Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Book Review: Blindsight

book cover for BlindsightIt's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet? Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Siri Keeton, who went through a hemispherectomy as a child to correct his epileptic seizures. While successful, it also rendered him emotionally detached, perfect for a job as a synthesist, a type of observer whose job it is to "integrate traits, attitudes, and impulses to create a total personality." His job here is to observe the crew, a bunch of transhumanist misfits, as they try to figure out the aliens and then translate their findings into something comprehensible for mere mortals back home.

But Siri isn't really a reliable narrator. I wasn't convinced he knew what he was doing or what was going on. The crew didn't trust him, thinking of him as a spy for mission control, despite the fact that the ship was literally over a half a light year from home. We get flashbacks to Siri's time before the mission, showing his emotionally reprehensible behavior towards his ex-girlfriend which only underlines his incompetence towards relating to people. He blames the surgery for his shortcomings, but as it his job to read people, he fails to understand himself and what it means to be human.

The third most egregious offense is the addition of the vampire character. In this series, vampires co-existed with humans in paleolithic times but went extinct. Someone thought it would be a good idea to dig through our junk DNA to genetically engineer them back to life, complete with superhuman capabilities. I can't confirm it, but it seems that Watts—who earned a Ph.D from the University of British Columbia's Department of Zoology and Resource Ecology—got the idea from human bones that showed evidence of cannibalism. To me, that's too much of a stretch.

The second most egregious offense pertains to the aliens themselves. They have a certain ability that literally had me say "bullshit" out loud. It shattered my suspension of disbelief. After burying me in mounds of psychology, physics, and neuroscience, he finally went too far. To delve further into this would be to invoke spoilers, so I'm going to leave it at that. Since I lack the education to debate him on this matter or the existence of paleolithic vampires, I can't possibly win the argument.

This is probably the oddest first contact story that I've ever read. But it really isn't about first contact; it's a debate over intelligence vs. sentience. The characters argued over what the latest discovery about the aliens meant in this debate. Honestly, considering their behavior and the stakes involved, I felt it was a moot point. I didn't particularly care for how the crew interacted with one another, how contact with the aliens was handled, or the way the investigation was conducted. The methodologies the crew employed when studying the aliens went to such extremes that I felt like they were digging their own grave.

Complaints aside, this isn't a bad novel. It won prestigious awards. And Watts bleak worldview on humanity isn't lost on me. I certainly wouldn't argue with him on that. There is so much going on in here (the science, the debates, the unique aliens in an otherwise well trod storyline), and the fact that I've had such a visceral reaction to it demonstrates that I was engaged in the story. But Watts' most egregious offense, and the one that I will not yield on, is that he didn't give us a protagonist worth rooting for. By the time the Siri confesses his sins and the epilogue fades, I can't help but feel that the price for the reader to get there was too high.

3 stars

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DED

Friday, March 5, 2021

Book Review: Nemesis Games

book cover for Nemesis GamesA thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land-rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the
Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

The plot to this one takes a backseat to character development. That's not to say that there's no plot. It's just that events happen here and there, and the focus is on how the crew of the Rocinante, separated by millions of miles, deal with these events and find their way back to each other.

James Holden has been the consistent POV character through this series. In this installment, we get the POV of Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. So it was nice to see how they think and get their take on each other. The Rocinante is not just a job, it's family. Bobbie Draper, Chrisjen Avasarala, Fred Johnson, and Clarissa Mao are also present, and each adds to the story.

I read this after watching the latest season of The Expanse. Once again, I think the TV show did a better job handling the material, amping up the drama and focusing on important character moments which were glossed over in the book. We got to see more of the relationships Naomi had with Filip, Marcos, and her old crew. The book came up short here. It was almost as if Filip and Marcos were too busy, so why make the effort at all?

The whole Martian corruption storyline, which the TV show started exploring in season four, was far more intriguing than Alex's sad attempt at reconciling with his ex-wife. Fortunately, this yielded to his assisting Bobbie rather than dragging on any further.

Amos's storyline was pretty close to a match (book vs. TV show). The TV show did a better job of humanizing him though. It touched more on his past and emotional development points that were lacking in the book (I understand that "The Churn" provided a good deal of that background). He also saw something in Clarissa way back in Abaddon's Gate, and his visit to her here can be seen as an attempt by the writers to rehabilitate a character that I thought was lackluster.

Holden's storyline wasn't much to write home about. Except for the attack on Tycho Station, he spends most of his time pining for his friends. Admirable, but not all that entertaining.

This must sound like I didn't like the book, but I did. It's just that the TV show was so much better. I'd give the show 5 stars and the book 3.5 stars. I'm hoping to read the next book before the next season comes out.

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DED

Friday, February 12, 2021

Book Review: I Hope This Helps

book cover for I Hope This HelpsTommy Siegel is a musician in the band Jukebox the Ghost (Me either). After messing around with several doodles, he was challenged to produce a new comic every day for 500 days. He posted them on social media, garnered a following, caught the attention of famous people, and landed a book deal. This book is the result.

It was a gift from my son, and I found it to be laugh out loud funny, certainly guffaw worthy.

As the title suggests, this is very much a satire of life here and now. There are contrasts ("Football vs. Football", "Star Wars vs. Star Trek", "Scrambled Eggs vs Cereal"), helpful guides ("Fall Fetish Checklist", "Stages of Coffee Addiction", "A Guide to Paper-free Hand Dryers", "What Your Sandals Say About You"), as well as political humor ("How Your Grandparents Act vs. How Your Grandparents Vote").

Interespersed among the comics, Siegel shares his experiences and opinions about the 500-day comic challenge and dealing with social media, Facebook in particular. It's fairly astute, as Siegel's experiences and conclusions have been corroborated by digital media analysts. Completed in mid-March of 2020, the worst of it came to fruition while the manuscript was being readied for production in October.

If you like humor that holds a mirror up to society and pokes fun, then it's for you. If you're easily offended, particularly if you're in denial about your coffee addiction or social media is your daily meth, then this book isn't for you.

3.5 stars

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DED

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Book Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo

boo cover for A Dead Djinn in CairoEgypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha'arawi leads her through the city's underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and plot that could unravel time itself.

Forty years prior to the start of this novella, someone let magic into the world, altering it forever. Colonial powers have gotten the boot thanks to an alliance with the creatures who entered through that portal, and now Egypt is enjoying a boost in prosperity. But on the flip side, there are dark forces at work who recognize that this is a world ripe for the picking.

I thought that a woman working as an investigator in early twentieth century Egypt seemed especially progressive given the country's treatment of women in more recent times, but it turns out Egypt was ahead of the curve relative to its neighbors at the time. The erosion of women's rights didn't begin until the 1970s. So this story makes more sense in 1912 than say 1992. But since Clark has a doctorate in history, he knew what he was doing all along.

Even so, there are subtle hints that Fatma is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for women at the time. Her haircut and penchant for wearing outfits more appropriate for British men lends her an "exotic" appearance that does not go unnoticed. Clark doesn't explore this avenue further, but rather focuses on her self-confidence, intelligence, and courage in the face of mortal danger.

I love the world building. It's both familiar and strange. Elements of steampunk mix with shades of Middle Eastern lore. Clark's prose is thoroughly descriptive without going purple or cluttering the narrative. He's created a rich world with the potential for many stories.

My only complaint would be that the story was too short and a tad bit rushed. Clark could've easily expanded this story into a novel.

4 stars

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DED

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Book Review: The Human Division

book cover for The Human DivisionFollowing the events of The Last Colony, John Scalzi tells the story of the fight to maintain the unity of the human race.

The people of Earth now know that the human Colonial Union has kept them ignorant of the dangerous universe around them. For generations the CU had defended humanity against hostile aliens, deliberately keeping Earth an ignorant backwater and a source of military recruits. Now the CU's secrets are known to all. Other alien races have come on the scene and formed a new alliance—an alliance against the Colonial Union. And they've invited the people of Earth to join them. For a shaken and betrayed Earth, the choice isn't obvious or easy.

Against such possibilities, managing the survival of the Colonial Union won't be easy, either. It will take diplomatic finesse, political cunning...and a brilliant "B Team," centered on the resourceful Lieutenant Harry Wilson, that can be deployed to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected things the universe throws at you when you're struggling to preserve the unity of the human race.


This book is actually a collection of serial episodes that were initially released online. I didn't read them when they were released as I was taking a break from Scalzi. I'm glad that I waited for them to be bundled together as that works better for me. While each story is self-contained, strung together they apply to a larger storyline: Who is behind the effort to destroy the Colonial Union's efforts to reunite with Earth and get along with its neighbors? [Highlight to read SPOILER] Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn't in this book. [END SPOILER]

The stories are primarily about the work of the "B Team", a diplomat, her retinue, the ship's captain and crew, and their CDF technical liaison, Lt. Harry Wilson. If you read Old Man's War, he was one of John Perry's buddies. During their adventures, they discover evidence of the larger storyline, but as they try to piece together the clues or climb out of the trap about to spring on them, they always seem to be a step or two behind their adversary.

A few other stories served as background for the reader, but were always relevant to the main storyline. These tended to be darker, a juxtaposition to the B Team's typical "we've stepped in it now" attitude in the face of adversity.

I have to say that I've missed the effortless way that Scalzi can carry a story and develop characters with dialogue. Humor is a big part of that. Good-natured snarky pokes at their jobs or the situations that they're in makes them relatable and thus endearing to this reader. But there's a lot of heart as well. The main characters are good people forced to work in difficult situations with lives at stake, theirs or others. If you're in it up to your neck, there's no time for whining. You just have to do your job and hope that it all works out in the end. When the shit hit the fan in the climactic episode, I couldn't help but care about who made it out alive. And that's an important lesson for all writers, if you want people to come back and read your stories, you'd better give them some characters to root for.

4.25 stars

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DED

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book Review: Semiosis

book cover for Semiosis In this character driven novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke, human survival hinges on a bizarre alliance.

Only mutual communication can forge an alliance with the planet's sentient species and prove that mammals are more than tools.

Forced to land on a planet they aren't prepared for, human colonists rely on their limited resources to survive. The planet provides a lush but inexplicable landscape—trees offer edible, addictive fruit one day and poison the next, while the ruins of an alien race are found entwined in the roots of a strange plant. Conflicts between generations arise as they struggle to understand one another and grapple with an unknowable alien intellect.


The book is broken up into seven sections, each with a different narrator from a different generation. Roughly thirty to forty years pass between the first four. The remaining story is told over the span of a couple years. The initial gaps between sections affords the colony a chance to develop and set the stage for the major plot development hinted at early on in the story. For that reason, I didn't mind the gaps, though I regretted seeing a couple of these characters go.

The first section details the arrival of the colonists and the early days of their settlement. Octavo was the narrator, and I rooted for him to solve the colony's initial problems. They were off to a bad start: A navigation error sent them to the wrong planet, and a botched landing destroyed a good chunk of their equipment and supplies. After several deaths, he figures out that the colonists are pawns in a war between two plants. The irony is dispiriting after fleeing an Earth overwhelmed by war and environmental collapse.

But things didn't get any better in section two. Sylvia narrates how the colony leadership, now made up of the few remaining colonists from the first generation, has resorted to rape, murder, and intimidation to maintain control. Burke's colonists named their world Pax. It's another sledgehammer's worth of irony.

These two sections of the book were so bleak that, after finishing them, I had to take a break from the book. While I liked the two narrators, I wasn't too sure about the rest of the colony. When I returned to it, things looked less bleak, but I still didn't care about the colonists and the narrators varied in likeability.

By the time I finished section five I was convinced that Burke didn't like these people either. She beat the crap out of the idealistic first generation only to have them turn bitter, embracing the despotic tactics of the very people that they fled from Earth to keep dissenters and their children in line. A couple of generations later and the colonists are mostly annoying, dirty hippies. In a major encounter, Burke sets them up to fail, crushing the idealism out of the narrator and his like-minded compatriots.

The idea of sentient plants made for an intriguing premise, but I found myself with more questions than answers. The major plant character rattles off its very detailed knowledge of organic chemistry, but no explanation is offered as to how it came to acquire said knowledge. There are no plant schools, nor any surviving members of its kind to pass on this knowledge. I inhale air into my lungs, extract the oxygen molecules, push them through my alveoli into my bloodstream, extract carbon dioxide from blood vessels, and exhale that gas. Not only do I not have to consciously think about doing this, but without the education I've received, a lifetime of breathing would not impart that knowledge to me. Does the plant somehow see or taste—or whatever the botanical equivalent is here—the molecules? I could accept that if offered as an explanation. If I could see molecules, after several millenia of existence, I'm sure that even I could've performed much better in my organic chemistry class.

After finishing this, I'm left to wonder what Burke is trying to say here. Is this a friendly warning that while solving Earth's problems is hard, running away to colonize other worlds is no easier? Is she cynically saying that no matter where people go, whatever their idealistic intentions, they're going to screw things up?

To summarize, great world building but a bleak narrative with cynical messaging and very few characters worth rooting for.

2.5 stars

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DED

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Writing Has Resumed

I finally seem to have made enough progress processing my father's death that I'm able to write again. Obviously the real world events of 2020 didn't help to move things along. While terrible things are still going on, it seems that on a personal level I've been able to turn the page.

Over the summer, I was inspired by a status update I saw on Goodreads to write this short story. The idea rattled around my brain, but I wasn't able to write it up until the week after Christmas. It's titled "Staking Sunflowers". It's 2,100 words long and has sci-fi and horror elements in it.

My wife and kids read it and gave their approval. A reading group on Goodreads has given it positive reviews, too. After a few edits, including tacking on a darker ending, I've started reviewing markets that it might work for. First submission and rejection happened yesterday, so I must keep looking. In the meantime, now that it's out of my head, I can get back to working on Gateway.

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DED