Rather enjoyable read, did a much better job fleshing out the secondary characters than the movie did. However, I felt the end was a bit weak. Full reRather enjoyable read, did a much better job fleshing out the secondary characters than the movie did. However, I felt the end was a bit weak. Full review to come once I return to the east coast...more
This was a tough book to put down (and not just because of the lack of chapters). Eggers draws up a chilling world where a near omnipresent technologyThis was a tough book to put down (and not just because of the lack of chapters). Eggers draws up a chilling world where a near omnipresent technology company (think a combination of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon) is on the verge of even more amazing breakthroughs thanks to the power of computer networking, big data algorithms, and ubiquitous connectivity of devices to the web. Sound familiar?
The story is told through the eyes and experiences of Mae, a young 20-something who begins working at The Circle, the aforementioned, and definitely not at all ominous, technology company. The Circle (the company) is all about having the workspace also be a community. Think the mythical Google Campus writ much larger. Gorgeous new buildings, the best, most up to date technology, fully furnished on campus dorm rooms, free and amazing food options, tons of different intra-company groups and activities hosted for free on the campus, support for employees' personal projects. All this to attract the very best minds in the world and getting them interact with each other. A paradise for the brilliant where they are unfettered by financial limits to push the boundaries of science. Progress is the by word and everything will make the world a better place.
Sounds great right? Mae certainly thinks so. What's not to love about being part of such a positive company that is working to eliminate the risk of child kidnapping, is investing in technology to explore the Marianas Trench, and is improving online dating to name but a few of the many, many programs they are invested in.
But there is a seductive dark side to this Techno-Eden. Mae runs afoul early by ignoring a few invites to events. This results in what I can only describe as a self-criticisms right out of communist Russia. But these aren't recriminations for being ideologically impure, but for failing to engage and be part of the Circle family. While you don't have to do anything you don't want to, it is expected that Circle employees maintain a certain level of social presence both online and on campus. Failure to do so is socially (and somewhat professionally) frowned upon.
Because the story takes place over many months the reader is privy to the development of Mae within this atmosphere. We can see how subtle social pressures can alter a person's behavior, be it from interacting with other people acting a certain way, or having incrementally more outwardly facing responsibilities added as part of her job. By the end it seemed like all the online and on campus social obligations and interactions she has taken upon herself had hollowed her out, leaving nothing but a drone going through the expected motions throughout the day. Her entire outlook on life and others had changed as well as her value systems. There was no Room 101 or O'Brien that made her change, this was a an incremental process that was almost undetectable over the course of the book, but by the end was very apparent. The Circle (the book) is just as much about a person being inducted into a cult as it is about the dangers of total informational awareness.
Another unstated cultural norm at the Circle is that information wants to be free ("You can't stop the signal, Mal" for you Firefly fans out there). The more information that is available, the better people can be. Sounds great right? More information means better decisions. More information means you can track when a flu epidemic might be about to breakout, or what sorts of food people prefer to eat at lunch, or if your diet is causing some unexpected health side effect. Awesome stuff, right?
Well, what if it was taken a little further? Instead of information wanting to be free, what if everyone had a right to all information? What if the withholding of information was treated as a type of lie that hurt others? What if by having everything about ourselves known, we would act better: we wouldn't eat bad food, we wouldn't cheat, we wouldn't steal, we wouldn't break the law.
There is a seduction there. A hand that gives you the perfectly safe world, the perfectly transparent world, the world where no one is ever in want, no one is ever abused, no child is ever stolen or killed. This is the fruit of the the ultimate tree of knowledge, but it must be fertilized with our privacy. Every moment is stored for all of posterity, freely accessible to all. An omnipresent mob that could always be looking over your shoulder, judging you, measuring you, and very possibly able to socially shame you. And it isn't just a mob, they can always miss things. No, thanks to the power of technology computers can track your behavior now and determine if it is outside some preset norm. Mobs might sleep or ignore you, but a computer is an eternal watchman that knows all and sees all.
Suddenly this Eden isn't paradise because it is inhabited by angels, but because every fallible human fears the devil that is lurking on their shoulder ready to excoriate them if they diverge from the acceptable path. There are no titanic shifts from Techno-utopia to Techno-dystopia. There is no mustache twirling villain, Satan hasn't overthrown God and sits upon the Throne of Heaven, Big Brother hasn't taken over through a blood revolution. No, this sort of mob tyranny is like a creeping vine, barely preceptable in its growth and welcomed by nearly everyone. They freely done the shackles of surveillance that once only existed in the wet dreams of tyrants and dictators
But more than the shackles is the willful submersion of the self to the global web mass of humanity. With access to so much information and connections with people there is no time for the self. There is no time for the self-reflection that comes from being truly alone. When everything and everyone is transparent, we all act the same else we run the sticking out from the crowd and earn its disapprobation. That is the ultimate risk of interconnectivity and total information awareness: the uniqueness that grows from isolation and privacy cannot be.
I saw a lot of themes and ideas from touchstone dystopias in this book, most prominently 1984 and We. Where Big Brother is already entrenched at the head of a totalitarian police state in 1984, we see how such a thing could organically develop and be accepted. Where We had transparent buildings to better observe everyone at once, The Circle introduced nearly invisible cameras that can be easily installed anywhere and everywhere, no need for transparent walls when every wall has a camera on it.
The most unsettling part of The Circle is how much more realistic it is than many other classic dystopias. Many of the technologies described seems to be within our reach. We already have massive tech companies that track and store immense amounts of data on all of us. As computing and programming technologies advance it is not inconceivable to see parts of The Circle come to life.
The brilliantly handled thing about this book is how close to paradise the technology brings us. Some of the Circle's technology advances are genuine boons to the world: unremoveable chips in children that can prevent them from being kidnapped, small cameras that can be used to bring transparency and accountability to terrible regimes, breakthroughs in medical monitoring. But these fruits are twisted into serving the goal of total information transparency. Do I think this will happen? No, but there is no doubting that the proliferation of the technologies described in The Circle will change how we live our lives, for better (fingers crossed) or for worse.
I found The Circle to be an utterly engrossing read with a very deftly handled message that didn't bludgeon you over the head. Eggers expertly laid out the story and let you draw your own conclusions from its events. There are tons of other things I am leaving out of this review (the ever expanding screens Mae works with, the three wise men, the potential for abuse for those who control information, what happens to those who try to opt out to name but a few) that do a wonderful job further laying out the chilling near future world of (cue dramatic music) The Circle....more
This book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into culturalThis book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into cultural forces of Islam. Speaking as someone with a pretty good knowledge base I can honestly say I learned a great deal from this book (beyond never accepting a dinner invitation from the Abbasids) and viewed history in a different light. Ansary rightly points out that Islamic history, one where Islamic cultures were much more advanced that European societies, are relegated to very small slices of world history text books. After reading this, it is difficult to understand why when Islamic cultures are major players in world history.
The most important aspect of Islam the author (who is himself a Muslim) stresses is that Islam is not about individual salvation but about the community. Many Muslims throughout history and today have harkened back to the very first community of Muslims, when Mohammad still lived among them, as an ideal to strive for. In that society the leaders were humble and lived among the people. Mohammad was on hand to settle disputes in a just and fair manner and there was much harmony among the Muslim community. From a Christian or Western perspective, it would be as though Jesus was never killed and lived among his followers, continuing to provide divine wisdom and guidance. While that may not have been how things actually played out, Ansary notes that the story of how it happened has influenced Islamic culture ever since.
Ansary then does a diligent job highlighting the direction the Muslim community (which at this point was still confined to the Arabian Peninsula and among Arab tribes) went after Mohammad passed. The rightly Guided Caliphs, as they are known, led their community in to a vast expansion, with each victory lending further credence to God being on their side. This link between victory and divine approval was a keystone to the community for much of its early existence. The first Islamic Empire spread from Central Asia to Iberia, making it one of the largest in history.
What I found fascinating was how the community absorbed and was changed by converts. What was once a close community composed of Arab tribesmen became a multiethnic Empire. At different periods various ethnic groups were the dominant force in the Muslims world. Initially it was Arabs but at various times it was Persians or Turks or some other group. The mixing and merging of different peoples also lead to a diverse expression of Muslim piety and power. However, whichever group was in power, still saw their victories heavily outweigh their setbacks.
That is until the greatest calamity the Muslim world had seen to date fell upon them. No, not the crusaders from Europe. They were at worst a nuisance, really only conquering four major cities and not penetrating into the Muslim heartland. They had struck during a time of chaos within the Islamic world where the great Empires of the past had devolved into competing cities in the Eastern Mediterranean world. At times battles would be fought between armies that saw Muslims and Crusaders on both sides of the lines. The Crusaders were just another piece on the board that various Muslim rulers had to take into account.
The calamity which, arguably, still resounds to this day, were the Mongols. They swept through central Asia (which had its share of advanced Islamic civilizations) destroying literally everything in their bath. They sacked (and I mean SACKED) Baghdad so hard it has yet to recover after hundreds of years, and general owned just about everyone they came across. While some parts of the Mongol population were eventually converted to Islam, the swiftness and severity of their devastation shook the very core of the Muslim world. Why had God forsaken them? Were they no longer in his favor? What did they do wrong? While some within the community argued that in the end the conversion and defeat of the Mongols meant God still favored them, many turned to new ways to understand Islam and Allah. New schools of thought and law were developed in response to the Mongols that has resonance to this day.
For me, the most interesting part of the book dealt with the response the Muslim world had to the rise of the West. The dynamism of the west driven by the emphasis on individual achievement and powered by the industrial revolution made inroads into the Muslim world (by this time mostly dominated by the Ottoman Empire and Iran). Slowly, piece by piece, these empires were places further and further under the thumb of European powers. Be it through Western technical advisers who helped reform the government and military, or the monied interest that extended loans to find these reforms, or business interests that could buy off entire portions of a country's economy the West slowly became dominant over the Muslim world.
This wasn't some grand conspiracy among the various Western powers, even if the ends were the same. They were concerned about other powers gaining an advantage in The Great Game and had to make the appropriate count moves. This resulted in unsettled populations, resentment between the ruling and upper classes who benefited somewhat by these changes and the lower classes who were displaced or exploited. Ansary does an excellent job parsing the various currents and forces that flowed through the Muslim world, explaining how they reacted to the change of events and why. It was extremely fascinating to see the various responses to modernism in the Islamic world and how those responses influence the world today.
Simply put this book is an essential part of any attempt to understand the modern world and especially the modern Muslim world. It is extremely well written, being accessible to novices and informative to the more well-read. It provides a unique set of fascinating insights in Islamic history and culture that I have found somewhat lacking from Western sources. ...more
To Stand or to Fall, the last chapter in The End of All Things, was also the end of my four star or betterSpoilers in the second half of this review.
To Stand or to Fall, the last chapter in The End of All Things, was also the end of my four star or better streak with Scalzi. It wasn't that this book was bad. It had the trademark Scalzi snark:
"Captain, the problem is not that I'm paranoid. The problem is that the universe keeps justifying my paranoia."
It had some of the great characters we had met before: Wilson, Schmidt, Lowen, and Abumwe to name a few. And it wasn't as though it was failed by the previous installments either. In fact, I thought the previous story, Can Long Endure, was the best of the series. It had an excellent blend of character driven story, intergalactic politics, and action. Even though I had never encountered the main characters before they had quickly become familiar and sympathetic to me.
The problem I found with To Stand or Fall was two fold.
I thought the build up of the evil shadowy organization, Equilibrium, was fantastic in The Human Division and the previous End of All Things chapters. They came off as competent, dangerous, ruthless, and well connected. Their downfall in this chapter seemed absurdly anti-climatic. Further, we never even get to see the downfall, it mostly happened off page and was briefly described. We never get the low down on why they were doing what they were doing apart from speculation. Scalzi somehow fell victim to telling much more than showing.
The second problem I had with this installment was there was little to no character development or character conflict. All the characters got along quite well, their plans (which included a rather massive change in Conclave-Human relations AND Colonial Union governance) went off without a hitch (that we saw). I expected some sort of reverses or set backs, some hiccup in the plans of our heroes, but The best laid schemes of mice and men did not in any way go astray.
Obviously Scalzi is setting up this series for a completely different paradigm for the subsequent books, given how the galactic political scene is now set up, but that is no excuse for some weak story telling and a general let down after three excellent installments. I am still a big Scalzi believer and hope this is merely a hiccup in an otherwise sterling writing record....more
Ella Minnow Pea starts as a cute, light hearted book about a fictional country that idolizes Nevin Nollop, the man who discovered the pangram "The quiElla Minnow Pea starts as a cute, light hearted book about a fictional country that idolizes Nevin Nollop, the man who discovered the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs." Written in the form of letters between townsfolk, the tale turns to fear as letters from Nollop's famous line begin falling off a statue erected to his honor. The Island Council decrees it is the will of Nollop (dead for nearly a century) for his people to no longer use those letters. Any one found using them would be punished up to exile.
This book is very much about tyranny and how people react to it. It starts small, with a few lesser utilized letters being banned. But as more letters are lost, neighbor turns upon neighbor using the new edicts as a way to settle old scores. What started as a simple inconvenience slowly creeps into a dystopian nightmare as days and months are renamed. The once literate population of the island is reduced to an ever shrinking group terrified to speak freely else they use a forbidden letter. Religious fanaticism destroys all it touches, undermining the very language Nollop was acclaimed to have loved.
Dunn does a wonderful job playing into this conceit, slowly subtracting the letters from the letters he has the characters write. We get to know the characters through their missives and connect with them. We see their hopes, joys, and despairs play out in the nightmarish atmosphere they find themselves in. All in all it is a quick, playful read that offers a satirical take on creeping religious totalitarianism....more
A fascinating side effect of Scalzi's decision to release "The End of All Things" is he has the flexibility to concentrate on completely different chaA fascinating side effect of Scalzi's decision to release "The End of All Things" is he has the flexibility to concentrate on completely different characters in each installment, much like he did in The Human Division. In this installment we leave the world of high politics and policy to inhabit the life of the boots on the ground. In this case Colonial forces that are now dashing around the galaxy putting down independence movements on Colonial Union planets. This decision worked well on two levels.
On the first level we get to experience the life of a grunt. What happens to them the 99% of the time they aren't fighting. Just like any other group of people that spend long amounts of time together, they can get into some pretty banal conversations:
"Yeah, it's Tuesday. Ask me how I know." "Because of your BrainPal?" "No. Because yesterday was Pizza Day in the Tubingen mess. Pizza Day is always Monday. Therefore: It's Tuesday." "That messes me up." "That it's Tuesday?" "No, that Monday is Pizza Day. Back on Earth I was a custodian at an elementary school. Pizza Day was always on a Friday. The teachers used it to keep the kids in line. 'Behave yourself or you don't get pizza on Friday.' Having Monday Pizza Day subverts the natural order of things."
Scalzi does an excellent job fleshing out the four soldiers in a particular platoon. You get a feel for the sort of stuff they have to put up with and their relationship with each other quite quickly.
On the second level Scalzi has a nice canvas to work with to pontificate on the nature of government. When, if at all, is it permissible to secede? How should it be done? Who should bear the burden of it? Given that there are both hostile aliens in this galaxy and a shadowy conspiracy operating to subvert the Colonial Union, are these independence movements legitimate? Through the eyes of the platoon members we see how these movements are being dealt with.
What you may not have expected is that it [voting for independence] would cost all these things [death] as quickly as it will. But these are not the days of the American Revolution, and the Colonial Union is not the British Empire, an ocean and several months away. We are here now. It's time to find out who among you is willing to make the sacrifice for independence... Did you now think there would be a struggle to follow? Did you know believe the words you said? Or did you believe the repercussions of your actions would be shouldered by others - by the citizens who will be pressed into service to defend the so-called independence you wish to give them?
It is a fascinating subject matter given all the dynamics in place and we see what the result of Colonial Union policy is on the ground. Scalzi does a wonderful job playing this out with his cast of characters.
"You're doing that thing where you think you're thinking about long term implications again, aren't you, Lambert?" "I'm pointing out flattening the building might be unsubtle and not the best course of action." "I prefer to think of it as a Gordian Knot type solution." "The Gordian Knot wasn't twelve stories high with lots of people living in it... We seem to be sending a lot of messages recently. I'm not sure the message we're sending is the message they're receiving."
It sure is ugly seeing the sausage made (or, in some cases, unmade).
I think what works best about this installment is how well Scalzi humanizes all sides of the story. We become emotionally invested in these characters and there is no clear villain (save for perhaps the shadowy conspiracy). Both sides have excellent points int their favor and there is plenty of room to debate the various merits of them. This book doesn't make a judgement about who is right, but let's the characters naturally make choices based on their experiences and outlooks. While this story does not, perhaps, deliver an extensive amount of plot development, it has a lot of heart and provokes a lot of interesting debates on the nature of duty, responsibility, and government....more
The Last Abbot of Ashk'lan, found here for free, is a brief story about what happened to one of my favorite side characters, Akiil, during the sack ofThe Last Abbot of Ashk'lan, found here for free, is a brief story about what happened to one of my favorite side characters, Akiil, during the sack of Ashk'lan. I liked Akiil. He was part of the monastery and ostensibly training to be a monk, but he was only there because he was caught thieving and monkhood was much preferred to the alternative. He maintained a good natured sense of self deprecation and cynicism in the mountain monastery. The massacre that was befalling his brothers and the burning building he was in did nothing to dull that personality trait:
Balancing on his palms and the balls of his feet, he crawled a few feet along the narrow beam, trying to put more space between himself and the growing fire, trying not to draw the soldier’s attention, praying to a variety of gods that the miserable, overarmored son of a bitch would get the holy fuck out already so Akiil himself could come down and be gone before the entire ‘Kent-kissing kitchen collapsed into a pile of rubble.
The gods – perhaps because of the quantity of curses woven into the prayer – ignored him.
Like I said, it is a rather short read, encompassing maybe 10 minutes of story time, but it both fills a narrative hole in The Emperor's Blades (as there was no POV character present) and is a compelling story on its own. Staveley gives us a wonderful peek inside the mind of Akiil, where his street urchin instincts begin to boil to the surface.
This, too, the Shin had taught him, but in fact, the lesson was older, one of the most basic rules he’d learned back in the Perfumed Quarter: Never help. Akiil had amended the maxim slightly over the years, putting his own ethical stamp on the ancient saying: Only help when it won’t get you killed or seriously fucked up.
Fast on the heels of The Life of the Mind, I got to dive right into the next End of All Things installment. Here we transition from a brain in a box tFast on the heels of The Life of the Mind, I got to dive right into the next End of All Things installment. Here we transition from a brain in a box to chief advisor to the head of the Conclave, a massive quasi-governmental organization with representatives from hundreds of alien worlds (though no humans). Hafte Sorvalh is happy to remain in the background, doing the dirtier work for her boss, General Grau. Not that it is all cloak and dagger excitement.
My position has come largely form being usefully competent to others, each more powerful than the next. I have always been the one who stands behind, the one who counts heads, the one who offers advice.
And, also, the one who has to sit in meeting with anxious politicians, listening to them wring whatever appendages they wring about The End of All Things.
Where The Life of Mind was a tense escape story, This Hollow Union is all about the various political machinations and factions that populate the Conclave and how to manage the fallout from the events in The Life of Mind. There is a lot of plotting, maneuvering, and spur of the moment moves to keep everything in a delicate balance. Just as the shadowy organization has ill intentions towards the Colonial Union, so too does it have its eyes set on fracturing the Conclave.
Sorvalh could not be more different from Rafe. Where Rafe was a down on his luck human pilot and ex-programmer who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Sorvalh is a seasoned and effective alien (to us) political operator who is exactly where she needs to be. Though being a desk jockey hasn't exactly given her a taste for the fast life that she sometimes finds herself in:
"You have no sense of adventure."
"I do have a sense of adventure. It's overawed by my sense of self-preservation."
She is a very serious person who is doing a very serious, and at times impossible and thankless job, constantly on guard against sharks that would rip apart the Conclave for their own ends. It shows Scalzi has a nice range of writing and isn't all technology and sarcasm (not that we didn't know that from his other work, but is always nice to get it reconfirmed).
While perhaps not quite has immersive as The Life of the Mind it was still quite engaging and an excellent addition to this sprawling story. There are, once again, some pretty major events in this one that completely reshape the political landscape of the galaxy, heightening the stakes even more. It is clear that the shadowy conspiracy has a far reach and powerful backers; whether the other species can recognize and react to them effectively is still very much in doubt. Once again I await in eager anticipation of the next installment of The End of All Things....more
Let me tell you, it feels great to be back in the Old Man's War universe. Scalzi has such a great visio
I'm Rafe Daquin, and I'm a brain in a box.
Let me tell you, it feels great to be back in the Old Man's War universe. Scalzi has such a great vision of a cluttered universe where humans must compete with myriads of other alien races for survival. He last left us desperately clinging to a cliff's edge in The Human Division. Turmoil is spreading across the galaxy. A shadowy organization, which had been moving in the shadows (as such organizations are want to do) had just launched a spectacular attack that has further alienated (no pun intended) Earth from the Colonial Union. The Life of the Mind picks up shortly after those events.
So one thing that was discovered in The Human Division was that space ship pilots were being kidnapped and effectively turned into a brain in a box which controlled starships. Rafe Daquin is just the most recent, unfortunate addition, to that brotherhood. Captured by these shadowy forces and given a stark choice: do what we say or experience the most exquisite death possible. When you are just a brain in a box, you don't have much of what experienced negotiators call "leverage".
They assumed they had the upper hand in dealing with me.
Again, fair enough. I was a brain in a box and they could kill me or torture me any time they wanted. That's a pretty good definition of having the upper hand.
But he doesn't despair. He does everything in his power (small though it may be) to stymie his captors and gain as much knowledge about them and their operation as he can.
This book was interesting to read right after finishing The Martian. Both are told (at least partially) from the view point of a character that found himself along in a hostile environment. Both had very little to work with. Both had some practical knowledge to help them out (engineering for Watney in The Martian and programming for Daquin in this book). They stuck with their survival plans, adjusting them as the situation warranted. And they both had a pretty darn snarky outlook on life.
Don't get too excited, that other part of my brain said. You're a brain in a box now. And they can see everything you do. They're probably looking at you thinking all this right now.
You're depressing, I said to that other part of my brain.
At least I'm not talking to myself, it said back. And anyway you know I'm right.
He and Watney would get along famously.
Even though you find out within the first few minutes of reading that he makes it out OK, I still found this to be a very engaging read. The obstacles Rafe has to overcome, the secrets he ferrets out, just how to pulls off his slight to freedom were all really exciting. Scalzi does a wonderful job giving Rafe his own unique voice and the revelations he uncovers are quite game changing. I am eagerly looking forward to the next installments of this series and all the trademark Scalzi snark that comes with it....more
It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving.
Do you like scienc
It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving.
Do you like science? Did you love Apollo 13? Did you have a soft spot in your for MacGyver's mullet? How about snide, dorky narrators? Well, then your in luck because this book as them in spades (ok, not the Mullet, but certainly the MacGyver know how in space).
So it is somewhat of a miracle that this book even happened. It was self published and took off through word of mouth and the fact that it is really good. But not all really good books are destined to be turned into a movie starring Matt Damon. By the writer's own admission his first two forays into writing were abysmally bad. By all rights I should have never heard of The Martian, let alone found it so engrossing. But thankfully the stars aligned and now the masses are turned on to this tense tale of galactic survival.
To start off there is our poor space Robinson Crusoe, Mark Watney. Left behind on a Mars mission because everyone thought he was dead. He is out of touch with the rest of humanity, along on another planet, and lacking in the supplies to sustain him for a rescue mission. Many would wallow in despair and depression, but he decides he isn't ready to die and goes about doing his best to stay alive. The first part of the book is told from his personal logs, detailing his days both in trying to survive and to stave off boredom. Fortunately, because the team had to leave so quickly, he has access to all his mission mate's personal entertainment to help him stay sane:
Log Entry Sol 38 (1)
...Time to take a break from thinking.
Commander Lewis was the last one to use this rover. She was scheduled to use it again on Sol 7, but she went home instead. Her personal travel kit's still in the back. Rifling through it, I found a protein bar and a personal USB, probably full of music to listen to on the drive.
Time to chow down and see what the good commander brought along for music.
Log Entry Sol 38 (2)
Disco. God Damn it, Lewis.
... or maybe not.
Perhaps because I have a somewhat similar temperament, I greatly enjoyed the Mark Watney character. He had an unquenchable can do attitude that was always pushing forward to find a solution to the next problem Mars threw at him along with a finely honed cynical streak that kept me chuckling.
If ruining the only religious icon I have leaves me vulnerable to Martian vampires, I'll have to risk it.
But this book wasn't just the logs of Watney, we eventually transition to Earth when it is discovered that he is still alive (talk about a PR nightmare). We see how NASA has to scramble to pull together as much know how and lateral thinking as there is to devise ways to keep Mark alive. It is a nice break from Mark's journal and helps break of the pacing of the story. Plus, it lends it self to humorous juxtapositions:
"I wonder what he's [Watney] thinking right now."
Log Entry: Sol 61
How come Aquaman can control whales? They're mammals! Makes no sense.
Weir took the science in this book very seriously. Through Watney he walked the reader step by step through the challenges that had to be over come, how they could be over come, and the science behind it. I could see how that might cause some readers' eyes to glaze over, but I find it fascinating how Watney was able to MacGyver so many challenges is realistic ways. There was no sonic screwdriver to bail him out, just good old American know-how.
Another thing I appreciated about the story was that Weir didn't come up with contrived disasters to drop upon Watney. The universe (the colossal dick that it is) is more than adequate to provide an unending string of challenges to overcome with having to rely on METEOR STRIKEs or the aforementioned Martian vampires. Further, Weir successfully resisted Murphy Law-ing everything. For the most part when Watney or NASA tried something, it would work. Which makes perfect sense since they are both extremely smart of resourceful. But even if you are right 99% of the time, that 1% can (and almost does) kill Watney on multiple occasions. To paraphrase Heinlein, Mars is a harsh mistress. I was constantly in a state of tension because I genuinely did not know if the next trick Watney or NASA pulled out of their hat would work.
As much as the book is centered on Watney, there is still plenty of room for the other characters to be developed and grow. For instance, one of the characters starts as a bit of a mousy NASA tech who happened to be the first person to identify that Watney was still alive. She starts off as being somewhat in awe of the circumstances she finds herself in the and people she ends up reporting to. By the end, well:
"What? That's it?" "That's all he said." "Just three words? Nothing about his physical health? His equipment? His supplies?" "You got me. He left a detailed status report. I just decided to lie for no reason." "Funny. Be a smart-ass to a guy seven levels above you at your company. See how that works out." "Oh no. I might lose my job as an interplanetary voyeur? I guess I'd have to use my master's degree for something else." "I remember when you were shy." "I'm space paparazzi now. Attitude comes with the job."
Where as these secondary characters could have been neglected and merely served as propping up some narrative role, Weir gave them their own personalities and lives outside the mission. Every character felt like they had at least a little depth and the chemistry between them did not feel forced.
One other thing this book had in droves was fun little quotes. Here is a choice selection of them:
Technically it's "Carl Sagan Memorial Station." But with all due respects to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I'm the King of Mars.
As with most of life's problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.
I got bounced lot, but I'm a well honed machine in times of crisis. As soon as (view spoiler)[the rover toppled (hide spoiler)], I curled into a ball and cowered. That's the kind of action hero I am. It worked, too. 'Cause I'm not hurt.
The Ares program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world.
Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home.
This was a great read, filled with snark, science, and suspense. Great for science and science fiction fans alike!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Murder at the Vicarage, aka: Miss Marple: Origins, is the first Miss Marple mystery by the indomitable Agatha Christie. Interestingly enough, this wasMurder at the Vicarage, aka: Miss Marple: Origins, is the first Miss Marple mystery by the indomitable Agatha Christie. Interestingly enough, this was written from the point of view of the eponymous Vicar and Miss Marple herself appears in only a minority of the book. Like any Miss Marple murder, this takes place in a small English village with a seething under current of gossip, hidden affairs, love, hate, envy, classicism (so much classicism), and a police force who simply cannot solve the murder without the help of a gossip mongering old woman.
Miss Marple herself, while a very sharp mind, is little different from most of the old women in the village, always poking her nose into others affairs and gossiping with the best of them. Apart from the fact that she is often right and much more insightful about human nature, she really is the sort of person you would not want to live next to because not a single secret of yours would stay that way for long.
The mystery itself was quite fascinating. The victim was pretty much loathed by everyone in town so there was no shortage of suspects. Like a real town there were many of currents of human events already swirling around before the murder happened. What was connected with the murder and what was happenstance were tricky for our heros to sort out. In fact this book was just as much about the people of the town and their relationships as it was about the murder itself, as they were all so closely tied together.
Christie does an excellent job painting a picture of this town and the characters in it as well as them murder itself in both a very accessible, but very nuanced manner. It was easy to get sucked into the story and all its many twists and turns (of which there were many). My only real complaint about the book was the Vicar character. He was much too uptight for my liking and stole screen time from other, more interesting characters, especially Miss Marple.
Still, the story was very compelling and the details of the crime itself rather inventive. If you enjoy mysteries this is an absolute must read of the genre....more
Anyway, this book reminded me a lot of The Golem and the Jinni (tGatJ). They areFirst, let's bask in the beauty of the cover:
Quite a sight, isn't it?
Anyway, this book reminded me a lot of The Golem and the Jinni (tGatJ). They are both historical fictions that take place in cosmopolitan cities told through the eyes of immigrants. In this case an Indian elephant trainer, Jahan, arriving in Ottoman Istanbul with a gift for Suleiman the Magnificent from a foreign Shah. We see the fascinating world of 16th and early 17th century Istanbul through his eyes as Jahan is taken under the wing of Mimar Sinan, the Royal architect, as well as presenting the elephant, Chota, in Imperial functions (war, parades, impressing foreign guests, etc..). Jahan interacts with a wide variety of historical figures, but these encounters never felt forced or contrived.
Much like tGatJ the story takes a very meandering pace, letting the reader soak in the settings and get to know the interesting characters Jahan meets. This book takes place over many decades and is told not so much as one coherent plot line, but a big collection of little vignettes. In one section the plague swept through the city, striking down many people can bringing the otherwise bustling metropolis to a halt. Shafak does a splendid job painting a bleak picture of the situation:
Grief was an indulgence only a few could afford. Death had to stop harassing the living for the dead to be properly mourned. When the plague was gone, only then would kin and kith beat their breasts and shed their tears to their heart's content. For now grief was pickled and preserved, kept next to the salted meats and dried peppers in the cellars, to be partaken of in better times.
On another occasion Jahan and another apprentice are sent to Rome by their Master to study the architecture there and communicate with Michelangelo. Jahan must take Chota to war, works on some of the great Ottoman Mosques, and becomes familiar with the royal princess, Mihrimah, to name but a few of the events of his long life.
What I liked so much about this book was Shafak's gorgeous use of language.
The Muslims wore turbans; Jews had red hats; and Christians, black hats. Arabs, Kurds, Nestorians, Circassians, Kazakhs, Tatars, Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Abkhazs, Pomaks... They walked separate paths while their shadows met and mingled.
She infuses the story with gorgeous imagery, well developed characters, and elegant prose. Each character had their own unique voice and outlook that flowed naturally from their circumstances and background; every character felt real and alive. It was fascinating to see how characters changed over the course of the story and how their past actions changed when viewed from the perspectives gained at the end of the book.
As much as I enjoyed these little slice of life moments, the book did lack a driving force. Jahan was for the most part reacting to thing around him. In tGatJ the action is compressed over a much shorted span of time with indications of a malevolent force lingering int he background. While there was some strange goings on over the course of this book, it did not come to a head until the very end of the book, when these happenings had mostly become moot. Which is a shame because the ideas the end brought up were actually quite interesting and worth exploring further.
In the end this proved to be a very enjoyable read in spite of this shortcoming. If you find the Ottoman Empire fascinating (like me) or just like good historical fiction this is an excellent book to pick up. ...more
It was interesting reading this book, a very obvious fairy tale, with Cinder, a story based on a fairy tale. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland inIt was interesting reading this book, a very obvious fairy tale, with Cinder, a story based on a fairy tale. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (TGWCFIASOHOM) understood the spirit of fairy tales. Valente did a wonderful job with the language. It was a mix of whimsy and absurdity that reminded me a lot of Lewis Carrol:
"I wouldn't consider it if I were you. But then if I were you, I would not be me, and if I were not me, I would not be able to advise you, and if I were unable to advise you, you'd do as you like, so you might as well do as you like and have done with it."
Cinder, on the other hand, tried to take the basic story of a fairy tale and retell it with modern sensibilities. The language was much more straight forward and more pedestrian. It lacked the fun exploration of the genre that TGWCFIASOHOM had:
"Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn't even know what a ledger was?"
But this book wasn't just fun forays into fairyland, there were some rather insightful ideas dressed up in the languange of fairy tales:
"You are young and far from your death, so I seem as anything would seem if you saw it from a long way off - very small, very harmless. But I am always closer than I appear. As you grow, I shall grow with you, until at the end, I shall loom huge and dark over your bed..."
I very much enjoyed this book's writing... up to a point. I think there was a reason that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was less than 100 pages. After a certain period the whimsy and fantastical adventures September found herself in got a bit tiring. The format wore a bit thin as it seemed that each successive chapter didn't seem to advance the plot much or seemed extraneous.
The ending, which was actually a interesting twist on the concept of fairyland and children's adventures there, felt much too rushed, the villain to late in developing a motivation. If the pacing was better this would have been an excellent book. As it stands, I thought it was on par with Cinder: a book with a great premise and some well executed parts, but failing on several (different) fronts that diminished my reading enjoyment....more
With Reaper's Gale we have the convergence of the plot lines from Midnight Tides (probably my favorite one so far) and The Bonehunters. As I stated inWith Reaper's Gale we have the convergence of the plot lines from Midnight Tides (probably my favorite one so far) and The Bonehunters. As I stated in my Bonehunters review, I thought it was mostly a book about getting pieces into a place, and boy did those movements pay off. We get a clash of the now Edur dominated (or is it!?!?!?!) Letherii Empire and the rag tag army of the Bonehunters. On top of that we still have Tehol Benedict and his loyal manservant Bugg running about committing a brilliant bit of economic sabotage, and Karsa and Icarium waiting around to duel the Emperor of a Thousand Deaths. Not to mention agitation and trouble on the Empire's borders. And I am leaving out a whole bunch of other fascinating plot lines with Quick Ben, the T'Lan Imass, Sichas ruin, and a boat load more. As much as Erikson setting up pieces in the last book, he does a great job quickly putting them into play. This book was a non-stop roller-coaster through a whole bunch of different POVs.
One of the themes of this book was the end of things in the face of eternal certainty: ideas, people, ways of life.
Things end. Species die out. Faith in anything else was a conceit, the product of unchained ego, the curse of supreme self-importance.
The two biggest entities this applied to was the Empire of Lether, who was recently conquered (but not really) by the Edur and the Awl, a nomadic people being displaced by Letherii business interests. In the case of the Empire, there reports of its conquests have been greatly exaggerated.
The Edur became the crown, settling easy upon the bloated gluttony of Lether, but does a crown possess will? Does the wearer buckle beneath its burden?
You can take the Lether off the throne, but not the throne off Lether. The Edur.
The skein that held Lether together was resilient and far stronger than it appeared. What disturbed him the most was the ease with which that skein entwined all who found themselves in its midst.
And the Edur have been somewhat subsumed by that seductive siren call. In total they were but a small portion of the Empire's population so they had to lean on existing human institutions to sure up their rule. As the The Who sang, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The Awl, on the other hand, are a broken people whose ageless way of life is threatened by the "progress" of Lether. Their tribes kept divided and weak, their leaders bought off, the spirit of the people despondent. Their very culture, which has persisted for thousands of years, is at risk of destruction. Out of the trackless plains comes Red Mask, an exiled Awl warrior who would reforge his people, change them and their way of life, to meet and repel the Letherii threat.
"This new way of fighting, War Leader, I see little honour in it." "You speak true. There is none to be found. Such is necessity." "Must necessity be surrender?" "When the ways surrendered hold naught but the promise of failure, then yes. It must be done. They must be cast away.
Oh, and he has two ancient, long thought extinct, lizard like creatures (with giant sword hands) whose raw strength is only matched by the mystery of their association with him.
Erikson also takes this opportunity to expand upon the nexus of power and greed in societies.
Power shapes the face of the world. In itself, it is neither benign nor malicious, it is simply the tool by which its wielder reshapes all that is around him or herself, reshape it to suit his or her own... comforts. Of course, to express power is to enact tyranny, which can be most subtle and soft, or cruel and hard. Implicit in power is the threat of coercion.
Unsurprisingly, power in Lether takes the form of cruel and hard. I mean, what is a totalitarian regime without a secret police force to strengthen its grip on society. And yes, they attract just the sort of person you would expect.
He wasn't much interested in beating his women, just in seeing them beaten. He understood his desire was perversion, but this organization - the Patriotists - was the perfect haven for people like him. Power and immunity, a most deadly combination.
Of course it doesn't help that they are headed by an intelligent, if ruthless, operator whose understanding of human nature makes his truly terrifying.
A citizen with certainty can be swayed, turned, can be made into a most diligent ally. All one needs to do is find what threatens them the most. Ignite their fear, burn to cinders the foundations of their certainty, then offer an equally certain alternative way of thinking, of seeing the world. They will reach across, no matter how wide the gulf, and grasp and hold on to you with all their strength. No, the certain are not our enemies… our greatest enemies are those without certainty. Those with questions, the ones who regard our tidy answers with unquenchable skepticism.
When thugs are in power, educated people were the first to feel their fists.
What I liked about Erikson's conception of the Letherii Empire is how subtle the oppression it is. There are not massive slave markets (but there are masses of people who are slaves in all but name). There is not pervasive oppression (but plenty of oppression is doled out in the back alley). On the surface everything seems to be a capitalist paradise, where people can rise and fall on merit, but the structure of the society and economy is such that there are a few people at the very top while the vast majority toil in debt or in fear of becoming indebted.
Is there a difference between spilled blood and blood squeezed out slowly, excruciatingly, over the course of a foreshortened lifetime of stress, misery, anguish and despair - all in the name of some amorphous god that no-one dares call holy? Even as they bend knee and repeat the litany of sacred duty."
So basically Lether is collapsing into a totalitarian state run in equal parts fanatics and the business elite with Edur as figure heads at the top. Into this volatile mix are thrown the Bonehunters, an exiled Malazan army seeking to revenge the atrocities committed against Malazan protectorate kingdoms. We meet up with again with a bunch of soldiers we met before plus some others. We see their doubts, trials, and tribulations they go through to pull off a seemingly impossible task set before them. Very compelling stuff as we get to know them intimately and feel the same sting of their losses.
At the end the pieces that Erikson had set up over the past two books have been dashed across the board. Deaths come heavy and often at the end of this one, both of people and institutions. There are plenty of moments of levity mixed in (especially with Tehol and Bugg et. al.) but the course of whole peoples and civilizations are decided in this book. We still have the Crippled God lurking in the background, a strange, once thought extinct civilization returning, and plenty of other games played by the gods and ascendants. I adored this book and am eager to see what terrible things Erikson rains down upon his characters.
And now, without further ado, some choice passages:
Most terrifying pinch ever: Karsa: And he is small - my people call you children. And that is all you truly are. Short-lived, stick limbed, with faces I want to pinch. The Edur are little different, just stretched out a bit.
Won't someone think of the (evilish) Children!?!?!?: But I always started to worry... about those evil minions, the victims of those bright heroes and their intractable righteousness. I mean, someone invades your hide-out, your cherished home, and of course you try to kill and eat them. Who wouldn't? there they were, nominally ugly and shifty-looking, busy with their own little lives, plaiting nooses or some such thing. Then shock! The alarms are raised! The intruders have somehow slipped their chains and death is a whirlwind in every corridor!
Always read the fine print: "Will you take it now?" "I will - to break it on the forge where it was made." "You said it could never be broken!" "We're always saying things like that, pays the bills."
But who's on first?: "Well, that is why I sent for you - excuse me, but what is your name?" "My name was discarded upon attaining my present tank within the Unified Sects of Cabal." "I see, and what is that rank?" "Senior assessor." "Assessing what?" "All matters requiring assessment. Is more explanation required?"
Fear the feathered and delicious ones: "You may find this amusing now, Bugg, but you are the one who will be sleeping down there. They'll [newly acquired hens] peck your eyes out, you know. Evil has been bred into them, generation after generation, until their tiny black bean brains are condensed knots of malice-" "You display unexpected familiarity with hens, Master." "I had a tutor who was a human version."
Metal makes for a terrible ruler (unless this is metaphorical...): Leave a sword to rule an empire and the empire falls. Amidst war, amidst anarchy, amidst a torrent of blood and a sea of misery.
Damn it Udinaas, stop trying to be so genre savvy: Myths prefer manageable numbers, after all, and three always works best.
But would you say that to Justice's face?: That's the thing about Just Wars - they never end and never will because Justice is a weak god with too many names.
When a pissing contest turns real dark, real fast: "I was there when Redmask's sister killed herself." "And I suckled at the tit of a K'Chain Che'Malle Matron. If tit is the right word." "...I saw with my own eyes the great sea canoes. Upon the north shore. thousands upon thousands." "These arrows were made by a dead man. Dead for a hundred thousand years, or more." "I have seen skeletons running in the night - on this very plain." "This body you see isn't mine. I stole it." "I alone know the truth of the Bast Fulmar." "This body's father was a dead man - he gasped his last breath as his seed was taken on a field of battle." "The victory of long ago was in truth a defeat." "This body grew strong on human meat." "Redmask will betray us." "This mouth waters as I look at you."
Why the gold standard is a TERRIBLE idea, even in fantasy settings or Keynes was right so shut your gob hole: "Why not just mint more coins and take the pressure [of a currency shortage] off?" "We could, although it would not be easy. There is a fixed yield form the Imperial Mines and it is, of necessity, modest. And, unfortunately rather inflexible."
And why not be a buzz kill to end this review or echoes of Global Climate Change: It had not been imagined - by anyone - that an entire realm could die in such a manner. That the vicious acts of its inhabitants could destroy... everything. Worlds live on, had been the belief - the assumption - regardless of the activities of those who dwelt upon them. Torn flesh heals, the sky clears, and something new crawls from the briny muck.