Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lincoln’s Dreams (Book)

Dreams. Robert E. Lee. Abraham Lincoln. Duty. Unknown Soldiers. Horses. The Civil War. 

Lincoln’s Dreams, winner of the 1988 John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is one of Connie Willis’s earliest novels. While usually classified as a fantasy, it seems more like a mixture of fiction and historical fiction to me. Having read Willis’s later novels, one of my biggest challenges was to try to read the novel from a fresh perspective. I saw some plot parallels to Passage. But I was disappointed that I did not feel as sympathetic toward the main characters as I did in Willis’s later books. I understand that part of this is the nature of this particular plot. On the other hand, the novel did a good job of making me feel the horrors of the Civil War.

Briefly, Jeff is the research assistant for Broun, a Civil War novelist. At one of Broun’s parties, Jeff meets a troubled young woman, Annie. She is the patient and girlfriend of Jeff’s college roommate Richard, a psychiatrist. She has been having disturbing dreams related to the Civil War—particularly related to Robert E. Lee—and immediately bonds with Jeff. Being a researcher, he can verify that some of the details in the dreams concern facts that very few people know about. (This reminds me of Passages and the detailed visions about the Titanic.) When Annie discovers that Richard has been slipping her Thorazine, she goes to Jeff for help. He takes her away for a few days—unfortunately near Civil War battlefields—in order to keep her away from Richard and possibly help her with the dreams. But the dreams become more and more intense, and Jeff doesn’t know whether he is helping Annie or making her worse. Intertwined with the main plot is the idea of Lincoln’s Dreams, possibly the topic of Broun’s next book. Broun is researching dreams in California, while Jeff is searching for information about acromegaly, possibly the cause of Lincoln’s troubling dreams.

If I had read Lincoln’s Dreams before any other Connie Willis books, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I had problems getting into the story and relating to the main characters. While Jeff and Broun have some tender, father-son moments, for the most part I was disappointed with the depth of the characters. In September I am planning to read some more short novels by Willis. I will be interested to see whether I have the same reaction. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Smart Bonobos (Follow-up to WWW Trilogy and Link)

As I have mentioned before, I am a great fan of Hobo, a chimpanzee bonobo hybrid in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy. Today I saw an interesting article about a series of contests between chimpanzees and bonobos. The chimpanzees ended up losing because of a political struggle. Hmmm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WWW: Wonder (Book)

Wonder. Human Nature. Missing Hackers. Great Firewall of China. Transparency. WWWD. Non-zero-sum. Hacker Street Cred. Homo Placidus.

WWW: Wonder, released this past spring, is the final book in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy. The story continues where WWW: Watch left off. The book has a more driving plot than WWW: Watch but also continues most of the philosophical discussion. It is a wonderful conclusion to a very rewarding trilogy.

A quick overview of major developments from WWW: Wake and WWW: Watch that I did not discuss in my previous blog entries is in order here. In WWW: Wake, Webmind, an entity that resides on the World Wide Web, is created when the Chinese government puts up a huge firewall in an attempt to isolate the country from the rest of the world. When a hacker, Wong Wei-leng, pokes a hole in the firewall, Webmind becomes conscious of self and a part of self that is cut off. Later, in an attempt to avoid apprehension by the police, Wong Wei-leng jumps off a balcony. In WWW: Watch, with the help of Caitlin and her family, Dr. Kuroda, Anna Bloom, and some others, Webmind gains access to all the information on the Web. After the authorities learn of Webmind’s presence, he decides to reveal himself to the greater world. He first gets their attention by eliminating all spam and then sends an e-mail explaining who he is. He then gives people a way of contacting him with any questions they may have. People ask him all kinds of questions. He reminds me of a combination of Google & Bing, Dear Abby,  and Santa. In one of the books, Catlin describes Webmind as everyone’s Facebook friend. Whew! Between this paragraph and my previous two entries, we should be caught up. Now to WWW: Wonder.

Briefly, one of the major storylines involves Colonel Payton Hume. After the initial failed attempt to eliminate Webmind and his subsequent conversation with the current administration, WATCH is no long actively looking for ways to eliminate Webmind. After all, he seems to be doing a lot of good. Hume doesn’t buy this at all and decides that he is the only one standing in the way of Webmind enslaving the human race. First, Hume attempts to find the best and most notorious hackers to eliminate Webmind. When one by one they go missing, Hume decides that Webmind is killing them. Hume then decides to turn to the media in an attempt to crowdsource a virus that will destroy Webmind.

In the meantime, Webmind is attempting to control his public image as well as continue on his personal mission to do good in the world. After a disastrous television appearance by Caitlin, Webmind enlists the assistance of Hobo when giving a speech before the United Nations. (One of my favorite lines of the trilogy is actually signed by Hobo, who refers to all the alphas in government as chest thumpers.) Webmind also decides to look for the hacker responsible for his birth. He finds that Wong Wei-leng is partially paralyzed and in Chinese police custody. Webmind enlists Dr. Kuroda to try to help heal the hacker. Ultimately, Wong Wei-leng is made to work for the Chinese government. When the firewall is again put up, there are some unexpected and tragic results. Throughout the story Webmind and the people he touches continue to grow.

This has been an enjoyable trilogy for me for a number of reasons. The plot was interesting, and I could relate to the characters. I could even sympathize with Colonel Hume. Oh, and who couldn’t love Hobo? Sawyer’s philosophical discussions are continuing to make me think. I wish more people in the world were discussing the topics —including non-zero-sum and reciprocal altruism—that were brought up in the book. I enjoy Sawyer’s optimism about the future and about technology.

Monday, August 22, 2011

WWW: Watch (Book)

Consciousness. Watch. Game Theory.  Non-zero-sum.  Beyond Selfish Genes. Turning the Other Check.  Choice. Big Brother. 

WWW: Watch, the second book in Robert J, Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy, continues where WWW: Wake left off. WATCH refers to Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters, a government agency responsible for keeping the United States safe from on-line threats. Caitlin, the teenager who gained sight in WWW: Wake, refers to not allowing anything happen to Webmind, the name the emerging entity on the internet gives itself, on her watch. Certainly, Hobo, the sign language using chimpanzee Bonobo hybrid, is being watched. Yet, WWW: Watch is also a book about making choices. Both Webmind and Hobo have to choose which paths they will take in the world.

Briefly, at the beginning of WWW: Watch, Caitlin chooses to tell her parents about Webmind. The three humans help play a role in the path of Webmind’s evolution. After Webmind passively watches a teenager commit suicide on-line, Barb, Caitlin’s mother, begins to teach Webmind about being a force for good in the world. Barb draws from the Game Theory of Economics, as well as from Religion. The humans also help Webmind access more information about the world by giving him the capacity to access various types of files as well as to hear actual sounds in Caitlin’s world. In the meantime, Caitlin is still struggling with having sight for the first time and dealing with boys. WATCH not only finds out about Webmind but also makes its first attempt to neutralize him. On another front, Hobo is beginning to exhibit the aggressive behavior associated with chimpanzees. His friends try to give him additional options for how he can choose to relate to the world.

WWW: Wake is not one of the most exciting books I have ever read; the plotline is a bit flat. — I am half way through reading WWW: Wonder, which is more dynamic —Yet, Wake is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. Sawyer talks about the differences between human (animal) evolution and Webmind’s evolution, especially when it comes to selfishness. Sawyer invokes both game theory and the Bible to discuss the usefulness of altruism and cooperation. He discusses difficult topics like on-line suicides and Asperger Syndrome. I have evolved while I have been reading and thinking about the books in the WWW Trilogy.

A Footnote: Yesterday, too tired to write up my reaction to WWW: Watch after staying up late to see who won the Hugo for best novel, I watched an interesting interview with Robert J. Sawyer in which he talked about the WWW Series. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

WWW: Wake (Book)

Consciousness. Expanding Awareness. An Epidemic. Eyepod. WebSight. Phantom. Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. Cellular AutomataZipf's law. Asperger Syndrome. Bicameralism

WWW: Wake, nominated for the 2010 Hugo and Campbell Awards, is a story about expanding consciousness. Robert J. Sawyer’s novel describes the cognitive awakening of a fifteen-year-old girl, a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid, and a cyber-intelligence. This is the type of science fiction I love. Sawyer fills the novel with science and technology. At the same time, he creates characters that I can care about.

Briefly, the main storyline is about Caitlin, a teenager who has been blind since birth because of a disorder involving the way her retinas and brain communicate. After a doctor performs an experimental procedure to attempt to restore her sight, the first thing she sees is the World Wide Web (nodes, routing, etc.)—she has been using the web since she was eighteen-months-old. Eventually, she also gains physical sight. Sawyer shows how she gradually adjusts. One of the unexpected effects is that she realizes her dad, a respected physicist, has Asperger Syndrome. She retains her WebSight and comes to see a phantom in the web. The second plotline is about the expanding awareness of this phantom. To control public reaction, a major country temporarily creates a firewall isolating it from the rest of the world. The phantom becomes aware that part of him is cut off from another part of him. This awakens his consciousness. The third storyline is about Hobo, a research chimp who uses sign language and occasionally paints. After the researchers put him on a web conference with another sign using chimp, something in Hobo’s thinking process changes. He begins to understand the concept of representing the three dimensional world in two dimensions. To add to this idea of awakening consciousness, Sawyer weaves in the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller and the ideas in Julian Jaynes’s book Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I was drawn into the story and don’t want to leave, even after I have finished the book. Fortunately WWW: Wake is the first book in the WWW Trilogy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

All the Lives He Led (Book)

Terrorism. Indenture. Pompeii. Volcanoes. Disease. Obsession. Zeppelins. A Data Coil. Sex. Inhumanity. 

Frederick Pohl’s All the Lives He Led, released this spring, is a science fiction novel set in the relatively near future, 2079. After a super-volcano exploded in 2062, what is left of the United States is a poor nation. Terrorism continues to be widespread in the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of Brad Sheridan, a small-time criminal, who becomes indentured in order to leave the poverty of his home, a refugee camp on Staten Island. In some ways, I found the book disturbing because of the way it describes how vulnerable people really are to possible future terrorism and to the aftereffects of natural disasters.

Briefly, after a number of tolerable indenture assignments, Brad finds a job working at the Pompeii Jubilee, a type of theme park that recreates the city before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Virts, realistic holograms with sound, are incorporated with the existing ruins. For much of the book, Brad has the job of wine merchant. He also has some small moneymaking schemes on the side. While the Jubilee employs a number of different types of workers, the indentured employees are looked down upon. Brad slowly makes friendly acquaintances—in most of the cases, friends would be too strong of a word. One is a professional, Maury, who is in charge of the city’s water supply. Another is a woman, Gerda, with whom Brad becomes obsessed. She keeps on disappearing for periods of times for various reasons. About a third of the way through the book, some young girls who had attended the Jubilee come down with necrotizing fasciitis, which becomes dubbed Pompeii Flu because it may—or may not—have originated with the Pompeii Jubilee. The disease spreads to other cities. As the story unfolds, Brad seems to have regular contact with various security personnel. First, he is questioned because an uncle by marriage has terrorist ties. Along with doing their assigned jobs, each employee must attend a weekly terrorism prevention seminar. At one point, Brad witnesses some security personnel kill a potential terrorist. Later on, he is in and out of custody because of his “friends”.

I think I had expected more flying magma and fewer scary people when I originally picked up the book, which may have led to my initial disappointment. While for the most part I found All the Lives He Led a compelling story, at times I found it inconsistent. As I have read in some other reviews and noticed myself, Brad is supposed to be a streetwise hustler, so it seems odd that he does not see the suspicious activity going on around him. The flow of the book feels odd to me, which might be a matter of the change of plot content. The descriptions of the Pompeii Jubilee feel well fleshed out and realistic to me. In some of the sections near the end of the book, which are pivotal in understanding the climax, there is less description and the book feels less real to me. Intellectually, I understand how the story builds, but something feels missing to me in the section. Yes, I would recommend the book, but it falls somewhere in the middle of my list.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Something Rotten (Book)

Hamlet. Toast. Denmark. Eradicated Husbands. Croquet. Prophesies. Neanderthals. The Windowmaker. 

Something Rotten, the fourth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, is immensely enjoyable, funny and clever. The style is more like the first two books in the series: not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Well of Lost Plots and containing more political and social satire. Something Rotten continues the storylines begun in the earlier books, wrapping up most of the loose ends by the end of the book. It includes most of my favorite characters, including Spike and Thursday’s dad. While it technically concludes the series, Fforde has since added two encore books.

Briefly, after more than two years as the Bellman of Jurisfiction, Thursday decides that it is time to leave the bookworld and return to the real world—real being Fforde’s alternative history, fantasy world—with her two-year-old son Friday, who only speaks in Loren Ipsum. Back home, Thursday must deal with the problems that she left behind. Her husband is still eradicated, and Goliath Corporation is still trying to dominate the world. In addition, Yorrick Kaine, a fictional character who has escaped to the real world, has proclaimed himself chancellor and is trying to get himself elected dictator. Part of his strategy is to blame Denmark for everything that is wrong in the country. In addition, an obscure 13th century saint, St. Zvlkx, has made a pronouncement that if the Swindon Mallets win the Superhoop, a croquet championship, Goliath and Kaine will be defeated. Oh, and someone is trying to kill Thursday.

The Thursday series is like typeset chocolate to me; I don’t want it to end. Besides all the wonderful things I have said about it in my earlier blogs, it is also very reader friendly. Fforde gives enough backstory information so that a reader can easily continue reading the series after a long absence. He even does that within individual books, where he sprinkles in mini-summaries. I want to keep the last two books until I seriously need another silliness break.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hard Magic (Book)

Magic. Powers. Japanese Imperium. Dirigibles. Kanji. Grimnoir Knights. Peace Ray. Demons. Zombies. Tesla Device.

Fans of superhero stories may have a new book series to follow. Harry Correia’s recently released Hard Magic, the first book in the Grimnoir Chronicles, is alternate history and superhero fantasy, with just a touch of science fiction added. In this Prohibition era story, WWI was ended by the United States shooting a Peace Ray at Germany; Dirigibles are common; the Japanese Imperium is the new world threat; and a growing group of people, Actives, have magical abilities. These abilities fall into categories called “powers.” A secret society, the Grimnoir Knights, vow to use their powers to overcome evil and to protect the weak. The story is action packed and, for me, has the fun of superhero stories like Iron Man.

Briefly, the book chronicles the story of two actives. Jake Sullivan is a heavy, someone who can control gravity, who was sent to prison after he accidentally killed a police officer using his ability. As part of his probation conditions, Jake must take special assignments given to him by J. Edgar Hoover. After one of these assignments, Jake is recruited by the Grimnoirs. Jake is a patriotic, wants-to-do-right, type of a character. Unbeknownst to him, his brother is a member of the Japanese Imperium’s Iron Guard. Faye is a young traveler, someone who can move instantly from one place to another. Her family of origin abuses her because she is different, and they sell her to a farmer. This kindly man is also a traveler and teaches her how to use her abilities. When he is murdered, she vows to get revenge. Her adopted grandpa was once a member of the Grimnoir Knights and was safeguarding a piece of the Tesla Device, a device that can destroy a third of the United States with a single shot. Faye meets up with the Grimnoirs while she is carrying out her adopted grandpa’s dying wishes. Faye is a na├»ve but talented Active, who reminds me a bit of Elly May from the Beverly Hillbillies. Jake, Faye, assorted Grimnoir Knights and friends, try to stop the Japanese Imperium from using the Tesla device.

I am adding the Grimnoir Chronicles to my list of guilty pleasures, along with some of the silly detective series I follow. Hard Magic does not have a deep message or an impressive literary style. It does have a well thought out magic taxonomy and an interesting context for the magic. I will be looking for Dark Ocean this coming November.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Passage (Book)

Near Death Experiences. Disasters. The Titanic. Mazes and Mirrors. Metaphors. Messages. Confabulation. Identification.

Passage is another Connie Willis novel that needs to be read by the heart as well as by the head. The winner of the 2002 Locus Science Fiction Award as well as a nominee for four other major awards, Passage is a science fiction novel that deals with near death experiences. It is also a novel about the vulnerability of human beings to the “disasters of life”: disease, accident, old-age, violence, and the loss of a loved one.

Briefly, Dr. Joanne Lander studies near death experiences through interviews. She is approached by Dr. Richard Wright, who has found a way to simulate near death experiences through the use of a drug, to collaborate on a study. When they run into some problems finding appropriate subjects for the study, Joanne offers to go under using the drug. Her simulated NDE convinces her that NDEs have some purpose, and she becomes obsessed finding out what that is. Richard looks at NDEs only in terms of the neurology and biochemistry. Their combined preoccupations lead to tragedy as well as triumph. The story includes interesting secondary characters, including Lander’s best friend who works in a dangerous ER, a precocious girl with a heart condition and a love of disasters, Joanne’s old high school teacher who has Alzheimer’s and his niece/caretaker.

I admit that I sometimes find myself becoming impatient with Willis’s books: “Can we just get to the point?” She seems to be repeating very similar scenes over and over again. In the case of Passage, the characters come very close to finding out an answer and then something thwarts them at the last minute. In some ways this plot style is similar to watercolor painting in which layers of paint are put down in order to achieve an effect. Willis uses repetition to help create emotion. This may help explain why reading her books is so cathartic for me. I had a couple of good sobs while reading Passage. Since finishing the book last night, I have found some of the scenes replaying in my head. Willis is one of my favorite authors.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Embassytown (Book)

There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a long time.

Ambassadors. Similes. Lying. Language. Doppels. Change. Addiction. Thatness. War. Metaphors. Revelation.

“Fresh” is the best way I can describe China Mieville’s recently released novel, Embassytown. This is a science fiction novel that explores language, thinking, and sociology. The opening—about the main character as a little girl—drew me in. Unlike Perdido Street Station, which felt dark and heavy to me, this novel feels more open with a light breeze coming through it. The plot dominates the novel, keeping it moving forward; there isn’t a lot of intricate character development and backstory like Perdido. Be aware that the book does have some chapters out of chronological order in the beginning.

Briefly—more or less—Avice grew up in Embassytown, a Bremen colony that is environmentally sustained by the indigenous people, who are referred to as Hosts. (Think party, not parasites.) The Hosts have a unique language. Part of the uniqueness is that speech contains two simultaneous sounds; the Hosts have two mouths for speaking. Only a few humans, Ambassadors, can speak the language. This requires that the Ambassadors be created as doppels, identical people, who speak at the same time. Another unique quality to the language is that the Hosts need to physically create a simile before they can begin to adopt it into their language. As a child Avice is asked by the Hosts to create the simile of the girl who in pain ate. (See above.) Unlike many of her peers, Avice leaves Embassytown and becomes an immerser, a type of space traveler.

Avice marries a man who is studying linguistics and wants to see Avice’s home. To please him, she agrees to return. Becomes she was responsible for a major simile, she has some celebrity status with the Hosts—while she can understand some of their speech, she can’t actually talk directly with them. Another idiosyncrasy of the Hosts is that they can’t really lie. Periodically a Festival of Lies is held where the Hosts try to lie. One that can actually succeed is a fan of Avice’s. After Avice’s return to Embassytown, Bremen sends an ambassador, EzRa, who is not a doppel but rather two, non-identical people. When he (they) speaks at a party, the Hosts react strangely. We learn that they have become addicted to the sound of EzRa’s voice. Initially, this creates a crisis because the addicted Hosts are no longer able to adequately perform the functions that help sustain the Embassytown environment. Later, this creates a bigger crisis when a large faction of Hosts mutilate themselves, so they can no longer hear and thus be susceptible to the addiction, and then go to war against the humans of Embassytown.

I am beginning to feel more like a learner than a reader when I read a China Mieville novel. I want to absorb everything I can. I know that for the next few days I will be thinking about language and revelation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Perdido Street Station (Book)

Wings. Choices. Punishment. Betrayal. Outcasts. Sentience. Crisis. Nightmares.

Amazed. I was amazed by China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which won the 2001 Clarke and British Fantasy Society awards and was nominated for five other major Science Fiction/Fantasy awards. The novel can be categorized as a dark fantasy with some science fiction and horror elements. Mieville creates an unusual setting, with strange races—many of them animal/human hybrids—and makes it all seem perfectly plausible. What I found most astonishing is how Mieville describes the thoughts of the characters, how he gets into their psyches. This is a long book, which continues to reveal something new about the setting and characters until the end.

Briefly, Isaac is a scientist who is a bit of an academic outsider and is interested in many types of science. Lin, his girlfriend, a human/insect hybrid called a "khepri", is an artist. Near the beginning of the story she begins a project for a mysterious patron. One day Yagharek, a human/bird hybrid called a “garuda”, asks for Isaac's help. Yagharek’s wings have been cut off, and he wants Isaac to help him fly again. Isaac soon becomes obsessed with wings, collecting huge numbers of specimens. One of these specimens, a grub, is stolen from a research lab, unbeknownst to Isaac. After it comes out of its cocoon, it escapes to find its siblings. The five of them go on to terrorize the people of New Crobuzon. Isaac and his allies attempt to stop the creatures.

I put down Perdido Street Station after 150 pages, read a Jasper Fforde book, and then went on to finish Perdido Street Station. The novel is unsettling. I was not sure where it was going, and some of the images were disturbing. This actually might be considered a good thing, because it speaks to the originality of the story. Perdido Street Station is the first novel in the New Crobuzon Trilogy. Part of me is drawn to Mieville’s skillful writing, and part of me just doesn’t like dark fantasy. We will see if and when I read the other books.