Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire, #1)Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a lot of science fiction. I find reading science fiction diverting, stimulating and usually a lot of fun. I finish most books in three to five days depending on my schedule and what else is going on in my life. I struggled with Ninefox Gambit. It took me 3 weeks to finally finish it. I abandon books if I am not having fun after two or three sittings. I am glad I didn’t give up on Ninefox Gambit.

We are thrown right in the deep end at the beginning of Ninefox Gambit. Cheris is a soldier and a gifted mathematician. She serves the Hexarchate; six factions or guilds that govern her part of the universe. Each faction is responsible for a facet of life within the Hexarchate. Cheris is a part of the Kel, the military faction. Ninefox Gambit starts with Cheris involved in a bloody skirmish. We get some idea of how combat works in the Hexarchate. Kel soldiers are able to use exotic weapons by deploying in a formation that uses the effects of the Hexarchate “calendar”.

I know. I was baffled too. We get given no indication of what the calendar is or how a formation works. I knew there was something important going on, but I felt too lost to be able to follow what was happening.

I put away my Kindle and picked up another book. Yet, I kept thinking of Cheris and the world of Ninefox Gambit. So I picked up where I had left off and powered through. I am glad I did, because we are swiftly introduced to General Shuos Jedao – disembodied, disgraced and quite possibly insane. Jedao is immortal and imprisoned by the Kel hierarchy after causing a brutal massacre 400 years ago. He may or may not be crazy but is a brilliant military tactician and is used by the Kel when his expertise is required.

An important world (the wonderfully named Fortress of Scattered Needles), is taken by heretics who install their own calendar in rebellion against the doctrines of the Hexarchate. The Fortress is protected by unassailable defences and lies in a strategic sector. Cheris is chosen as Jedao’s anchor – together they command the Hexarchate’s forces as they attempt to subdue the rebellion and retake the fortress.

We get to learn a lot more about the world through conversations between Cheris and Jedao as well as short vignettes from other characters caught up in the action. There are plots within plots and a lot of political intrigue. There are games with exotic rules and flashbacks to Jedao’s life and the events that led up to his immortality and imprisoning. There is also violence, and lots of blood and gore.

At times, Ninefox Gambit reads like conventional military science fiction. Exotic weapons (deadly fungus anyone?), spies and shouty sergeants. Yet, all of this action makes sense in the context of the structure of the Hexarchate. The world is governed through a combination of indoctrination and brute strength. Cheris and Jedao are the tip of the spear that is intended to destroy the rebels.

If you are still with me, you probably know that Ninefox Gambit relies on the reader being somewhat familiar with the tropes of science fiction and fantasy. I (and other readers on Goodreads) were reminded of Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. There are similarities – we have an unreliable narrator in Cheris and a brutal regime attempting to suppress a rebellion. Just like the Radch trilogy, Ninefox Gambit is deeper and a lot more interesting than your run of the mill military science fiction.

Yoon Ha Lee has built a compelling, and challenging, universe – one that I hope will be explored in further volumes in the “Machineries of Empire” series.

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Review: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

RevengerRevenger by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review based on a copy sent to me by NetGalley

Revenger appears to be the first instalment in an intriguing new science fiction series by Alastair Reynolds. This fast paced, character driven novel is an enjoyable departure from the dense, exposition-heavy space opera that Alastair Reynolds has been writing for the last 20 years.

We follow the story of Arafura Ness, a teenager with a sheltered life and a love of books as she ventures out from her father’s home in search of adventure with her more outgoing (and reckless) older sister Adrana.

Arafura comes from Mazarile, one of thousands of planetoids and habitats in a ruined Solar System that has seen multiple civilisations come and go. The economy is based on finding and exploiting artefacts from previous, more advanced civilisations. We have space ships with salty, and cynical crews sailing solar winds, exploring abandoned habitats looking for treasure. Arafura and Adrana start their adventure in one of these ships. Things go awry pretty quickly and the sisters are separated. The main plot of the book follows Arafura as she attempts to find her sister.

We get many hints to the shape and structure of the universe of Revenger. However, the book is written from the point of view of a teenager coming to grips with a chaotic and violent world and there are no dull expository passages.

There are a few other characters: mainly crew mates of Arafura and Adrana, but the story is very much Arafura’s. The dialogue can be a bit awkward at times, but I enjoyed following Arafura’s journey. The story builds to a violent and bloody climax. I didn’t find the violence gratuitous and it made sense in context of the plot and the wider world of Revenger.

Fans of Alastair Reynold’s work will find much to enjoy here: a strong female character, strong action scenes and a fantastic world to explore. The book has also been clearly written to attract readers of the burgeoning “Young Adult Fiction” genre, and I think it will be a great read for those readers who are looking for more science in their YA fiction.

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Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Oryx and Crake” is a beautifully written book set in a dystopian future where genetic engineering has gone wrong.

The book follows two plot lines. “Snowman” finds himself alone; slowly starving to death and doubting his sanity in a world that has been devastated by plague. His days are spent scavenging and hiding from mutant pigs (“pigoons”) and nasty wolf / dog hybrids (“wolvogs”). There are also the “Crakers”, gentle, genetically engineered humans that seem to be designed for this post-apocalyptic world. The Crakers see Snowman as a sort of mentor. We find more about Snowman’s relationship with the Crakers as the book progresses.

The second plot strand is set in the past. This is before the plague when Snowman was known as Jimmy. Corporations run fabulously appointed enclaves (called Compounds). Jimmy grows up in one of these compounds, alienated from his scientist father and coming to terms with being abandoned by his mother. The world outside the compounds, the “pleeblands”, is rife with poverty, crime and those people who are not lucky enough to work for one of the compounds.

Jimmy meets Crake, a strange and brilliant teenager while in high school. We follow their lives through to adulthood. The world, as described by Ms. Atwood, is teetering on the brink. Almost everything is available for sale, and the Compounds follow some ethically and morally questionable business practices. We come to understand how Snowman’s world came about. We also meet Oryx, a woman who both Jimmy and Crake fall for and who has a compelling and tragic story herself.

“Oryx and Crake” is the first installment of the “MaddAdam” trilogy. While I enjoyed reading the book and marvelled at Ms. Atwood’s writing; it was clear that Ms. Atwood does not approve of genetic engineering and does not hold the capitalistic motive in high regard. This results in a slightly laboured and cynical book. I might change my mind after reading the other two books in the MaddAdam trilogy. But for now, “Oryx and Crake” gets an average rating.

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Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What gives life meaning?

Is it love, faith and family or is it making a difference, striving to make the most of one’s talents in the time on hand. These questions loom large in Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

At thirty-six, Paul was the chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford. He held degrees in literature and in the history and philosophy of medicine. He was about to graduate to become a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

When Breath Becomes Air is written in two parts. The first part describes why Paul decided to become a neurosurgeon while the second part describes his transition from being a doctor to a patient as his health deteriorated.

Paul was a second generation immigrant, his parents were Indian doctors and he spent his formative years in a sun-kissed (and rattlesnake infested) town in Arizona. His mother, despairing at the state of the local school system, had Paul and his brothers read widely – a story familiar to many second generation immigrants. This led to a love of literature that stayed with Paul throughout his life and has a major influence on this memoir.

At Stanford, Paul majored in English literature and Biology.

“I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain.”

Frustrated with academia, Paul turned to medicine. He specialised in neurosurgery, an especially challenging field. Paul describes the pressure of being a neurosurgeon – the hours are long and the pace unrelenting; an incision off by a few millimetres could lead to “locked-in” syndrome.

Paul loved his job and it’s attendant challenges. He struggles with his perceived lack of empathy and describes how the challenges of his job strained his marriage. He describes, in elegant prose, a doctor’s role in helping those who are facing horrendous decisions.

“We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patient’s lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins.”

Paul’s career and plans for the future – a career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist; having a family and financial stability were all put on hold by the diagnosis of terminal cancer. He lost weight, and as his health deteriorated, he was put on a variety of medical and physical therapies.

A new biological treatment led to some improvement and allowed Paul to go back to work. He was back in the operating theatre following intensive and painful physical therapy. He and his wife Lucy decided to have a child. When asked whether having a child would make his death more painful, “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Paul suffered a remission, and, in the end, had no choice but to give up work and attempt more aggressive treatments.

In the final, moving, pages of When Breath Becomes Air – Paul knew time was running out,

“Everyone succumbs to finitude.. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens out to a perpetual present.”

The book finishes with Paul spending time with his daughter Caddy and wondering what she would make of her absent father.

Lucy Kalanithi, in a moving epilogue to Paul’s memoir, describes Paul’s final days. We find out that the book is unfinished – Paul’s health deteriorated too fast for him to complete When Breath Becomes Air. Yet, we also hear about his drive to finish the book; struggling to find the right words through a fog of drugs and pain.

I was in tears when I finished the book. I suspect most people would be.

As a young man, Paul found meaning in literature, as a doctor in helping and healing his patients, and finally, as a dying man, he found meaning in spending time with his infant daughter, his family and in God. What I found were humanity and inspiration.

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Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King starts off with a horrendous crime. A man drives a large Mercedes into a group of people waiting to go into a jobs fair. It is an effective, if gruesome start to our story. There are two main POV characters. We spend time with Bill Hodges, a decorated police detective, now retired and slowly going to seed. We also get to know, perhaps a bit too well, the Mr. Mercedes from the title. He is a man with issues, a freudian delight. The two, protagonists, linked by the crime from the opening chapter, taunt, circle and torture each other throughout the book.

There isn’t any mystery as such. We know exactly who the killer is. The book is about the thrill of the game of cat and mouse that Bill and Mr. Mercedes play. It is difficult to tell who exactly is who is the hunter and who is the hunted – and this is the joy of the book. We are joined by a number of other characters. Bill is assisted by his neighbour Jerome, a precocious and talented teenager and Holly, a brilliant, if neurotic woman with a link to the original crime.

The plot moves along nicely, with the tension building to an explosive finale.

So why the three stars?

If I were to compare Mr. Mercedes to a restaurant, it would be Pizza Express. You know exactly what you will get as soon as you enter the door. The experience is predictable, but enjoyable and is good value. Faint praise perhaps – but this is not a challenging book. It is enjoyable, and I found it hard to put it down, but I doubt it will stay with me for any longer than a Pizza Express meal does.

What I liked:
– The setting: The book is set in an unnamed mid-western town at the tail end of the Great Recession. Jobs are scarce, and people work multiple jobs to make ends meet
– The pace: Things move fast in this book. The book covers events in a two week period, and a lot of stuff happens!
– The humour: Stephen King has always a been a funny writer. Even in this vanilla thriller, there are nuggets of comedy that made me laugh out load.

What I didn’t like:
– The characters: The bad guy is a cliche – a loner with mommy issues and technical skills. Each character has problems. Vivacious divorcee – check; precocious minority teenager – check; Neurotic middle aged woman with mental problems – triple check!
– The plot: Things happen (death, love, murder) very quickly and characters make decisions that do not make sense given what we know about them.

Mr. Mercedes is the first of the “Bill Hodges” trilogy, with “Finders Keepers” the second and a third in the pipeline.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry PlanetThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” (TLW) in one sitting on a long flight. At the time, it felt like a particularly enjoyable story arc from Star Trek TNG or perhaps a binge session of Firefly. A week or so later, I keep thinking about the book, about the characters and about the patched up freighter and far flung moons with their plucky and weird colonists that inhabit TLW.

After the first chapter, I thought the book would centre around Rosemary and her journey from desperate runaway to some sort of ass kicking space warrior-scribe. I was wrong. The book is not just about Rosemary but about the entire crew of the Wayfarer and there is little in the way of ass-kicking. The pacifist captain, the rambunctious techs, mysterious navigator(s) and all the other colourful (literally in a few cases) characters that inhabit TLW have depth and agency.

The plot revolves around a long journey undertaken by the Wayfarer, a sort of space highway construction ship, to the Small Angry Planet of the title. Along the way, we visit markets, colonies, and planets while getting to know the crew and how the universe of the book works. The structure of the book may be conventional, yet it has a lot of say about gender, identity, violence and coming to term with one’s past. TLW is open about its politics: the captain of the Wayfarer is a pacifist, the doctor comes from a species that chose voluntary extinction after a decades of brutal warfare, and my favourite character has to consciously tone down her affection for her human crew mates because we are so weird about public displays of affection. Even the most curmudgeonly character has redeeming features.

TLW may not seem appealing if you like your science fiction to be of the military variety, or if you are a fan of hard science fiction from the likes of Alistair Reynolds. It certainly is different to the usual science fiction books I read, but I found it rewarding. Ms. Chambers clearly cares deeply about the Universe and the characters she has created. There is none of the nihilism and little of the violence that can be off putting about a lot of modern science fiction. TLW is character driven and while there are a few expository data dumps, things never get tedious.

I look forward to more books by Ms. Chambers and am glad that she is currently working on a companion piece that is set in the same Universe as TLW. A strong recommend from me.

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Books of 2015

My target this year was to read 50 books. I didn’t quite make it and finished with 23 books completed. I have a number of books still on “Currently Reading” shelf on GoodReads as well as a few paper backs lying around the flat. Still, I read some wonderful books this year, and a couple of disappointing ones as well.

Best Book read in 2015

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
A history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in the mid 19th century. William Dalrymple consulted Afghan, Indian and British sources to write a haunting, powerful book that provides context to the contemporary British and American foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Science Fiction

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
An excellent English translation of the second book in the best selling “Three Body Problem” series by Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu. The Dark Forest has a compelling plot, and provides a unique take on the Fermi paradox.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Wonderful, poetic, post-apocalyptic fiction exploring love, loss and Shakespeare. My review here.

Non Fiction

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield
A charming and inspirational memoir by Canadian astronaut and Youtube sensation Col. Chris Hadfield.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande – A moving meditation on life and death.

Disappointments

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
A beautifully written yet confused and bloated book by one of my favourite writers.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bullet and blood strewn set pieces do not help a weak plot in this dystopian novel written by the author of the excellent The Windup Girl. My review here.

Honorable Mentions

The Peripheral by William Gibson – Presents a look at a dystopian future enlivened by a clever plot and some precise writing.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie – Satisfying conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy.

 

Review: The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless FutureRise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rise of the Robots (RoR) was voted as the Financial Time’s Business Book of the Year* for 2015.

I found the book to be a disappointment. RoR goes over well trodden territory around automation, the shift of from a labour driven economy to a capital driven economy and the impending collapse of the consumption due to the shrinking middle class. Mr. Ford also provides a brief tour of the issues around the emergence of general purpose Artificial Intelligence** and nano technology. The book concludes with an argument for a universal, work appropriate basic income scheme and a discussion around the system of incentives that would make such a scheme work.

The book provides anecdotal commentary around the decimation of white collar jobs and the emergence of machine learning. It covers well trod territory on the failures of MOOCs and how a degree from a University may no longer guarantee a prosperous middle class life.

RoR comes across as a lament for the golden post-war age of increasing prosperity, high levels of employment and with the middle classes having a secure financial future. Mr. Ford mentions on a number of occasions that we are reverting to a feudal system with a small percentage of the population controlling access to capital and the majority of us becoming sharecroppers in a digital economy. I agree with this bleak prognosis but do not find Mr. Ford’s solution of a increasing consumption via a universal basic income satisfactory.

I found RoR to be a sharp, succinct read with extensive foot notes and references. There are few mentions in the book of the sort of challenges facing countries like India that are not wealthy and where a basic income would be difficult to implement. India, like China before it, has staked it’s economic future on creating millions of jobs through manufacturing and services. If these jobs are not to materialise due to the “Rise of the Robots”, what options remain open? Regrettably, Mr. Ford does not offer much in the way of insight here.

I would recommend RoR as a primer on the type of issues that developed nations will face in the coming decades but find Mr. Ford’s arguments for a solution unconvincing and his exploration on the deeper issues around ethics around general purpose AI unsatisfactory.

Notes:
* FT Business Book of the Year: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/45ea0f60-8d…

** Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence provides a detailed exploration around the issues behind the emergence of General Purpose AI: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2…

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Review: The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Water Knife is a lives up to its title: it’s a sharp, mean and violent story set in a grim near future US on the verge of civil war over water. The story unfolds in Phoenix, Arizona as the water runs out and the city is taken over by psychotic gang bangers, corrupt company men and desperate refugees from Texas (the “Merry Perrys”).

We follow three characters as they make their way through the dust choked ruins of Phoenix. Angel is a “Water Knife” for Las Vegas. His job is to make sure the taps do not run dry in his boss’s lush futuristic condos in the Vegas desert. We also meet Lucy, a journalist documenting the collapse of Phoenix (she even has her own #PhoenixDownTheTubes hash tag). Finally we spend some time with Maria, a Texan teenager living in one of many refugee camps policed by sociopathic gangsters (they keep Hyenas!). The three character arcs are connected by, of course, water. Or more specifically papers that will bestow senior rights to a serious amount of water in Arizona.

The Water Knife is kinetic, violent, and very grim. There are graphical descriptions of death, torture and mutilation. I am a big fan of Paolo Bacilagupi’s adult fiction and really enjoyed The Windup Girl. This book is in a similar dystopian vein, but left me disappointed. The writing is good, and the plot kept me going. However, I felt like I was reading a script of an apocalyptic science fiction film, perhaps a futuristic remake of Chinatown, as opposed to reading a book. Key plot points are telegraphed and the book lacked suspense or tension between the bullet and blood strewn set pieces.

I liked the book despite the criticisms above. Fans of The Windup Girl and the short stories in Pump Six will find much to enjoy here, but I can’t help but feel that there was much more to explore in this dystopian setting.

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Review: Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

Slow BulletsSlow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review based on a copy received from NetGalley and Tachyon Publications

Alastair Reynold’s Slow Bullets is a novella exploring issues of identity, memory and revenge. There are echoes of Iain Bank’s The Use of Weapons as well as some of the ideas explored in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. The tone and setting of Slow Bullets is quite different to that of the gothic space opera (Revelation Space) or generation spanning science fiction (Poseidon’s Children).

The majority of the action is set on the prison transport Caprice as it recovers from a calamitous malfunction. The novella’s protagonist Scur and her fellow passengers awaken from hibernation to find the ship in orbit around a frozen planet and suffering from an acute case of bit rot.

Caprice’s passengers include war criminals from the two opposing religious factions. The war was over and a cease fire declared as the ship set off on it’s ill fated mission. As the ship’s systems fall apart, Scur and her fellow passengers have to deal with religious tensions, long simmering vendettas, as well as figuring out how to preserve millennia’s worth of cultural and scientific knowledge.

I quite enjoyed Slow Bullets. However, it feels more like a short story that was extended to a novella than a novel’s worth of ideas condensed to the shorter format.

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