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Fri, 31 Dec 2010

December 2010 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In December 2010 I read the following books:

1. Incandescence, by Greg Egan

This is a book in at least two parts, maybe three, all of which work well on their own, but never really gel together.

The first two parts, the two fictional ones, concern two parallel journeys. The first, and the most accessible, is by a post-human from a decadent galaxy-spanning multi-species civilisation of the far future. While he is on a journey and quest for knowledge he is ultimately rather a shallow creature - both shallow as a person but also rather shallowly drawn by the author. This is unfortunate, because I get the impression that a lot of readers will be completely lost by the second (and third) parts, find this one accessible but unfulfilling, and so rate both the book and its author poorly. I can't really blame them for this, but they are most definitely wrong.

The second is by a thoroughly alien scientist from a much more primitive culture - one that is pre-technological even. She is something of a Leonardo, who, along with those colleagues that she recruits to the cause of Science!, discover Newtonian mechanics, calculus and even general relativity. Given the circumstances in which Egan has placed her race, I find this to be only a little far-fetched. This second journey is by far the more interesting, at least for someone with the requisite educational background. Unfortunately if you lack that background then it will be impenetrable and dull. It requires a thorough grounding in Newton's theories of motion and gravitation, and at least some in general relativity. Good luck finding that in yer average reader, Mr. Author! Good luck even finding the latter in yer average sci-fi reader!

The third part that I identified is entirely contained within the second, but as well as being fine (if technically demanding) fiction, it would, with only a little editorial tweaking (mostly the translating of the names of the directions from cutesy sci-fi alien lingo and chopping out some text about our aliens' society that serves to make them into people) make an excellent tutorial for A-level physics students.

I recommend this book, but with the caveat that I only recommend it for those who understand general relativity.

2. The Space Eater, by David Langford

Almost all of Langford's ouevre is parody, but this is a straight science fiction novel. It tries really hard to have everything that good sci-fi should have: an interesting and different world (yup) that is self-consistent (got that too) and believable characters. Oh dear, the characters just didn't work for me. The gung-ho soldier and his sidekick's particular character-building idiosyncrasies were taken just a little bit too far for me. The "bad guys" are I'm afraid rather flat where the good guys stand too far out of their relief, and dialogue when we get it just doesn't flow. Good story, not put together very well.

3. Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer

The premise of this story - a blind girl gets a Device to make her see, and ends up being able to see the structure of the world wide web - was a real turn-off for me. It's ludicrous, is one of the worst-explained parts of the story, and given my profession it's a great big flashing warning that we have here an author who's going to write wrongly about something I am an expert in. However, I already know from several of his previous works that Sawyer writes good stories, so I decided to risk it and buy the book second-hand for a pittance.

I'm glad that I did. Thankfully, while he does get the technology wrong on so many levels, the story is indeed a good one, and we also have believable characters and sound dialogue. That papers over the technological cracks that would otherwise have spoilt it for me. There is another weakness though - the ending leaves far too much dangling. Of course, there's a sequel, so no doubt things will get tidied up there, but I so much prefer series where each individual episode at least tries to work on its own.

Recommended, apart from to sad sacks who insist on rigourous hyper-correctness in their fiction.

4. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

This is a fabulous book. While it's a fantasy, set in a Venice-a-like mediaeval city but with added "alchemy" serving for basic science, a very small amount of very powerful magic, and a Mysterious Elder Race, it is consistent and believable. In this it is helped by there being lots of squalor, filth and fear - mediaeval life was thoroughly squalid and life was awful for almost everyone. The one place where the scene-setting falls down is a very minor one that most people won't notice, that a city of 88,000 can support 3,000 full-time professional criminals. While 3.5% of the population being criminals is believable, having them at it full time is not. But never mind, it's a tiny point, and it is necessary for the drama. This is fiction, not economics, so I'll let it be.

Most of the city's background is filled in in flashbacks, a device that can be intensely irritating, but in this case it works well, because most of the flashbacks are strictly relevant to the part of the main line of the story that immediately precedes them, and they are well-told little stories in themselves. I'd not be surprised if some of them had earlier been published as stand-alone short stories. Almost all of the main characters' development as people happens in these flashbacks too, and they really are people.

The main story has two strands, starting with the eponymous hero plotting and carrying out an outrageous advance fee fraud. Over time, another strand comes in, of the city's capo di capi having a rival, of the tussle between them, and Lamora's involvement in their fight. Both are portrayed realistically and are skilfully woven together to meet at the climax. And while this is the first in a series of planned books, it stands up very well on its own.

I very strongly recommend this book. It is a masterpiece of construction and story-telling, of balance between light and dark and between humour and deadly-seriousness. And most importantly, it's great fun.

5. The Nagasaki Vector, by L. Neil Smith

Smith is a Libertarian kook who wants to abolish taxes and therefore abolish government and condemn people to living in a brutal anarchy ruled by the whims of warlords like in Somalia. Of course, he doesn't think that's what the end result will be, he thinks that the end of government will lead to a flowering of human creativity, vast wealth for all, and that this happy state of affairs will be self-perpetuating instead of falling over with a crash just as soon as some nasty piece of work acquires more resources and hence more power than his fellows. He's written novels about it. One of them, The Probability Broach (which I haven't read) is also available in a comic book version, which I have read and enjoyed. On the strength of that, I bought some other of Smith's works, including this one.

In many ways this story is similar to that of The Probability Broach: someone accidentally travels between universes, leaving behind an authoritarian parody and ending up in Smith's Libertopia; once there, there is a mystery to solve; most of the citizens of Libertopia are friendly, generous, and excellent shots; some however are the sort of parody of Smith's enemies that Goebbels would have been proud of - and are just as ridiculous and unbelievable to their modern targets.

The book is slim, only 240-odd small pages, like the classic pulp-era sci-fi novels. The story is paper-thin, the politicking obvious and silly, the occasional philosophy trite, the jokes corny, the dialogue and character-building poor. As a piece of mindless entertainment it's still not too bad, but I only give it two stars, because the circumstances of the alternate reality and the backgrounds of some characters are not given the space they need to be adequately developed if you were to read this as it seems to have been intended, as a stand-alone story. If you've already read The Probability Broach, then give it another gold star.

6. Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer

This sequel to Wake starts at pretty much the exact moment that the previous book leaves off. It has mostly the same virtues and failures, and I draw the same conclusions.

7. Rubicon, by Tom Holland

This very good "narrative history" tells the story of the last hundred years or so of the Roman Republic, from the rabble-rousing of the Gracchi in the 120s BC to the return of Octavian from the East after crushing Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 29 BC, at which point the Republic, while still existing in name, had been effectively destroyed and replaced with Augustus's new empire. In just under 400 pages it covers all the major convulsions that shook the Republic in that time, and paints a clear picture of the ultimate causes of its fall - vanity, decadence, pride, ambition, and greed: the vanity of those who couldn't stand to be anything other than the centre of attention and so made corruption and bribery, which were already bubbling along at a low level in Roman elections and justice, acceptable, or if not acceptable then at least expected, to a much higher degree; the decadence of vast slave-worked estates supporting a tiny aristocracy in splendour while depriving hard-working commoners and retired soldiers of the opportunity to work their own land, thus driving them to the cities and ultimately to The City where their favour could be bought and sold by powerful mob leaders; the pride of powerful men who bore grudges unto the death, making politics ever more factional as family feuds took precedence over good governance, and who looked down on honest toil and commerce; the unchecked ambition that rose from that vanity and pride; and the greed that it fuelled and that was required so that the lavish bribes needed to win elections could be paid.

It has clearly been thoroughly researched, with a substantial number of quotations from and references to contemporary or near-contemporary authors, although I make my usual complaint that these would be better provided as footnotes at the bottom of the page in which they appear, rather than directing the reader to a ghetto of references at the back of the book. This weakness is made more obvious by those few places where there are footnotes - there's not many of them, but they generally serve to point out either an authorial opinion acknowledged to be not fully supported by classical sources or where, in one particular case, the author makes it clear where he's making stuff up to fill in a trivial gap in the sources. It is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of being so thorough that it can sometimes be hard to keep track of which magistrates and senators hated each other and who was plotting and scheming and back-stabbing and double-crossing whom. There are so many of them, some of them household names to us but many not, and the alliances shift so often, that you almost feel that you need a diagram. I leave implementing such a complex diagram in print to others :-) but animation would be the ideal tool for this job. I do hope that the electronic edition has just such a beastie embedded in it!

By concentrating on politics to the exclusion of just about everything else - whenever any other aspects of peoples' lives are touched upon, it's always in the context of their political aims and positions - there is a danger that the reader will get a dangerously one-sided view of some of the players. Cicero in particular falls victim to this. His political vaccilation and flip-flopping makes him seem weak. I suppose that if you were to only consider his political life (which Cicero himself would probably have thought to be the most important part of his career) then this is true. However, in other matters he truly was a great man. His philosophical works, in particular On The Nature Of The Gods, are important, playing a significant role in the Enlightenment of the 18th century - Voltaire was a particular fan. However, I can't fairly fault a book about the fall of a form of government for concentrating on politics!

One final niggle is that so much of the story relies on peoples' shifting and conflicting emotions and loyalties, yet in the introduction the author tells us of the grave difficulty in accurately pinning those down and rendering them in English. In particular he talks about the difficulty in translating honestas - it means both "moral excellence" and "reputation", and that confusion, perhaps, is an excellent summary of why the Republic crumbled.

I strongly recommend reading this book. It's not only good for those with an interest in the classics per se, but like so many of the best writings of antiquity will be useful for any student of our own society, literature and history, which is very much built on Greek and Roman foundations.

8. Toast, by Charles Stross

This collection of short stories has been available for some years now, being originally published in 2002, and containing stories written between the late 80s and 2000. This limited edition is supposedly the last one there will be, but it is still available in a mass-market paperback edition and online, although the online edition doesn't include one of the best stories, "A Boy And His God". The limited edition is worth buying though, simply because it's a far higher quality physical artifact.

As you would expect of a book containing some of the author's very earliest work, the quality is patchy. Some of the stories have dated badly, and others are poorly plotted or poorly written. However, there are four really good stories here that are well worth reading and which between them make the book worth buying.

The best two are "A Colder War" and "A Boy And His God", both of which use H.P.Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and use it far better than Lovecraft himself ever did. "A Boy And His God" is particularly interesting, as it twists the mythos to be funny and even cute. Both are well-observed and eminently enjoyable. Also worth mentioning are "Big Brother Iron", which brings Orwell's "1984" up to date by exploring what might happen when Big Brother computerises his records, and "Lobsters", which was later turned into the first section of Accelerando.

All of the other stories have fairly serious flaws, but are at least worth reading as most of them do at least contain interesting ideas.

Posted at 18:05 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
Permalink | 1 Comment

Locke Lamora is, indeed, brilliant, and the sequel is no disappointment.

Posted by Dr Rick on Fri, 25 Feb 2011 at 14:52:40


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