Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: Equoid

Book cover for EquoidIf this story had come out ten years earlier, I would never have let my daughter play with those MyLittlePony™ things. But she grew to love giraffes instead of horses or unicorns, so I suppose that worry would've been for naught anyway. At least until Stross pens something horrific about those ungainly ungulates.

If you're new to the Laundry Files, this series is a bit of James Bond battles Lovecraftian beasties and the occult with a healthy dose of The Office thrown in. But our intrepid hero (Bob Howard) resembles John Oliver more than Daniel Craig. In Equoid, Bob is sent to investigate reports of an equoid infestation (unicorns) at a farm in southern England.

Stross has managed to take the wholesome creature of little girl fantasies (here's why) and, after running it through a Lovecraftian filter, turned it into a horrific monstrosity replete with squishy, icky things and pubescent nightmares (If I had read this at 14...[shudder]). It's so bad that, in all seriousness, some readers will be genuinely disturbed by the imagery. But it all fits. If you understand Lovecraft's universe and the biology of anglerfish well enough, you'll recognize that none of the horror is gratuitous.

Stross also offers a glimpse into what drove the first of several nervous breakdowns that HPL suffered during his teens. He does so by offering snippets of a letter "written" by HPL, which the Laundry has on file. I think Stross did a great job mimicking HPL's style for the letter.

If you've read any of the books in the Laundry Files series, you'll be familiar with the writing style and story structure. It's a great addition to the series, and I highly recommend it to all those who enjoy it.

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DED

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: Caliban's War

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .


Caliban's War is a breakneck science fiction adventure following the critically acclaimed Leviathan Wakes.

I really enjoyed this book, even more so than Leviathan Wakes, and that was great. This time around, I think the book is better than the TV show (too much chopped out so far), though there's still the second half of this book that season three of the TV show needs to cover.

For POV, Holden's still here, but gone is Miller's noir. In its place is Martian Marine Sgt Bobbie Draper, the political machinations of UN Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, and the forlorn quest of Prax, a Ganymede biologist. It's a diverse cast with wildly different perspectives and personalities.

Prax's daughter was kidnapped just before the war started on Ganymede, so he spends all of his waking hours searching for her. He's wasting away, praying that she's still alive, but expecting the worst. By the time Holden and the others encounter him, he's so far gone that he's barely capable of speech.

Chrisjen is a foulmouthed bureaucrat. She cusses like a sailor, possibly worse. When asked why her language is so "colorful", she replies that it's to prevent others from thinking she's soft. Why would anyone think that of her? It's not because she's happily married and a grandmother. It's because she "won't kill children." It's a brutal insight into the political landscape of The Expanse. It's all a game, but she can't give it up because she doesn't trust the other players. Her repartee with Holden was excellent. I hope it holds up on the TV show. If it doesn't, it won't be because Shohreh Aghdashloo didn't hold up her end. Her portrayal of Chrisjen is spot on.

Bobbie's coping with PTSD after her squad was obliterated by the aforementioned "monstrous supersoldier" (I don't want to spoil it, but the title is a clue.). She wants answers; she wants revenge. IIRC, she's two meters tall and intimidates anyone who has a clue. And that's before she puts on battle armor. After the Martian government lets her down, she goes to work for Chrisjen, because she's the one person whose objectives are in line with her own. It's not without bumps along the way though. Bobbie is a stranger in a strange land and must confront her perceptions about Terrans (Mars seems a bit like Sparta).

So you have Bobbie and Chrisjen hunting down the bastards that made the supersoldiers while Prax and Holden's gang are searching for Prax's daughter. The plot lines converge, and all hell breaks loose. It's all so epic that I couldn't help but love it. I had too much fun reading this, which isn't an easy things for me to say about a book that's spitting distance from 600 pages. I can't wait to see season three and read Abaddon's Gate.

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DED

Friday, December 22, 2017

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1

book cover for Transmetropolitan Volume 1After years of self-imposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem is forced to return to a job that he hates and a city that he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd Century surroundings. Combining black humor, life-threatening situations, and moral ambiguity, this book is the first look into the mind of an outlaw journalist and the world he seeks to destroy.

Spider Jerusalem is the cyberpunk homage to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. You can see it in his appearance, demeanor, personality, and politics. And he's always smoking. Like HST, he savagely attacks what he perceives as a corrupt system filled with politicians, aristocrats, and cult leaders on the take with the use of his trusty computer. He's an anti-hero sticking it to—and sometimes kicking—the man. But he's also flawed. In Spider's case, it's manifold: booze and drugs, loyal to no one but himself, sloth, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur that manifest in the form of a self-righteous arbiter of morality attacking the powerful. He's judge, jury, and punisher (he doesn't execute anyone) who takes too much delight in carrying out his sentences.

Forced out of retirement due to bankruptcy and a publishing contract, Spider returns to the city he loves and loathes. He feeds off that loathing to craft his column for one of the local newspapers. His editor rewards Spider with a generous stipend and improved lodging (and later an assistant), which feeds Spider's ego and gives him all the justification he needs to continue his crusade.

Volume 1 collects the first six issues. The first three issues see Spider's return to the city from his mountain retreat. We learn about this world of his as he gets re-acquainted with it, noting what has changed, what hasn't. Along the way we discover that there are transients, humans who are re-writing their DNA to become aliens. Spider decides to make their story the subject of his first column.

The next three issues are one-offs where Spider meets his assistant (Channon, who deserves hazard pay for putting up with Spider's eccentricities) and runs into the President in a public bathroom, spends an afternoon watching TV (watch out for the ad bombs!), and visits a religious cult convention.

Darick Robertson's artwork is spot on. He perfectly captures the commercial chaos of the city, filled with the circus sideshow of humanity with all of its quirks, cultures, fashions and fetishes. I love scrutinizing the wide shot panels, combing through the debris of this world to catch a glimpse of the detritus and details that offer clues into what this world is all about: Ebola Cola, Necro Porn and Playgray magazines, Sin Gin, Dead Boyz cigarettes.

On a personal note, I just finished this volume before attending a corporate Christmas party. When I wasn't engaged in polite conversations with people who would soon forget I existed, Spider Jerusalem's commentary was there, running through my head with acerbic opinions about the occasion and its attendees. Having a character stick with you like that is a good sign that the author did his homework.

Given the current political climate, Transmetropolitan seems more relevant now than when it debuted 20 years ago. One major difference: the caricatures of people in the comic have now come to life.

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DED

Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Review: Foundation

book cover for FoundationFor twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind's last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun—or fight them and be destroyed.


If you can look past certain technological anachronisms like paper still being a medium for the storage of information in a technologically advanced civilization with FTL travel or archaic cultural limitations on women (I didn't see a single female character that wasn't a secretary or wife, and these were throwaway roles), then this classic sci-fi novel (and later series) from the 1950s still merits reading (assuming you haven't done so already).

At this point in the series (several novels were written that take place before this one, although they were published later), the Galactic Empire has begun to decline, though there's little visible evidence for it. Hari Seldon, the leader of a group of psychohistorians, has declared that the empire will crumble, leading to a galaxy-wide dark ages that will last for thirty millennia. Seldon's scientific work leaves him without a doubt that the collapse is inevitable, but the recovery period doesn't have to be nearly as long. His plan involves the creation of a foundation that will work to preserve the empire's knowledge and minimize the damage from its fall.

The book is broken up into five sections. The first, the Psychohistorians, deals with Seldon's announcement and subsequent arrest. He's put on trial for treason and must successfully argue his case or face the death penalty. Although modeled after the Roman Empire, I found an interesting parallel to Seldon's argument about the eventual collapse of the empire in 500 years time and those individuals, most notably James Hansen, warning the American government and the world about climate change. Just as too many people have a problem envisioning how climate change is happening or that its effects will be more severely felt decades from now (or want to cover it up by discrediting the messengers), the Imperial government denies that the empire is crumbling, can't see the cracks that will take centuries to manifest, discredits Seldon's work, and seeks to silence him permanently. After all, who wants to hear that their way of life is having a deleterious effect upon the world (galaxy) around them?

From here, the remaining sections deal with pivotal moments in the Foundation's early years. These are dubbed "Seldon crises." In each one, the protagonist is a man who sees that the current political environment, if not handled correctly, will lead the Foundation down the wrong path. Sometimes the system needs to be overthrown; sometimes it needs a steady hand. Each one uses his wits rather than brute force to defeat his opponent. Like all successful chess players, he's able to see his opponents moves several steps in advance and plans accordingly.

While I wouldn't say it's an exciting work, it nonetheless makes for an entertaining read. Despite the aforementioned anachronisms, its influence is widespread and can be seen throughout sci-fi. When people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman cite it as an influential work, it bears looking into.

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DED

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: Ronin

book cover for RoninIn this tale of a legendary warrior, the Ronin, a dishonored, masterless 13th Century samurai, is mystically given a second chance to avenge his master's death.Suddenly finding himself reborn in a futuristic and corrupt 21st Century New York City, the samurai discovers he has one last chance to regain his honor: he must defeat the reincarnation of his master's killer, the ancient demon Agat. In a time and place foreign and unfathomable to him, the Ronin stands against his greatest enemy with his life and, more importantly, his soul at stake.

When I first encountered comic books in the 70s, I thought they were garbage. The stories weren't worth the tissue paper they were printed on. But when I went to college, a roommate of mine told me that was no longer the case (more on that here). He used three graphic novels to make his case: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Ronin.

Suffice it to say, I was convinced.

Having had a warm reunion with Watchmen, I decided to re-visit Ronin to see if still held up after all these years.

The artwork certainly isn't as good as I remember it. Most of the art strikes me as a rough draft or conceptual sketches meant to be passed on to the illustrator. I can see what imagery Miller was attempting to convey and the feelings he wanted to evoke, but the execution seemed amateurish.

And the color palette! Blech! Algae green and muddled browns. Scenes of the facility viewed from above reveal it to be an amorphous mass of greens ovals infecting the grey and brown straight lines of the city like a fungus.

However, I still enjoyed the story. We have a samurai who's lost his master (hence ronin) battling a demon in the distant past only to be carried into the future (the inspiration for Samurai Jack?). In the future, we have a limbless child (Billy) attempting to master telekinesis with the help of an AI (Virgo) with a grandmother complex. Both work for an advanced biotech company looking to resurrect Manhattan from severe degradation.

When the storylines converge, the tale hits its stride. All is not as it seems. Magic, technology, fantasy, identity: It all blurs. Caught up in the middle of it all are Peter and Casey, a couple who work at the facility. Peter is a research scientist responsible for most of the science behind the technology. Casey is head of security. Each tries to hold firm to reality despite what their eyes are telling them. When people start dying, they refuse the easy answers and dig deeper to find the truth.

Since I first read the story, I'd heard about Miller's negative view of Manhattan. To paraphrase, he felt that the city was overrun by degenerates. He projected the future Manhattan in Ronin to be filled with racists, criminals, and cannibalistic mutants. Life holds very little value. It makes me question why a biotech company would bother building a mammoth (and expensive) facility among such filth and decay. The corporate directors talked about revitalizing the city, but we never saw anyone outside of the company that wasn't a degenerate. So why bother? But such a viewpoint works perfectly for Batman, which Miller would write (but not illustrate) not long after this one.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Finished That Writing Course

Cover for DVDAfter all of the home repairs and seasonal chores, I finally got around to finishing this DVD writing course that I started back in February. I have to say that it was fantastic. I'm talking 5 stars. Landon opened my eyes to the potential of the sentence. I was a long sentence skeptic, but Landon demonstrated that they can be done well and delivered eloquently. He fights the notion that style should be invisible as it drains writing of its joy and makes it a tiresome burden for many a student. He sees long sentences as instrumental in the development of a writer's style, the text lending shape to the writer's voice.

The guidebook that accompanies the DVD, while complete, lacks Landon's delivery and many examples that he presents in the lecture. It's like the "Cliff Notes" version of the lectures. Let me put it another way: The lectures have been boiled down, and this guidebook is the precipitate. While it covers the essential nuggets and provides what you need to know, it doesn't deliver the goods in the same way as Landon's lectures.

In the DVD, Landon's delivery clearly demonstrates his passion for literature. Not only is he lively, but he also punctuates his lectures with emphatic gesture and wit. At no point did I ever find myself bored, even when the material seemed too technical for my needs. The time spent viewing these lectures was well worth it. While I don't see myself trying to emulate Faulkner, following his lengthy written footsteps, I do feel that I can apply what I've learned to my writing. I highly recommend it for all aspiring authors.

Here's the link to their website. I bought it when it went on sale, so check back periodically if you're on a budget (like me).

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DED

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

Book cover for Ancillary JusticeOn a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

I was initially intrigued by the concept of a ship's AI out for revenge, but hesitated when the hype machine started rolling. When something gets hyped up, I tend to keep my distance until things cool down. I won't say I regretted waiting, but I can see where the praise (and backlash) came from.

The story is told from the POV of the starship Justice of Toren. Each of these massive ship's is run by an AI that not only embodies the ship, but thousands of its cyborgs (basically mindwiped POWs), known as ancillaries. So during the flashback chapters, Justice of Toren is in multiple places at once. I thought Leckie did a great job with managing this as the narrator always specified which ancillary (they have designations) was observing which scene.

But with an AI as narrator, we're given a character that isn't human and thus doesn't make for an easy read. The AI isn't going to wax poetic about the view, nor will it pay attention to a person's physical features unless they're relevant. We get a very clinical description of other characters' behavior, and the AI's algorithms determine said behavior to mean a particular state of mind. Reading other reviews, I see that turned some people off. It can be dull and repetitive, but I appreciated it. This is how I'd expect an AI to narrate.

Then there's the whole matter of gender. The Radch Empire, or rather their language, doesn't acknowledge gender, so the default pronoun is "she" (though "it" would've been more accurate). There were scenes were Justice of Toren was required to speak in other languages and guess the proper pronoun to use. It wasn't always successful. To readers, it was such a surprise that some praised it for its radical linguistic treatment of gender. Some critics saw this as some liberal plot; others just found it confusing. I was in the latter camp until I got used to it and figured out characters' genders.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot can be boiled down to "AI seeks revenge." But revenge implies an emotional response. So while the AI won't describe the sunset, it can develop emotional attachments to certain humans. Justice of Toren mentions that some ships became attached to their captains and became catastrophically despondent upon their deaths. There's no explanation for how these AIs came into existence (the story is set at least several thousand years in the future), but I got the impression that emotion wasn't in their programming (obeying orders is though). I found this part, the AI wrestling with emotions and programming, the most enjoyable.

The other disturbing part of the Radch, besides its conversion of POWs as ancillaries, was the fact that it was a surveillance state. Cameras were everywhere, recording everything. One misspoken sentence could have dire consequences. I'll leave it at that. Saying anymore would reveal too much of the story.

One last thing I have to mention: What is up with everyone drinking tea all the time? Holy crap! There was one reference to some sailors returning from shore leave flat out drunk, but otherwise it's all about bowls of tea.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It wasn't an easy read, but it was an honest one. By that I mean, I really had to follow the dialogue to pick up the clues. I think that Leckie did a great job providing us with a conflicted AI (the best since 2001's HAL?), but I recognize that it won't be everyone's cup of tea (Sorry, couldn't help myself).

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DED