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2016-02-24

Hothouse

Hothouse

by Brian Aldiss


Dune is one of my favorite books of all time. So when I had a chance to read Hothouse, another classic ecological science fiction book, I was excited. At first, the book seemed interesting enough. The distant future, the sun is at its hottest, the radiation has made plant life abundant and animals have mostly died off. Humans still exist, but they are barely surviving primitives living short and brutal lives. The book centers around members of one particular family group's struggles. Plotlines start to split as the group breaks apart. Adventures are happening and it seems like a conflict between a sentient fungus and humanity is about to abrupt in world-changing significance.

This is where the book goes wrong, one group of survivors story is dropped never to be mentioned again. The second group only shows up in the final pages of the book and is of very small import to the story. One of the main characters dies and is she is forgotten by the next page. More and more new species of plant crowd the book, the fungus's ambition putters off into a series of disasters. And you eventually get to the point where you are left with unlikable characters whose only redeeming quality is luck. Interesting worlds that move by so quickly, you feel like nothing before matters. Bizarre dead-end plot lines, random bits that the author added and never used (an ancient Mechanical Bird used for propaganda sounded interesting, but goes nowhere but add non-sequiturs about events that sound far more interesting than what the characters are up to).

In the end, a deus ex machina dolphin/squid/something sea creature concludes the book in a series of expositions that leave the characters' journey pointless and the book itself feeling like a waste of time.

Going back to Dune, I think where this book fails is that Dune explores a full and exotic world that's detail makes you want to dive back in for more. It captures the spirit and still over 50 years later draws people in. The characters are also compelling and you genuinely care about what happened to Paul and lament the death of Duncan or Leto. Hothouse instead leaves you feeling like you just  rode past the world on a high-speed train. There were people waving, but you don't really care about them.

I learned two things after reading the book, first: the book was intended to be a pastoral. I can see that with the emphasis on man's return to nature but unlike City by Simak, which has also been described as a pastoral, the world doesn't seem simpler and intriguing. It seems chaotic, complex and often as a black void filled with horrors. But the book's matter of fact approach to the forest doesn't seem to support the horror either. Second, the book was originally a series of short stories in magazines, again like City or another of my favorite books, Foundation. In the latter books, the author worked hard to string the narrative together - City with its format as a folklore collection, Foundation as a serialized novel. Hothouse, however, just has jumps and starts where tone and plot change dramatically. The character of Gren provides a constant backbone. But it's one you learn to hate as Gren's is so unlikable of a central character.

I was provided a free digital review copy by the publisher through NetGalley.

2015-12-15

The Flux

The Flux

Ferret Steinmetz

So first off the bat, this is a sequel to Flex by the same author. I have not read Flex, but that didn't hinder my reading of The Flux at all. I do have the feeling that The Flux if read first spoils Flex, but it is in no way dependent on reading the prior book. The downside to that is I REALLY liked The Flux, and I'm not sure if I could read the first book since I think a lot of the plot points are brought up in the sequel.

The Flux is set in an alternate reality. In this reality, willpower, love and obsession can make a person capable of performing 'mancy, or magic. The form of the 'mancy is shaped by the performer's obsession. Say you are deeply and totally obsessed with Star Wars? You would then be able to justify to the universe that you should be able to do what Jedi can. Mind tricks, lightsabers, and all. While your willpower can make the Universe bend to it, the Universe is like elastic. It wants to return to its regular shape. By doing so, it generates "Flux" which is negative magical energy that causes a backlash against the person. 'mancers can mitigate this by providing it a safer conduit - losing money you can afford to burn, minor inconveniences and so. But if you let it go too quickly truly bad things can occur - divorce, death, and so on. The other bit of background is "Flex", a magical drug that allows the user to gain a limited amount of power borrowed from the 'mancer who created it, but requires hematite which is closely regulated and controlled. Despite this magical world, 'mancers themselves are illegal and hunted by a Government agency called SMASH. SMASH abducts the 'mancers and then brainwashes them into a hive-mind, anti-'mancer, known as an unimancer. This is fallout from the Second World War, where the Allies and Nazi powers employed 'mancer on the battlefield. The result of this was that reality bent too far and fractured. It's implied that all of Europe is now a magically scared wasteland where interdimensional creatures that feed on magical power roam free.

The book takes place in New York City. At the center of the book is Paul Tsabo, former NYPD detective, former Insurance Investigator, current head of the NYPD's Anti-'Mancer Task Force. Only thing is Paul Tsabo is also a 'mancer who is harboring two other 'mancers - his best friend, Valentine and his daughter, Aliyah. Oh, and he is deep in debt to a Flex dealer that has been forcing him to brew the drug on the side. If things weren't bad enough, the mysterious "King of New York" has been tipping off the NYPD about his brewing operations, his daughter's powers are getting increasingly unstable and hard to control, the Mayor is breathing down his neck, a rival and now-husband to his ex-wife is looking to take his day job from him, and his ex-Wife is about ready to have his daughter institutionalized.

The book is fast-paced and clever. The approach to magic is very fresh and exciting. Paul is a bureaumancer - he uses bureaucracy and paperwork to alter reality. His best friend and his daughter are videogamemancers with a penchant for Nintendo franchises. The book introduces us to a wide variety of bizarre obsession-fueled magics.

The book under the surface explores issues of freedom versus safety, the morality of the ubermensch, interpersonal relationships, the meaning of being human and the needs of humans. It draws a lot from pop culture, albeit, sometimes in a too obvious way. It really is a much deeper book than you'd first think. I could probably write an entire essay on the dichotomies and pairings in it.

My biggest criticism of the book is the pop culture seems unaffected by the presence of magic. Europe is destroyed yet Ubisoft (a French company) games play major roles in the book. One example, Mario's fire-flower is mentioned. But would a game company in this reality have their protagonist use magic if 'mancers are demonized?

I was provided a free digital review copy by the publisher through NetGalley.

2015-09-27

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan



Well written, fun, fascinating and yet disappointing.

I read the book cover to cover in 8 days. I was expecting magical realism. The book implied a TARDIS-like bookstore. The mystery seemed huge and sinister. I loved the elements of history, the utter love Sloan has of books, and the acceptance of technology. I loved that Kat seemed like a real person she had her own life, her own ambitions, she was intelligent, skilled, but not perfect.

Every character was real. There seemed to be almost no stock characters. Even Deckle who seems so minor has a life and ambition all his own.

So why disappointing. At the end of the story, it all seemed so banal. I expected more. Repeatedly the book seems to be building to something sinister that never comes.

My biggest criticism of the book otherwise is the portrayal of Google. The company plays a major role in the second half of the novel. The portrayal is bizarre. It makes us sound more like elves in Lothlorien than a company in Mountain View. On one hand: I'm sure that is what outsiders think; on the other hand: do some research beyond what tech journalists say.

The epilogue of the book feels like an afterthought and fake. I don't really believe that was what happened in the end and I feel like Jannon is lying to us.

I wish I had more to say but the story is pretty short and a very fast read. In the end the message is, well, kind of mundane further adding to the disappointment.

I think I'll have to read some real magical realism now.

2015-09-16

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

Felicia Day

Working at Google has perks. One of which is the Authors@Google program. The program gets authors to come and speak to Googlers. Felicia Day was the most recent author in the Kirkland office. I'm not the biggest Felicia Day fan, I loved Dr. Horrible and loved her stint on Eureka. But I never watched Buffy, haven't watched The Guild and stopped watching Supernatural by her stint on the show. I didn't know that much about her. Her talk was fantastic and pretty inspiring for those of who deal with social anxiety and depression. So I was really interested in reading her book (bonus I got a complimentary copy for being one of the first XX people to get to the talk).

Speaking to her after as she signed my book was probably one of the most stressful moments of my life and I'm sure I came off incredibly awkward. I'm actually disappointed I didn't read her book before because I think my exchange would have gone differently. 

I got to the front of the line, Felicia takes the book from an assistant who has made sure my name is legible and easy for her to see. She looks at the post it note, looks up at me and says, "Your name is familiar, do I know you?" I'm shocked and the most I can do is a shrug. I finally get out a joke, "Well I attended Texas A&M", Felicia went to the rival University of Texas. She laughs and says, "So, you're the enemy?" I laugh too and another assistant snaps a photo of us.

Felicia and Me
Why did I wish I read it first? I know have a few possibilities of how I may have met her before.

So fanboying aside, what about the book. The book is very much written in her voice. It has a frantic pace that sometimes doesn't do justice to the seriousness of the content. The book is pretty much an account of working through isolation, weirdness, depression, anxiety, addiction (to video games) to actually achieve something. It's quirky, personal and inspiring. It made me realize that the inner voice that degrades what you create and holds it up against your own ideas and misconceptions about what others are doing and achieving is just a lie.

That said the book appeals to a certain demographic, those of us who grew up being different and are still trying to find our voice and our place need to read this. Because this book celebrates us.

2015-09-04

City

City

Clifford D. Simak

I have a soft spot for 1950s Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov's Robot series was the first serious adult fiction I read. I was in the 6th grade. I went through Asimov's Robot books and Foundation books. I read Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert in 7th grade. As I got older I still turn back to the golden age of Science Fiction.

City for me is like an old cozy quilt. Much like Asimov's early works it isn't as much a novel as a tight collection of short stories. Many of the elements are very familiar and the book in many ways is a precursor to Clarke and Asimov.

The collection is drawn together to appear as if it was a scholar edition of oral legends that make up the "mythical" canon of ancient Doggish history. The question the edition is approaching is simple "Is Man a Myth?" You see the edition is a product of intelligent speaking dogs.

The stories begin in the mid-21st century. The urban complexes of the 20th century are dying. Hydroponics and Yeast-based protein substituted have made agriculture to collapse. Farms are abandoned and empty. The middle and upper classes are buying up massive estates built by robots for almost nothing and commuting in to work via personal helicopters. The suburbs are almost empty as no one wants to live in a cramped suburb anymore.

The story, and all of the subsequent ones in the book, center on the Webster family. The family at the beginning are still living in a suburban Chicago home. Dispossessed farmers squatting in foreclosed home-compounds are pretty much their only remaining neighbors.

Over the following stories, we jump forward and learn more about the Webster clan's following generations always accompanied by a faithful robot servant, Jenkins. The third tale introduces the dogs. A result of experimentation by a Webster, the dogs are given the power of speech and literacy.

We also learn of the Mutants, implied to be the descendants of the farmer-squatters from the first story they bring an element of mystery as their motives and thought become less and less human.

In the meantime, man has spread out across the solar system, encountered aliens on Venus and Mars and are planning to go to the stars.

But a series of events, both innocent and malicious, alter the course of humanity leaving the robots, the dogs, and a small enclave of dispirited humans left on the Earth.

The book explores the nature of intelligence and how we approach reality and progress are tied to our own natures

Like most books of the period, you take the science tongue-in-cheek. Lamarckian inheritance is used to explain doggish speech (which is particularly cringe-worthy), there is a strong, albeit subverted, current of 1950s futurism. One thing the book from my perspective in 2015 does give me is a realization that while Simak, who was criticizing the Atomic Age futurism as potentially not resulting in our idea of utopia, seems as dated as many of the futuristic predictions of his time there is a good chance that modern singularity cynics, like Charles Stross, will also seem dated as what comes about won't be what either the futurists or the cynics predict but something different.

My biggest criticism is I that while, I applaud Simak's deep love of dogs, his views of man and dog are a bit stilted. Man is not solely a creature of mechanical progress and death as the later parts of the book proposes. Nor are we truly individualistic hedonists like the early part of the book proposes. We are a social animal. It's why we are able to co-exist with dogs so well. We both have similar social structures. Dogs also are not altruists. They politic amongst themselves, engage in their own small wars, they even kill for pleasure. I love dogs, I do. But they are much more like us than Simak makes them out to be.

All in all, I love the book. And it amazes me how many elements of Simak's stories were later reused by the giants.

I received a digital copy of this book for review from NetGalley and the publisher.

2015-08-17

Muirwood: The Lost Abbey

Muirwood: The Lost Abbey

Written by Jeff Wheeler, Matthew Sturges, Dave Justus
Illustrated by Alex Sheikman, Lizzy John


This review is about the first issue of Muirwood: The Lost Abbey.

The first issue is very short it introduces us to Maia, a former princess whose father, the Emperor, has stripped her of her title and banished her to her grandmother's home. Maia suddenly is called back to the Imperial capital and told there is a mission that ONLY SHE CAN DO. Because you see she isn't just a princess, she isn't just a learned princess, but she is a magic-wielding princess. Its offhandedly mentioned a few times that women being able to read, let alone do magic, is a capital crime. Yet other than her hiding her necklace which everyone seems to know about there doesn't seem to be any consequence to her illicit knowledge. The story starts with her being ill. And other than her being "seasick" at the very end is never mentioned again. She doesn't recover, but she doesn't not recover. It's just forgotten.

The story doesn't seem to be able to decide if it is high or low magic. In the palace, it seems like magic is everywhere. It supplies, food, light, healing, water. But people act like it's a rare gift. Character seem to act illogically without motive and the story purposefully tries to trick the reader into false expectations of danger. After using her magic to fend off a gang of crippled muggers (why crippled? I have no idea), one of them says her magic won't stop him and then immediately runs away.

But the problems don't end there. The writing is very stiff and every character seems to be speaking in the same voice. Most of the writing is a description of what she is thinking. In a graphical novel, why describe everything in text? Why not show us?

The art also has issues, all of the scenes are very dark and generic. The characters are lacking detail to the point where expression is either absent or muddled and other than Maia many characters are hard to distinguish. One of the characters is supposed to be visibly scarred on his face and instead we get a line down one side of his face when viewed in profile.

All in all, I'm extremely disappointed. Maybe if you are familiar with Wheeler's novels you will appreciate this more. But as a stand alone work it doesn't make me very interested in continuing further into the 5 part volume.

I received a digital copy of this book for review from NetGalley and the publisher.

2015-07-29

Air

Air

by Geoff Ryman

Oh, Air. You have been a hard mistress. I originally purchased the book in August 2012. I finally finished almost three years later. I picked it up and put it down too many times to count. The first hundred or so pages were rough. Character names were difficult to remember. The book is written almost as if Ryman himself was a peasant in the fictional Central Asian country. The complete backwardness of the characters often had me frustrated.

After about the hundred page point it sped up a lot as the main character, Mae Sung, breaks out of her shell of tradition and leaps into the changes coming. Then she goes a little insane. The final hundred pages were slowing more and more until the last dozen were almost painful to read. 

So what is this book about? It's Magical Realism meets Cyberpunk. It's not clear but it sounds like it is supposed to be set in a Soviet breakaway state that at one time had been part of China. The year is 2019 and the wealthiest family in the village has bought the first computer to this last place on Earth to have internet access. The protagonist of the book is Mae Chung, an illiterate middle-aged woman whose two children have grown up and left. Her semi-worthless husband was a local hero for his athletic prowess in school and is now walking the edge of alcoholism. Mae in addition to hard work, like most of the village, in the rice paddies also is a dressmaker and purports to her neighbors to be a "modern" fashion expert. She knows it's a sham, but it brings in extra money. The book spends a great while introducing the lifestyle of the village and Mae. What they don't know is the world is approaching the activation of a new system: Air. Air is a direct-brain transmitted connection to the internet. No hardware needed. Later on the book explains how it works through some quantum mumbo-jumbo that is best left as magic. Before the final activation, a global test is going to run. This comes as a shock and a surprise to the small village. People die and get hurt when it happens. Mae is in the presence of her neighbor's ancient grandmother when the test occurs. After it is done, she discovers that Mrs. Tung is dead, but her mind is now intertwined with her. Additionally, unlike other people she still has limited access to a Wikipedia-like system over Air after the test. What follows is a series of painful transitions for Mae, her family, her friends, the village and her nation largely driven by the changes in Mae, her ambition, and the access to new knowledge. 

The books go over the course of the following year until the final activation of Air globally as Mae becomes intertwined with the National Government, New York fashion magazines, village politics, and the mob. There are new loves, oracular visions, miraculous events, biblical disasters and a birth fit for ancient Greek mythology and more in the process.

The book explores topics of the nature of humanity, the importance of heritage, medical and scientific ethics, the democratization of trade by globalization, and the cyclical nature of history.

In the end, I'm glad I finished it, it gave me a lot to think about. But I'm not sure if I would recommend the book unless you are a really dedicated fan of cyberpunk or magical realism.