Tag Archive | science

Book review: Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos (Ilium, #2)Olympos by Dan Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MARS: Paris is dead. Hockenberry and Helen are lovers. Achilles and Hector have joined forces against the gods while the gods fight amongst themselves. Mahnmut and Orphu discover the quantum energy they’ve been tracking emanates from Earth rather than Mars, and it’s about to destroy both worlds.

EARTH: Meanwhile, Odysseus travels with Harman and Ada, seeking an end to Setebos. Daeman travels alone, seeking the same end. And the voynix drop their pretense of servitude; humanity’s continued existence is precarious.

Dan Simmons juggles many plates in the concluding volume of this epic duology. I admit to being a little lost at times, and occasionally needing to trudge my way through chapter 2017SFFReadingChallengeafter chapter in dogged determination. Yeah, the story bogs down now and then. So many moving parts! But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

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Read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge. Click that badge over there to see more reviews. And once there, consider joining us!

Book review: Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium (Ilium, #1)Ilium by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allosaurs, Greek gods, and space-going Shakespeare enthusiasts? Dan Simmons must have read my Christmas wish list.

Troy is at war. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, and the Trojans, led by Priam and Paris, wage pitched and pitiless battles, aided by the gods and observed by humans. These humans — the scholics — were once experts on Greek poetry and ancient history. They were reconstructed by the gods from their DNA, and then brought back to make sure the path of the war follows the path of the Iliad as laid out by Homer. Thomas Hockenberry is one such scholic, tramping around the battlefield in the guise of various soldiers, making notes and reporting back to the Muse. One day, after nine years of such a life, he is summoned by Aphrodite and told he is to alter the course of things. He is to kill Pallas Athena.

On Earth, humans live in an idyllic setting, pursuing a sybaritic lifestyle. The world is a constant round of dinner parties, picnics, long walks through the woods, and casual sex. No work, no worries, no schooling, no commitments, their every need is seen to by the voynix, mechanical servants who cook, clean, and care for them in their Eden. Daeman, who, like most others of society, is spectacularly incurious about the whys and wherefores of his world, and who collects butterflies and bed partners with equal vigor, arrives at the estate of his cousin, Ada, for a birthday party. He is shocked to discover that the party is not in celebration of someone’s 20th — after which they will be whisked away to the Rings and then returned after rejuvenation — but of Harman’s 99th. In essence, it’s Harman’s going-away party, for he has only one more year of life. But a chance encounter with an allosaurus changes everything.

On Europa, the Five Moon Consortium, a conclave of biomechanical beings, gathers to discuss the 600-year lack of contact from the post-humans and the more recent (in the last 200 years) apparent terraforming of Mars. The consortium is especially concerned with unusually massive amounts of quantum-shift activity centered on Mons Olympus, and decides to send an expedition to investigate. Mahnmut, a Europan moravec, is excited to be included in this expedition with his friend Orphu, an Ionian moravec, and looks forward to continuing their discussions of Shakespeare and Proust and literature in general.  The expedition sets off well enough but soon suffers a severe setback, leaving Mahnmut and Orphu to make the best of what may be a fatal error.

Simmons adopted three different voices to tell these stories. The Trojan saga echoes Homeric prose, to the point of opening the novel with a paraphrase of the opening lines of the Iliad itself; and it is in this opening paragraph that we first begin to understand the sorrow and tragedy of the scholic Hockenberry and the rest of the cast of characters Simmons introduces. The story of Daeman, Ada, and Harman is told in simple descriptive language akin to the childlike outlook of the humans themselves; while the conversations of Mahnmut, Orphu, and the rest of the moravecs are full of technobabble and high literary analysis. This narrative trick is effective, if occasionally jarring when 2017SFFReadingChallengemoving from artless human idyll to high Homeric tragedy.

Three settings. Three stories. Three disparate and wandering paths that lead to the same destination? We’ll find out when I read the sequel.

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Read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge.  Click that badge over there to see more reviews. And once there, consider joining us!

Book review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

The FiremanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

They called it “dragonscale”. And no one knew where it came from. It showed up as fine lines of black and gold, tracing the skin in loops and swirls and delicate patterns. Eventually, those who contracted the disease burst into flames and died, often taking buildings and other people with them. The uninfected feared the infected and began to set them aside in hospitals and camps and detention centers.

But some of the infected learned to control their fiery outbursts and channel them into a semblance of productivity or protection. Harper, a nurse, abandoned by her husband when she contracts the disease, is taken in by such a group in need of her medical abilities. They live in secret, hiding from the self-appointed Cremation Squads who scour the country looking for the infected. The group itself, however, is not ideal, and seems to headed down the path of becoming a religious cult. Harper and a few of her new friends begin looking for a way out.

I liked this well enough. It’s reasonably well-written; the story is engaging and the characters are mostly sympathetic; but the “…they would never do that/see each other/be here again” thing at the end of most chapters eventually became annoying. And the ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger, unless you’re like me and read all the acknowledgments, etc., at the end of the story. Because the real ending is hidden away back there.

Worth reading once.

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Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The heat is nearly unbearable.

The ice caps melted; the sea-level rose; the fossil-fuel economy collapsed; worldwide famine ensued; and Asia took the lead in science- and technology-driven solutions. Unfortunately, the genetically-engineered crops produced by the agricultural research companies also produced horrific diseases for crops and for people, further decimating global population and food supply. Riots, black markets, corporate espionage, ethnic cleansing…the world of 100 years or so from now is not a pleasant place, unless one is very wealthy.

And in Paolo Bacigalupi’s future vision, one is either very wealthy, or one is not. The only denizens of a nearly non-existent middle class are the calorie-men, like Anderson Lake, the manager of the factory where much of the action of this novel centers.

Anderson Lake prowls the street markets of Bangkok, hoping to find pure, unaltered food — a real canteloupe, an actual vine-grown tomato — that he can purchase and take back to his employer for gene analysis and modification. What he finds, eventually, is Enniko.

Enniko — the Windup Girl of the title — is a “New Person”, the genetically-engineered, vat-grown human-like plaything of a Japanese businessman, who left her behind in Bangkok when he grew tired of her. Her unaccompanied presence in the city is problematic, and she places herself under the protection of unsavory individuals for her personal safety.

Around both of them, Bangkok is aswirl with civil unrest, thievery, police corruption, political assassination attempts, and the outbreak of a new and mysterious disease. There’s so much going on in this story that it’s nearly impossible to synopsize.

It’s not an easy read: lots of characters and subplots to follow; lots of Bacigalupi-created neologisms; lots of untranslated Asian-language words (presumably Thai, but I could be wrong). The word meanings can be gathered from context, but it makes for slow going initially.

Have I mentioned that I loved it? I did. It’s fabulous. Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, horrifying, and spectacular. Once I finally got into the story, I could hardly bear to put it down.

2017SFFReadingChallengeThis is not a story for everyone. But it was the story for me.

(If you like China Miéville, you will love this. Trust me.)

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl Trilogy, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, maybe cyberpunk is not my thing.

More specifically, maybe the inventor of cyberpunk, Mr. William Gibson himself, is not my thing. This is the second Gibson under my belt. I realized belatedly that the first, Count Zero, read nearly 10 years ago, was the sequel to this novel. I enjoyed it more than Neuromancer, but not enough to keep it or consider reading it again. And, even though the title fascinates me, I’m fairly certain I’ll pass on the third entry in this series, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Okay, the review part:

Case, a hacker, down on his luck and scrounging for ways to feed his addiction, receives an offer to repair the neurological damage caused by his last employer and the physical damage caused by his addiction in exchange for diving back into the Matrix (a “Deep Web”-type virtual space where the hacker’s disembodied consciousness runs free amidst corporate and personal data in search of booty to pirate) and stealing some very particular data for a very particular client. Desperate, he agrees, even though the repair job is temporary unless he successfully completes his assignment. Much world-hopping, bed-hopping, and cyberspace-hopping ensue.

This 1984 novel is notable for its prescience and coinage of words now in common use — Gibson foresaw the coming ubiquity of the internet, and gave us the term “cyberspace”. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading. And I won’t argue that it well deserves its Hugo and Nebula awards: at the time of its publication, Neuromancer was a uniquely fresh take on the whole SF genre, while at the same time creating a whole new subgenre.

What I will argue is that for readers who are not technically-minded (yours truly as case in point), it’s easy to get lost in the complexities of Gibson’s vision. While I ended my trip through the Matrix with a general feeling of resolution (in the sense that I understood the basics of the story and its ending), I was also rather confused — perhaps dizzied is a better word — at several points during the story. For example, I’m not entirely clear on what happened to Linda or why she kept showing up in odd places. The whole bit with why the Marcus Garvey was integral to the scheme to steal the data escaped me. And with so many characters and their inter-relationships to keep track of, I felt like I needed a flow chart.

Part of this confusion may stem from the fact that I read this book on my daily commute train, so perhaps my concentration wasn’t fully focused. Regardless, I am not a novice SF reader. I understand SF, especially good SF, can be complex and dizzying and character-heavy. (Witness my thorough enjoyment of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.) My conclusion, therefore, is that stated at the top of this review: cyberpunk is one sub-genre that doesn’t suit the way my brain operates. Too bad.

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2016SFFChallengeThis review was written as part of the 2016 Award-Winning SFF Challenge. This challenge is now over, but you can find the sign-up for the 2017 Challenge right here.

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Book review: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Four of five stars

One day, while on an international flight somewhere over the Pacific, Bill Bryson looked out the airplane window and realized he knew virtually nothing about the ocean — indeed, the planet — below him. As he says in his introduction: “I didn’t know why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren’t…I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, I didn’t know how geologists could look at a layer of rock and tell you how old it was…I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and how people figured them out…and so I decided to devote a portion of my life to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions.” This book is the result of his three-year quest to distill all general scientific knowledge into one easily accessible, readable, and above all understandable volume.

Bryson covers the construction of the universe and the deconstruction of DNA; reintroduces us to scientific pioneers such as van Leeuwenhoek and Mendel, Newton and Hooke; and terrifies us with volatility of the not so solid ground beneath our feet and the sheer number of bacteria we carry around on our skin. But he doesn’t just present us with facts. He also tells us how we discovered those facts: how we came to know what we know. It all makes for fascinating reading. His material can be a trifle dry at times, but Bryson does a good job of making even the most dessicated scientific idea entertaining. Plus, there’s the additional cool factor of the occasional lovely oddball word, like fossiliferous.

Other than required basic biology courses, I’ve never formally studied science. But I’m curious, and I’ve developed a grand fascination with the subject over the years. I often tell my husband if I ever go back to college, my course of study will be in one of the -ologies. If you’re like me and have the least bit of curiosity about the mechanics of the universe, you ought to read this book, too.

Book review: How To Build An Android by David F. Dufty

Four of five stars

First off, let me say the idea of creating an android in the image of Philip K. Dick, with independently functioning AI software, no less, and with the blessing of his family, is so beyond cool it almost defies understanding. Second, the fact that this miracle of concept and technology went missing in late 2005 and has never been found is tragic beyond words, and is exactly the sort of ironic scenario that PKD would have written into one of his books and incorporated into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Quick summary: In 2004, a consortium of scientists affiliated with the University of Memphis (Tennessee) collaborated on the creation of a lifelike replica of a human head using some advanced artificial intelligence software. In a fit of ironic whimsy, they decided to model the head of their creation after renowned writer and noted paranoiac Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other science fiction classics. Author David Duffy, a minor player in this drama, steers us through the scientific and creative journey from technical drawings to working model with a minimum of technobabble and treats the reader to a quasi-biography of PKD himself: his work, his private life, his probable psychosis, and his acute paranoid-cum-religious fantasies.

The sheer hubris involved in this entire project is stunning in its scope, and it all makes for fascinating reading. Whether you’re a science fiction fan or a technology geek, interested in voice recognition or robotics, or just a plain all around nerd, you’re sure to find several hours of entertainment contained within the pages of Duffy’s treatise.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program for the opportunity to read this book.