Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

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Book #134: Leviathan Wakes (2011)

author: James S.A. Corey
language: English
length: 19 hours and 8 minutes (1,148 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 May 2017

I got this audiobook on the recommendation of a coworker or manager, I think, when I mentioned I was into sci-fi and looking for a new book to read. So I decided to get it sometime during April, and was listening to it when I went cycling. I had planned to go on something more like a cycling trek during April, but sickness and injury stopped me in my tracks somewhat. But this book was still a nice companion to long bike rides, when I got the chance. It took me a long time to finish, of course – the last audiobook was A Symphony of Echoes, a whole month before this one.

The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is a bit confusing. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use their own names – maybe it makes it easier to publish, or something. They wrote alternate chapters of the book, which are from the point of view of different characters.

It took me a few listens to twig that alternate chapters were from disparate points of view. The universe set up by the book is pretty grandiose, and it took a bit of getting used to. The two characters, Holden and Miller, meet up and get split up later in the book, but at first they don’t know each other. And the story takes a while to really get going.

The book is set in a colonized solar system – faster than light travel is impossible, but there’s some kind of constant-thrust drive that makes quick travel easy. This is actually a fairly common idea – it was also in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), for example, although if you’ve been keeping up with my reviews you’ll know I didn’t like that book much, or in Ultima – in those books there was some kind of infinite-like supply of energy that was used to travel interstellar distances. It was also used in The Adventures of Tintin, back in the 1950s, and the effects of gravity on humans reminded me strongly of what happened in the Moon expedition comics. This also made clear one of the other problems with We Are Bob – Bob could go up to 10 g or more without any issues, as he’s a computer projection, but in general the human characters in Leviathan Wakes can only go up to 3 g safely, and have to take a dangerous cocktail of drugs to stay awake and alive at higher thrust levels.

This level of realism made it feel a lot “harder” than the other sci-fi I’d been reading – and in general, gravity is very important to the story, reminding readers of this constantly. There’s rivalry between stocky inner-planet types, who “grew up in a gravity well”, and taller, more spindly types who grew up in the asteroid belt. That brings me to the other thing I liked a lot about this book, which is that it’s very realistic racially and linguistically. The “belters” have a special argot or pidgin that they use to communicate, which is difficult to understand when it’s being read aloud on the audiobook, but lends a special level of realism to the book. I was also glad to see that not everyone speaks English – Russian, Bengali and Hindi at the very least are mentioned a lot during the book.

As the story develops there are a couple of revelations that stretch the boundary of what I’d consider “hard” sci-fi, but this allows the book to also have a mystery feel to it, and even have a few straight-up zombie horror scenes. I imagine it would look exciting on film – and indeed, there’s apparently a TV series, called The Expanse after the name of the book series. I guess I’d better get my act together and try to watch that at some point. I’m not that up-to-date with TV.

Anyway, there are a lot more levels to this story, such as the character Miller’s attachment to Julie Mao, a girl whose disappearance he’s been investigating. And stuff is generally set up and foreshadowed well. So in general, although it took a very long time to finish this book, I enjoyed it a lot and have now downloaded the next book to listen – as of writing this, it’s the next in my queue of things to listen to. But I’m a few weeks behind on reviewing, so it’ll be a while before I get to reviewing it!

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

Book #133: A Symphony of Echoes (2013)

author: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 524 minutes (8 hours 44 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 April 2017

This is the sequel to Just One Damned Thing After Another, a book I listened to back in November about time travel. I was a bit lukewarm about the book, I think – it kept me interested but it was a bit too madcap for my liking.

This book is more of the same. Its historical sections are great and well-researched – this time they visit Edinburgh during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, for example, to try and “correct” the timeline. They also go forward in time to a future version of their institution, but I got confused at this point how far forward it was meant to be.

The book itself suffers a few structural problems: mainly, it’s too episodic. I feel like I’m reading (well, hearing) three or four short stories instead of one coherent novel. It’s unclear what the central conflict of the novel is meant to be. For example, at the beginning, the author introduces Jack the Ripper as this kind of monster that is difficult to kill, which they manage to do, but it’s never mentioned again. Where did it come from? Perhaps it’s for a later instalment of the series – Taylor has been pretty prolific, after all.

On a similar note, there are so many characters and timelines, it’s very easy for Taylor to just kill off characters. Like there’s a character called David, the main character’s assistant – I can’t remember when or how he was introduced, but he suddenly dies in the middle of the story of something unrelated to the main plot, and the main character is upset, but it’s ultimately inconsequential and didn’t really shed any insight.

One of the things I liked about the other book was it didn’t shy away from depicting sexual assault or the other nasty things that women often have to go through, and there was still a bit of that theme, but not as strongly as the first book. It comes up as a moral dilemma at the end, but I thought it cheapened it a bit this time, didn’t quite work as well as I would hope.

The other thing was the narrator of the audiobook. She’s good at accents, but not so good at timing her speech to match the tone of the words. There’s a bit in the middle where the main character is so shocked by something that happens, and she goes on a literal rampage, driven by these words echoing in her mind, and the way the narrator says them doesn’t match to how I think they “should” sound. It was too frantic. It’s not the only example. I feel like she was trying to read through the book as fast as possible.

The book really just needs a bit more focus, because I think there’s a lot of compelling stuff there. As it is it’s a bit of a mess. But maybe that’s the point. After all, the main character is proud – in a very English way – of how messily her cohort all work and how much they love tea. Taylor needs to learn not to apply that quite so strictly to her books, though.

Book #124: A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)

acacoauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English and some invented languages
length: 789 minutes (13 hours, 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 December 2016

This is the second book in the series of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. When I finished that book back in September, the sequel hadn’t been released yet. I think it came out in October. Like its predecessor, it’s coincided with an uptick in the amount of cycling I’ve been doing (during which time I generally have it on), as I’m finally getting over various muscle injuries I’ve had during this year. Indeed, I had injured my elbows back in September because of bad posture on my bike, so I’ve now been able to fix the bike position and other stuff.

So I say it’s a sequel, and that’s only kind of true. It’s following two minor characters from the previous book – Pepper, a techie with a mysterious past, and the AI Lovelace, known as Sidra from about the second or third chapter, who was rebooted at the end of the last book with a scrubbed memory, much to the despair of all the other characters. Basically, Pepper convinces the AI to be reinstalled into a body-kit, like a hyper-realistic android, and then this story is about her journey as she settles into her new body, and the people she meets. In alternate chapters, it also looks into Pepper’s origin story as Jane 23 – a slave clone on a decadent world, sorting through junk in a scrap yard in a world populated by “Enhanced” humans. Sounds like something out of the Hunger Games.

Both characters’ arcs are about finding identity, similar to some of the themes of the first book, finding friendship, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s coming-of-age, essentially. Sidra’s story is often about being the “ghost in the machine” – she never feels connected to her body, doesn’t feel ownership of it, until really the end of the book. Part of her journey is literally hacking into her programming to be able to tell lies, and this seems to be one of the keys to her feeling in control of her body. Jane/Pepper’s story is more about finding one’s purpose in life, which is reflected to an extent in Sidra’s story, with a hefty dollop of PTSD and the other effects of an abusive childhood – especially at first, as not having a task to do would lead to punishment in her factory.

Compared to the last book, it’s less of a space opera and more of an interpersonal drama set nominally in space. There are maybe five characters we need to care about throughout, which is a lot less taxing to keep track of, and they don’t really go off-world – no journeying through hyperspace like before. But Chambers uses the opportunity to explore the cultures of her invented universe a lot more, and various cultures are mentioned and expanded that weren’t before. It’s like a warm embrace welcoming me back into her world – it’s only been a few months since the last one, and even then it’s nice to come back into it, with all the unique words and expressions that her future people use.

If I’m to give any outright criticism of the book, as I did before with The Long Way…, it’s going to be mostly nitpicking. Perhaps I wasn’t fully satisfied with the genders again (and the narrator is still awkward saying the epicene pronoun xe) – this time we see that the Aeluons have four genders, but I’d prefer to say four physiological sexes or phenotypes. The extra two genders are basically bigender and agender in our modern context, but they’re actually physically different from males and females.

Anyway, one character Tak switches between male and female every other scene, similar to the character Corey/Kory in The Art of Breathing, which I listened to last year. But unlike that, where the male and female represent different sides of the character and their psyche, I didn’t perceive any significant difference in the way that Tak is presented or the way other characters react to them in one gender or the other. It’s more a game of working out which pronoun the character is using in each chapter. Basically I think I’d have liked a more in-depth look at how this affects the society and the characters.

But those are pretty minor points, and they’re not the main thrust of the story. Just like The Long Way…, it’s a great female-driven sci-fi-esque story about friendship and found family, and that alone should be enough to recommend it. It’s also funny and sweet in equal measures, and towards the end I couldn’t stop listening (some other audiobooks, I can only withstand about an hour at a time before I start tuning out). OK, perhaps a bit saccharine at times, but nonetheless a great listen. The two books are standalone, and one can really read them in any order, but I think the previous book is a better starting point overall. It will fill in a lot of background that’s missing from this book, and it’s a more conventional sci-fi story. But this is a really good book.

Book #123: Just One Damned Thing After Another (2013)

jodtaaauthor: Jodi Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours, 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 November 2016

This book is another one that kept coming up in the sci-fi section of Audible, and eventually I got around to listening to it. It’s about time travel, and some historians who go back to investigate real life events and get a better insight into what actually happened.

It’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that is obviously carried out lovingly by someone who’s well into her history, as a lot of things are described in great and accurate detail. Linguistic and cultural matters are not glossed over, so the characters take a great deal of training to be ready for their travels.

The book’s sense of humour very obviously takes after Terry Pratchett, especially with the idea of a very disorganized band of misfits saying “bloody hell” a lot. It works well, but I think it’s Taylor’s first book, and I think she needs to find a bit more of her own style.

One thing I found, though, was the book was so full of ideas it was often spilling over. One the one side, there are the sci-fi aspects with time travel paradoxes and the like, and the intrigue plot with the breakaway characters from the future timeline, but it’s also trying to depict a bunch of disparate time periods, and the present-day characters’ relationships and interpersonal drama – and there are also a lot of characters to juggle. There’s also frank discussion of issues such as sexual assault (which is dealt with sensibly and sensitively), but it often comes as a bit of a shock after the romping nature of a lot of the rest of the book.

I felt when listening to the audiobook that I could often miss key points due to the fast pace – the time travel paradoxes were often explained in an almost throwaway sentence, or five years suddenly pass in the middle of the book when it glosses over their years-long training period, or a character seems to go missing and I had presumed her dead until she arrives back in the story later on. I think a slower pace would work well for this. I also had a bit of trouble distinguishing minor characters, or even major characters like the “chief” and “boss”, who were different, although the narrator had a good voice for accents and could mitigate this a lot.

But the story was well-told, overall, and it left enough mystery at the end that I might like to continue with the series. I’ll see, though – it’s pretty long at about nine books already. I don’t know if I have the stamina!

Anyone else read this?

Book #116: Ultima (2014)

ultimaauthor: Stephen Baxter
language: English with bits of Latin and a couple of other languages that would be spoilers
length: 513 pages
finished on: 20 October 2016

I had a bad experience with the audiobook of Proxima, the previous book in this two-part series by Stephen Baxter, which takes place largely on a tidally-locked exoplanet. They’ve actually found such a planet orbiting the real-life Proxima Centauri, by the way – exciting times!

The narrator of the audiobook was truly awful, as he’s putting on a fake British accent and failing badly at it. So for this instalment I decided to read the paper book instead. I’m pretty glad that I did – I enjoyed Proxima enough that I wanted to continue the series, but that narrator was painful to listen to, so this time I could enjoy the story much more easily. I did something I rarely do, which was sit down for several hours just devouring the last two hundred pages of the book (I had other stuff I wanted to get to).

Anyway, the last book leaves on a big cliffhanger – the characters have just walked through a cosmic gateway called a “Hatch” by the story, and they find themselves face-to-face with spacefaring Romans. This book goes into the details of how the Romans came to be in space. Essentially the whole thing takes place in a kind of parallel universe – it’s like the universe reset itself when they walked through the Hatch and when these special wormholes called “kernels” (still only described in passing and vaguely) were exploded with a nuclear weapon, releasing a stupid amount of energy. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, to be honest – I thought the Romans were just coincidentally in space, and we’d find out about a convoluted chain of events that got them there.

It turns out that the Library of Alexandria hadn’t been destroyed, or something, and the Romans had discovered spaceflight – and their empire had stayed intact, eventually rivaling the Chinese (“Xin”) and British / Celts / Scandinavians (“Brikanti”), who partially conquer and discover the Americas, calling it Valhalla in a not-so-curious echo of some of Terry Pratchett’s works – it was alluded to in Pratchett and Baxter’s joint works like The Long Earth, and originally came from one of Pratchett’s older pre-Discworld novels, I think Strata.

Baxter has also recreated the three deadlocked empires-at-arms structure of 1984 almost exactly (Europe, China, and UK/America). As in 1984, I didn’t quite buy it, as I don’t perceive the modern world that way. I liked Baxter’s fleshing-out of the civilizations, though, and when (spoilers!) the universe resets itself again halfway through the book, and they discover Incas living in a deep space habitat, this civilization is also described nicely in a lot of detail.

I think this kind of storytelling, focusing on the bigger picture and describing whole civilizations, is Baxter’s strength. I wasn’t as impressed this time with his characters, as I thought too many of them weren’t developed enough. I found some of them bitter and vindictive, even when they should have had enough time to get over their gripes. I also found that there were too many minor and undistinguished Roman characters. One of them stays to the last act, and only then develops a distinctive comic verbal tic.

He also had some of his characters stay behind on their ship when they go to meet the Incas, and it took me a while to realize where they’d gone, as it was in a throwaway sentence. I found this just indicated he’d ended up with too many characters and had to get rid of some for a while. It was a bit of a long while though, timeline-wise. At the same time, he’s not afraid to kill off characters. In a book with such long-reaching arcs and grandiose scope like this, it can be make or break. It was certainly “break” for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, which suffers from similar characterization and overpopulation problems, but refuses to kill off its main characters, to the point that they become uninteresting.

Linguistically the book cut a lot of corners, too – the two robot characters, one a glorified farming machine that is later compressed into a tablet and carried around by a Chinese slave boy, and the other a scheming mastermind type, seem to both have universal translators, even for languages that have never been discovered before. By modern technology, this is absolutely impossible, and I have a hard time believing these science fiction models could do any better. Classical Latin is also still used by the Romans in what is essentially the modern day, and to match this, their technology is also oddly old-fashioned. Again, not believable – there’s a concrete reason this didn’t happen in the real world.

Incidentally, this sets it apart from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, where a similar level of technology exists (I already mentioned on that review that both books contain a kind of iPad-like tablet, but with different invented names), but that book and author, while not quite as up on scientific lingo, treated linguistic issues much more realistically – they need a trained interpreter, for example, instead of hand-waving away the issue.

In the final act it becomes clear what the purpose is of the Hatches, and it turns out to be these great world-level brains reminiscent of Solaris, embedded in the rock of many different planets. The name “Ultima”, furthest, is supposed to be the opposite of Proxima, nearest, and it turns out the furthest planet is actually the same planet as Proxima, just at the end of time. This was also not explained very well, but it goes that there is an end event like a great release of energy somehow – also the origin of the so-called “kernel” wormholes. But I found the explanation of this to be flimsy, something about statistics and the assumption that we must be in the middle times of the universe. People have conjectured it and put the idea forth in papers, and Baxter has a bibliography at the back of the book to check – but I find it more of a philosophical than scientific question, more of a conjecture than a theory.

Basically I was happy to read about this story again. I think it’s run its course now, and I’m happy with this conclusion overall, even if I don’t agree with the ideas in the ending times event. I don’t think this book was as strong as the previous one, however – it’s a bit too grandiose in scope, and not focused on character in the same way. The previous book is more concerned with life on an exoplanet, and this descends into almost-but-not-quite philosophical discussions on the multiverse. Ultimately, I recommend that one over this one.

Book #115: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

1984author: George Orwell
language: English
length: 742 minutes (12 hours 22 minutes)
finished listening on: 12 October 2016

Cynics will say this book is ever more relevant today than ever. I’m not so sure, but it’s certainly a warning worth heeding. I’ve never actually read the book before now, but by that weird kind of cultural osmosis, I’m well aware of most of the aspects of the book – Big Brother, Room 101, and so on. As with the last review I wrote today, I’m going to assume that you are also aware of what happens in this book.

But it might be worrying that those concepts are known to me through early-2000s reality TV shows. Like our culture was trying to package up those concepts to be less scary or induce a different reaction. Like the whole concept of Newspeak. No, I don’t think our vapid culture is the same as the one depicted in this book – I think that’s exaggerating, but it’s useful to point out aspects that are similar, and conclude that we should work to change those aspects.

I’m not quite convinced by some parts of the book. I think it gets over-the-top at points. I don’t believe in the division of the world into three big empires, when I perceive the nationalism and the wave of independence of former colonies that happened after Orwell wrote his book. But those empires correspond to America, Russia and China, so perhaps it is accurate after all. It’s obvious that Orwell was warning about the rise of fascism and/or communism post-war (and that is indeed something we should be very worried about in today’s world), but it’s unclear what he would proffer as a decent replacement to those systems.

The book is well-written and doesn’t mess around in making its point, but at the same time, it’s repetitive, a habit that Orwell seems to have to try to get his point across by making it constantly. I found the interrogation scenes genuinely scary, though. At this point, hearing the characters explaining Ingsoc and why it’s a positive force for mankind made me feel a bit ill. The whole idea of making people genuinely believe what you want them to believe, through torture, is reminiscent of the “debate” around conversion therapy, and I’m quite glad that, while fascism is on the rise, and the new American administration is threatening their citizens with such treatment, I don’t see this having happened yet in my experience and my country, if it will at all. If it can at all.

That said, forced confessions are a big thing here in Japan. Just thought I’d throw that one out there. None of us are free from sin.

But exactly that – I’m not sure these things are realistic, to the level that Orwell writes about it. Newspeak as a concept is scientifically on very shaky ground – I firmly believe language-as-mind-control could not happen as described in this book, and most linguists would agree. Linguistic determinism was still having its heyday in 1949, I’m guessing, and I can excuse Orwell this infraction. The Newspeak words have to an extent entered the popular vocabulary, and I still see people talking about doublethink and double-plus-ungood things. It’s like child vocabulary.

Anyway, the audiobook presentation was a bit unemotional, but perfunctory. I enjoyed it overall, but mainly for the writing, not the performance. I think if you haven’t read this yet, you should. It’s unfortunately relevant to the modern day. Leave a comment if you agree or disagree!

Book #112: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

lwsmaauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English
length: 941 minutes (15 hours 41 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 September 2016

I chose to listen to this audiobook after Audible kept pushing it on me, basically, but I’m glad overall that I chose it. It also coincided with me getting on my bike more often as the weather mellowed out at the beginning of September, and my sore wrist started healing well enough that I could get on my bike again, so thinking about the book reminds me of going out on my bike and listening to it.

It’s a space opera in the traditional sense of the word, a soap opera in space – it calls to mind things such as Star Trek, and many have compared it to Firefly… but its alien species are much more inventive than either of those (did Firefly even have aliens, come to think of it?). You can do a lot more in book form than it was easy to do on TV in the 20th century without CGI.

Here we have bipedal giant lizards, insectoids, and these blob-shaped things who need mobility scooters and are somehow in effective control of the galaxy. I’ll come back to them later. Having done a bit of cursory research, I’ve realized that I don’t know how to spell any of the names of the aliens (Aandrisk, Aeluon, Quelin, instead of Andrisk, Aluon, and Quellin as they were in my mind), however, and probably most of the characters too – I know at least that the main character is Rosemarie instead of Rosemary. Such are the risks of going with the audiobook version of something.

It follows the story of a “tunneling” ship, whose job it is to create hyperspace links between different parts of the galaxy. They get the job of a lifetime, but it’s going to take them a year to get there. The aforementioned Rosemarie is a new addition to the crew, which is why I think of her as the main character – we’re introduced to the assortment of other characters through her eyes, after all – but each character gets in the limelight eventually. The number of characters is manageable, and they’re all fully fleshed-out by the end of the book. I’m glad the author managed to avoid introducing too many characters. That said, the two “techie” characters blended in my mind, and the narrator wasn’t always good at distinguishing characters by voice, so I still lost track sometimes.

Overall it focuses on these characters and their interactions rather than the grandiose galactic politics going on in the background, and this also worked well in its favour. It does raise some interesting questions using its characters – identity politics is front-and-centre, as it seems it’s not easy to adopt a new identity in this world, and there are other questions raised by interspecies romance (interspecies lesbian romance also features, which is nice!), and even human-AI romance. There’s also a religious question with one species. The author is sending out a message of tolerance, which is nice. She’s also obsessed with sex, I think – so much of the novel is devoted to the different sexual mores of the other species.

I liked it, and I enjoyed the road-trip, episodic nature of it, although (spoilers!) the climax was a bit… anti-climactic. I liked seeing all the different species and I also thought it was good that they didn’t all speak the same language – the main characters speak “Clip”, and the others don’t necessarily do so. Something else I read recently was guilty of using “universal translators”, which might as well be magic. I also liked that it fits into a wider sci fi canon – it uses “ansibles” (a kind of hyperspace communicator), popularized by Ursula LeGuin way back when and used by many other authors since (Orson Scott Card, for example). I liked the glimpses we got into how the culture and technology has changed since the present day, like “scribs”, the author’s word for iPad-like tablets (I’ve noticed these show up in a lot of sci fi recently, and no authors seem to want to call them tablets), although she abbreviates “ansible” to “sib”, so this was confusing for me, as the words sound the same.

I did have a few problems with it, though. First off, the “human culture” that she describes (averse to touch, likes handshakes, and all that) is very America-centric. True, humans don’t go to the extent of her Aandrisks, who are more like bonobo chimps in their sexual proclivity, but it was that and a few other points that made me want to introduce the author to cultures outside her own in the real world.

Similarly, the term “solar year” should be “Earth year” or “terran year” or something – the main character Rosemarie grew up on Mars, so her solar year should be different. It’s a minor point, but it bothered me. The book has its own calendar, using “GC standard years” (GC is… galactic core?), but it’s never explained what this means other than that it’s longer than an earth year. It uses “tendays” instead of “weeks” and “months”, which I think would look good in print, but is often ambiguous when said out loud (the narrator reads “tendays later”, with a meaning like “about a month later”, the same as she would say “ten days later”). That said, the author uses new words relatively sparingly for a sci-fi novel, and it’s easy to get used to the new words.

The bigger thing I had a problem with was the treatment of gender across different species. The author and some reviews have made a big deal of the use of gender-neutral pronouns (xe and xir, or something like that). I’m ambivalent about these in real life anyway, as I don’t think they sound natural, and the narrator stumbled over them a few times. Most places where they’re used it’s in a place where it’d be more natural in English to use epicene “they” – but “they” is reserved for a character who considers themselves an amalgamation of two minds. I got a bit annoyed by the idiosyncracy here, really, but I don’t really mind, because they’re not supposed to be speaking English, so this is like a translation-convention kind of deal.

OK, so that’s fine, but I was expecting there to be a stronger motivation for having a separate epicene pronoun in the first place, and it turns out all of Chambers’ alien species had male/female dichotomic sexual reproduction. Even the insectoids and the aliens that look like blobs. Some transferred from female in earlier life to male later, and one has parthenogenesis in some females, but I found that the few times the epicene pronouns were even used, it was the situation where the other characters didn’t know their gender yet. The situation where modern English always uses “they”, even transphobic grammar-nazis. Honestly, I’d have liked to have seen an alien species which genuinely had no genders.

There was a point when the author pointed out in-story that, yes, all her species are based on DNA, and I think sexual reproduction was probably part of that package. I think this was so that she could work in a familiar framework when designing new species, and so that they could all eat each other’s food, but that doesn’t have to mean a binary gender system for everyone. For all the inventiveness of Chambers’ biological diversity, the lack of diversity in gender and sex systems bothered me more than just the use of invented pronouns, which is a really minor thing.

But even that’s pretty minor. The book is fun, and there’s a lot to like about it. As I mentioned above, I liked a lot of things about it. I think it’s a strong debut from the author, and I hope that some other people have read it. I have more thoughts about this that I don’t really have space for, by the way. I’ve already said enough – it’s always the ones I like that I write more about, after all. Maybe we could discuss it – leave your thoughts down below if you agree/disagree!

Book #109: The Long Cosmos (2016)

The-Long-Cosmosauthors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 385 pages
finished on: 25 July 2016
others in this series: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Terry Pratchett’s still turning out to be prolific beyond the grave, it turns out – this is the second book released in the Long Earth since he passed away last year. Apparently the last chapters were finished off by Stephen Baxter alone, in fact.

This picks the characters up as old men – the character Joshua Valienté is now in his sixties or seventies, and goes off for a final trip through the Long Earth, that strange multiverse introduced in the previous books in the series. He’s very similar to the authors’ ages now, and they wrote this very successfully, I thought. He gets trapped somewhere when he gets injured, and is taken care of by a troll, one of the other species of hominids that can step from world to world.

So where The Long Utopia, the fourth book, was about Valienté’s family history, and the history of the Long Earth by extension, this book explores the other species of the Long Earth, including the trolls, and what they call “elves”, introduced in the first book and almost forgotten since then. The trolls are depicted as a gorilla on the front cover, which I don’t think is accurate – it should be more like Homo erectus, or like neanderthals, from the descriptions in the book. They can also communicate with the human characters using a kind of translator microphone thing, briefly mentioned a few books ago, although somehow humans and trolls can’t truly learn each other’s language – this is hand-waved away a few times by saying the grammar doesn’t match properly. I liked this look into trolls – they were always elusive before, and even disappeared completely during one of the stories.

Not to deliberately spoil anything, but the book ends with a very grandiose cosmic tying together of loose threads, with a philosophical justification for the Long Earth that I didn’t buy completely. It’s at this point that I start to tease out Baxter’s style from Pratchett’s, which I found difficult to do in the first book, but having now read two of Baxter’s books – Proxima and its sequel Ultima, which I’ve yet to review – these both have similar themes, exploring the nature of the multiverse with slightly far-fetched explanations. Despite this, I was overall satisfied with the book’s conclusion. Of course, I only recommend it if you’ve read the other books first!