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?

Film #289: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

director: Stanley Kubrick
language: English
length: 137 minutes
watched on: 2 May 2017

I’ve put off watching this movie for a long time – I think I always thought it would be more gruesome or shocking than it ultimately turned out to be. I did the same with films like Se7en, or even Sebastiane. Or The Silence of the Lambs, which I actually have but just haven’t gotten around to yet.

The film was made in the 1970s by Stanley Kubrick – along with Sebastiane, The Devils, and a few others, I borrowed it from my friends. Incidentally, I’m kind of getting used to some of the tropes of 1970s cinema that have died out since, like brightly-coloured credits cards. The film is set in the future, which is interesting to see, because the image of the future from back then is one of brutalism and strange outfits. The main characters in the film speak with this unusual argot, whose apparent purpose is to stop the film from dating badly. At any point, it could potentially be future slang.

It starts with scenes of gruesome violence and rape – and I didn’t know this, but apparently, Kubrick actually pulled it from UK distribution because he didn’t want to influence the youth of the day. But although we’re later invited to sympathize with the main character Alex, and the film takes an ambiguous stand about the violence itself, I did definitely see the satirical blackly comic side of it – especially later on, or in the prison scenes. And there’s a lot of homoeroticism in the movie. It has a lot of layers.

For sure, the famous scene where Alex gets his eyes clamped open in a form of extreme aversion therapy is pretty horrific (apparently Malcolm McDowell’s eyes were actually damaged during the scene), but I didn’t find the rest of it as shocking as I thought, basically. I was more just surprised because I hadn’t realized he had a Yorkshire accent. I think I expected it to be set in America. I can be really ignorant sometimes…

Kubrick’s signature styles, such as being very exacting about the contents of the movie’s frame, are comparable to his other work like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen his other work, so I enjoyed that aspect of the movie. I saw about half of Full Metal Jacket a couple of years ago, so I think I should go back and watch the rest of that. That movie is reflected in the attitudes of the authority figures in the prison scenes.

There’s a debate in the third act of the film, when Alex gets out of prison but now starts to retch and get sick because of the aversion therapy whenever he considers violence or sex, about whether this constitutes a violation of his free will. I thought it was interesting, especially since it’s made clear he doesn’t really know the terms he’s signing up for, but I’m not sure I believed that the aversion therapy would be so successful if it were real.

So I liked it overall. I should have watched it ages ago – that’s my only regret. How about you, what do 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 #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

Book #131: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016)

author: Dennis E. Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 10 March 2017

I like science fiction books, and I’ve been through enough of them that most of what Audible recommends me now are sci-fi (that and cheap knock-offs of the Peter Grant books). But sci-fi for me can be hit and miss, and this unwieldily-titled book is for me an almost exact repeat of Ready Player One. It’s compelling enough to finish and has a nice central idea, but doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons – and yet has very high reviews on Audible and Amazon, leading me to try it.

The central idea is that the main character Bob signs up for a new cryogenic freezing project, but his consciousness is instead uploaded a hundred years later into a spaceship intended as a Von Neumann probe – a self-replicating deep space explorer. His job is then to go out to the nearest stars and try to find planets where earthlings can colonize, then to replicate himself and send the new replicants out to other planets, and so on.

I think a lot of its appeal to mid-30s men is that it’s full of pop-culture references. The main character often references Star Trek, for example. One of the 22nd century human characters remarks that he has to brush up on his 20th century sci-fi, and I felt the same way. The other thing is that every time Bob replicates himself the new replicant adopts a new name, often taken from pop culture. Things like Riker from Star Trek, or Homer Simpson, or Calvin and Hobbes. So there is a nice element here if you can recognize the names.

The book also borrows heavily from 1984 with its political fragmentation – there’s an American equivalent, a United States of Europe, and China controlling all of East-Asia. It does have a Brazilian Empire, the main antagonists, an African republic, and Australia, so not as simplified, but when Bob wakes up in the 22nd century they’re talking about the Ministry of Truth in the new American theocracy called “F.A.I.T.H.” – with such name changes, it could get difficult at times to remember what the book’s countries were meant to be.

Basically my main problem with the book is it doesn’t have any coherent structure, and it doesn’t have a proper ending, as it ends on a bunch of cliffhangers. I think the author wants to set up a big space opera setting, but it’s a bit tedious. I would have much preferred something that gave closure on some kind of main plot, but as it is, it’s difficult to say which is the main plot. It splits off after the first replication into one character that stays to try and terraform a planet, another who goes back to Earth to try and sort out the political situation there, and several who go on to other planets. The original Bob ends up finding a “primitive” alien civilization and influences them, while a more introverted replicant finds evidence of a larger alien civilization who have strip-mined a solar system – but this is part of the teaser for the next book, it seems.

The other problem is, there’s just one character, and he’s boring and obnoxious. The book goes to pains to distinguish the new Bobs from one another, giving them new names, and in some cases the narrator of the audiobook tries unsuccessfully to give them new voices (but he can’t imitate Homer Simpson, who ends up sounding like a Minnesotan or Canadian). They talk about how their personalities differ… but it’s not enough. It’s a cast of one guy talking to his own clones. I know this could be done effectively – although it’s a different medium, just look at Orphan Black, for instance, where one actress plays upwards of ten completely different characters. Bob is just a bit masculine in an insipid way, and this book is what a lack of diversity looks like. (There’s also a more minor issue that reminded me of Neptune’s Brood, in that the now-robotic character is hard to relate to in a human way.)

I also had major issues with the tribal culture he comes across. They don’t look like humans, but in every other way, they do. They have two genders, the strong males who do the hunting and the weak females who do the childrearing and gathering fruits and berries. The author even speculates that this might be universal. Like, he can do whatever he wants in his own universe, but I’ll never be convinced that aliens follow the American/Western gender binary. On those last two points, I just want to mention The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – in that case, although I was annoyed that the aliens tended to have a gender binary, it was almost always completely different from what we’re used to. And the set of characters didn’t consist of one guy replicated over and over. It was, in a word, more diverse.

OK, I have one more problem, actually. The fight scenes never left me feeling in jeopardy. None of the Bobs actually get killed in a fight until quite near the end. But as soon as they started replicating, I was hoping the author would consider them more disposable and start killing them off to engender a sense of danger when confronting the other characters. They also use the same tactics each battle. I just got bored with these scenes.

I did keep going with the book because I did want to find out what happened next, and I think there is a sense of wit there. It’s just, it’s not what I would hope for in sci fi. The book closes with humans settling on two planets, that our nerd fanboy main character has named after two planets in the Star Trek universe, and the book’s final line (spoilers lol) is “Roddenberry would be proud”, and I completely disagree – Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a character-driven diverse show that tried to break boundaries in society (viz. the first interracial kiss on American TV and the strong gay subtext between Kirk and Spock)… and this book is an idea-driven book about one straight white American dudebro talking to himself for most of the book. I hate to break it down to simplistic labels like that – I don’t think those kinds of arguments necessarily hold water, but “Roddenberry would be proud” is a strong claim.

So if you want flawed but amusing soft sci fi fluff, it’s okay. It does its job. If you’re expecting more, there’s plenty of better stuff out there.

Film #269: Arrival (2016)

arrivaldirector: Denis Villeneuve
language: English and some Mandarin
length: 116 minutes
watched on: 24 Feb 2017

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while now, because it’s circulated among linguist circles online that it’s a sci-fi movie that includes linguistics. Opinion is divided on whether it does this well, naturally, but however you feel, it’s infinitely better than the way languages and linguistics are normally treated by filmmakers.

I didn’t know much about it – people have been pretty good at not spoiling the movie, thankfully. I can’t promise anything, but I’ve tried to keep more explicit spoilers out of this review… but even small things I mention in passing here might spoil the movie in a small way, so I strongly recommend watching the movie before reading about it. In the story, Amy Adams is Louise, a linguist who’s drafted to try and translate the language of some mysterious aliens who land on Earth. Said aliens themselves haven’t been spoiled, nor has their language, so I’m reluctant to give too much away – suffice to say they look great, if a bit goofy, and the language has a unique visual design aspect to it.

My main criticism of the movie is that the central premise relies too much on the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought). The question is not clear-cut (see Through the Language Glass for a book with a more in-depth discussion of how the weaker version of the hypothesis holds water), but that was the part I didn’t agree with, and the point at which I was skeptical.

But what it does with that idea is where the film surpasses any of that. And as I mentioned, the depiction of what linguistics is, and the kinds of methods used to contact peoples that have never been contacted, is completely accurate. There’s an important moment early on where, to prove a point, Amy Adams’ character tells the story that “kangaroo” meant “I don’t understand” in some Aboriginal language, which is why it’s important to be completely sure when communicating – and she immediately follows it up to another character with something like “By the way, it’s not actually true”. And that’s more than I can say for, well, any other movie ever.

I don’t say this lightly, but I genuinely believe this is a modern sci-fi classic. I’m going to try and avoid spoiling it outright, but here’s the thing: I was very annoyed by the movie’s setup. In the opening shots of the movie, we see Amy Adams’ backstory: her daughter being born, growing up, and then dying in her teens. It reminded me a lot of Up, the Pixar movie, but for some reason I didn’t feel the same emotional impact of it. It felt like it was going through the motions somehow. Later in the movie, I was frustrated by Adams’ character having hints of what I saw as an unnecessary romance with Jeremy Renner. But, there’s a twist in the final act of the film, and although it does push the boundary of reality a bit, it’s so monumental that it instantly justified any of what came before it, adding whole complex layers to Adams’ performance and her character’s situation.

It’s one of those one-line-changes-everything twists, on a par with The Sixth Sense, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Fight Club, or any of the usual suspects you think of when you think of movies with twists (OK I hate myself for making that pun), or indeed the last film I watched, The Girl on the Train. I don’t usually get the strong feeling that I should rewatch something armed with the knowledge of the twist, but I’m getting it now. I think there’s a lot that I missed (and not just related to that – there were some lines about theoretical physics I missed too).

Aside from that, it’s a tonally coherent movie, and it keeps a level of mystery in its aliens that I don’t usually see. Parts of it reminded me of Interstellar, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in visual design – and I think its twist and ending is better than Interstellar, at least. Although I wasn’t impressed with the opening sequence, I thought the emotional aspects of the movie well-balanced by the end of the movie.

I’m probably going to watch this again. And I want to read the short story it’s based on. So watch this space. Anyone else seen this? What did you think?

Film #248: Rogue One (2016)

rogue-oneaka: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
director: Gareth Edwards
language: English
length: 134 minutes
watched on: 19 Dec 2016
(Spoilers ahead, of course)

It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was going to the cinema last December to see the new Star Wars movie. And it’s already December a year later and I’m going to see another Star Wars movie.

This isn’t exactly a regular Star Wars movie, though – it’s really a spin-off. They do hammer this point a little right at the beginning of the movie by not having an opening text crawl, but there are other subtle differences too – particularly, it’s more violent than the main Star Wars movies, which were always aimed at children.

It’s kind of a prequel to the original movie, as its events directly lead up to those of the first movie and are indeed referenced in the original opening crawl. I only went back to rewatch the opening crawl after the end of the film, and found it pretty vague, but it’s essentially them stealing the plans to the newly-constructed Death Star. As a result, unlike the prequel trilogy, this is way more coherent as a movie, and doesn’t rely so much on tying up every plot line clumsily at the very end.

There are a few clumsy things – the film adds in a CGI/mo-cap reproduction of Peter Cushing, and I didn’t realize it wasn’t really him at first, but there’s something unnerving about the way his mouth moves and the smoothness of his skin. They also had a three second shot of Princess Leia at the very end of the movie (sorry for spoiling, but I did warn you above!), which seemed more unnecessary, especially as they set her up to be faceless, as she has her back turned to the camera. Again, it’s obviously not Carrie Fisher (R.I.P.) playing her.

The story of the film is that the main character Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, comes into the rebellion after spending years as a fugitive, and ends up with the other protagonist, played by Diego Luna – in the second half of the movie they sneak out without permission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the result of which is ultimately that Luke Skywalker would destroy it in the original movie. The first half of the movie mainly consists of them assembling their motley crew – a sarcastic reprogrammed robot, who I loved; a blind monk of a Jedi temple, who is a pastiche of Zatoichi, and his boyfriend (although the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge that that’s what they did), a warrior-type; and a skittish defector pilot. There are hijinks and a lot of death and destruction in their wake.

There is obviously a concerted effort to get the cast looking more ethnically diverse, which is always welcome, and the main character is a woman again, like the last movie, prompting the usual deluge of scum complaining about gender diversity in sci fi. So it surprises me that the filmmakers don’t acknowledge the gay monks. And it’s also worth noting that in many scenes, Felicity Jones is the only woman character – I’m not convinced that the film would pass the fabled “Bechdel test”, not that I put much stock into what’s obviously a joke about heteronormativity… but I digress. They’re getting there, but I think they need to make it more balanced in this regard.

Anyway, it was a fun movie, and I enjoyed it, despite the depressing and tragic ending that could be seen a mile off. Less swashbuckling Jedi than the originals, and it’s Darker and Edgier than the previous movies, but it’s astoundingly better than the prequel trilogy, and doesn’t rely so much on special effects, so that’s good.

What did you think?

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?