Category Archives: now reading

Now Reading

Now Reading: The Best of Henry Kuttner by Henry Kuttner
Just Finished: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon is the first book in a series that also consists of Broken Angels and Woken Furies. I read Broken Angels some years ago on vacation, not knowing it had a previous volume, and still found it followable and interesting.

In the Altered Carbon universe, science has changed what it means to be human. One’s body is merely a possession, and one’s self resides in a machine called the cortical stack. The stack can be extracted and “resleeved” in a new body, and its contents can be transmitted across the globe, or across interstellar space, before being resleeved elsewhere. However, simultaneous multiple sleevings are a crime, for some reason.

The protagonist of Altered Carbon is Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy. This is essentially a type of special agent employed to keep interstellar peace by overthrowing dictators and quashing terrorists. After running afoul of the Envoy Corps, and dying in a shootout, Kovacs finds himself transmitted to Earth and resleeved, courtesy of ancient billionaire Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft wishes Kovacs’ help in solving a murder: his own.

What follows is something that would be a fairly standard detective/spy thriller, were it not for the unique setting in which death is a mere inconvenience to some, an onerous expense to most, and sacred to a few. There were a few scenes where Kovacs gleefully dispensed permanent death to many, in graphic detail. I suppose it might well have been in character, and might well have been necessary to cover his tracks, but it still seemed gratuitous, in my opinion.

There is also a slight element of Fridge Horror to the setting. Considering that the brain’s functionality is made up just as much by connections and chemistry as it is by neural signals, the attachment of a device that is basically a backup tape wouldn’t quite allow one to change bodies at will. The existing neural connections would have to be completely rewired in order to host the signals properly. While that could well happen behind the scenes, the narrative doesn’t mention it.

From what the narrative does mention, I think it is more likely that the cortical stack simply treats the brain as a subprocessor, just as our own forebrains treat the more primitive parts of our own brains. The stack would have to take complete control of the brain from the time it was implanted (which happens sometime after birth) and ensure that the brain is “formatted” in such a way as to make it interchangeable with any other. Thus, in this future, humanity either evolves a silicon supercortex, or is utterly enslaved by mechanical parasites, depending on your perspective.


Now Reading

Now Reading: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Just Finished: Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History is the third member of a trilogy that includes both Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Like the previous two books, this is not so much space-opera science-fiction than it is a modern-day thriller with speculative technological aspects. Sort of like CSI.

I’m glad that I had already read Spook Country, as the author brings Hollis Henry, Milgrim, and Hubertus Bigend back for another adventure, without supplying much description or backstory for any of them. The story is written from a limited-omniscient point of view that switches between Hollis and Milgrim, and these characters don’t actually encounter each other for a while. When they do, one is described as “nondescript, but unshaven” and the other, eventually, as “a weaponized version of Françoise Hardy.”

Françoise Hardy
Françoise Hardy.

This is, oddly enough, pretty much how I envisioned Hollis to look throughout the book.

That Milgrim’s appearance is vague (he also has messy brown hair and is “weedy”) actually works with the character’s arc. He has been through a very thorough detox program and psychological therapy and is only beginning to regain his personality.

The characters’ dialogue seems peculiar sometimes, with people speaking in incomplete sentences. Fragments. Like they’re in a hurry. Do people talk like that? Really? Dunno, maybe. Sometimes.

On the other hand, the characters’ speech patterns are nicely consistent. Sometimes a book’s characters will tend to sound just like each other (and just like the author) and that isn’t the case here.

As for the story, it begins with a pair of pants in Florida. Hubertus Bigend has decided that he is now interested in fashion, and has sent Milgrim on a mission to photograph a pair of pants. He also provides Hollis with a denim jacket, and asks that she find the designer behind it. The problem is that the jacket’s brand, Gabriel Hounds, is a mystery even to those who have heard of it.

The first half, or so, of the book is a bit slow as the framework is laid down. After the first half, things begin to accelerate exponentially. Indeed, once I reached that point, I was unable to put the book down until I finished it… at 3:30 am. And I’m now quite tempted to go back and re-read Pattern Recognition.


Book Backlog

As there are only a handful of days left in 2012, it’s time to finish up my book backlog. I read quite a few books in 2012, but neglected to post reviews of, well, any of them.
This third and final installment of the book backlog covers the graphic novels I’ve read this year.

Book Backlog: Graphic Novels

The Anime Club by KC Green
The Anime Club was originally a story arc published at Gunshow, and details the self-destruction of, what else, the Anime Club. The tone of this book is rather different from the usual fare at Gunshow, which might be described as episodic Twilight Zone-esque oddness. If you enjoy oddness as much as I do, check it out.
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
This book is a collection of strips originally published at Hark! A Vagrant. Victorian literature, the French Revolution, and Shakespeare are all food for gags in this book. Although it sounds boring, it really isn’t. Even re-skimming the book put me into fits of giggles.
Homestuck, Volume 1 by Andrew Hussie
If you haven’t heard of Homestuck, it’s a semi-animated sequential art experience which borrows heavily from the tradition of adventure games in the style of King’s Quest and Monkey Island. I can’t explain more without giving too much away. It can be found at mspaintadventures.com, but be warned: it is long. (But worth it, in my opinion.) The book trades off music and animation for author’s commentary in footnotes. The story is best experienced in its native medium.
Johnny Wander Volumes 1 and 2 by Ananth Panagariya and Yuko Ota
This is a collection of autobiographical strips published at johnnywander.com. It’s basically the adventures of Yuko, Anath, and friends (and cats). The strips are delightful, and there’s something about the artwork that I find charming.
Never Learn Anything From History by Kate Beaton
This is a collection of earlier strips from Hark! A Vagrant. It is interesting to compare this book to the later Hark! A Vagrant and observe how the author’s style has changed over time.
Problem Sleuth, Volume 1 by Andrew Hussie
Problem Sleuth was the predecessor to Homestuck. It, too, was a semi-animated sequential art experience that drew inspiration heavily from graphical adventures. In Problem Sleuth, the game-inspired elements persist throughout the story, whereas they eventually take a backseat in Homestuck. The Problem Sleuth story is worth reading if you find yourself going through Homestuck withdrawals.
Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder
The Beanworld is tiny island somewhere in the Big⋅Big⋅Picture that is inhabited by a tribe of beans, their hero, Mr. Spook, and their spiritual guardian and source of life, Gran’ma’pa. This book collects Beanworld shorts that were published here and there during Beanworld‘s long hiatus. (The original comic series ceased publication in the mid-1990′s, and Beanworld finally continued in 2009 with Remember Here When You Are There.) Most unusual for a Beanworld book, this one is in color. I don’t usually envision Beans as even having color, so this was a novel new way to experience the Beanworld.

And so, we’ve come to the end of the 2012 book backlog. As long as we’re on the topic of reading, I’ve decided to embark on the 2013 Sci-Fi Experience. Starting January 1 and lasting until February 28, I’ll be sharing all sorts of science fiction reading, television viewing, and movie watching. Well, all that I can manage, anyway.

Flip, Flip, Flip

Book Backlog

This is the second part in my attempt to list and review the books I’ve managed to read this year. Some might object that a two-sentence, four-line summary such as I did previously is too short to be a “proper review,” but I counter-object that the word review literally means “to see again.” Which is what I’m doing. Literally. And, literarily.

Book Backlog: Non-Fiction

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
Anyone who is familiar with Jenny Lawson as author of The Bloggess will already have a pretty good idea of what to expect in this book. (And is also likely to already have read it. And has therefore skipped the rest of this review.) For the rest of you, expect a series of bizarre, but entertaining stories told in a lively and humorous style that feels as though it could have been transcribed directly from a conversation over coffee. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is the story of the author’s extraordinary childhood in Texas, followed by her marriage and modern-day life. If you enjoy Ms. Lawson’s storytelling style (and I do) then you are sure to enjoy this book (and I did.)
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
Soul of a New Machine is the story of an American computer manufacturer, Data General, and its attempt to build a commercially successful 32-bit minicomputer. The company split into two competing development teams, one to develop a successor to the 16-bit Eclipse, codenamed Eagle, and the other to work on “Project Fountainhead.” This book concerns itself with the Eagle group. The author, a journalist who was apparently embedded into the Eagle group, attempts to capture the personalites of various engineers and managers, while still telling the story of the development work needed to bring a minicomputer to market. The book ends on an optimistic note with the launch of the Eagle. Sadly, a glance at Wikipedia will show that even though the Eagle saved Data General in the short term, it might have been too little, too late. Data General was eventually taken over by EMC.
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
As the subtitle promises, Emergence attempts to draw parallels between ants, cities, and software. The element that ties all three ideas together is the connections formed between agents when information is exchanged. In the case of ants, workers drop pheromone signals as they go about their business, which are read by other ants. The ants’ own instincts cause them to change behaviors when certain densities and combinations of pheromones are encountered. In the case of cities, neighborhoods form when people emerge from homes and businesses and interact with one another. In the case of software, negative feedback loops can be employed to bring order to virtual chaos.
Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want To Know About Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson
I picked up Chew on This at a secondhand bookstore in order not to return home empty-handed. I read Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation with interest, and was curious to see what else he’d have to say. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this book was intended for middle-schoolers. Topics ranged from the rise of the fast food nation, to worker (mis)treatment, to the production of meat, potatoes, and especially food additives. Most of these subjects were already covered in Fast Food Nation, so were not news to me. While Chew On This merely kept me occupied during break times, it could certainly be an eye-opening book for a younger reader.



That’s about it for the non-fiction section. Next time, I’ll cover graphic novels!

Flip, Flip, Flip

Book Backlog

Though I took a break from posting earlier this year, I didn’t take a break from reading. I thought I’d read three, maybe four books in that time. But, I surprised myself. I have sixteen unreviewed books setting next to me. Sixteen! Sure, half of them are graphic novels, but they still count. Let’s see what’s here.

Book Backlog: Fiction

The Hidden Land by Pamela Dean
The Hidden Land continues the story begun in The Secret Country. Every summer, two sets of siblings share an intricate game of make-believe, which they call The Secret. Suddenly, they discover that The Secret is real, and is not exactly as they imagined. The children find themselves trapped in the Secret Country. In The Hidden Land, the adventure continues several months later, with the children still masquerading as their Secret Country counterparts. An assassination throws the kingdom into turmoil, and one of the children inherits the throne.
I read this book mainly to satisfy my curiosity as to whatever happened with The Secret Country, which I’d read many years previously. The Secret Country has its own internal logic, and if a reader can accept that, it’s a pleasant read.
The Whim of the Dragon by Pamela Dean
The Whim of the Dragon concludes the tale of the Secret Country. In returning home, the children unknowingly set in motion the destruction of the Secret Country. Now revealed as impostors, can the children save the world?
This book reveals many of the secrets of the Secret Country, but even identifying them would take far too much explanation. It was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
Heroic Fantasy by Page and Reinhardt
An anthology of 1970′s sword-and-sorcery, Heroic Fantasy manages to serve up some winners and some snoozers. Low Fantasy isn’t exactly my favorite genre, but it’s good to try reading something different now and then.
Perhaps my favorite story of the bunch was “The Hero Who Retuned.” A ferryman, who provides passage across a river to doomed adventurers, suddenly finds himself one of them.
Science Fiction: The Best of 2004, by Haber and Strahan
This book was obviously a science-fiction anthology. Some of the stories were excellent, and some I vaguely recall reading in another anthology I have, I’m curious to look up some of the included authors to see if they’ve published anything since then.



That pretty much covers the fiction section. Next time, I’ll cover the non-fiction.

Flip, Flip, Flip

Now Reading

Now Reading: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson

Just Finished: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

When I started The Somnambulist, I wasn’t sure if I’d get a Steampunk extravaganza or just a gothy sort of Sherlock Holmes. What I actually got reminded me of one of those Doctor Who episode set in the 1800′s: carnival freaks, psychic powers, espionage organizations, and, yes, even putative time travelers.

The story concerns one Edward Moon, stage magician, and his silent sidekick, The Somnambulist. Moon’s hobby is the solving of mysteries, though he does not always do so succesfully. Yet, when an actor falls to his death from a tower, the police come to Moon for help, beginning his strangest adventure yet.

Possibly, my favorite part of the story was the delightfully lemony narrator who told it.

Now Reading

Now Reading: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

Just Finished: Star Trek: Vanguard: Precipice by David Mack

Precipice comes dangerously close to feeling like a “filler episode.” The story covers the next year after the events of Open Secrets, during which Starfleet officer Bridy Mac joins formerly sleazy rogue Cervantes Quinn for an undercover mission to locate Shedai artifacts; and the reporter Tim Pennington joins the formerly comatose fugitive T’Prynn for months of patient space espionage. Not much is seen of Vanguard station or the Shedai, although the peculiar fate of Diego Reyes is revealed.

I just hope this book represents a relative lull in the otherwise great Vanguard arc and not a shift in direction. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.

Now Reading

Now Reading: Star Trek: Vanguard: Precipice by David Mack
Just Finished: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Boneshaker. Victorian dandies in anachronistic airships? Coal-fired robots? Huckleberry Finn with zombies?

I admit that when I read the back cover and saw that zombies were mentioned, I was a bit skeptical. Zombies have become somehwat ubiquitous lately. Certainly, they symbolize the problems with our modern society quite well. It’s just a bit unfortunate that they seem to have become the secret ingredient du jour, like cilantro, acai berries, pomegranate. However, Boneshaker was published in 2009, so I can overlook this.

Boneshaker is the story of Briar Wilkes, whose son, Zeke Wilkes, has ventured into old Seattle to find answers about his father. The catch is that Seattle is surrounded by a wall, meant to contain both a noxious gas called Blight, and the horde of “rotters” that the Blight created. The Blight was released from beneath the city some fifteen years earlier when a drilling machine called the Boneshaker went out of control. That machine was invented by Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, who hasn’t been seen since the incident. This association has caused both Briar and Zeke to become pariahs in the Seattle community. Thus Zeke’s adventure into old Seattle.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I was prepared for something really over-the-top in terms of suspension of disbelief, such as The Difference Engine or even The Age of Unreason. Fortunately, most everything in Boneshaker was within plausibility. Of course, there was a character with a cybernetic arm and another with what had to have been LEDs in his gas mask. And there was the Blight, of course, but that an explanation for that was never offered. I believe that it’s sometimes better to leave a mystery than to offer an unsatisfactory explanation.

I thought the book was fairly well written. The author did something that I thought was interesting. For most of the book, Briar’s story takes place a few hours behind Zeke’s story. This kept the suspense a bit higher than it would have been had the stories been presented synchronously.

Now Reading

Now Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Just Finished: Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

What an unusual book Spaceman Blues was. I admit that at first, I was skeptical, and even suspected the title to be metaphorical, as the early part of the book described parties, neighborhoods, and musicians in great detail. But, I was hooked as the story’s mystery began to unfold.

When a man named Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González vanishes, New York City goes into mourning. Soon after, his apartment explodes, leading many to believe Manuel to be alive and in hiding. Among them are Wendell Apogee, whose love for Manuel leads him to stranger places than he could have imagined.

I was pleasantly surprised and entertained by this story, most of all by the author’s storytelling style. I can only describe it as an interesection between William Gibson and Kurt Vonnegut. (This may have been the author’s intent, as a the story contained a character named Trout.) He packs a lot of activity into his prose, creating an impression of something like a visual montage of a busy metropolis.

I’m looking forward to future books by this author.

Now Reading

Now Reading: Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery
Just Finished: Star Trek: Vanguard: Open Secrets by Dayton Ward.

I feel as though I may need to preface my review of this book with a disclaimer of sorts.

I hate to use the words epic and saga as they’ve been horribly abused by both media and public. An epic is simply a long narrative, and a saga is basically a historical account or biography. If I were to use either word, I’d make sure to use them to mean what they really mean.

That having been said, let’s continue.

Open Secrets continues the epic saga of Vanguard Station, or Starbase 47, as it’s officially known. The series is something of a departure from the standard Star Trek novelizations. As with the previous books in the series, the Enterprise is nowhere in sight, though it and her captain are mentioned from time to time, if only to link up with the established timeline.

This story covers the repercussions of the events of the previous book, Reap the Whirlwind. Diego Reyes, commander of the station, is replaced and faces court-martial. Intelligence officer T’Pryn is taken, comatose, back to Vulcan to undergo a desperate healing attempt. And, of course, just enough of the mysterious and powerful Shedai is revealed to keep the space opera fans happy. (Myself included.)

Open Secrets eventually does something that I believe is the mark of a good prequel. (Never mind that this story takes place at the same time as the original series.) I believe that a good prequel will take elements from the original work (whether loose threads, red herrings, or underused symbolism) and connect them together in a way which adds a new layer of understanding to the earlier work, or may alter its meaning entirely. (A bad prequel, of course, consists mostly of improbable meetings, name-dropping, and flimsy reasons why nobody remembers or wants to talk about anything that happened in the prequel when they later meet for the first time.)

The writers of the series have so far also resisted the temptation to bring in any mention of the Q or the Borg, thank goodness. This would have been terribly out of place in what is essentially a story of spies, diplomats, and scientists that work in secrecy.

Though I did grow slightly impatient with the pacing of the book, I did enjoy it, and am looking forward to the next volume.