McDonald has become well known for setting his stories outside of the traditional Euro-American context of most science fiction, and the effect is to lend an air of the exotic and strange to the near future he imagines. This novel, set in a balkanized India at the middle of the century, follows that pattern. Be warned that it starts slowly with a subplot that is somewhat removed from the main action, and it takes a long time to really get to the meat of the science fiction that drives the story. Like all McDonald novels it is very well written, with language that is often surprising in the way that good poetry can be, but it also flows languidly, just like the Ganges River from which it takes its title, taking its time to gather together the life streams of its many complicated characters. This is only sporadically a book of intense action and high excitement, but it is thought provoking and well crafted, with a nice twist at the end to resolve the major mystery at its heart. In the process it wrestles with big themes about the nature of intelligence and the meaning of life, drawing extensively from the cultural history of India and Hinduism in the process. Indeed, one of the major negatives about listening to this book rather than reading it is that you don’t have access to the excellent and informative Glossary included at the end. The narration is generally excellent, although Jonathan Keeble isn’t consistently good at American accents. All in all this is definitely worth a listen.
The Human Division is organized as a set of Episodes, each of them involving the B-team, a group of low level diplomats with their side-kick and Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) technical expert Harry Wilson, well known to readers of Scalzi's "Old Man's War" series. The B-team is really an A-team that has been recruited to solve unsolvable problems, but they do not know how well they are regarded by the powers that be. This makes for some fun moments and interesting twists as our diplomatic heroes attempt to keep the Colonial Union out of fights it can't possibly win against a conclave of hundreds of other races determined to keep humanity from spreading through the galaxy as quickly as it would like.
You don't have to have read the previous Harry Wilson books to enjoy this one because the episodes are very self-contained and self-explanatory. Indeed, the one flaw in this collection is the redundancy that comes from assembling stories each of which was written so that it could stand alone. That means that the same background material often gets repeated. You will, however, want to read whatever Scalzi writes next in this universe because the episodes end just as new threats and mysteries are revealed. I can't wait to find out where he takes us.
Reader William Dufris interprets Scalzi's sarcastic and amusing characters exactly as I would have imagined them, so kudos on the performance as well.
On the surface this is no more than a satisfying coming of age story, full of strong characters struggling to make a life in a hostile universe. But underneath this is a very sophisticated piece of science fiction, emphasis on the science. A lot of genetics-based science fiction garbles the science pretty badly, but Cherryh nailed the complexity of the relationship between genes and the environments in which they are expressed at a time when this was still confusing to many professionals. Most amazing is that she made these ideas the heart of the story, so the unfolding lives of her characters actually embody the idea that genes and environment evolve together, neither of them possible without the other. Who we are may be explainable at some abstract level, but that doesn't make us predictable, even to ourselves. This is a very gratifying read both as fiction and as science. The unresolved nature of some key issues at the end was a bit disappointing, but only because I wanted more. That's the only reason I didn't give the story five stars.
I listened to the first version of this course on cassette tapes way back in the day and found it truly fascinating. The second version contains much of the original material, and it was fun to be reminded of the things I had forgotten. It is a testament to the original course that I also remembered quite a lot! The new material at the end brings the history of English up to date by covering the ways in which new technologies are transforming the language. Professor Lerer presents the lectures at a perfect pace, uses great examples to illustrate abstract concepts, and clearly loves this material. His enthusiasm is infectious. Highly recommended as a way to learn not only the history of English but also some widely applicable principles of philology and linguistics.
This is Max Barry's take on the theme of how language affects thought with a special focus on language as a code for hacking the brains of other people in order to control them. There are many interesting ideas here, although the fiction does tend to outweigh the science most of the time and the book slips into the fantasy zone on occasion. Nevertheless, the story is strong enough to counter the hand waving going on, and you can't help caring about Barry's very complicated and compelling characters. I would recommend Neal Stephenson's "Snowcrash," and Samuel R. Delaney's "Babel 17" as earlier novels on this same theme. If you read them first, you will actually catch some of the subtle nods to these stories in Barry's book.
This is a peculiar kind of fantasy, with elements of science fiction thrown in just to keep the reader guessing. It's a universe in which believers battle non-believers and the god they love or hate is a powerful being transformed by technology he does not understand. Indeed, all of the magic is technological in some respect. The battles over whether god or man should rule are the action core of the story, but it is also a story about journeys, both literal and figurative. All of the characters are struggling to reconcile who they are with who they think they should be, and much of the story is told as retrospective personal histories about how they got to where they are. The structure of the story is flawed, with odd discontinuities and long periods of time when unnecessary bouts of raw description overtake the scene and threaten to induce sleep, but the core ideas are interesting enough. As others have noted, you have to be willing to endure some pretty graphic gore, often combined with some pretty graphic sex, at several points. On balance, though, enough happens that is interesting and unexpected to make it worth the journey as a reader. I'd give it 3.5 stars if that were an option. What really kept me listening, though, was John FitzGibbon's narration, which is just amazing. He turned the book into audible theater. If I had been reading instead of listening, I'm not sure that I would have stayed with it.
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.
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