Tag Archive | technology

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!

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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: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rob Broadhead is in therapy, even though he is resistant to everything his therapist suggests. But he keeps coming back, week after week, session after session, until finally, a breakthrough is achieved.

The story that underlies that eventual breakthrough is the story of Rob’s experience at Gateway, a space station that houses the mysterious spacecraft of a vanished race known as the Heechee. Rob was a prospector, a person who takes a chance and joins an expedition to one (or more) of the unknown destinations pre-programmed into the Heechee ships in the hopes of finding something spectacular and making a fortune.

Rob made a fortune. And it broke him.

Frederik Pohl constructed his tale in bi-fold manner: Rob’s therapy sessions with his AI psychiatrist; and his time at Gateway, learning about Heechee navigation and preparing for his trip into the unknown. It’s an effective tool, revealing Rob’s psychosis and its triggering event a little at a time. And the information revealed about the mysterious and long-gone Heechee is intriguing enough for me to seek out the rest of the series. Well done, Mr. Pohl.

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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: 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: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

wolves-of-the-calla2016 Re-Read
2016 is the year I decided I was actually going to finish reading the Dark Tower series. Since I hadn’t read this book in at least five years, a re-read was deemed necessary. And that was a good thing, because I had completely forgotten ALL of the events of this story, including the insertion of ‘Salem’s Lot character Father Callahan, who somehow managed to fall into Mid-World after his humiliation by the Vampire Barlow.

Immediately after encountering “Oz” in Topeka, Roland and his fellow travelers Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy continue on the Path of the Beam, eventually realizing they’ve left a plague-ridden Kansas behind and re-entered Mid-World.  Soon afterward, they are approached by the citizens of the farming community Calla Bryn Sturgis, who ask for their help in defeating marauders known as the Wolves.  Said Wolves raid their community once a generation and kidnap roughly half of the children, returning them severely brain-damaged several weeks later.  The people of Calla Bryn Sturgis want to put an end to the raids, and view the gunslingers as their only hope.

The gunslinger code to which our heroes have ascribed means not turning down such requests for assistance; thus they are honor-bound to take on this task, provided the majority of the town supports the endeavor and is willing to help themselves.  The townspeople do, and the ka-tet begins its preparation for battle, while simultaneously hatching a plan to return to Jake’s New York and protect the Rose.

RIP 9 Peril the Second

During all this, Roland and Eddie keep a weather eye on Susannah, who exhibits signs that she is not entirely herself.  Susannah, while vaguely uneasy and at times on edge, is generally unaware that anything may be wrong.  It is, however, and greatly.  The demon she distracted with sex [edited to add:  I had forgotten the circumstances of this “distraction”; in actuality, the demon raped Susannah, violently, brutally, and repeatedly] while her men “drew” Jake into this world (see The Waste Lands for that story) left Susannah pregnant; Susannah’s subconscious mind created another personality, Mia, to deal with the unwanted pregnancy.  Mia is dangerous and unpredictable and fiercely protective of her “chap”, as she refers to her baby.  Roland and Eddie fear she may disrupt, even ruin, their delicately-timed operation against the Wolves.  And Mia’s is not the only betrayal they fear.

As Dark Tower installments go, this one initially seems like a distraction, a step off the Path of the Beam that in no way furthers the overall story or the quest for the Tower. On its surface, it’s a re-telling of nearly every Western ever written: the ordinary law-abiding folk just want to farm their land and live in peace, but the bad guys are intent on shooting up the town at every opportunity; let’s recruit the Lone Ranger to get rid of the bad guys and earn our eternal gratitude.  (King acknowledges his debt to the Western in an afterword, so he is fully cognizant of his influences.)

But.  But.  This superficial interpretation does the story a disservice.  There’s far more than a simple Little Town on the Prairie tale to discover here.  With this novel, King appears to be setting up his end-game, with the introduction of the Wolves (who are far more and at the same time much less than we think); the repeated appearances of North Central Positronics technology; the side-trip describing Father Callahan’s journey to Mid-World, not to mention the mere existence of Callahan himself in Roland’s homeland; and the tension between Susannah, Mia, and the rest of the ka-tet.

2016SFFChallengeIf I have a quibble, it’s the same quibble I’ve had ever since Susannah was first introduced, and that is calling her a “schizophrenic”.  Susannah does not have schizophrenia; she has a dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).  Back in the mid- to late-80s, when King originally wrote the character of Odetta/Detta Holmes, who became Susannah when her personalities merged, it’s possible he didn’t know the difference.  The idea that schizophrenia means “split personality” is common, albeit incorrect.  And since King started out with that interpretation, I guess he must follow it through in subsequent novels, if only for consistency’s sake.  Still irks me.

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This review was written for two reading challenges:  Readers Imbibing Peril (affectionately known as R.I.P.) XI, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings; and the Award Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge, hosted by Shaunesay at The Space Between.  Click their respective badges to learn more about each.

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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.