Category Archives: Fiction

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

gunslinger

I had heard great things about The Dark Tower series, and even tried to read this once before, long ago, but abandoned it.  Tried again with the audiobook version and made it through … but I’m still not a fan and will probably not be continuing.  For most of the book I was pretty lost – there isn’t a lot of backstory or explicit “world building” to let the reader know what’s going on.  It’s mostly a lot of flashbacks that the gunslinger Roland has on a journey to find the man in black.  The best part was towards the end when we get some answers on what the Dark Tower (which for unexplained reasons is the gunslinger’s real destination) really is.

Somehow the Dark Tower is a link between universes; not only parallel universes to our own, but also up and down in scale.  We can observe down to a subatomic particle level; each atom is like a cluster of galaxies itself.  If we go up, our own universe may exist on the tip of a blade of grass or within a grain of sand existing in a higher-up universe.  Somehow the Dark Tower pulls all these things together.  There are things and people from our own universe somehow teleported or stuck into Roland’s wasteland; for instance there is a boy Jake who the man in black killed, or saw being killed in our world (hit by a car) and then he was transported alive and well into Roland’s path.

The universe thing is kind of a neat idea.  Also in the book is kind of a hint of an interesting post-apocalyptic world that has “moved on” – everything is dirty and dreary and mostly miserable in Roland’s world.  But despite this, the storyline in this first installment was hard for me to follow and didn’t really draw me in; I was barely able to make myself finish the thing.

“The Inimitable Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse

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Basically a collection of short stories (with some links between them) involving Bertie getting caught up in his friend Bingo’s schemes to win over some girl he has just fallen in love with (different girl each story.)  Very funny stuff!  Didn’t quite like the narrator as much as the last Jeeves book I listened to though.

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

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Despite “A Muppet Christmas Carol” being my favorite holiday movie, I have never actually read the book, until now.  The classic story is pretty familiar of course, thanks to the Muppets and other adaptations.

A few new things I noticed in the book:

  • In Christmas Past, when Scrooge is a boy left alone at school over the Christmas holiday (because of a strict father?  Because the next Christmas his sister Fan takes him home saying “father is much kinder now”), his only companions are his books.  He is (metaphorically) visited by some of his favorites, including Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe.
  • There’s a passage in Christmas Present where the spirit expresses disgust with those who would deprive the poor “of their means of dining every seventh day”.  Huh?  Doing a bit of googling, it seems that there was a political tussle going on in England in 1843 when the book was published, where lawmakers were trying to close a loophole in the law that forbade bakers baking bread on the sabbath.  Instead, the bakers had been lending out their ovens for the use of the poor to cook their meals.  Ovens were not a commonplace item in every home, particularly not in the homes of the poor.  Dickens is making commentary on the cold-hearted self-righteousness of rich politicians and the like who are trying to get the poor to abide by their own conception of the law of the sabbath, even when that means they cannot eat a proper meal.
  • In Christmas Future, Tiny Tim’s death has happened very recently indeed.  In the movie versions, when Bob comes home from the churchyard and comments how nice and green the location looks, I always assumed that Tim was already dead and buried.  Apparently, the first part is correct but not the second.  A little while after Bob comes in and makes that comment, he goes upstairs to spend a little time and kiss the cheek of dead Tiny Tim, laid out on a bed. Eww.

“Sleeping Giants” by Slyvain Neuvel

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A number of giant robot pieces of extremely advanced, extraterrestrial design are discovered and assembled in secret.  It’s a superweapon ala Mechwarrior, cool!  Needs two pilots inside, one for the arms and one for the legs.  A linguist is also on the team, since they need to decipher the console controls.  Oh no!  Love triangle between girl pilot, boy pilot and boy linguist!!

Kind of interesting story at the beginning, but didn’t really go anywhere.  The style is unique – told entirely via “interview records” from some secretive, supra-national, illuminati-esque narrator who is the one calling (most of) the shots.

“Waypoint Kangaroo” by Curtis C. Chen

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A pretty fun, light read after John C. Wright.

Kangaroo (secret agent code name) has a superpower: he can open a portal to another universe, which is completely empty.  Makes it perfect for storing or smuggling stuff!  He is also employed by a sort-of future CIA.  A few hundred years or so into the future, colonized Mars has recently become independent following a brutal war with Earth.  Now, Kangaroo is on a (Disney-esque) cruise ship bound for Mars, ostensibly on vacation, albeit one forced on him by his boss.

It turns out that there is something sinister afoot.  A few murders, a hijacking, and a threat to re-ignite the Mars-Earth war keep the story moving at a pretty good clip.  Lots of humorous dialog.

My gripes (which are pretty modest) are 1) the stolen items out of cargo didn’t really need to be in the story and 2) the love interest fell for Kangaroo rather quickly – I kept thinking that she would turn out to be some bad guy trying the seduction angle on our hero, but nope.  She just falls in love at the drop of a hat, I guess.

“The Golden Age Trilogy” by John C. Wright

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This is probably the most far-out, wildest sci-fi future history I’ve ever read.  The singularity has occurred, and then some.  It is many, many thousands of years in the future and people are pretty much immortal.  Minds may be transferred with total accuracy between biological brains and machines.  It’s hard to tell (for me; it’s a plot point in the book though that they are very different) where AI ends and humanity begins.  There are a multitude of body types and even mind types; these are the new “races.”  Invariants are totally logical, with a brain structure prohibiting anything else.  On the opposite end, Warlocks are totally intuitive and spontaneous.  There are large group-minds, which are throngs of people all joined together somehow into a single conciousness.  There are Neptunians, which are big blue blobs that hang out in the atmosphere or out in the Kuiper belt.

Somewhat in charge of everything are the Sophotechs, incredibly advanced AI’s which guard over humanity.  (At least, the ones who get mention in the book seem to care about us.  Towards the end of the story, we realize that Saturn has been colonized by a huge number of Sophotechs doing who knows what.)

Fortunately for the reader, Phaeton is a member of the Silver-Gray school, which idolizes 19th century Britain as the epitomy of culture.  Therefore a lot of his actions contain a familiar-enough reference frame for us poor, primitive readers.  He has a pretty cool origin: he originally was a character in a simulation where he was a conquering warrior from a distant colony who destroyed the Earth.  Somehow during the simulation he became self-aware (hey it can happen…?) and thus it would have been a crime to allow him to be deleted when the sim ended.  So he got downloaded into a body and voila, new person.  The simulation’s author, Helion, is therefore Phaeton’s father.

Helion is a Peer, one of the most powerful people in the system.  He built a Solar Array to tame and control solar flares for useful purposes.  Another Peer, Gannis, ignited Jupiter as a sort of second Sun and built a supercollider surrounding it, which allows the creation of exotic materials.  Another Peer invented the technology which permits mind transfers and therefore functional immortality.  These Peers are Big Stuff.  Then there is Atkins, the only soldier left in a society that has evolved beyond physical wars.  He’s kind of melancholy but at the same time wields the entire military arsenal of thousands of years and thousands of armies.  (Although most of the “fights” in the book are handled in a split-second by dueling computer viruses or nanomachines.)  Not one to mess around with.

Alright, so that’s a bit on the world building.  Quite a complex society and difficult to grasp for us in the 21st century.  Now the story.  In the first book, Phaeton realizes he is missing memories and sets off to recover them.  These lost memories are about his constructing a giant starship, the Phoenix Exultant, in order to begin colonizing the galaxy.  The College of Horators, loosely the government, (the Sophotechs are in charge of the law and order type stuff) feel this is a bad idea, since some future colony may turn on its mother system.  (Like the simulation which gave birth to Phaeton.)  But Phaeton realizes that staying put in one system is a gradual death sentence; humanity must spread out, grow, and even be tested in order to meet its potential.  (This line of thinking kind of reminded me of End of Eternity.)

In the second book, Phaeton gets exiled and has to make a comeback.  The beginning of the book where he wanders the strange new Earth was much like the first part and I enjoyed it, but then there was kind of a strange change in style/tone.  I kind of lost track of the plot, and some of the situations and dialog became more slapsticky which was kind of jarring.

Then in the third book, Phaeton has to face an invader from an older colony.  Hmmm maybe those Horators’ fears were well placed.  A long time ago, there was an expedition to Cygnus X1 which flourished for a time, but then seemed to destroy itself with great suffering.  Turns out a rogue Sophotech-like being, the Nothing, from this “Silent Oecumene” is now poking about the Golden Oecumene.  (That’s what the solar system/humanity is called.  “oecumene (UK; Greek: οἰκουμένη, oikouménē, lit. “inhabited”) was an ancient Greek term for the known world, the inhabited world”  Betcha didn’t know that.)

Ok, on to the third book… Lots of philosophy here.  To defeat the bad guy super mind AI, Phaeton must …convince it that morality is absolute, not relative.  Not exactly the set up for an action-packed swashbuckler.  Throughout the third book, it is also hard to know who is lying – they catch the “big bad guy” about three times; each time it turns out he wasn’t really the big bad guy and there is someone else out there.  But along the way they believe most of the previous big baddie’s story, even though they realize he was a fraud.  Not sure why they thought they could trust anything he had said.  It’s hard to follow the jumbled plot and philosophy in the third book; I’m not even sure what evil deed the Nothing was planning to do.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the first book, kind of the second, and not really the third.  Overall, I liked the world building, but the plot not so much.

“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason

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Series of stories from ancient Babylon that teach by example how to get out of debt and/or make a lasting fortune.  The secret, which Clason practically beats over the reader’s head: save 10% of your income and live off the rest.  (If in debt, set aside an additional 20% to pay off creditors and live off 70% – yeah it might hurt, but you got yourself into this hole, so you can dig yourself out…)

Then safely invest that 10% with people who know what they are doing.  No risky speculation here.

Kind of interesting how characters in the stories are all kind of related somehow.  Eg. in one story, a guy name Bob learns the secrets of wealth, and then in the next story someone else talks about how rich Bob is and discovers the secret too.

Kind of amazing this book was written in 1926, if not before.

“Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse

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Bertie Wooster tries to preserve the engagements of a few friends with the help of Jeeves.  Hilarity ensues.

Beware the fretful porpentine.

Read by the same narrator who did a Churchill book I recently read.  Great upper-class British voices for all characters.

 

“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Barcelona, 1945.  (WWII didn’t affect Barcelona/Spain nearly as much as the revolution concluded in 1939, apparently.)  Daniel Sempere, son of a bookseller, finds a novel, “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax.  Carax novels are very rare, because someone has been actively looking for them and burning them.  Daniel is greatly inspired by the book and strives to protect it as well as find out more about the author, who also has a mysterious past and whose whereabouts are unknown.

The book consists of Daniel finding people connected to Carax and interviewing them.  It is interesting because not every person is a reliable witness.  Some deliberately try to mislead him.  So it is fun to try to figure out the story.  The main suspect as to the identity of the main bad guy, for instance, changes at least three times.

This is all set against the backdrop of Daniel’s coming of age and falling in love.  Interestingly, a lot of details from Carax’s life seem to be replicated in Daniel’s own.  Furthermore, there is the backdrop of the aftermath of a brutal war and ensuing witchhunts, along with survivor’s guilt etc.

Pretty good story; kind of a mystery, kind of a love story.  Similar to another Spanish-language novel I have written about on this blog, I couldn’t help but thinking at the end that all these people’s problems would have been solved if they could just have kept it in their pants…

“Viriconium” by M. John Harrison

viriconium

First off, let me say that these are some weird stories.  The world of Viriconium might be our own… after millions of years and the rise and fall of countless civilizations.  The current population is at about the medieval level, but in the not too distant past (the “Afternoon Cultures”) they were even more advanced that we are today, to sci-fi-ish levels.  Kind of a fascinating scenario, ripe for incongruous things like knights re-discovering ancient ruins of spaceports and such.

But then, the actual stories are … pretty weird.  Kind of cheesy horror stories almost, but wrapped up in a great setting and with some very high-falutin’ language.  (Kind of reminiscent of Mervyn Peake.)  The edition I read is actually a collection of (I think) 4 different short novels and other short stories, but I was only able to make it through the first two before losing steam.  (I have a completionist personality so since starting this blog I have forced myself to slog through to the end for almost every book I start; but I dunno.  Life is short, and no one is going to read this anyway.  I do think what I read here was worth writing about though.)

“The Pastel City” – the first story is pretty straightforward, kind of a “get the gang back together again” to fight off a new threat.  It’s kind of cool that we know nothing about the characters at the beginning (as goes for any book … duh!), but there is such an incredible implied backstory hinted at for each that the reunions really have some force.  The main guy is the brooding warrior poet, tegus-Cromis; one main buddy is Tomb the dwarf, a treasure hunter with a wearable robotic exoskeleton warmachine.  They were buddies of the old king, now dead, gathering together to protect the throne of his daughter from rebellion.  The war soon moves to something bigger – oh dear, turns out the enemy has unearthed ancient technological golems which kill and steal brains.  In the end, we find out that they were actually not monsters, but simply following programs which called for harvesting the brains of fallen soldiers so that bodies could be regenerated.  (Not sure why their programming included killing the victims first; maybe a bug induced by something many millenia ago?)  Tomb is able to regenerate some long-dead soldiers from the Afternoon Cultures; they start to be called Reborn Men.

“A Storm of Wings” – the second story is quite weird.  Really.  Giant insects come from the moon causing a weird merging of dimensions and general insanity and other bizarre effects.  On both sides actually — people go crazy morphing into insects and the insects go crazy (presumably) whilst morphing into humans.  (The morphing never goes so well, so we have a bunch of pathetic yet dangerous monsters, basically.)  For whatever reason, the Reborn Men are the first to go crazy.  There’s also the ghost of an airship astronaut trying to communicate a warning throughout; in the end he crashes his ship into the queen insect (I think?) and saves the day.

I told you it was weird.