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.

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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.

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Book Review: Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grave robbing is still cool in the future.

In the infirmary, Takeshi Kovacs is approached by a soldier who is sitting on the artefact discovery of several lifetimes. Kovacs, currently operating as an elite commando, takes his leeway to recruit the soldier, an archaeologist (archaeologue), a merry band of mercenaries, and a corporate bankroll. Together they are trying to uncover ancient alien technology in the middle of a warzone before any other interested parties, including the warring armies, come for them.

After reading Altered Carbon I threw caution to the wind and dived straight into Broken Angels. It is rare that I read instalments of a series back-to-back as I usually feel like I’ve had an adequate sufficiency of that character/world/theme for the time being. Wanting more is a sure sign that the author gave me some good stuff. Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

Broken Angels is quite different in thematic style from Altered Carbon. Where the latter was a hard-boiled cyberpunk mystery, the former is a noir Artefact-MacGuffin-Adventure* with a more languid pace than those sorts of novels tend to be. The change of pace and style didn’t extend to the themes. While there is less critique of elitist wealth hoarding, there is some delving into corporatism, warmongering, and capitalist drivers behind war that ties to Morgan’s social commentary. His comments on capitalism and war reminded me of Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket – Butler was a Major General of the Marine Corps who did not hold back in discussing what war was really about (hint: money).

Another enjoyable Kovacs adventure. The only thing that stopped me reading the third instalment straight away is that despite owning a copy I didn’t have it on my ereader.

I shook my head. “I don’t have the energy to hate the corporates, Hand. Where would I start? And like Quell says, Rip open the diseased heart of a corporation and what spills out?”
“People.”
“That’s right. People. It’s all people. People and their stupid fucking groups.”

* A term I use to describe the style of thriller churned out by authors like James Rollins, Steve Berry, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, etc.

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Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

genre respect
Source

Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

Book review: Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut (YouSpace, #1)Doughnut by Tom Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life is like a box of doughnuts. Mmmmmmm, doughnuts!

Theo Bernstein is on something of a losing streak. He lost his money, he lost his wife*, he lost his job, and he lost the visibility of one of his arms. Given how high profile the reason for losing his job was – who knew people would miss a mountain? – it’s a wonder he is able to find any work at all, first at an abattoir, then at a hotel. The hotel gig might be easier than hauling offal, but it’s a weird job, made weirder by the strange bottle left to him by his old professor, Pieter van Goyen. How can this bottle be the future of entertainment? And is there a doughnut shop nearby?

In the middle of last year, an author friend – Kaaron Warren** – recommended The Management Style of Supreme Beings to me. It was one of the nominees for an international award she was judging and she spoke glowingly of it. I’d previously enjoyed one of Tom’s books under his KJ Parker pseudonym, so I decided to track it down at the library. Obviously, I was unsuccessful, as instead, I ended up with Doughnut.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I had high expectations for this novel. In some ways, Doughnut managed to rise to those expectations. Holt is a very sharp and inventive author. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments and ideas in this book. But somehow I felt it was all a bit pointless and inane.

In some ways, this is a product of the very British bumbling protagonist used in this novel. It tends to influence the way the story is told, usually in a way that is deliberately frustrating but with the reward of large doses of humour. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this was quite funny enough for the narrative style.

So while this was quite entertaining, I had hoped for more, particularly in the humour department.

*Lost his wife in the sense that she decided to leave him, not the lost in the ‘we were just walking through the Xmas sales and she let go of my hand for a moment and now I can’t find her in this crowd’ kind of way.

** Read her books: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show…

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Book review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousAutonomous by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Future slavery gets around slavery laws by cleverly using a different word.

Jack reverse engineers pharmaceuticals so that poor people can afford life-saving drugs. She reverse engineered a new wonder work drug but finds out too late that a BigPharma company made it 100% addictive, and now people are dying. In this (dystopian) future, intellectual property and patents are protected by private armies with killer robots. One agent and his bot, Eliasz and Paladin, are hunting Jack down for her crimes as she is desperately trying to engineer a treatment for the addictive drug.

This book was difficult to review. As a novel, the writing, plotting, characters, and themes are all interesting and well done. On that basis, it is a solid 4-star book. But there was quite a bit about the premise and key plot devices/points that had me making squinty faces as my scepticism was triggered. And the more I think about those points and the premise, the more flaws I see with them.

For example, slavery is a theme discussed for humans and bots – giving rise to the title of the book. In the future companies and governments were so clever they were able to reintroduce* slavery by calling it “indentured”. This felt lazy and unrealistic. Especially since there was another part of this idea explored with franchising – parents paying to set their kids up with an education and ability to get a job – that extrapolates on the current situation for haves vs have-nots and draws upon the criticisms of capitalism. To my mind, the two ideas don’t sit together that well and meant the latter idea was wasted.

Others had some interesting things to say about the bot-human relationship. Suffice to say, it could have been done a bit better.

I suppose I was disappointed with this book. For a novel that was so well written and had clearly had a lot of thought put into it, Autonomous just couldn’t manage to drag itself away from lazy anti-corporate conspiracy ideas to the more interesting material it had on offer.

*It could be argued that slavery never stopped.

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