This book is chock full of a lot of real history and mathematics, and as something of a WWI history buff and a fan of the work of people like Turing and Shannon, I really enjoyed the clever ways in which Stephenson wove these realities into his fiction. A lot of the technical material is actually explained pretty well at a general level even if you haven't encountered it before, but some of it is more opaque, and this is probably better read than heard unless you already know the history and the math because you'll want to be looking things up all the time to get the full meaning of the story. In addition, the actual technology of telecommunications is rapidly moving beyond what was considered cutting edge when this was written, so it seems dated in places. On the other hand, "The Crypt" actually anticipates certain features of "The Cloud" in a spooky sort of way, and Stephenson's rants about politics and culture are both entertaining and thought provoking. The style is pure Stephenson -- flip, glib, smart, funny, sarcastic, cynical, upbeat -- and for the most part the narrator captures that well, but many of the soldiers and marines are voiced as if they were stupid, and a surprising number of technical terms are mispronounced, which is distracting (I'd give it 3.5 stars for performance). I enjoyed it, but in retrospect I think that, even knowing a lot of the non-fiction on which it is based, I would have enjoyed this more as a reader than I did as a listener.
This is one of the Culture Series books, best introduced by "Player of Games" if the series is not familiar. Use of Weapons has a complex, non-linear structure that can be difficult to follow in audio format. The prolog establishes an event at a particular point in time, call it time t-zero. The story then begins at time t plus 13 and is told in alternating chapters, half of them moving backward toward t-zero, and the other half moving forward from time t plus 13. You arrive at the end of the book when the backward narrative reaches t-zero just as the forward narrative reaches a climax that reveals the real meaning of the events in the prolog. It is cleverly done, but you really do have to pay attention. This one is not for casual listening while you multitask. I would also suggest re-listening to the beginning of the book after you have finished it. Knowing the whole story really changes the meaning of the events at the book's opening. Brilliantly done, and exquisitely handled by Peter Kenny, who does not just read the book, he performs the story.
It's becoming increasingly rare to find science fiction that makes the science a real character in the story. It's even more rare when writers put the time and effort into getting the science right. Add to that some of the creepiest and most intriguing aliens to come along in many years and you have the makings of really good science fiction. What makes it not just good but great is the writing, which is smart and funny with an excellent sense of pacing and expert story telling. This second volume in "The Expanse" series is even better than the first, and I can't wait for book 3.
"The Mote in God's Eye" is one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels. When it appeared it took a truly novel, very anthropological approach to the subject of aliens, and it managed to make the Moties some of the most interesting aliens in the world of science fiction. This sequel picks up the story several decades after the original and spends the first half of the book reintroducing characters, reprising the plot line of the first book, and introducing a few new players (most of them descendents of people in the original). This reintroduction is long, tedious for someone who has read the original, and probably confusing for someone who hasn't. The second half picks up the pace because the Moties are back in the picture, and Pournelle and Niven do a great job of extrapolating the effects that contact with humans would have had on the Motie civilization. In summary, you definitely have to read the first book before you read this one, at which point you should fast forward through the first half of Gripping Hand as fast as your audio player will allow -- or get the WhisperSync version and skim to the middle and THEN listen. Ganser's narration is solid, but not worth the hours of listening required to get to the good stuff.
Before he wrote novels himself Scalzi was one of the best reviewers of science fiction in all of fandom (on his "Whatever" blog, still enormously popular), and in this book he takes the task of commenting on science fiction to new heights of humor and recursive, post-post-modern meta. The novel itself looks like a simple commentary on an oft-noted trope in the Star Trek series where nameless characters in the opening scene's away mission inevitably wind up dead in some dramatic fashion, but in fact it is a commentary on science fiction writing (for television in particular) and science fiction watching, a commentary that itself becomes the target of commentary in the codas, sort of, if you think about it the right way, maybe. In short, this is navel gazing at its most amusing, and in the end you have to stop thinking about it because either this book is just plain silly and not worth taking seriously, or the the actual world is just plain silly and not worth taking seriously. You decide.
I listen to books while doing other things that are generally boring or repetitive (think lawn mowing or leaf raking), but no task is completely mindless, so I found this one tough going in those few sections where graphs that I could not see were being described. There were many times when I would have preferred to actually read this book, or re-read certain sections, and I wish I had known about the WhisperSync system that allows one to switch modes in the Kindle version. I would definitely have bought it in that format. Otherwise my only real complaint is that the book was a bit lighter on the science than I expected. Like many of my favorite science books, this one reviews a lot of the history of the process of discovery, but I wish Close had tilted a bit more in the direction of the actual research and theory, perhaps by writing a longer book so as not to give up the interesting contextual material.
It takes a lot of hours of listening to get to this concluding volume of Hamilton's epic, multi-threaded tale (a rare reason to be thankful for a half-hour commute and otherwise boring yard work to do every week), but I was actually sorry to come to the end. The complexity and scope of this story is vast beyond describing (just about every contemporary SF trope is here in some clever form or other). You will just have to listen to it (or read it) yourself. Contrary to some other reviewers, I thought Hamilton did an excellent job of bringing all of the complexity to a satisfying conclusion even while making it clear that the universe will go on being complicated and mysterious, just like life itself. In that sense, no good story ever has a hard-stop ending. One story arc reaches its end, but others go on as long as life, in whatever form, remains. I've commented on various aspects of this series in reviews of the previous volumes, but let me add here that Hamilton is not just writing a story of "things that happen" in his imaginary universe. He is making very abstract, high-level comments on the nature of humanity, of morality, of the universe itself across the whole series. He is never obvious or in your face about this; these deeper questions are embedded in the story itself, and if you take the time there is a lot to ponder. You may not like this series if you aren't prepared to really commit your thought and attention to it (this is not for casual listening), but if you invest the effort you will be well rewarded.
I often check the reviews of the second and third books in a trilogy BEFORE reading the first just to make sure I'm not making a commitment I don't want to keep. If that's what you're doing, don't hesitate -- this series is worth the time, attention, and effort it will demand of you. Some of the mysteries of the Void begin to deepen in this second volume, and it becomes more sinister as well as more alluring. The coming of age saga of Edeard matures as well, and some of the fun goes out of that part of the tale, even while it begins to explore some serious moral questions in ways that surprised me (pleasantly) at times. As more of the science of the Void emerges, it begins to lose some of its fantasy quality, but for me that was a plus, not a minus. The other six or seven story lines that Hamilton always insists on weaving together begin to emerge as important and compelling in their own right, with the return of the Sylvan paths (see the earlier novels in this universe - Pandora's Star & Judas Unchained) to prominence as especially welcome and well done. Middle books in trilogies are often the weakest part of the series, but in this case that is just not so. It just keeps getting better as you go.
Peter Hamilton's novels always get off to a slow start -- or seem to -- because he is always telling several (in this case about 8) completely different stories at the beginning, all set in the same universe, but seemingly without connection. As the novel develops, these stories all turn out to revolve around the same set of macro events, and it is these galaxy-spanning, bigger-than-life plot arcs that drive the story. The Dreaming Void is set in the Commonwealth, the universe in which the earlier novels Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained take place, but about 1500 years later. There are a handful of important characters who carry over from the earlier novels, thanks to the wonders of rejuvenation technology, and there is no doubt that it helps to have read those earlier novels. Not all of the sub-plot arcs move along at the same pace, so there are times when I couldn't wait to get back to the story of Edeard in the Void itself (clearly the best of the plot lines in this novel), but they all work if you give them time and attention. All of the major characters are interesting and well drawn, but it is the mystery of the Void itself that is most compelling here, if a bit confusing at times. I did find that I had to rewind on occasion to make sure that I was properly understanding what was happening (e.g., there are two cities of Makkathran, the original in the Void, and the replica created based on the Dreamer's vision of the original, and at the beginning of the novel it takes some work to get clear about that sort of thing). But this is a story that repays the time and effort you will spend on it.
This is not what you'd call a "fun" read. It is serious reporting about the political and financial shenanigans that culminated in and followed the big collapse of 2008. Gasparino is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and the book is based on his extensive investigations of just what happened to create this crisis. There is inside information here based on interviews with many of the key players, as well as a careful reading of a lot of documentation that most of us would never have the patience to wade through. The story of utter corruption it tells -- on the part of both political parties -- is enough to drive a person into either despair, or heart-stopping anger, or both, but it is important information to have. I have recommended this book to more people than I can count any longer, of all political persuasions, and every one I know who has read it has become much less complacent and much more skeptical about the ability of politicians to solve these problems. The one downside of the book is that Gasparino stitched together many of his WSJ pieces without as much editing as would have been desirable (no doubt under pressure of time), so there are redundancies and repetitions in many places. It is also worth noting that the book was published in 2010 before the mid-term elections, and a lot has happened since then that is not covered here. However, if you want a great book to prepare you to keep up with events as they unfold from here on out, this is it.
This sequel to Hamilton's Pandora's Star continues the saga of the Commonwealth battles with the alien Primes, and does so in an even more expansive and space-operatic form (it is essential to read Pandora's Star first or you'll be lost). Hamilton uses the old E.E. "Doc" Smith tactic of introducing ever more powerful and fantastic technologies in every other chapter, coming very close to overdoing it at times. In that respect, and because the story is not quite as focused, this novel ranks a notch below its predecessor, but it's still a really compelling story (set of stories, really) about the many different ways in which people have to adapt to an increasingly large and dangerous universe, not to mention their own technology with its AI, biological enhancements, rejuvenation, and galaxy-spanning transportation system. It has the same strengths of detailed character development and a serious effort to make the science plausible (still too much hand-waving at times) as Pandora's Star, but it is long and does require a commitment of time and attention to get all the subtleties. It's not a great book for casual listening. But if you're looking for a good old-fashioned space epic full of interesting ideas and characters, this one is tough to beat. Narration is just okay, but does not detract.
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