Tag Archives: reviews

The Silent Invasion

UnknownI think this is the first James Bradley book I’ve read, which is… a thing. If this is an indication of his calibre, I shall rectify that.

This is a near-future Australia. The entire world has been affected by alien spores that Change animals, plants and people – not everyone, but many of those who come into contact. And the spores  seem to particularly like it hot and humid, so there’s been an exodus of people from the tropical parts of the world. Of course, this hasn’t been particularly well received by the temperate parts of the world. There are walls. And camps. And suspicion of foreigners.

All sounding a bit familiar, isn’t it.

The heart of the book is Callie, an adolescent whose father Changed some years ago and whose young sister is now exhibiting symptoms – because even in temperate Adelaide, you’re not safe from the spores. Rather than allow Gracie to be taken to Quarantine, Callie decides to run away with her to the Zone: the part of Australia that’s been sectioned off by a mighty Wall, to the north of which the Change runs riot. Cue adventure and desperation and bravery and hardship.

What is perhaps most intriguing about this book is the prologue. I mean, I really enjoyed the book, and Callie is a gutsy character, and I liked the depiction of Australia. But the prologue? It makes it clear that this desperate adventure across southern Australia is only the beginning of what will confront Callie across the trilogy. Because in the opening paragraph, she mentions “this alien beach,” and being “under a sky so full of stars that even the night shines”. There is something much weirder going on than just another version of the Triffids, or a slow invasion story. And while I enjoyed the look-after-the-sister story, I am really intrigued by what’s going to happen to Callie to lead her to this alien planet.

Bring on the next book.

Timekeepers

Unknown.jpegEven if you’re not that history books, but you are a keen observer of the world and how it works, this is a book I can highly recommend.

There were times (heh) when reading this that I wasn’t quite sure what book Simon Garfield was trying to write. Some of the things that he writes about didn’t immediately appear to connect to the idea of time. But when I considered the blurb, I decided that Garfield did indeed know exactly what he was doing. This is a book that considers the idea of time from a multitude of angles: “our attempts to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalise it, re-invent it, and make it meaningful.”

I really, really enjoyed this book. Garfield writes in lovely, sometimes whimsical ways – not that his ideas are less than scientific when required, but that he has a lovely turn of phrase to make some difficult concepts approachable. And I really did enjoy the different ways that he approached time. I already knew about trains and train timetables essentially necessitating the development of time zones, but I didn’t have a problem with it being reiterated; I adore that he included discussion of the French Republican calendar and its attempt to decimalise, rationalise, time. Including questions of the metronome and how to play Beethoven’s Ninth and why a CD fits as much as it used to is just marvellous, and the question of just how many times someone can be shown, in film, hanging from a clock is one I had never considered. Also, the idea of a film that goes for 24 hours and is comprised of snippets from other films that together make 24 hours, each shown at the appropriate time of the day? Madness and genius have rarely been so close together. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the ideas that Garfield explores: how to make a watch, the four-minute mile, the modern drive for efficiency… yeh. This is a varied, delightfully jumbled, exploration of a topic that consumes a lot of modern Westerners.

Garfield is not suggesting he’s written the definitive book on time; far from it. There’s a wonderful Further Reading section that I’m afraid to look at because this is a rabbit hole I could very easily fall into. But it is a good introduction to pointing out that time is a lot more subjective, and invented, and dependent than we sometimes think.

Reading this is a good way to spend some time.

 

 

The Dark Forest

Unknown.jpegBook 2 of Cixin Liu’s trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem.

You could probably read this without having read the first book – it’s been ages since I read Three-Body Problem and I didn’t remember a whole heap – but honestly, why would you? It’s such an amazing book that if you’re considering reading these at all (perhaps because the third one has just been nominated for a Hugo Award, which the first book won), seriously just go and read both of them.

So the world is going to be attacked by an alien space-navy… in four centuries. Meanwhile emissaries from those aliens are already here, because somewhat hand-wavy-science, and they’re both halting humanity’s exploration of science and potentially listening in to every single conversation we’re having. So what can be done to try and deal with the aliens, and not have them sabotage humanity’s plans? (The aliens have their human tools, of course, too.) You nominate four people to be Wallfacers: people who have authority to do anything as long as they justify it as “part of the plan”… and they don’t have to explain anything, because if they explain it then the aliens might find out.

Because nothing could go wrong with that plan.

And that’s only part of what this novel is about. There’s also love and loss and trauma and sheer human effrontery. It takes place in the near-isa future and then a few centuries after that. It mostly takes place in China with a few bits elsewhere. Lots of it is from the perspective of Luo Ji, who would really rather it wasn’t, thanks all the same.

Some of the things I really enjoyed and/or was intrigued by:

  1. The acknowledgement, and exploration, of the idea that when confronted with an alien enemy, one of the likely responses is defeatism. Even in the armed forces. This is actually quite refreshing, given how often Hollywood blockbusters like to present (usually American) soldier-heroes.
  2. The general lack of draaaamah. When things go bad, people react, but there’s not pages upon pages of people feeling sorry for themselves. Nonetheless, these are still generally real and believable, if restrained, characters who I enjoyed reading about and did feel that I got to know (somewhat, anyway). (And I’m not only referring to the Chinese characters when I say that; the USan and other characters also don’t go in for massive theatrics.)
  3. Shi Qiang. About the only main character to transition from Three-Body to this, and I love him. He’s so quirky and shrewd and insightful and human. (I can imagine Miller, from the Expanse, and Da Shi getting together and drinking way too much and sharing police stories for hours.)
  4. Zhang Beihai. What even was going on with that narrative arc? Fascinating and unexpected; every time he appeared on the page I didn’t even bother trying to figure out what was going to happen. Because I knew I would be wrong.

This is a great science fiction novel and I’m completely stoked for the third, although I can’t really fathom where it’s going to go. Do not read this unless you prepared for some pretty hard-core science discussion, and if you’d rather that your fiction has in-dpeth discussion of character motivation and lavish character reflection. Do read if you enjoy a brilliant SF story with breathtaking ideas.

Gemina

Unknown.jpegThis is the sequel to the brilliant Illuminae. Intriguingly, though, it could definitely be read as a stand-alone book. There’s an entirely new set of main characters, and while the events do flow on from the initial ones they’re taking place in a completely different part of space. What little background knowledge might be useful is provided as part of the briefing documents.

Note: if you didn’t enjoy Illuminae (and I understand the style isn’t for everyone), don’t come to this one.

Like Illuminae, the novel is composed of ‘found’ documents, here presented as part of trial. Those documents are things like IM-chat transcripts; descriptions of video surveillance, complete with occasional snarky comments from the tech doing the description; logs of emails, and other communications; and a few other bits and pieces. It means that the narrative isn’t entirely linear, and this works really nicely – the story of what has happened, and what the characters are like, comes out slowly and… I guess organically. There’s a few bits where people are described in reports or get talked about, but in general we learn about them through their words and actions.

The setting for the main narrative is a space station, guarding a worm hole that has gates to several different systems. Something terrible happens, and things must be done by unlikely heroes. Exactly the depth of the Terrible Things and how they might be resolved are the focus of the story. There’s crawling through air vents and unlikely alliances, hacking both computer and physical, general death and destruction and mayhem, betrayals and banter. And it all happens over a really short space of time so that it feels quite desperate and breathless; when I had to put it down 50 pages from the end to go out for dinner (I’d read the rest of it that day), I was horrified at leaving everyone hanging.

This is an immensely fun book. I can imagine it working on reluctant readers – or those who think they only like graphic novels – once they got over the thickness of it, that is, since it’s a very graphic piece of work: each page is designed to look like what it’s meant to be, whether that’s a chat transcript or legal documents. Or excerpts from an adolescent girl’s diary. Each ‘chapter’ feels short and punchy because none of the documents are very long. It’s a clever pacing trick.

A very entertaining and enjoyable book. I am excited for the next instalment.

Babylon’s Ashes

Unknown
In theory it took me months to read this, because I read the prologue… and then I put it down. Then I read the first two chapters… and then I put it down. And I read like 30 other books and then I finally picked it up and read it. This is no reflection on the book or the series; I’ve been waiting for this book since I finished book 5. I think partly this was a concern that the book would be too much; that after the events of book 5, how could things POSSIBLY go well for my beloved characters? And there’s an intensity to Corey’s writing, too, that I just didn’t feel ready for at the start of this year.

But I finally got over all of that and I read it and of course it’s fantastic and by golly I want book 7 yesterday. I had wondered how on earth the series could be continued… but now it’s clear. Well, as clear as the combined minds that make James Corey can ever be to someone out here.

(Spoilers for the first five books, I guess)

Things I continue to love about this series:

  • the focus on little, domestic things in the midst of solar-system wide disaster. The image of Avasarala applying a ‘homeopathic’ level of rouge is priceless. Also the details of life on the Roci and the various stations and asteroids. Plus…
  • the focus on characters and relationships. Holden’s vague concerns about having Clarissa on board: make so much sense, and he tries so hard to deal with it and it’s so sweet amidst all the political wrangling. Bobbie, and where she might ever fit in. Every single thing damned about Avasarala. Also Amos.
  • the widening perspective. There are more character perspectives in this book than previous ones, as has been the trend. So we get a much wider view of what’s going on; motivations and consequences, reactions and individual concerns. They matter, even when the solar system is threatened.
  • just… the writing. It is so very easy to read. This is the sort of thing I would like to read all the time please.

This book is, of course, not an entirely easy or pleasant book. Terrible, terrible things happen. I was constantly worried, at the back of my mind, that THIS would be the book where Corey decided to screw up the crew of the Roci. Of course that nearly happened in the last book, and I had a lot of trouble dealing with my darlings all being in different places; maybe that was a softening up to deal with one of them… leaving? Dying? And then of course there’s the worries about the solar system, and Earth as a whole being devastated, and the Belt being in huge difficulties too… so while it’s not quite apocalypse level (well, aside from Earth, but there’s not so much focus on that in this volume), this is still not a book to read if you’re feeling particularly fragile. That said, it is still a great story, and of course the point of the whole series is human endurance and dealing with enormous difficulties.

I love this series.

New York 2140

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $29.99 (480 pages).

I adored Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and after reading this I have an overwhelming itch to go read it again. Partly because this reminded of that earlier work, and partly because it reminded me just how very good Robinson can be (as I thought of 2312).

As the name suggests, the book opens in 2140, and is set almost entirely in New York. There’s been catastrophic sea level rise, due to melting polar ice mostly, and of course this has had a huge impact on coastal towns. While Manhattan isn’t quite an exemplar for all coastal cities, it does provide an intriguing setting for such a book – and of course New York is, as the narrative acknowledges, a very particular and, perhaps, unique city in terms of how inhabitants and others around the world relate to it. Sydney probably wouldn’t get you quite such a response.

Things I loved about this book:

  1. The different narrative points of view. Each one is clearly different from the others, with a unique voice and style: told from the first or third person; mostly through dialogue or action; individuals or pairs. I love this as a method of conveying a multitude of perspectives, both moving the narrative forward and allowing the reader to meet, identify with, and consider different sorts of people.
  2. Speaking of, I adore “that citizen”. That citizen gets their own chapter in each section and is basically there to explain the history of the world up to this point, and how New York and the USA work, and comment on aspects of New York’s social and cultural history. They are deeply knowledgeable and deeply cynical and deeply aware of the narrative they are a part of. To whit:
  3. People sometimes say no one saw it coming, but no, wrong: they did. Paleoclimatologists looked at the modern situation and saw CO2 levels screaming up… and they searched the geological record for the best analogs to this unprecedented event, and they said, Whoa. They said, Holy shit. People! they said. Sea level rise! … They put it in bumper sticker terms: massive sea level rise sure to follow our unprecedented release of CO2!  They published their papers… a few canny and deeply thoughtful sci-fi writers wrote up lurid accounts of such an eventuality, and the rest of civilisation went on torching the planet like a Burning Man pyromasterpiece. (p140)

    Seriously. I alternately giggled and sighed reading a lot of that citizen‘s accounts. They also make snarky comments about surveillance states, growing throughout the 21st century, when being called “a police state… would have been aspirational” (p207) and the capabilities of industry to make drastic adjustments when it’s financially necessary. They are also deeply unimpressed by people who dismiss “info-dumps” in narratives while, of course, demonstrating exactly how to do them in splendid, self-aware, and necessary ways.

  4.  Speaking of being self-aware, and something else that made me recall 2312, is what I guess might be Tuckerisation. One of the characers is Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir. Which I thought was nice, until I got to this description: “Tall black woman, as tall as he was, rather massive, with a sharp look and a reserved manner” (p29) – and then I realised who Robinson was tipping the hat too, and … I was moved. I know some don’t love this, but when it’s done in such a way that both people who get the reference appreciate it and it doesn’t prevent those who don’t see it from appreciating the story… well. I enjoy it. Robinson also has “delanydens” – places where there was lots of “intergender” and “indeterminate gender” and where “it was best not to look too closely at what was happening in the corners” (p183) – so again, don’t know who Delany is? doesn’t really impact on your understanding of the context. And another of my favourites: “russrage” – “at the ugly cynicism of whoever or whatever it was doing” the things that made people unsafe (p273). Of course I’m lucky to get these; I haven’t read any Calvino so “calvinocity” doesn’t have that extra layer for me.
  5. While the background of the narrative is the massive changes that have happened in New York and indeed continue to happen in the novel, a lot of the story is actually pretty small scale… dare I say, domestic. It felt like there was as much attention given to the antics of two young boys and their friendship with an old man, and the beginnings and difficulties of love, as to the possible relocation of polar bears and massive system defrauding. I really, really like this. Robinson suggests that even as places change around us, humanity adapts and remains fundamentally the same.
  6. It’s remarkably optimistic: that humanity can adapt and cope with the difficulties we face – yes they’re our fault, as a species, but we can keep going and maybe, maybe, make things better. Or at least not worse. And individuals can still have worthwhile lives amidst the problems. That’s pretty important.
  7. I just love the writing. It’s smooth and elegant and… readable. I really, really, really enjoyed this book. Yes, it has gone on my “Possible Hugos 2018” list.

Delirium Brief

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It’s out in July 2017.

DeliriumThe Laundry, which has several novels about it now, is a secret government agency that’s a bit like the Men in Black but more high-tech because the Scary Things in the Night are often accessed via maths and/or technology. Computers may well summon extra dimensional beasties. Bob Howard started as a tech guy who fell into the Laundry accidentally and now he’s a fairly significant player in the organisation, although still a bit hapless sometimes. In this novel, someone from Outside (of the world) is trying to take over via minions and the very 21st century method of privatising government operations.

There’s unlikely alliances, dastardly deeds, unfortunate deaths, spy craft, domestic difficulties, desperate last-minute decisions, and some rather silly jokes. There’s also exasperation at the short-sightedness of governments and some deeply unpleasant actions on the part of the villains.

I’ve read a couple of the Laundry Files books and short stories in the past. When I first read them, I didn’t realise that they’re kinda Lovecraftian… because I am no connoisseur of Lovecraft. So that’s the first thing to know: if you like Lovcraftian stuff (with humour) and you haven’t read this series, you probably want to check it out.

If you loathe Lovecraft and all his derivatives, just stop reading now; it’s fine. This isn’t for you.

Not sure? Well that’s where I fit too. I wouldn’t deliberately read a Lovecraft homage, but – obviously – I read this. In terms of horror, it’s not so horrible. I mean bad things happen but the levels of violence aren’t any different from a lot of science fiction or fantasy. And there’s no creeping horror here – that is, I didn’t ever get tense and worried about what was around the corner, which is what puts me off a lot of horror. (I don’t enjoy being scared.) And you definitely don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft to read the book, since I have a passing knowledge of some names from his books and that is it.

Prior knowledge of the Laundry Files is useful for reading this, but not completely necessary; there are a few ‘as you know, Bob’ bits that basically fill in details of how the agency works. It does flow directly on from the previous book, which I haven’t read, but I managed to be going on with it.

It definitely kept me entertained, occasionally grossed me out, and half made me wonder if I shouldn’t go back and read more of the earlier ones…

Fledgling

Unknown.jpegI had read that this was Butler’s vampire-cum-courtroom drama, and had also been given a hint that the opening section might make the reader be all WHOA WTH NOOOO. And it would have, so I’m glad I had a bit of context, which I’ll give below as a wee spoiler that might help some readers. This is, though, a Butler book, and in no way is this JUST a vampire or courtroom drama – not that either of those would have been bad. But the book also deals with racism, justice, and family in intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Also, unsurprisingly given Butler’s interest in anthropology, with vampire myth and ‘logical’ ways for vampires to actually exist.

So here’s the spoiler:

at the start, the focus character can’t remember anything and is eventually found walking along a road by a young man, in his early 20s. There’s immediately a sexual connection… and then we find out that our character is young. Like, looks ten or eleven.

End spoiler

And it’s squicky even with the anticipation, and I can’t help but wonder what was in Butler’s head: did she want to use this to challenge assumptions about appearance, or about black sexuality (because our character, Renee/Shori, is black), or… ? I don’t know. And it’s intriguing because it’s Butler and I trust her, BUT.

Anyway. There’s are similarities here between the Xenogenesis and Patternist novels. They deal with miscegenation and the ramifications of that – for the individual who is ‘mixed’ and for the society around them, seeing the benefits and drawbacks. They all deal with the Outsider in our midst, and that the notion of the Outsider takes on a multitude of forms within each of those books – sex, race, species, ability. And they also all present different ways of compromising, different motivations for compromise, and different consequences of it too. Butler isn’t interested in making life easy for her characters or for her readers. She wants us to THINK. She probably wants us to be horrified, too, and forced to think through that horror.

This won’t be my favourite Butler; I don’t think it’s quite as well written as some of her other work. Goodness the ideas and challenges are magnificent, though, and with so little published work from her I’m pretty happy to read whatever I can get my hands on.

Blue Moon Rising

Unknown.jpegI love this book a lot. I love the characters and the way Green plays with conventions – a prince riding a unicorn, a princess who is willing to fight, the brutal realities of being a second son in a royal house, some insightful passing comments about the danger of being too focussed on being a good warrior. I like the way betrayal and treason are explored, and how making compromises isn’t an inherently bad thing, and that peasants get a moment in the sun, and that not everything can get fixed but life goes on and can be fine. This was a comfort re-read and it absolutely worked and I am reassured that sometimes the suck fairy doesn’t visit.

Also I love the goblins.

But now I wonder about revisiting the entire Deathstalker series and that might get out of hand.

Paper

Unknown.jpegI have loved everything I’ve read by Mark Kurlansky. So when I was in a small bookshop in a small town and saw a new book from him, I was pretty stoked. I half considered buying it as an e-version, partly because OH THE IRONY, but then my darling fawned her how pretty it is (and it really is very pretty, with rough-edged paper and all), so I bought the bard-back. Supporting small book shops for the win.

Tragically, I am disappointed.

I was trying to pin down exactly why the book didn’t work, and halfway through I realised: each paragraph felt like an extended dot point. Like he had all of these great ideas and fascinating points, mostly connected to paper, but… couldn’t quite nail the flow and structure. There are weird disjointed bits that entirely lack in connection, there are some fascinating bits about language and so on that aren’t clearly tied to paper, and… well. Disappointed.

I appreciated his discussion of the technological fallacy: that tech happens and then society follows. Rather, he argues, society creates a demand and THEN technology follows, playing catch up: why else is so much money spent on market research? So I liked that bit. However, as someone has pointed out to me, Kurlansky is entirely too linear in his perspective on the relationship between change and society. Civilisation just isn’t like that.

More serious than the lack of sequencing, though, were a few points where he was just… kinda wrong. For instance: he suggests that some people credit Ada Lovelace with inventing computers, and then reveals that actually she was inspired by Charles Babbage. And, uh, no. She invented the first computer language, and it’s no secret she worked with Babbage! … so this makes me a little concerned when he’s discussing those bits of history that I don’t actually have knowledge of. Because… can I trust him?

I gave it a four over on Goodreads because the ideas and the history really are fascinating, but the book itself as a piece of text ought to get a three.