Haven't posted in a month, so let's catch up...
I considered doing some kind of stargate-gate-dialing animation but I couldn't find any I liked. I also had a crazy idea that I don't think's already implemented and too lazy to do myself, but... wouldn't it be awesome if, instead of entering a pin, you had to dial a gate address on the Stargate? Sure, you'd have to use more digits than most people use, but it'd just be cool. ;). In other phone news, I've started reading books on it more actively, but I still prefer paper books, so I do it in two circumstances: first, when I'm walking to work and it's too dark to read normally, it's easy to read on my phone. Eventually it'll probably get too cold to do that, but for a while, it means more reading time. And secondly, of course, when I finish a book but am still on-the-go, I automatically have a backup. Before I realized how easy it was to read in the dark with it, I spent a few too-dark-to-read walks listening to audioplays... the Neverwhere adaptation, and the adaptation of Iain M. Banks' "The State of the Art", both quite enjoyable. There are also some short stories I can get readings of online for free I'm going to load on them.
Anyway, beyond that, I'm still alive. Not much changes in my life, but I consume media, so let's see the results of my digestion... wait, that sounds inappropriately icky. Strike that. Something else.
Thanks to st_aurafina, I've discovered an amusing weekly webcomic, Monster of the Week, which is basically... a (usually) comedic take on every episode of X-Files, as a (usually) 12-panel comic, from the beginning, in order. They just did "War of the Coprophages" which is here, but if you want to start from the beginning, click here.
New TV season has started, but on the whole I'm not too excited about it. So far I've only checked out two, SHIELD, and Sleepy Hollow.
Let's start with the good.
How about you guess which one that is?
Did anybody guess Sleepy Hollow? Then you're not a good guesser. SHIELD was pretty good... a little rough, and, because of the ubiquitous promos, all the best bits fell a little flat, since we'd seen them so many times. As Whedon pilot episodes go, it's probably on the low end, but that still means a watchable show with some great moments, and I look forward to seeing where they go with it. Also, surprise Ron Glass! (Well, a surprise to me!) Hopefully he's recurring. Maybe now that he's got two big SFTV credits, he'll be more likely to be recruited for cons. :)
Now Sleepy Hollow... I guess it's not outrageously BAD, the actors have mostly been good, and once in a while there's an interesting moment of friction between attitudes of the past and present, but... it's not nearly good enough to get past the silliness of the premise of Ichabod Crane teaming up with a modern day police officer to solve crimes (magic crimes!). Every time they do something to make Ichabod surprisingly useful in the modern day, or find some way to allow him to continue to help, I feel the beams straining under the weight of the sillyness. Honestly, I can't imagine how it got approved to the pilot stage, much less a full series. But maybe it'll surprise me and be a success... apparently the first couple episodes got decent ratings, but.. meh, I might watch as long as nothing else airs at the same time, but I would not bother to download if I missed an episode or something else started airing in that space.
I have no faith in the quality of the long-term plot either... prepare to have nothing in the series mean anything or make any sense, because Sleepy Hollow is done by the same people that did the recent Trek Movies, so, I guess that's as good a time as any to Segue into talking about movies (I also need to talk about cartoons a bit, but it's a shame to waste a good segue, so let's do that a little later).
I saw Star Trek Into the Darkness. You may or may not recall that I was not at all impressed with the original remake, it was just full of stupid, and this... this is more of the same. The only thing these movies have going for it are some good actors and a good flashy look, it is practically completely brainless, plotholes up the wazoo. And, annoyingly, the writers treat Starfleet... well, they pretty much treat it like it's Hollywood: Where even if you haven't paid your dues or have in fact $!$@ed up spectacularly in the past, you can get control of a flagship based on a lucky success or somebody liking you personally. (Longer complaints below, some spoilers) That's how it was in the first movie and it continues in this one. Not just with Kirk, but in this case with Chekov. The Chief Engineer leaves, and, instead of one of the huge engineering team who presumably put their entire academic career to the study of engines, Kirk appoints a 17 year old (or a little older however long it's been since the last movie I honestly couldn't be bothered paying attention... according to wikipedia it's a year, so, he'd be 18)... as his chief engineer. Why? Because he likes him. God, everybody else on the Enterprise must HATE Kirk, not only was he made first officer after being suspended from the academy for cheating (and subsequently sneaking on board illegally), he ascended to Captain, gets removed from command for violating the PRIME DIRECTIVE (not the secondary directive, not Rule 13-B in the employee manual)... then gets promptly made first officer again by the new/old Captain and, when he dies, takes over the ship AGAIN... and then he just randomly promotes his buddies. Hard work or qualifications mean nothing in Starfleet.
And of course, completely stupid science. Cold Fusion DOES NOT MEAN A DEVICE THAT TURNS LAVA INTO ICE YOU MORONS (there's just so much wrong with that whole sequence it hurts). Magic blood does not bring back the dead. And you try for cheap drama by trying to redo Wrath of Khan with a few positions reversed is ill-conceived to start with, but it was done horribly. And now you can just beam everywhere in the universe you want, so Starships are obsolete anyway.
The basic plot (getting rid of magic blood and all the other stupid bits) actually wouldn't have been too bad if it wasn't Khan, just some section 31 officer who lost his gruntling. Anyway, I guess I owe a thank you to Abrams and co., you have thoroughly killed my interest in anything Star Trek, at least until you hacks are off it.
I also watched World War Z, and... another meh. In this case, the movie itself's not bad... there are even a few good ideas here, some decent action moments. But it wasn't a World War Z movie. As I expected, it was a "Brad Pitt is awesome and fights zombies and beats impossible odds and saves the world" movie. And ANY movie could have done that, but a World War Z movie could at least have done something different that matched the book. I've mentioned this before, but I actually read (and have on my HD) what was allegedly an early script by J. Michael Straczynski where it's much closer to the book. The Gerry character is, like the book, sent around the world AFTER the plague has been mostly contained, to see how it started and various countries handled it. To keep it from strictly being an anthology, weaved in is his flashbacks of his own time, a much more personal story of trying to keep his family alive in a wintery area where getting supplies is as much of a threat as the zombies. It balanced both stories, and lead to an emotional twist about the personal cost of the war, along with how we witnessed the costs to society in fighting it, with the Raedeker plan as was in the book.
Unfortunately, about the only thing that survives the script is the names of some of the characters, and the speech from the guy in Israel about being "the 10th man" (who has a duty to disagree with the intelligence reports everyone else agrees with). (If anybody wants to see it, I can probably provide it).
And it's such a shame, because... as I said, the Brad Pitt zombie movie could have been done regardless, but there'll never be a chance at a real WWZ movie.
Now let's dart back to the small screen, for cartoons. Legend of Korra is back for season 2, finally, and it's good so far, although some of the manipulation is pretty obvious to everybody but Korra and I kind of want to take her aside and shake her by the shoulders to point out some of the stupidity. But it's nicely animated and got some funny moments.
Beware the Batman is the new Batman series, featuring a military-grade Alfred and Katana as a sidekick, all done in CGI. It's actually not too bad, mostly owing to the (frankly, brilliant) commitment to use obscure Bat villains instead of the classics, so we don't have to face the 30th Poison Ivy origin story, or the 30,000th Joker story. I just kind of wish they didn't go with Katana as a side kick and instead went with Cassandra Cain, or used a Stephanie Brown Robin or something. And, the animation... it's too clean and stiff. I feel like I'm watching plastic toys walking around in a plastic world. That's a risk in lots of CGI, but I've not only simply seen it done better as a whole, but it also stands out much more because Batman should be... grittier. But the stories are generally keeping my interest.
Now I have a bunch of Book Foo to get through, most of the reviews will be copypasted from Goodreads as usual, with maybe a few additional comments.
Finished: The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross
It's after the singularity, and much of humanity has uploaded into digital consciousness out in the solar system, but there are plenty left on Earth, trying to live the old way. One of these is Huw, a technophobic Welshman who signs up for a special kind of jury duty, to evaluate a piece of new technology sent to Earth by the occasionally incomprehensible cloud, and decide whether it should be allowed among the public. Huw plans to vote no on general principle, and maybe use it as an excuse to rant about the cloud in general, but instead gets wrapped up in events that will not just change him, but potentially the whole world.
There is a book by two authors, Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross... both of whom often write, at least a little, tongue-in-cheek. Put them together, and apparently they combine to write a novel that, at times, feels more like it's just an excuse to satirize a whole host of people, mindsets, and social constructions they find a little ridiculous, with just a glazing of science fictional plot hanging it all together. Luckily, this is only at times, and, although the humorous tone persists throughout, it does manage to deal with some big ideas...
Although, not in an especially novel way, at least for these authors. If you're familiar with both authors, this does feel to be more of a Stross book than a Doctorow book. I noticed a lot of recurring tropes from Stross' work... dropping in subtle references to Daleks, use of byzantine legal or financial maneuvers in novel ways, and a host of other little things I associate with him more than anybody else. That doesn't mean Doctorow didn't contribute as much... he might simply have been subtler about it (and, to be fair, I've read far more Stross than Doctorow), and the authors do really have a lot in common anyway. Still, in many ways, you could read this as Charlie Stross taking a second shot at the themes in Accelerando, as many of the same ideas pop up, albeit with a completely different plot and a little help from co-writer. At times, I even wondered if they were slyly trying to set it in the same universe, just with a different perspective. By the end I'm pretty sure this isn't the case, but it's close enough. If you really liked Accelerando (and I did), you might well like this second dip. Otherwise, you probably won't, and if you haven't read it at all and might only read one... I think Accelerando is the better book, unless you're a particular fan of a satirical tone that occasionally borders on silliness (Accelerando also has this at times, but is a tighter book).
That said, it is a lot of fun. The main characters can be unlikeable at times, but it's deliberate, and they do go through changes (many, not all of them lasting). For me, the tongue-in-cheek tone makes it a little harder to connect to them emotionally, but I enjoyed reading their adventures nonetheless. I'm honestly not sure if the book is trying to point a particular point of view on some issues, but I think there were times where I think I was supposed to sympathize with Huw, and in actual fact I was agreeing with the arguments against him, and, in fact, was actively rooting against him at times. The fact that, occasionally, what he was arguing against also happened to be part of something nefarious felt coincidental, rather than telling. Maybe all along it was intended to be a book of "make up your own mind on these issues, but here are some of the warts you might not have considered."
Short version: It's a solid book, fast-paced, fun... probably not going to be one of my favorites, but worth-reading.
Finished: Hyperion by Dan Simmons (reread)
A war is brewing around the distant planet of Hyperion, between two factions of the descendents of old Earth, but what happens on the planet itself might affect the universe more. Seven pilgrims undertake a journey to Hyperion's greatest mystery, the Time Tombs, empty structure that are somehow being projected backwards in time, which are guarded by the mysterious and deadly Shrike. Legend has it that when groups go on the Shrike pilgrimage, one of the members might be granted a wish... and only death awaits the others. The pilgrims start as strangers, but as they make their journey, they share the tales of what brought them (or what brought them back) to Hyperion.
The Hyperion series is a lot of fun, but it's also strange, and, to a newcomer, risks frustrating them completely if they're not prepared, so I'll just lay it out. It's four books, each 'story' encompassing two books. You can read the first two and get a complete story (some say you SHOULD stop there). You can possibly read the last two and be a bit confused at a lot of the references, but also get a more-or-less complete story. But the first book, and only the first book, is really almost a book of short stories set in the same universe, with a framing story that then gets resolved in the second. And it does so in the most aggravating way, where you read (and enjoy) the stories individually, but start to get interested in the journey that happens between them, waiting for the final confrontation... and then, shortly after the final story, the book just ends on a cliffhanger, everything it feels like they've been building up to just gets shunted off to another book. This is fine if you have the second book. But if you don't, and don't go into the series knowing this, it can feel like a huge ripoff... I know it did to me when I first read it many years ago.
Luckily I got past that feeling and went on to read the rest, and I did, in large part, because the book is quite good, and builds a compelling universe that at times feels like a real place with history (not just of one world, but of several) that intertwines. The individual character stories take on a variety of styles, giving you some of the freedom of a short story collection... even though they're all set in the same universe, you don't necessarily feel committed to one story, if you don't like it, the next one might be better. There were a couple that didn't do much for me (particularly the Poet's tale), but a few really moved me (the story of the man who's daughter came down with a particularly unusual disease). The stories all share a rough theme about Time, and the various ways it can potentially screw everybody over, from the common ways we all can relate to, to the cruel tricks it can only play in a science fictional universe, but that's not the only theme explored in the book. There's a lot going on, in a world with time manipulation, slower-than-light stardrives, instantaneous cross-galactic teleportation portals, artificial intelligence, offshoots of humanity, and, of course, the Shrike.
The Shrike is a particularly impressively terrifying creation, a monster that might potentially not be a monster, but whatever it is, you probably don't want to meet it. It stands out for me as one of my favorite bogeymen created in SF.
It was a pleasure coming back to the universe, even if it doesn't capture quite the sense of wonder as it gave me the first time I read it, and I notice a few more flaws, I still think it's a great book.
Throughout the Hyperion series there have been occasional quotes that strongly reflect my values, or I just really like, and I believe I've posted them before, but I feel like quoting again, so, I'll do that. It's non-spoilery so I'll leave it uncut:
Sol wanted to know how any ethical system--much less a religion so indomitable that it survived every evil mankind could throw at it--could flow from a command from God for a man to slaughter his son. It did not matter to Sol that the command had been rescinded at the last moment. It did not matter that the command was a test of obedience. In fact, the idea that it was the obedience of Abraham which allowed him to become the father of all the tribes of Israel was precisely what drove Sol into fits of fury.
After fifty-five years of dedicating his life and work to the study of ethical systems, Sol Weintraub had come to a single, unshakable conclusion: any allegience to a deity or concept or universal principle which put obedience above decent behavior towards an innocent human being was evil.
Finished: The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (reread)
As interstellar war threatens the human Hegemony, a poet dreams of the planet of Hyperion and the quest of several pilgrims for the time-bending Shrike... events that are actually occurring, and may decide the fate of all of humanity.
This is, of course, the conclusion to the story started in Hyperion. And reading them again, it strikes me how different they are in style. The first book being essentially a book of short stories, and this one a more-or-less linear (as far as you can be in a novel that includes time travel and time manipulation) set of interweaving tales. Yet neither book stands alone.
This is my first reread of the series in a long time, and the book continues to be very enjoyable on the whole, but... the conclusion doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first book. Some of the moral questions grappled with at times seem to get rather simplistic answers, and there are cases where things feel like they happen solely because the writer needs them to, rather than them making any particular sense, and we don't get any satisfying answer, leaving it as what we might as well assume is magic. It also has a tendency to drag at parts, because you have so many characters and often several of them need to be informed of the same details several times in different scenes... and, I swear, it feels like occasionally the same character needs to be informed of the same thing several times as well. And although it concludes the story with these characters and the war, the overall conflict is left open-ended, and with an aftermath that may be more interesting than what led up to it. Some of this gets developed more in the sequel-duology, of course.
At times I also find some of the characterizations weak, or at least sped through... often in the series we get people falling in love but there doesn't feel like a good reason for them to be, it just happens. Similarly, characters who once seemed to hate each other suddenly turn almost affectionate, based solely on sharing a dangerous situation... which, I suppose happens, but it never feels like they bond during the situation, they just jump from hating each other to grudgingly liking one another.
But for all those sins, there's still a lot to recommend it. It's got great moments of adventure, and the Shrike itself is still horribly compelling. The book is also still jam-packed with ideas, and does an interesting twist with the society you're meant to root for that rarely gets tried (although to reveal much more would be a spoiler). I might want more from it, but I still liked it... just perhaps not quite as much as I remembered liking it.
Finished: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (received for free!)
Full disclosure, I read an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads program.
The Justice of Toren was an artificially intelligent starship serving the Radch, a galactic empire, controlling both the ship itself and many ancillaries... soldier bodies that were once human, their minds replaced entirely by the AI. But that was before... now all that's left of the Justice is Breq, one of those Ancillaries, carrying on the ship's memories and a futile quest for revenge on the Radch Emperor.
Ancillary Justice is the author's first published novel, and I tend to give authors a little bit of leeway for that... but in this case, I didn't really feel the need to forgive very much. I enjoyed it a lot, and some of what I wasn't entirely enthusiastic about was minor and comes down to matters of personal taste. I was caught up in the plot from beginning to end, and found the main character at times likeable and at times not, but always interesting, even when she's something of a tool (in the literal, not insulting sense). One of my personal favorite tropes in SF are AI characters and different modes of thought, and the author delivers here, not just in her depictions of the Justice of Toren simultaneously present in multiple locations in multiple bodies, which is a tricky thing to pull off, but also her sense of disconnection and lack of purpose afterwards. What's more, the author also does well with some of the cultural baggage she carries (or doesn't, sometimes), some coming directly through the language.
I probably should address part of that directly, because it's a significant element that runs throughout the whole novel, and it might be off-putting to some. The Radch culture, the one Breq is from, has no separate words for different genders, and things that we might consider traditionally gendered features are frequently encountered in both sexes. So not only does Breq have trouble distinguishing males from females, even in other cultures, but because the story is from her viewpoint and presumably translated directly from her language, the female gendered term is used almost exclusively in every place one is needed (except in a few instances where she's both speaking in a non-Radch language and being careful to use the male pronoun for what she believes is a male). This can be disorienting at first, but it's also potentially liberating. For most characters in the book, you go through with no idea what gender they are, which is probably partly the point... that it just doesn't matter. However, there are definite downsides. It may be wrong to carry ideas of what gender means to personality (particularly in a distant future where what gets programmed in by our culture is no longer applicable), but it makes things easier. In particular, I found it harder to form mental pictures of characters' appearances without that additional data point. Sometimes it also felt hard to tell if a relationship was meant to be romantic or merely friendly (of course, that would be something of an illusion anyway, for a society that has no gendered terms or strict roles likely also has an open attitude towards homosexuality). And frankly, sometimes I did wish to just know... if nothing else than because it makes it easier to tell who is speaking or acting at any given moment in a scene with multiple characters. If at least one of them is described as a 'he' and another a 'she', it removes some ambiguity. But, in the end, it was only a minor obstacle and at times I quite enjoyed it, just as an interesting choice that let me expand my horizons a little. It never felt like a gimmick, just one more example where culture is often expressed through, and influenced by, language. This seems to be a running theme, and the author handles language intelligently in many small ways throughout the book, sometimes understated (songs lyrics that don't rhyme or seem particularly musical, because obviously a phrase that makes for good music in one language would not when translated into English), and sometimes more directly with a note to the reader about a concept that doesn't translate well in a different language, or means exactly the same as another term. In all cases, it's handled well, both realistic and non-intrusive and sometimes illuminating. We learn a lot about the Radch mindset through such little moments.
The Radch empire itself, largely based on annexation of other worlds, though going through a slow process of reform, is another memorable part of the book, well thought-out and coming alive with a myriad of tiny details. The book avoids the easy answers of making them the 'good guys' or the 'bad guys', as they're clearly a culture far too reliant on privileged classes and denying the humanity of others, yet which tries to treat its citizens well. I did want to see the empire fall, but at the same time recognized far too much of my own culture's history within it to truly hate it top to bottom. In many ways, it also feels more like a setting from a fantasy novel than a science fiction one. Aside from the AI, almost everything else science fictional could be simply eliminated and the culture (and much of the storyline) would fit right in with a world inspired by the medieval era (or up until the early 20th century, probably, much later than that it doesn't feel right). But that aside, Ancillary Justice is a science fiction novel, even though the only technological aspect that gets an intense examination is that of Breq's existence as an AI, and the Emperor living in multiple bodies. Other than that element, the author seems to take the approach that, just as people in our time don't go into exhaustive detail about the mechanics of the internal combustion engine, nor would people in the future spend too much time describing how their starships work. This makes the book pretty accessible... anybody who's seen science fiction movies can jump into this with little difficulty, even if they're not a big science fiction reader.
That doesn't mean the book is lightweight, by any means. It explores issues of privilege, responsibility, and loss, among other things, and, in the grandest SF tradition, approaches some of these issues by immersing us in another society to better highlight the problems we overlook in our own, without ever sounding preachy. And a good dollop of adventure doesn't hurt, either.
The plot had some surprising twists, and some clever things are done with the antagonist that seem obvious once they're revealed but I nonetheless found a delightful surprise, and although the climax came a little on the messy and chaotic side (especially for what felt like such a deliberate build up), I enjoyed it all the way through and wanted more. The author apparently plans this to be the first in a trilogy, and the book did the most important thing. It convinced me that I want to check out the eventual sequel. There's enough in this book and setting that I'm eager to see developed.
Short version: Quite good, I enjoyed it all the way and wanted more, has an interesting approach to gender for those who might not read the full review but are interested in such things.
Finished: I Am Legend (and other stories) by Richard Matheson (reread)
Robert Neville is possibly the last uninfected man on Earth after a plague has killed billions... and returned to life as monstrous beings that stalk the night looking for fresh blood. Every day he renews his supplies or researches the phenomenon, while by night all he can do is hole up in his home and hope the defenses hold.
This is it, the granddaddy of the zombie apocalypse tale, even though the actual monsters are something a little different than the traditional zombies. This story inspired Romero who wrote Night of the Living Dead, the movie that set the stage for all the current zombie-related pop culture.
So it might be surprising that this tale, written in the 50s, is still so bloody good. It's tense, at times touching and at times heartbreaking, with moments of real terror and even some black humor. It provided (at that time) a fresh take on the myths that the story draws on as he researches scientific causes for the seemingly supernatural symptoms. It doesn't even feel especially dated... aside from a few outdated (but, it should be noted, not unkind) terms for minorities and other religions, and a couple technological absences, it could pass for a story written today. And the twist still holds up... it's a shame it had to be mangled so many times in the movies, because it's practically a perfect one-man-against-the-apocalypse story. If I had a complaint, it's that it was a little short, but I'm not sure what else they could do that wouldn't be dragging it on.
The book I read also contains a handful of other stories by Matheson. These are more of a mixed bag (and some of them have a few more eyebrow-raising aspects from a cultural sensitivity standpoint... for the time there was probably nothing wrong with them, but to a modern perspective some moments feel a little cringeworthy), and I have to admit, on the reread, I skimmed through several rather than reading them in depth. The standouts are probably "Person to Person" which takes what might have started as a joke and turns it into a serious premise, and "The Near Departed" which takes a serious premise and turns it into a (very black) joke.
But I originally bought the book just for I Am Legend, and even if they padded out the book with other stories and increased the price correspondingly, it's still well worth it just for that one classic gem.
Finished: Endymion by Dan Simmons (reread)
Hundreds of years after the fall of the human Hegemony, a man named Endymion is rescued from execution and given a task... to intercept and protect a young girl named Aenea, expected to appear out of a portal from the past and walk into an army of soldiers controlled by the now corrupt and ruling Catholic Church, so that she may fulfill her destiny.
After Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, this book begins a new duo involving some of the same characters and concepts, but with a different story. And, compared to the previous two, the story is a lot simpler in this one, bouncing between the perspectives of Endymion and those trying to capture or kill Aenea. The complicated, time-twisting plot of the first two books is left as background, as a story that sometimes is contradicted, and this is just a tale of three people traveling and escaping tremendous danger, and having a little fun along the way.
Because of that, I can see how some people who loved the first books might not like the two that start with this one. At best it's a departure from a lot of what you enjoyed. For me personally, though, I quite liked this one, the plot moved along at a nice pace, and although this particular book is clearly not a complete story, it ends at a reasonable point, where enough is wrapped up that you don't feel cheated of resolution. I liked most of the characters, even the antagonists, more than I did in the first books, and it feels more like they're in charge of their destiny rather than tossed about by whatever needs to have happened.
As I recall, the last book has more problems, but this one is one of the better books in the series.
And a quote:
"Entropy is a bitch," I said.
"Now, now," said Aenea from where she was leaning on the terrace wall. "Entropy can be our friend."
"When?" I said.
She turned around so that she was leaning back on her elbows. The building behind her was a dark rectangle, serving to highlight the glow of her sunburned skin. "It wears down empires," she said. "And does in despotisms."
Finished: The Mothership by Stephen Renneberg (received for free!)
Full disclosure, I received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads program.
The Mothership tells the tale of a spaceship craft in a remote part of Australian. A US military team is sent in to investigate and retrieve any alien technology they can find, and destroy it if it becomes a threat, and a few locals are also caught up in the alien crash.
This book unfortunately left me cold, (some more-than-usual spoilers ahoy)and part of it started right away, born out of my own shattered expectations. When I heard about the plot outline, I imagined a scenario where humans were being confronted for the first time with the truly alien, faced with a world-changing event, dealing with it as best they can and being way over their heads. Instead, we learn quite early on that, although this particular alien race may be unknown, the US military has had multiple UFO encounters, and the team are not only relative experts in this sort of thing, but carrying some salvaged alien weapons that even the odds a little. I suppose a good comparison is that it's a little like the approach the Stargate series takes, a few seasons in... which isn't a criticism, I loved that series, but it wasn't what I wanted from this book. The story is set in a world where much of the standard UFO lore can be taken at face value. Alien abductions really happen, the Greys are really assumed to be from Zeta Reticula, and even the assumed official motivations of them in observing Earth are ones I've seen in other sources (that believed them true). This is a fairly interesting approach, really, it's just not what I'd hoped for from the description, and so it was disappointing.
Beyond the 'it just wasn't what I wanted' factor, I do feel the author tried to do a little too much, cover many angles when a more limited viewpoint might have been better. Right off the bat we see some scenes from the perspective of the aliens, which reduces a lot (though not all) of the mystery, and often during scenes of people interacting with alien technology, we, the reader, are given detailed information on exactly what the alien is doing from it's own perspective. This has the benefit of explaining some of what you might assume are stupid mistakes on the part of aliens, but on the other hand, knowing too much about how their technology works means there's much more rooms for questions the author didn't think of undermining the story, things they should be able to do but don't, for some reason. If we knew nothing about the aliens beyond what they humans could see (and speculate on), the mystery itself covers a lot of problems. These sudden peeks into the true nature of the alien devices is also one of the more glaring examples of the intermittently headhopping nature of the narrative. It's from a omniscient point of view, but through much of any given section, we're only told things somebody else in the room might see... except occasionally we suddenly get insight into the mind and motivation of a character (or machine). It can be jarring and I don't really think it serves enough of a purpose to compensate for that.
Maybe if we'd stuck to a more limited perspective of a few alternating viewpoints, I would have connected more to the characters. They're all pleasant enough to read about, but there are a lot of them and not much distinguishes them them outside of certain well-worn tropes (like the science guy who's great in his element but has no idea how the universe really works). I never really got attached to any of them, but they moved the story along well.
These flaws don't ruin the novel for me, most of the time I could push it out of my mind and enjoy it as a light adventure novel... and sure, maybe the book would have been even better if a couple hundred pages were carefully trimmed... but what really soured my enjoyment of the book was the ending. One of the great pleasures of books, compared to other media, is that the writer isn't constrained by budget, or having to fall back to a status quo, or worry about appealing to the lowest common denominator... and yet, in this, we get one of the worst TV-style endings you can do. It's the kind of ending that, even on television, would makes me roll my eyes, especially if we only got it after such a big build up. It made me feel like much of what I read was a pointless waste of time. I suppose much of the book, all along, felt like writing-for-television, mildly fun but not especially deep, but it wasn't until the conclusion that I really noticed.
I try not to judge the whole book by a poor ending, and the book does have some good action scenes and well-thought-out examples of alien technology but it's hard to ignore the poor finish. It probably cost the book an entire star and made me unlikely to ever want to read it again.
Finished: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons (reread)
This novel concludes the Hyperion Cantos and the tale of Raul Endymion, as he stands by the messiah figure Aenea's side (or, occasionally, is forced to leave her) against the dangers of the corrupt Catholic Church who, in league with the parasitic AIs of the TechnoCore, not only want her dead, but are also about to launch a new crusade throughout the galaxy to destroy all of humanity who won't submit to their rule and the resurrection-providing cruciforms.
It serves as a pretty good conclusion, overall, albeit some aspects of it were expected (merely by virtue of it being a story about a messiah-character, some of it naturally comes as no surprise), and in a number of minor ways doesn't quite live up to the original. The pacing feels a little less natural, and certain sections felt like they dragged on too long (although, looking back, it also feels hard to believe that they fit the story in these few books), and, for my tastes, there was a little too much of "everything we showed you before is wrong," where they take pains to explicitly contradict parts from earlier books, using the explanation that the person telling the Cantos didn't know what was going on, and did the best he could (ignoring the fact that, although the whole book series may be called the Cantos, the Cantos they describe within is a different beast from the books the reader is experiencing)... occasionally this is done to good effect, where it feels like there's a valid plot reason, but sometimes it just seems like it's done to reintroduce old characters for cheap sentimentality, or to cover over a new idea the author liked better as he wrote the series.
But even with all of that, there's a lot to enjoy... the action scenes, when they come, are exciting, and a few character arcs end up to be surprisingly satisfying (especially compared to the first two books in the series, where some of the relationships felt a little two-dimensional). And, although there's a lot of mysticism attached that I wouldn't subscribe to, a lot of the core beliefs in Aenea's philosophy match my own, and this series, in earlier reads, probably played a big role in helping to shape me. And with a series as ambitious as this, it's hard to fault the author too hard when not everything is perfect.
When I first read these I became aware that a lot of people discount the last two books in the series as lessening (or contradicting) the first two, and some people even refusing to acknowledge their existence, much like a mythical second Highlander movie... and I can see their point, but I think, on this reread at least, I disagree... they may be two different types of stories, but variety is good in itself. And I might give these last two an edge.
No specific quote that sums it up, but I agree heartily with the concept that trying to keep humanity 'human' is an evil, and that humanity should, as soon as possible, attempt to diversify into thousands of new species (if not transcending flesh entirely in some cases).
Finished: Blindsight by Peter Watts (reread)
I've probably reviewed this book on LJ several times already so I won't even bother with an introduction before the cut.
A team of experts is sent to seek out the source of an alien probe on Earth, assess any potential threat, and perhaps initiate first contact. Most of them are augments, with skills beyond the human norm... a linguist with multiple personalities, biologists with their minds linked to machines, a soldier leading an army of robotic soldiers that would actually be more effective without her, all lead by a hyperintelligent, near sociopathic predator resurrected out of the prehistory that inspired the legends of the vampire. And then there is Siri Keeton, the man who lost his natural empathy when half his brain was removed as a child, and had to rebuild it from the ground up... and in the process, somehow became superb at observing and explaining what goes on in the heads of other people... even without understanding it himself. He is along as a a conduit, a translator between the specialists and the people who sent them, but his abilities work best when he doesn't get involved in the system... and when facing the truly alien, that may not be a luxury he can count on.
I've read this book possibly a dozen times and I keep coming back to it. And on some levels, it's a bit odd, because, when you analyze the plot at a distance, it looks somewhat generic... a group of scientists face unknown aliens, and a lot of that is invading a scary alien structure with, for lack of a better word, monsters that occasionally jump out. Sure, it's got a few really cool ideas hidden in there, including the big revelation of the aliens themselves, and he makes a few ideas that might otherwise seem silly (like the vampire captain) work surprisingly well, but if I read a complete plot summary of the book, I might not think it was anything special.
But it is. Part of it's because it's a dark book, cynical at the best of times and outright bleak at others, and sometimes that's just what I need, although it's not for everybody. But more... there's a certain poetry in the words. It's done in a relatively clear style (sure, it gets technical at times when they deal with the scientific parts), but the words have a flow, and there are so many paragraphs containing phrases that I almost want to quote (except that I'd probably hate to be in a situation where it would be appropriate). It's also filled with great quotes from others and great insights into the workings (and especially misworkings) of the human brain.
While the book's not non-stop technical language, he doesn't shy away from it when it's appropriate, and that may be intimidating for some, but I've read worse, and I don't think it gets in the way of the story. And, for those who like that sort of thing, there's an afterword that provides more detail on some of the scientific ideas he's been playing with, with cites to real papers and books they're used.
I'm not the kind of person to choose just one favorite book... but this would absolutely be in my top ten.
Started: The World's Best SF 4 (short story collection)
Started: Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm (received for free!)
So, yeah, that's about all I think I have to say.