Monthly Archives: November 2010

Review of Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

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It’s always a bit tricky when an author revisits a really successful and popular world years after establishing it… Do you, as an avid fan, rush out to get the new book and run the risk of being significantly disappointed? Indeed, if the latest offering is dire enough, it can even smirch your previous enjoyment of this wonderful world.

Well, if Miles Vorkosigan novels used to tick all your boxes, then don’t worry. Cryoburn still has plenty of the old magic. I’ve always enjoyed Bujold’s writing, so have read both her Chalion and The Sharing Knife series with huge enjoyment, appreciating her deft characterisation, intriguing worlds and the Bujold ability to evolve realistic human difficulties and tensions out of the surrounding cryoburncircumstances. Nobody does it better…

However, something magical happens to her writing when Miles leaps into the fray. Bujold’s prose sizzles with extra three-dimensional depth and agility as she plunges her hero into yet another adventure – and I use the word plunge advisedly. The start is full-on, with Miles staggering around in absolute darkness, hallucinating and helpless.

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove – he’s been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini crycorp – an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future – attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning Don’t mess with the secretary. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping – something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn’t due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle – of trouble!

As you may have already gathered from the synopsis, Bujold is still using her space opera adventures to lift the lid on some gnarly problems about to smack modern humankind in the face. She thoroughly explores the issue of freezing people, who are waiting for rejuvenation and/or cures for terminal illnesses to be invented – and the even more relevant problem of powerful mega-corporations who seem to believe that national rules and regulations apply to the other sucker… However, what you don’t get, are earnest, hold- up-the-action discussions as Bujold pushes her beliefs at her readers – the lady has the lightest touch.

Another potentially book-blighting trap that Bujold apparently effortlessly negotiates, is the issue of how to fit this latest Miles episode into the former canon. Which means that any unwitting reader who innocently plucks Cryoburn off the shelves doesn’t need to be aware that it is Volume 19 in order to enjoy the mayhem. It simply isn’t an issue. Could a string of other multi-volume authors please read and take note? This is how it’s done…

There is also a significant bonus for all Miles’ fans. At the back of the book is a CD with downloadable versions of the complete Vorkosigan canon, including short stories and some essays she’s written on the nature of science fiction. This is an extremely generous extra – and one I shall certainly be adding to my computer.

I’m aware I’ve come across all gushing and fan-like over the book. Are there any niggles about it? Er… nope. It was a blast of pure enjoyment that started on page one and continued for the next three and a half hours until I’d finished the book. I have rules about reading during the day… I generally don’t, or I’d never get anything done. But I broke them all for Cryoburn – and I don’t care. I LOVE space opera – it’s my favourite genre by a long light year – and only rarely do I get to enjoy a book so well written and so entertaining.
10/10

Review of Mirror Space – Book 3 of The Sentients of Orion by Marianne de Pierres

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Araldis is still under occupation by hostile forces, and with the Orion League of Sentient Species seemingly unable – or unwilling – to help, Mira Fedor is forced to turn to the mercenary captain, Rast Randall, if she is to save her planet.

mirrorspaceBut while Rast’s contacts may be free of political constraints, what they lack in red tape they more than make up for in ruthlessness. As some of their hidden strategies are revealed, others become even more opaque. Why have the philosophers of Scolar been targetted? How far does the Extropist influence extend into Orion space?  From Lasper Farr, the Stain War veteran and ruler of the junk planet Edo, to the Sole initiates at Belle Monde to Rast herself, everyone is pursuing their own agenda. But are they really separate goals? Or are events rushing to a single, terrifying conclusion . . . ?

Of course, if you’re intelligent about your reading, you will have already read Dark Space and Chaos Space, the first two books in this series, so that the above synopsis will mean something to you. If – like me – you’re a such a space opera junkie that a cool spacescape cover and promising first page prove to be irresistible, then you’re probably scratching your head. My strong advice is not to read this book before the first two in the series. Some multi-book series are constructed so the story arcs more or less tie up a number of loose ends in each book, while leaving a few dangling to keep you reading. This isn’t one of them. Each volume is thoroughly embedded into the narrative, so that I was frankly floundering for a while. However, I didn’t really care too much.
Pierres’ cast of eccentric characters found themselves in such a range of fascinating situations that I was prepared to relax and go with the flow. This is largely down to the punchy writing style which was a joy to read, as sampled in the opening of the book:-
Falling in love was like being shot out into space wearing an EVA suit with five minutes’ air supply left. At least that was the analogy Jo-Jo Rasterovich applied to it – having experienced both.

And there I was, hooked. I’m now going to backtrack to Dark Space and start from the beginning, before moving through the rest of the series, which is the sensible way to read any multi-book narrative.

Despite the fact that I crashed mid-series into this world, and spent a while getting my bearings, it didn’t prove to be too difficult. While the pace isn’t leisurely, neither is it so flat-out that the characters and their role in the story became buried, which was something of an issue when I pulled Code Noir off the shelf without reading the first Parrish Plessis book. Indeed, I am impressed at the steep improvement in Pierres’ overall writing style from Code Noir to Mirror Space. She has the balance between character development and action far more satisfactory and the pacing is better judged with a few pauses for breath, before plunging us into yet another piece of action. And in smoothing out some of the crinkles, I’m delighted to report that she hasn’t lost her sharp, highly readable prose style. All in all, she is shaping up to be a real player in this genre and I am definitely starting a campaign for the first two books as early Christmas presents… please!
8/10

Review of The Fuller Memorandum – Book 3 of The Laundry series by Charles Stross

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This account is narrated as a debrief by the longsuffering Bob Howard, who works for the undercover British agency known as The Laundry. They are a down-at-heel, typically Brit-bodge version of the Men in Black, busy battling with nasty occult occurrences and alien incursions. Bob is trying to come to terms with the emotional fallout after his latest hair-raising adventure.

fullermemorandumA top secret dossier goes missing. At the same time, Angleton, Bob’s boss disappears. No one is saying very much at The Laundry but suspicion, like mud, sticks. While struggling to clear his own name and Angleton’s tarnished reputation, Bob also has to cope with over-helpful Russian agents, worries about an apocalyptic cult targeting his wife – and the trail of dead bodies. What is so important about the missing Fuller Memorandum and why is everyone who knows dying…?

Told in first person viewpoint, this spy horror clips along with all the zest and ink-black humour of the previous books in the series. Poor old Bob has to put up with a lot, and his world-weary, humorous commentary gives this book an extra twist of enjoyment. Stross evidently has great affection for Bond films and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, because he borrows elements from both these influences and mixes them in a neat combination that has you chuckling while your skin pimples… It is a uniquely disturbing and memorable reading experience.

The world works wonderfully well and Stross skilfully plays with the tedium of Bob’s everyday office life set against the dangerous nature of his job. So the knowledge that we are on the verge of being invaded by some ghastly alien power vies with the notion that all paperclip movement needs to be strictly monitored because they become imprinted with traces of the documents they fasten… The book teeters on the edge of farce and horror all the way to the suitably horrific climax.

Stross is no slouch at characterisation, either. Mo, Bob’s intrepid and very accomplished wife, is beautifully drawn. But Angleton, Bob’s mysterious boss, is the true star of this tale and Bob’s viewpoint of him, along with his understandable resentment as a subordinate, is compelling enough to draw us in and make us care – very important in this story.

Any grizzles? Well… I’m being ultra-picky here – but in a genre where pace is everything, there were instances where I felt Bob’s doom-laden monologues could have done with being pruned back for the sake of keeping the tension wound sufficiently tight. But, overall, it is a trifling detail. I think this book is a triumph. If you’re feeling a bit jaded and looking for something truly different, then look no further. You won’t pick anything else off the shelves quite like this, I guarantee it.
4.5 stars

Review of Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre

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The select few of you who regularly visit my blog will realise that in addition to my passion for speculative fiction, one of my other weaknesses is crime. I came across this gem in the library one rainy day last week and it has brightened my life ever since.

Do you believe in ghosts? Do we really live on in some conscious form after we die, capable of communicating with the world of the living?

Aye, right. That was Jack Parlabane’s stance on the matter, anyway. But this was before he found himself in the more compromising attackofunskinkableposition of being not only dead himself, but dead with an exclusive still to file. From his position on high, Parlabane relates the events leading up to his demise, concerning the efforts of charismatic psychic Gabriel Lafayette to reconcile the scientific with the spiritual by submitting to controlled laboratory tests.

Parlabane is brought in as an observer, due to his capacities as both a sceptic and an expert on deception, but his certainties crumble and his assumptions turn upside down as he encounters phenomena for which he can deduce no rational explanation. One thing he knows for certain, however: death is not the end – it’s the ultimate undercover assignment.

The investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane, who sort of solves this crime, has appeared in four previous Brookmyre novels. He leaps off the page with all the force of Robbie Coltrayne’s Cracker – and with as many opinions, which he doesn’t shy away from sharing with the rest of us. So, in addition to enjoying a really well-crafted thriller with a number of BIG surprises that I didn’t see coming, I was also treated to a series of intelligent discussions on the nature of belief, its impact on society and how it can be used to exploit victims when they are extremely vulnerable.

While I am not sure that Parlabane voices all of Brookmyre’s beliefs, it is an intriguing change to come across a fictional crime-fighter with an instinctive dislike and distrust of the Establishment. Also refreshing to have said argumentative, awkward customer in a strong marriage… Brookmyre has cited Ford Prefect from Douglas Adam’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as his inspiration for Parlabane, commenting, ‘I always adored the idea of a character who cheerfully wanders into enormously dangerous situations and effortlessly makes them much worse.’

As I’ve mentioned, the plot is exceptionally well crafted. The setting – contemporary Scotland – works very well, and so it should, seeing as its Brookmyre’s own stamping ground. His cast of characters are strongly depicted with convincing backgrounds, so when he shifts into the alternative viewpoints, they are as equally compelling as Parlabane. Despite the fact that this is a reasonably substantial read with plenty of musing about the state of the world, at no point did it drag. This is a skilful, intelligent writer, who manages to deliver the whole package with energy, verve and absolute confidence. The book won the 2007 Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing. I’m not surprised – by any benchmark, it is an outstanding read.
10/10

Review of Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

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Does this very slim volume come under the genre of speculative fiction? Absolutely, in my opinion. No – there are no vamps, no quests, no dragons or fairies, or kickass heroines. No heros, either…

However there is a series of very short stories or musings about a variety of afterlives that range from the poignant and thoughtful through to the plain laugh-aloud funny. The first story in the collection, Sum, is a classic example of what the book offers. Eagleman proposes that in this version of the Afterlife, we get to experience everything that happened to us during our lives on Earth. The difference this time around, is that everything occurs in solid blocks of time. So you spend thirty years asleep; five months sitting reading on the toilet; two days lying; fifteen hours writing your signature… The list is a lot longer, but you get the idea. By the end, you are desperate for a break and dream that heaven is a place where you experience these monumental blocks in manageable slices. I don’t normally give Spoilers during my reviews, but I’ve made an exception with this exceptional book so the elegance and wit of this short story can be fully appreciated. Besides, there are thirty-nine other tales to enjoy, so I haven’t majorly diminished the reading experience in letting this little kitten out of the bag.

sumEagleman is an interesting character. He is a neuroscientist whose previous published works relate to his research into synaesthesia. I acquired the book from the library after hearing Eagleman on a Radio Four programme, all set to grit my teeth and endure a blast of Dawkinsesque scorn on hearing that the author was a scientist. I am very pleasantly surprised. While some of the ideas Eagleman explores are ironic, some funny and some very dark at no time does he treat the subject of the Afterlife with anything less than respect. Indeed, Eagleman claims to be a Possibilian – someone who entertains the notion that there might be a whole range of different Afterlives out there, waiting to be experienced.

This little book was published in 2009 and very quickly garnered a fistful of rave reviews, emphasising its originality, charm and inventive. The word ‘genius’ has even been slung around… While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I’ll happily endorse anyone claiming it is unlike anything else you’ve ever come across. As for originality – you start really examining some of the forty ideas and you’ll find you are being pushed into brain-bulging places. Meat and drink for those of us who like our ideas and fiction on the weirder side.

As with any anthology, some of the stories work better than others. Sum is one of the better ones – but it is by no means my favourite. A word of caution, though. It might be a very small book and you could easily whizz through it in one sitting. Don’t. My advice is never to read more than two of these little stories at a time because to do so is to risk becoming inured to the sheer amazing leaps of imagination Eagleman is asking you to take. For a start, the spare writing style helps to quickly reduce any wonderment to workaday levels. I’m in two minds about the writing. While Eagleman hasn’t wasted a single word in conveying his fantastic ideas in a very clear, matter of fact manner, I have a hunch that in places the application of a little few more flourishes in his prose might help his readers keep hold of the sheer enormity of the subject they are being asked to consider.
For me, it is when Eagleman allows the emotion to break through that these clever musings are elevated to real brilliance. The stand-out stories for me when this happens, are Egalitaire, Metamorphosis, Mirrors, Will-o’-the-Wisp and Apostasy. I hasten to add that the rest still provide plenty of brain fodder, surprise and interest, but these five also caught my soft spot…

It is with real reluctance that I am going to have to hand back my library copy. Because, in this literary equivalent of a Tardis, there are just so many stupendous brain-aching ideas that I haven’t yet had a chance to fully examine. So with Christmas looming, could someone be good enough to buy me a copy as a present – please?
10/10

Review of Wake, Book 1 of The WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer

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Anything from Robert J. Sawyer is worth reading – and this first book in his trilogy about the Net certainly created something of a stirwake as well as gathering the 2010 Aurora Award and a Hugo Award nomination.

In China, an outbreak of a lethal strain of bird flu causes the Government to isolate the country from the worldwide web while the authorities resort to desperate measures to bring the infection under control. Meanwhile in Canada, fifteen year old Caitlin has been blind from birth, with a rare medical condition that scrambles the part of her brain interpreting visual signals. She is an ideal candidate for an experimental treatment proposed by a Japanese specialist that involves an implant using a wi-fi connection. While the procedure appears to fail, Caitlin discovers that there are some interesting side effects…

In typical Sawyer fashion, a scientific development is examined by putting a handful of sympathetic characters through a life-changing experience—in this case we follow the fortunes of Caitlin in the present time. A brilliant young mathematician who has managed to find her way around the web using a series of unique strategies, she is believable and well-drawn, as are her family and the Japanese doctor treating her. Sawyer’s scene setting is pitch perfect and I enjoyed the touches of humour regarding the relationship between America and Canada. The sub-plot depicting the plight of Hobo, a bonobo/chimpanzee cross is equally engrossing and addresses the subject of growing self-awareness from an intriguing angle – which is one of Sawyer’s strengths.

The plot develops reasonably swiftly, although there are one or two pauses to expand/explain some of the scientific and philosophical issues behind the idea of developing self-awareness. I’m not completely convinced that there needed to be quite so much explanation as it certainly held up the pace in places. However, it was a minor hitch rather than a major flaw and certainly added to the reader’s understanding of what was at stake.

However, if you’re sensing a ‘but’, you’d be right. The book opens in the viewpoint of the worldwide web and for me, this particular ‘character’ failed to convince me until right at the very end when the writing and delivery was finally plausible. I have no problem with the idea of the Net becoming self-aware, indeed, I think that Sawyer does a masterful job in stacking up a tenable set of circumstances that jolt it into consciousness. What bothers me is the depiction of the Net ‘character’. In my opinion, the writing, with the choice of vocabulary, phrasing and thought process just did not sufficiently reflect the reality of what ‘It’ is. I’m aware that it was a fiendishly difficult task to pull off and, ironically, if Sawyer had been less able at setting up such a realistic scenario, then this weakness would not be so glaringly obvious.

Apart from this one reservation, the book is an intriguing exploration into what causes self-awareness—and I’m quite sure that during the other two books in the trilogy, Watch and Wonder, Sawyer will continue to offer thought provoking insights into the consequences of a sentient being running the world wide web. I’ll certainly be looking out for them.
3.5 stars

Review of The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

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The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…

invisiblegorillaYep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.

A policeman called Kenny Conley, while chasing an armed criminal, failed to notice a brutal beating by fellow officers nearby. In a crackdown aimed at making an example of the officers involved, Conley was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. During the trial, the jurors couldn’t believe he ran past the beating without noticing it. He was sentenced to thirty-four months in jail and fired from the Boston police force, after the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. However, when Chabris and Simons published their findings, they were contacted by a reporter who had begun to believe that Conley was telling the truth. Based on their evidence, there was a retrial, at which point it was shown that as Conley was entirely focused on the armed criminal he was chasing, it was highly likely that he didn’t notice anything else. Finally in 2006, Conley was reinstated by the Boston Police Force and awarded over $600,000 in back pay and the following year, he was promoted to detective. This is just one of the amazing stories that the book charts as it challenges a raft of our assumptions about ourselves and what we can do. We generally over-estimate our ability to multi-task; instinctively believe people who project confidence, whether or not they are competent; rely on our snap decisions for more heavily than we should; and think we are more capable than we are—with some scary consequences.

Despite the fact that it is written by two psychology professors, the writing style is clear and accessible, while the subject matter is absolutely riveting. If you write any kind of fiction, I highly recommend this book to you. It will give you all sorts of counter-intuitive evidence you can use to tweak those off-the-wall scenarios you have swirling around in your head.

On a more mundane yet vital level, if you are in the habit of conducting long conservations using a hands-free phone during car journeys, then you should urgently read Chabris and Simons’ findings on what that does to your ability to drive your car safely. Basically, they discovered that while folks are chatting on the phone, their driving is significantly impaired. However, if you are talking to a passenger, the same impairment doesn’t occur…

If you don’t pick up any other non-fiction book this year, I urge you to read this one. Your life may depend upon it.
10/10