Category Archives: books

woken furies

Woken Furies

the third novel in Richard K. Morgan’s takeshi kovacs trilogy did not disappoint. kovacs (aka micky serendipity in this installment) is back in true form: ruthless, disaffected, unhappy, and yet strangely sympathetic.
spoilers to follow….i mean it.

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broken angels and altered carbon

Broken Angels    Altered Carbon

it’s been awhile since a science fiction author did something that surprised me (pleasantly, that is). i read a fair amount in the genre, but nothing has really raised my temperature much in the past few years…some enjoyable books, some duds, some disappointing sequels and prequels. my expectations have gradually been sliding down the gravity well of a deep and boring black hole.

richard k. morgan has lifted a weight from my sholders.

he just rocked my tiny sci-fi world. he made me foam at the mouth like a rabid star trek fan having a close encounter with patrick stewart. he renewed my faith in sci-fi as a viable genre, one that has something to offer beyond its vivid imaginations of time travel, hive-mind alien intelligences, and the occasional green woman doing the interplanetary horizontal mambo.

with his first two Takeshi Kovacs novels, altered carbon and broken angels, morgan has crafted incredibly entertaining stories that bear the hallmark of my favorite books – i was sad to finish them, yet satisfied with their resolution at the same time.
his central futuristic conceit in both novels revolves around the cortical stack, a small device planted at the base of your cortex and capable of storing one’s mental state, one’s life experiences, up to any given point in time. your consciousness and identity are tied to your stack, not your body (or sleeve as he calls it), so you can hop bodies and still be the same person. this simple idea provides rich soil for innovation, and he plants an array of curious seeds over the course of the novels.

morgan uses an interesting socio-political backdrop for his stories, one where corporations and the Protectorate, modernism and religion, greed and virtue, slug it out without clear winners and losers. in this landscape, he drops Kovacs, an ex-Envoy and a Quellist who follows the nihilistic and cynical political philosophy of the revolutionary Quell, a poet-warrior from his planet Harlan’s World. he’s a shattered anti-hero who slugs his way through one spirit-crushing episode after another. on one level, Kovacs seems admirable in that he fights for social and individual justice, deeply distrustful of corporate, government and military interests; on another, he’s pretty much in it for himself. it’s hard to rationalize his altruistic underlying motivations with his means (usually violent) and his feelings (usually detached to the point of inhumanity), and it’s also hard to say whether you really like him. Kovacs is a bag full of contradictions in a world full of flawed people.

altered carbon is the first in morgan’s trilogy of Kovacs novels. it’s a cross between a hard-boiled detective novel and a cyberpunk dystopian nightmare (yes, i paraphrased from the book jacket). a few comparisons seem appropriate: gibson, dick, chandler. a friend seemed to think there was a resonance with iain m. banks, although that reference point isn’t as obvious to me. regardless, morgan’s prose crackles and pops, vividly painting a grim far-future earth where immortality is possible and murder is never quite what it seems.

carbon is a crime thriller with Kovacs as unwilling gumshoe working for an arrogant Meth (short for Methuselah, i.e., people who have lived for a very, very long time across many sleeves). he is tasked with solving the central character’s murder, and he has to do it sleeved in a body with an interesting past. in return, he gets a reward that he basically can’t refuse. the plot twists and turns are far from obvious, with every step of the journey richly described, and they ultimately lead to a startling and explosive conclusion.

broken angels finds our friend Kovacs on Sanction IV playing mercenary soldier in a bloody uprising. mid-way through the conflict, he is presented with an interesting opportunity – to find a Martian artifact worth unimaginable sums. in the middle of a raging war, he partners with a band of re-sleeved special ops soldiers with financial backing from the Mandrake Cartel, a corporation who wants the artifact and will use Kovacs to get it. while there is still a detective story at the heart of angels, the backdrop of senseless war, betrayal, and greed overshadow the quest for great mysteries. the first novel is like reading about mister roger’s neighborhood in comparison to the second…don’t look for that warm, fuzzy feeling in this book (or, i suspect, in any of his books).
the last of the Kovacs novels is woken furies, which i look forward to reading. i’ve also just learned that he has a new novel forthcoming, set in the future, but in a different universe.

i wouldn’t say richard morgan’s novels are for everyone, but if you like hard-edged sci-fi with provocative ideas, noir sensibilties, and flawed heroes, then pick up Altered Carbon and let me know how you enjoy the ride.

house harkonnen

House Harkonnen
House Harkonnen is book number two in the House trilogy by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson. it continues where House Atreides left off.
when i reviewed the first installment of this series, i was excited and energetic, thrilled at the possibility of a never-ending stream of engaging books set in the Dune universe. sadly, i can’t summon the same enthusiasm after reading House Harkonnen.

i won’t bother with the same in-depth synopsis i provided for House Atreides. Harkonnen does provide some interesting back story on several characters, but falls short, in this reader’s opinion, when it comes to providing true insight into character development and motivation. the harkonnens seem mindlessly malevolent; some are stupid, some are smart, but they’re mostly evil (aside from peace-minded abulurd harkonnen who winds up in utter ruin at the hands of beast rabban). the atreides are just and wise, but occasionally misstep. and everyone else (the bene gesserit, the bene tleilax, count fenring, blah blah blah) has plans within plans, plots within plots, clichees within clichees.

i am a big fan of space opera, and the Dune series has provided that for many years, but this novel felt like space soap opera, and a dull one at that. as i read the book, i just kept waiting for something to happen, something that didn’t feel too predictable or formulaic. this is not to say that the book is without incident — things happen. they just seem to happen without much dramatic tension or import. everything just felt like a big setup for something else, like foreplay for a climax that has already come (i.e., with the original Dune series). the first Atreides book didn’t feel this way.

maybe i’m being too harsh. i probably am. even so, i’ll keep reading. there’s something comforting about visiting the Dune universe, and i’ll probably keep going back for the rest of my days, through one book or another.

engine summer

engine summer
i’ve now read two books by john crowley: engine summer and Aegypt. crowley is a favorite of my close friend ryan…he bought me most of crowley’s books as a gift, which was nice, given that they are mostly hard to find or out of print.

crowley’s books are not easy to read (if these two are any example). he makes no effort to provide a cushion for the reader, to help them on their journey through the world he creates. instead, he seems to relish dislocation and opaque prose. i’ve read other authors who do the same (Gene Wolfe and Iain Banks being two notable examples), but crowley seems to have his own gig.

engine summer is a post-apocalyptic tale, one where the future is not exactly bright, but then again, not entirely dark. in fact, for some time in the novel, you’re not even sure it’s the future (an approach that reminded me very much of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series).

despite the dislocation, he weaves a very compelling tale, one that creates a plausible future told with a somewhat foreign voice from that future. it may take you half way to reach the crest of the first hill of the rollercoaster, but i’d venture that once you reach that point, the rest is downhill, and you reach the end with a sense of exhilaration and happiness.

cloud atlas

cloud atlast - david mitchell
cloud atlas is everything i hoped it would be and more. if i had mr. mitchell’s literary genius, i just might be able to do it justice. given the actual state of things, that’s not going to happen. if you don’t trust me, read any of a hundred glowing reviews.

let me begin by saying that i have been a fan of david mitchell ever since ghostwritten, his first novel. in that book, he did something that captivated and inspired (even if it fell just a tad short for some). he picked up on a theme that has fascinated me for years – connectedness: the invisible connections between people, places, events. history chronicles some of them, but most are relegated to the entropic scrap heap of the universe. he wrote a novel that connected the dots; it was still arresting, even if the lines were dotted.

cloud atlas picks up that thread and weaves a dark tapestry, one that alternately depresses, amuses and enthralls.
<some minor spoilers follow>

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the unconsoled

the unconsoled - kazuo ishiguro
the unconsoled is only the second book i’ve read by kazuo ishiguro. the first of his that i read, remains of the day, still stands as one of my top ten books of all time. i wish i could say the same about this effort.

while stylistically flawless with pitch-perfect prose, the story left me uninspired. my first and foremost complaint was length – did the novel have to be so long? i felt like things hardly changed after the first 100 pages, and yet i had to slog through 400 more. i kept expecting some light to pull me out of the darkness, but it never came.

i won’t bother with a synopsis. you can find it on amazon.

the thing that i still wonder is, what was ishiguro’s point? why did he write this novel? to illustrate the endless self-absorption of people? to illustrate how our best efforts at self-effacing politeness are ultimately selfish and destructive? each of the characters of this story toil through life with only their own interests at heart. they seem soulless and charmless, with few redemptive qualities.

i just don’t know. i barely finished the book, and was so relieved when i did. i will read him again, but it’s going to be hard to do it without severe skepticism.

look to windward

look to windward

iain banks has a universe inside his head. probably more than one. who knows. at the very least, he has one with a multi-species civilization called the Culture, comprised of a few trillion people living a few tens of thousands of years down the road. they’re spread across the galaxy, and when not pursuing their wildest dreams (since poverty, money, disease, and internecine conflict have all been eradicated), they are engaged in a vast philanthropic effort to help those civilizations who aren’t quite as, shall we say, well off.

he’s written a number of things involving the Culture:

  • the state of the art (collected short stories and a novella)
  • consider phlebas
  • use of weapons
  • player of games
  • excession
  • inversions (apparently only vaguely Culture-related)
  • look to windward

the last ostensible book in his Culture novels is look to windward, and it’s a fitting finish to a remarkable series, especially given that the first Culture novel was consider phlebas, both of which refer to a few lines from Eliot’s Waste Land:

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

[NOTE: i will make no attempt to analyze the philosophical underpinnings of The Waste Land, Banks’ works, and the connection between them – i leave this task to far braver (and perhaps more presumptuous) souls.]

and now, my review (and possible spoilers) follow…

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a place so foreign

a place so foreign and eight more

cory doctorow is one of my heroes. he’s basically everything to which a nerdy, liberal-minded, dot-com-era, wanna-be writer could aspire: blog trailblazer, digital freedom fighter, non-fiction author, and multiple award-winning sci-fi writer extraordinaire. as if his accomplishments weren’t enough, he also seems to be a really nice guy.

i’m not gay, and i already have a fiancee, but cory, will you marry me?

but seriously folks. cory doctorow is a really, really good writer. don’t take it from me. take it from bruce sterling. or the people who come up with hugo nominations. or the people who gave him the john w. campbell award. they all know a lot more about what qualifies as good writing than i probably ever will.

i’m foaming at the mouth, and i’ve only read 2.5 of his 6 books (two books are waiting patiently on the shelf, along with many other neglected volumes). a place so foreign and eight more is my latest doctorow conquest, and it was immensely satisfying.

the thing i like most about cory doctorow’s writing is that it defies simple description. most people dismiss science fiction without a second thought; space-opera for the silicon-obsessed, they say; literary fluff; romance novels for geeks. these people have not read anything worth reading. among other writers (wolfe, herbert, banks, bear, asimov, to name a few), they have not read cory doctorow.

doctorow has created his own approach to science fiction, similiar in spirit to neal stephenson, but thankfully much shorter. he twists the contemporary with the fantastic, blends present and future, and creates a reality all his own, often one that pokes fun at ours. social commentary runs through most of his writing, but he never clubs you over the head with it. and did i forget to mention he’s funny? lol.

a place so foreign and eight more contains nine short stories, as the title implies, and i’d say there’s only one or two slight misses in the bunch. my favorites were: craphound; to market, to market – the rebranding of billy bailey; the super man and the bugout; and 0wnz0red. in each story, he did something i’d never seen or thought of. if there’s one fault i might find, it’s a lack of significant stylistic variation from story to story; these stories all feel like he wrote them, which is fine in the end (if you like how he writes).

he’s no gene wolfe. he may not even be a neal stephenson. and that’s good. what he does, i have not seen anyone else do. he’s creating his own category, a la Billy Bailey, and from what i can tell, he’s got the big brands all lined up…the best part of it is, he’s not doing it for them. he’s doing it for us.

the da vinci code

the da vinci code

i’ve been wanting to read the da vinci code for a long, long time. my general boycott of hardcover books has made this difficult; da vinci is only just being released in paperback, after about 400 years on the best-seller list. fortunately, i have wonderful friends like andrew, who, after reading the novel, rush over and drop it off on my doorstep (thank you, andrew!!!).

and now to my review…

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dune : house atreides

dune: house atreides

i’ve been a semi-rabid fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune series for many years. actually, it’s probably fair to say that i’ve only been a true fan for the past 2-3 years since i finished all of the first six books. those other years in between having read the original Dune and the rest don’t count…

i don’t actually remember what it was that sparked me to read the final five books a few years ago…i guess i just felt a sense of incompleteness after having read the first book (and having watched the movie) several times. the first book stands as one of the greatest science fiction novels of the 20th century, independent of the rest…maybe i held off reading the others thinking that they could never reach the level that Herbert had set with his first Dune novel. i was wrong, of course. the series as a whole has more impact and is much more impressive; awe-inspiring, even.

and then he died. and there were no more books for many years. and then, all of a sudden, his son published a prequel…

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