuff, by any means, but then Reilly's technology makes Batman's look plausible.
The real problem was that the adventures in The Electric Church are actually quite predictable. The action is kept amped up at a level that distracts from this, but pretty much every twist and turn was telegraphed long before le dénouement.
As mindless entertainment, this is a perfectly adequate thriller. Maybe about on a par with Dan Brown's stuff. Brown does a bit better keeping characters and plot interesting, whereas Somers has the edge in terms of plausibility. But Somers earns his solid three stars because he doesn't pretend this is anything but science fiction.
Who might I recommend this to? Well, to anyone if they're normal alternative is to watch television instead of read. For real readers, this might be fine for that airplane trip, or some other time when a poor attention span might call for disposable reading material.
But, hey — life is short. Go pick up some Jim Butcher instead.
• • • • •
Well, for a few days after finishing this review, I found myself recalling the flaws ever more than the strengths. So he loses that third star: this really doesn't have any claim to be a better book than Matthew Reilly's trash mindless fluff. (less)
Curiously enough, Robinson defied my expectation and wrapped this series up stronger than he began it.
To recap, the trilogy follows the lives of some...moreCuriously enough, Robinson defied my expectation and wrapped this series up stronger than he began it.
To recap, the trilogy follows the lives of some Washington, D.C., folks (and a few others) as they struggle with the sudden onset of dramatic changes in weather patterns as climate change accelerates.
Robinson is science-heavy, as usual. This is by far his biggest strength as an author, and often — but not always — more than compensates for his weaknesses as a storyteller.
In the first two thirds of the series, there was too large of a focus on heavy weather. We were slowly getting to know his characters, but much of the story was focused above their heads. In the final installment, the weather recedes a bit, and we can zoom in on the humans here, who we’ve gotten to know quite well by now.
This is somewhat of a surprise — complementing a Kim Stanley Robinson book because of character development?
The deadly weather in the first two books has wrought changes in the U.S. political landscape, which unfortunately allow Robinson a bit too much leeway in indulging his Northern California liberal inclinations. There’s a bit of a miscalculation here: he describes how the horrible weather has hit Washington hard, and the eastern seaboard to a lesser extent, but doesn’t go into much detail about whether blue states in the America heartland have suffered as well. Without that background, the triumphalism of the liberals is quite a stretch — with the new president writing blog posts and making speeches that are far to the left of center. The result is that Robinson does a little too much Randian speechifying. Nothing quite as bad as John Galt’s, but a bit tiresome nevertheless.
IMDB has a category in it’s “goofs” entitled “Incorrectly regarded as goofs,” I think some of what seems goofy here in Sixty Days and Counting qualifies. The massive projects the new president launches with international partners are depicted as being undertaken almost instantly. Given how long it takes to do anything in national politics, this seems pretty absurd. But that’s what I think is actually quite accurate: if something radical were going to be done at all, the long-winded negotiations would have to be excised. After all, these discussions serve two purposes: to get buy-in regarding the necessity of action and the safety of the plans, and to give opponents time to rip the heart out of any plan. In Robinson’s world (and, perhaps, in ours) the impending devastation is so stupendous that no one who hasn’t already bought in to these projects is paying attention, meaning delay serves no constructive purpose.
In our real world, we haven’t gotten any where near that level of certainty among high-level decision-makers, and if things ever get bad enough that they are convinced, it will probably be too late in many ways.
Overall, I’d still rate the whole trilogy as worth about three-plus stars. The scope wasn’t quite broad enough — when the Gulf Stream fails and a “the youngest Dryas” threatens, we never learn what is happening in Miami, much less in England — and the final optimism is, lamentably, too fantastic.
I have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson the massive information dumps he produces. But affection? Not so much. I think his Mars trilogy was t...moreI have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson the massive information dumps he produces. But affection? Not so much. I think his Mars trilogy was the first I read, and I note that I gave it four stars. At the time, I’m certain that I was overawed by his encyclopedic approach.
Where this is both a big win and a big loss is in the science. The action is centered at the top of the National Science Foundation and their efforts to get a grip on how the climate is changing and what mitigation strategies might work, both scientifically and politically. The strength here is that such people would be this geeky, talking and thinking science with every breath. But Robinson falls into that information-dump trap: he has his characters telling each other stuff the scientists would already take for granted in an effort to inform the readers. This reduces the verisimilitude, and slows down the action to that of molasses during one of his epic cold snaps.
This burden might have alleviated if he’d included endnotes discussing the science he so blithely tossed in. How much is rock solid, which parts are stretching the limits, and which are flights of fancy? I was surprised that there appears to be no reference guide.
Marvelously, despite his academic approach, his characters are still quite well fleshed out. In this one, the only ambiguity is that some of the Khembalis weren’t individuated.
Of course, all the scientists think too much. To that, one can only echo the words of the wise man:
You worry too much You make yourself sad You can’t change fate But don’t feel so bad Enjoy it while you can It’s just like the weather So quit complaining brother ... No one lives forever!!
It's a love story set in the relatively near future, but the story itself is quite boring, and the characters...moreI gave up on this about halfway through.
It's a love story set in the relatively near future, but the story itself is quite boring, and the characters are mostly unlikeable and excruciatingly pathetic.
In Shteyngart's vision, almost everyone is a loser and those that are seen by the public as "winners" would be deemed horrifying monsters in any civilized society.
There was one — and only one — compelling aspect here. Shteyngart has extrapolated today's social trends and while the result is exaggerated (we can only hope), some parts ring true and others serve as amusing satire on today's practice. For example, in one painful scene, the early-middle-aged friends of the protagonist are hanging out in a bar, and one suggests "lets FAC" to a young lady. That would be "Form a Community", in which their mobile devices reveal everything to everyone, with ratings flooding in to humiliate the losers. Lenny, the hero, discovers his "fuckability" rating is abyssal and is considered the ugliest man in the bar, but his relatively high income (which is also pegged to the Yuan, and thus protected against the feared collapse of the dollar) mitigates this, showing up as a fairly high "Personalit¥".
The mashup of various memes and extension of trends is pointed and often amusing. But it isn't enough to carry the book.
My recommendation: if you're curious, read a few chapters for the mood and clever bits, then dump it. (less)
Note to self: Download and read. Check out what looks like an interesting review here, and others here on GR. Oh. Good, I don't have to download it —I...moreNote to self: Download and read. Check out what looks like an interesting review here, and others here on GR. Oh. Good, I don't have to download it — I can go old-school.(less)
The Windup Girl has been getting plaudits from all over, including here on Goodreads (Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction). It has been...moreThe Windup Girl has been getting plaudits from all over, including here on Goodreads (Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction). It has been nominated for the 2009 Nebula Award as well as the 2010 Hugo Award, too. (Update: on May 15th, 2010, this novel won the Nebula award. Web over here for more details).
Frankly, I haven’t read many other novels recently that I think deserve to win more. This brings us Bangkok in the late twenty-second century, in a deeply textured mash-up reminiscent of both Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Graham Greene’sThe Quiet American. Bacigalupi has delivered a magnificently wrought novel of the near future, and that makes it really stand out. Think about all the nasty challenges facing the world today, and then try to imagine what the world might look like if we fail to address them. That’s what The Windup Girl uses as its center and backdrop.
Think we might be altering the climate? Sure enough, the ocean levels have risen to drown most of the world’s coastal cities, and the Bangkok of this novel lies behind massive dikes and seawalls that barely hold back the towering sea. Think we might be getting close to running out of oil? Well, yeah, in this story human and animal power provide most of the motive force (computers are operated with treadles), while international trade is conducted with a new generation of clipper ships sailing under huge kites and using palm-oil polymer hulls. One central conceit is that springs are used to store energy — think the kind of wind-up springs used in children’s toys, but advanced with over a hundred years of technological focus.
Maybe the changing climate and collapse of fisheries might make food scarce? Oh yeah, this takes place in a “calorie economy”, where every joule of energy is eked out with an eye-dropper. And perhaps western corporate interests will capitalize on this? Sure, to the point that agribusiness fills the evil niche of global overlords that oil companies have in our time.
Maybe you’re worried that bioterrorism might cause problems, or that genetically modified organisms will backfire and cause problems? That, and more.
At the same time, Bacigalupi doesn’t make this a dogmatic lecture. The sins of our “Expansion Age” are the backdrop to the turmoil of a completely different civilization who have far too many worries to spend time bemoaning the foolishness of their ancestors. The story is one of politics, and no one in the large cast is without sin or without merit. Well, maybe a few of the denizens of the whorehouse are low-lifes, but in that setting they are more than plausible.
The wind up girl of the title is a delightful irony: she’s not quite human, but manages to be the most innocent and sympathetic of the major characters.
If you want a taste of the kind of world we might be creating for our great-great-great grandchildren, read this novel. (less)
Disappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existent...moreDisappointing. Very sparkly, lauded with witticisms and cleverness, but the characters were astonishingly superficial and the plot almost non-existent — and what little was there wasn't particularly interesting.
Excellent, but somewhat worrisome. This and Blindsight are the only books of Watts' I've read so far, but I enjoyed both greatly, and Maelstrom is now...moreExcellent, but somewhat worrisome. This and Blindsight are the only books of Watts' I've read so far, but I enjoyed both greatly, and Maelstrom is now on my to-read shelf.
But if those two books are indicative, Watts has an incredibly bleak view of humanity and its future. Both are set in the moderately near-term future, and have several common themes:
☠ For most folks, the future is a very nasty and hopeless place.
☠ Amoral corporations and their minions won't bat an eye at immoral actions when those seem to be the most cost-effective way of attaining a goal.
☠ Psychologically and emotional damaged people will among the preferred tools of these corporations, either because the damage itself is valuable or because the it renders the subject easier to mold into a better tool.
☠ "Normal" folks will be "damaged", sometimes willingly, so they can be a corporate tool instead of an even more pathetic refuge.
☠ Anger, fear, hatred, and predatory and parasitic competitiveness — these are the only emotions that will be useful to such cutting-edge employees.
Get the theme? The only author I've read that seems to have a more dismal vision is Cormac McCarthy. Watts isn't as bloody, though.
Excellent read, if you don't mind your hard-science fiction with a bitter, malevolent and misanthropic edge. (less)
Apropos whilst reading a book on climate change, the New York Times just published a fairly in-depth article on investigations of sea level rise. The...moreApropos whilst reading a book on climate change, the New York Times just published a fairly in-depth article on investigations of sea level rise. The article, As Glaciers Melt, Science Seeks Data on Rising Seas, also has some interesting multimedia attachments. One fairly alarming tidbit I learned is that the ice piled on top of just Greenland would, if melted, raise sea levels by twenty feet.
Sometimes downer books really get to me. Too much despair just piles up, and I dread going any further into the...more(Be forewarned: mild spoilers herein.)
Sometimes downer books really get to me. Too much despair just piles up, and I dread going any further into the story. The Handmaid's Tale started off that way, but Atwood did better than I thought, before ultimately taking a disappointing twist at the end.
Writing in the middle of the Reagan era, Atwood envisions a totalitarian America after a Christian-led coup d'état. I was a bit surprised that church service and bible study weren't mandatory; I've got relatives that live within a conservative church-oriented society, and they often are at church five days a week.
Atwood cheats just a bit by choosing as a protagonist someone whose fate would be about as extreme as possible under such circumstances. Leading men whose wives don't easily conceive are provided with "Handmaids", effectively concubines inspired by the Old Testament. Because these concubines are only valued for their hoped-for fertility, they have no power until that fertility has been proven.
Most people even in a totalitarian society will interact with many others, and the services they provide will give them means to implicitly communicate with others. For example, a butcher might get away with rewarding his favorites with better cuts of meat, a field hand might work a bit harder and faster for a foreman who can provide him access to black market goods. Any of these interactions can use tit-for-tat strategies to build trust and signal one's cooperativeness, while still retaining almost complete deniability. The handmaid has nothing but her smile, willingness to converse, or tone of voice. It is hard to imagine anyone so socially isolated and impotent.
The world we see is the fishbowl of a sterile suburban existence. Food is provided, but we never learn about the lives of the fieldworkers. Products are produced, but we know nothing of the lives of the workers. Just important men, their wives, and the household's domestic servants including the handmaids. This world creates a profound sense of claustrophobia both for Offred, our heroine, and for the reader.
By the time I was halfway through the book the only plots I foresaw were suffocating, leading either to rebellion and death or, worse, to complete spiritual suffocation.
But Atwood surprised me. She showed how, even within such limited horizons, human instinct would be to find connections and build on them. She slowly develops something like a friendship with another handmaid who she shops with regularly. The Husband turns out to desire a more intimate and illicit relationship; her fellow domestics and, eventually, even the Wife all start showing their human sides.
This development felt true: it seemed exactly the way people would slowly reach out and establish trust. Although, in fact, it really happened too quickly. I could imagine the two handmaid establishing a bond within a few months, since both had little to lose. But the others felt rushed after that, considering that the others all had alternative companions.
Offred understood this:
[...] I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settlers' wives thought, and women who survived wars, if they had a man. Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.
But in the end, Atwood pushed her luck too far. In the first years after such a revolution the fear of betrayal by spies and uncertain allies would be too strong to permit an underground from forming. Families and pre-revolution friendships would be broken unless beyond reproof, and those so traumatized would be unlikely to trust anyone very soon—or for some, never.
Offred behaves recklessly, and is caught. But instead of suffering the predictable fate, Atwood uses a cheap deus ex machina, rescuing her via the "Underground Femaleroad" (the neologism itself sounding a false note). This was so untrue to the fundamental tale that the book, ultimately, was disappointing. How many handmaids must there have been, and how many others still suffering, some even dying for trivial misdeeds? Instead of portraying the bleak lives of the overwhelming majority, Atwood focuses on the insuperable luck of one who escapes.
This is not the despicable flaw of McCarthy's [book:The Road|6288]—the story she tells us isn't a lie, but is a weak turning away from a painful vision. The Handmaid's Tale would have been a stronger story if she had left the story as one of a slow but inexorable regrowth of humanity.
Wow. Excellent review here (complete spoiler, though).
Blindsight is an excellent sci-fi novel on several fronts. We've got a meaty and complex apocaly...moreWow. Excellent review here (complete spoiler, though).
Blindsight is an excellent sci-fi novel on several fronts. We've got a meaty and complex apocalyptic aliens-arrive story; Watts somehow manages to make us care about his highly dysfunctional cast of post-human misfits, and then he comments both on the very deep philosophical issues of consciousness as well as indirectly on the problem of the Singularity.
The moderately near future. Technology has fractured the nature of "humanity", leaving most humans redundant and the remainder integrated with technology in ways that leave their humanity sometimes doubtful. Especially problematic is the genetic resurrection of our Vampire cousins——homo sapiens vampira——from the dustbin of history. And now, aliens have arrived in the outer solar system and the crew sent to investigate must be the sharpest of the bleeding edge, and thus consists of a handful of people that cannot reliably trust, communicate, or understand each other.
The nature of the alien, as well as that of these new post-humans, forces examination into the difference between consciousness and intelligence. This, in turn, indirectly illuminates the question of the singularity: what, more-or-less, will we end up with when increasing technological sophistication pushes us or (more likely) our cybernetic progeny beyond what our species as currently constituted is capable of comprehending?