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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Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population, and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010…. Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison, the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data since respondents were filling in a daily diary and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

Book to Movie: All You Need Is Kill – What’s the Difference?

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This month Cinefix’s What’s the Difference? tackles the underappreciated Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s source material, All You Need Is Kill. I’d so watch a film called All You Need Is Kill, even if it did have Tom Cruise in it.

Unfortunately I haven’t read the Manga, which appears to have some differences between it and the novel. I read the light novel of All You Need Is Kill before watching the movie. Whilst there are major similarities between the two, they are quite different. Edge of Tomorrow flirts with comedy, while anything with the title All You Need Is Kill is clearly going to have a darker tone. A film starring Tom Cruise is always going to have a Hollywood glamour to it that a novel can dispense with.

The biggest difference between the two is the ending. I said in my review of the film that they should have stuck with the book’s ending. The way the movie ended was the equivalent of “it was all a dream”, whilst the book ending had consequence and substance. Admittedly, watching Tom Cruise kill Emily Blunt would have had audiences outraged (#TeamBlunt) but I’m sure they could have deus ex machina-d something better than what was served up.

Interestingly, Hiroshi is writing a Manga sequel and they’ve announced a movie sequel. I wonder how similar those two will be?

Book Review: The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you can make an animal into a person, how long do you think it will be before someone can make a person decent?

Edward Prendick survives a shipwreck and is rescued by a supply ship headed for The Island of Dr Moreau. Prendick is cast overboard by the supply ship and is thus stranded on the island where he discovers a mad scientist (surgeon actually) has been at work for many years. The locals are huge fans of vivisection. Things go downhill when Brando is cast as Moreau.

I mostly enjoyed rereading this novel, and I definitely understood more of the issues than when I read it as a kid. At the time HG Wells wrote this famous tale, there was much debate in Europe regarding degeneration, evolution, and vivisection. Wells himself thought that humans could use vivisection for evolutionary purposes. And what better way to discuss these issues than in a science fiction novel.

There were two main issues that stopped me enjoying this novel more. The first issue is common to all of the HG Wells novels I have recently reviewed, and that is the dated style that drains a lot of the tension out of the narrative. The reader is always left at arm’s-length from the story. The second issue is a narrative device that is still commonly used today: book-ending. Book-ending (a term I’ve probably made up) is where the actual story is wedged between an external narrative that is used to recount the story proper. This does two things that annoy me: it adds needless narrative and characters; and it destroys any suspense or mystery. The latter is the worst part. In The Island of Dr Moreau we already know that Prendick survives the island and his experiences have left him emotionally scarred and unable to live among people, because his nephew introduces the tale after finding the manuscript when Prendick dies.

Regardless, this is a creepy tale that is worth reading even if you just want to learn to recite ‘Are We Not Men’.

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Book review: The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interplanetary war breaks out in Woking, Surrey England. Newsreaders even less sure where that is than countries in the Middle East.

The War of the Worlds is about Martians invading Earth using advanced technology, like 21 metre tall tripod machines, heat rays, and toxic smogs. One man is able to recount his experience of living through the invasion from the first landing to the start of the rebuilding of southern England.

It is hard to comment on such a classic novel. The War of the Worlds has gone on to influence culture in many ways. The obvious influences are in books and movies, most notably the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and the entire alien invasion genre. But it also had an impact on science, such as Freeman Dyson’s search for extraterrestrial life and Robert Goddard’s rocket development. Not many books can claim that (seriously, read the Wiki article for a brief overview). Makes it very hard to comment…

While I enjoyed this book I came away from it underwhelmed. Much of the novel is interesting, not least of which is the understated setting – because now you would be considered mad to set an alien invasion story anywhere without a prominent monument that can be destroyed. The characters the narrator meets are also interesting, particularly the artilleryman who has big dreams about leading the resistance movement. But this is all told in a memoir style that lacks immediacy, tension, and excitement. Southern England has just been invaded by aliens with death rays, yet the narrator could just as well be relating the time he watched a cricket match in Surrey.

Worth reading as a classic, especially if you forgive the narrative style.

NB: It also influenced music, such as this one by Devin Townsend.

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