Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora

There’s an introspective and meditative quality to Robinson’s novels that comes, I think, from his avoidance of page turner strategies. He avoids chapters that end in suspense, making you want to know what happens next, and we don’t get the multiple interwoven storyline treatment that allows the author to always have one cliffhanger active at any given time.

So what we get is a novel that is more centred on real, physical challenges faced by the population of our interstellar ship. Problems related to closed-loop ecologies, population control, artificial intelligence (and its definition), and the concept of authority and hierarchy on a multi-generational starship. These are all tackled in a fictional context, but with great attention to the inner workings and intricate details of each challenge.

There is a clear sense that Robinson has a stack of research on his desk a mile high.

The story covers the last few years before a starship launched from earth several generations ago arrives at Tau Ceti, its destination. The people on board have never known Earth, and are aware only of their own small microcosm – the Ship. We see events unfold through the life of Freya, the daughter of a well-known member of the community, Devi. Unlike Devi, who is, by virtue of her understanding of the ship’s mechanisms, the default engineer in chief, Freya lacks the mind for the task and is more interested in how people behave.

Our narrator is the ship’s nascent artificial intelligence, which is writing a narrative account of the journey at Devi’s request, and after a number of aborted attempts, focuses on Freya as a protagonist to give the narrative structure. The process of writing the narrative account neatly tracks the Ship’s evolution towards true intelligence, both in the narrative style and in the content and questions asked as the narrative unfolds.

As an investigation of the difficulties of reaching far-distant stars through the use of long-lived starships, the novel is extremely thought-provoking and challenges the often-made assumptions that allow us to do away with considering the real problems such an endeavour would face. For example, Robinson undertakes a detailed examination of the chemical reactions that immobilise vital elements that are in short supply, and the resulting effects on the ability of the ecosystem to continue to function. Through this part of the story, he demonstrates that the problem-solving required in even this single discipline is insufficiently developed at this time for us to even consider a project of this kind. We depend on so many things that our environment on Earth provides without our needing to manage it that we are ill-prepared to take on the challenge of recreating the right conditions for long-term life away from our cradle.

In a way, the novel is slightly defeatist in this regard, and perhaps that’s a shame, because such an in-depth investigation could have led somewhere more rewarding without the need for sugar-coating. Some of the challenges (perhaps the most difficult and insurmountable) faced by the population of the ship are somewhat deus-ex-machina in terms of their formulation, and the premise that any planet worth occupying will already have some form of life inimical to our own is not necessarily something that I feel is properly explained or defended in the book.

Nevertheless, Robinson has taken the premise of a generational starship reaching for the stars further and deeper than anyone before, and while the novel may not leave you with the sense of wonder that drew some of us to the science fiction genre in the first place, it is an enriching narrative, a good story and an extremely valuable addition to the science fiction bookshelf.

Highly recommended.

Forty Signs of Rain – Kim Stanley Robinson

The science fiction in Forty Signs of Rain is subtle, permeating the book through little snippets such as wrist-mounted screens and small technological improvements to the devices we already have. This is a very far cry from the omnipresent enhanced reality of Charles Stross’ books or any other number of interpretations of how technology will change our future.

In fact, this is a book about the intersect between global warming and politics, or perhaps the lack of an intersect where one ought to be. It’s near future setting looks forward to a gradually worsening environment, rather than new technological marvels.

We are presented with the problem of global warming from the point of view of individuals who do not need to be convinced of the truth of its impact, who can understand and even to a certain extent predict both the timing and the consequences of what a shift in climate is going to do to the world, but who find themselves powerless to do anything about it despite their position as some of the most influential individuals in the field, in the most powerful country in the world.

Without pointing a finger at it, naming it or bemoaning it directly, political apathy and institutionalised immobility are omnipresent in the book, seen through the eyes of people who are seeking, each in their own way, to advance an agenda that will lead to a change in environmental policy. Their efforts are real and tangible, their eventual impact less so.

The main characters include senior scientists at the National Science Foundation, both a director and a visionary scientist on a temporary assignment in her organisation. Also the director’s husband, who is science advisor to an influential senator and devoted to passing a bill, sponsored by his senator, that represents a big step in the direction of reduced emissions and other measures to mitigate climate change.

Instead of presenting their efforts as a mission or a quest, each has exposure to the environmental issues as a core part of their job. Their knowledge and conscience lead them to seek change in the context of their daily work, and they are motivated by their own personal belief systems. In this the book is very realistic – change is effected by individuals such as these, not often by crusading heroes tearing down old paradigms. Unfortunately, their collective effort is insufficient to cause any real change in policy or on the environment.  In the real world, they would undoubtedly fail also, how could they not, given the vastness of what they must achieve to have even the most subtle impact.

So as we see them each apply pressure to the system in their own way, we also see the deteriorating environment as a general backdrop to the novel. Catastrophic changes in salinity and sea temperature are mere pages away from meetings with the president’s chief scientist in which it becomes obvious that no amount of statistics, reason or argument will move the policy needle. I was strangely reminded of the resistance to gun control during this scene in which logic was happily brushed to one side in favour of doubt, votes and the avoidance of cost. The country, as embodied by its leaders, finds it easier to ignore the problem than  deal with it.

Woven into the story are small hints at things greater than ourselves most obviously in some interesting interactions between main characters and some Tibetan monks who are the catalyst to major changes in the way a scientist, Frank, perceives his role and the role of science in the world. This provides Robinson with the opportunity to theorise how it is not cold science alone that will change things, because it takes energy and passion to overcome societal inertia.

As the environment gradually slips into catastrophe and sea levels rise inexorably, the discussion continues, and the book culminates with a flood in Washington DC, the monuments surrounded by water, the zoo animals running wild, and a sense, more or less unspoken, that even this will not be enough to instigate any meaningful change.

I found the book a little depressing in that our main characters are revealed to be somewhat impotent in the conflict they are a part of. This is contrary to what we often seek in a story – we want the protagonist to overcome the obstacles and demonstrate strength while being changed for the better by the effort of reaching his goals. Perhaps to a certain extent this is true of Frank, but the goals seem unattainable.

The typical heroic narrative is abandoned here perhaps to serve the larger goal of getting a message across. This eminently readable book is holding up a mirror, and perhaps a few people will look long enough and with eyes open enough to see a reflection of society that they didn’t expect. I have no problem believing that the events portrayed are totally realistic and even likely to occur, and that we will soon be facing exactly the problems described, and that we will have done no better than the fictional nations in Forty Signs of Rain to compensate for a warming climate, rising oceans and more violent weather by the time these phenomena are too advanced to address with preventative measures. As a message, this book works well, and I hope it is widely read, although if it is right in its diagnosis of the root of our apathy and denial, it won’t make a difference, because perhaps nothing can.

The Invisible Library – Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library series Book 1)

I enjoyed a thoughtful post on Charles Stross’ blog recently, saying good things about the Urban Fantasy genre, and I was inspired to go looking for a novel that might get me back into it.

My issue with urban fantasy is that if I have to read another scene about a breathless teenager falling in love with a vampire or yet another sexual domination metaphor dressed in werewolf tropes, I might just have to write off the genre entirely, and I know that’s not fair.

The reason I know it’s not fair is because we have works in this genre that, even if they aren’t always to my personal taste, are unambiguously good. Be it the idea behind Mortal Instruments or the deep well of new ideas that made up the Harry Potter franchise, or the deeper, more intricate and fantastical Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which took the language of London and wove an incredibly rich tapestry. Unfortunately, for each of these comes a tidal wave of pulp concerning mythical creatures spouting incessant clichés.

I was quite keen, therefore to read  The Invisible Library since it was quite highly recommended for the originality of its concept. I bought it on Kindle and swallowed it whole over an afternoon.

I suppose that’s the first thing to say about the book; this is not like The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, where my reading slows down because of the density of the pattern being woven. This is a fun read, and the pages are turned quickly. You will not need to keep track of the movements of dozens of characters, nor will it be necessary (or necessarily possible) to understand the motivations of several of the characters. The book is about the action that occurs, and to a certain extent the secrets being kept.

Our protagonist, Irene, works for The Library. Capitalisation is important, The Library is not any library, it sits outside of time and space and exists for the sole purpose of collecting and preserving the works of fiction from different alternate worlds. Irene is an agent of the library, and she goes into these worlds and collects books for the library at the behest of senior librarians, such as her mentor, Coppelia.

The library also exists on the periphery of a struggle between the forces of chaos and the forces of order. By definition linked to the forces of order, the library has to be careful of chaos, which manifests in various alternate realities through the appearance of illogical things or impossible science, such as vampires, irrational magic, unexplainable mechanisms and more generally, the fae.

Irene is sent to collect a book from a world that is somewhat too far down the chaos end of the spectrum for comfort, and she soon discovers that the book she has been sent to find is important to others also, possibly critically important to all concerned, and that these others are prepared to go to great and violent lengths to obtain it.

So it’s an adventure mixed in with a detective novel, with some alternate realities and magical creatures thrown in.

I had second thoughts when I realised that I would be reading about alternate universes – another trope all too often abused – but it was well managed here, in that it gave meaning to the illogicality of much of the fantastical things that go on in the rest of the book. If glamours and charms work outside of a solid system of magic, it is because we are in an alternate world that is corrupted by the forces of chaos. Since these break down cause and effect and therefore open the gate to the irrational and the impossible, and in the context of this story, this is most definitely not a good thing.

Irene is a likeable protagonist, and even if adventurous librarians is not bursting with originality as a concept, the nature of this library (somewhat irrational in and of itself, if you ask me), is deeply original and very interesting.

This will no doubt become a series, I believe the second book is already out. I will probably read it because I enjoyed the first one. Let’s hope that the originality can keep coming and that the framework laid out in this first book is not the entirety of the edifice. If there is more to the world-building in the coming volumes, there might turn out to be a very good series behind this excellent novel.

Alive – Scott Sigler

Alive: Book One of the Generations Trilogy

I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.

That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.

In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.

This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.

It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.

As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.

As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.

The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.

What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.

The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.

As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons.  At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.

It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.

Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.

Roboteer – Alex Lamb

Roboteer

So I lied. I said I wasn’t going to read any more books for a while, and then I read the Guardian’s Science Fiction Roundup for Q2 2015. Much of it wasn’t really what I was looking for, and then the last book in the list,  Roboteer, tempted me away from my self-imposed sensory deprivation.

Well, that and the prospect of several hours travel on a budget airline.

The main character of the book is a Roboteer, a genetically altered human being whose purpose in life, insofar as the designers of his genome are concerned, is the programming of robots. True AI is deemed impossible, at least with the science accessible to the colony worlds, so they created large numbers of robots to carry out the numerous and perilous tasks their environmental tinkering requires.  To manage this, they developed genetically-enhanced individuals capable of managing these large fleets of semi-autonomous robots by interfacing directly with the complex software that is their equivalent of a consciousness.

But Will’s career as a Roboteer is not back on his colony world. He is a Roboteer on a starship, deep in combat with a force from Earth, and so the book opens on a space battle unlike any you are likely to have seen before. The originality of it – including the interpretation of “soft attacks” that run in parallel to the more violent aspects of combat, is refreshing and a strong point of the book.

Roboteers have difficulty interacting with others. The particular skillset they receive from birth unfortunately pushes them a few notches up the autism spectrum, and they therefore suffer from a certain amount of discrimination. Will is a particularly high-functioning Roboteer, who feels this discrimination keenly. This has a tendency to get him into trouble, and this trouble, combined with his particular gift for his profession, lands him a job on a soft-attack ship, for a mission of critical importance to his colony – one on which their entire survival hinges.

Earth, united under a totalitarian religious leader, has climbed out of its long period of self-harm, and has rallied around a new holy crusade – to recapture the colonies that it once called its own, but who have since spread their wings, embraced self-modification and genetic optimisation, both hideous in the eyes of the new faith, and represent the capitalism that Earth and its religious leaders have identified as the source of all harm. People with adjustments must be “purged”, which is the kind of cleansing one doesn’t come back from. The war will therefore not result in half-measures, and is a live-or-die moment in the history of the human race.

Unfortunately, despite having spent almost a hundred years in civil war and therefore having failed to develop the same level of technological advancement as the colonies, Earth appears to have developed a weapon that may win them the war. Discovering the nature of this weapon is the mission Will and the crew of the ship he joins must undertake before Earth attacks Galatea and all is lost.

I leaped at the book because it represented a new voice in space opera, and a new take on how technology and society might arrange itself in the context of interplanetary civilisation. In this respect, the book is a terrific read, and I can only recommend it wholeheartedly.

The combat scenes are excellently drawn and very immersive, and the science behind the fiction is – for the most part – believable, if not hard SF when looked at closely. Unfortunately, and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, there’s too many of them.

The strength of a fleet is usually the way in which it co-operates. The value of a leader is usually in the strategy with which he directs troops and assets. The battles in Roboteer feel, by the end of the book, almost like first-person computer games, because individuals constantly and consistently shift the tide of entire battles on their own, through their direct actions. Perhaps because I have read too much military history, I found myself straining to maintain my suspension of disbelief, as a single ship or a single person saved the day or overcame impossible odds, yet again.

But don’t listen to me. I always find something to complain about (just read the previous reviews), and what you should really do is go out and buy this book. You should do this both for the obvious reason that it’s really quite good, but also because we really want to encourage new writers entering the field to continue writing and developing their skills. This is a really promising first book and I hope that Alex Lamb has a lot more of this kind of work in him.

Pause reading…

If you glance at the bookshelf page of the website, you’ll notice that the rate at which I’ve been finishing books lately has shot up, peaking at two books in one day on 3rd August. A bit ridiculous, actually, and as a result I’m a little sleep-deprived.

There’s a few reasons for this. One of which is that reading is a handy escape from stress that I’ve been indulging in lately since I’ve got more stress to hide from than usual. That will pass. In any case, it’s not the principal reason.

There’s no way I could have raced through, for example, The Bone Clocks. It’s too dense, there are too many important characters that I actually want to know about, and when you read a book like that too fast, you miss out on things that are important not only to the story but to the flavour of what you’re reading. Reading it fast is like eating pasta with no sauce. You have to have the sauce!

But recently, I’ve been reading a different kind of book.

This is not to criticise, there’s a place for all these stories, but some stories go further, are more inventive, create more interesting or complex consequences and relationships, and overall just make you think more than others. I have a loose grasp of why that is, why one story or one author tends to make me slow down and read more carefully whereas others make me want to turn the pages faster and faster to see what happens. To describe I have to carefully manoeuvre around the word “better” because it’s easy to say and unfortunately too broad and too inaccurate to describe the difference between these books.

I recently read the first two novels in both the Vatta’s War and Lost Fleet series. Both of these are fun reads, and I powered through them with almost no pause from the first to the last page other than those hours that are not entirely mine to dispose of as I please (work, minimum sleep requirements, the occasional raid on the fridge). They’re not the literary equivalent of fast food, but they’re not the equivalent of a gourmet meal either. I found the stories fun, the writing decent, the narrative strong in places, weak or perhaps a little simplistic in others (particularly characterisation), I valued them for their entertainment value and will undoubtedly read the rest of both series though they’re expensive compared to other works given how many books I will have to buy.

I also read The Bone Clocks, Seveneves and Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. These took more time, were more dense with innovative ideas, depicted a number of main characters of equal complexity and depth, and were captivating and immersive in ways that didn’t make me want to turn the page faster, but occasionally made me want to read slower to ensure that I understood what was going on. Perhaps one aspect of this is that they challenged me to keep up with the research that had gone into writing them in the first place.

I think it’s probably fair to say that some combination of more effort, more skill and/or more time went into those books than the more linear storylines and limited casts of the pulpier novels that I enjoy.

It’s important not to overdose on these things.

Three or four chapters from the end of Old Man’s War, which I just finished (review pending, I have catching up to do, anyway it’s been out for years), I found myself reading so fast that I was skipping bits of description or dialogue. I’d force myself to go back to see if I’d missed anything critical, and I hadn’t. Often I’d subconsciously skipped a paragraph because it was telling me something about a character that I already knew (Vatta’s War and The Lost Fleet are particularly guilty of this). When I got to the end of it, I was both happy I knew how it finished, and strangely indifferent to starting another book straight away. So I stopped.

I’m going to take a few days off reading – to force myself to do other things, but also to let my literary tastebuds recover from too consistent a diet of military science fiction and linear adventure plots so I can enjoy the next book properly.

To me, this has been a bit of an object lesson in ensuring there’s variety in my reading diet.

 

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell

Dauntless (The Lost Fleet Book 1)

John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.

John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.

John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?

The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.

Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.

Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.

If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.

But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.

But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.

This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.

I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).

Trading in Danger – Elizabeth Moon

Trading In Danger: Vatta's War: Book One

There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.

The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.

The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.

So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.

Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.

Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.

In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.

That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.

I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.

Rule 34 – Charles Stross

So I’m less than one paragraph, not even a full line into Rule 34 and I read, “…and you’re coming to the end of your shift on the West End control desk”. I bite down on a sudden surge of frustration that threatens to overwhelm me.

The thing I disliked the most about the previous book by Charles Stross, Halting State, was the use of the second person perspective. “You’re” is the seventh word in this novel. A quick scan of the rest of the book seems to indicate the entire thing is written from my own point of view. I lose a fraction of a millimetre of enamel as my molars grind against each other in an involuntary expression of irritation, then I wrestle control of those muscles back from my subconscious.

I unclench. This is Stross’s second book in this universe, maybe he got better at using the second person and somehow it’s going to feel a little less like someone’s scratching the surface of my brain and then smearing tabasco on it.

What is Rule 34, anyway? Is there a rule 33? Turns out that Rule 34 is an internet meme, so we’re going to need to know what one of those is too. Rule 34, or the 34th rule of the internet, states that pornography or sexually-related material exists for every conceivable content, somewhere. In Stross’s universe, the Rule 34 police unit trawls and monitors the most disgusting things on the internet in an attempt to police the overspill of the aforementioned imaginative horrors into the real world.

Given that the world itself seems replete with filth of every conceivable kind, the unit is somewhat overtaxed, all the more so since it’s considered a not-very-good-place to be assigned, so it’s long on deliverables and short on talent.

The local police force (because we’re in Edinburgh, in an independent Scotland), is suddenly dealing with a very twisted and somewhat revolting death caused – it would seem – by foul dealings of a very technologically sophisticated kind, and this death turns out to be the small and phallically-protruding tip of an iceberg of mammoth proportions.

By the time I’ve understood all this, my subconscious has more or less made peace with the second person perspective, but every time I put the book down and pick it up again, the shock of (self?) recognition causes my sense of style to grumble indignantly and I’m running the risk of a premature enamel shortage.

I find the book hard going. The Scottish dialect is deliberately kicking the glass house of story immersion and reminding me I’m turning the (virtual) pages of a (digital) book. As cracks appear in my acceptance of Stross’s reality, only a lifetime of polite upbringing prevents me from cursing the author by name for his love affair with phonetic spellings of accents that hail from beyond Hadrian’s wall. Nevertheless, I soldier on.

Somehow, two thirds of the way through the book, I find that I am closer to the end than I thought, and that I am anticipating the dénouement. A short period of life spent in Glasgow many years ago perhaps makes the style more approachable for me than some, and the interaction between new technology and the people in Stross’s universe is, after all, very well thought through.  Oh God, am I actually enjoying this now?

I’m almost bitter that I’ve been tricked into liking a book written in the second person (actually a great variety of second persons that get quite confusing at times, you might want to dial it down a bit next time). I’m also, to my immense distaste, accepting the fact that some of the characters would have been impossible to understand had we not been put into their heads (thankfully with some editing-out of the more repulsive thoughts). Therefore the use of the second person does – am I actually agreeing with this? – serve a real purpose here.

The final page flickers briefly across my eReader as I swipe from right to left and I’m presented with a list of other books by Charles Stross. What? That’s how it ends? Also: steady on, I’ve bought two of his books already, one thing at a time. But here’s the thing: while I had a hard time with it to start, and it clearly required more effort than many books to get into, against all expectations, I actually enjoyed this. Despite some story elements that are – to say the least – quite disturbing.

The story doesn’t end so much as fall off the edge of a cliff, with a deus-ex-machina-esque wrap-up that’s almost as sudden and unexplained as Don Juan taking the statue’s hand for a one-way trip to hell. I realise I’m not sure what the motivation of some of the characters really is, or that I have fully understood what happened, or even if I have enough information to attempt a full understanding.

But this doesn’t matter, because the story was actually less important than the people who inhabit it. The mystery we’re following is too convoluted to lend itself to a casual understanding, and too much is left unexplained (especially to a financially-trained person) for it to hang together nicely, but by the end, I was in it for the scenery, I wanted to know what happened to the characters, and I was just enjoying the descriptions of how the technology changes our interactions with the world around us, and with each other.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending [DVD] [2015]

I’m honestly not sure what science fiction as a genre has done to deserve the awful movies that are released like a biblical plague upon the loyal fans. With source material in the form of hundreds of novels from masters of the genre, and concepts such as ringworlds, Dyson’s spheres, generation ships, advanced AI, the Culture, etc to choose from, the relative paucity of anything remotely watchable is a great tragedy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course we have the original Star Wars, we have Pitch Black, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator, the Matrix – these were good movies, in the speculative fiction genre. But they’re old, and they’re still pretty thin on the ground. You’d think that as we’re continuously approaching the future we might get better at representing it on screen in the context of a reasonably well-structured narrative.

But for each good movie we get, we seem to earn a terrible sequel (Ok – Terminator and Alien count as exceptions), and for each movie-plus-dreadful-sequel combo we get a bonus side order of a couple of truly abysmal stand-alone science fiction turds that somehow manage to obtain theatrical releases.

Jupiter Ascending is one such piece of utter drivel.

A basic technique that ensures a science fiction book works is that it be character and story driven first, and that the technology actually serve a useful purpose and create a universe with rules and limitations that bound the story in interesting ways. Here, the script is very weak on characterization, and the plot devices are wildly implausible. The characters fill out the blank spaces in the script with ever more improbable lines to read, in the service of a plot so weak it barely pretends to hang together.

Jupiter Ascending’s storyline begins to fray before the overdressed and dramatically over-eared aliens even show up. With ridiculous story artefacts, odd notions of planets “belonging” to alien cultures, an omnipresent and thinly-veiled capitalists-are-evil meme, and an advanced race so utterly backward in their personal interactions that they could all use a session with a shrink. You get the picture: The film quickly becomes annoying.  In addition, the fight scenes are indecipherable, no matter how hard you stare – even if they are quite pretty.

Add to this two other elements: On the one hand some really pointless technology and concepts (flying boots, deployable wings, a really big, really heavy gun that doesn’t actually kill anyone, bees that identify royalty and fly around them in patterns…), and on the other, the use of storytelling laziness and short cuts such as, for example, the mass editing of people’s memories so they don’t remember there are little grey men flying around shooting holes in skyscrapers, or a totally random alignment of genetic code that means our protagonist is the reborn queen of a 91-thousand-year-old galactic empire, or the fact that the entire story is motivated by sibling rivalry, and you have the perfect ingredients for the mother of all cinematic turds.

Of course it’s when I watch bad science fiction that my television goes on the blink and for the entire last quarter of the movie I couldn’t fast-forward because of a software glitch, which means I had to sit through some of the most improbable fight scenes, useless dialogue and a wedding scene that was so overdone I almost threw the remote through the screen.

Not the Wachowski’s finest moment. I think they’re great directors, but they should really leave the screenwriting to someone else.