The final book in the Three Californias triptych is at once the most hopeful and the saddest. Like Aurora, Pacific Edge is a beautifully sad story, maThe final book in the Three Californias triptych is at once the most hopeful and the saddest. Like Aurora, Pacific Edge is a beautifully sad story, made all the sadder by the sense of hope carefully nurtured throughout most of its length. The characters just don't get what they want most, any of them, but at the same time Robinson manages to convey the awe-inspiring grandeur and majesty of their lives, making their personal tragedies seem at once trivial and somehow keener. It's a wonderful, awesome existence in which to feel such sadness, Robinson seems to say. I found it profoundly affecting, especially coming as it does as the final piece in the triptych, juxtaposed by two much worse future visions for Orange County.
The residents of Pacific Edge live in a utopia, where global democracy has mostly conquered the dehumanizing and impoverishing forces of global capitalism. That all happened decades ago -- it was the life-long fight of Tom Barnard, the grandfather of protagonist Kevin, who grew up without knowing any other way of life. Kevin's central plot struggle is to oppose the development of one of the last wild hilltops in their town, and in doing so discover and defend his own values. Why is it that such development would be bad for the town, despite growing the value of the town's communal shares? It's a hard question to answer, and Kevin spends most of the novel attempting to do so in a way that can convince the town.
The thing is, the townfolk really do live in a strangely credible utopia, achieved by a few important factors. First, they've limited the size of companies to around 100 employees, so everyone works for a small business where they know everyone else. They have also instituted minimum and maximum incomes, so while there are still rich and poor, the differences aren't worth fighting about. Second, most people live communally, in shared housing converted from old apartment buildings. They have only a small amount of private space, typically a bedroom, and share communal cooking and housework duties with their co-residents. At one point the protagonist wonders if they hadn't lost something in the transition away from nuclear families living in isolation, some sense of private intimacy impossible to recreate in a group settings, even while acknowledging that communal living was far better for most people overall. Finally, the community has put a premium value on human-powered transportation, usually on bicycles, and built around that basic assumption. Cars are still around, but are seen as an occasional indulgence to be rented, or when a longer trip is necessary (and since people work for small businesses in their community, there's no such thing as a long commute). These factors have transformed the small towns of Orange County into an intentional space where the residents exercise their values as part of their daily lives, where their daily actions are a direct extension of these values out onto the world.
As other reviewers have pointed out, nothing much happens in terms of plot, just a love triangle and a legal battle. This is typical of Robinson stories, and any fan of his will be used to it -- the important bits take place largely outside the concerns of the plot, in the realm of character and landscape. But more than most Robinson novels, this one is absolutely alive and brimming with feeling, especially of the protagonist experiencing love and loss for the first time. It moved me in a way most literature can't, literally to tears, as I experienced Kevin's triumphs and disappointments as my own. And as with most such books, I have a hard time expressing precisely what it was that moved me so deeply. Part of it is undoubtedly due to the triptych form Robinson chose, where each novel echoes and rhymes with each other, despite being unrelated in terms of plot and characters. This Kevin and this Tom are distinct to this story, but they remind us so firmly of the other Kevins and other Toms from the first two books in the triptych, and we feel like we know more about them than their actions in this sole novel justifiy. We understand them through their archetypes; we know who they are because of who they were in other, very different circumstances. We remember those alternate versions, feel those other selves' pain echoing in plot movements of this panel of the triptych. I'm sure this isn't a first in literature, but it's a new device to me, and I found it uniquely affecting....more
The Wild Shore imagines a California where the Cold War ended in nuclear holocaust for the United States. The Gold Coast imagines a world where it nevThe Wild Shore imagines a California where the Cold War ended in nuclear holocaust for the United States. The Gold Coast imagines a world where it never ended, even 3o years from now, and all of the social trends at the time of its writing in the 80s grew and morphed into obscene caricatures of themselves. I was reminded strongly of the dystopian fiction of Philip K. Dick, especially because of the central role that designer drugs play in the plot.
The Orange County of The Gold Coast is a dehumanizing, depressing place to live. Cars and freeways have finished their project of taking over the landscape entirely, to the extent that entire neighborhoods dwell in permanent darkness underneath elevated freeways merging into elevated shopping and recreation centers. The residents drive literally everywhere, cars guided and powered courtesy of electric tracks built into the road surfaces. Video screens are papered on every available surface in most homes, including elaborate multi-camera systems in the bedroom. And military spending has become the central pillar of the economic system, the industry which drives all growth and most technological development.
The main character is the only son of a middle-manager-engineer in this industry. His father builds complicated technological weapons systems for the military, but the son keenly feels the lack of a sense of place and purpose, spending his time in low-status jobs and drug-fueled parties that take place every night of the week. His relationships with women, called "alliances" by the culture, are shallow and unfulfilling, and his best friends seem to fit in with the world in a way he can't. His grandfather, the other archetypal character of the triptych, wastes away in a retirement home, cut off from friends and community, and he feels a sense of duty to visit him despite hating the environment he is forced to spend his last days in. He loves the history of the region, and yearns for the lost Orange County that he reads about, a place first of wild and untamed nature, then of endless acres of fruit trees, then of highways and pavement. The narrative is peppered with historical intermissions that we eventually come to learn are authored by the protagonist, telling the sad story of a paradise lost. He eventually comes to join a resistance group engaging in guerrilla tactics against the defense industry, but whose efficacy and ultimate motives are continually called into question. In the coda of the story, he escapes into the Sierras and discovers raw, unspoiled nature that completely shakes his understanding of the world.
Like many Robinson novels, this book doesn't tell a story so much as create a setting and invite you to inhabit it for a while, feeling the things its characters feel. There are a few too many of these to be really comfortable, but they all contribute interesting perspectives on this depressing vision of the future, from weapons engineers to drug pushers to ambulance drivers. I liked it quite a lot as a stand-alone story, but even more in retrospect as the middle piece of the triptych, a bleak vision that offers a shocking contrast to the utopia of the third novel....more
After a disappointing fourth novel, I didn't know what to expect from the rest of The Expanse. Happily, Nemesis Games feels like a return to form afteAfter a disappointing fourth novel, I didn't know what to expect from the rest of The Expanse. Happily, Nemesis Games feels like a return to form after the plodding and uneventful Cibola Burn, full of system-shaking action and big ideas.
Before I continue: why are the names of the novels in this series so uniformly bland and unmemorable? Leviathan Wakes was cool enough I guess, but then Caliban's War? Who even is Caliban? And then Abbadon's Gate, that's at least thematically appropriate, but it doesn't really roll off the tongue. Cibola Burn is probably the worst name, appropriate for the worst entry, and Nemesis Games is hardly any better. What is going on here, James S. A. Corey? These names don't even sound like they're in the same series. I would think that being two people would make you better at this.
This book tries something new: telling the story from the perspective of the four crew members of the Rocinante, rather than Holden and three other one-off randos. It works really well: everyone goes off to have their own independent adventure that nonetheless contributes meaningfully to the overall arc. Holden is kind of sidelined for most of the novel without anything interesting to do, but I guess he's earned a break by now. Amos, Naomi, and (to a lesser extent) Alex all make up for it, and it's especially gratifying to learn more about these characters, to see them finally treated like protagonists instead of sidekicks.
This novel renewed my interest in the series, and I'll definitely be buying #6, which I can only guess is probably called Hephaestus Sowing or something, right when it comes out....more
Long Way is a charming take on space opera, shrinking the galactic-sized conflicts you would normally expect from the genre down to the scope of a sinLong Way is a charming take on space opera, shrinking the galactic-sized conflicts you would normally expect from the genre down to the scope of a single spaceship. The galaxy is spasming with violence and change, but to the crew of The Wayfarer, a multi-species wormhole construction ship, it's just another job to do. You can think of it as Firefly with alien species and less violence.
The ship is staffed with three aliens, an AI, and four humans with colorful personalities and backstories to make up for their boring biology. There are basically no minor characters: all of them are lovingly drawn in, and they all get their moment in the spotlight. Some of their stories are shockingly tender and heartfelt, and all of them are interesting in their own right.
The only problem (if it has to be a problem) is there is only the thinnest excuse for a plot. There's one major subplot for each of the seven characters to star in, but holding them together is the titular Long Trip to a big job at the Small Angry Planet. Things continually happen on this trip, and we learn a lot about the alien cultures of the three species on board (and more besides), but there's no arc to speak of. The crew takes a job, they drive there with enjoyable episodic adventures occurring en route, and then the job is done. There's no sense that their journey accomplished anything beyond getting paid, or was particularly meaningful in the scope of the larger galactic conflict. And maybe that's the point? But I was left feeling as though I had read a series of short stories set in this universe, rather than a novel about it.
Again, maybe this doesn't need to be a problem. Plenty of literature is episodic, and the vivid characterizations really do reduce the need for a strong plot. But I was still left with the sense of an absence around that plot that could have been, instead of the very enjoyable and heartfelt vignettes that comprise the story....more
Wired is the second book by Richards that I picked up based on its Kindle popularity (and freeness), the first being Split Second. Like that book, WirWired is the second book by Richards that I picked up based on its Kindle popularity (and freeness), the first being Split Second. Like that book, Wired is a fast-moving action-adventure story with speculative sci-fi elements, very enjoyable page by page despite the frequency of cringy sentences and metaphors. Richards seems to have the same problem that many self-published authors do, where his ideas run ahead of his ability to execute solidly, and the normal editorial process that would keep such ham-fisted writing from reaching print is totally absent. Despite these problems, Richards earns his popularity with an easy-to-digest and exciting story.
The basic plot is that someone has invented a smart pill, a trope that has been done to death. Richards' treatment isn't exactly original, but he does a better job than any other attempt I'm aware of at examining the logical consequences of such a treatment, investigating what it would do to the person taking the pill and to society. He mixes in a bunch of covert-ops military elements and a scary-talented computer hacker, and amazingly the whole thing manages to not feel too cliched.
The thing is: every one of the main characters and themes is familiar to the point of being worn out. The protagonist is an ex-special-forces operative turned private detective. The damsel in distress is a perfect Mary Sue genius altruist. The villain is a literal sociopath with ties to intelligence agencies. And the comic relief is a giant, bearded hacker with poor social skills (but godlike powers at the computer). By all rights it should feel tired, predictable, and boring, but it kept disappointing my expectations with moments of real excitement and surprising plot twists. It's a book I liked in spite of itself -- although the 40th time a character said something "bitterly" I did scream a little.
This was kind of a palette cleanser in between the hard sci-fi I usually read, and it was surprisingly good at that job. But I'll probably not touch the sequels....more
Hey kids, do you like swashbuckling interstellar adventurer James Holden? Do you like cool starship battles andSales pitch for book 4 of The Expanse:
Hey kids, do you like swashbuckling interstellar adventurer James Holden? Do you like cool starship battles and exploration into mysterious, ancient alien artifacts? Yeah? Well fuck you, because we would rather tell you a story about trade disputes and mineral rights. And we're going to tell most of it from the perspective of a couple minor side characters from previous volumes and a totally new scientist that you're supposed to instantly empathize with.
Somehow this book manages to make basically the same mistakes as The Phantom Menace, which I didn't even realize was possible. Boring premise, characters that you never have a real reason to care about (except Holden, who they are downright miserly with even though his subplot is barely more interesting than the others), and the plot takes forever to come together and get moving.
Things do finally get interesting in the final third, but after 350 pages of plodding build-up, I was pretty thoroughly worn out with the entire narrative. If this had been the first book in the series, I wouldn't have read another. As it is, I'm taking a break from The Expanse for a while....more
Abaddon's Gate is another great addition to The Expanse, full of the great characterizations and tension that made the first two so successful. HumaniAbaddon's Gate is another great addition to The Expanse, full of the great characterizations and tension that made the first two so successful. Humanity has ventured through the stargate / wormhole that the Protomolecule cooked up on Venus, and quickly find themselves completely over their heads yet again. Unlike the second book in the series, which was a clash of big governments and corporations that the protagonists were simply caught up in, the conflict in this third novel is both intensely personal and galactic in scope. Revenge is probably the easiest meta-narrative to build an engaging plot around, and the authors use it to the fullest as the surviving daughter of disgraced corporate overlord Jules Pierre Mao-Kwikoski tries her level best to destroy James Holden to even the score.
Not all of the protagonists and their subplots are as engaging, although none of them are without their appeal, and there are several long stretches that get bogged down in political maneuvering. But there's still plenty of exciting action and alien mystery, and on the whole it's still a fast, satisfying read....more
I read this massive, complex collection over the course of almost a year, from the birth of my daughter in January all the way into December. Not allI read this massive, complex collection over the course of almost a year, from the birth of my daughter in January all the way into December. Not all of the individual comics that comprise the collection are 5 stars, but many of them are simply brilliant, with basically no real duds. Most are quite dense, both textually and visually, and reading too many in one sitting is almost vertigo inducing, so vivid and self-contained are most of the vignettes.
This is prime Gaiman, better than anything else he's done except for maybe American Gods. I hadn't really gotten into it before because of the graphic novel aspect (I just can't care about the medium in general), but Gaiman's imagination combined with some really incredible artwork is a winning combination....more
The second book in The Expanse is a solid follow-up to the first. Although the number of protagonists doubles from two to four, all the viewpoints areThe second book in The Expanse is a solid follow-up to the first. Although the number of protagonists doubles from two to four, all the viewpoints are unique and interesting in their own right, and they all contribute uniquely to plot and world-building. I found the two female characters, a Martian marine and a high-ranking Earth government official, to be especially good additions to the narrative world. I noticed that the latter got drafted into the first season of SyFy's television adaptation, so I'm obviously not alone in that regard.
Plot-wise, the solar system gets used to the idea of the Protomolecule and wonders what it's getting up to under the cloud of Venus. We learn a lot more about the power dynamic in the outer planets and visit some more spectacular set pieces, while at the same time getting our first good, first-hand accounts of what it's like on Earth and Mars. However, the movements and shocks aren't quite so grand as in the first book, and the explosion of viewpoints does slow things down noticeably. But it was still more than enough to keep me turning the pages.
So far this is a very strong series that I'll probably read all of (and in fact I've been busy reading books three and four since I last updated goodreads)....more
I picked up Split Second because it was popular on the Kindle free-for-Prime section, and I wanted something to cleanse my palate after the last bookI picked up Split Second because it was popular on the Kindle free-for-Prime section, and I wanted something to cleanse my palate after the last book I read, which overstayed its welcome. Split Second was exactly what I wanted and expected, and competently executed.
The novel is roughly equal measures action, cloak and dagger, and theoretical physics lecture. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you probably will enjoy this. It's seldom brilliant, but it is consistently interesting and moves at a good clip with only a few minor hiccups. The characters are likable and have clear motivations and the villain is suitably creepy. It has a satisfying climax worthy of the build-up. And the sci-fi aspect managed to be kind of cool and surprising despite being spoiled on the back cover. There's really not much more you could ask for from this kind of book.
I'm withholding a star because of a tendency to veer into cheesiness (and/or awful metaphor) and spend too long in theoretical discussion without any action, but even in these faults Split Seconds manages to be kind of sheepishly charming. This is an approachable, winning book that should appeal to most anyone....more
Wool came recommended by way of osmosis via lots of random comments on nerdy internet neighborhoods like reddit. I was pretty optimistic about the stoWool came recommended by way of osmosis via lots of random comments on nerdy internet neighborhoods like reddit. I was pretty optimistic about the story after the first few chapters, less so at the 20% mark, and kind of dreading finishing by the 2/3 mark.
If I understand correctly, Wool was originally published as a series of blog posts. The book goes through several "books" of major movements, often narrated by new characters (or a shifting set of them). Unfortunately, the seams show, badly. Wool reads like a half-dozen long short stories strung together. It's not the worst thing ever, but it's not my favorite.
It does, however, make some of the poor characterization even worse. Wool constantly asks me to care about people that I've just met a few pages or chapters ago. But I can't. I don't know them! This makes the tragedies happening to them fall flat. Worse, the chapters are stroboscopically short for much of the novel, so you constantly have to remember a different set of poorly-introduced characters. Even worse: some of the characters who suddenly begin narrating are almost unbelievably awfully written. The villain, an IT manager named Bernard (really), is completely impossible to take seriously because of his terrible dialog choices and stiff characterization. The only characters I found myself empathizing with a little, after getting to know them (wow!) kept dying. Like three in a row before the half-way mark! That's just mean.
Finally, from a my-slide-rule-is-longer-than-yours perspective, I found the science in this fiction to be very sketchy, especially after having just finished Aurora, a novel about the inherent limitations of building self-contained ecologies this small. Like, where is this mining operation going? Where are they putting the tailings they dig up? And how in the kim stanley have they been making electricity with diesel generators for hundreds of years in a basically hermetic environment? Where does the exhaust go? So many questions.
Despite these flaws, Wool does have a solid first quarter or so, as well as some pretty good action sequences (even when irritatingly split into too-small chapters). But it never delivers on its central mystery, and still somehow manages to overstay its welcome....more
Leviathan Wakes is an imaginative and engrossing examination of the solar system as mankind's final frontier. Corey has imagined propulsion technologyLeviathan Wakes is an imaginative and engrossing examination of the solar system as mankind's final frontier. Corey has imagined propulsion technology that allows very efficient acceleration in the 10g range, giving us the planets, but not the stars. The result is a billions-strong off-earth population on Mars, in the Asteroid Belt, and on the gas giant moons -- as well as in many roving spacecraft. There's a thriving economy on the edge of the vacuum, with the extraterrestrial Belters acting as a cross between corporate fiefdoms and a mercantile colony for the two planets. This arrangement has bred a lot of resentment from the Belters.
The two protagonists are firsthand witnesses to different clues of a plot to upend the solar system and cause a three-sided war between worlds, and must work to piece together the nature of the threat before it destroys them. One is a cynical alcoholic detective (which lends the book much of its noiry feel) and the other is an idealistic starship captain who is committed to always doing the Right Thing. Surprisingly, this manages to come off as not at all cliche, and the dynamic between the two indomitable men gives the story real emotional depth and spark.
On top of this solid foundation, Cory leads us through compelling and thoughtful set pieces, like asteroid space stations and warships, that feel real and lived-in. He places our two heroes in pitched gunfights between starships and into the middle of diabolically fiendish plots, and the danger always feels deadly serious. The overall plot was a tad convoluted for my taste, but it hung together well enough and had an absolute blast getting there.
One final note about a strange publishing practice: my edition on Kindle had a completely unrelated fantasy novel of about the same length included at the end, free of charge. I didn't read it, and was kind of irritated at its inclusion. I thought I was reading an incredibly long science fiction novel and couldn't understand where it could possibly go after building to a climax near the 50% mark, only to find the book was half as long as I thought and all my expectations about what might happen, owing to my progress half-way through, were completely wrong. This is annoying, publishers. Please don't make me check how much of my book is actually my book before I start reading it....more
Uprooted is a surprisingly original magical fantasy story inspired by Russian folk tales, especially Baba Yaga. The protagonist learns how to wield aUprooted is a surprisingly original magical fantasy story inspired by Russian folk tales, especially Baba Yaga. The protagonist learns how to wield a style of magic that is totally foreign from the "by-the-book" magic practiced by her teacher and all the court magicians, and is of course much more powerful than theirs. I normally get irritated at magic systems that seem arbitrary or inconsistent, but that didn't much bother me in this story. Rather than arbitrary, the spells cast by the scholastic wizards and the folk-magic of the heroine seem to be found pieces of a deeply mysterious and unknown landscape, rather than plot devices made up on the spot to resolve a point of conflict (thinking of you, J.K. Rowling). The plot moves at a nice pace, and the magician's apprentice actually makes meaningful choices that affect her destiny, rather than being shuttled around from set piece to set piece without any understanding of her role in the larger scheme of things (looking at you, Glory Season).
The book is a bit slow to get started, and the initial interactions of the protagonist and her mentor seem forced and out of character in retrospect. Seriously, why is he being so mean and mysterious to her? Even if she is a spy sent by a rival wizard, as he later explains, why can't he sit down and give her the "you have the genetic gift of magic" talk that she so obviously needs to understand the instruction he's providing? But after the 20% mark, when the scope of the world and the story start to become clear, things improve and the characters even out. The bumpy beginning and other uneven plot movements cost this book at least a whole star of rating, but on the whole it's accurate to say I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fantasy fans....more
This is a sad, sweet story about the human drive to conquer nature and the limits of that ambition. Spoilers follow, major ones hidden by the spoilerThis is a sad, sweet story about the human drive to conquer nature and the limits of that ambition. Spoilers follow, major ones hidden by the spoiler tag.
It's tough not to compare this story to the Red Mars series, Robinson's most iconic work. But this book doesn't take place in the same universe; indeed, the people on Mars in this book are facing a multiple-thousand year terraforming project and haven't been able to leave their plastic habitats. The biggest difference between this book and the Mars series is Robinson's assumptions about how effective mankind can be at the project of planetary colonization. It's a relatively rare burst of pessimism from a man whose science fiction is often lauded as the hardest of the hard, the most realistic treatment one can get. And between the mid nineties and now, Robinson has become much less bullish on human interstellar expansion. He seems to be sending the clear message that the heady scientific achievements best represented by the character Sax from the Mars series might be forever out of our grasp. That's the primary tragedy of Aurora which drives the entire narrative.
We begin the story with an account of a generational starship, now entering its 160th year of continuous travel to Tai Ceti, as a slowly unfurling disaster. The inhabitants of the ship, human, animal and vegetable, are experiencing a systemic decline. Despite the best efforts of the designers to build biodiversity and sustainable life support for the ship's many earth-mimicking habitats, the entire system is falling apart, death by a thousand paper cuts. The biggest threat is what's referred to as island biogeography, the tendency of isolated subspecies (typically on islands) to evolve into smaller, less vigorous versions of their mainland cousins. But of course a starship is infinitely more isolated than even the remotest island on earth, and the effects, after 160 years of isolation, are much more pronounced and harder to deal with. Even as big as the ship is, supporting a few thousand people and the necessary agriculture to feed them, with dozens of square miles of biomes, this isolation is the ultimate undoing of the ship, with microorganisms evolving on a much faster basis than the plants and megafauna, leading to crisis after crisis of ecology and sustainability. This on top of the mechanical problems one would expect from a 160-year-old machine traveling in a vacuum.
But the ship at least has enough staying power to reach its destination mostly intact, going into orbit around a large planetary moon called Aurora. And this is where things go seriously south.
(view spoiler)[ As it turns out, Aurora is alive, with a microscopic form of life totally alien to Earth's evolution, for which the people trying to settle the surface of the moon have no evolved defenses. The world that these descendants of starfaring explorers grew up considering their life's mission and legacy is deadly poisonous to them. And this makes sense to the explorers once they think it over: life is a planetary expression, and common throughout the universe; so either a world is alive and poisonous, or it's unsuitable for colonization. It's a double bind with no obvious solution.
The crisis of a poisonous world provokes a civil war between the people who want to attempt to colonize another nearby moon which they don't think is alive, and the people who want to return to Earth. Ruinous collapse is only prevented by the ship's AI intervening and enforcing peace among the two camps, one of whom stays behind with half of the reconfigured ship while the other refuels and returns to Earth.
The ship's AI is actually the narrator of most of the novel, and evolves over time from a relatively alien, outsider viewpoint into a quite charming and sympathetic protagonist. Robinson has never been sold on the concept of machine consciousness as so many science fiction authors have, and delves deeply into the thorny problem of consciousness as the narrator attempts to explain itself to itself and to us. It is this process of narration, of learning how to tell a story that is both more and less than an accounting of bare facts, that coaxes a sense of self out of the ship's various computer systems, a proposition I found fascinating. The ship ultimately sacrifices itself to save its human passengers, a truly tragic loss that is all the more heart-rending for being shrugged off by most of humanity on Earth, to whom the concept of machine consciousness is still science fiction.
Safe back on Earth, having spent the journey home in cryogenic hibernation, the surviving crew members experience for the first time the home their great-great-great grandparents left over 350 years earlier. Earth is a mess, coping with mass poverty and the effects of global warming. But here, at least, people are making a positive difference, surviving. A non-profit organization is slowly rebuilding the world's beaches, dredging sand up from the sea floor and depositing it on the new shorelines, building new dunes and ecosystems to go with them. The human protagonist of the book, still reeling from the loss of her friend the starship and experiencing crippling agoraphobia from being on the surface of a planet for the first time, learns to body surf from these beach-builders in the novel's sweet, sad coda. Life is good, and experiencing it on our native planet is good, despite all of the problems with it, Robinson reminds us. And it will always be so, regardless of how big a mess we make of things. (hide spoiler)]
This is essential reading for the modern science fiction fan, doubly so for any fans of Robinson. It presents a unique (to me) thesis of planetary exploration, the ethics of generational starships, and the limits of the technological sublime. It's sad without being maudlin, but peppered throughout with Robinson's distinctive humor and optimism, despite the overall theme of failure. I count this among the very few science fiction novels I've read that transcend mere adventure-speculation and rise to the level of emotionally affective literature.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Purity is another engrossing Franzen novel, the kind told in long, chapterless chunks by four or so protagonists. The characters are captivating, eachPurity is another engrossing Franzen novel, the kind told in long, chapterless chunks by four or so protagonists. The characters are captivating, each with a story to tell and a destiny to reach that feels utterly grounded and important. Like all Franzen characters, they are deeply flawed individuals who are basically morally good, trying to do the best they can in a world that doesn't quite fit them. It's impossible not to care deeply about these characters. They begin to feel as if they're old friends.
Thematically, Franzen seems content to write masterful treatises on one-world moral titles, and I hope he keeps it up. Like Freedom's various explorations of the surprising problems of liberty, Purity concerns itself with principles themselves. And so journalism, art, and leakers ala Julian Assange feature prominently, along with socialism, capitalism, feminism, and sexual mores: all areas where purity of belief is all-important to many, many adherents. These ideals, and the failure to uphold them to one's own standards, drive the basic conflicts of the novel. As you might expect, the relationships can best be summarized as "complicated." Also, surprisingly tender and heartfelt, even in their errors and betrayals.
Purity has stuck with me, even after subsequently reading three completely unrelated sci-fi / fantasy novels. I catch myself thinking about the characters, the pivotal moments of their lives, what might happen to them after the final chapter. It's a novel that I expect will evoke brilliant flashes of memory years from now, as other very affecting novels do. Consider this must-read if you have read and liked Franzen....more
I honestly can't fathom how one person can bring so many detailed, coherent worlds to life in such a short time.I think I'm Sandersonned out for now.
I honestly can't fathom how one person can bring so many detailed, coherent worlds to life in such a short time. The only comparisons I have to rival Sanderson's raw creative power are Piers Anthony and Philip K Dick -- and even those aren't great comparisons, since Anthony is not nearly as good with the actual writing, and most of Dick's books are some variant of "actually, the protagonists have all been crazy this whole time."
Elantris is yet another wholly original fantasy world with a unique system of magic, governmental and religious history, and power struggle for its protagonists. This time there are three main characters, one a villain, whose viewpoints alternate among the chapters, and it works much better than it has any right to. Religious zeal and jihad drive the central conflict, and the stakes feel high without being melodramatic.
While not quite rising to the level of greatness of the Cosmere series, Elantris is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of redemption and salvation that has something to offer everyone....more
While this is another enjoyable action-adventure tale set in the world of Allomancy and Feruchemy, it can't quite match the allure of the original stoWhile this is another enjoyable action-adventure tale set in the world of Allomancy and Feruchemy, it can't quite match the allure of the original stories. It also relies pretty heavily on the mythos established by the events in that first trilogy, and I read those so many years ago I had trouble remembering who The Survivor, e.g. was. Worse, the scope of world-building is downright restrained compared to its predecessors. The original Mistborn series was a never-ending box of wonders, each new chapter and volume revealing new creatures and magic while teasing with deeper mysteries. The Alloy of Law is a straightforward adventure and mystery tale, where the plot and characters are almost independent of the fantasy world itself, minus their strange powers (which are already familiar, thanks to the original trilogy).
However, there's still a lot to like in this story, which should be considered a companion to, rather than a continuation of, the Mistborn trilogy. The wild-west setting is an enjoyable mash-up of genres, the action sequences are as well wrought as ever, and Sanderson's characters are just as strong and moody as ever -- although, having read nearly half of his books now, I'm starting to notice some archetypes that seem a little too well worn.
This is an entertaining diversion, but shouldn't really be considered essential reading for any but the most rabid Sanderson fan....more
The problem is that Thompson's story is more Zelda-themed than about Zelda per se, and wasn't all that interesting or compelling; and Hellman's art is positively muted compared to the psychedelic A Lesson is Learned.
The art is still pretty, and the story is good and mysterious enough, to redeem the book a bit. But for all my anticipation, this was a major disappointment....more
A lot of people have opined that this second book is better than the first, and I think I mostly agree. While there was no scene to equal my awe whenA lot of people have opined that this second book is better than the first, and I think I mostly agree. While there was no scene to equal my awe when Kaladin learned what it truly meant to run a bridge in the first book, the pacing overall was improved and the story's world continues to expand in scope at a dizzy pace. I think I'm in this for the long haul....more
I'll tell you one thing: Brandon Sanderson has the goods.
What isn't there to love in this super long but quick-moving novel? Strong and charismatic chI'll tell you one thing: Brandon Sanderson has the goods.
What isn't there to love in this super long but quick-moving novel? Strong and charismatic characters with intense motivations, check. Mysterious and fascinating ancient backstory, check. Giant monsters and like five different kinds of magic, check.
I guess it's a bit long, but what fantasy series isn't?
The Way of Kings is simply one of the most imaginative novels I have ever read. The world is positively brimming over with deep and complex fantastical elements, wonder piled onto wonder. Any two or three of these elements -- all of which appear to be very well thought out and masterfully teased throughout the 1000 pages -- would be enough to satisfy most fantasy authors with world-building ambition. But the world of Stormlight Archive surprises and deepens at every turn, without ever seeming crowded or incoherent. It's a real accomplishment that should be lauded.
Brandon Sanderson, man. He has the goods. Plus, he finished Robert Jordan's series for him after Jordan spent 4 books going nowhere at 500 pages a year, so you know he's good for it, even if 10 books does seem ludicrous....more
First, credit where credit is due: the much-ballyhooed gender gimmick of the book, where the AI protagonist can't tell the gender of people and refersFirst, credit where credit is due: the much-ballyhooed gender gimmick of the book, where the AI protagonist can't tell the gender of people and refers to everyone as "she," regardless of their actual gender, did in fact cause me some non-trivial amount of self-reflection. It's confusing and frustrating in many places, and while I'm not sure if that was the intended point or not, it definitely drew my attention to the ways in which the gender of a character colored my expectations and judgments of their behavior, which I'm certain was the intended point. On the other hand, I'm not at all convinced that an AI of the power described in the book could ever possibly be so confused about something so fundamental to human nature. I get it, the dominant galactic language is ungendered. But there's just no way this hyper-intelligent construct wouldn't be able to tell the difference, given that the people themselves can.
Gender gimmick aside, this book was a mixed bag. The narrative structure of the first half of the book, with present-day chapters alternating with back story, left me irritated and confused as often as intrigued. Things definitely improved significantly in the second half when the narrative became linear, but that only made me more frustrated with the stultifying first half. I was also often confused about the characters' motivations, and the protagonist was difficult for me to empathize with. Most of the supporting cast was relatively two-dimensional.
Speculatively, the book trucks in two big ideas: distributed intelligence and identity; and the scale and expansion of a galactic civilization. The latter reminded me of the later Dune books, not necessarily in the conclusions that it drew, but in the approach it took to discussing the philosophy. The distributed intelligence was the more interesting aspect, and was a genuinely new treatment in my experience. It's worth reading for that alone.
In my opinion, this book is greatly overhyped. It's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also not what I expect of a novel with its pedigree of prestigious awards and taste-maker recommendations. What seems to have happened here is that the 1000-year culture war has spilled over into science fiction, in the opposite direction as the recent Sad Puppies debacle. As a parallel, consider how much attention the "gender swapping" meme in comic fandom receives, where Thor is drawn as a woman or Wonder Woman as a man. It's not that the gender-swapped drawings are bad or uninteresting, necessarily; it's that the amount of attention they receive has far more to do with the gender ideology people sharing them hope to spread than with the quality of the art itself. I find it disappointing that awards like the Hugo are becoming dramatically less useful as a signal of literary quality because folks with an ideological axe to grind see it as a battleground for the never-ending culture war. I actually do think this is a "must read" book for fans of science fiction -- however, it earns that status not because of its quality as art, but because of its place in the cultural zeitgeist. Read it, but don't expect it to top any of your all-time favorite lists....more
It's been a while since I finished this, and I was so absorbed by Words of Radiance that I never paused to collect my thoughts on it. So I find myselfIt's been a while since I finished this, and I was so absorbed by Words of Radiance that I never paused to collect my thoughts on it. So I find myself armed with a natural filter, since I can only clearly remember the parts that naturally stuck with me while reading 1000 pages of another piece of speculative fiction. Here goes.
First, the character Doob is so obviously Neil DeGrasse Tyson that he should be named Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It would be ridiculous to interpret Doob as anyone but the real-life physicist cum science-explainer. I find myself with a complicated emotional reaction to this choice on the part of Stephenson. First I wonder if it's racist or just plain cynical to believe that any internationally prominent, publicly recognizable, black astrophysicist in contemporary fiction, named Doob, must reduce to Tyson. Probably both? But for me, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was a primary character in the novel, and I saw his face in my mind's eye while I read it. This was kind of great, and a wonderful form of hero worship, but also kind of strange, and made me wonder why Stephenson didn’t just name him Tyson, which was occasionally distracting.
Second, Stephenson seems to be following the trend he started in Reamde, where he has abandoned lengthy digressions into recondite subjects only tangentially related to the plot in favor of relatively straightforward exposition. I still haven’t decided how I feel about this. Don’t get me wrong; Stephenson does an excellent job with this kind of linear storytelling. But I also miss the old Stephenson, you know? Except Zodiac is also written in that style, and that’s old as can be.
Third, all the parts about space and the technology required to survive there are totally rad, and these parts comprise a very substantial portion of the narrative. This is rock-hard science fiction, only slightly less technical than Kim Stanley Robinson in its tone and thoroughness. And it’s great.
Finally, it does that thing that Stephenson novels do, where it ends at what feels like a pivotal moment in the arc of the plot, and we just have to infer a denouement for ourselves. He ends almost all his novels this way, and it always bothers me. But obviously I can’t stay mad at him.
This novel falls just short of must-read greatness in my mind, but it’s still an easy recommendation for anyone into the hard stuff....more
River God is an engrossing and imaginative exploration of ancient Egypt. It's a rousing adventure story full of both hyper-violent action sequences anRiver God is an engrossing and imaginative exploration of ancient Egypt. It's a rousing adventure story full of both hyper-violent action sequences and subtle court intrigue, seamlessly interleaved. It's a thoroughly convincing speculation on the nature of daily life and social beliefs of a lost civilization. And it's a fascinating character study of a remarkable slave over a timespan of decades.
I only have a couple criticisms with this very enjoyable novel that keep it out of five-star territory.
First, all three main protagonists are perfect Mary Sues, especially the slave Taita. Taita is a renaissance man with a seemingly endless set of skills, from architecture and medicine to mosaic design and agriculture. The only thing he isn't great at is combat, and even there he has some stunning successes. Meanwhile, Tanis and Lostris, the great military man and the future queen, are both perfect paragons of virtue and perfectly two-dimensional as characters. They only seem to exist to create new headaches for Taita to solve.
Second, it overstays its welcome. This is a novel of sweeping scope and ambition, and goes on at least 25% longer than it really should. The chief villain is cast down in roughly the middle of the book and killed not long thereafter, and then the book takes a lengthy digression where the protagonists go into exile for literally decades before finally returning to re-win the kingdom. Lots of interesting plot points occur during this time in exile, but all sense of arc and momentum is lost, and there isn't a compelling new arc to replace the villain of the first half, just episodic wandering and adventures.
Nonetheless, River God is enormously entertaining for nearly its entire substantial length, and recommended to any fan of adventure stories, especially ancient ones....more
This book made me depressed. And it isn't actually about 16-bit video games as I understood them at the time.
I lived through the console wars, and durThis book made me depressed. And it isn't actually about 16-bit video games as I understood them at the time.
I lived through the console wars, and during the early 90s, a young man's choice of allegiance to either Nintendo or Sega was a matter of incredible importance. Games were a huge part of my social scene, and every boy I knew felt the same way. Which console you owned determined who you could swap games with, and therefore who you hung out with. The creators of these games, the designers, programmers and artists, were the creative heroes of my youth, the ones who inspired me to create my own games and eventually go on to a career in computers.
Unfortunately, this book isn't about the people who created the games or designed and engineered the hardware. It's about the marketers who promoted the systems, especially those at Sega of America. And that's the depressing part: Harris lays out a pretty convincing argument that the console war had much more to do with marketing and business deals than with the games and the hardware. I experienced the console wars as a sort of religious fervor around the virtues of my chosen console and its games. But as far as I can tell, Harris has it right. It was actually about business policies and advertising arrangements. So, maybe less depressing then deflating.
I found the format of the writing, which consists largely of imagined conversations between the marketer protagonists, to be tedious and irritating. I did learn a few interesting factoids, especially about Nintendo's early policies that alienated third-party developers and retailers alike. But on the whole, this biography of marketers just isn't what I signed up to read, and I suspect most people picking it up would feel the same way....more