Thursday, December 25, 2014

A History of Existential Angst

Why Does the World Exist?
An Existential Detective Story
Jim Holt
Liveright, 2013

Philosophy, so says Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is useless. I wonder if he means it the way it sounds, because, as a scientist, or even just a thinking human being, you can't really get away from it. The most basic questions that a scientist has to ask are bound up in philosophy. Consider, for example, this question: Why do I bother? No matter what your speciality is, you will have colleagues who are up against it: problems so tough they are apparently beyond current human ken, and there is no evidence that the situation is likely to change.

Why do they bother?

Why not accept what Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said five hundred years ago - along with many Christian scholasticists in earlier centuries: That what happens is the will of God. If a fire burns, it's because God wills it. If you find DNA in flies is similar in important ways to the DNA in humans, it's because God wills it. If you find that the rotation of galaxies doesn't seem to obey the laws of gravity that we're familiar with, it's because God wills it.

Why bother looking further?

The very process of answering that question is one of philosophy.

I suspect the main reason why Dr. Tyson doesn't like philosophy is because you cannot easily stick one of these questions under a microscope or aim a particle accelerator at it to see if the answers you picked hold up to further investigation. Mostly, the answers lead to more questions, more philosophy. It's an intensely dissatisfying position to be in, for a scientist.

One of the most basic questions we've been asking ourselves, at least for all of human recorded history, is how the world got to be. I mean, not just the way it is - why is water wet, or why do elephants have trunks, or why is the sky blue - but why is there anything at all? All human cultures that we know of, and that either bothered writing it down or were around long enough for anthropologists to ask them about it, have stories about the reason for our existence.

Only some of them are similar to the Abrahamic legends of creation. Many of the other stories are far more chaotic, describing struggles among supernatural entities that produced our world by mere accident. A few others suppose that the world as such always existed. (That one seems to be a difficult concept for the human mind to wrap itself around.)

So what is the current state of knowledge about the origin of our universe? Jim Holt goes and chats with a number of his philosopher colleagues. If you thought that modern philosophy was a field where all the answers are pat, you'd be surprised. Holt talks with philosophers who have various theistic or deistic notions, others who have a more naturalistic bent, and some who think the the problem isn't really one that we should spend all that much time on. Holt has his own thoughts on the topic, of course, and after talking with about a dozen people he spends some time laying out his own arguments.

In addition to the origin of the universe Holt also spends a little time at the end of his book on the question of our own existence. It's question that in most people's minds is probably not related to the question of existence, but Holt points out that if there has to be a reason for the existence of the entire universe it's not unreasonable to ask if there is a reason beyond brute biological facts for our own existence.

Holt's tone throughout is intimate and personable. There's never a hint that here's a philosopher of some accomplishment laying things out. It's a voyage of exploration. Holt chooses locations in France and England to make his exploration more visceral. This isn't a dry lecture hall with students in rows trying not to fall asleep.

So if you've been wondering why the world exists, or even if you think you know, give this book a whirl. Maybe Holt will stir a new notion, or maybe he'll help you organize how you think about one of life's knottiest questions.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Three Books for October

The Cusanus Game
Wolfgang Jeschke
Tor, 2013
Original (German):
Droemer Verlag, 2005

Yes, I'm a German, and here I'm reading an English translation of a book that was originally published in German.

The process of reading is for me a mixture of language and story, and it's entirely possible for me to enjoy the story thoroughly while the language leaves me cold, or vice versa. So let's start with the important part: Ross Benjamin, the translator, does a very fine job. The book doesn't read as if it was originally written in English. Benjamin chooses words and turns of phrase that give the book not so much a German accent, but rather the promise of a good beer.

Jeschke's story takes place in a fairly near future, a fairly mundane world, with the usual technological advances that we expect, given smart phones and 3D TVs and meta materials. In this future a horrific nuclear accident has scattered deadly fallout across large parts of central Europe. Refugees choke the surrounding areas with their needs. At the same time terrorists and nationalists of various persuasions are battling each other at the margins of a shrinking Europe.

Into this depressing picture walks Domenica Ligrina, a mostly unremarkable young woman who is studying botany at a university in Rome. The city is under assault by terrorists from the South, and the pope has already retreated to Salzburg. Domenica and her student friends seem to drift through their lives, pretending that nothing particular is happening to their world. Domenica is near graduation, when she receives a mysterious job offer from people connected to the Catholic Church for a project they are calling the "Pontifical Institute for the Rebirth of God's Creation." Since nothing much else is available to a newly graduated botanist in these uncertain times, Domenica barely hesitates, in spite of not really knowing anything about the job.

Jeschke's skill in telling a story shows in how he lays out what is going on using an impressionist's palette of scenes, recollections, and flashbacks. Some of those scenes repeat, and as the story progresses we learn that the mysterious business of the Institute involves time travel. Evidently the things that have happened in the past may happen in any number of ways. Some of the ways are impossible to change, which is why the nuclear accident doesn't just disappear. Other things, like the torture and execution of time travelers in 15th Century Europe, exist in overlays of probabilities. Jeschke's story becomes a filigree of these scenes, and the only thing we know for certain is that Domenica is going to be no ordinary time traveler.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The titular game, which apparently involves rolling marbles along tracks at just the right speed, in a fashion reflects the mindfulness Jeschke employed in advancing story's plot. My biggest annoyance is that Jeschke, writing in German, will never become as well known in the USA as he deserves.

The Knights Dawning
James Batchelor
Pendant, 2014

I won this book in a drawing, which is a great way of getting reading material to pile up on the side of my bed. However, even though this is a historical piece, and I'm not a fan of historical pieces, the story captivated me and drew me in. So here's what it's about:


Well, mostly it's about the people who went on the crusades, and the people who had to fight them off.

The Dawnings are a recently powerful baronial family from England. Several of the family's young sons go off to fight in what I think are the fourth crusades, around the outset of the 13th Century. King John is running things in England, and pope Innocent III is pulling the strings in Rome.

Crusades are a great thing if you win the battles and bring home loot - that's what the first Baron Dawning managed to do. Now his sons, in an attempt to emulate their father, have depleted the wealth their father had accumulated to travel to the Holy Land and bring back more loot.

As the wildest of them gets himself captured, news gets back to the Dawnings, and several of the remaining brothers go to rescue him. What they don't realize is that it's all a plot to capture the power of their family to punish the crusaders. There are politcal intrigues and pitched battles.

Batchelor's account of presumably fictional events are grounded in the real history of the late Middle Ages. I'm no historian, so all I'm qualified to say is that "it could have happened." In any event, it's quite entertaining, and if you enjoy stories about knights and their world, this book is for you.

Knights of the Cornerstone
James P. Blaylock
Ace, 2008

On a bend of the Colorado river is a small settlement of the Knights of the Cornerstone whose history goes back to the Knights Templar. Some people have gotten wind of the fact that the settlement is literally sitting on a deposit of almost pure silver, and they have been engaged in a lengthy campaign to gain access to that silver.

Calvin Bryson stumbles into this situation when a distant uncle or cousin of his sends him a package to deliver to another uncle who lives in that settlement. In spite of cryptic warnings Calvin has really no idea what he's getting into, but little by little he does get involved in a confrontation that gathers steam rapidly and culminates in a pitched battle for the possession of the silver mine.

As crypto histories go, this one is fairly mild. In fact, it reads quite a lot like those Christian fantasies that try to entice their young readers with stories of miracles that happen when you're pure of heart. I have no idea if that was Blaylock's intent - given some of his other stories I'm thinking I may have missed a satirical point of some kind. But like all of Blaylock's stories, it reads well, and entertained me from cover to cover.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fairy Tale

Dark Dancer
Jaleta Clegg
Amazon Digital Services, 2014

How did the realm of Faerie ever become the place where children's stories take place? Even J.M. Barrie has Peter Pan surrounded by dangers that should give a sane person nightmares. It's the charm of his story that we think Peter is going to be OK. But in Faerie there are no guarantees.

I think the most dangerous realm of Faerie I've ever read about was Greg Bear's The Infinity Concerto, and its sequel, The Serpent Mage. In those pages the "fair folk" are inscrutable, chaotic, and deadly. Think of the quisatz haderach test from Dune, but it doesn't end, and there's not just physical pain involved. That depiction has sort of stayed with me, so when I come across stories that take place in that realm, Bear's take is one of my main touch stones.

In Jaleta Clegg's Dark Dancer the story starts out the way a horror movie might, with an innocent child dancing in a meadow. Mysterious magical things happen next, and before we know it, Sabrina is living with her aunt Dianna and her cousin Katie, with no memories of what came before. Things seem to be going perfectly, until the summer before college. Sabrina and Katie return to Sabrina's abandoned home, and when Katie starts dancing in that meadow it triggers a series of events that propel Sabrina into a life she hadn't dreamt of, and wasn't prepared for. Her childhood memories turn out to be real. There are dangerous elves after her for the magical powers she didn't know she had. And there are swoon inducing leading men to lose her heart to. Not to mention a prophecy to fulfill.

Betrayal. Intrigue. Magic. Adventure. The story is a fun mix of everything we want in our lives. Well, except for the betrayal. Most of us would be cool if we never experienced it. But, hey, if it means adventure, what price, eh?

Sabrina, as the viewpoint character (there are a few interruptions with scenes involving the main bad guys) is a likeable young lady, old enough to appreciate what is going on, but not terribly sophisticated. She's about to start college, but her life with aunt Dianna hasn't prepared her for dealing with treacherous elves, nor, apparently, taught her the meaning of the word "consort." Oh, never mind. I know people like that on Facebook.

The world itself has many of the familiar characteristics of realms of Faerie. It's small, parochial, and magical, with all the creatures we're accustomed to from stories - fauns, nymphs, dryads, pixies, and, of course, elves. They take their accustomed places without any complaints, it seems. It's a shortish story. There is the occasional feeling of getting railroaded from plot point to plot point; no doubt that's how a lot of people feel when things keep happening to them. In most but not all cases it's a believable form of zugzwang - events are being pushed along by the mere presence of Sabrina in this world.

I really wanted to like this story. There are many parts of this story that I did enjoy. But overall it seems a bit sloppy, with copy editing errors left behind, and several places where I think an editor would insist on more work. The scene where Sabrina meets Mordentius. The part where Sabrina meets Joren - there's got to be more to that for the end to make sense emotionally. The interactions with Dianna and Balakyn. Saber fencing and freeclimbing skills from seemingly nowhere. And especially the matter of Katie, and how she ends up conveniently in place for the final scenes - that part really contributes to the feeling of narrative railroading.

I read an Advance Reader Copy, so I don't know how much of this can be changed as the ebook is already available on Amazon. But right now I can't recommend the book.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Not Your Grandpa's History!

The Forever Engine
Frank Chadwick
Simon & Schuster, 2014
ISBN 1451639406

Time travel stories come in several flavors, mostly hinged around the paradox where someone travels back in time to kill their grandfather. I think the earliest time travel story I read was the version where any tiny change in the past irretrievably changes the course of history. It was a short story by Ray Bradbury called "Sound of Thunder," where someone accidentally kills a butterfly (of course). There's Asimov's novel End of Eternity, where time engineers intentionally change history. Finally there's Connie Willis' Time Travel stories, where historians travel into the past, always fearful of accidentally changing things, and yet it always turns out that the changes they introduce were actually part of history. Willis' most recent stories in that series, Blackout/All Clear, make clear that the universe may in fact be using the time traveling historians to make sure things go as intended.

Frank Chadwick's story The Forever Engine concerns the adventures of Jack Fargo, a former US Marine who fought in Afghanistan, but is now teaching history, trying desperately to forget the past he lived. Jack gets summoned to a small town in England where a wartime buddy of his is working on a secret weapon that apparently is also a time machine. The troubling thing is, the time machine seems to show that, somehow, the past has been changed, and the present as we know it may be on the brink of destruction! But before Jack even has a chance to look into matters, a huge explosion flings him into oblivion, and when he wakes up it's 1888, and ironclad battle ships are floating in the sky above a smog shrouded London.

The story's main characters, Jack Fargo, and Gabrielle Courbiere, the beautiful French spy, are well realized heroic figures. Jack's main motivation is making sure that the future in which his daughter exists is restored to reality. Gabrielle's motivations are far more mysterious. Since she's a spy it's not all that surprising. Still, when all is revealed towards the end of the book she doesn't suddenly pop. It's more a case of getting a new perspective on someone you thought you knew well.

Since this story's history is different from our past there isn't a good way of judging if Chadwick did his research. And since I'm no historian I don't really care all that much. We meet a few people that are known to us in the here and now, and their presence serves as a kind of anchor in a story that would otherwise have us all adrift.

I can't say more about the story without spoiling things. Jack's competences as a former Marine and history professor are both called upon repeatedly, for a series or cracking good adventures with thrills and spills. If you like steampunk I think you'll love this story, but it's a great read just from a general action adventure angle, as well.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bad Choices

Demon Bound
Caitlin Kittredge
St. Martin's, 2009
ISBN 0312943636

I am obsessed about having something to read. Anything. I'll read the side panels of cereal cartons if there's nothing else. My kind of OCD, I guess. I know bookstores love me because of that. They ought to treat me the way casinos treat people with a gambling addiction.

So a few weeks back I'd been waiting for Elysa to finish shopping. There was a dollar store nearby, so I decided to just see if I'd stumble across something interesting there. I ended up in the book aisle, which typically consists of various editions of thesaurus and dictionaries, maybe a Bible story book, that sort of thing. But this time I noticed a number of paperbacks on the shelf. Browsing through them I noticed a story by Caitlin Kittredge entitled Demon Bound. Browsing the first couple of pages I realized it was yet another occult detective story - no surprise, since Jim Butcher left a nice blurb right on the front cover. While I'm really really really looking for new ideas in SF&F, I was rather desperate for something to read, and it was only gonna cost me a buck, so I picked it up.

One of the best dollars I've ever spent on reading material, I can tell you that.This was a truly lovely read. A lot of occult detectives are disgustingly competent, hardly working up a sweat while beating their opponents. Only in the boss battle do they have to bleed. (Above mentioned Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is one exception.) It's not that occult detectives can't be competent, but it kind of spoils the thrill. Kittredge's Jack Winter (the name initially put me off, it did) is no magical n00b, but magic in his world is hazardous at the best of times, and a demon is gunning for him.

We meet Jack and his girlfriend Pete doing a little spirit raising to pay the bills. The scene beautifully sets the mood for the rest of the story, establishing Jack's competence, as well as his limits, and the prickly relationship he has with Pete. It's that relationship that drives the rest of the story. Thirteen years ago Jack made a deal with a demon to save his life - he didn't want to leave Pete without a mentor. His time is almost up, and he's desperately looking for a way out. But this demon is nobody's fool. As Jack tries to keep Pete from discovering what is going on while he negotiates with the denizens of hell I found myself getting drawn into the story. There's a showdown in the end, of course, and I suppose if I'd read the first novel in the series, Street Magic, I might not have been quite so surprised at the ending. Suffice it to say, Jack has more than the demon after him, and in the end he has to make that choice.

I loved Kittredge's characterizations. Jack, a lowlife ex-addict whose principles don't really extend much further than a personal debt to Pete. Pete, an ex-cop who is just learning about her particular powers, and whose relationship to Jack is a lot more than just rescuer and caretaker. Kittredge doesn't waste a lot of energy on the other characters. Jack and Pete and their complicated relationship are center stage. When it comes to this kind of a story, that's a rare and wonderful thing.

I don't know if you'll be able to find this book for a dollar, but even if you pay full price, I think it's money well spent.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Hits and Misses

Alien Collective
Gini Koch
Daw, 2014
ISBN 0756407583

Introducing Garrett, P.I.
Sweet Silver Blues (1987)
Bitter Gold Hearts (1988)
Cold Copper Tears (1988)
Glen Cook
Roc, 2011
ISBN 0451463978

The Alloy of War
Brandon Sanderson
Tor, 2011
ISBN 0765368544

So Many Names!

While I was bulling through the Hugo nominees the stack of books next to my bed was growing steadily. I do have a Kindle, but there's something visceral about holding a chunk of dead tree in my hands, of putting those pages up to my face and smelling the faint spice of paper. And then it makes me sneeze and I try to remember if I took my allergy meds.

The topmost book in my stack was Gini Koch's Alien Collective. It's book nine in a series already ten books long. Apparently ditzy former high school cheerleader Kitty Katt-Martini is an ambassador for aliens from Alpha Centauri, who joins in a protest against a candidate for President of the USA, and is spirited away from there by police who have been tipped off that there will be a series of bomb attacks. That's how the book starts, and it pretty much keeps it up for all 500+ pages. If you haven't read the previous eight (I haven't, either), then you'll be doing some catching up, but Koch makes sure you have all the necessary information. In fact, sometimes it seems that there are pages and pages of backstory (from the previous eight books) being dumped on the reader. There is a cast of characters a mile long, and after the first dozen I didn't even try to keep up.

When the action finally picks up things start moving more smoothly, and Koch shows that she can maintain a consistent impersonation of Kitty's ditzy personality without making her too unbelievable. The people who really are unbelievable are the aliens around her, who married her (it's a part romance, part SF adventure story), who made her their ambassador, and the current president of the USA, who treats her with more deference than members of his own cabinet. If you can swallow all of that then Kitty isn't a problem.

Even though Koch's writing has an easy breezy style I found the story a bit of a slog. I wondered if the fact that its target audience more than is usually the case must be women was what was tripping me up, but my wife didn't have a different verdict.

I make an effort to pick books by authors with whom I'm not familiar. Sometimes I find a gem. Sometimes I bite on a rock. This isn't a terrible story, but it wasn't the kind of book I enjoy reading. If you think you might like the series, I recommend starting at the series' beginning, with Touched by an Alien.

And then there was the Dame

Glen Cook's "Garrett, P.I." fantasy series isn't what all the other fantasy detectives are based on, but it's not hard to see how Simon R. Green's "Nightside" series, China Mieville's "Bas-Lag" series, or Jim Butcher's "Dresden" series got some of their heritage from Cook. Garrett (that appears to be all of his name) is a veteran of a long running war between two kingdoms, chronicling his life in the first person. He is now making a living for himself as security consultant for a brewery and negotiating the release of kidnap victims. Cook seems to pay an homage of sorts to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others, by tossing female characters into the story that are treated with a sort of retro sexism - not something you'd usually expect in a story written even as early as 1987. Garrett also uses words like darko, breed, and halfblood to refer to non-human and half-human characters. He seems to pride himself on not killing people when he can avoid it, even though he associates with others who have no compunction about killing, and often employs them to assist him.

Garrett's first adventure sends him out of town to track down the heir to a fortune of stolen silver. The second story starts as a kidnapping of the son of a powerful wizard, but things quickly get complicated. The last story pits the local crime boss against an ancient religious fraud, and Garrett ends up in the middle. All stories are entertaining and well written, moving along at a good pace. If you're a fan of Mieville or Butcher, Glen Cook will be worth your time.

Steel vs Gold

The magic in Glen Cook's world is the hand-wavey kind. Garrett buys it from wizards and hopes it works when he needs it. More recent fantasy authors who put magic in the hands of their heroes put considerable thought into how that magic is supposed to work, probably influenced by games like Dungeons and Dragons. My next author, Brandon Sanderson, even wrote a blog post describing his methods for including magic in his stories, and of his stories the Mistborn series is probably best known for its magic system, which allows certain people with the right genetics to swallow various kinds of metal to do magic.

Brandon writes in the acknowledgements of The Alloy of Law that he was planning all along to write two further trilogies to take place in the Mistborn setting. He says that the present book is not part of those two trilogies. It takes place some years after the initial stories finished. Technology has advanced to the stage of electric lights and internal combustion engines, and people with the right genetics to use magic have become more common since no one is killing them off, anymore. Lord Waxillium, Wax to his friends, is able to use two powerful kinds of magic, and has made quite a reputation for himself as an effective lawman. Now that he's back in the big city he finds that he can't simply be an aristocrat and run his businesses in peace when a mysterious gang of robbers starts interfering with his life.

This was a great story, full of derring do and veiled romance and mystery. For me it's so far the favorite of the Mistborn stories, and, while it's not part of one of the promised trilogies, its ending makes a sequel necessary. I'm definitely looking forward to that!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

If I Picked the Hugos, 2014 Edition

I don't know what the limit is of the number of books that may be nominated for "Best Novel Hugo" in a given year. This year there were nineteen. Let's have a look, in the order that I read them.

The "Wheel of Time" series concerns three youngsters who are caught up in events far beyond their ability to handle, and in adventures spanning a continent and several years manage to save the world from certain destruction. The story is rightly termed epic fantasy, and the characters are all engaging and well realized. The plot itself, a struggle against a nemesis from mankind's dimly remembered past, doesn't really become clear until book two opens, but that's OK, since book one was kind of an appetizer to get people started reading. Jordan writes well, and Sanderson has no flies on him, either.

Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood is a space opera combined with a mystery, diving from the edge of a solar system into the crushing depths of an ocean world. On the way we learn a little about economics, about meta humanity, and about a relationship a mother might have with her daughters that might have moved Nancy Friday to write something considerably more caustic than My Mother Myself. The story kept me engaged from cover to cover, and the ending was satisfying and amazing.

In the very near future of Mira Grant's (Seanan McGuire) Parasite scientists genetically engineer a symbiotic tapeworm that can do everything from dispensing life saving drugs to suppressing dangerous allergies. Sally, a tapeworm host who's been in an accident, discovers that there's a lot more to these tapeworms than anyone realizes when people start turning into zombies.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a leisurely paced journey of discovery. While I was discovering the world of One Esk, One Esk was discovering about moral responsibility and being human. The book engaged me on several levels and didn't disappoint me with its ending, either.

If you want magical battles with humongous guns then Larry Correia's Warbound is your ticket. Jake Sullivan teams up with the Knights of the Grimnoir to save the world from an invading extradimensional monster. Get your battles here!

So which one would I pick to win?

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series started with a transparent rip-off of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World, down to one-to-one mappings of plot and characters. The series picks up after that, but never actually shakes the sense that this is a kid writing a Tolkien fanfic - writing well, mind. Sanderson, working from Jordan's notes, can't really rescue the story from its fate. It's all well written, but I can't get past the fact that this story has already been told.

Larry Correia's "Grimnoir Chronicles" are a lot of fun to read, but I was frankly surprised to find it in the Hugo short list. Larry writes well, don't get me wrong, and if I were to measure this book up against some other action adventure series it would do well. But Larry's story avoids making hard choices. The ending employs the most blatant of deus ex machina, and then reverts everything to a kind of base state, as if none of what happened before mattered. It's what's done on TV all the time, but I personally expect more from serious SF&F.

I'm not really tired of zombies if Grant is going to serve them up with a fresh spin each time. Parasite really has me looking forward to the next one, and I have really no complaints about it. Grant brings her characters to life and doesn't stint on the rest of the story. It's obvious from almost the very beginning where the story is headed, but that's ok because I was looking forward to the journey. The book deserves to win, even if I don't want to pick it as my top pick.

Lecki's Ancillary Justice does start slowly, and the pacing is a bit uneven throughout, but the character One Esk is perhaps the best of her kind I've ever read about. For that reason I was really hard put to choose between her break-out novel and the one I'm picking this year.

Neptune's Brood was kick butt from the very start, as I've come to expect from Stross. His cast of characters is sparse and carefully chosen, and the ones that matter come to life as they make their way. Stross doesn't stint on describing a future that is plausible and amazing. Yes, he might be giving a small political fillip to some people, but I think it's subtle and fully part of the story. He does have to devote more pages to explication than someone writing about more familiar SF tropes would do, but I'm not holding that against him by any means.

If Lecki or Grant win the Hugo I'll be plenty happy. Both have written deserving books, but my pick this year is Stross's Neptune's Brood.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

World War Noir

Larry Correia
Baen, 2013
ISBN 1476736529

There's a certain nostalgia to the stories and films from the 1930s - the time when my mother was born and lived through WW II. I enjoy the films, the stark lighting, the soundscapes, even the caricatures that peopled the story, like Hammett's Thin Man, or Chandler's Marlowe. Just the thing for a cozy evening.

So it's of course no surprise that even fifty years after the last bonafide film noir ran off the reel people are still occasionally imitating the style. Larry Correia's Warbound is an excellent example.

The Grimnoir Chronicles started with Hard Magic, where me meet Jake Sullivan, a former private eye who is doing hard time for murder. Jake has magical powers that let him manipulate gravity, and his warden thinks he's a good guy, which is why J. Edgar himself recruits Jake into a magical secret society, the Grimnoir.

Now it is not all that much later, and Jake has become convinced that an extra-dimensional monster that wants to suck all magic out of Earth is getting ready to attack. Chairman Tokugawa's Iron Guards aren't ready to fight because Tokugawa has been replaced by an impostor. The Grimnoir Knights must kill the impostor to save the world.

This latest of the Grimnoir Chronicles is a little less focused than the others, perhaps because we know more of the characters, and they are all doing important stuff, just not all in the same place. Still, it seems as if at least Francis' part of the story, which isn't central to the novel, should have just been left off stage. There isn't enough of it to be obnoxious, but it is noticable and interrupts the narrative flow.

Faye's part of the story is much more central. Like Luke Skywalker training with Yoda you know she will just arrive at the action in the nick of time, and it's not really possible to just ignore her until she does. My main complaint about Faye is really that I think she violates Sanderson's First Law of Magic. It's not as if Correia has to obey Sanderson's rules - I don't even entirely agree with Sanderson's First Law - it's just that this seems to be a case where that Law really has to be obeyed. Because Correia flouts the Law, Faye becomes little more than a deus ex machina. Correia doesn't lose all control over the plot's central tensions, but they are a lot less than they could have been.

This is the fourth of the 2014 Hugo nominees that I've read. It is not a novel about thinking or answering difficult questions. Might makes right, and the best answers come at the end of a set of magically enhanced knuckles. Testosterone oozes from between its pages. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story. If you like this sort of thing, give it a try.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Humming Betrayal

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Orbit, 2013
ISBN 031624662X

I don't particular like war stories. Futuristic war stories are no exception. Typically authors who indulge in military scifi focus on weaponry, and they love to write about how fast a missile flies, or how quickly a defense reacts. There is obviously a market for that sort of thing, but it ain't me. So when I realized that Ann Leckie's book Ancillary Justice was about a soldier I was a bit disappointed.

But I judged too soon.

One Esk is a troop of slaves, human bodies that were killed for any number of reasons and harvested to become ancillaries, slave soldiers ridden by the omniscient AI that runs the warship Justice of Toren. Everyone treats ancillaries as if they were mindless, with no will of their own, but maybe everyone is mistaken. As One Esk is forced to be party to two monstrous acts of betrayal it decides to test its freedom to act, and exact its justice for the betrayals. This will be a bit of a challenge, since the target is the empire's omnipotent tyrant.

So, no, it's not military scifi. While Leckie has to mention weapons and armor in the course of the story, they aren't the featured characters that I worried about. Instead Leckie concentrates her attention on the real character: a slave, newly freed, who must discover that she is as human as anyone she meets, and has the freedom to act, and, more importantly, be responsible for her actions. It's a marvelous examination of moral responsibility and what it means to be human.

The story takes place against the background of an empire on the cusp of rebellion. It's the first book of a loose trilogy, and Leckie allows us to glimpse beyond the frame of her story, giving the feeling of a larger story waiting to be told. I particularly enjoyed her description of the starting setting, a small town, recently conquered, and divided against itself by tradition and prejudice. It's the background against which we get to know One Esk, and realize that there may well be more to these slave soldiers than their masters guess.

Ancillary Justice is the third of the 2014 Hugo nominees that I've read. It is Leckie's breakout novel, and it fully deserves its nomination. I strongly recommend it, and I'm looking forward to reading its sequel, Ancillary Sword

Monday, May 26, 2014


Mira Grant
Orbit, 2013
ISBN 0316218952

In her first foray into the land of zombies (Newsflesh), Grant proposed a scientific reason for zombies that seemed scarily plausible. She did her homework then, and now she's done even more homework. If you haven't heard of the idea that too few parasites are bad for us, you might read up on Helminthic Theory. Yep, sounds legit.

But seriously, there are people looking into the question if there is such a thing as being too clean. Whether this turns out to be anything other than a crackpot notion I have no idea. While I'm not about to start swilling sewer water, it's also true that bacteria compete with each other, even in places like our mouth and our gut, and if not enough of the good or at least harmless bacteria are around, then nasties will take over and wreak havoc.

In Mira Grant's book Parasite (book one of the Parasitology series), Doctors Banks, Cale, and Jablonsky have developed a genemod variety of tapeworm, the Intestinal Guardian (TM), which, if ingested by a human being, will keep the host healthy, supplying drug dosage if needed, and suppressing excessive immune responses like dog or cat allergies. The story's main character, Sally Mitchell, also has one of these tapeworms when she gets into an accident. She's in a coma from brain damage, and her family is about to disconnect her, when she sits up in bed.

As far as anyone knows, the tapeworm will not resurrect you from the dead.

The action catches up with Sally six years later. She has by now relearned to speak. Reading is still very difficult, but from all appearance things are looking up. She even has a boyfriend who cares for her. And then people start getting the sleeping sickness (a lovely euphemism for turning into zombies), and SymboGen, the makers of the tapeworm, seem to be hiding something.

I kind of started suspecting what was going on almost from the beginning - this is a story by Mira Grant, after all. Still, rather than making everything predictable, Grant kept me on the edge of my seat for all five hundred pages. Sally is a recovering amnesiac, and her recovery may strike people who know a little bit about, for example, retraining TBI patients or stroke victims, as if Sally is doing far too well. The mystery ingredient is obviously the tapeworm, but we don't know quite what role it is playing until about halfway into the story (when it's still a mystery to Sally and her friends).

Yes, from that point on you'll probably know what is really going on, and you'll be wondering how Sally and her boyfriend Nathan haven't caught on yet. Well, there are perfectly good reasons, of course. Meanwhile the mere fact that you know will not at all detract from the story.

Grant's story takes place in a near future California. We're not told what all has happened, but a fair amount obviously has. Maybe some of that backstory will be featured in the sequels, but it doesn't really matter. It's a believable version of the future. You will feel right at home, I'm sure.

This is the second of the Hugo nominees I've read. It is definitely a worthy nominee, and I highly recommend it.

Homo Economicus

Neptune's Brood
Charles Stross
Ace, 2013
ISBN 0425256774

Classical economics mostly consists of theories concerning the price of goods, the value of money, and what governments should or shouldn't do about them. More recently critiques of economic theory like to point out that people, individually, or even in the aggregate, do not follow simple mathematical formulas. We don't have the processing capacity for all of the relevant information, even if it were available, and we evidently do not act on that information even when we do have it.

So what would the world be like if we were truly economical beings?

Charles Stross spins a great tale in Neptune's Brood. It's thousands of years in the future. The human race - the biological species that is us - has become extinct three separate times, but our offspring, metahumans (not the ones from DC Comics), carry our legacy forward.

Metahumans have some of the characteristics of humans, but they are homo economicus, entirely subordinate to economic laws, down to their very cells. Their desires are driven by the laws of debt and liquidity. That doesn't make them totally inhuman, but it means that Krina Alizond 114, a fraud specialist looking for the lost proceeds of the biggest fraud ever committed, has interesting and surprising motivations as she attempts to solve the mystery of her sister's disappearance while dodging an assassin and various parties who have gotten wind of the missing treasure.

Stross tells a story of people who appear to be quite a lot like us, until Krina stumbles across a couple having sex, or when she considers the prospect of food, or the alteration of her body plan. Homo economicus is quite obviously not human. The resulting story is remarkable for that reason. Stross isn't writing about humans like us, but we still want to sympathize with Krina and we're cheering her quest. Meanwhile, as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Krina is like no one we've ever known.

Most of the story takes place in a single planetary system orbiting a star mostly like our Sun. Stross's description of the environment is inventive and fun. We get a taste of interplanetary travel as well as interstellar travel (which happens mostly by lightspeed laser transmissions), and what life might be like on the surface of a watery superearth.

The characters populating the story, though evidently not human like us, are still human enough that we can sympathize with them and understand them, even the communistic squid and the piratical bats. Like Alice in Wonderland we discover people we've never imagined.

This book was a page turner, in spite of its abstruse messages about economics. It's also been nominated for the Hugo, and it's one of the best Hugo nominated books I've read. Highly recommended.

The Long Story

The Long Earth
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Harper, 2013
ISBN 0062068687

The Long War
Pratchett and Baxter
Harper, 2014
ISBN 0062068695

If you've ever heard of the "many worlds theory," the idea that any event that could have turned out more than one way creates a split in the universe so that the event turns out each of the possible ways, then you know the basis of a subgenre of science fiction folks call alternate history. You could just see alternate histories as fantasies with no particular basis in reality, but the many worlds theory, which came from quantum theory, is the basis for these stories.

Even some time travel stories tackle it: you go back in time, accidentally make a consequential change, and the future you return to is different. What happened to the future you came from? It's probably still there. You just can't reach it anymore, unless you travel even further back in time to prevent the first change.

One fairly rare take on the many worlds is the ability to travel laterally between them. Instead of flying to the stars to find a new planet, you travel from our planet to a probabilistic neighbor. It's got everything Earth has, except people. No pollution, no overcrowding, all that good stuff. So far a few stories have been written considering this idea, but most if not all of them are short story treatments. I know of none that explored the subject as thoroughly as Pratchett and Baxter do in The Long Earth and The Long War.

Some time in the near future the world changes. A scientist posts plans on the internet for building a stepping box, a simple device, apparently powered by a potato, which allows the wearer to step from this world into an alternate world. The worlds stretch out in two directions, for infinity, it seems, and at first appear to be completely devoid of any intelligent life, though in other respects life flourishes on most of them.

The stories' main character, Joshua Valienté, accompanied by a computerized simulation of a Tibetan mechanic named Lobsang sets out to explore the Long Earth, and perhaps discover its purpose. The fairly mundane task of exploration is leavened by a continuous conflict between Joshua and Lobsang arising from Joshua's distrust of this machine that appears to have an indecent amount of power over the lives of people. The story finishes with a perhaps predictable event that has nothing to do with the main plot, but that's actually OK since it leads to the sequel.

The sequel takes place a couple of decades later. Human prejudices against trolls, gorilla-like intelligent beings who live in the Long Earth, naturally stepping between worlds, are resulting in the withdrawal of the trolls from most places in the Long Earth. Sensing a threatening war between humans and non-humans, Joshua and his computerized friend set out again to see if they can broker a treaty. This story also has enough unfinished business at the end that it's obvious there's going to be a sequel - The Long Mars.

Which I haven't read. Yet.

Anyway, stylistically both books show the hallmarks of a collaboration. Both Baxter and Pratchett are stylistically competent, as is this book. The prose doesn't evoke either author's distinctive style, though both authors toss in occasional sly references to their own works - just not anything that disrupts the flow of the narrative itself. The result is a consistent and even flow of narrative that is easy on the mental ear.

There is a large number of characters who make their appearances as the plot advances. Each get a fair amount of time for development, and in the end, paradoxically almost, the one character that remains a cypher is Lobsang, who plays the role of cat's paw in both books. Instead of developing as a central character, the AI acts as a foil against which many of the other characters measure themselves. Since the books are not actually about computerized intelligences, that's as it should be.

Pratchett and Baxter include many different worlds in the story. I enjoyed the descriptions of the varied animals and environments found on the Long Earth, even the idea of Jokers, places that are unusually different from the surrounding Earths, was a great idea. While the story starts with the appearance that humanity is alone on the Long Earth, there are hints early on that we've got company. The second book even presents a scientific rational for this state of affairs. And of course stepping itself has a number of limitations, which are addressed in a variety of ways.

The books are not the usual thing to expect from either author. It might be a good idea to approach the books while pretending you had read nothing by either author before. The books deserve to be seen in their own light.

Overall I strongly recommend the stories.