Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Terminal Experiment

Robert J Sawyer
Completed 1/30/2021, Reviewed 1/31/2021
4 stars

This is my third book by Sawyer.  The first one I read, Hominids, won the Hugo in 2003.  The second was Calculating God, nominated for several awards in 2001.  This one won the Nebula for 1995.  I liked it this book, even though it’s the same kind of pop-sci fi as the first.  It’s really fast paced and easy reading.  The plot isn’t bad and it’s not quite as soapy as the first.  It also held up fairly well considering it was forecasting the evolution of PCs and the internet sixteen years in the future, which is now ten years in the past.  Primarily, the tech talk isn’t too clunky.  Overall, I found this a very entertaining book.

The plot begins with the brilliant Dr. Peter Hobson who discovers an electrical matrix in the brain that might be the soul.  This causes a worldwide sensation and has all sorts of implications.  This feeds into Peter’s obsessions with life after death and immortality, the later being something that’s being offered with very expensive nanotechnology.  So Peter uses the device he used to record the “soulwave” to map his own neural network and transfer it into a computer using AI software developed by a friend of his.  They create three entities: Spirit, which is supposed to simulate life after death; Ambrotos, which is supposed to simulate immortality; and Control, which is supposed to remain an unchanged copy of Peter.  Everything is going fine until one of the AIs murders someone.

The plot is kind of Crichton-esque, kind of poppy science fiction.  But it works.  Sawyer creates quite a thriller.  The characters aren’t bad either, not wholly three-dimensional, but fairly believable.  Peter, his wife Cathy, his brilliant programmer friend Sarkar, and the detective Sandra Philo, all have some depth, but their relationships are a bit soapy.  The three AIs are a little hard to differentiate, particularly when they are all talking with human Peter.  I think this is intentional, though, reaffirming that they are all copies of human Peter. 

Sawyer does a pretty good job of addressing the idea of morality and what kind of mind would commit murder.  Just what does it take to cross over the line between wishing someone dead and actually causing a death.  Is it Spirit who is already dead and has nothing to lose, or Ambrotos who has all the time in the world, or Control who is the most like Peter?  I found it an interesting exercise to think through these options.  I thought the reveal was a little obvious the way the characters were running through the suspects, but at the same time, it was exciting.

I give this book four stars out of five because I enjoyed it so much.  Is it great literature?  Not really, but I didn’t care.  I was caught up in the story and excited for the reveal and capture of the murderous AI.  I didn’t mind the soapy characters.  Sawyer is considered the “Dean of Canadian Sci Fi” and I can see why.  His stuff is fun, accessible, and thrilling. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Camouflage

Joe Haldeman
Completed 1/28/2021, Reviewed 1/28/2021
3 stars

This is my third novel by Haldeman.  The first two were The Forever War and Forever Peace.  I loved the former and was mixed on the later.  This book is very different in tone and style.  I liked it, but thought it rambled in the middle.  I think it might have worked better as a novella.  It’s about two aliens on Earth for millions of years that are suddenly drawn to an artifact found by the Americans in an ocean trench in the Pacific.  The two didn’t know the other existed.  One’s a changeling, being able to change into anything, organic or inorganic.  The other is a chameleon who is only able to take on the appearance of a man.  They don’t know what the artifact is, but the chameleon decides it’s a ship back home and he’s determined that he will be the sole occupant.  This book won the Nebula for 2005 and the Otherwise Award for 2004 for its dealing with gender issues.

The book primarily follows the changeling as it changes to a human after centuries existing in the ocean, mostly as a shark.  It doesn’t remember much before that.  It comes to shore in the ‘30s, taking on the form of a teenager on the beach after killing him.  He’s uncommunicative, only slowly learning the English language.  It learns by mimicking.  Its family put him under doctor’s care because of its change in behavior, but is eventually put in an asylum.  Through all this, it picks up human behaviors and a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable.  The book continues his experiences as a human as the years go by, as a Marine who is captured by the Japanese in WWII, as a college student, and as people of different races, genders, and sexualities. 

These chapters are interspersed with the discovery of the alien artifact, a long heavy cylinder of unknown material.  The research team is primarily led by Russ, an engineer, although the project to raise it and get it to Samoa is led by Jack, a wealthy former military man.  Russ is the central character here but is surrounded by some smart men and women.  The chameleon only appears briefly, to give us a sense of his baser disposition.  Unlike the changeling, the chameleon does not learn and embrace a sense of morality as it lives among humans.  Eventually, all three meet up for the final scene in the book.

I was rather disappointed in the character development.  Despite the amount of time we spend with Russ, we only get a two-dimensional character.  He’s likeable and sensitive, but we don’t really get to know him all that well.  Most of the other characters are rather one-dimensional.  The only really development we get is with the changeling as it develops from a robotic teenage boy to an emotionally and morally developed woman.  The journey to humanness that the changeling takes is interesting in the beginning and the end, but the middle is tedious at parts.  There were times when I wished the story would just move on.  It does add to the understanding of its development and it was written well, but it became a little boring. 

I was also disappointed in the ending.  After the chameleon is introduced, I was waiting for the climactic confrontation with the changeling, but it only lasted ten pages.  I thought it would have lasted longer.  And the last paragraph had the punch of a short story ending, not that of a full novel. 

What I did enjoy was how the changeling finagled itself onto Samoa and into the research facility.  Haldeman did this by incorporating a love story.  I thought it worked well.  I can’t go into too much detail because it would include spoilers, but I thought it was well done.

I was impressed that Haldeman let the changeling take on different races, genders, and sexualities.  He did it in a very positive way, illustrating, but not beating you over the head with xenophobia issues.  Particularly, I was impressed that he let the changeling be a gay man.  He tackled that in The Forever War, but this approach was much more organic, not as shocking. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was well written and the plot was inventive, but the dragging of the middle part and the quick ending left me a little bothered.  I liked the book, but didn’t love it.  Of the three books, I’d rank this one between his other two.  With regards to the Nebula, I wonder if this was a career award, since Haldeman hadn’t won one yet, despite The Forever War being considered a classic of science fiction.  However, it beat out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I thought was a much better written book.  Well, awards are fickle, and don’t always pick the best book.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Seeker

James McDevitt 
Completed 1/25/2021, Reviewed 1/25/2021
3 stars

I haven’t read much mystery.  I’ve read a few SF/F mysteries and a few have been good, a few not so good.  This one lands somewhere in the middle.  It was entertaining and I’m quite impressed that it wasn’t just a mystery in a science fiction setting.  The plot was about the fate of missing colony ships from the Earth’s distant past, the 27th century.  There were some standard mystery tropes, like the bad people who are trying to prevent the heroes from making their discovery.  It was entertaining, but this book won the Nebula in 2006.  I would have expected a much higher caliber story and much better writing.


This is the third book about far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath.  In this book, the two come upon a cup that appears to be from The Seeker, one of two ships that left Earth in the 2600’s to flee a repressive theocracy that had gained hold in the U.S.  Alex does his due diligence in making sure that the property isn’t stolen and finds that it was.  The original owners were explorers who may have come across The Seeker in their travels after retirement.  This prompts Alex and Chase to go out on their own and try to find the ship and, perhaps, the mythical Eden that they went in search of.  But someone doesn’t want them to reach their destination and will go to any length to stop them. 

The book is narrated by Chase.  She has a pretty good perspective on her job and her boss.  Alex may have the insight and the instincts, but Chase does the legwork.  We spend a lot of time with her interviewing archeologists, astrophysicists, and relations to figure out the 9000-year-old mystery of The Seeker.  Despite this, there isn’t that much character development of her or Alex.  They both seemed wooden, and many of the supporting characters were pretty standard, dare even say cardboard.

There’s a lot of dialogue in the first half of the book.  That’s what moves the plot, as more and more details of The Seeker and its mission are unraveled.  And I must say, this part was pretty good.  The action in the second half was decent as well.  I’d say, in general, that the writing was effective enough to keep me pretty engrossed in the story.  There just wasn’t anything special about it.  

There are some interesting points made about the difference between archeology and antiquities dealing.  There are people who accuse the dealers of selling out the past when it should be preserved for all.  Alex seems to be a dealer on the cusp of his own metanoia about his occupation in this book.  It would be interesting to see the development of his conscience over the course of the eight books in the series. 

There is also some discussion of xenophobia.  It turns out that after thousands of years of near and faster than light travel, humans have only encountered one alien race.  They are rather gruesome to look at and hard to understand despite their being psychic communicators.  But we are gruesome to them as well.  Over the centuries, we have had war and peace with them.  At this point in time, we are at peace.  This has been accomplished by keeping the races rather separated with preparatory training required to be able to handle being around them. 

This was not a bad book, but it was hardly worthy of an award given by other writers.  I’d call this book fluff, something fun to read, not something that has much depth to it.  Would I read any of the other books in the series?  Sure, but I have many other books on my TBR list that I’m much more interested in.  I’d recommend this book to someone who is looking for some light, fun reading, who likes mysteries, and probably would immerse themselves in the whole series.  This book can be read without reading the first two, with only passing references to things and situations from the previous books. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Song for a New Day

Sarah Pinsker
Completed 1/20/2021, Reviewed 1/21/2021
4 stars

This was a prescient novel, published in 2019 and winner of the Nebula Award.  It predicts a U.S. ravaged by a plague, domestic terrorists, and predatory mega-corporations, which pretty much occurred just one year later.  It’s about the fight to get people to play and hear music live instead of virtually many years after a shelter in place edict has been instituted.  The mega-corporations help keep the mandate in place so that they can control consumerism long after the plague and the terrorism has subsided.  As a musician, I could really relate to the characters and their love of live performance and live listening, but found the fight against the shelter in place order to be a frightening read at a time when in real life, the pandemic is still escalating.  Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, finding it a fast-paced, exciting, easy read.


Luce Cannon is a musician who has just seen her song “Blood and Diamonds” become a hit.  She’s on tour with her band just as a sports stadium has been bombed and a highly virulent, deadly, pox-like pandemic has exploded.  The night that the shelter in place order goes out, she performs one last concert and a few of the hundreds of ticket holders actually show up.  Several years after this event, she opens a secret club for people to come to hear live music again, defying the congregation laws.  In alternating chapters, there’s a second character, Rosemary, a 24-year-old woman who lives with her parents on a farm many years after the pandemic event and works remotely for a mega-corporation, not unlike Amazon or Walmart.  She gets the opportunity to go to a virtual concert which changes her life.  She applies for a job with the music mega-corporation that puts on such concerts and gets hired as a new music recruiter.  Her job is to find the secret venues and sign on these small acts to propel them into the virtual world of superstardom.  This leads her to cross paths with Luce.

The characterization was terrific.  Both Luce and Rosemary are queer women, but on different sides of the music industry.  I thought both were fully realized and realistic.  Luce is woke and Rosemary is na├»ve.  There’s lots of dialogue which I also thought was very realistic.  It is mostly through the dialogue that world-building takes place, the events leading up to the shelter in place and congregation laws and the state of the world fifteen years later.  And it is through their dialogue that we experience Luce and Rosemary’s passion for music, albeit with conflicting goals. 

The prose is sparse.  It’s mostly found in the descriptions of the performances.  Pinsker really captures the concert experience from both the performer’s and the audience’s points of view.  Pinsker herself is a musician, which lends credibility to the emotions the characters have at the concerts.  As a musician and a long-time concert-goer, I can vouch for the high you get from being on either side of the stage lights, although I also had tremendous performance anxiety while Luce has tremendous performance compulsion.  Still I could relate to the rush you get from both performing and attending. 

The near-future world Pinsker created is quite plausible, dominated by interactive hoodies with virtual reality overlays.  Powerful phones are also still a thing in this world.  Drones deliver everything and the economy runs on people’s fear.  You can easily see it happening for real if corporations like Amazon and Walmart have their way.  It’s sort of like a war-time economy, requiring wars to keep the giant corporations and defense industries alive.  In this book, the mega-corporations have a vested interest in keeping everyone sheltering in place to continue reaping their profits. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I was close to giving it five stars, but my own conflict between the book’s call for freedom versus the current, real-life call for safety kept me from totally giving into it.  I think if we were on the other side of the pandemic, I would have let myself feel Luce’s fight against repression.  I also think the book is a little simplistic in its message.  But overall, the book worked for me.  And having two queer women as main characters made for a wonderful change, especially after reading several old-school straight white male-dominated books. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Stations of the Tide

Michael Swanwick
Completed 1/18/2021, Reviewed 1/20/2021
2 stars

I did not like this book.  I had a hard time following the action and reconciling it with what I knew of the plot from the back cover and the online blurbs.  It felt like it was a series of loosely connected vignettes with a mildly interesting premise that sort of tied it all together.  It had sex scenes which felt gratuitous.  The characterization was practically non-existent.  Ultimately, it felt like a pretentious attempt at cyberpunk crossed with the surreal neo-sci fi of the late sixties and early seventies.  It won the Nebula Award in 1991 and was nominated for a few others.


The plot was thin.  It takes place on a planet whose icecaps melt dramatically every two hundred years, flooding all but the highest mountains, leaving archipelagos.  All the people on the planet are either shipped off the planet or taken to some “island” refuge.  The main character, known only as the bureaucrat, is on the hunt for a wizard/magician who is using illegal technology.  He goes from minor character to minor character trying to find clues as to his whereabouts.  He travels with his trusty briefcase, an AI that talks to him, acts as sort of a modern phone/tablet, and can sprout legs and find its way back to him if he is ever stolen. 

The planet is known as Miranda and the plot has many similarities to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, or at least according to other reviewers I’ve read.  Although I’ve seen a production of it on Broadway with Patrick Stewart and a strange film adaptation called Prospero’s Books, I remember images more than the story.  So the comparison is rather lost on me (I know, shame on me and my lack of knowledge of classic literature).  I’ve also read that this book has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, which I haven’t read but know some of the premise.  But given all these homages, I didn’t find anything deep or satisfying about the story at all.

The cyberpunk aspect is realized in that it’s hard to tell reality from the virtual and truth from hallucination.  There are android-type things that can take the identity of someone, acting as an agent or a double, making it hard to tell whether you’re dealing with the actual person or not.  There are the indigenous creatures of the planet, now mostly extinct, but show up as ghostly, shapeshifting entities known as haunts.  They can appear as human or as animals.  At one point, the bureaucrat is drugged and has a long hallucination with bursts of reality, complicating matters even more.

I never fully engaged with the bureaucrat, or any of the secondary characters for that matter.  The closest I came to liking a character was the witch with whom he has a sexual relationship.  I think this was because she drew some realistic emotions out of the bureaucrat. 

I give this book two stars out of five.  I found it a really tough read because of the disjointed episodes of the bureaucrat’s investigation and because of the androids popping out one, two, and in one case five copies of individuals.  This was a short book, but reading it was a trudge.  I think I was reading about fifteen pages an hour.  I think I read it pretty carefully, but found no satisfaction in the experience.  I didn’t find any layers of deeper meaning.  It was simply a surreal mess. 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

No Enemy But Time

Michael Bishop
Completed 1/16/2021, Reviewed 1/16/2021
5 stars 

I hadn’t heard of Michael Bishop until I read Unicorn Mountain for my LGBTQ challenge.  That book was nominated for a Lambda Award and won the Mythopoeic Award.  No Enemy But Time won the Nebula in 1982 and was nominated for a few others.  From these two books, I have to say that Bishop is a terrific writer and should be more well known and discussed than he is.  I had a little trouble getting into the premise of this book, but quickly became captivated by the imagination, detail, and word-smithing.  By about a quarter of the way through it, I completely bought into the premise and had a deep connection with the main character.


Joshua Kampa is the illegitimate son of an African-American serviceman stationed in Spain and a young, mute, illiterate prostitute.  The woman, who cannot communicate in any way, takes her toddler to an air force base and leaves him with some teenage girls.  A woman and her airman husband stationed there adopt him.  They call him John-John.  He doesn’t communicate until he’s about five.  However, the child has dreams about the Africa of two million years ago.  The family returns to the U.S. and except for the dreams, eventually grows up normally.  However, at age sixteen, he runs away from home and changes his name.  At the age of 19, because of his dreams, he gets recruited to participate in a military experiment that would send him back to Africa of 2 million years ago via a time travel device.  The goal is to figure out if a fossil recently found is a true ancestor of modern humans, and to see if Joshua’s dreams are accurate.

The book is written in alternating chapters, with one line being Joshua’s journey to the prehistoric past.  The other tells the story of Joshua (John-John)’s life up to that point.  Joshua is the narrator of his journey to the past.  The other narrator is third person omniscient.  Both tell extremely interesting tales.  Joshua may be an unreliable narrator, but when he’s accepted into a tribe of Homo habilis proto-humans, it’s exciting, engrossing, and believable.  The question of what really happened on his journey back in time is taken up when he returns as well, because of discrepancies that can only be explained by time dilation.  He brings back proof but even that is questioned.  To tell more would be a spoiler, so I’ll avoid that.  I’ll just say that I loved the character and rooted for him all the way to the end.  There are other characters that are well drawn, including his mother, his sister, and some of the scientists on the time travel project.  They’re all pretty believable, with good situations and dialogue, but it’s Joshua who I really loved.

The prose is awesome.  I loved reading it, despite my copy having a tiny font that gave my reading glasses an intense workout.  Each chapter was just long enough to get points and plot across without being too drawn out or so short that they jumbled the points of view.  The setting of the Pleistocene Era was outstandingly written.  I felt like I was with him on the savannah with his tribe.  And although he names all the members of the tribe early on, all dozen or so, I didn’t get them confused, which is quite a feat for me.

I give this book five stars out of five because I thought it was excellent, and I became very emotionally attached to the main character.  I leaked a few tears one of his tribe died, and my heart raced when they were faced with a volcanic eruption.  But mostly, it was the deep connection to the main character that pushed me over to the five-star rating.  I think at this point, I’d read just about anything by Michael Bishop.  I think he is one I’m going to have to explore more in the near future. 

 


 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A Time of Changes

Robert Silverberg
Completed 1/12/2021, Reviewed 1/12/2021
3 stars

I’ve read two book by Robert Silverberg, Gilgamesh the King and Son of Man.  This book was like the latter: strange and somewhat difficult to understand.  I really liked the writing of all three though.  I think Silverberg is probably one of the more literary science fiction writers, with excellent prose.  Sometimes though that can be a downfall, and it sort of was here.  This book is almost all prose with little plot.  It tells the life story of a man on a planet long ago colonized by Earth who discovers a drug that lets him break through the culturally embedded philosophy of the destruction of self and discovers that to truly love, he must truly be in touch with himself.  It goes on and on about his life and doesn’t get to plot until well after halfway through the book.  Nonetheless, it won him the Nebula in 1971 and was one of his many Hugo nominations. 


Kinnal Darival is the second son of the Septarch of a province on the planet Borthan.  When his brother ascends the throne, Kinnal takes a self-imposed exile to avoid being his rival.  He settles in another province where he marries, has children, and becomes a powerful noble.  One day, he meets Schweiz, a merchant from Earth.  Schweiz engages him in a debate about religion and the Covenant, the law set down by the original colonists which requires people never use the pronouns I, me, my, or mine.  Basically, it implies the destruction of self.  Schweiz argues that it is actually a very selfish law, where people are completely self-absorbed because they are not allowed to fully engage with others and look outside of themselves.  He offers Kinnal a drug from the southern continent, where the original dissenters of the Covenant fled.  When taken with another person, it allows both people to fully experience each other’s existence.  Kinnal’s experience is transformative.  He wants to share this with his people even though it is illegal and an abomination.  This begins his downfall.

Ironically, the book is written in first person perspective of Kinnal.  He documents his journey of self-discovery to share with the world to incite a social revolution and bring down the old Covenant.  The build-up of the plot is very slow, but we get excellent world-building and characterization of Kinnal.  As Schweiz so clearly sees, Kinnal, like everyone on the continent, is very self-absorbed.  But Kinnal doesn’t see it.  As part of the world-building, we hear the story of how the gods and the Covenant came to be.   Kinnal is agnotic, but of course being brought up in the culture, he adheres to the Covenant and the mythology.  With his discovery of Schweiz’s drug, he becomes a savior of sorts, trying to convert everyone to the new experience, and potentially, a new Covenant.

One interesting construct on this world is that of bondbrothers and bondsisters.  Everyone has one of each, chosen at birth to be very close friends with.  It creates a sense of connectedness in a world without connection.  A person is generally most honest with their bondsiblings, as well as with their drainer, a priest who is a person’s confessor.  Kinnal’s bondbrother is Noim and his bondsister is Halum.  When Kinnal goes into exile, he forgoes his relationship with them.  In one way, this is good because he is deeply in love with Halum, and having a physical relationship with a bondsibling is taboo.  Noim and Halum, with Schweiz, are the only other characters who get any development.

I give this book three stars out of five.  The prose and the world-building are excellent, but the pace is tedious and the plot thin.  The book is only 220 pages, but it took me five days to read.  This is really slow for me.  I wonder if the Nebula Silverberg won for the book was more of a lifetime achievement award rather than for its merits.  He wrote over a hundred science fiction and fantasy novels as well as nonfiction and erotica.  He’s definitely one of the most prolific genre writers of any generation.  I just don’t think this one was award-worthy.

 

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 1/8/2021, Reviewed 1/8/2021
5 stars

This is only my second book by Elizabeth Moon, and once again, I found it to be incredible.  This book is very different from Remnant Population.  It concerns an autistic man in the near future where the disability has been eradicated in utero and in very young children.  He is of the last generation of adults with autism.  The author has a child with autism and did lots of research on it to get the perspective right.  This book is mostly told in first person by the man with only the occasional third person omniscient narration for continuity’s sake.  This book made me feel the struggles the man faces in the story, about as much as Temple Grandin did in her book.  This book has been compared to “Flowers for Algernon” which I read in high school and again in college, but it is vastly different.  I thought it was equally as powerful, and much more complex.  It won the Nebula Award in 2003 and was nominated for several others.


Lou works at a giant corporation doing complex computer programming and/or analysis.  (I wasn’t quite clear on that point).  It involves his strength, identifying and manipulating patterns.  He works in a department with quite a few other equally brilliant autistic people in a department called Section 2A.  He is an avid fencer and has feelings for a fellow fencer named Marjorie.  The department gets a new boss who threatens Section 2A with their jobs if they don’t “volunteer” for an experimental treatment that promises to cure their autism.

Much of the book is about Lou dealing with the conflict of being forced into this treatment.  It also gives us a lot of detail about the daily life of Lou, including time at the resource center for persons with disabilities, as well as the sport of fencing and the friends he has there.  Lou’s perspective is remarkably detailed.  The writing is brilliant.  It is not simplistic as you might expect from someone with verbal communication issues.  In fact, it’s incredibly rich, giving insight into what goes on in the mind of Lou as he navigates through daily life as well as the conflicts with which he is confronted.  Because of this, the characterization is tremendous.  I felt like I was in Lou’s head the whole time.

The other characters are well done as well, including his “normal” friends from fencing, his autistic friends from work, his immediate supervisor, and the bad boss who is doing the threatening.  Tom is the fencing coach who is perhaps Lou’s best friend.  He’s a great guy with endless empathy for Lou.  Danny is a cop who lives in the same apartment complex with Lou.  He is also great as he helps Lou when his tires are slashed.  There are quite a few other good characters, in fact too many to name.  But they are all three dimensional, even the bad boss.

There is another plotline where someone is vandalizing his car.  The vandalization progresses and the mystery is who is doing it.  While it’s not the central plot, this subplot along with the main plot gives interesting and terrible insight into the minds of people who are threatened by people who are different. 

I give this book five stars out of five because one, it is excellent and two, because it moved me to near tears through the last forty pages or so.  My eyes actually watered as the story wrapped up.  Elizabeth Moon is batting a thousand for me so far.  She is one of the authors who got her start with Andre Norton, much like Mercedes Lackey, another author I really like.  I definitely have to read more of Moon.  Perhaps reading her Paksennarion series will be my challenge for next year. 

 


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Exhalation

Ted Chiang
Completed 1/6/2021, Reviewed 1/6/2021
4 stars

Like his first collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, this collection was well written.  The prose is phenomenal.  His concepts are well researched and fairly easy to comprehend.  I liked all the stories, some more than others.  As a collection, they seemed a little uneven.  I believe this was because these stories were written over quite a large period of years, some coming from early in his career, others more recent.  But overall, as a writer, I think Chiang is tremendous.


My favorite story was first one, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”.  It’s a time travel novel set in the Middle East.  An alchemist creates gates that send you 20 years into the future or the past, depending on which way you enter.  A merchant goes through to right a wrong, finds he can’t change the past no matter what he does, but finds reconciliation. 

The title story was another favorite.  It’s about a robot or automaton performing brain surgery on itself to find the secret to memory, but instead finding the answer to the beginning and end of existence.  It takes place in an enclosed world of automatons that have their own mythology.  It’s an interesting spin on AI and self-awareness.

“The Great Silence” was a very cool, very short story about a parrot explaining how they are intelligent and on the brink of extinction.  It questions why humans don’t study parrots in their search for intelligent life as it ponders the role of the great Aricebo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.  It was interesting and sad reading this story just a few weeks after the telescope collapsed on itself.  The Chiang wrote this as part of a multimedia piece in conjunction with performance artists that involved the endangered parrots and the radio telescope.

The last story I’ll mention is “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”.  It was a morality tale in a world where there are devices that let you see parallel universes where you can communicate with your parallel self.  A young woman works at a store that buys, sells, and rents these devices, called prisms.  She and her boss run scams to make extra money, preying on people who use the prisms to feel better about the decisions they are making in life. It’s one of Chiang’s more complex stories, explaining the quantum physics that creates the parallel timelines and the laws that govern interaction with them. 

I really enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as the first collection.  I still give it four stars out of five because the writing is terrific, even while explaining the hard science and in one case, the hard philosophy.  I think his stories are very original, even when he gets ideas from other fiction sources, as noted in the afterword where he describes how he came up with the ideas for each story.  I’ll definitely continue reading his output.

 


Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Quantum Rose

Catherine Asaro
Completed 1/1/2021, Reviewed 1/3/2021
4 stars

This book was another surprise for me.  Nebula Winner for 2001, it looked more like a heavy romance than science fiction.  Also, it’s the sixth book in a long series and although the reviews said it was standalone, I couldn’t wrap my head around jumping into the middle.  The first 40 or 50 pages felt like it was just another romance with court drama, but it quickly became a different beast.  There was lots of well-explained science and surprising revelations.  And the book stood on its own.  I ended up really enjoying it.


Kamoj is the young governor of her province on a distant planet.  She’s betrothed to Jax, the abusive governor of the neighboring province, solely for the consolidation of power and to rescue her people from economic disaster.  She meets a mysterious stranger who puts up a massive dowry for her, and by law, winning the right to marry her.  It turns out the stranger is a prince named Havyrl, or Vyrl, from another planet.  The marriage actually works as Vyrl reveals himself to be a gentle, loving husband.  His big flaw is that he is an alcoholic, though he doesn’t abuse Kamoj during his drunken episodes, unlike Jax.  Jax, however, will not let Kamoj go, kidnaps her, and sues Vyrl for marriage under coercion. 

Well, I guess the plot does sound like a heavy romance, but there’s so much more to it.  First, it’s actually an analog for quantum scattering theory.  You really don’t know it until you read the afterword where the author describes the theory and how it relates to the plot.  Second, it’s a small piece of a much larger space opera.  You figure out that you would have understood more background if you had read the five earlier books.  But as I said, it’s not really necessary to appreciate this one.  Third, the science that is described within is interesting and surprising.  To go into much detail would be a spoiler, but the basic gist is genetic manipulation.  Lastly, the book felt like a Beauty and the Beast homage, although it wasn’t quite a Stockholm Syndrome plot.  The genetic manipulation has a part in this aspect of the book.

I liked Kamoj.  I liked her more as the book progressed and we find out not only more about her past, but about the role of genetic manipulation in her life.  Vyrl is a good guy and I really rooted for him as he fought with his alcoholism.  I think it’s the first time I’ve encountered alcoholism in a science fiction story.  I thought it was done particularly well.  The reason why he began self-medicating is intense, though it’s another spoiler, so I won’t give it away.  Jax is a dastardly manipulator and plays upon all of Kamoj’s gentle qualities to keep her in the spiral of the abuse. 

As I write this, I realize much of the book can’t be described because so much of it is done as big revelations and discussing it would be a big spoiler.  I also realize that maybe I’m a little more of a sucker for a good romance than I let myself believe.  So I give this book four stars out of five.  I was enrapt through most of the book, although I felt the end dragged a bit and was somewhat predictable.  But the ride to the end was very exciting.  The writing was really good, with decent prose and believable dialogue.  I don’t know if I’ll read any more of the series.  I read this because my next big personal challenge is to read the seventeen Nebula winners I have not read yet.  And while I really liked this book, I just don’t find myself reading the other seventeen books in the series.