Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Book review: Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those feels when you have to take time off from murdering religious zealots to overthrow the establishment.

Kovacs is a one-man army stalking a series of religious zealots on his home planet of Harlan’s World. In the aftermath of one assassination, he runs afoul of the Yakuza and befriends a mercenary. The merc, Sylvie, invites him to join her team decommissioning sentient military hardware in the un-settlement zone. During this operation, Sylvie collapses and appears to take on a new personality, the long-dead revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Together they are being hunted by the ruling elite, a revived younger Kovacs, and the Yakuza. Their only hope is to restart the Quellist rebellion.

I’ve read all three Takeshi Kovacs novels over the last two months and have enjoyed them all. There is the entertaining surface level to the stories: a hard-boiled noir detective story, military adventure, and in this instalment a more standard thriller. Then underneath that, there is an interesting socio-political discussion that has culminated in the plot of this final novel in the series. In some respects, Woken Furies is the most in-depth look at the socio-political world Morgan has created, as well as having the most social criticism. For some, this could be a bit offputting, but I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the series.

The only problem I had with Woken Furies was that it felt as though it was padded out a bit too much. It is significantly longer than the previous novels (probably 40% longer at a guess) and I’d have preferred it at roughly the same length as those other two. It’s a little churlish to complain about a book you’re enjoying giving you hours more entertainment, but in many ways, I’m a petty man.

A good conclusion to an enjoyable series.

View all my reviews

Book review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling when you call someone a young whippersnapper and realise it’s your reflection in the mirror.

Widower John Perry has reached his seventy-fifth birthday and enlisted. The Colonial Defense Force are waging war across the universe and need old feeble bodies to join their fighting forces. After some upgrades and basic training, Perry and his new comrades are sent off to meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as possible.

When I finished reading I knew exactly what I was going to say about Old Man’s War. My entire review could be summarised as: It was fine. Just fine.

I decided to read Old Man’s War after my mixed feelings from reading Redshirts. To assuage those mixed feelings, I picked up Scalzi’s highest-rated book. And in many respects, it delivered. The “fresh” take on classic sci-fi novels from the likes of Heinlein was entertaining. But unlike those classics, I found myself nitpicking at various ideas and premises rather than being filled with wonder.

One of the premises I found hard to swallow was that in the infinite reaches of space, habitable planets are hotly contested property. Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Even Scalzi’s handwaving explanation in the book feels like someone fully cognizant of just how much hand flapping he’s doing.* Given that this is the central conceit for the novel, it felt like there either needed to be better groundwork or less attention drawn to how close that premise circles the plot hole.

In my review of Redshirts, I noted two things that apply to Old Man’s War as well. He said. He said. The first is that this novel is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. It’s only upon reflection that I realised that many of the scenes were meant to be funny. Not the ideal time to notice the jokes. The second was the dialogue tags that often felt redundant and only there to remind you that the dialogue that could have been said by anyone had been said by a specific anyone.

This was an okay novel. Old Man’s War was entertaining enough to read but after two novels I’m not sure Scalzi entertains me enough for a third.

* And related to that particular scene was a scene that justified war and implied diplomacy didn’t have a place in this world. I’m not sure if that scene was meant to be ridiculously heavy-handed or if it was meant to be funny. Bit of a fail whichever way it was meant to fall.

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: The Iron Giant – What’s the Difference?

irongiant2

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix is all about giant killer robots learning to love.

Twenty years on and who’d have thought that two of Vin Diesel’s most memorable and acclaimed roles would have been voicing laconic characters.

This was an interesting instalment of What’s the Difference as I wasn’t aware that The Iron Giant was based upon a book. Apparently, The Iron Man was a story Ted Hughes developed to help his children deal with the death of their mother, Sylvia Plath. And obviously, grieving kids back in the 60s needed to also deal with impending nuclear war. I wonder if there will be any people left to look back in wonder at our generation’s stories and themes?

Obviously, the movie is pretty flawless*. It oozes charm and classic animated movie appeal. The existential concept of you are who you choose to be is a fantastic narrative element. Or as the director, Brad Bird, put it in his pitch, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?”

I think another part of the appeal of this film was that it only became successful after failing at the box office and being mismanaged in all of its marketing. There were no toy and fast-food tie-ins. No big ad campaigns. This is a movie that found success because it was a good movie. As such, it managed to retain its charm because it didn’t need to support a toy-line and limited edition drink containers at Burger-Donalds.

So when Warner Bros inevitably remakes The Iron Giant, I look forward to the mountains of crass action figures that will be available, with flashing lasers and launchable rockets.*

* He says having not watched it in the best part of two decades.

** All parts made of plastic and sold separately.

Book review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s so unrealistic to have Disney gradually taking over the world.

Jules has moved in with his girlfriend Lil – someone 15% his age at ~20 – at Disney World. As members of the ad hoc who had taken over Disney with the rise of the post-scarcity, post-death, Bitchun Society, they were there to have fun and accumulate Whuffie. His old friend Dan reappears in his life and someone murders Jules. Then another ad hoc tries to take over Jules and Lil’s part of Disney. Where reputation is everything, they have to put theirs on the line to fight back.

I’d heard of Cory Doctorow long before I realised he was an author. Sure, he was at writers festivals and associated events, but he never seemed to be there promoting a book so much as talking about copyright or Amazon or what sort of barrel publishing houses used with authors. So it has taken me quite a while to pick up one of his books.

I’m not sure how to rate this book. It was a fun read. The world-building was done effortlessly and didn’t pad things out – refreshing after the last sci-fi novel I read and DNF’d. Cory has also added in some very interesting ideas and explorations, particularly around what would happen post-scarcity and post-death. He even manages to stick the satirical boot in.

But now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure there was anything particularly remarkable about it. Possibly my feelings on the matter are related to the somewhat bland ending. Possibly it is related to how the moral questions raised were answered with a shoulder shrug. Maybe it’s just that this was a good but not great novel that promised more.

An entertaining read that explores some interesting territory.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

View all my reviews

Book review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“Your mild demands made me become a Nazi.”

In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle attempts to document and explain the rise of the Alt-Right out of the online space and into the Oval Office. She discusses many of the toxic forums and their leading mouthpieces and their war against the left/liberals in their forums/safe-spaces.

This book hit my TBR list as it was highly recommended and one of the few to document the online culture that lead to the rise of a change in political and social discourse worldwide. Having existed online and been familiar with many of the “players”, I was hoping for some deeper insights and analysis of how these forums become toxic and how that spreads out.

Let’s just say that this is not the book I was hoping for.

For much of Kill All Normies, I found myself thinking that I don’t just disagree with many of the points made, but that Nagle gets many things factually incorrect or offers up a very poor understanding of points raised.* If I was unfamiliar with much of the material, this book would have been very misleading. Just one example of this, in a later chapter Nagle refers to Germaine Greer being de-platformed over transphobic comments, to which she claims Greer hadn’t written about trans-issues in 15 years. That’s blatantly false. In fact, worse, it is a lie from transphobic sources that this book is meant to be, in part, critiquing.

This article offers a few more examples, including the Greer example. Another accuses her of plagiarism. Apparently, Nagle and Zero Books (her publisher) had both offered rebuttals to these pieces, but they are now dead links.

Another problem I had with Kill All Normies was that a lot of Nagle’s expressed opinions seemed to utilise the terms of reference used by those she was supposedly exposing. But only in one direction. For example, when Nagle criticised the online misogynists she would treat their claims as having merit, but when she was criticising the multiple genders of Tumblr** they were treated as though they didn’t have merit.

There was also a level of misrepresentation or laziness in the accurate portrayal of several events mentioned. One of the above-linked articles discusses a Jordan Peterson example. I noted an egregious one about Milo Yiannopoulos. The Berkley campus protests that shut down Milo’s talk supposedly shows an unwillingness to engage him in debate and challenge his ideas, instead resorting to shutting down free speech… Except that’s revisionist nonsense that ignores several hard facts. Milo wasn’t actually available for a debate, he was there to lecture and browbeat unprepared audience members during Q&A. Given that these examples were key to Nagle’s argument about how these bad ideas should be addressed and challenged with the liberal idea of debate and free speech and the market place of ideas and… Well, that might be a tad hard to do when you don’t get to have any free speech other than protests outside the venue.

There were also several things I felt were lacking in the coverage of the online culture wars. Very little was said about the atheist and skeptic YouTube movements that are noted for their early adoption of anti-SJW and anti-feminist stances. This is especially important given many are seen as gateways to the Alt-Right, often platform Alt-Right figures, and would fit the definition of Alt-Lite. I mean, Carl “Sargon” Benjamin even went into politics with the far-right UKIP party and was referred to as a great entry point to the Alt-Right by white nationalist*** Richard Spencer. How can you leave that out?

Nagle also didn’t cover a very important part of the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right, particularly the online media it has created. The money. While much of the book makes it sound like the internet is filled with communities living off of one another, crowdfunding being racist or bronies – depending upon your kink. This ignores the documented money coming from rich conservatives interested in promoting their agenda on one side of this culture war. And prior to this, there was also the organised astroturfing that occurred, again funded by rich conservatives, that fed into a lot of the online communities (some of this was documented in training sessions organised during the Tea Party movement). Suddenly that crowdfunded “both sides” feel to the online communities takes on a more one-sided and darker reality than portrayed in the book.

Finally, I come to my main critique which is also the underlying thesis of the book. Nagle is essentially arguing throughout that all of these really nasty, racist, sexist, bigoted forums and subsequent culture is the left’s**** fault because they have been successful in getting gay married, not having women tied to the kitchen sink, and having public discussions of other progressive ideas. The Shock! The Horror! This is the classic “the left caused people to drop liberal principles and become alt-right extremists” argument that Matt Bors skewered. It is no less stupid and unsupported here than elsewhere.

fault right
Source. Check out Matt’s other comics as well.

I’d be near the front of the line to agree that “the left” is filled with smug intolerant people, a la the Vampire Castle. But much like the criticism of Exiting the Vampire Castle, it’s a tad unwise to treat the issues being raised by those “lefties” as somehow wrong or a valid reason for someone to pushback and become a Nazi. There has always been pushback against successful progressive social changes, and while many of the reactionary behaviours we see in the culture wars exist across the political spectrum, a proper critic of these culture wars would address these arguments more carefully, with more insight, and would stop pretending that Alt-Right propaganda claims are valid points to base a thesis around.

I was highly disappointed and annoyed with this book.

* There is also a very important point to be made about Nagle’s lack of quantitative insight. One piece of data I keep thinking back to is the demographics of various online platforms. It is interesting to note that male-dominated forums (4chan, sub-Reddits, Youtube comments sections) tend to be more toxic than those with a neutral or female dominant audience (Tumblr). Almost as if there is an important point to be made here. With stats. With some analysis. Something. Side note, women are larger users of social media than men.

** The Tumblr list used in the book wasn’t actually from Tumblr and most likely a satirical version.

*** Richard Spencer loves to dance around being called a white nationalist or neo-Nazi, but that’s just because he knows those terms are toxic. It’s why he coined the rebranding term Alt-Right.

**** A lot of the points being made about left/liberal people (two very different groups that appear to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, odd given that Nagle identifies as a feminist lefty) amount to lefties can be reactionaries too (call-out culture, etc). Oddly, not much discussion of the reactionary nature of all the groups being discussed and how that feeds the culture wars.

I apologise for posting a negative review. As I said in my negative review of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I will try to keep my blog reviews 3 stars and above. I will endeavour to keep the exceptions to a minimum.

View all my reviews (My negative reviews are on Goodreads)

Another review of Kill All Normies.