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 #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.

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.

Film #67: Iron Sky (2012)

directed by: Timo Vuorensola
language: English and German
length: 93 minutes
watched on: 3 October 2012

This was a birthday treat from a friend and it was quite a fun one, too. What’s the plot? Moon Nazis. Yeah, it’s that film. In the near future, America goes to the moon and there they discover a Nazi base, established after the war. The Moon Nazis decide it’s time to reinvade, for reasons that don’t really matter. It’s all MacGuffins.

The film is B-Movie trash through and through, and it revels in that fact quite knowingly, and is therefore quite funny, even though hardly anything about it makes much sense. For instance, there’s a scene near the beginning where the female Nazi protagonist’s clothes all come off because the airlock is accidentally opened, and she ends up in the arms of the big black guy.

Later in the film, the director seems to try and clumsily make a political point, perhaps about American imperialism, but it sometimes just comes across as strongly anti-American. The American President is a Sarah Palin lookalike, complete with taxidermied polar bears adorning her White House, and her main advisor is set up near the beginning with a scene copied from the German film “Downfall” which specifically compares her to Hitler. It’s not easy to support characters such as these, and I had to wonder whether the director was trying to get us to be more sympathetic to the Nazis, or trying to say that everyone’s as bad as each other. There’s also later a Dr Strangelove-esque War Room scene, and quite a few more knowing references dotted around.

It’s not a great film, yes, but to be honest, my biggest problem with it was not being able to understand a large portion of the dialogue. It turns out that “English and German” means almost properly bilingual (with a preference for English), unlike many films where the second language would be more of a token. No, here the German characters tend to speak German to each other and to themselves, with a few exceptions. And of course, since I’m in Japan, well you guessed it, it’s subtitled in Japanese, not English. I can understand some German (and I did anticipate this – there was simply nothing else good on at the cinemas!), but I’m sorely out of practice at it, and this German wasn’t easy to understand, since a lot of it was barked, or simply too fast for me to hear. Of course, this being the film it is, I didn’t miss out on much, but in some individual scenes I was left feeling a bit confused, and sometimes the motivations were more of a mystery to me than they perhaps should have been.

All in all, definitely good to see. The ending was a bit of a downer, and as I say, played into the anti-American theme quite heavily, and there was a sweet little sequel hook if you’re willing to stay to the end of the credits. Anyway, none of this matters because MOON NAZIS!

Game #10: VVVVVV (2010)

creator: Terry Cavanagh
took me: 3:46
finished on: 31 July

I bought this with the Humble Indie Bundle when it came out recently. No, wait, I bought the Humble Bundle solely on the description of this game alone (and was pleasantly surprised by some of the other games too). It’s a “retro platformer”, in this case literally meaning that it looks like it could have come out of another era of gaming. Each level is one colour and the pixels are large and blocky, and the music is entirely synthesized from beeps and boops. Its defining feature is that instead of jumping, one must reverse or flip gravity and fly up towards the ceiling, avoiding any spikes in the process. In some places, this can result in jumping up and down in a sequence, and it is said that this is one possible origin of the game’s strange name, as it’s the shape that you make as you jump.

And it’s utterly charming, particularly for something that can be quite garish in style. The little character you control is the captain of a ship that gets stranded or something – but there’s something so childlike about his relentless happiness (and occasional sadness) that I didn’t realise that the character wasn’t a baby separated from his parents until several minutes into the game when the dialogue didn’t match with that assumption.

Anyway, it’s also an incredibly difficult game, where fast reflexes get you places. You die all the time, but you come back straight away at a checkpoint, which is probably on the same screen. One of its strengths is that it really explores different possibilities for using the main game mechanic to its full potential, and doesn’t get bogged down in different abilities for the character; it’s a three-buttoned game, basically. There are also objects to interact with like conveyor belts and lasers which make you flip in mid-air. One thing it could maybe have had more of is levels where these different objects are combined; the game is divided into sections which each focus on a new mechanic or object.

But then you get to the optional trinkets, a sort of catch-em-all object that is strewn around the game map, and then you get to the much more difficult challenges. I think the ultimate has to be the section “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (aka “Doing Things the Hard Way”), which takes piss with the no jumping mechanic just a little bit. It’s somewhat foreshadowed by at least one earlier level, but essentially, your trinket is on the opposite side of a waist-high fence, and in order to get to it, you have to fly up a 6-screen long, spike-infested tunnel and back down again (to the only nearby ceiling). I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I spent about half of the 3 hours of my first playthrough trying to get this one trinket (my death count went up significantly, too, of course, although I didn’t record what it was at the time); and the only way to complete it is to play it so much that it becomes muscle memory. I didn’t have as much trouble replaying it a couple of months later. It’s worth noting that this is one of the few places where the game really becomes arm-gnawingly frustrating. Most of the game is difficult, yes, but because death is so cheap, you don’t notice, as you just come back and try again two seconds later.

Then we come to the music… which is superb. The musician, a Swede known as SoulEye, seems to be some kind of master at taking music written to a limited format such as that of 80s era game music and turning it into something dynamic, fun, catchy and toe-tapping. So good, in fact, that I went and bought the soundtrack from the guy’s website. The music really adds atmosphere to the game, as well; I fear it would feel much blander without it.

For all that is good about VVVVVV, however, it’s frustratingly short, and the original doesn’t come with much replayability value – all you can do once you complete it is replay it upsidedown (topologically the same, of course, so nothing new there, strictly speaking), or do a timetrial, or the frustrating unlockable minigame. Or for the extreme masochists, no-death mode, which I swear must be impossible or something. You can also get trophies for under a certain number of deaths. But it doesn’t feel like much extra.

Fortunately, the game also came with a level editor and a bunch of user-made levels – apparently a brand-new feature that Cavanagh implemented for the HIB version – and new levels have been appearing on the game’s website since the beginning of August. They do vary massively in difficulty, of course; I’m now stuck on a particularly difficult one called 333333. But they do serve to highlight that the original VVVVVV didn’t really scratch the surface of what one can do with the game engine, and a lot of them are, naturally, brilliant. The aforementioned SoulEye even made his own level with two extra tunes in it.

Anyway, it’s definitely the best game that I played out of the HIB. Fast, fun and addictive, and with the addition of the player levels, it has lasting power too.

Books #10 & #11: Green Mars (1994) & Blue Mars (1996)

author: Kim Stanley Robinson
language: English
length: doorstopper
finished on: 15/3, 5/4

The first thing you might notice about this review is that I’ve included the cover art of the versions that I read. This is partly because I wanted to point and laugh at the bad computer graphics on the cover for Blue Mars (look at it, it looks terrible!), but partly because I’m anal and pedantic about this sort of thing. Ahem. These are books 2 and 3 in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, the first book of which (Red Mars) I’ve already given a sparkling review a few weeks ago. As I mentioned already, I’m combining them into one review because I left the review of Green Mars for so long that I’d already finished Blue Mars before I approached anything resembling “round to it”. Of course, it’s now been so long since I read Green that my review will inevitably feature more of a focus on Blue, which is still more fresh in my mind, but that can’t be helped very much at this point. So anyway, here we are.

Green and Blue, essentially, detail the effects of the terraforming campaign on Mars as it transforms from the Red planet of the first book, adding green plants and later blue oceans. This much is transparent. They’re more complex than that, of course, and they deal more or less with political ramifications in Green and human effects on the characters’ descendents in Blue.

In these books the story moves away from the rock-hard realism of Red and goes into more hypothetical territory. I think this is exemplified the most by the introduction of the longevity treatments, theoretically allowing the characters to live indefinitely, already a minor plot-point in Red but not to the point where it makes a lot of difference to the story. They’re made in a believable way, which is good, but I can’t help but wonder if they will really become possible in the future – whereas I can certainly believe that humans will be able to land on Mars and explore the planet, which was the essential plot of the first book. I just don’t know in this case. Also, I can’t help but wonder whether they were just a cheap device by Robinson to stop his characters from dying before the story was at the right stage, because it’s basically the same main characters that carry the story right the way to the end, with only one or two characters being introduced in each of the latter two books.

Either way, they do become a major plot point, and in many ways, Blue Mars is more about the effects of the longevity treatments than about Mars specifically, employing it perhaps more as a backdrop.

The books are structured much as Red Mars is, in an episodic fashion with each part/chapter narrated from the point of view of a different character. Again, it’s difficult to discern an overarching plot structure to the story, it sometimes being presented more as a faux-history instead of a well-structured story. And each book seems to end in roughly the same way, with a series of revolutions. But there are definitely different feels to both books, even though they pretty much follow on directly from each other.

Green Mars is roughly about the rise and fall of capitalism, with these massive “metanational” companies effectively taking control. The underground, in which all of our focus characters are situated, is a bickering set of left-wing organisations who take a more communistic approach to politics. Yet they have to make an alliance with one of the metanational companies, which I thought was a bit strange. I always expected them to stab each other in the back by the end of the book, but they didn’t, and the metanational plotlines all but fade into obscurity some way into the third book.

Blue Mars is more about the people of Mars and how these aforementioned longevity treatments are causing all sorts of problems – themes that were already touched upon in Green, naturally, with probably all of the characters certifiably insane by the beginning of Blue. There’s a lot of attention given to the fact that the new generations (referred to for some reason with Japanese numerals) are tired of the older generation being around, and yet for some reason the “First Hundred” settlers still seem to be at the centre of every major event that happens in the book.

One character in particular, Sax Russell, seems to show up whenever and wherever the plot demands him. I started to get annoyed at the amount of times characters would travel to a city only to find that Sax was there already. Mars is perhaps a smaller planet than Earth – but would that justify it? The first book already made a big deal out of the fact that Mars has the same land area as Earth, just without any water. This has changed, yes, but it’s still a bit odd.

Blue Mars also has some of the characters travel back to Earth, detailing the effects of the higher gravity on one of the younger Martian natives, which was rather worrying. On Earth they’ve recently had a major Antarctic icecap related flood, described in detail. Oddly, global warming wasn’t mentioned as much as I reckon it would be if the book was written now, and the cause was mentioned as a subterranean volcano erupting instead. I’m not sure how much I believed this part. But never mind.

Later in the book, there’s a slightly surreal and rushed jaunt around the solar system (in fusion-powered rockets whose “somersault” mechanism of slowing down and constant-acceleration-powered artificial gravity was strangely familiar…) to the far-flung reaches of Mercury and Uranus. I was a bit ambivalent about this; in many ways I didn’t feel that this was given enough attention, and it was jostling for attention with many of the other plot elements – Robinson was clearly struggling to get everything in. In many other ways I felt it was a bit irrelevant, and that the story would have strengthened by staying on Mars in a more focused way (see my earlier review on “Mission of Gravity” for an example of a well-focused sci-fi story…).

Blue also contains a primer on string-theory – but as always happens, is a bit fluffy about what this can tell you about the world, so I’m not entirely sure what this accomplished other than being a way for Robinson to show that he’d done research… except research for the sake of research isn’t necessarily a good thing. It also has some political theory, and casts Mars as a utopian post-capitalist democracy. I wasn’t quite convinced by that one, I have to say. But fair enough.

Coming back to Sax, his storyline in Green was one of the more interesting ones, because he was tortured by the authorities, causing a stroke and linguistic aphasia. While I feel that this was just an excuse to write a clumsy stream-of-consciousness chapter from Sax’s muddled-up mind after the fact, I did admire the research put into aphasia by Robinson, and I liked the fact that my degree actually was somewhat relevant to anything in the world for once.

I don’t remember having many problems with Green in general. I was much quicker to finish that than Blue, which as I say is packed to the brim with ideas and gets quite tough going once or twice. I really liked the character Nirgal, who was introduced in Green. All in all, it was good. And more exciting, because there was the direct ominous threat of the authorities, as if they’re living on borrowed time – and one major character disappears towards the end, her whereabouts (because everyone’s sure she disappeared of her own accord rather than being executed by the authorities) becoming the great mystery of the final book. But apart from her, Blue doesn’t have the same urgency. It also commits a couple of crimes that I wanted to expound upon a little bit.

First of all – and this starts to happen in Green a bit – Robinson seems to find it hard to stop writing the younger characters as petulant, impulsive teenagers, even when they’re nominally in their 50s. I couldn’t work out why this was – whether he was trying to display the characters from the older characters’ point of view or whether he just couldn’t stop writing them in a certain way. Or it’s also possible that the fact that the older characters are still alive causes the younger characters to act in this way. I didn’t like it, either way, the fact that it was never truly explained to me. It’s all to do with the fact that all his writing in this area is, as far as I’m concerned, strictly hypothetical. I have no idea what the effects of this longevity treatment would be, and I have no concept of living to 200 years of age, so I have a hard time identifying with the characters.

Secondly, I think the turning point for me when I stopped quite believing what he wrote was when his characters start using the longevity treatments (something to do with stem cells) to overwrite their genetic code and give themselves the ability to breathe air with a high concentration of carbon dioxide, which is rather necessary on a planet such as Mars. And one younger character splices in cat DNA so that she starts purring. The problem with this is that my every understanding of how genetics works is that this is not it; DNA is more like a cookbook rather than a set of instructions for how the body works which the body will follow forever more. Essentially, you would have to introduce new DNA before incubating a human, treating the womb like a sort of oven, to follow the cookbook analogy. Once it’s cooked you can’t undo the chemical reaction. And it’s not like cats have a purring gene that you can just splice into your human body. To me it’s ridiculous. I would have had less of a hard time believing it if they had had surgical implants, quite frankly. (But maybe they were surgical and it wasn’t explained properly. Then we just have a slightly different problem…)

Furthermore, the problem of breathing the air is forgotten about shortly after this plotpoint is mentioned, and I wanted closure on it – did they actually get the air down to Earth-like concentrations of carbon dioxide, or did they forget about it too and keep it high and just have everyone splice the special breathing apparatus into their bodies? Anyway, it was the most egregious example of hypothetical sci-fi that Robinson pulled out his arse, the whole breathing thing, and a perfect example of why I liked the first book better.

Thirdly, Robinson needs to stop writing awkward sex scenes! You know, I’m just reading along innocently, and admiring the research put into the Martian landscape and how it would change with the introduction of a massive ocean and- oh… right, they’re having an orgy. A little warning would have been nice.

But on a slightly more serious ending note, I really did enjoy these books (it’s just more cathartic and entertaining for me to nitpick and complain). There is a lot more to say about them; as after all, they both exceed 600 pages and are brimming with ideas, but as I say, this is both a strength and a weakness. They need maybe a bit more direction and focus in some areas, and less pulling stuff out the arse. I definitely enjoyed them, though. And Robinson is definitely on top form with his descriptions of the landscape of Mars (and Blue has a lot of maps dotted around through the pages, which helps out a lot!). I now only wish I could go there and see it for myself.

Book #8: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

author: Ursula LeGuin
language: English
length: 248 pages
finished on: 14/2

book cover Another self-proclaimed “classic of science fiction” that looked interesting on the shelves of my local library, The Left Hand of Darkness starts with the premise of a planet populated by a hermaphroditic species of humans and explores the implications behind such a race. Essentially, “what if there was no male and female binary?”

The planet is called Gethen, but nicknamed Winter – as this suggests, the planet is in the midst of an ice age and is permanently cold without a particularly hot summer (although it does have a summer). We see the planet through the eyes of an envoy from Earth, who pretty much has a hard time internalising that the inhabitants aren’t really men or women but somewhere inbetween.

I found that the story didn’t really kick off in a real way until over halfway through, so there were many pages of boredom during the early stages of the book – but I’ve already read at least 3 of LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I know that she’s able to right reasonably well. It only became truly gripping, though, during the final stages of the book, when the two main characters – the envoy Genly and the disgraced prime minister Estraven, who was exiled as a madman for believing the story of the strange alien (or that was their excuse) – are trekking across the planet’s ice cap, and their isolation and the tension between them becomes palpable. And that’s when we really see both characters through each other’s eyes.

But LeGuin’s writing also annoyed me in many places. The book starts off narrated by Genly with some interludes in the form of folk tales that would be told on Winter. These are generally interesting and shine a light on how certain myths might be told differently by a race without men or women. But without much warning, she starts alternating the narration between Genly and Estraven about halfway through the book. The first chapter in which this happens is signposted as such, but the second isn’t, and it took me a whole page and a half to figure out what was going on. I felt she could have done this from the start.

In another section, Genly awakens from a nightmare to find himself in the midst of a real raid – but this was written so ambiguously that I thought he was still in the dream five pages later and had to flick back to confirm that he wasn’t, and was still confused even then. So I think this could have been a bit more straightforward.

Anyway, all that aside for a moment while I talk about the people – I feel that there were a couple of things that were somewhat unbelievable about them. For one, their entire sexual life is centred around a monthly period of oestrus or ‘heat’ (called kemmer) when they get uncontrollable urges and are let off from work. This is alright in itself – I think the purpose is to make them functionally asexual for most of the month – but during this period they apparently acquire one or the other of the sexes, along with, apparently, gender. It’s pretty much explicit that this is them acquiring for their sexual roles a dominant masculine and submissive feminine role, and I have a hard time believing that. Why not just keep them agendered? I certainly refuse to believe that they’d use a different pronoun for those in the different roles – as a more detailed explanation, I think this would break the coreferentiality of pronouns, especially if you talk about someone on two different days (must you talk about the same person with a different pronoun? This wouldn’t make sense). I also think it’s missing the point of grammatical gender a bit and equating it with social/sexual gender.

I’ll get back to some other linguistic issues I had with the book in a second, though. The reasons behind such a race are rather clumsily handwaved, saying that they must have been an ancient experiment by some precursor race… well, fair enough. The other thing I ought to mention is that the people are referred to as men with male pronouns, which gives a rather cute impression of a planet of gays. Kinda makes me wonder…

LeGuin’s other major implication is that in a single-gendered society, one wouldn’t have wars, because one wouldn’t have the more dominant and violent masculine personalities getting at one another. I don’t buy this for a second, and I’m almost insulted on behalf of the male gender. I find these kinds of gender stereotypes annoying and dated, but given that the book is 30 years old, and that Genly as a character certainly does see the world in a very binary fashion, I can forgive this. The implication that the Gethenians wouldn’t see their world in such binary terms is more interesting to me, and it’s this sort of yin-yang binary that is referenced in the title, part of the full form “light is the left hand of darkness”. There is a sort of point in there that men are only dominant and violent because there are women to contrast with them and be submissive, but still, I don’t buy it.

The more convincing reason for the Gethenians never having had a war – that their planet is too damn cold and they would rather stay at home and keep warm – is only given a single paragraph, apparently as an afterthought.

But just as interesting is to consider the two countries of the story – the disorganised but friendly and welcoming kingdom of Karhide and the well-organised-with-a-high-standard-of-living but unwelcoming republic of Orgoreyn (nicely enforcing another binary there – other countries are said to exist but not expanded upon) – who are embroiled in a border dispute. Here, particularly given the period it was written in, I think it would be more apt to instead draw a comparison to a different kind of war, specifically Cold War. Fighting is carried out in a faraway place on behalf of the two countries, although it’s not called war. Orgoreyn is an obvious pastiche of the Soviet Union, with its 33 constituent republics and mentions of the state providing employment for all “units” (ie, citizens). Their Inspectors, who spy on the lives of citizens, stop you at every opportunity to check your papers. When Genly becomes a pawn in the international conflict, he’s eventually shipped off to the Gulag (or “Voluntary Farm” as it’s known in the novel), only to have to be rescued by Estraven. On those grounds I wouldn’t say that the planet hadn’t known war at all.

Anyway, as far as language issues are concerned, there’s the thing with the pronouns, which I’ve already noted, the thing that made me really angry was the paragraph talking about Karhidish’s many words for snow. OK, LeGuin can do whatever she likes with her fictional languages, but the Eskimo myth inspires such bile within me that I nearly threw the book down in disgust. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, though, because it’s after this point (roughly and coincidentally) that it really got good. There’s also the claim that the languages don’t have a word for “war”. I… oh fuck it.

There are a few more things I’d quite like to complain about but that would be getting into the realms of nitpicking, and I can’t really be bothered. I suppose I will mention briefly that I found the sections discussing the Ekumen (the confederation of worlds which Genly represents, which is evidently developed further in a greater series of books that this is a part of) far more believable than many of the sections discussing the Gethenians. But anyway, good premise and good storyline, but the execution could have been clearer in parts and it could have been more focussed, because there are a few things that it would have been nicer to have gone into more depth about and a few things that I felt were a bit superfluous.

Book #5: And Another Thing… (2009)

author: Eoin Colfer
language: English
pages: 340
finished on: 28/1

book cover I’m a bit late to the game on this one, I guess, since it came out two years ago. I reckon the only way I’m going to be able to talk about it properly is to compare it to the books by Douglas Adams that it continues, which is going to be a little bit of a problem given that I’ve just realised I haven’t read them in 10 years or something. So I think I’ve forgotten most of the major plot points apart from those of the first book. Or something like that. Whether I like it or not and how that compares may also be difficult, because I remember liking the first three books and not being too impressed with the 4th and 5th anyway… so things I don’t like about this may be carry-overs from that. Possibly.

I do quite like Eoin Colfer as an author, in that I’ve read several of his Artemis Fowl books and not been quite bored by them. But at the same time, I do kind of think that Artemis is a bit of a Gary Stu-type character, in that nothing ever seems to properly stump him for long enough. So I began this book optimistically, knowing that we at least have an author who’s successful and whose work I know I can read.

But even right from the start I’m seeing problems. There’s the niggling comment in the back of my mind that a friend made a while ago that the book’s like glorified fan fiction…. and so far I’m sort of agreeing. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Fan fiction if done well is most certainly a good thing (although I’ve never had the patience to read any, mainly given that the only series I know with a substantial amount of fan fiction is Harry Potter, and my god is there a lot of crap Harry Potter fan fiction out there…), so we’ll lay that comment aside for the moment.

The characters seem …. fairly normal. As I say, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the previous books in the H2G2 series, so I can’t quite remember what they’re supposed to be like… but I don’t remember Ford Prefect being so incompetent. I also don’t recall the word ‘froody’ being used by him and Zaphod Beeblebrox every second page, nor the word ‘zark’ instead of ‘god’ in epithets – although a quick flick through one of the older books reveals that Adams did at least use the second one but not with nearly as much frequency. And it was capitalised. Nitpicky, yeah… well, there’s worse to come. As for Beeblebrox, he quite definitely used to have two heads. I’ve no idea if this was Colfer’s or Adams’ idea – I seem to recall that Colfer worked off some notes that Adams made, possibly – but it seemed a bit clumsy when he explained that Zaphod’s second head was actually a genius stifled by the utter idiocy of the first head, and was now the sole pilot of the Heart of Gold… which didn’t even need a dedicated pilot before, did it? Or is this related to the non-presence of Marvin the paranoid android? Gripes, gripes.

The style also struck me as a bit stilted. Colfer inserts “Guide Notes” – excerpts from the in-universe Hitchhiker’s Guide – in all over the place in italics. They break the flow of the text, there’s no two ways about it. Adams did include such excerpts, but not with such frequency, and he tended to dedicate a chapter to them (again, just an impression from my brief flick through the earlier books to check that I’m not talking out of my arse). They also seem to be more in context with the characters – as if they’re the ones checking the Hitchhiker’s Guide and finding it out with you. Colfer’s excerpts are all over the place, often breaking the tension in a scene just to explain the context behind a nonsensical statement someone’s just made. He even seems to know that they might do this (and he lampshades it at one point when he inserts one during the climactic scene…) and does it anyway. The italic thing also kind of annoyed me because the book was typeset in a font I didn’t like, and the italic letters looked all skewy. But that’s just a nitpick, really. Some of them are pretty funny, anyway, and they’re certainly in keeping with the original source material. On the subject of style, he hasn’t got the hang of negative simile. I counted one for the whole book (though it’s certainly possible I missed some). I’ll just leave that there for the moment.

Anyway, the tipping point for me came when Colfer made an obvious factual error: making reference to the beautiful deep blues of Saturn. I recognise that this is probably a typo (and may even have been corrected in a later edition), but did it have to be such a blatant factual error too? I mean, I assume he was going for the deep blues of Neptune…

… Actually, no, I just can’t quite work out how he managed to mix them up. It pissed me off so much, because Adams, while his books were patently absurd, didn’t tend to make factual errors, as if his stories were conceivably possible. That was always one of their strengths. So, I do feel justified in finding this unacceptable, even though it is a comedy series. So then I just started listing all his little errors. I’ll try to keep the next bit brief…

So, shortly after the Saturn error, I found the word zigabytes. Obviously, this is on analogy with zillions. But why doesn’t he just use the words ‘zettabytes’ or ‘yottabytes’. They also look like they’ve been made up by preschoolers, and are actually real words. Later, he starts to make obvious spelling errors with foreign names – you ever heard of a Frenchman called deBeouf or a Scandinavian called Lief? Ironically, he gets both names right once before going right back to misspelling them. He makes what he thinks is a pun by talking about the meat festival of Carni-val … actually, this one’s quite funny, but to me it’s not a pun, since that’s exactly the etymology of the word Carnival: it’s the last days before Lent when Catholics (and there are a lot of Catholics in South America) are allowed to eat meat. Or something like that. And there was the word “Ridiculousity” at one point… which I can’t help but point out should be “Ridiculosity”. Cthulhu, about midway through, has a cameo as a slightly pathetic fallen god – but someone else already had that idea!

And then he repeated that bloody myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. OK, so it’s a comedy, and Adams may well have repeated it as well (I’m not about to go searching), but we’ve been over this: it’s a factual error, and if you repeat it at all, you’re just reinforcing the myth. I mean, the only way this could have been worse is if he’d said that Eskimos have 500 words for snow.

He also clumsily shoehorns (a space version of) Ireland into the story… now, OK, I know that a lot of people say you should write what you know, but I actually disagree with that, especially once you’re an established author and writing adaptations of someone else’s work. I just get the impression that Colfer likes to insert his home country all the time – Artemis Fowl, the only other work of his that I’m familiar with offhand, is mainly set there, for instance. That’s fine, but if he does it all the time his works are going to become monotonous. (However, I did enjoy the religious feud going on between the two factions on the planet, one of whom worships cheese.)

As you can probably tell by now, I have a lot of gripes with this book. But the story was alright, and apart from what I mentioned, it’s true to the source material. So if you’re a fan, you might as well. But you will just be reading glorified fan fiction.

Ninja edit: I’ve remembered a couple more gripes: Vogons as the bad guys of the story, which I’m sure Adams gave up on after the first book, for instance. And just the way that the book reads as though it’s not been seen by any editors, and as though it’s very possible that Colfer has only seen the 2005 movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Nah, I’m sure he’s read the books, and after all, it is a direct continuation of Mostly Harmless; it’s just that there are a couple of characterisations and so on that I have a sneaking suspicion may have been introduced by the film…