In summary: The high-concept story mulls big questions around (artificial) intelligence, humanity, and identity / souls, while depicting a society that's sliding towards collapse. It does so while retaining a sense of surreal whimsy and some humour, which makes it a very accessible read. If you've never read any Adam Roberts novels, I think Bête might be the best one to start with, because it lightens the load of its thoughts with a wry sense of bemusement. ...more
Jolly good, frivolous fun. A guilty pleasure, really. Marred slightly by the huge number of named characters (mostly, Red Shirts, many of whom barelyJolly good, frivolous fun. A guilty pleasure, really. Marred slightly by the huge number of named characters (mostly, Red Shirts, many of whom barely get a name before coming to a bad end, or, in one case, get named after meeting their end), which makes it a little confusing. I liked it enough to buy the rest of the series, but sneakily hope that things will get a little less... scattershot... as it continues. In particular, the way time passes between missions (and the composition of the historian team) is quite bewildering and unsteady.
In summary: it's a rare treat, to see Star Trek do a comedy of errors / farcical opera, and the sense of whimsy is delightful. Unfortunately, it lacks glue holding the different adventures together. It could make a wonderful play / film, but as a book, it's a little too disjointed. Still, well worth reading if you like whimsy and farce and light-hearted humour and Star Trek....more
New Cairo is an underground city inside a giant crater, surrounded, like a crown, by waytowers / elevator exits. The roof of the city is covered in solar panels; an artificial sun lights the inside. Inside the city, many people are effectively cyborgs, augmented with artificial limbs and organs. Unrest is stirring: some affliction has been shutting down the augmentations, leaving people disabled, and even dead. A curfew has been put in place. People from the areas where the infection is common are not allowed to leave the city, supposedly to keep the outside world safe. But it does not seem like a coincidence that those are also the poorer areas of the city - augmentations being pivotal to hard physical labour and industrial work.
Then, a hooded stranger walks up to the waytower, seeking to return secretly to the city...
The Hive Construct won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize (for first novels). Despite its patron, this is not a comedy novel (nor a prize for humorous works). It's a thriller set in a future of CCTV-ridden, highly networked cities, of bio-augmentations and contact lenses that work much like Google Glasses. In terms of technology, there is nothing in the book that seems inconceivable - and nothing you haven't encountered before in other science fiction. But the story isn't really interested in technology: it's interested in the politics of resistance and uprising.
The main characters are a computer hacker with a past, a city councillor who is part of a dynasty of super-wealthy and politicians, and a mother who just lost her husband (a revolutionary) and who wishes to escape the city with her children. They all have different problems at the start: one wants to find and solve the virus problem, the second has been kidnapped, and the third finds herself drawn into directing operations due to her experience of running police ops from her computer.
The Hive Construct has several admirable qualities: it never gets boring, it builds up some degree of credibility in its characters and their actions, and everyone has their own problems to deal with. No one is a square-jawed selfless hero.
Set against that is a series of flaws. While the setting may be called New Cairo, it does not feel authentically Egyptian. Where Ian MacDonald creates immersive futures set in emerging nations, this novel just picks up a few vaguely Egyptian-sounding names, but could otherwise be just as easily set in America or Britain. And while the characters seem more or less believable, the story still treats the wider population - crowds especially - as a malleable mass, easily manipulated, directed, a flow, rather than anything feeling realistically like people. This gives the book a strangely detached feel, especially in the later chapters. These come across like a strategy game or a Roland Emmerich movie: lots of action, but not much punch.
In the end, it's a novel experimenting around with politics. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the London Riots, every bit of unrest and economic disparity, it's really a novel wondering about the rich and the poor, about politicians and corporations, about ends justifying means and how the means might affect the ends. It's a thought experiment, dressed as a scifi thriller. It's not stupid, but, like other novels which toy around with such themes, it feels a bit too calculated, a bit too concerned with its points to really connect. It's like reading China Mieville's more political novels (e.g. Iron Council), but without the linguistic distractions.
As thrillers go, it's not bad, and on a par with Michael Crighton's work. I had hoped for something a bit more ambitious, though....more
A Darkling Sea is a novel about scientists and explorers on a distant moon. The moon is covered in a thick layer of solid ice, with a liquid, bittercoA Darkling Sea is a novel about scientists and explorers on a distant moon. The moon is covered in a thick layer of solid ice, with a liquid, bittercold ocean underneath. There are three sets of scientists: humans, there to study the native life forms, native creatures, researching their world, and another alien species, coming to tell the humans off for violating a space treaty by having interacted with the native aliens.
With a novel that has two alien civilisations at its heart, there is huge room for imagination to run wild. So I was slightly disappointed that these aliens were not, psychologically, terribly alien. The natives may be beluga-sized crustaceans with claws and feelers and pincers - but their social order and organisation and mindset is only alien around the edges. They might have different notions of nurturing the young ones, no interest in sex, a different take on common law versus the law of owned and claimed land, different paths of inheritance, and various other things - but they still talk and think and interact and converse and research in ways that seem not that different from humans. There is something interesting going on in the way they recall events and talk about the past, but it's not enough. The second alien species is all about sex, emotions, consensus, but they, too, could feasibly be a human society, when it comes to their own culture and psychology.
The novel is at its best when there are culture clashes - when one group of aliens decides to research a creature they found, not realising that the creature is an intelligent character. Or when two aliens try to apply the most effective social pressure they can think of on a creature that is not culturally compatible with their approach. Such scenes are darkly funny.
There are language / communication barriers, and culture clashes, but ultimately, we have three species, all having two genders (males and females), all having an interest in researching / finding out information, all having good, clear reasons for everything they do, all motivated by things that human can understand and relate to.
It's undoubtedly a pleasant read, never boring, and entertaining. But it's not a book likely to stay with me for very long. ...more
Patricia is a senile old woman in a care home, struggling with Alzheimer's and her disappearing memories. But Patricia isn't like other people: we soon discover there is more to her confusion than memory loss. Those memories which she has contradict each other. It's not just memory loss, it's memory intersection - and she appears to remember two different lives.
After the (brilliant) first chapter, we follow Patricia's life (lives) in sequential order, from childhood, through to the decision after which her life went down two different paths, and all the way back to the care home. It is a journey through the twentieth century as it was, and as it might have been. Most of all, it is a saga of a life - no, two sagas, of two very different lives, in two very different worlds.
Life sagas are not usually my thing. It's a genre that tends to drift towards the bittersweet and the tragicomic and hefty doses of melancholy and golden-sheened drama. Forrest Gump, the Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window, etc. etc. etc. ...
... but this book isn't like that. Yes, it zooms through Patricia's lives, sometimes at montage speed and sometimes one key moment at a time, but the split into two lives in two different versions of the 20th century is an inspired idea: the slog of one life contrasts with the bliss of another; the relief in one is mirrored by struggles elsewhere. This removes it from the "picking yourself up again after some setback" formula because we are allowed to see lives that don't have fast ups and downs determined by artificially imposed story pacing, but that have long periods of struggle (or contentment). The ups and downs of story mood do not determine the ups and downs of plot events as artificially as they do in other sagas. These lives are somehow more realistic and authentic because of that.
Meanwhile, some fascinating stuff is going on in the background: world history and political developments don't quite match our own. It is quite rare to encounter alternative history that doesn't have a singular point of diversion (what if X won war Y), but which winds and turns through the same century in sometimes familiar, sometimes surprisingly alternative ways. We know we're in different worlds because of the way the Kennedy Presidency ends - but it does not feel as if Kennedy is really the trigger for all the changes that come after.
There are many things to love about this book: the ideas, the elements of alternative history, the way a life-saga has been subverted into something rewarding, original and interesting... but perhaps the most compelling is the character of Patricia (and the people she loves): there is a fundamental, deeply embedded kindness to her, and a huge resilience. There are genuinely difficult periods (early Trisha chapters were painful to read), but even at her most oppressed, she has the ability to focus on the things she can do and the problems she can sort out. She is never given to depression, or to brooding with despair, even when her self confidence is badly damaged for a long period of time. Kindness, resilience, open-mindedness and a sort of matter-of-fact approach to everything that happens - there is a kernel of positivity, goodness, and something of the good egg about her. She makes the book very easy to love indeed. And she's not the only good egg in this novel.
Unfortunately, the final chapter is... well, I found it quite disappointing. I would love the final chapter to be completely different (although I'm not entirely sure what should happen in it). It ties things up and rounds them off and feels quite out-of-place to me. Until that chapter, my suspension of disbelief was never in doubt, and then it came crashing down, badly. (I rather wish people understood the so-called butterfly effect, and that the misconceptions about it did not dominate popular aawareness about it...)
... but it's still an excellent novel. 4.5/5 stars, as far as I'm concerned (and the 0.5 deduction is only the final chapter - the rest is fantastic)....more
In summary: I'm very, very impressed with the craftsmanship of this novel, and would cheerfullyYou can find my full review of Sequela on my book blog
In summary: I'm very, very impressed with the craftsmanship of this novel, and would cheerfully recommend it to anyone with an interest in scifi (and some tolerance of occasional sex in literature)....more
In summary: The Just City is an enormously playful and accessible novel. Even without knowing much about philosophers or history, it is a delight to read, and it sparks and fizzes with ideas, discourse, creativity and joy in its thought experiments. The characters leap off the page and dazzle. I'd heartily recommend the novel to anyone, and can't wait for the sequel......more
Seed to Harvest is a series of four novels, collected together in one volume. The third book is essentially a standalone novel, while the fourth ties it and the first two books together.
The novels start with the meeting of two virtually immortal people, a long time ago (18th century, I think) in Africa. One is Doro, a man whose soul travels into other bodies (and whose previous host bodies die / are discarded). The other is Anyanwu, a woman who has near-infinite abilities to heal her own body, and read her own DNA, understand what each cell is doing, and how to heal / regenerate / rejuvenate herself. Doro is much older - thousands of years older - and has been breeding people with supernatural powers into little (quite incestuous) communities in order to cultivate their supernatural traits. He decides to conquer and control Anyanwu, and the first novel is essentially about the relationship between them.
The second novel, set in the 1970s or so, is about a young woman who is the most powerful result of Doro's breeding programme, and who becomes a power to contend with.
The third novel is about an invasion by an alien parasitical micro-organism which changes the physical properties of the humans it infects, and permanently alters their offspring.
The fourth novel is about people from the breeding programme, and their power struggles, while in a world-wide war with the people who are infected with the alien organism. Humans without superpowers have become nothing more than slaves.
Reading these novels, it becomes very clear what themes interest Octavia E. Butler: power, control over others, the mechanisms of slavery. Every single one of the books is about people imposing their own will and control on others, with motives that range from mean-spirited and petty to survival instinct, from lust for power to a desire to protect humanity or protect family. In essence, these are all novels about enslavers and the enslaved.
Unfortunately, the novels aren't nearly as gripping and powerful as Kindred (by the same author), which doesn't bother to metaphorise slavery into supernatural fantasy, but simply transposes a modern couple into the past through time travel. Kindred is a masterpiece. Seed to Harvest is comparatively weaker, because none of the characters are entirely human. Super-powered people using super-powers to enslave are less scary than men using mundane violence. The fantasy elements create a distance between subject matter and impact on (this) reader's empathy.
I must also admit that I did not really find Anyanwu's character convincingly developed after the first book - I think her story in the second book was wasteful and disappointing.
I'd still recommend the author highly - but I'm really glad I read Kindred first: it's a much, much better novel than this series....more
I don't usually read any books set in the world of US slavery - Uncle Tom's Cabin was just aboutYou can also find my review of Kindred on my book blog
I don't usually read any books set in the world of US slavery - Uncle Tom's Cabin was just about the extent of my reading thus far. But then, Kindred isn't a typical slavey novel.
Dana is a 26-year-old woman living in 1976. She's recently married to a white man. And one day, she gets dizzy and finds herself elsewhere, watching a little boy almost-drown. She saves his life and gets beamed back to 1976. Soon, the rules of her travels become transparent: whenever the boy is about to die, she is transported across space and time to save his bacon. Whenever she fears for her life in that world, she is returned to 1976.
The plot follows the logic of the story consistently, intelligently and entertainingly. The characters all seem believable. It's not challenging to read, but intelligently written with a lot of thought about what slavery is, how it works, how it changes people - both the slaves and the slave owners. It feels completely authentic and believable all the way through. It's a novel about power relationships and how power corrupts. The story is tense and gripping and smart.
China Mieville is a virtuoso with words, and an imagineer of worlds. Some of his novels are not just mindbogglingly imaginative, but vivid and unforgettable, imprinting some of themselves on the reader forever.
Some of his novels, on the other hand, don't.
Unfortunately, Embassytown falls into the latter category. Set in a universe many centuries after mankind had left Earth behind and become an interstellar species, the novel is narrated by a woman who grew up in Embassytown, an outpost on an alien planet, and who has spent her early adulthood as crew on interstellar spaceships. The main plot starts with her return, married to a linguist, to Embassytown, the backwater she had never meant to return to, for a few months.
There are many ideas - space travel is undertaken through the immerspace (always space), while life happens in the manchmal (sometimes) dimensions. So faster-than-light travel occurs because ships and travellers change their own dimensionality during transit, travelling not through threedimensional space at all, but through dimensions and universe in a completely different way. This allows Mieville to fachsimpel phrases in his very own German-inspired lingo for a good while, but it turns out all of that is really just a sideshow. Really, this is a story about an enclave of humans in an alien world, interacting with aliens, and changing the very foundations of alien being.
The aliens, insectile creatures that can organically bioengineer things that human technology is incapable of, have two mouths, speaking a language that is not capable of lies. The humans can only interact with aliens through Ambassadors - specially bred identical twins who synchronise their experiences and speak simultaneously, just as the aliens do.
In that setting, the novel pursues two main plotlines: what if aliens tried to learn to lie? And: what if humans inadvertently and disastrously affected the aliens?
Of Mieville's previous novels, Embassytown reminds me most strongly of Iron Council. Just like Iron Council, this is a novel of ideas and philosophy, of thought experiments and politics. I found myself able to imagine and believe the world, but struggling badly with the characters. There are many characters, but none that the reader gets particularly attached to. Our narrator is quite distant, married but not really seeming to love or care about her husband very much (and physically unfulfilled by their unsuccessful sex). She has affairs, casually, openly, as does her husband - this is not a world of monogamy at all, but a universe where people seem not to form (m)any attachments to others. The people in the story are inscrutable and incomprehensible, their actions hard to understand. Our narrator is somewhat alienated from everyone, and so, as a reader, I am, too. But I'm also alienated from our narrator, so basically there is not a single character, human, robot or alien, in this book, which I can relate to, understand, empathise with. The internal politics and power shuffles are varying, and many of the characters seem entirely replaceable. When our narrator interacts more with one doublet Ambassador, it seems that they are important, but then focus shifts, and our narrator spends more time with another Ambassador, and honestly, there never seems all that much difference in terms of character traits between any of them. If they happen to have different angles, different agendas, then these differences are mostly unpredictable and not a product of any coherent belief system, but almost an inevitability of politicking.
Bereft of any character anchor, the story still has some rewarding aspects - the imagination, etc etc - but is sadly not a very fulfilling novel. Just like Iron Council, it is a faintly bitter, not entirely pleasant read, lacking the spirit of his greater works (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, The City & The City), and replacing it with less fulfilling thought experimentation, philosophising, politics. One for Mieville completists and fans, I guess - I would not recommend this novel to people who haven't read any of his other works....more
The End Specialist is a what-if novel, asking "what if someone discovered a cure for aging". It takes the format of a series of blog posts / diary entThe End Specialist is a what-if novel, asking "what if someone discovered a cure for aging". It takes the format of a series of blog posts / diary entries, covering a span of several decades. It's split into four different episodes, each covering a timespan of a few weeks / months in a particular year.
The title is really only applicable to the last two sections of the book - there are no "End Specialists" for the first half of the story.
As a pseudo-blog, the story does not always have a distinct plotline. Much of it is social commentary / observation of the changes that are happening, and in a way, about two thirds of the novel is exposition, delivered with flair and in an engaging way, but exposition nonetheless.
As a what-if novel, the book is convincing and realistic. The shortness of each entry makes it easy and fast to read, and the thought experiment is engaging enough.
Now, let's hope no one ever succeeds at developing the cure, and that the Methuselah Mouse Project fails...
During freshers week, when I first went to University, back in 1999, the freebies they were handing out on my campus were pretty damn good. Today, youDuring freshers week, when I first went to University, back in 1999, the freebies they were handing out on my campus were pretty damn good. Today, you're lucky if you get two pens and a slice of pizza. Back then, Waterstones was at Freshers Fair, and they were handing out BOOKS!
Well, a book, to be precise. A sampler, with chapters from a variety of books that Waterstones thought were up-and-coming and cool. And, from that sampler, I ended up outright buying half a dozen novels. One of them was Michael Marshall Smith's "One of Us", and I became an instant fan. I devoured all his other books in a row. Then, of course, he started writing serial killer thrillers as Michael Marshall, and, though he might bring an uncanny, surreal element to that genre, he basically lost his way.
Spares was one of the novels that had bits in it that stuck in my mind for more than a decade. It's science fiction, it's Noir, and it's written with energy aplomb, and wit, too. You can almost imagine Ridley Scott turning some of this into a classic movie.
The basic premise of the book has been done a few times by now. "Grow clones for rich people in case they need spare parts" has been Hollywoodised as The Island (apparently by the same studio that bought an option on this novel, but then "changed its mind"), and lit-fic-ed as "Never Let Me Go". Spares, I think, preceded both. But the thing is, this is not a single-premise book. It is a novel brimming with ideas. Too many ideas, probably. There is the flying city that turned into a static city after a break down. There is the hierarchy of wealth within the city based on the floor people live on. There are the Spares and the Farms. And then there is The Gap, and the war there...
Organised crime. Dirty and clean cops / ex-cops. A lone wolf type stirring things up and prodding rich, powerful, evil people in between being chased, shot at, abducted. Vendetta / revenge quests. Veterans from a surreal jungle war. Crimes against humanity / the soul of mankind. If you mixed up Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner and The Island and added wit and anger, then maybe something like Spares might come out. The book has many ideas and scenes that stuck with me, but it is also a bit incoherent and surreal and a mess. A glorious, imaginative mess, and I still like it today....more
Iain M Banks is one of those authors whose books take up acres of space in bookshops. Often released in distinctive covers, they tend to look seriousIain M Banks is one of those authors whose books take up acres of space in bookshops. Often released in distinctive covers, they tend to look serious and ponderous. As it's space opera, and the first in a long series of books, I was never particularly attracted.
I decided to give it a try and found myself, initially, pleasantly surprised. The book starts brilliantly, in a pit slowly filling with sewage where our hero is left for execution. (Unfortunately, a very similar scene in my own writing feels now distinctly less original. Alas.) The pace picks up from there, with daring rescues, space battles, space pirates, raids, high stakes card games, spies and more to keep the thrills coming.
But, thrilling though it may be, and its grand adventure canvas notwithstanding, Consider Phlebas takes itself seriously. Our protagonist, Horza, is a Changer, a humanoid able to change his appearance through lengthy controlled biological processes. He can kill and impersonate others, he's armed with poisonous teeth and claws and a body that is unusually resilient to injuries / fast-healing, but he is also haunted by these very abilities. Our hero spends so much time impersonating that he struggles to find his own self sometimes. He is haunted by decisions, perhaps mistakes, that he has made in the past, and by the things he has sacrificed to become this human weapon. He's also ruthless and mostly effective.
In the end, Consider Phlebas is a novel that I can appreciate, even enjoy, but not one which makes me want to buy more by the same author. It has pace and adventure and well-crafted writing - but, taking itself very seriously (while still anticipating the immensely silly tropes of space travel and space battles in craft travelling faster than the speed of light, etc.), the book does not feel as joyful as one might hope. There is something grim at the heart of the novel, and that makes it hard to find delightful, for me....more
As young adult fiction goes, this is definitely on the hard and brutal side of things. In this science fiction novel, our hero is a teenager working aAs young adult fiction goes, this is definitely on the hard and brutal side of things. In this science fiction novel, our hero is a teenager working a tough life, suffering hunger, struggling with an abusive, violent father, and trying to hold on to his job of dragging metal out of obsolete ships. It's a dog eat dog world, and people are willing to let each other die for a few barrels of oil, as that alone could be enough to buy their way up the food chain.
And then one day, a modern ship wrecks near the coast, and aboard, there is one very rich survivor...
Set in a post-climate change future, the novel's science fiction elements are all hard SF (i.e. scientifically credible) and not far fetched. The setting, writing, plot are all of solid quality. It's a thrilling read, but as mentioned, quite brutal. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this as a child......more
Retribution Falls is an action novel. It features a wisecracking crew, each of whom has a past / secrets, working as aerial pirates in a Wild West somRetribution Falls is an action novel. It features a wisecracking crew, each of whom has a past / secrets, working as aerial pirates in a Wild West somewhere - think Firefly with lighter-than-air ships rather than spaceships.
The novel takes a while to get engaging - it starts mid-action, and lots of stuff happens, but it takes a long while for the characters to grow on you as a reader. There are quite a few similarities with Firefly in the characters, too, and for a while, this grates. Eventually, each gets to have their background story told, while the overarching plot sees them duped into trouble, and then try to unravel the trouble, getting further and further into deep trouble on the way.
The writing is fairly minimalist and clunky - and the author can quite cheerfully spend a page or two at a time on a character taking stock of their own development and growth over the course of the story. There is nothing subtle about the writing at all.
However, despite the clunky tone, the unengaging start, and the somewhat derivative feel, this novel feels entertaining in the end. By the time you know the backstories, some of the characters feel likeable (Jez was likeable from the start - the rest slowly earned their charme), and you can cheerfully imagine reading more of their adventures, or watching a TV show based on this lot of airborne Wild West pirates......more
Zahrah is a girl living in a small kingdom that is surrounded by jungle. She's dada - born with not just hair, but plany vines growing from her head -Zahrah is a girl living in a small kingdom that is surrounded by jungle. She's dada - born with not just hair, but plany vines growing from her head - which is rare and mystical in this world. Soon, we realise this is not Earth: the technology is deeply integrated with plants and the natural world, and the wildlife is a little more fantastical than that on Earth.
Growing up as outsider, she is picked on and bullied, with only one real friend - a popular boy who is adventurous and has an explorer spirit. Together, they sneak into the forbidden Dark Market (well, forbidden to children), and ultimately, the outskirts of the Forbidden Jungle (forbidden to all). But misadventure occurs, and it will be up to Zahrah to find spirit and bravery within herself, if she wants to save his life...
It took me a long while to get used to the book and its world. It is not as different from our world as China Mieville's New Weird genre, but at the same time, it's different enough to not feel like a bog standard fantasy or scifi world. I kept expecting subversions that were not forthcoming: that we were on Earth all along, just in an isolated jungle in Africa. Or that the main monsters would turn out to be human bulldozers or tanks. Or that the "humans" were in fact fairies or other animals...
Instead, the narration is at face value, which I simply did not expect. It took me a very long while (half the book or more) to get used to this, and even near the very end, I kept expecting twists and subversions and more. I suppose the world that has been created here is, for my personal taste, sitting somewhere awkward: not strange enough, nor familiar enough, for me to feel entirely at ease as a reader.
The adventure story meanwhile is quite straightforward and deftly told. Our heroine starts out perhaps a little too shy and easily scared, has adventures, and gets her bacon saved by luck perhaps a little too often. But by the end, I was quite engaged and gripped by the narrative.
I'm certainly intrigued by Nnedi Okorafor's writing vision, and curious to read other novels, to see in which direction she develops...
The Dervish House starts with a bang: a suicide bomber blows up her own head on a tram in Istanbul. The rest of the novel tells the stories of a wideThe Dervish House starts with a bang: a suicide bomber blows up her own head on a tram in Istanbul. The rest of the novel tells the stories of a wide variety of characters who either live or work in the Dervish House. One of the characters was a witness to the bombing, but the others are simply people who share a common geography.
It is a novel about many things: science fiction (nanotechnology is a big part of this novel, as are designer drugs), interconnectivity, myths, stories, history, Istanbul - above all, Istanbul. There is fascination in this novel - fascination with a city that squats right across a natural funnel for trade and ideas and peoples, that has a rich history and atmosphere unlike any other. The novel is deeply atmospheric, beautifully written, and captures Istanbul very well.
The characters, meanwhile, have different plots and stories. There's the little boy with a heart condition who explores the world through his robots and dreams of having big adventures - and who starts investigating the bombing and its aftermath. There's the old Greek professor, a friend to the boy and a forgotten, sidelined academic, who tries to see the bigger picture, and who is asked to help out with a security think tank. There's the woman owning a gallery and antique shop who is asked to source a legendary relic for a million Euros - a relic that may just be a myth. There's her husband, a cocky trader on the stock market, dealing in options and doing exactly the sort of business deals that are currently on the brink of bringing capitalism to its knees. He's planning a major (illegal) deal to smuggle (radioactively polluted) gas into Europe. Finally, there's the witness to the bombing, a man with a gruesome history, who starts seeing supernatural beings...
There are lots of other characters, drawn in vivid colours and compelling detail, in the story only for moments and gone again, or recurring. Ultimately, the plot lines do interweave and pull together in an exciting finale. Regarding the plotlines - they are thrilling and exciting, by and large. The quest for the Mellified Man has something grandiose about it, and it powers the interest for much of the early parts of the novel, while other plotlines are slower to build up to their grand adventures. Some of the characters are less than likeable - but it is clear that the author likes them a lot. The cocky trader was immensely annoying: a sleazy, slick bag of slime, and yet the writer seems to be rather sympathetic to him. The tomato girl / marketeer is, like the trader, a shallow, slick person, and similarly difficult to like. There is a pattern here. The child dreams of adventure, the adults in their youth dream of money and power, the old dream of the lives they did not lead... in flashbacks, we see the older people in their youth, and they dreamt of revolution. There is grand adventure in the novel, and melancholy, and sadness, and joy, and a lot of capitalist greed and confident swaggering. There are ideas about technology and the future. There is religious fervour, too, in some sub plots...
It is a very good novel, a novel rich in ideas and emotions. I would heartily recommend it to anyone.
Some notes for Kindle readers: the spacing between paragraphs is almost as large as the spacing between scenes, making it more difficult than it should be to read the novel. As most scenes start with some description, I often struggled to notice when a previous scene had ended, and only understood I was following a different character when they appeared by name. This was especially frustrating at the start of the novel, when we meet all the characters: it took me quite a while to realise the scene changes were occurring....more
Cory Doctorow writes about the near future. All of his novels are set in a world that is still within the realms of the imaginable. It makes them notCory Doctorow writes about the near future. All of his novels are set in a world that is still within the realms of the imaginable. It makes them not always easy to classify - they can seem a bit utopian or dystopian or too futuristic or not futuristic enough... basically, they sit in a genre and class of their own.
Makers is a novel about people who like to be creative and invent stuff. It's about a future where everyone can become a mad inventor, like the one in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with minimal resource investment and without understanding all the inner workings of their inventions. Basically, he's extrapolated about 10 years into the future. Maybe less.
The characters in his novel are: Perry and Lester - two "makers", Susanne - a journalist assigned to cover their story, Kettlewell - a visionary business man who merges two old economy industrial behemoths, liquidates all their industrial aspects and turns the new corporation into a venture capital investor for mad inventors, Tjan - a manager brought in to monetise the mad inventions, Freddy - a vicious little turd of a journalist, and Sammy - a Disney Parks manager who tries to innovate the park and fight the competition.
But the truth is, the characters are secondary to the ideas. The novel chronicles their actions and lives for a few years, then a skip of a few years, then another few months, with an epilogue set another fifteen years later. But it never feels like a story. Yes, there are conflicts and struggles, but some of them happen off-stage, some are just flamewars on the interwebs, some are a little forced. There is no overarching story arc - it's more like a lengthy series of events, a murky, undirected collection of lives that intersect at these two points, important to all sets of lives, but not perhaps all-important.
No, the important thing in this book is not the people. It's the ideas. It's why they all spend so much time discussing, debating, talking about ideas. It's why the book sometimes reads like a discussion in a forum, or the kind of conversations students at university can sometimes have, when they're still convinced that they have a future of changing the world before them, and want to play out ideas about what that future world will or should be.
So, the ideas:
We don't need to understand the workings of stuff to invent it. These days, there are libraries of source code, computer applications that can compute almost anything, modular codes that you can combine without ever having seen a line of source code yourself, open APIs and mashups... so anyone can quickly put something together without being particularly smart or educated that would have taken prior generations a hundred people and a year. (Witness the App development boom on mobile phones, and the way little computer games are made these days)
What if the same were true for physical objects? Cue the 3D printers (which already exist, but are pricey). They print 3D objects out of plastic. What if you could have programmable, learning robots using and assembling those objects, and working for you. You could be a factory...
The other ideas are mostly about organisations, patents, copyrights, trademarks: fundamentally, wouldn't it be nicer if intellectual property did not exist? If everyone could mashup not just songs, but ideas, objects, products, inventions, without needing permission, and then sell them on...
There's other ideas in there too, about American nutritional habits, biotech, poverty and poor communities etc. but ultimately, the thing that drives the novel is frustration with the existence of intellectual property, and lawyers.
The book is an interesting read, but never a funny one. Sometimes characters roll on the floor laughing, but it's over things that you need to be there to find funny. It's not a very tense read either - all the energy goes into discussions, debates, plans of action, but events just sort of sneak up on people, like hurricanes, and characters are more reactive than authorial in their own fates.
I suppose the thing I found most difficult about reading the book is that it started out with huge energy, and then fizzled into defeatism. It read a little like China Mieville's novels - not in the language, which is purely functional and not decorative at all - but in the affection for a political mode that the novel itself seems to think cannot work, not because the model is bad, but because it would require people to be smart and good and believe in it. Just like Mieville's socialist collectivist people power organisations, the ideas and political models in Makers need not just momentum, but inertia, and neither author can convince himself that critical mass could be reached. So we read about movements that struggle, fizzle, die... get reborn, struggle... it starts out with a bang and continues with a whinge, heads for a whisper. Which makes the reading experience not satisfying in that part of your brain that likes well-rounded stories with a climax and genuine excitement at the end. It may make it intellectually satisfying, but I read books to be satisfied in my story-sense as well as my intellectual sense, and this book delivers the latter without the former....more
First of all, thank you Cory Doctorow for making your books available under Creative Commons Licences, for free, on the web. Also, thank you Sony forFirst of all, thank you Cory Doctorow for making your books available under Creative Commons Licences, for free, on the web. Also, thank you Sony for the Reader - it makes reading free ebooks a pleasure.
That said, I will probably not buy a hard copy of this book. It isn't bad, don't get me wrong, but it did not stun or wow me. (Unlike Little Brother, of which I did not only buy one hard copy for myself after reading the free version, but various copies for schools out in the world, and which I tried hard to get my undergrads to read. I suppose that means the verdict is out on whether creative commons is a good way of promoting work - I think it is a good way for great work, but a bad way for middle of the range works...)
So, Down and Out... What is it about? It's set in a post-scarcity society. Nothing is scarce at all - unlimited energy, unlimited resources, unlimited lifespans (courtesy of a simple process whereby clones are made to order, and memories and minds transferred into them when the person dies - all people need to do is back up regularly). The internet / information is universally available, in people's minds at a thought's notice. People don't use phones or hardware - when they want to reach each other, they subvocally connect to the other's minds and hope they let them in.
Very well. No scarcity means no real economy - except, people have something a bit like a currency still: whuffie. It's their social standing, turned into a number. People check each other's whuffie to see whether the other person is worthwhile sticking around, or lower down the pecking order.
In that world, our hero lives in Disneyworld with his girlfriend, looking after some of the rides. An old friend from University and former missionary assimilating other societies into this one, Dan, comes into their lives, bereft of whuffie and friends (despite being a legendary, whuffie rich person decades ago), desperate, and wishing, but not quite brave enough to kill himself...
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom sounds like a dystopia. Or rather, like the kind of dystopia where everyone in it thinks it's a utopia. Even the title sounds like it has a hefty dose of cynicism in it. Unfortunately, the book does not quite deliver on that expectation. Perhaps it does, but too subtly. Perhaps it is not meant to be a dystopia, but an eutopia without value judgement, a literarily more ambitious beast.
The main plotline is actually quite mellow - our hero is part of a group of people trying to protect an old fashioned way of doing theme park rides (especially the Haunted Mansion), while another competing group is trying to turn the rides into virtual, modern, in-people's-minds experiences. It's basically heritage versus high tech, Routemasters versus bendy buses but with Disneyworld rides. Early on, a murder occurs, but as we find out, murder is entirely reversible in this eutopia.
Perhaps the book's main problem is that it sets up expectations - with setting, title, and the murder - that don't really get delivered on. I spent most of the first half of the book waiting for a sinister, rotten core about this society to emerge. I spent a lot of time waiting for things to get larger than about a little bit of office politics amongst maintenance staff in a theme park. I spent a lot of the book expecting this to be a thriller, and not a book about someone slowly self-destructing due to an obsession with the past.
I spent a lot of the time reading a different book from the one that was on the paper, (or e-reader), if you know what I mean. It's a bit like a Banksy vandalisation of the Hay Wain, except in reverse. The eye sees something it is used to, then it is livened up by subversion. Except, here the eye sees something subversive that then turns into a mellow country side painting. No wonder some strange people on the web think whuffie is a good idea and are building computer systems to allocate whuffie to web users (everyone on Twitter has their whuffie measured and published somewhere, even if they never even heard of it...)
On the whole, this is a book that is full of ideas. It just seems to be a little undecided about these ideas, unsure whether it likes or dreads them, and, while nobly allowing the reader to make up their own minds, the story becomes weaker and less captivating as a result....more
Paris, a spoiled rich girl, joins her uncle Franklin on a strange and mysterious expedition into the Himalayas. Tahr, an orphan boy and young monk inParis, a spoiled rich girl, joins her uncle Franklin on a strange and mysterious expedition into the Himalayas. Tahr, an orphan boy and young monk in training, is taken on a journey by his master. And then there is a third entity, living in the wild, not expecting outsiders. Their paths are going to cross...
The Lastling is an adventure story. It is never boring. Some details are kept suitably vague - we're never quite sure which country we're in, who the rebels are and whose war is being fought. But that is OK - our main characters, Paris and Tahr, seem just as oblivious to the big picture.
There are some technical hiccups along the way - some characters seem to know things which were said in conversations where they weren't present, and sometimes the level of English that Tahr speaks fluctuates, but minor inconsistencies aside, the story is very gripping. There are chilling moments, and tragic ones. There is a menacing undercurrent to the narrative, and the mood of the story is certainly not light-hearted.
All in all, I'd recommend it as a darker, relentless adventure story - but not necessarily to fans of squaky clean Disney style narratives....more
I do feel slightly guilty for disliking things Ben Elton writes. After all, he is one of the people behind Blackadder. Unfortunately, it turns out he'I do feel slightly guilty for disliking things Ben Elton writes. After all, he is one of the people behind Blackadder. Unfortunately, it turns out he's not exactly a great novelist.
Blind Faith is set in a future where climate change has flooded much of the Earth, overcrowding is everpresent, and people have turned their back on science and reason. Instead, society is a voyeuristic, exhibitionist, faith-based, reality-TV like mess. Everyone live streams almost every moment of their lives on the web; everyone has videos compiled of their most private memories (losing virginities, giving birth, etc.) and is sharing them with the entire world; and faith leaders control the society with an Inquisition and barbaric methods, while people are quick to form angry mobs that turn on individuals, screaming "pedo" and tearing them apart. Oh, and everyone is overweight, all the food is full of sugar, and people practice no self-restraint and celebrate themselves all the time.
In this mess lives Trafford, a man who rather likes privacy and has a sense of dignity / shame. He has a wife. They have a baby. And one day, someone suggests he might want to commit one of the vilest crimes of all, and vaccinate her (vaccines are heresy), in order to protect her from the many, many lethal plagues that decimate children (mumps, measles, etc.)
Trafford is one of those dystopian nobody-heroes that instantly remind the reader of 1984, Brave New World, Brazil, and other classics. A completely downtrodden little unimportant cog. Fine. Something sparks, and suddenly there are deadly secrets and subversion in his life. So far so good. Unfortunately, the book falls flat in almost every other regard.
Let's start with the little things: suspension of disbelief. It's impossible. Seriously, a world as overcrowded as this society could not sustain itself. Everyone eating all the time is a nice idea, but in a flooded world, where does the food grow? Talking of floods, sure, global warming will raise sea levels, but the effects in this book are Waterworldian - far beyond the credible. Even if we believe all that, how could this society of uneducated imbeciles (at one point, a book that isn't written for children is described as a challenge) ever function? People who make or repair plasma screens, fix internet connections, design buildings, etc. etc. etc. - they all need some measure of education.
Even if we assume suspension of disbelief (thanks to a generous portion of goodwill), the book disappoints. It isn't particularly funny, nor original, and all the points it makes are so unbelievably obvious, its satire is so ham-fisted, that it feels like a book written for ten year olds. Except for the sex in it, of course.
Ben Elton is the writer who is the quickest at noticing some cultural trend, and who pounces on it, writing and publishing a novel while even our short tabloid-fuelled attention span has not wandered away. He wrote Popcorn, about Natural Born Killers and Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino style movies. He wrote Past Mortem, while Friends Reunited had not yet been dethroned by MySpace and Facebook. He wrote House Arrest, while Big Brother was still new and fashionable. You get the drift. Whatever fad starts to get noticed by tabloids, Ben Elton sniffs it out and lambasts it in a novel. Here, he concentrates his fire on social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace (I think it's called Facespace in the book), the Jerry Springer generation / experience, and anti-science backlash.
It all feels horrendously frustrating. He creates a world so he can criticise it. He creates characters so we can resent them. Fine, I resent them, but I don't read books just so I can hate all the characters and their world. There needs to be something more - and in this novel, there isn't. The plot is never truely tense, it follows the dystopia template so closely that you sort of know how it's going to end before you've even met all the characters, and the lack of subtlety comes across as shallow and stupid. It's a bit as if someone had taken a Banksy graffiti and turned it into a novel. (Nothing against Banksy - some of his work is funny and satirical and enjoyable - but it's meant for one wall, not for 300 pages)
Toby Litt is one of my favourite authors, largely as a result of Corpsing - a crime novel I really, really enjoyed. His other novels are all differentToby Litt is one of my favourite authors, largely as a result of Corpsing - a crime novel I really, really enjoyed. His other novels are all different, but all interesting, even if they aren't always quite as delightful.
When I found out that he'd written a science fiction novel about a Journey into Space, I got quite excited. I like scifi/speculative fiction, and I was curious what this literary author might do with the idea.
Journey into Space is quite an experimental novel. Set aboard a ship that will take several lifetimes to reach its destination, with 100 human colonists on boarrd, none of whom have ever seen Earth, and none of whom will be alive when the ship reaches its destination, there is a lot of room for interesting, original, and quite dark writing.
We start with two teenagers and their game of imagining and describing Earth to each other. At first, it is alienating, but it becomes more powerful - and especially once they do single sentence descriptions, there is something poetic about it all. Over time, we follow them and several other generations until the ship arrives somewhere.
On some levels, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it never outlasted one generation. There are several big turning points (one of which is told in a ten page metaphor - highly experimental, but ultimately, deeply unsatisfying), several big characters, but the book never really feels consistent. There are big ironies in it, and a dark sense of humour, and bleakness, and humanity, but somehow, each time the plot accelerates by many years, it feels like a little human detail is lost. This is not, ultimately, a story of lost generations, but a story of progression up to a specific point. By giving us the global view, Litt takes away from his own premise, and gives us a pessimistic and unhappy, somewhat preachy novel.
I really wanted to like it, but ultimately, once the focus shifted to different characters, along with the time and the generations, the novel lost something, which it never recovered....more