Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
Published: Ace Books, 2013
Series: Book 2 of Saturn’s Children Series
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing, she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location - the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.

In a universe with no faster-than-light travel, that's a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of an assassin on Krina's tail, by the 'privateers' chasing her sister's life insurance policy and by growing signs that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.” ~Goodreads.com

I have read a fair amount of Charles Stross’s fiction, though this is the first novel of his that I’m reviewing on my blog.  I have mostly read his short fiction, and Accelerando as serialized in the Asimov’s magazine.  Stross had a pretty good year at the Hugo’s recently, winning a rocket for his novella Equoid and placing second for best novel with Neptune’s Brood.  Neptune’s Brood is a sequel to Saturn’s Children (set 5000 years before), but I did not feel like I was missing anything for not having read the previous novel.

My Thoughts:

If you’re a person that enjoys thinking about what kind of economic systems might develop in an interstellar post-human society that doesn’t have faster-than-light travel, this book is probably just the one for you.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, and economics really is the heart and driving force of this entire novel.  The amount of thought that went into the system is impressive, and it was neat how the framework of the system shaped how society was capable of developing.  For instance, interstellar spaceships are a massively expensive undertaking, so all colonies start in debt and it’s unheard of for someone to waste that amount of capital on something like a warship. 

Since the economics were so complex, though, the story was interspersed with entire sections that were basically conversational lectures.  I was not really a fan of these infodumps, since they tended to repeat themselves for emphasis, and they slowed down the story to the point where it felt a little stretched out.  On the other hand, I think that the information really was necessary for understanding everything that was happening.  The story follows, Krina, an accounting historian on a study-pilgrimage, who specializes in researching financial fraud.  She starts out the story on a relatively simple quest to find her missing sister, but her story ends up revolving around the investigation of a massive, long-hidden fraud that could change her life.   

The absurdly comical situations in the story and Krina’s distinctive narration help propel things along, even through all the explanations.  After all, this is a far-future sci-fi story that manages to include bat insurance underwriter pirates, mermaids, and a spaceship cathedral manned by remote-controlled skeletons, among other things.  Krina’s personality balances the silliness by being amusingly prim and proper. For a quick taste of the narrative style, here’s Krina’s view of her situation:

“People behave very oddly when the ownership of large quantities of money is at stake.  Some—as we have seen—will commit murder or send out shape-shifting zombie assassins. I am not that ruthless.  However, here I am, running around into the cold and unwelcoming universe at large, having adventures—something I loathe and fear…”  ~p.111

I personally enjoyed the book’s sense of humor, and definitely laughed more than a few times.  However, there were also a lot of pop culture references (Pride & Prejudice, Star Wars, etc.) that seemed out of place in a distant-future post-human universe.  The ending also seemed rushed, though I liked how things turned out.  Altogether, I enjoyed reading Neptune’s Brood, though I think that it would be better appreciated by someone with an interest in economics.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Neptune’s Brood is a story of far-future finance, following a historian’s unfortunately adventuresome investigation into her clone-sister’s disappearance and a long-hidden fraud.  I liked the style of the novel’s humor, though I was not a huge fan of the many economics infodumps that came interspersed with the story.  The interstellar economic system is thoroughly imagined, and its workings are integral to the plot.  I think readers more interested in this aspect would probably appreciate Neptune’s Brood more than I did, but I still found it to be a pretty enjoyable novel.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2007
Series: Book 2 of the Spin Sequence
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The Book:

In Spin’s direct sequel, Wilson takes us to the "world next door"--the planet engineered by the mysterious Hypotheticals to support human life, and connected to Earth by way of the Arch that towers hundreds of miles over the Indian Ocean. Humans are colonizing this new world--and, predictably, fiercely exploiting its resources, chiefly large deposits of oil in the western deserts of the continent of Equatoria.

Lise Adams is a young woman attempting to uncover the mystery of her father's disappearance ten years earlier. Turk Findley is an ex-sailor and sometimes-drifter. They come together when an infall of cometary dust seeds the planet with tiny remnant Hypothetical machines. Soon, this seemingly hospitable world will become very alien indeed--as the nature of time is once again twisted, by entities unknown.” ~WWEnd.com

This is the third book I’ve read by Wilson, after Spin and The Chronoliths, and I am planning to eventually read the final Spin Sequence novel, Vortex, which I have already purchased.  I think I hold a minority opinion, but I enjoyed Axis as much as if not more than Spin.

My Thoughts:

Axis is a sequel in the same universe as Spin, but it follows an almost entirely new cast of characters.  One could argue that the story is still about ordinary people attempting to cope with unexplained (and potentially unexplainable) phenomena, but that would also be a fair description of every Robert Charles Wilson novel I’ve read to date. The main active unexplained phenomenon this time is the ashfall, though humans are also still coping with the Arch that connects the Earth to the planet that has been named Equatoria.  In terms of the new planet, I enjoyed reading about what kinds of people moved there and what sort of organizational infrastructure developed.  It was kind of interesting how ordinary such a strange thing can become when it is a constant in everyone’s lives. The ashfall was more disruptive and undeniably strange, and attempts to understand it drive most of the plot.  In the end, I felt like the story was more about the ways people approach the search for understanding, rather than the answers they may or may not find.
The many ways to search for meaning were illustrated by the many viewpoint characters, each of which was trying to find or understand something. Lise was a recently divorced woman who was trying to learn what happened when her father vanished years ago.  Her ex-husband Brian provided a viewpoint from within a questionably corrupt organization, and he was set on his own path of discovery by Lise’s inquiries.  Lises’s sometimes-lover Turk aided her in her search, while also trying to figure out his own future.  Their investigation led them into a Fourth community, a group of people who had taken the Martan longevity treatment to gain a fourth stage of life.  This Fourth community was focused on the idea of communication with the Hypotheticals, with the Martian Sulean Moi and Avram Dvali supporting opposing views on the path to accomplish this.  In addition, there was the wonderkid Isaac, who some hoped would play an important role in understanding the Hypotheticals. With so many characters, there was naturally a bit less time to develop them all.  For this kind of story, though, I think it was more valuable to have many perspectives on the situation than to know one or two characters especially well.

The story may revolve around the search for the answers to various questions, but I think the novel was more concerned with the process of their search and the value of what they are able to understand.  In short, one should not really go into this novel expecting to get a definitive answer about the nature and purpose of the Hypotheticals.  There is some progress on this front, but much is left unexplained.  I was pretty satisfied with how the story wrapped up, both in terms of many of the characters’ arcs and with the new direction that it looks like the final novel will take. I’m looking forward to seeing the final conclusion of the series, in Vortex!

My Rating: 3.5/5

I thought that Axis was an excellent sequel to Spin, though it is a very different sort of book.  Axis is the story of many characters over a short time span, most of which characters are newly introduced in this novel. The characters may not be as deeply explored as in Spin, but I appreciated having many different perspectives on the events of the story.  I enjoyed seeing what happened with the world through the Arch, and how humanity managed to make this new marvel feel commonplace.  The ashfall and a Fourth community’s goal to communicate with the Hypotheticals provided a new mystery, and the ending still left many questions unanswered. I am curious to see how the final novel will (or maybe won’t) answer them!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Published: Orbit, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Imperial Radch
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA
Awards Nominated: Philip K. Dick, John W. Campbell

The Book:

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.” ~WWend.com

Ancillary Justice is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, and one that is garnering quite a lot of attention, both on blogs and in award committees.  I’ve seen so many reviews of this one online lately that I feel a little silly for being so late to the party.

My Thoughts:

Ancillary Justice has reminded me once again how much I love space opera.  It may not bring all that much new to the subgenre, but it makes use of some of my favorite conventions and approaches many topics in way that I especially enjoy.  The dominant culture in this universe is the expansionist Radchaai empire, but there is enough interaction with other worlds to imply that the universe is culturally diverse.  Through the Radch, we see an unforgiving view of colonialism and the philosophy behind it, as well as the kinds of justifications reasonably decent people use to defend their support of corrupt and unjust systems.  The story switches between the present day vengeance quest of Breq and the back-story that gradually provides a narrative and emotional context for the present.  I found both stories equally engaging, and I appreciated the chance to see the different formats of consciousness that Breq/One Esk experienced.

The spaceships of the Radch are run by complex AIs, which also control contingents of ‘ancillaries’—humans forcibly co-opted into the AI’s group mind. ‘Breq’ is a single body of one of these ancillaries, and One Esk is the group of bodies that formed her consciousness in the back-story sections.  I was impressed by the clarity with which scenes from the group mind were portrayed.   The narrative constantly head-hopped from one body to the next, but it managed to keep the actions of each segment clearly distinct and yet still communicate the overall personality of One Esk.  Breq seems like less of a narrative challenge to portray, but I also appreciated how her biases and priorities shaped the focus of the narrative.

The main supporting characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn in the present and past stories, respectively, are both intriguing in their own right and as reflections of the convictions and values of Breq.  Lieutenant Awn gained her rank through merit, rather than family connections, and she is a person of integrity stuck in a difficult situation.  One Esk works closely with her, and thinks of her highly.  Seivarden, on the other hand, is an arrogant classist who can’t cope with a future that seems to be moving away from her ideals, and One Esk detests her.  However, Seivarden is a dynamic character throughout the story, and I enjoyed the way her relationship with One Esk developed.  It is the character of One Esk, and her relationships with Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn, that drives the story forward.

Those who have read the novel may now want to correct my pronoun use, since Seivarden is a male human, which brings me to Ancillary Justice’s famous gender treatment.  Radch culture and language does not distinguish gender, so everyone is referred to as ‘she’, by default. I did not find that this made the novel any more difficult to read, since gender is basically irrelevant to the story that is being told.  Seivarden is a case in point, since knowing that she is male tells us much less than basically any other given detail of her personality or history.  To me, the complete absence of gendered personality traits, gendered behavior and gender-based roles felt like a breath of fresh air.

My Rating: 5/5

I pretty much loved everything about Ancillary Justice, and I think it is both a highly impressive debut novel and one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  The novel is very character-driven, and I loved reading about One Esk/Breq, as well as the major secondary characters, Seivarden and Lieutenant Awn.  The use of female default gender was an interesting idea, and I liked how it highlighted the irrelevance of gender in the story. I am excited to see what is in store for the upcoming sequel!