Fallen Dragon by Peter E. Hamilton

 

Fallen Dragon was recommended to me as ‘hard’ science fiction which I was not what I expected from the title.  The reason for the title was an edgy mystery for most of the book, which is more than 800 pages long, but revelation of the ‘dragon’ was rather underwhelming.

But back to the hard science fiction component of the novel.  There is indeed a lot of futuristic technology here; acres of detail about such as cyrogenic fuel, gamma soak, landing pods, Skin and  interfacing with personal AI via bracelets or pearls. Sometimes it was as if I was reading a raft of operating manuals though the author was good enough to keep me reading.   The majority of the description hones in on ‘advanced’ weaponry and fighting techniques, whereupon I realised that I was not only reading hard science fiction but a ‘shoot ’em up!

Now I have read my way through a lot of ‘fighting’ novels; I am familiar with Roman and Viking fighting styles, and with that of the Visigoths, the Huns, the Crusaders, the Tudors and the Russian Tzars.  I have a pretty good idea of the weaponry and tactics used to implement Spanish, British and French Imperialism.  I have read one hundred Westerns.  I have read about battles in WWI and  WWII.  I have read about intense battles in imaginary places.  Fallen Dragon ended up being a story in the style of macho WWII/Vietnam type platoon engagement with more whizzy weapons.

What makes a ‘fighting book’ bearable and credible is having an interest in the characters that fight.  Hamilton has expended too many words on things and too few on people.  I found the sexism, thuggery and moral vacuum of the soldiers, the ‘grunts’,  handling superb weapons and asset stripping extra-ordinary planets depressing and uninspiring; they were kept one-dimensional by clunky dialogue, inexplicable ignorance and limited ambition.  I cared not a whit when they were, predictably, killed off.  The main characters are Lawrence, the tough intelligent sergeant with plans to escape (though the words traitor and deserter are never used) from the military life and return to the luxurious life he foolishly abandoned in huff, and Denise, the clever rebel enacting clever plans to overthrow the corrupt and cruel corporations permanently.  They have a history!

Well, I did soldier on to the end of this novel.  Hamilton writes well at times and the carefully plotted sabotages were very good.   He could do with cutting out half of the operating manuals, a few worlds and spend some time on making his particpants more rounded than 1950’s cartoon characters.

 

The Other Minds / The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by P. Godfrey-Smith

I am very enthusiastic about this book, Other Minds.  

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I have read  the book a couple of times already and I will read it a couple times more.  The density of the material that Peter Godfrey-Smith is presenting is challenging but in a way that makes me feel like I am being lifted higher in understanding not left bewailing my ignorance.  I do realise that being a scuba diver for thirty years may contribute to my enthusiasm but the careful, joyful descriptions of octopuses and the nature of their intelligence, as compared to ours, is enthralling.

The book begins with a personal encounter with an octopus, ‘I swam down repeatedly’, which piques the curiosity of the author and he leads on his study of the animal that results in this book.  The story of his increasing fascination with the evolutionary development, the physical structure and the capabilities of the octopus is gripping.

There is so much in this book. He explores the link between the structure of the body, the interplay between nerve and brain, and the way in which this informs an organisms perception and interaction with the environment is just mind-boggling.  Then there is the discussion about the awakening of consciousness, a subjective understanding whereby ‘senses do their basic work in real time unconsciously’ but if the ‘sensory streams are brought together there arises a recognition of time and self’.  The application of this definition to an octopus is absorbing.  Peter Godfrey-Smith is persuaded that octopus have a subjective understanding of the world; that they are curious and adaptive though he is cautious about the extent to which the colour changes on the skin could be called a language.  I found the science of the ‘thin magic skin’ which involves muscles deliberately stretching the cell sacs to make a colour visible or relaxing it for the opposite effect difficult but satisfying. I have to reread the section on the ‘reflecting cells in the next level of dermis’.  Perhaps that is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s greatest achievement that he so carefully uses his words that which is hard to comprehend becomes accessible.

Peter Godfrey-Smith is clear that the process of understanding the octopus has been gained, and continues to be gained through the years and layers of scientific observation and expression.  I did find some of the experiments referred to made me feel squeamish.  The author has a nice sense of the dramatic.  The last chapters of the book are about the short life-span of the octopus and an on-going observations of an octopus settlement near scallop fields in shell-lined dens is just amazing.  I am in full sympathy with Godfrey-Smith’s appeal in his final chapter for more careful and considerate use of the finite resources of the sea.

I do recommend  reading this book.

 

 

Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly and Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

The Darwath Triology and Robopocalypse might seem odd bedfellows but in many ways they follow a similar story line and they both exhibit the same problem regarding their villains and their finishes.

The series by Barbara Hambly was recommended to me by a friend.  It is a well-written fantasy which makes good use of swords, horses and defensive constructions.  I did enjoy the first Book, The Time of the Dark, because it used the conceit of parallel worlds in an entertaining and effective way. Gil and Rudy are American misfits who find heroic purpose fighting The Dark in Alketch through training, self-knowledge and commitment.  They are guided through this purpose by the flawed wizard, Ingold, whose understanding of the Void is the key to story.  They join an array of entertaining characters in the series of battles, mostly desperate and futile,  against The Dark which imperils independent human life on the world.

Robopocalypse was recommended to me by the blogger, The Critiquing Chemist, is science fiction and also generally a well-written story.  This novel, told through historical documents by survivor, Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, is set in a future where robots, present in every aspect of human life, begin to kill people under the guidance of Big Rob.  An array of entertaining characters, gritty, noble and innovative, engage in mostly futile and desperate battles to avoid annihilation and slavery using 21st century weapons, reclaimed robots and teamwork.

The similarity between these two novels is that both authors have created super-strong, intelligent, villainous oppositions which cruelly kill or enslave humans.  In fact the Dark and Big Rob’s robots are so empowered, not only in abilities but in numbers, that I am unconvinced in both novels when the humans prevail.  In fact the humans win in both cases through the intervention of a super being, Ingold, the wizard who uses his magical powers, and Nine Oh Two, the freebot with superior physical and moral worth.   Once again great starts have fallen away into not so wonderful, cartoon finishes.

Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony and Down Station by Simon Morden

The intention of fantasy/science fiction book group to which I belong is to read one ‘old’ text and one ‘new’.  Not only am I reading the current books selected by the group but I am considering options for my own suggestions. Quite by accident two of the novels I recently read fall into that arrangement, A Spell for a Chameleon by Piers Anthony and Down Station by Simon Morden

A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth #1)Down Station (Down Station, #1)

I went looking for a novel by Piers Anthony; I wanted to reread Orn.  I remembered elements of the story and remember being particularly fascinated by the eponymous character with his inherited memory.  We, of the OSFF book group, have quickly realised that a recommendation of an old favourite without a recent reassessment can be very embarrassing.  There is nothing that dates faster than science fiction and fantasy! Why is this so?  I have a lot of ideas; it is a topic I am pondering and will return to.

I didn’t find Orn so I read A Spell for a Chameleon which I had not read before; unlike my brother I have not read all of Piers Anthony’s books.  And I am so glad that I did!  It is a romp of a book.  The magical land of Xanthe is quirky, vivid and magical. Bink’s journey, in search of his elusive magical talent, or face exile to Mundania, allows Anthony to create a madcap series of adventures with mythical creatures and monstrous dangers.  Yet, despite the derring-do style of hero and is friends the novel has some interesting insights to offer on the use and abuse of power, corruption, ambition, personal growth and societal development.

At times this book is at times pretentious with Bink’s, and I presume Anthony’s, pronouncements on ideal  woman though the humour keeps this from getting too grating.  The similar tale has been told by Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath.  This part of the book reads like prose version of the songs ‘I’m a Bitch’ by Meredith Brooks and Shelly Peikin  and ‘Always a Woman to Me’ by Billy Joel.  I note with interest that Billy Joel’s song was written in the same year as A Spell for a Chameleon 1977.

I did think that the middle sagged a bit with the excess of the wondrous beasties, marvellous escapes and hammering the motif of loyalty, though it weathers forty years very well being clever and well-written.  There are a raft of further Xanthe novels but I will count myself lucky to have read just this one.

Down Station by Simon Morden was written in 2016 is also set in a magical world where the ability to transform is a central theme, however, in this novel the degree to which the super-ego controls the id affects the nature of the transformation.  I found the beginning of this novel enthralling.  I loved the concept of slipping through a door into a primeval world to escape inevitable death when there is fire in London’s Underground.  I loved the characters Morden has created in Dalip and Stanislav though I was always a bit doubtful about Mary.  The process by which foul-mouthed Mary moves from raging self-interest to magnificent loyalty, from vindictiveness to mercy, is unconvincing especially as the person most likely to evoke that feeling in the circumstances, Mama, is sidelined in favour of the moral Dalip.

The battles let this novel down as the reasoning for why they arose was often weak.  The last battle of the novel was not credible even within the permitted bounds of a fantasy novel.  Dalip, who is the most captivating character, failed to rescue the sense of Down Station with his inexplicable sympathy for a leader who had orchestrated slavery, torture and the disembowelment of a guard.  I have no interest in accompanying these characters through sequels as they head for the Crystal City and seek the meaning of maps.  With the loss of Stanislav the novel lurched from coherent to fantastic though I accept that Dalip may still save the day and the story.

Red Notice by Bill Browder

 

I  do enjoy reading non-fiction; in some ways I regard it as a balance to the fantasy and science fiction that I prefer to read.  In fact the next three books that I plan to review are non-fiction.  The first book is Red Notice which I read with one of the book groups to which I belong.  Then I return to fiction with a relief and a light heart.

For the first half of Red Notice I was without sympathy for Bill Browder, in fact, I was often angry.  I found his motivation to become a capitalist, ‘the biggest capitalist in Eastern Europe’ because ‘nothing would piss off his family more’ only ensured that he was stuck in juevenile mode; a competitive and self-regarding man lacking in empathy.  The rather clunky prose, especially when describing personal moments; ‘it took every ounce of effort for me to keep my cool’ tended to support this impression.

There is no doubting that Browder is a hard worker and a very persistent man.  He ploughs on despite difficulties and losses. His research is thorough and pain staking.  However, his business is to look for chinks, weaknesses and opportunities in places that are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing economic situation.  When Poland begins to privatise its ‘state-owned companies ‘selling this company for one half of the previous year’s earnings’ with no limitation on overseas investment he just sees it as an opportunity to make himself wealthy. He doesn’t share this information with Polish colleague ‘Leschek’ except to use him like a bookie’s runner. He is fully aware, due to his involvement with the Polish bus company Autosan, how desperately the country requires investment and expertise, but he begins a career in exploitation.  He is a remora shark taking advantage of a nation’s vulnerabilities and ignorance.

Reading page p.83 about the ‘pickings’ available in Russia for the voracious investment banker makes me feel sick.  It is equivalent to an antiques dealer ripping off a poor widow lady because she didn’t know the value of what she owns.  There is no honesty or honour in what he does and the way that he writes this chapter indicates that he is still proud of his ‘find.’

Then the book is all about finding like-minded investors.  I am very dubious about the term investor as pertains to this sort of financial activity as the purpose seems to be to find a company that has under-valued resources, suck up as many shares as it legally can, wait for the hard work and development to occur on the ground and then siphon off the wealth out of Russia.  This, to me, is not the same as BP’s arrangement with Sidanco which involves the provision of knowledge, equipment and long-term financial commitment in return for shares.

Then it goes sour for him.  The Russians do not like the way ‘foreign investors’ are gathered on the ‘bear’ like a bunch of ticks.  Browder says that it is his Russian, corrupt, exploitive competitors who dislike him and seek to dislodge him from his position in the economy.  Browder strives to stay in Russia and protect his investments by exploiting every political, media and legal loophole that he can.

What begins as ‘clearly having an axe to grind’ (Reuters in 2013) does metamorphose into an anti-corruption campaign.  He directs this campaign against officials and oligarchs seeking to illegally deprive him of his wealth. He refers to several blatant examples of corruption on page 203 of Red Notice.   He exposes the purchase of Russian companies by oligarchs and insiders for up to ’99.5 per cent discount of its’ fair value’. I am puzzled why he feels his own purchase of shares which Browder knew were grossly undervalued is that different from what the Russians were doing.

Yes, he does contribute to the exposure of the violence and corruption that infests the Russia.  He enlists the help of a number of Russians to do so and this is where the book is desperately sad. Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer of high principles exposes the tax fraud that is being used illegally against Browder and others.  His reward for such whistleblowing is imprisonment, torture and death.  I agree with Browder that Sergei Magnitsky was an incredible and an honourable man. I applaud his efforts to gain justice for him. I was horrified at the institutionalised violence that is prevalent in the Russian society and how it is used on individuals and their families and associates to cooperate with corruption, to prevent them from seeking justice and to undermine efforts to create a more equitable society.  I am glad I kept reading because in the latter part of Red Notice Browder does make some redress for his earlier greed.  His undoubted skills are now applied to altruistic purposes.

The book did lead me to read more articles about the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. There is a lot of evidence that governments of other nations are not sufficiently fussy about the source of the money that known corrupt persons are bringing into their economy.  The news that Nicolai Gorokhov, the Magnitsky family lawyer, was severely injured in March 2017 from being thrown out of a fourth story window is devastating.

I read with sadness and apprehension that Julio Borges, the leader of the Venezuela opposition dominated National Assembly, has accused Goldman Sach of ‘aiding and abetting the country’s dictatorial regime’ through its acquisition of $2.4bn in bonds (at around 30 cents in the dollar) in the country’s state oil firm and making a ‘quick buck’ out of suffering.  The same story!  Money used like this is a dirty business.

The Alchemist’s Box, Merchant Blades Book 1 by Alex Avrio

        The Alchemist’s Box is filled with all the traditional ingredients of a fantasy adventure.

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In fact, within the first few chapters, I read about an unwise card game, brutal repercussions, gallant troop of mercenaries on horseback, coercion, a mysterious errand to secure a box with a snake eating its tale on the lid, gypsies, fortune telling, a stow away, extraordinary bad weather and extraordinarily bad wolves in a world where a fragile peace between competing empires has recently been put in place.  The raft of villains, comrades and difficult situations is initially overwhelming and makes the beginning of the novel rather heavy going.  Moreover, at first, I was not entirely convinced by the central protagonists; not convinced by the reasons why Regina Fitzwater and Maximillian Jaeger honour a contract with gang masters Gold, Honesty and Vagas and not convinced by the degree of enmity between the honourable Fitzwater and the scarred, guilty Jaeger, given that both have been soldiers and then mercenaries for years.

As The Alchemist’s Box continues the sound plot structure, the reliable prose with strong use of dialogue, some pithy phrases, the past lives of the central characters and the campfire yarns begin to lift it out of the ordinary.  By the midpoint of The Alchemist’s Box the characters are more credible and the plot has acquired more energy.  The sea voyage to The South Across the Water is the point where the novel really gets into its stride.  The sailor-eating mist is very good and the true characters of the group travelling to secure The Alchemist’s Box with the snake decoration, with additional picked-up-on -the -way commitments, are developed. The entrance of the Queen of the Dark, Nephthys, propels the novel into the realm of very good, which is the reverse of my usual experience of the introduction of the god factor, and the fantasy is vibrant and engaging.

The ending of the novel in last chapter, The Pain of Separation, is clever, snappy and satisfying. It  allows for a legitimate continuation of the endeavours of Fitzwater and Jaeger to make a financial success of their mercenary trade in Merchant Blades Book 2.

Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs and Other Stories by Andrew Kozma

I like writing that makes me think, slow down and think.  ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ and the other stories certainly did that.  Andrew Kozma writes evocatively and elegantly about disturbing concepts.

The first story Stammlager 76 imagines a situation where a notorious prison is reopened.  In this case brutality has been replaced with neglect, by a lack of purpose, by a lack of stimuli; the prisoners are referred to as property.  Property, not like a horse or a slave, but like a lump of organic material on a petrie dish.  It is an eerie and fruitless place.  The story challenged me to read around the story, one thing I found is that 76 means slave, rest and hiding place, among other uncomfortable information.

The next two stories are perspectives on mortality and fleeing from a past that is determined to overpower which I found quirky rather than intense.

The last and the longest story, ‘Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs’ begins with the central character, suffering from despair, alienation and poverty, desperately seeking solace by visiting a small native reservation.  It is an examination of grooming and exploitation and of how the worm turns.

These are not happy stories, nor are they comfortable or just, but they are captivating and memorable.