It took an unusually long time (okay, for me) to read Karl Schroeder's Ventus. I started it last weekend on the train, promptly got extremely motion-sick, and stayed that way whenever I even thought about a train for the rest of the weekend. And school and a couple of web projects (an almost-complete overhaul of my NetHack page for the new version, and helping on something else) have taken up a lot of time this week. Oh, yeah: it's also 662 pages long in paperback. To sum up this lengthy post: cool ideas, doesn't quite fully gel, probably because of my reaction to the characters, but a promising effort.
Ventus caught my eye because it had a cover blurb from Vernor Vinge. Since I didn't recall ever seeing Vinge blurb a novel before, I figured it was worth looking at, the slightly faint-praise tone notwithstanding: "Dramatically effective and a milestone in science fiction about nanotech and fine-grained distributed systems." Of course, typing that up, I realized it could be read as, "In terms of drama, it was (just) an effective book"—my initial interpretation—or "it was really effective, dramatically so." My opinion is more in line in with the first interpretation (not that anyone asks me to blurb books, of course).
[The cover itself is otherwise, well, ugly. It shows what at first glance appears to be a woman with tentacles and a board through her head wearing a metal bustier.]
Ventus does have at least one really cool central idea: nanotech in everything, down to the grains of dirt and drops of water, all self-aware and working together to terraform an entire world. It's the kind of idea that seems simple and obvious, once someone has done it, but is full of potential. (Someone might already have done it; I don't know, I'm not as up on current hard science fiction as I might be.) The book does some great things with it, such as the terrific images of the Diadem swans or the vagabond moons, and the sense of wonder it evokes later in the book.
Of course, Ventus isn't perfect: the nanotech, known as the Winds, doesn't communicate with humans or recognize them as part of Ventus when they arrive. A thousand years later, humanity has learned to work around the Winds and coexist in some places, but they've lost all knowledge of galactic civilization; they're just now inching up on Industrial Revolution levels of life, and may never get any farther, as the Winds take a very, very dim view of pollution. The plot is kicked off when 3340, a rogue god (AI) is destroyed; it had sent part of itself to Ventus, which is now confined in a man's body and searching for the secret of the Winds so he can resurrect 3340. The people who destroyed 3340 are hunting him to prevent just that. (The back cover copy describing this almost makes Ventus sound like a sequel; it's not.) And from there, it gets complicated.
As that description might suggest, the book is also concerned with humanity, godhood, different expanses of sentience, and moving from one to another. This is the other big idea of the work, and probably its key underlying theme. Unfortunately, I think I wasn't sufficiently drawn in by the characters, through which this idea had to express itself, so it—and the book overall—failed to fully work for me.
A few of the characters I just plain didn't like, including the ones who end up motivating Armiger, the former component of 3340. One of them doesn't get much screen time, but nevertheless pushes my buttons in all the wrong ways:
On the day she took him in, Megan had taken on a responsibility and a burden greater than any woman should have to bear. For it quickly became evident that Armiger was not really a man. He was a spirit, perhaps a Wind, one of the creators of the world. . . .
Megan had come to understand that Armiger needed his body as an anchor. Without it, his soul would drift away into some abstraction of rage. She had to remind him of it constantly, be his nurse, cook, mother, and concubine. When he rediscovered himself—literally coming to his senses—he displayed tremendous passion and knowledge, uncanny perception and even, yes, sensitivity. He was a wonderful lover, the act never became routine for him. And he was grateful to her for her devotion.
But, oh, the work she had to do to get to that point! It was almost too much to bear.
All I want to say is, as far as I'm concerned, neither love nor religion should look like that. The other important character to Armiger, well, Armiger compares her accomplishments to Mao's—as a compliment, which is disconcerting on at least two different levels. Me, I had some initial sympathy for her, but was tired of her by the end.
The other main characters? While there's nothing wrong with "callow youth stops being callow, saves the world," I didn't feel the book gave it the necessary spark to lift the character above that. The same for the rest: even when I liked them, I still felt somewhat disconnected. I can't pin the exact reason down; it could be something subtle about the prose, or the characterization, or just my present state of mind. (This might be another reason why it took me a while to finish this.)
I did enjoy Ventus, even though I didn't find it entirely satisfying, and I'll keep an eye out for reviews of Schroeder's next book. Ventus is no A Deepness in the Sky, but it definitely shows potential.
(Oh yes: people on the "I'd never live in the Culture!" side of the perennial discussion might find some of the attitudes herein congenial. I'd head for the Culture in a second, myself, though I don't think this affected my overall opinion of the book.)
In P.N. Elrod's Bloodlist, it's Chicago, 1936. Jack Fleming wakes up on the shore, with no memory of how he got there. As he staggers toward the road, he's deliberately hit by a car; suffering no ill effects, he easily subdues the driver—despite taking a bullet in the back in the process. Trying to figure out what's happened, he realizes: 1) he has a number of terrible, half-healed wounds, including a bullet mark in his chest; 2) his heart isn't beating; and 3) his reflection doesn't appear in the rear-view mirror.
As the cover copy suggests, one of the benefits of becoming a vampire is being able to solve your own murder.
It's kind of fun reading about Jack using his powers for investigation and revenge, though one might cynically suspect that the departures from, and adherences to, traditional vampiric powers were chosen to make the investigation easy. He also picks up an entertaining sidekick early on. The plot, though, basically consists of the two of them getting beat up, knifed, and shot, until eventually a location and sufficient pain jog Jack's memory and he remembers just how he got all those wounds, which is not a cheery way to end a book.
I'll look for more of these, but in the library or used (besides, they're really short).
I finished Ray Lewis's The Evolution Man, Or, How I Ate My Father yesterday. I'd checked it out of the library on Terry Pratchett's recommendation in the Washington Post (about halfway down the article, which is part of an entire issue of Book World devoted to sf). Pratchett does an excellent job of describing the book, but I should have paid a touch more attention to the end of his review; failing that, the subtitle should have been a clue that this was not really my kind of book (the original British title was What We Did to Father). It has some lovely moments, but in the end I found it an exercise in cynicism of the type that doesn't suit me.
Since I wanted to read something that I knew I'd like, and since the new Vorkosigan novel is coming out at the start of May, I thought this would be a good time to re-read Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold. I only have three things to add to my earlier review of it. First, it has possibly my favorite reference to a past event of the series: "He thought about the last time he'd been fishing." Second, Miles remains "Vorkosigan" in Ekaterin's mind up through the end; it will be interesting to see when in A Civil Campaign he gets first-name treatment in her thoughts. Third, though Komarr and A Civil Campaign together do have an obvious spiritual kinship with Strong Poison and Gaudy Night , Miles is much less an ass here than Peter was there, and Ekaterin comes out in better shape than Harriet does—which makes sense, else Bujold couldn't have skipped the intervening Wimsey/Vane books.
 Alas, the forthcoming book is called Diplomatic Immunity, not Auditor's Honeymoon.
- categories: books » sf and fantasy » Vorkosigan series
- all posts about Lois McMaster Bujold (11 total)
I came across Robin McKinley's The Door in the Hedge this weekend, when trying to find something else, and said, "Huh. I don't think I've actually read this." So I read it on the train Sunday.
This is a collection of four fairy tales, two novellas and two shorter stories. Overall, I like McKinley's novels better, but this was still enjoyable. The first story, "The Stolen Princess," takes places in the last mortal kingdom before Faerieland, which feels like an early precursor of Spindle's End. The characters are charming, but I personally find the happiness of the ending ambiguous. "The Princess and the Frog" is short and elegantly oppressive in the way McKinley does so well. The solution to "The Hunting of the Hind" suggests a quite odd emotional landscape, about which I haven't quite decided what I think. The last of the stories, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," has one brief "what was that?" moment, but is otherwise excellent.
Interestingly, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" is the culmination of the tendency of these stories to treat personal names as almost incidental. Everyone is introduced by their personal name in the first, because there are several generations of characters, and thus "Princess" would be supremely unhelpful. In both "The Princess and the Frog" and "The Hunting of the Hind," the name of the protagonist Princess isn't mentioned until the second section, and then in dialogue; and in "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," apparently no-one has names at all. McKinley manages to walk the line between iconic and personal, though, which I find fairly impressive.
Re-read Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign. Now that time's given me some perspective on this, I actually like it less than I did when I wrote a review of it—though I still like it very much.
To put it in non-spoiler terms, I think my dissatisfaction boils down to the way external events truncate or remove some of the possibilities inherent in the early plot. The main example of this, in my view, is the resolution of the Vorrutyer subplot, but I do think that Ekaterin & Miles' relationship ended up moving a bit faster that I would have preferred, as well. All the needed stages are gone through, and yet it still feels just a touch off.
Anyway, just tone down the gushing in my review a bit, is all. Now I shall sit here and twitch for Diplomatic Immunity. I'm being good, though—I read the first chapter that Baen put up as a snippet several months ago, but haven't read any more; and I haven't canceled my order at Amazon (which lists it as forthcoming) to put in an online order at Barnes & Noble (which has been shipping copies for several days now). I'll have to avoid the local B&N, too; I don't like their brick-and-mortar stores anyway, but I particularly loathe the local incarnation (what is it about slapping up a college name that makes B&N think it can blatantly rip you off?), and if it had copies, the temptation would be really terrible. (Though, you know, I could just read it in the store, since I'm buying a copy anyway . . . )
- categories: books » sf and fantasy » Vorkosigan series
- all posts about Lois McMaster Bujold (11 total)
Also, I've put up a review of The Curse of Chalion, Bujold's most recent novel. I re-read this back in January, during finals, but I didn't put it on the log then because I was writing a review. Of course, I didn't quite finish it before I went on break and left the book behind, so it languished on my hard drive. It's done now, though, and accordingly makes a belated appearance here.
I borrowed Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer on the strength of Chad's comments in his book log. They are, indeed, just nice stories, in the best sense of the phrase. Chad does a good job of giving the flavor of the collection, so I'll just add a couple of comments here:
First, when John says, "What's long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here," he's not kidding. The stories are set around the 1950s, but as far as I'm concerned, they're really set anywhere from frontier days to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Every time there's a reference to the Korean War, for instance, it's incredibly jarring. Second, the songs really need music to go with them—though this can be dangerous, because at least one of the songs scans, to my inexpert eye, to "Clementine," which is a dreadful, ear-wormy song. Third, when I finished reading the collection, I had the feeling that there was a disproportionate number of evil vamp women; there actually wasn't, it was just that they were clustered toward the end (along with a really stupid slasher-flick stunt).
Anyway, I quite enjoyed this; the narrative voice alone made it worth reading, though I do foresee myself saying "Shoo" a lot for the next few days . . .
I went to the library today looking for audio books, and read Lemony Snicket's The Bad Beginning as a result.
This makes sense, really.
I have a five-hour drive ahead of me on Sunday. Since I don't have a car, I'm not used to driving long distances by myself; accordingly, it seemed like a good idea to get a book on tape to keep my brain occupied (football season being over; football games work surprisingly well for this). The problem I had, though, is that I didn't want it to be longer than this trip (because I can't listen to them when I'm just sitting still, and I probably wouldn't want to wait until the next time I drove to finish it, being impatient); but I hate abridgments; and I didn't want to get something that might end up harming my mental image of a character's voice. (They had a few Brother Cadfaels, but if the reader was terrible, I would find it hard to shake, and I still have ten of those left to read.)
They did have a copy of the second book in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," which I had been meaning to check out at some point. (These are quite popular, so I shan't bore my readers with a description; if you aren't familiar with them, the author's web site gives a good sense of what the series is like; and despite being in a huge, badly formatted pdf, the questions in the reader's guide are pretty funny.) Beside, the audio book is read by Tim Curry; how could I resist? (I have to say, though, that while describing Curry as playing the "title role in Stephen King's miniseries It" is accurate in one sense, that's not really how I would put it . . . ) However, it didn't seem like a good idea to start with the second book, and besides, what if I hated the writing? So I borrowed the first one, as well. (I also borrowed the BBC's adaptation of The Hobbit as a backup.)
This took me about five minutes to read. It was an amusing five minutes, but all hail libraries, because there is no way I would ever pay $10 for that. (The paperback from the library, $2.95, says "only available for distribution through the school market." Feh.) As popcorn of the fluffiest sort, it was pretty good, and I'll listen to the second on Sunday. I do have to say, however, that the legal twist at the end was about two orders of magnitude worse than Law and Order's attempts at being "provocative," and that's taking into account the general level of (non-)seriousness in the book. Not that I expect other people to be bothered by this.
There are many, many types of books in the world, which makes good sense, because there are many, many types of people, and everybody wants to read something different. For instance, people who hate stories in which terrible things happen to small children should put this book down immediately. But one type of book that practically no one likes to read is a book about the law. Books about the law are notorious for being very long, very dull, and very difficult to read. This is one reason many lawyers make heaps of money. [*] The money is an incentive—the word "incentive" here means "an offered reward to persuade you to do something you don't want to do"—to read long, dull, and difficult books.
The Baudelaire children had a slightly different incentive for reading these books, of course. Their incentive was not heaps of money, but preventing Count Olaf from doing something horrible to them in order to get heaps of money. But even with this incentive, getting through the law books in Justice Strauss's private library was a very, very, very hard task.
[*] Alas, I probably won't be one of them.
- categories: books » sf and fantasy » A Series of Unfortunate Events
- all posts about Lemony Snicket (10 total)
The second omnibus of James White's Sector General books is Alien Emergencies, which includes Ambulance Ship, Sector General, and Star Healer. (The first omnibus was Beginning Operations.) Despite all the little things that bother me about these books, they're still up at the top of my comfort reading list.
I hadn't read any of these before, but unfortunately I knew the punchline to several from subsequent books. This tends to remove some of the interest, which isn't helped by the larger-than-usual suspension of disbelief required for a couple of these stories. (If you haven't read the short story "Spacebird" before, don't read the introduction to Ambulance Ship. The introduction sums up Sector General as it was at that point, and was written for a collection that didn't include "Spacebird"; it thus spoils the story quite thoroughly.) Of the ones I didn't know the solution to, I particularly liked the opening story in Sector General, a story of the hospital's inspiration that, not surprisingly, takes a strongly integrationist stand on learning to deal with The Other. The concluding story of that book, one of the large-scale problems Sector General is sometimes faced with, is also quite fun. I also really enjoyed just about all of Star Healer, which is Conway learning to be a Diagnostician. (The bit I didn't like is when it extends the weird sexism of an earlier book to all females, not just Earth-human ones; this gets ignored late in the series, suggesting that White Had a Better Idea.)
Reading a number of these brings up problems besides spoilers. The stories were obviously meant to stand alone; this is completely understandable, but it means that the classification system (why humans are DBDGs), and Rhabwar, and the Monitor Corps, and Sector General itself, have to be explained in each story (not each book; it looks like they don't stop being fixups until Star Healer). And White does not shy from blatant infodumping, often in language nearly-identical to the last several times someone had to explain it.
Character development is, frankly, a little sketchy as well, but improves somewhat in these books. The series progresses in real time, which isn't immediately obvious (yes, Conway and Murchison are smart, but they're not so smart that it hasn't taken them twenty-odd years to get near the top of their fields). I think the aging of the characters either gives a little more opportunity for us to learn about them, or gave the author a plausible reason to tweak or fill in some details. Or both.
Even with those caveats, I'm still very glad to have read this. Kudos to Tor for getting and keeping this in print via their Orb line. Now if only I could find myself that copy of Code Blue—Emergency I've been looking for . . .
Listening to the audio book of Lemony Snicket's The Reptile Room was a mixed experience. On one hand, there really isn't much plot, and what plot there is you can usually see coming pretty far in advance—a serious problem in the slow-moving audio format. On the other, Tim Curry was a brilliant choice as a reader, and it's great fun listening to him portray "Lemony Snicket" (one of the best psuedonyms ever, surely). And it's not as though there are many opportunities to hear Tim Curry say, "Here, snakey, snakey . . . "
I begin to suspect that I just may not have the patience for audio books.
As far as the story itself, there's no question about it being part of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The violence gets stepped up a notch, and there's a murder, though Snicket warns his readers well in advance. It's a strange little series, and though it has fabulously skewed inventiveness, a great narrative voice, and non-annoying plucky children, I'm not sure that I can keep reading about these Unfortunate Events without feeling uncomfortably like I'm ghoulishly staring at a car wreck. Perhaps I'll wait until the last one is out and see if there's a semblance of a happy ending (the series is currently projected to be thirteen books); at the very least, I'll space out any further reading or listening.
- categories: books » sf and fantasy » A Series of Unfortunate Events ; audiobooks
- all posts about Lemony Snicket (10 total)