Four Good Titles .. but

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz and Gridlinked by Neal Asher are all well worth reading.

Autonomous is the best of these novel. I loved the premise that for the several heroic characters the fight was against Pharma, who withheld life-saving treatment from the poor and the dispossessed (and there are a lot of them!) Jack is a terrific character and Threezee is very convincing.  Mel, the AI raised as a human, research scientist is the best of the lot.  The author waltzes us through drugs and supplements which enable humans to function at extra-ordinary levels.  However, then there is the Pharma hitmen, Eliasz and his sub-ordinate AI, Paladin.  The author is interested in exploring the affair between the two but in so doing gives Paladin so much power that the piecemeal process of their hunt for Jack is not credible.  I really really liked this book but the physical hunt, several chase scenes, through he dives seemed a tad unnecessary.

The Prefect most appealing element is the development of the character, number-cruncher, earnest Thalia Ny, the off-sider to the hard-bitten, law-enforcing, sad Dreyfus whom, even after we learn he had a mind wipe so as to cope with overwhelming grief, remains a cardboard cutout personality.  The science-fiction environment is created with loving detail – sometimes excessive detail, this is the real strength of the novel, though the AI seems to be unaccountably thin in defense and the villains, the psychotic mind warping Aurora and the traitor, run rings around a much larger, better equipped opponent.  Whereupon Dreyfus darts about the system, chase scene in space drive, in a variety of vehicles hunting the physical Aurora and trying to understand motive. The predicament of Ammonier, who continues in a role of authority, was ridiculous.  The reference to other problematic groups/individuals including the conjoiners, the Ultras and the clockmaker heavily point to the series.  The best sci-fi concept occurred during Dreyfus’ ethicial conversation with the Beta manifestation of Delphine, the uploaded memories of the alpha (real) being.

Boneshaker begins with a fabulous scenario of a willful adolescent heading into danger, a heavily polluted quarantined part of the city, in search of his family’s old home.  His mother, the wonderful Briar, sets off after him and has to enlist the assistance of black market traders.  The edgy characters both Briar and Zeke meet are the strength of the novel, Rudy, Aadan Cly,Swakhammer, Miss Angeline and Lucy.  The Blight, the bad air, is a good character too until it is given the additional attributes of not only being the basis of addictive Sap but has the ability to turn humans, only humans, into unstoppable zombies.  And much of the novel is taken up with chase scenes with moments of rest, panting in masks, as the real humans are driven underground.  The end is clever but here again is such an effective enemy one unconvinced by human survival.

Gridlocked likes indulging in description of amazing technology too. The interesting consideration in this novel is how direct association with AI leads to loss of personality, intuition and flexibility. Hero, James Bond like, Ian Cormac must surrender his direct link and rely on an android. While he is coping with his withdrawal he is fighting both the crazed criminal Pelter and his crazier android, Crane, and the old enemy, Dragon, wants help against the Maker.  Lots of running around exchanging fire and surviving the impossible.  The latter part of the novel is definitely not as good as the beginning and the thawing Cormac goes back into frozen personality mode even without the AI link.

My ‘but’ arises because in each of these novels whole populations are dispensed with willy-nilly with neither stain nor a wrench on the characters of those that do and those that witness. Reyonlds says is the most clearly ‘just over a thirtieth of the whole citizenry .. thank our stars we are talking about millions and not tens of millions… the citizenry will get over it and move on with their lives choosing to forget …’  I find this approach to death, violence and torture which is evident in all of these novels risible and not supported by any human experience.  it is video game writing.  Even Jack and Mel in Autonomous give themselves a little shake and get on with their careers.

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The Outcasts of Heaven Belt by Joan D. Vinge

I was astonished when I read this book, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt; I had to keep turning to check that the copyright was indeed 1978.  Joan D. Vinge has here a smoothly written novel which  packs more into its 197 pages than some of the tomes that boast in excess of 500 pages.

I am not sure if I liked the plot more than the characters or the characters more than the plot; okay I loved them both. Outcasts of Heaven Belt (Heaven Chronicles, #1)

A group of spacefarers travel to the Heaven System to re-establish links with the human settlements  from which they had been cut off for hundreds of years.  The planet of Morningside sends the best of their people in a hugely expensive, the population diverted much of their surplus to this one project, spaceship in the hopes of establishing trade routes and learning from this pinnacle of a civilization.  They are totally unprepared for their reception; attacked, vilified and pursued for salvage.  Far from being a sanctuary Heaven is plunged into its own version of the dark ages.

I was engaged by the way the captain of the Morningside spaceship, Betha Torgussen, struggles with her urge to pay back the violent attack because she also has responsibilities to her crew, what is left, and her planet.  I am fascinated by the social organisation she and Clewell represent which is in contrast to the limited, limiting structures, depressingly similar to many still in vogue in our twenty-first century, that exist on the planets of within Heaven Belt.

Her crew is supplemented when Ranger rescues a spaceship from the desperate planet of Lansing and this gives us insight into the inequalities that have arisen in the system since the collapse caused by competing interests and ideologies; inequalities so profound all of the planets are in danger of having their human life being destroyed (and takes down other life with it … another familiar scenario).  A further inadvertently acquired crew member is Wadie Abdhiamal, a consummate politician, with a grasp of the bigger picture in the Heaven system and a personal knowledge of many of the key players.  The great part about this book is that his clever solutions, manipulations, in conjunction with Ranger’s superior technology and Betha’s moral impetus, are really clever.

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is about collisions, personal, social and technological; and explores the options of how they can be avoided.  The novel satisfyingly ends with possibilities. Oh, and did I mention the cat, Rusty?  I am not a lover of cats but this one, paddling in weightlessness, is captivating.

Definitely time to read a couple more by this author by this author, who is still alive and writing.

 

 

Journal of the Flood Year by David Ely

 Journal of the Flood Year is races the reader through a gripping story.  The protagonist is the dour and obessesive William Fowke and the story is told entirely from his perspective.  Through a series of journal entries that detail his views and conversations we share with Fowke his gradual disillusionment in the veracity and ability of his government.

William Fowke is a monitor, a ranger, who’s task is to record and report on the state of the Wall, a huge dyke, the creation of which has expanded the American land mass by millions of square kilometres.  Fowke is passionate about the Wall, his fifth entry is an ode to its extra-ordinary construction as he sits atop the granite 150 metres above the land while the Atlantic smashes against the other side.  So when he finds seepage that indicates that the Wall has a flaw he will not cease agitating his superiors to come and fix the problem.

His determination to get action only has negative effects and his career, his ‘marriage’ and his freedom are taken from him. Fowkes’ refusal to stop trying to get action to save the Wall leads to a loss of citizenship rights – no longer one of the included, punishments and indoctrination camps; we start to see that there are more flaws in this rigid, stagnant society than just in the Wall.

The only reason Fowkes is able to escape and continue his mission to save the Wall is through his relationship with Julia.  It is a relationship started in a random Telesex interaction.  This is  another very peculiar aspect of Fowkes society; human contact is only through the medium of machines so touching, sex and birth are taboo and disgusting to Fowkes and the other included.  Ely conceived this concept in 1992 and the awful thing is, with the current news about AI sex toys, is it does not seem as strange as it should do.  Robots, murids and ursids, are the indefatigable police and enforcers in Fowkes world and they are frightening because they are immune to any appeal.

A clever story though  the curmudgeonliness of William Fowkes, with his serial escapes, does wear a bit thin at times.  The aim now is to read another David Ely though I note with interest that there is an eighteen year gap between this, his last novel, and Mr Nicholas written in 1974.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I am sitting here with a battered copy of Thin Air by Michelle Paver.  My husband picked it out off the bookshelves in Manchester Airport and held it out for my approval.  He is not a keen reader and he is cautious about selecting books but I thought this one would suit him very well.  I knew he would like the setting, the Himalayan Mountains, as he has hiked in Nepal and I knew Paver was an excellent writer as our son had avidly read, as did I, all of her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.

Husband did not surface from the book until we were almost in Dubai.  He enthusiastically extolled the ability of Paver to depict the bitterly harsh environment and the pressure it put on the climbers.  ‘Oh, and the mystery was good too.’  Before I make time to read it we were in Australia and husband handed it with great fanfare to my brother-in-law.  He was another happy customer and thought the description of the physicality of the climb painfully realistic.  I packed Thin Air to come with us on a sailing boat in the Whitsundays but, influenced by husband’s rave, another crew member snaffled the book from where I left it on the table and is was again out of reach for several days.  Guess what?  Yet another great review. ‘She really grabbed me by showing how the altitude made feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia more intense.’  Crew member made a note of all of Paver’s other novels for future reading and then reluctantly handed me the book.

Thin Air was salty and misshapen but the story that leapt out of those stained pages was enthralling.  I was fascinated by the expedition members.  They were so dependent upon each other, and upon the sherpas, but machismo, prejudice, dishonesty, superstition, and jealously blight their relationships as it did that of the expedition in 1907, almost thirty years previously.   Kangchenjunga is the aspiration and nemesis of two tragic expeditions.  Paver’s story is stunning.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

I am not sure why this book won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Power (Paperback)

Okay, I accept the main conceit that women are suddenly able to ‘infect and teach’ each other how to acquire and implement the physical ability to deliver electric shocks; thus are women physically transformed from being the weaker sex into the powerful sex.  The novel then sets out to explore how this turning of the tables might change the world, might inculcate a world of new possibilities.

Except it doesn’t.  All that happens is that those in power, women, make uninfected women and men into minions and set up a hierarchy. In Power society as remains the same because there is no social development at all as those on top are cruel, dismissive, self-serving, belittling, equate physical power with superiority in all spheres and misuse their physical strength to compel others into obedience, slavery and sycophancy.  It is a very depressing book as it reinforces the might makes right mantra.

      Power is graphic in its description of the cruelties inflicted upon women by men: women imprisoned in cellars, women enslaved in whore houses, girls raped and abused by carers, career women frustrated by prejudice, the use of filthy language to denigrate girls and women …  it counts out these and other horrors and they are shocking in it their magnitude.  As the use of electric shock permeates the female population the men react violently to the threat to their power and in Saudi Arabia we are told that the women are blinded so as men can regain control.  This book gave me the same sick feeling and sense of despair that I had when I read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.  Alderman and James are certainly effective horror writers.

The novel follows the path of a handful of women who ride the wave to become prominent in a variety of arenas:  a religious order celebrating the Goddess who gifted women and not men; the political harnessing of the apprehension about wave of women and girls exercising their electric power; the bloody transfer of dominance within a drug running family to a daughter; and the setting up of a nation of vengeful women under the guidance of an abused one.  All of the women who assume power are damaged and re-enact the violence inflicted upon them.  They are as cruel and limited in their vision as the men they replaced.

And there’s the rub.  There is no exploration of what this electric power might have had in positive and creative situations whether it be in families, groups or nations.  We just crash straight to violence and nastiness and the end of the world as we know it.  Power lacks any subtlety.

The sub-plot is that this story of the collapse of civilization is being written centuries after the event by a man, whose genius is blighted by the restrictions and negative assumptions connected to his sex including being advised to write under a pseudonym.  The women’s civilization bears an uncanny resemblance to the one that disappeared.

As far as making a list of abuses by the powerful against the weak this novel has it all. But it has no other message to give save that those at the top behave monstrously.  Makes one wonder why one should strive for emancipation at all.  A dreary vision indeed.  And I think a very wrong one.

 

Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge

Brilliant! 

Fly by Night cover

Fly By Night is masquerading as YA fiction but this piece of fantasy X steampunk is a wonderful book.  The heroine, bad-tempered, intelligent Mosca Mye, born on the calendar day sacred to Goodman Palpitattle He Who Keeps Flies Out, joins forces with the thieving, deceiving wordsmith, Eponymous Clent, with a view to making their fortune.

A fortune is a hard thing to make in a land riven by war and persecution.  Mosca and Eponymous Clent’s plans to wheedle money out of powerful persons through writing ballads, delivering messages, spying and retrieving goods are hijacked by even more powerful folk and soon they are relying on their wits to save their lives.  They do have the assistance of Saracen, Mosca’s beloved pet goose; Eponymous is less enthusiastic about this companion as he is a fearsome beast when aroused to fury.

The setting of the novel is loosely based on England at the start of the Eighteenth Century but mightily warped and exaggerated.  It is a place where wet is wetter, the rule of the powerful Guilds more guilty and gritty, poverty is smelly, hungry and desperate, education is a rarity, Dukes and Duchess are mad with power, religion veers between totemic and fanatic, and goodness survives in the cracks.  But this novel is also funny. The transformation of the vain highwayman into the radical saviour of the city of Mandelion is very amusing. Mosca’s versatile, vivid and sometimes vulgar descriptions of the places she sees and the people she meets can make me laugh.

I love books that take sidelong glances at big issues while also telling a rollicking good tale.

Fly by Night is brilliant!!

 

The Tourist by Robert Dickenson

The Tourist is a fascinating book.  Difficult at times as the reader, like the main protagonist, Sven, struggles from his small person’s perspective to understand the influence of competitive groups from the future and among the natives as he searches for a missing client, Adorna Mond.

Sven is a time travel rep, with a strong sense of honour and duty,  working for one of the cheaper companies that takes clients, in this case to London in the 21st century.  Sven and his clients are from period three hundred years after the NEE which had had drastic effects on the human population and the planet.  The primary interest of the time-travellers Sven conducts through the malls of London is in the acquisition of material goods from the century of excess but in most other respects they and Sven are repulsed by their ancestors.

The differences between the people from the future and the people of the 21st century, referred to ask natives, leak out gradually.  The people of the number cities are taller and stronger; they use augs to enhance function; they live rigid and monitored lives they have castes including Happiness, Awareness, Safety and Millies; they dislike the native’s food and blame them for the NEE.  What is also gradually revealed is there is manipulation of the governance of the 21st century against the protocol Sven observes. The 21st century is being invaded by the future and, via this conceit, Dickenson makes some pertinent comments about colonization.  The interference is is not only exploitative but hostile; and there is evidence that the future governments are not unified but have conflicting ideas about the interactions between the future and its past; reference the Anarchonists.  But time travel is confusing; identifying, stopping and punishing is a slippery business.

Sven looks for his missing client, who may also be Karia Stadt enemy of the numbered cities, and so does Riemann Aldis, agent of the numbered cities.  Through the eyes of these characters Dickinson makes some pithy comment about the priorities of the 21st century.  Sven is a purist who has had, through time travellers’ collections, access to the original productions of classical music and is contemptuous of the natives’ practice of interpretation.  When he has served for long enough he can set his own agenda and he plans to time travel so he too can listen to the first concerts.

The Tourist is a novel to read again and again as it does not give up its plot secrets and its character insights readily.  One certainty in this novel is that violence is still the crude weapon used to try to defeat practitioners of alternative ways of living.  But Robert Dickenson’s allusion to a city destroyed as a response to one enemy agent or the quick glances at the dreadful conditions in the tunnels or the insect farms of the future creates a much more powerful impression than the excessive, gratuitous, voyeuristic descriptions of violence that blights so much of modern sci-fi writing.   Another certainty in the novel is the power and the beauty of an individual life.