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  1. #11
    One more from my blog: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan


    Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan, is a cyberpunk-noir detective thriller of the ‘locked room’ variety. If you want steam rising out of your grates in grimy streets straight off the ‘Blade Runner’ mood boards and a bosomy femme fatale in a plot full of twists and turns then stop reading and go buy it, because as a debut novel, it’s astonishingly assured plotting and writing.


    Needless to say it won’t do to discuss the plot, (hardened killer brought out of jail to solve a mega-rich man’s “murder” but uncovering far more), but what works so well here is how convincing Morgan is at immersing you in his well-woven future Earth. Much of the intricate plot hangs off his detailed understanding of the minutiae of this universe, how the Earth and the colonies have developed and changed, though the fact it takes place in San Francisco and it’s a place where the mega rich are beyond the law and influence it to their own ends are sadly familiar anchors for the reader’s immersion in this future.


    As a writer I love it when another ‘worldbuilder’ does a good job of choosing his or her idioms, making them feel natural and simple, two key characteristics for slang. Morgan works in a robust political and social backdrop that hangs effectively off the technological advancements that have fundamentally altered society and what it means to be a human. There are numerous well judged developments to humans of the cyberpunk variety, the ‘empathin’ mood enhancers built into the bodies, or ‘neurachem’, a triggerable state of full body enhancement that turns you into a superfast and super perceptive killing machine.


    Due to my philosophical bent, the main thing that baked my noodle about the central conceit of this future universe is the notion that a person can be separated from their body. It’s handled well, but I couldn’t buy into it properly (which coincidentally goes for the odd dodgy adverb littered throughout the book – a shawl puddles ‘silkenly’ on the floor?).


    This is a universe where a ‘person’ is encapsulated in a neuro-cortical hardware device. One’s body is inhabited, it’s referred to as a ‘sleeve’. If the body dies, the device is removed and is ‘re-sleeved’, indeed this is mandatory. Real death is a very big deal in this universe. As such, it is possible that a ‘person’ can be in two bodies at the same time. Derek Parfit, an eminent British philosopher, presented this concept as a thought experiment in his Reasons and Persons, a treatise on ethics and identity.

    Imagine you are at a teleporter, ready to beam over to Mars. The process begins, then there’s an explosion. You leave the teleporter here on Earth and ask the scientist what’s gone wrong.

    He shakes his head, unsure as to what just happened. He says the machine this end is destroyed, but has done deep cellular damage to you, which will shortly debilitate and kill you.

    “No need to worry though,” says the scientist, “you won’t actually die, you teleported successfully. There you are,” he says, pointing to you on the monitor, waving back at Earth.

    But you do worry. You aren’t him, you’re here, feeling your body going, while that other person that is practically exactly like you watches on concerned. ‘You’ are moments from death.

    The break in continuity seems fatal to the notion of personhood. One sleeps of course, a gap of 6-8 hours where one is not a person, but the physical continuity holds. It could be countered that sleeving is just that, a change to everything but the neural systems while you are unconscious, for you still feel like you when you wake up, you feel it’s the same you. It isn’t a great stretch perhaps to imagine some way of separating your brain and all its ‘tendrils’ and stitching them into a similar body. If you are your brain then continuity is assured.

    But the moment there is a split, a cloning, the self becomes other, each second apart diverging the neural states that signify oneself. One cannot be divergently located, the sense of self is homogenous, singular.

    But there’s a further problem. What is going on within this neural black box that transfers so easily between sleeves? The technological capacity for it would indicate science so far advanced that the rest of the milieu wouldn’t be in the state it is. It would be easier to create free infinite energy and eliminate poverty.

    This isn’t to say that Morgan doesn’t do a good job of presenting some of the edges of this continuity dilemma in the book where it affects the plot; he’s clearly thought about it, but for me the conceit rings hollow. People will never be blase about their clones.

    There are some standout moments in the book, the main one for me being the mega-billionaire Bancroft’s explanation of how a marriage feels after 300 years, a microcosm of the wider social picture that cleverly illuminates how for the immortal rich, life is devalued. It is a conundrum of long life and how meaning and purpose might be intrinsically linked to a more ordinary lifespan, that we would somehow, despite the technology, feel like Bilbo, butter smeared over too much bread.

    The one person I hadn’t expected to think about when reading this book was my great-grandmother. She was 98 when she asked me why she had to go on, why she kept breathing when she’d outlived almost everyone she loved and seen her great grandchildren grow up. She had, she said, “finished.”

    I couldn’t conceive of what it would be like to find myself having had enough of life. Altered Carbon’s sweetest moments for me arrive early, a conversation between the protagonist and Bancroft an affecting echo of a Tuesday night drinking whisky with my nan, a hundred years stretching back behind her eyes and a self-deprecating smile breaking through an otherwise carefully hidden ennui.

  2. #12
    Member dvspec's Avatar
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    Anything and everything written by Dick Francis.

    He isn't alive anymore, having died a couple years ago, but he is a master at suspense and has 40 books. He started out as a steeple chase jockey (National Velvet. Horses over jumps over miles. Horrifying to watch.) and was the Queen of England's jockey until she asked him to retire after another injury. He became a journalist and then a novelist.

    Most of the first books focus on the English horse racing community, but are easy for anyone to follow. Only twice did he use the same MC for his books. Sid Haley was one, if I remember right, and I think a guy named Kit.

    Check him out. He is old school and one of the books as some old computer as a major plot piece. He handles it well and the lack of tech is ageless.

  3. #13
    Gabriel García Márquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude

    Hearing that I hadn’t read any of Gabriel García Márquez’s work, when his death was announced, a friend kindly bought me this, as he had Wolf Hall. Clearly, he knows what’s good for me.

    This twentieth century classic in the magical realist tradition was my first foray into the realm, unless Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller counts.

    I urge you not to wait as long as I have, but to throw yourself into the story of the Buendía family across six generations and their doomed trajectory intertwined with that of Macondo, their near utopian village soon despoiled by the industrial revolution. For all that it’s a translation, Gregory Rabassa has rendered the original prose into something surely as fizzing and gorgeous as the original:

    “…he left his accumulated grief behind and found Remedios changed into a swamp without horizons, smelling of raw animal and recently ironed clothes.”

    “He (Melquíades) went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumble down from their places…”Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.”

    Thus Melquíades first appears to José Arcadio Buendía and his wife (and for me the keel of the whole novel) Úrsula. The family are the heart of Macondo, the principle family, and soon their wealth builds them a house that itself reflects and anchors the emotional and nihilistic journeys of their offspring. With the railroad and then a banana plantation, ‘civilisation’ comes to Macondo, and it grows, whorehouses and schools and all manner of industry, and soon civil war.

    As the generations progress, from their first children, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, Amaranta and José Arcadio (jnr), through all the Aurelianos and Josés and Amarantas, each seems somehow fated to varying extremes of self-loathing, lust, greed, insanity and above all, infusing all, passion.

    Passions rule this novel, the magical realism amplifying the periods of bitter poverty and Gatsby-esque wealth and ennui, and make it a wild and compelling tale as the family’s generations spiral in their various ways out of control, with runaways, step-children, and an actual angel growing up in Úrsula’s house; Úrsula, at the heart of it, keeping the gyre from its widening for as long as she has strength, a superhuman stoic and the counterpoint that stops the novel from dissolving. Through it also, Melquíades’s secrets in his books and his notes, left for decades in the room he had once occupied for a time. These secrets puzzle generations of the Buendía men, drawn like their ancestor José to all things alchemical and occult. Their unravelling is integral to the book’s visceral and shocking ending.

    I can say little else for spoilers. It is a masterpiece of course, as rich a tale of humanity’s excess as I’ve read, a defining statement on the savagery of love.

  4. #14

    House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

    If the horror genre is a journey, then House* of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is its destination.

    I say this not only because it is an attempt to get at the fundament of what is horrifying, but also because the nature of the attempt is an audacious, remarkably intelligent and emotionally satisfying weaving of multiple narratives and perspectives working on many levels; straight, ironic, comic, academic and post-modern. It is astonishing.

    At its heart, the novel is a pseudo-academic treatise on the events, and meaning, of ‘The Navidson Record.’

    This was a film, shot as a sequence of shorts, by award-winning photo-journalist Will Navidson and his wife Karen, a former supermodel, initially of their family trying to settle down and rediscover itself after his years away shooting wars and famine. Their new house, however, seems larger on the inside than the outside. Then a new corridor appears behind a door that should lead outside, but leads instead somewhere very dark. The series of shorts were distributed among ‘those in the know’ and achieved a cult following before they were made into a release for cinemas.

    The treatise is an attempt, by a man called Zampanò, to both relay the events taking place in the Navidsons’ house but also to draw on his wide and deep reading in and around the film by academics, film makers, documentaries and testimonials alike, as a way of finding an explanation or understanding of the supernatural phenomena there.

    Layered over this, however, is the story of Johnny Truant, a dropout working as an assistant in a tattoo parlour, whose friend Lude shows him the apartment of the recently deceased Zampanò, and a trunk full of the papers and research he’d done on The Navidson Record.

    Johnny becomes obsessed with the unfolding story and it soon starts to fray his mind. Danielewski, via a series of letters and, later on, a fragmented set of Truant’s own recollections, paints a tragic backdrop for Truant that will, alongside the trials of the Navidsons, provide us with much to think about in respect of that which haunts them all. For this reason I will disagree with some other commentators on this novel who see Truant as its weakest point. I think he is essential to Danielewski’s goal.

    Not content with a multi-layered narrative, Danielewski has Truant open the novel claiming that for all its fame, no copies of the film can be found, and much of the research is invented, while much more is missing or perhaps unreliable. Zampanò, in Truant’s view, is a complex character, instantly fascinating: “…his humour was that wry, dessicated kind soldiers whisper, all their jokes subsurface, their laughter amounting to little more than a tic at the corner of the mouth…”

    It becomes clear that Danielewski has academia as one target for his barbs, but he is far cleverer and too restlessly creative for that, referencing a story early on that Truant has read, but its entry in the appendix says only that the story appears to be missing, calling into question the veracity of what is presented as an academic paper, the very form of which denotes authority. Many of the quotes from academics, right down to the highly plausible references in the footnotes of almost every page, are digs at literary theory, art theory, sociology and other fairly soft targets, the papers cited often have highly pretentious titles, while real and fictional TV, film and academic personalities are parodied either subtly or wildly.

    Beyond this, the story Zampanò tells is of a dysfunctional family trying to find itself, it’s about a man and woman in love, and their love in the face of the events of the novel is powerful, moving and, sublimely for me, all these things because of what are utterly bizarre supernatural events. I’ve not read a novel before that could take as its conflict something with all the overtones of every haunted house trope and use it as a lens through which we can see a couple at the last chance saloon of their relationship looking to understand if they are meant to make it or not. The resolution is deeply satisfying, indeed, the use of the various academic texts is highly effective at offering various readings, all plausible and somehow mutually enhancing of their struggles in the context of the house itself.

    The house itself.

    As I mentioned at the outset, Danielewski is interested in what lies at the heart of horror, what is behind all those things that movies, books, stories and myths down the ages have made us scared of. Danielewski is self-aware enough to understand that his attempt at facing this archetype of the horrific may still be quite American, a notion he puts into the mouth of a fictional professor being interviewed by Karen Navidson about the movie:
    “Quite a few Brits you know still prefer their ghosts decked in crepe and cobweb, candelabra in one hand. Your monster, however, is purely American. Edgeless for one thing, something a compendium of diverse cultures definitely requires.”

    Without spoilers I cannot say too much more of what it is Danielewski aims at, but the nature of the house and its past, even its fabric, but most of all what they find as they begin exploring what lies beyond that mysterious corridor, is almost Danielewski’s argument in support of what horror really is, what lies at the heart of it.

    Still unsatisfied with the many layers on which his book is working, Danielewski then plays vividly and overtly with the form of the novel, the nature of words on the page, typography and narrative structure. This is not an easy novel to read. For any horror buffs reading this it might actually also be a disappointment, ‘not at all horrifying or scary’.

    What House of Leaves is goes beyond that. It is challenging and thought-provoking, holding the reader’s gaze at the horror as the nature of the house is revealed. He is issuing a challenge: “Can you imagine anything more horrifying than this?” I know what my answer is, and I doubt I could have answered it before I read this incredible book.

    *In the full-colour edition of this book, every instance of the word ‘house‘ is in blue

  5. #15
    The City & The City - China Miéville

    Hopefully all China Miéville’s novels are as original and engaging as this one. The City & The City is on one level a standard ‘detective investigating death of girl uncovers big conspiracy’ story, but Miéville has decided to weave the tale into a quite unique milieu. And ‘weave’ is the operative word.

    Inspector Tyador Borlú lives and works in Beszél, a run-down city somewhere in Europe. It happens to be spatially (or as he calls it ‘grosstopically’) co-located with another city, Ul Quoma. The two cities are meshed together, existing in the same space, and many areas of them are ‘crosshatched’, places where citizens can see each other’s cities co-located with their own.

    These cities have different cultures and different laws; effectively, they are two different societies. Miéville’s mastery of the challenges this causes is both fascinating but also functional, for the story that emerges as Borlú starts digging goes to the core of the relationship these two cities have with each other. It is disorientating initially as we are given Borlú’s first person narrative. Naturally he makes assumptions about his world, so his vocabulary and his introduction to the cities takes some time to settle to.

    This is mainly because everyone living in either of these cities has learned to ‘unsee’ the others that live in the same space but are citizens of the other city. Cars driving along cross-hatched streets must swerve to avoid the cars that are co-located but in the other city, and they do so by accounting for them but otherwise ‘unseeing’ them, a cognitive training learned from youth that feels, to read it, not dissimilar to those ‘hollow face’ illusions. This ‘unseeing’ is profoundly important. The different sets of citizens must ignore one another. I found it quite interesting that I as a reader was immersing myself into an initially confusing world where these two separate societies co-exist spatially, then I got into it, a process in microcosm not dissimilar to that Miéville describes a tourist as having to go through, because you cannot visit either city without learning the rules about ‘unseeing’.

    Now, the thing that stops these people, indeed compels them in either city to ‘unsee’ and thus ignore the other city is Breach. Breach is a terrifying and mysterious force that acts as judge and jury on anyone that attempts to switch from one city to another without crossing the official border, a neutral zone straddling which is a huge building housing representatives of either city’s government. Breach enforces the boundary between cities and ensures their separation.
    If you start overtly noticing the other city’s citizens, if you ‘see’, engage with or otherwise take or drop objects into the other city you will ‘breach’ to the other city and Breach will find you and remove you. You will not be seen again.
    The great achievement with this book is partly a page-turning police procedural with a likeable and sufficiently weary protagonist but mainly how well it takes the questions you have as a reader about how these co-existing cities could work. Without undue exposition to clog down the usual requirement for spare prose, Miéville paints a strong and nuanced world where the facts of it, and its history, have that air of being worn smooth; slang, culture, law, even the economy are effectively referenced and thus ground the reader convincingly in this very strange place as the plot thickens and unfolds, and it becomes obvious that Borlú will have to visit Ul Quoma.

    There is of course a whole fascinating thematic structure here regarding the nature of different societies and cultures sharing the same space, both ignoring each other, and pretending to ignore each other. It is a lens on our own societies that can be cast through many filters; race, wealth and class in particular. As we come across political pressure groups such as the ‘Unifs’ or Unificationists, who want Beszél and Ul Quoma to simply join together and be as one, I for one couldn’t help questioning the correctness of the need for discipline in maintaining their segregation, which in turn provoked me to think about the nature of of national identity and the notion of a joined up society.

    I read somewhere that Miéville was looking to write a book in every genre. Apocrypha or not, this is a great page turner sandwiched into an audacious and original conceit. It’s not sci-fi per se, nor is it dystopian. But if you want a crime thriller bent into an alternate-reality fantasy, a thriller with a satisfying intellectual filling, look no further. If all his genre tourism is this interesting and original, I’ll be travelling through a few more.

  6. #16
    Here - Richard McGuire (graphic novel)

    Here, by Richard McGuire, is no less than the zenith of the graphic novel as an art form.


    It is one of the most profound things I’ve read.


    Based on the six page comic that appeared in Raw magazine in 1989, this was something I’d missed until Chris Ware reviewed it in the Guardian. (The link is to that review). I can only express my pleasure alongside his, though less eloquently.


    Here takes a point in space, which, for most of the narrative is in the corner of a room in a house, but as you turn the pages the clock winds backwards and forwards, billions of years backwards on some pages, thousands forward on others, but most concentrate on the time humans are around.


    On each page the elements of narrative, such as it is, are presented as panels tagged with the year that each moment took place in.

    All of human experience is here: Love, death, growing up, growing old, telling stories, play, sorrow, laughter, work, survival.


    The great achievement of Here lies in the form, because it achieves the above so effortlessly. Perhaps this could have been done with moving images. I don’t believe it would have worked as well principally because of the art, the flat almost idealised drawings are devoid of detail, the humans standing out, for it should be as blank, as ‘everyman’ a canvas as possible, this point of view in space. It should be anywhere.


    Inevitably, life is represented as a series of stills and there are some beautiful miniatures, in particular the sequence of family photos near the beginning, through the mid to late 20th century, where the expression in one face diverges from the others, a worry or sorrow there. Later, a sequence in 1870 at a picnic portrays the emptiness of a wasted love, perhaps the end of a relationship, all in a few drawings and a couple of sentences. Every word is carefully chosen, layering and gluing the thematic structure together.


    Here, the fixed camera and the infinite reel of time allow McGuire the space he needs to show that from anywhere we stand, moments full of meaning to the protagonists can be found. He exemplifies it most in a sublime moment when a group of historians are invited into the house to talk to the woman living there, in 1986, telling her that her house may be on a culturally very important site for the American Indians. Of course, we’re in the middle of a graphic novel that asks us to consider how, from an immortal perspective, no one place need be historically more important than any other if what we’re looking for is meaning.


    And this comes to the heart of it. Meaning. Quite apart from the strings of narrative that thread together clusters of pages either contiguous or, in the case of the opening question, closing the entire loop a book later, you must look at this as you would any fine art. What is it saying? How do I feel about it?


    These moments in time are overlaid, many beautiful resemblances and contrasts that I won’t labour here, for that pleasure is all yours. What arises is our fragility as a species, our ‘specks on a ball of mud-ness’. The form these moments take are most like memories in their nature. There is a tiny hand grasping two grown up (father’s?) fingers, a joke (about death of course), images or sequences of a few seconds, moments that would stick in the mind though they do not appear to be important. I doubt I’m the only one confused by why it is certain moments of my life stick in my head as vividly as photographs and not others. McGuire understands this perfectly.


    But if I were a god and chose to stand ‘here’, for long enough, these would be my memories. The lives of many generations are spanned, and while each moment itself seems ordinary, my nose is pressed to history by this novel, a grander narrative appears that summarises the irreducible beauty of a godless universe, from His perspective. If atheists were defined by something positive and not something negative (to wit – ‘without theism’ or ‘without belief in God’) then Here would be the manifesto.
    Take a step back, reflect on the ephemerality of your life in its totality, face with a glad heart and bubbling curiosity the two axioms from which you can build meaning.


    You are mortal. Life’s what you make it.

  7. #17
    The Blade Itself & Rivers of London

    I recently read, back to back, Ben Aaranovitch’s Rivers of London and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the latter a long overdue read for me as a fantasy author.


    It was because of their similarities that I’m writing about (and recommending them) together.


    Both books have an easy, warm prose, perfectly suited for the stories they’re telling, full also of some very dry wit. What makes them special is that the worlds they’ve crafted are woven in equally subtly, dribbled into the stories at just the right pace. Aaranovitch clearly has a passion for London and its history, it captures a London as much Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill as it is Eastenders as it is an ancient and storied locum of English history. Within this he overlays a wonderfully natural magic system, tying it into the folk/cultural history of the capital exquisitely well.


    The book starts with DC Peter Grant, a bit of a useless policeman with a crush on his career driven colleague Lesley May. At the scene of a murder, he soon realises that he’s interviewing a ghost rather than a tramp, and from that point on he finds himself off down the rabbit hole, shortly popping up as an apprentice wizard working for a secret branch of the police, investigating the murders as they pile up and piecing together the force behind them.


    It’s in bringing us from the one reality into the other that Aaranovitch succeeds so well, and as an apprentice, Grant is the perfect guide for the reader, discovering this secret London with us and for us. His initiation into magic, how he tries, initially, to will into being a small magical light, is surprisingly plausible, it somehow feels right, while Grant himself, having an unorthodox but solidly grounded sense of the world, immediately tries to think about the physics of it. The system Aaranovitch has worked out riffs off a more mundane materialist backdrop well. As it’s introduced to Grant, so it’s introduced to us, but again, it’s done in a way that doesn’t weight the plot down. Given it’s a supernatural murder mystery, and a cleverly conceived one with some twists and turns, it’s quite a page turner, reminding me of how effortlessly China Mieville also managed to twist a fairly conventional genre trope with his City and the City.


    The Blade Itself is much more purely ‘sff’. At first I thought Abercrombie’s world was a bit shallow, but it was simply my expectation that fantasy world-building generally comes on a bit thick. As a reader I seem to have gotten used to being plunged into a different world with a very small paddle and a strong current. He introduces his ensemble of misfits methodically, giving each their own space, story and context to breathe and develop, before the novel gradually pulls them together through the machinations of a mage called Bayaz, whose mission is barely hinted at, the backbone of a trilogy no doubt. As the book carries through, the sense of place grows with surety, and as with Rivers of London, I think the carefully measured approach to planting the world along with the story works well for a wider audience. My recommendation for both novels is cemented because of this, they remain perfectly accessible to any casual reader looking for a fantastic yarn, not just the hardcore genre fans looking for great characters.


    The Blade Itself is a bigger novel, and has more work to do to establish the ensemble. Each character is in some way obviously flawed, some more likeable than others for it, but all with that nugget of good in them, whether it’s the increasingly self aware noble Jezal and his crush on a hard drinking and beautiful commoner, the stoic crippled torturer Glokta unwillingly uncovering a conspiracy or the uncouth but gentle Logen just trying to stay alive. It’s refreshing to see the main characters get into scrapes and feel like they’re not going to get out of them without taking a beating, without having paid for them in some way. This gives them an important vulnerability that’s key to their likeability.


    There are some dark moments in the book, (in particular a scene with siblings later on), and for all that it has a wit about it, it isn’t remotely Pratchett. I enjoyed the book having these teeth and hope to see more of them bared in the sequel. The ‘grimdark’ was the more effective for it being lodged in a world where the author hasn’t held your face against the banal horror of existence for five hundred pages. Equally, the ending of Rivers of London contains something of a surprise, not quite playing out as I’d expected.


    There are more in either series, so while you can’t go wrong with these unshowy, well told stories, you can jump deeper in.

  8. #18

    The Quantum Thief

    This book has no right to be a debut. It’s exhilarating, a tour de force.


    The Quantum Thief is a heist thriller the threads of which are woven into a sinuous and densely realised future. It’s a challenging read, I’ll admit hard to follow in places, as Hannu Rajaniemi displaces the awesome intelligence and agency of his protagonist, the ‘Thief’, into discontinuous layers – his past self, his memories – locked away. The threads deepen and widen, the narrative is fragmented, but not frustratingly so; it’s as though it reflects the discontinuity of self that resonates throughout this future.


    The heist, such as it is, is part of a much larger game being played by a seemingly all-powerful race (?) the Sobornost and exile factions on Mars, living on ‘The Oubliette’, a giant walking city that wanders the Martian landscape. While the thief, sprung from a ‘Dilemma Prison’ in order to execute the heist, is ostensibly a pawn, it becomes obvious he has a deeper plan of his own, and so his motives, like much else in this novel, are nestled within other motives, each step he takes both for himself and his employer. A conspiracy is uncovered that threatens the city, the very fabric of its culture, and the thief is somehow, at the back of it all, aware of what’s going on.


    The thief’s execution of his plan is all the more difficult because his ‘masters’ have direct access to his mind, after a fashion, but he has rigged an elaborate mind palace, the keys to which he had hidden many years before, to protect himself both against such things, and from himself it would seem.


    Against him is Isidore, an homage to Sherlock Holmes (though the demeanour comes across as more distinctly Colombo in my mind). He is wonderfully realised, his existence as the Holmes to our protagonist’s Moriarty is all the more entertaining for the fact that the thief has a heart, while being raffish and impulsive to boot. Both characters are extremely likeable geniuses. There is a beautiful vignette by way of introduction to Isidore, as he solves a miniature ‘locked room’ type of crime, a clever and satisfying mini-plot that could have filled a much longer story by itself. Here it just sets up the character and his own backdrop and conflicts, until both he and thief are brought together by their relationship to a group of superhero-cum-civil rights activists empowered to protect the Oubliette citizens’ privacy.


    With me so far? As I said, it’s all rather densely plotted, and as the thief and Isidore head towards the climax, the stakes rise satisfyingly. The twists and reveals are very clever and the dynamics between these two, as well as between the thief and his ‘minder’, Mieli, who is cognitively linked to him as part of ensuring he lives up to his part of the bargain for being freed. Needless to say, both she and his ‘ex’, Raymonde, are as exasperated by him as they are enamoured of him. Given both these characters are themselves seriously kick-ass it might be argued that their tolerance/indulgence of him rings a little hollow, but whether I’m just used to this kind of trope or not, it feels plausible without diminishing their agency in the novel.


    The thing that sets this novel apart for me, however, is how interestingly and coherently imagined this future is. As you are plunged in, a strange vocabulary peppers you like the spray of a machine gun. Here’s how he sets a combat sequence up:


    “Far above, the ship sends down a burst of exotic weakly interacting particles through the room. The skeletons of the vasilevs ghost in her vision. Her metacortex matches patterns, classifies hidden weapons. Ghostguns. Sobornost weapons, with bullets that take over your mind. Damn it. With a thought, she brings her own systems online.


    Her right hand contains a q-dot gun, a linear accelerator firing semi-autonomous coherent payloads. Her left has a ghostgun with an array of nanomissiles: each has a war gogol ready to invade enemy systems, to flood them with copies of itself. The programmable matter layer under her epidermis becomes armour, her fingernails harder than diamond. The fusion reactor in her right thighbone spins up. The metacortex Nash engine chooses a set of optimal targets and a cover position for the thief.”


    The hard science forms that kind of shell of believability where anyone without a doctorate in quantum mechanics can get the gist enough to feel like it’s all super-advanced, and yet the concepts are wonderful; artificial brains the size of planets, ships with “q-dot sails - concentric soap-bubble-thin rings made from artificial atoms…(that) catch sunlight, Highway meso-particles and light mill beams”. The thief’s given a body with ‘proteomic computers in every cell, and he can view this body externally, as well as the ship he’s inside, through a ‘spimescape’. Nope, I got nuthin’.


    I can’t do justice to the many-faceted references to the nature of things in the far future. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, but one passage does suggest a problem that Rajaniemi presumably chooses not to tackle, in a scene where Mieli is interrogating someone (a ‘vasilev’) for information:


    “Then she pulls the surgeon gogol from her metacortex and tells it to begin. It traps the vasilev into a sandbox and starts cutting; separating higher conscious functions, rewarding and punishing…The surgeon gogol’s outputs are cold readouts of associative learning in simulated neural populations.”


    Here it seems the ‘surgeon’ has reconstructed the mind/brain of the vasilev from defiant to perfectly pliable, in order for her to interrogate it and get the truth out of it.


    In this ‘post-human’ future where persons can be discrete from bodies; sliced, diced, able to reconstruct their physiques (with the right kind of body) at will, they don’t seem able to reconstruct their personalities. The characteristics I perceive the characters to have in what I’ve described above seem to be immutable. Yet this must be the writer’s conceit, a willing blind spot, the only aspect of this future that seems unchanged. And it has to for the narrative to be compelling enough to read, as a novel. I couldn’t care about characters that could reconstruct their predilections at will, though this technology is clearly available.


    For all that, communication between persons in this future is fascinatingly conceived, whether it be brain to brain messaging, called ‘qupts’, between Isidore and his girlfriend, to the concept of ‘gevulots’, a kind of privacy matrix between citizens of the Oubliette existing neurally and capable of transmitting via thought the opening and closing of privacy protocols defining what two people are capable of interacting about, indeed, how much they can even see of each other. People can pass each other ‘memories’ through it, and it’s a brilliant concept woven into a plausible etiquette of social interaction between Martians. At the same time, the Martians have an ‘exomemory’, a sort of Jungian collective consciousness and record of public fact, that weaves all of this together and forms (I think) a glue or basis for ‘gevulot’, but is itself political and at the heart of the larger plot.


    Another major aspect to this novel is the notion of currency being ‘Time’, every citizen of the Oubliette owning a watch through which they can sell their time as a human to buy things, and when their time is up, they become robotic workers, servants to the humans, keeping the city going, until they have served enough time to be ‘reborn’ as humans. As a society of immortals goes, it’s remarkably well balanced. To Rajaniemi’s credit, this concept plays into the development of the plot intimately as well.


    If you’ve got this far you probably have some idea how I’ve struggled to articulate how fertile this novel is for both great writing, storytelling and far future world-building.


    It’s a difficult read, and having started the sequel, which opens up more of the thief’s backstory and the bigger picture generally, obliquely referenced in this debut, it is only getting more difficult, more layered. If you found Cloud Atlas easy to follow, this might be a heartier meal. I’m hanging on by the coat-tails as Rajaniemi drags me through this amazingly conceived universe. I can’t offer greater praise to another writer than that they send me back to my own work feeling like ‘I’ve got a long way to go, must try harder!’

  9. #19
    My review of Twilight. I had fun with this one:

    I knew I had to read this series at one point in order to adequately make light of it, as well as to avoid the eternal cry of die hard fans "But you didn't even READ it! You don't understand Bella's eternal love for Edwards tawny eyes and gleaming creamy pale chest!"

    But how to make myself sledge through what I knew would be some pretty terrible writing?

    The answer and setting: I have come down with Strep throat, I have 104 degree fever and my attention span is now about the same as a three year old cracked up on sugar. Perfect!

    In my fevered state the glaringly obvious grammar issues didn't bother me, but the main characters did. If you could call them 'main' or 'characters'. Because the two things that stood out to me the most was:

    A] All the supporting characters were infinitely more interesting than Edward, Bella, and Jacob. They had histories and personalities (excepting Bella's mother, whom Bella clearly inherited her flatness from). I could see a good book being written about Carlyle and Esme, or Alice and Jasper. Or the Volturi. Hell, even Bella's dad. I'd sooner read a book starring her dad's mustache than re-read this series. Maybe not if it was written by Meyer, but I digress.

    B} Edward is amazingly immature for someone who is supposed to be 108 years old. He acts like an angsty teenager and makes decisions like one. He breaks up with his emotionally unstable girlfriend (who has basically said she did not want to live without him) in order to supposedly protect her. Great job protecting her by abandoning her in the middle of a forest!

    There are dozens of more instances of poor character development, bad plotting, gross plot twists, and more, but those have all been covered in other reviews so I will leave them be.

    I read the entire series in three days, although as I was getting better at the end of that third day I skimmed through most of Breaking Dawn (I think I got enough of the general idea though, don't worry).

    The only good thing that came out of these books are the movies and the subsequent rifftrax of them. If you have not watched the twilight series rifftrax I highly recommend them - It's basically the guys from MST3K plundering the ripe field of bad writing and acting that is the movie franchise.

    I thought The Host was much better, so it seems Meyer may be learning from her mistakes. Here's hoping.

  10. #20
    Member BurntMason84's Avatar
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    One of the last books I had read was The Historian. Not sure how to set it in a genre... maybe a historical fiction, suspense and horror elements? Not horror in the sense of Friday the 13th or Final Destination, but more along the line of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Great writing appeal, the world around the character is painted immaculately. And maybe I'm a bit naive, but the book does take a dramatic turn of an historical fiction/biography unto horror pretty quickly and without warning; truly took me for a loop.

    If I had to say a downside, was that at some parts, it was drawn out quite a bit with needless information or back story, or that the ending was kind of anticlimactic. Not bad, just not what I had expected the way it was going.

    Quote Originally Posted by InnerFlame00 View Post
    The only good thing that came out of these books are the movies and the subsequent rifftrax of them. If you have not watched the twilight series rifftrax I highly recommend them - It's basically the guys from MST3K plundering the ripe field of bad writing and acting that is the movie franchise.
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    When life gives you lemons... don't make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad!
    I don't want your damn lemons, what am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life's manager!
    Do you know who I am? I'm the man who's gonna burn your house down! With the lemons!
    - Cave Johnson, Aperture Science

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