Category Archives: Fiction

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

This is the first full length novel I’ve read as an eBook.  Yes, I’m behind the times.  I just enjoy having a real book more.  But I tried out Libby, the new Overdrive app.  Works pretty well – check out books from the library (*very* long hold times though) and simple eReader in the same app.

As for the book, it was pretty good – action packed and an interesting-enough universe.  It’s the first book in the Culture series, which has been on my list for quite a while.  I finally decided to bite when I found out recently that SpaceX names its recovery ships after AI ships from the series, eg. “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.”  I’d heard this first book is not quite up to the standards of the rest, but it was not too bad, so I’m looking forward to more.

Horza is a Changer, a humanoid who can change appearance at will (takes a few days though), and thus perfect as a spy.  (Actually it is explained his race was created to be weapons in some long distant war…)  He’s working for the Idirans, a giant, long-lived, insectoid race determined to spread their religion through the galaxy.  They are fighting the Culture, a post-scarcity human/AI utopia.  Horza is ideologically against the Culture since he sees it as giving up humanity’s role in the universe to machines.

Anyway, the main goal is to retrieve a Culture Mind (super AI which usually serves as the heart of a massive ship) which is hiding in a long-dead world which is kind of a nature reserve/monument preserved by the god-like Dra’Azon.  Most of the book revolves around Horza actually getting there.  Once there, a kind of comedy of errors or tragedy ensues, as his main antagonists are a group of Idirans already on scene, but unaware the Horza is really on their side.  Pretty much everyone dies at the end – sad commentary on war, I believe.

Ironically for Horza being so anti-machine, he is saved by an intelligent drone multiple times in the final few scenes.

I thought the scene on the Eater’s Island was most memorable for its sheer horror – a grossly obese “prophet” presiding over a small group of starving followers.  He ritualistically eats them, or at least any dissenters, and then provides his excrement to his followers for their own food.  Yuck.  It’s capped off with a really funny few pages when Horza is trying to escape the island on a Culture, AI-controlled shuttle: he pretends there’s a fire and tricks the AI into revealing where its brain is located (so he can destroy it).

Memorable quote, re: evolution via DNA mutations: “All progress is a function of getting things wrong.”

 

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“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

This is a real page-turner, the most interesting novel I’ve read in a while.  Very good worldbuilding, and a nice “narration twist” as I’ll call it.  This book really just sets up the story for (I guess) the following two books; the majority of it is flashbacks of the main character’s life as an Imperial Fulcrum orogene.

The orogenes, or roggas, are individuals with an inherited trait of being able to control earthquakes and the like.  For the most part, they are shunned by society, since they are seen as destroyers of civilization and all that’s good — at times past, certain orogenes have either intentionally or accidentally in a fit of passion raised a volcano on their city or something similar.  The Fulcrum, a school and governing body of orogenes, is the only authorized user of their powers.  It is watched over carefully by the Guardians, superficially polite but under the surface almost cruelly inhumane towards the roggas.

The “Fifth Season” per the title is Death.  In this world, catastrophic seismic events which more or less end civilization occur every few hundred years on average.  Besides the event itself, the real killer is the years of nuclear winter which usually follow.  The different communities, or “comms” are built around vigilance and eternal preparation for surviving the next inevitable apocalypse.

The main event here is an engineered apocalyptic shake, which seems to have the potential for a Fifth Season much longer than ever before.  And the instigator is actually one of the “good guys.”  I won’t spoil the story any further; just will say that there’s lots of mysteries in the world-building vein which get revealed as the book goes on, only to reveal new mysteries later.  I guess that’s the definition of good pacing??  And the narration twist is pretty good.

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

I read this book sometime during high school; I think it was an Academic Decathlon selection for one year.  Since then I’ve confused the storyline a bit in my mind with stories of the Buddha himself.  Siddhartha in this story does meet the Buddha, but goes on his own quest for meaning.  Which is kind of the point – everyone need to find their own meaning in life.

He begins as a son of a Brahmin family, the priestly caste.  He feels like there is something lacking in what his father and others preach, so he joins a group of wandering ascetics as a shramana for a few years.  Then he and his friend, Govinda, hear of a new teacher, the Buddha, and leave the shramanas to find him.  They listen to his teachings for a while; Govinda is convinced that it’s the answer and stays as a disciple of Buddha.  But Siddhartha, though acknowledging that the Buddha does seem to have achieved peace and perfection, thinks that he won’t achieve it himself by following someone else – he must experience his own revelation, find his own path.

“Wisdom cannot be conveyed.  The wisdom a sage attempts to convey always sounds like folly…  One can convey knowledge but not wisdom.  One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be borne by it, one can work wonders with it, but one can neither speak it nor teach it.”

So Siddhartha leaves the Buddha and decides to try out worldly pleasures for a time.  As shramana, Siddhartha and his crew always secretly disdained the “child people” in the real world, who were so concerned with the trivialities of love and life.  But as he became more worldly himself, he began to respect them more: “He envied them the importance they were able to attribute to their lives, the passion of their joys and fears, the fearful but sweet bliss of their eternal amorousness.  These people incessantly fell in love with themselves, their women, their children, with honor or money, plans or hopes.”  I have caught myself in times past looking down on others who seem so concerned with things I see as meaningless, like fashion or celebrity gossip or anime or …  But then, those activities make people happy.  So what’s it to me?  I have hobbies and interests which others might view in the same light.  I also think about studies on happiness – the one thing that happy people have in common is striving for a cause.  Doesn’t seem to matter what it is, as long as it is truly important to you.

Siddhartha says he only learned three things from his time as a shramana: he can think, he can wait, and he can fast.  But these are all he needs to quickly become wealthy and win over the beautiful Kamala.  There’s a recipe for success for you: be smart enough to recognize opportunity, patient enough to wait for the right moment, and willing to sacrifice when necessary to seize that opportunity.

He grows into a rich man.  But then he realizes that all his wealth is meaningless, since it will all be consumed by death one day.  (You can’t take it with you!)  He becomes a ferryman, learning from the older ferryman he joins as well as from the river.  The river teaches him that time doesn’t matter – the river is at the source and at it’s mouth all at the same time.

At one point as a ferryman, Siddhartha’s son comes to live with him when Kamala dies.  The boy is very unhappy with the simple life.  Siddhartha tries to show him by example how peaceful and happy it can be, but to no avail.  The boy just gets angry and eventually runs away.  Siddhartha is saddened, but then realizes how much it was like him rebelling against his own father and joining the shramana – yet another example of how everyone must find their own path.

“Reamde” by Neal Stephenson

Memorable story, but not really cyberpunk-y at all like Stephenson’s other stuff.

There is a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG called T’Rain that sets up the initial plot.  A Chinese hacker of the game, “The Troll,” created a ransomware virus that encrypts user’s files unless an in-game ransom is paid, via a drop at a specific location.  A different hacker named Peter, in Seattle, accidentally gives this virus to a shady dude, Wallace, as he sells him a bunch of stolen credit card numbers.  Unfortunately, the shady dude works for a Russian mobster, and lots of other important stuff gets encrypted on his computer.

The mobster, Ivanov, and crew get to Seattle and kidnap Peter as well as his girlfriend, Zula, an Eritrean refugee adopted in childhood by a family in Iowa, and whose uncle coincidentally is the creator of T’Rain.  Ivanov goes sort of crazy when they are unable to decrypt the files or payoff the Troll (the area in T’Rain is overrun by armies stealing gold from virus victims before they can deposit it).  So he takes them along with a Hungarian hacker named Csongor to Xiamen to search for the Troll and get revenge.

They find the Troll’s apartment building.  Zula, Peter, and Csongor are chained to a pipe in the basement while Ivanov’s team of mercenaries, led by all-around badass but really a good guy at heart Sokolov, go to confront the Troll.  But at the last minute, Zula directs them to one apartment above where they actually think the Troll lives and she uses the fuse box to cycle power to the Troll’s apartment in an attempt to warn him.  Her intentions are good – no one deserves torture/murder at the hands of a crazy Russian mobster.  Even if it means losing her own life – she already figures Ivanov will kill them when he’s done with the Troll.

Here is where the story takes a major twist.  Turns out the apartment they barge in on was a safehouse for a group of jihadists.  A massive firefight ensues, and the main jihadist, Abdullah Jones, ends up escaping with Zula as a hostage.  It all gets pretty “Mad, Mad, Mad World” with groups of characters hijacking a plane to Canada, or a boat to the Phillipines, a British MI6 agent trying to get out of China, and especially towards the end, as the jihadists and all the other main characters converge on a compound of right-wing extremists in Northern Idaho (“American Taliban” as Sokolov puts it) owned by another of Zula’s uncles.

First thought is how instantaneous choices can have extensive repercussions.  Zula’s choice to spare the Troll seemed to lead to many more deaths than would otherwise have occurred.  Yet still there is no question she did the right thing at the right time.

Second thought, the whole T’Rain angle was really abandoned midway through.  There’s backstory and set up of a civil war going on between bright and dark liveried characters, possibly fueled by competing game writers, but the subplot just goes nowhere.  Also the few descriptions of T’Rain make it seem way too detailed to be possible – characters wiggling fingers for instance.

 

“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

The Radch are a ginormous space empire, which until recently expanded rapidly via a large fleet of powerful warships manned by armies.  Each ship is actually an artificial intelligence, and many of the armies are actually “ancillaries.”  When a new planet is conquered by the Radch, resistance is quickly nullified and any opponents are brutally exterminated, reeducated via sophisticated brainwashing, or sent to be stored until needed as new Radch soldiers.  Entire armies of these soldiers, called ancillaries, are controlled by a single ship AI.

“Justice of Toren” was a ship, but because of plot reasons the physical ship was destroyed and all that remains is a single ancillary, AKA Breq AKA One Esk.  She* tries to unravel exactly what happened to cause her destruction, and the results lead her to a confrontation with Anaander Mianaai (love the name!), Lord of the Radch.  It’s such a busy job that many years ago, Mianaai split her conciousness into several bodies (somewhat reminiscent of House of Suns); by now there are thousands of them and they’ve lived for thousands of years.  Well, turns out that Mianaai is something of a split personality – factions have broken out among her parts…

* Interesting use of “she” throughout the book.  The narrator, the ancillary, is more or less Radch, and they apparently don’t have any set notion of gender; everyone is a “she”.  Pretty sure that Breq’s compadre, Seivarden, is a male, but actually not sure about Breq “herself.”  I guess Ann Leckie is trying to make us more sensitive to current gender fluidity issues, or at least capitalize on them??

“Mistborn” by Brandon Sanderson


The setting is a fantasy world where, a long time ago, the bad guy won.  The world is a heap of ashes; few trees or living things still exist.  The Lord Ruler, immortal and omnipotent, rules from his palace of dark spiral towers.  The aristocracy cruelly use and abuse the enslaved majority “skaa” population, who have little hope of change in the future.

There is magic in this world, called allomancy.  Allomantic powers are hereditary and only available to those of aristocratic descent.  Each power is linked to a certain metal, like bronze or tin, which is ingested in small quantities and then “burned” as needed to provide the user with specific superhuman abilities.  Most allomancers are only able to use a single metal.  But, rarely, a “mistborn” comes on the scene who is able to use them all.

Probably the most dramatic/cool of the allomantic powers is the “push” and “pull”, which turns the allomancer into something of a supermagnet able to reverse polarity at will.  Essentially, this allows the mistborn to pretty much fly around, provided enough metal objects are sufficiently available in the nearby environment to use as anchors, either to push away from or pull oneself toward.

(The allomantic magic system is interesting, but very formulaic.  I though back to Jonathan Strange – magic in that book is very vague, mysterious, and undefined; here in “Mistborn” is an opposite, well-defined and limited system. )

Vin is an orphan skaa teenage girl who ends up in a thieving crew, a risky business of scamming and stealing from the aristocracy.  She ends up joining Kelsier, a crew boss turned Mistborn.  Although hereditary, it usually takes a unique, stressful event to awaken allomantic powers in an individual — for Kelsier, he was captured in a failed job and sentenced to labor in the Mines of Hathsin until death, but his power awoke and he escaped.  Now Kelsier has a plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler.  Early on, the book has Kelsier assemble his team, Ocean’s Eleven style.  Then they get to work on the plan, even though no one but Kelsier really believes they have a chance.

Kelsier realizes Vin is a mistborn like himself and sets about training her for the good fight.  Later, she is given the task of impersonating a noble in order to infiltrate the series of balls attended by most of the aristocracy and dig up rumors and information that might be useful to the team.  Along the way (gasp!) she ends up falling in love with a seemingly fair and change-minded young heir, Elend Venture.

I thought the author did a very good job with pacing.  At the beginning, the reader is in the dark about the world itself, and bits and pieces are slowly revealed.  Then, the mystery and revelations smoothly transition to the origin of the Lord Ruler – how did he go from Hero of the world to evil overlord?

SPOILERS BELOW>

  • Turns out that there was a prophesied Hero of long ago, who undertook a journey to the “Well of Ascension” to do …. something …. which somehow stopped an evil called the Deepness from eating the world.  Or something like that.  Very vague.  Well, anyway, one of his guides became very jealous, particularly because the guide was a Terrisman, which race had made and kept the prophecies whereas the Hero was a foreigner.  Somehow the guide took the Hero’s place, and became the Lord Ruler.
  • The Lord Ruler’s power is from a combination of allomancy and feruchemy.  One character speculates that maybe the Well of Ascension granted allomancy itself, as it wasn’t present in the world prior to that.  Feruchemy is a Terrisman skill similar to allomancy, but users are only able to “store up” their own strength or other abilities to use later by voluntarily becoming equally weak or impaired for an equal amount of time.  Somehow the combination yields almost omnipotent power as well as effective immortality.
  • Atium, the metal mined in Hathsin, is also a key part of … something.  Part of the team’s plans involve stealing the Lord Ruler’s suspected large stash of atium, but as it turns out it can’t be found anywhere.  It is implied that the Lord Ruler, evil as he is, was doing something to keep the Deepness at bay … perhaps using atium?  If so, not a good setup for our friends in the near future, as Kelsier ends up destroying Hathsin and all atium production for several centuries.
  • Kelsier’s plan, ultimately known only to him, was kind of unique.  He thinks the only way the world stands a chance is if the skaa gain hope and rise up, and the best way to do that is to give them a martyr/savior to look to.  He becomes that savior – builds up an almost-religion around himself, then challenges the Lord Ruler and is killed … which results in exactly the effect he intended.

“A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge

Ah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a can’t-put-it-down reading experience.  While I don’t think I liked it quite as much as its predecessor, “A Deepness in the Sky” was still very, very good.

The OnOff star is a mystery – a normal sun for around 40 years, then it turns off for the next 200, on a predictable cycle.  Remarkably, intelligent life exists on the system’s only planet – the Spiders, a civilization on the cusp of a technological revolution and spaceflight.  This draws the attention of two groups, both of which send fleets.  The Qeng Ho are a loosely affiliated group of traders, and the Emergent are a newly risen militaristic civilization, about which little is known.

The Qeng Ho derive their trader identity from Pham Nuwen, himself a native of a medieval world and taken in by a group of early Qeng Ho refugees.  He quickly learns their ways and marvels at the speedy rise and fall of civilizations across the inhabited worlds.  This cycle is very rapid indeed to traders hibernating in cryosleep for hundreds of years at a time, while their ships travel at slower than light speeds to their next destination.  He figures that the traders are perfectly positioned to try to ameliorate the suffering of failed civilizations, as well as preserve the best technology produced by civilizations at their peak.  The Qeng Ho freely broadcast some of their knowledge continuously, as a way to bootstrap fallen civs back to the top.  They strive to build up civs back to prosperity, because it is a good ideal itself and also (more importantly?) because it sets up a good market for trading.

But Pham sees a way to have more – he envisions the Qeng Ho itself as an interstellar governing empire, with ability to prevent civilization collapse in the first place.  As he builds up support for his ideas, he calls for a meeting of Qeng Ho at a place called Brisgo Gap.  Just as he is about to clinch victory, he is betrayed by his wife, Sura.  (While Pham has been traveling and thus is still in his prime, Sura who managed things at home, is many centuries old by now, and many of his descendants are physically older than Pham.  Weird.)  She opposes him because … “it’ll never work!  You’d need an army of loving slaves!”  (groan … that’s not a reason!  And such lame forced foreshadowing…)  Pham is forced into exile – put into a ship bound for a target several hundred lightyears away, and he fades from history.  An incognito Pham may or not end up in the Qeng Ho expedition to the OnOff star (spoiler: he does!), still bent on achieving his empire one way or another…

Ok, so the Emergents are Not Very Nice.  They co-opted a brain virus to serve as a form of mind control, called Focus.  The Focused individuals can be tuned to a specific set of tasking, and they obsessively perform their tasks with superhuman attention and ability.  For instance, a key character in the story is a Focused translator of the Spider language.  Coupled with traditional computer systems, Focus gives the Emergents effectively all the sought-for benefits of nearly unlimited AI, except without the “A” part I guess.  And only at the cost of mental enslavement of many individuals!  Most of the non-Focused Emergents serve in roles managing the Focused chattel.

When the Qeng Ho and Emergent expeditions meet in the OnOff system, it’s not long before the Qeng Ho are double-crossed, mostly afflicted with the Focus virus, and sneak-attacked.  When it’s all done, all the ships on both sides are incapacitated and only a few habitats and supplies remain out in L1 orbit.  Emergents and Qeng Ho are forced to live and work together for survival, although the Qeng Ho are clearly the conquered, and the morally bankrupt, manipulative Emergent leader Tomas Nau takes charge.

The survivors strategy is to “lurk” out in space, and wait for the rapidly progressing Spider civilization to mature to the point where the spacers can reveal themselves and receive help (Qeng Ho: by trading!  Emergents: no, by force of course) from a capable industrial base in fixing up their ships.  The OnOff star flares back to life shortly after the Qeng Ho-Emergent battle.

When the OnOff star turns back on, its solar output is extremely elevated for a short (a few weeks or months? years?) duration.  This turns the Spider planet into a fireball, destroying most of what was created by the previous generation.  The Spiders themselves stay safe, however, as they retreated two centuries ago to hibernation (ha! just like the spacers on their long voyages!) in their deep underground shelters, the “deepnesses,” when the star turned off and air-freezing temperatures ensued.

Much like Vinge did in the previous book, the Spider’s story is told in alternating sequence with the spacers; and although quite alien in ways they also seem very familiar and even … lovable?  Yes.  Lovable, monstrous, giant spiders.  Sherkaner Underhill is a Spider technological genius who guides most of his civilization’s progress, including a determination to find a way to live, awake, right through the Dark.  As the spacers observe Spider progress from their far-away orbit, they are able to subtlety alter events by injecting data at opportune times into the Spider computer networks.  <spoiler>In a twist, Sherkaner catches on eventually that aliens are out there, manipulating things, and sets up a great “counterlurk” — while everyone thinks he’s gone a little bit senile, he and his team secretly gain control over the spacer systems via the Focused translators, and in the end avert Tomas Nau’s war of conquest.  Pham also sees the light and realizes that even his dream of empire is not worth the moral price of Focus slavery – now he works out a plan to free the Focuses, first in the OnOff system but with plans at the end of the book to carry on the fight at the Emergent homeworlds.</spoiler>

Definitely a theme of the rise and fall of civilizations going on in this book.  First there’s the Qeng Ho’s observations of the inevitable fleeting nature of human governments, when viewed on cosmic timescales.  (This reminded me of a similar treatment in “House of Suns“.)  Then there are the Spiders, forced to rebuild their own world anew with each lighting of the OnOff star.

“Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow

I sort of liked the “adventure” parts but the philosophy was pretty much lost on me.  Recommend skipping unless you are an English undergrad…

Eugene Henderson is born into wealth, but by his forties/fifties he is frustrated with a lack of purpose.  He thinks he might want to be a doctor; his wife humiliates him by laughing at such a dream at his age.  He has a chance to accompany a friend to Africa and feels like there, in the wild, he might find whatever he is looking for.

The first tribe he spends time with, the Arnui (sp? Audio book…), are friendly but suffering from a plague of frogs in their water cistern, which means they can’t give it to their cows.  Henderson thinks that here is my chance, here is my purpose – to help these poor people.  He had some experience with explosives in the war and so rigs up a bomb to kill the frogs.  It does; but also breaks the cistern, making the Arnui’s problems infinitely worse.

He and his guide quickly make tracks, and end up in the tribe of the Wariri (sp?).  They are kind of suspicious people, but during a rain ceremony he once again jumps in to “save the day” when the village strongman fails to budge the huge statue of their goddess Mumma.  Henderson is a big, strong fellow and is able to move the statue with some effort.  He didn’t know it beforehand, but this entitles him to be the Sungo, the rain king.  He becomes friends with the actual king, Dafu, and becomes familiar with their customs: when a king first shows signs of weakness, he is murdered by his harem.  The body is dragged to the bush and left, but kept under observation.  No beasts are allowed to eat the corpse, except for a lion cub.  The cub is marked and released – this cub is said to now possess the soul of the dead king.  The Sungo gets to be the new king, and after some period of time his duty is to capture the now grown up cub and keep him as a pet of sorts.

Well, King Dafu captures a different lion in his first attempt, and decides to keep it.  He therefore is now facing insurrection as all other lions besides the old king are considered to be magical troublemakers.  Dafu admires lions in general; and embarks on program of familiarizing Henderson with the lion in an up close and personal manner, so that he takes on some lion qualities – nobility, confidence.  Soon, the actual lion Dafu is supposed to capture his spotted, but Dafu dies in the capture attempt (might have been sabotage by his enemies).

Henderson is held captive until his “coronation” but wisely escapes this death trap.  Before he goes, he swipes the lion cub designated for Dafu and flies it back to the states.  He resolves to become a doctor after all.

What’s the meaning here?  Maybe to follow your dream.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  One quote from near the end: “What is the universe?  Big.  And what are we?  Little.  So I might as well stay at home, where my wife loves me.  Or, if she is only pretending to love me, maybe that’s good enough, too.”

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

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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.