Cheshire, CT USA | Member Since 2012
Had all the fun and wondrous tech of a PFH story, but I felt it was a good bit longer than necessary. It also has a larger percentage of the story grounded in a terrestrial detective case which drags on slowly for both the characters and the readers. This story was at it's best when it took to the stars and the off-world settings.
This debut novel by Madeline Ashby asks some interesting questions about what the motivations and desires of humanoid AIs would be, and the surprising answer is remarkably similar to what their human creators seek. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of robo-happiness looks much the same as the familiar goals, with some cosmetic differences in the health & diet departments. Ashby’s von Neumann robots are lot like the vampires making the rounds in a lot of YA fiction these days: Super-powered, beautiful versions of people who happen to eat something unusual, but share all our emotions and dramas. Here, I was a bit disappointed, and saw potential for some wildly interesting outlook that superimposes inarguable machine logic on top of everyday life. The closest thing here was the universally in-built “failsafe” directive that the vN possess which compels them to obey and cherish humans, (their garlic/sunlight/stake/holy water Achilles’ heel). The central conflict of the story arrises from, naturally, the appearance of a vN who can willfully ignore her failsafe. Like many of those YA ‘paranormal romance’ stories, there is a blossoming romance in the works, and an authoritarian regime eager to snuff it all out. The first person perspective brought to mind Charles Stross’ “Saturn’s Children”, which also featured a female humanoid robot protagonist, and a parallel mechanism to the failsafe whereby robots are compelled to obey all humans completely and lovingly.
When adapting Doctor Who for audio presentation, it makes great sense to use a audio-centric setting, as “Dead Air” does with it’s 1960’s pirate radio station floating off the coast of England. The format also lends itself to suspenseful “In the dark” scenes where the listener is just as blind as the characters. Despite these in-built advantages, however, the story drags a bit for want of relatable characters to identify with or even a sufficiently menacing villain to overcome. Told from the first person perspective of the Doctor himself, the story right off precludes any hope of fully relating to the protagonist’s fear or dread; David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor doesn’t really suffer from these. The only way for the author to provide any exposition into the threat is for the Doctor to explain it to other characters, or directly to the listener through a clever "narration for posterity” trick. Companionless, he takes on the temporary acquaintance of a mostly helpless young lady named Layla, who he spends the story attempting to protect from an Alien weapon that has achieved some degree of sentience and (therefore?) bloodthirst. In between these moments of terror-filled tension, he provides a sympathetic, “girlfriendy” shoulder for Layla to unburden her unrequited love sob-story on to. While there are only four characters in this brief adventure, it was enjoyable to hear Tennant narrate the additional voices, which I felt were memorably done. The most off-putting element for me was deus ex machina provided by that sonic screwdriver, the crutch of lazy writers since 1968.
Before reading this, I didn't realize I hadn’t read a NON-juvenile Heinlein novel- I was beginning to think they all had spunky pre-teen protagonists thrown into gee-whiz scenarios where they nonetheless manage to outshine the adults. My previous two RAH novels, “Time for the Stars” and “Have Space Suit, Will Travel”, share all the same 1950’s cultural colorations seen here, but are restrained in their violence, profanity, and sexual content due to his audience. Reading Heinlein less restrained in these areas was enjoyably disturbing. There’s something odd about the juxtaposition of 1950’s gender chivalry in one scene followed quickly by man-bisecting ray gun violence in the next that held my attention like a cold war “red alert” duck-and-cover drill. As in “Have Space Suit”, this story is about the early detection of an alien invasion, although what comes out of the saucers is much more gruesome this time. A lot of thought went into the methods a mid-controlling invader would use to subjugate the human race, and I appreciate the subtleties of counter-insurgence played out between the opposing species. The theme of personal freedom plays out on at least two levels: the struggle against literal slavery at the hands (psuedopods?) of aliens, and the second struggle against bureaucratic and paternalistic government authority. The final denouement chapter provides the satisfying full-throated vengeance on both that Heinlein, in his Libertarian zeal, must have fantasized about. I kept expecting a more direct parallel on McCarthyism and Red Scare politics, but found it only passingly mentioned; seemingly a missed opportunity. Just as you can never be immediately sure if the stranger seated beside you on the subway is an alien agent, you can likewise not discover a communist sympathizer with superficial inspection.
Taking the history he created in ‘Blue Remembered Earth’ forward another generation, Alastair Reynolds succeeds in teasing the reader’s interest in the alien mystery waiting at the end of a 200-year old journey, but keeps the scope of events surprisingly restrained for an author known to write in cosmic epochs that laugh at stacks of expired civilizations. Again, he keeps his dramatic perspective on one single family, which can really be said to in fact be one person, duplicated across three cloned bodies who occasionally synchronize their mind states. This concept I found fun, and made for some interesting moments as the separate lives of our tri-fold protagonist, Chiku Akinya, reconciled herselves with the existence of multiple husbands/lovers and families at either end of her dual lives. There is also some great world building here within one of the main settings for the action, the asteroid-sized holoship traveling as part of a caravan to a new and promising alien world. Reynolds, in 2001’s "Chasm City", has previously written about a rivalry between en-route colony generation ships which violently escalates once the prize comes into sight, but with much more believability here. The other two setting loci, Earth and the destination world of Crucible, both have similar challenges for the Chiku heroines in the form of an all-powerful artificial intelligence willing to kill in order to ensure it’s own survival. Like Chiku, this intelligence, Arachne, has been cloned across two distant star systems, but these have remained un-syncronized, and have begun to drift apart in their thinking towards humanity.
The story has well-paced action scenes that don’t rush in too close together, and characters that are compelling to follow, though a bit too saintly and flawless, I felt. I think a reader who hasn’t read the earlier story would feel unsatisfied with this one, and clearly too many questions remain unanswered to give up on ready the series now.
Adjoa Andoh’s narration is impressive for it’s commitment to thickly, haltingly accented English coming from a variety of multi-national characters, but being impressive is not the same as being enjoyable. Whether it’s the baseline Swahili accent of the protagonist, the guttural fish-man accent from the aquatic mer-people, the crafty old lady variant of the earlier swahili accent (this one used for no less than 3 characters), I found them all just a little too over-the-top. I’m sure I’m revealing my own anglocentric cultural bias here, but my ear just needed a rest from the added work of mentally decoding every spoken word. The final straw for me was the dual accent-fail for Chiku’s two significant others, Lucas and Pedro. I want to write about how offensively bad they both are, but I… just.. can’t listen to that exaggerated Texas drawl or caricature Mexican again. Let me instead just stick to my complementary remarks, however- and it’s genuinely the case that Andoh makes a very ambitious effort which must have been quite exhausting, and I know I have no such talent at all.
This quest story set 300 years after the events of the much stronger “Hyperion” novels, was a bit of a let down. A trio of archetypical heroes flee from pursuing elements of the tyrannical empire regime across several planets which are the familiar settings from the earlier novels. While it is interesting to read the developments on those locations in the centuries of aftermath, I was reminded of the similar quest in Asimov’s “Foundation and Earth”, where the protagonist visits several worlds which were the nostalgic settings of some of Asimov’s stories set centuries earlier. Here, however, it is far less compelling as most of the spots have gone to wilderness. Also, the hero characters are a bit two-dimensional, fitting very familiar character patterns: Aenea, "The Holy One” child, who is somehow mystically important, and a threat to the authorities; Raul Endymion, “The Woodsman” guide, who uses his street smarts and survivor skills to protect her; and A. Bettik, “The Man Friday” who loyally and capably serves both.
While the first two novels of Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos made excellent use of multi-protagonist narrative threads to tell the story from multiple perspectives, This novel instead primarily sticks to just two- Raul Endymion and his chief pursuant, Father-Captain Federico de Soya, who is an extremely sympathetic ‘villain’, earnestly carrying out his duty to his shadier superiors. I had a feeling that we’d see some redemption and rehabilitation of this character after the first few examples of his flawless moral behavior, despite his unsavory mission. Most of the evocative tech and philosophical questions lay in his portions of the novel, giving it a much stronger grounding in Space Opera, while Raul’s narrative felt more rustic and terrestrial.
In the end, Endymion is a victim of the earlier novels success and ambition. Outside of their shadow, it might have stood as a great story, but as it happens it is merely a good one. It feels flatter by comparison with it’s fewer character narratives, it’s more linear structure, and smaller-stake drama.
Gibson’s second book in the Shoal Sequence continues following its two protagonists from “Stealing Light”, Dakota Merrick and Lucas Corso, largely in two separate narratives. Having concluded their previous story in possession of the ultimate prize, a superluminal and ultra powerful starship full of technologies denied to humanity, Gibson promptly removes that advantage from them in order to ratchet up the stakes. While a good part of the first half of the book is a snail-pace chronicle of their imprisonment, it also introduced some additional characters from other species, and these were both imaginative and helpful in stretching both the perspective and focal length on the plot. The action-packed climax has a satisfying number of moving parts, although I was surprised at the amount of epilog following, which I imagine will make for a much smoother transition into the third volume.
This third novel in the jumping action-filled space opera 'Expanse' series maintains the down-to-earth dialog, humor, and the perspective-hopping narrative structure of its predecessors. Even more so than in those stories, however, we see Newtonian physics elevated to practically an additional character status; half the dangers the Rocinante crew face are acceleration related. The other half are the familiar contests between violent human groups. Although there is a continual alien presence in the background, its role is mostly an indirect one, and that allows for greater human drama. The infrequent moments of conventional Space Opera, jaw-dropping cosmic scale vistas and wonder are incidentally associated with a favorite character, Detective Miller, and promising new characters bring empathic connection with the reader. The most interesting of these is Melba / Clarissa, whose growth and progression is an interesting one to follow, with some rather extreme arcs.
Thrust into a widening game of spycraft, our android protagonist Freya will grow from a gutter-survivor flotsam-of-society-type to someone in command of her own destiny for a change. The villains and trusted allies swap roles several times, and personalities are likewise interchangeable among robot characters who can swap ‘soul chips' at a moment’s notice. One interesting allowance of this personality exchange mechanism for the story, is that it allows blended flashback narratives from various character viewpoints. After a few iterations, however, it begins to become difficult in telling the various players and their motives apart, and I think this is a deliberate decision on Stross’s part to make the reader identify with Freya’s solitary plight. Freya, herself an obsolete sexbot designed to serve humans who have now been extinct for three hundred years, casually alters her appearance frequently and drastically redesigns herself on multiple occasions. Such android adaptability is a theme displayed across the varied locations of the story, and is contrasted against humanity’s own inflexible nature. They exist in the memory of android society as beloved creators, but mysterious and poorly understood. The pacing and action are both healthy, and frequent satirical observations of human foibles through the eyes of our creations are also entertaining. There’s (unsurprisingly) a lot of sex included, though it never feels gratuitous as it occurs as a routine matter for the character; transactional. While the conspiratorial threads come to a satisfying conclusion, I remain unsatisfied with the long-term direction these characters and society are headed, and look forward to some insight from the sequel.
The POV’s of the two alternating narratives that comprise this novel are so wildly different in style, that it feels like two separate authors are at work. One follows a restless citizen of a far future galactic civilization on a quest to discover something, anything, new and mysterious in the aseptically tame society he inhabits. The other narrative observes an alien species in an environment wildly different than our own discovering fundamental physics on their own terms under the threat of environmental disaster. Of the two, I must say I preferred the space opera former to the ‘rock opera’ latter because it offered a broader cosmic scope in dimension and more wonder. As others have noted, the alien (‘ark dweller’) storyline is incredibly thick with mathematical exposition. None of it was deep enough to completely suffocate me, but it did begin to feel like an algebraic overdose sometime in the first half of the book with the majority of it still to come. Hand in hand with the descriptions of ratios of weight measurements to angles in space-time, however, is a truly engaging story with high stakes drama and interesting alien biology and thought modes. It just wasn’t as thought-provoking for me as Rakesh the post-human’s star system-hopping and at-will body redesigning pursuit. In this half of the book, Egan’s hard SF soars like the space opera I expected, filled with concepts like mind uploads transmitted between stars to be reassembled by nano-machine, and lifetimes spent shifting between digital environments and corporeal ones over the course of millennia.
The ex-conqueror of Earth, super genius Emperor Mollusk, comes out of retirement to defend his helpless subjects from the threat of villain just as brilliant and squishy as himself. Fans of John Scalzi or Douglas Adams will appreciate the genre-lampooning humor of this story, with it’s character archetypes, deus ex machina tropes, and send-ups of classic 1950’s pulp SF monster rouge’s gallery. In a truly brilliant twist, the narrating first-person protagonist is the ultimate villain, strangely relatable as a bored guy who just wants to move on to the next great challenge in life. While the narrative structure gets to be a little repetitive- basically a series of location-hopping quests designed to introduce odder and odder settings and characters, but without meaningfully advancing the plot, I still appreciated every word if only for the fantastic dialog. And although the pacing did become a bit predictable, the action was quite fun, and includes something for everyone: Lizard men aliens, time-travel, rock men aliens, mutated dinosaurs, city-ravaging monsters and robots, Atlantis, history re-interpreted, and more.
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