Saturday, December 29, 2007

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

It’s been a please to pick this book up after reading so much pulp fiction recently. I think of that as something I had to get out of my system. After finishing Stormed Fortess, a book I felt I endured rather than read, it was good to read other shorter books that at least got things finished in quick order.

On to Quicksilver. If I were inclined to use the phrase tour de force, I would use it to describe Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle. It is an incredible series, and my mind recoils from how much research must have gone into this book, never mind the actual writing.

The first book of the series is set from 1635-1690, more or less, along with a couple of chapters from 1713 thrown in.

From the first page, describing the hanging of a witch in Boston, I was hooked. The almost immediate sense of place Stephenson creates is incredible. Whether it’s Boston, Versailles, Amsterdam, or the countryside of France and Germany, it is done expertly.

There are three characters that we see the story through. Daniel, the natural philosopher. Jack the vagabond adventurer, and Eliza, the financial genius.

Quicksilver tracks the beginnings of what we would call modern science. Various educated men perform experiments, and make observations, to test both their own hypotheses and to explore the world around them. To our twenty-first century eyes their results and methods are rudimentary yet fascinating.

In the seventeenth century alchemy is still widely practised and followed, and many of the new natural philosophers devote a lot of their time explaining why their methods are superior to those of the alchemists, who time is passing. Yet the natural philosophers themselves often speak in the language and preconceptions of alchemy themselves. Their struggle against the weight of centuries of ignorance is palpable.

It’s not all books, charts and a universal theory of gravitation though. Quicksilver also brings the adventures of the rogue vagabond Jack to life. Jack, ridden with syphilis, wanders the continent of Europe and generally being quick-witted, good natured, and occasionally stark mad.

Jack meets up with Eliza, a former harem girl with a sharp mind for money at the siege of Vienna. Through Eliza we see that just as the natural philosophers are setting up a scientific system, so is a financial system we would recognise also being established, mainly through Amsterdam.

At close to 1000 pages in my edition, this is a book you can wind through at a leisurely pace, a book to savour. There are two more to follow in the series. Naturally I’ve lent the second book out and won’t be seeing it again before February. I’ll get there. In the meantime, I could not give Quicksilver a higher recommendation.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon

The sixth Horus Heresy novels fails to do what the others all managed. The overall story does not move here, at all. The novel is entirely set in the ‘past’ as far as other events in the series. In truth this does not read like the sixth book in a series, but as the first book in a linked pair.

Descent of Angels is poorly named. Readers hoping for a novel focusing on the Dark Angels rather than the larger events of the Heresy will be disappointed. Descent of Angels is mainly concerned with ‘the order’ a group of knights who eventually become the Dark Angels.

The knights wear armour that is not quite power armour, and fight with pistols and grenades, yet are overly concerned with quests and the slaying of beasts. As backstory it would be interesting, but as two-thirds of the novel it is really quite boring. It fails as backstory as the order is not sufficiently detailed to seem like a real body, rather than a group of warriors waiting to be turned into space marines. This makes reading two-thirds of the novel a waste of time.

When the order finally merge with real space marines to become the Dark Angels, there is no real change to the tempo. After a brief meeting with another chapter, the White Scars, they settle down to police a recalcitrant world. After putting down a rebellion, the Dark Angels immediately leave with no logic or explanation to their actions. Also without explanation their grand master turned Primarch divides the legion in two, with half the legion retuning back to their homeworld. There is no ‘descent’ in the novel at all.

That is the end of the novel. The schism that will eventually split the Dark Angels is not depicted, unless a brief moment of jealously on the part of Luther was supposed to count. On finishing this novel, the reader is left with a sense of “..what?” The book achieves nothing, and can be easily skipped by anyone interested in following the series, or by anyone interested in reading about the Dark Angels. Presumably Mitchel Scanlon will write a second Heresy book that will satisfy both.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Storm of Iron by Graham McNeill

Storm of Iron is not the best Black Library book. That honour has to go to Gordon Rennie’s Execution Hour. Storm of Iron is probably the next best though.

It’s about a siege on a fairly inhospitable planet, with the traitor space marines of the Iron Warriors legion attempting to take a fortress from the Imperial Guard.

The siege itself is fairly methodical and takes places as a series of short battles, which could all be represented using the tabletop game of Warhammer 40,000. This actually helps the book along, since frankly, if you’re not already familiar with the game and setting, you’re not reading Storm of Iron.

As armoured superhumans, the Iron Warriors are having a fairly easy time of taking the fortress piece by piece, but they are on a tight timetable, and none of the Iron Warriors captains know why. The rivalry between the three captains in entertaining. Honsou, the main point of view character for the Iron Warriors, is someone the reader can identify with, as he struggles to gain recognition in spite of his low status in the legion.

On the good side, various Imperial Guard officers step to the fore and are cut down one by one by the Iron Warriors. Imperial Guardsman Hawke, the lucky, isolated survivor of the initial attack, provides some light relief as he lugs himself around the hills that surround the fortress, becoming an improbable hero in the process.

I read this in one night, the story takes you from one point to another is a seamless fashion which is all to the good. This is pure pulp fiction, but as long as your are prepared to enjoy it for what it is, you’ll be fine.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

A cautionary tale about nanotechnology? Not really, the Diamond Age is more a case of showing what ubiquitous nanotechnology might be like. Nanotechnology is not the point of this novel, it’s a coming of age book wrapped in Stephenson’s excellent writing style and ability to create places that resonate and fascinate in equal measure.

Nanotechnology is part background, part driver in The Diamond Age. The Neo-Victorians and other groups, for example, have found a new use for the waiting room – as an antechamber to scan visitors for hostile nanobots. In the less prosperous areas of town, people can be afflicted by sudden clouds of toner – the corpses of millions of nanobots created during a war no one can see or understand.

The Feed supplies the basic needs of citizenry, machines that compile useful objects, food, household items, basic medicine, by simply assembling them, atom by atom. None of this is the story, just the background.

The story itself centres on a girl called Nell, who comes into ownership of a book called The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This book, powered by nanotechnology, is one social group’s answer to the problem of how to educate their children. The book is an attempt to provide an education that enhances the ability to think, reason, and come up with new ideas, without creating rebellion for its own sake.

The Primer becomes the target of other factions, once it becomes known, and Nell finds herself with an unlikely benefactor.

The end of this book is, to use an expression of Sir Humphrey’s – courageous. It’s as though Neal Stephenson simply reaches a point where his role as author is concluded, and stops there. Many readers have felt left hanging by the ending, or simply confused. If you like sure and certain endings, prepare for disappointment, but read anyway.

This is not the first time I’ve read the Diamond Age, but it’s the first time I’ve read it as a parent. This time around, what was more fascinating was the evolution of storytelling that follows Nell as she grows up with the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. If such a book were available today, I’m sure I would buy one for my daughter.

Stormed Fortress by Janny Wurts

You have to keep an eye on Janny Wurts. Just when you think you can’t take one more page of her tedious, overblown dialogue, she hits you with twenty pages worth of action crammed into a few paragraphs.

For the most part, reading this book was a chore. It was something I felt I had to do, rather than something I really wanted to do. After fifty pages worth of Janny’s purplest prose, I wanted to do something –anything- else. Even housework. But I swallowed the bile and continued on.

A dragon destroys a city. There. Blink and you’ll miss it though, coming as it does after several hundred pages of the principal character Arithon saying that he’s not going anywhere near the siege, no he’s not, he won’t be drawn into it. Then he travels within sight of said siege, still denying he wants any part of it. Next he’s inside the walls, still saying the same thing. I was quite bored by this time. So very, very bored. Even envisioning the two armies of the siege yelling “get on with it!” at the author, in the style of Monty Python, was not enough to keep me interested.

Then the dragon destroys the city. Oh, and did you know it was the dragons that brought the Fellowship sorcerers to the planet in the first place? That’s quite the revelation, and in fact it’s one of the more interesting parts of the book. All two pages of it.

I had entertained hopes that Stormed Fortress would be the last of this series. Eight books in and frankly not a lot has happened. Arithon runs away. Lysaer chases him. There’s a fight, and lots of Lysaer’s soldiers die. Lysaer vows revenge. Arithon runs away. Lysaer chases him. And so on.

At the end of this book a child is born, whose job it will be to watch over Arithon in the next generation. She can do it without me.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fulgrim by Graham McNeill

Okay, now my guilty secret is revealed. It’s not all The Art of War and The Diamond Age with me. I read terrible pulp fiction too, sometimes. This is my weakness, the Black Library books. Only their sci-fi, which I find suitable enough, the fantasy tends to be awful. I mean unreadably so.

Fulgrim is the fifth book in an opened ended series about a rebellion that occurred ten thousand years before the game’s current setting. Basically what happened was that just as the galaxy was about to be conquered by these twenty legions of super warriors, half the super warriors rebelled and turned on the other half, and anyone else they could find.

Long story short, the rebellion is defeated and the traitors sent into an unstable region of space called the Eye of Terror, where they still live today (that’s today in the game, ten thousand years later) emerging periodically for raids that can represented in a tabletop battle game.

Stirring stuff. Which is why the Black Library has decided to make a series on this event, called the Horus Heresy, after years of saying they never would.

It’s hard to talk about Fulgrim without mentioning something about the previous four books. The Warmaster of the crusade, Horus has turned traitor along with a bunch of the other Primarchs. The twenty Primarchs each lead one of the twenty legions of super warriors, and are pretty supper themselves. By the end of the fourth book, four of the traitor legions have purged their ranks of any loyalists and are ready to strike. A few survivors of this massacre have made their way to earth to carry a warning, but become lost in a bureaucratic maze. You know what that’s like.

Fulgrim is entirely about one of the Primarchs – Fulgrim, hence the title. The story begins before the events we have experienced so far, but thankfully ends after them. The story of Fulgrim’s fall from grace into heresy is interesting, yet unfulfilling. If Fulgrim must essentially be tricked into turning traitor, what of the other Primarchs? So far, they seem willing enough.

That is the main problem with this series, the authors are so concerned with ‘filling in the gaps’ in the story, that they forget to move the story forward. So it is with Fulgrim. Luckily the last few pages of the book detail the infamous drop-pod massacre that starts the rebellion off properly. Let’s hope the next couple of books launch the story forward. The last thing we need is another dozen books, all variants of the Fulgrim story, but starring one after another of the Primarchs.

See? It’s not like these books are even particularly good, but they’ve managed to make me care about the story and their approach to it. I’m hooked, but I’m not happy about it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

I am loving Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. The easiest way to describe these books is ‘Hornblower with dragons’. I hope that’s enough.

Captain Lawrence and his dragon have returned to England after witnessing first hand what Napoleon can achieve with armies of disciplined dragons at his call. England’s need for dragons is great, as their own dragons have fallen ill to some mysterious disease.

It’s off to Africa for a possible cure, and Lawrence is thrown into an awkward situation with one of his old officers. The gap that has opened between him and his old naval self is never so obvious as during the voyage south.

The cure is obtained but not without arising the ire of the titular empire, one that believes its dragons are reincarnations of its ruling monarchy. As Lawrence and company leave the continent, a great empire finally rouses from its slumber to visit its wrath upon the Europeans.

This is not the climax of the book. Returned to England and with their own dragons on the mend, Britain’s admiralty contrive to send one diseased dragon back to France, to infect that country’s dragon’s and hopefully other dragons in Europe, to leave Britain as a pre-eminent power in the air.

Lawrence and Temeraire act as they must.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

‘Riotous comedy’ would not be the right set of words to describe this book. I can’t really think of the right set though. But that’s my problem, and enough about me.

If there were such a thing as a Neil Gaiman comedy continuum Anansi Boys would sit halfway between Good Omens and American Gods. I guess. What I’m trying to say here is that there are plenty of amusing moments in this book, and plenty of serious moments too.

Fat Charlie Nancy hates his life. He’s not even that fat, but his father calls him Fat Charlie and so does everyone else. When his father gives someone or something a name, that name sticks.

Charlie’s father is, unknown to him, the god Anansi. When his father dies, Fat Charlie become entangled in a lot of ‘god business’ and his life becomes very interesting indeed. Especially after his brother shows up.

I loved Anansi Boys, just as I have read and loved Neverwhere, American Gods, and Good Omens. Neil Gaiman is a writer who deftly opens windows into the souls of his characters, and makes you pay attention, makes you care about what will happen next.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton

Set 1500 years after the last book in his Commonwealth Saga, we are well into the 35th century. Humanity has completed a circumnavigation of the galaxy which has revealed a surprising feature; the heart of our galaxy contains not a super massive black hole, but an immense artificial construct called the Void.

The void powers itself through the consumption of stars. Every so often the Void enters an expansion phase, gobbling up thousands of stars at once. This is something other races in the galaxy are keen to avoid.

One quirk of the void is that humans have somehow been able to enter. This is known only through the Dreamer, who goes missing at the beginning of this novel. The Dreamer was sharing the experiences of someone living in the Void, a strange experience, as it is almost a fantasy world existence. The dreams told throughout the book are in marked contrast to everything else.

As usual with a Hamilton book, the vision of the future is perfectly believable. This is quite a feat, to take us over a millennium past the previous events. Thanks to rejuvenations and a virtual existence, some of the characters from the previous books do appear. I won’t spoil things by saying who. For now.

Humanity’s progress has not remained still since the previous book (which it could never plausibly do). The purpose of some mysterious artefacts and species encountered in Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, such as the High Angel, are now well known. Events of the war fought are in the past, but have left their mark. Planets targeted by the invasion detailed in those two books have still not recovered, but the search for the dead of over a millennium ago continues as the hope of re-life remains.

With a faction of humanity consumed with the idea of a pilgrimage to the Void, other species are concerned this will lead to a new expansion phase, and doom everyone. Things are also complicated with the appearance of a Second Dreamer, who gives a different insight into the Void.

Factions of ANA: Governance, the virtualised ruling body, compete with one another to realise their aims, either to aid or abet the planned pilgrimage, events move quickly to a deadlier phase.

Once again Peter Hamilton has given us an amazing yet believable view of a potential future. A very different yet still comprehensible human society, with characters whose flaws and virtues are all too familiar. In my somewhat hyperbolic view, Peter Hamilton is the leading science fiction author today.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s tale grows with the telling. This books features characters familiar and new, engaged on their own redemption quest.

The ‘galactic cleaners’ the sentient machines who inhibit the growth and spread of intelligence are now actively working to eliminate humanity.

Humanity’s factions react in different ways to this threat, mostly concerned with their own survival and squabbles. It is left to individuals to take action to try and cope with the first wave of Inhibitor assault.

One sequence I especially enjoyed was the spaceship chase. It sounds ridiculous, but Reynolds makes it work. With one ship able to follow the other only by the point of its engine, the race becomes one of overcoming inertia to wring more speed. The lead ship actually strips itself to create obstacles for the second, which cannot afford to veer else it will lose its quarry.

Redemption Ark continues Reynold’s intriguing look at a future humanity faced with an external threat straight from the Fermi Paradox. The nature and purpose of the Inhibitors is slowly revealed over the course of the novel, giving Reynolds the chance to explore why such a race of robots might exist at all. Who created them, and why?

The answers are interesting.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

I admit it; I’m a late arrival at the Alastair Reynolds party. But when I saw Revelation Space reissued with a shiny silver cover, I had to buy. Not that I’m obsessed with form over function or anything.

As I get older, I like my science fiction hard. Space opera, galactic fantasy, call it what you will, I’m really not interested. Base your science fiction on science, and give me characters to get interested in, and I’m happy.

In Revelation Space humanity has spread out to the stars over centuries, and has split into various factions. Journeys between planets are made instant through the use of suspended animation machines.

Alien races have been discovered, but they are stationary, and remain unknowable. The pattern jugglers are vast sentient oceans discovered across various planets.

However the main faction of humanity that makes spaceship engines has suddenly and without explanation ceased to do so.

Against this background some interesting extrasolar archaeology is taking place. On a blasted planet, and alien civilisation was wiped out in a sudden cataclysm, nine hundred thousand years ago.

The Fermi Paradox again makes its appearance. The most used explanation for why we cannot see any signs of alien activity is because we do not yet know how to look. It’s a theme Stephen Baxter explores in Space. That’s not the only answer to Fermi’s Paradox. In this case, Reynolds convincingly brings to life the offhand explanation of the killer robots.

Oh yes, killer robots. What if there is a race of killer robots, moving between the stars, extinguishing life wherever they find it? How would they go about finding life anyway? Do they want to destroy all life, or just space-faring species? How would they go about this, and how would the target species react?

Revelation Space holds a secret, and that truth could be the end of humanity.