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

Friday, October 6, 2017

But it wasn't all bad

Lest I give you the wrong impression, my summer wasn't all work and no play. For instance, in July my wife and I got to see the Church perform at Darryl's House in Pawling, which is just over the border in New York.

The Church performing at Daryl's House.
While most people only remember them for their 80's hit "Under the Milky Way," they actually have twenty-five studio albums. A new one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, has just been released. They remain one of my all-time favorite bands.

Despite the small size of the club, there was a VIP section (basically right in front of us). VIPs were treated to a meet & greet with the band. It was weird. We were separated from the VIP section by a bar rail, so we looked on as the band talked with VIP fans right next to us but we were forbidden. Kind of silly.

Tim PowlesTowards the end of meet and greet period, Tim Powles, the drummer, was oblivious to the divider and, unbidden, came over to talk to us. When we informed him that we weren't VIP, he shrugged. I don't want to misquote him, so I'll just say that he didn't really care, having had enough pre-show wine. We were unprepared and scrambling for something to talk about. We noticed was that he was barefoot. Presto! Instant conversation starter. We pointed out their naked condition and wasn't he worried about stepping on something. He knew he probably should be, but he was more relaxed. I mentioned that one couldn't go too many place barefoot in the US due to liability issues. I asked if other places were as litigious as the US. He said, "No," with conviction.

We chatted with a little while longer, then let him go before he got in trouble with management (club or band). Nice guy.

The show was great. Old favorites dominated the set, with some newer tracks mixed in.

Every July our town hosts a small brewfest. This was the first time we had a chance to go. Normally it's one of the hottest weekends of the year. When the thermometer climbs into the 90s, the last thing I want to do is drink beer. But this year it was cloudy, drizzly, and cool enough to wear jeans. In fact, it's 78°F (25.5°C) today and I'm in shorts. You know the weather's gone weird in the northern hemisphere when an October day is warmer than a day in July. Anyway, it was pretty good. A few new local startup breweries (Nod Hill, Broken Symmetry) were present, which was nice to see.

Every year, the Newtown public library hosts a large book sale in one of the schools. My daughter and I got to go this year. Here's my haul:
Newtown book sale 2017
While I've always enjoyed perusing book stores (an activity all but extinct), I think this is the first time I've had a chance to go with my daughter. Yeah, she goes to the library, but that's always seemed to be satisfying some school requirement as opposed to reading because she enjoys it. It was a nice moment to connect with her over something we both enjoy.

But the highlight of the summer was witnessing the great North American eclipse of 2017! My parents live in the path of totality down in Tennessee, so we trekked on down to watch it from their front yard. The weather was perfect.

While I knew that the internet was going to be flooded with professional pictures and video, I just had to try and take some myself (Isn't that what people do?). I cut up one of the cheap (but Discover magazine approved) solar eclipse glasses and put one of the lenses in front of my phone camera lens. It didn't work very well. Most of the pictures were fuzzy blobs. This one was probably the best:

Obviously not good at all!

I waited until totality before I brought out my Olympus. I didn't want to risk damaging it (or my eyes) during the partial phase. I had much better results.

For these next four, I cropped the pictures so that I didn't have to re-size them. I think the pictures look better from a distance as the zooms reveal the limits of my camera.




This last picture is the same as the previous one, just zoomed out.

Venus made an appearance in the west once totality began, the reflected sunlight finally visible once the sky went dark. I didn't think to take a picture of it however.

If you've never seen a total solar eclipse in person, you should put it on your list of things to do. It was a sight to behold that my pictures don't do justice (or even the professional ones). It was like a hole in the sky, something physical yet completely dark. I understand why eclipses were viewed as ominous portents and signs from God (or the gods). For those two minutes and twenty seconds, it was as though a great secret had been revealed, but we all forgot just as soon as it was over.

I can't wait for the next one.

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DED

Saturday, September 9, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Like every other summer, I had my usual assortment of tasks: take the kids to their various summer camps (band camp, Irish dancing camp, sewing & embroidery class, field hockey, ice hockey), chop some wood for winter, and finish random small outdoor projects (like power wash and re-stain the deck). I got off to a good start by finishing a small retaining wall for a flower bed and collecting a couple of cords of wood from my in-laws (they had a couple of trees taken down). But while I was in the shower one day, my daughter answered the door for a guy going house to house to set up sales meetings for a home remodeling company.

I was a bit taken aback by this behavior of hers. She's 11; I thought she knew better. We went through a plague of Jehovah's Witness visits whereupon we hid and pretended we weren't home. But no. I get out of the shower and learn from my son that his sister is talking to a guy through her window. I scrambled to get dressed and send this guy on his way as nicely as possible, but once I went outside to talk to him, I was already caught in his net. When I explained that my wife wouldn't meet with anyone after work—her average arrival time home is 7—he countered with a weekend visit. The time was drawing near that I had to drive my overly friendly daughter to her Irish dancing class. I couldn't get rid of him without being a jerk so I gave up and agreed to a weekend meeting.

My wife and I were impressed by the sales presentation, so we took the plunge on vinyl siding with a side order of new (and bigger) gutters. We'd been wanting to go vinyl for several years, but opted not to make the huge investment. The materials technology has improved over the past decade. That and the company's size made me feel confident that we weren't going to have any issues down the road. And new gutters...I've been struggling with the ones we had since year one.

So this meant that I had a few weeks to split and stack the wood in the driveway. They needed the space for the materials and the ginormous dumpster—7 feet high! It was doable, but one week later, after we'd returned from "celebrating" the move, fate threw a wrench into our plans. A pipe burst in the bathroom on the ground floor, flooding most of the lower level. I opened the garage door on my way to the main shutoff valve, and a wave of water rolled out and down my driveway. While it was only a couple inches, anyone who's been flooded will tell you that it doesn't take much water to cause damage (I can imagine what Harvey's victims are going through).

broken pipes

We pumped out as much water we could and used every non-bath towel in the house to absorb the rest. We thought that we were going to be ok. I left the dehumidifier on all night and hoped for the best. The next day we discovered that the wood parquet flooring in the foyer was trashed once and for all. The carpeting in the den was soggy. We tried the shop vac, but that was a joke. The padding underneath was a sponge and not letting go. It had to go. The more we ripped up, the more wet stuff we found. By the time we were done, half of the den and a quarter of the office was lost. We got to most furniture in time, but an old particle board shelf tower disintegrated.

Sheet rock is also notorious for disintegrating about immersion in water. If it doesn't crumble, that evil black mold grows on the surface. I had to rip out the bottom two feet of sheet rock in the bathroom and laundry room. The other rooms were spared as the carpet and padding sponginess worked in our favor, hogging the water to itself.

We kinda knew this day was coming. We've had water issues many times before. The guy who built our house in 1973 used the cheaper, thin-walled copper pipe meant to be used for re-circulating water heating systems. We have electric heat; so either he was an idiot or a cheapskate. 25+ years of hard and acidic water led to pinhole leaks and cracked pipes. As projects arose and pipes failed, we replaced the copper pipes throughout the house with PEX, except for the laundry room and downstairs bathroom. The pipe failed on the wrong side of the shutoff valve. It sheared right off, and at four gallons/minute (~15 liters/minute) it may well have been a fire hose.

I exposed the old copper pipes so that my plumber could get in there and make the swap. He also suggested getting our water tested so that we could get the proper water treatment system installed. We came in with a pH of 6.1 and a hardness of 154 ppm. That meant we had to install a water filter, neutralizer, and softener. It was a big expenditure on top of an already large investment, neither of which we'd planned on making.

Someone asked me if my insurance company was covering any of the cost. Honestly, I hadn't even considered it. So I decided to call my insurance agent and hear what they had to say. I was informed that the insurance company would cover the expense for the damaged flooring (minus the deductible) but not the corrective equipment we'd installed to get our water in line. After filing said claim, our rates would then go up as we'd lose our 20% discount for being claim free. Factoring the rate increase with the high deductible, we decided not to file a claim.

After I got this taken care of...



...I got to work on repairs. All the sheet rock has been replaced, spackled, primed, and painted. Both the bathroom and laundry room are fully functional again. All of the foyer flooring and old carpet have been disposed of (Thank you, ginormous dumpster).

I still have half the old padding and all the tack strips to remove and dispose of. Since we have to replace the foyer flooring, we decided to completely renovate it. That's on my plate for September. After that, we'll have someone install carpet (That's beyond my skill set) in the den and office. So you can see that I won't have a whole lot of time for writing in the weeks ahead. All is not lost though. I did manage to find the time to write up this explanation for my whereabouts.

EDIT 9/14/17: Forgot to mention that our microwave oven died the week before the siding guys arrived. So that was yet another thing to buy and install.

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DED

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2)

book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?


It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

It took me longer than expected to finish this book. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the material, rather most nights I was too tired from the day's activities to read more than a page. Details forthcoming when I have time for a lengthy post.

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DED

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: The God Engines

book cover for the god enginesCaptain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given. Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It's what he doesn't know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely

"It was time to whip the god."

Now that's an opening line! It grabs hold of the reader (this one anyway) and immediately begs the question: What the hell is going on here? Aspiring authors should take note. Actually, I've noticed that some established authors should make note of it as well.

Scalzi is noted for writing science fiction. Although this story mostly takes place on a starship, it's dark fantasy. There are no sci-fi elements other than the starship and a bit of interstellar travel. Space fantasy, perhaps. It is a distant cousin to the Barsoom saga in terms of genre. But don't go expecting a Burroughs-style adventure; this is much darker.

Being just a novella, the pace feels a bit rushed. Backstory for the characters is hard to come by, so every tidbit that Scalzi shares is valuable. If the page count had been doubled, Scalzi could've gone into more detail about this strange universe where faith powers technology, maybe revealed more detail about the setting and how things work. But maybe that's a good thing as Scalzi just sticks to the molten core of this story, and more detail might slow things down too much.

The conflict between Captain Tephe and Priest Andso is well done. The two are locked in a power struggle and clash often to see who will come out ahead. All the while, the aforementioned god taunts Tephe, assailing his faith. Both interpersonal relationships maintain the tension until the first contact meeting with a heathen people, when Scalzi reveals his hand (I must say, I was caught off guard). From there it's a mad dash to the book's bloody conclusion.

It was nice to see Scalzi break from his established style and go dark. I can see why the novella was nominated for a Hugo. 4.5 stars.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Goodreads.

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DED

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: Echoes of Avalon

book cover for Echoes of AvalonPatrick Gawain knows monsters. He's seen plenty of the human sort in the Holy Lands, and as he sails home from The First Crusade, a hooded apparition begins to stalk him. Convinced that he's lost his mind, he holes up in a monastery to convalesce and, if recovery proves impossible, to hide his demons from the world. But a stranger comes to find him and presents a barely credible invitation: travel to Avalon and serve with the Avangarde, an order of knights sworn to protect young scholars from around the world.

Thinking it will be a fresh start, Patrick agrees, and soon discovers that Avalon is more than a myth; it is the site of a vibrant secret academy - and it's also full of ghosts, goblins, and talking wolves. He can capably protect the castle from the island's supernatural beasts, but in the relative peace of the academy life, his hooded demon returns and his troubled heart causes him to sabotage the love of a young woman, Katherina. When an ancient being with sinister designs for the island infiltrates the academy, Patrick is the first to suspect its true nature when it begins its quest by seducing Katherina.

Patrick soon learns that before he can defeat monsters, he must first defeat his personal demons.


This was a tough book to finish, but after taking a break midway through, I was able to get it done. It could've used a developmental edit to whittle out 150-200 pages. Why is that? Well, as someone complained in the Goodreads comments, nothing happens for the longest time. This isn't epic fantasy. There's no great quest. It's clearly not Arthurian legend. It took forever to even learn who the villain was. This is a character driven story, and that's generally incapable of supporting a 500+ page novel.

At first, I thought this was going to be a story about a knight with PTSD, suffering from what he witnessed during the Crusades, but then the hooded apparition and Gawain's dwelling on the war disappeared from the story. It was replaced by day-to-day life on Avalon, which turned out to be rather mundane given the mysterious opening regarding how one gained access to the island. It all seemed like so much soap opera: Which knight is courting which lady? Will Gawain ever realize the affections of a certain handmaiden?

The villain arrived late and was more annoying than threatening. His relationship with his minion, Minion, was like watching a Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s. I won't say his name as that would certainly spoil it for future readers, but it's a name that carries a lot of literary baggage. The villain's origin story in the middle of the novel was wholly unnecessary as it didn't change my opinion of him nor enlighten me to his motivations. A shorter version could've worked as a prologue in a shorter novel, but randomly dumped in the middle of the book was too much, too late.

I would give this 2.5 stars if that were possible on Goodreads. I rounded up to three as Copeland shows that he firmly grasps characterization (I stuck with the story because I cared about Gawain). He's also capable of fine world-building and garnishing it with the proper descriptive prose to render the scene, even negative ones—the opening scene on the boat stirred up a recent seasickness memory. He just needs the right editor to tighten the narrative and make it less tedious.

This review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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DED

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreaming Void

book cover for The Dreaming VoidTo read the book blurb, click here.

I don't give up on books; I always see them through to the end. I came close to quitting Rainbow's End, but I stuck with it. But not this time. 80 pages in and I'm done.

When I ran an indie book review blog, I had a simple system set in place. If the blurb piqued my interest, I'd read the first chapter to see if I was hooked. It was a good system, but not perfect. Some clunkers got through. Apparently, I need to apply that same system to traditionally published books. Blurbs (and Goodreads recommendation engines) aren't enough.

The opening sentence was a dud. The Prologue was dull. Every single bit of writer's advice that I've heard and read states that you have to hook your reader with the first sentence, the first paragraph at the very latest, but this doesn't do that. The first sentence:

The starship slipped down out of a night sky, its gray and scarlet hull illuminated by the pale iridescence of the massive ion storms that beset space for light-years in every direction.

Pretty, but not exactly hook worthy. The rest of the Prologue describes this guy's arrival at an scientific observation post and then his attendance at a party. When he's tired and had his fill of socializing, he goes to his quarters to sleep. And then he has "the dream." End of Prologue. I think "the dream" was meant to be the hook.

The book blurb says that said dream was of a paradise that lies within the spatial anomaly that the observation post has been studying for centuries. This is the fantasy setting that people have referred to in the Goodreads comments. Apparently the dreams spawned a religion and everyone wants to migrate there. But why? Magic? These people already benefit from FTL spaceships that reduce travel time to distant stars to mere hours and have all the body modification abilities that transhumanist wannabes could possibly desire. I found it lacking. Maybe transhumanists in the future are bored (spoiled?) with centuries long lifespans and want more.

There wasn't any action until page 57, and it came out of nowhere. Everything was character introduction and gee whiz fantastic tech. The character who participated in the action scene never revealed any indication in his previous scenes that he was anything more than a pilgrim just chillin' before the big trip. I had trouble forging any sort of connection with the characters. I felt lost and bored, struggling to read more than five pages at a time.

If I'm reading Hamilton's bibliography correctly, this was his 11th novel. His publisher must figure that he's got his audience. No need to mess with the formula; it works. No hooks necessary. The man is the hook.

Even though I didn't like the book to this point, I'm giving this at least two stars for world building, pretty prose, and—I'm going to make an assumption here—an intricate story. With the right audience, it works. However, I'm not that audience. And that's a pity. I'd read "Blessed by an Angel" and I was keen to explore the worlds he created. Now, not so much.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.

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DED