Books: 2018-03

Winter still had a firm hold on Germany for most of March, so curling up with a book on the sofa after work still seemed like the way to go. As DjangoCon Europe draws closer (I'm one of the organisers), reading time was harder to come by, especially when some of my open source projects started to complain that they wanted some attention, too. But I had some good and some really amazing books in the mix this month, so here we go:

Empire Games

Empire Games is the first part of a fairly new series (2017) by Charles Stross that builds on the foundations of the Merchant Princess series. I really didn't enjoy the Merchant Princess series a lot, even though I tend to like Charlie's books a lot, so I was sceptical about Empire Games. Turned out I needn't have worried – Empire Games isn't the econ text book Merchant Princess tries to be, instead it takes great characters and actions and story lines and runs with it. The protagonist, Rita, is very cool, clever, and relateable without being too Mary Sue-ish (also, props for immigrant-ish history and queer protagonists!). The plot really makes me want to know how things will continue. I also continue to appreciate Charlie's realistically creepy surveillance society that ready like little more of real life right now.

Akata Witch

My first confession in this post will be my Harry Potter childhood. Harry Potter was very present in my peer group and culture when growing up – we had of course all read the books, and started watching the movies, and just grew up with Harry & Hermione overall. This makes me have a soft spot for books where kids have and learn to deal with magic, boding well for Akata Witch.

But it turns out, my soft spot doesn't really matter: Nnedi Okafor would've taken me in even if I didn't have much interest in urban fantasy or YA at all. Her story of four adolescents learning about their magic in Nigeria, coming from very different backgrounds and having very different characters, really drew me in. Their world always feels real, and messy, filled with parents who need to be tricked or circumvented, family secrets hidden behind pointed silences, schoolwork, traffic, and the occasional magic murder. Definitely a book I can see giving to my little siblings (12/14).

Tehanu

Tehanu, part four of Ursula K. le Guin's Earthsea cycle, was a weird one for me: It got published many years after the third part in the series, and in the meantime Ursula had spent some time with feminism. This benefits the book noticeably. Instead of being a horribly male story like the predecessors, we see the very same world (same time even) from the eyes of a woman we already knew. This change of perspective is fascinating, and carried off well. The protagonist is cool and relateable, too. The setting felt wonderfully familiar. At the same time, the story didn't work for me at all, its pacing was weird, its aim unclear, and if the setting hadn't been so powerful, I wouldn't have felt drawn in at all. All the same, I'm looking forward to the last two books in the series, and what other transformations this world is going to go through.

Use of Weapons

The third Culture novel by Iain Banks was very weird for me: We follow a semi-reliable Culture agent through his life (lots of flashbacks), and see all kinds of stunning missions he went on, and how the Culture shaped his life. There were passages when I was nearly bored out of my mind, and others where I was so drawn into the book that I started arguing different perspectives, laughed at its jokes, and couldn't wait to see where it would go. I thougth it'd come out as a "mixed bag, 3/5" since the pacing was so inconsistent, but then the ending had a final, absurd, daring twist, making me rethink the whole book. It's been a long time that any book did that to me, and it was wonderful.

Ethan of Athos

Ethan of Athos, part three of the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold was … Brilliant fun! It takes this mostly horrible scifi concept of an all-female planet, reverses it to an all-male planet, then take it seriously (no women turns out to mean gay relationships, among other things). We have this poor protagonist doctor, sent out into the hostile and horrfyingly feminine universe, who is scared out of his mind, and then will have to interact with all kinds of people, even women!

We even get a happy ending in some ways, and it's very aww. You don't need prior knowledge of the series for this book.

Erebos

Erebos by Ursula Poznanski is BRILLIANT! We get to see what a networked computer game with a strong AI can turn the world into once it has its hooks in some kids, and it's scary, and sufficiently plausible, and really really cool! If you've read Ready Player One: This book is nothing like it. Instead of nostalgia for old games it gives us a great view of our world as it is now, how it can work, and how digital life changes interactions. It reminded me of Daemon by Suarez, only that it's more YA centered. Great storytelling, too!

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie was wow. A lot of wow. We get a story, told by part of the AI of a space ship, on its way in a secret mission. We're introduced to many different cultures and planets, each with their own norms and idiosyncrasies. Incidentally the culture of the protagonist knows no grammatical gender, so the book is written in the generic femininum, which is cool – but even more cool is the fact that this is not the central point of the book, just a thing that fits in with the culture and the worldbuilding. The world built drew me in until the final confrontation and resoltion was mind blowing. I really really hope the next book in the series will come close to this one.

Too Like the Lightning

I thought I had reached the end of my "great scifi" run for this month, and then I had my brains completely blown by the first volume of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series. Wow. We see this world in a time where distance has nearly now meaning, so we don't have states anymore. Instead there are seven global state like organisations with different wold views and different structures (I'm never going to get over the Utopians, I think, who work with dedication and every time a Utopian is killed untimely, they investigate and work until the same kind of death won't happen again, no matter if it's installing a safety rail or investigating the cure of a disease for multiple generations). The world building is intense, and complex, and fascinating.

I'd love to just recommend this book to everyone, because it was so great and gripping, but there's a problem: It's pretentious. The protagonist-storyteller has a thing for 18th century French literature and it shows in antiquated storytelling. It's explained, and commented upon, and it makes sense, but I totally get why this would be too weird or pretentious for a reader. I for one am so looking forward to reading the resolution of this story in the second volume.

Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge gives us really cool near-future! People work with lots of Augmented Reality, and our protagonist is an old man who was incredibly lucky in that most of his ailments could be cured and he's good-as-young again, except that in his head he's still a horrible old man. I liked how information driven this book was – only in the Culture series I had the impression that an author thought nearly as much about the implications of having all information available at your fingertips. The pairing with Augmented Realities (plural, in layers) was cool! Also, this is a standalone volume, so if you're not looking to be drawn into a scifi series, this one is for you.

Quarantine

Greg Egan's storytelling in Quarantine is good (but not great) which doesn't matter because the story has so fucking many great concepts: Having a fuckton of software for your brain (commercially available), and the implications. For example, there is illegal loyalty software, rendering people loyal to some person or goal or organisation – without suppressing their knowledge of what is going on, but making them complacent with it. It's pretty interesting to think through the implications (also the implications of being able to just change your own wants and needs and even your own character). But most central and cool was the idea that humans are unique in collapsing the wave functions of possibilities, which basically implies xenocide of aliens world just by perceiving them. Wow. And the implications of learning to suppress that reflex, and having human made quantum computing in the brain. Very β™₯.

Short Stories

  • The Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales is the story of Superman as told by Lex Luthor. It's written in the tradition of Rational Fanfiction (think Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). I thought it was engaging and fun, but not terribly deep or original.
  • The Star by Arthur Clarke is a very short story (just four pages) that is basically about a Jesuit's experience with Theodicy … in space. Unsurprisingly enough, Clarke carries it off.
  • Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler is an amzing short story about a world in which communication is broken. Most people have lost their thoughts or their verbalisations or their reading skills or their listening skills or some combination. It's a disturbing and very personal apocalypse.
  • The Paper Menagerie is a short story by Ken Liu on immigration, home, belonging, and a tiny bit of magic … but mostly heartbreak.

Don't Recommend

  • Rocannon's World (part of the Heinish Cycle) by Ursula K. le Guin: I'm not quite sure why this book did not work for me. It's set on a planet with many different races with complicated origins and relations towards each other, and I didn't really get into those. The protagonists felt detached, too, and the story was all over the place in terms of pacing. The ending was good, both in storytelling and in personal satisfaction, and nearly raised the book to a 3/5 for me, but … meh.
  • The Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun/Shadow & Claw) by Gene Wolfe: Really not sure what to think. Odd pacing, odd descriptions, odd … everything? I just didn't find my way into this world and this rhythm. I guess the storytelling is a stylistic choice that makes sense within that world, but requires a dedication I don't feel motivated for (think Tolkien).