Tag Archives: science fiction

Foreigner

Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Foreigner is the first book in a series that as far as I can tell is just called “the Foreigner series”. Each book is usually described as the sequel to the one before it which makes figuring out the order somewhat time consuming if  it never occurs to you just to look it up online.

That’s something of a problem because Foreigner is less the first book in a series and more the first chapter of a huge romain fleuve, so reading them out of order is less desirable than usual.

It’s also one of my favorite books/series.

Plot summary

Foreigner tells the story of a colony ship knocked hopelessly off-course. In need of supplies and with no idea how to get home, the three major factions (officers, crew, and the colonists themselves) are unable to agree on the best course of action. Eventually, a space station is built around a habitable planet, home to a species, the atevi, that has just discovered the steam engine.

Over 100 years later, the human colonists are limited to a single island and only one human, the paidhi, is permitted to interact with the atevi. The paidhi is responsible for regulating the transfer of technology from the humans to the atevi, using years of study and immersion in the alien culture in order to avoid potential cultural destabilization. Bren Cameron is the newest paidhi and quickly finds himself the target of what appears to be an assassination plot. Bren is forced to decide who to trust in a culture that lacks even the concept of friendship as he attempts to make sense of the volatile political situation.

So how is it?

If you’d asked me that question two years ago, or even last year, I’d have said it was one of my favorite books. Now I’m les sure of that. It’s still great, and it is one of the most effective elucidations of Cherryh’s themes of cultural disconnect and the resulting challenges thereof, but it’s so long now that reading the whole thing is a major commitment.

For the average US reader, getting through this series would take years of reading nothing else. That’s a tall order, and to be sure the same is true of Aubrey-Maturin and sf readers, like romance readers, tend to read far more than the average, but still, for me, who generally reads at least 150 novels a year (more if you count comics and nonfiction) it ended up being excessive and I had to take a break. Which leads to the second pair of issues:

1) It’s really hard to tell what order these books are supposed to be read in

2) bookstores are horribly inconsistent when it comes to carrying the whole series, or even just a selection of consecutive books

For number 1, the internet makes this a little easier, and some libraries have taken to numbering the books themselves, but as it stands the only indication of the order of the books is generally a line on the cover that says “the sequel to [title]”. This led me to an entertaining reverse journey as I tried to find the first book in the series from the 7th or 8th. Some printings do feature a list on the inside, but as with historical romance novels that list isn’t always easy to find.

For number 2, this is where you’re better off checking your library. I have the advantage of living in an urban area with lot of public libraries. The libraries seem to have collectively decided: some will carry the entire series and some not carry the series but will carry all of her other books. We have a highly efficient ILL system around here so that works pretty well. Bookstores are really bad at it though (especially, I am going to call out the Oakbrook Barnes and Noble , for having one of the worst sf selections larger than 24 linear feet).

Now ow that I’ve wasted several hundred words on administrative junk I’ll talk about the book/series itself.

It’s really good. It features an incredibly complex storyline with close to a dozen different factions but no clear “bad guys”.  The length is a big advantage here, as no single book is tightly focused on a few events. Most books only cover a couple of days as Bren attempts to navigate the Byzantine power structures of atevi society. Anyone who has been an immigrant, or at least lived abroad for any length of time, will recognize the challenges he faces here. Returning  home is just as difficult, as Bren discovers that the changes he has made in order to succeed amongst the atevi have made him an outsider in his own culture as well. Many of the oning conflicts in the series stem from problems of translating between languages that don’t even share a biological context, let alone a cultural one.

It’s one of the most effective portrayals of a convincingly alien culture I’ve ever encountered, even if Cherryh isn’t always successful at completely hiding her inspirations (not that that’s exactly necessary). It truly is a work of anthropological science fiction in the best  sense of the label. Bren ends up attempting to balance the interests of half a dozen human factions and at least as many atevi associations. It’s a thoroughly complex work that does a good job of respecting the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, since the plots of each book are rarely explicitly laid out.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and series but to get the most out of it requires a pretty significant investment. As a result I’d probably recommend Cyteen or Downbelow station over this unless it was a really hardcore reader. The series is more or less broken up into trilogies that are more or less complete, so those who have already read those other books or who wanted to give this a try could assign themselves a “stopping place” at the third or sixth book and still experience some resolution.

As I mentioned above, Cyteen or Downbelow station are probably more accessible, so I’d recommend those first unless someone was explicitly looking for something lengthy.

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A civil campaign

A civil campaign / Lois McMaster Bujold

A civil campaign is definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books to date. It features a significantly more lighthearted tone than most of the series, and Bujold herself has described it as a “romantic comedy”. 

Plot summary

After returning to Barrayar Miles is eager to court Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, the arrival of sex-selection technology around the time of Miles’s birth has resulted in a generation with a severe gender imbalance and Miles must contend with a horde of other suitors.

Meanwhile, Ekaterin is living with her aunt and uncle, both highly respected engineers. Deciding to pursue her love of gardening and landscape design she has sworn never to marry again. After the events of Komarr are classified at the highest levels, Ekaterin  and Miles discover themselves implicated in an ugly rumor, one that ImpSec refuses to dispel as it provides an effective cover story for what really happened during the Soletta Array disaster.

So how is it?

As I’ve said, it’s not the “best” Vorkosigan book but it is my favorite. There’s a playful silliness here that serves as a nice contrast from the drama of psychological abuse that serves as the center of Komarr. Together, the two books balance each other out wonderfully.

There are several interesting subplots in A civil campaign that sere as interesting social commentary, especially as they intersect. 

René Vorbretten, newly married and eager to start a family, discovers that his grandfather was the son of an officer of the Cetagandan occupation, not his great-grandfather. The conservative faction of the Council of Counts jumps on this opportunity to have Vorbretten stripped of his titles.

In another subplot, Barrayar’s system of male primogeniture is challenged by the newly available medical technology.

In a third subplot, one Count attempts to deal with both the underpopulation of his district and the general societal gender imbalance by taking unused donor eggs and growing himself several hundred daughters.

All of these subplots have some interesting things to say about the assumptions made by chauvinists about how widely their views are held, and the way different interests interact to create political coalitions. 

A civil campaign might be the “romantic comedy” of the series, but that doesn’t mean it shares the normal conflation of obsessive, possessive behavior with romance. Miles’s attempts to court Ekaterin without her knowledge end up working well as a deconstruction at the way the classic romantic comedy structure eliminates women’s agency.*

Miles is presented as much more flawed here than he sometimes is, and finds himself confronting that his standard strategy when dealin with people is attempting to manipulate them into doing whatever he wants.

The way everything comes together is perfect, complete with an obnoxious proposal and a Shakespearean pairing-off of most of the recurring characters, but there are some really poignant moments. The emperor Gregor’s discovery about the type of person his father really was from The Vor game comes back here as Ekaterin struggles with letting her son know what really happened at the end of Komarr.

It’s a great book, but it’s conceivable that it might be too silly for some. There are several Oscar Wilde-sequel moments, including a disastrous dinner party and a scene where one character’s creditors catch up with them. There’s also what amounts to a food fight in there. A civil campaign maintains the emotional depth of the series but never feels grim. My favorite Vorkosigan book, but Sam the Eagle types will be cranky at the tone.

*the best of the classic romantic comedies is obviously His girl Friday, and a major factor in that is that the original stage version was about a platonic relationship between two men.

Komarr

Komarr / Lois McMaster Bujold

Komarr is the first post-Memory volume of the Vorkosigan series. As a result, it’s quite a bit different than the earlier books and even more so than Shards of honor presents a blend of genres – half regency romance, half science fiction.

Miles Vorkosigan features, but from this point on in the series other pout of view characters become increasingly prominent.

Plot summary

Ekaterin Vorsoisson is unhappy. Her husband, terraforming project administrator Tien Vorsoisson, is moody and struggling to hide a genetic illness that drove his brother to an “accidental” death in a vehicular accident. To make matters worse, her husband’s job has forced her to leave her belove home world for the domed cities of Komarr, a world whose attitude towards Barrayarans is rarely welcoming and frequently hostile.

After a mysterious accident destroys a large portion of the planet’s orbital solar power collector her uncle, former engineering professor and current Imperial Auditor Vorthys comes to Komarr to investigate. Accompanying him is the “mutie lord” Miles Vorkosigan, the twisted dwarfish son of the notorious “Butcher of Komarr”.

So how is it?

As I’ve mentioned in many of my previous posts on this series, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. 

I need I make a confession: I like books that feature really mundane activities. My favorite Recluce book is the first one because I like the part where Lerris is working as a carpenter. My favorite of the Chronicles of Prydain is Taran Wanderer. My favorite parts of Memory are the part where Miles is trying to get his home up and running and the part where he goes fishing. For some reason my favorite parts about sff are the parts that do the least to distinguish it from other genres. As a result, my favorite part of Komarr is a scene where Ekaterin and Miles go shopping. My second favorite part is a scene where Ekaterin’s son refuses to go to school. So be aware of that when I say that this book is one of my favorites.

One of the reasons I like Komarr is how relaxed the whole thing feels. Yes, there’s a plot involving the secret behind the accident that destroyed the Soletta array, but that takes a back seat to scenes of people going shopping and eating dinner and questioning themselves and getting to know each other. It feels very historical romance that way, which is fine with me an makes me wonder if I should be reading more historical romance anyways.

Komarr is also more towards the “hard sf” end of the spectrum than most Bujold. There’s plenty of discussion about terraforming and waste-heat and things like that. It adds a sense of realism but never falls to Kim Stanley Robinson-like depths of obnoxiousness like “Joe exited the ship into an atmosphere of 70% nitrogen and was promptly surrounded by a dust cloud featuring iron particles at a concentration of 377ppm. The barometric pressure was N and the gravity was .7g which meant he found walking across the surface composed of 66% silicon, 20% iron, and 10% trace organic material …” (Etc.)

So Komarr is kind of weird in that it’s simultaneously more and less “hardcore” sf. I suspect that this will be more of a stumbling block for hardcore sf fans than it will others. The engineering talk is largely just extra flavoring while the emotional moments are the core of the story.

I think it was Jo Walton who said that for her, Memory was the point were the Vorkosigan books stopped getting better. That wasn’t the case for me, but Komarr is the beginning of a new stage of the series with less emphasis on Miles himself and fewer set-piece action scenes. I like it that way but those looking for puppy-style adventure will be disappointed when characters start talking about their feelings.

The climax of this book is amazing and make it worth checking out for fans of the earlier books too.

Recommendation

As I mentioned in my previous post about this series, Komarr is actually a great entry point to the series. It’s mostly told from the PoV of a new character and while previous events are important the plot doesn’t assume knowledge of them and it’s easy to figure it out from context. (Neither is much time spent recapping. Bujold is the best at informing the new reader without boring the old one.)

It’s also worth a recommendation to non-sf readers. Historical romance* fans in particular will find a lot to love here. It’s a strong recommendation for fans of Sarah MacLean who are willing to try something unusual. Shana Galen is another good comparison.

*That being said, Komarr is much less sexually explicit than most historical romance so if that’s your primary motivation you’re going to be disappointed.

Memory

This is one review I’ve been both dreading and looking forward to. I’ve been puttin it off for a while now because it’s one of my favorite books and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.

Memory  / Lois McMaster Bujold

Memory is more or less universally acknowledged to be the best Vorkosigan book. It manages to maintain the humor of the series while dealing with the fallout of the events of Mirror dance in an appropriately serious manner. It’s an emotionally demanding read if you’re the type to get invested in the characters when you read. It’s less dark than Mirror dance but tackles issues of personal responsibility and the potential costs of actually getting what they want. 

Memory is a book that I’ve heard more than one person describe as their favorite book that they’ll never read again. Others have said they love rereading it but always skip the first few chapters. It’s a point if view I can understand. While Memory is the “best” of the series it’s not my favorite (that would be the combination of Komarr and A civil campaign). I reread it about once a year but I look forward to finishing it so I can get to Komarr. I’m not sure my spouse appreciates that since I can’t even describe the plot of Memory out loud without crying. It’s that powerful. (Although I also cry every time I see or think about that ASL Wells Fargo commercial so keep that in mind).

Plot summary

On a routine hostage rescue mission Miles has a seizure and ends up severely injuring the rescuee. Miles is force to choose between admitting that the events of Mirror dance have left him medically unfit to continue to serve in the field or falsifying his report to Simin Illyan in an attempt to hide his condition. Miles makes his choice and lives with the consequences.

Also there’s some intrigue going on and a plot and stuff but this book is really all about Character.

So how is it?

It’s great. If it wasn’t about space-faring mercenaries it would be widely recognized as a Great Work of Literature. It’s the culmination of ideas that have been building for a long time across the series. I recently reread most of the earlier novels and it’s amazing how well these events are foreshadowed. Cordelia has repeatedly remarked that her son must eventually choose between being “the little Admiral” (excellent Napoleon reference, by the way) and “Lord Vorkosigan”. Here, Miles is forced to make that choice, and while at one point it seems like that choice has been made for him ultimately he does decide.

It’s a book about making hard choices, where you pay a significant cost no matter what you do. The finale is amazingly powerful. 

Memory’s biggest drawback is that it requires the reader I have read the rest of the series for maximum impact. The vast majority of the Vorkosigan books are completely modular, but without having read Mirror dance at a minimum you won’t get as much out of this one.

The way Bujold deals with mental health issues continues to amaze me. Other characters have been pointing out for a few books now that Miles is not exactly sane. The way Mark* processes the events of the previous book hint that the situation with Miles’s “cover identity” is more complex and deeply rooted than it might first appear. Bujold is one of the only authors I can think of who can successfully write mentally ill characters as regular people.

*this character’s identity left intentionally ambiguous to avoid spoiling earlier installments

Memory is a major turning point. Not only do characters make decisions that have permanent effects, but Memory also marks a significant shift in genre for the series. This is partially because one of the major subtexts to Memory is that Miles is solidly an adult now and partially because of choices that various characters make.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and I’d recommend it for absolutely everyone if getting the most out of it didn’t require investing in the series as a whole. As I mentioned above, I call it the best of the series but my favorite is Komarr and A civil campaign taken as a single novel (à la Miles in love omnibus ed.). A civil campaign was by far the most fun Vorkosigan book until the publication of Captain Vorpatril’s alliance, which comes close even if it’s not about Miles.

It probably says something about me that my favorite installments in a series that’s usually called space opera are a Regency romance (in space!) and a screwball comedy (in space!).

I’ve long considered doing a “reading guide” type post on the series. Now that I’ve reviewed the major turning point that’s probably what I’ll do next.

Saga

Saga / Brian K. Vaughan ; Fiona Staples

I’ve been trying not to review comics unless they are completed, but I wanted to review this one so here you go.

One of the reasons for this review is that Saga placed very well on the ALA’s most frequently challenged books list. 

One of the most common reasons it was challenged represents a hilarious misunderstanding of the story at its most basic level. I’ll address that later.

The other most common reason is “unsuited to age group”. Considering the “for mature readers” label and the fact that the first line of dialogue is “Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting” I’m really wondering who these complainants think the target audience is. Part of the fault here is probably on libraries who keep graphic fiction with YA and/or J fiction (I’ve worked in libraries where this is the case. At my current library we have a John Le Carré novel classed in LC class K (Law), so there’s obviously a continuum of how seriously fiction gets taken). The other problem is the association of comics with “kiddie stuff” which hasn’t been true in the history of the genre. There have always been comics targeting adults, and since the 80s at the latest more “mature” fare has represented a huge chunk of the market.

These must be the same people who complain about how R rated movies and Mature rated video game are inappropriate for children.

Overly basic plot summary

There’s a lot going on in Saga but this will keep it as simple as possible.

A war between a planet and its moon has been going on for generations. To save their local environment, most of the combat has been outsourced to other worlds. Marko and Alana are two soldiers on opposite sides of the war. After Alana breaks conscientious objector Marko out of the POW camp where she works as a guard, the couple find themselves on the run, hunted by both sides. Then they have a baby.

So how is it?

At the risk of hyperbole, Saga is one of the best things I have ever put in my brain. This is sff at its absolute best, and a landmark achievement in its medium.

There’s a lot to talk about here. The setting in particular is absolutely amazing, featuring a whimsical imagination combined with a great sense of adventure and some serious pathos.

The characters are exceedingly well designed, from the lovers on the run to the blue blood Prince Robot to the scene-stealing Lying Cat. They populate a universe with a fantastic diversity of characters in a universe that’s familiar (bored housewives buy bodice rippers from supermarket checkout stands) yet also unfathomably bizarre (one of said bodice rippers is about a couple who spends most of their time playing board games and ordering takeout).

There’s some fantastic details there: the moon dwellers have their own language that is fictional but that anyone with basic familiarity with a Romance language should have no problem deciphering. It’s that blend of exotic with the easily understandable that makes Saga so great.

It’s a serious, heart-wrenching story here that’s not above absolute silliness (wait until you learn what the opposite of war is …)

The third volume of Saga features the most emotionally powerful single page I’ve ever seen. In my most recent reread I had to put it aside for over a week before continuing. I cry just thinking about it. (Full disclosure: I also cried while rereading Shards of honor recently. So it doesn’t take much).

Saga is a space adventure with serious heart, where the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is exceedingly fine. Not because the good guys are grim badasses, but because the “bad guys” are just regular folks.

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of Saga as well, but I don’t want to spoil it.

I realize I still haven’t mentioned the artwork. Staples is great and the art is wonderful and is vital to making the story work.

The other reason why Saga has been challenged is that it is “anti-family”. Saga. A story about a man and woman struggling to raise their baby in the face I overwhelming opposition. A story whose most obvious theme is “family is important”. 

I can’t help but think that there’s a racist component to that complaint.

Recommendation

Saga is amazing. It is also very violent and “perverse”. There’s no denying that this is a “mature” title but as much as it revels in excess it’s not gratuitous. It’s a must recommend even for those who don’t normally read the format. I’ve won over more than one non-comics reader with Saga. 

It’s explicit which might be a stumbling block but it’s not intentionally offensive so I’m generally more willing to take a risk and recommend this one.

It’s something I encourage everyone to try for themselves.

Skill and stuff as the arbiter of goodness

One think I think about pretty regularly when reading is what separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. There are a couple of ways that this usually works. The simplest is by author fiat (these are the good guys because they are the heroes) but it’s actually fairly uncommon, as there are usually other signifiers. For my purposes, I’ll break them down into three general categories, although they are all fairly coextensive: relationship to the status quo, moral virtue, and skills n’stuff.

In most mystery novels the status quo is the arbiter of goodness – the good guys are the ones who protect the status quo, the bad guys are the one who threaten it. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the genre. There are certainly mystery novels that do otherwise (The Millennium trilogy was in some ways an explicit attempt to challenge cultural complacency about extreme ideologies) the basic mystery novel formula is deeply conservative. The superhero genre has some of the same issues, although it wasn’t always that way and authors seem equally likely to use the characters to the opposite effect. Sff as collective genera are much more willing to be subversive. Star Wars is the most well-known example of this: the heroes are the people actively fighting against the status quo.* It exists everywhere there’s an “evil empire”.

It’s probably most common to divide the good guys and the bad guys by dint of their moral behavior. The good guys are the one who exhibit “good” morality – they don’t murder, they don’t commit property crimes against innocents (usually), etc. etc. I’m planning another post on this eventually so I’m not going to go into too much depth here. I’ll just say that there are times when this trope is subverted: The chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The three musketeers, and Blood meridian come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are more. It’s a technique that is used much more often in books and movies than it is in video games, where “good guy by fiat” is pretty much the default for player characters.

It’s the third method of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys that I’m interested in talking about here – that we know who the good guys are because they are the best at what they do or because they have the best stuff (or both). It’s something that I haven’t been able to stop noticing once I thought of it. The good guys always have the best toys. It’s almost necessary in order for the good guys to win (see Star Wars again), otherwise it would skretch** credulity to see the scrappy underdogs defeat the overwhelmingly superior force.

It happens other places, too. It’s a mainstay of naval novels, that the heroic British/Manticoreans have the superior firepower and/or much more highly skilled crews than the nefarious French/Havenites whose successes are largely attributed to running into the wall so many times it eventually collapses on them. It’s so common that the hero is extra skilled that it goes practically unquestioned.  It’s one of the things that really drew me to the October Daye books – it’s immediately made clear that Toby is vastly less powerful than the average fae citizen and is even less powerful than many changelings. This weakness forces her to behave differently, to pick her battles, and to find creative solutions and/or enlist powerful allies. It goes a long way in making the books more interesting.***

It even happens in books that explicitly pose moral questions – while I’m not very fond of Brandon Sanderson (and sometimes it feels like I’m the only one), Mistborn raises some interesting questions about the morality of the fantasy novel hero (and of the evil overlord), but even there the heroes have abilities that surpass virtually everyone else.

It’s especially common in video games, but since most video games are, in their secret hearts, power fantasies, it makes total sense. One of the strengths of the Metal Gear series is, like Mistborn and unlike the vast majority of games, it examines the differences between power and “goodness”, and it’s rarely clear whether or not Snake is actually doing the right thing or is on the right side. Like Mistborn, Metal Gear also explicitly addresses the moral context of the hero’s casual killing of the “bad guys”.**** George R.R. Martin also takes pains to avoid this trope, and it’s one of the reasons he has the reputation he does.

The hero just being “better” at whatever the plot requires seems to be pretty common, especially in genre fiction. It works because it plays on the culture of hero-worship and it provides a convenient justification for a happy ending. It’s a trope that has existed virtually forever (neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is exactly a moral exemplar, and the Biblical King David was essentially a bandit). Sherlock Holmes is one of the easiest “modern” literary figures to point to here, since it’s essentially his entire gimmick. It makes for exciting stories. Still, it represents a pretty significant departure from the extraliterary world.

It’s something that I enjoy pondering when I read – why are the heroes the heroes? It’s a question that books are well suited to addressing. It’s an issue that’s especially important in science fiction and fantasy, where the relationship between the literary world and the extraliterary world is more abstract than in “realistic” fiction. It’s caused me to notice how often the main characters in the books I read end up playing god, or at least stand in judgment of those who aren’t like them. It’s not exactly a comfortable realization, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

*There’s an argument to be made that the rebels of Star Wars aren’t actually fighting the status quo, since it’s essentially a conservative rebellion, seeking to return to the old status quo rather than instituting a new one.

**That was supposed to be “stretch”. For a full fifteen minutes I was convinced that there was a k in the word stretch. I have no idea how or why that happened but I’m leaving it because skretch seems like a cool word to me. It has a Jim Henson kind of feel to me.

***I’ve read all of the books in the series that were published as of December 2014, and what I say here isn’t strictly 100% accurate for various reasons that I can’t go into without revealing way too much about the books.

****I’ll look into this in more depth if I ever write the post about the moral stuff.

The telling

The telling / Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is widely known for things she’s done in the past – The left hand of darkness,

Brief plot summary

Sutty has been assigned as an Observer to a prospective member of the Ekumen. She arrives to discover a world controlled by a massive corporation bent on purging its own past.

Continue reading The telling

Mirror dance

Mirror dance / Lois McMaster Bujold

I figure it’s about time for another Vorkosigan post.  Since this is the beginning of some relatively major changes in the series, I’m going to be throwing pretty much the whole thing under the cut. If you have already read Brothers in arms, or don’t care about having that book’s major plot twist spoiled, then read on.

I’ll sum up what’s below here:

Mirror dance is in some sense a direct sequel to Brothers in arms. It introduces some major twists into the series and represents the beginning of a huge turning point in the life of Miles Vorkosigan. It’s also the darkest Vorkosigan novel up to this point. Beyond its interest for the series, Mirror dance elaborates and expands on many of the continuing themes of the series – especially the way the series portrays and examines mental illness.

Mirror dance is also the necessary precursor to Memory, widely considered the best novel of the series. Anybody who enjoys the series should read Mirror dance, but like Memory it’s fairly dependent on the previous volumes and as such isn’t really a good entry point into the universe.

Continue reading Mirror dance

Kiln people

Kiln people / David Brin

Kiln people is a novel in the vein of “classic” sf. Not because it reads as dated, but because it takes an idea and runs with it, asking “what would society be like if X happened? What would be the benefits? What would be the drawbacks?”

Originally published in 2001, it’s part book of ideas, part hardboiled mystery.

Brief plot summary

In the future, disposable, 24-hour bodies are cheap and widely available. Instead of physically going in to work, people upload a copy of their minds into a “ditto” and send it to work in their stead. At the end of the day, the “original” can choose to inload those experiences into their own minds. Albert Morris is a “ditective” (get it? he’s a detective but he uses dittos. Don’t worry, it’s the most forced part of this book). Tasked with solving the murder of a prominent scientist, he and his veritable army of duplicates will face the expected questions of identity and the barrier between “human” and “other”.

Continue reading Kiln people

Gun, with occasional music

Gun, with occasional music / Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors on the “approved” list for NPR-drinking academics. As a result, he’s not a “science fiction” author. Gun, with occasional music was his first published novel, but he first achieved mainstream success with Motherless Brooklyn, a noirtype novel written from the perspective of a narrator suffering from Tourette’s syndrome.

Lethem is much beloved of literary hipsters, and like Dave Eggers I have a hard time getting into his work because of the sheer amount of obnoxious love directed his way. Gun, with occasional music was a book I attempted to read shortly after it came out, but I never got around to finishing it until last year.

Brief plot summary

Conrad Metcalf is a private detective in a world where most menial positions are held by genetically engineered animals, an individual’s worth is measured by their karma, and designer drugs are freely distributed by the government. After a former client shows up dead and a flimsy coverup makes Metcalf the number one suspect, Metcalf must avoid an angry kangaroo, gangsters, and the Powers That Be in an attempt to figure out what is going on.

Continue reading Gun, with occasional music