Book Review: All Clear – Connie Willis

All Clear - Connie Willis

All Clear - Connie Willis

Having now finished both books I’m now wondering why ? Like the first, All Clear
is nicely written but it all gets a bit tedious. It does have some surprises, but you’d expect that in over 1000 pages. The last 50 pages I was just hoping that it would end soon, as I’d worked out most of the ending and nothing was surprising. As other reviewers have noted, it really needed to be edited down to
one book. It doesn’t help that her two plot devices; will time travellers alter history and will time travellers ever get back to their own time have now been overused. There is an attempt to put a new twist on these, but it doesn’t work that well, possibly because the book is just too long to maintain interest.

If you haven’t read any of her books then this is not the place to
start, try Doomsday Book or To Say Nothing of the Dog, which are both excellent.

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Book Review: Blackout – Connie Willis

Blackout - Connie Willis

Blackout - Connie Willis

I don’t know how this book would appear to someone who has never read Connie Willis before. I recieved this for Christmas, But to someone who has read all of Willis’ solo writing, both novels and short stories, and some of her partnered books, it just appears tired. Willis covered the Blitz so movingly in her short stories “Fire Watch” and “Jack,” and is capable of creating books that can make you cry (“Doomsday Book”) or laugh (“To Say of the Dog” and “Bellwether”), but here manages to be neither moving nor amusing. There is such a host of characters at the beginning, that it’s hard to keep them straight. Eventually, we figure out that we are getting the viewpoints of three main characters, historians Polly, Elaine and Mike, all time traveling to WWII England for first person experiences: Polly as a shop clerk in London during the Blitz, Elaine as a maid in the N. of England to observe child evacuees from London, and Mike to Dover to observe ships returning from the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. But the characters are poorly drawn, and we never get a feel for them. They are just people who know what’s going to happen next, and worry incessantly about whether what they’ve done has changed history. It’s hard to illustrate how tiresome this gets without writing spoilers — suffice it to say that manic thoughts about “but if they’d done X, then that means that they would have missed Y, and then Z couldn’t have happened…” etc. etc. from all three characters gets first
boring, then downright annoying.

Then there’s also Willis’ blind spot
about telecommunications technology, which has plagued her writing from the
beginning, but without which characters would have no excuse for running
frantically from one place to another just missing each other and unable to get
messages to and from one another. The introductory action is supposed to take
place in the year 2060, but not only do people have to run around looking for
each other, at one point a character has to put down the receiver to see if
another character can come to the phone. A RECEIVER?!?!? In 2060? At least in
WWII England, the inability to connect makes some sense, but there’s still this
sense of everything being oddly frenetic and the characters acting illogically
all the time. Not what you’d expect from historians, especially ones approved to
go to such a dangerous place and time.

This book is also a major
disappointment in how little we care for the “contemps”. In “Doomsday Book,”
when bad things happened to the non-time travelling characters, it was
heart-wrenching. Here, it’s like “oh… the little girls you thought died in the
bombing last night are okay? That’s nice.” The book is just too emotionally
shallow for anything that happens to people to resonate.

And finally,
there’s the fact that other reviewers have noted, that this and the book’s
“continuation,” “All Clear,” which will be published in the fall, were written
as one book, but the publisher decided to divide them into two books. So the
book just ends, awkwardly, and with no sense of any kind of resolution. There’s
no cliff-hanger, no closing of one chapter and tantalizing beginning of
another… it just ends.

I normally love Connie Willis, and this subject
matter is clearly near and dear to her heart, so I was expecting so much more.
It’s entertaining, and a little bit informative, but it could have and should
have been hugely moving and the publisher should have made Willis take out the
filler and keep it as one book. As it is, I doubt too many people will come back
for part 2.

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Book Review: Surface Detail – Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

Having read the entire Banks sci-fi catalogue and a smattering of his fiction, I haven’t come across a novel of his which didn’t have a deeply woven tapestry with subtle accents. His prior novel Inversions didn’t impress me much as I found the feudal kingdom a bit tedious to tackle, and the posh lifestyle of the
king somewhat dull, but I did find the darkness and humor to my liking yet still
received 3/5 stars. Of a similar raring, Feersum Endjinn didn’t have
evoluptuously complex characters or a grand epic-ness. Surface Detail (SD) takes
negative aspects from both of these novels and shares the similar rating of 3/5 stars… which I thought I’d do for the release of SD.

Typical ofBanksian SF is the plethora of characters strewn across the galactic plane, who have a unique plot line and are fated to be joined together in extreme
circumstances in the last 10% of the novel. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Most characters in SD are somewhat flat: generically evil like Veppers, fairly
morbid yet motivated Quietus agent Yime, the sarcastic and blood-thirsty AI of
Demeisen and the sulky yet revengeful Lededje. The real highlights of the spread
of aliens, humans and pan-humans are the hellish plights of Prin and Chay
(escaped from hell and stuck in hell for perspective lifetimes, respectively)
and the trials and mindset of the cute and conniving Culture-fan of the GFCN
species, Bettlescroy. Two separate books could have been written about these
characters alone!

Veppers annoyed me the most, undoubtedly. I’ve read
enough of easily unlikable characters that I now know it’s pretty simple to
create such a beast (aggressive sexual acts ala The Algebraist or maniacal
single-mindedness ala Dark Background). Veppers takes on both these traits as
well as being filthy rich like King Quience of Inversions but also has an added
distasteful trait of acting just like and amoral, spoiled king. This character
has been made again and again by Banks and the current version of evil in the
guise of Veppers is tried, tested and now getting quite dull.

As for the
supposedly galaxy-spanning plot… well, not so much in SD. There’s a brief
scene on a Hub, horrific depictions of a virtual hell, uninspiring terrestrial
life on a bland planet which Veppers resides and a vague description of a series
of orbital factories abandoned by an extinct alien species which isn’t explored
to its fullest. Most of the novel is aboard a few Culture ships or alien
vessels, where the plot is talked about and their intentions laid out in full.
There were no large surprises behind the intentions of the major caste and the
only excitement rally came about via the war-loving, sardonic AI named Demeisen.
There are some frivolous and interesting scenes of exotic alien architecture
(like the said Tsungarial Disk orbital factory and another derelict
monstrosity).

Granted, there were a number of exotic ideas which held my
interest and imagination even while at work or exercising, but most of the novel
was just uninspiring and untried: the virtual hells should have been better
explored to a greater degree but Banks limited it to a single hell, the NR level
8 species is of similar level as the Culture but was left wholly undetailed, and
the broader greatness and sustaining quality of the Culture wasn’t delved into.

If another Culture novel is written, I do hope Banks steers away from
the `glitz and glamour’ of Special Circumstances and sticks to grassroots
Culture civilization, which is what is draws me back to his universe again and
again.

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Book Review: Pushing Ice – Alastair Reynolds

Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds

Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds

2057. In the depths of the Solar system, large spacecraft routinely intercept and redirect ice asteroids and comets into Earth orbit, where their raw materials can be used to fuel Earth’s growing economy and incessant need for raw materials. When Saturn’s moon Janus inexplicably leaves its orbit and heads out of the Solar system in the direction of the star Spica, an ‘ice-pusher’ ship named Rockhopper is the only vessel positioned to intercept it. The plan is for the ship to tail the anomaly for a week before returning to Earth. Naturally, complications ensue and the crew of Rockhopper are forced to make a home on Janus as it accelerates towards lightspeed, which will carry them to Spica in
250 years, although thanks to time dilation only a dozen years will pass for
those on board.

Pushing Ice is a hard SF novel in the ‘Big Dumb Object’ tradition, following in the footsteps of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Greg Bear’s Eon. However, unlike a lot of BDO books which tend to put characterisation way behind spectacle and awe, Pushing Ice is centred firmly on the relationship between two female crewmembers of the Rockhopper, Captain Bella Lind and navigator Svetlana Barseghian, two firm friends who suffer a catastrophic falling-out over the Rockhopper’s new mission and whose subsequent relations colour much of the novel. This gives the book an emotional centre which helps make it easier to relate to the more traditional,
awe-inspiring spectacle stuff that unfolds later on.

Whilst unrelated to any of his other novels, Pushing Ice features Reynolds’ trademark use of non-faster-than-light travel and the inevitable closer interrelationship between humanity and its machines, although broadly along more positive lines than his Revelation Space novels. Pushing Ice is also more relatable, as its technology is less exotic and much closer to current day levels, meaning his charactershave to work even harder to survive in the hostile environments they find themselves in.

Pushing Ice becomes a multi-generational tale as life on
Janus during and after is voyage unfolds and Reynolds’ story reaches impressive
new levels of invention as we discover more about the alien Spicans and their
goals. There is a strong similarity here to Clarke’s Rama Cycle, but he makes
more interesting and focused points in considerably less time and pages than
Clarke’s earlier work, and the characters he uses to achieve that goal are
considerably more interesting.

Pushing Ice (****½) doesn’t quite hit the
same high as Reynolds’ masterwork Chasm City, but it comes damn close. As a hard
SF novel in the Big Dumb Object tradition, Pushing Ice is a triumph, but
achieves its success with more emotion and heart than most such books

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Book Review: Saturn’s Children – Charles Stross

Saturn's Children - Charles Stross

Saturn's Children - Charles Stross

Set in a future when humanity is extinct, intelligent robots carry on the task of spreading civilisation, having colonised the solar system and sent ships to nearby stars. These are not soulless Asimovian robots as their minds are copies of archetypal personalities, created by conditioning using human experiences (some extremely unpleasant). This conditioning also inculcates basic emotions and needs: for example, robots can enjoy a drink or two (though not of alcohol) and can experience the pleasures of sex when they ‘link up’.

For control purposes, humans made serving them the deepest desire of a robot. Now humans are gone, ‘aristo’ robots use this servitude capacity to enslave other robots. Their greatest fear is of ‘pink goo’ – animal cells of any kind that could, in theory, be used to rebuild one of the lost human ‘Creators’. A human, could, simply by their presence, control any and all robots using their inbuilt servitude
routines.

The novel follows Freya, one of a defunct concubine archetype,
cloned from the original called Rhea, who gets involved in something illegal
that involves smuggling pink goo. Freya is given the ‘soul chip’ (memories) of
another of her archetype, Juliette, and starts to be influenced by Juliette’s
experiences. The abilities to swap soul chips (and thus identities) and to blank
parts of soul ships complicates the plot no end. Starting on Venus, the action
takes Freya to Mercury, then Mars, Callisto and finally to ‘Heinleingrad’, on
distant Eris, as aristo factions like the Black Talon, and robot archetypes,
especially one modelled on the Jeeves character, struggle over the ultimate
prize…

Ironies abound. Humans, as their creators, are like gods to
robots. Robot society is as venal and despotic as that of their creators. In
their restless journeying (space travel for robots is uncomfortable and slow but
usually not fatal) they are driven by the expansionist dreams of their creators,
as robots have no purpose of their own. Despite 50 years of AI research,
‘intelligent’ robots are still as much a figment of the imagination as warp
drive. While on the surface this novel is a romp built from retreaded components
from earlier writers, underneath it raises issues about self-hood, freedom and
the purpose of life, none of which robots really have.

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Book Review: Cyberabad Days – Ian McDonald

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald is one of science fiction’s finest working writers, and his latest
short story collection Cyberabad Days, is the kind of book that showcases
exactly what science fiction is for.

Cyberabad Days returns to
McDonald’s India of 2047, a balkanized state that we toured in his 2006 novel
River of Gods, which was nominated for the best novel Hugo Award. The India of
River of Gods has fractured into a handful of warring nations, wracked by
water-shortage and poverty, rising on rogue technology, compassion, and the
synthesis of the modern and the ancient.

In Cyberabad Days, seven
stories (one a Hugo winner, another a Hugo nominee) McDonald performs the
quintessential science fictional magic trick: imagining massive technological
change and making it intensely personal by telling the stories of real, vividly
realized people who leap off the page and into our minds. And he does this with
a deft prose that is half-poetic, conjuring up the rhythms and taste and smells
of his places and people, so that you are really, truly transported into these
unimaginably weird worlds. McDonald’s India research is prodigious, but it’s
nothing to the fabulous future he imagines arising from today’s reality.

All seven of these stories are standouts, but if I had to pick only
three to put in a time-capsule for the ages, they’d be:

1. The Djinn’s
Wife: this Hugo-winning novelette is a heartbreaking account of a love affair
between a minor celebrity and a weakly godlike artificial intelligence. The
special problems of love with an “aeai” (AI) are incredibly, thoroughly imagined
here, as are the possible glories. Here, McDonald perfectly captures the
stepping-off-a-cliff feeling of the new kinds of romance that technology
enables, and of the wonderful, terrible sense of the wind rushing past your ears
as the ground screams towards you.

2. Sanjeev and Robotwallah: a story
that will be anthologized in two of this year’s “Best Of” anthologies, Sanjeev
and Robotwallah is the story of a young, displaced boy who finds temporary glory
in acting as batsman for a squadron of amped-up teen mecha pilots. The pathos
here arises when the war ends and the glamorous warriors are retired, leaving
Sanjeev in limbo, his aspirations smashed with the lives of the older boys. Like
all of McDonald’s stories, the ending is bittersweet, rich and unexpected.

3. Vishnu at the Cat Circus: the long, concluding novella in the volume
is an account of three siblings: one genetically enhanced to be a neo-Brahmin,
one a rogue AI wallah who is at the center of the ascension of humanity’s
computers into a godlike state, and one who remains human and bails out the
teeming masses who are tossed back and forth by the technological upheaval. A
story of character, Vishnu blends spirituality and technology to look at how the
street might find its own use for things, when that street is rooted in ancient
traditions that are capable of assimilating enormous (but not infinite) change.

Cyberabad Days has it all: spirituality, technology, humanity, love,
sex, war, environmentalism, politics, media — all blended together to form a
manifesto of sorts, a statement about how technology shapes and is shaped by all
the wet, gooey human factors. Every story is simultaneously a cracking yarn, a
thoughtful piece of technosocial criticism, and a bag of eyeball kicks that’ll
fire your imagination. The field is very lucky to have Ian McDonald working in
it.

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Book Review: Geosynchron – David Louis Edelman

Geosynchron - David Louis Edelman

Geosynchron - David Louis Edelman

First let me say that I love the world and the idea behind the series. I had a great time reading the books and I would have given this a 5 for that. However I also want to give it a 3 for other reasons. So I settled on a 4. I am going to
try to keep major spoilers out of this but there may be a few smaller ones.

My major issue with the series is for things that seemed like they should be linked, but never were. It is Natch’s story but the Surina’s influence
the whole world. Everyone seems to play in the sandbox they made. There are two
parallel stories about Surina technology, Teleportation and ultiReal. Both are similar in the way they could change society and how the government wants to stop them. The novels do a great job illustrating that. Teleportation was neutered before it could be perfected. It is implied that teleportation could be instant, but is now limited to a time intensive process (hours). MultiReal’s fate I won’t get into because of spoilers.

The code for both of these technologies came from the same place, the Surina’s. It is mentioned that the code for Teleportation and MultiReal share/have similar structures. That they “fit” together. It seems obvious that with both technologies one could really move between realities. The human race could truly evolve into a go anywhere/do anything post human existence. The clues in the book make it seem like this was the Surina plan from the beginning.

My problem is that this never happens. None of the characters bring it up as a possibility or solution. They never even see the connection. To me it would have been a great place to take the story. An even more fascinating possibility on top of a the great world we were already given.

So I think it is a great series and a good read but
I am disappointed in where we eventually ended up. Or at least in where we could
have ended up but didn’t. Hopefully a future series in this universe will
explore that more.

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