This novel is a good beach read. Or perhaps I should say a good quick read in front of the fireplace at Deer Valley after a day’s skiing. Of course, it DOES contain the obligatory evil American capitalist and this made me contemplate downgrading my review. (Are ALL writers socialists?) If you are going to make a plot element an evil capitalist, couldn’t you at least make him a Russian? (Russian capitalists want to protect their petroleum empires, too.) You will not be taxed listening to or following the story of this book, nor particularly regret purchasing it.
I bought this book because author Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko detective stories are good. I was therefore surprised at how awful this novel is. Mr. Smith tries the Tom Clancy technique of detailed descriptions, but in his story, instead of military tech, he describes the chemical and viral details of bat guano! Seriously disgusting. His effort fails to have the Clancy effect, which generates interest. The plot takes place on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, but is nothing like Tony Hillerman’s books. This story involves a lot of Indian myths that are difficult to understand, are not well tied to the plot, and are boring to boot. The penultimate chapter is based on some myth which the hero re-enacts (or something) while under the influence of a hallucinogenic root. Very unbelievable. My wife and I listened to the book on a long drive. I asked her what she thought. She replied, “I hate this book.” IMHO, this book is not worth the money.
First, the book is narrated in a fake Scottish brogue. Yuck! This leads me to conclude that the producer of this audiobook planned it to be sold to a very narrow and small demographic. Either that or they’re incompetent. Further, the reader puts a full stop between dialogue and cues, to wit: “‘I went downtown,’ [full stop for at least a second], “he said.” Very distracting! Second, the work is mostly told in the first person narrative voice. This is difficult for even master writers to bring off and this author is no master. Third, this story is not sci-fi, but fantasy. The author is not an engineer or techie, so his vision of future gadgets, transportation, etc., has no technological consistency or believable background. They just “are” like in fantasy and sometimes they are anachronistic. For example, people in the cities fly around with anti-gravity boots but also still have car exhaust polluting their atmosphere. In other words, they are advanced enough to have conquered gravity, but still haven’t mastered the gasoline engine. (What, no electric cars in the future?) This sort of writing destroys what is essential for these sorts of stories, which is the suspension of disbelief. Another inconsistency is that the hero is a slave miner who is from the lowest level in their society, an uneducated, hard-working slave. And yet he gives us insightful and even quasi-philosophical comments as he digs ore, etc. What the? Another inconsistency is that the hero and his girl use an abandoned tunnel to go up to an outdoor area for a picnic and get caught. This is a capital offense and both are executed. But later in the story, after the hero is revived, they take an elevator to the surface and stroll around looking at everything. What the…? Makes me wonder if this author even re-read his story after he finished writing it. Fourth, the first several chapters spend their time and text describing Mars as hell: extremely hot in the mine tunnels, very dangerous working conditions, extreme regulation of life by the elites, etc. Set at the beginning of the story, this too quickly gets boring. Fifth, the human society described is extremely stratified and very class-based, something like “Brave New World”, and you can see revolution coming. This idea has been written about to exhaustion and it too quickly gets boring. After a few hours listening, I couldn’t take it anymore. Especially the fake brogue! I got my money back.
The Ascendant is an exciting story about a very important topic that thoughtful people should make a point of understanding: the use of huge databases and sophisticated software in international financial commerce. Sounds boring, but this story makes this subject-matter quite interesting. The author focuses on this subject-matter well and does a good job of fictionalizing an explanation of how it works and how this phenomenon is affecting business and world governments. However, the author neglects other elements of good novel writing which sadly weakens this important work. The term “ascendant” is defined as a position of dominant power or importance. This refers to the anti-hero is this work and also to the government program sorta built around him. His job is to push world events to a tipping point for the benefit of the United States. This apparently is opposed by American leaders of our military-industrial complex because the Ascendant can avert shooting wars by engaging hidden data manipulations behind the scenes, e.g., computer hacking, currency manipulation, etc. Think of the “Stuxnet” worm that targeted and temporarily ruined Iran’s bomb-making centrifuges. Beyond this, the focus of this story, the Ascendant, can see patterns in staggeringly huge data streams that no one else can perceive. (BTW, this might be the way we humans defeat Skynet. For the problem here, see: Berners-Lee: 'Computers are getting smarter. We’re not' in the UK Telegraph.) All this makes the Ascendant and his team members the target for elimination by a host of individuals from around the world who, for various reasons, profit from war. The work would have been stronger and more gripping if both the villains and the love affair were more pointedly developed. (The love affair is lame.) Nevertheless, the book is well worth the price. It is thought-provoking because, after listening, you will come away with a strong conviction that the plot is more real than fiction. I wonder whom the author really works for….
This novel is worth the price if you like engineering steeped in NASA technical details, which I do. You will find it satisfying for the same reason that people liked the MacGyver TV series. However, the story has drawbacks: It has no villain. It also has no romance. Good novel writing, of course, includes these fundamental elements. How does one write these elements into a story that involves only one character trying to stay alive on a barren, cold planet? It’s called creative writing for a reason. For a better-written story also about inherently dull subject matter (computer code and financial commerce) but that includes the foregoing elements woven into an exciting plot, try The Ascendant by Drew Chapman, also available from Audible. The foregoing notwithstanding, if you like to hear about inventive life-and-death engineering solutions and detailed NASA technical specifications, you will enjoy The Martian. I did.
Stephenson is a very good author but this work is not at the level of The Diamond Age or Cryptonomicon. A good way to bore readers is to let too long a time go by without intense action. In this story, we learn more about how to operate a pirated ship or how to control its drift in the North China Sea than anyone save a naval academy midshipman would want to know. Same with what it's like to be out hiking and shooting in the North American mountains. The story would have been better if it were half as lengthy. Stephenson needs a good strong willed editor with lots of red pencils! The end is undramatic. Spoiler alert: All the bad guys get shot in various unexciting ways and the family reunion continues. Yawn.
This story is not well written. It is told, not shown. About an hour from the end you learn who’s killing the lost girls of Rome and one other mystery is solved. Then begins a lot of flashbacks to new characters and the story becomes a jumbled mess. The end, which is supposed to be surprising, can be seen coming from about an hour out. This author should be barred from writing any more novels.
This book is great! Terrific! Buy it and enjoy it! Writing is well done and narration well done.
If you are the type of person who, upon finishing a book, likes to sink back into your chair and sigh, and think that was a great story, and wish it had not ended, then this is NOT the book for you. If, however, you are the type of person who, upon finishing a book, likes to lean forward and hold your head in your hands and think, “Why did this author write this thing and why did I listen to it through to the end?,” then this is the book for you.
If you liked Agent to the Stars, you will like this novel. Snarky dialogue among characters. Well done and funny!
The biggest annoyance with this production by Tantor Audio is that the producer apparently does not know that most audible books are listened to in automobiles that are traveling. This book has a lot of dialogue that is whispered between the characters. In that dialogue, the reader drops the volume of his voice and whispers. The road noise blocks out the whispers. So, if you intend to listen to this work while you commute, you are going to miss lots of passages. Sad. (Can’t Amazon get audio producers who know who their audience is and fix the sound level to accommodate that demographic?) Beyond that, the book is not well-written: the author never met an adverb he doesn’t use rather than showing the reader the action. The work ends with an epilogue where the author disgorges his ideas about quantum physics and cosmology. The sci fi ideas are interesting, but interesting ideas do not make a good book; interesting characters and their story do. When we finished our drive, the audio book ended and I asked my wife what she thought about it. “Blah, blah, blah” was her answer. Exactly!
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