Book Review: Burn by James Patrick Kelly

BurnBurn by James Patrick Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the Upside, no one will take your calls.

Prosper Gregory “Spur” Leung wakes up in a hospital. All he can remember is the fire and his skin burning. After the docbot patches him up he makes a few calls and heads home to his farm on the utopia of Walden – a planet being gradually terraformed to forest, orchards, and farms. Those few calls make the homecoming… interesting.

Every time I put this book down I made the same comment, ‘I don’t know what this book is about.’ Even now that I’ve finished I’m still at a loss as to what the point of it all was. In the background, there are some ideas. In the foreground, there is a naive protagonist you could use to explore those ideas, but I’m not sure the ground overlapped at any point.

That isn’t to say that this book isn’t well paced, exciting, and entertaining; it is. There are some interesting themes as well, like environmentalism and competing interests. I breezed through and enjoyed reading the book, but can’t help but feel that the story was missing something.

I received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Book review: Obscura by Joe Hart

ObscuraObscura by Joe Hart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In space, everyone goes a bit crazy.

Dr Gillian Ryan is frustrated. She is trying to develop a brain scanning technique in order to help her daughter to avoid the same fate as her late husband. Losian’s disease is thought to be caused by the rapidly increasing environmental destruction and affects memory and concentration. Then a team from NASA show up promising money and technology to help her work if she agrees to go to a space station to figure out what is wrong with their crew. Of course, NASA hasn’t been completely honest with her about where they are going and the risks involved, but that’s okay, she didn’t tell them about her painkiller addiction.

This novel was a lot of fun. Joe Hart has mixed together sci-fi, thriller, and suspense in good measures. The main character’s addiction and frustrations pour out on the page as you wonder if she is going mad or something more nefarious is happening. Added to that is the brisk pacing that doesn’t get bogged down like some novels with similar themes tend to. I don’t know what a hydro is, but after reading this novel I feel like I need one.

Well worth a read for sci-fi and thriller fans.

NB: I received an advanced review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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When is the future?

I came across a very cool article about when the future is for science fiction. The question is interesting because we often think of THE FUTURE as being a long way away, but as the saying goes, some infinities are larger than others.

In response to a Tweet, iO9 and researchers Ben Vrignon and Gordon Jackson decided to look at the proportions of science fiction set in the near-future (0-50 years), mid-future (51-500 years) and far-future (+501 years). They took a random sample of 250 science fiction works (books, comics, movies, and TV) created between 1880 and 2010 that were available in the USA in English. Because only the USA matters. Eye rolls are appropriate here.

The results are interesting and broken into decades:

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As you can see, some periods of time emphasise some futures more than others, whilst other periods are more equally spread. The most notable of these is the shrinking of far-future science fiction from the 1970s until the late 1990s. It could be argued that the lack of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s could have been due to the rapid rise of technological change in society, such that everyone viewed the future as being just around the corner. Then after that time, we start to realise the technology just gave us cat memes and we still had a long way to go.

In the original article, they suggest that the changes were due to uncertainty about the future post-2001.

It’s possible that during periods of extreme uncertainty about the future, as the 00s were in the wake of massive economic upheavals and 9/11, creators and audiences turn their eyes to the far future as a balm.

Now it would be remiss of me to draw too many conclusions from this, nor try to offer explanations for any “trends”. We are talking about a dataset that only covers an average of 2 works per year. Two is hardly enough to be representative of any year, and 20 works is at best a smattering of any given decade. E.g. Futurama could be the only representative of far-future sci-fi in the 1990s yet Asimov’s Foundation Series was still going (he wrote his final novel for the series in 1993), the Xeelee Sequence had just started, as had the Hyperion series. Clearly, there were many works not being counted.

It would be interesting to see someone add more data to this analysis and do some breakdowns by media type. Make it so.

Supplemental Materials: More Detail on Middle Future Dates

One of the interesting discoveries we made was that the mid-future (51-500 years in the future) seems to be the most popular period for science fiction, across the last 130 years. So Stephanie created this chart breaking out our data on mid-future SF so you can get a sense of which periods are most popular — you can see that the 100-200 year future is common.

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Book Review: Electric Dreams by Philip K Dick

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsPhilip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes you learn that aliens are better than people, so don’t be a jerk and you could stop an invasion.

Electric Dreams is a small sampling of an array of Philip K Dick short stories that were used as the basis for 10 episodes of a TV series of the same name. Dick wrote a huge number of short stories in his career – publishing 121 in a 30-year career, alongside 44 novels. So this selection (collection?) is probably best described as a taste-tester of PKD.

I find it hard to classify PKD as an author. What I have read of his works so far have left me thinking things like: “I was expecting more from this classic”*; “More interesting than engaging”; “Oh look, Deckard realised he lacks empathy so suspects he might be an android.”*** While I think PKD deserves to be acknowledged as a highly influential author I feel this is mainly for his ideas rather than their execution.

This collection was enjoyable on the ideas front and makes for a good sampler of PKD’s work.

*We Can Remember It For You Wholesale
**The Minority Report
***Really? You don’t know what book that is referring to? Would it help if I quoted some lines from the movie?

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Book review: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tangential foreshadowing from the Collected Sayings of Maud’Dib by the Princess Irulan.

After his dad is asked to take over keeping the oil supply flowing out of the Middle East, Paul, a promising MMA fighter, witnesses the death of his family and friends, narrowly escaping into the desert with his pregnant mother. Befriending a small band of freedom fighters, Paul becomes their holy leader and prophesied deliverer. Meanwhile, the military-industrial-complex of the infidel are trying to apply their bootheel to the impoverished desert people. Can Paul use guerrilla tactics to overthrow the infidel, become Emporer and bring jihad to the west?*

Okay, so Dune does predate the general cluster-truck that is the Middle East conflict, but you do have to wonder if Herbert was munching on a bit of spice for inspiration when writing.

Unlike some other sci-fi classics, Dune does hold up as a novel in the modern day. There are some aspects that mark this as a book of the 60s (e.g. anything related to women) but it isn’t as jarring thanks to the complex worldbuilding. A lot has been poured into this novel that had me marveling at the efforts involved for one book. And yes, I know about the sequels and expanded universe novels, but this was clearly written as an open-ended standalone.

I have previously tried the expanded universe books that were co-written by Kevin J Anderson and Herbert’s son Brian. They did not grab me. The amazing worldbuilding that defined many of the concepts of space opera sci-fi** didn’t appear to have enough legs for those novels. I’m glad I picked up the original Dune to understand what the fuss was all about.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

** https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/dune-endures

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/30/frank-herbert-dune-at-50-sci-fi-masterpiece

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Book review: Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Dark Intelligence (Transformation, #1)Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If AI essentially become gods does that make humans the prime mover?

Thorvald Spear died 100 years ago in the war with the Prador. Fortunately, this is the future, so death is less final than it used to be. But Spear is less than happy with how he died at the hands of the black AI, Penny Royal, and decides to destroy it. Along the way he manages to piss off Isobel Satomi, who has also got a carapace to pick with Penny Royal. So she adds Spear to her list of things to destroy. Meanwhile, Penny Royal is up to something, and everyone wants to know what.

This was my first outing with Neal Asher and his Polity universe. Asher was recommended to me by a fellow blogger – Bookstooge – so I found this recent series in the library. There is much I enjoyed about this book, and by extension the universe Asher has created. The details that give this universe a lived in feel, the cyberpunk sensibilities, the interesting sci-fi technology, are all fantastic. The story and characters are also interesting. So why only 3 stars?

There were two things that really stopped me enjoying this novel more: the length; and the anachronisms.

Sci-fi has a habit of being long because someone decided that that was okay for spec-fic genres. Dark Intelligence made me notice that this was a long book. Usually if you are really enjoying a book, the length goes unnoticed. So I had the sense that there was too much padding, unnecessary exposition, and side plots. It all fits together nicely, but I’m sure that this could come in much shorter without losing anything.

The second problem I had was with the constant anachronisms. Sounds being described as like a domino being slapped on the board… because dominoes is so popular right now, let alone a few centuries into the future. The Polity universe is filled with hyper-intelligent AIs that can do just about anything… but apparently cars still need a human to drive them. Tesla had that covered two years ago. After noticing one anachronism the floodgates opened, to the point where I started to question if this was Asher having a joke. But I doubt this is the case, since he criticised Greg Bear for doing the same thing in a book review.

Perhaps I’ll enjoy The Skinner more, which Bookstooge originally recommended.

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Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you directly influence the creation of cyberpunk, The Matrix, the term cyberspace, and popularising the term ICE, does that mean you get a pass on influencing dubstep?

Case is your average run-of-the-mill washed-up loser. On his way to drug addled death after his hacking career is cut short, he is recruited to perform the ultimate hack. Patched back together with new organs, he joins a team recruited to help an AI.

I feel like I’m being unfair in my rating for Neuromancer. This is one of those classic novels that deserves the praise it receives. The influence this novel has had on science fiction, particularly upon film, is hard to overstate. It is also easy to underestimate the skill of Gibson’s writing. For example, just before starting Neuromancer I tried (and failed) to read a sci-fi novel with a similar level of world building and interesting ideas. Where that novel failed in being able to make the jargon feel natural, and the explanations flow, Gibson succeeds. His narrative isn’t bogged down by the world building the way many others can be.

Having said that, Neuromancer didn’t grab me. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading, but not enough to have me rating it higher. I’d imagine that had I read this novel 20-30 years earlier my opinion would be different. It is the curse of being the original that everyone copies. At some point people like myself won’t be wowed because they’ve seen it all before by the time they read the progenitor.

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