Month: July 2016

Technogenesis

Technogenesis_All.jpg

Technogenesis benefits exceedingly from the “the whole exceeds the sum of its parts” effect. The writing is serviceable, not stellar; the characterization is fine, if not great; the plot flows decently but gets overly convoluted later on. More importantly, the world feels perfectly creepy for the plot, and it is creepy in a way that is becoming ever more relevant for people in densely populated urban environments with proliferating levels of technological infrastructure.

The creepy, eerie feel of the world comes in large part from society’s dependence on the net, and less from the “Beast” hunting the main character. It’s a dystopian vision that snares those in its thralls into not seeing the net they have fallen into, while the have-nots are distinctly aware of everything the haves have given up. Waking up and seeing that society with the eyes of the have-nots, from someone who until recently was a has, is a disconcerting view of the blackberry brambles waiting for us at the end of the slippery slope of modern day technological absorption. (I really shouldn’t be allowed to design metaphors.)

The plot itself flows fairly well, although as the end approaches, the creepiness evaporates as the concepts strain credulity and common sense and self-consistency and the book’s conceit just gets harder and harder to take seriously. Additionally, there are some overly dramatic situations and overly elaborate plots put on by the government spy agencies just because, when a much more direct and less risky strategy would seem totally feasible.

Mythology 101

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Having read other Jody Lyn Nye books, but only read the brief intro blurb about Mythology 101, I really wanted to enjoy this book. I did not initially, but about a third of the way into the book I noticed I had starting enjoying myself a lot somewhere along the way. The issue for me was that the introduction to Keith’s mundane college life was not particularly interesting. Once Keith came in contact with the elves, however, the book began to shine. The plot took shape, conflicts between characters with different motivations suddenly became more important, and the background of mundane college life then became entertaining as the mythological aspect was layered atop it. Interestingly, at first the elves seem pretty normal themselves, and it takes a while for Keith to get a good look at their actual lifestyle. This really fits the character of having elves hiding themselves from the human populace and worrying about getting caught and found out. One standout scene in the novel was the village scene, which infused a really strong vision of place and of what the elves’ life was like.

I really enjoyed the story’s plot, as instead of teaming up to defeat evil, it’s about a man trying to help out elves who live hidden underneath his college. I also liked the mystery aspect to the plot, and felt it was very well handled. Just when I had made up my mind and it seemed obvious, Jody Lynn Nye would adeptly insert a few scenes from different characters, and their viewpoints would make me question my assumptions and again reconsider who could be responsible.

It’s also interesting ethnographically / anthropologically to read a book published in the 1990s talk about US college life, because as someone who was in a college recently, it’s simultaneously very similar (students and personality archetypes) and entirely different (culture and slang and hobbies and and and…).

Obligatory Kindle Notice: I read this on a Kindle.

Cover Art Review: I didn’t actually see the cover until writing this review, so I’ll just say that having this image in mind as I started reading the book probably would have resulted in a more pleasant experience than having in mind some dismal, dusty subterranean library stacks which I have been in.

Brother to Demons, Brother to Gods

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Conclusion: This book is a hot soggy mess. It is also weird, but not in a good way.

Theoretically the pacing and the plot should be fine, but it drags terribly, and feels like it’s going nowhere very slowly. The overall setting concept and plot concept are solid, and there were some nice reveals, but they in no way salvage the story.

The setting is simultaneously super not interesting and confusingly off the wall, with some very arbitrary worldbuilding choices. The concept is interesting, sort of a revival of the struggle between Greek Gods, Titans, Demigods, and mankind, and if better executed could be very engaging. However, the characters are annoying, and every time a new character was introduced or I spent a scene with an existing character, it just drove me further away from caring about the setting at all. The character development feels mostly arbitrary, like the author suddenly decides to grant some new perspective or ability randomly to the protagonists, rather than the protagonists gaining abilities or knowledge from what they were experiencing. There is also an awful lot of incestuous-feeling stuff going on between Buglet and Davey, which was creeping me out the entire time.

This is also very much subjective, but the writing style did not appeal to me. It felt very jerky, as few paragraphs have any kind of transition to the paragraph before or after. This is fine for about 70% of the paragraphs, but 40% just feel awkwardly disjointed, coming before / after a paragraph with no transition or connection.

Also subjective: the title is amazing and inspiring.

COVER ART REVIEW: There is a lot that is mysterious here, from the budget tank-girl (who’s actually Davey, the dude protagonist. woooops!), to the beam that demon Edward Scissorhands is shooting out of his forehead which budget tank girl is absorbing with her hands / the beam that budget tank girl is shooting out of her hands into demon Edward Scissorhands’ forehead / the beam that is erupting between budget tank girl’s hands and demon Edward Scissorhands’ forehead, to the Fonzi demon-God goin’ all “Eyyyyyyy!” in the sky, to the general appearance of the Edward Scissorhands demon.

Eyyyyyyy!

The Martian

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The Martian is one hell of an experience. It feels much more like a documentary of things that actually happened than a fictional story. It is a plausible story that could conceivably take place within the next thirty years. More importantly, it’s a really amazing story.

There are two main forms to the story: Mark Watney’s journal, and scenes from Earth characters’ perspectives. Weir balances both forms of narrative superbly, giving the reader a complete picture while Watney tries to get in touch with NASA and NASA desperately tries to learn more about Watney.

The plot is well structured, and a great example of an organic plot. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars by a freak accident, and has to survive. Every plan he makes, part he scavenges, and decision he makes has to take into account all the necessary variables that surviving alone on Mars entails. None of the challenges he faces are arbitrary. Mark Watney sets out a plan and follows it, but reworks it or scraps it as necessary to adjust to reality. This in particular made the book and character feel like a great anti-venom to the toxic political climate of the current time. The plot is paced extremely well to boot.

While Watney is the man trapped on Mars, the chapters on Earth show the reaction, planning, and work of a wide array of personnel at NASA and JPL. This part is essential, both in terms of plot and in terms of showing how space missions are a group endeavor of thousands of people, rather than solely the work of six astronauts. The chronicles on Earth reads as authentically as the personalities and decisions taken during NASA’s actual space programs such as Gemini or Apollo.

Un Lun Dun

China Mieville's UnLunDunn

Wow.

I know a few people who got English degrees. These acquaintances were endlessly gushing over China Miéville’s works a few years ago. I understand why now, and wish I had gotten around to reading some works of his much earlier, because Un Lun Dun is amazing!

There are three main elements as to why I found it so appealing: the plot structure, the feel of Un Lunn Dunn’s world, and the characters, especially the protagonists from London.

I clicked with the characters far more than I expected to. At first the characters felt a bit flat, but I quickly forgot that and was engaged and following along with the characters. Thinking back on this, much more is shown than told about the characters, and so even though it did not feel like the characters had been fleshed out because we were told less about them than the protagonists, I actually knew a lot more about the characters than I thought I did.

The plot starts off light and ramps up quickly, throwing Zanna and Deeba into the world of Un Lun Dun, where they find themselves drawn into the orbit of an ancient prophecy known to almost all UnLunDuners. This part is delightful, for even as prophecies are a fairly cliché plot device, the various characters’ reaction to meeting the Chosen One is generally delightful and revealing, and the world revealed along the way is eccentrically marvelous. The characters infuse the prophecy with meaning, such that it becomes more than just a sterile outline. UnLunDun is a realm fundamentally similar to yet different from London, and the delight is in how something so fundamentally different can feel so delightfully Londonish. (Note: I’ve not spent much time there, so I probably have a low bar for authenticity.) No matter how surreal or bizarre a scene Mievielle serves up, it is always feels believable, as well as vivid and breathtaking.

And then, as the book jacket says, things begin to go shockingly wrong. And this is where the story roars up to full speed. With the introduction and buildup we have had so far, not only can we dive straight into drama and action and confrontation, but we’re invested in the characters and setting so it’s more meaningful.

Again. UnLunDun. Amazing.

 

Outriders

Outriders

I really enjoyed reading this. It was very smooth, and felt more like a conventional spec-ops novel translated into the future, than a novel about a future with a spec-ops time, but in a good way. The world felt very natural: the characters had neat tech and tools, and the environment and power dynamics were different, but close enough to be familiar, and their operating procedure seemed pretty familiar as well. The plot is smooth in a similar fashion, with an excellent flow and only a few arbitrary connections.

The book was tense, but not negatively so: I generally had faith that the characters could handle whatever they got into, excepting a handful of situations: as a result, those scenes were very intense.

I like the characters. The protagonists are all reasonable, professional, capable people, and they work together as a team. They generally are fine with each others’ company, and banter somewhat, but know there is a time and place for it. That is really refreshing. The antagonists are also mostly not evil sadistic monsters, but are professionals who know full well the human cost of their actions and feel it. They are chilling in a way that is impossible for stereotypical villains to be.

The ending obviously sets up the possibility for more books, and I wanted to yell at the characters for missing some really obvious clues about this.

COVER ART REVIEW: I am going to be honest: I bought the book because its front cover looked great and grabbed my eye and made me wonder what was going on, and the back cover text explained it perfectly and made me go YES. The art is very slick and top notch, and filled with intrigue: we can’t see who is in the suit, but they clearly mean business. We can’t really see where they are, but it’s clear they are in space. We don’t know what the deal with the suit is, but it’s clear it’s high-tech and dangerous. I don’t know who the Outriders are, but whoever they are, they are high-octane and lead interesting, dangerous lives. I also really like the color palette: the artist does a lot with a very limited palette.

The Changeling Plague

The Changeling Plague - front and back covers.

I read Syne Mitchell’s Technogenesis and really enjoyed it, but The Changeling Plague was much less enjoyable for me. Like its eponymous title, this book’s tone mutates and morphs throughout the course of the plot. The characters were not particularly interesting to me, and the setting was sci-fi in the bad way, with essentially magic technology. Yet there were some interesting concept, and Syne Mitchell is constantly throwing curveballs when it comes to the plot.

The Changeling Plague first reads like an attempt at a serious, terrifying portrayal of the spread of a deadly, high-stakes epidemic, as in The Hot Zone (seriously, that book is terrifying). But The Changeling Plague is paced far too fast to build up that feeling, and there’s no sense that the book is building up to something. When the book throws in some super ridiculous crazy nonsense about halfway through, it’s completely unexpected, and lightens the tone a lot. The tone then oscillates between horrifying, morbid, matter-of-fact, and light-hearted.

One major detriment to the book is how “sci-fi” the tech is (in a bad way), with a complete lack of plausibility that piles up and jars you out of suspension of disbelief again and again. For example, my internal dialogue ran something like this: “Okay, that’s not actually how hacking or the internet works or will work at all in the near future, but I’ll run with that… okay, suuure, scientists are nowhere near being able to simulate simple biological systems, let alone complex simulations of human reactions to genetic therapy, but I’ll let it slide…  okay, now I am pretty sure that kind of genetic modification is impossible, but I guess it’s necessary for the premise…” If that kind of thing bothers you, this probably isn’t the book for you. Especially if you study medicine.

It did not help that the characters were all pretty unsympathetic. Geoffry is an ass, although he eventually becomes less insufferable. Liliith, aside from having a suggestive mythological name that is half obvious foreshadowing, and another half obvious foreshadowing, is somewhat competent but somehow never actually has any success at her job of trying to cure the disease. Instead, she’s just an enabler for Geoffrey and Idaho. Yeahh, then there’s Idaho. Generally, the characters feel like marionettes on strings: I can see them reacting and I can see their motivations, but I don’t really feel those motivations or see it as authentic. Our insight into the characters is pretty much limited to how they react to immediate matters.

There are also a few major plot holes. For example,  a disease more virulent and destructive than anything known erupts across the entire world. All of the US’s research programs are totally ineffective: yet then one person donates ~20 billion dollars to researchers, and the tide is turned. For context, the US NIH spends $25 billion a year; the US military gets $668 billion a year (and sends $68 billion to R&D); according to an article in AMA’s JAMA, private companies spend around $60 billion on medical research per year. If a disease as deadly and unexpected as The Changeling Plague broke out, I suspect government and private industry would both be spending far more than $23 billion total on trying to solve it, let alone rich people trying to find a cure / vaccine before it spreads to them. It’s also aggravating that one guy in a barn, just because he’s a hacker, can outdo thousands of researchers and specialists when it comes to figuring out the disease.

Cover Art Review: I really don’t see how the cover art relates to the story in any way. The cover art is really creepy, but it gives the wrong tone for the book. Personally, I also feel the cover could really make use of a few more colors.

The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark - Front and Back Cover.

I am having trouble figuring out how to write about The Speed of Dark, so I will start with the most important part: this book is very good and very powerful. It is literally mind-changing, in that it takes you and puts you into the mind of Lou Arrendale. There are sections written from the viewpoints of other characters, and these sections are important in how they provide context, give us a break from Lou’s viewpoint, and recognize plot in ways that Lou wouldn’t be able to. But these sections aside, the book largely focuses on Lou: how he sees the world and other people, how other people see him, and how he interacts with the world, and all of it is extremely absorbing.

Reading often has an influence on how my mode of thought for a few hours: read a collection of speeches by American presidents, and my thoughts will be longer, wordier, more eloquent. Read a chapter of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and my thoughts will be more clipped, casual, slang-y and strange. After reading The Speed of Dark, my mind would occasionally slip into Lou’s pattern of thought, and it would jerk me back to thinking about the book, how Lou sees the world and what he would make of the situation before me. That is powerful.

It is also worth noting that The Speed of Dark is a novel, not a series of vignettes describing one person’s life. There is a fully fleshed out plot that is believable, gripping, and compelling, with multiple subplots woven into the mix. The question of whether Lou would accept the cure or not had me biting my nails in suspense, and the ending was extraordinarily emotional.

The book shatters preconceptions. Sure, Lou is autistic, but he still has a life, still has a job and hobbies. He does not understand social interactions the same as others do, but he is hardly the picture of inappropriate social behavior, a stereotype often associated with autism. As one character says in the story, Lou manages far better than many people who don’t have a recognized mental disorder. In the end, what matters isn’t how labels apply to people or how people fit into various categories, but who the person is and how they see the world.

That said, The Speed of Dark does take place in the future, with some regulatory and medical developments that constrain the effects of disability. This is one way the book purposefully limits its depiction of autistics to functioning autistics, rather than depicting those who are more severely hindered by autism.

Cover Art Review: I think this cover set the mood for the story pretty well.  It is dark, haunting, and uncertain.